Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thoughts on Book-Buying

"Royal" - 16 x 20" colored pencil on pastelbord (finally finished!)
Copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater, private commission.
e-mail me at portraitswithcharacter AT gmail.com for portrait info.

Wow! I had no idea what a response I would get when I asked you guys about your art-book habits. I'm still processing your answers (I was surprised by a lot of them), but I thought it would probably only be fair to answer them myself, as well as some of the extras that folks threw in.

1. Do you read books on art?
Yes. Not as much as a should. But I do.

2. Are they books on technique or books on art history?
Hm. I guess probably mostly on art history, but that's only because I am usually picking them up for monthly studies instead of for technique. And frankly, a lot of books on techniques read like "how to paint just like me" instead of "how to paint just like you except better." Which is not what I'm after.

3. Do you read the words? Or just look at the pictures?
Because of the "just like me" aspect of a lot of techniques books, I tend to do a lot of picture skimming. I think of them like cookbooks. I have a bunch of cookbooks with photos that I think of as idea books. The recipes in them are bland and crappy, but the photos are pretty. I have a few other books I trust that have no pictures but have wonderful recipes if I deign to try them. So I look at the photos in the ideas books to see what I want to make out of the non-photo books.

4. No really, do you read the words?
For a writer, I really am bad about this, aren't I? Can't they make any funny art books? If it's an artist I really respect or the artist dives into fun things like composition, theory, or other things like that, I will read the words. Or at least most of them. I have a very well known one that was recommended to me that I never finished. It just didn't speak to me. It was as if it was written for some other sort of artist from me. Or possible a different species.

5. What makes you pick up a new art book?
Pretty pictures, because of the shallowness of #3. I'm far more likely to buy an art history book than a technique book. I'll check out the technique books from the library and buy the art history books. Or coffee table books of living artists. I don't only look at dead artists' work, even though it seems that way sometimes.

6. Do you own any "inspirational" artist books (like Julia Cameron's book)?
The closest I have is TAKING THE LEAP, and I really enjoyed it. It's not really an inspirational book as it doesn't address emotional issues head on, but it is an idea book for really taking your art seriously -- and that's the sort of inspiration that I need.

BONUS questions folks asked me:
How come there is so much dross out there??? And by that I mean books which are poorly written or poorly presented or are rehashed yet again for the third time or are just a giant rip off.
Um, no comment. Well, some comment. I think possible because publishing nonfiction is driven by "platform" -- if you are a somebody or have a readymade audience you're far more likely to get a contract. So if you're an artist with platform but can't write very well, you could still get published. Also, if something gets assigned as school reading, that's a readymade audience and can guarantee more printings. Oh, and if you fill a niche that not many people can -- the only artist who creates drawings from dog poo writing a how-to book. Not too much competition.

Maggie, are YOU working on the monthly project?
Heh. Well, I talked extensively with a friend about Kay Nielson last night and I talked to an agent about an illustrated novel today, does that count? But seriously, there's a reason why I made it a two-month project. Because I knew I was going to have to skip out on it some weeks. I do have stuff to show you guys for next Sunday, though.

What art books do you like? Will you review them here? I love reading about books others find interesting and of value. :)
I actually have my four favorite art books down on the right side of my blog, if you scroll down. It says "the books I recommend for serious artists like moi" or something like that. But I love me some fat books on Mary Cassatt or someone else like that with plennnny of pictures. I do not like step-by-step technique books. They don't seem to encourage creativity to me at all.

Do you then forget what you've read/copy ideas slavishly and change your style totally/ or take ideas and integrate some into your own work in your own way, evolving and developing but retaining your own voice?
I consciously steal from dead artists, as you guys can tell, but it's been a long time since any modern artist has really inspired me in the same way. Well, except for Bryan Evans. I love his work. Please buy his work and then give them me. :D

Do you regularly read any art magazines?
My mom subscribes to Artist Magazine and lets me look at it afterwards. It's nice to hold it in my hands, because I love that physical feeling of reading . . . but I can usually get a better art fix reading blogs, like Katherine Tyrrell's super Making a Mark. I just feel like most of the art magazines are a bit . . . insubstantial. I wish they were longer every month!

Does this have anything to do with your something big? and just out of curiosity, does this have anything to do with North Light?
Mebbe. Not 'fessing up to anything.

