Ask the Art Prof: How Can I Prepare Myself for the Reality of the Future?

Charcoal Drawings of Bones

“I am about to enter the painting department of my art school next semester and I’m very excited; I love painting deeply and have wanted to do this since I was a child. I’ve spent many years working extremely hard and I think I’ve developed a level of skill and originality, but I still have fears about my next move.

I’ve talked to many fine arts seniors and recent graduates from my school and they often seem depressed, confused or unsatisfied moving forward, because their skill set is inflexible at a high level beyond the fine arts and because standards of value in conceptual art are so uncertain. This seems like an unsettling combination, because it makes the artist’s path both narrow and unclear, like an invisible rope walk.

How can I use my time at art school to avoid these pitfalls and prepare myself ahead of time for the reality of these feelings?”

As an art student, staying in the present while acknowledging future challenges is vitally important. Keep the future simmering on the backburner, and continue to take note of what you see upperclass students doing. However, it’s critical that you don’t allow your concerns about the future disrupt your current studies. For example, many first year students express anxiety to me about getting a job after graduation. While jobs are certainly a legitimate concern, many students become consumed with this to the point that they end up compromising their art school experience.

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Devote the majority of your attention to the present. Your time in art school is incredibly precious. Relish and soak in everything around you. Rarely will you have another opportunity to work on your art, uninterrupted, for such an extended period of time. Overall, the most important goal you can set is to attain a comprehensive, well-rounded education. I’m frequently surprised at how many students do not venture beyond their primary interest. I once taught at an art school where one student enrolled himself into five photography courses in the same semester. Diversity in your courses is crucial. Expose yourself to as many contrasting approaches and topics as possible. You’ll be able to develop a well-rounded skill set which will prepare you for more opportunities in the future.

In addition to your own studio practice, develop a strong awareness of contemporary art. When I was in art school, there was a tremendous emphasis on art history which was hugely significant in my course of study. However, I had nearly no knowledge of what was actually happening in the contemporary art world when I was a student.

When it came time for me to start working professionally, this lack of knowledge made it much more difficult to find a place for myself in the art world. Take advantage of every opportunity you can to attend a lecture by a contemporary artist. You can read all you want about an artist in a magazine or textbook, but nothing will substitute hearing a professional artist speak in person about their personal experiences and work. You will get a taste of what it means to be a working artist today, which will then influence your own future experiences.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


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Ask the Art Professor: How Does a Visual Artist Know When to Stop Working on an Artwork?

Composition Project

“When working on a piece of art, how do you know when to stop? I often find that the more I look at something I’ve drawn or painted, the more small things I’ll find that I’m not quite happy with, and I’ll keep altering and tweaking, which is fine up to a point, but I can end up ruining it.

When do you draw the line and say enough is enough, this artwork is finished? Is there always going to be something that you’re not 100 percent happy with, or should you keep working on something until you are 100% happy?”

Knowing just when to declare a work of art finished is an eternal struggle for many artists. The issue is that if you don’t work on a piece enough, the work can come across as incomplete. On the other hand, overworking a piece can cause the work to appear tired and tedious. The most compelling works of art throughout history are able to establish a strong balance of gesture and spontaneity while simultaneously appearing to be substantial and fully resolved.

So how does one learn how to achieve this balance? One of the classic problems that I see in the beginning of my freshman drawing classes is students not pushing their pieces far enough, and therefore never fulfilling their piece’s potential. To learn how to truly bring a piece to a full finish, I encourage my students in my classes to experiment with intentionally overworking their drawings to the point that the drawing is ruined. This way, when they have the experience of pushing their drawings too far, they develop an awareness of the entire process, and will know in the future when to pull back. You’ll never know how far to go until you’ve gone too far.

