Walking Through the Witches
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!
One thing I’ve ALWAYS enjoyed is the fine line between hard and soft, aggressive and sweet, monstrous and dainty.
A long time ago, in a blog post far, far away, I wrote about playing with sewing my paintings, and my embroidery inspirations…
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?
Playing With Dolls
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.
And when I saw this girl based off of Bigfoot–complete with hairy arms, hairy legs, and GIGANTIC feet, how could I turn that down??
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!
So let’s return back to Blythe…
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:
And when you start looking at what people do to them (just google “custom Blythes,” if you’re curious), it’s actually pretty impressive.
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!
Draw With Eachother!
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!
A Little Perspective
Have you ever had an idea that wouldn’t go away?
Ages ago, in a sketchbook, I toyed with an idea…what if aliens came down to earth in robot bodies, using the faces of our beloved icons to gain our trust so we’d let down our guard so they could more easily take over the world?
I know, I know. It’s an old chestnut, and old theme that’s been played out over and over again.
HA! Okay, just kidding–I know it’s weird. But that was my thought and it wouldn’t go away. So I drew two little sketches: one of Gandhi (which I can no longer find), and one of James Dean. And they sat in my sketchbook for YEARS.A year or two ago, I came across them again, and thought I’d give one a try…and pulled out the Gandhi to paint it.
And I liked it…but I didn’t love it. Because it wasn’t what was in my head.
So recently, I got a new sketchbook, hoping to get some ideas out…and I tried again, this time with James Dean. And it looked lame. Because it wasn’t what was in my head.
And one day, when Myla was flipping through my sketchbook, she said, “Oh! What is this?” I told her it was an alien in a robot suit, but I couldn’t get it to look right. “Can I try?” she asked. And of course she could.
And it’s AWESOME! I loved it immediately. It wasn’t quite what I had in my head, but with her new point of view, I think I have a great basis for a really fun and cool perspective. More fun, more playful that the very detailed thing in my head that I couldn’t get out. I can’t wait to work on it!
I think part of creating good art is that struggle artists go through in trying to make what’s in their head make sense in their own medium.
I’m starting to discover that although I enjoy the work of so many amazing artists, sometimes when I struggle with a piece, it might be because I’m imagining it in someone else’s style.
Weird, right? Let me explain: I’ve been struggling with another piece, one of Myla with her ghost-rats (she had two pet rats that died and she believes they’re running through the fields where we buried them, “playing with their ‘chothers.”). I tried it a couple of different ways, and even got as far as starting to paint it:
And for whatever reason it didn’t look right to me. And it was terribly frustrating. So I drew it again, in a different way, in my sketchbook. And it still didn’t look right. Because it wasn’t what was in my head.
So I closed my eyes, and tried to listen to myself. What does it look like in my mind? What do I WANT it to look like, if this version isn’t working? And surprisingly, what came to the surface was not my own work, but that of Casey Weldon…
You heard me. I imagined SOMEONE ELSE’S WORK. His work is lit beautifully. In my mind, my painting should have had similar lighting and playfulness and reverence…but it didn’t. And I was actually hindering myself by trying to make it look like HIS work.
It’s one thing to be inspired by someone, and another to fault your own work for not being like someone else’s. I have to realize that no matter WHAT I DO, this piece will never look like his. So I tried it again in my own way, and tried to listen to my own voice. And again, I asked Myla for her input. And this is what we did:
A part of me mourns for that beautifully painted imaginary piece that’s in my head, but I know it’s not real. And it’s okay! Sometimes a little perspective gives you new insight, and changes your opinion about what things SHOULD be and what they actually are.
I am lucky I have a creative little 5-year old for instant “fresh perspective” insights, but there are other ways to break out of your preconceived ideas…
1. Just start DRAWING. Have a sketchbook that’s JUST for ideas, wrong or right. Take “notes” in it, get quick ideas, but don’t limit yourself to “getting it right.” When I do this, it is UGLY. It’s very nearly stick people art. But at least the idea’s out.
2. Listen to yourself. I work from home, and I can tell you it is VERY rare that I don’t have music, tv, an audiobook, my phone or a movie in my face while I work or draw. It’s a bad habit that I’ve been doing for YEARS, and it’s not really fair to my brain / imagination / creativity. I plan to make more time to just SIT with my sketchbook and LISTEN.
3. Don’t stop trying. So the pieces above didn’t work. Am I going to stop with that? Well, I will if my brain is happy. But if those ideas keep trying to get out, I’ll try it again. And again. And again.
