8 Things An Artist Should Never Do

Cape Buffalo Head Study (collection of the artist)- done in about two hours from an ok photo with constant interruptions at an art festival. You just never know...

1, Don’t be too happy with your work. Too much self-satisfaction will stop your ability to improve and learn.

2. Don’t be too discouraged with your work. Being too down on yourself makes it impossible to evaluate your work objectively.

3. Don’t think that detail=quality. It doesn’t, despite what too many people believe. Less really is more most of the time. It takes much more work and experience to see large shapes and masses than to paint blades of grass. That’s easy. Saying “grass” in two values with a large brush is, by comparison, hard because it requires abstract instead of literal thinking.

4. Don’t excuse bad drawing by saying it’s an “interpretation” or it’s “expressive” or it’s “impressionistic’. You can fool yourself, but you can’t fool others. Use a mirror, show your work to another artist, anything it takes to get the drawing right.

5. Don’t reject criticism by telling yourself that “it’s all subjective”. It’s not, especially if you are a representational painter. There are principles of the craft which have been well-established over time. Professional accomplished artists all share a body of knowledge that is not in dispute.

6. Don’t believe that if it’s in the photo it must be true and you must paint it that way. Photos lie, flatten, distort. Cameras “see” in a particular way which is different than how the human eye sees. Use YOUR eyes.

7. Don’t start a painting without knowing why you are doing it. And there must be one idea only. All other elements must be subordinate to that idea. If you get into trouble, ask yourself if getting away from the idea is the problem. Be ruthless, wipe/scrape/remove anything that distracts no matter how great it is by itself. You have to be willing to kill the thing you love.

8. Don’t “practice”. Do or not do. There is no “practice”. However, one might choose to do “studies” to work on specific things. But the same focus and attention is still desirable. Everything you do is “real”.

Next week: 8 Things An Artist Should Always Do

3 Great Art Blogs

Here are the links to three art blogs I really like. There are a lot of them out there, but unfortunately too many artists don’t post regularly or don’t do much other than occasionally post images of their work.

These three stand out for quality of content and regular postings.

1. Gurney Journey is one of the top-rated art blogs. James Gurney is the author of the Dinotopia books, has written two books about art technique and craft and posts to his blog every day on everything from how the human eye tracks through a painting to short profiles of famous artists to how he creates his own marvelous works.

2. COLOR AND LIGHT is the blog of nationally known artist Adele Earnshaw. She started as a watercolorist, but switched to oils a few years ago and the story of why and how she did that makes very interesting reading. Recently she’s been doing what she calls 75 For 75. A painting a day for 75 days that she offered for sale as she finished them for $75. I managed to snag one a few months ago, but I had to be quick because most sell within minutes.

3. Cathy Johnson Fine Art Galleries is where you can find all kinds of great art instruction materials, along with images of Cathy’s art. I remember reading her column in Artist’s magazine many years ago and was tickled to find her on Facebook and see that she is still at it and then some. She offers CD courses, mini-classes and also information about various art media like her favorite drawing pen. Her instruction is real, not that rote “Here is how you paint a tree with my special brush and paint” stuff.

Inspirations: 2 Great Art Books; Learning From Two Of The Best

Just got both of these in the last couple of weeks and I highly recommend them.

I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with Lars Jonsson at the Society of Animal Artist’s 50th Anniversary celebration last year. He is one of the greatest bird artists ever and also one of the nicest people to chat with. I asked him how many birds he has on his life list and he looked down at me (I’m 5’6″ and he’s about 6’8″) and quietly said that he didn’t really keep a list. What a contrast to those who view birdwatching as a blood sport.

This book is a wonderful look at his career and how he works. It should be on the shelf of every artist who has birds as a subject. Since I’m about to embark on paintings of the cranes I’ve seen in Mongolia it only made sense to “consult” with a master. “Lars Jonsson’s Birds-Paintings from a Far Horizon” can purchased here.

