People ask me sometimes about ballpoint pen and how I use it in my drawings. They’ll say that when they use it, it smears or gets discolored. And I say, “that’s because no one in their right mind should be using ballpoint pen.” But I can’t help it–that’s what I like. It’s what I’ve ALWAYS liked, and what I’m most comfortable with. It’s cheap, portable, easy to find, easy to carry.
But it does have a couple of issues.
Don’t be scared, though! When I was younger, information was a lot harder to find, and I was about the only one I ever knew that drew with a PEN. Nowadays, there are TONS of fine artists that use ballpoint (sometimes they call it “biro”), and do some AMAZING work. I don’t know what they go through, but here are some things I’ve learned…
THE PEN ITSELF
I’ve learned that I like ballpoints. Not gels, not rollerballs, not ink pens. BALLPOINTS. Believe it or not, there’s a difference. Nothing fancy, either–I’ve tried the expensive ones, and they’re nice, but for my work, they’re not gritty enough. Plain ol’ Bics work best for me…but I’ll use anything in a pinch.
I call it “glurping” or “glumping,” or whatever. It’s that blob of ink that sometimes comes out when you’re drawing, that can smear up your whole picture. Early on, I’d be happily drawing and OH NO MY WHOLE DRAWING IS RUINED!!! I know of one artist who uses his finger to wipe the pen every few strokes. I use my shirt….or whatever dark fabric thing is closest. Which is why, if you look all over my house, and on every shirt I own, you will most likely see little constellations of pen dots on my right front shoulders. As I draw, every couple of minutes, I instinctively wipe my pen on my shirt in a little twist. Sure, there is absolutely a better way to do this that was not so messy on my clothes. I could use a napkin. But I don’t.
PENS TURN FREAKY COLORS
I use ballpoint sketches as sort of a skeleton, because I like the pen marks to show through a little. If I watercolor on top, I get this nice blend of ink and pen. If I use acrylics, you still get to see the great lines, but with painting more on top. BUT IF YOU VARNISH, no matter HOW MUCH acrylic paint I have on top of my pen lines, the pen will SHOW THROUGH. And it turns sort of a purplish color. I’ve tried different varnishes, and I always get the same result. I usually like the look, but if it’s TOO discolored, I wait for the varnish to dry and paint in acrylic back on top of it. Varnish THAT, and you’re good to go. Waste of time? Yes. Draw my undercoat in pencil instead, then? NEVER EVER EVER. Don’t know why.
So here’s a typical project: Awhile back, my art friend Aaron McMillan (@mcmillankid on Instagram) and I challenged each other to draw Meryl Streep. I wanted to draw both versions of her witch from “Into The Woods.”
I usually start with the eyes and work my way out. I’ve mentioned before that there are many ways to measure faces to get proper proportions, and while I did my time with that in art school, I prefer to just wing it, because I like the wonky look.
My drawings are made up of very soft lines using varied pressure and crosshatching. I noticed once, while drawing, that I sort of blur my eyes to see the values and tones as I’m shading…which might explain my terrible eyesight. (Thankfully I’m near-sighted, so I’d still be able to draw in a post-apocalyptic world if I broke my glasses…but I’d be useless spotting anyone more than 10 feet away. …I have to think about these things.)
Once the sketch is done, I usually use watercolor or acrylic, but for this one, I challenged myself to use markers (since Aaron uses them a lot). Several people use Copics, but I prefer Prismacolor Premiere Brush Tips for no real reason, other than that I’m comfortable with them, and I love them.
Now this is where people who try this often get freaked out, because pens do freaky things…
AAAUUUGH it’s PURPLE!! Yeah, using markers on top of ballpoint pen is a little freaky because it instantly turns purple. This can weird you out at first, and make you think you’ve ruined the whole thing. But be patient! All is not lost! Keep going…
I get my darker markers out to shade, and the purple discoloration is already starting to settle down a bit as it soaks into the page…
And now by the time I’ve blended my darks with my lights, the purple tone is almost as faded as a bad dream in the daytime.
