Monday, October 31, 2011

Copy the Masters

The above image is a painting by Monet titled "Hauling the Boat Ashore at Honfleur." Its image is being used for educational purposes here and on the site where I found it. Always be careful about copying images online, make sure you check whether it's public domain or has a Wikipedia Commons or other permission with attribution.

While no one is going to mistake my painting for Monet's painting, below is my attempt to copy it in another medium at another size. Monet painted large in what looks to me like oils. I painted small in Color Conte but maintained more or less the same aspect ratio (the proportion of the short side to the long side).

It's valuable practice to copy the masters, especially classical masters whose works are out of copyright. Don't copy them the same size in the same materials or you may be accused of art forgery, they're usually worth millions. You can learn a lot from someone who's that good a painter though.

Very often if I copied a master painting small, I'd leave out the figures. This time I dared to try them, since I had enough practice at small gestures to see how he did them. I looked close and simplified only a little. It was a delightful surprise to find out that with only a few strokes, I too could manage to show the strain and effort all three men put into moving that large boat.

I'll remember that when I'm out in the city jotting sketches of people doing things. It's okay to do little figures less than an inch high and show their broad body motions rather than try to get the heads in exact proportion to their little bodies and their feet exactly right. Sometimes hands and feet don't even show at that size. That's okay. Less is more.

Urban landscapes are full of people and parked cars. You can't get away from people and big manufactured objects if you sketch outdoors in the city. Out in the country, you can move over and leave out the farmer and his tractor. Put him in and the painting may appeal more to people.

Without the figures, this would have been a beautiful sunset painting anyway. Another thing I learned came from following Monet's color choices. I can't count the number of lovely sunsets I've done shading from yellow through pink, red and lavender. I can get the sky colors pretty well painting them from life and extrapolate when I'm painting from a photo.

Yet I hadn't ever done what he did in this painting - shade the yellow all the way to white at the lightest part of the sunset where the sun's obscured by clouds. It goes that bright. It reads true in his painting. So I painted the sky following his, improvised a little on the cloud shapes due to size and seeing many similar cloud formations in person. I didn't copy the clouds exactly.

I went to do the reflections on the water using the same sticks, then checked Monet to see if I'd done them the way he did. Whoops! There was another lesson. The reflections of the sky on the water are darker, less intense and less contrasting than the sky. Out came the gray Conte to glaze over those reflections till I more or less matched the hue and intensity Monet used for those waves.

Wow. I sat back from it and the sky zoomed into the distance, the water below looked more like water with that simple change. When I paint a sunset from life I'll watch for that effect and match it.

I used the same blue, violet and brown sticks in many different parts of the painting. I could see that Monet probably had some piles of mixtures and just kept changing the proportions of this pigment or that to achieve color unity. By the time I was done, I realized I'd only used seven or eight sticks total - not the entire 24 color box and probably wouldn't have used any more colors if I'd still had the 48 color set.

Copying the masters is an art lesson across time. Especially when they predate photography, you will see things you don't always see when you're looking at reality or a photo. Monet's strokes guided mine even though I worked in a different medium. Monet's design is now deep in my memory, something that will affect how I set up to paint sunsets in reality.

It's a good exercise to improve your skills. Look for masters that you always loved and wanted to paint the way they did. Their techniques can still be derived from looking at their works in museums or even working from online images as I did.

Wikipedia has many images of master paintings whenever there's a listing for a famous artist. Most of their images fall under Wikipedia Commons, where you can check to see what rights the photographer allows and whether you should give attribution for reposting the image. Most of them allow you to create derivative works with attribution - that is, you post who it came from when you post your work online.

Don't try to sell your copies of master paintings even if they're out of copyright and you painted from the original, without clearly labeling it as such. "By Robert A. Sloan after Monet" would be enough to tell people that isn't your original design, it's your interpretation of Monet's design.

However, a famous professional artist often includes images of past master paintings as an element in his still lifes. Sometimes he wraps them around objects, playing with perspective. Other times a corner of a master painting will show in its frame as if the still life was set up in the museum or the collector's home. If you attribute the painting, creating derivative works like this are original. It's like sampling in rap - it can be an interesting technique in itself if you're careful about copyright.

Each museum has different rules about sketching or painting from the masters. One museum of modern art in Kansas wanted a form filled out explaining which painting you're going to copy on what day and in what medium. Others will limit what mediums you can use without those prior arrangements. Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco will allow pencil sketches in small notebooks of anything including the Rodin sculptures, but to use any sort of paint you need to contact the museum staff and make prior arrangements.

The first step in checking your local art museum is to look at the museum's website. Their rules are usually posted online if they have a website. Next, contact them for details and plan ahead. Observe all the rules carefully. They're there to protect the art and keep your work from distracting other patrons who want to see the painting.

Legion of Honor has another rule that's good to observe in general. Don't paint anything from a master in exactly the same size and medium. If you scale it a sixth smaller or larger, you can still get a good feeling for the master's techniques and wind up with a beautiful copy for your home, or to sell as "By me after Master."

With living master painters, the best way to approach copying their works is to email them. Contacting the artist may get you more help than just being able to look at an online image and copy from that. When I asked my teacher, Charlotte Herczfeld, if I could copy one of her recent paintings, she sent me her original photo references and snapshots she took at each of the stages of painting it!

I had a good relationship with her before I asked because I had been her student for some time. But other master painters may be generous and helpful if you want to copy their works for your own artistic growth. If they say no, the best thing to do is move on and contact a different modern master whose work is in a similar style. It's never a good idea to violate copyright.

I would not sell a copy of a modern master even labeled as such. That's direct competition with her. Having the copy on my own wall to study or in my sketchbook is one thing - painters have done this throughout the history of art. But copying to sell is another matter entirely, one to be reserved for those whose work is out of copyright and whose estates will not suffer if you sell your version of the painting. Monet and his heirs aren't going to be hurt by it if I did a copy for sale - and didn't lie about what it was.

Painting from the masters is one of the traditional teaching methods for classical art. If you take it up on your own, you'll improve at a surprising rate and every time you do, something about their techniques will become a new tool in your own repertory. The next time you see white accents near the sun in one of my sunsets, you can thank Monsieur Monet.

