Posted in Painting, Writing

The Value of Black and White

black and white blank challenge connect

Conception, my boy, fundamental brain work, is what makes all the difference in art.  –Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As someone who loves color, I was majorly disappointed when I walked into my first oil painting class and was told we would spend the first two weeks painting only in black and white.  I had just bought all these exciting new colors, actual artist quality colors, not just cheap grocery store paint.  Even their names were beautiful: viridian green, cadmium red light, phthalo blue, ultramarine blue, madder lake deep, quinacridone gold, dioxazine purple.  My inner painter loved the color and my geeky brain loved the chemistry, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

But not those first two weeks.  Those first two weeks, I was stuck with titanium white and mars black.

Of course, my professor knew exactly what he was doing.  By the end of those two weeks we all made leaps and bounds, we were much better prepared to enter the world of color, and I found I really loved painting in black and white.

 

This is what working in black and white does for you:

Screenshot 2018-08-31 at 9.03.12 AM.pngIt helps you see values as they actually are.  When you have a reference photo that’s in full color, it can be hard to tell which areas are lighter and which are darker.  We have natural biases about color value; we assume that cool colors are darker than warm colors, we assume that if colors are the same intensity they’ll be about the same value, we assume ares of the same color will have the same value, and so on.  Take this parrot for example.  Just looking at the colored image, I might assume that the entire red area was basically one value, or I might assume that the white eye area was lighter than the yellow feathers.  But looking at the black and white image, it becomes easy to see the shadows in the red feathers, and it’s clear that the eye area and the light feathers are in the same range.  Even if you intend to work in color, reverting an image to black and white helps you compare value easily.

It moves much faster.  Color is complicated.  You have to constantly mix up new colors, clean out your brushes, clean out your water cup, dig through your pile of colored pencils for the right one.  Working in gray-scale, you don’t have to deal with any of that, so you can bust out pieces in a third of the time.

Screenshot 2018-08-31 at 9.16.02 AMIt removes distractions so you can focus on form.  Remember these balls and cubes that we all had to draw at one point?  It shows how light and shadow form around objects, and it is very obvious in black and white images.  It’s just simpler: pure light is white, deepest shadow is black, things with light on them are lighter gray and things with less light are darker gray.  The end.  This helps you see the form of what you’re drawing, and also helps it read easier to others looking at your work.  Everyone wins!

It improves your ability to work with colors.  This seems backward, but it works.  You can see values better, work faster, learn how to show form and patterns of light, and master the basics without worrying.  One you have that down, adding color is much less daunting.  Even if you’re a skilled color artist, working in black and white helps you remember those fundamentals.

I recently rediscovered my enjoyment of working in only black and white, and plan to do it much more often, especially now that my life is getting busier.

Is there anything you initially hated about learning your craft, but now use regularly?  I’d love to hear your stories!

 

IMG_5115
Ten minute tree frog (charcoal).  I love drawing these odd little guys
IMG_4911
Current work in progress (oil and acrylic on canvas)
IMG_4912
Fun piece I challenged myself to finish before the end of a Food Network episode (oil on canvas)

 

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Posted in Painting

Sloppy Copies: My New Favorite Painting Exercise

Sometimes messy is the necessary beginning to the making of extraordinary.  –Michele Cushatt

If you’re anything like me, you hate wasting art supplies.  They can be so expensive, and it’s sad to see all that potential artwork just washed down the drain or tossed in the trash.  I always run into this problem with my oil paints (my most expensive medium).  A few nights ago I had extra blobs of almost every color left on my palette, and being the cheapskate I am, I decided I had to find a purpose for it.  Thus I invented one of my new favorite painting practices.

I’m calling it sloppy copy:

  1. Finish a painting using your normal process.
  2. Using whatever paint is left on your palette, paint the same thing again as fast as you possibly can.  The goal of this second painting is to be quick, messy, and rough while still conveying the general idea of the original.

