Creativity

Come sketch with me in a French village!

 

OK, we’re not actually GOING to France. But you can practice being in France with your sketchbook!

Take this class on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style subscription platform for online classes. Get a free trial with this link: https://skl.sh/3hXKhyN

You can also take this class on Udemy, where you just pay for the classes you want to take. I’ve bundled this one with two other travel sketching classes and you can see it on Udemy here.

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!

How do you mix colors?

 

HERE IT IS! I’ve been promising to do this class on color mixing and the color wheel for a while now, and now it’s done.

Here’s what it’s about: As an artist, you’re probably familiar with the color wheel, with the three primary colors of red, yellow, and blue, and the secondary colors of orange, purple, and green.

But—have you ever looked at a color printer cartridge and noticed that printers don’t use ink in red, yellow, and blue?

Most printed material, including books, newspapers, and magazines, are printed with a different color scheme. This class looks at how the visible light spectrum really works, and explores a new version of the color wheel that was invented over a hundred years ago, but is still mostly ignored by artists.

We’ll look at new ways to mix colors, and explore fresh ideas for building your own palette. I’m going to do my demonstrations in watercolor, but this works in any medium, including gouache, acrylic, or oil paints.

This class is available on Skillshare, and you can get 2 months free to take as many classes as you like with this link: https://skl.sh/2TMN2bv

Kopp Sisters Collages

 

For a long time, I wasn’t at all interested in making any kind of art that had anything to do with the books I write. I just didn’t have any ideas along those lines. Sometimes my publicist would want me to make some art that could be used in some way for marketing purposes, and I absolutely hated that idea. The last thing I want is for art to become a thing that has deadlines and emails attached to it.I have always wanted art to be the one thing that I do purely for myself.

So that is still very much the case-I did make this because I wanted to-but I still have this weird trepidation about mixing work with pleasure, so to speak.

Anyway, what happened is that I took a collage class that involved painting a little portrait on top of a book page. It occurred to me that most artists who do this are using other peoples’ books, but I can actually use my own book, and bits and pieces from my own research, which I have always found so visually compelling. That makes it really personal. It’s truly a piece of art that no one else could make.

And it was interesting to paint Constance for the first time, especially since I don’t really do a lot of portraits. I have written seven books about her, but it was still a totally different experience to bring her to life in paint.

Messing About with Paint

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s something new I just sort of fell into:

I was messing around with a painting and made a big mess and decided the big mess looked interesting. Next think I knew, I was making these abstract watercolor paintings.
I’ve been noodling away at them every day while I write my next book—or while I’m supposed to be writing, I guess. Is it procrastination? A distraction? A good way to take a break without looking at Twitter? Regardless, this is such a malleable process that I can literally redo it from scratch every day if I want to…I don’t know how exactly you call a thing like this “done,” but at some point I stop and move on to another panel, another color…
It’s kind of like writing, in that way–you put something down, you wipe it off, you try again…
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If you want the technical details:  I’m taking an ultra slick gesso board (in this case a Blick premier studio panel, but I’ve used Ampersand clayboard too) and just dropping one or two watercolors on them to see what they do in water on a non-absorbent surface. It’s kind of hypnotic and endlessly erasable—all of this would wipe right off with water and I’d have a fresh white panel (maybe slightly stained, depending on the pigment) to start over.
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Once I decide it’s done, I give it a couple sprays of Krylon UV Archival varnish in satin, then a coat or two of Gamblin cold wax medium to soften the shine.  After that, it’s as durable and lightfast as an oil painting.

Bad Drawings Make Great Backgrounds: When a Sketchbook Page Goes Wrong

When I travel, I always take a sketchbook to keep a record of the trip (and, honestly, to entertain myself, because there are only so many old churches one can tour in a day).  Here’s a video tour of my latest sketchbook, and you can always see more on Instagram.

But what happens when a page in a sketchbook goes horribly wrong? Now, I’ve filled lots of sketchbooks with practice and lessons, and every single page in those books could be described as “wrong”–although I’d call it “learning.” Those pages aren’t meant for anyone else to see, much less judge.

But sometimes, we artists do get focused on the results, and we want to be able to show our pretty travel sketchbooks to our friends when we get home. So what happens if, on one page, you try to draw a boat and it ends up looking like a turtle–drawn by a five year-old? What do you do when you make a mess?

