The Pastel Academy – The Importance of getting Composition RIGHT in our work

The Pastel Academy – The Importance of getting Composition RIGHT in our work

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The Pastel Academy – Update Spring 2018

Getting COMPOSITION/DESIGN Right!  How Important is it?

The main tools in an artists kit bag

 

And No I don’t mean our painting materials!

The painting at the head of the page is called ‘Heading For the Lake – Spring – Andalucia’.     It is a painting that could not have been done without my knowledge of Composition and how to bring together elements from my sketchbook, from some scenic photos and some addition sketches and photos of horses and people.    It was not simply a matter of waiting for that scene to happen in reality!  I would probaby have been waiting for ever!

 

Learning – whether online or in workshops is usually down to learning a technique or two in a specific subject;  usually within an hour or two.  But without the background knowledge of where those techniques fit into the big scheme of things  you have perhaps at best just learnt one trick. 
  
There is just no avoiding the fact that without a solid foundation in the construction of a painting, the tonal values and the advantages of understanding colour theory, success in you work is a  hit and miss affair.  The Core Foundation Subjects apply to all painting subjects and mediums.

So what is composition and why is it important?     Well put it this way, without it your painting can easily miss the target you have set for it.      Composition leads the viewer’s eye to see what we want them to see.  And how we want them to see it.  What composition does is puts you in control of the message you are wishing to give in your work.    Even for a portrait,  there are ways to keep your viewer engaged in the area you want them to.

Knowing how to compose a painting puts the artist in charge of how to make the best of the elements and how to NOT make simple compositional errors which detract from the work and often ruin it.

In short it is a massive tool in the artists tool box.  It is vitally important to good landscape and portrait work and equally so for those in still life subjects, and florals which heavily depend on how to compost the subjects.

 

It is a Lightbulb moment for many artists

 

Composition in drawing and painting are a little like learning the grammer when learning how to write.  Just stringing words together won’t work.  You need to know how to construct a sentence and how to use punctuation, as well as have a good vocabulary.    Without an understanding of how to use the basics in art, you are just stringing together an ad hoc list of techniques.   More than that:  you are missing some major tricks.    

Taking all that into account, I was very slow to learn.   I knew what I wanted to know, but art college was not an option for me, so I had no guidance, or means of learning other than books which can only give you information; not guide you how to apply it.   So I learnt the long hard way, experience.  I had to.

Why?   Because I was a portrait painter and using a lot of really poor photographs!   Often tonally very poor and often very old photos:  snapshots of often deceased family members, that customers wanted turning into portraits.  So I would try to compensate for the poor photos by being as creative as I could, and this wasn’t nearly enough to compensate for my lack of knowledge.

Does that ring a bell with anyone?

Soft Pastel ‘Old Andalucia’  14 x 19 inches

Greyscale version of ‘Old Andalucia’ (colour removed)

Heather if you had to choose;   Which are the two most important ‘Core Foundation subjects’:

 

To complete a good original painting depends on two in particular: 

Tonal Values – how the painting is designed tonally – light and dark .

Composition – how it is designed.    

Without those two elements in particular, the painting will suffer.    Colour theory is very important, but a painting can have average colour and still work to a degree.    Drawing and perspective are massively important and both are on the Academy curiculum,  but good pieces can be achieved using gridding to transfer an image initially.  It is not  ideal but it can keep artists working while they improve their drawing knowledge over time.  But the two major guns in the armoury are Tonal values and Composition; without either one of which,  a painting will be substantially weakened and much less than it could be, or fail totally.

Failed paintings are frustrating (and expensive) and even moreso if you have no idea WHY it has failed   I’m sure that rings a bell with many of you.    But you can more or less guarantee that a high proportion of the major critical faults I see in work which has been otherwise beautifullly rendered, are faults in values and composition.     You can avoid that happening – easily.

Tonal Values  Many artists work in black and white mediums – graphite, ink, charcoal (all covered in the Academy).  Work in these mediums depends on a good arrangement of values; light, mid tones and dark tones.   The difficulty is in seeing poor tonal values when colour comes into the mix.   Which is why in the academy I use a method of teaching members how to assess their own work for tonal values issues. One thing to always look for;  your painting should work equally as well in it’s greyscale version (with the colour removed) as it does in colour.   Does yours?   (Check out the two images above)

Composition – Good design in a painting, no matter what the medium you use (it is the same for all mediums)  is something which is simple enough to learn.  It is always good to have guidance when applying the theory into practice though, as Academy members constantly tell me.      But it isn’t difficult and there is a logic behind it:

What to include and what not to include in a painting is a major issue.

What simple traps which are often found in snapshots, do we need to ignore when we use them as references for paintings is another issue.

How to keep the viewers eye on the most important part of your painting is massively important.

How to recognise when there are perspective and distortion issues in photos of humans and pets is one that crops up regularly on work I see on my Pastel Facebook sites.

What to do with paintings which are ‘just not right’ often need to be re-designed,  which is something the Academy members are going to be doing next month.    It is going to be interesting!

The Challenge I gave to the readers of a UK Artists magazine was to assess the original photograph and produce a painting after having decided  whether it could be improved compositionally.

I wanted to encourage the readers of the magazine this exercise was in, to question the photograph?  Could it be improved?