The purpose of this exercise is threefold.  First, it lets you experiment without being afraid of messing up your beautiful artwork.  The pressure is off and the paint will be wasted anyway, so you’re free to push the chroma, play with thick textures, and try anything you thought of doing in the first painting but decided against.  Second, it helps you loosen up your style.  There’s no time to nit-pick and try to perfect everything to photo-realism, so you’re forced into a more impressionistic feel.  (Even if you don’t want your work to have that look, it still has value as a training exercise; more on this in a post coming soon).  Third, it trains you to be a faster painter.  You already did all the work with the original painting, so you can achieve the general idea in a fraction of the time.  Since you’re pushing yourself to go fast, you learn to make each brushstroke purposeful and accomplish more with less.

A few tips to make this process easier and more effective:

  1. Keep it small.  I used 5″x7″ and that felt about right.  Small is perfect for this because it is faster and the canvas/paper/board is cheaper.  If you do want to sloppy copy a larger painting, just make the copy smaller (ex. copy a 18″x24″ onto a 5″x7″ and fudge the proportions a little).
  2. Keep it fairly simple.  Something complicated like, say, a chandelier, would be extremely difficult to reproduce quickly.  Of course, if it’s too simple then the recreation will be too easy.  You want to find the happy medium with enough detail to interest you but enough simplicity not to frustrate you.  (A still life would be great for this exercise.)
  3. Set a timer, or at least take note of when you start and finish.  Try to finish the sloppy copy in a third of the time it took you to complete the original, or less.
  4. Show both copies to a friend and ask for their opinion, what they like in each one, and which they think is better.  They don’t have to be an artist in any way; I think non-artistic friends have the most valuable feedback because they’ll have a totally different and honest perspective.

Here’s a side by side comparison, with the original painting on the left and the sloppy copy on the right.

IMG_4981
Oil on stretched canvas, 5″x7″

The first painting is smoother, more dimensional, more subdued, and more predictable.  I had plenty of time to obsess over the details, mix up all the colors I wanted, and layer over any areas I didn’t like.

The second has rougher textures, a flatter feel, and plenty of raw colors straight from the tube.  I was trying to use of paint, so I didn’t hesitate to lay it down thick and let the colors be bold.  (I realize that compared to many paintings out there this “sloppy copy” really isn’t very sloppy or rough, but it is for me compared to how I usually paint.)

Here’s what I’ve learned from this exercise so far:

  1. I’m a very nit-picky and literal painter when I give myself time to be.  Comparing the original to the fast version, it looks pretty predictable and almost boring.  I worked on the details almost to the point of overworking the paint because I was trying to exactly duplicate my reference images.  This was good for me because I was forced to relax.  If you also struggle with being to rigid and obsessive when you paint, I highly recommend giving this a try.
  2. Colors straight from the tube are fun and bold, but too many can ruin a painting.  The fast version is definitely more colorful, but since everything is chromatic and nothing is very subdued, it comes out almost like a coloring book.  I want to try to push colors more in the future but be careful not to go crazy with them.
  3. I actually like the look of a little texture.  Usually I’m very careful to “cover my tracks” and not leave behind any rough, ugly brushstrokes, but the original painting almost looks too smooth.  It drove me nuts to leave thick paint chunks, but they really don’t look as thick and rough from a distance.

Overall, I loved this exercise.  I still prefer the original painting, but there are aspects of the sloppy copy that I also love and want to try to implement in the future.  And of course, it was great to save that paint from going to waste 🙂

IMG_4982
Originally this painting was inspired by the song “Drops of Jupiter” by Train.  That song has become one of my favorites this summer now that I understand more of what it means.  Check it out if you’ve never heard it 🙂
Posted in Life, Painting, Writing

Procrastination vs. Passion: When Creating Becomes a Chore

flat lay photography of calendar
Photo by Pexels

I haven’t blogged for almost two weeks, and I’ve been left with a strange combination of guilt and defiance.  The guilt comes because I let myself down, because I haven’t been working on my writing, and because I chose to take this hiatus right at the moment I gained more followers who probably didn’t expect me to vanish after I’d been posting every few days.  The defiance comes because I shouldn’t have to feel guilty for being human, and part of me is so very stubborn that I’ll fight doing something as soon as it becomes a chore to be checked off.

