...Encouraging artists and art lovers,
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I’ve discovered that there are TWO separate and distinct skills that must be developed if you want to develop a high degree of skill in drawing or rendering things accurately.
The two skills are:
1) CAREFUL OBSERVATION
2) MEMORIZING THE ‘BY-ROTE RULES’
These are easy to describe with examples-- The first skill is the one artists exercise whenever they do live-model figure drawing, live-model portrait drawing, or plein air painting. It basically means that artist looks really, really hard at the subject, does all kinds of inner-mental-gymnastics, and then paints or draws what they see—or THINK they see, to be more precise.
The second skill is the one we develop whenever we pick up a book like "How to Draw the Human Figure" or "How to Draw a Realistic Portrait" or "How to Paint Trees" and so on. Most of us do this online these days, but the principle is the same: when you pick up such a book, look at such a website, or video, the teacher says something like "The average human is 8 heads tall" or “The sky gets lighter close to the horizon . . . “ and so forth. We would learn all these rules eventually through our own observation, but these tips get us down the road toward competence more quickly.
Here's the surprising thing to me-- IT REQUIRES BOTH OF THESE SKILLS to get really good at realistic drawing/rendering.
Let me give you an example from my experience-- Several years ago I participated in an art competition in another state. Most artists came with their work already finished, but I— having a bit of masochist in me, evidently— did all my work on location. I painted 12 hours a day for 3 weeks, and most of that time was spent doing portraits of people from my cell phone. I painted 77 realistic portraits (plus 8 landscape images) during those 3 weeks. I would have thought that after all those portraits, that I would be able to draw “yer basic human face” by rote perfectly! . . . But I was surprised to discover that this was not the case. I had spent the entire time exercising Skill #1, but none of Skill #2— the ‘by-rote’ stuff.
On the other hand, if all you do is learn the by-rote stuff from teachers, like “Tree trunks are more likely to be gray than brown,” and you don’t LOOK at said tree trunks and say, “How ‘bout that! They really ARE mostly gray!” then you won’t develop great skill in capturing stuff realistically. It takes BOTH— memorizing AND observing.
In both cases, it is the act of SKETCHING that is key. I’ve met some students who claim they don’t like doing sketch-books, they only want to paint. No problem! Sketch in paint, then! The key is you need to DRAW STUFF to get good at DRAWING STUFF. You can’t just LOOK at those “How-To” books, you have to draw the by-rote rules they discuss. Likewise, if you don’t try to DRAW the things you’re looking at, you just THINK you’re learning what they look like.
Let me know how this works for YOU.
Until then, keep on painting . . . or sketching, really!
Here is a list of the painting "rules" that have come up-- most of them repeatedly-- during our monthly Zoom Critique. I have tried to describe each one briefly. Want more? JOIN US on Zoom-- 2nd Wednesday of each month.
(Click image below for larger image)
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about getting older is that I have (pretty much!) embraced who I am— strengths, weaknesses, good points, and foibles. Overall it has been a very freeing experience.
As an artist, I've discovered that we all carry out a very delicate balancing act: to be satisfied with our work, and yet not “settle”. Why not settle? Because a big part of the pleasure in life comes from the sense that we are improving. It doesn’t matter how “good” or “bad” you are at something, if you think you’re improving, there’s a bounce in your step.
But wait! It gets complicated! In order to feel like you’re improving, you have to compare yourself to your previous self, and in that transaction, you can’t help comparing yourself to others. Uh-oh! That sounds dangerous, doesn’t it? And IT IS! But no matter how much you tell yourself NOT to compare yourself to others . . . you CAN’T NOT do it! There’s only one solution: Learn the difference between GOOD comparing, and BAD comparing. Then just do the GOOD stuff.
So what's GOOD and BAD comparing?
First of all, it's easy to tell if you're doing the WRONG kind of comparing— you get grumpy, deflated, discouraged, and envious. The GOOD kind of comparing, on the other hand-- usually called INSPIRATION-- leaves you excited, ambitious, motivated.
I think one of the keys to doing the GOOD stuff is to choose the right artists (for YOU!) to compare to— Don’t just pick an artist who’s work you admire, pick someone who’s work you feel like you “grasp” to some degree— someone from whom you can pick up little tips and tricks just by looking at their work. You can ADMIRE the work of many artists, but if looking at their work makes you feel like hanging up your brushes, quit looking at their work! There are plenty of other artists out there who will INSPIRE you. Focus on those!
