Saturday, October 18, 2008

Playing around with Art

"Wow, what an imagination, you're so creative!"

Does that phrase sound familiar? I heard that a lot as a kid when I was playing around with art but during the years that I worked on my painting technique I didn't hear it quite so often. It's easy to get stuck creating the mundane because you're good at it, and creating is not at all the same as creativity.  

Since I started sculpting I've been able to let my imagination take over, especially with concept. I'm working with a theme for my work and I don't want to ever end up back in the box again, so every time I get done with a piece I take a break to play with left over clay. 

I'm not especially interested in making beads but I play around with it...mostly to see what I can do that is different. I create 'fabric' from scraps and I try to think of interesting vessels to make with unusual fittings. When I'm sitting and relaxing I try to think of new ways to play. I ask myself what haven't I seen out there, and what would be cool to see?

I'll throw anything out there when I'm imagining...I've even thought of stacking layers of gradated shades of colored clay and 'painting' a picture with them in a frame (that would take months and months and pounds and pounds of clay). It doesn't matter how ridiculous the idea is, the only way to come up with something unique is not to rule anything out.

Each time I play I find out what I like and don't like about a process and I always learn some new detail about my medium.  If I choose to try a technique that others are using then I try to twist it a bit so that I'm doing it differently. The neatest thing about all this is how stimulating it is. Usually when I get done with a piece I'm pretty wiped out and looking forward to a break. Now I'm always two or three projects away in my head and can't wait to sit down and try another idea. Each experiment refines my thought process...I'm headed towards something and slowly working my way there.

So if you've been feeling a little stuck in the box, just take the time to let your imagination wander. Don't limit yourself, don't worry if experiments don't work as well as you'd like, just keep trucking with ideas until you realize you're starting to have fun and then, I promise, the trickle of idea will turn into a fountain of creativity.

(Today is my 50th daily post! )

Friday, October 17, 2008

Taking quality photos of your artwork

Over the years I've learned to get fairly good photos of my artwork with my digital camera, mostly by using computer software to adjust things. But 'fairly good' does not equal professional quality and I finally found the perfect setup to photograph my sculpture, thanks to the Strobist blog site. 

It's a box photo studio. I've used cut out cardboard boxes before to set up still life, but never thought to take it one step further and add paper filters to diffuse the light (a large enough box would also work for paintings...the light you get is fabulous). What I like is the seamless effect of white or black's like the object is floating and there's nothing to detract from the subject. It took me about 1/2 hour to make, I used part of an old roll of tracing paper to diffuse the light and it was hard to get it to lay flat for taping, so your box could probably be done quicker. I also used plain old white newspaper for the white background and a paper portfolio partition for the removable black background (it's stiff enough to hold in place without taping yet still will curve from the bottom up the back). 

If you use a lamp then make sure you set your camera for that light source. I just used daylight and even though it was a cloudy day I got some great shots. 

Some tips on taking the actual photo...

always make sure that you have a straight horizon line...I just go by the base and make sure it's level.

Use your macro setting (I have a little button with a flower on it for macro). It will give you wonderfully sharp closeups.

If you don't use a tripod then rest your elbows on a table or chair back, and hold your breath when you take the photo. And take 2 or 3 photos of each position, just in case you do get a little shake in one.

If you are photographing 3 dimensional work then slowly turn the piece and take photos at all angles and make sure you put the camera at the level you are looking at the piece...I've found that sometimes I'm looking from above but take it at eye level and it looks totally different. So experiment with what looks best. 

Sometimes a digital camera will exaggerate reds and blues especially. That's when a photo editor comes in handy. You can desaturate the color a little or lean it cooler or warmer. But it's best not to have to adjust anything, most especially if you are entering it in a competition. These days your photo information can be transferred with the photo (on my website a person can pull up the info and find out exactly what was changed). 

