Many lists of the most popular painting subjects include landscapes and seascapes. I must admit that I’ve painted quite a few pieces with these subjects. Although I live in the Midwest, many of my landscapes include some water feature – streams, rivers, ponds, lakes. And my travels have taken me to the ocean in various places. There is something very primal and soothing about hearing ocean waves…most of the time.
Recently I painted a couple of paintings based on the very large lake nearby. Lake Patoka is 8,800 acres and is a major water and recreation source for the area.
But I also cruised through old photos of places we have visited, particularly Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and New England. Such beautiful scenery that it was difficult to choose. Many more subjects for future paintings.
And, of course, I did an entire series of beach paintings but those are mostly about people and children with the ocean being a common denominator for each painting.
This is not to say that painting water features is the only subject that I tackle, but it is one of my favorites. So many opportunities if I take my time to look for them.
August has been scorching here this summer. Too hot for outdoor work. So I spent much of the month in the studio just being an artist. This was a great respite from all the other chaos of the summer.
However, we did have a couple of days of lovely cool temperatures, in the low 80s. Fling open the windows! I took advantage of the cooler weather to clean out my studio. This meant dragging nearly everything outdoors, rewrapping and packing many of the paintings, vacuuming, debris clean out. Just making an inviting space to work again.
Our garden was in name only this summer. And I only gave cursory attention to the weeds and flowerbeds. This meant that I had plenty of time to devote to creating some art.
I began with building up some inventory, especially of sunflowers, some of my favorites. Although I usually grow several different varieties from the mammoth giants to the multi-stemmed, to all the colors that are available, this year I only had a few to work with. I planted them but they just didn’t want to make an appearance. So I used some of the many photographs that I’ve taken over the years.
I did several sheets of minis. I can get four 4 x 6 on a quarter sheet of watercolor paper. Although I often repeat a theme, they never turn out the same. I buy mats and backs in bulk so it’s pretty easy to prepare them for display or shipping.
Then I did a few larger ones. After that, I created duplicates of two local scenes. These are not standard sizes so I have to cut the mats to size for framing. More time and money involved.
Finally, the last half of the month, I was really missing our usual vacation. This was probably prompted by selling some previous western scenes so I dove into that subject. These paintings were larger and more complex, the smallest being 9 x 12 and up to 12 x 16. I have some pretty extensive photo files from some of our western vacations so plenty of subject matter to choose from. The most difficult part with these paintings is canvas prep. And trying to come up with new titles. Grand Canyon Vista #1, Grand Canyon Vista #2, etc. But it’s so satisfying to just put on some music or recorded books and zone out. Due to the many years of plein air painting, I can generally produce a painting a day, maybe two. But I did discover that I had duplicated two scenes from previous years. They came out similar but not exactly the same.
Overall production for the month of August was twenty-five. Not all are shown in the multi-image above as several were duplicates. And I didn’t work every day. It’s very rewarding to spend time alone with my thoughts and just create. To build inventory for online shops, the holidays, or local and regional shops.
I have introduced several series of paintings over the years here on my blog. It seems that I’ve started another one, the Park Series. This will focus on, what else, scenes from the park. A park. Many parks. Parks are usually filled with scenic landscapes and people doing activities, two of my favorite things.
Most of the series paintings are a little larger than some of my other pieces. They also tend to concentrate on the same color palette. In fact, I’ll often make a schematic of the colors I plan to use. Using the same color family adds a cohesive theme to a series of paintings.
Some of the series paintings I’ve created over the years include Westerns, particularly The Grand Canyon, Intimate Spaces – Beach Series, Intimate Spaces – Breaking Bread Series, The Food We Eat, Lucky Red and Alley Views.
I might have an idea for a series of paintings at the beginning but more often I just cruise through my extensive batch of snapshots until something catches my attention. I’ll write about using photos as an art subject in a future post.
There are many rules and ideas for composition. No one idea is perfect for all situations. You may have your favorites or you may like to try new ideas frequently. Today I’m going to discuss the idea of framing. I’m not talking about the frame of the painting but using framing as a composition device.
I most often use framing in landscapes, cityscapes, and sometimes interiors. This means that I’ll often place a large tree or bush near the front of the picture frame, usually on one side or another, with the main view in the middle distance. This leads the viewer’s eye into the painting and directs its focus.
