Confessions of an Obsessive Compulsive Artist
It's that time of year again, the television littered with Christmas adverts, it's a struggle to do a normal weekly food shop at the supermarket without a Christmas pudding being thrust in your face and, for me, it means long days and evenings sitting at my drawing board working away like a little elf, making sure the lucky few have a portrait to open on the special day.
I'm very used to Christmas being an unsociable time of year, having a Mum and Sister who are former professional florists (now retired and baby laden respectively!). Year after year, I would be home alone, preparing all the veg for the inevitable Christmas feast the day before, whilst the rest of the family were roped into doing up mixed bunches, taking orders or going out on deliveries (sometimes on Christmas Day itself!). I'm no stranger to the long hours, having drawn well into the early hours on several occasions to get a fews hours peace whilst my little angels sleep.
This time last year, I was struggling to keep up with orders for portraits that were flying in and I got myself in quite a state, I was even doing portrait commissions in the hairdressers! There were too many orders and not enough time, particularly given the carol concerts and nativity plays I had to attend as a proud parent 😊. There were two main reasons for my mismanagement of time; the first, my prices were far too low (I was effectively working far below minimum wage on each portrait) and second, I couldn't say 'no'. I said yes to everyone for fear of losing the business to someone else. I saw my work as mainstream rather than unique and thought thats how customers saw it too.
This year, I've been a lot more organised. I'm pleased to say I am still inundated with orders, but this time I've realised that people are not buying a mass produced item, they chose me because they like my style, I'm unique and thats my selling point. I have started to say no to any more Christmas orders and have increased my prices (I'm now working just above minimum wage😉) and I've found that this isn't deterring people, they are prepared to wait until after Christmas.
It's all down to having confidence and a long Two year struggle to build up my reputation as a trusted portrait artist.
So here's to a busy couple of months, with lots of happy faces when they open their portraits on Christmas Day.
The Picture is one of the many commission orders I've had this Autunm, ordered by the owners of J & K Gallery.
I have neglected my blog recently, as the work is flooding in and I'm just about keeping up!
2015, although not yet over, has so far been a land mark year for my art. I came to this realisation when updating my artists CV (which is on this website😊). This year has consisted of 4 published works, 2 solo displays and a competition win, not to mention the ever increasing number of commissions.
It's only when I look back, that I realise just how hard I've worked as an artist. It's certainly been a full time job, working long days (and nights!), weekends and holidays. Through all this hard work, it hasn't felt like a chore at all. I truly love what I do, even though it takes over my whole familys life sometimes!
My art station is nothing glamorous, I don't have a studio, I have.....my dining room, on my dining table. So when I say my family have been affected, they most certainly have. In fact my dining room is looking more like an art studio than a place to eat! My husband and children get no sense out of me when I'm emersed in a drawing, although, my husband has enjoyed the sole control of the tv remote when I'm on a night shift 😉. Radio 2 has benefitted from my long drawing sessions too (I'm getting quite good at pop master now!)
Not only have I worked, but I've learned alot too. I've learnt about book illustration and all the technicalities that have to be considered. It's not just about drawing a nice picture, oh no! I've learnt more about colour pencil techniques and marketing and most importantly, I've learnt more about myself and my abilities as an artist. I've come a long way in just 10 months and with that has brought a new found confidence. This confidence makes me really excited about what I will be doing next year and the work I plan to produce.
And so, for the remaining weeks leading up to Christmas, I will be catching up on all the commissions I have lined up, so dinner will be served in the living room for the foreseeable future 😉
If you create art, when is it time to call yourself a professional?
I was always told that a professional is someone who gets paid for their work. If we go by that logic, i've been a professional since I was 15. Can this be right or are there other factors we have to consider?
Having researched this a bit recently, it would seem that 'professional' artists consider a number of things before defining one another as professionals.
Do you create art when the mood takes you?
According to some, professional artists don't wait for the right mood to overcome them before they sit down and create, they work on something every day. This doesnt have to be art related, they could be working on their marketing, sourcing new ideas, practising techniques or doing the books. They consider what they do as a day job and therefore have the same work ethic as though they were off to an office everyday. I can certainly relate to this one, particularly this past week, where i have been working at least 4 -5 hours everyday on something.
Do you readily show your work?
If you're a professional, you cant be afraid to show your work to the world, be it in a gallery, shop window, a stall or on social media. Not only that, but you show your work in what ever form it takes.
The ultimate professional may even create right in front of people in an open studio (tick!)
Can you take the good with the bad?
As a professional you have to accept that not everyone will like what you create. Its all a matter of personal taste. If you've read any of my previous blogs, you will know how I've struggled with this in the past, but two and a bit years in to my full time career as an artist and I'm a lot tougher now than I was. (I dont fall into a deep depression and start rocking if some criticises my work now 😲😉).
Are you constantly refocussing without steering too far away?
It's very easy to get bored with what you're doing and go off in a completely different direction. However, it seems that honing one particular area of your creativity is what defines you as a professional. This, I guess, is like a trade mark for an artist. Household names like Coca Cola haven't messed around too much with their look and that is what makes them easily identifiable. As an artist you must focus, but also keep up with your competitors. Its ok to reach out a little, but not stray too far from the path, for example, at the start of the year I decided to step into the world of colour, having been a graphite artist for around 20 years. BUT, I still do portaits as that is my niche.
Do you have structure?
