Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Art School of Hard Knocks; Becoming a Portrait Artist

My niece has asked me to share some of my stories with her about my life as an artist.  I figured that since I was writing these to her for her paper I would just go ahead and share them on my blog.  It might entertain some of my fellow artists.

The Art School of Hard Knocks

Becoming a portrait artist:

In the winters while I was still in art school in Ohio, and then later after I moved to Virginia, I could always find work sketching in malls, hotels, time shares and craft shows.  My first pet portrait actually was for my brother Tony during one of these winter gigs.  His beloved husky, Mashka, was hit by a car and died, leaving him in horrible grief.  As a gift to him in 1996 I drew a portrait of Mashka swimming in our parent’s pond from a rather out of focus photo.  (See below) He became quite emotional when he saw it, and being the business man that he was born to be, encouraged me to hang it up at the mall.  I figured, why not?  I have a big blank space on the wall so I will just stick it up there.  As soon as clients walked past my little booth they were mesmerized by the idea of having a drawing of their pet. The next thing I knew more than 50% of my income that winter was from drawing pets and people from photos. I didn't think that I could do it successfully, there were so many obstacles to this process, but I had to do it.  I needed the money, so I just pretended like I was some sort of great pet portrait artist and cranked out some pretty crappy pet portraits.  I was getting impatient for the universe to show me what I was supposed to be doing with my talent, so I just kept spewing out those portraits until something better came along.

Eventually I found myself single and without child support.  For the first few years of being single I supported my two young kids and I with sketching quick profile portraits for tips while their dad also struggled to find work as a cartoonist.  I would draw anything for money during this time, but I swore that I would never go on welfare or food stamps.  My kids came to work with me and they would sit at the base of my easel since I usually could not afford day care.  I would work on the photo commissions late at night after they were asleep or during the day when they were in class, and crank out quick sketches 4 days a week at time shares and the local mall. After every quick sketch that I would do I would say to silently to myself, “Thank you God for that gallon of milk.” Or, “Thank you God for bringing me that commission of Fido so that I can pay rent.”  It didn't matter anymore that I was the best at drawing portraits, I had to survive. Being the best does not support the kids. Financial success has absolutely nothing to do with artistic talent or ability.

I was in a pretty constant state of panic, but I faked it well for Eddie and Halee’s sake.  It was vital to keep one foot in front of the other and focus on the goal of parenting and not on my current emotional or physical pain. I had given up on thinking that I would ever figure out what the universe had in store for my talent and walked away from my dream of ever being a real “A”rtist. Doing portraits of pets was outside of my definition of what I thought that I wanted to do with my ability, my art box as I sometimes call it, but it didn't matter anymore.  I was exhausted and I was defeated.

During those desperate years I learned to make half way decent portraits from some horrible photos because I could not afford to decline any opportunity to make money. Later I will describe this process on my blog. At first people would send me Polaroid snap shots since digital cameras had not been invented yet.  As cameras progressed the photos improved, but not by much.  Most of my photo references were of family or animals that had passed on, so the clients could not take additional photos and often begged me with tear filled eyes to capture their loved ones from just their verbal descriptions.  Sometimes I wondered if they thought that I was some sort of psychic portrait artist, able to conjure a likeness out of thin air like a police artist.  It was nuts, but hey, it was better than welfare.  My son jokingly called my business, “Dead Pet Portraits”. There were only two commissioned photos that I have ever declined during this time.  One client handed me a photo of her baby grandson in the casket.  Another client e-mailed me a photo of her dog, dead, lying in a pool of blood on the side of the road.  During these years and up until around 2011 I stopped making art for myself entirely. I had given up.

A few years ago I started feeling pretty guilty about wussing out, so I started studying again. I met with a few art schools to apply for graduate school, but was told by the graduate art director at BGSU that I was too old for grad school and that I was just a robot who created mini robots and had nothing to say with my art.  (He was referring to my years of teaching portraits.) I don't know why I expected to hear anything different from my alma mater. He did however spend some time talking with me to show me how to research on my own, which I am very grateful for.  Grad school would have been a waste of my time anyhow, I realize now.

Today I do my best to be an art magnet with constant study, art shows and research.   I just started showing my work publicly and had my first fine art showing just this past spring. I also have a portable painting party business and Illustrate kids’ books, I wrote and published a book as well as created a ghost tour business.  In later writings I will explain how I got into those careers. Mostly I will admit that I just tried to succeed at whatever travesty the universe brought for me while I was waiting around to make it big in the art world.  Now I understand of course that each and every one of those travesties has led me to where I have always wanted to be, and that is to be a professional “A”rtist.  It took the universe many years to make the point that I was and always will be a real artist.

In a few days I will post some information about the process of creating a portrait from a horrible photo.  Here is a few examples of my portraits from photos from past years.

"Jessie"  pastel on paper, 8 x 10"  2010.
 Not a great photo, plus I had to add the toy in her mouth.  The client was wonderful and appreciative, but after this commission I had to take a little break from drawing pets as you can imagine.  I am a bit embarrassed to post this, but it makes my point. YIKES!!!

"Mashka"  16 x 20"  Pastel on paper. 1996.  My first pet portrait

"Lick"  16 x 20, Watercolor on paper.  2006
This was actually a really good photo except that the dog's foot was cut out of the image.  I had to make the foot up.

"Baily"  Pastel and charcoal on grey paper.  8 x 10"  2014

Monday, December 1, 2014

"The Art School of Hard Knocks; Becoming a Quick Sketch Artist"

My niece has asked me to share some of my stories with her about my life as an artist.  I figured that since I was writing these to her for her paper I would just go ahead and share them on my blog.  It might entertain some of my fellow artists.