Sometimes in cityscapes, the view might be between two buildings or down an alley.
In a recent couple of paintings of the same subject – a child flying a toy airplane at the park – I first explored just the child and the plane. In the second painting, I used the framing composition to lead the eye from the near subject matter, to the large tree on the left, to the child and plane in the background.
In another couple of paintings, I painted a straight view of a Grand Canyon vista. The second landscape shows the Grand Canyon framed by tree in the front.
Here is an interior view using compositional framing. The doorway, chair and plant, lead the eye through the doorway to the desk in the distance.
There are no hard rules on when to use compositional framing. It’s mostly a matter of what you feel comfortable with, what helps your painting. I’ll often do several thumbnails or even larger charcoal drawings to test the feel of the subject.
It seems hardly a day goes by that I don’t get a catalogue or an e-mail trying to sell me art supplies and gadgets. Oh, look, newer, better, scientific! You’ve got to have this latest gizmo! This will ensure your success and you’ll be the best in your field.
This is true not only for artists, but golfers, automobile enthusiasts, bikers, campers, what have you. It seems as if the only people getting rich are the ones who keep trying to sell you things.
But as an artist, I always like the challenge of trying to do things myself. I guess that’s why I’m in a creative field. Here are five very simple tools that I use in my studio or outside. Three I made myself and the other two can be purchased for less than ten dollars each.
1. The first tool is a simple composition aid made from a small 4 x 6 frame with the glass taped in. On the back side, I’ve divided it into nine sections with a permanent marker. I got the idea from an old drawing (Durer) of an artist who had created a standing frame divided into squares by threads. He then divided his paper into squares, and then transferred what he saw in each square as he was viewing an object, into the respective square on his paper. This same technique is used today for blowing up drawings.
In this case, I take the little frame and hold it up in front of a landscape, and draw with a felt pen on the front side. This can be used for still lifes, figurative works, street scenes, whatever. The trick is to keep the frame and my eye at the same level for the few minutes that I need to sketch on the glass. Then I transfer the image to my paper or canvas. Sometimes it’s amazing how different the actual drawing looks from the way my eye wanted to read it. I’ve used this technique in teaching third graders up to adults. Now, of course, you can buy a similar ready-made frame but these were not available when I first made mine.
2. Proportion scale. I’ve had this little plastic tool for so many years that I forgot where I bought it. It is so easy to use for both reducing and increasing sizes proportionally. Just line up the numbers of say, a 20 x 16 and then everything else on the scale will be proportional to that, 10 x 8, 5 x 4, 40 x 32, 80 x 64 and everything in between. Or maybe you have a canvas of a certain size but you need to make adjustments in your drawing to fit; the proportion scale can help you do this. Less than $10 online.
3. Red gel sheet. I used to have access to colored gels (used for lights) when I worked in the theatre business. These scraps are useful, particularly this red gel. Hold it up in front of a green landscape, and it immediately grays everything out so you’re only left with values. Commercial products are available now but you can probably get gel scraps from your local theatre or playhouse for free. See previous post here.
4. The View Catcher has been around for a long time. Made of grey plastic, the little slide opens the window to a variety of sizes from square to rectangles. Marks on the plastic indicate the scale of the window (8 x 10, 11 x 14, etc.) Less than $10. We used to use old film slide windows but no one knows what those are anymore.
5. Painting bridges. When I painted a lot of watercolor, particularly architectural images, it was helpful to have a steady hand when drawing the lines. I made these two bridges from some wood scraps. They kept my hand off the paper and from smearing the paint or ink. Also, they were very helpful for guiding my pen when drawing lines. My cost was nothing but now you can buy plastic ones for about $35. I like free.
I hope these useful art tools will inspire you in your quest to be more creative. And don’t be afraid to make something of your own invention, too.
If you have been an artist for any length of time, you have probably been asked to create something especially for someone. Maybe a friend or a relative, someone special. It is always difficult to decide if that is really what you want to do. Here are some concerns for you to think about.
1. What is a commission? This is basically when someone asks you to create something special for them. Frankly, commissioned artwork was the norm until a few hundred years ago. Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. At that time, the artist was primarily a sculptor and didn’t want to do the job but was persuaded one way or another. That turned out well.
2. Know your style and what you are comfortable doing. If you have been an artist for any length of time, eventually someone will ask you to make something for them that just doesn’t fit your comfort zone. Maybe they want you to copy another artist, or perhaps paint an abstract painting when you paint only in a realistic style.
