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Question Sticker Series: My Thoughts on Accuracy

Question: "What are your biggest struggles or fears when it comes to making art?"

Reply: "That my sketch and pencil work don't look good and aren't accurate"

Let's Talk About Accuracy

Reading this reply, I feel like there are two separate items that need to be addressed. The first is concern about whether or not something is "good" which denotes some level of judgment or evaluation. The second is more about a technical skill relative to an expected outcome. While I will touch on what is "good" in terms of art and also on comparison, I think that these subjects are worthy of an entire blog post by themselves, so this discussion will focus mainly on accuracy.

The Importance of Accuracy

I think accuracy is something that most artists consider in their work. I would even go so far as to say that it is a skill where most artists show room for improvement, myself included. My sketches are never 100% accurate (and my paintings are never perfect, ever! Regardless of how you may interpret them, I promise they are full of mistakes). If I really wanted a sketch or drawing to be very precise I would have to devote considerably more time to it. So instead of 15-20 minutes, it would take me more like 5-10 hours (I don't know about you, but I do not have the time or the patience for that lol).

Not Always Necessary

In most cases, particularly with organic subjects (like trees or fruit), I find that a general approximation works just fine (no one knows the difference unless you show your reference right next to your sketch). So in this way, accuracy is of relative importance. You need to determine what level of accuracy is needed for the type of artwork you want to make. I think a high level of precision is only necessary when photo-realism is your goal or with things like recognizable portraits and scientific/botanical type drawings.

Approximate

When sketching, I just approximate things based on relative scale and placement within the composition. I am as they say, "eyeballing it". When painting landscapes, no one knows if I moved the tree a bit to the right and if they do notice, they don't know whether or not this was intentional. I will often shift things slightly or remove objects to suit my purpose and aesthetic. Staying 100% true to your reference is not always necessary or, depending on the circumstance, even desirable.

Practice

Everything else aside, accuracy comes down to practice and understanding the basic underlying principles of drawing. Things like relative proportions, perspective, scale, measuring angles, composition, and other rules of thumb. Another big part of drawing is just teaching the eye to see and observe rather than following what your brain thinks something looks like. The more you practice the more these things will develop. However, the most important takeaway from all of this is that accuracy is a skill that can be learned and improved upon.

Master the Basics

Drawing is the foundation for painting (even for the cartoonist or abstract painter). If this skill is underdeveloped, it will show in your work. Be patient. Be dedicated. Practice... Everyday. It is well worth the effort. It doesn't matter how well you can render shadows and match colors if your underdrawing is super wonky it will be noticeable. You have to develop the whole artist package and that means developing proficiency in multiple skill areas. Being an artist is a highly multi-faceted thing.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind:

  1. There is a big difference between self-criticism and self-evaluation just as there is a big difference between constructive criticism and harsh judgementalism. It is good to evaluate your work and see where you have done well and where you can improve. It is not helpful to always focus on the negative aspects of your artwork and ignore the positive ones (or to never stop and see how far you have come). There is something to be learned from every painting or piece of art you make.
  2. Let go of perfectionism. Perfect is a word we use for an idealized thing or situation which quite frankly, most often does not exist in reality. Making art (and life for that matter) is not about being perfect.
  3. Have realistic expectations for your work. No one becomes a master overnight. Art is a life long journey, enjoy the process.
  4. Do your best to avoid comparing your art to other people's work. This is a mistake that will only create jealousy or feelings of discouragement. Everyone has to start somewhere. You don't know how much practice and time another artist has put in to get where they are. We all have to work with what we have in this moment.
  5. Art is not some unspoken competition. The purpose of making art is not to be the best, it is for the joy of creating and self-expression. Do it for the process, not the end result.
  6. Remember that what is "good" when it comes to art is completely subjective. What I think is good, another person may think is crap and vice versa. The phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" really rings true when it comes to art. "Good" is a matter of opinion. Everyone has an opinion, but you don't have to listen to it or take it to heart.
  7. There are numerous drawing techniques to help with accuracy, such as using your pencil to measure angles or creating grids. Learning a few of these simple tricks can make a big difference in your work.
  8. Develop a sketching practice. Try to sketch for 15 minutes everyday. It doesn't have to be good and you don't have to show anyone your work. But consistently putting in the time will make a difference. I have seen this in my own art practice over the course of the past several years.

Final Thoughts

Don't give up!!! Believe it or not, I gave up on art for a while because at a certain point I realized my art would never be as accurate (or as instantaneous) as a photograph. I thought that I could never compete with a camera, so why bother? It took me years, but I finally realized that the point of creating art is much deeper and more profound than just attempting to be a human camera. You are not a machine and no one but you can make your art.

