Monday, March 31, 2008

Getting an Art Education Online, Part I

"Genesis" - work in progress
colored pencil on rtist-x board
copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater

I thought that I'd take this week to talk about how I've gotten my education as an artist. I know there are many wonderful art schools and programs out there that have produced many wonderful artists . . . but I'm not one of them. If I wanted to get an art degree now, I'd never have the time with two small ankle-biters on the loose (and two dogs, too). And back when I could get a traditional art degree, I couldn't.

Imagine the scene: bright-eyed Maggie, a stellar but bored history major approaching the art department with her portfolio.

ME: Lookie. Drawings. Do you think your class . . . and I . . . we could . . . you know, get together sometime?
HEAD OF DEPT: (looking at portfolio)
ME: I'm hoping that long pause means awe of some variety.
HEAD OF DEPT: (looking at porfolio)
ME: Okay, now it's just rude.
HEAD OF DEPT: Right. These suck. Go study dead people some more.

Okay, so they didn't say "suck." They said "not sophisticated enough," which means suck. Anyway, the long and short of it was that I wasn't going to be taking art classes any time soon. So I put my art away, short of my in-class doodles, until after college. When I decided to pick it up again after I graduated, I knew it was going to be all up to me.

So tonight I want to talk about what sort of mind-set you need to have when you tackle self-teaching yourself art. And of course, as usual, this isn't the only way, it's just the way I did it (which is of course the right way, duh). On Thursday I'll be talking about resources and non-traditional learning methods that helped me.

Things You Need in Your Brain Matter to Teach Yourself Art

1. Self Confidence. No, you don't have to style yourself "Future Queen of America" (what kind of loon would do that anyway?) or strut around with a really high opinion of yourself or think that you know all the answers. In fact, two of those will hurt your chances and one of them will tick me off. But you do have to believe that you can teach yourself to be a better artist. You do have to believe that you have that better artist somewhere inside you, and that if you just rummage around long enough, you'll pull her (him) out of your innards.

2. Curiosity. If the way other artists work and compose and shape their art doesn't interest you, you might be looking at the wrong hobby or profession. A well-developed sense of curiosity about new techniques will always serve you well. Without it . . . yeah, you're one of those kids in sleeping in the back of the classroom.

3. Insanely Keen Powers of Observation. You're teaching yourself, so there's no wise Obi Wan figure here. A lot of times there will be a brilliant concept in front of you for the taking -- but no one's going to explain it to you. If you see a painting that you love, don't just love it. Deconstruct it and steal its soul. It's what I would do.

4. Constructively Critical Eye. This goes along with #!. You need to be able to look at your work with a helpfully critical eye. This takes a nice dose of #1 and #3. There's a big difference between knowing your work can be better and thinking that you suck.

unconstructive criticism: Wow. These paintings look like chimps on amphetamines painted them with q-tips dipped in curdled yogurt.
constructive criticism: Wow. These paintings look like chimps on amphetamines painted them with q-tips dipped in curdled yogurt, because I need to work on how I apply my pigment. But $%^&, look at those colors! I rock (for a chimp on amphetamines).

5. Willingness to Listen. There are a lot of blogging artists with very big brains and also a lot of generous artists who talk a lot in person. Recommendation? Don't tune them out and begin fantasizing about next time you can catch Family Guy on TV. Ask questions. Listen. Put it into practice. And then show the artist, if you can, how you've put their advice into practice -- because then they'll give you more. I can't tell you how many people told me that they gave me advice because they saw me putting other artists' advice to good use. I'm starting to get cynical myself -- a lot of people who ask for my advice do nothing with it, and it makes me feel like I'm wasting my time giving it. But when I see someone who is using other advice wisely? I feel like they're a good investment.

6. Motivation. You gotta want it, grasshopper. You have to want it enough to ride out everyone who tells you your portfolio isn't sophisticated enough, your drawings not precise enough, your colors not saturated enough, your subjects not salable enough -- because there will always be more negative around you than positive. So you have to be your biggest cheerleader.

So questions and comments in the comments as usual! For those who have gotten a non-traditional education or want one!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Maggie on Time Management, Part II

all artwork in this post are 1 minute sketches from life at a Lunasa concert
copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater
(please note all
sketches posted in this blog are from my current sketchbook, which like the last one will be given away to a random blog subscriber when it's full -- so if you read regularly, make sure you subscribe so I know!)

As promised, today is the follow up post on time-management -- what I do to keep myself on track in the midst of a crazy world.

In the last post, I pointed out the top reasons that kept me from working: excuses, funky priorities, aimlessness and self-doubt. Those are the top reasons. Here are some others that might sound familiar to you: lack of energy, distraction, procrastination, and misdirected energy (fake usefulness).

And here's what I do to counter-act them. Maggie, Future Queen of America, tells all.

1. Excuses

This is a bad one for me, because I can think of so many: toddlers not taking as many naps, new puppy needing lots of walks and making lots of epic puddles, too many commitments, not enough hours in the day, need to cook dinner, need to clean the house, need to finish reading that novel that is burning at me to read it . . .

And I have to confess that for me, the biggest defense against excuses is my husband. He knows what I can do and he can see write through my excuses. He has a very low BS titer. Everyone has someone like this -- it could be a sister, a friend, a husband, another of your personalities -- someone who knows just how much you can do and will hold you to it.

If you don't, use me. I know what you're capable of. Shove those excuses under the rug. They're not doing either of us any good. This is about good habits, too -- the more you stop leaning on your excuses, the weaker they'll get, until finally you can blow them down like a straw house.

2. Funky Priorities

Funky priorities, as you remember, is when you think that there are things more important than your art, your writing, your music -- whatever it is that your dream is. For me, there are only a very few things that I consider more important that what my dream is, but I know that just because this is a concept that comes easy to me, it's not necessarily one that comes easily to others, especially if you've been raised to have an eye constantly on the reliable and the tried-and-true.

I do, however, have funky priorities when it comes to choosing between my various interests -- music, writing, and art, and I think the method I use for straightening out my priorities applies across the board. I ask myself constantly

  • do I need to be doing this? (watching a TV show, signing up for a new artists' community online, etc)
  • will it matter in the long run? (fretting about not making it to a show opening, knowing who the front-runner is in American Idol)
  • does it make me feel good to get this done?
  • does this touch upon more than one of the goals that I've set for myself?
And I know this last one is silly, but as a writer, you have to indulge me -- it really does work for me.

  • If I were a character in a book or movie, would I be sympathetic for the character that I am? Would I think that I was doing all I could to accomplish my goals?
3. Aimlessness

This is one that used to torment me a lot. I would clear my schedule, allot time for work, sit down at the desk, and sort of . . . fritter around. It wasn't that I didn't have things to do -- I had lots to do. Too much. Way too much to accomplish in one day. Way too much to accomplish in one week. Give me a month, maybe. It just piled around me like . . . like . . . stuff that piles around you (my powers of metaphor momentarily failed me).

So I started setting goals. I got myself a notebook and started putting down my daily, weekly, and monthly goals. I got out of the habit of the notebook once the year was done, but I still have a stack of index cards and a calendar on my desk now. The calendar has long range goals and deadlines and the index cards have the week's goals on them, one day to each card. I also have my 2008 Goals/ New Years' Resolutions taped up next to my desk (Out of 11, I've already crossed out 2 and I'm this close to the next two - I can taste it).