One last observation...I belong to a site that uses very small thumbnails to show artist work. Some pieces look just terrible in the thumbnail but are exquisite in full size (around 400 mp). The trouble is that people don't always go to see your work if the first impression doesn't impress. So some tips to avoid that...

3D pieces

Use a contrasting background and leave some space around the object, but not so much that it's lost. Take some closeups of parts of the piece and chose one of those as a lead in photo to the rest of your work. Make deep undercuts so that natural shadows are formed to make the details easily seen. Don't allow shadows thrown by the object to detract from the piece (that's where the box comes in can control shadow and have none or cover a side to throw the light where you want).

Paintings, drawings, etc.

Contrast. Yep, strong contrast is your greatest ally, not just for photos, but in real life. Impact is what first draws people to a painting. Pay attention to want some strong darks worked in with some strong lights, especially in graphite work. Emphasize your focal areas. Pay attention to your negative shapes. 

I'm certainly no photography expert, but I hope some of this is helpful to you.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Craftsmanship in Art

While there's no such thing as perfection, there is a certain attainable finish level that should be sought in artwork offered to the public. Frankly, there's a lot of sloppy work out there, mainly due to outright laziness, but credited to 'artistic license'. 

While it's true that buyers like to see the mark of an artist in brushstrokes and texture (especially in this age of multiple offerings in the form of prints and mold copies), no one likes marks left that look like obvious mistakes.

So what degree of craftmanship should be offered? What marks are acceptable? 

A lot depends on the style of work you are doing, taken on an individual basis. A palette knife painting shows lots of textural marks, but if two colors overlap and make mud, it's still mud and detracts from the work. An elliptic form that goes out of shape is plain out a mistake. In sculpture, especially, there are a lot of decisions to be made.

Robust smears of clay can be powerful but the idea is to capture the energy of creating, not say 'I'm done' at 1/2 finished ugly stage. Flow is important. Usually fingerprints and scored sanding marks are sanded away, but there are times both are allowable in a limited way. A figure sculpture should have no fingerprints and if any scores are allowed to stay they should be faint and only visible on close inspection...then it's more of a discovery of your work process, and an interesting side effect. 

Unless you are doing an abstracted form, any representational work needs to have accurate measurements, buyers have eyes and can easily see distorted limb lengths, uneven sides and features out of alignment. 

There's a little more room for this sort of thing in obvious craft type objects, like hand sculpted pots...human hands are not calibrated machines. But bumpy is not the same as a hint of out of round. Question whether a rough area left showing is about a process you want to share or just showing a limit of your abilities.

The final answer to this is to create every single piece to the very best of your abilities and technical skill. Set aside time at the end to go over a piece, looking at it from every angle, to be sure that it's what you want sent out into the world as a representation of your vision. Good craftsmanship will give your work more value in the end. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Where to find Art Inspiration

A list for finding art inspiration could go on for infinity because there's no end to things that can inspire people to create. But sometimes finding the one you're looking for can be like standing in a grocery aisle looking at 50 brands of one item...what to choose?

A good starting point is to just take a day to note the things that draw your attention. Sometimes it's not actually an object but a pattern of movement or light and shadow that can be a motif for an idea. Texture is often an inspiration, good for abstracts but also learning to imitate textures can develop your realist painting skills. Looking at other artists' work can be inspirational, but if you like someone else's style or subject, do your best to put your own imprint on it. 

Music can be inspirational...not just something soothing to listen to while you work, but have you tried to express the feelings you get from certain songs? Books can be inspirational also...we all make pictures in our heads of the characters and places we read about. 

Lastly, if you want to get the inspiration flowing, set aside some play time for your art. There's a lot of ways to do that...I sculpt with polymer clay but every once in awhile I sit down and play with making jewelry components just to try the different techniques involved. It's fun and non-taxing. When painting just grab a word or phrase out of the air and sit down and play with the idea. If you just are at an impasse and can't think of a thing, then maybe it's time to sit down and see what colors you can mix by playing around...keep notes so you can repeat it when wanted. 