My copy of "Hauling The Boat Ashore at Honfleur" by Monet, 5" x 8" Conte color on brown rough paper.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Passion and Fear

Have you ever felt afraid to start on a blank surface, hesitated after getting a good sketch down on it or paused from panic halfway through a good painting? You're not alone. Fear of painting or drawing, whether it's fear of starting, fear of continuing or fear of showing it to anyone is common. I'll scare you one step farther. It has some basis in reality and isn't just an irrational phobia.

It's socially acceptable in the Western world and especially in America to mock artists, either in general or specifically.

We're held to an unreasonable standard by the public. A common point of view is All or Nothing, the attitude of your typical alcoholic gets picked up by people who had no connection with substance abuse. "No one can make a living at art." Superstar or Nothing - you're either Picasso up in the million bucks for a sketch price range or your work is worthless and you should spend your time doing something productive like watching television.

Yes, I'll make fun of the mockers.

If you listen to everything they say, they'll come out saying that when you add up all of what they said. The fact is, they won't pick on you for spending all evening playing video games, tweeting or watching television. A lot of "Normal People" have no creative outlet at all. A sizable number of them are lashing out because a long time ago, they had dreams of becoming artists or musicians or writers and got shut down by exactly that social pressure.

This is environmental. It's a work hazard. It's not just you. Don't put yourself down as a wimp because your feelings get hurt when people attack you socially and disrespect your work. You're taking up an avocation or profession that gets flamed everywhere by anyone not in it.

If that isn't enough social risk, within it a tendency toward snobbery, elitism and trendiness rejects good work on arbitrary grounds of style, subject and conformity to a different set of expectations. Copy the style of a 20th century avant garde master with even the slightest variation, like using a different photo reference, and wow, you're So Original. Even though what you did is entirely derivative.

I've seen that end of it more than once in circles where the money gets very big.

So what does that make you, friend?

It makes you brave. You're standing up to some real outside pressures that wouldn't be there if you studied chartered accountancy or devoted all that energy and passion to calisthenics. Some activities are socially acceptable. Others are not. Art and the arts hold so many intrinsic rewards that if you let go of other people's opinions and paint for the people who like your paintings, you can build a glorious life. One that's an exciting adventure!

I chose my whale painting to illustrate this one because it's out in the middle of the ocean, no shore in sight, seeing one of the largest creatures on earth dance with those waves and start to dive into its natural environment. Live large! Be you! Paint with passion!

Today's essay was prompted by a forum discussion where a friend posted this link: Fear Art Quotations. Right near the top, one of them jumped out at me as a theme that demands to be written.

Fear melts when you take action toward a goal you really want. - Robert G. Allen.

Why is that one so important, when the page is full of beautiful, heartening quotes? Because it's not just morale. It's literally true.

Fear and excitement are exactly the same physical state. Both of them are an adrenaline surge in your body. Adrenaline readies your body for Flight or Fight - but modern life in any industrialized country has its greatest risks in ways where throwing a punch or running away are bad ideas for how to deal with it. You can't beat up the landlord if you're about to get evicted. Running away when the boss chews you out will get you fired. Running away if someone makes fun of you at a party is what the bully wants! You'd get laughed at again for running away.

To face social challenges, you need a clear head and a strong heart. You need to be articulate, expressive, most of all confident enough not to lose your head and start shouting or acting aggressive. Assertiveness wins hands down in social conflicts, especially in the long term. It's not just more ethical, it's more effective in a functional sense. It will draw more positive people into your life and more opportunities open up.

So what can you do with all that anxiety? Anxiety specifically is a crippling physical and emotional pain that comes from being cornered socially where neither fight nor flight will do you any good at all. You become inarticulate because back in the Pleistocene, you would not have stood a chance trying to talk down that Smilodon fatalis who wanted to eat you. You had to throw rocks at it, run away or both.

Our bodies are still living on an African savannah, chasing some animals from dinner and running away from bigger predators. But we painted in those days. Some of those paintings are so breathtaking that to this day, without any cultural context, we stop and stare in wonder and awe, we buy prints of them to hang in our living rooms. Or copy them as murals, as one Arkansas artist I visited did. Her living room was gorgeous with Lascaux horses galloping everywhere on earth toned walls with clear areas where her horse paintings hung.

Copy a cave painting on your wall to remind you who you are.

What you do is human, it goes back much farther and deeper than professions like programming or accountancy or retail sales. It's something innate to you. You have the capacity for it, most of all if you love it.

The best way to blow off that anxiety is to put a great big canvas on your easel. Pick up a big brush. Paint what you love. Don't even do it to sell, though it may come out wonderful and command a high price later. Do it for your heart.

Dance around painting and stepping back to look at it. View it from different angles. Mix paint. Splash it on. Work hard, physically, make it something wonderful that grows with every stroke. Fall in love with it again.

When you read that adrenaline as excitement, you have released boundless energy to do something about it. If you do dry mediums, get an 18" x 24" pad of newsprint or cheap recycled paper and do charcoal gesture renderings. Swing your arm from the shoulder. Move around. Put some music on and paint or draw to the rhythm of the music.

Work up a good sweat and then look at what you accomplished. It's probably better than you'd have done if you just curled up in a chair scared to do anything and wibbled in a little sketchbook.

I have physical disabilities especially for standing and walking that make it impractical for me to dance with my art. But there are still physical activities I accomplish to turn anxiety into excitement.

Yesterday I faced an Art Jury for the first time in my life.

I went down to the San Francisco Arts Commission once-a-month Street Artists Program screening. You may recall from my first post that I used to be a street artist. I know the business. I did well at it until my health crashed partly due to some very bad economic decisions like moving too far away from my setup areas and dragging too much heavy stuff in a cart to improve my display.

I might never have been homeless if I'd gotten medical insurance and phoned up the Scooter Store back in those days. I'm glad I did though, because now I'll be doing it in San Francisco where it's not seasonal. I can do it year round with good sales in all but the Holiday Season. Guess when I'm starting up? Now. Yep. Swinging into the Holiday Season. Whatever I do in December and November is going to be the low end of the year's results from Street Artist work.