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Question Sticker Series: Overworking

Question Sticker: "What are your biggest struggles or fears when it comes to making art?"

Reply: "Overworking"

Oooh, this one can be tricky. Let's first define what overworking means and then hopefully I can shed some insight on how to avoid it.

Before I begin, I would like to point out that this is something that happens to all artists from time to time but is more apparent with mediums that are less forgiving. I have overworked my share of paintings and I am sure I will do so again in the future. For the oil or acrylic painter, if they don't like something they can simply paint over it. This is not the case with watercolor since it is a transparent medium. Thus planning before you start the painting process goes a long way.

What is overworking?

So what does it mean to "overwork" a painting? To me, this could mean several things.

  • One, that my colors are getting muddled and muddy and are no longer distinct. In other words, too many unintentional neutrals (greys and browns, AKA 'mud').
  • Two, that I have created unwanted textures with excessive brush strokes or damaged the paper by scrubbing and lifting too much. This is distracting and can, in my opinion, detract from the aesthetic appeal of the work.
  • Three, that I have put too much paint down on the paper, or simply made everything the same value. By making everything too similar in value it has a flattening effect on the painting due to lack of contrast. This also diminishes the impact of the focal point and lessens the effectiveness of the composition.
  • Four, high level of detail in too many areas of the painting. Excessive details are often distracting and overwhelm the eye of the viewer. What constitutes excessive will vary a great deal from one painting style to another. Again this is just my opinion.

I am sure there are other things that could be called "overworking" but these are the ones that come to mind.

I feel like this piece was overworked because much of the green is the same value and feels flat.

How to Avoid Overworking

While I do not consider myself an expert in this area by any means, I am happy to share the things that have helped me deal with this problem. I hope you find them helpful as well and I encourage you to add to this list if you have other techniques or suggestions. That way we can all learn from each others knowledge. Much of what I have to share on this is similar to my previous post about Understanding Light & Shadow, as the two things go hand in hand.

Things to Keep in Mind

  1. Value studies.
  2. Thumbnails and/or rough sketches.
  3. Color planning/mixing and making swatches ahead of time. Mixing colors in advance saves time later and can help a lot with timing (which is often quite important when painting with watercolors).
  4. Use a limited color palette. Fewer colors in your palette means less mixing and fewer decisions of "what to use where". In other words, it can help simplify the color aspect of painting so you can focus on value and tone, etc.
  5. Remember that contrast and value are more important than color.
  6. Intentionally exaggerate or engineer the contrast between values to create greater depth and impact in your artwork.
  7. Leave some areas of the paper white. You can always go back and tone them down later. But once you've painted over them, there is no getting that pure white back.
  8. Try using a well-developed under-drawing with some values indicated.
  9. Don't rush! Take your time. Rushed decision making will lead to more mistakes.
  10. Try not to get caught up rendering details from your reference photo UNLESS they have a purpose. (I struggle with this one!)
  11. Less is more (most of the time), especially in watercolor. Both in general and in regards to the number of washes and brushstrokes.
  12. You do not have to create just one version of a painting. Masters will often repeat the same painting over and over until they get it just right. Masterpieces don't happen by accident.

Planning is Key

Preparation will give you a solid plan and help you to avoid overworking. It is like creating a road map for yourself to follow. Planning allows you to work out a lot of the questions ahead of time so you don't have to make rushed decisions during the painting process. When it comes to a successful painting, VALUE is far more important than COLOR. It is easy to get distracted with color matching and the vibrant hues in your palette, so stop from time to time and do a progress check. Take a step back and evaluate your contrast and value range. Sometimes a few well-placed dark tones are all a painting needs to feel complete.

For a while, I had a piece of paper taped to my wall with three words listed in order of priority when it comes to painting. It read: contrast, composition, color. This advice comes from Tom Newnam, a successful Pennsylvania watercolorist.

If You Are Unsure, Stop

Often, if things start to go wrong it is better to just stop and move on to another area of the painting. Many times I have overworked a painting by trying to "fix" it. While sometimes it does work itself out, there are plenty of other times I just made it worse. If you are unsure how to handle a particular area, take a break. Make a cup of tea, go for a walk, then come back to your painting with fresh eyes. Trying to rush or force things is usually not the best solution.

No Painting is a Waste

It is easy to feel disappointed when your painting doesn't turn out, but try to keep in mind that every time you put brush to paper is a valuable learning experience. As watercolor artist Angela Fehr says, you are "logging brush miles." All of our mistakes are teaching us, showing us what we need to work on to take our painting to the next level. Without mistakes, we cannot learn, without learning we cannot move forward.

