I consider myself a semi professional artist seeing as I sell my work and have gallery representation. A professional artist is one who supports themselves solely on their work. I am married and my husband supports me. He hasn’t quit his day job yet!
It’s a very difficult task to support yourself in the fine arts but with some determination, a lot of ingenuity and travel and hard work you can do it. However if you want to be a professional artist, spend a lot of time learning techniques in sales and business skills. Most of us don’t and so our success is limited.
I’ve painted ever since I was small and I’m in my 50s now. My mother was also an oil painter and allowed me to use her tubes of paint that she didn’t want anymore. She encouraged me in my younger years and I studied under several very well known artists throughout my life. I never lost my passion for oil painting.
I did go to college but unfortunately my father would not allow me to go to art school so I never made a career of art as far as teaching goes.
I think what is most important is that I am able to do what I love to do and that is paint. I work in several different ways. I paint en plein air, which simply means painting in the open air, outside in front of your subject. These are little landscapes done on small canvas, usually 8 x 10s or 9 x 12s.
The main idea for this style of painting is to capture the light. This technique lends itself to what is labeled ‘impressionism’, and Monet and other great artists of his time worked this way. It is a wonderful learning experience and has helped me tremendously, especially with backgrounds and freer brushstrokes in my studio work.
Much of this Legolas painting incorporates the plein air techniques I use.
I have pieces that are done in exactly the opposite way. Whereas plein air is done quickly, usually within a couple of hours, I have work that has taken months to do. This technique requires layering of colors. You begin your painting with washes and layers of colors that you would never expect to use in the final painting, such as blue undertones for skin etc. These undertones are allowed to dry and then you add your reds and warm tones. Layer by layer you build up your painting. The result is beautiful soft tones of color blending into each other to create a life-like picture. This is oil painting at its finest and many of the masters painted this way. Most of my religious work on my website is done in this way.
I painted this picture for my granddaughter, who adores Legolas, and gave it to her for her birthday. I was attracted to this picture because we once raised horses in country very much like this scene in New Zealand… wide-open plains and cold majestic mountains in the background.
It is important to know your strengths and weaknesses as an artist. Of course we must always work on our weaknesses to stretch ourselves and keep learning, but sometimes it’s our strengths, what we do best and most naturally, that makes a painting. I know that I have a knack for body movement and expression and so I chose this picture, which has a lot of movement and body expression both in the rider and the horse. It is the movement in this painting that draws people in and keeps their attention.
When I say knack, I guess what I mean to say is that I have a passion for it. It is very important to feel passionate about what you are painting. Even in a landscape, if you see a light peeping in behind the trees and it is just so lovely that you really want to capture it, that’s a passion, and it is what is going to make your painting worth looking at. People will be drawn to your way of seeing that beautiful light. In this painting, my passion was towards the movement of the horse and rider, and the way you can feel the cold crisp air against their faces.
This is done on a 16 X 20 piece of stretched canvas, gessoed and primed again with an acrylic cad. Orange and gesso mix. As far as color goes, my palette consists of:
~ Naples Yellow
~ French Ultramarine Blue
~ Alizarin Crimson
~ Kings Blue Deep
~ Azo Yellow
~ Burnt Umber
~ Burnt Sienna
~ Titanium White
I use poppy seed oil as a thinning medium, and I use any brand of cooking oil to clean my brushes. Cooking oil is much safer than turpentine and less costly. Make sure you wash your brushes of the oil before using again as I’m not sure what long term effect the cooking oil will have on your painting.
Another of my strengths is my ability to see color. I get comments all the time on my use of color. I don’t make them up… I actually see reds and golds and blues in the grass, and in the horse etc. They are undertones, but they are there. It’s a good exercise to look at an object and try to see all the colors in that object. Do this with objects in real life, as you won’t see nearly as many colors in a photograph. Leonardo de Vinci once said that true art is “learning how to see”. Spend more time looking than you do painting and you will learn much.
Creating the painting
I am a value painter. I learned this from my plein air experiences. If you take shapes of values, connecting your darks, you get a really good sense of form, balance and composition. Therefore I began this painting by first covering the entire canvas with a nice neutral acrylic color of Cad Orange and white gesso. This allows for a better range of values. If you start with a white canvas white is the lightest you can go, and since with oils we don’t leave open places as watercolorists do for their lightest spots, using a darker canvas allows us to go lighter in value than we could otherwise.