This may seem an odd selection coming from an animal artist, but good art is good art no matter what the subject and Drew Struzan is legendary when it comes to his depiction of people and design ability. You’ll see LOTS of familiar faces in this book.

He was a guest lecturer when I was the Academy of Art University (then College) in the late 1980s. He flew up from LA for the day to speak to us illustration students. A couple of weeks before hand, he had sent a big pile of his posters, which were pinned up in display cases on the staircase and in the hallways of the department.

He didn’t talk down to us in any way and addressed us as colleagues in the making, which we really appreciated. I’ve always found him to be an inspiration and am lucky enough to have, many years ago, scored some of his posters from a video shop which was closing.

I’ve started to tackle humans as a subject and I’ve always been in awe of Struzan’s ability to catch the extreme essence of a likeness with impeccable draftsmanship and design.

“Oeuvre” can be purchased here.

4 One-Hour Paintings

Artists need to do the equivalent of playing scales sometimes. I was reminded of that recently when an artist friend on Facebook posted about being frustrated by a plein air painting she had struggled with and then commented on how she wanted to get “looser”, a common wish among painters who are starting to feel trapped by detail.

I recommended a great book to her: 60 Minutes to Better Painting by Craig Nelson, who runs the Fine Art Dept. and teaches painting at my alma mater, the Academy of Art University (but who, unfortunately, didn’t arrive until a few years after I graduated).

The next day I realized that I could use some short study work myself, especially on landscapes. So that’s what I’ve been up to the past two days, doing some one-hour paintings.

I did the first couple with a big round brush, like the kind I generally use on my finished work, but it wasn’t the right brush for this kind of fast painting because I couldn’t get the type of edges I wanted. So I switched to a #6 Silver Brush Grand Prix flat and that was much better. All four are 8×10″, oil on canvasboard.

My main goal for this set was to work on value relationships and light effects.

Ocean View- near our home on the north coast of California (round brush)
Ikh Bogd Uul, the Gobi, Mongolia, July 2010
Stupa, Bogd Khan, near Ulaanbaatar, August 2011
The steppe at sundown, near Bayanuur, camping trip, Mongolia, August 2011

Inspirations: Google’s New “Art Project”- Great Art, Up Close And Personal

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh

Kicking back this holiday weekend? Want to visit (virtually) some of the greatest art museums in the world?

Google’s done some really dumb stuff in its time, but with their new Art Project, they’ve brilliantly figured out a way to make great art accessible to everyone in a way never before possible.

Here’s an article over at ArtInfo that explains how.

For artists, while there will never be a substitute for seeing art in the original, Art Project not only provides extremely accurate images (unlike books, posters, postcards, etc., which are always a bit of a disappointment),  it lets you zoom in close, REALLY close. Much closer than you would ever be allowed to get to the real thing. At least until they throw you out.

Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul, Rembrandt

I can imagine Art Project being very useful for a classic way of studying painting, copying master works. The ability to zoom in and see brush stokes and edges is really terrific. Here’s an example from the Rijksmuseum, the main museum housing the work or Rembrandt. It’s “Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul”. Or one of my all-time favorite paintings…Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, from the Museum of Modern Art.

Have a great weekend!

5 Books For Animal Artists That Are Not About Animal Art, Just Great Art

To be a well-rounded artist with as much information as possible at one’s disposal, I think it’s important get outside of one’s genre and see what else is out there.

The classic piece of advice is to visit great museums and see masterpieces in the original and I agree with that.

But, seeing a great painting and understanding what one can and maybe, should, learn from it are two different things.

Today I’m going to present two works each from five great artists, none of whom are “animal artists”, although almost all of them included animals in their work at one time or another.

I’m going to offer you a thought or two about how you might explore what I believe the artist has to offer. See what you can think of that uses the ideas in these paintings, but with animal subjects.

