Homage or ripoff?

A story in the Toronto Star Touch has generated a lot of discussion among some artists and art lovers on Facebook this week. It seems that an artist named Amanda PL had an entire solo exhibition canceled at a gallery because indigenous people complained before it even opened that her work was too much a copy of, and therefore disrespectful of, their own art.

The article’s author does an excellent job of neutrally exploring both sides of the issue as well as that of the gallery in the middle.  Usually the “right thing to do” is clear.  But this is a tough one. I mean, who *hasn’t* been inspired to draw or paint something in the style of an established culture? Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by ancient Egyptian wall paintings, Haida shawl designs, Maya sculptures, Sioux beadwork, Moorish mosaics, and more. I didn’t build an art body of work around any of them, but I get why someone would. Just because you weren’t born into that culture doesn’t mean you can’t love and understand their art.

In the music world, it’s considered wonderful and creative to incorporate the rhythms and harmonies of other cultures into one’s own compositions; Paul Simon has been acclaimed for his African-inspired songs. I guess the hard part is “where do you draw the line between *inspired* and “copied*?” Where do you draw the line between tribute and disrespect?

“You should work abstractly”

During one of my Silicon Valley Open Studio weekends, a tall, well-dressed man arrived, looked at all my work, and then said “Your skills and your color sense are very strong.  Have you considered working abstractly?”  I replied “I’m a realist, so no, I’m not really interested in working abstractly.”  He went on to urge me to consider abstraction, although he didn’t really explain why other than the “strong color sense”, or what kind of abstraction he had in mind.  I politely thanked him for his feedback, and he left.

It seemed like such an odd suggestion!  I related it to my husband and he joked that I should’ve told the man “For $5000 I’d be more than happy to draw some squiggles for you.”  Later in the day as I thought  more about the exchange, I thought of another response:  “Do you have any idea how many painters I know who have told me the reason they paint abstractly is because they can’t draw?”

I’m still pondering the conversation weeks later.  With so many artists already working abstractly, why would someone suggest that a realist change their entire way of interpreting the world?  Are there abstract artists out there who are being told they should try working realistically?  Was he simply testing my commitment to my style?  Did it occur to him that at some point in my art experience I probably had already experimented with abstraction since it was favored over realism in art schools during the 1970s and early 1980s?  Was he biased toward abstraction and only happened to visit my studio by chance rather than by choice?

I’ll never know the answers to these questions.  But there’s no question about whether I’ll remain a realist.  A realist who looks for and portrays abstractions in the world around me, something I already do all the time.  Because the world, both natural and man-made, is full of incredible shapes, textures and colors.  If I do anything that looks abstract, it’s going to be because I found it by looking at a scene differently than others might have, not because I went out of my way to “work abstractly”.

My thoughts on the coloring-book craze

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A rack of adult coloring books at a local arts and crafts store. Just the front side!

Over the past couple of years, you’ve probably noticed the huge influx of “adult coloring books” in bookstores, art supply stores, and even supermarket magazine racks.  The books’  linear designs range from simple garden flowers to incredibly intricate mandala patterns.  This type of “coloring” has been noted for a calming, soothing, therapeutic effect, somewhat like meditation or knitting.  It has caught on in rehab facilities and senior centers.

Adult coloring books are still growing in popularity, so sales of markers and colored pencils have skyrocketed, and some artists have successfully self-published their own coloring books.  There is even a new brand of colored pencils made in China and marketed to the coloring-book crowd as much cheaper than the better-known brands, albeit lower in quality.  Since I have published free swatch charts for many popular brands on my website, someone asked if I’m planning to publish one for this new brand, too.  (No, and I’m not going to name the brand here.)

As an artist whose primary medium is colored pencil, I have mixed feelings about this fad.  On the one hand, it’s great to see so many people (re)discovering colored pencils, and hopefully they’ll be inspired to take the next step to learn how to create their own original drawings and master the medium.  On the other hand, it’s also leading to an impression that colored pencils aren’t a fine art medium, they’re for very casual hobbyists.  And that’s an impression that the Colored Pencil Society of America has worked hard since 1990 to dispel, so it feels like a giant step backward.

Recently, Time magazine published an article “How coloring inside the lines came into fashion” which examined these impressions.  Today, I was glad to read the CPSA’s response to it.

I personally have been told “Oh, you should make a coloring book!” and I take that as a compliment about how interesting my subjects are and how easily they might translate into linear outlines.

But on a Facebook group for colored pencil artists I have read accounts of fellow artists being asked about their original work “What coloring book is this from?” and the questioner not being able to grasp that it was not from a coloring book.  I think if this was asked of me I’d have a hard time responding without curse words!  I can see how this confusion might arise, since some people who color in pages from a coloring book post them to social media with the idea that it’s now “art”.  It’s not.  There’s an important distinction: all art is artwork, but not all artwork is art.

