Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Making Music with Art

"Strings 1" 8 x 10" Pastel and silver leaf

"Strings 2" 8 x 10"  Pastel and silver leaf

"Strings 3"  Pastel and Silver Leaf
For the past 3 years I have participated in the "mini" show at the art center where I teach pastels, The Charles Taylor Art Center, in Hampton Virginia.

As usual my art is inspired by music. I wasnt inspired this time by a specific song however but decided to use a few tricks often found in the works Paul Klee.  ( Klee infused his paintings with actual shapes found in music.

I created a matching set and put them in matching frames.  Notice that the frames have little bumpy silver things like the silver leaf in the drawings.

I choose the background because the shapes of the pattern mimics the shapes of a string instrument.  Originally the background was going to be dark gray over light gray, but at the last minute I made it a low intensity violet over gray.  I thought it would work with the violets and gold and orange hues found in the instruments.

The violet wall paper - like patterns represent the overall sound of the piece. If you look closely at the background you will see that they are textured with cross hatching to create consistency and "noise".  It also imitates the texture one might see in a wet painting on canvas.  I did not hatch the figures or the instruments in the same way.  I used a more fluid stroke there to move your eye about and give it some where to rest.

The large oval shapes represent the meter, or the downbeat.  Either the piece is in 3/4 or 4/4 time.  I moved the ovals across the composition to represent the progression of the downbeat through time.

The swirly organic shapes in the foreground represent the pitch or sound of a string instrument.  Again, they mimic the shape of a string instrument.  If you take a close look there is at least one shape from the top that merges with the patterned background. I always thought that all instrument sounds should alternate between merging and separation to create an interesting song.

The top pattern is transparent.  That was tricky to do in pastel by the way!  I added dots and some strokes of silver leafing to them to represent more intricate movements often found with string instrument in many musical compositions.

These little drawings were great fun.  I am going to have to go out and buy more instruments or find some models who can bring their own.  Any volunteers?

See more at:

Friday, November 23, 2018

Using mistakes to make something creative

"Lauren Christoff"  pastel on sanded paper 10 x 25"

There are many ways to approach creating a figurative drawing in pastel.  I think that my beginning students get frustrated because there really is no solid process or science to it, at least not in our world.  I do a lot of changing up on my own processes depending on the drawing. In fact most of my best works happen because I made a mistake or something went wrong and I had to approach my drawing from a different angle.  In this case I did not have a perfect photo to work from.  Its my own fault.  I am actually quite used to fuzzy photos.  Most of my portrait clients in the past have sent me horrible photos of things like the back of someone's head, or perhaps of an animal after it's passing. By this I mean that the photo was of a, uhhhh... deceased pet after the deceasing happened. In this case however, the poor photo choice was totally on me.

I wanted to do something fun of my niece Lauren.  When she came down from Ohio a year ago for a visit we spent an hour doing a detailed photo shoot.  We varied the outfits, location, lighting and moods.  Once she went home I searched for the memory card of her photo shoot.  It was GONE!  I blame my dog for eating it.  He eats everything.

So, I did what any good Auntie Em would do, I stalked her on facebook.  I never found one photo that excited me so I took my best bet and used a photo of Lauren and her Mom, my sister in law Sandi. Of course I asked permission first.  Since I know Lauren's face well I took liberties from the photo.  I dont do that with clients usually unless they specifically ask me to reduce a chin or two.

From this not so clear photo I did a thumbnail. Of course being the lazy cheat that I am, I did it on photoshop.  I flipped it, cropped it and reduced it to black and white.  I do a majority of my work from a black and white reference photo by the way.  After removing the color I could see the values more clearly so I altered the contrast and brightness to soften the harsher lights and bring out some details in the shadowed areas.  In cave man days we had to do all of this by hand.
As I mentioned before, there are so many processes to creating a pastel drawing. My advice is to mix it up and have fun. I often alter my steps and such to avoid burn out.  Sometimes I do a wet underdrawing, sometimes its dry.  Sometimes I tint the paper myself and sometimes I use pre tinted paper. In this particular drawing I first did a black and white value drawing using off white Uart sanded paper, keeping the layers thin.

