How much of your body do you use when creating your art? Recently, when talking with some of my students, I heard myself telling them various parts of the body we all need to engage for the most purposeful, passionate statements in our paintings. Here is a quick checklist and some advice for you to consider the next time you step up to the easel.
Get your Head in the game
Think of spending some time on your skill set, away from painting. Do you draw often and work to develop this most important of skills? Drawing for even a few hours a week will make you so much more confident when you pick up the brush. Think of this like a long distance runner doing sprints to increase lung capacity. They don’t just wake one morning and run a marathon. They train. And so must you. If you are less than confident in your drawing, it can’t be camouflaged under the paint. It will always show. So, grab your sketchbook, a soft pencil and get out there and draw.
Think before you paint. Plan. Do you understand your subject? Do you have your composition worked out? Or, do you just jump in and hope for the best? That rarely works. It takes only a few minutes to do a quick sketch, make a value study. Before I begin any painting, indoors or out, I do some sort of drawing and assign values to the planes. These are usually rough and meaningful only to me. I try different cropping ideas, a few different angles. And when I’ve settled on the composition, I write notes on the sketch. Sometimes these are color notes, sometimes just my own comments about something I hope to accomplish. And, having spent those precious minutes, I find that I understand the subject so much better. I understand the drawing and am now unafraid to use paint. That fear, that pain was left in the sketchbook and I am much more free with paint application and brush strokes.
I keep my drawing, my plan close by. I use a little bungee cord to secure my sketchbook to the easel. Keeping my plan, my purpose close by and referring to it often keeps me focused.
Move those Arms
Are you stuck holding your brush in only one way? Do you move from the shoulder? Do you use your whole arm? If not, then you might be missing some delicious powerful brush strokes and wasting some energy that could be yours. Be the conductor of your own orchestra. Sometimes, let the brush play a soft note, gently delivered. Or a rapid powerful stroke delivered with speed and force using the whole arm could be just the thing. You may already have a way of holding your brush that is completely natural for you, your own personal grip. That is wonderful. But the brush can deliver great variety for you just by changing the direction of your hand and your arm. If your strokes are not as interesting as you might like, mix it up. Put on some good music of varying tempos and orchestrate your brush.
- Move from the shoulder.
- Try a stroke from above.
- Be brave and try a different grip. Mix it up
Get in step with your legs
I stand when I paint. I feel that I have so much more energy and even more stamina. Standing keeps me ready to step back and study the whole canvas. And studying the whole canvas is one of the most important things you should do. If you are sitting, then, your first decision is to get up from the chair. That is one decision away from moving. The result? Most people will think, “I’ll get up in a minute and study this.” And that minute becomes two, then three and on and on until, you miss an opportunity to study the big picture. Many people must or choose to sit to paint and that is fine. However, I recommend a high stool, perhaps with castors. You are closer to standing that way and you are more likely to move around than if you are snuggled in a chair. It is actually is less tiring than sitting for hours and better for your circulation. I do sit occasionally. My favorite chair is one that was used by an architect. It has a back and castors and rolls easily. It even has a footrest and that is a lovely feature.
Step away from the painting frequently. Look at the whole, not just the parts. A little distance will give you greater perspective, better judgment. Every part of the painting must have its place in the whole, but you can’t see that unless you step back.
Walk away. Walk out of the room. Don’t engage in another activity. Do something meaningless. I go outside pull a few weeks, or put clothes in the dryer. No TV, no reading, no computer. Just get the painting out of your visual memory. It doesn’t take long. When you walk back into the room, you’ll see the painting with fresh eyes. You’ll spot any problems immediately. If you are struggling with a bit of drawing, or a value, or a color, leave. Just stop looking for a while. The answer will reveal itself when you return. I sometimes hope that the problem heals itself while I’m not looking, but that hasn’t happened…..yet.
Give it your whole heart
Be the lion, your own champion. You are no coward. Be brave and be willing to try a new approach. If you think you are in a rut and you are having trouble climbing out, then do something exciting. Perhaps start a painting in a new way, something you may not have tried before. Here are two ways I recently used, both new to me.
In the painting, Good Fences, which really is my neighbor’s house, I wanted to find out what would happen if I began with a graphic abstract construction in extreme warm and cool. To be fair, the subject leaned that way. For the part lit by the late sun, I pushed the under-painting toward crazy warm. If in the shadow, I used a screaming purple. I have to admit that there was a part of me that wanted to leave it in that state. It was just so graphic. I enjoyed this process and will do it again.
Under-painting of Good Fences with bold warm / cool graphic approach.
Good Fences, oil, 16” x 20”. The graphics underneath helped me keep everything in temperature.
Beginning is a sunrise painting. These things can go so wrong so quickly. They can get very garish. Even still, I wanted the painting to be infused with the orange light. So, I thought, why not start that way? I did the whole canvas in orange and let it dry. It actually took me several days to begin the cloud pattern. I really liked the orange canvas. I hadn’t done an under-painting like this and it helped me keep the warm feeling I wanted from beginning to end. In fairness, the subject dictated this start to me. I can’t take credit for anything except the courage to listen and try it
Under-painting for Beginning. Orange, orange, orange
Final painting, Beginning , oil 20” x 24’. There is something magical about the beginning of the day.
A courageous heart is necessary in so many ways. We may be tempted to let others tell us what to paint and how to paint it. But there is only one you and you are the only one who should make those decisions. The pressure can build. There are so many influences and so many people who will readily and happily step up and let you know that you should do it their way. But they are not you. They don’t know your heart. If you want to paint boats, paint boats. If your heart tells you it is time for flowers, follow your heart. Nothing can kill your creative spirit faster than to follow footsteps that you didn’t make. Never forget how special, how unique you are. And learn to always listen to your heart…. you lion!
Yellow rose painting, beginning:
I wanted to experiment with the Arches Huile paper, and I wanted to do a large painting en plein air with lots of drips and splashes and even a watercolor effect here and there. I’m not sure what got into me that day, but it was joyful and I’ve done it more since then. It helped to be outside when I was throwing the pthalo green around.
Yellow Rose Dialogue. 22” x 30” on Arches Huile paper.
I guess I do have a thing about boats and harbors. Tides are such a challenge but the challenge is worthy. My husband and I both have a passion for travel. This is one of England’s magical little harbors. We had only a few days there and want to go back. What a wonderful place.
Visit Joe Anna's website to see more of her work.