‘I use photographs to complete my portraits – why do I need to know about Composition?’

 

 

My first landscape was pretty Dire.  I copied it from a photograph.     But what was on the photo,   went into my painting.  No question; if the lamp  post was on that photo, I added it, if it needed it or not.   If the tree was too big, it never occurred to me to make is slightly smaller.   If a house was not facing the right direction, I didn’t realise I could move it around.    If a horizon was too low, I never thought of raising it a little.       But I wasn’t happy with the results.   No amount of technique in pastel was helping me out here!
And I learned along the way that the stuff I didn’t know in landscape, was the stuff I didn’t know in portraiture either!    And as a portrait artist, I wanted to do the best for my clients.  
 
Photographs are a blessing and a curse to artists in equal measure. They are a blessing because without them many artists would have no reference material to work from; but they are a curse because so many fall into the trap of just copying them, warts and all!  There are also some artists who strongly believe that a photo is an accurate record and so you cannot ‘move’ any of the elements to make a better composition.
Wrong – you can and you should . You are an artist – not a photocopyer.
 
The worst of it is without a good knowledge of Composition you can easily be copying massive mistakes in composition made by the photographer.
 

Can you Turn an Average Photo into a Good Painting?

 

But did you know you might have a load of you own ORIGINAL source reference material in all of those old photos which you are hoarding?  Once you understand what composition knowledge will do for you,  you will see those photos with different eyes.
How many of us have masses of old photos that we have taken on holidays and days out which are disappointing and never seem to capture the moment?   With a limited amount of compositional knowledge – (plus an understanding of Tonal Values) it is amazing what you can do with those old photographs! In fact one of my favourite classes in workshops over the years was the photo editing day. Students would bring a selection of their photos (many which they had thought impossible to use) and managed to design new paintings by cropping and editing, and often re-formatting.
Not only that, with compositional knowledge they are able to take elements from different photos into one painting!
 

Changing the portrait image into a landscape one, opened out the focal point and gave it more ‘importance’.   Some detail was omitted from the focal point (the bridge).  I then decided to turn it into a sunset scene for added drama and to support the focal point even more. The painting now has more depth and perspective.

(I cant tell you what happened next because the Academy members are doing this exercise soon! )

 

Composition is a Win Win!

I like being in charge of my work.  I enjoy having choices, and having had my eyes opened to what was possible, for me, it was the road to development or nothing.   Being in charge of my choices is true artistic freedom.      Some years down the tuition line, I learnt from my students too.   Now I always start a new artist off in simple landscape and with the core principles of painting.    I go on to teach them portraiture too. Anyone with the slightest training in art will see when a painting has just been copied from a photo; warts and all.   It is often heart breaking to see such great use in techniques of a medium like pastel which is not the easiest to master, but some or all of the basic fundamental principles of painting have not been understood by the artist.    It is a shame;  I cannot stand to see talent wasting itself.

Knowledge is power – not least of all for artists.

It makes my day when an artist joins the Academy and states up front; 

‘ I havent had any trainging.  I want to know the stuff I dont know about good paintings’

That is music to my ears. That means I have a new member who wants to really improve and grow as an artist.   For other members joining the Academy was indeed a lighbulb moment when they looked around and realised that what they didn’t know was massively important.  They saw the work of those going through Tonal Values and Colour Theory and they wanted to produce work like that. It took me a few years to learn how to ‘use’ photography (and to take better photographs) to the greater benefit of my work.  It was vital that I did learn and it is equally as vital to you if you wish to take your art seriously.

And I know that many of you do. The Pastel Academy Online is a resource for all artists who have gaping holes in their knowledge.   (Yes people join to learn the basics because it applies to all mediums).      The structured exercises in the Training area address all the issues that would trip us up.

 

The Pastel Academy Online

 

In late April we start our Composition Module.    The current members are looking forward to it and it is an ideal time to join – as the module begins.     So click here to check out how to join the Academy.     Meanwhile please do leave me a comment, and answer this one question;   Did this blog resonate with you?     Have you found that just copying to produce a portrait can often be frustrating because knowing how to compose it properly FROM the photo eludes you?    Have you got files full of old photos and new, taken at some point which you hoped to turn into a good painting? In the new Composition module I am asking members to post a few of those, then we discuss the options and learn.   Join us!

Oh and if you want to know what happened next with the Windermere exercise, remind me in the comments below.    XXH Happy Painting!

The Pastel Academy -It’s Greatest Responsibility

The Pastel Academy -It’s Greatest Responsibility

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The Pastel Academy –

Its Greatest Responsibility

 

I received two emails in the last few weeks (one from the UK and one from Capetown , South Africa)  which touched  on the same subject;

Is the Academy for someone who uses photographs for their work (in portraiture)?  

The thing is I can understand the question.  Why? Because how many art courses in a college or university can you name that works from photos?  The Royal Academy sure didn’t last time I looked.

So let me explain something now:    

The Pastel Academy is specifically for those who use photography for whatever reason, first and foremost!

But – But I wish I knew then what I know now!

