From time to time, artists like to offer custom work. Some artists are super comfortable with this, and some are not. For the most part, I LOVE being able to make a wonderful memory for someone, or to be the gift someone gives to someone else. I love when people give me the creative freedom to do what I think will look best. But there is also an amount of anxiety about the possibility of disappointing the client.
Not so funny (but true) story: when I was about 14, I worked in a t-shirt shop after school. One day, a man came in with a tiny, stamp-sized photo of his toddler, and asked (since he had seen my airbrushed portraits) if I’d be willing to do a canvas portrait for him. I did the best I could with this tiny tiny photo, and when he came to pick it up, I felt I had done as good a job as I could do with what I had been given, because DANG I could barely see what was going on. (Also, I was only 14.) He took one look at the portrait and said, “It looks like the photo, but it doesn’t look like my son,” and refused to pay me for the work. I have been slightly intimidated ever since.
Portrait of the amazing portrait artist Maria Bjornbom Oberg (Bokkei). Talk about intimidating!
But since faces are my very favorite thing to paint, we’ll fast forward a million years, to a few months ago…where, after a little encouragement, I offered some portrait work up on Instagram, and was very surprised to have gotten an enormous amount of positive response from clients. People trusted in my creative freedom, and I really enjoyed every one that I worked on! I liked it so much, I was thinking I would offer custom portraits again….at least for a little while.
So as a courtesy, I thought I’d write down a few things that make custom work easier across the board, for both the artist (at least, in my experience) and the customer:
- Send great reference photos. If you want a portrait of your daughter, send a few closeup pictures of her. Don’t send a tiny shot of her in a large group of people–I can’t see her! Send your favorite photos of just her (if you can). Some editing can be done, of course (I have “removed” braces, changed hair color, added and removed items, added pets and favorite things, and changed the setting), but I can’t SEE the person’s face in a large group of people. Keep in mind that I don’t KNOW this person, so the subtle things about their face are unfamiliar to me. The more photos you send of this person, the better. I need clear shots (great, natural lighting is best) and I need a variety to choose from. I always do my best to work from a favorite photo, but it might not work as a reference without the “backup” of a few more photos. It sounds silly, but a variety of photos actually help me “feel” the personality of the person more.
- Mention a little a bit about the subject. If it’s a daughter (or your dog, for that matter)—what does she like to do? Does she have a favorite toy, or place to play? This helps me come up with things that help make the portrait more personal and more fun.
- Expect to pay half up front to hold your spot. For me, portraits range anywhere from roughly $150-500, depending on what a client wants, and I accept payment either in half or full via paypal. This holds a spot in line, so that when I finish one, I can start right on the next without having to worry about collecting initial payments, or trying to figure out who’s serious or not. The portrait is mailed out when I finish the work, the client is happy with the piece, and the final payment is paid. Yay!
- By all means, please share ideas with the artist (I LOVE that!), but artists usually work best when you leave a bit of wiggle room to be creative. I’m sure it’s probably intimidating to pay an artist and not be sure what EXACTLY you’re getting, but funny things happen when you get TOO involved. I love when someone can steer me to an idea of what they “see” when they imagine what the final piece will look like, but also allow me the freedom to do what I feel will look best. If I have a completely strange idea I’m not sure the client will jive with, I always ask them first.
- Mention anything that might make it more special. I nearly always post progress shots on instagram (unless I’m asked not to), but I always send a rough shot of the under-sketch to see what I’ve got laid out before I start painting. This is the time to ask for final changes or add things, or take things away. Keep in mind, it ALWAYS looks wonky at this stage. The sketch for me is like “notes” on what I plan to do with the color when I paint it, so people have to sort of use their “magic eyes,” or just trust in the final piece.
- It helps to know if there’s a timeline to consider. Otherwise, I go down the list in order of who came first. I’m pretty darn fast, but it takes some time to get to through the list if there are people ahead, so it may take a few months.
One of the first custom portraits I did this past year of the lovely Ms Kitty Noir, and all her lovely cats.
- I don’t offer collaborative pieces with our daughter. I know I’ve mentioned it before, and people have asked, but I’m sorry I won’t. I do have our collaborations up as prints on Society6, but I don’t allow custom ones. She enjoys it for fun, but as I’ve mentioned on the blog before, I can’t take something she loves and make her do it a certain specific way at age 6. Putting limitations and restrictions on something someone loves–that’s a sure way to get someone to stop doing something for good!