The latest ridiculousness resulting from this fad is a report of a community college offering a five-day “Coloring Book Technique” workshop, for which people pay $130 and bring their own coloring books and colored pencils.  Really?  Since when do we have to be taught how to color in coloring books?  Every seven-year-old knows how to do this.

So on balance, although I recognize the value of adult coloring books as therapy and for relaxation, so far I’m not happy about what it’s doing for serious artists who work with colored pencil.  For any such artist, I recommend that if someone asks what kind of art you do, don’t say “I do colored pencil drawings” or they’ll likely assume you mean you color in coloring books.  Instead, try simply saying “I work mainly in colored pencil”.  The subtle difference in wording may trigger a better mental image.

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The back side of the same rack.

The Perpetual Beginner

Many years ago, I resolved to try something completely new every year.  My list of activities tried now includes skydiving, hang gliding, bungee-jumping, motorcycle racing, swimming, traveling solo to Peru, rock climbing, being president of a CPSA chapter, and more.  Some of these were one-shot events, others turned into multi-year obsessions.  The underlying goal is to stay in touch with what it’s like to be an absolute beginner at something, with all the ignorance and clumsiness that go with it.

You might wonder why I would do such a thing, when our society encourages us to always take the safe route and stick with what we already know.  1) I love learning and trying new things, and 2) it helps me relate to folks who are new to my favorite subjects and activities, so I can do a better job of explaining or demonstrating.  Too often, experts are not the best teachers, because they don’t remember how they learned. Nobody wants to be talked down to, or be made to feel stupid.

For example, of all the new activities I’ve tried, the most frustrating was rock climbing.  The instructor would start a class by saying something like “Okay, today we’re going to learn smearing. You know what smearing is, right?”  Well of course I didn’t know what smearing was, that’s why I was there! She seemed bored as she half-heartedly demonstrated and then turned the class loose to try with only half a clue.  I learned almost nothing in that class and it certainly didn’t reduce my fear of heights.  It’s a wonder there were no injuries.

Similarly, when I was learning the breast stroke there was a man who was always at the pool who had a very efficient breast stroke, so I asked him for some pointers.  “It’s just kick and pull, kick and pull!” was all he could tell me.  I was already kicking and pulling, but certainly not the way he was, and he didn’t remember anymore how he developed his proficiency.  So I didn’t learn anything from him no matter how much I watched.  (My breast stroke is still terrible.)

This year my “something completely new” was moderating the district chapters forum at the Colored Pencil Society of American convention in Atlanta in July.  When the national board invited me to do it back in January, I accepted with trepidation because the moderator the past two years was so good; how could I possibly fill her shoes?  And I’m an introvert!  The format for the forum is wide open; the moderator can set a theme, or not; take a survey, or not; lead activities, or not, so there is no pre-set structure to fall back on.  There was no teacher to consult this time.  Where to start?  I put a lot of thought into it and decided that if the forum was geared toward helping first-time attendees understand their roles, it could be educational for all attendees.  So I set the theme “Drawing on Education”, and divided the day and a half into five broad education-related topics for discussion.  For the first time, the beginner mentality was both my state of experience and my source of inspiration!

It turned out to be a big success!  Not only did I receive unsolicited praise from attendees who have been to many of these forums, but one even wrote to the national board to say “Have to tell you the 2-day DC Forum was the BEST one I’ve attended – ever.  So much sharing, and especially the great conversations in the Joint Session too.   LOVED every minute – gained lots of “take back to chapter” info!!”  I’m still pinching myself–did I really accomplish THAT on my first time ever doing something like this?

So now, the national board wants me to lead the forum again in July 2016.  Was this year “beginner’s luck”?  Should I do it again?  Can I do it so well again?

And, what will my completely new activity be next year? Check back in a few months to find out….

“Starsky & Hutch” and art

It takes many long hours to finish one of my drawings. I’ve learned to pace myself and take five-minute breaks every hour or so, and one-hour breaks every four hours or so. Recently during one of the long breaks I discovered that reruns of Starsky & Hutch are now on cable TV.  Not to date myself or anything, but high school Denise was a big fan of Starsky & Hutch.  It didn’t win any Emmy awards and the writing wasn’t great, but it’s fun to remember why I had such a crush on David Soul, and my best friend was similarly smitten with Paul Michael Glaser.  So I set the TiVo to record them to watch during my breaks.

After a couple of episodes I remembered that some of the very first graphite portraits I ever drew were of Starsky & Hutch.  As a poor kid I couldn’t afford posters, but I was getting pretty good at drawing, so I bought a couple of magazines with especially good photos of them and drew them bigger to hang in my room.  Copyright wasn’t an issue because they weren’t for sale and there was no internet.  In working from these magazine photos, I had a great excuse to stare at every little detail of their faces, and was very motivated to improve my drawing skills so I could reproduce them. Schoolmates mocked me for having a magazine picture of them in my locker, so I never showed these portraits at school, to avoid even more ridicule.

My portrait of Hutch (David Soul) that I drew at age 15 on awful drawing paper.

