Friday, October 24, 2014

10 Tips for Daily Sketching

Pen and watercolor page of art supplies and ivy leaves
from my current Stillman & Birn Zeta art journal

I've done daily sketching or art for years, been interrupted by events like moving or health crises and then picked it up again many times. So I have some tips on creating and keeping the habit. These are ten things I learned that worked for me:

1. Post your progress online somewhere that others can see it.
2. Paint the subjects you love.
3. Keep going back to favorite subjects over and over.
4. Set out your favorite supplies visibly to inspire you.
5. Use supplies that give fast results if you only have a few minutes.
6. Work small and simple as a default if tired or something interferes.
7. Try gesture sketching, timed gesture sketching or thumbnails.
8. Don't stop if you miss a day or even several. Life Happens.
9. Date and save all your sketches.
10. Display the newest and best to self and others.

1. Posting the goal to a goals thread somewhere online is a public commitment. I use the Goal Post monthly thread on Pastel Talk forum at, an online art community that I'm active in. Everyone posts a monthly goal and then posts progress whenever they do. I put Daily Art or Artish on my monthly goals. Cutting mats or organizing supplies counts. Then when I do the day's art, I post that day's success. I do post more often than most of the participants because of that, but it reminds me to do it. We comment on each others' goals and sum up at the end of the month. I count off how many goals I achieved and some months attain all of them.

This could work anywhere online, especially with a small low resolution image of the day's art. I'm starting to post again to Rob's Daily Painting even if it's a sketch, which I neglected for a year due to sickness. Reviving it, I'm starting to get readers again. If you put the images online, people will comment and say something nice to encourage you. If you use an online community, make sure it's a friendly one where comments are positive. If your Facebook or posting site gets trolled, use a blog or community that's positive and well moderated. It works best if most comments are supportive critique or compliments.

2. Draw what you love. What you sketch most often will become easy. Even if it's a difficult subject, drawing it over and over will give you some fast improvement. Daily sketching of something you really like will result in a level where you like your drawings and from then on it stops being as much of a challenge. I love cats so my default for a number of years has been "draw my cat." It doesn't have to be just one subject. I also do small still life objects, pebbles, dead leaf once in a while, clear glass marbles, anything that looks cool to me. I collect little things that look cool to have something handy and interesting to draw.

Doesn't matter what it is, why you want to draw it or if you can draw it well. Keep doing it and eventually it'll get into your comfort zone when it always look good. If you hate it in the first place, forcing yourself to do it will discourage you from drawing again. I hate doing shoes, toothbrushes, soap bottles, appliances, the sorts of subjects that if I rendered it perfectly it'd look like I drew it for an ad agency to sell the product. Things that make me daydream about being out in the woods are much more likely to make me feel like drawing again. They're almost as serenity inducing as being in the woods. So don't draw what aggravates you. Draw what you wish you could draw so well you'd love to frame the drawing.

My cat Ari and his catnip carrot in pastels, rough sketch

3. Keep doing those favorites over and over. I started doing my cat asleep because he was holding still and I hoped it'd be easy. I was so wrong.. until after a dozen of them it did start to get easy and after five years of this, I'm now something of a cat expert when any animal reference comes up. I do big cats well because I studied my personal hairball producer so much, that surprised me in a good way.

These two are very closely tied. It's hard to make myself draw something I hate over and over enough times to do it well. I never wanted to be able to render a soap bottle invitingly with markers in order to sell an idea to an ad executive, I wanted an art journal full of feathers, stones, water droplets on leaves and twigs and glass bobs that was breathtaking good like the ones I admired. The more I do this, the more this actually happens. The more improvement on my favorite subjects, the faster they get into my comfort zone. 

Sometimes things that are really tough, like clear glass marbles, can turn into a quick and easy "OMG that looks so real" Showstopper that gets a lot of comments when I post it too. So pick things you really want to draw well and then keep trying. Pay more attention to progress than perfection until perfection just jumps off the page and throws it into the "Easy" category.