Let me tell you why:

As an artist I ‘use’ photography.  Over the years as a portrait painter, much of the work being posthumous,  photography was crucial to my earning a living.  It was also crucial to my growth and development as an artist.     Another part of my portrait work was for various PR and recording companies in the UK and USA , and my subjects were famous to say the least (as were many of my personal portrait clients).   Musicians, actors, comedians, TV personalities – I painted very many.      Photography was crucial; and some of it was old creased , tiny black and white shots, of treasured loved ones departed.   Others were amazing publicity shots of major stars. The difference between chalk and cheese in quality.    I was in at the deep end with photography.

I did realise early on that the results I got from good photos were better than that the results I got from poor photos.     I eventually learned how to produce equally good work from poor and good photography.

So how did I handle it?   How did I manage to produce consistent results, that have always pleased my clients?

The light bulb moment – I was asked to teach

 

Well with hindsight I know when the turning point came in my art career – and it stepped up many notches in one leap.     I was approached to teach local educational authority classes.   But not in portraiture – in landscape.   The reasoning was simple they told me; it is easier to learn for beginners.        Well in fact that is perhaps true, but my experience in landscape was not as strong as in portraiture for sure.   So I was determined to get down to business and learn.    That was back in 1988.   Today I thank heavens for that moment.

It is learning about how to paint landscape that boosted my portraiture work to another level altogether.   And what I didn’t expect as a respected and passionate portrait painter was to find I was not only enjoying it, I was getting my eyes opened to a lot of things for the first time.    The world of nature, and the miracle of ‘light’.

It was some time afterwards I was able to look back and say – I was developing my Artist’s Eye.

Now why is that?  How does that work?   Well like I said at the time I didn’t even realise or even question it.  But I knew I was on a ‘journey’.

Portraiture can lead you along a very narrow path – it’s amazing the stuff it doesn’t teach you.

 

When you, as an artist, look at a photo of a face you are not usually faced with issues like tonal values,  colour theory, and perspective; especially if you don’t know, what they mean, or could mean, to that photo you are holding in your hand.  Some would say composition is not normally an issue either.    When producing a portrait, the photo tends to dictate the rules.   The photo is where the details come from too.  And you need a photo that is good enough to see those details.   And of course not too many artists do what I did and take life classes and work from the live model too.     For one thing, live classes are not often available outside the major cities.

Did I realise this as a portrait painter?   Not at first no.

However, there did come a time when I wished I could alter this or that about the photo;  extend this or change the colour of some things, and I would experiment.  The results were sometimes good and sometimes not so good!

Why is this so Important to ……..

This?    The lessons of Tonal Values are crucial.

And lets not forget drawing

 

And also let us address the elephant in the room right now – many portraits are now traced in some form or another and you don’t get to learn to draw well by tracing.   It is a convenient tool though for many to get on with the stuff many artists ‘think’ are more important – techniques.

For some time I thought ‘techniques’ were what it was all about.   Why?  Because they made my work look sleeker?   Something along those lines?  They made it look ‘professional’?   So  I studied various artists (Great masters) techniques,  but  I never did ‘ trace’ in any form,  so my drawing was always on point when needed.      I had been drawing since early childhood.  And when I started in portraiture my work was fairly large!   (Tracing paper didn’t come in those sizes I’m sure back in the 60’s!)        Drawing was something I loved, and still do, which is why I love pastel more than any other medium.

In fact, the first portrait I ever did was taken straight from a TV screen in the 60’s.   There were no videos back then and I had no way of ever knowing if I would ever see the face again in photos (which I eventually did – he became very famous).   A quick impression from the TV screen was my beginning. (I am currently writing about this for a book).

My first landscape – Oh Dear.

 

It was OK.   Just.  I copied it from a photograph.     But what was on the photo,   went into my painting.  No question; if the lamp     post was on that photo, I added it, if I needed it or not.      It wasn’t long before I saw a couple of other problems.        Where as my portraiture was full of life, my landscapes were dull and ‘dead’.     I wasn’t happy.   No amount of technique in pastel was helping me out here!

I was going to be teaching landscape, and I had to learn and quickly.   I was largely house bound with a young family and I turned to the Great Masters,  and studied.   I had a lot of books.   Those I didn’t have I got from the library.   I eventually took a History of Art, G.C.E.  ‘A’ level at my local college and I learnt.  To be honest I enjoyed it because of my practical experience to that date, it was a bit like joining the missing dots in my knowledge and understanding.

And I learned along the way that the stuff I didn’t know in landscape, was the stuff I didn’t know in portraiture either! 

Wow that was a big learning moment.     And then I learnt that artists I admired all seemed to know and/ or were taught (and that is the biggie) how to plan their work.

How to Plan my Work?    Really?

 

So it came down to two choices; continue to copy photos and paint portraits, or to learn what artists are taught and have been taught in apprentice programmes throughout the ages, the core principles of painting:    composition, tonal values, colour theory and perspective (the main ones).

One way or another, having had my eyes opened to what was possible, I could never go back.  It was the road to development or nothing.

Some years down the tuition line, I learnt from my students too.    Now I always start a new artist off in simple landscape and with the core principles of painting.    I have taught them portraiture too.     When the public attend an exhibition of my students’ work they see a whole different type of show to that of many local society or even national society shows in the UK.      Anyone with the slightest training in art will see when a painting has just been copied from a photo; warts and all.   It is often heart breaking to see such great use in techniques of a medium like pastel, but some or all of the basic fundamental principles of painting have not been understood by the artist.