Angela also encourages artists to use overworked paintings as a place to push your limits and experiment. If it is already "ruined" you have nothing to lose by taking things in a new direction. Try something dramatic or turn it into an abstract. Regardless of what you choose, try to get the most out of it rather than seeing it as a failure.

Quality Matters

I think it is also important to note that the quality of the materials you use matters and can impact the amount of "wiggle room" you have before a painting starts to get overworked. Paper quality, more than anything else, can have an effect on this. Higher quality paper can take more brushing and lifting before it will start to show damage or pilling. It also helps to make your washes smoother and layering easier. It dries flatter with less warping, which means less puddling etc. Long story short, good quality paper can completely change your painting experience. I am often frustrated by lower quality papers because I am fighting with it the entire time, trying to get it to behave. It is not something I am doing wrong, it is just how it goes with cheap papers. I worry that some people blame the flaws in the paper on themselves and think it is because of something they are doing. Keep in mind that painting should be a pleasant experience, and your supplies should work with you, not against you. I promise you that spending a few extra dollars on better quality paper will have a positive impact on your work.

Additional Resources

One of the artists I follow on YouTube, Steve Mitchell (his channel is called The Mind of Watercolor), has a video about overworking where he shares his insight on this topic. You can watch it HERE. It's a vlog style video so skip ahead to 1:15 to get to the painting stuff. Steve has an entire playlist on watercolor basics as well as many other types of videos such as product reviews and his painting process.

Thank you for reading!

Wow, that was a long one! If you made it this far, thank you so much for choosing to spend your time reading my blog! I really hope that you found this helpful because I know overworking can be super frustrating. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback. You are the inspiration behind my posts so if there is something you'd like me to talk about, please let me know.

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Question Sticker Series: Fear of Being Laughed At

Question Sticker: "What are your biggest struggles or fears when it comes to making art?"

Reply: "Being laughed at"

Wow, where to begin. The first thing that came to mind was that if someone actually laughs at your art then they are a total jerk (to put it mildly). Period. The second thought was that thankfully we can't hear people laughing through Instagram and if they laugh we are none the wiser. I would say that in general, I have found the art community on Instagram to be really supportive and encouraging. While I have had a few spam, "hey look at my account" type of comments (so rude by the way), I have not had anyone say anything mean to me or about my artwork. If someone did say something inappropriate, I would simply delete their comment and be done with it.

That being said, making art should not be about other people or social media. It should be something you do for yourself because there is something inside of you that needs a creative outlet. A voice that can only speak through your artwork. It doesn't have to be saying anything profound, it can simply be a joy for making things. Don't let anyone (especially some jerk) take that away from you. Moreover, don't let the fear of judgment take it away from you either. If you choose to share your art on social media, do so to find connection with others and to put a bit of yourself into the world. Don't do it for praise or to impress people because those reasons are unavoidably tied to judgment.

A colored pencil drawing of female cardinal I did when I was nine years old (1992).

Its okay to be at the beginning.

We all (as in all creatives) have to start somewhere. Any activity that requires skill takes time, dedication, and practice to develop to a proficient level (regardless of talent). Art and creativity is a journey of constant evolution and learning that never ends no matter how long you've been at it. I have been drawing all my life but I am still learning and growing as an artist. I still consider myself a student and not a master. It is okay to be at the beginning of your journey.

Furthermore, there is this strange stigma with Art where people think you have to be out of this world amazing or you are not allowed to participate. But thankfully there is no such unspoken rule. My art will probably never make it into a museum and that is okay. I will never be the next pop sensation but that doesn't stop me from singing in the shower. I will never be an Olympic athlete but that doesn't stop me from loving horseback riding with all of my heart. It is no different when it comes to art. There is no need to compare yourself to legends like Da Vinci or Rembrandt or anyone else for that matter.  Make art because it makes you happy and who cares what anyone else thinks (especially some random stranger on the internet)!

Long story short, no one has a right to impose their judgment on you or your art. Please do not let fear limit you or your creativity. Be brave and be true to yourself! What you have to share matters!

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Question Sticker Series: Understanding Light & Shadow

Question: "What are your biggest struggles or fears when it comes to making art?"

Reply: "To understand light and shadows, especially in still life"

In My Own Work

First of all, I would just like to say that I omitted things like shadows and reflections from my artwork for YEARS because I found them quite intimidating. They are not an easy thing to master and just like everything else in art, it is a skill that takes time and practice and patience. If you want to get good at it, you have to put in the effort.

Let's start with the very beginning...it's a very good place to start.