When I was done with the values I added a thin layer of green.  The purpose of the green is that since it is the complementary color of most model's skin, it creates a beautiful glowing effect once I draw over it with other redish layers.  Greens and Reds make grays and browns once mixed or glazed together. The darker the skin of my model, the darker the values, but I still use green.  This is called "Verdaccio" and is most often used with oil painting.  I cant take credit for it. It was developed by early Renaissance artists.  If you take a close look at the Sistine Chapel, you will see part of the greenish gray under paintings used in the architectural elements. Just google "Michelangelo".
After the Green layer I add warm yellows to the highlights and cool tones such as blue to the shadows.  I soften some edges and sharpen others. The reason why I do this is because I want part of the face to stick out towards the viewer, and other parts to move to the back. When studying the element of "space" an artist learns that to make something look more 3 d, you make the shadows and distance areas softer, cooler and less defined to cause it to recede. You use texture, warm tones, and sharp edges to make that part of the object to advance.

Then, After establishing value, space, edge and spacial composition as stated above, I  take my time adding topical colors and such.  Topical colors is just a fancy artsypants way of saying "normal color"  After I get the hues (colors)  and values (shadows and bright spots) where I like them I go over it one last time and add some flowing texture with my pencils. These lines gives it life and makes it move and breathe. Its around this time that I will start to refer to the color photo. I usually start adding the odd reflective colors now too.

Most of this drawing was done using Stabilo pastel pencil.  Towards the end I used Rembrandt and Nupastel pastels to add her hair and background. If I finger blend I always top it with pencil texture since finger blending can turn layers of pastel into mud.

Well, thats about it.  I got the drawing done in time for her folks to display it at her graduation party.  One of these days I will find her photo shoot and do the full body drawing with all of the fancy swirls and gilding that I originally had in mind.  Unless of course my Pit/lab Albusdumbledog ate it.  Then I dont want the memory card back!

Friday, June 2, 2017

"Listening to Sweet Transvestite"
24 x 48"
Acrylic with gold leaf
I did this larger than life sized painting a few years ago for a Halloween art show at a local gallery.  The theme of the show was the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I had very little time to complete a piece so I worked in acrylic which I knew would be quick.  I very rarely work in acrylic or oil unless I am doing a demo while teaching a class, so this is something really unusual for me. This painting eventually lead to me doing my series of music inspired pastels.  I wrote about this in a past blog on April 21, 2016.

I pulled it out of storage the other day, dusted it off and took another look at it. I wanted to enter an acrylic painting into an upcoming show at the Charles Taylor Art Center since I will be teaching oil and acrylics there this summer.  This painting came to mind and I thought perhaps I could give it a bit of a touch up and try  my luck.  It is a bit controversial for this part of  highly conservative Virginia, so I would be surprised if it got in.

I decided to tie it in with my current series, and show a figure being immersed in pattern, as if they are surrounded by music.  First I went back into the figure and tightened up a few messy spots.Once I was satisfied with my improvements I added gold leaf.  The original painting was intended to be highly textured, so I glued crinkled tissue paper to the canvas and painted over it.  I gilded the tops of the crinkles and added pattern that wrapped around the figure.

The canvas is 2 inches thick, so I wrapped the image around the edges.  Where you see the lettering cropped off, it actually is continued on the sides of the piece.

This subject, the rights of transgender people and cross dressers, is actually something that I feel very strongly about. The model for this painting is a family member who is cross dresser. He was actually just dressed in jeans, with no make up for our impromptu photo shoot.  I had great fun dressing him up in my painting.