Yes, I have been known to approach the artist and ask them to consider coming on one of my courses.    And many have and thanked me for it.     But I cannot stand to see talent wasting itself.

Do you know the value of one of these?

And why is this so Important?

My mission in the Academy

My mission is to do what I wanted someone to do for me back when I was a slave to photography.    I wanted someone to:

Show me how to do it better; do it properly; not waste time.

Teach me how to ‘use’ the photo, but make massive improvements to the portrait.

Teach me about composition in landscape and portraiture.

Teach me how to bring life into my paintings.

Teach me about colour, and how to design my paintings around a colour theme.

Teach me what I need to know to produce great backgrounds to my portraits.

Teach me how to understand simple perspective – to put people in my landscapes and get my roof lines right.

Teach me how to work outside in a meadow full of wild flowers, and produce something great.

Teach me everything and show me how to be good enough to teach others.

But above all how to ‘conquer’ photography, and make it work better for me.  Because so many artists reading this right now are also at home or struggling to fit art into their busy lives and need what I needed back then.  And many are women bringing up young  families just like I was back then.

(By the way how many more things can you add to that list?)

On to the Big Plan

It took me many years to learn how to ‘use’ photography to the greater benefit of my work.  It was vital that I did learn and it is equally as vital to you if you wish to take your art seriously.    And I know that many of you do.    What I have learned I will pass on to you because my mission is to make sure that the future of pastel goes forward in a healthier state and with a great deal more respect than when I started in the medium as a teenager.   And now I have the ideal vehicle to do it:

Which is of course – The Pastel Academy Online.

It has been a mission for me.    But make no mistake it is worthwhile because there is nothing else online, quite like it in ANY medium, let alone pastel.   And I can tell you now that I have had enquiries from artists in other mediums , and artists who have never even used pastel, who are interested in joining the Academy so as to be able to access the Core training in the Basic fundamental principles of painting.

In the next blog I send out at the end  of the month, I shall outline in more detail how the Academy works and its pricing structure.   So watch out for the next blog!

Meanwhile please do leave me a comment, and answer this one question;   Did this blog resonate with you?  In other words, do you see yourself in the story about my artistic growth?

‘Practice Makes Perfect’   Or Does It?

‘Practice Makes Perfect’ Or Does It?

 

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Practice Makes Perfect?  Or does it?

 

As the Pastel Academy Online’s pre launch phase begins (see next newsletter) I have had many more questions put to me about ‘why’ I am starting it.   Well maybe this blog adds a little to that understanding.

 

I can’t count the amount of times I have heard phrases like; The work of an artist is all about ‘Trial and Error’.  It is a case of ‘Practice Makes Perfect’.     

If anything is likely to get me frustrated it is those two phrases.  Why?  Because very day on my art Facebook groups, I see those phrases used more or less daily, and almost always they are used out of context.   Potentially good artists diligently practicing methods which are to say the least – not the best or most productive ones.

So this blog is going to ask you a couple of questions – more on those later.

Why Practice does not make Perfect.

 

You have been practicing for what seems like forever.

Now you feel you are at least proficient with what you can do.

You have learnt the hard way – by trial and error.

I know because this describes me – the path I took and by circumstance I was forced to take if I were to learn what I wanted to learn in my art.   But all I knew was that there must be a better way.

Did practice make perfect for me?     Eventually yes – but I was pretty lucky in the choices I made.  Very lucky in fact.  So luck had a lot to do with it.

Having learned the basics of the head structure and perspective,  this was a fruitful period of practice on self portrait drawings.   I studied facial anatomy books – which is the hard way.  Now I teach portraiture using the lessons I wish I had when I was developing. A good teacher will synthesize and condense the important lessons for you.

My Summer Portrait Seminar in the Ribble Valley; an annual seminar with a waiting list every year.     The seminars were 7 days with studio live study work during the day and a lecture programme on portraiture in the evenings.   Plenty of chance to pack in all the important basics which I wished I had been given when my learning began.

The Big Reality Check

 

Then there is the simple fact that should have there been better ways for me to learn – it would have come at quite a cost.   That cost would have been on a few levels.   For one thing money was tight.    When I started my studies in earnest, I was living in a northern town with no university, and no ‘degree’ courses possible in the area.  I was also a young Mum, and to make matters worse I didn’t drive.  So finding an alternative way of learning for me was – it seemed – impossible.  Of course there was no internet either.  So I went on a self-taught track, and supplemented my learning with evening classes in art history.

If given the opportunity – would I have done it differently?

Well put it this way, yes I would.  In a heartbeat.    The self-taught route can not only be lonely, it can lead you up the garden path – the wrong path.   It can also take an age to achieve relatively little in the process..

Oh in an Ideal World……..

 

Think about it this way.    A musician goes to the Royal College of Music, or one of the other reputable musical academies.    A painter is lucky enough to get a place in one of the top university art departments; the Royal Academy if they are lucky.    A budding dress designer gets a chance of a place at the Royal College of Art.    What have they all got in common?     Well clearly even having been admitted they have their first real accreditation – they are good enough to have got a place.  That knowledge is giving them a degree of personal and artistic confidence in the first place.

What else have they in common?  They are lucky – lucky to have secured this head start – and they are going to get the specific education they need – what I call the recipes; the methods and techniques which are the best practices.  The basic and fundamental stuff and when you have this quality input; specific focused knowledge – that is when practice makes perfect.   