4. Set out your supplies right in reach and easily visible. I used to keep my Pitt Artist Pens set open and handy next to my computer, now I've got Tombow brush pens nearby. Also pocket watercolor sets, water brush, tin of watercolor pencils, pastels sets. One pastel set has a transparent lid so I can see all the colors in their tempting array. Anything organized by spectrum color tends to be very appealing and make me want to paint and draw in color whether that's colored pencils, either sort of pastels or the pan watercolors set. Keep them clean, organized and tempting so they're both easy to use and draw your attention.

5. Use supplies that give fast good results if you only have a few minutes. I'm disabled and might only have a brief window of feeling good enough to do anything in a day. I miss days because I might not be able to get out of bed. What I do to get around being sick works the same way for people who are just busy. Here are what evolved as my favorite sketch supplies.

I use a lot of different sketch mediums but they fall in two categories. Small, clean and no setup for journals: pen or watercolor pencil, pocket watercolor pan sets, Niji waterbrush, very soft B pencils, brush tip pens like Tombow or Pitt Artist Pens. Pigma Micron pens are great and waterproof, but the watersoluble Stabilo ones let me shade by pulling color out with the waterbrush. 

My other sketch supplies are bold - oil pastels, charcoal, soft pastels and Pan Pastels all give me bold results very fast on 9 x 12" sketch paper. Drawings big enough and colorful or dark enough to see across the room. If I want to work big I use something loose. Small, I use bound journals.

6. Work small and/or simple if tired or anything interferes. As described, I use very detailed rendering mediums like brush pens, pen/watercolor, watercolor pencils etc. in bound journals. If I feel like doing detail I literally do something very small - a life size clear marble or two and get it perfect. If I want to do something bold and don't have much time, it's one pear in charcoal and white on brown paper that looked good across the room. It doesn't matter which way I go - I keep the subject simple enough to do it well in the particular way I feel like. 

I like to change up the medium I use so as not to get bored doing the fruit from my lunch over and over. That keeps the exercise from being dull, but I am still drawing pears regularly in season and those marbles look cool in pastels as much as in watercolor realism. You might prefer to choose one sketch medium and stick with it, but when things are tight, draw something so simple and easy it won't take much effort. Go ahead and draw around a coin or use a ruler to start it if you want a perfect circle or straight line, because those tools are there for a reason. With enough practice you'll eventually do freehand lines and circles well even if you usually use them.

Of course sometimes I've got more time and feel good so I'll do a serious pastel painting in more than one session or fill an entire page or two with good pen/watercolor realism instead of just doing one marble. This is what to do on the days you've only got five minutes and grab the pocket sketchbook and the ballpoint you were using at work to sketch a pebble or your coffee cup. It still counts! Let yourself do as much or as many as you like, just set the minimum so small and simple that it's hard to fail.

Charcoal and white pastel pear on brown paper.

7. Try gesture sketching, timed gesture sketching or thumbnails. This relates to the above. I might sometimes do a full realist glass marble but it's also okay to grab a black and a gray brush pen, look at a photo reference and try to do a 2" square thumbnail sketch creating a composition of it. Or do a fast gesture sketch of my sleeping cat curled up, almost a spiral with a foot and two ears sticking out. I started doing this because various classes advised thumbnailing serious paintings to plan them. It helps composition to do that whether you do the painting or not. Practicing thumbnails will improve your more serious sketches. 

Timed gesture sketches are good to train yourself to believe you really can draw something well when you've only got a five minute break on a really long day. I learned that on the fly at a life drawing group. One model said "I'm going to start with a few short two minute gestures" and got up to do a dozen poses with a two minute timer. i went crazy trying to draw her. If I didn't finish, I just went on to the next one. To my surprise, by the end of those gestures I was drawing her a lot more accurately and I finished her fifteen minute pose before the time was up - because I'd blocked her in that fast after the warmup. Everyone got better sketches of her than the rest of the models.

So I tried it again with my cat and discovered I didn't need the timer. He rolls over or moves at least every two minutes even sound asleep. I started drawing him as one of my favorites a few years ago and that made all other animal drawings easy by comparison. Most of all, it didn't take many two minute cats before I could always recognize him and his pose with them. They don't have to be big or detailed, just try to get the pose. 

