Sketching Critters

I enjoy watching small animals skittering and dashing about with their daily activities. I have my favorites, like chipmunks and squirrels, that I try to capture with pencil and paper. But lately I have been studying birds more than usual. Although I’m not a bird painter, per se, I have done a few paintings with birds in them based on life sketches from my wildlife sketchbooks. And I did a finch painting based entirely from reference sketches.

Sketches in the Sun
Sketches in the Sun, Oil Painting, circa 2002

With so many species of animals, each with its own particular charm and beauty, the wildlife artist never lacks a subject. No matter where you live, there are always animals to sketch—in cities, gardens, parks, forests and farmland. Sketching them in their natural habitat gives you an opportunity to study their fascinating behavior. Whether sitting in a park, at a roadside, at the edge of a river or lake, sketching critters is a wonderful way to spend a day. And your sketches give a rich source of reference for your paintings.

When you have found a subject and settled down, spend a few minutes looking hard at the animal, in the same way as you would carefully consider a still life before starting to paint it. Ask yourself questions such as, “How long is the neck and how much of it disappears when the animal stands up?” This will help you understand the form better. Then, when the animal adopts an interesting pose, begin sketching. You’ll find this is when your patience is tested. The subject moves all the time, so you have to wait until it returns to either the original pose or something close. It might even scurry off or fly away and leave you with an unfinished sketch.

If the animal changes pose quickly and a lot, don’t continue with the sketch—it won’t be precise, and therefore useless for reference. To use your time well, have several sketches of different poses going at once, and dart around the page as the subject shifts position. This is challenging, but you should end up with a page of interesting studies. Don’t worry if the animal you’re sketching doesn’t return to the same pose—just a few lines can be full of information. And get down those shadows too. Their shapes help describe form and make your sketches more convincing.

Spend some time looking at the pattern of fur and feather masses, too—this is essential reference when you come to paint. Try to catch the “personality” of the animal by noticing any characteristic features that make it unique as a species.

Critters

You might find it useful to use cubes, oblongs and cylinders to describe the general body shapes. You can also use these to show the relative shapes and sizes of different species. If you are sketching many ducks on a lake, for example, do a whole page of these simple shapes. This is invaluable information when it comes to painting various ducks together. Try to show the size of an individual duck—or any animal, for that matter—by sketching its surroundings.

It goes without saying, of course, that you should take a note of the date, place, and time of day in your sketches—these will help you recall the scene later when working in your studio. Also, note the colors of the animal if you’ve not sketched it in color.

My favorite sketching tool is a box of watercolor pencils, but you should use whatever feels comfortable to you.

So make a day of drawing critters … and happy sketching.

My Color Triangle

This is part of a lesson plan I used when I taught my young students how to mix colors on their palettes. If this is new to you, give it a try.

I keep the colors on my palette simple: 4 yellows, 4 Reds, and 4 blues. I have listed these 12 colors in the color triangle below.  This simple tool enables me to know which colors to use when I want to darken a color effectively without creating mud.  Some artists refer to the process of darkening colors as “cooling,” “shading,” and “graying.”  This tool is also useful for lightening the darker colors effectively.  “Brightening” and “warming” are other terms artists use for lightening their colors.

Color Triangle
My Color Triangle for mixing clean colors.

My 12 colors consist of 4 yellows, 4 reds, and 4 blues.  My 4 yellows are Cadmium Yellow, Lemon Yellow, Yellow Ochre, and Burnt Umber.  My 4 reds are Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red, Indian Red, and Burnt Sienna.  My 4 blues are Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Prussian Blue, and Payne’s Gray.  The outer triangle represents my highest intensity colors based on a split-primary color wheel.  Split-primary colors are colors of the highest intensity (brightest) that are warm and cool colors of the same family.  Cadmium Red is a warm red; Alizarin Crimson is a cool red.  If I want to cool my Cadmium Red, I add Alizarin Crimson, and if I need to warm my Alizarin Crimson, I add Cadmium Red.  Ultramarine Blue is a cool blue; Cerulean Blue is warm. Lemon Yellow is warm; Cadmium Yellow is cool.

