I’ve mentioned before how inspiring Instagram has been for me (and I am extremely grateful to Diane from Design Recharge Show for talking me into it). One of my favorite things about seeing artists’ work on IG is getting to see the behind-the-scenes process.
Sometimes when you look at the final piece from an artist whose work you love, you are so inspired by the end result that you start to get frustrated with your own style. Some artists make it look so effortless! And if your own road is a little bumpy, you might have the urge to not even bother.
But no one starts & finishes in the exact same spot–even the old painters had a process! One very strong memory for me was visiting the Musee d’Orsay in France. I saw a room where on the wall was posted a small paper where an artist had doodled a simple man with a scythe. And then another of the same figure. And another. And another. It was like he was obsessed–to my memory, every wall in the room was FULL of rough painting studies and drawings, little sculptures, and sketches of this same figure, until FINALLY, at the very end of the room, was the painting–a very simple farm scene, called Paying the Harvesters, by Léon Lhermitte. And the thing was, the man with the scythe wasn’t even the only figure. I was blown away…not so much by the painting (which was amazing), but the amount of work that was behind it.
I don’t have the kind of patience for that level of detail…but I do know that art is a process. Personally, I paint as if I am rushing to save the life of a dying emergency room patient, and I don’t even have CLOSE to the level of detail that Monsieur Lhermitte had. For me, there is a magic world between rough sketching and overworking a piece…and sometimes you can work a long time on something and it just still doesn’t look right.
I also know that art doesn’t “just happen.” Ask any artist you love to show you their work from their younger years, and you will see the full spectrum. You may not see the hours and hours of time they’ve spent lovingly delved into their sketchbooks, but it’s there. You don’t magically “become” good without lots and lots and LOTS of practice. It’s not the supplies. It’s not the paper. It’s the not the medium. It’s the passion that fuels you to practice and practice and practice. Even my namesake, Michelangelo, once said, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all,” as well as, “If you knew how much work went into it, you would not call it genius.”
And even the best artist you know? They will have a different process in a year. If they are worth their salt, they most likely will know that the saying, “Ancora imparo” (most often attributed to Michelangelo), meaning “I am still learning,” is so very, very true.
I am no master, by any means. FAR from it. I am ALWAYS learning. But after years and years (I am practically ancient), I am fairly comfortable in my process, so I thought it would be fun to walk you through a painting. This is not “How It Is Done.” This is how I do it. And this is only how I SOMETIMES do it, because I am always trying new things.
I decided to draw my best and longest-time friend, Christine. I have known her face for around…WOW. NINETEEN YEARS. That’s major (especially since I move around as much as a traveling circus). She and I have been through it all and back, and have STILL stuck around, even though we’re so often miles and miles apart. The last time I painted her, I was in college, and she still has it hanging in her living room.
So, with a photo for reference, I sketched. I always sketch in ballpoint pen (I may have mentioned that I love ballpoints). I used a photo I took from when I visited her right after she had her daughter Lila. I am aware that a better likeness might be obtained from gridding or tracing of the main shapes, but for the most part, I like the personality that jumps in there when I don’t try to go for 100% realism…
I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with it yet, but I added the decorative Polish flowers around her and wanted to use the negative space in an interesting way. I usually go from a sketch to acrylics, but this time, I thought I’d try something new, and used my Prismacolor markers to block in the main color. By this point, I didn’t like the curly flower swirls at the top, so I decided I’d get rid of them somehow.
Here’s the funny part about Prismacolor markers…..they are SO good at blending…but they sometimes react in a funky way to ballpoint pen. This process used to terrify me, but I am used to it. I use this process with the collaborations I do with our daughter…I just had not yet gotten comfortable with it on a portrait of a beloved friend. GAH! She’s PURPLE!! –Calm down. Don’t worry. The ink soaks into the page, and if you push through it, it spreads, and you can blend it all in fairly well. Those of you thinking “why not just skip the ballpoint?” you have a valid point, but I just can’t because: BALLPOINT.
Thankfully, I have learned to follow where my wonkiness takes me, and after a bit more blending, the colors start to settle and soak in, making them finally look a little more natural.
I darken the hair to sort of hide the swirls, but at this point, I’m still not sure how I’m going to handle them, so I work on the background, which I wanted to be a flat sort of teal.
So I am a big fan of Bokkei (Maria Björnbom-Öberg)–she even did an art trade with me (which I’ll cover in an upcoming post)! She works in both marker and colored pencil, and gets AMAZINGLY realistic detail. So I wanted to give her process a try, and dusted off my old Prismacolor pencils (I swear, they don’t sponsor me). Me and colored pencils have a love/hate relationship. I WANT to love using them, but I just CAN’T. It’s not them, it’s me.
So I tried and I tried and I tried some more. And I finally decided to go back to my trusty ol’ acrylics to finish it off. Aaaahhh, acrylics. You always KNEW I’d be back.
So there you go. After much struggle, after all the hassle of the variety of tools I used, I finally went back to my old standby. It’s by no means perfect. But you know what ? I tried new things. I also covered those head-swirls, changed up the background color (I have a MAJOR thing for light blue and red, probably because of this). I tried new things–some worked out and some didn’t. And that’s totally fine.
The thing is, if it’s important to you, you’ll find a way. You’ve got to jump in with no reservations. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes–mistakes are INTEGRAL. They’re part of the whole process! They’re NECESSARY. If you do something and mess up, what’s the worst that happens? You waste paper. You waste time. But if it is something you love, it is never a waste. The main thing is this: no matter how good you are, no matter what your skill, you will be fine…as long as you ALWAYS KEEP LEARNING.