What I did to fight my fears was paint and sketch. I cut mats for all of my paintings. I cut back boards for all of my paintings. I sorted through all of my stuff to find the postcard size Top Loaders so I could display my example pen and watercolor postcard painting of Golden Gate Bridge. I forced myself to leave some works unfinished so that I'd have "Six unfinished examples." I read all the rules over and over, to make sure that I got everything they wanted to see into the bag when I left.

I even sorted what I was doing so that my tools, materials and paintings all fit in one rather light weight messerger bag in an organized way. At the last minute, this last week, I replaced my absent 48 color Conte set with a 24 color Conte set just so that I'd have my favorite hard pastels in hand to do an example in front of them.

When I went in, I was almost an hour early because I allowed for Paratransit to run late taking other people to their destinations. So I got to see other Street Artists get screened before it was my turn. They included jewelry makers, a musician selling CDs, crafters doing fabric art and ceramics as well as other visual artists doing wall paintings.

I saw a good third of them get disqualified and told to change something in their wares or have some of their works thrown out because they didn't fit the rules for the Street Artist Program. Some of them were rejected completely, others just got only some of their works qualified. The musician was also a producer and discovered that he could sell only the CDs that had his vocal or instrumental performances on them, not the ones his friends did that he was promoting. That's how the program works.

It's strict because it gives preference to artists who sell their own works. Period. That's the point of it - to give jobs to San Francisco artists and crafters. That protects me from someone who buys art wholesale at a pittance from other painters and has it shipped to San Francisco to sell. I agree with those rules.

I was also dead scared that the Screening Committee would throw out my paintings for lack of quality. Tell me to go back to art school and try again when I had salable works. Everything I did was original and none of it was even collaborative, other than my using photo references with the permission of the photographer. About half of my paintings were from WetCanvas Reference Image Library, where member artists share photo references from around the world.

When I got my table, I got up and ran around the table laying it out. I moved paintings, set three of them vertical against the wall and spread the rest out in a good dynamic arrangement on the table where together they formed a good composition. I spread out my prints in an appealing display with each of three prints laid out in a flattened stack so that at a glance, the jury could see those were the prints. I have high quality photo prints.

They had to pick up the prints and compare them to my original ACEOs to see that yes, those were prints but original artwork in the same style was sitting out next to the prints. One of the Committee members asked about my prints.

"Do you know that you have to label these prints as prints, to the buyer? What kind of prints they are..."

"Yes. Look at the back. I read the rules and made little inserts with what kind of print it is, my name and contact information."

She flipped it over, looked at my insert and laughed with relief. "You read the rules." She turned to the rest of the committee. "He read the rules! One of them read the rules!" They all laughed.

I was in, that fast. They mentioned that it gets windy out on Fisherman's Wharf so I should tie down my art or put it into a prints rack that my buyers can flip through. I certainly will, as soon as I get some sales and go purchase a good lightweight aluminum and canvas prints rack to go with my vertical display. I'll probably invest in some larger photo prints, mat them and put them in the prints rack.

I walked out in a happy daze, floating on the compliments of the screening committee. Every one of them liked my paintings and was impressed with them and with my presentation. I knew I could do this. The last big question is pricing, which I might spend $4 for a scouting trip to find out what others are charging for similar paintings before I price mine. I'd like to make the price dead average for size, style and skill so that price isn't a consideration - not bargain basement so the buyers think my work isn't any good, not overpriced so they say "I can get one this good at that other artist's booth."

I can't count the number of times these past three months when I looked at what I had and how much still needed to be done to get ready for that screening and thought "I'm nuts to do this. I failed at it in New Orleans. Why am I torturing myself with this? I should give up."

I felt that way mostly on sick days when I couldn't get up and do something toward making it happen. My biggest moments of courage were on bad nights when I fought myself not to post online "This is too much for me physically. I'm going to give up and stick to selling art online, I can't do it." Everyone would have accepted this, I do have physical disabilities and they did get the better of me last time I held this career.

Before they did, it was the happiest time in my adult life. Bar none, it was the best job I ever had. I loved it. Unless I went out too sick to sell anything, I had fun doing it. I looked forward to going out, setting up and getting real cash on the spot from buyers.

I got on the horse again. That's the courage part.

So when you feel those fears, do something physical toward making it happen. Sketch big. Paint big. Move around and sort your supplies if you do small format art or ACEOs - there's nothing like putting all your colored pencils, pastels or oil pastels sticks in chromatic order for giving your eyes the visual treat that makes you want to paint again.

Cut mats. Sort your paintings and mount them. Varnish finished paintings. Do the physical work of your art, whatever your medium, because that will burn up the adrenaline in your system and leave you the happy glow of physical achievement.

Or work on preliminary works if you have some reason that moving around isn't practical. Intense mental concentration can do the same thing with an adrenaline burn. On sick days I'll work out things that need to be done sitting down too - like researching those rules and checking my preparation to make sure everything fit the Screening Committee's strict requirements. When I do value thumbnails to prepare for a painting, I'm more confident about how well the painting is going to turn out because I know it'll have a good composition.

Every time I've done that, it's worked and made for a better painting. So mental effort is almost as good as physical for burning up the adrenaline. You will feel better emotionally and physically if you pour the energy of your anxiety into action of any kind toward reaching your goal.

That's just how we humans are built. It's why some people go from couch potato to Mr. Universe or get into a smaller dress size. Why dull calisthenics can give people so much satisfaction that they devote their spare time to working out. Nothing builds confidence like a long string of small daily successes.

Feed yourself those and you have facts to answer the naysayers. Reality is never as bad as the pessimists would have it. Plan for the worst case, the best case and results in between. Almost all the time, reality will hand you results comfortably in between, non-extreme, more or less what you'd reasonably expect.

The best therapist I've ever known, Roland Tolliver, once told me "You're overconfident about 10% of the time. That's a healthy balance. It's what they recommend for a top salesman."