I mix my own secondary colors: orange, green, and violet (purple).  To make a bright, vivid orange, I mix Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Red.  To make a vivid green, I add Lemon Yellow to Cerulean Blue.  And to make a vivid violet, I add Alizarin Crimson to Ultramarine Blue.  If I need to darken my orange color, I can add a mixture of Lemon Yellow and Alizarin Crimson.  To darken green, I add Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine Blue.  And to darken violet, I add Cerulean Blue and Cadmium Red.

Of course, there are other ways I can darken both my primary colors and secondary colors without making muddy mixes.

Small Color Triangle

Think of the colors on the outer part of the triangle as colors with lots of light.  The next triangle has colors with less light.  These are my middle intensity colors.  I use these colors to shade or “gray down” my highest intensity colors.  I use Yellow Ochre to lower any of my two highest intensity yellows, Indian Red to lower either of my highest intensity reds, and Prussian Blue to lower my highest intensity blues.

The innermost triangle or third triangle has my lowest intensity colors.  These are colors with the least amount of light.  They further lower the intensity or brightness of my outer colors.

As I mentioned, I can darken my secondary colors this way, too.  To further lower/darken my original orange, I can add either a mixture of Yellow Ochre and Indian Red, or a mixture of Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna, depending on how dark I want my orange.  To lower/darken my original green, I add either a mix of Yellow Ochre and Prussian Blue, or a mix of Burnt Umber and Payne’s Gray.  And to lower violet, I add either a mix of Indian Red and Prussian Blue, or a mix of Burnt Sienna and Payne’s Gray.  This way, I keep my colors from becoming dull looking and muddy.  This happens when artists try to lighten their colors with white, and try to darken their colors with black.

Keep this handy color triangle with you when you’re mixing colors and looking for the right lightness and darkness.

Happy painting. 🙂

Painting with Knives

Another old art piece of mine. This article was first published in an art newsletter dated 1998. The photos of my artwork that I’ve shared for this post range from the same year to 2001.

While oil painting this month, I’ve been having fun painting with knives. Frosting the cake is what I call it when I spread thick paints of color on my canvases, and then add flicks and swirls like a jolly decorator in a bakery.

Using a painting knife on canvas board.
Using a painting knife on canvas board.

Anyone who hasn’t tried painting with knives should give it a go. All you need is either a painting knife or a palette knife of your choice and several rags to clean your knife. I prefer using one knife to keep my painting area uncluttered. And the knife I prefer most is the painting knife. I enjoy the painting knife’s flexibility over the palette knife’s rigidness.

Just like brushes, knives come in a lot of shapes and sizes that lend themselves to various uses. The Dick Blick Company, where I buy my art supplies, explains the differences between painting knives and palette knives.

  • Painting knives are blunt with a slightly flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are used in place of a brush for applying paint colors, paste, pigments, and so forth directly onto the canvas or painting surface.
  • Palette knives are blunt with a very flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are primarily used for mixing paint colors, mediums, additives, paste, pigments, and so forth directly on the palette before applying them to a surface. Palette knives are symmetric, like a kitchen spatula.

I prefer using a large painting knife simply because it allows me to be freer when I apply paint to my canvas, leaving a variety of edges in the finished work, giving the artwork life and engaging the viewer with the painting.

Hard and soft edges and color contrasts.
Hard and soft edges and color contrasts.

Although I prefer painting on canvas, there are various kinds of surfaces to paint on. Stretched canvas allows me to dance the knife across the surface and create a variety of irregular shapes. This is why I use the less flexible painting knives because I prefer some control when I paint. Canvas board and Masonite let me control both knives better, but my pictures sometimes look motionless when I use a painting knife on them. I recommend using the more flexible palette knives on hard surfaces.