The Art school of hard knocks

Becoming a quick sketch artist

It is fun to tell the story of how I first began drawing portraits for a living.  I had grand aspirations when I was studying fine art at Bowling Green State University in the mid-80s to be a great Artist.  My study focus was on life drawing, primarily using dry medium such as pastel and chalk.  I knew that it was just a matter of time before the universe opened up to me and I would magically become a great “A”rtist with a capitol “A”, in the mean time I knew that I needed a degree.  At this time the professors at my school were obsessed with abstract expressionism.  This caused much dismay for me since I had no ability to work in this way. It’s not that I don’t enjoy gazing at a Jackson Pollack or puzzling over Picasso, but I had no desire whatsoever to work in abstract.  Philip Pearlstein, Chuck Close, Edgar Degas and of course the great Georgia O’Keefe were my heroes.  I was born a photo realist and had taught myself how to paint by around 12 years old by studying these masters at the library and with the help of two awesome middle school art teachers. Most of my college professors ridiculed me for being able to draw so accurately, and many of them boldly claimed that I had nothing of value to say.  I wanted to be the next John Sargent but I was soundly corrected by my teachers that this was a bad idea because the great portrait artist sold himself out for money by doing portrait work.  A real artist lives in poverty they said.  A real artist gets a day job working in a factory and only paints at night and on weekends, so that they don’t compromise their art. (Adrian Teo, 1987, art professor at BGSU.) My fellow students were also very quick to point out that I was just a robot who could only make very pretty lines. I believed them.  It took 30 years for me to get up the courage to start showing my work in galleries and art shows thanks to these guys, but during these 30 years I was able to support myself by drawing portraits, and I was quite good at it once I got the hang of it.

At first I mostly just did profile portraits from life at amusement parks.  I got my start at Cedar Point, in 1984 right after my freshman year of art school.  They did not teach us how to draw the portraits back then.  My first day of work was terrifying.  My supervisor, who had no clue how to draw, walked me to an easel and said “Here you go, have a great day!”  I said, “Wait, how do I do this?”  She said, “Here is your chalk, here is your paper and look over here, you have your first customer. Don’t forget that you may only take 5 minutes to finish it.”  My customer was a very elderly lady who had Parkinson’s and could not sit still for me to draw her.  The family bought the sketch because I was sobbing by the end of it.  To make matters worse it was cold enough to snow and my uniform consisted of a pair of very short shorts and a short sleeved shirt with a windbreaker.  I could not even get warm in the shower after work.  Our dorms were a former hotel and they did not have heat, air or hot water.  If this was what it meant to be a professional artist I wanted out. This was totally outside of what I considered to be my "art box".

A few weeks later I had all I could take.  I wasn't making any money because we were not paid an hourly rate at that time.  I earned 50 cents a sketch, that’s it!  I begged my supervisor, Nina Bonezzi to transfer me to work at a roller coaster but she pulled me back into the break area to give me a little talk instead. I will never forget her and the powerful advice that she gave me.  “Emily”, she said, “If you would just pretend like you were enjoying yourself and try to have a positive attitude, you would attract much more business.  Not only that, but your sketches will improve.  Take off your dark sunglasses.  Stop crying at work, and fake a smile.  I have a feeling about you.  I don’t know how to draw, but I have a feeling that you are going to be the very best at this and you will be doing it for a very long time.”  Her advice was just what I needed to hear.  It never occurred to me that drawing in the public was exactly like being on stage and performing.  I understood stage performance thanks to my years of music study, so I figured I could fake this. I assumed that this was what I was meant to do until the universe prodded me in the right direction for my life work and so I gave it my all.

It is amazing what a positive attitude can do for an artist. Somewhere around July I stopped faking and started flying. I learned mostly by mimicking the other more experienced artists, since they usually were hesitant to share their sketching secrets. By the end of that summer I was in the top three of about 20 artists. By the end of 1986 I was the top profile artist at Cedar Point, averaging a 2.5 minute sketch and kicking out over 100 faces on an average Saturday. My all-time record was 132 faces in 14 hours of nonstop drawing. Now the newbies were mimicking me, but I encouraged it and taught them how to sketch. Eventually teaching would become my primary focus in the parks.  I may be a robot, but I became a damn good one.  I was fully supporting myself and bought a little trailer home and a cherry red Camaro before I even graduated from collage.

In 1987 I was finishing up my junior year of art school when this new company called Kaman’s Art Shoppes asked me to run my own art operation at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg Virginia.  Oh man, I did NOT want to do this.  I was petrified!  I was so not qualified to run an entire park art operation. I just wanted to have fun and make beer and book money. The owner said that if I did not accept the park manager job that he would fire me.  I doubt that he really would have done that but  I didn't want to take a chance. Like my first year at Cedar Point, I was told that he knew that I had a very special ability and that I could do this, but I lacked self-confidence.  My first year at the park was horrible as you can imagine.  I was 21 years old and in charge of somewhere around 40 artists, some of them much older than me.  I remembered the lesson however about maintaining a positive attitude and did my best to fake it.  I don’t think that I fooled too many people, but it eventually did attract to me the right people and circumstances to be a very good park manager. I decided that I would continue to be an art souvenir park manager until the universe nudged me in the right direction to continue with my work as an “A”rtist.