So here’s what it looks like, flat without much highlights. I have the ballpoint skeleton underneath, and I like the quickness of the markers–you can blend solid colors very quickly with darker shadows, and the marker soaking into the page does the rest. So here it is all flat, and ready for the next step…
Highlights! Here I like to use white acrylic paint (although I’ve used white colored pencil in a pinch) to add highlights to everything to make it pop a little more.
I like to find the “hot spots” of white, and blend them into the background color.
And there ya go!
The main point is not to get freaked out. I teach our daughter that there’s no real way to “mess up.” If you can’t fix it with ink or paint, you can always pretend you did it on purpose. :)
Don’t be afraid to mess up. Just open that sketchbook and DO IT. The worse that could happen is that you learn something. So good luck with all your artistic experiments!
Pssst! Hey, you! Do you want to see some horrible artwork?
…Well, neither do I. But unfortunately, my sketchbooks have been filling themselves up lately with really bad starts.
Usually, these make for perfect doodle starters for Myla…but lately, they’ve barely been good for even that…
They’re badly started before they’ve even begun.
Some people have said, “Oh, they’re fine! They look great!” But really they aren’t. Not when I know I can do better.
So what do you do when everything you doodle comes out wrong? I usually do one of two things:
1. Distract myself with other hobbies. This is usually when I have to try and change it up a little. I sew for awhile. I sculpt. I play Legos with the kid, or let her lead drawing games with me.
2. Keep bashing my head against that very same wall, in that very same spot. Photographers take TONS of bad shots before catching “the one shot” that works. Sometimes, trying, and trying, and trying again is a helpful way to get out of a rut. This requires lots of disposable supply stock, and patience. It will be frustrating. You will fill up many pages with many bad sketches. But one day, something halfway decent might come out, and you will be a little relieved.
But it’s like revving up an engine that won’t turn: once there’s a spark, you have to keep it up, or it’ll falter again.
For now, my engine’s still trying to turn, and that’s when I have to remind myself of the most important step of all:
3. ALWAYS keep a sense of humor about it all, and don’t take it so stinkin’ SERIOUSLY!!!
Really, it’s art. Calm down. It’ll come back. And it’s that confidence that it WILL come back that has kept you going for years and years, and that you need to be comfortable with. That you need to relax around. If you’re really into it, it’ll come back.
Remind yourself how much you DON’T suck by looking at some of your favorite pieces you’ve made. Keep a little scrapbook of your best work, and pull it out on occasion and look at it. I like to look at mine and remind myself, “oh LOOK! I’m not THAT totally horrible!”
So, I know about artist’s block, and I know about writer’s block. Are there others? What sorts of things do you enjoy doing, and does the skill to do it ever leave you for awhile? And if so, what do YOU do about it?
One thing I’ve ALWAYS enjoyed is the fine line between hard and soft, aggressive and sweet, monstrous and dainty.
I’m pretty inexperienced with embroidery, but I loved creating with thread. I loved the feel of mixed textures on paintings, as well… I got a little book on different types of stitches and just played around with them…
And even tried painting on canvas fabric and hand-sewing on top of it. I was able to keep some of the detail of painting that I couldn’t get (or didn’t have the patience to get) with embroidery.
And then a reader asked if I had tried machine stitching. And I hadn’t! So I immediately gave that a try. And OH what fun!
I think the first one I did was the Galdalf below–I loved the idea of working various stitches on my machine into his beardwork. So much fun. I started adding it to the backgrounds and into parts of peoples’ hair…
I even used it, in some cases, to represent part of a character’s story–like the battle-scarred Hound and Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, below.
I can’t get enough of stitching everything now! I love the variations of texture. I still love hand-embroidering, especially when I can add the little beads and things. Have you tried experimenting with a new medium?
One rainy day, after watching a few too many episodes of the Amazon show “Annedroids” , Myla said, “I want to build something! I want to be an inventor. Hey mom, can we build stuff out of other stuff, too?”
Not one to turn down an awesomely creative educational opportunity, I asked her what she wanted to build.
“ROBOTS!” she exclaimed. “We can even make one that helps with chores, and does the dishes. Maybe even one that talks to us and plays Legos. Can we make one that cleans?”
Um. Well, since I don’t happen to have earned a degree in robotics and engineering, I was stalled out. Until I remembered this:
One year while visiting my parents, my nieces decided to take apart some old electronics and build stuff. They just took it all apart and hot-glued it all together. Because that’s the kind of awesome stuff they do. One of them came up with this one, and sent it to us–it’s a portrait of Myla painting!