More hard and soft edges with color contrasts.
More hard and soft edges with color contrasts.

Whichever knife you choose, painting with knives gives your pictures abrupt color changes, making edges in the paint appear razor-sharp, which is nice when contrasting areas of your major focal points. But when an unimportant edge looks too sharp, a zigzag of the tip of the knife through the paint breaks any edge and puts it in its proper place.

Edges can be hard, soft, and lost. Using a variety of edges engages the viewer’s attention by preventing the picture from looking monotonous. I like to alter the edges in my paintings to enhance the rhythm and composition.

Lost edges look good in snow scenes.
Lost edges look good in snow scenes.

When hard edges are placed horizontally, they accelerate the movement of the viewer’s eye. When placed vertically, the eye of the viewer comes to a sudden stop.

Soft edges slow down horizontal lines and allow passage through vertical ones. Creating soft edges with a brush is easy; with a knife, not so much. That’s where the flicks and swirls I mentioned earlier come in play.

A mixture of hard and soft edges creates a type of movement like a driver operating a car with both the accelerator and brake at the same time. These stop and go edges are called  broken edges and are sometimes described as a Morse Code type of painting.

Lost edges are in water and atmosphere.
Lost edges are in water and atmosphere.

Lost edges are almost invisible edges and help keep the viewer’s attention focused on where the hard edges are. Lost edges play a major role of supporting hard edges, which, as I mentioned earlier, are often found in the main subject. You can see lost edges in the shadow areas of my paintings as well as in the main subjects. Using lost edges with hard edges lets the main subject look as though it is truly part of the scene, and not like it was cut out and pasted on. And equally important, lost edges keep the viewer’s eye flowing evenly from one area to another.

When painting lost edges, I find it’s important to use colors equal to or close to one another in value to keep contrasting values from creating hard value edges. Plus, to avoid hard chromatic edges, I use colors in the same temperature range. This unifies the elements of a painting and creates pathways, like light flowing from one room into another.

The paint dances across the field grass.
The paint dances across the field grass.

I recommend that every artist try doing an entire painting strictly with palette knives. Go ahead and give it a go. And most of all, have fun.

Using Canvas Stretcher Bars To Stretch Watercolor Paper

You may, like I do, have stretcher bars normally used for stretching canvas waiting to back your next canvas. But have you ever considered using those bars to stretch paper instead?

A sketch of a wooden stretcher bar
A corner of a wooden 20” stretcher bar

Here’s an easy technique for stretching watercolor paper with those bars—a technique that has many advantages over other ways. One, it avoids the awkward weight of a solid board. Two, the paper will dry faster because both sides are exposed to air. Three, you’ll have to be gentle while painting (which is what watercolor painting is about). And four, the clean-up time consists of simply removing pushpins from the frame. Afterward, the frame is ready for you to attach a new sheet of paper.