After graduation I was the park manager at Busch for 8 years. I went on to train some of the other artists who became to  a park managers themselves. Kaman’s went from being a small operation run from Rich and Tricia Kaman's garage to the largest art souvenir operation in the United States. (  I wrote the company’s national portrait training guide in the mid-90s, and re-wrote it for them again in 2005.  I won’t say that I was the best park manager they ever had of course, but my employees told me frequently, and some still tell me today on Facebook, that I was the best manager they ever had. I figured that I didn't do too bad of a job considering that I was working out of my box. I would still wait for many years to discover what the universe had in store for me artistically however. The next several years after this would be very difficult.  If I was going to quit working as an artist it would have been during this next overwhelming time of my life but I stuck with it even after I left Busch.

I will continue this story in a future blog.  In the mean time here are some silly photos of me sketching.

Em sketching, November 2014

Em sketching at Cedar Point, 1986

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Stink Eye" 11 x 14" pastel on sanded paper

"Stink Eye"  11 x 14" on sanded paper
I was messing around with my camera the other day and woke my cat Sophia who was snoring in the studio next to the window. She was quite irritated with me as you can see by her squinted glare and gave me the stink eye as I kept tapping her basket to get her to look at me The photo was really fun though since I used the macro setting on my camera.  I wanted to create a drawing from the photo as close to photo realism as I could manage with pastels.  I work tight normally, but this drawing is extra detailed, even for me, so it was quite a fun challenge.  I thought I would include the photo so that you can see what I was working from.  As you can see I was quite liberal with the colors in the drawing.

First I created a monochromatic under painting in blue tones, using rubbing alcohol and an old brush to paint the dry Rembrandt pastels onto Uart sanded paper.When the paper dried I applied the pastels in very small hatching strokes.  When I was ready to blend I used a very hard Derwent white pastel stick sharpened to a point, instead of blending with my fingers.  When you look closely at the painting you can see that I created the impression of browns by layering a rather vibrant pallet of blues, reds, golds and purples.

I did something very different with this painting when I was done.  I have been reading that many pastel artists do not mat their work done on sanded paper because the tooth of the paper will keep the pastel from dusting off on the glass as long as the frame is tight.  This was my first attempt at framing a pastel with out a mat and I was thrilled with the result.  The pastels are so much more vibrant when pressed against the glass, and I don't have to worry about the dust staining the matting.  I would never do this with normal paper.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Rebecca in the Sun 2" 11 x 14, figure, pastel, $200.00

"Rebecca in the Sun 2"  11 x 14, figure, pastel
I have quite a few friends who have spent much of their adult life working in the tourist industry.  My brother for example has been a balladeer at Colonial Williamsburg for somewhere around 20 years.  I have been a sketch artist at amusement parks or working in the time share industry as an artist for 30. Now my son works in time shares and comes to me with his amusing tales.  In fact, both of my kids have come to work with me at resorts since they were babies, so they have been trained for this profession since birth.  It is not an easy life. When you are having a bad day you still have to put on that smile mask and be polite to strangers.  You have to bury your anger towards your coworker, or boss, or ex-husband, or the little screaming kid who just got cotton candy in your hair, and pretend like you are happy to see these Hawaiian shirted people from New Jersey, New York, and Ohio. These visitors often ask the same questions over and over again and it can get exhausting.  The visiting masses usually mean well, but it is hard to pretend like this for 8 or more hours a day.

Don't get me wrong, I obviously still love people and  have no regrets about my past career choices, but when I saw this young lady sitting on the stairs in costume, on "stage", as we used to call it at Busch Gardens, I knew there was more to her story than just looking pretty.  She was grasping her mug tightly and looking out into the passing crowds with an unreadable expression. Something deeper was on her mind than just soaking up the sun. I could relate. With her permission I snapped a few photos and have so far completed two pieces from these images.  This is the second one.  I may try a third soon.

It is for this reason that I have continued on with my series of Colonial Williamsburg Docents when normally I would have become bored with it long ago.  Yes, these folks depict colonial life in a tourist town where people want to buy colonial themed art, but also for the first time in my life  I am not in that position.  I can empathize and relate to them from a distance as the tourist, not as the touron.

I used Canson Mi-teintes paper with a warm ochre tint to it.  Usually I use the smooth side, which is like working on vellum, but this time I flipped the paper over and used the highly textured side.  The purpose for this is that you can see the color of the paper peek through in the little valleys, and the pastel layers skimming over the top of the hills.  Zoom in and check it out, its pretty cool.  On top of this layering I also added my own textures, often using purples and golds in place of the normal browns. I used my imagination a bit on her environment by adding the wood steps and tweaking the light to be more mystical and golden since I rarely copy a photo exactly as it appears.

I really like this drawing.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

School of hard "A"rt knocks: Something I did not know about "A"rt shows

Last weekend my husband and I set up at the Port Warwick Art Festival in Newport News.  The show is only about 10 minutes from our house.  Every year for the past several years we would attend it as a guest then I would get all depressed and come home and pout.  It was the same every year.  I was so disgusted at myself that I had not achieved my goal of becoming a real "A"rtist, that I could hardly look myself in the mirror after attending this show.  What was wrong with me?  Why was I such a coward that I could not apply to an art show but I could sit for hours cranking out quick profile portraits like a robot?  Not that there is anything wrong with being a sketch artist at Busch Gardens, but I knew in my heart that I was meant to make more meaningful art.

Finally, my day came.  We spent a year putting together my display.  I threw together whatever art I could find buried in closets around the house, then began creating new pieces. We started small last fall, at a local monthly festival called 2nd Sundays in Williamsburg, but when I was ready I knew what I wanted to do first.  The first show that I applied to was the Port Warwick fest.  Much to my astonishment I was accepted!  It ended up being the second big show for me at the end of a very exhausting first summer of realizing my dream of being an "A"rtist.