Whoa! This post got long. I'm outta here!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Reader Questions on Art Books

Okay, here are a few questions for the artists and art lovers out there. Please reply if you get time in the comments or by e-mail (portraitswithcharacter AT gmail.com).

1. Do you read books on art?
2. Are they books on technique or books on art history?
3. Do you read the words? Or just look at the pictures?
4. No really, do you read the words?
5. What makes you pick up a new art book?
6. Do you own any "inspirational" artist books (like Julia Cameron's book)?

Maybe I should've added #7 -- What other question should I have asked?

Thanks, all!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Complements That Have Already Made People Feel Good

This post took me far too long to do, partially because it took me forever on my dial-up to access all the links people had given me and partially because half the links didn't properly work and I had to work my butt off to figure out where I was actually supposed to go. But I've finally gotten around to it, and hopefully this will serve the purpose of both illustrating some complements at work and also giving some shout-outs to some of my blog readers who make this blog a better place with their comments.

Those who are just appearing can find the original post on complements here. I asked blog readers to send me links to pieces (of theirs or from other people) who intentionally used complements. So here they are. If you click on them, it should take you back to the original page the art appeared on.

Here are the contributors:

Vivien Blackburn. Her seascape is using blue/orange complements and while it's pretty, I cannot emphasize strongly enough that y'all should head over to her blog and look at her other stuff, because some of it is positively transcendental.

Jo Castillo. I love this artist because she has a sort of unflagging, indefatigable web presence that is always inspiring. Her pears are a green/ red complement pair. Whoo pears pairs! I'm enjoying following her sketches on her blog these days . . . makes me want to doodle and sketch more.

Casey Klahn. His blog, The Colorist, is always informative and well written, and he does some amazing stuff with pastels. He's also got another helpful blog on the nitty gritties of art fairs that I recommend to art fair newbies. His piece here is using pinks and light greens -- yes, people, those are complements as well.

Karen Mathison Schmidt. Her cat piece here uses blues and oranges, and it is nice . . . but not as nice as some of the really loose, blocky pieces on her blog. She has this one that I really want!

Barbie Bud. If for nothing else, I would love Barbie for her wonderful comments! But she's a promising artist too -- her piece here is blues and oranges (seems to be a popular set of complements). If you look at her blog, check out her use of darks . . . we could all learn something from that understated palette.

Meg Lyman. Check out this quirky guy! Red/ Green -- see how powerful that color combination is? Meg is a very competent artist with a fascinating peculiar style that I can't seem to look away from. :D

Melanie Rich. I actually hadn't visited her website before today, but I'm glad I did. She's got a cool, blocky style that appeals to me and her fishy piece fits into our complement theme as well - more orange/blue popping.

Christy Branston. At first I thought this piece didn't really illustrate complements well, but then I read her explanation again: "Everything seemed really dull until I read about combining yellow with purple, so I tried putting purple on the white flowers, and that made the flower pop right out from the yellowish leaves." And it's true. It did work.

And of course, thanks to Katherine and Cooper for their suggestions (Cooper, I couldn't get your Wolf Kahn link to work), and to Dhara for recommending I take a look at the Munsell Color System, which is another version of the color wheel worth looking at. I actually like his complements better and think that they're what I tend towards anyway.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Artist(s) of the Month(s): John Bauer

"Still Wolf" - outline for work in progress.
colored pencil on drafting film.

Okay, first of all, I apologize for being behind on blog comments and posting. Phew. It's been a crazy week. Second of all, I did find the time to study one of the artists of the month, John Bauer.

Last Sunday I looked at Kay Nielsen and did some wolf sketches in his style -- this week I decided I'd tackle the same subject after studying Bauer and work the finished piece from whichever sketch I preferred.

John Bauer (nice collection of his work here), a nineteenth-century Swedish
artist, fascinated me because of his whimsical, idealized drawing, his limited palette, and his beautiful use of darks. You guys should know by now that this is the real way to get me excited. Add to Bauer's work a tragic life story (he drowned with wife and child at a young age) and he becomes a poster child for drawing well and succeeding early before you kick the bucket. Take that, procrastinators! Anyway, his work complements fellow Swede (funny sounding word, that) Kay Nielsen's nicely.

The main problem with Bauer is that he died young and left behind little written evidence of his existence. Especially in English. So the only tools I have to really study this artist who showed such promise are a very limited biography and the relatively small collection of works available online.

