My students are finishing their portraits now, so I’ll be able to share some of their work here soon. In the meantime, I’ll take you back to where it all began for me. I was first introduced to watercolors in the classroom where I currently teach…only that was 18 years ago, and I was the student. My very first practice watercolor isn’t worth showing (though I do show my students so that they can see how awful it was!). The colors were muddy brown. Hard lines framed each transition of skin tone. Eyes glowed blue and buggy in the girl’s head. Then I started the painting you see above: a shot of my great-grandfather fishing in Canada. He passed away when I was 3, but his son (my grandpa) spent hours with us, fishing as his father had fished with him. Anyway, something in me connected with the old snapshot, so I tackled it as my first major watercolor painting. Beginning with the sky and a faint line of trees in the background, I worked my way toward the foreground figure. The entire painting was a learning process. Looking at it, I remember struggles, lessons, techniques. I remember my teacher telling me to use a darker version of each color to create shadows…rather than adding black as young artists are prone to do. In watercolor, you add water to the paint to lighten a color and use more pigment (less water) for the darker, richer tones. Mapping out the shadow shapes in his shirt and trousers, something clicked, and I began to think like a watercolor artist. Translucent layers of blue in the water; leaving white and painting the negative spaces around it to create foamy rapids; dappling shades of green to mimic foliage in the trees…all were key techniques I still use to this day. So, while this painting was merely a jumping-off point for future work, it played a crucial role in my development. As a side note: it did win an award that year, the prize being a nice leather portfolio case for carrying paintings. Below is the original photo reference.
Take a look at your hands. What do they say about you? My hands are small but sturdy; usually spattered with paint; hieroglyphs of to-do lists scrawled in ballpoint pen. Built for basketball and giving solid hugs; the nimble fingers that easily untie knots struggle to extend far enough for guitar chords and piano exercises. Our hands help tell the story between the lines of our life.
In order to paint a successful portrait, you can’t simply recreate a likeness of the subject. You need to connect with their story so that you can bring them to life in the painting. In this case, I had never met my subject. I’ve heard bits about her life through her daughter, but know very little. So, I studied the reference image, searching for the story within the photo. Her hands are what first caught my attention. Purple veins speak to the delicacy of life, as more of life is behind than before her. Arthritic knots prove that these hands have worked hard: loving, caring, providing the tough love and rock-solid support that a strong mother can. Even the position of her hands tells a story. They’re not in her pockets, not thrown nonchalantly over the back of the bench, nor are they clasped or folded in her lap. No, they’re relaxed yet ready, resting one on each knee. They support her posture, which sits up straight and proud in spite of age. She’s proud, but she isn’t disdainful. She is relaxing, enjoying this afternoon of sunshine in a park, spending time with her daughter. We can’t see her eyes, but a smile curling at the corner of her mouth tells of her sense of humor. She is enjoying this day.
I started this portrait as a demo for my watercolor students. As they progressed with their own portraits, I’d gather them around for lessons on color, layering, and texture techniques. For example, her white jeans were a lesson in “white is not truly white” – you must mix greys, blues, or yellows into the white to tone it back and make the shadows seem real. Her sweater was a lesson in patience: patterns in clothing must warp with the folds of cloth and can’t be faked or rushed. Face and hands were a lesson in skin tones: don’t go too brown with the shadows or the skin will look muddy and cold; reds and purples are better for maintaining warmth in the shadows of skin. Finally, we moved to the background: layering dry-brush and spatter textures gives that illusion of rough mulch and leafy trees. Perhaps I’ll get permission from my students to post their finished portraits on this blog…then you’ll see what they learned from these demos and what stories they chose to tell through watercolor.
