Portraiture 101

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I have always been good at drawing people. I started in high school drawing portraits of people’s children. But I wasn’t VERY good. I was just adequate. In art school I needed to refine my technique. I listened to my TA’s when they said don’t draw a “face”. Draw a “head”. Which means observe the volume of a head and all its parts: eyes, nose, cheeks, mouth, forehead and try to convey the volume and shape of those parts and do it on the 2 dimensional surface of the paper. Get down in the dust of the graphite, charcoal and pastel and don’t be afraid to mull it around to achieve your goal. A face can seem complicated but it’s not really when you look closely and see what it’s really made up of. Cubes, spheres, pyramids, and cones. These are shapes we can all draw with a degree of confidence. When you put them together and add technique a portrait turns out to be something that is within the power of anybody who chooses to create. Then you add practice and the next thing you know you’ve got something quite nice.

Permission

purpleflowersWhen I teach art in elementary  school I always hear negative comments.  “I can’t draw.”  “I don’t know how to do this.” “It’s ugly (what they’re drawing).” I can relate to these comments. Every artist has had these thoughts. I’ve had these thoughts and I’m no different. Maybe you don’t even have to say these things to yourself. I’ve seen people look at a painting and say, “A monkey could do better than that.” People will step up the plate and help you be critical of yourself. The negative voice outside of you also lives inside your head and is alive and well.

Let’s overcome this.

Here’s what I tell my students.

I cut to the heart of what is going on. They look at what I drew and theirs does not look like it. I say. All you kids, I don’t want you to draw like me. Don’t compare your drawing to your class mate’s drawing. If everyone drew the same how boring of a world would it be? That’s the beauty of art. Everybody does their own thing and that’s what makes it interesting.”  Do it your way. The most important person is you. Please yourself first. Please other people second.  If you want.  You aren’t obligated to please other people. Right here and now. Let’s give ourselves permission to not please other people when we do art. In personal expression here’s the thing: do the best you can right where you are today. Be like Scarlet O’Hara. Tomorrow is another day. You can do something today and then you can keep going tomorrow.

(By the way, I’m not talking about commercial art. In commercial art you have to please your boss and that’s the deal you sign up for to make a living.)

In art there’s no right or wrong. Is there right or wrong in arithmetic? Yes. One plus one always equals two. Two plus two always equals four.  Art is very cool. There is no right or wrong in art and that’s the beauty of it.

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If they’re particularly stuck I will show them how to get unstuck. There’s always a way. I sit down and show them step by step how to build their drawing. What did you want to do? How is it not measuring up to what you wanted to do? Art is getting something in your head and then breaking it down into steps of how to make what you have in your head appear like magic on the paper. (Yes, it’s magic all right. Making something from nothing.) Only pure abstract artists are uncontrolled. Only artists in New York or Los Angeles and other places, who are trying to amaze themselves, gallery owners and prospective buyers, are doing things without a plan. But guess what? They actually have a plan. It just doesn’t look like it. I’m letting you in on a secret. Don’t tell.

Sometimes after many years of practice some artists develop a facility that allows them to be 100% free and spontaneous and still end up with something good. Picasso was 100% free. His studio was littered with thousands of drawings that he drew in the spur f the moment on crappy, non-archival paper. He drew on anything. He just did stuff and put it down. You can, too. If you want. There are no rules.

So I ask you.

What art would you like to do but haven’t done? Why haven’t you done it? Do you tell yourself you don’t have time to do it? Do you tell yourself it costs too much? Think of all the reasons you can’t do it. I’m here to tell you none of those reasons are any good.

If you don’t have enough money, do your art project on a smaller scale. If you don’t have enough time, do it a little bit at a time. Five minutes max. Two minutes. One minute. I’m here to tell you the reason you haven’t done it is your mind has made up a reason. Your mind has habit grooves. Ideas are water that flow down these habit grooves in the same old way we have always been doing things.  So if you’ve always wanted to try watercolor but find yourself on the couch watching TV every night it’s because you’ve been laying on the couch more than you’ve been getting up to try watercolor. This is the point where I want you to understand that you don’t have to beat yourself up by telling yourself there’s something wrong with you for not doing what you want. Blame your habitual brain.

The way to overcome it is to act like a baby. Babies take a step and fall down. How many times did you start to walk when you were a baby and fell down but you got up and started over until now you walk just fine! We all need to cultivate our baby minds.

