Tuesday, April 22, 2008

In Which Maggie Goes Wild

"dude sketching"
copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater
in ye olde sketchbook.

Or at least feral. I was going to do two more series weeks as usual for the remainder of April but I decided to go wild. See, in between a wild deadline for BALLAD (did I mention that I was given 90 days to write a novel by my relentlessly cheerful editor) and other fun stuff that I cannot yet mention, I have not been doing many pieces of art that I can show on the blog.

That, my friends, must change. Even if I can't do large pieces, I still want to be stretching my artistic brain. So I am going hog wild for the next two weeks, and hog wilder for the next month. Through the rest of April I am going to be seriously attacking my figure drawing skills. It's something that's not at all natural to me, and it's something I very much want to be good at. I mean, you guys are my species after all. I should be able to draw you. So my goal is to post at least one quick figure sketch every day on this blog. Whether or not I'll have something intelligent to say . . . well.

And for May, I've decided I'm going to study three artists every week. Unlike my usual fare, which is safely dead and gone, these will be any artists that I find absolutely inspiring (feel free to post any suggestions in the comments)(if you nominate yourself I will virtually claw your eyes). In each post, I'll try and do a mini analysis of what draws me to their work, what I'd like to take away from their technique, and what I learned in general from them. I'm hoping to come out of May with a complete draft of a novel and a recharged artistic battery.

Sound good? Can I hear a booyeah? Who wants to do it with me?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Maggie on Art Materials, Part III

"Thursday" - set of sketches in my sketchbook.
copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater.

Remember, the sketchbook will be given away to a random blog subscriber when it's full, so sign up for the blog even if you don't read it through your e-mail if you want to have a chance to win it! (I'm about half-way through the current sketchbook at the moment)


Sorry about the delay! My brother whisked my computer away to HighSpeedInternetLand to get updates downloaded and so I was without computer access. However, it did give me a nice long day to get other things done, especially since Sunday is my lazy day. After drinking four glasses of sweet tea, I decided it was time I try a fun looking project that my friend Vivien Blackburn mentioned to me. It's a comic strip of your day done in twelve panels, done from memory rather than observation. Hers is rather prettier than mine but it was a lot of fun regardless. The hardest part was trying to figure out how to illustrate novel-writing! All the exciting stuff having to do with writing a novel goes on in my head . . . to the uninitiated, I'm just staring blankly at a computer screen.

Anyway, Vivien has captions for hers but I think I'll let you puzzle out what mine is without. I'd love to see any of my blog readers tackle this -- if you do, be sure to let Vivien know on her blog.

Okay, onto the questions from the last posts. There are just a few -- let me know if I missed you.

1. About solvents. Have you tried "eco-house extra mild citrus thinner #115?" It is as you described the British solvent that you order. This is made in Canada, and I think I got my last batch from Dick Blick. Smells nice. For even lower toxicity you can't beat Gamblin's Gamsol. It just doesn't smell quite as nice.:-)

I've had this mentioned to me quite a few times but I've never gotten around to ordering it. I think I've now been officially pushed over the edge, however (my husband would argue that happened a long time ago), and I'm going to give it a try.

2. Hi Maggie, which retailer do you trust to place your overseas order with?

I don't really have too much call to order overseas except to order Zest-It, as mentioned in the solvents post, and the few times that I ordered from Canadian super-art-store, Curry's, which went off without a hitch. Other than that, I haven't had much experience with it . . . I think if I were choosing an overseas retailer, I'd be tempted to google their name to find out if there is anyone talking smack about them online (that's slang, did you catch it? I'm so hip) and then I would decide between the final two by determining which company's sales representatives had the most charming foreign accent.

3. I have a question related to the pastelbord (although I suppose this could apply to any support) and solvents: Do you find that the application of solvent limits the number of layers that you can apply?

I actually find the opposite to be true. If I'm really between a wall and a hard place (which, um, really are the same things, did you notice?) layerwise, I'll usually add some solvent, because it'll let me get another layer down on top. Now -- layers on top of solvent do behave completely differently than layers pre-solvent, so that's something to experiment with. I don't think I'd go around adding solvent to a portrait commission before I had tried it on something that I wasn't afraid to make Excrutiatingly Ugly.

