Sometimes getting started is the hardest step in creating art. I get my stuff out, ready to draw or paint and I just sit there, staring at the blank page. That pure, flawless white page. It’s perfect. How do you improve perfection? Anything I add to it can only bring it down. So I do nothing. I sit and stare and feel sorry for myself. Or I organize and reorganize and alphabetize my pencils.
Why? Why is it so hard for me to create, sometimes? This comes down to fear. I’m afraid of the clean page. I’m afraid of the potential it holds. I’m afraid I’ll make something bad and ruin it. Even worse, I’m afraid I’ll create something good, setting the bar higher for all subsequent images I create; all subsequent pages I threaten. Oh, the pressure! There are entire books devoted to creative people being afraid to create (See: The Artists’ Way or Art and Fear) so I know this fear is real and I know I’m not the only one who suffers from it. So this month, and maybe in some future posts this year, I want to talk about some of my ways for dealing with the fear of creation: specifically, how to get beyond the fear of the white page.
The easiest method I use for getting over fear of a perfect page is really simple: I don’t start with a perfect page. There are a number of ways I accomplish this. First, if I’m just doing some quick sketches, or maybe warm-up drawings before tackling something more serious, I do those warm-up sketches on garbage. Maybe the backs of copier paper that have work emails or credit card offers printed on the front sides. Maybe old envelopes. Paper coffee cups. By drawing on a surface that I already consider to be garbage, I’m free from the fear of ruining it. It was going straight into the recycling bin to be pulped—there is literally nothing I can do to this sheet to screw it up any worse than that. Even a terrible drawing on it would be an improvement over being pulped. And if the drawing turns out terrible, I can place it in the recycling bin where it was going anyway. No loss. The down side to this method is that some of my favorite drawings are on the backs of junk mail.
Another strategy I use, especially when I’m working on something a bit more serious than sketches or doodles, is I begin with the pristine white page and the very first thing I do is screw it up. Maybe I’ll take my pencil or charcoal and just draw giant streaks across it. Now my page is ruined (and it is not because I’m a bad artist, but because I ruined it on purpose!). This changes the goal. I’m no longer trying to make an image while not screwing up my paper. The new goal is: “Oh no! The paper is ruined! Save the paper!” And the only way to do so is to create something good. Now the paper is relying on me. It is counting on me to do a good job. Success is no longer about my fragile ego, but about that sheet of paper. Maybe that paper has a family and kids back in the sketchbook. They’re all counting on me. I have to press forward—for them.
If you’re worried about those pencil and charcoal streaks I mentioned, remember this: once there is a drawing on them, they’ll blend in and disappear. Otherwise, they can be erased. They ruin the page, to help me get past my fear, but they are not permanent disfigurations.
Sometimes I’ll take that last step a little further and more purposeful. When I already know what I want to create (a life drawing portrait, for example), I don’t start by scribbling a few streaks across the page. Instead, I obliterate the page. And I do this differently for different media. If I’m working in graphite or charcoal, I might start by toning the entire page with a broad graphite or charcoal stick. Then I can begin drawing by erasing white highlights and later adding darker darks. The process ends up resembling sculpting rather than drawing, where I move back and forth between adding and taking away.
If I’m painting in acrylic or gouache, I often begin with a loose messy pencil sketch. Then I paint the whole image loosely with transparent versions of opposite colors (so, if flesh, I might paint it blue or green or purple—the opposite of flesh). When that dries, it won’t look great and it will be messy. Now I have to save the page. I come back in with a second pencil sketch, refining and tightening up detail, etc. Using opaque colors, I then paint the correct colors over top of my opposite painting. This painting method has the benefit of leaving a much richer color experience as bits of opposing color peak through, or as light passes through layers of color and back to our eyes.
When using transparent media, like Watercolors or alcohol based markers, I usually tackle my fear by gently obliterating the page. I might begin by toning the entire sheet with a light yellow wash (or scribbling it the same if using markers). Again, this removes my fear of ruining the page as it is already ruined with the light yellow tone. Now I need to start building up my warms, cools and darks and avoiding my highlights and working an image out of this. I can’t let this sheet go to waste—watercolor paper is expensive! Once again, I have to persevere and for reasons not directly tied to my ego.
In creating this month’s post, I struggled with my internal demons for weeks. Literally weeks. The only way I got a post done this month was to find a way to distance my ego from the responsibility of the image’s outcome. And what I mean by that is I decided to use a painting technique that is not mine and that I’ve never tried before. A technique that belongs to one of my favorite artists. That way, if the result was no good, I could blame my inexperience with the technique, or blame the artist whose technique I borrowed. So I decided on a watered-down version of a painting technique used by the late master illustrator David Grove. In my modified version, I began with a sheet of Hot Press watercolor paper. I taped the sheet securely to a drawing board and then, with a large hog bristle brush, covered the whole sheet in white acrylic paint, leaving bristly brush strokes moving this way and that. Then I hit the sheet with a hair dryer until all of the acrylic was fully dry.
At that point, I decided on a color. I knew I wanted to draw/paint a portrait and that I wanted it to be very warm. I also wanted the color to not be flesh. So I chose a bright red, specifically DANIEL SMITH Cadmium Red Medium Hue Watercolor. Using just enough water to make the paint move around (but not so much water that the color could not stick to my acrylic base) I covered much of the page in a sloppy application of red. There are brushstrokes. There are bits of white showing through here and there. I just allowed that to all happen. Those were steps where I relinquished control, knowing that I would get to take total control in the final stage. Again, I ran the hair dryer over this stage to fully dry the watercolor layer.
Next, I set my model up and arranged her face and the lighting until I got something I liked. As she sat for me, I sketched an outline of all the brightest highlight portions of her face and hair directly onto the dried watercolor layer using an HB graphite pencil. This stage only took about 10 minutes. Finally, with pencil portion finished, I used a stiff synthetic watercolor brush (Maybe a round #6?) and some water and some toilet paper (it is soft, gentle and absorbent!) and I lifted out all the highlights. The watercolor has a very hard time sticking to the acrylic—there is no absorption—so color just lifts right off. But because I allowed all those brushstrokes in my acrylic layer, I still get to retain some color in the tiny recesses of each stroke. I’m left with an image that is moody and even kind-of haunting. It all looks intentional. You wouldn’t even guess that this image was born out of fear and anxiety if I hadn’t spent the first nine paragraphs confessing it to you.
I’m not one for New Year resolutions. But I am making some changes in 2015. Drawing-wise, my weakest area is figures, so I’ll be attending a weekly figure drawing session all year long. It is time for me to stop avoiding that weakness and tackle it head on. I also tend to get half-way through a painting and then get bored and give up, so this year I will challenge myself to finish what I’ve started. Finally, for the written portion of Coffee Shop Studio posts, I want to continue tackling more complex subjects than last year. I want to spend less time talking about which pencil is the super-best, and more time talking about anxiety or a dozen points on how to achieve the illusion of flesh in a painting. Big kid topics. I’ve been creating art from an emotionally comfortable place for the last 6 years. This year I am pushing myself out of my comfort zone. That is where I will get really creative and grow. With the Coffee Shop Studio, I’d like to take some of you along for the ride in the hopes that many of you will grow along with me.
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