  • To begin, you will need to assemble your four stretcher bars into a frame. (I use 16”x20” because they’re easy to assemble and carry.) I glue my frame together and allow the glue to dry overnight before I begin attaching watercolor paper to the frame. This makes the frame permanent, but you can choose not to do this.
Once the stretcher bars are assembled, you can tack watercolor paper over the front
Once the stretcher bars are assembled, you can tack watercolor paper over the front
  • You will also need a box of pushpins and a soaking tray filled with room temperature water. My soaking tray is a shallow 24”x30” Formica baking tray that I bought from a bakery, but a large aluminum baking tray or a clean bathtub work just as well. Fill the tray or tub with a half-inch of water (I use the distilled kind).
  • The dimensions of your watercolor paper should be two or three inches longer than the height and width of the stretcher frame, which means I use 20”x24” sheets of paper.
  • Before attaching your paper to the stretcher bars, draw any information you intend to use in your painting on the paper’s front side. Do not draw on the paper after you have stretched it.
  • Next, soak the paper for a minute or two by submerging it in your water. Do not soak the paper too long. You may end up washing off the sizing and your pencil drawing.
  • When both sides of the paper are completely wet, drape the paper over the stretcher frame so about two inches overlap the edge on all four sides. (The frame should be laying flat on a tabletop or workbench, with the stretcher frame’s front facing up.)
  • Once the paper covers the frame evenly, attach the paper to the sides of the frame using your fingers GENTLY, and your pushpins to wrap and fasten the paper around all four edges. The stretching sequence goes:
  1. Wrap and pin the paper at the top center of each length (the side that would sit flush inside a picture frame). Start with the top bar. Place a pushpin in the paper and bottom bar, then the left side, and finally the right.
  2. Return to the top bar and place a pushpin half an inch to the right of the first pushpin. Then place a pushpin half an inch to the left of the first pushpin. Proceed to the bottom bar and do this until you have three pushpins on all four sides.
  3. Return to the top bar and pin again until you have five pushpins half-an-inch apart on all four sides.
  4. Continue until you reach the corners.
  • When attaching the watercolor paper to the frame it is best to gently tug the paper taut while pinning. If the paper is not taut, you may end up with a warped surface to paint on.
  • After you have attached the paper, allow about three hours for it to dry. Or, you can use a portable hair dryer to speed things up. Just don’t scorch your paper in the process. Keep the frame lying flat in a horizontal position—resist the urge to lift the frame and chance knocking it out of alignment (even if you glued it earlier) and warping the paper.
  • Once the paper is dry, you’re ready to paint. Use gentle touches when applying your paint so as not to tear your paper.

Give it a try, happy painting, and let me know what you think.

Showing and Selling Art

Happy Thanksgiving Day to my USA readers. Here is another blast-from-the-past post for you. I wrote this article for an art newsletter way back in 1999.

Showing and selling your artwork can be a daunting experience. You’re proud of your latest creation and want to share it with others, but you know there are some flaws. You question whether it’s worthy of a price tag. What do you do?

SHOWING

  • Show your art when you’re ready to free your identity from the work. It’s the artwork, not you, which will be judged. So if those flaws are screaming at you, either fix them or redo the work. If you don’t approve of the work, then you probably won’t get approval from others. You know whether the work is good or not.
  • Know the artwork is done. Don’t rush a work to show. Be patient. Give your work time to let you know it’s done. Once it’s done, leave it alone. If it needs framed, dress it in something complimentary and pleasing to the eye. Keep it simple and hang the work where people can see it.
  • Evaluate criticism. Was there any positive criticism about the work? Was there any negative criticism that has merit? Look for honesty and fairness. Keep your pride and resist the urge to defend your work from unfair criticism. Honest and knowledgeable criticism from others can be an artist’s best friend, but don’t let someone’s opinion decide how and what your art is supposed to look like. You must keep control of your craft. Positive criticism of your work only means the work is identified as good. Negative criticism of your work does not mean you’re a bad artist, only that the work isn’t appreciated for whatever reasons—whether sensible or prejudiced.
  • Choose your audience to decide what or if to show. Is your audience people who enjoy art? Or are they there because of another event? Art organization shows are specially for people who appreciate and buy art. So are gallery shows and artist’s studio shows. Pricey art competitions bring the serious art collector and big money. And when choosing what to show, remember this: subject matter varies in popularity, so it’s wise to not create art to fit someone’s fancy.

SELLING

  • Price your art at what it’s worth to you. Be honest and fair to yourself Do your homework and see what other artists whose work is like yours are selling for. Set your prices to compliment those of other artists whose work is like yours.
  • Know your audience. Be aware of trying to sell where people aren’t art enthusiasts and are unprepared to buy. These include mall shows, sidewalk shows, fairs and parks, and restaurants and stores. Know your market. Think big and expensive pieces for artist organization shows, competitions and studio shows, and small and least expensive for libraries, malls, fairs, sidewalk shows, and stores and restaurants.