During this short off time I still read from other blogs and various internet articles, and it struck me that I hear similar things from creative people everywhere.  My dad hated piano lessons when he was a kid, and only became a great and enthusiastic player after he was allowed to quit formal lessons.  I’ve known people who love baking and wish they could make it a full time job, but those few who seriously tried it grew overwhelmed, felt artistically constrained, and quickly learned that they liked baking much more when it wasn’t their job.  I’ve seen countless YouTube and Facebook rants about artists being  offended when people ask them to create art for free, or for ridiculously cheap, or in an unreasonable amount of time.  One Quora user expressed that she loved making cupcakes to bring to her work parties, but once an annoying new colleague expected her to make some for his birthday, not even asking or offering payment, she abruptly stopped.  In her words, “It sucks when you do something because you enjoy it and want to share it with others, and people start expecting you to do it.”  (Full story linked below.)

I’m the same way.  I love painting, writing, crafting, playing music, cooking, and several other things.  But every time I’ve tried to put myself on a schedule, it falls apart.  I think it’s that stubborn voice inside of me; I tell myself I have to write for thirty minutes each day, and immediately it becomes something I want to procrastinate.  Writing shouldn’t be a chore, I cry!  I’m a creative artist, not a robot!  I write because I want to, not because anyone tells me to!  *shakes fists aggressively*

I realize that this is a teeny bit ridiculous, but sometimes I do it anyway.

I was the same in my art classes in college for the last few semesters.  I loved working on the big projects when we were allowed to chose our own subject matter.  It was easy to get inspired and work for hours when I was drawing something I loved and knew I had plenty of time.  But often I’d get irritated by the more technical exercises, such as drawing ten noses from different angles or painting the random ugly shop tools our professor dug out of his office.  Logically I knew it was good for me, but they felt like a drag, and I didn’t feel like I was making anything beautiful or meaningful.  I wanted to create art that mattered to me and had some satisfying payoff.  I wanted to feel like an artist, not a photocopy machine.

Thus my artistic cycle continues.  I get inspired and start working on projects, I start to feel imposed on by other people’s expectations or my own, I put things off, I lose my drive, and drop off until I get a new spurt of inspiration.  Sound familiar?

But again, this is a teeny bit ridiculous.  We love what we do, remember?  If we didn’t, we would have quit as soon as started feeling like a drag.  We’re always telling ourselves to pursue our passions and not care so much what other people expect.  Why don’t we take our own advice?

The truth is, sometimes being a serious creator will feel like a drag.  Every profession feels like a drag sometimes, when you have to push through the boring paperwork or mindless daily tasks or repetitive projects.  People will develop their own expectations and expect you to rise to them, and you’ll have to live by a schedule and not only create when you feel that burst of inspiration.  That’s just a fact of having a job.  But the rare and wonderful thing about creating is that even in the drag, you’re still making something beautiful, and you can push through for those moments of true inspiration.

I’m preparing to start a new semester of college, and I know that it’ll be really tempting to put my writing and painting on the back burner.  That’s probably where they should be while I’m in school, but I don’t want to let them fall off the map entirely.  I’m publicly committing that I will make time to be creative and work on my projects at least once a week.  I would say every day but that honestly isn’t realistic with my class load, and I don’t want to set goals that I can’t keep.

Does creating ever feel like a chore to you?  What helps you find your inspiration again?

Full Quora Storyhttp://qr.ae/TUISaR

Posted in Life, Painting, Writing

Taken Seriously

adult blur books close up
Photo by Pixabay

If you don’t believe in yourself, no one will. –Gary Vaynerchuk

I’m kind of self-conscious about my art.  

I’ve known several other creative people that are; I think it may be an occupational hazard.  Creators often hesitate to share their work with others, and I think there are multiple reasons why.  Of course we all have our self-doubts, and sometimes don’t want to share for fear of being told we’re awful.  We also often create in a vacuum, with only our own thoughts and feedback, so sharing our work can just feel plain weird.  

For me, there is one underlying fear that I think is the main cause of my hesitation: the fear of not being taken seriously.