So when you're terrified, make an effort. Do something to make your dreams happen, they're not dreams when you start working on them. They're goals. Little goals add up one by one and accumulate to become big goals. Don't lose sight of having some dreams too - getting into major San Francisco galleries or having a one man show at a good gallery is out in the "Dreams" category because I haven't moved toward it yet. But I made a good start yesterday with the Street Artists Program screening.

Last point. When someone criticizes your work, look at the criticism carefully. Take it apart, judge it critically. Is it useful? Is any of it going to improve your future work if you take it seriously? How much of it is worthless, information-free insults to your style, your subject or your personality?

Accept compliments uncritically. Just thank the complimenter, even if you don't agree. They're entitled to their opinion and may see something in the piece that you don't. I can't count the number of times I smiled and thanked someone who thought a quick sketch was better than my finished paintings only to discover, through classes and mentoring with better artists, that the compliment was true. The sketch was livelier than a stiff, overdetailed painting.

So look for real, useful information in the compliments, especially when they come from better artists whose work you admire. Either is as likely to be true, but paying more attention to compliments will keep you happy and motivated with that 10% overconfidence that can carry the day on charm.

Now that you're done reading, if you feel encouraged and motivated, grab your sketchbook and use that feeling. Seize the moment. Your art will improve every day you do it even when you can't see that!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Overcome Sales Shyness

Some of the greatest artists I know struggle with the process of marketing and selling their work. Their quality is indisputable and their vision unique. Yet they approach sales with a mask of confidence over a yawning pit of shame and terror.

Sometimes that’s just shyness. The traits of being artistic and being good at sales aren’t the same at all. I doubt they’re even linked. They’re two separate aptitudes. Having a knack for either makes it easier to learn and more fun because you’re confident of good results.

Both of those competencies can be developed by learning the skills, even if you don’t start with much natural aptitude or don’t believe you have any. Not believing in real aptitudes is so common it’s like catching a cold. The professional who swallows her stage fright to give a good presentation will make sales as often as the equally good natural extrovert who shares her gallery.

I was lucky in this regard. I had some marketing skills before I had enough artistic skill to be that good. The level that real people handed me actual money for an artwork came early in my development. I was good at about two or three subjects - dragons, white rats and abstracted trees that looked like undersea tentacled forms. I was competent in one medium - technical pen drawing.

Even in those competencies I was nowhere near as good as I am now. My works were stiff, my compositions haphazard at best and my shadows went all over the place.

I sold a dragon for $1 standing in line to register at my first science fiction convention. I was drawing a dragon because I was bored. This other guy in line liked it and said “Can you do one of those on a button? How much do you want for it?”

I asked for a dollar. That was what buttons were selling for and he still had to pay another buck to the guy with the button machine to have it made up. I drew it and moved forward in line. I sold another one by the time I got to the registration desk.

I sold that because when a customer looked at my drawing and liked it, I answered off the cuff with what I thought was a reasonable price. I didn’t argue with him that my dragons weren’t good enough. I priced it like a cheap cartoon - because I had seen other artists doing off the cuff quick sketches that size for a dollar. That was back in 1975 or so, not 2011. Inflation might have made it a seven or eight dollar cartoon today, at least a five.

I sold some cat cartoons that were badly drawn but very funny because I got silly at the con and had funny ideas. A professional cartoonist told me decades later that it doesn’t matter if you can draw well as long as you can draw consistently and get funny ideas. Getting paid for cartoons made sense to me. I was laughing, I believed that anyone who paid me cash for the button would be getting real value.

When they wore it, people they didn’t know would stop to read the joke, laugh and get to know them. So I was selling real social value with those cartoons. I doubted they were good. I could easily see how much better the professional cartoonists were and knew I wanted to be able to draw that well someday. But I had also grasped the gut lesson that pro cartoonist told me - if someone is genuinely happy and waving real cash, the drawing is worth that money to them. If I don’t think it’s as good as they do, I should keep my mouth shut about what’s wrong with it, grin and take the money.

I didn’t know it but that was one of the core competencies for selling art in itself. So many artists are immensely self critical. Sometimes I think self criticism rises with skill - a beginner like I was will be whooping around the first time he can tell it’s a dragon. He’ll think it’s awesome, grin, celebrate it and gosh, that grin is infectious. Someone else wants to get that dragon and keep it, remember that moment of discovering a cool new artist. They pay well for something that’s real - the drawing’s social and emotional value.

It makes people happy.

Please, please remember that when you’re talking about your art. It really is work. Good craftsmanship goes into it. The longer you’ve painted and drawn, the more critical you are, the more you push yourself in your perfectionism, the more a non-artist is going to respond without beginning to understand all the technicalities that create that emotion.

You changed the world for the person who’s waving a check or a handful of cash or a plastic card. You made that buyer happy. You touched them in a personal way. You reminded them of some of the best things in themselves.

You gave them something real and good.

We artists are in that happy few modern professions where there are tangible results of our work. At least to ourselves there are real standards of that work and at least sometimes the market reflects them. We don’t always agree with the buyers on which piece is our best or whether our prices are right.

But when you sit down to work for a day, at the end of the day there are tangible results of your work. All of your skill and training is reflected in it. The buyer is not just paying you for the fifteen minutes it took to do that sketch. Or less. The buyer is paying for all the years and thousands of lousy sketches you went through to learn how to do it that well.

Imagine a classical Japanese sumi-e painter, a master. This small gentle Asian person with gray hair and beautifully wrinkled visage, the classical little Asian master, unrolls a sheet of soft rice paper on a clean white blotter, takes a dish with five values of carefully ground ink and a large soft brush that comes to a natural point like a mop. Sits looking at the paper for a moment.

Swish splash. In three strokes, a fish dives toward the river bottom past a reed. The entire painting took less than a minute. Maybe all of five minutes if you count the time the master stared at the empty paper or twenty minutes if it’s the top of the day and the master prepared with the meditation of grinding the ink.

Your breath is taken away by the beauty of that fish. Those three strokes are so elegant that the beauty is impossible to bear. You wish your hands could do that trick. You can feel the current of the spring the fish is swimming towards, you can follow the flick of its tail, your mind is at peace in a river that consists of blank paper.