To be totally honest, I was asked early on in my career to copy another artist’s painting and just was not comfortable with it. Although I eventually I complied (it was a relative), it never sat well with me and I haven’t done it since. Be true to yourself.
3. Don’t compromise. This hooks in with the paragraph above. Know your style and stick with it. If the client wants something different, you may just have to pass on the job. It always helps if you can steer them towards someone else who can help them.
4. Take notes. I have several notebooks which I have filled over the years with notes for commissions. Obviously, the client’s contact information, but more details about what they want. You might even have a list of questions before you meet. For instance, size, materials, deadlines are obvious. Less obvious are what they want in the commission and what they don’t.
5. Come to an agreement. If you really want a formal agreement, you may need to draw up a contract. I don’t usually do this but it is a good way to cover yourself should any misunderstandings occur later. Are they agreeing to your style? Will you submit sketches or mockups? When do they want the final?
6. Arriving at a price and getting a down payment. You should do a little research ahead of your meeting or perhaps you will have to get back with the client later. Remember to include your materials, time, driving time or shipping. Condition for submitting the final product. Don’t forget your overhead. And don’t be afraid to ask what you deserve. Do some research for your area and medium. What are other artists charging for similar commissions with a similar level of skills and background?
7. Ask about a deadline. Is the commission for a special event or doesn’t the client really care when you complete it? I really like to get the commissions done and off my plate. If there is a deadline, do you have time to meet it? Is it around the holidays when everyone else is clamoring for work that must be done yesterday?
8. A commission is work for hire. Get comfortable with that idea or don’t accept the commission. Maybe you’ll be excited by the first few commissions you have, but perhaps by the 100th, you’ll be so tired of doing them. Raise your prices! I did house portraits for many years until I became annoyed with them interfering with the work I was really interested it. After awhile, I kept raising my prices until I finally just had to quit doing them.
9. Do your best. If you have agreed to accept a commission, then you owe it to your client to do your best. Maybe you’re getting a little tired of work for hire, but get this one out of the way. Then decide if you still want to keep doing them. But remember that your reputation is on the line and a disgruntled client can be a real pain. If you can’t make it right, maybe you can refund their money and aim them in the direction of an artist who can better suit their needs.
10. Ask your client for input. Most people who commission an artwork are thrilled with the prospect of having something made especially for them. Ask for their input and a written recommendation. Develop a thick skin in case they have some criticisms. It might prickle at first, but you can always learn something from a good critique.
To see a step-by-step demonstration of how I created this painting, go to the Artworks tab or click here.
If you’ve been an artist for any time at all….say more than a minute or two…you will begin to wonder what to do with all your wonderful creations. Maybe the closet is full, or they’re being stacked in the back room or your studio. Maybe someone in your house is urging you either subtly or more strenuously to get rid of that stuff!
I’m not really sure where the notion that creating something with the intention to sell it became tainted, particularly for artists. After all, we have bills to pay, food to put on the table, braces to buy for the kids. I can’t really think of any other profession where not making any money by your labor is considered a good thing. So unless you are willing to live rough and sacrifice some of the niceties like flush toilets and a shelter, then you must really give some thought to creating in order to make money.
This doesn’t mean that you should only consider the financial aspects of your work, but it should be in the equation somewhere. I think the key here is to find balance between doing what you love to do and making some things to sell.
For instance, I did art fairs around the country for many years. This can be a rough way to make a living but I knew quite a few artists who made their entire living doing fairs. Packing up the vans and trucks, carting everything across the miles, setting up in various weather conditions….not easy. But some of the artists and crafters loved the lifestyle. Live up north in the summers; move to warmer climates in the winter. I even knew a couple of jewelry makers who floated around the Gulf of Mexico all winter long, only stopping long enough to catch their mail. They would then put the push on to hit the art fair circuit from May through September.
I actually enjoyed talking with patrons. I had figured that I could sell at least one red painting per show. (For some reason, people always have room for a red painting.) And I would have my big showstopper paintings which would entice people into my booth in the first place although they often settled for something more modestly priced. My bread and butter work were the all original line of fruit and vegetable paintings that I did, all 8 x 10, matted and wrapped. Yes, that felt more like production work but well…
Since the advent of the internet, the world of options has expanded exponentially. We’ve all become accustomed to shopping from our laptops or phones. You can set up shops at Etsy or Ebay or your own websites for very low fees. And guess what? You don’t have to worry about the weather, either! There are print on demand sites, and group websites, the list is endless.