Tada! My aimlessness was gone. I could get right to work. But it's not something I ever grow out of. If I try to go a week without my daily goals . . . nothing gets done. Work crawls to a halt. I don't think I'll ever be able to manage without them written down.

4. Self-Doubt

Yes, I still get it. Yes, I still foolishly think I can get around it by getting praise from outside parties. No, it never works.

Self-doubt is sort of like a cramp when you're running. It makes it hard to run at first, then intensely painful (and still hard), and finally impossible. You want to stop. You have to stop. You just can't keep going -- but you do. Well, most people don't. Most people stop and say, "$%^&! Blinkin' cramp! #$%^!" But those people who push through the cramp -- it goes away and you can keep going, good as new.

Well, I assume so. When running, I've always stopped for the cramps. But I don't stop for the self-doubt. Even when I think a piece is complete crappola, I push through it. Because I know the next one won't be, even if the current piece is a write-off. And I'll never get to the next piece if I stop then.

6. Lack of Energy

Sleep isn't something I like to compromise on, though I hear through the grapevine that most Americans do. I become a raving banshee hair-pulling lunatic without at least seven hours of sleep, so I try to get as much as I can. I also try and work with my circadian rhythm as much as I can. Meaning? I'm a morning person. The days I got to bed early and manage to get up early before the kids, I can get a lot more work done, because I feel good. Hard to remember that when I want to stay up and watch a movie.

Also, I watch what I eat. I'm of the opinion that Americans are guilty of eating a lot of junk, and it makes us uncomfortable, sleepy, and depressed. I'm allergic to preservatives of all sort, and it's an allergy that got worse as I got older. The early symptoms of my sensitivity? Depression, tiredness, headache. (then all sorts of fun gross painful ones later, but that's for another time, my pets). I don't think that I'm the only one that doesn't react well to preservatives, I just think I take it to a slightly higher level than most people. On my preservative-free diet, I have lots of energy and I stay fit.

Also, some of this is habit. People used to sitting stay sitting. People used to moving stay moving. I suppose if I stopped moving and being energetic, I might stop moving and being energetic altogether. I'm not really prepared to find out. So I keep on motoring.

7. Distraction

Oh, I'm bad about this. There are lots of things to distract me. The neighbors' dogs barking. The birds on the feeder. My cat feeding on birds from the feeder. Children hooting in their rooms during "nap" time. Husband watching interesting television. The thoughts rambling around in my head.

For me, headphones are the answer. I pick a CD suitable to what I'm doing -- nice uptempo stuff when I'm on a deadline -- warn my husband that I'm going to another planet, and put on the headphones. I must have music to stay focused. Otherwise, I can guarantee you my brain will be off holidaying while I'm trying to work.

8. Procrastination

*coughreadingblogscough* I'm a good one for procrastinating. I always waited until the last moment to do my papers in college too. The way I kicked this one (though it still plagues me) is fooling myself. I set false deadlines, well before the real deadline, and make myself work to that deadline instead of the proper one.

Example? My deadline for getting Ballad written isn't until the very end of the year. Plenty of time to write it. I can play around, right? Wrong. I'm giving myself a fake deadline of Halloween. If I have it done by then, I can play afterwards.

9. Misdirected Energy

This goes back to priorities, but unlike the more general priorities, misdirected energy is more insidious. See, with this one, I'm talking about things that seem useful for your work, but aren't really. For instance, investing a lot of time in an exhibition that won't really pay off. Or spending a few hours creating a pretty profile page on an artists' forum. Or going to art group meetings that aren't productive.

These are really hard to identify, because they feel like they must be useful. But time's at a premium, and the truth of the matter is you have to be like an emergency room doctor. Triage, it's called. It's looking at a room full of sick people and deciding who's most likely to kick the bucket and who's just there for the lollipops and Snoopy band-aids.

So look at your waiting room of tasks carefully. Who's really going to bleed to death first? And who can be shunted to the end of the line or off the line entirely?

10. There has got to be a number 10 to this list. This is going to drive me crazy. I'm going to make one up. Um.

Man, I couldn't think of one. I really am creatively stifled tonight, aren't I?

Okay -- you guys know the routine -- questions in the comments section and I'll answer them tomorrow. Also, any solutions that you've come up with, share!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Maggie on Time Management, Part I

Commission, in progress
Colored pencil on board
Copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater.

As promised, today is the first of my posts on time management and motivation. This is a topic I feel very strongly about, nearly as strongly as I do about sweet tea and cookie dough.

Why, Maggie, do you feel thus? you may be asking. Because this is a typical conversation with a would-be artist/ novelist/ musician.

PERSON: Maggie, I admire your work immensely.
MAGGIE: (preens)
PERSON: I have always wanted to draw/ become a professional artist/ write a novel/ play the harp/ have two children that possess the ability to scream like harpies, but I don't have any time.
MAGGIE: There's always time.
PERSON: But I have work/ husband/ children/ cooking/ cleaning/ love slave/ iguana fostering.
MAGGIE (dangerously): There's always time.

Because here's the truth of it. I also have a husband, two toddlers not yet in school, cooking (all from scratch as I can't eat preservatives), cleaning, a full-time job as an artist, and two novel contracts. No iguana fostering, yet. For me, the secret is time management, motivation, and goals. Today I want to talk about the things that keep me from being productive and on Thursday I'll talk about things that help me be productive.

So -- if I you thought the list of things that keep me from being productive would include my kids and the laundry, you're wrong. Here it is:

1) Excuses
This one is going first for a reason. It is the number one thing separating people from their dreams. Remember conversation with unnamed Person above? Those things she listed: husband, cooking, cleaning, job -- those are excuses. Some might be more valid than others, but the truth is, the only thing keeping you from doing what you want to do and accomplishing what you want to accomplish is you.

This is the hardest truth out there, and it's worth repeating: the only thing keeping you from doing what you want to do and accomplishing what you want to accomplish is you.

When it comes down to it, there is always something else to be doing. Every second that I'm sitting at the keyboard writing a novel, there are five or ten or three hundred other things I could/ should/ might rather be doing. Could I use them as excuses to keep me from writing? Absolutely. But I'd rather use my writing as an excuse for why the last load of laundry hasn't been folded yet.

Excuses are insidious and sneaky little buggers. I consider myself a very motivated person, and even I fall prey to them. Luckily my husband knows me and knows what I'm capable of. So if I start to whine "I don't have the time," he tells me to look at my schedule and find it. Because it's true that some things are impossible. But it's more true that most things aren't.

2) Funky Priorities
Which leads perfectly into non-productive reason number two: funky priorities. I hear "I wish I had time to finish my novel" all the time. I can sympathize. Writing is one of those things that's infinitely easier if you have a big chunk of time to get into the groove. But then the next thing I hear out of their mouth is the latest American Idol results or the group meeting they went to.

This is about priorities. I'm not saying that art or writing is better than American Idol (okay, maybe I am saying that) or the local anti-littering group meeting or whatever it is that's occupying your time. I am saying that if you really want something, you'll make it a priority. You'll skip that TV show, that meeting, that phone call, that blog-reading time (not mine, of course), etc., in favor of whatever dream you're pursuing.

How badly do you want to create art? How badly do you want to have enough pieces for a gallery exhibition? Now think about the obstacles in your way. In one week, one year, five year, ten years, which activity will be more meaningful? The surfing on the internet? Or the piece of work you did in that time instead?

