Paintings

The Joys of Tiny Thumbnail Sketches

I used to think thumbnails were so annoying — like, why waste time making a bunch of tiny drawings when you could jump right into one big painting? But now I think they’re ridiculously fun all by themselves. Why spend forever on one big painting when you can divide the page up, make six different little scenes, paint all six of them all at once, and call it done? Here’s a whole day at the beach, all at once.

And if you want to try this along with me, here’s the reference photo:

(also, if you’d like to know what art supplies I use, here’s a good list)

six small photos of the beach

Sketch Amsterdam in Ink and Watercolor

I taught a live virtual workshop with Etchr Studio on my approach to travel sketching, using bold, black ink and vivid watercolor. I chose Amsterdam as a subject for this class because it’s such a gorgeous city for urban sketching, with fabulous historic architecture and wonderful reflections from the canals. It’s available for you to watch anytime and it’s very affordable! Go here to find out more.

You can also watch a free demo here, and listen to a podcast interview I did with Etchr about art-making here.

Come to Amsterdam with me!

 

ink and watercolor sketch of canal houses in Amsterdam with a canal boat in front.

Let’s go to Amsterdam! (well, virtually, anyway.) I’ll be teaching a workshop on this style of sketching–with lots of dramatic black ink and vivid colors–with Etchr on August 29. Amsterdam is a fabulous city for urban sketching, with its distinctive architecture and gorgeous canals. If you’re looking forward to traveling with a sketchbook again, join me for a little practice!

Register here and I’ll see you in Amsterdam!

On People and Stories and Drawing

I’ve always shied away from getting people into my drawings and paintings. For years almost everything I did looked like this:

Drawings of buildings and streets in Italy

No people. Entirely depopulated streets and towns, as if all the citizens had been raptured or abducted by aliens.

Sometimes I’d drop just one little figure in, for scale.

street scenes in Mexico and New York painted in gouache with one figure walking down the street

But really, they were still drawings of buildings, with a couple little lumpy shapes to show that people do exist in cities.

But of course, if you’re into urban sketching, you can’t ignore the people forever. Over time (and with the help of some terrific teachers, such as James Richards) I started to be more deliberate about populating my sketches with people.

Still, these figures are accessories, like the street trees and lampposts and picnic umbrellas, meant to convey the sense of a lively street. They’re not about any one person doing any one thing–they’re about people collectively, like a flock of birds. And that’s great–I love these pictures. (I love all the pictures I’ve posted here–none of this is a criticism of my own art at all, just an observation about what I tend to focus on and what I don’t focus on.)

But lately I’ve been admiring the work of artists like Jenny Kroik, whose illustrations tell such a story about the city she lives in. I also admire her gouache technique, so I started making little studies of her paintings (“study” is an artsy word for “copy”) in my sketchbook, to figure out how she does it.

I was mostly working on technique but what occurred to me is that if you really want to tell a story in your sketchbook, you need to have people acting out that story.

This is hilarious, that I would only think about this now. I’ve been a full-time, professional writer for 20 years. I’ve written books about earthworms, cut flowers, poisonous plants, and I’ve written a bunch of novels. What I always tell people is, “That wasn’t really a book about earthworms. It was a book about people who study earthworms. Stories have people in them. If I’d left out the people and only written about worms, I wouldn’t have had a story. There’s no book in that.”

So I was thinking about this, and looking at Jenny Kroik’s interesting illustrations of interesting New Yorkers doing interesting things, and kind of envying her interesting art practice, and then I thought, “Wait a minute. I live in Portland. This place is interesting. Come to think of it, every place is interesting in its own way.”

And at that moment, Portland was having an interesting event: an epic snowstorm. I could see from my window that Portlanders were out in the snow, doing whatever Portlanders do. So I grabbed my camera (not my sketchbook, c’mon, it’s cold outside) and decided to go looking for stories. Here’s what I found:

Portlanders and their beverages, hours before the next wallop was predicted to hit and possibly knock out power: One last coffee run, and a trudge to the liquor store.

Kids carrying around enormous chunks of ice, for probably the first time in their lives, and somebody making the all-important Trader Joe’s run.

An unplowed side street getting turned into an impromptu dog park. A walk (with trekking poles, just in case) while FaceTiming with incredulous relatives who have never seen Portland like this.

It’s intimidating to put people front and center. I did a lot more in the way of preliminary sketches for these than I would normally do. Something I learned from Marc Taro Holmes: It’s perfectly fine to do seven or eight pencil sketches of a person and just pick one to ink and finish. Studio artists do this all the time: they’ll work up a lot of sketches before committing to a big painting. But I tend to forget that even within a sketchbook, a sketch can have sketches. (This in spite of every teacher who has ever taught me to make thumbnails, including Shari Blaukopf.)

Anyway, this is what I got out of Portland’s snowstorm and a lot of idle time to think about art: Where there are people, there are stories. Those stories might be small–a woman trudging through ice to get to Trader Joe’s–but isn’t that what cities and towns and villages are made up of?  A million small stories that somehow come together to tell us something about the place?

Plus pretty buildings and trees and streets and lampposts, of course.

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?

At Some Point, You Just Have to Deal with the Painting in Front of You

 

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.

The Rebecca Diaries

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.

 

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.

Laid-Back Lettering

If you want to add more artistic, colorful, dramatic lettering to your sketchbooks, journals, and artwork, but you don’t want to put in the hours it takes to really perfect a hand-lettering style, I made this class just for you!

I love all the beautiful brush pen and modern calligraphy styles I see all over Instagram, but filling out practice sheets and trying to learn upstrokes and downstrokes felt too much like work for me.

So I developed an approach to lettering that I could do without a ton of practice, using more or less my own handwriting and the art supplies I already carry with me.

In this class, I’ll show you how to work with pencil, pen, marker, and watercolor to create visually interesting letters using the same approach to drawing and painting you already use in your art.

I’ll work from examples of the styles I like to use, that fit my personality and my artwork, but I’ll also show you how to find the styles that work for your tastes and interests.

This class is available on Skillshare now! Skillshare is a membership platform like Netflix where you can take all the classes you want to for a low monthly subscription. If you’re not already a member, you can get a free trial with this link.

You can also take this class on Udemy, where you only sign up for the courses you want to take. Here’s the link to see the class on Udemy.