I’m sure you know what I mean.  When you create something, you put a part of yourself into it.  Sharing your masterpiece with someone you care about can feel like baring your soul.  And as much as it would hurt if they hated it, it hurts more if they’re indifferent or patronizing or treat it like it’s nothing.  Suddenly you’re a little kid again, proudly showing your dad the picture you colored, only to be met with the crushing and distracted “that’s nice sweetie, please don’t bother daddy right now.”  We’d like to think that we’re all past that stage–that now we’re mature, we’re self-assured, we use real supplies and not discount craft kits, and we are “real” artists. But there are always those who, whether they mean to or not, still treat our creating like a kid having fun with crayons.  Fun, sometimes cool, a good pastime, but nothing meaningful or valuable.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being a casual artist.  Art is fun, and if you want to just do it as a fun hobby, that’s great.  But I wanted more than that. I wanted my art to be more than just a pastime, and I wanted other people to see it as more too.  

When I was in my second semester of college taking a painting concepts class, I mentioned to my mom that I might want to try working toward being a professional artist.  And she literally laughed out loud. She recovered quickly and for the rest of the conversation spoke very carefully, trying to both show support for me and talk me out of it.  I really can’t blame her for reacting the way she did. I’ve always been practical and was quite successfully pursuing a STEM major. She knew I liked to paint and draw, but she still saw it as just a hobby.  

It was around this point that I realized the heart of the issue: I wasn’t taking myself seriously.  I enjoyed creating, I knew I wasn’t terrible, and part of me really did want to seriously pursue it.  But part of me saw myself just like my mom did. I still felt like just a kid playing with art supplies; harmless, fun, maybe diverting, but nothing professional or real.  Painting was my minor, not my major. Art was what I did in my spare time, and I usually didn’t let anyone see it. After talking to my mom that day, I realized she and everyone else wouldn’t take my art seriously because I didn’t either.

That is one of the most important things I’ve learned in all my years creating: as cheesy as it sounds, you have to believe in yourself first.  Sometimes there will be people who love seeing what you make, but those who will actually support you making it a career are few and far between.  Sometimes there will be people who hate what you do. Sometimes there will be people who just see it as a waste of time and needless use of pollusive chemicals.  People will always have their own opinions and you usually can’t change them.  For me, my family is always very positive about my art but are all too practical to really want me to pursue it.  That’s okay.  They’re right, it really isn’t a practical option for me to throw all my efforts toward art.  I’m still learning, and to an extent my art is still just a hobby.  But if I ever want it to become more than that, it’ll have to start with me.  They’ll never believe in it unless I do.

I still haven’t really worked out this issue, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on being taken seriously as an artist (or writer, or filmmaker, or musician, or any creative thing you do).  For any of you who have felt like I did, remember that you’re the one creating, not anyone else.  You’re the artist.  You’ve earned that title.  Take yourself seriously.  Just not too seriously 🙂

Posted in Painting

100 Bad Paintings: How to Combat Perfectionism

crumpled paper on gray surface
Photo by Steve Johnson

Every artist has a closet full of bad paintings. –Unknown

As an artist, I struggle with perfectionism.  I’m sure you’ve done it too. Paints and pencils can be expensive, so we don’t want to waste them making trash.  We love art and want to make ours really good, obviously, so we set high expectations. Inevitably, we don’t always measure up, and it’s so easy to get frustrated or give way to unhealthy doubts and criticism.  

We know this.  We know we shouldn’t do this to ourselves, but so often, we do anyway.

So what is the solution?  

Here are six practical tips and suggestions that I’ve found have helped me in the past, as well as some I’m just starting to implement.

