Something Every Artist Needs

In my last post, I made the case for why one should look at ‘bad’ art (including one’s own failed works!) as a useful exercise in reinforcing one’s own skills. Despite its merits, spending time with uninspiring artwork is hardly enjoyable! It’s something like eating those healthy vegetables than no one is particularly fond of; boring but worth the investment every now and then.

This post is about something much more thrilling, a treat you can enjoy every day, and the complete opposite advice of the above.

I’m talking about surrounding yourself with inspiring art.

It might seem obvious and is probably something you already do to an extent, but being in an environment of stimulating artwork is one of the most important things an artist can do, in my opinion.

My studio walls are covered in reproductions of my favorite paintings from artists new and old. These images make it as easy as possible to study a technique or composition with as little effort as possible. Perhaps more than that, at any odd moment, I will find myself unintentionally staring off into one of those works, and on a subconscious level, I seem to absorb the style of each painting over time.

This notion of ‘passive absorption’ is important. Most art that we find impressive comes from some technique that we don’t quite fully comprehend. Naturally, if we did truly understood the skill involved, we would do it ourselves! While some techniques can be best learned by focused study, other techniques or stylistic effects require a more holistic appreciation. It is for these types of features that passive absorption can be very effective. Research has even shown that being briefly exposed to artwork can increase one’s creativity, so clearly, something is getting through whether you realize it or not!

It’s easy to find high resolution images online, but if you’re not sure what you want, I suggest joining a group on social media where like-minded artists share hi-res works. Scrolling through lower resolution art on Instagram, Pinterest, or similar sites is also useful, but I feel that being physically surrounded by art in real-life is particularly valuable. That being said, having a desktop or phone background that cycles through a folder of images is also a great way to keep fresh artwork coming your way.

Curiously, over time, I’ve found that the displayed paintings that I used to hold up in complete awe become much more accessible.

I start to think to myself, “I could do that.”

Why You Should Look at ‘Bad’ Art

If you’re an artist, or aspiring to be (which—by the way—does makes you an artist if you ask me!), you have likely spent time browsing works in your particular medium and style. Whether in a museum or online, works will inevitably be found that don’t meet your own personal standards. To call these works ‘bad,’ would be unfair—after all, if they are in a museum, they were clearly good enough for someone! Nevertheless, it’s easy to find art that rubs us the wrong way for one reason or another, and if you’re anything like me, your first impulse will be to look away and move on. However, this is a habit that is worth changing!

There are different levels of off-putting art: some works point at something that personally offends us; others are perhaps so extremely naive or careless in execution that they warrant little attention; but then there are those works that are ‘okay’ but miss the mark in a way that reminds us of our own struggle to improve in our craft, demonstrating a less-than-perfect execution of the medium. If the work meets the latter offense, don’t look away!

By resisting the urge to flee from the work and choosing instead to study it, we benefit from a great opportunity to reinforce our own artistic strengths. This is an exercise in proving to yourself what you are capable of seeing. Ask yourself, “What exactly is wrong with this piece?” Is it simply that the proportions are off? If so, how would you fix them? The fact that you can recognize the problem already reveals a level of your skill, but if you can’t definitively answer the question, then you have found your sore spot. Often, it’s this painful point that repels us from the piece—it’s a damning reminder of our blind spot. Now, is your opportunity to shine light on this flaw.

In my experience, these moments of reflection signal a ripe moment for growth. You might be surprised at what you discover about yourself by looking squarely at awkward art.

Playing artistic detective can become a great confidence booster! Scroll through Instagram or Pinterest and give it a try; there will always be some piece that you are capable of correcting.

Of course, the ultimate critique worth undertaking is that of our own work. The more you shudder at the thought, the better! This is how we mature as artists—the sooner we accept it, the sooner we’ll grow.

Painting Tips: Lessons from a Solar Eclipse

Millions were treated to the total solar eclipse in the US this week. Aside from a surreal source of inspiration, there is quite a lot this unmatched spectacle can teach us about light and painting.

To help us consider the sun’s lesson, we look to a fascinating effect that accompanies an eclipse. The shadows cast by objects will take on a bizarre pattern as the light from the sun is occluded by the moon. The eclipsed light through a tree will generate thousands of overlapping crescents upon the ground.