In this video below, (part 20 of 20 in a charcoal drawing tutorial) I discuss factors to consider when finishing a drawing:

I look for specific signals in my work pattern that tell me that I am either finished or getting very close. In the beginning of a piece, I work very fast because there is just so much to be addressed. Gradually, my pace slows down as I start to work specific areas and hone in on smaller details. When I start to notice that I am needlessly picking at a piece and making the most minor adjustments that really have no impact on the overall work itself, I know that it’s time to stop. Other times, I’m simply sick of looking at the work for so many hours that I can’t stand to work on it anymore.

After staring at your work for many hours on end, it can be nearly impossible to see the work objectively with fresh eyes. There are a few simple strategies you can employ to help this. One trick I use is to look at my work in a mirror. Seeing the reverse image can frequently allow me to see mistakes in the piece that I wasn’t able to previously see. Usually when I’m deep in the trenches of working, my opinion of the work is very biased. Instead of making decisions on the spot, I reserve judgment on the work by putting it away for two weeks where I can’t see it. After that time period passes, I take the work out again. I’m often times surprised that my initial opinion of the work was quite off and that getting some distance from the work allows me to make better informed decisions.

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In my experience, being 100% happy with an artwork is so incredibly rare that it’s not a goal that I even strive for. When I reflect upon my past works, there is always something that I’m not totally satisfied with. To combat this feeling, it’s a good idea to not be too precious about your work. Maintain a high level of productivity so that you aren’t investing everything you have into a single work. It’s usually a better use of your time to create a work, learn from it, and then know when to move on. Students ask me all the time whether they can rework their homework assignments. The majority of the time, I advise them to simply absorb what they experienced with that piece and then to move onto the next work. Getting too stuck on an individual work can cause one to obsess over details and concerns that in the larger picture don’t matter.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


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Ask the Art Prof: How Does a Visual Artist Create a Series of Artworks?

Tone project

“I recently went to an visual arts retreat and was told I need to make a series of artworks. I have never done this before and I keep struggling with a topic. My question is how can I take a topic , like “transformation” and make it into an art series? I have always been a “paint what I see” painter and I use images for reference. I have such a hard time with concept painting. How can you take an idea and translate it into a two-dimensional surface?”

For a series to work, you need to find a subject you are passionate about that is both open to variation and yet specific at the same time. A successful series should allow each individual work to be able to stand on its own, yet simultaneously relate to the rest of the other works in some manner.

In my opinion, a strong series of artworks is like a really good television show.  You want to have details that make the show distinctive, but the fundamental premise has to be open enough that many contrasting episodes can be generated. If you think about the television show “Cheers,” the premise was remarkably simple:  people working and hanging out in a bar.  Even though the vast majority of the show was filmed in one location, the writers were able to play out many seasons of distinctive episodes.  There was a balance between the simplicity of the situation, yet there was tons of flexibility for diverse story lines.

I find that it’s helpful to establish a list of “rules” for your series that you can consistently follow.  This could be done in terms of the format, the size of the artworks, the materials, the subject matter, etc. Write down what the list of rules are and make sure that you stick to them from the beginning to the end of the series. Not only do the rules help keep you on track, but they can create both conceptual and visual cohesion for the series overall.

Even if you have moments where you want to stray from the rules, get yourself to adhere to the rules. If you bow to the temptation to pursue every single tangential interest as you work on the series, you’ll likely quickly find yourself with a body of artwork that looks as fragmented as a patchwork quilt.  That ability to focus and stay on track is critical to making a series of artworks that work together. Your mindset is just as important in developing a series as your physical actions to create the artwork.

Accordion Bookbinding Project

If you are starting with the word like “transformation” which is quite abstract, do some extensive brainstorming first.  This article I wrote provides concrete strategies and actions you can take to initiate the brainstorming process. The primary objective of brainstorming is the creation of as many ideas and images as possible, with an emphasis on quantity over quality. One of the key elements of this process is that brainstorming is inclusive of everything that emerges, regardless of how odd or unappetizing an idea or image may seem at first. Write everything down on paper, and play “word association“.  Give every idea and image a voice and a place on the page, just thinking things through in your head is not enough, you have to see the ideas on paper.

Below is a video tutorial on how to brainstorm, sketch, and create a drawing from beginning to end based on our October Art Dare.