The master crumples that beautiful piece and chucks it in the can. Then does it again, and again. The seventh of these beauties rates a stern nod. Then you’re finally allowed to write a four figure check for this piece. You have paid for the work of a master whose hour was worth over a thousand dollars.

You would have snatched the first one out of the master’s hands if you’d known what the master was about to do. You felt like crying over the trash can. Yet the master, who’s approaching eighty or ninety, has the same internal critic that you have when you rinse off a piece of Wallis Museum for the sixth time and use the ghosts of the previous paintings as a dry underpainting for a landscape that finally works.

I had a natural extrovert personality, so I sold all my mistakes. I never filled trash cans with the first five or six tries. If someone waved cash at me for something I thought stank, hey, I took the money and smiled. I’m not going to wreck their good mood or argue with them that I think it stinks even if I botched some of the cross hatching with shaky lines and had to cover an ink blot with a dark patch that turned into mottled stripes on the dragon’s back.

When I dance and I fall down, I turn the fall into floor moves. Sometimes that makes the dance better than it would have been if I wasn’t a cripple and didn’t fall down while dancing.

I got in the habit of saving botches on the spot if somebody was watching and wanted it. I pretended I meant to do that. I drew this cat cartoon at that very first con, the cat washing its paw, the kitchen trashed, paw prints everywhere from spilled ketchup and stuff. Caption: “I meant to do that.”

It’s the theme of my art marketing.

It’s been validated by something wonderful that happened in the past few years.

When I moved to Arkansas in 2008, I had to pack up all my stuff. That included going through old stuff. I flipped through old sketchbooks and boxes of drawings from 2004 and 2005. I looked at my DeviantART account.

I found some paintings and drawings that I thought were botches when I did them. Some of them were. Some had obvious flaws that frustrated me.

Others, the “botch” was a principle I hadn’t understood at the time. The wobbly line worked because a hard clean line would have been less powerful. The composition on one of them had a better balance than the nit picking realism iris I did in 2005 that I thought was so perfect - that one looked stiff.

Sometimes the buyer who liked a piece of my work better than I did was right.

It wasn’t always that they were ignorant of art and I was the skilled artist who knew where it went wrong. Sometimes I got it right and didn’t know it. Just like all the raw beginners I’ve taught, my hands learned the trick before I did. I could do that again today and only realize it later on when I’m older and better.

I still get self conscious when I paint loose. Sometimes I’ll think I got too sloppy in a piece. I’ll post it on WetCanvas to thunderous appreciation from artists so much better than I am that I worship at their feet. They enthusiastically tell me why it’s an improvement instead of a mistake with exactly the feeling I tell a beginner that a person’s forehead really is that big, they got it right. That’s okay.

No matter how good I get, there are always beginners learning something I understand well enough to explain and masters who take my breath away. It’s true for all those masters too. Every time there’s a cool workshop or class, they’re the ones cheering and flocking to it, sometimes traveling thousands of miles.

Someday I’ll be able to do the elderly Asian master trick of swish splash, there’s your fish in three strokes. Of course being me, that’ll probably be a portrait of my cat painted just by throwing his points on the page. He’ll come to life pouncing or sleeping or washing himself in a minimum of strokes.

I’ve been trying that since 2004 and now master artists comment on some of my pastels “Your strokes are so concise and expressive.” Everything I learn comes back through my hands after I’ve forgotten the words. That happens to you too. It happens to anyone who creates.

Once you’ve painted something, separate yourself from the work. Accept its value as the precious thing it is. You used the best materials - that is a good decision in two regards.

One, it justifies the reasonable good prices you put on your work. That’s giving good value to your buyer. When you use artist grade supplies, it’s not going to rot and turn brown next year, cheating them out of the beauty they purchased.

Two, it justifies your good market prices to yourself.

You’re making treasure when you paint.

No matter what medium you use, no matter what techniques, you studied for years and practiced for years with or without formal schooling. You understand what you’re doing and you do your best every time. You are crafting something that is well made in every technical sense that you understand. It is unique. Only you could have made it.

Give the same subject and supplies to a dozen artists and every one of them will do it in a different way. That’s a great way to do a themed exhibit too - give all of the artists one model or one scene and then exhibit everyone’s work together in a show. That combination is always exciting, seeing all the different views at once.

Like handwriting, the better you draw and paint, the clearer your unique vision and personality becomes to the viewer. You may be too used to it and forget the powerful impact it has on viewers. Maybe you had a muddy passage or you had to crop half of it off to create a better composition. Don’t be afraid of the floor moves, do what you need to in order to save your mistake.

My master, pastelist Charlotte Herczfeld got a great idea recently. She started cutting up failed pastel paintings and laminating strips of them into bookmarks. She was surprised and delighted at how beautiful the bright little random strips of color and texture looked as abstract accidents.

That’s a world class floor move.

Nothing you do is worthless. The ugliest page in your sketchbook could be on auction at Christie’s as a collectible, priceless because you scribbled your signature and a grocery list over part of it. Not to mention what collectors would pay for that first grade tempera painting where you flunked because you didn’t want to do a stick figure and drew trees that weren’t lollipops. Or did copy the stylized symbols the teacher insisted on in the proper assigned colors and shapes to get good marks. Whichever.

I did mutant sea anemones instead of the lollipop trees at that age and I was lucky. More of my teachers were impressed than appalled, I got called as a talented prodigy.

Maybe that’s what gave me the confidence to grin and tell the buyer “Sure, I’ll do it for a buck,” and draw the dragon in the registration line.

If you got punished for coloring flowers with metallic gold and silver instead, or for drawing rounded figures instead of stick figures, you’re fighting your past. You can still learn the value of your work by looking at the “botches” of artists you admire. Remember that yours may be better than you think they are.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How to Get the Most from an Online Art Class

I've been taking free online art classes through for several years. The big artist's community hosts classes in subjects and mediums, monthly challenges and plenty of other structured activities that keep me painting and drawing. My favorite hangouts are the Oil Pastels, Watermedia and Pastels forums.

Last December, world famous painter Johannes Vloothuis got a thirty day free trial of "Go To Meeting" webinar software. He definitely got the most out of his free trial. He started webinar classes the first day he got it. On the second day, I saw posts in the Pastel Forum and joined his classes. I haven't missed one since.