4. have you ever tried working on metal? as a metalsmith i haven't tried it yet, but it is all the rage right now. the metal has to be sandblasted so the pencil can grip, but its quite a neat effect. i think its rachelle thiewes that has done it best, especially in her sculpture pieces.

Metal is something I hadn't thought of -- I can only imagine that layers must be a thing of the past working on a surface like that, because there's nothing to absorb the layers. I tried googling her but didn't find anything immediately accessible.

5. I like Colourfix alot and was just wondering how you choose a background/support color to use. Sometimes I use a color that is in the subject alot (like cream or tan for a drawing of a yellow lab ) and sometimes I use a complementary color for the punchy contrast. Is there any color you prefer/would order a bunch of?

I always use the dark colors of Colorfix, because I prefer working on darker supports (my work tends to be mostly dark with elements of light, because I am Wednesday Addams). I also prefer the warm colors -- the brown and the red in particular -- because my work tends to be warmer. I would just keep in mind when I was ordering that colored supports are supposed to save you work. If you're doing a dark piece, you want a dark surface. If you're doing a warm piece, pick a warm color, etc. If you're doing a cool piece on red, you'll kill yourself trying to beat back that red. Colored papers should be a time-saver, not an ulcer-causer.

Okay! I'm hitting the sack. Let me know if I missed you and if there's anything you'd like to see me tackle as a series post for next week. Otherwise, I'll be announcing my next one Monday night.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Maggie on Art Materials, Part II

Today a brief post to talk about other fancy-schmancy stuff I’ve tried in the course of my pencils. Last post I mumbled somewhat coherently about the Bristol Smooth paper I often use.


I love trying new supports and so here are the ones I’ve tried, from most successful to least.


Top of the list has to be drafting film. I use Dura-Lar Matte, which is a non-yellowing acetate alternative (if we’re being official). Make sure you get the matte, otherwise your pencils won’t stick. Anyway, film is this lovely strange surface that is very smooth and buttery. I only ever managed to get two layers (on each side) and never had much luck with solvent on it. Because it’s so terrible to blend but amazing for fine detail, I had a great time using this for the 8 gagillion ACEOs I did last year (ACEO = Art Cards, Editions & Originals – 2.5 x 3.5" of art).

It is, as its name suggests, transparent, so it's easy to get fun and fascinating effects by experimenting with which colors you make dominant (on the front side) and which you make more subtle (on the back side). I still recommend that newbies to film start very small on this support and give it a few pieces to get the hang of it. It is absolutely nothing like working on paper, and if you treat it like paper, it will treat you like crap. The pieces around this paragraph are all 2.5 x 3.5" pieces I did on drafting film. See the crazy detail? It’s because the film loves detail like I love sweet tea.


Okay, next up. Artagain black paper. This is a nice, smooth paper that lets you play with working on dark paper without having the crazy toothiness of Colorfix paper (mentioned in the first post in the series). Drawbacks to working on black paper include ugly green colors when you try and use yellow without putting white under it first and not being able to erase without creating a mess uglier than a Ford Festiva. Here’s an example of an old piece I did on Artagain.


Next is another white paper. Arches HP Watercolor paper. It’s got a lot more texture than Bristol Smooth, but it still takes colored pencil without making it look like chicken wire. There are other good watercolor papers out there for colored pencils but when you’re trying them, I’d recommend looking for “HP” by the name (versus “CP”). The HP stands for “Hunky Prince” and who doesn’t need one of those?

No, seriously, it stands for “hot-pressed,” which results in a smoother paper than cold-pressing. Here’s an example of an old piece I did on Arches HP. Notice how much of the toothiness you can see through it – it’s almost grainy looking.

Finally, some weird supports I tried but wasn’t thrilled with: wood, canvas, Clayboard, and Mi-Teintes paper. Wood was interesting but didn’t layer well, canvas was really bumpy (even smooth portrait canvas - the image on left is on canvas) and didn’t layer well, clayboard was slick and didn’t blend properly, and Mi-Teintes paper . . . . well, I was fine with Mi-Teintes once I decided it was manufactured by the devil to torture colored pencil souls still on earth. Every time I try it, I have to fight endlessly against the chicken-wire pattern on the rough side or the ugly, tactless smooth side. You might have luck with these supports, but I just didn’t like working on them, even if the eventual results were passable as something like art.