- Please don’t mind me posting my “extra” drawings! If someone is anxiously awaiting their turn, is following me on Instagram, and sees me post a Pulp Fiction doodle, It’s just that I took the night off to clear my head. I promise you, this will only make the portraits better, because it ensures I will not burn out. I have a day job, and then my late afternoons and evenings are spent with our daughter, and if I don’t get anytime daytime paint time, this leaves me with only a couple of precious hours at night after the kid is in bed to paint before I pass out in exhaustion at the end of the day. I love painting and drawing, and I really enjoy portrait work, but sometimes, I need to draw something just for me, for fun. Like having a drink or taking a bubble bath after a long day, it sort of cleanses the palate for me. I often feel guilty for it, when I know I have portraits to do, but honestly, it helps me feel refreshed for the next portrait.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for something strange! I enjoy strange and different!
- If you have a particular style you like best that I’ve done, please let me know! I had a client who enjoyed the “Stuff Myla Says” series I work on from time to time:
…And we did a similar piece of her young daughter, and a sweet little saying she had said:
So there you go. A bit of a list, but I think it’s a list of things people wonder about when they ask for a custom portrait, and things that could make the process go a little more smoothly. Many times, people I work with have never had a custom portrait made before, and don’t know where to even begin. I’m not sure how it works for other artists, but I hope this helps give an idea of how it sort of works with me.
I have painted memorial pieces for loved ones that have passed away, as well as peoples’ beloved pets. I have painted children and babies, and all kids of animals. I feel lucky that I get to create something wonderful that people can enjoy in their home for many years.
So there it is: for a time, I’ll be offering custom portraits! So if you’re interested, please email me at email@example.com, and I’ll send you a price breakdown and other information. Here’s hoping to hear from you!
So the monkey and I have been “off” for a few days. Every issue has been an argument, every request a struggle. This has resulted in fits and frustration, tears and tantrums. I won’t bore you with the details, and I don’t really need any advice or criticism about it–it’s a phase, I know it’ll pass, but in the meantime, it’s torturous. Of course, I’ve checked that something was not horribly horribly wrong, and by all accounts, I’m fairly certain I’ve ruled out anything major…I think it is just a matter of resisting structure, and avoiding conflict with other kids.
But since life is full of conflict and structure, I have started trying to implement that into our down time. The trick, I think, is to make it fun so it doesn’t SEEM like structure. So when I told her yesterday it was “project time,” she asked if we could glue macaroni noodles to paper.
Dang. I didn’t have any macaroni noodles, because no one in the whole house eats macaroni. But what I DID have was a big ol’ bag of kid-beads that a friend had given us. Sometimes, I give her a project to do and I go do something productive, like clean the kitchen, or sweep the floor. But this time, considering all the struggles we’ve been having, I thought it was important to do this project WITH her.
So it’s super easy: doodle something on some paper, and glue some random beads to it. Or macaroni. Or beans. Or Q-tips. Or leaves. Or cereal. Or grass. Or whatever random things you have around the house. It really doesn’t matter, because that part’s not at ALL important. The important thing is that I spend some time WITH her. Since she often goes into a project with an idea already of what she wants to do, she requested we turn them into ornaments, so each one has a little loop for a string to go through.
And it’s things like this that don’t take a lot of effort to do that really help me on the rough days. I don’t care what I made. I don’t care what it looks like. The fact that we did it together is what’s important. Spending actual time with her. Stopping to take a few pictures, but mostly listening to her and her ideas, and having fun WITH her instead of just giving her busy work to do. Instead of just tossing an ipad at her. Instead of just turning on the TV…
I am the mother of a strong-willed girl. Because of our collaborations, people sometimes applaud my mom-skills…but I’ll tell you a secret every mom should freely admit without fear: I don’t really know what I’m doing. I just do what feels right, even if it’s not my favorite option. I talk it over with my husband, and we figure out something that works. And you know what I’ve learned? NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING. And the very most important thing (especially when you’re a new mom) is to keep in mind that what works for my kid won’t always work for yours.
I’ve had lots of people give me parenting advice, and after it fails me, I get the feeling that they think I’ve “done it wrong.” And then I feel like I’ve done it wrong. But I’ve learned over time, that there is no “wrong.” You just try and try again, and hope that you stumble along something that works before you pull out all your hair. You can’t fault someone for trying, and you can’t give them the squinchy eye if what works for you didn’t work for them. Give them a pat on the back for their struggle, and help them come up with another idea…or at least offer them a spot on your couch, a sympathetic ear, or a playdate.