Still, am I dissuaded by this? Nah! So, here is what I learned from my study of Bauer today.

  • His palette is extraordinarily limited, possibly a function of where his art was going to be used, reproduced in books
  • He often used the darkness to emphasize a single, light subject
  • Though his work was finely drawn illustration work, he wasn't afraid to omit details to simplify and stylize
  • He loved drawing hair
  • Hair is very cool (note to self)
  • His subjects are very simple. Each image immediately and efficiently tells a story.
  • One of the biographies I read said that he took a month-long hike through the mountains with a sketchbook and that he used these impressions for the rest of his artistic career, simplifying the forests and stripping everything nonessential away
  • His female subjects were frequently shown in profile
At right you can see my first wolf sketch (and you can see which Bauer piece I based it on). I think this is the sketch I'll end up doing my finished piece from -- or at least the first piece I do based on these artists this month. I also would like to take a page from Bauer's notebook and do some simplified sketches of the woods around my house. I've mentioned before that trees are a weak point of mine.

Debbie was kind enough to send me a list of links for John Bauer (thank you so much, Debbie). So please peruse them and in the next few days I'll be doing a follow-up post on complementary colors, with all the great links you guys have sent me.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Complements Make People Feel Good

"Royal" - work in progress, 16 x 20" colored pencil on board

Notice that I said "complements" with an E not "compliments" with an I. I thought I would talk today about complements, because I'm using a lot of them on my latest portrait commission (above, vaguely crappy photo).

Back when I was first starting out as an artist, I found color theory about as meaningful as the lyrics to a Foo Fighters song. It seemed like a pointless rationalization of something that ought to be intuitive. Like coming up with a formula for the perfect kiss, or drawing a diagram on how to create a great symphony.

Sigh. Like so many other things I thought when I was starting out, I was wrong. Art is intuitive, but it is also technical. And you should know the rules so that you can break them. Color theory is something everyone ought to know. So. Behold the color wheel. It's probably familiar enough to you that you're saying "so what?"

Everything what, that's what. You'll need to know it to find complementary colors. I have it memorized by now, but I still remember when I didn't. Ah, I was such a young grasshopper.

Complementary colors are colors directly opposite from each other on the color wheel. Yellow-purple. Orange-blue. Green-red. Etc. You can have as many nuances in complementary colors as you have shades of a color.

When used intentionally and thoughtfully, they can subconsciously change the way a viewer sees your painting, to emphasize a subject, create a mood, or create depth (just like composition works subtly behind the scenes). There are two main ways to use them: combining them and using them next to each other in their pure forms.

If you combine (as in mix) two colors opposite each other on the color wheel, you'll dull down the resulting mix. For instance, let's say I have a beautiful yellow color that I'm painting an elephant in my portrait (don't ask questions. Just imagine.). I need to create a sense of depth on this elephant. Something subtle, to indicate that its butt is farther away from the viewer than the honkin' trunk. (did anyone notice that an elephant is like a Porsche? Both of them have the trunks in the front?) I could theoretically put in a bit of a purple into the yellow. It would gray down the yellow and push that yellow backwards in the image.

Or let's say you're painting some grass. You have a pretty nasty grass green color that comes straight out of the paint tube. Mix in some red and I guarantee you'll get a color that looks green but has a subtle depth.

Two complementary colors put next to each other but not combined will make each of the colors seem more vibrant. Blue and gold will become beautifully blue and gold. Green and red will be freakin' Christmas on steroids. Purple and yellow . . . you get the idea. James Gurney has a few illustrations of this on his blog (which as I mentioned before, I highly recommend). And you can see how I chose complementary colors for my portrait. The sky is all blues and purple and the ground is all yellow and orange. The effect in person is an idealized summer day where the color springs off the board.

This is a good thing.

If any of my readers can come up with good examples of paintings that use complementaries (even if they're theirs), please post them in the comments and I'll pull the links out to put in an actual post.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Kay Nielsen - Artist of the Month Part I

As promised, it's Sunday and I'm dutifully posting about one of the artists of the month (well, of the months as I'm probably going to stretch this over January and February). Today I focused mainly on Kay Nielsen, after discovering that Bauer's going to be a bit tricky. Most of the material on him is in Swedish and he also inconveniently drowned in his 30s, leaving behind not a lot of info for us to study. So we'll save him for later in the month. Plus, I think I'll need to get my sketching skills back up to par to do his style justice.