Listen to the song that inspired this piece at "Sweet Transvestite" video

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"Listening to Toccata in C by Widor"

"Listening to Toccata in C by Widor"
Pastel with gold acrylic
16 x 20"

Listen to the song that inspired me here at

The inspiration

My big brother Jeff died last summer.  He had a fast moving cancer and we were all in incredible shock to loose him.  He loved music and devoted much of his life to performance as many of my siblings have done.  At the church service my former brother in law who is an amazing organist, was asked to perform for the funeral. Bob has played for all of our family's weddings and funerals, and I love to listen to him. I used to perform with he and my sister Shelly at various churches in my youth so I was still somewhat familiar with traditional organ music.  Shelly wanted Bob to play this piece by Charles-Marie Widor because it was Jeff's favorite organ piece. The song was actually written for the Catholic church and is still being played today at weddings and Christmas services at the Vatican itself.  It is a song of great celebration and happiness.  It didn't seem entirely appropriate for a funeral unless you knew Jeff and his love for secular music. Bob didn't play it that day, but I decided to come home and listen to it closely with my headphones after the services. I hoped that it might ease my grief a bit.

When I heard this song again after so many years, I was immediately transformed to a blissful place by Widor's heavenly tribute to his church. I saw angels, gilded arches. and an overwhelming sense of joy.  I don't go to church anymore but I decided to draw it.  How could I not?

As my mind wandered during the drawing process as it tends to do, I got to pondering if non- Christian folks would have similar visions while hearing this very famous song.  I decided that every person would feel moved by it regardless of their religion or lack there of. I think that the many atheists in my life would feel joy. My pagan children would feel the light of their own gods.  My Buddhist little brother would be mesmorized. My gay, lesbian and transvestite friends, who are so often loathed and abandoned by most churches, would hopefully feel love and light. We would all be humbled, as Jeff was, by this masterpiece.  Click this link to hear a recording of  the master performing it himself shortly before his death.

This piece gave me an opportunity to express my strong belief that one does not have to be Christian to go to heaven or to have a good moral foundation.  For this reason I included symbols of other religions including other things that people may worship that are not necessarily religious.  I am sure that my belief in the freedom of worship will upset some folks who believe that their religion and moral code is the only true life, but I hope that they at least listen to the song as they study my piece and understand where I am coming from.

The Technique

That being said, I wanted to include a few progress shots.  I have always been a close follower of the work of Cuong Nguyen. Instead of using the traditional method of doing a monochromatic under painting using grey or brown tones his pastel under painting is a vibrant green!  It is not a new idea however I have never seen it done in pastel before. Once the value and temperature is established then he glazes over the green with red and orange tones to get a very realistic and translucent flesh tone. I bought a few of his e-books through his web site above and gave it a shot here for the first time.  The traditional proces is best described below.

"Verdaccio is an underpainting technique - and specific paint color - which originates from the Italian fresco painters of the early Renaissance. Created traditionally from a mixture of Mars Black and Yellow Ochre pigments, Verdaccio was used to establish tonal values in fresco painting quickly, creating a soft greenish-gray for the shadows of flesh tones. Architectural details in frescoes were often left in the pure Verdaccio coloring, hence we are able to still see evidence of it today in works such as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes."

Ok, below are my works in progress shots.  I got so into the work by the end that I totally forgot include the shots of the final stages, sorry.

Computer rough draft.  My model is my son's girlfriend, Marie.

Initial line drawing using charcoal, white conte on Sennelier La Carte Pastel Mat in dark gray.  

Add warm greens over the highlights and cool greens or grays in the shadows.  Leaving the background for later.

Adding some red and gold tones over the green.
A rough application for the back ground.  Once I had all of the details in the background I used Liquitex gold metallic acrylic paint for the gilding.  See my blog from a few weeks ago to learn more about the gilding.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Artists to stalk, Rita Kirkman

Rita Kirkman
"Transience of Innocence"
26 x 19"

OK, I am really going to try this time.  I am going to write in my blog at least once a week. Blogging for me is more like keeping an art diary that I share with the world, and so it includes an occasional cuss word and a large amount of bad jokes and satire. That's your disclaimer, that's all you get.