If you want something make it a priority.

3) Aimlessness
Even if you have your priorities straight and you've cleared the books, I still might not get anything done, if I don't kick my natural aimlessness. I have a tendency to sit down at my desk, having cleared the calendar, and even though I know I have one thousand things to do, I don't do any of them. Why not? I have no clue how to even start. I'm completely aimless.

The solution to aimlessness is aimfullness, obviously (I made that word up. It's nice). I set daily goals. I write them down. If I write them down, I can check them off.

If you want to be productive, you have to know what you're trying to accomplish. Otherwise, what are you working towards?

4) Self-Doubt
The final killer of productivity is self doubt. Even if you have the time, the priorities, and the goals, self-doubt can stop you in your tracks. Even me. I can still look at a project and say "Is this ever going to pay off? Maybe I should just drop it." "Maybe I can't pull this one off." "Maybe I'm over my head."

I'm not going to rewrite my post on smacking self-doubt with a wet noodle here (though I humbly recommend you read it), but I will say again that self-doubt isn't something anyone else can cure you of. No amount of awards or praise will keep it from your door. Confidence has to come from within, and it's something you can have regardless of skill-level. You don't have to be confident in your ability to weld a pencil or a paintbrush -- you have to be confident of your ability to solve problems and push forward despite adversary. Everything else is secondary.

So what keeps you from being productive?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Reader Questions on Preliminary Sketches & More

"Cats of the Old Masters" - available on various shirts, etc. here.
All cats, no matter what strange outfit they're wearing, are copyright Maggie Stiefvater 2008.

Here are the questions from the last series. If I've missed anybody, please post in the comments!

1. Do you use any photo manipulation programs to do the altering or do you do sketch after sketch or some combination?

I use Adobe Photoshop (Elements would work fine) for a lot of my art work (notice there's a space between "Art" and "work" there) but not in the ways that you might think I do. For pre-art-making, I use Photoshop to punch up saturation and contrast in my photos to make them closer to how I remember the scene or to brighten a dark reference to see details. After I've begun a piece, if I'm stuck on it, I'll scan or photograph it and twiddle with in PS to try out drastic changes before I do them -- like putting in a dark background where I have a light one or warming up an area colorwise, etc. I really let my sketches do most of the gruntwork for me, because they're faster for most of the changes I make. If I was a slow sketcher or a super fast PS-er, I might do it the other way. I figure, what you do to work out your groundwork at the beginning is, like the color of your underwear, your business alone. Most everyone does some preliminary work (and wears underwear -- though not the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band from Canada, or so I heard from a scarred passerby at a Scottish festival) but what sort depends on what comes naturally to you.

Word of warning to those who have not used Photoshop before and don't own it -- it's a complicated program, so be prepared to put in some hours learning how to do the most basic functions.

2. When you do those preliminary sketches, how do you pick the best one? I do them and then find that I have a terrible time picking just one.

I had to think about this question, because it wasn't an issue I normally have, and I wasn't sure why. I think it's because before I start a piece, I usually know sort of what I want to do with it. I think part of this is a style thing too -- I'm very set in my stylistic ways and that defines what sort of crop I'll do. The odds of me, for instance, doing a horse in a wide open landscape shot where you see the horse's full body and lots of territory around it . . . very slim. The odds of me doing a close up, edgy crop that's a little off kilter? Much more like me.

So I guess I would say -- pick the one that feels the most like you, if you've got several options that all play nicely within the composition world. Pick the one that you'd be happiest to have hanging on a wall somewhere and brag about. If one doesn't stand out, maybe that means you need to do one more and push the envelope.

2. When you say “colored pencil on board” – what type of board do you mean?

I use a bunch of different sorts, but my favorite is Ampersand's Pastelbord, a nice gritty board that eats pencils like Cookie Monster eats cookies. I also use Colorfix primer on masonite board. Both of them are a lot different from working on paper -- they have their pros and cons. I'm always trying new supports for colored pencil. I've done canvas, wood, clayboard . . . right now I've started a piece on a new type of support for me -- the company sent me samples and it's interesting. More on that later.

4. How do you handle something like someone asking you to incorporate their pets into famous paintings?

I had to put my Master Cats series up on this post because of this question. I don't have anything ethically wrong with inserting pets into paintings well out of copyright (well out of copyright), because I think they're humorous and I like humorous. But that's also in my style. Everyone of those tiny Master Cats (the originals were 2.5 x 3.5") is a copy of another painting, but I like to think that they're all vaguely recognizable as mine as well.

So my answer to this one is, do it if it fits in with your style. If you normally do abstracts or only paint in blue or something else that means that these sort of spoofs would be a departure -- decline.

Tomorrow I'm going to one of two blog posts on Time Management & Motivation. If you have any questions on that front, leave 'em in the comments as usual! Thanks to everyone for being so enthusiastic about these series posts!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Maggie on Photographic References, Part IV

Okay, onto the last part of my changing photographic references for art series. I'm gonna answer all questions in a separate post tomorrow. Folks just joining can see the earlier parts here:

Part I
Part II
Part III

Tonight we're coming to my last two in depth mini-topics, both of which are actually massive enough to justify their own weekly series: combining two subjects into one piece of art and altering a photo to suit your own personal artistic style. I'm going to touch on these two items very lightly in the relative scheme of things, so if you have a specific question, be sure to ask it in the comments so I can get to it tomorrow.

So tonight I'm actually cheating and using the same example to illustrate both points.


I'm asked to do this a lot in my commission portrait work, and I'm sure it's pretty obvious why. Dog A and Dog B don't get along, but client would like photo of them snuggling like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Or Dog A and Dog B don't hold still long on their own, much less in each other's presence, and a nice photo of them together is about as likely as Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston getting back together. Anyway, whatever the reason, suffice to say that if you do portraits, you're going to eventually be asked to do a multi-subject piece. And you want to be able to say "yes." (Unless it's a portrait of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston).

So let's pretend that these two pretty bad photos of Moose and Peanut need to be combined in some artistic fashion. We can't really just smush them together in Photoshop and tell them to play nice -- it won't work. At least not without considerable thought. And why, you ask, is that? A couple reasons:

  • Lighting. Notice that the light is coming from two entirely different directions. Not only will we have to adjust for that, but if we're putting them close together, we'll have to adjust for one of them casting shadows onto the other one.
  • Size. We're going to need to know what size they are relative to each other and adjust for that as well. A cat and a Jack Russell might not be hard to guess, but what if it was two mutts of indeterminate size? Or a giant-headed child and a midget? You need this information before you combine two subjects or you can end up with a real disaster.
  • Markings. You can just move around bodies wherever you want them without having photos of both sides of their bodies. Ditto with a person's face. You can't just turn them the other direction by flipping the photo. People's faces aren't symmetrical and animals' markings aren't either.
  • Altering body positions. Photoshop can only do you so much. If you're doing major changes, you need something a bit more powerful, which would be . . .

Your sketchbook! You knew I was going to say that, weren't you? I start out with two very quick value sketches of each subject as they stand. Just to get my bearings. Those suckers are on the left here and as you can see, they are very quick, very sketchy, and only have three values: dark, midtone, and light.

To me, these little ugly creations are worth gold. Do you see what I've established with them in only 60 seconds? The major shapes, the light direction, and what I would do to correct the value patterns (note how I simplified the background on Peanut, the terrier). Anyway, now I have my base line. I know what I'm really working with.