One option is to just leave it. I do. If anybody’s flipping through my sketchbooks and they pause on a page of weird, awful, wrong drawings, I’ll either say nothing and let them keep flipping, or I’ll say, “That’s what we call a practice page.”

Some artists will glue two unfortunate pages together. I don’t like to do that, because you might not have two unfortunate pages next to each other, and besides, I hate to waste paper. Also, it makes for a weird, bulky, don’t-look-at-this page in the middle of the book, which seems somehow shameful (to me, anyway), and I don’t want shame in my sketchbooks.

Another option is to cover it up with collage. I travel with a glue stick for this very reason. Ticket stubs, bits of tourist maps, newspaper headlines, even a silly drawing or note on a Post-It…you can find some bits and pieces and glue them down. Like this:

 

 

Or–if the drawing’s light enough–why not just write on top of it? I did this dull little watercolor that just made me sad to look at, but then I wrote on top of it and the whole thing seemed much more interesting to me. Bad drawings make great backgrounds.

 

I’m An Aspiring Author. Do I Need a Website?

Every month in my newsletter, I offer readers a chance to win the book of their choice if they ask me a question. I pick a question to answer in the next newsletter, then I send them their book.  This month, an aspiring author asked me, “I have 2 novels being shopped by my lit agent, at the moment I’m trying to decide whether a website is worth my time, energy or financial investment. Do you think an author’s website is worth having before they have anything published?”

The answer is YES, YES, YES, a thousand times YES! Here’s why.

It shows agents and publishers that you are a professional and that you are capable of doing simple tasks on the Internet. This sounds silly to say in 2019, but some publishing professionals are still suffering PTSD from the days, not too long ago, when authors refused to even get an email address. You have to show them that you can handle some business basics.

A website allows those agents and publishers to get a glimpse of you from another perspective. Yes, they have your manuscript/proposal, your cover letter, and whatever else you’ve put together. But if they Google you, they can just see you in a slightly different light. Even if your website gives them the same information they already have in front of them, it just helps to see it out there, in the world.

Your website is your calling card. It’s your doorstep. If you’re an aspiring author (or artist of any kind), you have ambitions to put yourself out there in the world. This is the first step. It doesn’t matter how new, inexperienced, or aspiring you are. Grab that domain name and build yourself a home online, even if it’s a rudimentary, temporary home.

A few years ago, I taught creative writing in an MFA program. I asked how many students had a website, or had even registered a domain name. Only one or two had. I was astonished. They were spending a fortune to earn a degree in writing, with the hopes of making it their career, but they hadn’t taken the simple step of a single-page website?

So. Put on some nice music, pour yourself a drink, and get this done in an hour. Here’s what you do.

First, register your name as your website domain if it’s available. If you can’t get your name, try for YourNameAuthor.com or YourNameBooks.com or YourNameWriter.com or something like that. (Don’t bother with .org, .biz, etc. Just get a good .com site) Do this today.  At GoDaddy, you can register your domain for about $10/year.  You can set up this domain anywhere, not just at GoDaddy. GoDaddy simply handles the registration and ownership. (and lots of other companies do this, too.)

Second, build a website. This does not have to be a massive, awful project. Pick a template. Do not spend hours looking at templates. Pick the first clean, simple one you see. Upload your photo, your bio, a contact form, and your social media links. You can quickly set up a page like this on GoDaddy, Squarespace, Wix, and many other sites. This is going to cost about $10/month no matter where you do it. Don’t agonize over which service to use. You might change your mind later once you have some books to sell. That’s OK. Just get something up there.

Third:  Once you’ve recovered from that phase of the project, dive back in for another hour. Add a second page or section called Projects (or something like that. Writing. Painting. Articles. Stories. Whatever your work is called). On that page or section, at the very least, make a list of links to whatever it is that you’ve already done.  Even better, add little thumbnail photos so there’s something nice and visual to go along with this list. It can include articles or stories you’ve published, interviews you’ve given, YouTube videos, a pie-eating contest you won…whatever you’ve got.

Ultimately, yes, you will need a more robust website kind of like mine. You might have to build it on a different platform, like WordPress. You might want to pay someone to do the basic construction so that you just go in and add text and pictures and updates. That’s what I do.  (and by the way, my website is a straight-up copy of three famous authors’ websites. I took ideas from each, sent screen shots to my designer, and told her to adapt those ideas to my site. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.)

If you haven’t found her yet, Jane Friedman is a great resource for website questions and everything an author might want to know about the business side of things.

Just get it done! Good luck!