The reason this happens comes from the diffraction of the sun’s light off of the surface of each leaf. Diffraction is a physical phenomenon, in which light is redirected or bent around the edges of an object. The many light rays originating from the crescent sun approach each part of the leaf from slightly different angles. After diffracting from the leaf’s surface, those individual light rays will project a flipped image of the eclipsed sun on the ground. This is, of course, exactly how a pin-hole camera works.


Well, that’s interesting, but how does it help us as painters? If we realize that this diffraction effect is happening all the time, even under normal lighting conditions, we can take advantage of this knowledge and render more realistic images. Consider the diffraction of normal sunlight through a tree. What may not have been obvious before, should now be clear: the tree’s cast shadow on the ground is made up of hundreds of circles of light! The projection is composed of overlapping circles, because the sun’s image is (normally) circular.

shadow leaves circles.jpg

If you’ve struggled to paint this type of fuzzy shadow before, now you may have more success. You can use a round brush to build up the shadow’s pattern through the layering of various circular dabs of light. Each dab of paint should be varied in value, and depending on the surface upon which the shadow is cast, the chroma may vary by location. If you build up this effect enough, a realistic portrayal of your subject will begin to take form. Of course, always remember to use your discretion and observe your subject with a discerning eye. Without this consideration, the effect your creating may look like a cheap trick and produce a more shallow, kitschy appearance. If done correctly, you will have a pleasantly soft impression of the tree’s shade.

Studio Lighting

Our lesson about diffraction can also inform our decisions about studio lighting for subjects painted indoors. The smaller the source of light (e.g. a pinhole, LED, small window) and the further the light is from your subject, the crisper your subject’s cast shadows will appear. Those who witnessed the eclipse may have noticed the crispness of their shadow just before totality. On the other hand, the larger the light source and the closer it is to your subject, the more diffused the cast shadows will be. Rembrandt used to take advantage of this effect. He often would place his subject in an unlit room beneath a single skylight — a large source of light at a relatively close distance. This quality of light produced his signature softness and moody atmosphere.


Featured eclipse image credit: Yuri Shwedoff

Getting into Shape | Painting Tutorial

Have you ever painted a subject, maybe a landscape or still life, and were disappointed at how all the elements in the painting felt somehow disjointed – as if the composition didn’t quite flow as well as you had planned? It’s a common problem, and perhaps, sometimes one the artist doesn’t even realize is the source of their frustration. There are a few solutions to this dilemma. However, one of the most effective strategies is to simplify shapes. This doesn’t mean that a square should be reduced to a circle! It means that adjacent forms should be combined when possible to create cohesion and simplicity in an otherwise complex subject. This technique is also known as massing.

Take for example, the serene painting above, by T. Allen Lawson. I can’t help but relish in the middle grouping of pines. In truth, it is one shape. Each tree blends into its neighbor, leaving one solid form. The effect this has on the viewer can hardly be overstated. The simplification of this landscape is not only easier on the eyes but helps to distill the essence of the artist’s expression. This isn’t a painting about trees; it’s a story of a blissful, natural harmony. The viewer knows that there are trees in the forest. We don’t need to show them every needle and pinecone. In fact, the eye prefers not to be shown all the details. Furthermore, our mind is thrilled to fill in the details itself! We struggle as artists to please as many types of viewers as possible, but why do all the heavy-lifting when you can let the viewers do the job themselves? By reducing shapes and form, each viewer will read between the lines and see what he or she wants to see, engaging their own imagination, subconsciously dreaming up more exciting details than you or I could probably produce ourselves.

There are many important tools in a painter’s reserve but massing is one of the most effective. You may have noticed that this technique is closely related to edges – in particular, lost edges, which I wrote about in the last post. Essentially, the simplification of shapes is achieved through omitting edges or removing details altogether.

An understanding and mastery of simplifying edges is especially essential to the watercolorist. I’ll leave you with a painting by one of my favorites, Joseph Zbukvic. Talk about massing! The interconnected shadows and horses in this painting were all done in nearly one flowing wash.