And lastly, you can just doodle. Sometimes your unconscious mind knows where it wants to go, so just let it wander for awhile, you might be surprised to find that, if you just let go, your path will find you.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Mixing Art Mediums

Most mediums can be used together but there are a few rules to keep in mind. Here's a few to start with...

Oil paint plus...


Oil takes a long time to cure so you can paint over acrylic, but you can't paint acrylic over oil unless the oil is cured (you can use an acrylic varnish, but 3-6 months (and up to a year for thicker brush strokes) has to pass before using.

oil pastels

Oil pastels never truly dry due to their heavy wax content. So you can use them over oils but never under. I have used them as soon as the oil paint is completely dry to the touch, to good effect. Just remember that although the oil pastels do get hardened over time they will never fully cure.


Paintstiks are just oil paint with a bit of wax binder...they are different than oil pastels, they just dry a lot quicker than regular oil paints.  They can be used with oil paints but due to the quick drying rate they need to wait to go over the regular oil paints until it's dry.


Watercolors are great for a wash under any medium. The only issue is that they are water soluable, so a wet acrylic will probably lift some paint. 

Charcoal/soft pastels

You can use charcoal or soft pastels as an under drawing but you should use a fixative so the paint won't mix with it. I use a spray retouch varnish.


Pencil can be covered by just about anything, but there is a possibility that oil paint will mix with it. The best way to fix it then is to put a see through wash of gesso over the pencil before painting. You can still see your drawing but it will be fixed and have a good ground for the oils.

Monday, October 13, 2008

How to give a good art critique

Art critiques are something that is helpful to artists at all stages of their career, if given in a constructive way. A person does not even need to be a connoisseur of art (or a very experienced artist themselves) to see that something does not work for them. Of course, just saying something doesn't work, but you're not sure what, is not going to be helpful to anyone.

There are different approaches of critique for different skill levels too. Beginning artists can be easily crushed and strangely enough, so can the very experienced. I think this is because both ends of the spectrum get a lot of kudos from family and friends (and customers and other artists at the other end) and may not be ready to hear that things still need work. 

So, for a beginner you want to be gentle. Usually the issues are basic. I usually start out with what is done well, praise and encouragement go a long way. Then it helps to give some direction for them to work towards. Simple things like aligning all the features of the face, or doing hair in blocks of light and dark instead of strands. Or how things in the distance cool, so blues are more effective for distant mountains. You also don't want to overload a beginner and overwhelm them, so pick just a couple major things and give them ways to work on it next time. And I usually do say 'in the next piece' because overworking something can make it worse.

The more experienced artists are going to have more illusive things disturbing the flow...perhaps the light source is off in a certain area, or you don't quite get what the focal area is. Sometimes the work overall is so good that just one little angle being off can stand out like a sore thumb.

The point of a critique is not so much to be critical as it is to give the artist information that will be helpful to them. It should be done in a humble (no one likes a know it all) kind way. Kudos will help no one grow. 

The way I think of critiques is that it's like being a mentor. I truly want this person to grow because I see potential and I have the knowledge that will help them. I got this knowledge not just from experience (the best teacher) but also from people who were willing to share their knowledge with me. It's a pass it forward thing, so if you think of it that way then it will come easier. 

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Liquid Metal Sculpture

I've got something a  bit unusual for the art site of the week...liquid metal sculpture. Romanian based Mihai Cirlanaru builds his sculptures drop by drop with melted tin. The painstaking process he shows in his workshop is fascinating to me, I especially like his Birth of a Mith with outstretched wings that seem to capture the underlying boneset of form.

We've had our first snow of the year here, I've got about 6 inches of snow weighing down the top of the hedge in front of our picture window. Most of the leaves haven't even changed color yet, but they will as soon as the sun returns and things warm up again.

Just a registration ends in just a few days for most of the country. I don't talk politics, but the economy issue seems pretty important to working artists at both the national, state and city level, so your voice needs to be heard too.