 

The DIY MFA: How I Got an Arts Education Without Massive Debt

When I was on book tour recently, someone in the audience asked me what I thought about MFAs. I didn’t have much time to answer, but I told her that I have mixed feelings about a university arts education, and that I like the idea of a DIY MFA. That’s what I did. I’ve spent some money on my arts education, but I’ve done it over a thirty-year period and I’ve been selective and intentional about what I studied and why.  I promised to post a longer answer about what I did (and what anyone can do) – so here it is.

I’m not categorically opposed to MFAs. I’ve taught in an MFA program, and found my students to be hard-working, diligent, curious, and committed. A few have gone on to publish books or find work in their creative field. But an MFA isn’t for everyone. Here’s why:

Who Has the Money?

Have you been offered a scholarship or grant? Great! Go for it.

But nobody, in my opinion, should go into massive debt to get a fine arts education, unless they already have a career (or a spouse) with a steady paycheck and can comfortably afford the loan payments on their regular income. (Even then, think twice. Anyone’s career can take a hit. Anyone’s health can take a hit. Anyone’s marriage, for that matter, can take a hit. Don’t put your future self in an untenable position.) An MFA at a prestigious school, including room and board, can run to six figures.  Attending a local public university or taking a low-residency program could set you back twenty or thirty grand.

Even if you can pay cash for an MFA—think twice about that. Maybe you’re better off putting half in your retirement account and using the other half to fund your DIY MFA. (More on that in a minute)

Who Has the Time?

The burden on your time is another consideration. Most people working toward an MFA are juggling schoolwork with other obligations, namely jobs and families. If the only way to get through your MFA program is to put in fourteen hour days and marathon, late-night homework sessions, you’re probably not getting the full benefit of the program.

Learning a new skill takes time and attention—and by time, I mean chronological time. You need silence, empty moments, and opportunities to ruminate, tinker, and practice. It takes weeks, months, and sometimes years for a new skill or concept to really sink in. That can’t be rushed. If you’re going too fast, and worried about a hundred different responsibilities, it’s possible that a good deal of your expensive arts education simply isn’t sinking in.

What Are You Actually Going to Learn?

There’s no guarantee that an MFA program will teach you what you want to learn. Every painter I know complains that they weren’t taught to draw and paint in art school. Writers are rarely given more than a perfunctory overview of the publishing process.

You might be taught how to teach in an MFA program—but is an adjunct faculty position really the best way to make a living while you pursue your art? Would you be better off working as an electrician, a pharmacist, or a dog walker—any kind of gig that doesn’t make a demand on your creative energy?

Why not do it yourself?

For all these reasons, I propose the DIY MFA. Take half the money you would’ve spent on an MFA—and by “take” the money, I mean either set it aside, if you (miraculously) already have the cash sitting around, or set up a separate bank account and transfer in HALF of what you would’ve spent on student loan payments. (Or less! You’d be amazed at what you can do with $100 a month.)

With that money, do the following:

Workshops. Find the artists you love and follow them on social media. Sign up for their newsletters. They’ll let you know when they’re teaching. Be prepared to enroll the minute their course registration goes live. Be prepared to travel. Putting yourself on a plane, and renting a place to stay, are worthwhile education expenses.

And if the artist you love doesn’t teach? Email and ask. Offer to host a workshop, if you think you can round up a dozen friends and locate a teaching space. I only teach writing when I’m invited to. If someone emailed me with an offer like this, I’d consider it.

Find the ateliers and art academies that offer courses that interest you, and follow them. Here in Portland, I can take art workshops at the Oregon Society of Artists, just a few blocks from my house. Writing workshops are always on offer at Literary Arts. Consider the cities to which you can easily travel. Do you have friends with a guest room in Santa Fe? Look for workshops there.

And don’t forget that free and low-cost workshops might pop up at the library, the parks and recreation department, the senior center, and your local college’s adult ed program.

And when you get into those workshops:  Ask the instructor to teach you what you want to learn. Most artists who teach are happy to modify their lesson plan, within reason. Just ask politely, and be specific. I’ve said things in art workshops like, “I love the way you show light hitting a surface. Can you demonstrate that?”

Ask if you can take process photos for your personal use. Keep every handout. Remember every exercise.  Trust me, you can get an entire semester’s education out of a three-day workshop if you keep doing the work after the workshop ends.

And here’s a bonus: After your workshop, invite some artist friends over and share a bit of what you learned. It’ll help you to make sense of it, and it’s a great way to extend a little arts education into your circle.