Several months ago I posted a watercolor calligraphy of Philippians 4:12-13. Since this is one of my favorite verses, I kept my design sketches, planning to try the same design again in a different color scheme. Below are the two versions. You can see how simple changes can really impact meaning. In version 1, the line “I have learned the secret of being content…” was painted in a pale yellow. Version 2, I left the letters white, painting the negative space around them pale blue to make them show up. The word “Christ” takes on a more dynamic role in version 2, using value to create depth and a splash of yellow-orange for color contrast. Also, in version 2, I wanted to emphasize the all-encompassing “every” within the word “everything.” This ties in with the wording of verse 12: “any & every circumstance”. Remember, Paul was writing from prison…at a time when prison did not mean orange jump-suits and three square meals a day. So, when he says he’s learned to be content in every circumstance through the strength Christ gives him, he means it! “Strength” was a focal point in version 1. Version 2 is tweaked to place more emphasis on the source of that strength, namely the cross of Christ. His perseverance, triumphing over Hell and the grave, is what gives us hope in the first place. Without that hope; without that victory; the difficulties of this life would continually crush us.
Design-wise, I decided to create a triangular balance with the red-orange color. The cross in “STRENGTH” and the reference of Philippians form the other two corners of that triangle. All other words in the design were kept in the blue family, varying values to create contrast as needed. I’ll admit, I was struggling to get the aqua colors the way I wanted them. I kept dabbing and pulling green off the paper, trying to lighten letters that were too dark. In the end, I cheated, using a thin wash of acrylic over top to lighten and brighten the aqua. So, while it’s basically a watercolor painting, technically it’s mixed media.
I’m currently in the middle of a couple of larger paintings, which will eventually be posted on the blog. In the meantime, here are recent excerpts from my sketch journal. The first was done in red crayon on our winter youth retreat. The second and third are from a summer sailing day in Chicago. Though I’ve seen and photographed Buckingham Fountain dozens of times in the past 24 years, many of the sculptural details went unnoticed until I took the time to study and sketch it. If any of my drawing students are reading this blog, you’ll notice that the ballpoint pen shading is done with a hatching technique. For those who don’t speak “art”: hatching is a series of strokes in one direction, used to create a range of values. More marks, closer together, makes the shading darker. The direction of a section of marks can help define various facets or planes within an object.
Sometimes we artists need to create for our own sake…something just for fun, just for us. Having looked for some decoration to fit a tall, narrow space in my house, I finally decided to paint something for that space myself. Last week I found a 24″ x 48″ canvas on sale – just the thing! And a blank canvas to an artist…well it calls to you, beckoning to be filled. So, since Monday was President’s Day, I set myself the challenge of completing the entire painting in one afternoon. I found reference images, roughed out a sketch for proportions, then proceeded to block in the background with the largest paintbrush I own. I wanted to keep things loose, trying to avoid the temptation to overwork areas. And I determined to “draw with a brush”, meaning I didn’t sketch anything in pencil but simply laid in basic shapes with the same large brush I’d used for the background. The result is a painting I’m pretty pleased with! I managed to capture the feel of a windy day with churning water and spray. And, minus a couple tweaks later in the week, I did finish the entire painting in one afternoon. Is this my greatest masterpiece? No…I’ve painted many pieces more technically difficult and creatively designed than this one. However, this piece is a snapshot for me: created for a purpose, for fun, within a time frame. The snapshot shows me how far I’ve come in the last 20 years – from a high school painting student who only used tiny brushes, was always a slave to the reference image, and struggled to blend acrylics (often overworking to the point of creating mud on the canvas). I feel more freedom as an artist than I did back then, and I hope that shows in this painting. Below is the finished work in its intended space at my home.
I’m excited to present to you two new friends of mine: Bear & Rabbit! Last fall I was hired to create illustrations for a study being done through Wooster College. The client needed 2 kid-friendly animal characters interacting in 12 scenes. The study (which I’ve been given permission to talk about here on my blog) looks at students in the Autism, Aspergers, PDD-NOS spectrum, and their ability to perceive emotion through vocal cues in social situations. Each of the 12 scenes presented would show Bear in either a “happy” or “sad” social situation. A voice actor was hired to narrate and vocalize the dialogue between Bear and Rabbit. Because the study focused on vocal cues, my main character, Bear, had to show neutral facial expressions. As we moved through sketch stages, we discussed what “neutral” meant. I suggested that removing Bear’s mouth would create the desired effect. My client agreed, and the result is a character I find very endearing. Body language, posture, and Rabbit’s ear positions became the emotional storytellers of each scene. Above are a handful of my favorite illustrations from the completed project. I’ve had so much fun developing the characters, I may use them in future illustrations!