This gives your hands proof that you really can squeeze in at least one drawing during a break and it means those quick drawings will come out decent enough to motivate you to keep doing them after relatively few tries on the same subject. The reason is that you pay more attention on each try. What you see in the subject is cumulative. Practice at it means being able to do it on the fly and get the essentials of even new things on the first go. 

8. Don't stop if you miss a day or even several. Life Happens. I have multiple disabilities and can't even keep up activities of daily living let alone earn a living. If I could only work one or two days a month and can't predict which days those are, I'd have to get a month's income per painting and be able to complete it within an hour or two to live on my art again. Not likely. 

But people juggling long work hours and stress in emotional relationships, other commitments, other good habits like exercise can also have their schedules randomly interrupted by other people. If you get used to drawing on your break at work, the day the boss wants to socialize all through your break it didn't happen and then you forgot. Life happens. 

So let it go. Don't do perfection. Do progress, the next day do it as if you hadn't missed a day. Or several, because that was friends in from out of town or some romantic something - love can soak all available time and energy in life whether that's a happy long weekend off at the same time or a three day argument about the budget. 

Missing a day or several is going to happen, but it's easiest to build up to where those are rare by not worrying about them. Count instead how long you go between them and find out what interferes. Each day is its own. Each success matters. Losing a day is just luck, it's not breaking a promise to self. But each day you get it is a reward, something cool, a treat for yourself.

Because the more you do it the better your sketching is and the more often you go "Wow I didn't think I could get that so well, it was just this goofy little sketch but it came out awesome." Those happen, more and more the better you keep it up.

Robin in pastel pencils from June

9. Date and save all sketches. This is proof to yourself that you're keeping it up, which is a real achievement. As soon as you accumulate some of those, you will start seeing real improvement. Count those successes. Every now and then look back to old ones and see how amazingly far you've come since last month or last year or a few years ago. I have been doing well for a long time but I've seen more improvement than I thought I could have - because the better I get, the more I can see that I can improve. I draw better than I used to but not as well as I will - and dating sketches is constant tangible proof of that. I sketch things now that I used to think of as impossible and occasionally get it on the first try.

10. Display the newest and best to self and others. I post my sketches on Wetcanvas and am back to blogging and posting them on Facebook too. That's "yes I'm succeeding at my self set goal" and also gets compliments. At home I look through my art journals when I pick them up, get happy about the good pages, think about improving on the ones I'm not as happy with. Most of all see the improvement. When I finish one there are a lot more good pages than I expected.

In a lot of movies, a character who can draw will have a wall of sketches to show the viewer what he's good at. A primate researcher has a whole giant cork board full of realistic gorilla expressions and full body poses, you know he's the gorilla scientist. Hannibal Lecter filled his cell with beautiful views of Florence and you knew he was a genius with an eidetic memory before he opened his mouth. The movies do that to give a lot of information fast. 

I always wanted a wall that looked like that, full of good sketches that told anyone who came in that I can draw well. It's there. Because I'm me and love color, most are in pastels so it's not quite Hannibal Lecter's somber view, it's this blazing garden and fruit stand and nature preserve with my cat here and there making my room a lot more colorful. It's a constant reminder of my skill and who I am - everything in it meant something to me and the style is naturally the kind of art I like most. 

If I have to take down all of it like I did once for the exterminator who insisted bugs hid behind paintings (there wasn't even one), I just start over on the blank wall and recreate it with new sketches. It always looks better than the last time I did the Sketch Wall because practice does that. Instant feedback and identity reminder. I sketch all the time. I do daily art. I'm good at this thing, especially at the subjects I love. It also makes me want to do more. When it's full, I take down the worst of what's up to put up the newest. That means my very best stay on the wall for months and maybe years, but anything flawed rotates into the portfolios and storage boxes for me to go through on spring cleaning and go "Wow, didn't realize I still that. Dang, I really improved. Oh I can't believe I used to draw like that. It's so easy now."

It's constant proof of success. Small incremental success is addictive. These are the things that worked for me.

Drawing at the same time every day is something I could not do because weather is random and my disabilities flare sometimes for reasons I can't even detect. A pressure change can leave me comfortable and energetic one minute, answer the phone, talk two minutes and blam, nap attack and I don't wake up till it's the next day. Or my wrists and hands hurt too much to hold a pen. So that's pot luck. i have to seize the moment and draw whenever I can to keep it up, count it done when it's done.