Finally…after the workshop ends, keep in touch with those instructors! Follow them on social media. Buy their work and recommend it to others. Send them a thank-you note. These are your professors. It’s OK to stay in touch with them.

Online tutorials. There’s a lifetime’s worth of free and low-cost art education available online.  I love these lively, funny basic drawing videos on YouTube. I learned everything I know about urban sketching from BluPrint. Peter Martin teaches jazz piano online. Shonda Rhimes’ MasterClass on screenwriting looks amazing.

(Pro tip: Take these classes with a friend. Invite somebody over ever Tuesday night and do an online class, or a chapter out of an instruction book.)

Practice with a group. I’m not a fan of critique groups, but I LOVE practice groups. My dad played jazz in his living room with three other musicians for years. They weren’t looking to perform: they were just after a good practice session together. I know writers who make a date to write together, and writers who get together to spitball ideas for stories without ever showing each other a page of what they’ve written. I go out sketching with my local Urban Sketchers chapter. Weekly life drawing groups are available just about anywhere.

Find a walking buddy for your art. It’ll get you out of your rut, keep you accountable, and expose you to fresh ideas.

Create your own retreat. Renting a studio space is part of your arts education.  Escaping to a cabin in the woods is part of your arts education. Hiring a babysitter is part of your arts education. Taking unpaid leave from work is part of your arts education.  All of these things take money, but remember, this is the money that you saved by not getting an MFA. If it allows you the time and space to practice, explore, and make work—do it.

Buy subscriptions, memberships, and season tickets. Get a membership at your art museum, at the tier that offers you invitations to lectures and admission to partner museums around the country. Buy season tickets to a literary lecture series, symphony, or theater company. Subscribe to lavishly printed photography journals. Pay extra for online access to all of PBS’s arts programming. Support the groups that support artists, and go see great work.  (Hey, maybe you can persuade family & friends to give something like this as a gift instead of that sweater you won’t wear!)

Buy experimental materials. One of the great benefits of a university education is that you’re required to take courses outside your area of expertise. A painter might have to take a printmaking or sculpture class. A novelist might take a poetry class. A violinist might learn a little percussion. In art school, you are forced to experiment. So do that!

Recently, I saw a Richard Dibenkorn exhibit at the Portland Art Museum. I fell in love with his big, loose works on paper, and longed to go out and buy an enormous pad of paper and a bottle of ink. I just wanted to make big, loose, swirly, inky marks all over everything. If I was in art school, I could just run over to the studio and mess around with a bottle of ink or a lump of clay. But I wasn’t–so I ran over to the art supply store, bought some ink, and made a big glorious mess at home.

Turn yourself loose at the art supply store. If you have a sudden hankering to turn your novel into a screenplay, download Scrivner and give it a go. If you’re a classically-trained actor and you find yourself longing to make silly video shorts, go get a tripod and give it a try. Students approach their work with a spirit of experimentation, because the curriculum demands it, and because nothing’s set in concrete yet. You can do the same!

And even this can be done on the cheap. Don’t forget that musical instruments, easels, and unopened tubes of paint turn up regularly on Craigslist and eBay. Some artists hold swap meets to trade lightly-used gear and tools. Libraries are now making everything from 3-D printers to welding equipment available to their patrons.

In conclusion…None of this is free. It’s just cheaper than an MFA.

It’s also not over in two years. This is a blueprint for a lifelong education in the arts, paid on the installment plan. I’m three decades away from college and I’m still taking classes.

It still takes commitment, curiosity, community, and a lesson plan. It just happens to be a lesson plan of your own making.

Develop Your Internal Tutor

I just picked up this book at Powell’s. In the introduction is the most extraordinary passage–it could apply to any creative pursuit, so I’m sharing it here:

“Develop an internal tutor. When you begin drawing, often you’ll find you’re accompanied by an internal critic, pointing out your mistakes and making you question your drawing. This can be more restricting than a lack of ability. You need time to look and draw without internal criticism. Instead, try to develop an internal tutor, allowing you to stand back and look objectively at your drawing, picking out its best qualities and what can be improved upon.”

Imagine–an inner tutor! A voice inside your head that can give you a friendly nudge, encourage you to sharpen a detail or rethink the direction of a line.  What a helpful and handy voice to have on board!

Everyone wants to silence their internal critic. But have you ever thought of cultivating an internal tutor?