Sometimes, you look around and it seems like everyone else is doing this whole parenting thing better than you. I promise you, they’re not. I know I’m not. We’re just doing the best we can over here. That smiling, happy family photo? Of course that family is posting it–they’re SO blown away that they actually have a SINGLE documented moment that looks like a magazine photo!! (I like to picture those magazine people first thing in the morning after very little sleep, with tangled hair, and bags under their eyes. And maybe a headcold, too…not to be spiteful, but because you KNOW they have to have those days).
(For a bit of a giggle, by the way, I love looking at “It’s Like They Know Us” on Facebook, where they take stock photos of “perfect” families, comment on them, and hilarity ensues. PS: If you’re going on there, you’ve got to read the comments people write for each photo; they’re just as funny).
Parenting is rough stuff. It’s not always that smiling happy, ethereal moment that gets captured in photos of people happily tossing their well-behaved, angelic toddler in the air as they smile adoringly at them. It’s not always the wonderfully monastic and artistic mom, lovingly and patiently doing art projects with her compliant and easygoing daughter. Maybe you think it’s like that for me. Maybe you think it’s like that for other people. Maybe it makes you feel like you’re not doing the best you can. If it inspires you to be a better parent, great! If it makes you feel like all your efforts are for naught because you’ll never be magazine-perfect Martha Stewart Betty Crocker parents, that’s not good. Because I can bet you it’s not like that all the time for those people. Parenting is some messy stuff, full of snot and tears and crying and frustration (and that’s just ME).
So we’re struggling a bit this week. And in case you feel like you’re the only one struggling, I promise you, you’re not alone. Maybe you worry you’re screwing them all up. Or that you’re making the wrong decisions. Or that your kid will grow up and become a jerk and it’s all your fault. I worry that ALL. THE. TIME. But as my mom told me, “the fact that you’re worrying about it means you’re doing alright.”
So good luck, grownups. Stay strong. You’re doing the best you can. And so are we. (And maybe she’ll realize that when she’s in her 30s….)
Mad Max and I go WAY back. My dad was a big lover of science fiction, spread that love to me, and always asked “what if” questions about the future. He shared his love of movies like Postman and Waterworld and Blade Runner—movies that were all set in the future just far enough out to be able to still remember the past.
When I was younger, I remember watching a LOT of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. I loved that movie. My sister and I would sometimes chant “’Memba this???” when telling a story, like the savage kids. Dad would explain a bit about why the world of Mad Max was the way it was—a post-apocalyptic future where resources were scarce, and people recreated their own form of civility and structure from what was left. I remember being fascinated by that world.
When I was older, I watched the other Mad Max movies that tell the arc of how that world got to where it was: Mad Max, Road Warrior, and Thunderdome. I’m a total sucker for a movie with interesting characters, and the world of Mad Max is full of them.
The thing I always love about Max was that he was cool without being above it all. And he was good without being ALL good (because no one is ALL good, right?).
And best of all, throughout the arc of all the movies, he didn’t just go in somewhere, guns blazing and save the day like some super dude. He got caught. He was captured. He was hurt. He made bargains. He made MISTAKES. He was human.
The movies were brutal, they were all about survival. And although there were some strong women, they didn’t always fare too well in the end. Sadly, you sort of come to expect that after awhile.
But the movies also had a sense of dark humor to them. Where somehow even after all the mess, you could find something as simple as a grunting feral child with a boomerang or a goofy Gyro Captain to at least make you smile.
So I was apprehensive about Fury Road. I mean it had to be good if it was George Miller, but what if it wasn’t? I’m all for revamps and remakes and sequels and prequels, but I wasn’t really sure how I felt about one of my beloved movie series’ being remade.
UNTIL I SAW THE PREVIEWS. And all my fears subsided, and excitement ensued. And it was so much better than I imagined.
There are amazing characters—and if you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I love drawing characters I find interesting.
Like Nux, one of the War Boys who was raised from birth to serve the warlord Immortan Joe (another fascinating antagonist), alongside Nux’s two “mates”–his tumors, Larry and Barry.
But the most amazing character to me (as she is for a lot of people) is Imperator Furiosa. Just google “Furiosa art” and you’ll see how much she’s inspired other artist. If you don’t know why someone might find her so inspiring, hold her side to side against any other “strong” female characters and see how fantastically DIFFERENT she is.