Other than that, just keep on getting older. The older you get the more you understand that you are just you— strengths, weaknesses, good points and foibles— AND that nobody else in the whole world can fill your shoes.
So compare carefully . . .
And KEEP ON PAINTING!
We've all heard this bit of advice:
"You've got to develop a style!" Or-- "Develop a style and stick with it."
Good advice, or bad?
That depends entirely on context.
If you are an "emerging artist" and you're hoping to actually sell your artwork (to more than just your friends), this advice is RIGHT ON.
People ask me often "How much should I charge for this painting?" and my standard answer is "It's impossible to say. You have to develop a style and create A BODY OF WORK in that style. Once you have 15 or 30 or even 60 pieces of work IN THAT STYLE, then -- and only then-- can we start talking about price.".
That's just the way it is. Art buyers have to feel like they are buying something that an artist has actually WORKED ON, not just an accident that happened in the floor of their garage. (As you can hear from my tone, this is more and more critical the more and more abstract YOUR style may be!)
BUT . . . (and it's a really BIG BUT!) . . . that "develop a style" advice is completely worthless in a few other contexts:
1) IF YOU ARE A STUDENT (of any age) and you just want to LEARN ALL YOU CAN about art, or painting, or how to manipulate the physical cosmos.
Developing a "style" in this season of your art journey simply short-circuits your progress. Don't narrow down, widen up! Try EVERYTHING, then try a little more!
Even when I was an art major in college I felt that developing a "style" was a sophomoric impulse. (Of course, that's because I was a Junior.) (That was a joke.) (Sorry I have to tell you when my jokes are a joke.) (Sorry I have so many parenthetical statements in a row.) (I just do this to drive English Majors crazy.) (They are sophomoric, too.)
I still think college art students-- unless they're true prodigies-- have no business concerning themselves with "style".
2) IF YOU ARE A MATURE or WELL-ESTABLISHED ARTIST, you WON'T necessarily torpedo your career by playing around.
For the last 17 years, I have had a clearly-identified style of painting. So if I want to play around with other styles of painting, I am free to do so. I just have to understand that my "playing around" paintings might be a little harder to sell. And that is exactly my experience. Do I then regret "playing around"? Not in the least! I learn things from it, plus, it's just plain fun -- and that helps keep all my art work fresh.
So they're ya go-- dish out the conventional advice, "Develop a STYLE!" . . . Just be careful who you're dishing it to.
In the meantime...
Go develop a style. (-:
I’m reminded of the old country song, “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Do you really want your children to grow up to become artists? Lots and lots of people really don’t! Why do we have such a bad rep? A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog called “The Best Part About Being An Artist.” It’s only fair that I should opine in the opposite direction, so here are a few thoughts in the negative column:
We’re skilled, we’re hard working, we’re conscientious . . . So we’re sitting ducks for the dark virus of perfectionism.
Let's get one thing straight— Many people conflate perfectionism with excellence. Anybody who does excellent work looks like a perfectionist in a culture filled with mediocrity, but a perfectionist is someone who is never satisfied with their work.
It's easy to fall into this trap. Perfectionism often hits when we look at the work of a “better artist” (and there are always plenty of those!) In fact, job growth for us pretty much requires that we look at artists who are better than us. So there are two ways we can respond to this: get inspired or get depressed. The healthy response is obvious . . . but not always so easy to do. We have to train ourselves to use other people's work as an inspiration, but NOT as a comparison, in the strict sense of the word. We have to keep reminding ourselves that every one of us is as unique as a fingerprint. Our job is to fill our little slot in the cosmos the best we can. And learn to enjoy the process.
Artists are universally characterized as “sensitive.” I resisted this idea for many years, simply because I hated the thought of being a wimp . . . or worse, yet — a cry-baby! But I finally had to admit that it is true: artists ARE more sensitive than non-artists . . . because we LITERALLY SEE what others DON’T! (Good news! Authors are worse than us!!) Artists are simply more attuned to the outside world. Better artists are even more attuned! Alas, that means we are usually sensitive in other ways, too. I think it has helped me just to admit that I’m sensitive . . . and ask myself if I’d rather be one of the “blind” ones? Heck, no! So I’ll take to bad with the good . . . (and try to do all my crying in private!)
