The Lazy Artist
ExercisesBehind the Art
by Melissa Acker
No matter what situation we're in, at some point we all end up being left on our own to grow as an artist. Some people find it difficult to continue to progress without someone leading the way. Today we'll go through some easy exercises you can use to keep your skills sharp and hopefully growing.
You may find it helpful to keep a separate sketchbook for all your small studies and thumbnails. I prefer a hardbound book with a heavier paper that will take light washes of watercolor, as well as ink and graphite. If you prefer some other medium to sketch in, like marker, you might have different needs. It should be a sketchbook that isn't difficult to find locally and isn't too expensive, so that hopefully you won't be shy about filling the book up with whatever you do. If you do have to buy your preferred book online, buy it in bulk. Remember, the point of having a sketchbook isn't to have a book full of perfect images, but a place to work out compositional problems and jot down any visual ideas you might have, and keep them together. You're supposed to have lots of terrible, or at least mediocre, sketches in your sketchbook; everyone does!
The thumbnail is the workhorse for composition. It's a tiny little sketch with the essential shapes and values of your painting worked out, so you can tell beforehand whether it will work on a large scale before you waste your time. Because they're so small, no more than three or four inches on the longest side, you can do a lot them very quickly. But you shouldn't wait until you're getting a painting ready to work on your thumbnails. If you've got fifteen or twenty minutes to spare, sit down and whip out a few quick compositions. You could work with the rule of thirds, or the golden rule, or just pick a shape and move it around, change its size and value. You'll quickly realize that you prefer certain canvas shapes to work on, or certain values, or certain lighting directions. It's great practice, and eventually you'll have a collection of successful compositions you can use when you have need.
Similar to a thumbnail, a color study is a composition where you work on your color combinations, usually with just the broad colors involved and very little detail. This is another exercise that is great because you can try a lot of different things in a short amount of time. Try coloring the same sketch with different color compositions (red and green, blue and orange, violet and yellow, etc). Remember that the sketch doesn't have to be big to be great practice. Color theory is one of those things that many artists spend their whole lives perfecting, so any practice you can get at is a good thing.
There are many artists that focus on miniatures for their main works of art, but they are also a good exercise for those of us that usually work larger. The main difference between a thumbnail and a miniature is the level of completion. A thumbnail is meant to be a rough sketch, with just the broad strokes and absolutely necessary information to get the point across. It's a passing glance at one way to approach a visual idea. A miniature is a completely refined painting: the values, colors, textures and details are all working together to show the artist's vision. So not only is a miniature good to practice all the skills you would in a larger painting, like composition, color theory, and painting technique, but you can generally complete it in less time than a larger piece, which means you can do more of them, which means you get more practice.
There are quite a few ways you can use photos to help practice your skills, besides as in their obvious roles as reference. We all have a bunch of photos lying around that can be used as practice. You can take the figure in the photo and try to redraw it as if you were seeing it from a different angle. You can change the lighting or color composition as well. Another option is to take two random photos and combine them in some way, just to see what happens. Sometimes I'll draw from photos that are too blurry to use as reference to just to practice some poses.
Break the Mold
You'll never know if you like something unless you try it. So every once in while, do something artistic that's dramatically different from what you usually do. Work with a different kind of paint, or do a few three-dimensional pieces. Try a different style. If you usually work realistically, try a more stylistic, flat style -- or vice-versa. If you always paint figures, try painting some trees or a still life. Don't be afraid of failing; just try it out. You might hate it, but you might love it, and find a way to work it into more of your work.
And don't forget to collect other artists' work that you enjoy. Whether it's art books, comic books, or a folder on your computer, having a collection of images can help inspire you when you're feeling down or just don't know what you feel like doing.
The important thing to remember when you're by yourself, and there's no one looking over your shoulder reminding you to paint this and draw that, is that if you don't keep using your skills, they will begin to regress. This is particularly true of life drawing; after taking a break from it, it can take a long while to get back in the swing of things. So keep using them, and the more you use them, the better they'll become. It can be hard to find the time to paint or draw while you're working a day job (and so many of us are), but it doesn't have to take a lot of time. Fifteen or twenty minutes a day can be enough to keep you going. You might not be completing huge paintings every week, but try not to beat yourself up over it. Just doing something is enough.
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