I think her character alone is something filmmakers should look at carefully, and pattern other female characters after. I’ll explain a bit about why her character means so much to me:
- Furiosa is strong, but she’s different than most because while she’s badass, she also doesn’t just go in and kick butt. She makes mistakes. She’s not completely sure what she’s doing, but she’s driven, and she is fighting for something she believes in. She nearly gets killed at one point…and then dusts herself off and keeps on going.
- Her character isn’t driven by sexuality. Okay, she’s gorgeous simply because Charlize Theron is gorgeous, but that doesn’t even figure in at ALL to her persona. No one threatens to attack her sexually (this is often an unfortunate plot point filmmakers use to quickly weaken a female character–although it does exist elsewhere in the world Miller created). She doesn’t try to use her own sexuality to manipulate anyone. It’s not even a factor. People are too busy trying to survive.
- She has weaknesses, but they don’t slow her down. She’s not helpless with that one arm. No one even mentions the fact that she’s got a (super awesome) prosthetic. No one pities her; they’re doing their best to survive themselves. No one takes it easy on her either. Like she tells the Wives, “Out here, everything hurts.”
- She’s wearing practical shoes. (Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But I cannot tell you how completely distracted I was in EVERY single scene of Jurassic World by the main character’s spiky heels. In the Jungle. In the mud. While running. From a T-Rex. Seriously.)
- She didn’t “get the guy” in the end. She and Max develop a mutual respect for one another’s badassery, and they share some thumbs-up looks with one another, but neither of them seems to see the other as a possible love interest. THANK GOODNESS. Most filmmakers try to give their badass women characters a softness by throwing love in there. As if the only way you can be a fully rounded person is if someone else sees you as a potential love interest. Or perpetuate the stereotype that strong women HAVE to be gay. But in this film…
- She has emotions that don’t center around men. REALLY?? Is that even possible? As strong as Furiosa is, she is holding it together for her belief in a certain hope. When that belief falters, she breaks down. Like an actual human woman. She is a wonderful mix of hard and soft. Like an actual human woman. She’s hurt. She cries. Not because she’s weak, but because she’s held it together so long and had faith in something that may no longer exist. That’s a painful thought for anyone. …And then she sucks it up, buckles her arm back on, and tries something else. Like people do.
So recently, I got this AMAZING book on the concept art for Fury Road. Do you know most of the storyboards and character sketches for Fury Road were done as early as 1997? Other than some visual imagery, the majority of the storyline and the characters were laid out in full way back then. I LOVE seeing “behind the scenes,” where the ideas come from, what the thought process was and most especially the rough sketches.
As an artist, it’s one thing to draw a character, but another altogether to imagine and create a character based on a specific idea that the world is dying and they can only use what’s around them. You’d have to put yourself in that world, and think of what you could use around you. I thought of my days as an army lady, and what I needed to have on me, what were “luxury” items as a soldier when you’re full of gear, and how you could customize your own rig. This book has been so awesome for me, and super inspiring.
So as amazing as Furiosa is, and as inspiring as she is to me personally, it got me wondering about the portrayal of women in movies. And most especially this thought: I wonder, is it possible to have a female antagonist?
Is it possible to have a “bad guy” who’s a woman, who commands the adoration of her tribe (as Immortan Joe did by portraying himself as “godlike”), but withOUT the use of her sexuality? A character who is aggressive and maybe even brutal…who commands fear, but also respect? Can you have a woman play a character like Immortan Joe (or Darth Vader, or Bane, or any “bad guy” for that matter)? Is that even possible?
I started by sketching some possible ideas for women in that world…regular women and more aggressive characters. There so many wonderful male and female characters in Fury Road (the Vuvalini—an all-female tribe of motorcycle riders, for example).
I had fun playing with the idea of what a person might want in a world like that. Some face protection? Something to make them seem more visually intimidating? Masks and clothing were used to that respect in the MM films. Can she be disfigured in some way (like Joe or Vader or Bane) and still command fear and respect?
Evidently, the actor who played Immortan Joe got into character by hanging posters of himself in costume that said “DADDY LOVES YOU.” He put them everywhere–in all the areas around set and in the gym areas where the actors playing the War Boys would train. It was this idea that as this character, he was an overlord–he was powerful and merciful, and wanted to be seen as a father figure to his people.
So would a female antagonist play off of the idea of “Mother?” Would she portray herself as godlike or motherly to her people? Would that give her too much sensitivity? Would that sensitivity equate to weakness? (PS: That was pretty much the role of Auntie Entity (Tina Turner) in Thunderdome…although she was more of a “good guy” who brought order to chaos.)
