Monday, August 11, 2008

When the Lights Go Out, Are You Still an Artist?

"er something" (top) and "Peanut" (bottom) by Victoria Stiefvater
Crayola Markers on some vaguely manilla colored support.

This picture that my 4 year old daughter did today sort of illustrates my current mood perfectly. I really wanted to start my newest novel, even though I've got other work to do yet on my novels under contract, so I got up at 5:30 this morning to get some time in. And now, ummmm hours later (don't make me do the math, but I've been awake awhile) that's sort of what my thought bubble looks like.

Anyway, vague sleepiness puts me in a thoughtful mood, and looking at some colored pencil art online made me even more thoughtful, and then looking at Victoria's drawings pushed me over the edge.

Which edge, you wisely ask? The rhetorical question edge. The one where I look at these drawings and at mine and at the colored pencil pieces online and I ask myself "when the lights go out, am I still an artist?"

Think about it. Do you remember when you were a kid and the power would go out and you'd be so bored that you'd eat your own brother just for the entertainment value? And your mother/ father/ creepy Aunt figure would give you a pack of paper, a couple crayons, and an oil lamp, and you'd go to town. Or at least, if you were me, you did. I was a tremendous doodler as a kid and even through college. I sort of got known for it in a bunch of my college classes, because my professors suspected that I wasn't paying attention (they were wrong) and that I had more interest in my art than in their subject matter (they were right).

I suspect that most of you, dear readers, were the same. We drew anything we wanted all the time, just to see what happened. And if the power went out -- well, nothing changed. We were still the same. Our mojo still flowed freely from pen to paper. But now, as an adult, can we say the same? Or are we married to that reference photo on the computer or our projector or our lightbox? How much of our style is straight-up realism and how much of it is actual self-expression?

So here's the really crucial question you need to ask yourself.

In the event of a zombie apocolypse where we lost all power, would you still be the artist you are with the lights on?

I didn't like the answer that I had for that question. I think the answer for most of us colored pencil artists is that we are not the same artists with the lights on as with the lights off. For starters, if zombies snacked on my brain, I'm not sure how that would affect my art anyway. (I guess it depends on which part of my brain). But for . . . um, finishers . . . I also didn't like that I had to truthfully answer that question "no." It's why I'm spending my artistic down-time throwing myself into my sketchbook, drawing from life, doodling, developing a style in a very organic, Maggie-centric rather than photo-centric way.

How about you guys? Would you be the same artist if the zombies cut your power lines? Does it bother you if the answer's no?


Elina said...

I don`t know,if I am in a position to answer that question,as I am fairly new to art. To be more specific - I am an artist since this winter. I sincerely believed before,that the real famous artists never used any kind of helping devices,that all was drawn freehand and from life,but afterwards I stumbled upon a museum site,where all that hushed things were listed - like camera obscura, lucinda, perspective devices and cetera... Well, most of the artists we admire today used them - why would you feel bad,that you are using helping devices too ?
As for my personal view - I think,for a beginning artist,like me,it is beneficial to study and copy,I do a lot of sketching from life, I draw feehand ,that`s why my drawings are always wobbly ,but I do that only because for me it is easier,than to use grids,or ligtboxes,or what else.. For me it`s too much trouble. :-)
I believe,that one can create something without any references only then,when s/he has formed a library of skills (if I may say so),forms, objects ,textures... And I think, that the best way to form that library is to sketch. Anything and anywhere.
So,I guess,that for me it`s not so important,if the lights are on or off - I still remain the same .

Jennifer Rose said...

well if a zombie ate my brain I would either be a better artist or a really really bad one. Brains used as paint on a canvas?? Well I have heard of weirder things being used.

I am trying not to copy what I draw exactly as it is, either in a ref. photo or from life. Trying to see colours and shapes more in the subject and not focus on trying to get things as realistic as possible to the object being drawn. I am trying to sketch more and if I never show anyone the sketches it doesn't matter. Right now I know that with the lights off I would not be the artist I am with the lights on, but hopefully that changes soon.

Angela Finney said...

Hi, Maggie, I've followed you for a few years now, but only posted once as anonymous -- had trouble with this blogger for awhile, don't know why.