That is one strategy and doing it the same time and way every day is another. Both are habits, I just happen to have the particular disabilities that break any habits I have at the slightest disruption. Use whichever works. Use whatever of these get you going and ignore any that don't. We are all different and you're the one person in the world that knows most what motivates you or not. 

A failed trial is just that, a success is something you achieved. Small daily successes are good for both your drawing skills and general outlook in life. It's a human thing that's all too absent at most jobs, but art is the one thing that you can never really run out of ways to do something cooler and more interesting. It's also the one thing in life that the more you do it your way, the better you get. Style is something that just happens like handwriting, skill is what makes it visible to everyone else. But very few kinds of activity leave positive, tangible results and improvement every time you do them. It's incredibly satisfying to get to the point something that looked crazy difficult is part of the "easy stuff."

Red clear and blue catseye marbles in pen and watercolor from Zeta journal

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Do you need to Loosen Up?

Underpainting for a pastel still life that could be an abstract painting as is.

That's a serious question, by the way. You might be hearing something I did from friends who critique, especially if you're fond of certain mediums such as colored pencils, oil painting, some styles of acrylic or watercolor or graphite drawing with a lot of fine detail. "You could loosen up and start getting more painterly. Less is more."

Lot of good that comment does when you don't know which details to leave out!

There's a good reason to learn detailed, accurate drawing, realism in tone, value, color, texture, everything. Even to follow a photo reference slavishly with great and loving care, measuring everything twice with a grid or the "tick marks" method (choose dramatic key points like eye corners, mouth corners, edges that turn or change shape, make a dot on the dark side and follow the edge of light and shadow or hue change with a flat or shaded area of rendering.) Or you trace carefully and then render.

Realism and photo realism are a crossroads.

For some artists, they aren't just a crossroads. They are the destination. These artists go from very carefully copying and following the photo in archival art materials, scaling it up or down (especially up) to taking their own photos. Their photos get better and better till they become photorealists. To become a brilliant photorealist, you need to learn accurate rendering AND good photography, have an eye for the image that's going to look even better enormously larger than life and master one or more mediums that can render it.

One noted photorealist was so careful about hand rendering from his photo reference that a critic complimented him for including a JPEG artifact - a light-color effect that was a side effect of using a high resolution digital camera before rendering the powerful image as a very large mural. Gee. Pixels the size of small brush strokes might actualy work, you know? Pointillists have been doing that since Seurat, who predated digital photography!

Maybe that's you! Maybe that's your style and who you are, while everyone who's trying to encourage you to more expressive, visible strokes and broader strokes, conciseness, simplification and so on is leading you on a path not yours. This happens. Your style grows out of who you are and what you love. If you really like to see realism so good people think it's a photo - you can also get so good at rendering life drawing that people think you had a photo reference when you did it.

You could wind up like the great graphite artists who wrote several of my drawing books and copiously illustrated them with trompe l'oeil graphite realism. Black and white photo thumb tacked to a piece of wood with a bit of chain dangling off a push pin, an old shoelace, a few keys, a button with a pin stuck through it... maybe a chandelier crystal... a still life in the vertical. In graphite it looks like a photo of the stuff.

But it's actually better than the photo, unless the photographer is a truly spectacular artist and photographer. The eye can capture nuances the camera can't. You have binocular vision and hands. The camera is monocular and distorts things. It has limited memory compared to you, the human artist. There was fantastic realism in the Renaissance when the only camera was tracing from a camera obscura. You can get the proportions that way or grid or learn to eye them by long practice and lots of sketching. Many ways to scan that cat.

That's where I thought I was going with art back when I was primarily a colored pencils artist. I loved colored pencils realism and still do. It still delights me to see realism done well. It's wonderful and you can do things with it that cannot be done with cameras.

The people who do it for the movies, or illustrators like James Gurney, can turn that kind of realism into a camera to carry inside your head. Dinosaurs can strut with ornate howdahs on their backs and steampunkish colorful people coexist with them to talk to them. Rockets soar and vampires sweep through the night, flower fairies come up in your garden, all myth and legend are yours to paint.