Heather tutoring a Colour Theory class.

Heather’s Still Life Workshop; composition in StillLife Masterclass 2014.

The reality for so many of us

 

So you are at home – maybe with a young family, or looking after elderly relatives.   No chance of a place at the Royal Academy.  SO you ‘play’ and try and work out your medium and how it works,  and it’s the trial and error game.    Not so bad when you are young maybe, but as you get older ‘time’ takes on different meaning. There is less of it.     So eventually you might get a result – develop a technique maybe – that you are happy with and seems to work for you.

On your personal artistic growth scale you might have gone from 1 – 4 (on a scale of ten).   But how would you know?  By your own judgement?  You are not in a college with other students learning at the same time to compare your efforts to.

 

Beware the Praise of loved Ones!

 

In as much as their praise and encouragement is given in the very best of intentions, you need to ask yourself this:   How long has it taken me to learn what I know so far?  Does my Mum or sister or Dad really know anything about what I am doing?     My father had a massive influence on my young teenage art ‘career’, but his idea of art was making it look like a photograph.    Did that help me?  No it didn’t.   But his views are widely echoed especially by those who have not read a book about art, and never intend to, like my father.  What my father gave me was encouragement and support, but his opinion on my work had little value.

So I was destined never to have an objective opinion for a long time.  And without that – we are back to our lonely position of doubt.  No wonder so many self-taught artists are lacking in confidence.

So Practice Eventually will make perfect – Yes?

 

All too often the answer to that is no.  Why?    Well the idea behind practice makes perfect is simply this;   like the kid in music school – they are taught the musical scales – and told to practice and practice.

The key is of course they were taught the musical scales in the first place.  

Having been given the tried and true recipe, yes practice will make perfect.  Without the initial information that you need, you might well be ‘making do’.

 

‘But you shouldn’t be just making the best of poor or ineffective methods – methods that are probably holding you back – maybe a collection of poor habits you have become accustomed to and that is even worse for your artistic development.’

 

I cannot think of a worse scenario than spending months practicing a method or technique that was doomed to fail in the first place. But you weren’t to know.    Stabbing in the dark is just exactly that – sometimes you will hit your target – sometimes – most times you won’t.  You might buy a book of another artists work and copy their style, and methods and you will make some headway, but at best you will only that one technique – and many practical art books are put out by artists who specialist in just one method – in one medium and in one technique, and very often using specified materials.      What you are doing in fact is a little like attempting to learn how to fancy wedding cake – without having learned how to make a simple cup cake and measure the ingredients first.    Trying to make a ballroom gown without a clue how to use a sewing machine.

More practice by way of my self portrait series and at this stage I was looking for ideas to bring something different to the sketches.  I was particularly interested in expression as can be seen!  All this was live in the mirror of course – it is the only way to develop real control over your portrait skills.   When I need to or have to I can turn these skills to working from photography – and can do so without ‘copying’ an image as much as interpreting it with a view to breathing life into it.

So is there any Merit in Trial and Error?

 

Learn the best practices and the tried, true and tested methods, and yes – then practice can make perfect.

 

In fact it is the Perfect practice that makes Perfect.

 

Well experimentation is a key principal of traditional art training.  Picasso is the perfect example.  But practice is most effective in the hands of the student who has learnt the basics and understands what they are practicing! When you are trying to learn the basics by trial and error – it is just an exercise in frustration and patience, and all too often, wasting time.    So for many trial and error is a pain, and when all is said and done – how do you know what is working?

So lets get back to that Ideal world……….

 

What are the best ways to learn and develop as an artist?    Ways that don’t cost the earth and give more results for your money? Well to start with try very hard to get some training in the basics in art.    That means stuff that isn’t medium specific – but applies to work in all mediums; composition, tonal values, colour theory, perspective.   Unfortunately, all too many developing artists go for details and technical tricks first.    And also they go to occasional workshops set up by other artists who don’t teach the basics – and frankly probably don’t even know them.  This is the one method, one way, kind of workshop – where a group of people get together in a room to all paint the same painting.   Fine – once you have learnt the basics!   But often this approach is poor educationally.

 

Then consider not trying to ‘Specialise’ too early.

 

I did, because I began as 13 year old who loved portraits.  IAt that age I was basically just following one path instinctively.   I eventually diversified, and wish I had done it so much sooner, but I got into the trap of trying to earn a living from my ‘art’, out of necessity – which works for a while.  But I wanted to improve as an artist – not become complacent with a few techniques under my belt.   Learning landscape has taught me the real important stuff I needed to develop my portraiture.  Strange but true! (I later learned that this is why top university art departments take the same approach.)

Have your ultimate goal in mind but step outside that single minded frame of mind when you can – you will be amazed at what you learn. Whatever you circumstance and whatever your relationship to your creative art is – I hope that some of what I have written here resonates with you.    And it is so important to push home the point – it is never too late to learn – and to improve and above all else to feel good about your work and how it is developing.

 

So as I said in the beginning of this blog – I have a couple of questions for you:

 

1.  Have you ever questioned the idea that some practice might not be productive?

2.  Are you also self taught?  Have you been frustrated by lack of guidance?   Have you learnt from books?

3.  If you have attended college courses, have you this far managed to get some tuition on the basics?  Colour Theory?  Tonal Values?   Basic Drawing?  Composition?  Perspective?  Or did you learn them at school?