Okay. So onto Nielsen. I was asked by two people in the comments section how I studied artists. I come at it from a couple of different angles:

  • how they learned. I scout out bios to find out what sort of schooling they had.
  • who influenced them. No point reinventing the wheel.
  • composition. Do they have rules they always follow? Maxfield Parrish's adherence to Dynamic Symmetry was fascinating.
  • palette. What colors do they tend to use? I learned an amazing amount about mixing colors when I studied Waterhouse. I had no idea I could use that much blue and red-brown together in one composition.
  • technique. Sometimes, like Sargent, they leave behind journals and students who describe their process for us. This is like gold.
  • overall feel. Romantic, like Waterhouse? Aggressive, like Van Gogh? Dark, like Sargent?
So I'm not (usually) looking for something very specific, like "I want to paint women like the Mona Lisa." I look at their whole body of work and try and take something away from it as a whole. It was that method that first really drilled into my head that I should be striving for a cohesive style. Our style is what we leave behind, not one specific piece.

Anyway, onto Nielsen. If you follow the link above, it'll take you to a pretty good bio page. I prefer this page for examples of his work, because it's a bunch of them in one place. So, I gave myself over to reading and looking for awhile, and this is what I got to:

  • His work is highly stylized, after the manner of Japanese prints
  • They are for the most part flat, using colors and patterns to give them depth rather than any particular sense of foreshortening or recession
  • His figures are elongated and androgynous, pale and idealized
  • He uses color to attract attention, like the warm red in these three primarily cool images.
  • Aside from red, his colors tend to be muted -- dusky pinks, gray-greens, sea-foam blues.
  • Compositionally, he uses a lot of vertical elements, especially parallel elements, and he breaks them up with arches. Curiously, I was noticing a lot of the exact same curve in his work (do you see the curve in each of these three examples?), and then I read that he made frequent use of the "Hiroshige wave." Well, that took me a bit more research, but I found that Ando Hiroshige was a prominent Japanese artist. One of his most famous images (one that I realized I had seen before) was one of a wave:
  • Finally, Nielsen did a lot of images where most of the compositional interest was in the lower third of the painting. His skies and upper thirds are fascinating examples of compositional support systems, active backgrounds to support the subject.
I'm hoping to find out more about his technique (all I know at this point was that he used watercolors and that he was slow enough that Disney kicked him to the curb), but I think I'll have to go for printed material to get that info. And my library is rather coy on the subject of Swedish illustrators, so I might have to - gasp - buy some books.

Anyway, by this point I was dying to have a go at some sketches, so I got out my new sketchbook (and yes, I will also be giving this one away to a blog subscriber, once it's full). Since I began last year's projects by illustrating a scene from one of my novels-in-progress, I thought it would be fitting this year to illustrate a scene from my current novel-in-progress, Still Wolf Watching.

So the first thing I did was tackle the long, high composition with the subject down at the bottom. My first effort was sort of satisfactory, but to me, it looks like a cheesy calendar image. It might be different once I did it full size (this little sketch is only 4 inches tall or so), but I was missing that stylized pizazz.

I can't believe I just used the word "pizazz."

Anyway, so I decided I needed to work on my wolf, both poses and anatomy. Next page was wolf sketches, stylizing and cleaning up and making edgier.

And then my second effort was supposed to be a grand culmination of what I had learned from the first sketch and the wolf sketches, but I think I still like the first one best. Maybe put my stylized wolf in the first one. Hmm. See how I'm using the Hiroshige wave in the shape of the wolf's back? I'm sooo proud of myself. Still, these aren't the amazing creatures (the sketches, not the wolves) I was hoping for. I'll see what you all think and maybe try my hand at more sketches next Sunday, using more of what I've learned.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Bumper Crop of Christmas Lights

"Billy & Bertie" - 8 x 10" work in progress, colored pencil on drafting film.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
click here for custom portrait info.

Today I took down my Christmas tree and decorations. This year, like every other year, I am again (unreasonably) amazed at the circle of life Christmas decorations undergo each year. It's like the African plains or something, give and take, ebb and flo.

This December, for instance, was a particularly dry December, which I think must be good for Christmas lights, as there was a bumper crop of them on our tree. While I only put three strings on the tree when I put the tree up, I had to take six strings off. And some of them were the blinking kind, which is kinda cool. The second generation is actually evolving to a more desirable form -- maybe next year there will be colored ones.