When I was in high school I was lucky enough to visit the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, and of all the incredible work I saw, the most memorable to me has always been the experience of walking into a room FULL of hundreds of sketches on paper and napkins and scraps–all of a man sitting with a scythe. Over and over again, this same image repeated in different ways. You can tell the idea was in the artists’ head, and he tried again and again to get it out. The room was FULL of drawings, rough paintings, even some small sculptures of this same figure, over and over, in a hundred different ways.
..And at the very end of the room, as big as the wall, was the final piece…
It’s called “Paying the Harvesters” by Léon Lhermitte. And the man with the scythe wasn’t even the only character in the painting. I think of that room often, and wonder sometimes, after all those hundreds and hundreds of drawings…did he feel like he “got it right?”
Sometimes, you get your idea out the best you can. Sometimes you get in your own way. Sometimes you beat it til something beautiful comes out. Just listen to your voice and you’ll figure out what to do.
Painting with Confidence
“You’re really good at drawing, mom. You’re even better than that lady that’s better than you.”
Um. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that, but it sounded like a compliment.
Then, with her head down, she said, “I’m not even as good as you. I don’t paint very well at all.”
Ouch. Now I know she doesn’t really feel that way. But being a mom of a whole 5 years of experience (trust me, I know from my sister–a mother of two teen girls–that I’m STILL in the beginner levels), I have learned enough to see this more as a confidence cry than an actual honest declaration.
She KNOWS she’s only five years old, and that my own many many (MANY) years on this earth has just given me a bit more time to improve in my artwork. She knows that the more time she spends on something, the better she’ll get at it. And she knows it’s not good to compare yourself to others, as long as you’re having fun.
She knows all that. But she wasn’t just being disingenuous, and she wasn’t fishing for compliments–she just needed to feel something positive. A reassurance that she was on the right track.
But it hurt my heart for her to not be able to see how awesome she is when she does what she loves. So I whipped up an idea to let her run with.
We’ve drawn together many times before, and our collaborations are fun. But it’s not often that SHE does the painting herself.
I had an extra piece of cut wood from an older project, and I sketched a face.
That evening, I laid a tablecloth on the carpet in the art room, gave her a few of my older (but still decent) brushes, and my palette of acrylic paints. I told her it was hers to paint any way she liked.
So she immediately went for the green.
Apparently, they had learned that song “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah” that day at school, but to her ears, it sounded like “DINO…” And she imagined some happy little dinosaur-girl who (for some reason) was dancing around in the kitchen.
Using my “grownup” paints is a really good way to teach her to control the paint…that just a little change in water or pressure, how you mix the paint, how you thin it….it ALL affects how the paint goes on. All I did was watch her, and tell her how she could make it work when the paint was too thick or too thin. She noticed that when there’s too much water and not enough paint, it dries very VERY light….but that a little paint can go a long way if it’s thinned down with water a little bit. I thought of myself as bowling bumpers: letting her do all the work, but there just to make sure she didn’t completely throw a gutterball in frustration.
And after awhile she said, “You can paint with me, if you like.”
I told her that it was her project…that I had wanted HER to do the painting. “But I really like painting with you,” she said.
So I did.
I tried not to add TOO much detail. I didn’t want to discredit what she’d already done by completely painting over it. Her only request was that I not change the colors she had already chosen. AND OF COURSE I WOULDN’T! Why would I? They were already awesome.
So here’s how it turned out in the end…
And here is her sticking it over her own face…
I didn’t want to alter it TOO much, but I also wanted to join in with her, since she asked me to. I made sure to ask her before I did anything. I let her give me direction. And watching me, she picked up that a quick way to make scaly dino skin without too much detail is to paint dots on the face in a darker color. She learned that a little darker or lighter makes shadows & highlights. She ASKED me about these things, not because I sat her down for a lesson…but just simply from observing a fellow artist.
So I told her again: I have many years of experience, but I am not finished learning. I am ALWAYS learning. I love to learn new things. I love to watch other artists, and try the things they do, learn the things they do.
Yes, I have been drawing a lot longer than my five-year-old. But she has parts of her imagination that I no longer have, that are fantastically wonderful. Her artwork is just as valid as mine, and quite often even more amazing. Everyone has value. It doesn’t help to compare yourself against someone else. There is always room to grow and learn, no matter what level you’re at. And wherever you’re at–if you have a love and a passion for it (whatever it is)–that is an amazing thing.
Sometimes I get asked if Myla and I still draw together. My answer, in short, is that YES, we do…but that it’s sort of changed a bit.
