Saturday, July 28, 2007

Oh, the Smell of Success

"Burning Bright" - 2.5 x 3.5" colored pencil on drafting film.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
Click here to bid.
"Grayce" - 2.5 x 3.5" colored pencil on drafting film.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
Click here to bid.
"Two Socks & Wyntje" - 5 x 7" colored pencil on paper.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater
Private commission; click here for commission info.

I have a terrible problem. I know, you've been reading about how I've gotten an offer on my novel, one of my pieces is hanging with the Colored Pencil Society of America's international exhibition, my business is doing really well -- and you're wondering what could be wrong?

My car stinks.

Oh, you say, her ego's getting gigantic. Too good for her Passat now. She needs a Maserati. But, no, really. My car stinks. Somehow a container of milk that we got for the kids on a road trip rolled under a seat and exploded. Imagine. 16 ounces of full milk + 100 degree Virginia summer + rolled up windows for a few days.

= gag reflex.

Despite being warned by my husband, I actually attempted to use the car to go to the post office today. Armed with a bottle of Febreze and nerves of steel, I got into the car. Oh wow. Oh yikes. Oh man. If a woolly mammoth had stepped on a skunk, gotten soaking wet, sweated for 3 billion years, and never showered -- and then died -- maybe it could begin to smell as bad as my car. Seriously. I played in a pipe band for four years. I saw huge guys with huge folds and heavy-weight wool kilts in Virginia summers, and I have never smelled anything this bad before. That. Is. Saying. A. Lot.

I had to take out the offending floor mat before I could even get down the driveway. Even then, my eyes were watering more than an Oscar winner's. We were now in serious windows-rolled-down-wind-buffeting-our-hair territory. Anything to keep from sharing air with the offending back seat floor carpet.

By the time I got home, it was no more Mrs. Nice Guy. I was done spritzing the floor with Febreze. Hand shaking with the passion of my decision, I dumped the whole $%^& container there. You know what I got? Soaking wet stinky $ss carpet.

I guess it's time for the big guns, some voodoo magic carpet cleaner maybe. Or perhaps that Maserati.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

10 Things I've Learned from Maxfield Parrish So Far

"Titania Asleep" - 2.5 x 3.5" colored pencil on paper.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
Click here to bid.
"The Bride was Catty" - 2.5 x 3.5" colored pencil on paper.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
Click here to bid.

I've been doing a lot of lists, lately, haven't I? I'm not sure if there's a term for that. Of course, there is a term for the fear of disorder and untidiness: Ataxophobia. Though, judging from the state of both my work desk and my kitchen, I don't have that. Hey, have you guys ever read the list of phobias? Good stuff. There's even one for the fear of knees. Boy, that must be crippling.

HAHAHAHA - I kill myself! Whoo! So funny . . .

Anyway, because I'm one-third of the way through Maxfield Parrish month, I wanted to share what I've learned so far from him. I still haven't begun my large composition based on his principles, but I will . . . soon.

1. Things can be any color I want them to be as long as I plan it first. Parrish thought nothing of funky colored leaves or orange girls.

2. The background is as important as the foreground. It can be as intensely detailed as the foreground and not take away from the focal point.

3. Limited palette is beautiful.

4. Reality is subjective. I just have to make rules for my new reality and follow them.

5. The rules of dynamic symmetry make for powerful compositions.

6. Backlighting can be a very effective tool - my idea that the subject should really be strongly lit from one side or another is completely proven wrong by Parrish.

7. Using opaque techniques (multiple layers of many colors) on darker areas and translucent techniques (few layers of light colors to allow the paper's white to shine through) creates a more dramatic sense of light.

8. I am an artist. I'm not a slave to reference photos. I can stage my own situations or make endless mock-ups to create scenes that have never existed outside of my mind. And I don't have to wait until I have a live model to pose for me.

9. My love of fantastic stories and my art career can work hand in hand. Maxfield Parrish's art is still highly collected - people still want to be taken away through art.

10. If they're offering tickets to Maxfield Parrish's world, I'm buying.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


"Bond, James Bond" - 2.5 x 3.5" colored pencil on paper.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater
Click here to bid.

Okay, I thought for today I'd do some thoughts on the process of commission portraits. I am not, of course, the be all end all (or is it end all be all?) authority on portraits, but they do make up a big part of my income so I have some clout. Moreover, a lot of new artists approach me and ask me about it, so I thought I'd do The Great Big Post of Maggie's Commission Process.

