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How to Develop Your Artistic Muscles: Make a Sketchbook

A few weeks ago, one of my art fans complimented me on a painting which she had viewed on my Art of Schmidt website, entitled, Phyllis and Dad. She said that she liked the colors, that she admired my talent, and wanted to know the story behind the painting. I told her that the painting was based on a collection of family photos which I had collected and that I always remembered my father as being older than other kid’s fathers. I also shared that this was the first photo I had ever seen of my father taken when he was young. Although I do not know his exact age, as the picture is not dated, I would estimate that he was in his early twenties when this photo was taken of him and his first wife, Phyllis.

I was of course, grateful to hear the compliments about my artwork, but at the same time, I wanted to share that the artwork I post on my website does not come about by magic. It takes a lot of effort.  Furthermore, sometimes more than one version of a painting or drawing is created to lead to the finished product that people see on my website, commerce site, and social media feeds on Facebook and Instagram. In fact, I have to practice on a weekly basis to keep my drawing and painting skills from getting rusty. During this conversation, I shared all of these insights with her and I hastened to add that if I relied solely on my artistic “talent” then it wouldn’t get me very far. Instead, I have found that practicing art is much like practicing a sport or playing an instrument. I believe that in order to get good at any of these disciplines, one needs to practice, a lot, and on a regular basis to maintain a certain level of skill. And sometimes it may require me to make a drawing or painting over and over again until I get it “just right.” In the words of songwriter, Sting: “I will reapply the needle of the record player again and again to the bars of music that seem beyond my analysis, like a safecracker picking a lock, until the prize is mine.” (Sting, Broken Music, dust jacket cover, 2003).

I was thinking about this conversation this week when I was trying to decide what to blog about. While I was pondering this, I wondered how to make this knowledge which I have gained about the need for artists to practice their art, into an applicable blog post that anyone can learn from. According to the author, and textile artist, Bren Boardman, one specific way for artists to stay “in practice” with their craft is to keep a sketchbook. The sketchbook serves as a repository to record their ideas and inspirations, such as “color swatches, quotes, magazine clippings, newspaper cuttings, or reference photos” for artwork in progress. (Boardman, Bren. “Sketchbooks and Mind Mapping for Artists”, https: www.textileartist.org).  Bren Boardman, textile artist, and author of the article, “Sketchbooks and Mind Mapping for Artists”, states that sketchbooks can help artists to develop their ideas for artwork and that using a mind map in their sketchbooks is an effective strategy for fleshing out ideas for new artwork. In her article, she provides some useful tips on how to start a mind map diagram, sort of like the “web” I remember from grade school in which my teachers used to help my fellow students brainstorm new ideas. In Boardman’s mind maps, she starts with a word or phrase that encapsulates her concept for a new artwork and draws connecting branches, which describe her ideas in more detail, sometimes using imagery. To start a mind map, she recommends that you write a word or phrase, with which you can associate, the main idea. (Boardman, Bren. 2013)

In addition, Boardman states that it is helpful to consider what type of sketchbook you would like to create such as a reference sketchbook, where you might “collect color mixing tests, color swatches or samples, or an idea generation sketchbook”; such as creating a mind map which describes the process and ends with the final result. On the other hand, perhaps you might make a sketchbook that would describe a trip or journey. Furthermore, if you still feel overwhelmed by the process of starting a sketchbook, I’m including a list of suggestions that Boardman offers in her article to get you started with the process. For example, you might include: “photos, magazines or prints, magazine or newspaper cuttings, drawings, sketches and doodles, text, poetry, stories, thoughts, thoughts, letters, extracts, statements, words, fabric, threads, wools, beads, buckles, papers of all kinds.” (Boardman, Bren. “Sketchbooks and Mind Mapping for Artists”)

In this blog post, I include my process for adapting  Boardman’s mind map idea and translating it into a project I wanted to create of a genealogical portrait of recording artist, Sting. My inspiration for this project was based on an overworked watercolor painting I made last summer, a portrait by Durer of a man standing in front of a landscape,  and a TV miniseries, entitled, Finding Your Roots, with Henry Louis Gates, J., on PBS. The segment I took inspiration from was called, “Sting, Sally Field, and Deepak Chopra,” and was filmed in 2014. Gates spoke with each individual in turn and he shared what he had learned about their ancestry through genealogical research. In particular, Gates shared that Sting’s third-great grandparents were lace makers who started a family in Nottingham, England in the 1820s. However, due to the Industrial Revolution, which led to mass production of products and consumer goods, they were forced to seek work elsewhere in Calais, France and in Australia.