I wasn't doing the show to make money really, but the money wasn't bad for two days of rainy weather.  I also wasn't doing it to get in the papers, make waves or win an award.  I was doing it to prove to  myself that I could.  I was also very excited to walk around the festival and meet other real "A"rtists.  Some of them traveled from across the country to attend this festival. I was so honored to be part of it. I learned so much by the end of this show that I felt like it was an entire semester's worth of information.

When the time came to announce the winners of the show I was badly confused when they eliminated my category of Drawing, even though I had no expectation of winning.  It seemed to me that all of the other categories were well represented. Sometimes several people in each category were winning ribbons, but what about the pastel artists? What is wrong with drawing?  I thought the impressionists made their point with the world 150  years ago for God's sake! Pastel is a REAL art folks!  Yikes! The application said we would be up for an award, so why did they eliminate it?  I was so confused. No one spoke to me to explain why they did this, so I naturally assumed that between myself and the one other dry medium artist that our work was not deserving of recognition, or perhaps that all of Degas's and his contemporaries work of trying to change the image of pastel and other dry medium was a waste of their time.  It did not make any sense at all, but I swallowed my dismay, put on my smile and went back to my booth. The impressionists were sure to be rolling over in their graves, but I guess there wasn't anything that I could do about it.

Shortly after the judging, the other artist and her mother approached me.  I could not believe how young she was.  Her work was amazing. She was the same age as my children and all of those many kids who I taught and mentored for years at Busch Gardens. Wow, she is doing shows at this age? She has moxy! My heart went out to her when I realized how upset and confused she was too, and I must say that my mama bear claws came out. Now I was mad.  I was more than mad I was pissed off. I waited all of my life for this?  Its one thing to discredit my art focus, I'm just a 49 year old quick sketch vet, but to do this to this very talented young woman seemed ethically wrong.

I of course had to do something, but I was also asking myself how I always manage to get involved in these type of conflicts.  I was torn between sucking it up and living with it or standing up for us. The last time that I had stood up for my rights with an employer they reamed me out big time. (I asked if I could have a 15 minute lunch break during my 6 hour shift.  Apparently they disagreed.)  Now, every time that I get in these situation I have to ask myself is it worth being demeaned and threatened or should I stand up for myself.

Finally Her mother and I agreed that we should go talk to someone. The other artist was very worried about upsetting the committee and hurting someone's feelings, I was worried that I would get bitched out, but I knew that we had to stand up for ourselves as artists. We marched across the street to the artist check in desk. As we voiced our frustration with the woman in charge of  volunteers it became more and more apparent that not one person had any idea why we were frustrated with the exception of one art student volunteer. These folks were not artists.  Since they were not artists they couldn't possibly know how long and hard dry medium artists have fought to raise the image of their work.

The woman in charge of the volunteers explained that when there are less than 3 artists representing a medium, that medium was automatically eliminated from jury consideration.  This contradicted what they had told the other artist earlier, so we became even more defensive. She promised to consider changes to next year's show and explained that the judge had nothing to do with it. The other artist and I said that we may not return next year.  Why should we come back if you don't acknowledge drawing as an art form? We felt that this should have been explained in the application, and when he was announcing awards the judge should have clarified this as well.  We should also have been told in advance and that the information be consistent.  Finally one of the other volunteers tactfully escorted us back to our booth, full of apologies.  I was on the verge of tears.

After I returned to my art cave I felt horrible.  Maybe I should have let it go.  Why do I have such a big mouth?  Here I am finally at the show I always dreamed of and I go and screw it up.  Let me tell you, I felt like a load of crap.  A few hours later however the 2 bigwig women who organized the entire event came over.  Man, I was in trouble now.  I thought that I was about to be told off by two other working "A"rtists, but it only took a few moments to realize that they were not artists either. They loved the arts and so they created this festival ten years ago and they both work very hard at making it a positive experience for working artists.   They said that they had no clue that this clause in the  judging process would be offensive.  They didn't realize that it should have been explained to us.  They said that they realized that it took courage for the other artist and I to approach them and urged us to return next year and encourage other dry medium artists to apply too since apparently we are a rare breed. Wow, you could have knocked me over with a feather!

I  should also say that other than this glitch the show was amazing.  They fed us a banquet catered dinner with beer and wine Saturday night.  They had a gaggle of teen aged boys, I think perhaps from the local high school football team, help us set up and tear down. They sent over free lunches both days, free water all day and a free breakfast Sunday.  Sunday afternoon the volunteers even brought me a mimosa, my very first.  Most shows don't do this I am told.

It turned out that I won the biggest reward I could ever hope for. I learned one more very valuable lesson about the world of "A"rt.  I learned that this wonderful show was not organized by working artists, and so I was wrong to think that they should understand our feelings and know our history. I have no doubt that there will be other situations like this in the future, so I should not take it personally. I learned also that it is important to respectfully tell the organizers when they have insulted, because hopefully it will improve their show in the future and make it easier for other pastelists to show their work.  Finally, I learned that dry medium working artists are uncommon.  I didn't fully realize this since I am friends with so many other pastel portrait artists. The judge urged me to refer to my work not as pastel paintings, but as drawings for this very reason.  If this helps to raise the image of my medium, then so be it.  Ok, lessons learned.

"Fanny Grinding Corn" Figure, Charcoal, 8 x 10, $175

"Fanny Grinding Corn"  8 x 10, charcoal

This little drawing was one of the first in the series of colonial figures that I drew.  I was still working full time as the artist in residence / activities coordinator at a large resort, so I would bring my drawings into work and spend time with them when my schedule permitted.  Guests would often come just to watch me draw and I used that opportunity to do my job, so my boss didn't mind me bringing them in.  People love to watch an artist at work.