My Favorite Writing Exercise Comes from Southpark

I watch this video at least once a year.

Southpark creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone give this fantastic piece of writing advice about how they put their stories together:  They write up all of their story beats, and make sure that each idea, each moment, each action, can be connected with the words “but” or “therefore.”

If they find they can only connect their ideas by using “and”…well, they’re in trouble.

I can’t tell you how much this has helped me over the years, especially because I’m writing books based on a true story. I know what the events are, I know the order in which they occur. But what I don’t know is WHY everything happened the way it did.

By writing out, and forcing myself to put a “but” or a “therefore” between every scene/beat/action/idea, I start to see cause and effect. Often I move characters around so I can put them at the center of the action, where they belong. I make sure they CAUSE things to happen, or fight AGAINST them.

Basically, it’s another way of thinking about cause and effect.

I even do this late in the process, after the book is written, when I’m deep into revisions. I’ll go back to index cards, summarize every scene on a card, and make sure I can link them with post-its that say BUT or THEREFORE. I always find the holes in my story this way.

Caveat: If you have more than one plot line going, do a different BUT/THEREFORE for each subplot. When you hook the whole thing back together again, there’s just no way around the fact that you’re going to have some MEANWHILEs in there.

Should I Find A New Agent?

Every month in my newsletter, I invite readers to ask me a question. I pick one that I’ll answer in the next newsletter, and send them the book of their choice. (you can get in on that here.)

One of this month’s questions came from another writer. She had a very specific question about a situation with her agent. I’ll rephrase the question more generally, for her privacy, but I thought it was worth answering here.

How do I know when it’s time to look for a new agent? My agent wasn’t able to sell my last book and I’m not sure I should give her the next one. Maybe we’re not on the same wavelength.

Here’s the thing: No two agents are alike. No two editors are alike.  Nine publishers will reject a manuscript and the tenth will snatch it up and make a success of it.

How is this possible? You would think that any agent would be able to recognize a publishable manuscript, and any publisher would want to publish one. Weirdly, it doesn’t work that way. A good friend of mine was rejected by an agent I thought would be perfect for her, only to be picked up by another agent and land a good publishing deal right away.

So–is it possible you just have the wrong agent? Maybe. Is it possible that your agent’s feedback on your manuscript was misdirected and not in your best interest? Sure, that’s possible.

Let me give you an example: with my second Kopp novel, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, one of the comments I received from an editor was, “I think you need to make the escaped fugitive more of a menace. I’m just not worried enough about the fact that he’s on the loose.”

So I could’ve made the fugitive into Hannibal Lecter. I could’ve turned the book into “a killer is on the loose and he must be stopped before he kills again.” But that wasn’t the kind of book I was trying to write. I didn’t want the readers to be worried about the fugitive’s next victim. I wanted them to be worried about Constance, and her job, and her future, and her well-being.

So I listened to that feedback, but I changed the novel in a different way. I made it more clear that the stakes were high for Constance. Another friend (who happens to be an editor) said, “You want people to be worried about Constance’s spirit.”

The point is–people can have a different vision for what kind of book you’re writing. Or they can sense that something’s wrong, but maybe they have a different idea about how to fix it than you do.

Here’s my suggestion. Treat this like the straightforward business conversation that it is. Your agent (and your editor, if and when you have one) are lovely people, but at the end of the day, they’re making business decisions. They will turn you loose if they can’t figure out how to make you a part of their business. They understand that you might have to do the same.

(Sidenote: I once told a friend who was waiting for an offer from a publisher:  Remember that your publisher is not Santa Claus. This is not Christmas. It’s not a birthday present. It’s a business deal, one in which they get to write the contract and dictate the terms. Treat it like a business deal, because you can be sure they are.)

First–do give your agent a chance to read the next manuscript. It’s possible that all of her comments and feedback on the last book helped you to become a better writer, and that the new book benefits from her advice. If that’s the case, she absolutely should have a chance to launch your new book into the world. Remember, she doesn’t get paid until you get paid, so she’s invested a lot of unpaid labor into you so far. Maybe that’s about to pay off for both of you.

But if her comments on the new manuscript leave you feeling like things are still not right, it’s probably time to have an honest conversation about why your vision and hers don’t align. Remember, it’s YOUR book. Nobody’s forcing you to take anyone’s input.  It’s okay to look for another agent.

And while you’re doing that, to distract yourself from the angst of an agent search. start your next book. Keep moving forward, and keep making art.