If I don't have a new piece available to show, or a failed piece available to post for that matter, I will share websites of some of the artists who I stalk, I mean who I follow.  I try to devote at least a bit of time daily studying and stealing ideas.  (Read the book "Steal like an Artist" by Austin Kleon)  Many of my biggest inspirations have been realists who are long dead and who's paintings are now worth millions.  However, I have a long list of still living artists who have taught me simply by posting their works on line or by winning a spot in the Pastel Journal. I have an excel sheet called "Artists to Stalk", and when I get a chance I pick an artist from my list and study their work.  I add to this list constantly.  Don't worry, I don't actually like... you know, show up at their house with binoculars and follow them around town while they shop, as if they are the Beatles and I am some pimply faced teenager hiding my camera.  I just study their work and read their Facebook entries and blogs while allowing their energy to inspire me.

It seems only fitting that I should start with the artist who has encouraged and influenced me the most over the years.  She got her start by stalking me! Rita Kirkman and I met while we were both in our late teens in 1986. We drew portraits from life at Cedar Point.  I was Rita's teacher, and I was amazed how quickly she learned, and I never forgot her ability to literally stalk me while we were at work.  (She might have even had a pair of binoculars and a camera in her back pocket!) If she didn't have a client, she was leaning over my shoulders watching my every move as I drew from life.  In fact, the year before she applied at the park she had her portrait done and took it home and copied it over and over again. This is a practice that I still use today when teaching new students. We sketched an average of 100 faces or more on a Saturday and worked 6 days a week, sketching from life for 8 - 10 hours a day.  I welcomed her attention most of the time, and we became great friends. After work we would wash off the pastel and go out dancing with our fellow artists.  Prince and huge hair were pretty popular that year.

Here is a photo Rita took of me while she was "stalking" me at work.

A few years later Rita was assigned as my assistant manager when I was moved down to Virginia to manage the portrait and caricature operation at Busch Gardens.  This is around the time when she started entering her work into small local shows.  After a few years she moved on to manage her own park in Texas, and soon after became very serious about her fine art career.  I on the other hand made the mistake of devoting every inch of energy that I had to drawing quick sketches for the next several decades, as you may have read in previous blogs.  Once in a while I might do a painting or drawing for pleasure, then stuff it in a portfolio.

Rita and I recovering after a night out with our fellow artists in the mid 1990s,

Rita came for a visit a few years ago.  She asked to see my "studio" Since I didn't have one she asked to see my art, but I really didn't have any that I was willing to show anyone, however she wouldn't let it drop. So, with great reluctance and the courage found in a glass of wine  I took her into the garage. I just started pulling out dusty canvases that I hid behind the furnace and a few bulging portfolios so that she could go through them.  I figured she would say, "Oh, that's nice" then go back in the living room for another glass. I was not so fortunate. Man oh man she gave me hell for hiding my work. After that she helped me get my feet wet and gave me countless tips about working in the art world.  It was also her idea for me to start entering into competitions on line.  I blame it all on her.  Thank you Rita!

Rita Kirkman "Big Mama"
36 x35"

Rita Kirkman "Elfling"
8 x 6"

Rita now is big time.  Her works are constantly published internationally and she sells successfully at shows and exhibits. She shares her knowledge freely with the world through her blogging, Youtube video tutorials and workshops.   We still keep in touch and stalk each other every opportunity we get.

Please add her to your own list of artist's to stalk!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Listening to Moonlight Sonata" Adding a gilded effect on top of pastel.

"Listening to Moonlight Sonata"  11 x 14" Pastel on sanded paper
I have been playing around with various types of reflective gilded effects on my drawing for about a year now.  The first time I saw a painting with added gilding was a painting by Klimt.  About a year ago I saw several very large paintings by Kahinde Wiley that had gold leaf added.  I doubt that I am the first to attempt it over a dry medium, but I wanted to give it a shot.