I have attended fine art workshops and college level classes on and off now most of my life. The degree to which I have done my art has varied throughout my lifetime on and off, also. I am now retired from fulltime social service work and have been working on my art most of the time and also on starting to market my art. When getting back involved in art 2-3 years ago, I was very motivated by wet canvas --actually I was thrilled that it was OK to use photo references. Most all of the classes I had done and art I had done up until 2-3 years ago (and I am talking about a 38 year period off and on) -- this was a big no-no. I do think an artist can learn to draw better and also learn to be readily expressive by drawing from life -- and I think it should be a part every artist's training. But I am enthralled by sharing art on wet canvas and do not see others work in terms of a photo reference -- another words the art seems very interesting to me and I do not think it is distorted or bland or unauthenic (word?)-- in fact I think some of the forum events where everyone draws from a photo image are very interesting because everyone's work is so unique -- it is always fun to see how everyone else sees and expresses the image. Also back when I first went to college and started with an art major (later changed) it was also taboo to want to do realistic art -- freshman coming in to classes saying they liked some like Andrew Wyeth were mocked by the professors I had at that time. So everything I am incurring right now with the popularity of realism and use of photos is refresshing to me and gives me permission to consider myself an artist and do something like pet protraits from people's photos and not look down on myself. I do congratulate you on you evolvement as artist and your movement to sketching from life and also finding a more personal or internalized style -- I just wanted to put in this two cents about my experience with this issue.

Thanks so much for all of your sharing over the years. I think your art to-date is beautiful and unique. Your energy and drive are fantasitc. I read many of your posts over and over and you have helped me belive that I can have some financial success/recognition with my art.

Rita said...

Great post Maggie, and something to chew on... zombie puns aside.

I'm taking a break from the pressure of selling my art to make a living and instead I'm doing what I did when I was younger: I'm doing the art that I want to, when I want to and to He** with the rest of it.

As far as references go I still use pics but much less than I did when I started. Basically I'm using them to get down what I need (ie- basic proportion and guides for perspective) and then they get unceremoniously tucked away so I can let my purely creative side take over.

I'd like to think that if I were under threat of zombie attacks that my art would be much more dramatic. Perhaps I need to throw the possibility of that happening into the mix and see what happens?

Helen Percy Lystra said...

Oh my... what a great question... yes, I think I would still be an artist with the lights off. I've drawn with my fingernail on a napkin when I was stuck without a pen or pencil.

Using photographs.... I do but that's not all I do, my sketch book is always with me. For me drawing from life is necessary... it's the way I practice.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Great post - this one is going in my 'who's made a mark this week' on Sunday! I'll be very interested to read all the comments you get on this one.

I was drawing plums and lychees yesterday from life. I started in the morning - in natural light and "finished" them in the evening in artificial light. I wouldn't have had nearly as much to undo this morning if I'd had a power cut last night! :-O The temptation to finish as opposed to being sensible was too much! ;)

Seriously - I try and use photos only for things that won't stay still (like my cats - but only to get proportions down) and for things that are technically difficult to draw - to check proportions again. After that I try use my sketches and what I know about the subject matter and what pleases me aesthetically.

Bottom line - I take some very nice photos and I really don't think I can improve on them!

BTW I think Victoria and Will need a blog for their artwork!

Barbara Pask said...

Victoria's drawing is so cute, isn't it great to watch kids make art? I am an oil painter and rarely do things turn out exactly like my photo or still life set up. I just kind of go on auto pilot and things happen. Maybe that's not good sometimes but it's sure my own thing. I've been trying my hand at impressionistic portraits so I have to focus to do those. I don't think anyone could accuse you of being a zombie but I know what you mean.

Ann said...

I would still be an artist but not quite in the same way. I enjoy doing landscapes in colored pencil and do use my own photo refs for those, which I have cropped and manipulated in photoshop. And even then the ref serves as a jumping off point, not an image to be copied. I like the play of light and shadow in the landscape and colored pencil would not be a practical media without the aid of photography. So without that technology I would most likely work in something more immediate, like pastel. Or do more drawings from still life, which can be worked from for a much longer period of time. At present I do small colored pencil drawings from life but still prefer landscape as a subject matter. And of course along with that time issue is the fact that I do most of my art work at night, under my artificial lighting. If I was limited only to daylight hours I would not have the opportunity to do as much art as I do now. I think of all these things as tools, an extension of the media an artist uses. Great thought provoking post!

Rebecca said...

I'd honestly have to say "yes"! I draw alot of fantasy, and there really are no ref. photos for dragons, gryphons, or unicorns. I'll sit down with my sketch book or in front of my drawing paper with colored pencil in hand and 'go to town' as you said on it. :)
I've tried using a few referance photos for some drawings, but I just get a basic shape down, toss the photo, and then carry on with the image in my head ^_^

Anonymous said...

What a good question!
I agree in a sense that I would not be the artist that I currently am.