I took inspiration from this TV series, a failed watercolor portrait of Sting, and from a sketch by Duerer which featured a portrait of a man and a landscape in the background.  To record my thoughts, I took notes as I watched the TV segment and I re-draw these thoughts in a mind map. I knew I wanted to make a portrait that was different from the typical face front painting or sketch of a person with a wall as background, and that I wanted to let the artwork tell a story about the person. I wanted to use symbols to tell the person’s story so that it would lead the viewer to contemplate the scene and ask questions about what the symbols might mean. After I completed the notes, I set to work looking for images on the internet of Sting, his hometown of Wallsend, England, and some symbols to describe his ancestor’s migration to France and their profession as lace makers. Then I put all the photos together in Adobe Photoshop to create a collage as a reference for the resulting sketch and three value watercolor painting.

Sting watercolor portrait, flat
Original watercolor painting of Sting with English landscape.
Sting mind map final
Mindmap I made based on the TV mini-series, Finding Your Roots, with Sting, Sally Field, and Deepak Chopra.
Tennis-mindmap
Example of mind map from Wikipedia.
portrait-of-caspar-tower-and-a-river-landscape-1520
Portrait of Caspar, Tower and a River Landscape, Albrecht Durer, 1520. This portrait by Durer, influenced the composition for Sting’s biographical portrait.
Sting in Landscape, with symbols, with black and white
Photoshop collage I made with various photographs. I created a black and white image and applied a cut out filter to create a value scale in black and white. 
Sting, pencil sketch
Line sketch based on the Photoshop collage, drawn with pencil on backing board.

Stay tuned for more updates on my painting process of this portrait! Thanks for stopping by!

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Why Should Artists Create Content Based Work?

Have you ever wondered why some artists, such as Andrew Wyeth, and others create their artwork in a series format? My first experience with creating artwork as a series was as an undergraduate at McDaniel College, taking art classes at the senior level. In this Senior Studio Capstone class, my fellow students and I were given the assignment to create a series of artworks that expressed a theme of interest or importance to us and to write an artist’s statement that described our artwork’s theme.  For example, according to the website The Abundant Artist, some themes that artists might explore in a series include, 1.) texture and color (Faith Ringgold), 2.) politics  (Kathe Kollwitz), 3.) death, (Hirst) or 4.) messages that uplift, like Kelley Rae Roberts.   Prior to that, my assignments in drawing and painting consisted of drawing or painting to try and copy the still life or model in front of me, to teach the skills of observation. At that time, I had no idea how to even get started and had artist’s block for two weeks while I searched for artworks that inspired, all in vain. My Teacher did give us some guidance on the process though. He suggested that we create sketchbooks in which we pasted artworks of inspiration, no matter the medium, and he suggested that we look up art magazines, such as Art in America. Pouring over art magazines and artist websites, such as Forum Gallery, I could think of nothing new to say with my artwork that hadn’t already been said. I felt I had a lot of competition since there have already been many artists who have gone before me, who have created several unforgettable artworks to boot, such as Vermeer’s, Girl with a Pearl Earring, painted in 1665.

After weeks of struggle and seeking out artwork that inspired me, I had a solution. My answer came from an unlikely source, music. I decided to illustrate some of the songs of my favorite musician, Sting, using my self-portrait as a muse, along with color, and composition to portray various feelings of uncertainty, sadness, etc. Some of the songs I illustrated in my self-portrait series were Lithium Sunset and Secret Journey. The first song talks about how medication can help bring a person out of depression and make them strong enough to get back up again. While the second song, Secret Journey, talks about a mystical journey of enlightenment. I printed out the songs from Sting’s website, www.sting.com, pasted them in my sketchbooks, and underlined words and phrases that I thought were good candidates for illustration. And I referenced these songs and artworks of inspiration as I crafted my Artist’s Statement. As I searched through artwork that inspired, it became evident that I was drawn to the subject of the portrait, but I didn’t know how to make my work unique because the portrait has been done numerous times before.

The imagery of Sting’s songs provided the perfect solution to my dilemma and I was off and running. My then boyfriend, Dan, took photos of me to provide the source photos for my oil paintings. To make a long story short, I finished the series in time and even made a power point presentation as part of the project requirements of my finished works. In addition, I crafted an artist’s statement, which helped me to define the artwork by describing what the artwork would be about and what influences had to lead me to the finished work. I learned a lot about myself as an artist, such as how to distill ideas through writing artist statements and creating sketchbooks to illustrate my ideas by pasting artwork that inspired onto its pages. In particular, I discovered that I liked to make artworks that had a message, even if the search for the solution was far from easy. But back to my main question, “Why should artists work in a series?”

To investigate that question more fully, I did what many people would do, I googled it.  The websites, Abundant Artist and Art Business.com,  shed some light on the subject of content-based art. According to the authors, some of these benefits include: 1.) Making artwork in a series gives the artist a platform to connect with their audience on an emotional level because the artwork is focused and personal, 2.) Creating artwork in a series format helps others to understand what an artist’s work is about and who they are as a person, 3.) Artists who make artwork in a series are more likely to find art galleries to exhibit their work

because they know how to market the artist and this format follow their business model, and 4.) Working in a series format helps artists to understand what topics/subjects are important to them, and which they like to draw or paint.