First is Roy Anderson, one of the great living painters of Native Americans. These images are from a book “Dream Spinner, The Art of Roy Anderson”, which I found at Settlers West Gallery in Tucson this past March for, can you believe it, $10. They may still have some. I don’t know if they will mail them out, but it can’t hurt to call and ask.

At the back of the book is a whole section on how Mr. Anderson creates his paintings, worth more than twice the price of the book for the excellent advice and information he offers.

Here is a master class in color and value relationships. The painting has three “layers” from front to back. Imagine if this was a herd of wildebeest trudging through the dust of the Serengeti.

This one is similar to the first Roy Anderson painting I saw and which just blew me away. I love the strength of the backgrounds. No fear of color here! How could one vignette an animal with this as an inspiration? I must admit, though, that I’ve thought about how to present a Mongol herder in his traditional garb, using my own ideas of shapes and colors for the background.

Second is Edgar Degas, who was equally accomplished in painting, pastel and sculpture.

What inspires me personally about his work is his revolutionary compositions, in which figures and other elements are “cut-off’ by the edge of the canvas.

If you find your compositions getting a little stale or have realized that you tend to plop your subject in the middle of the canvas, looking through a book of Degas’ work will blast you loose.

Third is Richard Diebenkorn, an abstract painter who scandalized his contemporaries in the 1950s by introducing recognizable figures into his work at a time when that was considered beyond the pale.

How could this composition be adapted to an animal subject? Like Degas, Diebenkorn has used an unconventional placement of his subject, tight against the left edge and facing more or less off the canvas.

All good painting has a solid abstract structure underneath. Robert Bateman, the legendary wildlife artist, started as an abstract painter and then applied that knowledge to his animal art. Here is a Diebenkorn abstract from the 1990s that could inspire a representational composition.

Fourth is Dean Cornwell, known as the Dean of American Illustrators. He trained in mural painting with Frank Brangwyn in England and it shows in his ability to put together panoramic images with lots going on.

The inspiration in this piece is having the foreground and even the main character in shadow, contrasted with the bright, colorful background.

Cornwell’s rich, decorative approach and fantastic draftsmanship have something to offer artists in any genre.

Fifth is Joaquin Sorolla, known for his incredible ability to paint light.

It’s easy to get caught up in what is called “local color”, the inherent color of a subject. This and the next painting illustrate the truth that the color of something depends on the light (and also what the object is next to). We accept that the three ladies in the foreground are wearing white, but there is not a speck of pure white paint on any of their dresses.

How many colors can you count in this “white” dress?

The paintings:

They Sing Towards the Sun  40×72″ oil (detail)

Elk Robe Medicine  36×26″ oil

The Song of the Dog  22 5/8×17 7/8″ gouache and pastel over monotype on paper

The Green Dancer (Dancers on Stage)  26×14 1/4″ pastel and gouache on paper

Coffee 57 1/2x 52 1/4′ oil

Untitled No. 12  38×25″ crayon, graphite and acrylic on paper

Pontius Pilate’s Banquet from The Robe  23×30″ oil

“Ransom”, a Captain Blood story 26×51 1/2″ oil

Bajo el toldo (Zarauz)  39 3/8×45 1/4″  oil

Maria en la Granja  67×33 1/2″  oil

The Story Of A New Argali Painting, Part 2

Continuing on from last week, I knew that I was going to do a big painting (big for me, at this point) when the five rams walked across the stream bed in the beautiful morning light.

I also knew that it would be a complex piece that would take more planning than I’d done in the past. I’ve started a couple of big paintings, only to have them bog down and fail because, while I did do preliminary sketches and drawings, I found that I hadn’t really solved some critical problems and then was faced with figuring them out on the canvas. A recipe for frustration and failure.

Not this time. First, I thought about what it was that made me want to paint this scene. It was not only the argali, but the interesting alternating pattern of light and shadow, which started in the foreground and went all the way back. And it was important that it be about my emotional response to this very special experience.