BAD WITH BUSINESS and MONEY
Okay . . . this blog just went from interesting to mean! How do you get the artist off your front porch? Yeah— pay for the dang pizza! (Actually, that is an old musician joke, so, see? We’re not the only ones with this reputation!) I’ve heard several successful artists say “If you want to be a good artist, major in business!” But, frankly, I’m not sure even that would do the job. We are ALL so different. I think a lot of this has to do with coming to peace with “the way God made you,” if I can use that traditional terminology. Many years ago I had a friend who said “Nobody’s everybody!” and that has really stuck with me— and more and more as I get older.
I’m sure there are other “bad” things about being an artist, but I can’t think of any at the moment. Go ahead and share with us some that you think about.
In the meantime,
First, let me say, that I KNOW that for some (many?) of you, making money from your art is not a high priority, so I apologize for a Blog Post that really doesn’t apply to you. BUT— you might know somebody it DOES apply to, AND you might just be curious to “see how the other half lives.”
9 Steps to Making Money with Your Art
1. Learn how to paint. (Duh.)
Study, practice, repeat.
2. Develop a BODY of work.
This may be the single most important piece of advice on this list. Nobody cares what you can paint. They care what you can paint over and over and over. Any ONE of your paintings can only be evaluated (and priced!) against the backdrop of a BODY of work. How much is “a Body”? I don’t know . . . at least 20 paintings all in a same-ish style. THIS is where that ubiquitous bit of advice is on-the-mark: Develop a style.
3. Paint for free.
We all have to start somewhere. Do paintings for family, friends, fundraisers . . .
4. Paint for cheap.
After you've done it FREE for awhile, try to get into a local coffee shop or restaurant . . .
5. Market, Market, Market . . .
Here’s the life of a working artist in the world we live in:
• Paint • Post • Paint • Post • Paint • Post . . .
Social Media is the MAIN marketing tool these days: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Etsy, Fine Art America, etc.
6. Build a website.
I know a LOT of people ONLY have social media marketing. Somebody has to tell you this, and I’ll be that somebody: When I see an artist with ONLY social media presence, it screams “beginner” / “amateur” / “perennial hobbyist.” Sure, it’s a pain in the neck to learn new stuff, but everybody can build a website these days, and that’s what you need to do. Consider the learning curve as part of your “staving-off-dimentia” strategy. There are lots of options: Wix, Square Space, Network Solutions, Web.com; and if you’re a Mac person— Sparkle. And don't forget to make it mobile-friendly.
7. Set yer bum down in yer chair and develop your signature!
As you may already know, this is one of my perennial rants.
4 COMMON MISTAKES REGARDING SIGNATURES:
A) Initials Only
(“I’m such a nobody I don’t really want anybody to know who did this. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I deserve to breathe.” )
B) Making in inscrutable scrawl.
(“It’ll be like the mark of Zorro! I’ll be SO famous, they will swoon when they see it!”)
C) Using a bristle brush.
(Use a good sable brush— like Winsor Newton Series 7. Also— NO markers!)
D) Signing your paintings the way you sign your checks.
(You’ve got to “Disney-fy it a little bit!)
8. Design a really cool business card.
You're an artist! Your business card had better look like it! Put some of your work on it-- at least on one side.
9. Believe you're awesome until you really are.
You've GOT TO manifest an air of competence. Not arrogance . . . Just a professional "I got this" attitude.
Truly— this is one of those areas in life where you have to fake it til you make it.
Hope that helps! And, yes, I did every one of these things at various stages in my career.
Tell us what you would add— or subtract!
In the meantime . . . forget about selling!
BE THE ART
I remember being in grad school— I was in my early-to-mid 30’s with a wife and two kids and a full-time job. (“Why, O WHY didn’t I do this back when I was single, footloose, and carefree?”)-- In that season I often had to decide between getting an “A” in life, and getting a “B” in some classes. Looking back, I sometimes made the right decision. I got some B’s . . . But my wife and kids still liked me. It turns out this was preparing me for a lifetime of hard choices.
I’m assuming most people reading this are artists . . . or wanna-be artists, at least. One of your aspirations is to create some GOOD art. You could say you would like to give yourself an “A” on your next painting. You will derive a certain degree of satisfaction if you do. I know the feeling.