So I’m playing with those ideas. I’m not sure what effect it’ll have on my artwork, but I can tell you my mind’s been swimming with thoughts and ideas. And even if nothing comes of them, isn’t it wonderful to look at things in a new way? Not to just rehash the regular old characters? To ask “what if” as often as you can?
When we were younger, my mom handpainted beautiful ornaments for craft shows. Often, she laid them out like an assembly line: all faces, then all hair, and on and on. She had to make quite a lot of the same thing by hand, with slight variations in skin and hair colors and decorative borders.
Sometimes repetition is monotonous. But there are other times when doing the same thing over and over again can be quite comforting. That’s how I feel about my Dream Creepers.
I started making Dream Creepers when I was playing around with resin casting, and wanted to use the resin casts and mix them with fabric doll bodies. I came up with these little monster puppy dolls. Myla loved them, and since they were a little strange looking, we came up with the idea that they HAD to be a little creepy to chase bad thoughts and bad dreams away. Later, talking to my mom, she suggested we call them “Dream Creepers.” And there ya go.
I experimented with a few things, and finally came up with a good system. They’re fun, but there are so many steps to making Creepers that it would sometimes get overwhelming–until I set up a sort of assembly line for myself that works pretty well. I thought I’d get tired of making the same things over and over, but like my mom said, it actually is quite comforting.
So I thought it’d be fun to share the process with you!
First off, to make sure all the Creepers are roughly the same size, I made myself a little pattern. One of the fun parts for me is picking fabric that works for the body and finding or corresponding fabric for the legs & ears. (I’m a bit of a fabric junkie.)
1: I lay all my fun little fabrics out and try to match them with fake fur.
2: I have a giant box of scrap fake fur, so it’s kind of fun to match up some of the fake fur with the fabric colors and patterns and see what I can come up with, just using the materials I already have. I’m more a fan of earthy colors than bright ones, but I try to make a little of everything.
3: Once I find a color that’ll work, I cut a mane and tail from the scrap fur.
4: I lay out all the paired-up fabrics and fake furs. Sometimes it sits there for quite awhile before I get to them because: life.
5: I have several saved molds from sculpts I did awhile back. I pour resin into them. This has to be done when the kid is busy doing her own projects and doesn’t need help, since I have sticky gloves on for a while, and usually end up getting resin on my clothing because I forget to wear an apron or something.
6: Now I have a box of resin monster heads and faces! Sometimes they need to be sanded and smoothed out, sometimes they just need to be washed.
7: I pull one of the fabric stacks out–I usually work on about 4 or 5 at a time. I have fun painting each of the faces to match up with the fabrics for their bodies. (before I had my system, I’d randomly paint heads and THEN match up fabrics…which was way more frustrating than this new way!)
8: The faces are gloss varnished in my garage. I use either Krystal Clear spray varnish or resin spray.
9: Next up, I sew the ears, fold them and sew them to the manes. I like to play with ear positions, as it totally changes the personalities of the little Creepers. Once the ears are sewn to the manes, I glue the varnished resin heads to the mane/ears with E6000 glue. This requires that I place pressure on each of the heads to really seal the glue, so I stash them under heavy things (like my sewing machine, or stacks of books) all around my art room for several hours, often overnight.
10: I got some CUTE little bum labels from a seller on Etsy! I designed the little fabric labels and ordered them and now I sew them on all the bums. When I get an item (like a doll) I love being able to find and contact the artist in case I’d like to order more of the same thing later down the road. Plus, they’re just stinkin’ cute!
11: Next up, when I have some time, I sew up all the little legs and flip them. Since I do about 4 or 5 dolls at a time, it doesn’t take very long for this step–so I like to be able to pop in and do that one if I have a little time.
12: Stuff legs! Another quick step I can do when I don’t have much time.
13: I sew the little legs (3 on each side) to the body/belly pieces. There’s a circle piece for the bum and head endpieces of the cylindrical body-shape, leaving the neck open, and making sure to add the tail and the new bum-labels.
14: Then I stuff it! This is a fun step, since it’s nearly done and starting to look like a little fella.
15 & 16: I match up the heads and lay them on the bodies, so that later, when I have a chance, I can sew them on.
17: I sew up the neck. It’s kinda boring…but necessary.
18: I sew the mane on the body. These two steps are especially tedious and not my favorite part, but it means I’m nearly finished, and I never really know what they’ll look like til they’re almost done.
AND THEN BOOM–THEY’RE DONE!