Here’s one of the reference shots. I create Albums in Aperture where I can put all the images I’m using on a painting. In this case, thirteen. Here’s the lead ram.

Since I had a pretty clear image in my head of where I wanted to end up, I didn’t do thumbnails this time. And, having struggled with understanding how to work larger, I decided to start larger right away. This is the first layout, done on 19×24″ Canson Calque tracing paper.

As you can see,  I adjusted the proportions as needed. I wanted the emphasis to be on the rams, but still show enough of the background to place them in a specific setting and show that alternating light and shadow pattern.

You will also notice that I have an even number of animals, which breaks a “rule”. But they are in an uneven number of “groups”. This doesn’t happen by accident. Or if it does, then there is a conscious decision to keep it.

I had also done a finished drawing of the two rams, which some of you saw a few months ago on Facebook (you can “Like” my public page here).

The next step was to do a small color rough to figure out how I would achieve the visual effect I was looking for. This is on a 6×8″ canvasboard. I blocked out the part that didn’t fit the proportion.

What was critical was to play up the golden light on the ram’s horns and to make sure the argali were the objects of highest contrast by placing them against the central shadow shape.  Notice that I’m just painting blobs of color to get the relationships down.

The central tree has a cast shadow. This is something that has given me trouble in the past. The shapes, edges and value relationships have to be just right. So I did a couple of studies of just that tree, along with another to figure out some of the same things where the stream bed goes back into space.

Now it was time to do a large value study, 12×24″. I adjusted the relative position of the rams, moving the pair forward a little.

I had to know if what I had come up with would work at the final size I had decided upon- 24×48″. This is where I’d gotten into trouble before. I asked an artist colleague for advice and he said to take my finished drawing to a copy place and have it blown up to the final size, which I think is a really good idea.

But I chose to try something else. I have found great value in the re-drawing process. It allows me to refine, correct, simplify and really learn to know my subjects in a way that would not be possible if I simply did a drawing, transferred it and started to paint, or worse, heaven forbid, projected them. The depth of understanding and flexibility I get is critical to the quality of my finished product.

First I put a sheet of tracing paper over the drawing above and drew a one inch grid on it.

Then I placed my untoned canvasboard on the easel and ruled a grid on it in pencil. I taped tracing paper to it. It took three sheets to cover it. I lightly sketched a transfer drawing so that every element was in the right spot.

Once the background was laid in, I taped on three more pieces of tracing paper and did the final pencil drawings of each argali. Now I had this:

Because the argali were all on their own pieces of paper, I could do a final check on position and easily move them if needed. I also now had the whole composition at the final size and could see that it did, in fact, work. Whew!

I removed the tracing paper, toned the canvas, re-attached it and, using a No. 7 pencil and a sheet of homemade graphite transfer paper, transferred the drawing.

Using the tracing paper drawings as a guide and referring back to the photo reference if necessary, I carefully re-drew the argali with a brush, figuring I’d get the most important elements down first. Here’s a close-up which also shows the loose lay-on of the background. Notice that you can see three of the four hooves. They vanish later as I decide to add additional and larger rocks to create more of a visual separation between the sheep and the viewer.

Here’s the finished drawing, with basic values starting to be indicated. Notice that the rocks in the foreground and middle ground are just roughed in. No need to spend a lot of time on them at this point.

Finally it was time to start adding color! I work all over a canvas in a sitting, keeping the edges soft and letting colors “bleed” into each other. This lets me control where the harder edges will be later on. I’ll also “lose” the drawing, knowing that, having drawn the animals multiple times,  I can “find them” again with no problem. First I established the shadow shapes, letting the undertone be the light.

Here’s a close-up of the lead ram in progress. Still keeping it loose, but working on light and shadow and correct structure.

I started to see a problem in the forequarters and it nagged at me for a couple of sittings until I realized that the leg closest to the viewer was too far forward. Moving it and the shoulder back about a quarter of an inch solved the problem. His head was also a little too small. That’s a big advantage of working this way. I can make changes at any point in the process, which turned out to be really important when I was trying to keep track of so many pictorial elements and their relationships to each other.