I used Canson  Mi-teintes art paper.  I prefer using the smoother side of the paper when doing work in charcoal, because it allows me to finger blend and use a hard eraser to create all of these wonderful textures.  I used white conte pencils to pop the highlights, allowing the grey of the paper to show for the mid tones.  The secret to working this way is to avoid layering the white on top of the black, as this creates a very cold muddy grey.  I also did texturing and subtle shading with graphite.  Be careful when combining graphite with conte or charcoal, the graphite can create a slick surface, and the charcoal will not pass over it well, so use this technique selectively.  When done correctly however, it is a beautiful soft hatching technique that gives the drawing motion and life.

You can bid for this through my site at  It's listed price is $175.00, but I am starting the bidding low, at only $75 because I am clearing space on my display wall for newer work.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The "A"rt school of hard knocks; The difference between my portraiture and my studio work.

"Al and Maggie"

There is a fine line between portrait and figurative art.  I don't mean to discredit portraiture, that would make me a hypocrite for sure!  I just mean that the way that I approach composition, color, application and even paper type is different for a portrait than for my studio work.  Traditional portraits are normally of a head and bust centered or even floating in the middle of the page.  The subject is usually smiling in contemporary work and the end result is very flattering. The subject is often making direct eye contact with the viewer and is just sitting there posing, looking pretty. Portraits don't tell a deeper story but are all about the likeness that the client wishes the world to see.

A portrait of a girl that I did from a photo several years ago in charcoal with white conte on grey Canson mi-teintes paper.
A portrait of a dog that I did from a photo.  The clients asked that it be drawn with a toy in his mouth.  I really did not enjoy doing this painting but I am including it here as an example of my typical portrait request. The clients loved it, that is all that matters when doing commissioned portrait work.
A portrait that I did from life of a young lady wearing a hat.  It took me less than 10 minutes.  This is what I refer to when I call something a quick sketch.  Some times I call them McSketches but never in front of a client!   I have been a quick sketch artist and teacher for a very long time.

When I am creating a figurative studio piece for myself I want it to be more narrative and tell a story that the viewer will be drawn to.  (No pun intended... well ok, I intended it.)  The composition is not centered with my studio work, but I attempt a more interesting format, often breaking the composition into thirds. I am also a bit more expressive with my technique, something that most of my portrait clients do not usually appreciate.  My clients have always preferred a glossy perfect reproduction of their photo in most cases as you can see above.  I give that to them because it is what they want, but I don't necessarily enjoy doing it.

I don't usually post my portrait commissions on the blog unless they are really special.  In the past I have felt that they are simply a different animal than my studio work.  However, my increased production of non-commissioned studio work and more time spent in study this past year has changed my commissioned work tremendously.  It is also obvious also that my long history of earning my bread and butter as a portrait artist influences my studio work. When creating work for shows I mostly create figurative pieces and drawings of animals because that is what I have been doing since I was a know it all cocky art student back in the 80s. The end result is that the two breeds of my art world are merging.  I like it.  It feels right.

I was so very excited when Joy sent me this amazing photo of her husband Al and their dog Maggie. For those of you who know me know that I am very close with my furry family.  My mom still teases me because as a little girl I would spend more time talking to my cat than conversing with other kids. So, when I saw the love in this photo I related to it and then begged the client to allow me to draw it as the photo appeared instead of just a floating head of a dog.  You can see the relationship between Al and Maggie.  It tells a story of love.  I hope I get more commission requests like this.

I did the drawing in pastel on Canson mi-teintes tan paper using the rough side of the paper.  You can see the texture of the paper and it's original tint in the valleys of the paper, and see the pastel stroke sitting on top of the hills. Remember that the viewer's eye always enters a drawing at the lower left of the page. In this composition I used the diagonal angle of the texture of Al's shirt to lead us to Al and Maggie's arms, which lead you right up to Maggie's face. Her face leads up up to Al's face, then the line of the chair leads you right back down to their arms which lead you back up to Maggie in a circle. Just to make sure that the viewer's eyes stay in the drawing I created a diagonal texture in the large negative space behind them, aiming right back to Maggie. When using a diagonal in your own work remember that this creates energy.  I normally keep the background subtle so it doesn't cause a war with the subject in a portrait however here I felt that this piece would be more interesting with energetic diagonal strokes. My intention is that it would suggest the metaphysical power and energy of love raining down on these two motionless creatures frozen in time.  They almost seem to be soaking up each other's love in silence.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Three Sheep" Animals, pastel, 12 x 18"

"Three Sheep" Animals, pastel, 12 x 18"

In this painting I wanted to show depth and so I emphasized the warm tones, cool tones and the effects of softening the strokes as the painting receded.  I put the closest sheep to the left in hopes that the other two animals would lead the viewers eye back into the piece. I will be totally honest with you.  This is not my favorite piece.  The sheep look sort of goofy,but I got some amazing responses to it at my last show, so I guess it appeals to folks.   I posted some progress shots below.

Using pastel is all about layering.  Some artists stop with one or two layers,but I tend to add around 5 passes.  First I create an underpainting using pastel and rubbing alcohol.  I prefer ochre and warm, reds and browns for this step so that the painting will seem to have an inner glow when done.  I created this on Uart sanded paper using mostly Rembrandt and Nupastel pastels.

After establishing the underpainting I start to place darkest values followed by the mid tones.  The hues tend to be much more vivid than the local colors from the photo.  I am also establishing the temperatures at this point.  Cool colors belong in the shadows and warm hues belong where the sun hits the animals directly.