So I move onto my mock-ups. I can do as many of these as I need to until I find the composition I like. Referring to my value sketches and the original photos, I put the two subjects together. First I try Moose on the left and Peanut on the right. Notice how I put them nice and close. Artsy. Snuggly. Cute. I reverse the shadowing on Moose's face and give him a shadow from Peanut's face. When I execute this piece (that means "finish it" not "line it up against a wall and shoot it"), I'll have to know what the markings are on Moose's other side, if I use this mock-up.

Okay, I like that, but I want to see what happens if I swap their positions. Out comes the sketchbook and another value sketch appears. Again, quick. Painless. Just the three values and major shapes. Here's Moose on the right. I still need to adjust his lighting, but I don't have to play with his body shape and I can probably get away without too much shadowing on Peanut's face if I pretend my lighting is coming from a high right angle. I like this one. Looking at it now, I think I'd definitely make sure to knock back Peanut's big body shape there on the left back to midtone, because it's distracting as it is.

So you see how simple that was? Not at all painful.

Problem: Need to combine two photos.
Solution: Three Value Mockups, correcting for lighting and size discrepancies.


This goes back to the conversation we had earlier this month about not slavishly copying photos but rather putting your own spin on them. For this reason, I get particular enjoyment from working from not so great photos, because that way I can take full credit for them turning out okay!

I thought a visual example would be easier than a written one for this. The two photographs you see of Peanut in this post were the basis for the two pieces of Peanut artwork also in this post. I think you can see how I took my style and pushed the envelope. Key points of my style are:

  • A lot deep darks.
  • Scattered hints of bright color
  • Intense saturation
The photos lacked all of those -- but I put them in anyway. Establish what you want the image to say and then let the photo work for you, not the other way around.

Problem: Copying a photo.
Solution: Use your sketchbook and your imagination to use the photo as just one piece of your artistic arsenal.

Next week's series, by the way, is on something important to me -- motivation, time-management, and artistic mentality.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Maggie on Photographic References, Part III

portrait commission/ work in progress
16 x 20" colored pencil on pastelbord
copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater.

I am interrupting a fun filled evening of child-rearing and art-making to continue my series on altering photographic references for art. (Last part can be found here)

Anyway, so I just rolled over an Oreo with my desk chair (remind me to tell you guys tomorrow about buying a new desk chair) and I'm amazed at how large a splatter pattern one Oreo can make when faced with light-colored carpet. Really, the government should study this. I'm sure it has some use in the defense area.

All right, last post I covered lighting and composition in photo references. Tonight I'm going to write about how I approach photographs that are lacking good color or nice backgrounds, two things that are particularly important in simple portraits.


This one is sort of easy. It takes a bit of leg work, but it's not really hard. I get photos with poor color all the time -- flashed photos often are washed out, dark photos can be brightened for details but often lack good color, weird lighting situations can create technicolor creations of terrifying hue.

In this case, it's a matter of finding another photo, or photos, that fill in the information gap. Sometimes, this will be very easy. For instance, I love the pose on the tiger shot above, one I took at the National Zoo last year (appreciate that the tiger was 8,000 miles away when I took this shot if you will). I know what color this tiger was because I was there to take the photo. However, since I didn't have a sketchbook with me to record the colors, another ref would help fill in the gaps in my memory. It's a simple matter to hit the internet (google's image search is a nice function for this) to find another tiger photo with better color. I'll use my pose and the color from the other photo.

In this case, it's not really necessary to track down a copyright-free photo, since you're not using the likeness or copying the photo in any way, but if you do need to borrow majorly from a photo in anyway, there are several places to find photos that are copyright free, like the WetCanvas reference library, or with photos available under the Creative Commons License, like Flickr (notice that not all photos on Flickr are available under the Creative Commons License, you have to check that box on the advanced search page).

Sometimes, however, the task is harder because it's a commission and you've not met the subject. Say it's a flashed photo of a girl with what looks like dark brown hair. You're pretty sure that it's lighter than the photo, but you're not sure how light. This is not the time to pull out hair dye swatches and start guessing. This is where normally I would send the client an e-mail asking them to search through one of the photo sources for a girl with the same color hair. I've not yet had a client be bothered by such "homework." I find that usually, however, I can just ask the client if they have a photo that has good color and bad everything else. Usually there's a blurry photo with accurate colors that they can send.


Problem: Poor color in reference photos.
Solution: Fill in the gaps with other photos of similar subjects, with color sketches (if you made them), or with photos lacking in other elements but sporting true color.


This is a biggie. Now, you'll have to pardon my example photos here. In the great Computer Porno Fire of 2007, I lost many of my photo references, and then in the Great Hard Drive Malfunction of 2008 I lost many more (for those who may not remember either, the first was when Norton AntiVirus downloaded 3,000 porno videos onto my computer into hidden folders - thanks, Norton! and the second was when Life decided it Hated Me), so I'm kind of running short of examples here. I'll have better ones on Friday, promise.

Okay. So what do you do when you need to change backgrounds? Let's say you're doing a portrait of your charming daughter and the background is either boring or shows something really unartistic behind her, like your neighbor's dog making love to a sofa pillow or the such. The simplest way to change this is to do a studio background, just a single color, either flat or in gradient. But I hate studio portraits with a passion (my apologies to those who love them) so for me, I need all of the image to be doing something.

So let's imagine that I have consumed an ungodly amount of sweet tea and I want to do a portrait of my daughter as if she is in the middle of this lovely field near Warsaw, Virginia. I have two real options for references.

When I was first starting out, I'd use option A -- I'd digitally combine the two photos in Adobe Photoshop. This is problematic for a few reasons. While it gave me a reference instantly and beautifully combined, it didn't require me to use my artistic brain. So if I'd just thoughtlessly combined the two photos above, I would've been making a major lighting error (note the direction of lighting in each) and I would've been forced to make all my position and sizing changes dependent on how well I knew how to use the program. Any color changes I thought I'd needed I'd have to tweak individually. There are entire college degrees based around this stuff, folks.

So, as I got better and starting using my sketchbook for quick 2 minute preliminary sketches, I started using option B: sketching the various options in quick 2 minute sketches. This is the option I still use today. It's much faster for me than Photoshop, and it also sorts out a ton of problems a lot more effectively. I'm not so worried about details or likeness in these little quick sketches -- more about how values and shapes affect each other.

So enter my ugly two minute sketch. Is it great art? No. Did it work out a lot of problems in my head for this piece? Yes. Notice a couple things about it.

  • Light source is identified.
  • Possible color conflicts (similarity between sky and shirt color) are identified and a possible solution (intensifying saturation on shirt) is tried out
  • Two different crops are tried out. If I was really doing a piece like this, I'd probably have three or four little sketches like this, the others in black and white, trying out landscape versus portrait formats, having her standing in the grass versus up close, more of her face versus more of her body, etc.
  • Another advantage? A lot of times, portrait clients are very happy to get these sketches along with their portraits, if you're willing to give them up. People are fascinated by the process.
Now there is a compromise between a flat studio background and a fully detailed one -- it is possibly to just simplify and blur the background of photo you already have. In this case, there's a great exercise you can do to figure how to blur elements. Focus on something -- like my interesting blog post on your computer screen -- but make yourself away of the way you're perceiving things outside of your direct focus area. See how uncontrasty and blurred they are? That's what you're going for.

