Several years ago, I took a class with Qiang Huang, an amazing oil painter from Austin. We were all painting from still lifes set up next to our easels. His work is both beautifully precise and also loose and imaginative. That balance of accuracy and abstraction was what we were all after.
At one point he said, “Your still life setup is just a reference for the design you want to create. You’re not here to copy it.”
In other words, a still life setup or a reference photo or the landscape in front of you should just be a jumping-off point for the painting that you’re going to make. If you find yourself struggling to make an exact copy, you’ve lost the thread of the thing.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I think there comes a point in a painting or a drawing where you almost have to set the reference aside. At some point, you just have to deal with the painting that’s in front of you. What it needs next may not be found in the reference you’ve been using. It becomes a matter of stepping back, squinting, maybe taking a black-and-white photograph to check the values, and making a decision about what the painting itself needs, not whether it matches the thing you’re trying to paint or not.
This is true of writing as well. You might start off with a very fixed idea of what sort of book you’re writing and what you want it to be like when it’s finished. But at some point, the book becomes its own thing. At some point, you have to deal with the book that’s in front of you, not the one you had in your head when you started out.
Ann Patchett said something like this when she wrote about book ideas being like beautiful butterflies drifting around in the air. “I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down on my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done, I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s the book.”
She’s talking about learning to live with the disappointment that inevitably comes when you compare the book you’ve written to the way it looked in your imagination before you started. And that disappointment is real.
In the case of a painting, though, I’d say that I never have a fixed idea, when I start, of how the painting’s going to look. I have my reference (a photo, maybe), and I know I’m going to make something out of it that somehow speaks to whatever drew me to the image in the first place. But I’m just as surprised as anyone else to see what it looks like when I’m done.
Here’s the painting that’s on my easel right now, along with the image I started with. It’s a tricky photo to copy as a painting, because of the way the headlights are blown out and the halos around them. I’ve made a lot of changes and I’m still tinkering. But there’s no point, at this stage, in looking at the photo anymore. The painting’s become its own thing.
This class is available on Skillshare! Get a free trial and check out all my classes with this link.
Pumpkins! Could anything be more fun to paint?
One of the best ways to learn to draw and paint is to do a still life. You get to work on shapes, proportion, composition, values (meaning light and dark), and color.
Best of all, it’ll help you develop your own style.
For this class, we’ll paint a beautiful arrangement of pumpkins on a porch. A project like this is so much fun to do in mixed media, where you build up layers with different materials. You get rich textures and interesting contrast by combining watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, pastel, paint pens, markers, and/or ink.
Use whatever art supplies you have to create a lively, interesting style that’ll be uniquely yours.
One of the best parts of traveling is trying a different cuisine. And the fact is, when you’re traveling, you do end up spending a lot of time in restaurants.
That means that your travel sketchbook is the perfect place for drawing food and drink! It’s also a fun way to pass the time in a café.
And it’s not just for travel—drawing your drink, or drawing your dinner, is a great practice for everyday sketching.
In this class, I’m going to show you how to capture food and drink in real time, at the table.
That means we’ll be learning techniques to work quickly in pencil and watercolor.
We’ll practice basic geometrical shapes so you’ll already know how to draw a glass or a plate accurately before you even start.
We’ll learn about a few colors that are especially useful for drawing food and drink.
And we’ll learn a style of drawing in pencil that is whimsical and also personal to you.
This style is quick and informal, but it’s everything you need to know to capture memorable meals and those little everyday moments at the kitchen table.
In December I started an art project based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel REBECCA. I don’t know when I’ll finish it. It’s more like a book than an art project in that way: I can finish a painting in a day or two, but a book takes years, and it’s always an open question whether I’ll be able to finish a book at all. These paintings are like that.
Unlike a book manuscript, there’s no way to save earlier drafts. Most of the art I’ve made for this series is gone already; these photos are all I have to remember what I’ve done so far. I decided I ought to document it before I forget where I’ve been and what my intentions were.
Last fall I discovered cold wax medium, a soft, waxy paste that mixes with oil paint to change the texture and make it spreadable, like cake icing. Cold wax painters build up layers and scrape them back, as the paint hardens gradually to the consistency of a wax candle but remains pliable. I thought that was interesting, but I wasn’t sure what I would do with it.
Then I went to a cold wax painting demonstration where the artist mentioned that she layers collage papers into her abstract cold wax paintings. I knew immediately what I wanted to do: I wanted to paint on book pages.
I wanted to paint on my book pages.
But the prospect of layering oil paint over the words I’d written seemed too…fraught. What was I saying, exactly? What would it mean to look back over twenty years of work, rip pages out of books, obliterate them with paint, and scrape them back to reveal what was left? What would be left? What would I be trying to say about my own life’s work?
Better to start with someone else’s book, I thought.
I had a galley of Courtney Maum’s wonderful novel COSTALEGRE floating around my office. Surely Courtney wouldn’t mind if I used her book as an art experiment. Her book IS an art experiment: it’s an absolutely gorgeous, vividly imagined telling of the time Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen, spent in Mexico. It was a novel about painting.
So I painted on it.