A professional artist MUST have structure. I will vouch for this one! It's all very well just creating pictures from subjects that happen to inspire you, but without structure it's very difficult to control it, to avoid the risk of having unfinished pieces lying around. stick with one 'til the end. In my case, that can be hard as I could get a commission in, which has a deadline, when I'm right in the middle of another big piece. I have to be ruthless and stop the piece I'm working on to give commissions priority, then it's straight back to what I was working on before to get it finished in a timely manner (difficult when you've got a 3 year old throwing a toy monkey up and down right next to you! Yes she is doing that right now! 🤨)
Are you always thinking about how to reach your audience?
This is fundamental to being a professional artist. You won't sell anything if nobody sees you. This sounds very like the one above about readily showing your work, but thinking about how to show it is very important too. In the digital age that we live in, we are very lucky to have a plethera of places to display, social media and websites are a must.
So, if you can tick all these boxes....and earn some money from your art, then you might just have to admit you're a professional!
I don't, as a rule, teach art. I have a number of reasons for this, mainly that I don't feel I am accomplished enough to be able to and I find it hard to break down what I do in to words sometimes to be able to explain how others should do it.
I remember when I was at school and I was constantly being told to paint a certain way or draw a certain way and if I dared to step outside of the curriculum I was told I was no good. So, teaching art for me is quite difficult, as I don't want to limit what another can create, even if it's not like what I do. It was a tough dilemma to get the right balance of teaching someone something they would find useful, but also allowing them to find their own way and style and be individual.
As some of you know, we live where my husband works, on an activity centre in the middle of the woods. The Rotherfield WI (Women's Institute for those not in the know) were coming to do some of the activities on offer, such as air rifle shooting and archery (don't worry, we made sure there were no other people around who may have been injured!). There were a few in the group who are also very interested in art and wanted to do a workshop with me on drawing and sketching.
Knowing some of the group also attend an art class in Rotherfield did not fill me with confidence that I would be able to teach them anything new, but I gave it my best shot. With pencils and sketch pads in hand, they eagerly followed me out to a little clearing with benches, we like to call 'Squirrel Lawn'. The great british weather played its part, as usual, and the sunny day I was hoping for had not yet made an appearance, as it was cloudy and really rather chilly to boot, but in typical british style, we braved it anyway.
I had brought along a few things, the first of which was three different types of paper. I wanted to show them how important paper is when starting a drawing. I made them run their hands over the water colour paper I had and explained that by using this paper you get a rough looking drawing, great for moody sea or craggy rocks. The second was the bog standard cartridge paper and third was Bristol Board Airbrush paper, my new favourite thing! This third type of paper is one of the smoothest, with barely any tooth to it and can allow you to produce a very smooth clear drawing. It's also heavyweight, which means no matter how much rubbing out you do, it won't get holes in it. They were shocked at the difference in paper and wrote everything down.
I then handed out some view finders. This was to help them find something they felt inspired to draw and is a great trick if you happen to be out with your sketch pad. Then came crunch time, they had to start drawing. I gave them some leaves and told them not to draw any lines. In this exercise I wanted them to only draw any shadows they saw, not an easy task given the lack of sunshine! They did struggle and half way through I felt like I had been a bit cruel by making them do this, but I wanted to show them that drawing in graphite is not necessarily all about lines. The light and the shade are just as important and you can actually produce a really good effect by just drawing the shadows, without any lines at all. They found it hard because they had not yet trained their eyes to look at things in that way.
When I look at people, animals, objects, I see a collection of shapes, a collection of shadows and highlights. The ladies I was teaching, told me when they see things they see the outline, in terms of drawing. Having an outline is useful, it helps to place the composition on the page so you can ensure you have enough room to fit the whole thing in, or so its not lopsided. It also helps to get proportions right and with perspective, but in the finished piece, usually you don't want peoples eye drawn to the outline, you want them drawn to the object, person, animal itself. In order to do that the lights and darks are essential and probably the most important aspect of graphite drawing. I showed the ladies my elephant drawing, Watoto (see the picture with this blog). This is a great example of where light and shade make the drawing and there barely any outlines at all.
Their confidence was knocked a bit by this exercise, so we chatted about why they thought they found it so hard and why they muttered comments such as, 'I can't do this'. We came to the conclusion that it was all down to confidence and the feeling of needing to get it done, so they can get on with other jobs they had to do. The latter, a very common problem in my house!
As they had their sketch pads with them, I asked to see what else they had drawn before coming to the workshop. One lady showed me some of her drawings (after a lot of coaxing!), and they were fantastic. So I chose one of her bird drawings and showed her how to develop the drawing, by adding darker shading, using a number of different grades of pencil and gradually building up the layers and putting in more detail.
It's about not being afraid to start a drawing and then walk away from it for a while. It's about having patience, with yourself and the process of creating a picture and the confidence to rub out anything you think doesn't look quite right and readjusting it until it does. I explained that it was ok to start a drawing and then go back to it a few days later and keep working on it. They didn't have to get a picture finished within an hour, they could just do 5 minutes on it every day. It's about not allowing those negative thoughts to enter your inside voice. It's not that you 'can't do it', it's that you need to adjust it slightly, or work on it for a bit longer or add another layer to it.
This built up their confidence again and they were raring to go. After lunch we made a start on another exercise, deceiving the eye. I showed the ladies a drawing I had done when at art college at the age of 18. It was a scene from a similar activity centre to the one I live on and had bushes, trees, a bench and a bin. I wanted to show them how I had created the effect of the bushes and trees having leaves all over them, without drawing every single leaf. 'It's just a bunch of scribbles' I said, 'scribble upon scribble, in different grades of pencil'. I told them to let it go, scribble away, use their whole arm. It was quite liberating I think!
They went away with smiles on their faces and I am told, one was a completely new woman after our little chat. So having felt nervous about not really being able to teach anything they didn't already know, I may have just done enough to keep them drawing and feeling confident in doing so and that is good enough for me. 🙂