And one last footnote to this . . . I was sent samples of a new board, r-tistx boards, to try out, and I finally got around to trying the week before last. It had a sort of colorfix type sandpaper surface on a white archival backing board and the color went down okay (though not as nice as pastelbord from the get-go) but things went weird when I layered. Once I got a some pigment down, the next layer started sort of swirling up from the surface and making a dusty mess on everything. So I decided to tamp it down with some solvent. Well, that worked much better . . . um, until I started back with my pencil and it ripped right through the sanded surface and straight down to the slick board.

Hm. Might be just that board. I’m going to try one of the other sample boards sent before I write it off as too fragile, but I have to say that after two hours of work on a piece, I was pretty p’oed. Plus, it would’ve been done already if it had been on pastelbord. So, grrr. But again, it usually takes me a few tries on a new support to get the hang of it, so jury's out.

Questions/ comments? Question's and anything I've forgotten will be tackled tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Maggie on Art Materials, Part I

I was going to confess that this post was supposed to happen yesterday, but I got caught up in that lovely event known as Tax Day. No, I didn't intend to wait until the last moment . . . em, but I did. Why? Because I love that warm toasty feeling that comes from staying up until midnight doing your taxes (thanks, Dad, for helping me).

Anyway, after an eventful barf-filled and tax-punctuated extended weekend, here I am. And this is the first art materials post, as I promised. I think I'll break it down this way: what I use in my daily work in the first post, other materials that I use more rarely or have used in the second post, and suppliers and random bits that I'm sure that I'll figure out when I get there in the third post.

Now y'all know that I'm a colored pencil artist by profession, so while I do use acrylics and pastels, these posts are largely going to be directed towards colored pencil artists or those who want to dabble in them. Feel free to pitch in the comments with questions or suggestions.

So first. Pencils, baby! I started out >gasp< with Crayolas -- the sort that you use as a school kid. I struggled with them for a long time and the truth of the matter is that you'll drive yourself crazy trying to layer them and your pieces won't last very long -- the reds and pinks in my old pieces have faded with age, like Joan Rivers. So I always recommend that beginners invest in artist-quality pencils from the get-go. If you can't afford a whole set, you can buy just the colors you need open-stock (one at a time). I use the same 26 colors over and over again for the most part, but I had to have all of the colors available before I found out which were my palette.

There are several different sorts of colored pencils out there. I use Prismacolors and I love them. They are softer and more buttery than the other two brands I've tried, Derwents and Polychromos, and I like their color range. You might like a firmer pencil -- if so, try those other brands or the Prismacolors Verithins.

Lightfastness, or how permanent a pigment is, is always an issue with colored pencils. Ratings are available for all of Prismas' colors and they also have a "lightfast" set of colors that are supposed to be far above their others for permanence. In practice, however, I've found that my regular pencil pieces sealed with varnish and taken to numerous outdoor shows show absolutely no fading after a year. Use your discretion and always warn your clients to take good care of their finished art pieces -- colored pencil pieces (like any other medium) are like vampires and don't like direct sunlight.


My absolute favorite support for colored pencils is Ampersand Pastelbord, a sanded support on an archival board. The surface is very rough and grabby and until I got used to it, I hated it. But once you get the hang of it, it really makes the pigments glow and you can get lovely, almost oil-paint effects on it.

A similar sanded surface that I like quite a bit is Ampersand's Colorfix paper. It comes in a lot of different colors and is also available in primer form. That means you can buy a little jug of Colorfix goodness and paint it onto any piece of paper or board and voila! Instant sanded surface.

For beginners, I always recommend they start on a smooth, white paper. In some ways, it's easier -- you can get fine detail without sweating, you don't have to wonder what color the pencil will turn out to be when you put it down, and the layering is predictable. But it's slower and more demanding of proper technique -- which is why I want beginners to use it. Even if sanded supports are more forgiving and let you be sloppy, you should know how to do it right, because it'll still stand you in good stead if you get into a problematic corner (artistically. If you run out of gas, I don't think having good colored pencil technique will help you). Anyway, there are many many many papers that fit the bill out there, but for a cheap, acid-free, smooth paper, I like Bristol Smooth.