Once you are done brainstorming, you should have have enormous amounts of pure, unedited content to select from. This content is the raw material from which you can create thumbnail sketches. This article I wrote talks more in depth about how to bridge the gap from idea to sketch to final work.

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An example of a mind map from a brainstorming session.


Since you are used to observational painting, it is probably a good idea to select one image from your brainstorming session that you can then create variations from. Look at other artists who worked serially and see what kind of subjects they chose.  Monet painted water lilies, haystacks, and Rouen cathedral.

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral


Degas drew ballet dancers and jockeys. Rembrandt painted self-portraits consistently throughout his entire career. Andrew Wyeth had his Helga pictures.  Analyze their works and ask yourself what their rules were for their series. This can provide inspiration as well as a departure point for your own work.

Andrew Wyeth , The Helga pictures


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


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Youtube Playlist:  Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks


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Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Achieve a Luminous Effect in a Painting through Color and Value?

Vermeer-Portrait_of_a_Young_Woman.jpg

Johannes Vermeer


“How do you achieve a luminous effect in a painting through color and value?”

To create luminosity in a painting, it’s all a matter of achieving a convincing lighting situation that is consistent and cohesive. Lighting can be tremendously effective in terms of organizing a scene, bringing definition to objects and figures, and can also generate an emotional mood to a painting.

There are basically two kinds of lighting that one has to understand in order to figure out how to utilize light successfully in a painting:  natural light and artificial light. Once you understand what makes each kind of lighting unique, you can emphasize these characteristics in your own paintings depending on the kind of effect you’re looking to achieve. 

Natural light is characterized by a subtle, low contrast look that is distinguished by soft shadows that dissolve slowly and gradually. The mood evoked by natural light is usually calm, quiet, and tranquil. In terms of color, natural light creates cool passages of light with warm colored shadows. Probably the quintessential painter of natural light was Johannes Vermeer, who used natural lighting from a window on the left hand side of his paintings to permeate his beautiful domestic scenes. Observe below the softness of the shadows  that are casting on the wall, in addition to the light, subtle shadows on the face of the woman.

Jan Vermeer Paintings 8

Johannes Vermeer


Artificial light is essentially everything that natural light is not; it is dramatic, high in contrast, with a bold, theatrical look.  The cast shadows created by artificial light are harsh and graphic.  The areas of direct light are incredibly intense and bright and the shadows are deep and rich. The mood can frequently be ominous and foreboding with artificial light. Georges de La Tour is an excellent painter to look at for artificial light.  In the majority of his paintings, he focuses on a single candle to light a narrative scene.  The domestic subject matter is similar to Vermeer’s paintings, but as you can see the visual results could not be more different due to the lighting situation. The colors are reversed with artificial light:  the areas of direct light will appear to have warm colors while the shadows will have cool colors.

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Georges de La Tour


Once you’ve figured out whether you are using artificial light or natural light, it’s important to keep your lighting very consistent throughout the entire painting, so that the light affects every object appropriately. I recommend limiting your painting to a single light source, as this creates a sense of focus and unites the painting through the light. The most common mistake I see is people using multiple light sources that interfere with each other, making the lighting confusing and difficult to follow.

In this video below, I explain different techniques to get a wide range of visual effects with lighting. (this video is part 2 of 20 in a tutorial on how to draw a portrait in charcoal with cross-hatching techniques.)

Always control as much of your lighting situation as possible, take the initiative and time to set up the lighting right. I usually spend a good hour or so figuring out how I want to light my subject matter.  The decisions I make with lighting are never arbitrary, and I take them very seriously.  Poor lighting can easily ruin what would otherwise be a good set up.

If you are painting from direct observation and using natural light, you have to use north light, which will stay consistent throughout the day. (south light creates shadows that move every 10 minutes) If you’re using artificial lighting, stay away from fluorescent lights, since they tend to flatten all of the forms. Artificial spotlights that aim the light in one specific direction are much easier to control and can create dramatic effects.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


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Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Compose an Artwork More Rich with Details that Will Catch the Eye?