Please use the comments section below and I look forward to hear your stories.

 

Click on this link for the download of the Leisure Painter article and look out for my new article in next months issue!

 

Meanwhile I am on my own learning curve – finalizing the launch details of the Pastel Academy!    News on the opening is coming very soon.    The first step will be to invite some beta testers!    So more on that in a couple of weeks.

‘Practice Makes Perfect’   Or Does It?

‘Practice Makes Perfect’ Or Does It?

  The Pastel Academy Blog     The Pastel Academy Online Blog News, Views & Pastel Perspectives Manufacturers Updates Practice Makes Perfect?  Or does it?   As the Pastel Academy Online’s pre launch phase begins (see next newsletter) I have had many more questions put...

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The Academy is Finally Becoming a Reality!

The Academy is Finally Becoming a Reality!

 

The Pastel Academy Blog

 

 

The Pastel Academy Online Blog

News, Views & Pastel Perspectives

Manufacturers Updates

THE PASTEL ACADEMY

is finally becoming a Reality!

Building the Academy

 

Twelve months ago the journey began, fueled by the knowledge that I needed a working tool to be able to reach out and teach all of you who want to learn, improve and advance in your artistic careers; in the belief that the end result has to be good for you, and equally as important for me; for the furtherance of the pastel medium.    To me it always seemed a little futile in giving over my life’s creativity to learning and specialising in a fabulous medium like pastel – if not to find some way to pass that knowledge and passion on to others.

It has been an exciting, if a demanding dream – but now the months of planning and building are beginning to pay off.  I have had little time to paint, but that was a necessary sacrifice in the short term. It certainly has been and remains a concentrated period of creativity in another way.

And without doubt I have been spurred on by your messages of encouragement.   Thank you so much to those of you who have written to me and also those who have replied in the comments sections of my blogs.  I was also pretty knocked out by how many of you took part in the survey earlier this year – your input was very important.

 

So the first task is to test the technical workings of the Membership site.   The role of Beta Testers

So now on to the serious subject of Beta Testers.  What are Beta Testers?  Well not only will they be the first members to enter the Academy (!), they will also be the first to test the Membership Site functions.

Possibly one of the main attractions of becoming an Academy Beta member, is the fact that as the earliest members, your feedback could actually shape the features of the Academy, by giving your input honestly and with an appreciation of the mission of the Academy in mind.  To be in on the birth of something like the Academy can be exciting and productive!   And I will be in there testing it all too, so for me it is also a chance to get to know my first members who are helping me to polish the site.

Beta Testers are in fact Charter Members: first members of the Academy, there will be a special enrolment price for you..  You will be offered the membership level of your choice with a large discount off (either the Silver or Gold Membership – Platinum membership opens later in 2017) – and that fee will stay the same for the duration of your membership!   The beta prices will be forwarded to you in an email in a few days.

So what do the Beta Testers Actually do?

Well they join the Academy prior to the Launch and they make themselves familiar with all the pages and resources.  They are of course also the first to test out the payment structure.  That really is an important test.   If there are any problems the Beta Testers will find them.

What Else do they do?

They test all the links between pages – check out that all the buttons take them to the place they should do.  They check all videos and resources.   They should run up a ‘snag’ list.     It is amazing how many little glitches or issues I might not be able to ‘see’;  which is natural considering how close I am to the site, so your fresh eyes will be valuable.

But equally as important – and this is the fun bit – you get to start the Community Forums.    With me.  The Forums are an awesome feature!

Heather tutoring a Colour Theory class.

Heather’s Masterclass Demonstration for Pastel D’Opale,  France 2014.

Forums!

Oh yes and they are awesome!

There are a few Forums in the Academy but first of all let me explain why I have chosen Academy Forums over a Facebook page for instance.    As a friend of mine recently experienced, Facebook can at any time change their rules or even worse (as happened to her) they can close groups down, with no warning and even less reason.     And then of course there is the simple fact that a properly set up Forum is far better than a Facebook group, and private from the public gaze.

So the Academy Community is an important part of the academy experience.   There are many sub forums which make up the whole community experience, including:

  • A beginners Forum: beginners and improvers in their drawing skills/ and or pastel, where those just starting out and maybe a little less confident can make friends with others in the same position.
  • ‘Say Hello to the other Members’ so that you can be part of the Academy from Day One.
  • A General Discussion Forum.
  • A Core Training Forum; covering all the major elements of good paintings:  Colour Theory, Tonal Values, Perspective, Composition.
  • An ‘Ask for Feedback’ from the group Forum.
  • And more forums will be added as needed.

In addition, you will each have your own totally customisable Profile page where you can add all your weblinks and social media info.

So to be the first to populate the Community Forums is a great thing – and the Beta members will be doing that.

So What Am Looking for in a Beta Member? 

 

Now this is interesting.

I need Beta Members who are both familiar with computers and some who are not particularly computer savvy.  In fact, I estimate a good percentage of people I am writing to right now – might not be computer savvy.  You are equally as valuable to the Academy as Beta Members.

So if you want to be in the Academy at ground level, and would like to be a Charter Member of the Academy – this is your chance.