Isn’t it AWESOME? The curly hair! The eyes! The “paints,” and even the little collaboration taped to the easel.
I offered that as a suggestion, and Myla jumped at it. We dug around the garage for some old electronics, but since I had recently donated or dumped most of them, a trip to the thrift store yielded a good harvest: $5 for an old broken cassette player and a video tape rewinder. The height of technology at the time, they now served a much more artistic purpose by yielding parts for our creations.
The cool thing was getting her familiar with some tools, which is a good skill for any kid to have. I unscrewed the main body of the pieces, and taught her a little about wire clippers and screwdrivers. This all involved a lot of work on my part, but it kept her busy and interested, just trying to figure out the tools and tiny pieces. (Plus she looks super cool in her dad’s sunglasses, which doubled as eye protection, since I didn’t have any kid-goggles.)
A big bowl came in handy to keep all the little parts in for later. That would be where we’d keep all the tiny pieces and what we could dig through to build more out of later, and she got a kick out of seeing all the little pieces inside.
I plugged in our trusty low-temp kid’s glue gun–those are the ones that heat at lower temps to make it a little easier for kids to use. Still, since she had a bad experience with it ages ago (she directly touched the hot glue), she was hesitant to use it. Instead, I let her tell me what went where, and I helped her glue. I showed her, too, how the glue dries VERY quickly, and as long as you don’t touch it right away, it’s pretty harmless.
I just remember being warned so often about the dangers of power tools (my grandad cut the tip of his thumb off once, and I’ve heard tons of Wood Shop horror stories) that I have to fight through my fear of them sometimes. I’d rather teach her the right way to use them, than just have her be afraid.
So here’s what we created! A remote control cat, and a tiny gear robo-mouse! So what if they can’t move on their own. They were fun to make, and we had a great time building them!
This is the first little face I made as a quick example to show her how you can make things out of the junk parts…
Later, I was inspired by an Instagram artist who fixed his friend’s Ever After doll by building her a steampunk leg–and I realized I could use some of the broken electronics to make a prosthetic arm for a Monster High doll that Myla had acquired, whose arm was missing.
I had some tiny watch parts from a jewelry project I had in my craft supplies, and just hot-glued a little hook-arm together for her.
It all started with a Blythe doll….
Not too long ago, I was introduced to the crazy world of dolls when a friend traded me a Blythe doll in exchange for some artwork. She had warned me I may become addicted. “Oh pshaw,” I thought. “They’re cute, but I’m not really that into ‘people’ dolls.” I really didn’t know much about Blythe…just that they were a very unique doll that I had seen around for ages, and thought it’d be fun to have one for Myla.
But then I started learning about this whole other WORLD of customizing dolls. Now THAT I could get into–not so much to sell, but just for fun. Taking something that was factory-made and changing it to your own version? That’s pretty darn cool, I guess. People do ALL kinds of crazy customizations to their Blythes, and I started to find it fascinating.
But PAUSE–I’ll come back to Blythe..
I saw that people were customizing other dolls, so soon I found myself eyeballing my daughter’s Monster High ladies (if you’re shooting for impossible body standards, you may as well go ALL out and be a MONSTER, right?). Since she wouldn’t give her approval to let me experiment (although she did let me add some definition to the lovely designs on her Loch Ness Lorna doll) I took matters into my own hands, and started shopping around.
So I googled a few tutorials on customizing doll faces (there are THOUSANDS online), and took the paint off of her face and repainted her all over again…a little more hairy. A little more freckly. And those LEGS! Those are some non-shaved winter sasquatch legs for SURE! I love ’em. It was a little intimidating at first….I guess just the idea of totally messing her up. But really, if I had messed her up, I really could just wipe the paint off again with nail polish remover, right?
There are a hundred ways people do and don’t do it, so I won’t give a full tutorial. Really, there are tons of people who make money online professionally customizing dolls, and they really know their stuff. I don’t. I’m just playing around.