Scratchboard Project

“I have a question about composition, how do you make an artwork more rich with details that will catch the eye?”

Details are what dazzle and impress viewers in an artwork, they’re basically the fireworks at the end of an event.  However, what many people don’t realize is that details can only successful if they are supported by a strong composition. Without the structure of a compelling composition, details will fall apart and lose their context. Composition is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of making art, but unfortunately it is one fundamental skill that is notoriously overlooked.

Seduced by details, many artists will place far too much emphasis on specifics in the early stages of a work when really they should be concentrating on the composition. It doesn’t matter how amazing your details are if you have a lousy composition, so don’t even think about details until your composition has been solidified. (For more information about how to sketch compositions, read this article I wrote about preliminary sketching.)

The French neo-classicist painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is renowned for his astonishing detail in his oil painting portraits.  He painted details that seem virtually microscopic in the textures of the clothing, hair, and lace in his artworks. Most people are enthralled by the extraordinary level of detail in his paintings.  They don’t take the time to recognize that the choices he made in the composition of his painting contribute just as much, if not more, to the effectiveness of the piece as the details do.

Jean August Dominique Ingres

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Below is a list of three primary objectives to consider when composing a piece, followed by concrete actions that you can take to get those results.

1) Lead the viewer’s eye to continually move throughout the work
A strong composition should get your eye continuously moving from one place to the next. Your eye should bounce from top to bottom, side to side, and inhabit every single piece of the composition at some point. Avoid placing your subject matter in the center of the piece, as this isolates all of the visual activity to the middle of the page. In general, symmetry also makes for a less engaging composition because it’s predictable and too consistent.  Let your composition surprise your viewers.

2) Make every part of the artwork important
I had a piano teacher who used to say “make every note special“.  It seems like an impossible task when you think about how many notes are in a piece of piano music, but the point is that every note in a piece of music has it’s own special role to play within the delicate balance of a work.  Assign roles to different parts of your work so that some are large and dramatic, whereas others are quiet and subtle.  A composition won’t work if everything is big and loud.  Fabricate sections of the composition to contrast against the rest.  All of the parts of your piece should work together and feed into an intricate web of relationships. Have your composition so complete and tightly woven that the removal of even one section would cause the balance to fall to pieces.

3) Be visually dynamic
Keep things visually exciting in every moment in your composition. One concrete action you can employ to make this happen is to implement diagonals anywhere you can. Diagonals fabricate a sense of action and movement, whereas horizontals and verticals tend to appear static and stiff.  Cropping your subject matter can also make the image appear grander and more dramatic. Leaving the entirety of your subject matter confined to the four edges of the page feels stale and boring.

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Gericault, “The Raft of the Medusa

I’ve always felt that Gericault’s painting “The Raft of the Medusa” is one of the most striking compositions ever made. This piece is an astonishing 193″ x 282″ with life size figures, (make sure to see it in the Louvre in Paris before you die) and is propelled by it’s remarkable composition. If you examine the piece, it’s essentially a series of diagonals that slice up the composition very dramatically. With their thrashing limbs and desperate gestures, each figure points and leads to another, ending with a climactic finale in the figure at the top waving a rag.  There are quiet movements like the soft transitions in the sky, contrasted by brutally dark and powerful forms in the human figures. All of these areas work together to create a boldly balanced composition that Gericault’s horrific details flourish within.