Let’s take a quick break. Here’s my palette. For this painting, I used my standard color range: transparent oxide red, cadmium red medium, cadmium orange, yellow ochre light, cadmium yellow pale, cadmium yellow, titanium white, ultramarine blue, Winsor violet (dioxine), sap green, terra verte, chromium oxide green.

Missing this time around is cobalt blue and magnesium blue hue. I mix my own earth colors and greys. My black is a mix of transparent oxide red and ultramarine blue. I can easily shift the color temperature by changing the proportions.

The palette itself is a scrap of Swanstone solid surface countertop. I got the idea from another art blog and I like it much better than the glass one I’d been using.

Ok, back to the painting. I’m probably about mid-way through at this point. All the value relationships are set (at least I thought so) and basic colors are on.

Oh, darn. I realized that having all the rams in the same light wasn’t very interesting. I went back to my reference images and found a nice shot of the very first one coming out of the shadows. Now I needed to put the fourth ram in that light. Aperture is great for this since it lets you show multiple images at once.

Much better. Having solved that final, somewhat major problem, it was now a matter of simply pushing on, solving all the problems, making decisions, tweaking and tweaking (what Scott Christensen more elegantly calls “orchestration”).

Until, finally, after far longer than I have ever spent on a single painting, it was done.

Then They Walked Out Into The Morning Light 24x48" oil

Some Thoughts On Applying For Membership In The Society Of Animal Artists

SAA members and guests at the opening weekend of the 49th Art and the Animal; Rolling Hills Wildlife Experience

This post was originally written for the Society’s Facebook public page and blog, but I wanted to share it here since I think what I have to say relates not just to what my thoughts are about applying to join the SAA, but also lays out in general some of my beliefs about what makes good animal art. It’s illustrated with images of various members of the Society, who I am proud to call my colleagues and friends.

The deadline for the next round of consideration is coming up in mid-April. I thought that, having participated in three membership juries now as a member of the Executive Board of the Society, I would offer some observations and tips  that might be helpful to those of you who aspire to membership in the SAA.
A couple of notes before we start- First, I’m a painter and that’s what I know best. What I’m going to say applies to most other media, but creating a successful painting will be my main focus. Second, this article represents my personal views and is not an official statement by the SAA, any of its officers or the other board members. If you have any comments or questions, please direct them to me.
Now, to begin: I recommend that you do this exercise. Go to the Society’s website, visit the virtual museum and the individual websites of any member’s work that catches your eye. Then get out at least eight or ten of your own pieces. Line them up. Look at them objectively. This is not easy. We tend to be either too hard or too easy on ourselves. Do your best to be honest since that is when opportunities for growth happen.

The late Simon Combes giving a demonstration; Lewa Downs Wildlife Conservancy, 2004

Representational painting in general, and animal art in particular, have well-established criteria for what constitutes a “good” painting. These principles have evolved over a number of centuries. They are not “subjective”.

You are not in competition for a limited number of spots as would be true with a juried show. We usually have between two and three dozen applications to consider. We can accept all of them. Or none of them. Each applicant’s work is judged on its own merits.

Greg Beecham at the Quick Draw; Susan K. Black Foundation art conference, 2005 (Suzie Seerey-Lester to left)

Pick one piece that you honestly believe is at or is close to the level of the work of the artists who are already members.

You now need four more at or near that level, because one of the things that will sink an application fast is one or two good pieces followed by the jury seeing the next three or four go off the cliff. You will be judged by your weakest pieces. Consistency is very important.

