Above: Sketch of Dick that I pushed and will describe below. It’s in a 7.5 x 7.5 inch hand bound book I made with Nideggen paper. (It has a love tan color and a wave laid pattern, as well as lovely flecks of fiber.) I was working with my Platinum Carbon Black fiber-tipped pen, Schmincke watercolors (which you can’t see much of right now), and Montana markers and Sharpie water-based poster paint pens (the lightest blue).
One of the most important things I try to tell my students is that they need to push their work beyond the point of no return so they can find the point of finish they are actually aiming for.
This is most critical with color pencil students who tend to produce work that is anemic in color and contrast. They tend not to push the work to full strength and value because it’s such a labor intensive medium that all those hours would be lost.
But think of all the hours lost skating right up to success and then veering off?
So I say head straight into disaster.
The other night I continued my quest to capture Dick’s eyebrows on paper. I started with the Platinum Carbon Black fiber-tipped pen and sketched it a rather simple and somewhat stylized image of him. On several levels it worked. The eyebrows were like the outlines of puffy clouds floating above his eyes. (I’m sorry I didn’t take any step-by-step images of this piece because you would all have fun seeing them.)
Urgh. I thought. That wasn’t what I wanted. I picked up my watercolors, which were at hand, and started painting with some yellow, red, magenta, a little blue. Dick was waiting patiently to be released, so he could go to bed. Nothing was coming together. My color choices weren’t working. My value shapes and strengths weren’t working. I waved him off and put the sketchbook aside. Then I snatched it back quickly and sprayed the page with my spritzer bottle. I took a paper towel (I always use Bounty) and rubbed off all the paint. It made a grayish coating all over the face. You can still see it over the eyebrows and at the temples.
Then I set it down again to dry.
I actually put it out of my mind.
The next morning I saw it sitting on the table in the TV room again. I wondered if I should do something with it. Dick was gone, already at work. I should have been preparing for the the day.
What the heck, I said to myself. I grabbed the book, took it into the studio, plopped a stencil of oddly shaped circles (still visible in the forehead and at the throat) on to the page and pounced down some golden rod (yellow) and khaki green rubber stamp ink.
Why? Because I could. Because I could do ANYTHING I wanted to this page now and it wouldn’t matter, because we’d already passed the point of no return, the point when things didn’t work the way I’d planned so LET’S REACH FOR ANOTHER PLAN!!!
The stenciling didn’t look like what I’d hoped. I sat for a moment and thought what next? I didn’t want to get fresh gouache out because I had a meeting in a few minutes (at least I’d have to leave for one).
The 15 mm wide tipped Montana Acrylic Markers and some Sharpie water based poster paint pens were near by. I grabbed them. Pumped them up and down in the shirt area so they deposited paint. Then I touched the wet paint with my fingers and applied it to the face. Finger painting. It’s fun. It will remind you of play as a child. Go for it. Why not. You can always wash your hands.
I started to build up the colors around the face. Of course Dick isn’t blue and green, and while he was a ginger in younger life, his hair is certainly not orange. But those were the colors I had at hand and I was in a rush to get something on the paper, to change things, to see where I could push it just with some values. Or some contrast.
At one point I added some dark magenta at the eyes and was going to end it. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do anything with the contrast. But then I got out the light, light orange and applied it to the eyebrows and it really was the right value, if I added the very dark, indigo blue.
And then I was liking it. Not as a great sketch of Dick, although it looks much more like Dick now than it did at any previous stage, but as a record of process, experimentation, and pushing to get back in charge of things.
Back in charge?
Yes, because pushing this paint around, with nothing to lose, showed me clearly that if I would take the time to get the other paints out and select appropriate colors and take some time to blend with more than just my fingers, I could actually save the sketch and move it more and more towards a likeness with some actual depth to it.
That was something I would be able to do whenever I decided to sit down and take some time.
And because I couldn’t take the time (the schedule was too packed), this exercise reminded me that I could. I think that’s very valuable.
But it’s also fun.
There's another component to this that will help you stretch. While I drew the initial sketch of Dick from life, and painted it the first time while he was present, all the additional work after I rubbed everything down to a grey mess was done without my model present. That means I had to rely on my MEMORY of how the light was modeling his face, where were the darkest darks, how did I need to refine the contour or proportions.