Once you have a strong composition set up, you’re ready to tackle details.  Be selective about where you put details, and distribute them sparingly throughout your composition. Too many details in a piece can make a composition feel cluttered.  You don’t want to create a situation where the details are constantly competing for a viewer’s attention. Allow for large, ambiguous areas in your composition where the eye can rest temporarily. Think about details as little treasures that are to be discovered when looking at a piece.

st-peter

Caravaggio, The Crucifixtion of St. Peter

In this Caravaggio painting above, one of my favorite details is the pair of feet in the lower left hand corner. Not only does Caravaggio paint the veins and skin folds of the feet with intense detail, but he takes the time to paint the dirt on the feet! The simplicity of the dark, shadowy background around the feet allows these details to emerge beautifully. Not only is this detail stunning, but it also provides a visual description that enhances the depth of the narrative.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related Videos
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist:  How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist:  Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks


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“How can I tell if I’m skilled enough?”
“How do you find your own individual style?”
“How do artists manage to get their soul out into images?”
“How do you develop an idea from a sketch to a finished work?”
“How do you learn the basics?”
“Is it bad to start another piece of art before finishing another one?”
“How do you work in a series?”
“When and how should you use photo references to draw?”
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Ask the Art Professor: How do You Compose a Striking Painting with Color?

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Pastel drawing by Edgar Degas

 

“How do you compose a striking painting with color? How do you create harmony with colors, contrast, etc., while at the same time creating interest?”

Color is such a monumental subject, so I’m going to boil it all down to this: Painting with color is about achieving balance.  That balance is defined by establishing relationships among colors.  I think about colors as people: when you have one person in a room, there is no one else to have a relationship with.  Once another person enters the room, you have the dynamic that occurs between the two people.  If a third person enters the room, the dynamics change, and so forth. Every time a new color is added to a painting, the dynamics shift.

I used to think when I was a student that if only I could mix the “right” blue, or the “right” pink that my paintings would be better.  It took me years of painting with color to realize that there was no “right” blue.  Instead what one should look for is a grouping of colors in which the colors play off of each other in a harmonious manner. The exact same color can appear to take on different characteristics depending on the color that is next to it.  If you take a red and place it next to a grey, the red appears to be very intense and brilliant.  Take that same red and place it next to a yellow, and the red will appear to be dark in contrast to the brightness of the yellow.

2 degas dancers

Pastel drawing byEdgar Degas

The two classic problems I see when people handle color in a painting is either painting with too many muted colors, or painting with too many intense colors.  Too many intense colors is overwhelming to the viewer, and too many muted colors makes for a muddy composition.  Degas’ pastel drawings are an excellent example of beautifully balanced, harmonious colors.  Actually, if you really analyze his pastel drawings, the majority of his images are dominated by muted colors.  His strategy in some of his pieces was to use his intense colors in moderation, so that when they made their appearance, their intensity burst outwards from the image. In the case of this pastel drawing above, the intense red flowers on the dancer’s dress seem to dramatically pop from the page because they are surrounded by soft, muted greys and pinks in the dancer’s dress. 

Another common problem is people overusing black to darken their colors, especially in shadow areas.  This approach generally produces colors that are flat and muddy.  I am extremely conservative when I use black because it’s like a nuclear bomb when it encounters other colors; black simply wipes everything else out.  When I paint with black, I don’t even use black straight from the tube, rather my favorite mixture to create black is to mix alizarin crimson with viridian green.  This combination creates a luscious, deep, dark purple that has the appearance of being black, without all of the drawbacks.

degas.singer-glove

Oil painting by Edgar Degas

Light and dark contrast is another key to creating a balanced painting.  Many artists come to rely on color contrast to carry their pieces, so much so that they forget about light and dark contrast. One “test” that I always give myself when I’m working on a painting is to shoot a digital image of the painting and then to desaturate (make it black and white) in Photoshop.  If I look at the black and white image and it lacks a wide range of whites, greys, and blacks, it means that the composition needs to be improved in terms of light and dark contrast.

This Degas painting of an opera singer (see above) does an excellent job of establishing light and dark contrast, creating a dramatic, theatrical feeling to the painting.The sharp silhouette of the glove against the stripe of light, bright yellow in the background makes for excellent light and dark contrast.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related articles
“How do you achieve a luminous effect in a painting through color and value?”
“Does painting what you see limit your artistic possibilities?”
“What is the practical meaning of color theory?”
“Is hard work and experimenting continuously such a bad thing?”
“What can a painting student to do be relevant in a digital world?”