  1. Aim for improvement, not perfection.  Your art is not going to be perfect, especially not at first, so if that is your goal then you’re doomed to disappoint yourself.  The goal is not to be perfect right now; the goal is to improve.  As long as your art is getting better, you are succeeding.  Always remember that.
  2. Compare to your past work.  When you think your current project is looking really bad, pull out some of your old paintings and sketchbooks.  Even find some from your childhood.  If you’re anything like me, some of that old artwork will be so ugly it’s humiliating, and suddenly your current project looks much better.  Maybe it’s not perfect, but it’s much better than you used to be.  Again, the goal is improvement.  Seeing your progress can give you a boost of hope.
  3.  Find specific, fixable flaws.  When you see mistakes in your art, try to pinpoint exactly what it is about it that you don’t like.  Don’t just say “this is bad”: what about it is bad, and how could it be better?  Is the color too dull?  Is the angle too steep? Is the value too light or too dark?  Phrased like that, it’s much more obvious to see how the problem can be solved.  Dark values can be lightened, angles can be adjusted, colors can be remixed.  If you’ve messed up past the point of reasonable return, that’s okay too; at least you know what went wrong and can avoid making the same mistake again.
  4. Remember you are still learning.  The first time you tried anything, you were probably terrible at it.  Think of a baby becoming a track runner. They didn’t get it on their first try, or their second try, or their first several dozen tries.  But no one gets mad at them or calls them a failure for it.  Of course not!  They’re just a baby, and they’re still learning, and over time you can see the progress.  Once they can stand, they can start to walk.  Then they can try to run.  Then they can learn more technique, build endurance, and run faster. A professional track runner is never done, because they are always working to improve.  It’s the same for us as artists. None of us are beyond getting better. We’re like little kids learning how to run; some have been doing it for longer, some have some natural talent. Just like with kids, it doesn’t make sense to beat ourselves up for not being fantastic yet.  Of course not! We’re still learning, and over time you can see the progress.
  5. Realize that many artists hate their art before it’s done.  I saw a Facebook post recently that outlined the creative process in six simple steps: 1) This is awesome.  2) This is tricky.  3) This is trash.  4) I am trash.  5) This might be okay. 6)  This is awesome. I literally laughed out loud when I read this because it is so true for me.  All my paintings look hideous in their middle stages.  Almost every artist I’ve met works in a similar pattern. We start out inspired, then get frustrated and want to quit.  But if we stick with it and push through the yucky middle parts, it usually works out in the end.  So if you start to hate the piece you’re working on, join the club. Give it another shot.  You can probably make it better if you don’t quit on it.
  6. Make tons and tons of art.  This one comes with a story.  My old art professor told us the story of the only day he remembers from his ceramics class.  His teacher divided the group in two, instructing one half to create a perfect pot and instructing the other half to make as many pots as they could.  The hour passed, with the first group bent over in concentration and the second group rapidly emptying buckets of clay. At the end of the class, guess whose pots looked better?  The group that made several. They didn’t waste time trying to be perfect, they just focused on the process, and in the end they were more perfect for it.  I’ve heard several variations of the quote, but it goes something like this: you have to make 100 bad paintings before you’ll make any good ones.  I love the idea behind this quote. Your first several tries at learning something new are going to be awful, so you might as well get started and get them over with!  It’s not wasting your time because it makes you better, and it actually will get you where you want to be much faster. Set a goal to make five paintings in a week, or a drawing every day for a week.  Just dive right in, get your hands dirty, and bust out a bunch of art. Let it be less than perfect–just make stuff. The only way to get better is to practice, the more practice the better.

In the spirit of combating perfectionism I’m challenging myself to focus more on quantity than quality for the next few months, and I invite you to join me.  Let’s get our hands dirty and get some mileage behind our brushes. We’ll probably make a bunch of ugly art, but who cares? It’s all part of the process. At the end of a few months, we can spread out all of our creations and see how much effort we put in.

And maybe we’ll find that they aren’t so bad after all.

What do you to combat perfectionism?  Let’s help each other out in the comments 🙂

Posted in Life, Painting, Writing

The Inner Artist

art art materials artistic arts and crafts
Photo by Jadson Thomas

I recently watched an interview with Brad Bird, the director of The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2, and he said something I haven’t stopped thinking about since.

[Part of Jack-Jack’s character came from] the idea that babies learn multiple languages easily before that door closes.  And you run into it all the time. I’d be drawing and somebody would say, ‘I wish I could draw,’ and I’d look at them and go, ‘Well, you did once, didn’t you?’  It’s just that somewhere along the line, you either stopped believing you could, or you lost interest in it. But everybody starts out drawing — it’s kind of natural — and the idea behind Jack-Jack is meant to tap into that. –Brad Bird

As children, when we are still innocent and genuine and relatively unspoiled by outside forces, what did we all like to do?  We liked to color. We liked to make sculptures out of mud, pick flowers, make up stories, smear glue all over the table and leave handprints on the walls.  I used to sit at our wooden kitchen table with scratch paper and a vat of crayons and spend hours, making everything from characters to floor plans to maps of my made up worlds.  I was young enough not to care what anyone thought of it, or if it would have good retail value, or if there was some more practical use of my time.  I drew, for the sole reason that I liked it and it made me happy.