Problem: Crummy background.
Solution: Eliminate the background, simplify the background, or sub another photograph.

Yikes. I just realized this blog post took me a stunning two hours to assemble, which means my portrait is going to be put on hold until tomorrow.

I should take the opportunity to plug myself, shouldn't I? If you're liking this series of blog posts I've been doing lately and feel like showing your support, please head onto cafepress and buy a t-shirt or mug with my art on it, sign up for a workshop, or e-mail my editor at Flux and tell him how brilliant I am. Okay, I'm kidding about the last one.

Next post will finish up photo alterations -- remember to post questions in the comments section. Next week's series topic will be one which is very important to me!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Maggie on Photographic References, Part II

First things first. Thank you first of all to Ginger, who only peed in the house twice in the last week and who posted on my blog to inform the world of my illness. Thanks second to everyone who wished me well in the comments and by e-mail -- I think it helped, because I'm definitely human again today.

Second of all, I wanted to point out that the Apple Tree in Springfield, Virginia, is hosting another two day colored pencil workshop with me on April 5-6 and there are a still a few slots left. Last month we had a full house, so book early if you can. We'll be getting 3-4 colored pencil pieces done from start to finish in those two days and it's a lot of fun.

Third of all, I won first place in the drawing category at the Fredericksburg Fine Arts Exhibit with my drawing, "Victoria in Spring" (at left). Not to brag . . . um, but yes. To brag.

So I wanted to follow up on my photographic post from last week. The one on making art from photos and how to fix said photos that was so rudely interrupted by my throat and sinuses being torn out by small elves and used for target practice.

As I mentioned in the last post, there are seven major items I expect to be missing most photographs. Every photograph I use as a reference will be missing at least one of these components and I'll need to make up for it in another way.

  • Good lighting
  • Interesting composition
  • Appropriate background
  • Accurate Color
  • High level of detail
  • Needs to be combined with the subject of another photo
  • My unique artistic vision
And I'll add one more, which was pointed out both in a comment and in an e-mail and is very true, especially for equestrian artists or artists that do a lot buildings or tall items

  • Lack of distortion
If I addressed how to fix all of these with nice Maggic examples, the post would become roughly the length of the movie Hidalgo and we would all be here all night. Much as I know that you enjoy my company, I think that would be a bit excessive, so I'm going to break it into three posts and hope I don't come down with chicken pox or something before the next one.

So tonight I'm going to write about how I adjust for lighting and composition. We'll hit the rest of the list on Wednesday and Friday. And questions, I think, on Friday, because I've got quite a backlog now.


First, let's talk about what counts as "bad lighting." There's all sorts of terrible lighting that one can encounter in the world of photography, but for me, there is only one unforgivable curse (hey! Harry Potter reference! I'm socially aware!) in lighting.

Flash. I cannot say this enough: Flash is a tool of the devil. Don't do it. It gets rid of every contour in every face in every person ever. Did you ever wonder why your driver's license photo never looked like you? Hello! Flash. Now, if you go to a nice posh portrait studio, they'll use flash -- but you better believe they'll have lit the $%^& out of one side of you so that you still have one side of your face lightly shadowed.

To demonstrate the evils of flash, I've taken the liberty of using two photos from my dear friend Helene, who is also a talented artist and possessor of Ginger's very spoiled sister. Photo on left? Flashed. See the way that it flattens everything? There's a weird ghost shadow behind her caused by the flash that would only happen in real life if she was watching a nuclear explosion. There's some interest in the photo because she's got fun colors . . . but can you imagine doing a portrait from that if she was all white? Most. Boring. Portrait. Ever.

Okay. Photo on right. No flash. Strong natural light from left of photo. Look at those lovely contours and imagine what you could do with a portrait of that if you decreased the contrast of those shadows slightly and threw color into them. Say it with me: ahhhhhhh.

Long story short: I would never do a portrait from a flashed photo. Ever.

Problem: Flash
Solution: a) Secure a non-flashed photo from the client or take them yourself. b) find a photograph of a similar animal/ person/ setting with good lighting and apply that lighting to your original image when you work it yourself. (If you do preliminary sketches, which I highly recommend, you can combine the two things in that sketch). Notice the pic of Ginger above. Different color, but similar facial structure and hair pattern. She'd work fine as a lighting pattern for a portrait of Helene's dog if all I had was the flashed photo.


This is actually a fun one, because for every image, there are ton of different ways to approach composing it. There are many, many composition rules and guidelines that you can follow to give you a more subconsciously appealing piece of art, but when it comes down to it, I only follow three reliably.


Composition rules are meant to be broken. Just learn them first, okay, before you break them? So now, Maggie's three quick and dirty rules to composition.

  • I never center anything. So that means no subject dead center in the middle of the composition (notice how Victoria in Spring is weighted to the left) and I never chop a painting in half by putting the horizon line in the center. Centering an image instantly makes it more static -- dead. Check out this photo I took of the breathtakingly eerie marshes near Tapphannock, Virginia. The one on the left has the horizon line perfectly centered. Blech. Looks like something my 3 year old drew. Good for a 3 year old. Bad for someone who has conquered puberty. Now take gander at the one on the right. Same photo, cropped to allow for more sky and putting that landscape line on the lower third. See how much more impressive that is?
  • I put the focal point on one of the "sweet spots." What, pray tell, you ask, is a sweet spot? Imagine dividing your image into thirds horizontally and then again, vertically. What, you can't? Not to worry, I've already done it for you on my painting "The Horses of Roan." Every place where two of the lines intersect is a "sweet spot." Put your focal point (that would be your subject's eyes, dummy) and you'll make magic. Experiment with this rule and you'll see what I mean -- it'll make a huge difference to your work if you don't already use it.
  • No kissing. I don't mean the clients. Though I don't kiss them, either. And I try not to hug, if I can help it, as I've noted before. I'm talking about kissing edges. I take great pains to never have the edge of a major object touching the side or touching another object. Far better to overlap. Otherwise, it's just . . . weird. It creates a sharp angle that instantly draws the eye, and that's not a good thing. You want to draw attention to your focal point, not to the edge of your piece. Check out my photo of oranges, for instance. The pretty one on the left sits in a sweet spot away from the edge. Now check out the version on the left, cropped so that the edges kiss. Ick! Disconcerting and unprofessional looking.

Problem: Uncropped photo/ bad composition.
Solution: Crop in a photo editing program or in your sketch book according to composition rules until you find a crop that you like.

Okay. Thus ends post 1! Whoo, I told you it would be long! Questions? Comments? More next post!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Maggie on Photographic References, Part I

"Lawrence" - 11 x 14" colored pencil on board.
Copyright Maggie Stiefvater.
Contact Chasen Galleries for purchase info.

(My version on left and reference photo -- actual size -- on right)
There has always been a major debate raging about using photographs as reference for artwork and this post is not about that (it's also not about player pianos, flocks of sharpie markers, or swear words -- which are also post-worthy subjects that may get touched upon this week). The only thing I will say about the debate here is that I do think that there is a place for photographs as references, as long as you know their limitations and learn to take/ use your own, and as long as you’re also able to draw from life. Drawing from life has an immediacy and freshness that I think you’d be hard pressed to get from a photo. And drawing from someone else's photo will always be revising someone else's vision rather than starting from scratch by yourself.