This is one of the most meaningful projects I’ve had the honor of working on for a long time. As a teacher, who often has students from the Autism spectrum in class, I find the study intriguing. Many of these students are amazing artists! Placing a pencil in their hand unlocks a window to their brain. Intricate drawings, fun characters, memorized details spill forth onto paper, developing into scenes that continually astound me! They relate through their artwork, yet they struggle to relate on a more social-emotional level. My client’s hope is that studies such as this one will expand our understanding of the difficulties these students face when interacting with peers and adults, so that we can better aid them in their social development. My hope is that studies like this will help raise awareness of and financial support for similar work that supports children and families of the Autism spectrum.
Holiday traditions are part of what it means to be “home.” They are the sights, smells, rituals that spark a memory of childhood. We grow up, life changes, dynamics fluctuate…perhaps we have families and children of our own, starting new traditions. Whatever changes occur, traditions (new and old) are part of our heritage. Looking back, I realize that my heritage has been richly blessed by my grandma. Every Christmas morning Grandma would wake the household by playing “Joy to the World” as loudly as possible on the piano. If I woke up before she’d begun playing, I’d lay in bed listening and waiting for the chords to ring out: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!” It ushered in a morning of stockings, advent readings, carol singing, and all the chaotic excitement of opening gifts. Grandma and Grandpa never had a lot of money. But we didn’t mind because their lack of funds led to two other favorite Christmas traditions: fudge and sweatshirts. Grandma would spend all morning on Christmas Eve making batches of fudge. Grandpa was the tester (aka – he got to lick the pan when she was done). She’d make batch after batch; a plate for each person, labeled with our name on the gift tag. Then, our main gift from her would be a sweatshirt painted with one of our favorite cartoon characters or a fun design. Most of the sweatshirts we wore until worn out. I’ve kept a few of my favorites through the years. My very favorite is actually one of the first she ever did for me. It’s green with navy blue cuffs and has three rag dolls holding hands, painted across the front. If I have a daughter some day, I’ll pass it along to her.
Age and arthritis are catching up to my grandma these days. But one way and another her traditions are passing down to the next generation. This Christmas my oldest nephew (age 9) told us he’d been practicing “Joy to the World”. By special request, he took Grandma’s place at the piano. New fingers, new chords, but the same joyous melody ringing through the house on Christmas morning. His sister (age 13) loves to cook and determined last year that she would master “Great Grandma’s” touch with homemade fudge. Many years ago, I took on the tradition of painting sweatshirts and T-shirts for my nieces and nephews. This year it was time to paint a Minion. I found a neon yellow T-shirt as the backdrop for a purple Minion…and the caption “Wild Thing!” perfectly fit my youngest nephew’s energy level. Needless to say, the design was a hit. As soon as he unwrapped it, he stripped off the shirt he’d been wearing, asking mommy to help him put the new one on!
T-shirts are a unique canvas. If you decide to do one yourself, place cardboard inside to stiffen the shirt, then stretch and tape the shirt taught to keep the fabric from moving while you paint. Sketch your design in pencil or ballpoint pen on the fabric. Plan to do multiple coats (the first acts as a primer and will quickly soak through to the cardboard beneath). Once the first coat is dry, you can add more detail and brighten colors with the second coat of paint. One downside is that there is no room for error. Your image is a vignette with little or no background, so be careful around the edges of the main character! A stiff flat-head brush with a good tip to it works best for clean lines around your vignetted form. Even then, you may end up with a few fuzzy edges. Acrylic paints are permanent when they dry. Your finished shirt can be washed and worn for years to come. Eventually the image begins to fade, the paint slowly wears off. That’s part of the uniqueness of the art form. It means your shirt has been well-loved!
As a side note, shirt painting is NOT something I do as a free-lance illustrator, so don’t get any ideas about ordering shirts from me! The art form is simply something I’ve inherited from my grandma – a tradition I enjoy sharing with my family during the holidays. This blog post is meant to give you a glimpse of one of the fun ways I use acrylic paints in my spare time. Canvas and paper aren’t the only things you can paint on! Feel free to try this at home with your kids some time. If drawing isn’t your strong suit, you could trace a picture onto your shirt and paint that.
~ Mollie B.