The first thirty days of trial and error classes were intense. Johannes takes enough material for five or six classes and condenses it all into one. During the first 30 day free trial, he stayed online sometimes four or five or six hours going into everything about the day's topic in depth. I couldn't retain half of it if I hadn't developed a good habit in college.

I took notes.

I'm a visual learner, not an audio learner. I don't get much out of lectures unless I write down what the teacher's saying. So that was the beginning of Robert's Notes too. I grabbed a sketchbook and a Pigma Micron pen along with some Pitt Artist pens (small brush tip ones in colors) and filled pages with written notes and tiny color thumbnails illustrating what he was talking about.

When he drew a diagram, I copied it. When he sketched an example online, I copied that too. When he explained something and showed a photo, I sketched it an inch or so tall and interspersed those little sketches with paraphrasing what he said.

I can't write fast enough to keep up with soemone talking. But if I understand it, I can get it down pretty fast by shortening the sentences.

I created those notes for myself because Johannes Vloothuis was Mexico's greatest watercolorist ten years ago, he commands four and five figure prices for his landscape paintings and they're brilliant. He was inspired to do the classes because he studies Clyde Aspevig, who always gets five figure prices for his paintings if they don't go up to six figures.

I'd like to consistently get three figures for my paintings, so I studied hard. I posted my notes online just to share them with friends. I hoped others would post their notes in case I missed something important. I was a bit embarrassed at how many pages I posted and wondered if I was overdoing it.

Instead, dozens of people thanked me for taking notes. So I've been posting my notes ever since. Once he learned the software, Johannes started doing classes for pay. The price is reasonable and the information fantastic, so I continued going and taking notes.

I realized something a few weeks into the course.

My little thumbnails were starting to look better. I looked at my first batch of notes and my current ones. By sketching along with my teacher, I was not just learning principles by rote. I was teaching my eyes and hands along with my mind.

How many times have I read things in books, enjoyed them and skipped doing the exercises? Often, since I like to read. Sometimes I'd try something from a book but usually that was in a real drawing or painting of a subject I liked. I'm not saying my books were worthless. But I've never given a book the kind of sustained practice that taking notes and doing thumbnail sketches to illustrate them gave me with Johannes Vloothuis classes.

Below is a page of my notes from today's class, the first in a six week series: "Essentials of Painting Trees." I love trees. I've covered much of this material before in his previous class on painting landscapes from photos. Yet when I did this batch of thumbnails my little illustrations were a lot cleaner.

My recent paintings show the influence of his design principles even though I wasn't thinking of them in words.

So if you want to get the most out of any online class, take notes. Even if you think you'd remember without them, the act of paraphrasing and writing it down helps to fix it in your memory. With an art class, illustrate your notes. The drawings don't have to be refined, polished or large. It's better if they're not - if they're little one or two minute thumbnails where you focus just on the subject of the lesson and don't care whether it looks good as a drawing.

If you have trouble writing down the words, just sketch the pictures. Get a very small sketchbook, something like a Borden & Riley ATC pad - the recycled sketch pad has fifty sheets. The tiny size will force you to stay small and simple with your sketches. Then draw anything the instructor does and try to sketch whatever he's pointing out in the photos or his paintings.

I got so used to both writing and thumbnailing that now I don't have a problem getting it all down. At first though, I had some trouble writing fast enough and doing the sketching quick enough. It helps to print in block letters, they're usually more readable than cursive handwriting.

So give it a try. I know that taking these notes gave me something none of my friends who rely on them get from them. My hands learn to move the right ways. When I go to using a real brush or pastel stick, my hands still have the body memory of asymmetrical trees, melodic lines and abstract shapes.

If you can't get it all down, write out as much as you can and watch the class more than once. With enough practice, note taking becomes automatic. I hardly look at my hands while thumbnailing or writing, just watch what Johannes is doing. It's done wonders for my painting. I tested it with art videos on and it's the same thing - I get more out of the videos if I've taken notes and sketched along with the teacher.

You can find out more about Johannes Vloothuis classes at I recommend them wholeheartedly. Johannes is a modern master with hundreds of "golden nuggets" each of which can make your landscapes livelier, richer and more beautiful.

See you in class!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

How to Draw a Cat

I love art. I love cats. I love my cat. Naturally as soon as I ever had a cat, I wanted to draw my cat. I just wasn’t very good at it back in the Dork Ages when I got my first cat.

I was pretty good at rats though. I had a white rat for a pet when I was eleven or twelve. He was very tame and I observed him constantly. I doodled him with every drawing instrument I could pick up. Technical pens, ballpoint pens, dip pens, pencils, you name it, I drew Puck with a line drawing instrument.

I was a kid. I didn’t notice that I’d done over a hundred inch-long pen sketches of my pet. I studied different parts of his body and got those right after several tries. I knew his rear end hunched up higher than his shoulders. I found out how to imply his tiny toes on forepaws and hind paws. I got the line of the top of his head right and the shape of his little nose in profile.

By the time my rat was a year old, I could sketch him rapidly in any pose just from memory. White rats danced around the edges of my homework after I finished it in study hall. I can still create white rat sketches from memory.

Somehow I forgot about drawing rats so accurately by the time I grew up and finally got a cat. My attempts to draw that cat were a Toxic Fail. She looked more like a white weasel with orange juice dripped on her in patches.

I got discouraged, quit trying to draw her from life and went back to something my friends applauded, dragons. I completely forgot about all the times I sketched my rat and felt good because I got that furry bulge at the base of his tail right, or the dashed-line white fur technique, or any of my ratty discoveries.

I concentrated on drawing the whole cat instead of just watching her nose and trying to get just the nose right on my next sketch. I didn’t systematically work through every important anatomical structure. I just tried haphazardly to sketch her.

Eventually I was able to get a cartoon cat that was recognizably a cat as long as I drew it in solid black with reserved white eyes and no highlights. That was the level of my cat drawing for a few too many years, but I succeeded in selling some cat-toons.

A famous cartoonist once told me “You don’t need to draw well to be a cartoonist. You need to draw consistently and come up with really funny gags.”