My portrait of Hutch (David Soul) that I drew at age 15 on awful drawing paper. 8″x10″

But the last one I did was different.  It was 16″x20″, Starsky in a white suit (remember this was the 70s), sitting on a park bench.  It turned out so well my art teacher asked to show it in the school display case for a couple of weeks, and commissions for portraits of local folks started happening!  I even included it in my portfolio for admission to art school.  A couple of years later in college, someone asked about buying it to give to his sister for her birthday.  I was surprised that anyone remembered it, and I didn’t really want to sell it, so I suggested the ridiculous price of $50.  But that wasn’t high enough, because he bought it, and I never saw it again.  I bought two dresses with that $50 (again, remember this was the 70s!), and I still remember the dresses, but I’d rather still have that drawing in my archives.

My portrait of Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) that I did at age 16.

My portrait of Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) that I drew at age 16. 16″x20″

So what does this have to do with artwork?  Inspiration, motivation, and skill improvement.  It worked for me.  If you like something enough to want to spend hours with it, and you wish you could draw or paint well enough to do it justice, you have all the inspiration and motivation you need for improvement.  Nobody else ever has to see your work, or know that you did it as a fangirl/boy, or think you’re silly, or fret about copyright.  It’s all for you.  If it makes your art skills better, it’s all good!

A Humbling Experience

I had a very humbling experience last night. The setting was an event with many former co-workers, many whom I hadn’t seen in 15 years except on Facebook.

Three different people came up to me and the first thing they said was “I am so inspired by you!” It was all about my having returned to my art and making it a priority and producing quality work, while still working as a software engineer. One of them said he has resolved to start painting again because of me. Another of them has an ivy league PhD and a technical Academy Award, but said he was inspired when I took part of a year off from regular work to focus on my art. I have so much respect and admiration for the drive and accomplishments of these people, and yet here they were telling me, completely unsolicited, that they admired me.

I had no idea that my journey meant anything to anyone else other than me. I guess the lesson is to live life as well as you can not only for yourself but because you never know who is taking note for their own lives. Another lesson for me was that the act of making art affects others in ways we might not have imagined!

Why don’t you draw more?

I completed 10 drawings in 2014, and 10 in 2013.  I’m pleased with that number, but you might wonder “Why don’t you draw more?”  The answer is complicated!  I’m not here to make excuses, I’m here to help my fellow artists feel less guilty about their own production rate, and help others understand why I’m fine with my rate.  There’s more involved than the actual art creation!

First of all, I have a full-time job as a software engineer at a startup company, so that consumes a minimum of 40 hours per week.  Art is not my “hobby”, though—it’s my other career.  Every day, I have art-related stuff to do.  I’m no less of a professional for having a non-art-related career that I enjoy and that pays the bills and subsidizes my art business.  It just means I can’t do my art activities full-time.

Second, my drawings take many hours to complete.  A 5”x7” image of a monarch butterfly may take up to 20 hours; a 15”x20” image of a tree may take 80 or more hours.  It’s the nature of colored pencil, one of the few downsides of the medium.

Third, there’s everything else.  To illustrate: last Sunday I spent most of the day doing art-related tasks that involved no drawing at all.  It was all stuff that needed to be done:

  • Uploaded a new image to my website and two other websites on which I have galleries
  • Updated prices and calendar page on my website
  • Reviewed several dozen potential reference photos to narrow down to what my next drawing will be
  • Submitted an entry for an upcoming juried exhibit
  • Set up a new set of 120 colored pencils, organized in containers by color family
  • Corresponded with the education coordinator regarding my upcoming workshop
  • Emailed advance information to the registrants of my upcoming workshop
  • Assembled packets for my upcoming workshop
  • Corresponded with a commission client
  • Made giclee prints for client
  • Read latest issue of Professional Artist magazine
  • Closed out income and expense folders from 2014
  • Created new business spreadsheet for 2015
  • Reviewed sale ads from online art supply retailers for possible bargains

I get tired just reading all that!  I didn’t even realize I’d accomplished so much until I wrote it out.  Anyway, this is a good example of how a day can be consumed by doing necessary art-related tasks without actually creating art.  And this is not unusual.  Other tasks that may come up are:

  • Answering queries from my website
  • Preparing presentations
  • Delivering or picking up artwork from the framer
  • Delivering or picking up artwork from an exhibit
  • Attending an exhibit opening reception
  • Packaging artwork for shipment
  • Taking artwork to USPS or UPS
  • Blogging
  • Buying supplies, either online or at a local store
  • Planning and running CPSA chapter meetings and events
  • Printing and packaging cards and prints for sale
  • Scanning artwork and processing the digital images
  • Recording my income, expenses and mileage in a spreadsheet and filing receipts

Many of the tasks on these lists would not be there if I was doing my art only recreationally, but since I am trying to meet professional goals and make a business of it, they are necessary.  So 10 finished drawings per year is fine with me.