I’ll just say I wiped her off with nail polish remover that had acetone in it (apparently, this can melt some plastics, so be careful), and it all came right off. Then I painted her with acrylics (most people use certain types of art pastels and paint that on, which gives more of a soft airbrushed look). The trickiest thing is spraying it to seal it all, because some sprays never fully dry, leaving the plastic tacky. This is particularly annoying because EVERYTHING sticks to it. This is what I accidentally did (despite reading about it), so now her face and arms are a little tacky. I ordered the correct spray, though, so help is on the way! The plasic was pretty easy to paint on–the acrylics didn’t really bead up or anything, and I was able to get a LITTLE bit of smooth shading (pastels would’ve probably been a lot smoother).
So to me, store-bought Monster High doll: boring. CUSTOMIZED Monster High doll? SUPER COOOOOOOOL!!!
And despite insisting I wouldn’t become a “crazy doll lady,” I was messing around on etsy, and found an inexpensive little MH WIG from FantasyDolls. And OMGersh, look how cool it looks!!!
She’s almost a proper sasquatch! It’s not properly glued onto her head or anything yet–like I said, I still need to fix that little “tacky skin” issue first–but I think it’s going to be pretty darn cool. And since she’s a “bigfoot,” I thought clothes wouldn’t look right, but nekkid didn’t quite work either. So the lovely lady from the shop offered to send me some scraps from the wig hair, and I’m going to use it to tack onto her body, like a really real sasquatch!
So why, you ask?
I don’t know. Because it’s fun. And why not?
In the meantime, my friend has fully supported my new experiments by sending me two Blythe doll bodies to play with. So I “tattooed” them with acrylic paints and permanent marker…I want to see which will hold and which won’t on what kinds of plastic. And hey–doll tattoos!
Myla has a blonde, curly-haired Blythe doll she named “Sweetie.” I have a long brown-haired one we named “Mabel” (after the backyard gnomes that used to “visit” us).
There are SO many options for customizing Blythe dolls–you can change their bodies, paint their faces, paint their eyelids, you can give them completely new hair, and you can adjust their eyes so they don’t have that creepy straight-ahead doll stare, just to name a few. Since I’m not so skilled in all of THAT (and since they’re quite expensive dolls), I decided to do a few littler things, like paint “tattoos” on their bodies, and make horn headbands for them.
I made deer antlers for Mabel out of Super Sculpey, hot-glued and E-6000’d onto a little doll headband. Myla asked if I could make Sweetie a pair of goat-horns, so I made those the same way. (I tried to cast them in resin so I could make a lot more, but my molding and casting skills still need some work.)
When I told Myla I was going to “tattoo” my doll’s body, she asked if I could do Sweetie’s too. She told me exactly what she wanted: a deer-girl. Because she says Sweetie is someone loves caring for all kinds of animals. So that’s what we did! And since Mabel seems like some sort of wood-nymph fairy girl (yeah, you heard me), I did a moth on her.
Anyway, call me crazy for playing with dolls. I get it, really–it does seem pretty strange. But really, it’s quite fun! To be able to take something and make it into something else completely your own is pretty awesome. I wish I had some spare Blythe faces to play with. Apparently they come straight out of the box looking VERY plastic, like this:
I’m not sure what I’m going to DO with these dolls once I’m done. Stick ’em on a shelf? More than likely, Myla will want to play with them. I know some dolls are fancy, and some are expensive, and it may be risky to let your kid play with a “nice” doll. But if you teach that kid to be NICE to your “nice” doll, then hey–why not? I mean, they’re toys, afterall. They’re meant to be played with and enjoyed!
I get such wonderful mail from time to time, of people sharing stories about how the little collaborations that Myla and I do has affected their lives in a positive way…and I don’t care WHAT kind of cruddy day I might be having, they ALWAYS make me smile.
This set of collaborations is from Charlotte Christian School, where kids in High School worked on drawings with kids from Kinder and Junior Kinder classes. Look at all the amazing things they did!
This is a small sample from a class at Sanna preschool in Jönköping, Sweden, where the teachers took photos of the kids and let them paint whatever they wanted to, after seeing the drawings that Myla and I did (thank you, Ellen, Olivia and Benjamin!).
I got this beautiful image via @januarylark on Twitter, who got our book before she knew she was pregnant, and is reading it to her new little buddy.
