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January 2012

January 2012 -- Dragonflies

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  • Behind the Art:
    New Year Resolutions and Your Artwork
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  • Poem: Fishing on Dragonfly Lake


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  • New Year Resolutions and Your Artwork
    Behind the Art
    by Melissa Acker

    It's that time of year again: the time when we all swear we are going to start running every day, eat more vegetables and watch less TV. This is the year we are going to get stuff DONE, we collectively shout.

    And when you're promising yourself that you'll never eat leftover pizza for breakfast again, don't forget to examine any goals you have for yourself as an artist in the next year. While some people scoff at the idea of New Year's resolutions, setting specific, concrete goals can be very helpful to give you the kick in the butt you need to make progress and move forward. After all, saying "I want to be a better artist," is a worthy goal but not terribly specific. Saying "I want to draw for thirty minutes every day," is much, much better (and helpful!).

    Let's go over some things you can think about trying.

    Keeping an Art Journal
    If you aren't keeping a sketchbook by now, well, I don't know how much I can help you. You really should be keeping one. Seriously. Just do it. I don't even care what you put it in, just get a damn sketchbook and draw in it. I'm not even going to tell you what kind to get. I like spiral-bound hard covers with a multimedia-worthy, toothy paper in them, but that's me. You get whatever you like. Put everything in one sketchbook. Or have a different sketchbook for every subject. I don't care. Just get at least one, and use it.

    And if you are one of those people who's intimidated by the blank page and terrified that your sketchbook might, gasp, have a terrible drawing in it trapped forever! I have two things to say to you: One, get over it. Every artist's sketchbook is filled with work that is less than stellar (to them). Your hit and miss ratio tends to get better over the years as you put the work in to make it better, but I don't know anyone that's at 100% yet. And I know some very talented people. And Two: start off buying really cheap sketchbooks, so you don't feel that you're wasting all your hard-earned money with every ruined page. And there will be ruined pages. Many of them. Remember, you don't actually have to show anyone your sketchbook. Ever.

    Ahem. Now that that's over with.

    I have occasionally kept art journals over the years, but have been lax on them for the last few years (I don't have a good excuse for this). This year, a combination of factors have all collided with me at great force all at once, and I am gratefully rededicating myself to my art. So I am keeping an art journal. Now, just like with sketchbooks, everyone has a different opinion of what, exactly, you should put in an art journal. Some people treat their sketchbook like one, and that's fine. I am one of those neurotic people that has to have a different sketchbook for every subject/theme, though, because I like to keep things separate and organized. This means I own about fifty sketchbooks, maybe more, and about six are in circulation and actively used at the moment.

    So I'm just going to tell you what my art journal is going to be for.



    I've never used this particular brand of sketchbook before. It's supposed to be good for multimedia, which is good, because I plan to use graphite, colored pencil, watercolors and inks in it (I'm also in love with the new Canson XL series of sketchbooks, highly recommended!). The space under the word 'art journal' is going to (hopefully) be used at the end of the year to write in 'Volume 1/10' or something. I am trying to be optimistic.

    Anyway. Inside the front cover I've written in bold, permanent marker the four things I want to concentrate on improving in my work this year. On the first page I've written my mission statement, more or less, breaking down in more detail precisely what I want to work on.

    After that, it's straight to work (and yes, I started my 2012 journal a few weeks early, leave me alone). This journal is going to contain all the groundwork for my paintings in the next year. That includes anatomical sketches, compositional thumbnails, value studies, color studies, etc. I also plan to include thoughts and notes about my process as I begin and work on the paintings.

    I've also used art journals to track my productivity, jot down ideas for paintings, and make notes from art instructional books I've read. Get creative.

    Get back to the basics
    The basics are the basics not because they're simple, but because they are important: they are the fundamental things you need to be versed in to be an artist. Three of the most important things to be versed in are (in my humble opinion): drawing, value, and color.

    How do you improve on these skills? Copious amounts of hard work. If you can, find a local life drawing class. This is, without a doubt, the BEST way to learn how to draw, even you don't use realistic people in your art. The second-best thing to do is to draw every day (perhaps in that sketchbook you should be using). Drawing from life is preferable, even if that means you are drawing your coffee table, the house across the street and your comatose cat an awful lot. Go out and find new things to draw. Like to draw people? Congratulations, people are everywhere! Malls, bus stops, parks…finding new environments to draw from is easy. Same with landscapes. Museums and zoos are also great places to draw. Thirty minutes is a good goal to set every day. If you draw every day for a year, you will be amazed at the progress you've made.



    Painting still-lifes will teach you about value and color. If you're feeling really ambitious (and I mean really ambitious), you could try setting a goal of painting a small still-life a week, or even every day (there are people that successfully do this, and there's nothing stopping you from trying). One year I tried to do a small still-life every week, and made it about five months before I stopped. The painting above is from this series: they were very small, no more than eight-by-ten and usually only four-by-six inches, and acrylic, so I could start and finish them quickly.