I am also looking for beta members who take the aims of the Academy seriously and respect the job it is being designed to do.  And from these Beta members there might also be some Academy ‘positions’ which develop – eg Forum moderators, customer service. etc

So How Do You Become a Beta Tester/Member?

I am looking for no more than 15 Beta members.   So this really is a ofgne and only time opportunity.

So if you are interested in being a Beta member simply send  me an email to  heatherharmanartist@outlook.com.  (or click reply on the newsletter that provided you with this blog link).     In return I will send you a mail with beta enrolment information and more information about the beta tasks.

It is estimated that the Beta Group might be invited to join in late November/early December 2016

More news soon.

‘Great Darling – It Looks Just Like a Photograph!’

‘Great Darling – It Looks Just Like a Photograph!’

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 Is Your Goal to Paint Photorealist Images or your Learning Process?

On my Facebook group Pastel Artists Uk some amazing conversations regarding all aspects of the artists life take place.    The issue of photorealism is a current hot topic; in fact it is always a hot topic.

This post is not about pro or against a style of painting.   There are far more interesting issues.  Photography is very much a part of our world and our use of it is important as artists.

So what is photorealism?  And why is it so contentious?   In short it is artwork which is as close as the artist can get to imitating the role of the camera – a photo realistic rendition of a subject.   The opposite of photo realistic work might be Impressionism – an ‘impression’ of reality rather than a photo realistic copy.   
Now as an artist and a tutor I have a pretty broad opinion on the subject; one which comes with age and experience.   
Largely the issue seems to have been seen as cut and dried.    You are either a fan or your not.    You are a photorealist or your not.     But it isn’t that simple.  The issue of photorealism is part of all artists experience.
Above: Monet –  Bridge at Argentuil Right: John Singer Sargent – Lady Agnew of Lochnaw 1893 On the surface these images look ‘real’ but neither are photo realist.  They are both well known paintings which are considered Impressionistic.   Monet and Sargent were good friends and often painted together although their subjects were different.   Some would say ‘realism’ is in the eye of the beholder?

An Artists Beginnings

In this case mine.   I was a child artist and not from a family of artists.  What I learnt was from experience -and I can’t even think of any books that taught portrait techniques back then, but I was not in the ‘art world’.   So what I had was a passion to do portraits and no way of learning how to do them other than from copying from art books of great masters, and trying to do a half decent job on my favourite pop stars from photos in teen magazines.  
My father and the rest of my family loved to encourage me.  I found out early on that approval came from my work ‘looking just like a photograph’!   At that time – 13/14 years old I was OK with that.   They were adults, and knew better than me (even thought they didn’t of course).     Meanwhile I had a mini teenage ‘career’ capturing ‘amazing’ likenesses of my favourite people.   

Steady Improvement 

So on I went – getting better and better at making my portraits look just like the photograph – and eventually with time and practice I developed something more of my style and approach to my work.   But this happened gradually over a few years and almost without my noticing it.  
 I was also by that time researching my favourite artists and being influenced by them – which is inevitable.  ( That meant trips to the library of course)  Dad was still encouraging me along a photorealistic path – ‘Great darling – looks just like a photograph’,   and I began to feel ‘unsatisfied’ with what I was doing.     That was not my aim.    I’m not sure I could have told you what my aim was at the time but it wasn’t to just look like the photo.      He thought Canelletto was the greatest artist ever (his work is very photographic) but I preferred Monet, and Van Gogh and Rembrandt.     But I was severely limited to what I could learn from books I could access as a 13 year old.  
Later on in my research into Pastel I discovered the great French pastelist Jean-Baptiste-Simeon-Chardin along with so many others – whose work remains an influence to this day (portrait below of Chardin – his self portrait).  Probably one of the first to not use a finger blended approach to his pastels.  His work is a total tapestry of light; made up of a huge variety of marks in colour.  Click on the photo to see it in a lightbox.    
 
Chardin - self portrait with glasses 1771 Louvre Paris

Portrait Painters have a Special Relationship with Photographic Accuracy 

 
Without my passion to get the painting as accurate as possible I would not have been able to develop to the artist I am today. But the thing is – I recognise now that chasing photographic accuracy was part of my development and once the skills developed – I gradually moved on;  a natural development.  
It is very difficult to paint the same way – exactly the same way – for 40 years!     In fact were that the case I would have wanted to give up 39 years ago.  But in fact that is part of the idea behind photo realistic painting;  to reach photographic perfection, and once that stage is reached what is next? 
It is good to remember that chasing accuracy to photographic levels for most artists is a skill building exercise.  It is up to you to decide when to move on to other skills and levels of development;  or whether to become a fully fledged card carrying photorealist.    
A budding portrait artist can find it confusing, because of the added complication of capturing that all important likeness, which is all about accuracy of drawing.   Believe me when I say that capturing a likeness is rarely just to do with photographic skills.     Ask yourself this – think of your favourite artists – and I don’t mean those posting on the same Facebook groups as you – but some of the great masters ( I refuse to say ‘and mistresses’!)  of art,  how many are photorealist?     Your favourite artists are a clue as to the artist you might become.   