I love to see the things people draw together, and I love that you all share them with me! So keep drawing, keep doodling, but most of all, keep enjoying spending real time creating with your kids!
Sometimes (as I’ve mentioned more than once), you have these weird ideas that you don’t really understand, but for some reason, you just have to do. My little mermaid was one of those ideas.
It’s rare, I thought to myself, to see a mermaid that isn’t some lithe, dainty, graceful creature. And while I’m not super into the details of anatomy, I know enough to realize that most mermaids aren’t portrayed with visible gills. And I bet they ALL don’t have gorgeous singing voices, either. :)
And that was my goal: a beautiful, strong, healthy, and FISHY-looking mermaid covered in gills near her face and chest and lungs. So I built a wire structure, wrapped it in tape, and built up my Super Sculpey figure on top of that (this keeps you from using so much clay, as well as from burning the outside while all that inside bulk tries to cook). I learned from friends that are sculptors, to use rubbing alcohol to smooth out some areas, as well as a heat gun to soft-set some areas while you work on others—so you’re not constantly squishing the face as you sculpt other areas.
I put lots of decorative “fins” around her chest and face, to sort of shield the gill areas. I thought nature (because nature is smart) would most likely find ways to protect the softer skin on a mer-creature with scaly sort of decorative things (because nature’s an artist, too).
She has webbed hands, and fins on her arms (to be more aero/aquadynamic, I suppose?). I used the inside pieces from a broken ballpoint to add texture onto the scaled part of her tail, along with two lower fins.
It didn’t matter all TOO much, though, since after it was cooked and cooled (I like to turn the oven on 250, put my sculpture in, and turn the oven off & forget it til it cools off), the next step was to paint her.
I didn’t want her to look too morose and gothy, but again–thinking of nature, she’d probably want to be fairly well-camouflaged, right? So I painted her in sort of blueish grayish purples.
My favorite parts were the gills: I made them sort of reddish, as I recall fish-gills being. And do you see she’s got some curve and a booty? I’m just going for a version I’ve never seen before. That curve is pretty hard to photograph. I at least gave her a little pudge under her arms, because maybe she’s buff and well-fed. And hey…we can’t ALL be as dainty as Ariel.
So at the point when I could go no further, and Her Baldness was staring at me with peaceful patience, I was saved by an order I had made online of a small batch of reddish mohair. I am not at all familiar with laying hair, but I had read a little bit about dolls and laying their hair. Still I wasn’t sure what to do.
So I faked it. I squirted black E-6000 on top of her head, and carefully laid her hair the way I wanted it, and waited for it to dry. (I have since been told that there are many MANY better ways of doing this….but I am impatient.)
So now what? What do you DO with a creature like this? I had initially wanted to mold her and cast her in resin to customize in eighty million different ways. But I’m over my experience level with 2-part detailed molds, so I just stuck with making the original as awesome as I could while I could.
So I made my own mount for her.
But is she hanging on my wall? No. Not yet. I’m afraid she’ll fall off those poles. I keep meaning to paint the board (which I should have done beforehand, but it’s too late now). So she sits on my shelf, flat on her back, on top of two poles. And I’m still scared she’s gonna fall, so I haven’t hung her up yet. I was careful to make sure she didn’t look like a mounted, dead fish, as I also didn’t want to freak out our 5-year old.
So there’s something unfinished. I love her, I’m just not sure yet what to DO with her. But in the meantime, I thought I’d share! Sometimes, the weird things end up pretty wonderful.
OMgosh, I wanted to share a new creation that just arrived in the mail yesterday from a cool company called Budsies….
You might remember that I sometimes help Myla make wonky dolls from her creations (like this), but since my doll-making skills are pretty much self-taught, they’re always sort of hodge-podge. And highly wonky.
But this place called Budsies can take a drawing that you send them for a great price, and make a really cool, really well-made doll that’s a great size and looks JUST LIKE the drawing!
So here’s the drawing Myla sent of a sheep-dragon (a creature she created, and draws ALL the time), next to the final Budsies doll we got in the mail yesterday. HOW COOL IS THAT?!?! They even asked me via email to help them define details, down to the wings, and the fluff of “wool” on top. And aren’t those little claws the greatest? Myla has decided that his name is “Wooly.”