Next, I did all the darkest shapes that I found in the photo and worked my way lighter. To find values, if you are using a photo, try converting your photo to a black and white picture with your computer. Here is a conversion of the painting so you can see the values in it.
The beginning painting could look something like this. I’m working backwards with my Photoshop software since I didn’t record my progress with this piece…but it’s a pretty good idea of the process. Oil paints are very forgiving and you can move things around and layer all you want.
After this is done, the next steps are just a matter of filling in the blanks, being careful to maintain the value contrasts.
Important things to remember when doing any artwork:
~ Use your lightest lights and your darkest darks at the focal point. Your eye is going to be drawn to the highest contrast, so make that your center of interest. In this painting,
The focal point is the horse’s head.
~ See how sharp the contrast is on the horse as compared to Legolas’ face. Once I have the viewer’s eyes at this point, there are several diagonal lines that lead the eye through the rest of the painting.
For distance, remember that warm colors come forwards and cool colors recede…so your soft blues are going to go in the background and your warm yellows are going to be up front. This is why if you look at the final painting. I have blue grey mountains…not brown. In fact, the mountains are so close to the sky color they seem to fade into it. That is the effect I wanted to give you – it demonstrates the feeling of a vast open land. Where the horse’s shadows are there are blue tones. Those blue tones recede behind the horse’s head and create distance.
Accuracy and Expression
Aside from good basic knowledge of bone structure and muscle tone, I think expression is the most important thing in a portrait. You need to know the character of the person you are painting… their little quirks, the way they hold their lips, the twinkle of their eye, the position of their head when they are not posing. Some of the best portraits I have seen don’t look at all posed but are just filled with body language. If you are going to draw and paint people, get yourself a big book on physiology and learn the parts of the body and how they move. All the masters who drew the human form knew how every bone lay, muscle moved and skin stretched. This is imperative to good art and should be second nature to you. Your college art classes are going to have you draw skeletons, joints, and tissue so the sooner you learn them, the better off you are. It is hard work but you will surprise yourself by how your work will improve.
It is important I think to not try and create a style. Just paint and paint. The more you paint, the more your style will develop. Learn all you can and then learn more. Read books, copy masters, go off on your own and paint plein air. Find out how others do it and sift through their advice, finding what works best for you. Never be afraid to try something new.
I believe wholeheartedly in black and white mediums such as charcoal and pencil. These mediums are imperative for practice and the better you master them the better off you will be to work in color. Black and white mediums will help you understand values and you will always be able to use this information. As far as color goes, I have tried acrylics, colored pencil, pastels and watercolors. I have had much success with pastels and they make a really nice medium for portraits and preliminary work as well. I enjoy good artists who master any of these mediums. I have not. Watercolors are the hardest for me but I think it is because I am an oil painter who needs lots of forgiveness. If I make a mistake in watercolor I pretty much have to start over. With oils I do not. In fact, the way I work is more trial and error, moving my shapes around and seeing what works. Aside from a pencil and eraser, there aren’t many other mediums that do offer such mobility. Acrylics are forgiving in this sense, but I don’t think acrylics have the richness and depth of color that oils do. I’m a purist in that respect.
There was a time when I had to have inspiration to paint and I would only paint when I was inspired. As I grew older, and took on more and more commissions I soon realized I needed to paint on call, and not just when I felt like it. In order to compensate I pull out my favorite music. Music always inspires me. More important than inspiration is the need to be alone with plenty of time to work.
I think the key to success is to keep plugging away. If you are able to get into an art group do so. You will find yourself continually encouraged and enlightened by working with other artists. Don’t be competitive but help others with what you know and let others help you. Be willing to accept a critique by those who know how to do it. Teachers and professional artists can offer you a world of help if you are willing to listen to instruction and follow it. Often artists fall into a slump, but if you have been close to other artists you will be understood, and encouraged. Sometimes when we are doing something new to us we become very dissatisfied with ourselves and think we are not successful. If and when this happens, remember that you are learning something new and it takes time and effort before it comes easy. Fall back to something that you can do well for awhile and then pick up that new project again at a later date. Don’t be too hard on yourself and especially don’t be too critical. If someone says they like your work, don’t make excuses for it because you aren’t too pleased with it, instead, just say “thank you”. Contrary to common opinion, artwork is hard and challenging and not appreciated nearly as much as it should be.
Thank you for letting me take a few minutes of your time. I love encouraging other artists and if anyone has any need for more personal advice please pm me!
You can also take a look at her personal file in the Fan Art gallery at the CoE.