These three process shots, and the final image, show you some of my process. Redrawing, value studies and colour palette have become my standard for working, and usually come out successfully (it’s all relative).
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.
Every artist faces it. That elusive idea disappears, even for the most disciplined, practiced creative. Then what?
It’s impossible to think that a human being can sit everyday and create, pushing beyond the day before, every single day.
I have seasons – we all do. Seasons of writing, seasons of exploring and experimenting, seasons of making and refining, and seasons of letting ideas fester and pester.
If you were too look through conversations with my critique partner, you’d see surges of messages with process photos and questions and “Can you focus on XYZ while critiquing? I am really thinking that my (fill in the skill) is improving/needs work/help because I don’t know what the heck is going on and I think I might be the worst artist ever!” Followed by, “AM I EVEN AN ARTIST?” (You’ve thought it too – I know you have!) And then, you’d see stretches of time where nothing seems to be happening. Maybe we share some photos of art we like from other people, or that we are feeling a bit jealous of. Maybe we are just talking about our day or our kids, or work, or whatever – but it’s guaranteed that these conversations flip into something to do with art, and then we’re back on the hamster wheel again, chasing our dreams of working full time as artists. Of course, we work our butts off, but there are always going to be seasons of rest, reflection, and idea gathering.
I don’t like to get very comfortable in that.
In fact, if it’s been a week and I haven’t drawn, painted or written, I start to panic. Lately, if I don’t do one of those things every day (sometimes twice a day), I start to panic. This is the addiction of creativity. Can you relate?
So when I feel I’m out of ideas, lately I’ve been heading to Pinterest.
I do a search for something simple. It’s usually: “Faces.” Or, “Kid’s Faces.” If there’s something I want to be working on, but I can’t seem to figure out, I’ll search for something about that. For example, “Gypsy Kids.”
And then I am blasted with gorgeous photographs, so filled up with character that I set right to work sketching. I aim to fill a page with faces, not spending too long on any of them. I do my best to work directly from the screen into my sketchbook, filtering it into my preferred illustration style.
There are times I look through photos from my Facebook friends, too. Some of their kids are too hilarious and the perfect jumping off point for my sketch practice.
My end game here is to just be drawing. To be in the art. To not sit and stare and feel like an unproductive failure. Of course, there are times when sitting and staring is perfectly acceptable. But lately, I need a product to push me forward.
In progress …
The final render of Library Girl (as I am currently calling her).
The best part of this quick sketching is that there are the odd sketches which make their way into my subconscious, and I find myself thinking about them throughout the day. This turns into wonders, which turns into more sketching, and often times writing.
Really, this turns into inspiration.
I can’t remember when or where I heard it, but the essence of what somebody said stuck with me. Not so much in these words, although these words may be close: Inspiration is fleeting. You have to work even when the muse isn’t showing up.
You can find me in the studio most mornings, from 5-6am, with a coffee and a candle and a hand toiling away on something that is just for me – my passion projects. And then, you can usually find me here at night, working on something for a client or for a big project or for my passion projects, when they just won’t let one hour a day be enough. (Side note: If you don’t know me, or anything about me, then you should know that I am a full time elementary school teacher and dad of 2! Read about my work habits here.)
This is discipline. This is practice, habit and routine.
What do you do when inspiration is lost? You keep going. (But … what do YOU do?)
Keep up with me!
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.