So I just have to share Budsies, for anyone out there who might be interested in getting one of their own, because DANG we had trouble narrowing down just that ONE drawing (believe me, Myla had HUNDREDS of ideas for more). So give ’em a look–check out their gallery and see what other awesome stuff they’ve done!
I just thought I’d share a little update on the fun time Myla and I had at Jerry’s Artarama in Austin this past weekend!
If you’re in the Austin area and you love artsy art supplies, you probably know Jerry’s. I sometimes take the hour-and-twenty-minute drive to Jerry’s JUST because they know their stuff. It’s such a fantastic thing to be able to talk to people who are familiar with the art supplies they’re selling, have actually used them, know what they can do, and if they’ll work for your project. Maybe you’ve always had an awesome art store like Jerry’s nearby, but I haven’t been so lucky…
So when we spoke to Jerry’s about doing an art demo there, I was so jazzed! This would be unique in that I have often kept Myla away from events, but now that she’s a little older, I asked if she’d like to help me with the demo, and she was super excited. It would also be unique in that I have given little online talks on our collaborations, I have interviewed about them via video and in emails, and I have done a TED talk telling our story…but I have never done a demo. So this would totally be a learning experience for me.
Myla and I got there pretty early to set up, and I started to worry (as I tend to do) that no one would show up because:
- the SXSW festival madness was in going on,
- it was spring break, and
- it was pouring down rain.
But thankfully, all the seats filled. Yaaaayyy! I started off by telling the story of how Myla and I collaborate. This was weird because Myla was right there, and also because I wasn’t sure how much anyone already knew, and I didn’t want to talk too much, or bore anyone to tears–especially after trekking through traffic and rain…
And then I started to worry because I wasn’t quite sure what people were expecting…. Did they want ME to draw? Did they want Myla to draw? Did they want me to shut up and let THEM draw?
People have messaged me over the years these wonderful stories of how they’ve done collaborative projects based on our doodles with their classrooms and families and friends, and I’m always so blown away by how much goes into it, and how beautiful the results are, and what a great time they had all around. I wanted people to have a good time and still get the experience of collaborations.
So I thought it’d be fun to sort of replicate that same idea by having printouts of some of the heads I had drawn, and having them add an outlined body to the head, and then if they were very brave, they could switch with other people and let them finish their work.
People had a lot of fun switching back and forth with other people in the room–Myla would pass the papers around to whoever needed a rotation. Some just switched with the person next to them (which ultimately gave them more say in what the outcome was….which was TOTALLY cheating! Hahah). For the full experience of enjoying the process instead of focusing on the final piece, one attendee suggested I should have set a timer and made people keep passing it to the person next to them. That might’ve been pretty fun!
One woman even brought some of her kids’ drawings with her to have people add onto. Myla joined in on a little of that, as did a couple of the other attendees.
I’ve had fairly decent success teaching a class on something specific. I have also given speeches. This being my first demo, it was a little awkward to have a project going, still share with them the ideas and thoughts behind it, and not have everything be so unstructured it falls apart. In any case, it at least gave me an idea of how to better do it next time!
I’d love to do demos more often! I thought it’d be fun to do weekend demos at children’s hospitals or elderly care centers. I need to look into that, because even if I was awkward, and wasn’t exactly sure how to interact, it was a lot of fun seeing people having fun and mixing their ideas up with other peoples’, not holding on so tight to their own work, and really breaking out and trying new things. I hope people at least had a good time–I know Myla and I did!
So, thank you SO much to everyone at Jerry’s Artarama in Austin for letting us come play and doodle with you! We had so much fun!
This weekend, the Kid and I are going to be at our favorite Austin art store to talk about our collaborations, and have a little fun!
Now that Myla’s older, I asked if she’d like to come along & help, and she was over the moon about it. “I can show step by step! I can help people come up with ideas! We can all draw TOGETHER!!!”
Yeah, she was excited.
So that’s where we’ll be! I’ll talk a bit about the fun of collaborating, how Myla and I work, and even have some in-class demos for everyone to play with. It’s gonna be fun!
If you’re anywhere near the area, come by & see us–we’d love to meet you! :)