But that brings us back. What to sell?
Here is where a little trial and error comes in. Or just walk around some galleries, gift shops, art fairs, etc. Do some online research, too. (You can get ideas but don’t copy!) What do you like to do? Make chairs? Do you really think you can sell those $2,000 masterpieces? Well, maybe…eventually. But how about looking at what you do like to do, then trying to scale it back? You don’t have to give up the big, challenging pieces. Those are what inspire you to keep going. Your style may change over time. That’s OK. Maybe you’ll look back in ten years and wonder what you were thinking when you made it. Or maybe it will be a collector’s item and the crowds will be demanding that you make more, and bigger.
I guess the bottom line here is that don’t let anyone tell you that you’re selling out if you decide to devote at least part of your time to creating work that has a ready market. You’re not. You’re trying to stay in the game and affording yourself the opportunity to make more, bigger, and better creations. So, unless you have a large trust fund or a very wealthy sponsor, just keep digging in and keep on keeping on. You only have to answer to yourself.
Having your art rejected from a show or exhibition can often be baffling, and sometimes a bit painful. Even for someone like me who has been entering shows for nearly forty years, there is still a little twinge when I receive that rejection letter. More often I am just puzzled.
For instance, the painting above, Italian Eating Italian which is from my Intimate Space Series: Breaking Bread, and which was exhibited for a two month show. It received a lot of attention and was a favorite among many. It exudes a bonhomie and welcoming attitude. I would watch visitors gravitate towards the painting from across the gallery. Something about the hint of a smile, the subject matter, the lighting. It was a very popular painting.
I have since entered the painting in a couple of exhibits. One in which I felt sure it would be accepted…was instead rejected. Whaaaaaa???? I’ve been in that show in previous years but not this year. That pinched a little. Also, since I have attended the show in previous years, I was aware of the quality of portraits in the show. Not too impressed. Oh, well.
The same painting was later entered into another show. It won BEST OF SHOW. That is always a pleasant surprise. But I try not to get too full of myself, either.
The whole point is that on any given day, the selection could have gone either way. Best to keep that in mind.
I have been the judge for a number of shows over the years. It is not easy and sometimes the organizations have special conditions to be met: X number of landscapes, portraits, abstracts, etc. Sometimes the shows are open to members only. On any given day, the selections could go one way or another.
Many times over the years, I’ve sat with judges as they reviewed and selected the entrants for exhibits. Some judges are cursory and flippant about the matter, speeding through so they can get to their free lunch. Others review and review and review, taking enormous amounts of time to make their selections. And there have been a few who only seemed to focus on artists who paint in their own style or medium. That irritates me quite a bit.
Over the years my work has been accepted into shows which I now realize I probably wasn’t skilled or talented enough to actually merit being in. And other shows where my work and experience exceeded the expectations, it was rejected.
It’s a puzzle.
My suggestion is….no matter what your artistic talent or medium….to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back into the fray. Maybe a review of the exhibit will help you to get a better grasp of what was considered acceptable and desirable. Maybe you don’t (yet) have the skills or professionalism to have your work hung in the exhibit. Maybe it just wasn’t your year. Many times you can enter the exact same piece the following year with a different judge and it will be accepted.
If this is what you really want, don’t give up. Be objective about your work and keep trying. It will happen eventually.
Posted onAugust 15, 2021|Comments Off on Four categories of painting subjects
Do you ever feel like making some art but you just don’t know what to paint or draw? For some people, this is a common frustration. You have some free time and then what?
In my case, I keep a list. I’m very fond of lists. I often have many lists, here, there, everywhere. I have a couple of lists in my studio, but I also keep an idea notebook. This is actually to just capture an idea which might flit through my mind…and then flit out. These days I’m working on a lot of seasonal paintings for the upcoming holidays so I just brainstorm and write things down. I also use this technique when I’m thinking about another series of paintings.
Most of my ideas fall into three or four broad categories: still life, landscape, figurative and non-objective.