It turned out that this was easier said than done.  First I tried the traditional method of using adhesive then rubbing the gold leaf into it. (Mona Lisa brand of gold leaf) Of course, as expected the adhesive did not stick to the dust of the pastel.  I tried using rubbing alcohol over the areas that I wanted to glue, letting it dry then adding the adhesive followed with rubbing on the gold leaf, but that was nothing short of a disaster.  Then I tried cutting out the gold leave with scissors and using a clear glue.  Nope, the gold leaf crumples up into a little ball once it is removed from the backing no matter how careful I was.

So, the next step was to try liquid gilding.  It actually has little specks of gold in it. (Martha Stewart Liquid gilding)  It is very bright and sort of orangy looking.  After I applied it to the pastel the edges of the paint sort of oozed into the dust.  Plus, I knew that if I did not varnish the liquid gold that it would eventually tarnish. Perhaps I could add the varnish with a fine brush later, but I was not convinced that it was going to be archival since it was not water based.

Then, one day as I was teaching one of my beginning painting workshops and I had the students add gold acrylic paint to sparkle up a simple canvas.  hmmmmm

I had put this drawing of Bandon into my marinating pile.  (I let it sit out of site for a while then pull it back out instead of throwing directly into the trash.  Sometimes I can save it, sometimes not.) I poured a small amount of the gold liquitex paint and thinned it out just a tad with water. If it was too thick it just sort of rolled over the dust of the pastel.  I used a small but stiff liner to apply it to the pastel.  I mostly used small dots and a few thin lines since I did not want this to turn into a mixed media project.  I had to rinse my brush often since the pastel stuck to the brush and created this sort of toothpastey like result with my paint, but I kept my patience and plodded on.

The end result was very pleasing.  I also know that since it is just acrylic, which is basically plastic, it would last as long as the drawing itself with out causing any damage to my work.  I am glad that I did not throw this little drawing of my handsome son in law into the trash.  All he needed was a little bling.

My inspiration for this piece is a well known movement by Beethoven called Moonlight Sonata.  You can listen to it here at  I wanted to convey the somber yet soft melody with the use of blue tones in both the flat background and the figure's face.  Although Moths are nocturnal, they are drawn to the light. It seemed appropriate to draw him surrounded by moths and staring off to the side as if he is contemplating his life. The background itself reminded me of an old wall paper with a simple floral pattern on it.  I drew the background with a vertical texture,  hoping to add a feeling of rain, or perhaps the shafts of moonlight.  The gold added a warm spark that changes as you walk around it when the gold catches the light.

I played this on the piano obsessively as a kid.  It is one of the few things that I can still play, but I no longer have it memorized. When I hear it I remember how it used to play it as if I was very sad.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Here is a little article that I wrote for the Mid Atlantic Pastel Society's Newsletter.  I know that I have not blogged in a while. Sorry!  I have had many amazing and positive things happen in the last year.  I do also use my facebook account as a blog, so if you want daily entries just go to and friend request me.

