Forget balance. I believe in harmony. At the end of the day, if my soul feels happy, then I have succeeded. I check in with myself. I ask myself if I really deserved the break I gave myself, or the push I gave myself. I take stock of every bit of pressure and expectation coming in from others and coming from myself, and then I let myself breathe …
I don’t often enter contests, but this past summer I opted to enter one with the Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. It was a new contest, called the Narrative Art Award. Disclaimer: I didn’t win.
Well. I didn’t win the contest. I did, however, work hard and quickly enough to pull off three brand new illustrations for my portfolio, each of which stretched my skills as an illustrator and storyteller.
I almost gave up before I even started. The theme was “Mystery” in celebration of Sherlock Holmes’s anniversary in 2017. I sketched and worked and wondered my way through several different ideas, none of which seemed good enough, clever enough, smart enough, or pull-off-able enough.
I finally decided to forget the whole detective theme and simply showcase three characters (a must) going through the beginning/middle/end of their story (a must) with a hint of mystery: where did the dragon’s fire go?
Now for the process photos. In the past year, I’ve become much better at the sketch/grayscale and value study/then paint process. While it seems like that might slow me down, it actually speeds me up, because I don’t lose time trying to pick colours. Once I have my values, I can pick a colour scheme and just work. The guess work is gone. I love this approach.
Here is the selection of main colours I used as my colour scheme. I use color.adobe.com to help me out.
Take a look:
Here are all three illustrations, in order.
To say that I’m excited about this one is an understatement. I’m so freaking excited about it!
I’ve been toiling away at this one with a rare approach to my work: only work when inspired to. This means that the timing, the external pressures, the weather, the paint supply, every single little thing had to line up for me to feel that surge of raw excitement to work on this. Even the moon had to line up with Venus AND Mars! (Kidding. I’m a little weird, but not that weird. Yet.)
This large piece started out as something else altogether. I tried a few different paintings on the canvas, but they never went anywhere. I kept painting over top, and on the eve of Magnus’s first birthday, I was reminiscing about the last year with him. He joined the family as #2, but is a force to be reckoned with. Wild, hilarious, creative, independent, and musically driven. We spent the first two months sleepless as he screamed and it seemed that only loud renditions of Sia’s Chandelier did the trick to soothe him for short bits of time. He’s grown into this unique, incredible person, all his own.
In an attempt to capture his vibrant, bursting personality, I had the vision for this piece. I immediately named it Love! (An Explosive Sound) to honour his energy, his vocal skills, his smile that bursts a room into laughter, and his amazing musicality. He hears any rhythm, stops what he’s doing, and breaks into dance. This piece is an Ode to Magnus. It’s a visual representation of the bursts of love that explode every time I think of him, look at him, kiss him, talk to him, see a picture of him … everything about his being, I tried to throw into this piece.
I think it’s sometimes overlooked, to put a piece of art in a child’s room that isn’t filled with cozy animals and soft tones or primary colours. Yet, I wanted to give him something special. Something he would love now, and as he grows.
And so, here are some photos of my process, and of the beautiful, wild Magnus with his original piece, created on canvas with acrylic paint (neon and metallic tones included), crayon, paper (dictionary pages and the sheet music to Mockingbird), and white charcoal pencil.
This video is from when I first started the process, after a couple of base coats.
And then, some progress shots of the instruments:
Finally, Love! (An Explosive Sound):
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I’ve squirrelled away for the first half of my summer vacation, and it has been so amazing for my spirit, my family and my art.
Have you ever been working away when it hits you? This is where I am supposed to be.
That just happened to me. I took 1 and a half days a week this summer to focus on building my business, and figuring out what that even meant. Uh – I still don’t know, but anyway. I’ve been planning for a line of art for educators (aptly called “Art4Educators”), and working on collections of surface designs that could be licensed, and profiled for companies seeking licensees. I also launched a new service to illustrate people’s kids.
I thought I might get 1 or 2 interested buyers, but within 3 days, I sold out. Sold out meaning, I had 20 clients commission illustrations – and that is more than enough to keep me drawing and painting until school starts again! I am overwhelmed with the reality of how opening up space to create has translated into more business than I’ve ever had before.
One of the new products I’ll be offering in, I hope, September, is a line of updated inspirational/motivational posters for the classroom. As a teacher, I know I’m sick and tired of walking the halls and seeing the same outdated, tired, cheesy and frankly – tacky – posters in the halls and classrooms. But there aren’t many options for good ones.
That’s why I’ve created some with quotes that are relevant to today’s learner and today’s teacher – and are simple, beautiful and classy.
It was in the moment of reviewing these this evening that I was hit with that “You’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing” moment.