My new art class is live on Skillshare now. Use this link to check out the class and get 2 months free to explore everything they have to offer.
Do you love New York? So do I! It’s my favorite spot for urban sketching, travel sketching, and kind of exploring and art-making.
In this class, we’re going to focus on the one skill you really need to paint a city like New York: Perspective.
We’ll use Manhattan for our laboratory to look at the fundamentals of perspective.
We’ll work out how to identify your horizon line and your vanishing point.
We’ll see how all the lines in an image converge to that vanishing point.
We’ll start a drawing by putting down some perspective lines to help guide us.
And then, with those guidelines in place, I think you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can create an accurate drawing.
When you get this piece right, you can be really free and loose with your drawing and painting.
This is easy to learn and fun to practice. Join me!
I’ve been talking to a lot of book clubs lately (y’all are figuring out Zoom! Yay!), and something that keeps coming up are all those weird bits of research that either don’t make it into the books at all, or that end up in the book as one tossed-off line, when really there’s a whole crazy story to tell.
So here’s one of those crazy stories, in collage form: during WWI, we collected peach pits to use as charcoal filters in gas masks for our soldiers fighting overseas. The government paid farmers $7.50 a ton for any peach pits they could load on a train. “It is urged as a patriotic duty that all farmers turn in every available peach pit,” this article reads.
But it wasn’t just farmers–we were all expected to save our peach pits, apricot pits, and walnut shells to be made into gas mask filters. It was a service activity that kids could do–they’d go door-to-door with wagons and collect from neighbors, or set up outside a market with buckets to collect whatever fruit pits people could donate.
“The Army Wants Your Peach Pits,” read headlines nationwide in August 1918. This was precisely when the fighting in France was at its worst. The pits went to a factory in San Francisco, where they were made into carbon filters. It took 200 pits to make a single carbon filter for a soldier to survive one gas attack.
Ah, Italy! I was there exactly one year ago, and I wish I was there right now! At least we can dream.
My new Skillshare class is all about simplifying a classic Italian village scene. Go here to preview the class and get 2 months free on Skillshare, which is more than enough time to travel the world (virtually, anyway) and improve your sketchbook skills!
First, we’ll focus on getting the major shapes in place by measuring how they fit into the frame and how they fit next to each other.
Second, we’re going to use wet-into-wet watercolor techniques to capture the feeling of stone and tile without actually drawing every single stone and every single tile.
Third, we’re going to use wet over dry techniques to add in shadows and a few bright colors and other details.
The idea is to get the major shapes and the light and shadows right, and then to simplify everything else.
Learn these simple tricks, and you can paint all of Italy with a pen, watercolor, and a sketchbook. Just be sure to bring me along!
My new Skillshare class is called How to Paint a Chicken. Guess what it’s about???
For about ten years I raised chickens in my backyard. I can tell you from experience that chickens are wonderful subjects to paint!
My style is to paint them against a simple, neutral backdrop, as if they are sitting for a formal portrait. With this style they look almost like members of the family, and you can capture their unique personalities. (Yes, chickens have personalities!)
In this class I demonstrate four chicken portraits using ink, watercolor, and gouache. You can do all four in either watercolor or gouache, or try both.
Here’s what you’ll learn:
How to take good photographs of chickens (or other birds!)
How to quickly sketch in the features by measuring proportions
How to mix colors so that you’re showing light and shadow
How to use brushstrokes to suggest feather patterns
How to mix a neutral background and make sure it blends with the rest of your portrait.
This is all about making quick, simple, charming portraits. And of course, if you’d like to paint another type of bird, please do! Ducks, geese, parrots—everyone’s welcome!
This class is happening on Skillshare now! Sign up with this link and get 2 months free: https://skl.sh/3gyfU0r
OK, we’re not actually GOING to France. But you can practice being in France with your sketchbook!
Take this class on Skillshare now, and get 2 months free with this link: https://skl.sh/3hXKhyN
Join me on a travel sketching adventure in the beautiful village of Cambos-Les-Bains, France! We’re going to paint a scene that addresses one of the biggest challenges of travel sketching: how to give a scene depth, so that you feel that you’re stepping into the picture.
You’ll learn how to handle perspective in a scene like this, where the road is winding and sloping.
You’ll also try different types of lines to make these buildings feel real—even when we’re just doing a quick travel sketch.
Finally, you’ll see how to use strong light and strong shadows to give the scene depth and capture a particular moment in time.
I’ll share my photos for you to work with, or you’re welcome to try out these techniques on photos from your own travels!
Have you finished a first draft? Congratulations! Now the fun begins.
Every writer knows that editing is the most important part of the writing process. This is where all the really important, meaningful work happens.
It’s where you have the most control, and the ability to really carry out your intentions and make this into the kind of book you set out to write in the first place.
In this class I’m going to give you a toolbox for approaching every edit, and every revision, of your book, including:
- What you can do in the early stages of editing
- What’s better to leave for the final stages
- How to handle the edits you get back from your editor
- What happens in the copyediting and proofreading stages
This class is for anyone who has finished a first draft, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, memoir, an essay collection, a how-to guide—no matter what kind of book you’re writing, a top-notch edit will get it ready for publication.