Final piece of the equation for me is solvents. I use solvents to melt my layers of colored pencil together. Especially on the sanded surfaces, solvents, for me, are a must. But solvents as a general are a smelly and noxious bunch, tending to give Future Queens of America such as myself headaches and encourage cancerous growths without proper ventilation. So I use Zest-It, a British product that unfortunately has to be shipped overseas -- it's non-toxic and smells like oranges. The shipping is indeed awful but the price of the solvent isn't, so I recommend that you buy a bunch at once to save on shipping -- maybe encourage a group of students to buy several containers all at once. It does go a long way, for what it's worth!

I apply my solvents with a brush and I learned the hard way that using a decent brush makes a huge difference. It's the difference between a work of art and a puddle of solvent (which might get you into some high-end galleries but won't thrill your portrait client). I use high-quality (though not super high-quality) synthetic flat brushes and I make sure to rinse them out between each use, especially when I've been doing large areas of dark color.

You'll also need a sketchbook (I like a small one with wire binding), a sharpener (I use a cheap Exact-o model), and a pencil case (I have two of these, organized inside by hue, and I love them).
Okay. That's enough for now. Question and comment away and I'll see y'all tomorrow.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Maggie on Online Art Education, Part III

Both tiger and clouds are quick pieces demo'ed in the workshop this weekend -- just two of the references students worked on.

I'm back from my workshop! Stuffing information into willing victims was fun and rewarding as usual, but the best part of it was staying with my friend Marian, who took me riding on her fantastic stallion. I used to ride like a fiend but I haven't had the opportunity in years. It was great to be back on a horse again and he had a gorgeous canter. I don't have enough adjectives to describe him -- or Marian for that matter. Marian, if you're reading this, I had a great time as always!

As promised, I'm going to post the last bit of my online education series tonight and then on Wednesday I'm going to do reader questions -- I specifically didn't plan a series topic for this week so that I wouldn't get distracted. So anything you want to ask, throw it in the comments, because that's all I'm doing this week. Well, anything but the color of my underwear or what my first name was before I changed it to Maggie in my teens. Those are top secret and must remain thus to preserve the integrity of future Trivial Pursuit editions where surely I will be a hot topic.

Long time readers might notice, by the way, that I've cut down the posting on my blog from daily to three times a week. This is part of my rabid attempt to stuff more things into my life and unfortunately is here to stay for the foreseeable future. I've just found out that I have a 90 day deadline to write the sequel to Lament so I'm going to need my evenings for that. Who needs a social life anyway? Moi?

Okay. To finish up the online education series, I wanted to say that no matter what sites you used to get your education (there are some excellent recommendations in the comments to the last education post), the functions they fulfill are the same. What you're looking for in your self-directed study is:

TECHNIQUE
These are sites that are specific to your chosen medium. For me, it's colored pencil, so the WetCanvas colored pencil forum was a great start for me. I also recommend Nicole Caulfield's blog, as she's always experimenting with new techniques, and Ann Kullberg's site. If your medium is a more common one like acrylic or oil, you'll have a huge pool to choose from -- lots of artists practicing the medium means lots of artists sharing their techniques. If you're working in something a bit more rare -- I read about this guy who made sculptures out of cow poo -- you're going to have to look harder for technique and probably have to supplement with real-world workshops.

THEORY
Learning to color-by-number isn't enough -- you need to learn to interpret and shape your pieces. To do that, you need theory. That's what function sites like James Gurney's blog fills for me. He makes color theory fascinating through plenty of visual examples. Theory can be complicated, snooze-worthy, and overwhelming -- so find a site that speaks your language. For weird bits of theory, I often have to dig deep, like when I was having my great Dynamic Symmetry hunt of 2007 for my Maxfield Parrish project.

INSPIRATION
This is why I do my artist-of-the-month studies when I can. It's always inspiring to take apart a great artist's work and see why it ticks. For me, looking at the work of John Singer Sargent, Waterhouse, Maxfield Parrish, and other greats always makes me want to pull out my pencils. Find who does it for you and bookmark the pages.