Okay. That aside. Onto the actual craft of using photographs for references, or more specifically, changing them to make a better piece of art. The more photo-realistic your finished piece of art is meant to be, the more thoughtful you’re going to have to be about these changes.

There are a few different reasons to change a photo, always because it’s lacking. It could be lacking:

- good lighting
- good composition
- good background
- necessary elements from another reference (like if you’re putting additional subjects in a portrait or putting a subject in a different surrounding)
- good color
- good detail
- your artistic style

Unless the photograph is yours and is absolute perfection, you will be changing at least one of these things. This is the point where I usually get two big questions:

1) How do I analyze a photo to even know if it’s good or bad?


2) How do I change it so that the changes look natural and realistic?

And here is the disappointing bit . . . because all I'm going to say is that I'm tackling these questions this week (with photographic examples! don't be too sad!) on Wednesday and Friday. If you have any other questions that this post brought up that I should be tackling as well, leave 'em in the comments. I promise I do eventually get to them . . .

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Nuts & Bolts of Commission Work

"All Strung Out" - 11 x 14" colored pencil on drafting film.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
Prints available here.

Okay. Finally back on track! In this post I'm going to outline my commission portrait process. I want to emphasize that this is just the system that works for me -- anyone revamping their portrait process should regard this post as an all-you-can eat buffet. You can take as much or as little as you like, and if the carrots look gross, just leave them there. I won't know.

And as always, ask questions or comment on things you do differently in the comments -- I read every single one and try to reply to all of them. Now let's do this thing!


First things first. Let's assume someone's approached me through e-mail and asked me about portraits. The first thing we're going to talk is prices. I price my portraits by size alone. I used to price based upon complexity, number of subjects, how long it took . . . and all I did was make it hard for the client to predict my pricing and make it impossible for me to remember them off the top of my head.

So instead I averaged out the time spent on my most popular size (11 x 14") and work out what I was charging for that. I turned that into a very inexact mathematical formula which I applied to the time spent on the other common sizes and then rounded them to even numbers. They're logical for clients, easy for me to remember, and fair.


I used to do portraits without getting the money first. Gasp, right? I don't know what I was thinking -- but it didn't take me long to get burned. For awhile I reacted by asking for 100% upfront, which people did without question, but I found that I worked more slowly when I already had the money in hand. (See the painful truths I reveal for you guys? Do you see them?) So I settled on 50% down and 50% on completion. That gives me security and incentive to finish in a timely manner. And it also gives the client some confidence, I think, because they don't have to pay all of it until they actually see a .jpg of the final piece. Giving money to a perfect stranger can be scary. Remember that you're that perfect stranger in most cases.


This is a crucial step of the process. If I don't have good references, I'm not going to get a good portrait. Period. If the client is in my state, I'll go take my own. In this case, I only as for my travel expenses and I give the client a CD with the images on it with the final portrait. This is definitely an extra and don't feel like you have to do this to be a good portrait artist.

If they aren't in state -- and this happens often as I get a lot of commissions from online sources -- then I'm going to have to make do with their photos. Also, dead people and animals don't pose very well (at least for me), so any post mortem portraits will have to be done from client photographs.

This is a scary moment, waiting for the photos to appear. Will they be awful? Beautiful? I have only turned down one commission based upon terrible photos (the cat had gone to that big litter box in the sky and wasn't available for further photographic torment) -- and in the end, we actually worked out a compromise on that one, which I talk about later.

I tell my clients to send me as many photos as they think they need me to see. I need to establish:

  • actual colors (flash will obliterate proper coloration; however, even a blurry photo can establish colors)
  • pose (though I can also play with these with my sketchbook)
  • likeness (a nice crisp photo, please)
  • personality (this is not the same as the above item)
My record is a client who sent over 30 photos for her cat portrait. I didn't mind -- I'd much rather have too many than too few. I also ask for a description of the subject, if I can't meet them. I want to work as much life into this portrait as possible.

I usually get digital photos but make sure if you get snail mail photos to ask if they want them returned.


Sometimes, the client will only have terrible references available. Blurry or flashed or just plain too small. You have two choices then. 1) turn down the commission (I'm loathe to turn down a possible electric bill payment, myself), or 2) fill in the gaps in your knowledge.

This is where communication is essential. If you don't tell the client the references are unworkable, they'll just assume they're fine and be horrified at the portrait of mush that you deliver. If I get unusable references, I go back to the client and tell them right away. If the subject's still breathing, I coach them on taking photos that will give me what I need.

If the subject isn't still walking among us (I'm determined to see how many different ways I can say "dead" in one post), more drastic measures need to be taken. No, I'm not digging up any graves. But I do give the client homework in that case. I tell them about google images and Flickr and I ask them to find photos that fill in the blanks (you can tell at this point that I'm talking about animal portraits, not people). For instance, one client had no photographs that showed her moribund cat's actual eye color. Rather than just guessing at what shade blue she meant, I had her find a photo of a cat with a similar eye color.

Sometimes I do the leg work myself. For instance, if the photo has poor lighting, I'll go in search of a photo with better lighting. Or if I'm combining elements in a portrait (I get asked to do this a lot -- more in the next section), I'll often need to find images to help me out with lighting and shadows or shapes.


Often clients will ask if I can change things from the photo. The answer for me is a resounding yes. In fact, if it was a no, I'd wonder what the point was of doing the portrait in the first place. But I do have my limits. If the request is something like putting a dog on their favorite chair or having a woman snuggling her child where no snuggling had occurred, I'm very happy to do it.

But sometimes I have to say no. A man once asked me to do his portrait. He wanted to be standing on a pedestal while three former presidents stood at the base in baseball uniforms and regarded him. I said no. (this is an absolutely true story, by the way).

Other things I won't change? My style. If someone is asking you for a portrait, it should be because they love your existing body of work. The goal is to create a piece that will fit seamlessly into my current pieces. I'll ask for color input if there's going to be a large field of color in the portrait, but otherwise, my style is the default setting and is unlikely to change.


These used to terrify me. I never wanted to show the portrait to the client because what if they didn't like it? I've worked out a system now, however, where I do a few two-minute thumbnail sketches and send them to the client to approve. This has eliminated 90% of the change requests, because the pose is already worked out.

Then I give my clients the option of seeing the portrait in progress or being surprised at the end. The vast majority prefer to be surprised. The others get to see the portrait twice. Once early on, when I can still make pretty major changes (colored pencil is picky this way). And then at the end, when it's all done and only minor changes can be made. A few times I've had to adjust an eye or a smile at the first stage, but really, I don't angst over this anymore. If you've done your sketches, the major things, the pose issues, are all taken care of.

I used to let my clients push me around, back when I was a tadpole. Before I said very firmly how much I could change and how much I couldn't, I was asked to do all sorts of nit-picky alterations -- colors on sofa cushions and positioning of highlights and random things. And I finally realized that this was entirely my fault. Not the client's. I wasn't emanating self-confidence in my own ability, and I was basically asking the client to second guess me. Now, I'm open to suggestions, but when it comes down to it, I'm the artist. They're just going to have to trust me.

And it works.


First, I show the client a .jpg of the image, unless they want to be surprised. If they approve (I should say when), I send them an invoice for the balance, and I wait until I've received payment to ship.

No exceptions.