    Work in a series
    I love working in a series. Almost all of my work, in fact, is done this way. A series lets you really explore something in particular, whether it's something new for you or an old technique you are trying to stretch. A series is a set of paintings that all share something in common. It can be subject matter, size, color composition, value composition, media, support…the possibilities are endless.



    Above is a series I completed recently. They all have a lot in common: they are all the same size, the same medium and support (ink on clayboard), the same technique, and the same subject. A series you do doesn't have to have as many things in common in this -- tying them together by subject or color is more than enough.

    I like doing a series for another reason, as well. The fact that it lets me really explore a technique or subject means I am not tempted to try and squeeze everything together into one painting, because I know I can just try it on the next one. I ruin less paintings this way.

    Try something new
    There are some artists that predominately work in only one or two mediums. Many oil painters traditionally only paint in oil, with occasional small studies in watercolors and whatever they use in their sketchbook.

    I do not understand these people. Every time I walk into an art store, I am almost overwhelmed by all the new things I want to try. I consider myself restrained, and I currently routinely work with watercolor, colored pencil, ink, acrylic, scratchboard, and graphite. Some of these I use both alone and in multimedia work. Some I use in many different ways (particularly the watercolor, which I have three main styles of, and ink, which I both paint and draw with). I use a half-dozen different supports, ranging from Bristol paper to cradled clayboard. And there are still countless more things I want to try!

    The new medium I want to work more with this year is charcoal. I used it in life drawing classes back in school, but have basically ignored its existence since then. It's messy and I after art school I would just flinch every time I saw it for a time. But since then I've seen some beautifully done charcoal drawings, and I want to learn how to do it. Maybe I'll still hate, but I want to give it a try.

    What new medium, or subject, even, has been tickling your fancy lately? Try it! Expanding your tool kit makes you more versatile!

    Become a master
    Okay, maybe not a master, but there is actually a good reason to narrow your focus for a little while. Similar to the idea of doing a series, if you stick with one medium at a time, you will learn a great deal about how that medium works and how you best work with it. Different mediums have different drying times, color saturations, opacity and translucency…there are endless facets to learn. Those oil painters that stick with oil? They might not be the best pastel artists, but damn will they know their oil paint!

    Alternatively, stick with the same subject matter for a while. Draw nothing but people, and go through anatomy books, taking notes and drawing from them in your sketchbook. Draw from TV or magazines, go to sporting events, draw from a mirror, even. Dedicate yourself. Eventually, stuff will start to stick.



    You would not believe how many sketches I have of big cats. It might reach into the thousands at this point. And there are still individual sketches on each page that I don't like.

    While I do work in a wide range of media, I spent a few years working predominantly in watercolor, and it shows. I am very comfortable with it, even if I'm always tweaking my palette pigment by pigment. Even so, I'm not even close to mastery of it. This year, in fact, I plan to work almost exclusively with granulating colors, so that I can better learn how they interact with each other and the other pigments. This might mean I have to switch to using 300lb rough press instead of 140lb cold press (texture brings out the granulation), but it will be worth it.

    Get organized
    I know, I know, I groan when I hear the word, too, but it's important. This year, I tried to organize all the paintings I had in storage. It was a disaster. I kept reasonably good records up to 2007, but after that it was chaos. I was picking up paintings and had no idea what year I'd painted them in. I had to keep referring to one of my online galleries to check when I'd uploaded the artwork.

    No more, I said; no more.

    This year I kept careful records of my paintings. I have a spreadsheet for all of my 2011 artwork (separated by wildlife and fantasy). In the spreadsheet are columns for name, subject, price, size, framed or not, price of the frame, scanned or not, sold or in my inventory, etc. This year I've also made one for all the contests I am entering, and it's helping keep track of important details like the deadline for entry, and whether or not I need to keep the painting on hand in case it will be displayed as part of the contest.

    Something like this does not take very long to do and will save you a lot of heartache in the future. Five years down the road it's going to be a lot harder to remember, off the top of your head, what year you did a painting in or how big it is.

    So what are you going to do?
    This is by no means an exhaustive list. But, like I said, setting specific goals is important to success. Going to try drawing every day? Awesome! Going to paint nothing but still-lifes of white dishes for a month? Great! You're going to learn a lot about reflected light and color, for sure! Going to learn the skeletal anatomy of a house cat until you can draw it from memory from any angle? Fantastic!

    The important thing is to set a goal that is attainable. Finishing a huge painting every day -- or even every week -- is not really realistic for most people with day jobs. You will set yourself up for failure if you set that as a goal, and then get all crushed when, surprise surprise, you fail. Realistically look at the time available to you.

    On the same note, don't try to do too much at once. You risk becoming scatter-brained and burnt out very quickly. Work on one, or maybe two, new resolutions at a time. Once you've been doing them reliably for a few months, add another one. You certainly don't need to wait until the New Year to make a resolution to improve yourself!

    Melissa Acker
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