During the next few passes I start to add local colors.  I usually fix the painting in between these passes.  This allows the under layers to shine through instead of mixing with the top layer and making mud.

Here is the second to last pass.  I am starting now to focus on small areas at a time.  I zoom in on the photo on my computer as I do this.  I always draw from my computer when at all possible.  The final pass is very detailed.  It is during this step that I am often able to work with out the reference photo and just play with the colors and value until it looks right.

I should mention that folks often ask me if I trace my images.  In this case I did trace, but only the very outline of the animals to make sure that it was centered on the paper.  I do all of my preliminary rough sketches on the computer, drawing right on top of the photo using photoshop. It is this altered image that I am using as my reference.  I guess you could say that I am tracing my own rough sketch.  If you do much more tracing than just a simple transfer of your reference photo your painting can be quite stiff.  Besides, you loose all of the base drawing after the first pass since pastel is opaque.  Most of my likeness that I capture from the photo is achieved by turning the photo and the drawing upside down and using the grid method.  Most of this first drawing should be gestural, expressive and loose.

For those of you who consider tracing to be cheating and a sign that the artist can not draw, I challenge you to hand me a pencil, a sketch pad and have you sit for me for 5 minutes.  I promise that I can draw you accurately!  HA!  Just had to put that out there for all of you misguided haters.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Patience" Animal, pastel, 16 x 20

"Patience" 16 x 20

I have been playing around lately with trying to find the right support and process.  I think I am going to stick with the sanded Uart papers, but this one was on watercolor paper.   It took a while to complete, but I am rather pleased with it.  When you look at it from this photo you cant see all of the detailed hatch marks and strokes.

Here are a few progress shots.  In this case I did a full watercolor underpainting before applying pastel.

First I did a light overall wash of ochre.  I applied blue to the background and the areas that will be darkest.

I applied local color in watercolor to the horse body.

I added warm tones to the area where the sun hit the form of the horse directly.  I did this also in watercolor.

My first pass with pastel was done very quickly.  I am starting to tone down the very bright underpainting.  Doing a pastel on top of such a bright base will make it glow from with in. I try to accomplish this inner glow with most of my paintings. I continued to add local colors for another pass.

The final pass was done with pencil and sharpened nupastels in order to accomplish those very detailed hatch marks.  This texture creates movement in the painting. On this close up you can see that the underpainting and many layers of pastels on top of it all shine through.

Monday, September 8, 2014

"Conversation" Animals, pastel, 11 x 14"

"Conversation" Pastel, 11 x 14"
I created this painting on Uart sanded paper using Rembrandt pastels and Nupastels. Check out my process below in the progress shots to see how I created this many layered piece.  I really like this painting and I am looking forward to showing it this weekend at Second Sundays art and music fest in Williamsburg.

My process of making a pastel painting
First I create  reference photo on photo shop.  Here is where I play with the composition , color and value.  I used to do this by hand as they taught in art school, but I am a product of recent times I guess. It is not unusual for me to combine multiple photos taken from my own camera as well as stock photos.  Once satisfied with the image I draw this onto my paper.  Sometimes I trace, sometimes I draw by eye depending on the subject matter.  If I do trace, it is only to center the piece since you loose all of the drawing after the first application of pastel.

Next comes the underpainting.  I do a quick application of ocher on top of my graphite pencil drawing and run a brush loaded with rubbing alcohol over it.  I simply add darker pastels, diluted with the brush until I have a full warm value scale.  I avoid using black or white directly so far. This process can be done in many ways and varies depending on my support, (paper). 

It is during the first pass with dry pastels  where I develop the temperature of the painting.  I add cool tones to the shadows and warm tones to the areas in direct sun, still avoiding the use of white or black. When I am done with this step I spray with Krylon Workable Fixative.  This sort of melts the layers together but you can usually still see both layers. Usually the painting is very bright after this step.  Sometimes I leave it this way if I am in a bright sort of mood.

During the second pass with the pastels I add the local colors. Local color refers to the actual color of an object.  The animals are brownish grey, the grass is green and the sky is soft greenish blue etc.  The temperature and value layers will shine through this layer.  I start to use white and black pastels.  Be careful how much you use them because they can suck the color right out of a painting. I spray after this layer.

During the last pass I turn the painting upside down.  I divide the photo into sections and zoom in to view only one section at a time.  This is where my painting gets very tight.  This is where I add texture and play with the colors.

I don't recommend this last step to my students who choose to work more painterly.  I however have always loved photo realism, so I do as the photo realists do. Do whatever brings you joy, that's my thoughts on the matter.  Of course my collage professors hated the way I painted and they told me all of the time that I lacked creativity. In the mid 80s my art school did not teach how to paint, but how to throw paint on a canvas and write a paper on it. ha! Photo realism was taboo then, at least it was at BGSU.  Fortunately photo realism has made a comeback.

Often times, when I think I am done I will marinate the painting if I have time.  Ill hide it somewhere for a few days, months or even years.  I also often view photos of it on photo shop where I can make digital changes to it before committing changes to the actual painting.  In this particular painting I changed quite a bit after viewing it on photoshop.  I increased the reflective light, softened some of the grass and edited the expressions on the faces.

When the painting is done you should be able to see the value scale, the temperature layer and the detail layers all together in a nice textured piece. I do not use fixative after the last layer, but blow on the paper to remove excess dust before framing.  The fixative can dull a pastel painting. The sanded paper is so toothy that it holds the pastels in place forever with out the use of fixative.