For some of you being perfect is important. If you’re afraid of not doing it very well I’d like to say No One Was Ever Good When They Started Out! Think about your baby self trying to learn how to walk. Embrace your baby-ness in this! When you make something and you don’t like it, crumble it up and throw it away. So what? Start over.

Please go online or to the store and buy your materials. When you’re in Wal-Mart go to the art section and buy student grade watercolor paper and watercolors. Those kind that we all had in grade school. The ones that come in a little tray. Then sit them on your table and wait. Don’t try. Wait. Set it all up so it’s all ready. Look at images. Look at pictures that thrill you. Or make stuff up in your mind. Then one day surprise yourself and go over to the table, open everything up and just make some marks on the paper. Get the feel of it. Don’t even try to paint anything. It doesn’t matter. You’re a baby learning how to walk. In between the other stuff you do all day go over and make some more marks. Just do it long enough to get a feel for the paint. Pretty soon you’ll be branching out and walking. You’ve made some new grooves in your brain.

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Recently I decided that I was going to try something I haven’t really done much of before. I have been enjoying and doing portraiture, objects and animals for most of my life. I haven’t been a big fan of landscape. Trees have been my particular nemesis. Too many details! Ridiculous number of leaves! And yet when I go to some galleries I see luscious landscapes that just thrill me to my core. I love the California Colorists.

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Selden Connor Gile is one. He wasn’t bothered by details. Why am I stuck in being bothered by details?

I’ve also been fascinated by Fauvism. They were a group of early twentieth-century artists whose works emphasized painterly qualities and strong color over the representational or realistic values retained by Impressionism. Les Fauves comes from a French word meaning “wild beasts”.

Paul Gauguin is a good example of Fauvist painter.

So I decided it was time that I try landscape. I decided that I would take my own advice and ease into it by painting simple shapes. With color. This is how I started with pastels  ten years ago. I took a class at Albany Adult School and the teacher brought fruit to the class which we were supposed to draw. The challenge was that the fruit was all one color. At least to the person who does not “see”. They “look” and they see one color. If you really look you will see that the lemon is not really yellow but all sorts of colors. So that’s what I did. I drew what I saw. All sorts of colors.

It was fun because I decided that I was not intent on impressing anybody but myself. Just like I said before. I did not care about the outcome.  After a couple weeks one of my fellow students came up to me as I was drawing and said “Your drawing gets up off the page and SINGS.” What a compliment! I put red next to green, yellow next to purple.

So with landscape I’m going to try this same strategy. Color!

Once I get my legs under me I will move up to complicated landscapes. It won’t take long. I really don’t care if I goof up.

I used color straight from the tube for almost all parts of the painting except where I needed a pastel hue and then I added a bit of white. White also helps with opacity. Just for your information I never use black. Until I get better I’m going to give life to my paintings by only using color. You can use purple or burnt umber instead of black.

Purple Sky

When I was in college I was in love with charcoal. I would go to life drawing class clean as  whistle and emerge at the end of class looking like I was the coal miner’s daughter! For years I could not get my hands completely clean because not only was I grinding charcoal dust into my hands by smearing and scratching it in to the paper to create my giant life drawings but I was also in the printmaking studio putting  ink on the copper plates to make intaglio prints. You couldn’t do it with gloves on. You ruined your hands.

But I looked at my destroyed hands and pronounced it good. After all, what are hands for except to destroy in the process of creation?

So for years I was in love with black. Back then one of my favorite artist was the German expressionist Max Beckmann. He used black a lot. I aspired to be Max Beckmann.

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I also aspired to be Sylvia Schuster. She was a year or two ahead of me. Another gritty, intense coal miner’ daughter covered with charcoal dust head to toe. The TA said “she sees a head. She doesn’t see a face.”  It was pivotal moment for me and I started thinking “volume!”. Get the distinction?

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Today I’m not in favor of black. As matter of fact, I say NO black.

Now I want to try something different. If I want to use a dark color I’ll use Payne’s Gray or Burnt Umber.

Here’s the beginning of my new adventure with landscape painting.

What do you think?

