Five Things Artists Can Do While Waiting For Spring

We had a heck of a series of winter storms last week here in California. And this week a large chunk of the rest of the country is getting wacked. It’s stay indoors season. Not a great time to paint outdoors, unless you’re one of those seriously hardcore plein air folk, or do fieldwork if you are an animal artist. Snow is one thing, but driving rain and hail, high winds or ice storms are something else. What to do (drums fingers on table)? Here’s some ideas:

1. Ask yourself- What are you really bad at?- Trees? Water? Fur? Eyes? Be honest. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I remember my artist sister-in-law telling me about a classmate at art school whose use of color was, apparently, pretty awful. He made a commitment to improve and is now a nationally known artist and illustrator known for, among other things, his incredible use of color. What I learned from this story is that, with hard work and a willingness to struggle and learn, a weakness can be turned into a major strength.

There's probably at least six exercises that one could do from this photo. What are they?
Cinereous vulture, Bronx Zoo; opportunity to show depth and form in an eye study; the photo flattens the image; what do you have to do to compensate?

Exercise: Set aside some time each week to work on something that’s hard or that you feel is a weak point in your work. Do little studies that should only take a hour or two. Don’t bit off a big chunk like “water”. Break it down into smaller problems like reflections or what pebbles look like through water. Robert Bateman says that he used to sit and watch water for hours to learn what the pattern was. You could throw stones in a big mud puddle to study ripples.

2. Take a look at your old work- Creating art can be very discouraging. Sometimes it seems like we’re just spinning our wheels. Progress in gaining any skill is usually incremental. Someone who hadn’t seen my work for awhile was visiting my studio recently and commented that my work had taken a great leap since they’d last seen it. I found that very gratifying, but also interesting. I do occasionally paint something in which it all comes together and there is a big move forward, but that’s the exception.

old reference 4x6" photo (cropped) from 1996
Painting (cringe) from 1997; it looked ok to me at the time; I could write an entire post now about what's wrong with it
Brush drawing from a couple of weeks ago for an 8x8" painting; the difference should be obvious

Exercise: Get some of your favorite beverage, pull out your old work and set it up next to your latest pieces. What do you think? I hope you see steady improvement over time, which should give you some well-deserved encouragement. If you don’t, then see if you can figure out why. Be honest. I know some artists who seem to think that amount of years spent painting equals good work. Not true at all. Twenty-five years of doing the same subjects in the same way with the same technical problems still means mediocre paintings.

3. Evaluate your photo reference- a famous wildlife artist who I was lucky enough to study with a couple of times told us that “you’re only as good as your reference”. I have found that to be absolutely true. Every time I’ve been able to upgrade my camera equipment or how I view my reference, my paintings have shown immediate improvement. You can’t put in what’s not there unless you know the subject extremely well. Trust me on this. The biggest leap for me was going from film to digital, which let me move from prints to the equivalent of big transparencies. I’m slowly purging my photo print reference of all the kinda-sorta images that I know aren’t good enough.

Impala painting from photos shot during my 1999 trip to Kenya; flat as a piece of paper with everything in local color
my main reference photo; notice the absolute lack of any perceivable light source
Thompson's Gazelle; no hint of a background, but you know there's light because of that cast shadow on the neck

Exercise: Go through your reference, in whatever format, with a fresh eye. Ask yourself- How much work will it take to make this into something? Does it really represent what it was that caused me to take the picture in the first place? Is it blurry? (I tend to keep those because there still might be a hoof or other information that I can use, but I don’t use blurry images for primary reference. Or let’s just say that every time I’ve done it, I’ve regretted it.) Is it under- or over-exposed? How about the lighting? Is it interesting? Or is it flat?

4. Start a sketchbook- You know you “should”. One of my teachers in art school did a lot of storyboard work for major San Francisco ad agencies. High pay, super short deadlines, no time to shoot reference. He did a drawing a day besides whatever work he had. While I was in his class, we all did a drawing a day. I had fun using my favorite felt tip pens and also Berol color sticks, which were new for me. So it was a chance to try different media, too.

Table and chair; not easy to get the perspective right
But no one says it has to be literally realistic
I tend to do this kind of drawing with carbon or charcoal pencils in the studio, but still use felt pens on location

Exercise: For one week, do a drawing a day. Of anything. You can set up a still life, draw furniture, work from magazine photos. With any media. But draw. Then add a second week. See what happens. Send me a 500 pixel jpg of your favorite and I’ll post them here.

5. Dream your dreams- Blue sky time. If resources, monetary and otherwise, were not a factor, what would you be doing as an artist? Some of us want to paint full-time, which I am fortunate enough to be able to do. Others want a special place in their home where they can do their art or want to go to a workshop or travel to Italy or…..the possibilities are as endless as the ways artists express themselves.

Dream big, but don't miss the stuff that might be close by

Exercise: Set aside an evening and make a list. Try to be specific. Instead of just “workshop”, how about “I want to study plein air painting with…..”? Or not just “I want to travel”, but “I want to go to Kenya and see wild lions”. Then think about what steps you can take to achieve one or more of your dreams. Get on the internet and see what you can learn about how other artists have achieved their dreams, both for inspiration or ideas.

So, there you have it. Five ideas and look! It’s April already!

2 thoughts on “Five Things Artists Can Do While Waiting For Spring

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