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.
Here it is! The Pooh Bear commission is officially completed and installed. Though painted on canvas, I think of it as a small, detailed mural. Final installation size was 22″ x 76″, designed to fit a long narrow space above the mirror in a kids’ bathroom. Once layout sketches and color comps were approved, I transferred the layout to canvas using an opaque projector. The client requested, “bright, kid-friendly colors, and classic style”. When they saw the finished piece, their response was, “That’s exactly what I was picturing!” So, mission accomplished!!
I teach a high school painting class, and brought one of the panels to school to demo for my students. I’m always encouraging them to get to know their tools (brushes, paints, paint thinners) in order to manipulate those tools to gain desired effects in their artwork. Know how far the bristles of a brush will extend as you pull a stroke. Develop a sense of water to glazing medium to paint ratio…how much paint you need on your brush and how thick or thin that paint needs to be for the area you’re working. Experiment with techniques such as dry-brush, spatter, knife painting, etc. to create different textures. Of course I demonstrate these techniques in class on a regular basis. But it’s more effective for the kids to see me applying what I teach in a “real-life” commissioned painting. As I look back at some of my favorite painting teachers and professors over the years, the most memorable lessons were demos they did using their own work. Portrait commissions, children’s book illustrations, Time magazine covers, all showed me that what I was learning in the classroom totally applied at the professional level in everyday life.
This painting is the most fun illustration project I’ve worked on in a long time. It was commissioned as a wedding gift, but I was given carte blanche to decide on content, colors, style…I took that freedom and ran with it! Isaiah 40:31 was both inspiration and starting point. However, I did not want to paint eagles; in fact, I wanted to stay far away from any obvious bird imagery. As you know, I prefer to look for the story between the lines. The key word in this verse is HOPE (or, as some translations phrase it: “wait patiently”). Faith, hope, patience all go hand in hand. As Paul says in Romans 8:24-25, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” As difficult as it can be to wait on God’s timing and provision, that patient hope is rewarded with a soaring joy…the wind-in-your face, sun-on-your-back elation of rising up with wings as eagles. That story, that imagery, took me back to childhood. When do we feel like we can fly? – when we’re on the swing set, doing “Superman”! Simple, childlike hope in a mighty God; flying free because, of course, Daddy’s arms won’t let us down or drop us.
Inspiration is the easy part. Now came the technical aspect of pulling the illustration together. I wanted the little girl to resemble the bride (Carrie) who would be receiving this wedding gift. Her family members helped out by sending me photos of her as a child. Then I set up a photo shoot at a play ground with a girl I know who is similar in looks and build to Carrie at that age. After several sketches and revisions, I was happy with the face and pose of the figure. Design-wise I prefered to have just the head, arms, and swing…without really seeing the rest of the body or feet. Researching photos of skydivers, I determined that this was feasible, looking at the body from that angle. Next came lettering. HOPE was placed first, as a focal point of the phrase. The rest of the lettering was built around that, varying sizes, thickness, styles to emphasize certain words. The groom is a pilot. So, the tachometers as “E”s in Eagles are an homage to his interest in aviation. As for color, purple and dark grey were the colors in her wedding. I figured they would be a safe bet to work with…thankfully, I chose correctly! Purple, as it turns out, is her favorite color; and, their spare bedroom is decorated in greys.
Joy. Sunshine. Freedom. Elation. Those were my goals with this painting! If you get a sense of that as you look at it, then I’ve done my job as an illustrator.
I’m not stuck…Pooh Bear is! Above are two color comps I finished today for a client. She likes the traditional style; her husband wants something more contemporary. So, we’ll see whether I’m moving in the right direction! Color comps (compositions) in the illustration world are small studies showing how the final painting could look. As illustrators, we may have one image in our head of what to create…while the art director, editor, or client is imagining something rather different. So, preliminary sketches, layouts, and comps enable communication to occur. The process can be time-consuming, but is just as important as the product. In the long run it saves time. And it should prevent you having to redo the entire finished painting/illustration.
These comps are merely a segment of a much larger layout. Perhaps I’ll post a photo of the finished illustration later on.
I’ve found that the “famous” verses people tend to memorize are usually surrounded by other verses (full of rich truth) that aren’t as well-known. Read in context, these favorite/famous verses gain even deeper meaning. For example, Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future'”. Less well-known is verse 13: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Spoken to a people in exile, these verses are a reminder 1. that God has good plans, which aren’t always obvious when we look at our surroundings, and 2. to understand and trust those plans we must seek Him with all our heart. Or, another favorite, Micah 6:8 says, “What does the LORD require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” This passage hits me square between the eyes when I go back to verse 3, where God asks, “My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me.” So often I create my own mental and spiritual burdens…worrying unduly, overworking myself, spreading time and energy thinly, then coming to God grumpily exhausted. How has He burdened me? He hasn’t! What does he actually require of me? – to act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with Him.
That being said, when I was asked to paint Philippians 4:13 for a friend, I couldn’t leave out the verse before it. Verse 12 states: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every circumstance.” Then comes the well-known verse 13: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” What did Paul learn in his good times and bad years…his times of shipwreck, prison, flogging, AND times of fellowship, joy, material wealth? He learned that the secret of being content is relying on Christ. He gives us the strength we need to face any and every circumstance.
I knew I wanted to do this piece in a square format. I started by measuring out my background and designing the lettering to space evenly, to create a box of text from the words in verse 12. Then I took a separate square sheet and planned out verse 13, starting with my focal point words: “Christ” and “Strength”, and designing the rest of the script around them. I traced the background text onto watercolor paper and painted in a pale hue. Watercolors are translucent, so any color I used in the background would affect the foreground colors laid over it. With the background complete and dry, I lightly traced the foreground text. Colors for the foreground needed to stay basically analogous (red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, yellow-green). Even in this range, I had to be careful because red-violet and yellow-green are complements…which means that if one mixes with the other it turns brown. But I know the rules and tools of color, so for the most part I could play and have fun at this point in the painting!
As a side note, by the time I finished this painting, I was thoroughly exhausted. The truth of the verse was lived out in that I had to rely on Christ’s strength even to complete this piece by the deadline!