-All of my still lifes would have a single weak light source of my flickering candle. Well, many kinda do anyway, but it's a lot harder to adjust a candle than a clip-on/bendable lamp. 2+ light sources = 2+ candles = fire hazard for me!
-I'd push faster in my work. More "get 'er done" and less "hmmmm, let me think on that tomorrow" painting.
-More day painting and less night painting.
-Been doing trail paintings lately. My hikes would be shorter distance, yet take longer because I'd have to paint while I'm there. Dog would be irate! He prefers to be on-the-go. (PS: about using photos for landscapes, it's been my experience that the perspective and proportions of distant landscapes is so terribly skewed in the pics I take with my lower end digital. I use a photo for reference, but prefer to get the skeleton of the image from life. Just my take.)
-I wouldn't have a blog nor be able to read other wonderful ones like this!!
-I'd save a ton of money with no utilities bill.

You know, come to think of it, although I wouldn't be the same artist, perhaps I'd be a BETTER artist (aside from the missing blogs). Hmmm, should I start to turn out the lights?

What food for thought! Thanks Maggie!

Vicki said...

Since my history is teaching young children and having art and music and play being huge components of this, I like to think that we are always both, the lights on and off artists, and just like we draw different friends and acquaintances throughout our life to reveal more of who we are, we acquire skills and awarenesses to bring out new parts of our art. We’re always becoming “More”, and we use what our life accrues to accomplish what we want to create at a given time. But just like when we were kids, we still have a unique and vast Self, Spirit, Soul, and this IMBUES our art, whether it’s the form Victoria uses or its from a photo I fiddle with. It’s our best stuff and we get to CHOOSE from this infinite creative source which and what to do. And –drat! There’s not enough time to do it all!

Dee said...

I guess I'm a little different to most in that when I was a kid I didn't doodle/draw/anything. I didn't really pick up a pencil or paintbrush after kindy until I was 16. I had 6 art lessons and at the end put those pencils and paints down until 2 years ago (16 years on). Then something jumped out and bit me on the bum and suddenly I wanted to make art.

SO honestly, there is no way I would be the same artist because if I hadn't come across photo-realism on the net then I would probably have not started again. It is seeing the blogs of yourself, Wendy Prior, Leigh Rust and others that have inspired me to pick up those pencils.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

I've come back to read the comments and I'm afraid I've got to take issue with the comment from Ann.

"colored pencil would not be a practical media without the aid of photography"

I'm afraid I simply don't understand this perspective - although I do recognise that Ann may not be alone in having this view. I think it maybe stems from the idea that it takes ages to do a CP drawing - which is not a notion that Maggie and I subscribe too - ask anybody who goes to Maggie's workshops!

I've done masses of landscape sketches using coloured pencils - and they were done while sat right in front of the landscape in question.

I'm with Tracy - I think photography is really lousy at getting the perspective right and accurately recording the value range found in landscapes. I find that artists only really appreciate this when they start to draw plein air - hence why I am such a huge advocate of plein air sketching.

I really couldn't do my 'proper' landscape drawings if I didn't work on sketches first - using coloured pencils 'in the field' literally! You can see what I mean if you visit the sketchbook page on my website

Felicity said...

Very thought provoking post - and I'm still mulling over one of yours I read a couple of weeks back! ;)

I've just taken up cp and use it in life drawings and to draw from life so I don't really understand the question. I'm guessing that much of the online art you viewed was done from photos. Drawing from photos no longer makes me feel guilty since I started drawing from life! I don't draw any differently and I still rely on my eyes whichever I choose - I'm still inspired by the same things, I still engage my brain. Using photos has given me a lot of knowledge that I use when drawing from life, and drawing from life has opened my eyes to the subtleties of light that the lens cannot capture. Tying one hand behind my back (not using photos) makes no sense to me - there is a wealth of things to be learned from them.

I use cp in life class and I use it to draw from life but it was only someone's comment on my blog that made me realise this was unusual - I don't see why cp is any more limiting than watercolours or oils. Perhaps it's that much of the cp work on the web are examples for shows and exhibitions? I admit I find it strange not to see more sketching in cp.

A Reason to Paint said...

Great post! I rather wish the lights would go out. I have been trying to lose my photo references, not to paint more from life but to paint more from my imagination. Since childhood the only time I come close to this is a bit of doodling when I am camping.

freebird said...

Since I've mostly just drawn sketches for projects I want to make - jewelry, quilting, gifts etc., I don't quite feel like an artist who is hooked to electricity. Dare I even call myself an artist? Well, I do. I am a Necessary Artist - I make what I need mostly. Need a necklace - make one. Need a picture for this wall space - make one. Mostly it is not super duper and it mostly doesn't need electricity. But - my materials all do. My sewing machine, my copier, my computer, even my pencil sharpener! Now I am really starting to practice drawing so as long as I can have my battery operated pencil sharpener, I'll be okay.