My funny gag was the instructions on a bottle of Cat Shampoo. I did an entire series on “#1. First Wet the Cat.”

So don’t sweat it if your early efforts aren’t perfect. People may still give you a few dollars for it if you give it a good funny gag.

But you still want to draw a cat that looks like a cat, right? Not a demented mongoose, not a dog with a chopped down muzzle, not a Picasso feline with both ears on the same side of its head. You have a cat, you love your cat, you want to do a cat portrait, not a cat-toon.

The answer is to draw your cat very small and very often. Go back to what I tried as a kid when I taught myself how to draw my rat. Study photos of your cat. Sketch from the photos. Sketch your cat from life, just not very large.

Doodle little cats on the phone pad or a Sticky Notes pad whenever you’re on hold, even if the cat’s not there. The more you can remember while doodling, the more accurately you’ll be able to sketch your cat when he’s around but he moves every two minutes.

At home, try two minute gesture sketches of your cat in a sketchbook. Just start drawing and stop when your cat moves. Start a new pose as soon as the cat sits still. Don’t be embarrassed to draw those simple, silly potions like “brick position, facing away.” Getting those knees up above the rounded hump of the cat’s back from behind is an accurate cat drawing.

For all you know, someday you’ll be painting a city scene. Exactly where you need a focal point, there’s an open window where a ginger cat facing away dangling her tail out the window is a perfect warm accent. No cat pose is too silly, too simple or too stupid to sketch.

Try penciling your cat. Then ink the sketch in different ways to develop your own unique way of doing fur texture. You can ink it with anything, an archival technical pen or Pigma Micron or a cheap biro (ball point) you picked up in a bag at ten for a dollar.

One advantage to sketching in pencil first is that you can get a good look at the pencil version. Recognize there’s an error, fix it in the pencil layer and then ink it. Or just fix it in the pen stage and erase away your extra pencil marks when the ink’s dry.

Plate surface bristol paper, smooth paper of any kind or a Stillman & Birn Epsilon series sketchbook makes a good surface for pen drawings. You can practice on the backs of envelopes or printer paper, or choose to buy a ream of archival printer paper in case one of your pen drawings turns out so well you need to keep it.

While you’re sketching the whole cat very small to get its relative proportions right, don’t neglect feature studies. Why not spend a whole big page of Bristol on sketching just your cat’s eyes, one eye at a time or both eyes together? Then turn that page over and sketch cat noses all over the next one.

Proceed to the beautiful, interesting shape of a cat’s ears. Sure, you can symbolize them with a triangle pointing up but the real shape is interesting and asymmetrical.

Try line drawings of a paw over and over again. Dip your cat’s paw in graphite powder or something nontoxic and press a cat paw imprint on the paper to see how cat footprints look.

Sketch your cat’s tail in relation to her body length and see whether she has a long tail or a short one for a cat. There’s a lot of variation in feline builds.

That’s where if you don’t have multiple cats, it’s a good idea to sketch from photos too. Use the grid method to get your cat’s proportions and details accurate from the photo reference. Pencil the cat first and then ink the sketch or use colored pencils. Early successes with the grid method will also teach you more about your cat’s anatomy and poses.

Alternate drawing from photos with a memory exercise. Study the photo for as long as you like, then try to sketch the cat without looking at the photo while you do. It’s okay to do this with the same photo reference you drew from with the grid method. You’ll notice new things about the cat when you’re studying it because you’ll remember some of what you learned in drawing from a photo with a grid.

Not all of your experiments will be a success. The way to get real success every time is to date your attempts and number them, so that you have them in chronological order. Every improvement means that sketch is a success even if something else in it is hopelessly wrong. If it’s a demented weasel with cat ears, then it’s a success because you got the ears right. You can work on body length to leg length proportion on another one.

With enough practice, you’ll reach a stage where you can draw your cat’s individual features, build, markings, expressions and favorite poses. Accuracy comes from long practice with the same cat or cats you love the most.

At that point drawing a jaguar, lynx or puma starts to get easy. It’s just a cat with a smaller head, heavier legs, different tail... at every anatomical point you can see the differences between the new cat and your beloved feline pal.

A good way to get in lots of practice is to buy a sketchbook that’s no larger than an Artist’s Trading Card. Borden & Riley make several varieties of wirebound ATC pads, all sized 2 1/2” x 3 1/2” with perforations so you can take out a finished page to sell or frame. One of these pads is designed for pen sketches. Another is lightweight recycled sketch paper with a lot of pages. Any of them are good for practice because you won’t spend as long finishing a drawing at that size.

Store your best ATC sketches in an archival Top Loader or Soft Sleeve. These archival storage envelopes are available at trading card stores, they were invented to preserve baseball cards. You can use them as a way to save your best small sketches or even sell them on eBay or Etsy. If you like, color these feline pen sketches with colored pencils or markers.

Alternate careful drawing from photo references, short gesture sketches from life where you start over when the cat moves with memory sketches. Once you get in the habit of Cat Doodling, you’re on your way to a beautiful portrait of your closest feline companions.

If you happen to have a dog, a parrot, a horse or any other sort of pet, this method will still work to understand and draw the anatomy of your favorite animal. It will also work to create good sketches and drawings of your youngest offspring or favorite rose. Any subject can be tackled this way and once understood you’ll be able to draw anything else with greater ease and skill.

Have fun with it! I’ll be back next week with another new Art Lesson. I’m starting on a new schedule of weekly updates on all three of my blogs, so if you enjoy these entries, click Follow. Ari purrs at you and sheds Cat Hairs of Inspiration on you!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Daily Art Is Daily Progress

Recent sketch page for a life drawing activity at in the Drawing from Life forum. Tombow brush pens in a Stillman & Birn "Delta" sketchbook.

Build a habit of daily art. Say hello to your sketchbook to manage it, even a full time artist may have days when spending several hours on a painting isn't practical. Even a timed three minute gesture sketch every day will increase your observation skills, your rendering skills and most of all, your confidence.

Date every sketch, drawing or painting you do.