When your work is finally out there, frustration and discouragement can come creeping into your life. These are an artist’s real enemies, so keep your chin up.

  • Sales do not make or break the artist. Circumstances affect sales and you cannot control circumstances. Your sales will climb and they will drop. Sales—no matter how big or how many—do not make you a successful artist. Sales equal achievements. Don’t let sales influence your work.
  • Don’t let rejection get you down. Whether your work was rejected as an entry to a show or got passed over for an award, consider why the work was rejected. Artists must consciously free themselves from their work when seeking feedback. Look for honesty and fairness. If your art goes without reward, accept that your work lost a prize through a fair judging process. Realize that the opinions of the judges don’t make the work inferior.

When success comes, keep in mind that praises, awards and acclamations aren’t personal reflections on you. Ignore pats on the back. You aren’t what others make of you, but what you make of yourself. Tame that ego and stay honest to yourself.

Being a Painter

I was twelve years old when I saw my first real paintings. I didn’t see them at a museum or an art gallery—I didn’t know those things existed until I was seventeen. I was naïve to art until my parents bought a house and I was exploring the attic. There, past boxes of old books and dusty knick-knacks and behind a rack of clothing, I found large painted canvases in gilded gold frames leaning against a far wall. I saw portraits as tall as me, and landscapes wider than the breadth of my arms. As I studied and felt their painted surfaces, I was awestruck. These weren’t like the decorative vegetable pictures that would soon hang in my mother’s kitchen; these were alive with paint and brushstrokes and the smell of linseed oil and turpentine. When my parents explained to me that someone—an actual person—had painted them, I knew I wanted to be a painter.

I took art classes in high school and fumbled with learning all the mysteries of painting. I lived in Small Town, USA, where good paints and brushes were never a priority in any of our schools. But the dream of painting canvases never died.

Going to college was out of the question until I heard about the GI Bill. So I pulled a six-year stint in the Navy and was fortunate to visit some Italian, French and Spanish art museums. Once again, seeing manmade beauty and magic on canvases mesmerized me and burned brighter the wish to be a painter.

I painted watercolors in sketchbooks until the Navy released me in 1982. By then I was married, so I chose my academic training at a local college. Most of my art teachers there were leftover abstract painters from the 1960’s and ’70’s who stressed personal expression in art—not reality. In other words, don’t paint what you see, but how you feel. I became unhappy with these classes because I didn’t see how this approach could teach me how to paint the realism of landscapes and wildlife—two of my favorite subjects. I wanted to copy nature exactly as I saw it in the photographs I took.  But, as one instructor told me bluntly, “Painting is not photography. Forget about technical tricks and learn to see and express the world around you that is genuine and exciting to you.”

It took a year for his advice to sink in. I saw every painting as a new adventure—a struggle of course—to be expressive as well as showing realism. I learned how to marry abstract expressionism with photo-realism to produce paintings with elements of both, and to use color and design to express mood, all the while keeping the paint looking fresh and dramatic.

But I would be lying if I said every painting was a success. Even now, twenty-some years later, I paint failures … clunkers, as we called them in art classes. “No one ever masters the art of painting,” a teacher told me. “Every day we discover something new that shakes us from our mindset and reminds us that we’ll always be students.”

I am still a student. I have many years of painting behind me, but I still learn new things. It’s the fun of the chase that keeps me going—still learning my craft.

I never fuss over my work like I used to. If a painting is not working, I scrap it for a new one. I see too many artists with their noses against their paintings fussing over their work. If it isn’t working, scrap it. If you’re a fussy artist, learn to step away from the art and stop judging critically with your nose against the work. Stand back and judge your art by the progress you’re making at the moment and keep gauging your progress as you continue with your studies. Yes, I said studies. Never stop being a student. And please don’t try to paint pictures that look the same as your contemporaries. Where’s the originality in that? Be inventive—be creative!