I will be teaching this method at This Century Art Gallery on Mondays from 1 - 3 pm, starting on September 15.   Join us!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Colonial Farm" Animals, Pastel, 5 x 5"

"Colonial Farm" Pastel 5 x 5"

This little painting was done on Uart sanded paper.  First I did a wet application of warm toned pastel.  You can see the orange and gold tones peaking through the other colors.  Once that dried I applied several passes of pastel.  I started with Rembrandt, followed by Nupastel and ending with pastel pencils for blending.    Some of the edges are a bit too hard, so the sheep are more flat than I prefer, but I like the way the colors glow in this one.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"Buttercup and Son" Animals, pastel, 8 x 10"

"Buttercup and Son"  8 x 10" Pastel
The most successful artists that I know focus on painting what they love.  It took me a while to decide what to paint.  As a long time portrait artist of course I gravitated towards painting portraits of my kids.  When I decided to take my painting more seriously, only a few years ago, I jumped from subject matter to subject matter.  Now I have it narrowed down to animals of the area and paintings of docents from Colonial Williamsburg.  Makes sense I guess, I love all animals, love Virginia and I love local history.  Keep in mind that an artist who hopes to show their work should try to keep subject matte,  painting medium and process consistent.  The best advice I have gotten is from my friend Rita Kirkman.  She says to paint every day, paint small and paint in series.  Check her out at

For this painting I actually started out much larger.  The original (below), was 12 x 18".  I fussed with it and fussed with it and finally decided to throw it away.  One night, just for fun, I put an 8 x 10 mat over the focus area and realized that it might be saved.  I cropped it, sprayed it well with Krylon Workable fixative and went at it. Eliminating the plantation house in the background, simplifying the sky and horizon line did the trick.  I also added more  reflective light.  When I re-created the landscape I just relaxed, went into my quiet happy place in my head, gave up control of my hands to the universe and drew.  When I was done I was surprised to see that I drew my homeland of Bowling Green Ohio, with it's straight open horizons.  I guess I must be home sick.

This was created on Uart sanded paper with a pastel underpainting in warm tones, blended with a brush and rubbing alchol.  I did many passes over thie underpainting using Rembrandt first, followed by harder Nupastel then finishing with a final blending with pastel pencil.  I used Krylon workable fixative between passes.  This process works well to give my paintings an inner glow, which I love so much.  I want them to pulse with life and with love.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"Carriage Ride in Williamsburg" Animals, Pastel, 11 x 14

"Carriage Ride in Williamsburg"  Pastel,  11 x 14
One day I took a ton of photos of the four horses on duty that Saturday who's job it was to pull tourists in the carriages down Duke of Gloucester street in Colonial Williamsburg.  These horses are amazingly patient as people surround them to stroke their fur and pose for photos.  During their day off you can find them grazing in various pastures around the museum.

This was an especially difficult piece for me.  The straps and such on the horses was really hard to draw.  I started with a fully completed watercolor painting on 140 pound Strathmore watercolor paper, using Windsor and Newton professional grade watercolors.  I kept this  underpainting quite vibrant so that when I applied the pastels on top the painting would glow.  I did 4 passes with pastels, starting with Rembrandt, blending with Nupastels and detailing with pastel pencil.  I used Krylon workable fixative in between passes.

Here is my reference photo.  Usually I mess with my photos quite a bit on photoshop before I commit to the first layer of painting.  Here all I did was flip the photo so that the wood bar at the bottom would lead your eye into the painting.  I used my imagination for the background.

Monday, September 1, 2014

"Solace" Animal, 8 x 10, pastel,

"Solace" 8 x 10" Pastel

I wanted to enter this competition called Reining Cats and Dogs in Richmond at the Crossroads Art Center.  I decided that I would do a drawing of my family pet Solace, since I didn't expect too many other artists to draw a bearded dragon.  The competition was pretty strong, but Solace and one other painting made the cut. Solace often spends an hour or so a day loose in the studio with me hanging out and tickling my toes as I work.

He is drawn on Uart sanded paper with a value underpainting done with orange and golden hued pastel and rubbing alcohol.  You can see the warm tones of the underpainting peeking through the pastel which I applied primarily with Rembrandt pastels and Nupastels.  Towards the end I sprayed it with Krylon workable fixative then did a final pass with pastel pencils.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

"Tiger" Animal, Pastel, 5 x 5"

"Tiger"  Animal, Pastel, 5 x 5" $50.00

I did an underpainting in blue value tones using diluted pastel on sanded pastel paper. Once dry, I added the pastel.

Friday, August 22, 2014

"Martha at Powhatan" 8 x 10" figure, charcoal,

"Martha at Powhatan"  8 x 10" figure, charcoal,
My friend Bonnie is an amazing costumed interpreter who portraits Martha Washington.  I snapped this photo of her after a show in a restaurant, but the background did not do her justice.  I used a photo of the Powhatan Manor House taken from one of the front rooms and placed her in front of it in the drawing.  Martha and George did visit the Powhatan Manor House on Ironbound road, and part of his signature is still thought to be visible from the left of the front door.  I work there at this house giving ghost tours and ghost hunting lessons, and I have a love affair with the property. I feature it quite often in my paintings.