Still life. This can include any single or group of objects. Fruit, flowers, vases, skulls, musical instruments. The list is practically infinite. Some artists select a group of objects and then keep rearranging them and paint them for their entire lives (Morandi). Others choose themes – types of objects like all glass vases, or natural objects, or sports equipment. The really nice thing about still lifes is that the objects stay put (usually) and you can come back to work on your painting another day if you run out of time. This is a really good way to develop eye-hand coordination, composition, and learning to tell a story if that is what you choose to do. Instructors start beginning art students off with still lifes to help build these skills.
Landscape. Just about anywhere in the world can be a subject of a landscape painting. Painting outdoors (en plein air) is both challenging and fun. Cityscapes, your house, your dog’s house, beautiful scenery, or even things that aren’t so beautiful. Landscape painting can be a bit more challenging as the time of day and the seasons often dictate how long or when you can paint. Many artists make quick sketches and bring them back to use as subjects for larger or more detailed paintings. If you are painting out doors, then you have about two or three hours before the light and shadows change. You can always return another day to finish your work, or start another painting while you’re outside.
Figurative. This entails studying a figure, body, part, or group. It can even encompass pets and animals. For many people, this is one of the most difficult categories to approach. Why? Because your subjects move! Stand still, dang it! Again, the more you do, the better you become. Building that eye – hand coordination. A trip to a museum helps if they will allow you to sketch their sculptures. Those usually stay still. Or sit at your favorite eatery, a park, library, or any public space. Plenty of subjects there. The trick is to be stealthy but really, not everyone minds someone sketching them. And don’t try to make a finished piece if you only have a few minutes to just jot some sketches.
Abstract or non-objective. This is the anything goes category. Do you want to make circles or squiggles? Fine. How about several canvasses of lines or shapes? Add some sand or affix some found objects. Maybe your favorite music will inspire you. Ask any four year old and they’ll teach you how.
So next time you’re searching for something to paint, pull out your notebook or 3 x 5 card and check it for ideas. Just keep it nearby, maybe by your reading or TV chair, to jot down ideas as they come to you. You’ll always be ready for those times when you have a few hours to get creative. Good luck!
Let’s face it, if you’ve been an artist for any length of time, you will inevitably create some bad paintings. Crap is the professional term. (Just kidding.) Not everything that comes off your easel, your brush, from your pencil is wonderful. Actually, few pieces of art fit that description.
I remember when I was first getting back to my art roots after several years’ hiatus that I sat at the kitchen table one night and created a cute little flower painting. It was pink, I think. I was so proud of that piece. When I showed it to my husband, he said, “Oh, that’s nice, honey.” Such a sweet supportive liar but I certainly needed the boost to my ego.
I kept that painting for years, long after I realized what a wreck it was. I would drag it out when teaching a class and point to it and say, “See, this is where I came from. You can learn to paint, too.” I have searched the studio for the piece as I would definitely show it but can’t locate it. I’m sure that I never threw it away.
The point is, that we do the best we can with the skills we have at the time. When you know better, you do better. I have painted plenty of really BAD paintings. And still do, although not quite so many.
So what do you do with a piece of art that just didn’t turn out the way that you wanted? Here are several options.
Examine the piece carefully and determine just what you are unhappy with. The color, subject matter, composition, execution, the method of painting, etc.?
Ask yourself if there is some way to correct the mistake? Not all mediums can be corrected but many can.
Ask a friend for input. Sometimes we know something is off but just can’t see the mistake although it may be glaring to some new eyes.
Scrape off the paint or paint over the mistake. You may even need to paint over the entire canvas. I have done this many times and just started over. Or even explore a new idea rather the one you were pursuing.
Trash it. Burn it, destroy it. Some people recommend that you keep your bad work to inspire you but I think it will only haunt you. Use it as a learning experience and move on. It can be very cathartic to throw your canvases into the burn barrel. I’ve had very few regrets over many years.
One thing that I don’t recommend is to donate the bad artwork. It may come back to haunt you as when someone picks it up a resale shop or flea market. And don’t pawn it off on your friends and relatives. They’ll be too polite to tell you and will resent moving it around from place to place over the years.
Finally, don’t stress about a bad painting. It happens. That’s OK. We learn from our mistakes and just promise yourself that you’ll do better next time. It’s only a painting, after all.
I'm a professional artist, retired director of a performing arts center, bona fide book addict, and enjoy the quiet life...most of the time. I'd love to hear from you or get your ideas for future posts. Come back soon!