The collaborations we did were fairly simple, and happened–as I described in the post–pretty spontaneously, at first. Now that she’s a little older (she’s five ANDAHALF now), she’s not so interested in just simply adding a body on to a head I’ve drawn. While she does still enjoy it now and then, her interests (and mine) have changed quite a bit. So while our past collaborations were a such a wonderful and fun experiment, and we still do enjoy doing them from time to time, we find so many other ways to share our artwork with each other.
I started the new year with some new supplies, anxious to try some new things. Recently, I tried out some mixed media board, drew a picture of her sleeping, and wondered if it would work if I asked her to draw what she might be dreaming…
So she added onto what I had drawn, telling me what each thing was, and what it might mean. I asked her questions about it, had her tell me dreams she might’ve had in the past, and if she could draw them.
I later added on some pen detail, to sort of clarify what I thought she was trying to convey (based on what she had told me), and give it some decorative, dreamlike imagery.
And this is what we made. She dreamt of rolling toys, and the Shcar she had created. There’s a dragon in the top right, who carries her babies in fire. Most of her dream is protected by a unicorn with a shield-horn that wraps around her as she sleeps.
(Consequently, the unicorn also has glitter streaming out from behind him (see those dots?), because…well, because she’s five, and glitter farts are funny.)
She was happy when she saw it finished, although it didn’t come without critique…she said I had forgotten to color the eye of the Shcar white (I later amended it for her), and that in her mind, the unicorn was actually supposed to be BLACK….but that one she was willing to overlook.
Another time, I wanted to draw her from a photo I had. When I showed it to her, I said, “I want to make a drawing that tells a story about creativity, and how your mind thinks of wonderful things. do you have any ideas?” She grabbed the pen right away, and started drawing…
She included dragons playing with her hair, dreaming of Legos. She’s imagining the Shcar she designed. She gave herself wolf ears, for fun. There’s a peacock on her shoulder, disappointed because he thought her hair was worms. And a sleeping mermaid, resting peacefully on her shoulder. I don’t know what any of it means. But I don’t HAVE to. It’s her creativity, it’s her mind. It doesn’t have to MEAN anything.
Again, she gasped with delight when she saw how I had finished it, but again, she had critiques. The mermaid was initially colored wrong. It’s apparently a toy she has (I had misunderstood which one), so I corrected it.
She asked why I drew circles around her eye, and I told her I was trying to draw the idea that artists see things in a different way than some people do. That it’s almost like having “special eyes.”
She asked me, “why do I look so sad?” I showed her the reference photo I used, and said, “In the picture I used, you weren’t sad, just thinking. I didn’t mean for it to look sad, I just meant it to look like you were thinking.” I told her that when I was younger, people often thought I was mean because I would quietly stare off at nothing while I was thinking, and that (along with my squinting because of bad eyesight), it made people think I was annoyed when I wasn’t. That made her laugh. She loves stories of when I was younger…
Speaking of when I was younger, Myla once said to me, “I wish I could play with you when you were a kid. We would have so much fun.” So I thought it’d be interesting to draw the two of us, around the same age, playing…
Before I gave it to her, I said, “if we were kids, what kinds of things would we do? I used to like to catch bugs, I liked dinosaurs and robots, aliens and animals. I bet we’d ride bikes together.” She thought that was awesome. But the first thing she drew was the “loves” above our heads.
(Awhile back, she asked me what my “love” would look like, and I drew a heart with BIG BIG arms. Hers was an envelope with wings to fly with you wherever you go.)
She drew our Donkey to the right, since we both have loved him for YEARS (I got him when I was around 8, and she’s had him since she was a baby). There’s a spider catching a fly in a web below us, which we’d probably both be fascinated and grossed out by. On the bottom left, she and I are riding bikes. You can barely see (as my hand is nearly covering it) that she is pouting on the bike, because even as a kid, she imagines I’m probably still the boss when we ride bikes…
Here’s the piece nearly done…
And the final piece: Myla and me, roughly 4 or 5, playing. And she’s right….we’d probably have been the COOLEST of friends. (..And I’m pretty sure I’d take turns on our bikes…)
She smiled a big smile when it was done, and had only one thing to say: “Perfect.”
Aside from my regular face studies, in my drawings and paintings this year I’ve decided to make more of an effort to try to tap into illustrating a message, or a meaning, or a feeling. I don’t mean a STANCE–I’ve not got any political or legal or religious statement to make in my artwork (there are others who excel magnificently in that), but more of something that means something TO ME.