There are two big things to remember when doing a commission: make the client happy and make you happy. Duh, you say. Well, let's look at this closer, shall we, mmm? What makes the client happy? Getting an image that looks like their dog, cat, child, horse, deceased lizard. What makes you happy? Getting paid to do your work.

What you are not in the business of is making either of you unhappy. What makes the client unhappy? Getting an image that doesn't look like their dog, cat, etc. What makes you unhappy? Getting paid to have someone else tell you how to work.

I think if you make sure neither of those things happen, you're off to a good start. So - first things first. Can you deliver a good likeness? Be honest. Seriously, people. If you have to agonize over the likeness, you're better off to wait. You're only going to burn out. Oh . . . and likeness doesn't mean projecting a photo on the canvas and going hog wild. It means going through a stack of photos or meeting the subject and injecting your own personal . . . uh . . . thing into the finished portrait. I've seen portraits done that are perfect tracings of a photo and they look NOTHING like the original subject.

And you know what's sad? I get asked all the time to "redo" commissions. Not mine. Other artists. Clients will come up to me and say, "I had an artist do a portrait of Mushy last year and (drops voice to whisper) it didn't really look like her. But I felt bad for the artist so I didn't say anything about it." Do you really want to be that artist? Nuh uh. You want to nail it. So don't agree to do a portrait even for free unless you're sure of yourself. Because that thing will travel around forever with your signature on it, like a giant ugly business card.

And the other half of it of unhappiness. If you have a client butting in and telling you how to run the show, you're going to be miserable as well. This is not "changing rooms." If you've got the likeness down and you know your stuff and you're firm, you can agree to small changes at the end and that's it.

So, without further ado, my process.

1. Get a deposit. I ask for at least $100 or better yet, 50%. Don't ever start without one.
2. Get the references. I prefer to take mine myself now, but often distance makes that impossible. In that case, I ask the client to send me as many photos as they think I need to see (42 for one cat's portrait) and also a description of their personality.
3. Find out if your client has any strong feelings about any aspect of the portrait. Do this in advance. Do they hate the color green? Is there a particular pose they want? Something they want changed from reality? The larger the portrait, the more detail I go into about this. For big ones, sometimes I'll even send them off surfing the web looking for other art they'd buy, so I get an idea of their tastes.
4. Start the portrait. In. Your. Style. Wait, I should repeat this.


The only thing different about a portrait is that the subject is something in particular. Otherwise, it should look like it belongs with the rest of your body of work when you're done. If a client asks you to radically change your style - learn to say no. "I'm not the best artist for the job." If they commission you, they should be commissioning the whole package.

5. Halfway through, or at the end, depending on how you and the client feel comfortable, e-mail or snail mail an image of the portrait to the client and ask how they like it. Tell them to be brutally honest, because this is the only stage where you'll make changes. Ask them if they love it, or what they need to love it. You want them to brag about this thing forever. You want it to look like their dog, child, deceased lizard - only better. You want it to look the way they think about it looking.

6. Ask for the dough. Don't send the art until you get it in your hot little hand.

7. Mail the finished piece. Package it well. Include a business card and send an e-mail to let them know it's coming.

Rinse and repeat.

Monday, July 09, 2007

5 Things We Let Our Dogs Get Away with But Would Kill our Spouses For

Work in progress using some things I learned from ol' Maxfield Parrish (more on that later)
Just playing around . . . darn it all I liked it better blue.

1. Pee on our bed to demonstrate how stressed they are.
2. Eat poop out of the cat litter box.
3. Jump on unfamiliar people.
4. Lick anyone's face in public
5. Yell at imaginary squirrels in the middle of the night.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Maxfield Parrish: Dynamic Symmetry, Part I

Now, I'm still absorbing what this means for my art, but I wanted to share two links with you regarding that dynamic symmetry thing.

First, the blog post of the artist who was kind enough to throw herself into the task of discovery.

Second, the article that explains it in the first place.

Oh, and a cool page on his techniques.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Okay, technically it's no longer the fourth of July, but I started downloading pics from my camera on the 4th, so it still counts. I had a great day with my family and friends cooking former cows on the grill, celebrating toddler birthdays, goofing off, and setting off fireworks. My daughter Victoria got her first Mr. Potato Head, and her first set of spare Mr. Potato Head parts, that transforms him into King Spud (when I'm Queen of America, a Queen of America set of aftermarket parts for Mr. Potatohead will be made available). See the pic of me demonstrating Mr. Potato Head's wares below.