Then it's time for the package to go whirling through the postal system. Two words for you:

1) sturdy cardboard
2) insurance

I don't do anything fancy to package the art. I don't frame or mat my pieces -- the client will make all those decisions anyway, and I don't sell frames. I sandwich the art between sturdy cardboard and either bubble wrap it or otherwise cushion it against the post office playing kick ball with the box. I tape a business card to the packaging and jot a little note on the back of it.

Yo! Tis Maggie thanks for buying thanx bye.

Well, slightly better than that.

Then I send it priority (always priority) with insurance and follow up to make sure they've gotten it.

Thus a commission portrait is born.

Rats, I really wanted to work in a dead reference one more time. I had a good one: "living impaired." See, that would've been funny, right?

Follow-up to the Rule Changes

"Ambition" - 6 x 24" colored pencil on clayboard.
copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater.
$350 - e-mail me at portraitswithcharacter AT gmail DOT com for purchase info.

I'm delighted to say that after extensive blogging and discussion by colored pencil artists, UKCPS has amended their rules to a compromise that I find really agreeable. This is what they read now:

The Society wishes to see work submitted that is essentially the original work of the submitting artist from concept through design to completion. The exhibition should show the compositional and drawing skills of the artists, as well as their ability to use colour from a pencil source. For this reason, submitted work must meet a number of conditions:

1. The concept design and execution of the artwork should be that of the artist, who will be asked to assert this. The artist must have taken any photograph used in its entirety for the whole work, but reference materials which contribute to the final composition can be obtained from any source, copyright laws permitting. Work cannot be submitted which has been executed in any teaching situation. No parts of work may be copied from copyrighted or published materials, without permission from the copyright holder and no images may be submitted which have been produced by drawing over a digital reproduction. Any reference material can be sourced to build up a composition, but producing an identical copy of someone else's composition regardless of whether the artist has permission or not, is not acceptable.

These rules will not come into effect until 2009, giving all of our members a chance to comply.
This makes me very happy, as it covers the copying of photos directly for exhibition (which I have never liked) and allows for posting of WIPs with minimal input.

I'd like to thank Bob Ebdon and all the folks at UKCPS who listened so attentively to what the artists had to say and worked to reach a compromise. Double yay! (yay yay)

Katherine Tyrrell, as always, has a very thorough wrap-up here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Original Works for Exhibitions

I know I was going to post on commission portraits this evening, but I'm going to push that post to tomorrow night in favor of a new kerfuffle that's appeared over the past few days. It's something I feel very strongly about: originality and creativity in exhibition pieces.

Most artists who've spent any time with me in person will have heard me rant poetically about how a major fault in colored pencils artists is our shameless reliance on reference photos. I'm not talking about using multiple photos as references, which I do often during my commission portraits -- hey now, this discussion will fit in with my commission portrait theme, I'm so proud of myself -- I'm talking about taking a beautiful photo and using it to create a beautiful colored pencil copy.

Anyway, the current kerfuffle came about because a lot of colored pencil artists have been doing just that, and then entering the piece in juried exhibitions -- and winning prizes. And people started pointing out (rightly, in my opinion), that this wasn't really an original piece they were entering. The credit for the gorgeous color choices, the composition, the subject -- were the original photographer. If the artist hadn't taken the photo themselves, they really couldn't take credit for anything other than the technical act of copying it.

It sounds so logical when I type it out like that.

But apparently, to a lot of people, it's not. So the Colored Pencil Society of America recently instated rules to help crack down on this issue, stating essentially that you couldn't enter a piece that wasn't wholly original. So either from your own photo or so drastically different from the photo that it was obvious that your vision shone through.

But that's not the kerfuffle. The kerfuffle is the UKCPS (that's the colored pencil society for people who talk with snobby accents) and their recent change to their guidelines. Katherine Tyrrell (one of those clever people who talks with a snobby accent) did an exhaustive post on the debate here, but I'll summarize. The UKCPS's new rules are now that your exhibition pieces must be wholly original (sound familiar), but they add that this also means the piece cannot have been

  • completed in a workshop
  • completed with the aid of a teacher
  • posted as a work-in-progress on an online forum or blog where someone has posted any suggestions on how it might be improved
  • influenced by suggestions from artist groups
Bollocks, to borrow a phrase they would understand. I can sympathize with the first two, as I know how much I change and influence my workshop students' visions of their pieces. Moreover, they're usually working from my photos.

But the second two really bother me. Partially, it's because I think the idea of an artist working in a vacuum is silly and unrealistic. The best painters throughout history worked constantly in the company of other artists and closely with their teachers. Just because an artist is poking their head over your shoulder and saying "darken that rear wall" doesn't make a piece less original to the actual working artist.

But the real reason why this bothers me is this: I got my entire artistic education on online forums like Because experienced artists were generous enough to post their works as works-in-progress on the boards and explain themselves. I'm terrified that the UKCPS might leave these idiotic rules in place, because if they do, I guarantee you experienced colored pencil artists will not be posting works in progress on artists' boards anymore. Because if they do, according the UKCPS, they can't enter those pieces in any exhibition. And if most artists are anything like me, we never know until the last minute which pieces we're entering.

So while I don't use WetCanvas for educational purposes anymore, I still feel a debt to them for teaching me what I know. I would hate to see those works-in-progress vanish, because, for hundreds of artists, those online forums are their only opportunity for artistic education. I sincerely hope the UKCPS changes their new rules and that other artistic societies don't feel the need to follow this same route.

Rant over.

By the way, the two images posted are one of my portraits (this one for me, of my dog, Peanut) and of the reference photo I used.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Art of Commission Portraits, Part I

Okay, as promised, this week I'm talking about commission portraits. I take for granted a lot of what I've learned about portraits, so if I skip over something really basic, will you guys stop me? Poke me in the comments.

In the next post on commissions I'll talk about the nuts and bolts of commission portraits, but first I want to talk about the mentality of portraits. Once upon a time, when I was a small Maggie, I didn't do portraits. I took on a few, agonized over them, and thought the end result was stiff and completely uninspiring. I felt like I was working twice as hard for the same amount of money. So I stopped doing them for a long time.

Does this describe you? If so, I'll tell you what I figured out (and this took me a long time to find out, so you better be grateful). My problems were:

  • I wasn't good enough yet. I was struggling with getting the likeness of the subject and that was poisoning my whole view of them.
  • I was using the client's photos instead of taking my own or coaching them on what I needed.
  • I hadn't practiced enough changing my art from the references, so I was dependent on bad lighting, poor poses, and crummy backgrounds
  • I wasn't thinking about making every portrait immediately identifiable as mine, in my signature style

Until I resolved all of these issues, there was no way I could pull off a good portrait. I still feel like keeping myself out of the portrait business until I was comfortable with it was a good choice. After all, these are pieces that will be hung on walls with your name on it, acting as giant business cards -- you want them to be as good as your non-commission pieces. And I regret the pieces I sent out before I decided I wasn't ready!

So before you take on a custom portrait, even if it's from just a friend as a favor, think long and hard before you say "yes." Because there is no such thing as a piece that doesn't matter, even if you don't sign it. Word of mouth is word of mouth -- if it's fugly beyond compare or doesn't look like the animal, that's tremendously bad advertising. What's that statistic that someone who likes a restaurant will tell two people on average and someone who has a bad experience at a restaurant will tell ten? Same deal.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard a client tell me that they've had a portrait done before and the portrait hadn't looked like their pet or child -- "but I didn't have the heart to tell the artist." Don't be that artist! Don't take on portraits until you feel you're ready.