From there some artists stylize and follow this or that style of illustrator. They may go in the direction of comics (or start there) whether Western or manga. They may want to create illustrations or study commercial art for a good job. It's a good use for it, as good a use for art as any. The Sistine Chapel was a high paid illustrator doing a story the patron wanted told in the cathedral!

But head toward Fine Art and someone's going to say "You ought to loosen up."

Maybe that's you. Maybe you look at a Chinese painter's three stroke koi and gasp in wonder, because ink just exploded into as true a likeness as you'd get in some forty hours of straining and measuring and checking. Maybe you look at the Impressionists and want that crazy light and color streaming through your work... maybe there's more than one style that appeals to you. But one thing's for sure. You are not there yet and afraid to take the plunge. It's a scary plunge.

Because one of the best ways to get accuracy is to choose a detail like the size of one eye and measure against that to get the proportions of the nose, the placement of everything else, width of the mouth, side of the face, top of the head, everything. Do that carefully and you will have the likeness, especially with tone rather than line.

This is where "too perfectionist" comes into it. It's a matter of word choice. Seriously.

Until you master realism to the level you are satisfied with it - you, not your art teacher, your parents, your spouse, your friend, the gallery guy, the critic, the artist friend who thinks you could loosen up - there is a natural frustration at every single proportion error or rendering error of any kind.

You might have a beautiful, expressive, gorgeous painting of a vase of flowers that everyone loves. Someone paid you a lot of money for it. And something about it gnaws at you. Because it was the curve of the bottom of the vase sitting on the table, an inaccurate ellipse, that curve was more shallow than the curve of the top of the vase but it's farther from eye level. The illusion breaks, it doesn't look real. The curve of the ellipse is rigth on one side but wrong on the other. And no one cares but you, because, the bottom of the vase is down at the bottom of the picture and you sensibly didn't give it a lot of contrast to distract from the main subject. The composition's fine. It's that stupid ellipse curve again, even after you read about ellipse curves and did exercises and tried to beat it into the stupid little animals at the ends of your arms that they go this way not that way.

Believe me, I have done that one when I knew better. Knowing better comes way before your eye knows and you can see that's what's wrong. You might think the vase isn't shiny enough or the loose stroke for its highlight is too distractingly ugly or the shadow isn't shaped right... but it's the dang ellipse curve again.

Or you got the ellipse but the shadow looks wrong, because it isn't the same direction as the light on the flowers. There are a thousand different rendering tricks to get realism and accuracy. When you master all the ones you need, you can go on to try to simplify what you paint.

It's also very vague to say "Simplify it and leave out what isn't important."

Yikes! You have to decide what's important or not! Oh boy! How do I tell people what's important or not? Maybe the viewer likes trees more than clouds and I should get the trees right, maybe they like the green one between the orange ones more than the orange one, those blobs don't look like foliage, how do I know how many leaves to put before the whole thing looks like a piece of leaf-stamped cloth instead of a clump of foliage. How did that impressionist actually do a blob just as blobby as mine and it looks like a tree?

Uh, you have to learn a bunch more tricks for that simplification too. Like the one about "Contrast draws the eye" and "Bright colors draw the eye" and low contrast and dull colors belong around the edges and in the backround. You need to learn a bunch of staging tricks to make the scene or person or animal look real - and they are not all about getting the shape of the nose right. Some of them work even if you get the shape of the nose completely wrong and paste it on the side of the face like Picasso, which is why he's famous and we're not.

It's hard to break the rules until you know the rules. On top of that, it helps to know why the rule is there so that you can break it on purpose to get attention by doing it exactly when and where it works. Making the exception to the rule a thing that makes the painting exactly what that one should be.

It leads to purple grass and turquoise in the leaves and pink in a blue sky. It leads to visible broad strokes that carry meaning and a swirl of paint or pastel dust that somehow gives the impression there is a living, moving fish gliding through water that's real even though it was three splashy strokes with a soggy brush. Or three or four pastel strokes dashed in.

