Thursday, April 12, 2012

Breakthrough on New Supply Freeze

There should be a Latinate phobia name for this reaction. Artists from beginners to experts seem to run into it so often that it should have its own term. You buy something new and wonderful like Pan Pastels or Derwent ArtBars or Roche' pastels (the world's most expensive at about $16 a stick!) and then the happy package day arrives. You tear open the box like it's Christmas morning and you're seven years old again. Santa still loves you and wow, the fat man knew you loved color best of all.

Then comes the New Supply Freeze.

It's a sudden panic attack. How could I have bought 72 Unison pastels? Unisons! Those expensive hand rolled ones! In the fancy aluminum case no less! OMG these things are so perfect - how the heck can I ever get good enough to use these perfect hand rolled unbelievably awesome and expensive supplies. I tanked my savings getting them. I stretched my budget to the point of breaking. Now the magic brush/stick/pen is in my hand, I know I'm nowhere near as good as the artists I saw using them on YouTube.

That panic isn't just you.

Artists still feel this on up into their professional careers. Award winners sometimes feel this way about expensive brand-new supplies. The first page in a Stillman & Birn art journal or a Moleskine notebook, when you know you could've just got the cheap ProArt spiral bound one for sketching does that. Or the first use of an expensive sanded paper, or a new linen canvas with a fine portrait weave. Whatever it is, when you upgrade your art supplies to a new level, try a new medium and get the best available supplies, there's a natural terror that you're not ready for it yet.

Also, coming in from outside in a lot of social pressure surrounding myths like Talent, there's the panic that you may not be able to learn to be good enough to use the great new supplies. Support from friends and collectors can help shout down that panic. There are people besides your mother who love your art. There are teachers who knew you had potential and some of them brag on you. There are friends who paid you good money to paint something. Collectors who met your art before they knew you that became friends - and in that panic, you forget how they became your friends and think they only bought it to make you happy.

Naw. They bought it to make themselves happy. They fell in love with it. You really are good enough to use the great new supplies and they will help you to paint better.

Artist grade art supplies perform better than cheap stuff. Beginners are often discouraged because they see great effects done by professionals and experts, then try it with materials that can't perform that effect. No matter how new you are to a medium or to drawing and painting, you will actually get better results using the brand new artist grade expensive goodies than you would if you'd sensibly gone down the children's school supply aisle in the discount store for its equivalent.

I developed a method for handling that panic. It works for beginners as well as experts who just feel like beginners when facing a new supply or medium.

Start out by charting the good new stuff. Take out your sketchbook or a sample surface - if it's oil paints or something else used on canvas, use a cheap canvas board or canvas pad. Do swatches of it. Make test marks with it. Turn that into a simple left brained task. Label your swatches if you like, this will be an enduring record for when the new 'too good' supply is an old favorite and you run out of the color you use most. This really matters in dry mediums like pastels and colored pencils - when you have several hundred pencils or sticks, identifying the little nub with no number on it for replacement can only be done by going through the charts.

It works with paint too. You can tell the difference between brands sometimes, discover that blob of dried Ultramarine watercolor was the Daniel Smith French Ultramarine rather than the Winsor & Newton one. They have slightly different hues and textures, one will become a favorite.

Now you've broken the new supply's virginity.

If it's a new journal, take a back page and chart one of the supplies you use most in journals - all your ink colors, or a set of colored pencils, handy where you can reference the chart. Leave the front page blank so that later on when you get a good idea for an opening page you can create it. Or design the opening page on printer paper and then redo it on the first page carefully.

There's nothing that says your first painting on expensive Kitty Wallis pastel paper has to be alla prima off the top of your head, from memory, on impulse.

That's the other practical tactic to beat down New Supply Freeze.

First you chart. Then you chart mixtures, obvious common mixtures you've used often in similar supplies. See how the new supply handles. If you've never tried acrylics or oils or something, you'll start to get a feel for how they mix. Obvious beginner mistakes like trying to mix a light green by starting from a strong blue can happen on the mixing page instead of on your first painting. You can put "blue first" next to "yellow first" and see that you got a better green going first with the yellow.

By now you're starting to get a feel for how they handle. There's still the question of whether you can do a painting good enough to justify the expense.

Fight fear with reality checks.

Start doing thumbnail sketches. Do notans. Plan your painting. Do small color studies testing the material on its intended surface. Try out techniques in a small way and plan a serious painting by doing all the preliminaries. No matter what your skill level is, you'll come out with a much better painting doing all the planning studies.

Thumbnail sketches eliminate a lot of composition problems right at the start. Don't just do one. Take a sketchbook page and something common like an HB pencil or a free ballpoint pen from the grocery store and draw a dozen of them. Spend only a minute or two on each thumbnail. Pens are good because you can't go back and fix mistakes, you have to start over if a dark mark goes where you wanted light.

Choosing the best of the thumbnails, work out a value sketch in a bit more detail. Refine your idea.

Then do a color study, not full size, just work out the mixtures and exact hues and textures you'll want in the final painting.

Scale that up to your full planned size and wow... all of a sudden the first page in that Stillman and Birn Beta watercolor journal has a gorgeous watercolor or acrylic landscape on it. Your first pastel painting on sanded paper has depth and richness, it's a worthy painting. You look like a better artist than you really are.

Or rather, your skills shine at their best, because the really good artists out there are going through all those preliminaries when they do the knockout contest entry paintings that left you feeling so awed. They have sketchbooks with thumbnails in them. They have notans that were not worthy. They did color studies that came out ghastly and drew things misproportioned and goofed up putting in a cloud that looks like a horse when they didn't want a surreal flying horse fantasy painting.

Or they got that by accident in the color study and decided having a horse materialize out of a cloud would be a lovely spiritual or fantasy painting, ran with it and used the idea the mistake gave them. Mistakes are serendipity. Every stage of the process of breaking in your new supplies will teach you more about using them until your first piece with them is not only your best painting, it's better than you even thought you could do.

Reality Checks always trump the New Supply Freeze.

There's a reason it cost that much. That's care in its preparation, finer milling, greater pigment load, more expensive valuable pigments, unique effects that only that brand has in its proprietary chemistry and methods. The good news for self indulgent hobbyists who buy the best is that they will learn faster and consistently get better results.

High quality art supplies pay for themselves, including with shorter learning curves.

If you're a beginner starting watercolor, choose a smaller palette of colors and get expensive artist grade paint. It's stronger. You'll find out the small tube of artist grade paint will thin out and cover a larger area than the big tube of cheap student paint. You'll get effects with it that don't work as well with the student grade paints too.

My example is my first test with Derwent ArtBars. That is not actually a painting under the color chart. It's an idea for a painting, a quick color study done with Derwent ArtBars where I tested dry over dry color mixing and then washed it, tested wet in wet color mixing, swiped a wet brush over the watersoluble sticks to see how it handles as paint, did all sorts of things with it. Because I worked over some of the tests they're not as neatly organized as the examples I'll use in my review of the product. Because I just made up some of the rocks, they don't look as good as they would have if I'd set out some pebbles on my desk to sketch them from life.

It doesn't matter. That page let me find out how to handle my Derwent ArtBars and thus when I do the final version of ArtBar examples, they'll make more sense to my art supply review readers. That one was for me. The sticks aren't virgin any more and have now joined my sketch supplies. I will probably do more muted mixtures in the good example painting that I create for the review - but this one has the necessary mistakes to make my review illustrations look more professional.

Enjoy your new supplies. Just play with them and don't take the playful results that seriously - your first real painting with them will thank you for all the preliminaries.