And so – I’ve got to share some peeks at what I’m working on! These posters are created digitally, and are one side of my Art4Educators collection. The other side features hand-painted acrylic and mixed-media illustrations with quotes, and I am very excited to share those – when they’re ready!
The quickest compliment that seems to come up when artists (especially illustrators) share their work is: “Cute!”
Don’t get me wrong – most of the time, the work is cute.
But it’s also a little bit upsetting to hear that the creative thing you’ve spent hours, days, weeks – in some cases, months – working on is … cute.
These things are okay to call cute and leave it at cute:
- a new toy that was mass produced and not hand made
There are ways to say that something is cute without saying that it’s cute – or in addition to saying that it’s cute. I mean, you can give a real compliment! This is so valuable to us. We work alone, most of the time, and most of us do this in addition to full-time jobs and families and social lives. Hearing that something in our process or final product is seen by a viewer is invaluable.
I’ve been to art sales and had potential customers walk by my table and comment that my work is cute. Okay, that’s fine – they’re talking to each other and not to me, and they’re expressing a positive feeling in connection to my work. But you know … we can hear you. One time, a woman said, “Oh that’s so cute!” and then looked closer. When she saw my signature, she laughed and said to her husband, “Oh, I thought a student had made this.” Then she wrinkled her nose and walked away. Ouch.
You see, even though it might actually be the cutest damn thing you’ve ever seen, there is so much more to the piece of art that it often feels like that work is dismissed. If you’re checking out a friend’s work, or scrolling through your favourite artist’s Facebook or Twitter or Instawhatever page, think before you comment.
“But how do I do this?” you ask. Here are some ideas:
- Take a few seconds to look – really look – and pick out something that you’re loving. Instead of saying, “That’s so cute!” you might say, “I love the expression on his face!” or, “These colours really work. I love this palette!”
- Ask a question. “How did you know where to put her so that it would turn out so beautifully?” or “Tell me about how you put this together!” This is going to fuel a conversation, and you’ll end up learning a ton about the artist’s process. Artist’s love talking about their processes, because they are ever-evolving and exciting. It’s why we make art.
- Make a connection. Identify what it is in the piece of art that draws you in, in relation to another piece of art, or an artist’s work, or a book you once read as a child, (note: for these connections, make sure the artist knows you don’t think they’re copying or mimicking that person or piece), or connect to an experience that you’ve had. You could phrase it with the “cute” compliment at the start, or at the end. “This reminds me of my favourite storybook from when I was a kid. I loved looking at the illustrations. They were so cute. This piece you’ve made is giving me the same feeling!” or “This is so cute – it’s bringing me back to the rocking chair with my mom, pouring over my favourite Maurice Sendak books!”
- Identify its uniqueness. So maybe #3 won’t work, because you can’t connect it to anything – it’s original, it’s unique, it’s special. So say that. “This is so sweet, and I haven’t seen anything quite like it before.”
- Ask for more. “This work is so great … where can I see more?” is a powerful message and compliment in itself.
- Say nothing at all. If all you can come up with is “It’s cute,” in the equivalence to replying “I’m good!” when someone asks how you are, then it may be best to say nothing at all. At the very least, seek out another adjective.
It started with the idea that I needed to add some beauty to the school I work in.
I scratched down this idea:
As with most of my art, I painted the canvas out in black. I do this for several reasons, but mostly because the solid underpainting allows the colours to pop and contrast more in line with how they will look when finished, than if I painted them on a white canvas. I love using dry-brush effects, and so the black peeking through really helps to make the most of the rough brush strokes that I love.
Once I had finished all of the heads, I added some hair. For this piece, I knew I had to go with vibrant, wild hair. Partly, because it was going into an elementary school. Partly, because I needed to make these characters JUST far enough from looking like the kids in the school, so that the kids in the school could look up and see themselves represented.
With the hair almost complete, I went in and painted the white background using a very rough brush. This took a few coats in some spots. I wanted a textured look, not a solid look. This is where the black really gave me the most help.
And finally, the words. At first, I went with the lime green. After some consideration and feedback from my critique partner, we agreed that a higher contrast would make for a bigger impact. I roughly brushed in some black, leaving the lime green in place to peek through.
The result? A piece of art that features a pile of people, all of whom are different and wonderful and vibrant. As soon as I showed my class, they hopped up and started looking for the one that might look like them. They knew, instinctively – they all belonged. We all belong.
I think that one of the biggest problems with adults is the inability to listen.
I mean, really listen.
We live in this fast-paced, texting-social-media-I’m-too-busy world, and even when we are slowing down and trying to tune in, I really think that it’s all too often an act.
Learning to shut up our own brains and listen is one of the hardest things to do. It takes effort, and focus, and it takes a lot of forgetting-your-pride.