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“Smoky Sky”

Acrylic 8″x10″

Trust the Muse

This project combines two of my very favorite things. Writing and drawing. I think the 3rd grade kids at the parochial school in town did an outstanding job. They remind me of my first success at writing and illustrating in Miss Knoll’s 3rd grade class. She had us take a nom de plume, a pen name, and mine was Miss Ster. She thought I was so clever but I was just flailing around and could not come up with a good name so I just picked something out of the air. Trust the Muse.

Here are a couple examples.

the cookieThe Cookie

cookie2Once upon a time there was a cookie…

cookie3who lived in a little cookie house with three big pearl sprinkles.

bogbeastThe Story of the Bog Beast and Mia and Milo

bogbeast2Once upon a time there was a bog beast who lived near a big swamp. He had three hats on that he stole from a man. Since that he was a monster all people hated him. Well, not everyone. A girl and a boy named Mia and Milo. They both started this story.

bogbeast3One day they went to the big swamp and saw the beast. A bog beast sang. It was a girl. The boy one fell in love. She fell in love, too. Guess what happened next.

Let’s Face It

Kids are the original and preeminent artists. The younger they are the more fearless they are. In this little project I’m working with preschool age children. I thought the colors came out vibrant and unsullied and the drawings energetic and expressive. So often adults create mud. Kids know when to stop.

We started with a drawing in sharpie pen and then we colored it in with brushes using ordinary watercolor paint. I was so impressed. For the record these are works from the talented little kids at St. Joachim School in Madera, CA. I have been teaching art in the Madera Unified School District and for the Golden Valley School District since last Fall and enjoying it very much.

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Kitty and a rainbow. Six legs? Why not? Maybe it’s running fast.
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A cat of many colors
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Another Paul Klee in the making.
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I love the expression!
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A castle surrounded by a moat. The blue pops off the page.
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When they fill the page I am so delighted.
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Cat jumping over a rainbow. Extra legs seem important.

Seeking Inspiration

My elementary school kids have been having a lot of fun doing “cave paintings”.

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I told them not to use scotch tape on their drawings but some of them didn’t listen. Hey, Picasso didn’t always use archival methods for his masterpieces. So I let it go or peeled it off where I could.

The other day I couldn’t sleep after the election. I laid awake in bed worrying. How would I deal with my Junior High kids? I live in a predominantly Hispanic area. As a matter of fact, I was going to write a blog about how it feels to be a minority. I felt this long ago when I first went to Hawaii from Iowa and in my World History class in a huge auditorium I sat in the back. Before me was a sea of black haired people. In Iowa one would never see this. We had a handful of Jewish, one black family and one Chinese family. In Hawaii that was all upside down with Chinese, Japanese, and Pacific Islanders.

Here in Madera it’s the same. In the classes you have all Hispanic except for maybe one white kid.

So I laid awake. Finally I figured out that it was me who needed help the most. And by helping myself maybe I could deal with the uncertainty. I decided that we would draw heroes. I decided that I needed to remind myself that we’ve been here before. And we’ve had people who stand up in the avalanche in the hopes of slowing it down. All is not lost. And there is work to be done.

I found Muhammad Ali, Malama Yousefzai, Martin Luther King, Dolores Huerta, Mother Teresa, Anne Frank and a host of others.

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The kids appreciated it and it sure was good for me, too.

It Works Pretty Well

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I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving week. There’s no school and I have a bunch of drawings I would like to work on. I want to have all brand new stuff for the show in March 2017 at the Orland Art Center and I need to get going. In the meantime I have been talking about things like limited palette, washes, tone, value and resist in my after school and day time art classes.

These are 3rd and 4th grade kids so whatever I talk about I have to show as well. Hey, one picture worth a thousand words, right? At this age I feel it is still important to Just Have Fun so in between Fun I sneak in Ideas. I remember a horse trainer, Brian Neubert, giving me advice about how to teach my daughter when she was just starting out with horses. I think this advice applies to many things in life including art. He said get the best baby sitter horse you can find and then let the kids have fun. It worked with his kids. They’re all outstanding horsemen.

So I apply this with grade school kids. Let them have fun. The skills get into their bones just by the doing of it.

The junior high kids are more adept. So I give them projects that make them think and work with more discipline. I gave the kids gray paper the other day and white and black charcoal pencils. I said Draw a Hand. See how you do. Remember the shapes. Translate what you see on to the page (magic). Use the gray paper as the mid-tone. See the highlights and shadow.

A simple sketch. It works pretty well.