Stay committed to keep learning the craft no matter how hard the struggle. Every artist has gone to the grave still learning his or her craft. We strive for aesthetic progress and perfection—that is human nature, and we will destroy pieces of work if we believe them inferior. In all our paintings, we find mistakes. Mistakes are human nature, too, so don’t be the artist who destroys everything he or she paints. Accept your limitations for the moment, frame your better paintings full of mistakes, and send them off to juried shows. Someone will love your artwork in spite of all its flaws.

Those paintings I found in that attic when I was twelve years old speak as strongly to me now as they did in 1969. I got hooked on painting that began a wonderful ride through the exciting world of being an artist. It’s a ride I refuse to get off of—there’s so much more to be discovered.

Keep on painting and making art.

The Day I Helped Create an Artists Guild

In 1997, when I was 40 and had been busy teaching art, as well as creating and selling artwork for nearly 15 years, I happened to re-read an essay from my college days, “From Art Student to Fine Artist,” written by Jacob W. Getzels. In it he rightfully claims that every year thousands of young people enroll in art schools, colleges and universities, yet only a few become professional artists after graduating because art students are the most disregarded — there are no places that facilitate entry into an occupation like other professions. “A degree in fine art,” he says, “has little effect on the holder as a fine artist. The art school may increase artistic skills, but the certification it gives does not bestow artistic status in the sense that a school of law or medicine bestows legal or medical status. [The artist] hopes that society will recognize and reward what he is doing.”

Since I failed every year to have my artwork accepted in national shows entries, my closest reward for recognition was the art competition held every summer at the local park where city officials handed out ribbons to artwork voted Best of Show. Although I wasn’t nationally known, I found satisfaction showing and selling my art at the park, even when I won no awards.

Also, I felt proud of my accomplishments, and I felt quite successful as a productive and selling artist. Getzels’ essay concludes that an artist must first negotiate the difficulties of being independent and relatively unknown. He says, “An artist needs to be introverted, sensitive, and self-sufficient in order to do the work, as well as entrepreneurial and sociable, and a salesman and master of ceremonies in order to show and sell the work. Likewise, an artist’s persistence to produce the work, as well as to exhibit and sell it will determine the extent of his failure or success.” And, I realized, attitude plays an important part as well: how satisfied artists are with their status in society. I had met too many disgruntled artists angry at the world because they didn’t receive the recognition they felt they deserved.

That year, the summer of ’97, while I and fellow artists sold our art and demonstrated our how-to styles of painting at the City Park, several young people approached us and revealed their interests in becoming artists. Among their excitement of becoming artists as good as us, several voiced their anxieties about being “not very rosy-cheeked at all,” as one young lady worded it. High school art was “too craftsy,” she and others said; not enough emphasis was put on drawing and painting techniques, and so they feared they may not be accepted at prestigious art colleges. They believed that diplomas with big name universities were their tickets to getting the best art jobs. (So do some of my colleagues to this day.)

Some of these young artists were ex-students of mine, and several exclaimed that they had learned more from me than any other teacher. They wished that I taught at the senior high and college levels, too. (So did I, sometimes.) But I told them that no matter where they went to learn, always keep the joy of learning and making art burning inside them. A few would. The others would change their majors to ones our society considers more practical.

I thought about Getzels’ essay that day. Without support from seasoned artists, these kids faced enormous opportunities to fail. I got together with my fellow artists that day and co-created an artist’s club with them. Our intention was always to teach what we knew and to help and counsel anyone feeling lost, overwhelmed, not good enough — all those notions that play at our minds when we’re not feeling our best.

This summer, the Artists’ Guild will enter its seventeenth year. It has artists of a wide spectrum of age and talent, as well as many members willing to tackle problems and seek solutions. Overall, this you-can-do-it quality has made the group succeed, and it has been the care, understanding, and encouragement of its seasoned veterans that has kept the light shining for the newer and younger artists.

The group’s thriving membership and longevity proves that success isn’t measured by how many paintings we artists sell or the ribbons we win, but by what we give to our fellow artists and the world around us.