It's being able to change the photo plausibly. Take a photo of an old person and make a picture of the teen they used to be. Take a photo of a winter tree and dress it with foliage in summer rain. Art is visual fiction. It's not the same thing as what you paint, no matter how accurate your realism - and the best realists are using all the same simplification tricks as the concise loose painters.

They just do it with a different choice of tools. The edge of the cork board in the trompe l'oeil painting hasn't got as much contrast or interesting objects and there are pointers leading back in to get you looking at the clear push pin and the shiny keys. So go ahead and draw clear push pins in your art journal. Sketch birds from photos including blurry wings if the bird was moving. That will actually work in a painting too. Sketch and draw things from life whether it's junk on your desk or what's outside your window while you're doing something else.

Paint. Lots. Practice. Read books, take classes, read articles, try anything and everything. Only you know when you've had enough realism and want to leave the crossroads for the direction that's right for you. You might abandon it fast for a primitive style as you develop exactly your stylized way to draw grungy unshaved characters or wide-eyed doll-faced mermaids.

You're you and style is something like your handwriting. You have it whether you plan to or not. The more skilled you get at drawing and painting, the easier it is for anyone else to recognize your style in everything you create.

I change around what mediums I use fairly often, especially from among those that fit in my lap on sick days. It may depend on the weather exactly what medium I do, because some days I've just really got to get it done in five minutes or I'll never get back to it. Others I might have a whole hour. Others I might spend all day or several sessions to finish it - that's disability setting limits. One of the best Impressionists I ever knew was legally blind. She painted what she saw, literally, and leaped right to color and light because for her the world was that colorful blur that makes sense. The details that distracted me to perfectly rendered petals and stylized awkward leaves weren't there in her vision.

How tall you are affects it. How you feel today. What you like in art. What you like to read. What you like to eat and whether you have an allergy to any solvent or to pastel dust. Whether you love tramping around in the snow painting plein air in the mountains or you need to stay in the car to paint that winter scene.

And of course what you like to read and who you love and what you think of life and the world and your loved ones. Most of all what makes you happy or angry or sad, your feelings come into it. If you love something, spending fourteen hours gazing at it and slowly going over it in Prismacolors realism is a day well spent, a happy one. If you don't have the patience for it any more, like me, it's because something interfered to make that less fun - like chronic fatigue. A bit too sick and I don't want to paint any more. But when I was one stage less disabled, Prismacolor realism got me sitting still happily for a dozen hours at a time and the results were very textured, detailed, colorful and rich.

I loosened up, partly for love of Impressionism and partly because I now need magnifier glasses to see my previous level of detail. As a child I did inch wide drawings with a 6x0 Rapidograph and they were accurate if it was a subject I had enough practice with.

Be you, learn, enjoy and know the crossroads after you leave it. There's a point at which it stops being very hard and becomes something you can trust. It came for me more than once, subject after subject. Earliest was sketching my pet white rat in pen, I developed a good pen texture for white fur (outlined with little dashes that went the direction of the hairs), dotted lines for the pretty little pale nose and muzzle, outlined big dark eyes, outlines where the crease of the ear made a line, a slightly broken line for his tail and accurate tail gestures. I learned how to do his tiny knuckles and claws. It was practice and observation, so drawing from life is probably the best way to get there - but reading and looking at art and classes are good too.

There's more to learn about how to paint and draw than any one person can do in one human lifetime. More gets invented every year and you'll make discoveries or rediscoveries. That's what it is, it's not a zero sum game. It stays challenging and fun because you'll always keep getting better, moving from the crossroads in the directions you want to go. That's the key to a strong personal style - just be you and work in the mediums you love, subjects you love, ways that you love.

If that's realism, more power to you. If it's loose or abstract you will get there when you do, and you are the one more than anyone who knows it. You couldn't have convinced me to give up realism for impressionism in the 80s, but here I am doing it and loving it - and still going back to pen-watercolor accuracy every now and then because I still love that too.

Pacific Wave

Above is the best ocean wave I've ever painted in my life. It looks very detailed but I did it in ten or fifteen minutes without hesitation, without planning, just looked at the reference and made decision after decision to change it. I paint better than I used to but not as well as I will. 

Next week or month or year that'll happen again and maybe I'm ready to paint waves from life - they don't hold still for painters the way photos do.