Myla loves them all, and we have made an agreement that she can’t keep every one, but she can be a part of finding them new homes. She helps me name each one and usually gives them a kiss on the nose when they’re on their way to their new families.
And although they’re weird, Myla loves them immensely. I’ve gotten some sweet notes from people about their enjoyment of the little Creepers. I know they’re strange, but something about them makes me very happy.
Even though I do my best to show them in pictures, they’re really best enjoyed in person. SOOOOOO….I’d like to let everyone know that I’m signed up for Alamo City Comic Con in San Antonio, Texas from Sept 11-13! Stan Lee’s gonna be there, you guys! And Hodor! Ron Perlman! Michael Rooker! Walt, Jr. from Breaking Bad! A bunch of people from Walking Dead and all sorts of other people!
I’ll be selling the creepers, as well as the little monster jewelry I make:
I’ve had a few wonderful photos of them being worn, and I love seeing them in action!
Anyway, I hope you enjoy hearing the whole process! While it’s a fun one, I sometimes think people don’t know how much work goes into them. I have people asking me for discounts…but if you don’t see the work that goes into things, it might not mean the same thing to you.
So if anyone’s in the San Antonio area and wants to check us out in person, I’d love to see you! I’m not sure where these little guys fit in in the “art world.” I’m not sure if they fit in at a convention, but I hope we’ll at least have fun and make a few people smile.
A few years have gone by since I collaborated with our then 4-year old… And on occasion, people will ask me if we could do more.
Sometimes we still do. It’s more of a casual thing. I’ll toss her a page and say, “here are a few heads if you feel like sketching,” usually when she’s bored or looking for something to do.
On occasion, she still adds a body to a face I’ve done, and it turns out pretty well…
For the most part, though, to be honest: the main reason we don’t always collaborate is that she’s busy doing her own thing! She’s FIERCELY creative. She throws herself into her art desk and is consumed with scissors, staples, and tape, making all sorts of wonderful things–
Other times, she just draws.
Lately, she’s been obsessed with “writing books.” We can’t get enough little thin sketchbooks–she fills them up with complete stories–usually just directional things, like new creatures she invents for her Minecraft game, or the inner anatomical workings of the prehistoric wooly mammoth.
She mixes and matches her Lego minifigures, creating all kinds of new creatures. She makes “costumes” from construction paper, and spends hours inventing her own board games, like “Fishing for Genies,” and “DeerPeople Land” (it’s like Candyland…but with deer-people, obvs).
And from time to time, people ask us why we don’t do very many collaborations anymore. The simple answer is that we DO….but mostly, because you don’t always make art just for other people. You do it because you love it.
Sometimes, the things people ask us to do work out fairly well: we did this mural together at Crave Hair Lounge in Killeen, and it worked mainly because the owners gave us complete freedom to do what we wanted. But even then, it was intimidating to make sure it actually worked out on such a large scale.
I’m sure when our collaborations went viral when she was four, we could’ve been involved in a great deal of things. We were asked us to do custom portraits together, requesting certain animal bodies. People wanted us to write a book with a single main character, or wanted me to collaboratively write POETRY with her. I was asked if we could create new work for ads, for products, for magazine illustrations.
But can you imagine? Have you ever tried to get a 4-year old to do anything? It’s tricky. Now take that 4-year old, take their favorite thing to do, and make it a JOB. Tell them they HAVE to do that thing a certain way. Make them do it within a deadline, or re-do it if it’s not exactly what someone had in mind. Does that sound fun anymore? Maybe I missed some opportunities, but you know, I’d rather have done that than make her favorite thing become a horrible chore.
Instead, now that she’s older, and she’s developed her own style, I’ve found a different way to collaborate with her.
Now, I ask her to help me.
Often, my favorite thing to draw is her. Occasionally I do a series for myself I call “Stuff Myla Says,” where I illustrate the funny things she says. And sometimes, she’ll help me with them.
But one time, I was doing a portrait of my dad, and I was trying to find a way to artistically describe some of my best memories from my childhood. I couldn’t figure out how to tell the story of some of my favorite memories–playing in the woods, exploring castles, enjoying sci-fi, and building gnome bridges. Do I draw them out realistically? Do I draw them as a background?
She came over and asked me what I was doing. “I’m drawing me as a kid, with Papa. And I want to draw some of my favorite times with him…but I can’t figure out how to draw all my favorite childhood memories of him.”
“I’m a kid–maybe I could help!” She said. “You tell me, and I’ll draw it.” And we did. And it turned out SO MUCH better than I could’ve hoped for.