One of many benefits to daily sketching is that deciding what to draw becomes minor. It's not a big deal if you're only going to spend a few minutes rendering it. You'll get more and more practice on your favorite things until every time you sketch them, they come out well and accurate.

If you spend all week onother activities but set aside some time on the weekend to paint, it's easy to block up on just deciding what to do. If you're used to sketching daily, it becomes a habit to choose something. More than that, you may have already been planning a painting in your daily sketches. One of them came out well, gave you an idea it'd be cool to turn it into a painting.

By the time it's Saturday afternoon and everyone else in the family has been chased out to their separate pursuits, you know what you want to do next. The sketches and value map studies for it are all there in your sketchbook. It's easier to get started or keep going on a long project because daily art gives you a habit of creativity.

Some artists choose to create small paintings in oil or acrylics daily. A good example of a brilliant daily painter is Carol Marine. Her small 6" x 6" oils appear on her Daily Painting Blog (the link) where she auctions them with a starting bid of $100.

Look closely at Carol's techniques. She's not using a small round brush to get in a lot of tiny details. She's working bold and big on a small canvas with a flat brush, letting the planes of the objects come through by hue and value without smoothing everything out to photorealism. Her colors are subtle and realistic. She captures the shine of clear glass and opaque ceramic, contrasts that with the juicy insides of oranges or the look of rusty metal.

I've been following her daily art blog for a couple of years now and seen what daily painting has done for this master oil painter's style. Go to her blog and look back a few years. Study her style and see how in just the past two years, she's still always growing and learning. She was brilliant when I first started reading her blog. It's just that now, as I view her later still lifes, I can see greater complexity, greater subtlety, interesting compositions and wonderful textures.

She keeps an interesting collection of still life items. Figurines, cups, bottles, various other objects return again and again in her compositions. So here's the chance for you pack rats to justify all of those odd little things you picked up on vacation or bought at thrift stores.

Organize them in a cabinet that's easily accessible. One thing you can do is store them by color - have a shelf for blue stuff, clear stuff, red stuff, yellow, green, if you don't have enough of a color you can group them together like "orange and yellow" or "gray and multicolor."

Then set up a small folding table. Be sure it's a folding table that stays folded most of the time, otherwise it'll accumulate keys and books you're reading, other stuff, become a drop spot for everyone in the house. Unfold it and put it near the window or near a handy tall lamp so the light falls on it from above and to one side or the other. Having that strong lighting is important.

Start setting up a still life. At first, set up easy compositions. Just put one or two objects together under the light. Fruit from your local grocer make good still life subjects because they come in a wide variety of colors and have simple, easy to paint shapes. Plowers are good too if you love color and want your still life to be colorful. Set up a drapery behind it just by putting a cloth over the back of a chair or put a colored mat board behind the table.

Anything so that you have a background color and a defined change of direction from the flat table surface to a vertical "wall" or drapery. This will let you capture cool shadows from your still life objects. If the folding table is too complicated to paint quickly, put a towel or tablecloth over it to make it one flat color.

Set up your objects and move them around till they form a pleasing arrangement. If it's one object, place it off center on the page (wherever it falls on the table). If there's more than one, it will look better if they overlap visually from where you stand or sit to sketch them.

Sketch the entire setup very fast. Start with a timed gesture sketch - an egg timer or kitchen timer is great for this. Two to five minutes, no more, to just sketch in the basic shapes and maybe the major shadow shapes. Don't try to shade it unless you have time on the timer. Start over when the timer goes off.

Then take some gray scale pens or markers to do a value mass sketch. You can also combine a pen and a pencil using the pencil for a middle value to get a three level value mass sketch or notan. Just use what you have.

Before taking down the still life, do a color study with felt tip pens. Tombow dual tip brush pens are great for these but you can use any colored markers or pens in a sketchbook. Try to capture the color as accurately as you can, including matching the values to what you see.

Put the stuff away. You don't need to do a full setup every day. It's easier to start out with one object under a lamp and do daily studies of your favorite obkects. Start with easy ones like plastic fruit and fake flowers - the ones that'll still be there to work from when you have a few hours to do a good painting.

Colored pencils are also good for that type of sketching. Look for soft ones like Derwent Coloursoft, Prismacolor or Caran d'Ache Pablo so that they're soft and smudgy rather than hard and delicate. Pastel pencils are another good choice for quick sketching in color, or colored Conte crayons. You can even use children's crayons - it's all in your sketchbook, these practice sketches don't have to last forever.

The key to successful daily painting or drawing is to work small and squeeze it in no matter how short a time you have on any given day.

Another way to explore techniques that may take longer in daily art is to work small. If you do work larger, go very bold and swing your arm around more than your fingers with pastels or charcoal.

Don't try to get it perfect. Just get it better than the last one. Do the best you can, relax, date it and put it away or turn the page.

Constant daily practice eliminates most self conscious jitters. If it doesn't have to be perfect, you open the door for serendipity that comes out tons better than you expected or would have planned. Most of all, it becomes playful. Art is something I do every day as a break whether or not I have something major to work on.

If you like, try to create Artist's Trading Cards daily. Then you can trade them and start building a good collection of others' work in the tiny ATC format - 2 1/2" x 3 1/2". Art Cards, Editions and Originals are the same thing but can be sold as well as traded, so you can put them on eBay or Etsy to help fund your art supplies.

If you're a member of LiveJournal, there's an annual event called ArtSoMoFo which is a challenge during October to create art every day. You can join anytime during the month of October and just keep up from your join date, that's what I did the first year I found it. I think I started on the fourth or fifth.

It was eye-opening how much my sketching improved by the end of the month that first October. So now's a good time to get involved and get into the habit of daily art - any medium, any size, any style you want to. Even a doodle on a sticky note counts! Just be sure to count it, date it and post it to share with your friends.

It takes three weeks to form a habit. Starting now, you could be in the habit of daily art by November and find it easy to keep up all year round. Daily art is also wonderful for stress management - there's something deeply satisfying about having a small success to count on every day of your life. That success is knowing that you can keep up daily art - even if you don't like the drawing, you know you're learning to draw better and can pat yourself on the back for doing it.

Go on, give it a try! Today's the day to start!