Kent Ullberg gets inspired at the SAA 50th Anniversary event; San Diego Safari Park, 2010

Consistent in what? Glad you asked…

1. DRAWING: Animals have a physiological and behavioral reality that a competent animal artist has to understand and demonstrate to the jury. In other words, you need to be able to draw them with accuracy and understanding if you are a traditional representational artist and clear understanding if you are going to handle them in a more personally expressive way. You are hoping to join the ranks of animal artists who have been doing this, in some cases, for decades. They know if the drawing is correct or not. Which way a leg can bend, how a wing moves in flight or what the pattern of spots are on a leopard are not really subject to debate, however open they are to informed interpretation.

Karryl sculpts on location at the 50th Anniversary event; Rolling Hills Wildlife Experience, 2010

2. CRAFT: We want to see a solid understanding of your chosen media, whatever it is. If you decide to submit work in more than one media, then all of them need to be at an equal level of competence. Don’t submit a little of this and a little of that, hoping that something will stick, like spaghetti on a wall.

David Rankin on location, ready for anything at Torrey Lake: Susan K. Black Foundation art conference, 2005

3. DESIGN AND COMPOSITION: Do you have a solid grasp of design and composition? Have you made a conscious decision about every element of your piece? For instance, are the subjects in the majority of your submissions plopped automatically into the middle of the canvas or thoughtfully placed to carry out your central idea?

Andrew Denman gets worked over by an affectionate bobcat; he, Guy Combes and I visited the Sierra Endangered Big Cat Haven last year

4. PERSONAL VISION: Are you creating art based on a personal vision or simply copying photographs? (It is well-known that photographic images flatten and distort three-dimensional subjects like animals, so the artist must learn how to compensate for that if their goal is a realistic representation.) What do YOU have to say about lions and elk, butterflies and buzzards? Let your opinion, point of view and passion come through. HAVE an opinion, point of view and passion about your subjects.

John Seerey-Lester paints a mountain lion; Susan K. Black Foundation art conference, 2005

5. KNOWLEDGE: Do you understand basic animal anatomy? Do you understand the habitat of the species you are representing? Have you learned about their behavior as an inspiration for your work? Or is everyone just standing around? If you put an animal in a realistic setting,  you are now a landscape painter too. Are both your animals and any habitat shown depicted at the same level? Or does one lag behind the other?

Yours truly hard at work in the Gobi, Mongolia 2010

Animals are specialized subject matter that require study and the accumulation of knowledge over time to represent successfully. There are no shortcuts.

We are looking for artists who have mastered their art and craft at a consistent level and who present us with a body of five works which all reflect that level.


One Way To Know When An Outdoor Painting Is Finished….(You’ll Never Guess)

Notice the little drawing of a plein air painting setup, circa 1914

“But how do I know when it’s finished?”….is one of the many plaintive cries of the painting student.

There are probably almost as many answers as there are painting teachers.

And I think it depends on how far down the road of understanding an artist has gone. I know it has changed for me over the sixteen years that I have been painting.

These days, I have a pretty good idea of what problems I need to solve and how I’m going to do it. Once I have, voila, the painting is done.

However, as students and new painters are battling on many fronts at once, it’s easy to keep going and going and going…..until, well, It’s Dead, Jim.

F. Hopkinson Smith

But, once again, dipping randomly into one of my old art instruction books, this time “Outdoor Sketching” by F. Hopkinson Smith, I find another method, effective but probably not well known. The book is a presentation of four talks that he gave at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1914. Wish I’d been there. This excerpt is from his talk on Composition.

“The requirements are thoughtful and well-studied selection before your brush touches your canvas; a correct knowledge of composition; a definite grasp of the problem of light and dark, or, in other words, mass; a free, sure, and untrammelled rapidity of execution; and, last and by no means least, a realization of what I shall express in one short compact sentence; that it takes two men to paint an outdoor picture: one to do the work and the other to kill him when he has done enough.”

Hopkinson Smith may have written the most interesting and witty book on outdoor sketching that most artists have never heard of. There will be more….

But in the meantime, here are some of his sketches from “Gondola Days”, which is in my personal library. As you will see, he knows whereof he speaks:

Lovely old cover with wonderful typography