On the other hand, it was apparently a bad year for Christmas balls. I had four boxes of various sizes of Christmas balls when I started. Nice little white ones, like pearls (I don't wear pearls, but my tree looks good in them). And some white ones with gold trim. Then some middle-sized gold ones that are doomed, like an unnamed minion in a James Bond movie, by their uniform sameness. And some pretty hand-painted ones that makes me scream.

(Like so:
WILL: Mama, look! Mama! A ball! Oh . . .
ME: AAAAAAAAAAAH! Will, put that down!!)

Anyway, bad year for Christmas balls. I only needed three boxes to put them away. I think possibly their numbers were culled by the aggressively territorial Baby's First Christmas ornaments. We started out with, I dunno, two or three of those. I mean, we only have two kids, and they only had one first Christmas each (this would seem obvious, but tell that to our ornaments). This year, I put six Baby's First Christmas ornaments into the Christmas box from the tree. Thank goodness I didn't put the wedding ornaments on this year. Even though I've only been married once, the second year we were married, the population of wedding-related ornaments exploded. Must've liked the warm December we had.

The final problem we seem to have at Christmastime is that all of our decorations with faces eventually run away. Hand-painted penguin with cute face? Gone. Left a note:

Dear Maggie. You painted my left eye slightly bigger than my right. Baby's First Christmas ornaments won't stop laughing at me while they're reproducing. Have a nice life.

And the little cute cat ornament? Toast. Who knows where it went. Probably saw the penguin moving and chased it. You know how cats are with moving objects. Oh, and then there's the pickle ornament. It doesn't have a face, but it's gone anyway, and it was a gift, so its loss is particularly heinous. Now pickles, even pickle ornaments, don't strike me as particularly edible (do not argue with me on this; I once toured a pickle factory and am scarred for life), so I don't know what could've happened. Maybe it will turn up. Ornaments do that too, did you notice? Like college professors, they take sabbaticals for a few years, and then return to their old offices before you even begin to miss their smell.

So, farewell, Christmas 2007. You were nice while you lasted. The prime rib was awesome (I made it, how could it not be?) and the apple pie, delectable. And the loot -- good stuff. But next year, I want more glass balls, not lights. Because it was a real pain to unwind six strands of lights, and they didn't fit into the box nicely at all.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

January/ February Artists for Study

"The Twelve Dancing Princesses" - Kay Nielsen.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember that I began 2007 by studying John Singer Sargent for the month. In 2007 I also studied Van Gogh, Maxfield Parrish, J. W. Waterhouse, and Whistler, but none of them influenced me quite as much as John Singer Sargent. For a month, I immersed myself in his work and finally produced an image based on what I learned from him. His use of darks and lights completely changed the way I looked at my art and sent me miles ahead on my journey.

I'd love to do that again this year, and I think I may have some time in the next two months to devote to studying. So my goal again is to immerse myself in an artist's* work for the time alloted, produce a piece of work based upon what I've learned, and put links to any other artists reading this blog who are also participating in the project. *A safely dead artist.

I have an unhealthy fascination with illustration and fantasy, so for January and February, I'll be looking at two Nordic illustrators from the beginning of the 20th century: Kay Nielsen and John Bauer. You might be looking at their work and saying holy cow, batman, that looks nothing like maggie, and you would be right. But my goal is not to look like them -- it's to take what I like of their work and incorporate it into my own.

So what do I like? I like that the pieces are dark, which makes the light more meaningful. I like that they are simple, but say a lot. I love the high, tall compositions of Kay Nielsen. I like the limited palette and the clever use of both 2D and 3D effects to draw the eye. I like the fanciful compositions that are entirely from the artist's head. I think I could learn from them. Nay, I know I could learn from them.

So what I'm going to do is work on my studying every Sunday. That makes it manageable for me and gives me a goal to shoot for (there I am again, on about these goal-things). Anyone who wants to join in can feel free to comment on this blog and leave the link for their blog-post on the subject. It's a great way to share the blog-traffic around, make new friends, and learn more about what we love: art. And little girls kissing bears.

So who's with me?! Raaah!!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

My New Favorite Blog

I will be back up to regular posting tomorrow, I think, but until then, I wanted to share my new favorite blog. by Dinotopia's illustrator James Gurney: http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com. Sigh. Wonderful stuff. Go take a look and fall in -- great information all around.