MOTIVATION
This isn't the same as inspiration! Inspiration is that passionate rush to the canvas. Motivation is what gets you there when the passion's not around. For me, being part of a forum really helped push me, and then having a blog also motivated me to have something to post. Then when I found the daily painting movement, I really got motivated. I wanted to be able to say I'd done more than 300 drawings and paintings in a year. Find someone or something to keep you accountable and stick to it.

FEEDBACK
You can't work in a vacuum, or else you run the risk of practicing the same mistakes again and again. This is what I think I miss the most about not getting a college art degree -- the idea of someone telling me "lengthen that bit" "intensify that color there" "crop the edge." We all want an Obi Wan to tell us what we're doing wrong, but working out of our home, you're not likely to find a light-saber wielding mentor. I'm part of a small online peer group of artists who chatter about art daily, and they've been invaluable -- I highly recommend finding other artists online at the same level as you and become critique partners. It helps with accountability and also gives you that objective feedback that you can't do for yourself.

And now bring on the questions!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Getting an Art Education Online, Part II


You may be wondering why there is an alien baby in today's post. Well . . . I wanted to show you what I looked like before I started my online art education. This alien baby is actually a drawing I did of my daughter back when she was about six months old. And I thought it was good.

Ugh. Anyway, do the math. This drawing is a little over three years old. How far I've come!

As if you need any more encouragement about online education, right? I've decided this is such an important topic to me that I'm going to do an additional post about it tomorrow and hopefully attack the questions as well.

Today I want to post on the online resources I've made use of in the past three years. There are hundreds more that I'm sure I've not encountered yet, and I encourage you to post the ones that were actually useful to you in the comments. Not the ones you ought to post. Not the ones you thought about reading. The ones you did. The ones that really made an influence.

Now, as a bunch of the commenters noted in the last post, art education in any form is what you make of it. Essentially, all artists are self-taught -- it's just whether or not you have a professor to guide you. Online, you have to be your own professor, your own study-guide. You also have only you to be accountable for, which can be a problem. No deadlines mean lackluster study habits. So it shouldn't be a surprise that the first and absolutely best resource on my list is an artists' forum. Surround yourself with people who know what you're working on, because then you'll have an excuse to get your work done and to strive harder.

Without further ado, my top five resources:

WetCanvas: http://www.wetcanvas.com/
Hands down, this is the best resource in my arsenal. There are other artists forums out there -- ScribbleTalk, ArtPapa, etc. and I'm certain they're also useful -- but WetCanvas just happened to be the first one I ran across and the one that became my home. Why was it useful? First of all, there were a ton of struggling beginners just like me, posting their works in progress for all to critique. Even if I couldn't work up the nerve to post my works for critique, I learned shovel-loads from observing how other people laid down color and attacked their artistic problems. Plus, as mentioned above, suddenly I had accountability. If I posted a work in progress, I felt motivated to finish it and post the next step. I'm Piper1 on WC and you can see just how far my work's come since I began posting on the colored pencil forum. It's a huge site -- plan on taking a while to get familiar with how it works.

Making a Mark: http://makingamark.blogspot.com/
The blog of art maven Katherine Tyrrell is a veritable haven for beginning and advanced artists alike. She covers a huge range of art subjects and writes about them sensitively and intelligently. I would say I'm biased because I'm also a close friend of hers, but we met on WC and became friends precisely because we approach art-making in the same way. There's always more to be learned.

Gurney Journey: http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/
This is the blog of James Gurney, the artist who created Dinotopia. Don't let that throw you. His blog is a wonderful resource for color theory and art techniques -- my mind boggles at how much time each of his intensely useful blog posts must take to write. I highly recommend it for intermediate and advanced artists -- beginning artists might find it a bit overwhelming.

John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery: http://jssgallery.org/
Ironically, the painter who had the most significant influence on my work is dead as a doornail. John Singer Sargent's work still hits me everytime I look at it, and I spent literally hours going through this site. I don't think everyone has to idolize JSS, however, I do think having an artist mentor, alive or dead, is useful.

Endless Summer Art Fair: http://summerartfair.blogspot.com/
This is one of clever Casey Klahn's blogs -- this one is full of tips on setting up art booths and generally not making an idiot of yourself when you're displaying your art in public. A must for working artists.

More tomorrow . . .