If you try this while working on a subject you don't know well, you may find that working from memory is difficult. Persevere. If things start to go awry and your memory isn't giving you the details you need, don't worry. If you are working on a portrait and the details aren't clear, let go of getting a likeness and just work on detailing a credible face. Each time you do something like this you'll be able to work more and more with your memory. I always find it more fun to work from life, but if my model isn't going to be available I can still keep going.
If you have access to your model at another time you can always look at your piece again with your editing eye and make notes about adjustments you would make. This will help you keep those details in your brain for future use.
Project Friday: Here’s Your Assignment
Do a lot of sketching this weekend. At some point you’re going to do a sketch that you aren’t really happy with. Set it aside for a couple hours. Then return to it. Using whatever is at hand, or setting out new paints if you want to take time to do that, work some more on the painting/sketch.
Have a goal, like getting the values or contrast to work, or improving the contour.
Realize that you’re going to make a mess. Realize that you have nothing to lose because you’ve already written this sketch off.
But realize you have a lot to learn if you push it. You can push to the point of contrast really working, then you’ll know that point in your other paintings without “breaking them.” You can push it with color and media because it’s all experimental. You aren’t looking for a finished whole, you’re looking for new options you can apply to the rest of your work.
Most of all you’re looking for an excuse to play and see, “What happens if I…?”
There’s nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain. Some people discover their favorite medium this way. Some people begin to feel their way to a signature style.
For me moments like these keep me happy even when I can’t simply sit down and paint because I have to rush to a meeting, or meet some deadline. They allow me to touch that promise of fun that’s waiting for me the next time I paint.
Most of all, experiments like this remind me that given only a few minutes I can make something that contains elements I really like and can chase after in later sessions.
I hope you’ll play with this idea this weekend. At each stopping point, take a quick photo to remind yourself where you were at each stage. Push and have fun. If you get to something that is beginning to really look great don’t be afraid to push some more. Remember, you won’t know how far to go until you’ve finally gone too far.
You’ll sketch again tomorrow. Don’t worry about that. You won’t “break” yourself.
Go ahead and make a mess.
One of the most important things you'll learn is how to sit with the discomfort of things not going the way you like. How to sit with that discomfort and ride it out and make something happen that you do like, or at the very least get to something shows you the way to an approach or image you may like.
As an artist you'll spend a lot of your life time in the weeds. It's about time you learned to enjoy the fun of it.
1. It helps if you start with a graphite, color pencil, or ink sketch (water resistant ink).
2. Add any kind of wet media on top. I think watercolor, gouache, or water-soluble markers are great for the next later.
3. For the third layer it’s best to go to something that is water resistant again. And something opaque is helpful. If you used watercolor for layer two use gouache now. Or I recommend Montana Acrylic Markers.
(I also like Molotov. Be sure to get the water based ones which don’t have an odor. The solvent based ones really stink and probably will soak through the pages of your journal. I would avoid Liquitex markers because their acrylic has an odor. Golden High Flow Acrylics works great in the acrylic markers—and you can buy Montana and Molotov markers EMPTY.)
4. Take a photo at each layer to remind yourself if their are bits you really hate or really like. It is after all a learning experience.
5. Walk away after each layer and spend time doing something else for 30 minutes to an hour or more. Leave it over night between two layers and return to it.
6. When you return to the piece use your Fresh Eye, that first few seconds of viewing after an absence. Note down what your eye notices first that isn't right or needs work. FIX THAT thing first. (Or maybe those two or three things—but always the things you noticed first.)
7. If you internal critic grumbles, LAUGH. You’re past the point of worrying about making something perfect, so it really doesn’t matter at this point except that you need a goal to work towards, and that you’re having fun.
8. If you have hands that are sensitive to frequent washing or you’re using pigment rich paints and don’t want to absorb anything through your skin take a moment to put on Nitrile gloves. (I always forget to do this and end up with cracked fingers, which are dry from riding my bike in the cold anyway!)
Oh, did I mention: Work as though your life depended on it!
Work with purpose and intention. This is NOT about just splashing media all around, though at the end of your efforts it might look that way to everyone but you.
This is about working thoughtfully, yet quickly with abandon; moving from one result to another approach, attempt, color, or whatever.