An Inspiration for Making “A”rt With Pastels

I have been asked by MAPS to explain why I love working with pastel and what inspires me as an artist, but these are not one sentence answers. I am not sure what motivates most artists, but what has motivated me for most of my adult life after art school was simply drawing my booty off to support myself. I was a portrait machine. I made most of my income as a street artist, drawing 5 minute profiles in pastel, which explains my comfort with the medium.  I averaged 100 or more faces on a good day when I was younger. I also worked from photos drawing pets that I thought would please my clients. Regardless of my degree and earlier ambitions this was all that I did. I only worked for extrinsic rewards.
I didn’t draw often outside of work primarily because many of my 1980s art professors were highly convincing that the only art worthy of hanging in public was non-objective work. I liked realism. I was harshly ridiculed for wanting to draw like a realist in school by both professors and fellow students. It was so humiliating. Realism was dead they explained. As a result of these experiences I hid all of my future studio work in bulging portfolios tucked away in the back of the garage. I know that sounds horrible but before you go and judge me let me explain a few things first.  You need to bear with me for a few more paragraphs before you can understand why I am now motivated much differently.
First let me answer the easier question about why I love pastel. I adore the feel of the dust on my fingers and the way that the medium moves over the tooth of the paper. It never “dries” so you can come back to it any time you want.  I also think that working with pure pigment without the hassle of a brush getting in the way is great fun. A judge told me once that another good motivation to focus on pastel is that there are not nearly as many pastel artists showing in art festivals as there are artists working in oil, acrylic or watercolor. That was good to know. Even if my work was lousy I had a better chance of getting into shows someday. Cool!
My artistic motivation is a much more complicated issue.  A few years ago I started searching for some sort of inspiration to create work that had some deeper meaning for me other than just a making a copy of a person’s face.  I was nearing 50 and had never entered a single competition or did one fine art fair. I began spending hours reading and studying other artists in between my craft classes that I was teaching at that time. I drew every day. I even sent up prayers asking for signs to aim me in the right direction but all I could do is draw what I thought people wanted to buy since that is all that I had ever done. I was just a robot, or at least that’s how I felt. I was very confused and had hit rock bottom art-esteem.
One day as I was crying into my coffee over my frustration I remembered that when I was a kid I used put on headphones and doodle to music to ease my teen anxieties. I came from a musical family and studied classical music as a kid, so music always whisked me away to a better place.  When I combined music with drawing it was almost magical. I didn’t care about the end product back then, I just needed to stay calm and it worked.  I would fill pages with swirls, squiggles and patterns wrapped around cartoonish looking faces and floating eyeballs. (Today they call this “Zentangle”, which I find highly amusing.)  I think I forgot about this experience over the years, but it suddenly came back to me. So, desperate for any form of relief from my mid-life anxieties, I put on headphones and just let it go. The experience was highly meditative. I had absolutely no ambition to please anyone.  It felt so good.  My technical muscles were still flexing out of habit, but the music took over and I just drew how the music made me feel.  It was not a portrait of my kid, but more of an auto-biography. It was better than meditation and far cheaper than a shrink. Heck, it was even better than alcohol!
I created many drawings after that based on music, choosing of course the medium that I was most familiar with, which is pastel.  Perhaps a better description would be that the drawings chose me and began to flow and ooze out of my head. Eventually I became more concerned with research, pre-drawings and all that boring but necessary stuff that realists are required to do, but the most important change was that I stopped trying so hard to please the world.  For the first time as an adult I was drawing for myself and only for myself.  I didn’t really care how anything turned out because I was not working for clients.  My pastel work became an auto- biography of my own grief and about how music calms me.  I entered in competitions and shows to keep me on my toes, but I never expected to actually win anything.  Oddly enough galleries and judges started to notice me. I am still astonished when I get an award.
I soon realized that by combining tight photo realism with pattern brings the viewer into a deeper state of consciousness, just as listening to music brings me into a deeper meditative state. The pattern that twists about the figure represents the music. If folks don’t get it, eh, oh well.
My advice to other artists and my students, (I teach fine art now instead of crafting), is to just stop caring what the world thinks and draw what you love and work however you want. If you are required to make art for your living as I still am, set some studio time aside for yourself. Use the materials that make you happy and start having fun with what you are creating instead of thinking about the extrinsic rewards. Your work will glow with your own spiritual energy if you work for intrinsic reasons. That is the truest motivation of all.
P.S. After writing this I was about to send it off for the newsletter when I received notification that I have been juried into the very prestigious International Guild of Realism.  Ha!  Take that art school professors!  

Happy pastelling!

Emily Christoff - Flowers