Monday, July 23, 2018

Urban Sketching Survival Tips

Earlier this year my local urban sketching chapter spent a Saturday morning in downtown Albuquerque. It was the first time in ages that we actually went somewhere that wasn't rural and surrounded by mountains, trees, adobe ruins and all the dust and bugs one could ever wish for. I was excited by the prospect of sketching concrete and steel for a change: all those modern and mid-century designs, unique architectural details, secret cafe courtyards . . .  What I didn't bargain for was to be so overwhelmed by my surroundings I would promptly fall  down a flight of cement steps as soon as I had parked my car. Ouch.

My first impulse was to give up and drive right back home where I could tend to my badly-cut knee and spend the rest of the day reading. I felt terrible; my clothes were torn, my shoes scuffed, and my collapsible painting stool broken beyond repair. Worse yet, the city buildings seemed huge. No way could I capture anything but an inferiority complex at my inability to fit more than perhaps a tiny picture of a trash can into my sketchbook. Yet here I was: I'd paid for my parking without any chance of a refund; other urban sketchers were arriving one by one, cheerily greeting each other at the start of what was promising to be a beautiful day; I even had a full thermos of coffee. Going home didn't really seem like much of a solution. Deciding my best option was to stay, I limped to a quiet, shady corner of the street, got out my sketchbook, sat on a low wall, and just tried to do my best, all the while thinking of what I would do differently in the future:
  1. Dress right. Old clothes only! Fortunately the jeans and shoes I ruined were not my favorites, but they also weren't quite ready for the trash. Next time I'm not going to worry about fashion or appearances, just comfort and being prepared for the worst.
  2. Bring something to sit on that won't break. A solid plastic footstool is a much better choice than the flimsy collapsible model I'd brought. It could also make a good side table if you happen to find a park bench or similar to sit on instead.
  3. Limit your art supplies. It's tempting to bring a set of 72 colored pencils and all the watercolors in your possession, but do you really need them? Despite bringing a packed-to-the-brim pencil case, by the end of our sketching session I'd only used two pens: one black ballpoint and one Faber-Castell soft brush pen.
  4. Don't try to draw everything in sight. As much as I had longed to draw a detailed city-scape, I had no idea how difficult it would be. The best I could do was to:
  5. Focus on one small piece. I thought I'd solved my dilemma by choosing one view of one building, but even that turned out to be too much for me. Next time I'm planning to concentrate on a single doorway, a lone window, one interesting detail and that's it. One way I could have done this would be  to:
  6. Divide my page into a "montage." For instance, I could have created a small, general sketch in one corner, and in the other found an interesting lamp post, roof detail, or even an object in a store window to make a complete and attractive page.
  7. Always bring two sketchbooks: one large, one small. I did this solely by accident, not realizing I had a moleskine sketchbook in my purse when I left home, but it turned out to be a real bonus when I got too hot out on the pavement and went inside a hotel lobby to cool off. Which leads me to my favorite tip:
  8. If the weather gets too hot (or cold), find somewhere to go inside. My choice turned out to be the Hyatt Hotel, and I had the best time ever spending a half hour people-watching. I was also able to sketch some hotel guests as well as furniture and hotel decor. Having a comfortable chair after my earlier mishap turned out to be a real life-saver.
  9. Take photos. There's just so much to see in an urban or any other setting that you can't draw it all at once and in a limited time frame. Photographic references can flesh out your initial sketches in a way that nothing else can, reminding you of the way a beam of light hits a pane of glass, or how a group of pigeons pecks at a box of spilled popcorn on the pavement.
  10. Use toned or pre-toned paper. To avoid "white page syndrome" I often paint some watercolor washes onto a few of my sketchbook pages: usually a page of two of blues and greens, and a couple more in warmer shades of browns, golds, and oranges. If I don't have time for that, a gray or tan sketchbook like the one I used for my larger sketch works almost as well. I also thought it would be helpful to bring a variety of paper sizes--from fairly large to small scraps that could be worked into a collage at some stage.
  11. Don't be shy--show what you've done! I don't really like the drawings I made that day--but to my great surprise, I received many compliments on them regardless of my own negativity. My first impulse was to once again go back to my car and hide everything as quickly as possible, but that seemed horribly un-sporting of me and I didn't know which would be worse: showing work that embarrassed me, or pretending I had spent a morning doing nothing but sight-seeing.
  12. If you like someone's technique, let them know, and then try it yourself. The main point of sharing isn't to show off or invite public shaming, but to encourage, inspire, and offer new ideas to each other. Despite seeing my own drawing as "a failure," quite a few people came up to me later to say how much they liked my use of ink and toned paper, things they wanted to try using themselves. I was thrilled that I had something to offer.
By the end of the day, I was glad I stuck with the program and didn't drive back home. Best of all, I liked being downtown so much I decided to move there! Which is why I can't display my drawings here: my sketchbooks are currently in storage as I prepare to make the Big Move to my new condo. More news about all about that in my next post.
Tip of the Day: Take a few minutes to learn your terrain--go slow! My main reason for falling was that I didn't look where I was going while my mind was a million miles away envisioning what I would sketch first. I was staring at the skyline, not where my feet were. I didn't even realize there were stairs in front of me until I was flying through the air. Whether you're downtown with broken sidewalks or out in the countryside with rocks and mud puddles, don't let your imagination run wild until you've taken a few minutes to figure out where you are.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Last Week I Took an Illustration Class . . .