I am learning that there are two ways to pursue this joy-in-excellent-art feeling. The most common way is to “Hook-it-up, get-it-on, Git to work & git ‘er done.”—Work you butt off grinding and hacking away at a task until it’s finished. You can often give yourself an “A” when you pursue your projects this way. Then you can experience the rush of satisfaction that comes from a job well done. Not to be nosey, but you might also ask “But how did everybody else in my life fare while I was being— Ta-da-DAH!!— SUPER-PAINTER? When you finally stagger out of your studio, did you get an A in life? Or just in painting?
I think there is a slightly different way to do this— Instead of striving TOWARD perfection and the happiness that follows, we could— conceivably, at least— start out by getting in touch with our satisfaction FIRST, and then work from that place of peace.
Some of you are thinking, “O no! He’s gone full-ZEN on us!” . . . But I really am trying to keep my weirdness fairly mid-range!
Here’s how that might work: Sit quietly and take several slow breaths, thinking about nothing but your breathing. Then start thinking about all the things you have to be thankful for. Start small and work out from there— thankful for the knee that doesn’t hurt, thankful for a roof over your head and a heat-pump (or air conditioner) that works. Whenever a dark or troubling thought barges into your mind, just say “Thank you very much, we will think about that later” and put it in your Think-About-It-Later Can. (And put a lid on the Can!) Get calm, get thankful . . . if possible get peaceful, maybe even joyful, and then start painting. The painting process is not there to GET you happy, the painting is happening because you ARE happy.
BE the art— get an “A” in life FIRST, then create the art.
Just a thought. Give it a try.
What do you think?
Happy Painting (Really!)
THE BEST PART ABOUT BEING AN ARTIST
The best part about being an artist is, quite simply-- BEING an Artist! It is the joy of taking two hands connected to one mind, grabbing a blank paper or canvas and in a matter of minutes, hours, or days turning it into a thing of intrinsic Beauty— or authentic IS-ness, if you want to be a little more philosophically neutral— a “thing” that has never existed before.
Many people now live and work in a world dominated by ones and zeros and glowing screens, not creating anything tangible. I have concerns about the effect that is having on their souls.
So hooray for us Artists! (English majors put down your red pens; I know when I get improper! :-) We get to make STUFF! Real STUFF! AND . . . it's possible that-- with a little luck-- some of the stuff we make will last 4 or 5 hundred years! Wow!
Artists are operating at one of the most fundamental levels of what it means to be human: the capacity to make stuff. I think we all know how that feels: there is a peculiar kind of satisfaction that comes when we are done making something. Hang on now!— I know we all get hung up on whether it’s a “good-enough-stuff”, but that’s a subject for another time. Even if every part of what we make is not up to our lofty standard of perfection, there is a sense of wholeness gained simply in the act of trying.
I think that’s why most people make art . . . and I think it’s the main reason most people should make art.
At the end of every art project we should ask ourselves the question:
“But did I enjoy making it?”
If yes, then that piece of art is GOOD ENOUGH!
Watch out! Competitions can be a little dangerous in this regard. If you are making art in order to WIN, I’m not sure you’ve really got the idea. The same is true for selling art. I’ve paid my bills by selling art for many years and I readily recognize that I am the exception, not the rule. The real reason I have been able to do that is that, by some quirk of personality, the pressure to “sell” has not eclipsed my joy in the simple act of creating. It’s still more fun than work. (Though it’s taken a lot of “work” to get to that point!)
So AIM FOR JOY. Not winning, not selling . . . Those might be a cherry on top, but the whole sundae is the sheer act of creating . . . PERIOD.
Believe me, we’re all in this together.
Hope that helps.
TIP No. 1— DITCH THE BIG PREP!
Having a hard time just getting around to your art? Welcome to the human race! We are all pulled in so many directions, it’s really hard to make time to do the stuff you really WANT to do. Here’s a little tip that has helped me get over this hurdle—
Let me use an analogy from a non-art part of my life— I’m a fairly serious musician; I play several instruments and TRY to practice them every day. I don’t reach that lofty goal, but having the goal gets me closer than not. Anyway— here’s the tip: CAN THE CASE! I never keep any of my instruments in their cases. My instruments hang on the walls, sit on shelves, stand on stands . . . so that ANY time I’m strolling though the den I can pick one up and practice for 4 or 5 minutes. By-the-way— On a related note: some of the most productive practicing we do (of any skill) can happen in the first 5 minutes. So don’t turn up your nose at such a scanty session.