Lately, my favorite thing to draw is her. It’s fun to put her in new scenarios. And when I do, since she’s her own artist now, I like to ask her to “help” me. And the things she adds always turn out better than anything I could’ve come up with.
I once drew her from a photo I took of a funny face she made while she played an arcade game, and asked her for help with it. “I wanted to make it like you’re fighting monsters and robots.” “Oh, okay!” she said, and her imagination took off from there. She created this intricate story about these creatures releasing monsters from these eggs, and ones that weren’t good or bad, just “in the way,” and others who were “just trying to survive.”
I drew her as an imaginary astronaut, and asked if she’d like to add to it. She came up with an elaborate story about all kinds of aliens meeting up on the “deer people” planet…(apparently, that’s a thing, in her world)…
Sometimes, I need clarification on what she’s drawn, and she’s always happy to help me; sometimes telling me what colors things should be…but only if I ask. She’s not demanding about it at all, and will often say, “You can make them whatever color you like.”
And she always seems happy with the end result…
Another time, I started this drawing of her (from a photo of her in a simple eared hoodie), and turned her into a forest kid. “She looks kind of scared,” I said. What do you think she look so worried about?” She thought for a minute, then said, “forest monsters.” And we took turns back and forth drawing monsters, based off of what the other one said.
Once, I asked her “If you could be any creature, what would you be?” and she said (without hesitation), “A WINTER CENTAUR.” So I drew her as one, and she described to me the colors she imagined, and added all her little winter friends. “Don’t forget, mom: I should be all white, but with mud on my fur to blend in with the trees.”
Next, we did a spring centaur (mostly because I stink at proportions, and was trying new things). She drew her walking next to a deer-dragon, surrounded by baby deer-people (creatures she invented) making nests in her hair and snacking on grapes.
Another time I drew her riding a furry beast (think: Where The Wild Things Are), and she added all sorts of monster and bird friends, helping her along her imaginary journey.
I’ve held strongly to the idea that she draw whatever she likes. I love her creativity, and as a mom, the best I can do is allow her the room to be herself, in any capacity, being sure to gently nudge her on a safe path along the way, or steer her aside if she starts to venture down a dark road. But mostly, allowing her to be herself, allowing her to be her OWN artist and ASKING for collaborations has been what works best for us.
And instead of the accidental collaborations we started with, now that she’s older, we’re consciously collaborating…working together to tell a story through the pictures…something I’ve always had a problem with in my own art. But by allowing her to take control for a combined purpose, I think it helps build her confidence. She’s not just adding on to my work…she’s helping me tell a story together, and I love it.
“We make a great team,” she says. And that makes me smile.
(I added a few of our newer collaborative pieces to our print site at Society6…)
(Copies of the book of early collaborations we made ourselves through Kickstarter can be found here…)
When Myla was born, my mother and I wrapped her up in a little blanket to take a photo of her. “Oh no.” I said. “Delete that one. It doesn’t look anything like her.” We took photo after photo, again and again, and with each photo we took, a completely different little baby popped up on the screen. Nothing on that little camera compared at ALL with the beautiful little creature in front of me.I love drawing our daughter. When she was younger it was very intimidating, and I was so awkward drawing her, because no matter what I did, it didn’t really LOOK like her. It didn’t seem to capture that beautiful little person in front of me. It’s one of the most intimidating things about painting portraits: trying to make the image capture the personality of its subject, especially when you don’t already know that person very well. I comfort myself with the idea that (in my mind) it doesn’t HAVE to look exactly like them. It’s supposed to be a representation of an aspect of their perceived personality.
So Myla has reached an age where she is slowly beginning to be self-aware of her appearance. Not to the extent that some kids are….she cares nothing at all about clothes (you could put a space suit on her and she’d say, “oh, okay.” and rock that for the day. On Kinder graduation photos she said “did you see they put a GENIE costume on me?” when referring to the cap & gown, which she didn’t even question–just rolled with it). She doesn’t really care about how her hair is styled, other than in a functional way (to keep those curls out of her eyes). But from time to time, she has started to notice little things, like how everyone’s skin is different colors. That some people “seem fancy” when she doesn’t really notice that sort of thing. That people keep telling her she’s doing “boy things.”