Okay, and lest that sounds ominous, you'll know when you're ready. Because when you sit down to create a piece of art with a definite sense of likeness, you'll feel confident, happy, and ready to go, and the piece will turn out looking like the pieces you do for yourself. Not stiff and uncomfortable. You won't dread them -- you'll welcome them as a new challenge.

By the way, all the pieces here in this post are recent portraits I've done. I'm happy with all of them because they kept the likeness of the pet, captured way more personality than the photographs, and created pieces that I'm happy and proud to call part of my current body of work. I could've never done them two years ago!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Answers to Marketing Questions & Next Week's Plan of Action

Okay. Start of a new week. Last week was productive (finished my rough draft of current novel) and eventful (watched my three year old accidentally grab a guy's crotch in the middle of church as she lost her balance)(at least he doesn't have to worry about having the same humiliating experience happen with his kids, as those parts of his body no longer function after Victoria's fall-and-grab).

And next week should be good too. My editor gets back into the office after being out with baby-having last week, so hopefully I get more news on LAMENT's cover (which should be appearing soon, sometime this month I think) and I get to go see Lunasa (world's best Irish band, people!) in concert. Nice!

This week on the blog I'm going to be doing a three-parter on commissioned portraits, from both client and artist perspective. So if you have any questions on that, stick 'em here in the comments.

Oh -- and before I answer the questions from the marketing posts, I want to say hello to the visitors from Ann Kullberg's colored pencil mag FMP, where she nicely named this blog her website of the month (very flattering. My husband had to push me through the living room door today as my head was too swelled to fit comfortably). Anyway, hi, Ann's people!

Okay. Onto the questions from the comments -- pinch me if I missed one. These are edited for typos and insane numbers of punctuation marks.

I am curious, you say that you won't sell in local shows (I only looked at them for exposure anyway) but I was wondering why don't you sell there? Is it the target audience just isn't a "buyer" as such?

This is a good question. In my original post, I said something along the lines of "enter local shows but don't expect to see any money from them." This has definitely been true -- in my experience. One has to keep in mind the location of the shows when analyzing this statement, both the city and the hosting establishment. A "local" show in an artsy town might net you sales. But usually, I find that free local exhibitions gather a lot of lookers but not a lot of buyers. I think I can remember two pieces I've sold from local exhibitions, and both were after the fact, after the buyers had had time to mull it over.

This is why I think that more pieces don't sell in exhibitions in coffee shops and libraries, etc. Imagine yourself as the buyer (this is a great exercise anyway). You're not actually a buyer, by the way. You're a coffee-thirsty patron. You walk into the coffee shop. "Whoo! Cool art by an obviously awesome girl named Maggie Stiefvater!" You love the style. You love the colors. It's inspired. But when it comes down to it, none of them grab you by the throat. You think you'd probably buy one if it was the right image -- but it's not there. These are all tea cups and you want a streetscape. Or vice versa. But you take the card that clever Maggie Stiefvater has made available, and then you pass that info on by word of mouth or file this information away for later use when you are buying Christmas presents.

Not an immediate sale! You have to woo people, and that means you have to give them time. But don't expect your exhibition to pay you anything -- unless you're doing an opening. (I really recommend the book TAKING THE LEAP -- it's over in the sidebar of this blog -- for a lot of basics on openings, etc.).

Say you are starting work on a new series and you only have one or two finished pieces. What is your take on entering one of the pieces in a juried exhibition - you know, one of the ones where you only get to have one entry? Would you wait until you had other pieces from the series showing different places (your rule of three)or would you enter this new, kick-butt piece into the show?

Hmm. I had to scratch my head and think on this one because I've never had quite this situation. I'd be tempted to go ahead and enter that kick-butt piece into the show, because jurying is generally a long process. By the time they decide your piece is, indeed, kick-butt, you can have the rule of three satisfied and even if it doesn't get in, you have your series well under way.

A question for you, how do you feel about joining art clubs? Would you get involved in any and all?

Ohhhhh. This is something that I don't normally talk about online on permanent record because (ssshhhhhh) I don't do clubs very well. I've never been a meetings sort of person. I don't do orderly and tidy and rules very well (I know, you guys could never guess this, right!?) . Anyway, needless to say, I don't belong to any clubs. But that's not to say I haven't thought about it, enough to have firm opinions on if I were going to join clubs, which ones I would.

Would: national clubs having to do with my medium. For me, that's the Colored Pencil Society of America, a large, active organization well worth looking into if you're a cp'er.
Would: Active local clubs with professional artists swelling their ranks. Active means not only actively meeting but actively scheduling group exhibitions.
Wouldn't: Pay excessive amounts for local clubs to pay for wall space.
Wouldn't: Join local club mostly populated by amateurs. Remember, people rise to the level of the people around them -- and if you're surrounded by equals, you'll stay where you're at.
Wouldn't: Join a local art co-op that required that I sat in the gallery for x amount of hours a month. I have better things to be doing with my time! That sounds snotty -- but it's true.

But I would say that the most important rule is you want to be in a club that you feel proud of all the members. You're associating yourself with them -- make sure that they, like a new pair of jeans, don't make your butt look big.

Have you had to deal with art theft yet? As in people stealing the work off your site ect, and if not, how would you deal with it?

I haven't had to deal with physical theft yet. I know most good galleries are insured against these things but a lot of artists have insurance themselves -- some art shows require it. I can't speak knowledgeably about this side of it.

However, I have had someone steal teaching threads off WetCanvas before (WetCanvas, if you're not familiar, is a wonderful, huge community of artists and definitely a club you should join) and publish them in Russian on another site. Another artist found them and alerted me. It wasn't just my work, it was a bunch of folks' threads all lifted wholesale and reproduced in a Russian-language art forum. Some of the artists e-mailed the website and demanded they be removed. I decided that I had put the threads up in public for teaching and I was still fine with them being up, as long as I got credit, and I e-mailed him saying so. I got a link back to my site and I still get traffic from there. Moral of the story, I guess, is be empathetic. Sometimes thieves are just thieves and you should blast them. Other times, they're ignorant and you can twist the situation around for good. Be sensitive in all things.

Do you have a cure for Studio Avoidance? I have a severe case of it and can't seem to get over it. I spend about 95/5% on marketing and am down to those four paintings, so I'm getting pretty desperate.

I saved this one for last, because it ties in with my rough sketch I posted tonight. Studio Avoidance . . . Artist's Block . . . I got this last year after doing a painting every single day for months. I was chasing eBay's art selling trends to pay the bills and frankly, I was burnt out. I gave myself permission to create pieces for me, and suddenly I was off and running again.

Likewise, I was sluggish in the studio for the last few weeks. Creatively drained from writing my novel and doing portraits. I'd had an idea for a series for a long time but it was very different and I didn't think I could pull it off in my style and . . . well, I just had all these reasons and doubts. But today, I gave myself permission to start that series. I don't usually do "meaningful" art, but this whole series is very much about something I believe strongly about: taking a chance, taking a leap, doing the impossible. And suddenly I'm excited and desperate to be in my studio again.

So that's my advice . . . give yourself permission to do something you've been putting off. Or sit down with a sketchbook and plan the exhibition you'd be proud for your friends to see. Imagine what it would look like if you took your personality and put it on the walls. We let self-doubt keep us from the studio and we shouldn't.