Back to ART: KEEP YOUR ART STUFF OUT WHERE YOU CAN GRAB IT AND MAKE ART — EVEN FOR 5 MINUTES.
I know that might not work for oil or acrylic painting— My oil palette stays in the freezer, so it takes a good 20 minutes for that to thaw out, and acrylics would be bone-dry if you left them out, but sketchbooks with pencils, pens, pastels, watercolors and gauche are ready to go ANYTIME.
I have sketchbooks scattered everywhere— One in my car, one in my wife’s, one on the coffee table, one in the top drawer of the cabinet in the front hall, et cetera. Oh-- and by the way, most of them are spiral-bound and already have pencils, pens & brushes stuck in the spiral. Voi la! Instant ART kit!
I don’t have to wait ’til I’m in the mood, I don’t to go through a big production unpacking and setting up. Just grab and go!
TIP No. 2— CREATE A READY-TO-GO PICTURE FILE
I’m assuming you own a smart phone. Just get in the habit of SHOOTING anything and everything that strikes your fancy— the way a shadow falls on a wall, a close-up of a leaf, a close-up of your shoe laces, even somebody else’s painting! (You don’t have to COPY it, but if you do, give credit . . . and don’t enter in into a competition.) Next time you have a moment— open your phone's picture gallery and start flipping.
One more tip in this category— I’ve heard of artists having “Blank Canvas Paralysis”. I know I should be really empathetic here and say, “Yeah, it happens to everybody.” But it doesn’t. I’ve never had it. So all empathy aside, let me give you ONE simple tip for overcoming this one: START 3, 4, OR 5 SMALL PAINTINGS ALL AT THE SAME TIME. One canvas might intimidate you; a whole row of (little) ones won’t, because you will perceive in one sweeping glance that each canvas is NOT ALL THAT IMPORTANT— which is one of the main sources of this paralysis.
TIP No. 3— THE COMPARISON / MASTERPIECE TRAP
These two impulses are universal: the urge to compare yourself to others, and the desire to create a MASTERPIECE. Both of them are counterproductive. Derive INSPIRATION from other people’s art, but not INTIMIDATION. You are unique. NOBODY can do what you do. If God had wanted to to be Michelangelo, he would have made you him . . . (And you’d have been dead for 457 years now. Way to go! You’ve still got time to catch up!)
The “Gotta-Mayka-Masterpiece” pressure is just that: PRESSURE! Try this: just do a “nice little painting”. Honestly, your chances of actually doing a masterpiece just increased.
That’s enough for now. What tips have YOU learned for jump-starting your art-making life? Share them here. I look forward to hearing from you.
Til then— Happy Painting!
Broad segments of the art community assert that self-expression is the essence of making art. Many in that same community would say that creativity is the second-most important element in art, and that the least valuable aspect of art-making is the apprehension and demonstration of skill. These are views you are likely to encounter if you hang out in any university art department.
If you agree with those sentiments, I'm not going to try to change your mind. But I have a lot of friends who are doing art, and I want my friends to flourish. For this reason, I am proposing a view contrary to the one I have just described.
These three values are, indeed, fundamental in the making of art, but I think our art-making life will go better if we completely reverse the order that I have just stated. In other words, I believe expressing yourself in your art adds a teeny-weeny little bit of value to your life, exercising creativity benefits you a little more than that, but developing real artistic skill benefits you most of all.
Of course one might argue that the whole purpose of art-making is NOT necessarily to benefit the artist, and I could be arm-wrestled into accepting such a proposal, but I am limiting the scope of this writing to that narrow band of experience: “How much good does making art do ME?”
The bottom line is this— Doing something well makes you feel good.
Expressing yourself . . . not so much. I can think of several moments in my 41-year-long happy marriage to Nancy when I wish I had NOT expressed myself! It definitely did not make me “feel good” when it was all over. “Let it all out” is good advice sometimes . . . but if you have tendencies toward being a serial killer, umm . . . we all would appreciate you NOT letting it all out.
I think human beings are hard-wired to make stuff . . . and to make stuff as good as we possibly can.
Make good stuff, feel good feelings.
That’s all “Doctor Dan” has to say today: Do two paintings and call me in the morning. I’m trying to get better all the time. I know a lot of you are, too. And it’s more fun to do it in community. Thanks for being a part of mine.
Let me know how it goes. Leave a comment here.
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