Be Yourself…Be Authentic

December 30, 2013
"Jake" watercolor, about 5x5 in.

A little sketch of my cat, “Jake” watercolor, about 5×5 in.

There is always a lot of talk between artists about subject matter and sales. What sells? Or, more specifically, what should I paint to increase my sales? Some will even go to the lengths of studying what subjects and styles other artists are working in and then doing something similar, but with a slight twist. I’ve seen and heard all types of stories about artist’s having their work copied without permission (it’s happened to me) for other than learning purposes. When caught, some claim ignorance of wrong doing, that’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen this topic to write about.

So, let me be clear:  It’s highly unethical to purposely copy another person’s ideas and style and present them as your own.

While it has always seemed very straight forward to me, here are some ways to ensure that you never find yourself accused of copying another artist’s work:

  • Only paint that which you truly want to paint! It’s simple, if it interests you, paint it, if it doesn’t don’t. By painting subjects that you are truly motivated to paint, you will ensure that you do your best work. If you are focused on painting only subjects that will sell, there is a whole wealth of subject matter you will likely ignore. Good art always transcends the subject, which is purely a departure point. Paint your best work and it will sell (if you want it to).
  • Don’t try to learn how to emulate another artist’s style. Instead, focus on developing your own hand–your style will materialize on its own and when it does it will become uniquely apparent in all your work. Experiment with a variety of media on those subjects you find really interesting. Before you know it, you will have a body of work that is consistent and most importantly, AUTHENTIC!
  • Work from direct observation (from life) whenever possible. You will see your drawing skills improve rapidly as you build confidence. Save the photos only for those instances where painting from life is logistically impossible–and make sure you take your own reference shots, copying another person’s photos without their permission is as bad as copying another artist’s painting.
  • Experiment! There is always a lot of talk about being self-taught vs. academic instruction. Academic instruction is valuable and I recommend it to anyone who has the time and resources to study. However, once you have the basics down, it’s time to start the process of learning who YOU are as an artist. The process of self discovery is something no one can give you but yourself, so practice and experiment whenever you can.

Look at the process of painting as exploration rather than production, every painting that you do should not be for sale. You should be doing a lot more sketching and practice rather than trying to produce a master piece every time you hit the easel. Each time I pick up a brush, I have no idea what I’m going to get in the end–and I don’t worry about it. I have fun with it, if it fails it truly doesn’t matter because it’s just a piece of paper or canvas, no harm was done and I’ve likely learned a lot along the way. Also, the more you paint without pressure, the quicker your painting skills will develop and you’ll get to a stage where everything you do is consistent in quality. You’ll always have favorites that fly off the brush, but overall, your work should attain a consistent tone that resonates with confidence and skill.

The little sketch above is of one of my cats, Jake, who is probably one the most affectionate and lovable cats around. He has a distinct personality and a sassy attitude. Jake (the cat or the painting) is not for sale. 🙂


Perfectly Imperfect

December 18, 2013
Fence & Shadows, Lambertville, NJ - studio watercolor, 9x12 in.

Fence & Shadows, Lambertville, NJ – studio watercolor, 9×12 in.

I often hear people say “I’m a perfectionist” in reference to their approach to painting. Quite often, these are artists who work in a manner that is very tight–not always correct in terms of form, value, perspective and proportion–but always very tight. Perfection has nothing to do with the way an artist renders their subject, rather, it has more to do with whether or not the end result is compelling in terms of color, composition, draftsmanship and creativity.

For me, a perfect painting is one that is packed with life and energy. The fewer strokes it takes to create it, the better! In order to work this way, you have to have a lot of confidence in your drawing skills. There’s nothing like a perfectly straight line (drawn with a straight edge) that goes in the wrong direction and kills all semblance of depth and space! However, if you understand the principles of perspective and use gesture to draw your lines accordingly, you can get a beautifully correct drawing that pulls your viewers right into your painting without making it stiff and stilted.

Another misconception is that every stroke has to be blended and smooth. Says who? I like my paintings to look like paintings. If you start out with a correct drawing you can be as expressive and loose as you like with color, brush work and texture. The structure underneath, if drawn correctly, will support as much deviation or enhancement of reality as you want it to, and will still read as whatever your subject happens to be.

The key is to not confuse drawing with rendering detail. You have to get your drawing blocked in properly first–big shapes, correct values, correct proportion and perspective. Once you have that, you’re free to be as experimental and creative as you want with color and texture. I find watercolor particularly suitable for creating spontaneous effects–once you get used to how to move the paint around, you can easily allow the medium to take over and create beautiful, loose effects without losing a sense of depth and space. How? Always go back to your drawing, if the painting starts to get away from you, pull it back with the overall drawing by going back to your darks and creating the unity that will make your painting cohesive.

If you have trouble with this concept at first, try working monochromatically for awhile. It will help to only focus on values rather than color and value simultaneously. If you need help with things like perspective and proportion, take a drawing class! It’s worth what it will save you in time and frustration if your paintings are not looking as perfect as you would like them to!

Watercolor Challenge: Know When to Stop

December 5, 2013

This is a studio watercolor I just completed. All throughout the painting, I was concerned about doing too much–that’s because I was very happy with the block in phase and could have easily just left it as a monochromatic sketch. Instead, I decided to go to full color and turn it into a painting–so, I had to be careful along the way not to let things get out of control and over detailed.

The block-in phase, drawn with a brush using the blue section of my butcher's tray palette.

The block-in phase, drawn with a brush using the blue section of my butcher’s tray palette.

Next came the darks and the depth began to appear, very tempted to stop...

Next came the darks and the depth began to appear, very tempted to stop…

Added some color, that orange was scary, no turning back now...

Added some color, that orange was scary, no turning back now…

Almost there, just need to connect the darks to keep the flow

Almost there, just need to connect the darks to keep the flow

The finished painting with the sky blocked in and the darks unified.

The finished painting with the sky blocked in and the darks unified.

This was a very challenging piece to do in watercolor, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Overall I am pleased with the outcome, but I would like to do it again, possibly 2 more times: once again in watercolor only much larger (this is only 11×14 in.), and another version in oil, which I am sure would have a completely different feel to it.