I try (but often fail) to listen: listen to the whispers in my heart; listen to the nudges of the Universe; listen to my own responses. But most importantly, listening to my kids (biological and students) is the most important listening I think I can do.
The thing is … kids are honest. And if we slow down enough to listen – really listen – then we can dig into what is said/not said/demonstrated, and we can learn.
Imagine. A kid can teach an adult. (Insert studio-audience-canned-gasp here.)
The other morning, I was getting my two year old ready to go to his once-a-week visit to a sitter. I was buckling him in, and the conversation went:
Kingsley: “I’m goin’ to (sitters) and you’re goin’ to work, Daddy.”
Me: “Where do I work?”
Kingsley: “At school-o.”
Me: “What do I do at school?”
Kingsley: “You draw all day.”
I draw all day.
My heart stopped. I was listening.
My son, who has visited me at school but has never seen me draw there, because I don’t teach art and don’t really draw at school very often … my son had worked out what he sees, how I speak, and the pieces of his and my world, and boiled those down into my biggest wish: to draw all day.
I’m not saying the kid’s a psychic, or a mind reader. I am saying, sometimes it is clearer to a kid than it is to an adult. He’s right – I do want to draw all day. If I could afford to draw all day, I would be drawing all day.
But I’m not.
It’s time to keep listening.
This post is part “How-To” and part “Creative Life Lessons.”
I had been talking about putting this chalkboard up since my studio-office was in the last studio-office (which is now our son’s room). I have been talking about ACTUALLY doing it since the summer, and even went so far as to buy the paint I’d need in September.
But you know – life happens. I’ve been writing and making art and raising kids and being a teacher, and somehow the chalkboard just never got up onto the wall.
Until it did. And now – I can’t believe I ever waited, or didn’t have it!
Putting it together was very simple and straightforward. These are the steps I followed:
- Randomly block off a chunk of wall with masking tape, and judge it by eye, or as my
wife calls it, “Patrick-style measuring.” Note: for the purpose of having the wood ready before hand, you may wish to actually measure it all first. I was not that well organized, and sort of lucked out that it even worked.
- Paint 2-3 coats of chalk paint. The beauty behind chalk paint is that it dries very quickly, so I was able to do all of the coats I needed in one night, and each coat only took about 5 minutes to put up onto the wall. The other beautiful thing is that since it will soon be marked up with chalk, the odd line of overlapping paint really does not matter.
- Let it dry overnight.
- Find some scrap wood. Okay, you may want to be more prepared than I was. I happened to have just enough pieces of 1x4x8 hanging around in the garage, leftover from another project. This stuff is rough, and I like that about it. It’s not meant to beautifully finish anything, but with the right stain, and in the right room, it’s perfect. It also costs a few dollars a piece at almost any lumber supplier or hardware store.
- Measure the wood to size and cut. I had measured the size that I’d painted, and then cut according to that. I opted not to worry about angling the corners. I prefer the blocked look.
- Stain the wood. I used Special Walnut from Minwax. It is my all time favourite stain – we use it for almost every project. It’s light, but brings out the rich darks in the wood, and is rustic without being overbearing. It’s like a just-right plaid shirt on a fall day.
- I used a nail gun to attach it to the wall – it’s the easiest way to do it, and you don’t need to worry about finding studs! But if you don’t have a nail gun accessible, you could glue (use construction adhesive), or screw, or nail it to the wall.
- This is maybe the most important step: cover your new board in chalk! I mean rub the chalk all over it – leave no space untouched. When you’ve done this, wash it off with a damp cloth. This allows the new chalk paint to take the chalk and not leave any “burns” – a burn with chalk is when your first drawing, doodle, mark, words, whatever – the first things you put on the board are permanently there, even after you wash it off. It’s a terrible ghost that will haunt you forever, so be sure to cover and wash.
- Use it.
I’m using my chalkboard to help me with two specific areas of my work right now: my weekly accountability list, and my plotting for the second half of a novel I am working on. In the future, it may also be home to lists of clients and projects commissioned, orders made on prints, important dates, general ideas, picture book developments, and whatever else I need it for.
I love this board because of its flexibility, and because it brings importance to my ongoing work. It is a way of exploring ideas without having to save a file on a computer or track a piece of paper, and because it washes off so easily, there is a low commitment level. If I hate it, I can change it without any sweat.
I’m finding that seeing this when I walk into the space is inspiration in itself. There is a certain beauty in creative scratches on a chalkboard; in the lists and wonders and projects-in-motion. It keeps me on-task and motivated, inspired and excited. It feels importance because of its size, too.
This is really the next phase of my belief in having work ready to jump into at any time. I tend to keep lists on my phone and in a notebook on my desk, as well as in ongoing message and email format between myself and my critique partner, but this is in my face. I can’t lose it; it is the first thing I look at when I walk into the room.