Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My Top 3 Tips to Better Paintings

Over the years I have had the opportunity to teach artists of all ages and skill levels.  Young 4 and 5 year olds just learning the color wheel, to 80 year olds who wanted to learn portrait painting.  Just last week I was approached by an artist for some advice on a painting she was working on.  I have been thinking about the tips I gave to her, and felt that they were probably 3 of the most important tips I have consistently given over the years to all of my students.

Tip 1 - Have good reference material.
            One of the first things I noticed when the artist presented her painting and her reference photo to me was that her photo was blurry and a little faded.  The pose, of a ballerina, was lovely, but a lot of detail was lost because it was out of focus.  It's difficult for any artist to invent the small subtleties in a person's profile, or the quirks in the folds of fabric, or the specific shape of the cast shadow of a foot on the floor.
            Start out with a GOOD, large, sharp, reference photo.  5" x 7" or larger works best.  This is a lesson I learned as I began my Custom Portrait business.  No matter how cute a wallet sized photo is, there is just not enough information to blow it up to a 2 foot by 3 foot painting.   For this pastel portrait of my son, I used an 8" x 10" photo that was taken outdoors.

Tip 2 - Use A Variety of Brushes
            Looking at her paint application, I asked the artist "How many brushes did you use for this painting?" and she showed me 3 - all flat, all pretty close in size.  The reason I asked was the flowing fabric of the ballerina costume, her warm skin, and the hardwood floor were all approached with the same size and style of brushwork.  This gave the painting an over all sense of flatness.
           One of my favorite artists, Joan Mitchell, had a particular dislike for what she called "one brush paintings".  I'm not saying it can't be done (a beautiful painting with one brush that is) for in Art, if no where else, there are no Absolutes.  But I encouraged the artist to work with a variety of brushes and to use a broader painting language.

           And you may be thinking "what does an abstract painting have to do with a painting of a ballerina?" The truth is at the end of the day it's all paint on a canvas.  It's how we use that paint that's important.

Tip 3 - Learn from the Masters
          This is not earth-shattering information to most of you...almost every book or teacher will tell you to "study the Masters".  But do you know WHY they are telling you this?  Because even with a natural ability and instinct for drawing and painting, you still don't know it all.  (I thought I did but have been repeatedly told otherwise.)
            Buy some good Art magazines, go to the bookstore and grab a few books, and have them with you when you are creating.  I am not saying COPY their work - but look for how they solved problems.  How do you make a wood floor recede into space?  How do you depict folds of fabric?  What color should I use to show the reflection of daylight on her shoulder?  It's incredible how having books, pages from magazines, even my fellow Artists paintings around me infuses my work with different ways of seeing and problem solving.  They are a never ending source of information and inspiration.



Anonymous said...

"Good reference material", so true. A few years ago a client emailed me the "reference" which was a 200-pixel-wide jpeg image. I wrote back and asked if she had a bigger image - no, that's it, do the best you can. So I did (luckily it was a child, so very few facial lines anyway). When it was done, she wasn't happy, said the likeness was off, and then produced a MUCH larger picture to show me what was wrong. When I asked why she hadn't given me that picture in the first place, she got all offended and said her email program must have resized it. No apology, no sense of responsibility for my wasted time. Suffice to say, I refused to do any more work for her, but also learnt to insist on a minimum standard of reference.

Diana said...

Thank you so much for sharing. I just finished a cat portrait and was thinking if only I had a clearer, better picture. I kept blaming myself for not doing better. It was the only picture they had. Your comment makes me feel better, except that I'm being paid for something I think is so-so.

Krystyna81 said...

Lindsay...ah! The client is never wrong...right?! Luckily now you have experience and skill to back up your request for a larger reference photo!
(and kind of a funny story to share if they don't believe you :)

Krystyna81 said...

Diana...that's a tough spot to be in. Of course you always want to give your clients your best possible work. As artists, however, we are always improving, always learning...or else why would we keep doing this? In some ways, we want every piece to be a little bit better...or else we would just stop creating!

suzanneberry said...

lovely work and sage advice! wonderful post, thank you for sharing.

Tati said...

WOW! Kristina!!! Thank you very, very much for sharing those tips!


swedishcowboy said...

There is a great saying in graphic design and it goes: You can't make chicken salad out of chicken Sh*t -- you don't know how many times designers are handed horrible images to use in making websites, flyers, brochures and expected to come up with something worthy of an Addy -- I guess the same is true of Fine Art and I am very much encouraged that it is so!