Monday, August 18, 2014

"Silhouettes" 8 x 10" Charcoal and conte' on gray Canson paper,

"Silhouettes" 8 x 10, Charcoal on gray Canson paper, 
For this drawing I used the soft, non textured side of Canson drawing paper.  It is so smooth that its almost feels like working on velvet.  After drawing in the composition, which I compose on photoshop first, I drew in the darkest values, allowing the paper to remain untouched on the medium and lightest tones.  I actually blend with my fingers and paper towels when working in Charcoal in order to get the smooth affect.  After blending I will use a kneaded eraser and charcoal pencils to reapply the texture.  The last thing I do is add the white highlights using conte.  When working in this method it is imperative that you do not use white conte on top of the black charcoal or you will get mud.  Only use the white on top of untouched paper.  I don't encourage my new students to work in this method as it is a bit tricky.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Pinner Cap" 8 x 10, pastel, figure

"Pinner Cap" 8 x 10, pastel, figure, $150.00

I did some experimenting with this one by creating my own sanded paper.  I like how it gives a very painterly result. I used illustration board with gesso mixed with pumis. I did an under painting using pastel diluted with rubbing alcohol, then applied pastels on top. This was my first attempt at the diluted under painting.  I did many after this due to the success of this painting.

Friday, August 15, 2014

"Sheep With Intence Stare" 8 x 10" animals, pastel

"Sheep With Intence Stare" 8 x 10" animals, pastel, $150.00
First I adjusted my photo on photoshop until I was pleased with the composition.  If the composition, value scale and all that stuff isn't right, it doesn't matter how perfect I apply the pastel, the painting will flop.  For this reason my reference photo is often in sepia tones instead of full color.  This is what I use to lay down the value scale underpainting, then I  might go back to the color photo to reference the hue.  I don't always use local colors, but try to get the point across with using temperature.  The underpainting for this little guy was done with warm ochres and reds in hopes of making him glow from with in.  The intense moody stare was accidental, but I like it.  I should rename this, "Make My Day".

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Lance" Figure, 11 x 14", pastel

"Lance"  11 x 14"  Pastel, $300.00

Lance has a great face doesn't he?  I have been wanting to paint him for a long time but finally found the right reference photos to make it work.  The image that I used was actually a combination of maybe 3 photos, plus my own imagination of course. I wanted to allow the viewer to see for themselves how hot, muggy and bright our Virginia summers are.  I hope it brings to you the feelings of being right there observing Lance in one of his more pensive moods.  You can almost smell the honey suckle that grows all over Williamsburg.

I used a very different technique here.  For the first time I did a fully finished watercolor painting, then went over it with several passes of pastel, allowing the painting to peak through.  Normally I do an under painting with wet pastels in a warm value scale, so this was a leap for me.  I wanted to make Lance bright to bring him to the foreground, and soften the composition behind him to give a sense of deep depth and the feeling of humidity. The vibrant under painting really emphasized this and gave it a kick... BAM!

 My friend Rita Kirkman,, suggested that I observe the work of  Jeannette Cuevas. Rita ran across some watercolors on my web site which I did a few years ago and thought I should utilize my watercolor chops with my current work in pastel.  I friended Jeanette on Facebook and she gave me some wonderful advice and inspiration for using this method.  Thanks Jeannette!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Drummers" Figure, 8 x 10" Pastel

"Drummers"  8 x 10"  Pastel

Sometimes I luck out and find a great photo that I am able to adjust and turn into my own.  This original photo was very old and in black and white.  The boys were standing in front of some buildings and were reenacting  the Revolutionary war.   I used my own photo of the plantation house at the Historic Powhatan Resort and put that behind them with a simple landscape, added color and changed their likenesses. I do a lot of altering on photoshop before I use any photo, including my own.  Be very careful when using other peoples photos.  If it is not royalty free, you should avoid it, get written permission to use it or attempt to change more than 50% of it as I did here. You can find some great royalty free photos that depict American history at the library of congress web site, which is where I found this gem.

Unlike most of my paintings in color, this is very subdued.  I drew it on grey Canson paper and did the entire thing in charcoal before I had this weird desire to add color.  As a result it is rather gloomy and low key, but that sort of fits the subject.

Monday, August 11, 2014

"Taco" Animals, 8 x 10", Pastel

"Taco" 8 x 10, Pastel, $150

I used sanded pastel paper to create this fun little painting.  First I did an under painting using ochre and burnt umber pastels and rubbing alcohol to establish the value tones.  I used warm tones for the under painting so that it would give the appearance of an inner glow under the top layers of green, blue and purple hues. I did many layers of soft Rembrandt pastel applied with the side of the stick using a hatching technique on top of this under painting.  I used Krylon workable fixative now and then to keep the layers from melting into each other and did a final pass with very hard pastel pencils to create the busy strokes. I had fun playing with warm and cool tones to create a feeling of light.  Hopefully the end result will cause a feeling of love, inner peace and happiness for the viewers.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

"Inner Eye", Portrait, pastel

"Inner Eye"  Pastel, 2010
This is a rather old painting I did of my daughter Halee when she was a teen.  The eye on her forehead was symbolic of her metaphysical beliefs that she was just developing at this age.  My work since this time has become much more expressive, but I love the satin like finish of her skin and hair in this piece. I used the smooth surface of a tan sheet of Canson and did a lot of blending with my fingers.   You have to be very careful when blending pastel as it can become very muddy.

I am sorry that I do not yet have the size posted on the title, I need to pull it out of hiding and measure it.  I seem to remember that it was only about 12 or 14 inches high.  One of the reasons I never framed it is because it is not a standard size.  Since this time I have learned not to make paintings in non standard sizes.  Live and learn eh?

Monday, August 4, 2014

"Chicken Trio" animals,pastel,8 x 12,price

"Chicken Trio"  Pastel 2013

The original painting was actually square.  The composition just wasn't zinging so I cropped 1/3 of the top and now it makes much more sense.  Sometimes I forget to work in the golden rule of thirds.  Paintings look much more complete if we divide the canvas by thirds instead of halves.