For starters, subjects with a single direct light source are the easiest and a good place to begin practicing. It is also easier to practice on simple shapes rather than complex ones. Spheres and cubes are the usual examples. Things like an empty vase or a wine bottle or even a piece of fruit can provide more interesting subject matter.

Observe

Most importantly, I would encourage you to use the power of observation. Study your subject closely. Look at it as if you had never seen it before. Pay attention to the details. For example, the shape the shadow makes, and where the highlights are. So long as your light source is constant (and not moving like the sun) then your subject will give you all the information you need.

The Basics

Here are a few "rules of thumb", they may seem fairly obvious, but keep in mind I am writing this to include all skill levels.
  • Shadows will always fall on the side of the object that is opposite from the light source. Highlight and shadow placement should be consistent throughout your piece, so if the highlight is on the upper left-hand side of one object it should roughly fall in the same place on every object in the scene. Likewise, the shadow will always be on the (opposite) lower right-hand side. Things like reflected light and overlapping shadows can be worked in later once you feel like you have a handle on things.
  • There is no standard color for shadows, colors should be determined on a case by case basis and will vary greatly depending on the subject in question. For example, the shadow on a tomato will be very different from the shadow on a blue vase. Furthermore, shadows tend to be more muted and less saturated in color. Additionally, shadows are generally cooler in comparison to areas not in shadow.
  • Highlights and light areas can be left the white of the paper or with a subtle tint of color. I will sometimes mask out my highlights so I don't forget to leave white areas and absentmindedly paint over them.

Due to the fact we are attempting to render a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface (the paper), things like depth and contrast between light and shadow areas often need to be intentionally exaggerated. In other words, they need to be designed or engineered to create the desired effect. The intensity of this effect will be tailored to your individual preferences and you will develop an eye for it over time. Do not simply copy the values from your reference, especially if working from a photograph. Doing so will tend to make your paintings look flat. (Don't worry, you are not alone, I have a habit of doing this too!)

As you begin to develop your understanding of painting light and shadow, I suggest starting with just three values and in greyscale, adding color often complicates the issue (it is easy to get distracted trying to color match rather than focusing on the value range.)

Practice

Practice by making value studies, they are an excellent tool to determine the placement and level of value before you start your painting. It's like making a road map for your painting process and will eliminate the need to make quick, in the moment decisions that could make or break your piece. World renown artist Thomas Schaller is an excellent example of an artist who uses value and high contrast in his work. He will often do value studies before starting a finished painting. The more value studies you do, the more you will start to see things in terms of value rather than color.
Painting in three values:
  1. Lightest areas (leave these the white of the paper, if you're not sure, leave it white, it is much easier to add more paint later than trying to lift it off once it's dried).
  2. Middle values - various washes that are about 30-60% pigment to water.
  3. Darks - these should be the areas of darkest value and strongest paint concentration.
TIP: It is typically easier to see value in black and white photos - you can use your cell phone to snap a quick photo of your work and then convert it to a black and white image. This will allow you to do a greyscale value check of your painting. My friend and fellow artist Jen Dixon has a quick Skillshare class called "Studio Fu - Check Tone with Your Phone," on ways to use your phone to check values and tone if you'd like more instruction.

Final Thoughts

If you do not understand or are unsure what I mean by the term 'value', please take a moment to look it up on Google. It is a fundamental component of creating dimension in your artwork.
I hope this helps you understand light and shadows a bit better! I welcome your thoughts and opinions on this subject, after all, I am still learning too! And of course, thank you for reading!
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Question Sticker Series: Start Here

The Inspiration Behind This Series

As I walk this creative career path, I continue to grow both as a person and as an artist. Through my interaction with the art community, specifically on Instagram, I am always learning and I have come to the realization that it is my calling to help others through the common connection of Art. I believe that Art is for everyone and that everyone has the ability to be creative. Moreover, I want to help people change the way they think about Art and to overcome whatever hurdles lie in their path. I want to help other artists find creative freedom and to become their best creative self.

This goal lead me to ask the question: What are your biggest struggles or fears when it comes to making art?

I was pleasantly surprised by the number and range of responses I got. I immediately decided that I would reply to each as completely as I could. An in-depth answer, not just a few quick sentences, because the goal, after all, is to actually help others. I thought I would dedicate one full Instagram post for each reply. That was all well and good until I realized that my answer was more than double the maximum post length allowed. So here I am, writing a series of blog posts instead. If my words only help one person it will have been worth it.

So I invite you to join the conversation. How can I help you with your art journey? Or perhaps I should say, what are your biggest struggles or fears when it comes to making art?  I am sure they are things we can all relate to and perhaps together we (the art community) can overcome them.


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