I find (as an illustrator) that it’s one of the defining differences between “commercial illustration” and “painting”–I know I take things way too literally. There is not often any deep, hidden meaning in my work, and I’m totally okay with that. But this year, I’m going to try to tap more into what I’d have to SAY (if anything) in a painting….something I’ve never really done, unless it was a melancholy, depressing image when I was upset, like pitiful gothic teenage “woe is me” poetry.
And that’s exactly what happened with the first one I tried. I was in a hormonal funk I couldn’t get out of. Everyone has “down” days, but this one seemed neverending. I had no motivation. I wanted to cry all day FOR NO REASON. It felt like someone handed me a huge boulder to carry as I went through the day, and it weighed down everything I did. I had trouble really describing how crushing this feeling was. Instead, I tried to see if drawing it might help.
It felt like pointy-beaked birds nesting in my hair. It felt like ribbons of tears. It felt like a dark cloud. Still, drawing it still seemed to trivialize it a bit. It still felt like bad teenage poetry.
I debated showing it to Myla–I didn’t want to worry her or upset her. But when she saw it on my art desk, she asked about it. I told her I was doing a painting about feeling sad, and was trying to show how it makes you feel. She asked if she could add on, and why not? She drew a dragon tangled in the hair, trying to hold on. There are x-rays to “show what’s inside.” And little wind-up mice, crawling all over–into the heart, chewing the hair, chewing at the bones. She hesitantly asked if it was okay if she drew something creepy (because there’s a time and a place for creepy things, and school isn’t one of them..and also because it was my drawing and she wanted to know if it was okay), and I said of course–that it was what the drawing was about, that I was trying to show things that bother you, that upset you. She drew the thing that creeps her out the most–zombies (which she only knows about courtesty of the halloween sections at the grocery store, and the game “Plants and Zombies,” and from a few kids at school).
So she helped me with this one. And to me, it seems like a stereotype…a morose self-indulgence. Maybe I’m just uncomfortable with negative feelings. It must’ve helped, though, because the horrible funk passed not long after.
But every new journey starts with just one little step, and that’s my goal this next year…to try to see (from time to time) if I can start with very simple, little ideas, and get them on paper, without it being all melodramatic and serious. Not because it’s a “new year” and I have to “make a resolution” (I’ve mentioned how I feel about that)…but because I love trying new things, and it just happened to coincide with the new year. SO there. 🙂
And while I’m taking my own little journey, I’m wondering how it’ll influence Myla’s views on her own drawings. She is VERY literal (like me). She has an AMAZING imagination, but she’s not sure (spatially) why I have made things float around in the paintings above. I’ve told her the idea behind why I did it that way (that I’m illustrating dreams and ideas instead of THINGS), and she’s nodded, deep in thought. I can tell she’s mulling it over.
But I don’t think this means my artwork will get more “SERIOUS”–I think humor is a big part of what I enjoy (and not taking yourself too seriously is EXTREMELY important to me)….I just think it’ll be fun to see where digging a little deeper takes me. Where it takes us. Because as long as it’s fun and it’s making us happy, who CARES what it means, right?
…So what new things are YOU trying?
I grew up on science fiction. My dad was a big sci-fi fan, so when we’d go to the video store (yes, I understand that’s an ancient concept these days), he’d choose anything so long as the cover had space, spaceships, or aliens on it.
I remember seeing Star Wars when I was younger, and collecting figurines and spaceships. Alongside the wooden playhouse my mom designed for us in the backyard of our little house in Oklahoma, my dad built what was meant to be the head of AT-AT.
I remember staying at home with a sitter while my parents saw what they thought was a grownup movie about aliens, only to take my sister and I out the very next night when they realized how good (and kid-appropriate) E.T. was.
I remember one of the very first “grown up” movies I saw was Blade Runner. I was blown away.
So I think it’s fair to say that me & sci-fi go way back. Which is why of COURSE I loved Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m not going to review it, or go into in-depth conversations about how it relates to the comics (which I have not read, and don’t really intend to), but it was a fun little movie, and I enjoyed watching it.
What makes a sci-fi movie “real” for me is the characters. I love them, humor, flaws and all. GotG had some great ones, and nearly ALL of them interesting-looking enough to draw (which is why my IG feed has been flooded with all sorts of amazing character sketches from various artists). For me, GotG has a similar campy feel as Fifth Element did, with a sense of humor, and a lot of colorful characters.
So, of course, I couldn’t help but draw a few of ’em, too….
(Don’t worry, I don’t think I’ve got any spoilers here…)
I tend to start off on the beaten path, so one of my favorite characters was Drax the Destroyer, played by WCW’s Dave Bautista (who was so good I forgot he was an athlete-turned-actor). Drax is extremely literal (as am I). I could totally relate to him, as a lifetime of literal misunderstandings have made my own life a bit confusing. He has one of my favorite lines in the movie, saying “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.” I had to get my blue & red ballpoints out and sketch him.