If her girlhood is anything like mine was, I know the worst of it will come when she’s a teenager. But I’m hoping to sort of help her enjoy and celebrate herself–whatever that means to her–now. Not by constantly showering her with praises of beauty (although I think telling her she’s pretty is a good thing to hear, too), not by inflating her ego by making her feel superior, but by asking her what makes her FEEL happy and pretty, and trying to be comfortable with and rock whatever she’s got.This will totally work, because my parents actually did the same things for me, and I NEVER had any image issues. (INSERT SARCASTIC FACE HERE) ….Okay, yes, I’m fully aware that no matter what I do, she’ll have issues. But one can try, right?
So I drew this little Myla-face on a piece of pressed chipboard, and asked if she wanted to draw what she liked. What made her happy. What made her smile. What made her feel like a good person. How does she see herself? And I let her use my acrylic paints to paint on it.
She painted pink hair, because she’s always wanted pink hair. We used paint-in temporary dye from time to time when she was younger, but they sort of frown at wonky hair color at her current school (which I find ridiculous). She drew a streak of black (which sort of looks like a beret). If anything, it was a fun opportunity to teach her a little more about using acrylic paints…
She asked if she could use a pen to draw the rest, and drew things that make her smile: dragons, animals, made-up creatures, Lego characters.
So later, I finished painting the background for her. I thought it was fun that instead of TELLING her what I thought of her, I got to see what she thinks, what she feels…how she sees herself. Not to judge, but just to think about and be comfortable with.
- Elsa and Kristoff telling Anna (when Anna wants to marry someone she just met) “You don’t even KNOW him!”
- How Cinderella and her Prince marry after only a few nights of dancing and missing footwear.
- Flynn in Tangled liking Rapunzel’s for more than her hair. And the big mean guys in the tavern who sing “I Got a Dream” look creepy, but are (mostly) quite sweet.
- In the book “the Paper Bag Princess,” that the clothes you wear and the way you look doesn’t make you a good person.
And those are just a few that Myla (at age 6) and I have had pretty in-depth discussions about. Not in some lecture, not by me bringing it up, but just in talking about what we just saw or read.
You can have fun with what you look like, you can change your hair and decorate it. Your body can be bigger or smaller or shorter or taller than everyone else’s. Your skin can be so many different colors. You can have fancy clothes, or secondhand pants.
But what’s MOST important is being smart, being caring, being kind.
I hope she always sees herself the way I see her.
This past weekend, our little monkey turned SIX years old! Yes, that darling little 4-year old with whom I collaborate is now SIX. Can you believe it?? Since her birthday always falls near Memorial Day weekend, we actually celebrated her birthday around some extended family last weekend.
This past weekend, on her real birthday, I was HORRIBLY sick with yet another headcold, so the Dad took her out for a fun day. Whew! High fives to the Daddy.
So I’m still on the mend, but thankfully (unlike the bronchitis I had a few months ago) it’s the kind of sick where I can still draw and paint. I’m working on this little doodle of her as an imaginary astronaut explorer, where I let her draw the characters behind and around it. I’ll show more of the process later (when I actually finish it), but for now I barely have the energy to do much more than my basic necessary functions…
So have a great rest of the week and enjoy the people and things around you, whatever they are!
My mom & I sometimes swap art supplies. Last time she visited, she brought these little wooden disks that I wasn’t sure what I’d do with…but I knew I WANTED THEM.
So one day I drew some little faces on them, and let Myla add doodles however she wanted.
She drew a snake and a ghost mouse….you know.
Then I added detail and painted them….
She even made me a mockingbird! (It’s the blue one on the left.) There’s also an elephant, and a robot drawing on her own smile.
At this point, they needed some cool little beads, and hey–why not put them on a necklace?
She also did a t-rex mermaid and a pterana-maid and I spiced them up a bit with with some little dangle-beads.
So since she was on a roll, I asked if she could help me make ANOTHER necklace for myself (because one can never have enough dangly art necklaces, amiright?): I have been MAD over Imperator Furiosa from MadMax: Fury Road, and showed Myla a photo of her. All I needed to say was “lady with a robot arm,” and she knew just what to do!
Isn’t it lovely if I can say so myself? She did such a great job on Furiosa’s little arm. It’s one of my favorite things to wear lately! I added little watch pieces to represent steering wheels and green beads to represent “The Green Place.”
Anyway, I’m not sure what to do with the others yet–I’m thinking keychains? Maybe little necklaces? Teacher gifts? As with pretty much ALL the projects I do with Myla, I LURV making them and selfishly want to hoard them all for myself….or maybe I could do something special with them…I’ll figure it out eventually! Either that, or our house will eventually spill out overflowing with our collaborations, her doodles, and the millions of cut paper projects and books she creates on her own… :)
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?