My birthday cake from scratch sensed that company was coming and stuck to the bottom of the pan despite heavy greasing and required much chocolate frosting glue to remain cake shaped. Still, it tasted great and homemade chocolate fudge frosting is, to quote someone famous, "the bomb."

And finally, the fireworks were big, loud, bright, and in the words of newly 3 year old Victoria "great but scary."

But we kept all our limbs, no one got food poisoning, and nobody left the party staggering. Success!

Maxfield Parrish Mystery

Happy Fourth of July folks! I'm taking the day mostly off to enjoy fireworks, barbecueing, and birthday cake. Both my toddlers have birthdays close together (they're 11 and a half months apart) and we're celebrating the little monsters' birthdays today. So no art from me today on the blog but some from Mr. Parrish should get you through.

I'd also like to mention that I have some fairly encouraging news on my first novel (not The Horses of Roan, but The Queen's Bidding) but I'm not breathing a word of anything until I have something for certain.

Now. Most importantly. I was reading up on Parrish last night and I came across this term "dynamic symmetry." Apparently it's a compositional concept that Jay Hambidge rediscovered in 1920, used by the ancient Greeks. Parrish was fascinated by it and used it extensively in his own work. I know it has something to do with ratios but even after crawling the web like a legless lizard looking for water, I am no closer to finding out how exactly one applies it to their artwork.

So! The first person who gives me a coherent explanation of what dynamic symmetry is and how the heck Parrish used it to design his compositions can pick a free print from my store. I'm desperate. I must know.

Monday, July 02, 2007

July Artist of the Month: Maxfield Parrish

Regular readers of my blog probably know that I like to stretch my already gigantic brain by studying a talented dead artist every month (yes, that was dripping with sarcasm, for those who believe I'm a raving egotist)(I'm only a minor egotist. It's hereditary).

Normally I group-study with my pals at Fine Line Artists but we decided to make the summer months "Wild card" months as we all have strange show schedules and varying interests. We were starting to sound ominously like a bunch of mothers trying to organize a play date around soccer schedules. Far better to study on our own for a few months!

So I've decided I'm going to study Maxfield Parrish, an early 20th century illustrator and artist (why the heck are those considered two different things?) I find his work and technique infinitely fascinating. He has everything I'd hope for in a artist to study:

  • he was hugely prolific - a large body of work for me to look at and learn from
  • he talked about how he worked - really helpful when trying to work in his style
  • he had a brilliant and unique sense of color
  • he had a unique way of working, trying to accomodate the printing process, something I'm trying to do as well
  • he was highly motivated and made a living off his art
The last artist I studied that really helped my work out was John Singer Sargent, and he shared a lot in common with Parrish -- he too left records of how he worked, he was prolific, and he made a very pragmatic living off his work. I don't have much time for arsty fartsy role models who starve for their vision. I hated the Van Gogh month. The artistic whiner! Move out of your parents' house and start selling those $#%^ things!

I prefer learning from those who painted their visions and paid the electric bill. Why? Because I want to learn more than artistic technique from them. I want to learn from their charisma, chutzpah, dedication, ballsiness - whatever it was that made them make it when so many didn't. I know it's not just talent that gets you there. So I want to know how they did it.

Anyhoo. Back to Parrish. Wow. His career spanned decades and his style rocked the illustration world. His unique method of painting (thin layers of paint interspersed with layers of varnish) left his originals in ruins after his death, but that didn't really matter: Parrish's money was made in prints. Calendars, specifically. Yes, the originals sold -- and for a pretty penny (nowadays they have brought six and seven figures) -- but the prints were what paid the bills.

I'm very interested in that.

His lighting is intriguing. More often than not, his figures were backlit, much darker than the background, which was brilliantly lit and detailed. But it worked. I have to find out why. I can really get excited about what this could do for my art! Anyone else up for the challenge? The only requirements are you blog about it, do your best to learn something from the man and then create a piece of art influenced by Parrish (or you can do a direct copy -- very accepted method of learning and I really recommend it).

Here are some links to get you started. I'll be posting more about him this month as I figure out what I'm going to do as my Parrish project. I don't have any shows pressing on me at the moment, so I should have some time to donate to this. Let's go! Whoo!

A Place to Find His Work

Another Place to Find His Work

Discussion of His Techniques