Later, I sketched the character named Yondu (played by Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker) who controls a deadly arrow with his whistles. This one I sketched in ballpoints, and highlighted with acrylics, and I’d just like to say that it was QUITE hard to draw a person whistling. Just sayin’.
I have a couple of characters I’d still like to draw if I don’t run out of steam…like Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and everyone’s beloved Groot. I’m trying not to get overwhelmed by the plethora of inspirational imagery in that movie, so I think a couple more drawings and I’ll be okay.
Guardians of the Galaxy is rated PG-13, so I know a lot of kids went to see it, but aside from the fact that Myla is only five, heavy action understandably frightens her. Sometimes that can be a little challenging, trying to find kid’s shows that have no “bad guys,” and where no one gets hurt and there’s no conflict whatsoever, but I’m also quite okay with her enjoying the simpler things.
So when there are shows that come out where the marketing and products are EVERYWHERE, or other kids are talking about it, I like to tell her the simplified version. Instead of telling her the entire story of GotG, I tell her about the characters, so she still knows what everyone’s talking about, but doesn’t have to actually see the “scary show” herself. And in my doing so, she has developed a love for characters she’d never otherwise see: like Khaleesi, Daleks, and in this case, Rocket and Groot–as has most of the sci-fi world. I show her little video clips of the characters on YouTube sometimes, she asks me questions, and she loves ’em.
So the next time she asked to draw on some heads (as we do), she immediately turned one into Groot, complete with a little leaf on his shoulder.
And seeing Rocket in stores out & about, she asked lots of questions about this little raccoon character. She thought it’d be funny if he had bubbles coming from his gun instead of bullets…
So there ya go. Nothing like a little sci-fi influence for your day!
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 often work with a very light skin palate (even on darker-skinned people), so the markers were a good exercise in really filling out the skin tones. Again, those swirls on top have got to go.
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.
Summer’s coming! And for a stay at home, work-at-home mom, the prospect of keeping the munchkin busy all day every day for several months while simultaneously working from my computer is a daunting one indeed. But while I work on the prospect of signing up for a little bit of summer day camps and a few hours of daycare each day, I have to remember to make some really good memories. And sometimes, the quickest way to make a good memory…is to make a good MESS.
A long long time ago on the blog, I wrote about making beautiful messes. When I was a kid, I loved to make a mess, and I wasn’t afraid of things like dirt, muddy clothes, or bug guts. But somehow, in the process of growing up, instead of being carefree and fun, a roll in the grass now makes me fret about grass stains, spiders, and where the dogs may have peed. But how is our daughter supposed to know what it’s like to squish mud between her toes and all that stuff…if I never let her do it?
And honestly, can’t all that stuff be washed away, for the most part? I mean, what’s the worst that can happen, really? When I was in the army, we would get disgustingly gross, sweaty and muddy and horrible-smelling and sore, and I think the fact that you are so disgustingly messy beforehand made you feel SOOOO GOOD when you got all cleaned up.
As a mom, when I find myself being resistant to something the kid wants to do, I try to ask myself if I’m saying no for a good reason, or just because it makes me uncomfortable. If it’s just that it makes me uncomfortable, it might be something I actually SHOULD do.
So a recent trip to our local library has unearthed my sister’s favorite book series and our newest book obsession: The Magic Schoolbus. Along with being EXTREMELY educational and fun for me to read to Myla in a way that can grow with her (there is the main story about going on crazy adventures and exploring things like the human body, insects, sea life, etc, and then additional more detailed information along the sides in cute “side notes”), the crazy teacher’s motto has reiterated an idea that has been a key thing I’ve learned from becoming a parent: to “Take chances, make mistakes, GET MESSY!!!”
If you’re someone who gets the oogies about messes, there are easy stress-free ways to get messy, and the key is to GET PREPARED! Use washable paints, wear sloppy clothes or an apron. Put down a table cloth and have towels on hand for when you’re done. Have the washer on standby and have a set of clean clothes waiting by a readied bathtub.
And don’t forget to JOIN IN! Don’t just be a spectator. It’ll be good for you to get out of your comfort zone–believe me!
Most important of all, though: don’t take anything too seriously! Get out there and challenge yourself to make all kinds of messes with your kids, with your family, with your friends. You can do it! And when you DO, don’t forget to take some pictures, and share them with me on Facebook. I’d love to see ’em!