This goes all the way back to the roots of human life.  Even in the earliest civilizations when people struggled just to survive, we have found evidence that they were making art.  They drew on cave walls, carved little designs into their tools, decorated the edges of their clothing.  Being an artist or a craftsman was a legitimate profession, even when there wasn’t enough food to sustain everyone or enough materials to spare; that’s how important this was.  Throughout time we can see this very human trait of creation, a core desire to make things beautiful and not just functional.

As adults in a modern society, we often try to cover up our inner artist.  We don’t draw anymore because, well, that’s what kids do. We stopped believing we could, lost interest, or moved on to more “adult-like” pursuits.  

But that inner artist is still there. It’s the part of you that watches for rainbows after a storm and sees shapes in the clouds. It’s the part of you that feels oddly satisfied seeing pouring paint or playing with slime made out of Elmer’s glue.  When your favorite song comes on, it’s the part of you that can still dance like nobody’s watching.

So to all the people who say they just aren’t the creative type, and all who claim to be but find themselves stuck in a rut, I challenge you to get reconnect with your inner artist.  Try a new recipe.  Try redecorating your living room. Try to play the piano again.  In a world that grows increasingly mechanical, professional, and emotionless, try to create something new and colorful and raw.  After all, we don’t just want our lives to be functional; we want them to be beautiful.

Posted in Life, Painting, Writing

The Art of Breaking the Rules

blue red and yellow chalk
Photo by Viktoria Goda

Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist. –Pablo Picasso

I’m sure we’ve all heard variations of this quote everywhere, and I am here for it.  I love this quote, first because the nature of art almost requires that rules must be flexible.  After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what you love might be completely different from what I love but that doesn’t make either of us wrong.  Art is about expressing and exploring, and always holding fast to a list of “rules” will only fence you in.

Interestingly enough, I most often hear this quote from amateurs.  It came up countless times in my college painting concepts class.  Most of us had painted on our own before or taken a class in high school, and we thought we knew what we were doing.  We were ready to start breaking some rules!  So when our professor tried to give us guidelines or restrictions or tell us how to start, his words sometimes chafed like sandpaper.  He would give a clear assignment, and several of my classmates wandered off doing their own thing.  “We’re being creative,” they said.  “Isn’t that what art is all about?”

Yes and no.

While I love this quote, I feel that most artists only focus on the last phrase.  We want to break the rules.  It sounds so exciting and fun!  We’re done sitting in school being lectured and doing everything to please the man!  But that’s not what this quote really means.  “Learn the rules like a pro,” it says.  Only then can you “break them like an artist.”

A perfect example is drawing faces for the first time.  As a kid I loved drawing people, and I was decently good at it.  They weren’t realistic, but they were at least vaguely humanoid, and I spent most of my effort adding fancy details.  Then I bought a drawing book that went through the dimensions of the face (the eyes are an eye width apart, the nose lines up with the corners of the eyes, the ears line up with the bottom of the nose, etc.).  I started following these “rules,” and my drawings were suddenly twice as realistic even without my careful details.  The shapes and relationships were solidly good, so everything I built on top of them was better.

Another example is grammar.  I’ve heard writers say they get so fed up with all the grammar rules and it gets in the way of their writing.  But let me ask you this: have you ever read a piece of writing (maybe fan-fiction or a friend’s essay) that was so littered with grammar and punctuation errors you almost couldn’t read it?  It’s distracting, confusing, and frustrating.  It could even have a brilliant story with compelling characters, but that doesn’t matter if we can’t read it.  If you know how to write clearly first, everything you want to say will be communicated that much better.

Back to my painting concepts class.  For our final we spent three hours in the studio going over all our final paintings, and he spouted a solid hour of artistic truth.  He told us he sees the “rules” of art as bumpers that keep us on track.  They give us guiding principles we can fall back on when things don’t seem to be going right.

We have to first learn the rules so we know why they are there.  If we don’t understand why warnings are in place, we can never disregard them safely or with any level of confidence.  Once we understand them, we can confidently break them on purpose, knowing exactly what the outcome will be.

What “rules” of art do you like to break on purpose?