Study for The White Pony

. . . And now I can't stop drawing! 

Taught by multi-published, award-winning author/illustrator, Neecey Twinem, the week-long workshop was one I had signed up for a few months ago, thinking I had plenty of time to get my life, supplies (and brain) together before class started.  I couldn't have been more wrong. Before I was even halfway organized we were at our tables, pencils in hand and working on our stories. Talk about jumping in at the deep end. 

While the vast majority of my ideas for picture book illustrations were (and still are) floating around in my mind at the visualization stage, most of my fellow classmates had pre-written stories just waiting to be turned into full-fledged books. That was fine with me; I'm not in a race, although it would be nice to have a final draft in about a year's time

Despite my ideas being somewhat ambiguous, my main goal for taking the class was to get a fresh direction for The White Pony, my proposed children's picture book based on an ancient Chinese poem of the same name. Not only did I reach that goal, I also learned some excellent points on composition, the importance of value and line, and the huge necessity of leaving enough room on the page for the story text (something I forget ALL the time). I also found out:

How to use a template for "thumbnails" and story-boarding. Rather than messing around with a ruler, T-square and a lot of erasing, Neecy suggested drawing around a small rectangle. My husband made me this nifty little model complete with a handle for easy use. I love it!

I especially enjoyed learning more about gouache, or opaque watercolor, one of my favorite mediums. For a long time I kept trying to make it work like transparent watercolor, but now I have a much better understanding of what it can, and can't, do:

Going back to my story-boarding template, one of the elements I want to add to the book is showing the pony throughout the four seasons of a single year. To get a feel for how this might look, I experimented with splashing some color into four rectangles. I liked how they turned out, also proving that you don't always have to use words or even pictures to create workable thumbnails: 

Best of all was finally being encouraged to use transfer paper, something I've avoided for no reason other than it always seemed a bit like cheating. However, far from being a "lazy way to draw," transfer paper allowed me to make a detailed sketch on a rough piece of paper and then trace and transfer the basic shape/design onto some mixed-media sheets I had previously washed with watercolor. One version includes reins for the rider, the other leaves them out. I'm not sure what I'll do with them yet, but the technique now allows me to explore possibilities without ruining a good piece of paper with multiple erasures or changes.

All round, Illustrating Children's Books was a worthwhile experience that will stick with me for a long time. Great class and a great way to spend a hot week in June! Now for the next one . . .

Tip of the Day: Support your local instructors; take a class. Writing, art, whatever you've always wanted to know more about: workshops and classes abound. This particular workshop was offered through the New Mexico Art League, but there are literally hundreds of classes offered through your local college continuing education programs, libraries, and recreation centers. Sign up, meet new people, learn or improve a new skill. What could be more fun?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Never Give Up: 12 Reason Why


"Never give up!" That's been my voice to myself this entire year and I'm glad I listened. It hasn't been an easy time (hence my absence from blogging) but now the sun is shining, I'm back in shorts, sandals, and T's and the difficult winter days seem a long way behind me.

So here's what I learned while I've been gone:

1. Whether it's your writing, artwork, or latest beaded necklace: You can't sell what you don't submit or offer for sale. Forget about fear or lack of self-confidence. Just get your work out there.
2. Creativity gives you something to do every day, in other words, a life purpose. And that's a beautiful thing when it seems like the clouds will never part and nothing will ever change. You were born to be creative. Keep going, one foot in front of the other. It will change.
3. Creativity can be an important and nourishing spiritual practice. Julia Cameron explains this well in The Artist's Way, one of my favorite books.
4. Showing up to do your work means you set a good example to others, especially those too anxious or afraid to take that first step. Encouraging others helps you to encourage yourself.
5. Creativity is fun--and who doesn't want to have fun? You don't have to be perfect, professional, or even prissy. Just enjoy yourself and make a big mess.
6. Once you embark, and stay on, the creative path, you will meet many, many wonderful people and kindred spirits. For every type of writing, art style, craft, or creative interest your may have, there is a myriad of organizations as well as more informal groups to foster your interest and motivation. Shared creativity can often be the foundation for an entire lifetime of  friendships.
7. Following your creative instincts gives you a good excuse to "people watch" and observe the intricacies and wonders of the world with more than mere curiosity. It's all great material--be sure to use it!
8. Taking your creative project(s) with you wherever you go will give you something to do while you're waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
9. And the more you practice while you wait, the better you'll get.
10. At the end of the day, and when you're feeling your most rejected, you can always self-publish, self-represent, and self-express. Take charge of your own work. There is absolutely no need to wait endlessly for permission or approval from the gate-keepers.
11. Creative people are authentic, interesting, and inspiring. What a great group to stay in touch with. Why would you ever quit or leave their company? 
12. Finally: When you work on a creative project, you have an excellent reason to take time for yourself. You're allowed to be alone; just you and your book, canvas, or beading board. A luxury none of us should ever take for granted!

Tip of the Day: Giving up on a creative project often has a lot to do with burn-out, the feeling you just can't give another ounce or minute to what you used to love but now avoid at all costs. Burn-out is natural and can be a sign you're doing too much, worrying too much, and aiming too high for near-impossible perfection. Take a creative break: write a romance novel for fun. Paint bunnies. Make children's clothes. But whatever you do: Don't give up!         

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Art of Unfolding

This has been a strange month: everything I set out to do mysteriously morphs into something completely different than my original intentions. Whether it's writing, artwork, or my day job, my so-called plans have been no use whatsoever. 

Thanks to my writer's group I've discovered a solution of sorts: The Power Path, a website based here in New Mexico one of our members suggested I take a look at. Every month the site centers on an inspirational theme, and this month's theme is "Unfolding." 

The idea of unfolding immediately makes me think of a box. One of the things we have to do at my day job is fold boxes, lots of boxes, for shipping. I’ve become pretty good at seeing a flat, unfolded square of cardboard and then figuring out how to put it together: e.g., flap A gets bent over to slide into slot B after flaps C and D have been creased along their respective lines, etc., etc. Over the years I've learned it truly is an art to fold a box correctly and efficiently. 

Unfolding, on the other hand, sounds easy enough, but for me, there are some fundamental problems, like when I unfold a map. On the surface this is almost too easy: just open it up and study the required section. But then comes the hard part: folding the map back up again. No matter what I do even the smallest tourist map remains a wadded-up mess I can never force back into shape. No wonder I tear them up for collage!

The reason I get so frustrated with things like maps and fitted sheets is that at heart I am a folder; I like things folded. I will fold an unruly sheet or towel twice, three times to get it "right." I'll do the same with T-shirts and sweaters.  Heck, I even like the word folder when it refers to an organized filing system. Unfolding, at least to me, means making a mess. Unfolding also means letting go, and worst of all, being open, revealing what’s inside. Pretty scary stuff! 

Scary or not, I know I need to work more with this concept of unfolding; I want to jump out of the proverbial box and if possible, abandon the need for maps altogether. I want to be okay with letting things happen without a panic attack when they don't go the way I've planned. 

One way I thought I could apply the concept of unfolding to my creative life is to let my artwork and supplies stay out in the open. This might sound a little weird, but I’ve suddenly become very self-conscious about my art-making, especially since I’ve started working on “real" projects starting with the drawings and paintings for my proposed picture book, The While Pony and my series of doorways for my literary novel,  Ghazal. I’ve become so nervous about any kind of potential critique that I’ve started putting rubber bands around my sketchbooks, a bad move as it makes me reluctant to remove the band! Without realizing it, I’ve set up unintentional boundaries keeping my art so private I almost have to ask permission to go into my own studio. 

To counter this, I'm making a radical move this weekend; I'm going to set up my art table with a dozen different mediums, pencils, paints, and a big pad of paper, then start an art piece that I don't put away. If I leave the unfinished piece out in the open I might be more inclined (tempted??) to simply sit down and doodle on it over the coming days until it's finished. Then I'll start another one using the same process. It will be messy and I'm sure it will feel totally unnatural to not clean up after myself, but my resistance could be a very good sign that this is exactly what I need to do. I also want to try letting each picture unfold the way it wants to without too much interference on my part. 

Tip of the Day: Ever since I decided to work with the concept of unfolding I keep seeing references for origami patterns. Talk about ironic! My basic interpretation of this is that there is a time to fold, and there is a time a time to unfold. Both of these make great journal as well as sketchbook topics. Get out your pens, make a big mess, and let me know what happens!