My Tutor’s Head thinks in a different way

Now many years down the line – I still love Monet and Sargent and Rembrandt, and a whole realm of fabulous women artists which until 1990 I didn’t know existed .   My opinions are not just shaped by my own artistic experience but by my life as a tutor, and increasingly more as a mentor.    I think as a tutor and a mentor.   When someone posts on my Facebook group I respond and react as a tutor and a mentor, and I do it without thinking because I am passionate that the information on Pastel Artists UK is as accurate as possible, for the benefit of the group member, and for pastel.

So what do I think of Photorealism and artistic learning?

This is the crux of the matter for me.
My stance on photographic realism is that too many beginner artists think that is where the ‘art’ is.  The ‘skill’.    It is just one small part of the success of a portrait.     If you a passionate to learn those skills, with practice the chances are that you will.  
But beginners confidence can be very fragile.    When I think back I didn’t develop my skills in the same world as Facebook, where every day budding artists log on and see a lot of work –  good work – some really good.   That can be demoralising on a daily basis when you are a beginner. But that apart, my real issue with photorealism is the idea that producing work which is a photographic likeness is the aim of the game.  Even in portraiture it is so much more than that.  Such skills in artists did exist before cameras were ever invented of course – when the realistic skills of artists was the first consideration; that is what artists did,  but with the invention of cameras, the need for artists to chase photographic accuracy diminished.   So in an ideal world for me – beginners would be inspired by nature rather than photorealism.   Well I did say ‘ideal’ lol.     It is of course all down to the kind of artist you want to be.  Artist or Artisan.
Luckily, like you handwriting, your artistic style will emerge out of your own particular character and personality – for good or bad!  

So I have an awkward relationship with photographic realism.    

Like anyone I can admire some of the skill, but I personally prefer a non photographic approach;   I don’t feel the need to compete with a camera lens, because with experience I realise that photos are all too often lacking – especially in the kind of ‘light’ I portray.  I can only get that from studying nature.  
But as a tutor,   I am all too aware that the issue is a more important one than mere ‘I like’ or I dont like’, or whether it is or is not ‘our style’,   it also touches on how we see ourselves as artists – and how we measure ourselves against a camera lens and also against each other; beginners especially; those most vulnerable to having confidence issues. So realising that sweating over the details is a valid part of your growth process might well be the time you too will realise that artistic development may well take you through many stages, not just this one.   It can be quite a ride!
 
Feel free to add your thoughts on this blog in the comments below.    It is an interesting subject, and I know it affects many of you.
Check out these links for more on photorealism:
photorealism revisited       (video)
I would very much appreciate it if you would leave a comment/question below.     It helps me to know how you see your own artistic development,   aand the more people who engage in the subject – the more interesting it will become!
So Why Am I Shelving My Own Career for a Mad Mission?

So Why Am I Shelving My Own Career for a Mad Mission?

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Why I decided to Put My Own Work to One Side for as Long as It takes to Complete My Mission

Quite a few people have messaged me about this and I said I would explain it better in my blog.

 

Writing, Painting, Sketching &  Drawing, Planning, Photography, Documenting, Organising, Teaching, Exhibiting, Dealing with Galleries, Motivating, Self Motivating, Self Disciplining,  Advising, Encouraging,  Computing………Blogging……….

All these things are part of the life of a modern day artist.     That and a lot more besides.   All that and for many –  you can add being a Mum or a Dad, running a house, weekly shopping, keeping a job, a carer, or caring for family……the list never ends. Conclusion:    Your artwork is often difficult to fit in to you daily lives?   Sometimes you feel annoyed about that? In my last post I asked ,   ‘When did you know you were or wanted to become an artist?’  The response was wonderful, and heartwarming and many of you shared your personal stories.   For some of you I think it might have been the first time you had shared your thoughts and feelings about your work, and for others it was probably the first time you had even thought about the question. But it is important that you do think about these questions – in particular if you are trying to carve out a career as an artist.  ( Even if you are just what you regard as a ‘hobby painter’,   you probably care about your work enough to want to give time to it;  learning time and developing time.) So now is the real big question:

Why Do You Want to Be An Artist?

Lets be honest here – trying to earn your living as an artist is hardly a good game plan if you are looking for a regular income. Some of you reading this right now are probably wondering the same thing – and yet – for what ever your reason, your art is a part of your life,  and a part that you most likely treasure.       And what if you are not interested in earning an income from your work?  Let alone a living wage.    What makes you want to be an artist?

So here is the thing:

I grew up with a multi talented (or skilled – whatever you might call it), Grandmother – you know the idea – whatever my Nanna Ada did – she did beautifully.   During the 2nd World War she was a busy lady;  making clothes for the family, and wedding dresses for those who could get enough clothing coupons together to buy enough fabric to make a wedding dress.   Ada was also a knitting pattern designer, and an expert in knitting and crochet. (for those of you who dont know what rationing coupons were – Google wll keep you busy for weeks! )      Special clothes -even for men. She was an talented florist (the ‘go to person’ for a wedding for sure – she covered it all) – and spent hours ‘wiring’ flowers for lapels and bouquets. Her cooking was renowned – a real home cook of course – eating out was not something people she knew did during those years. Come Christmas – her artistry made the festivities memorable – special pies and Ada’s tarts,   and her Christmas Trifle was something the whole street came to see before it was eaten.  (It was made in a punch bowl). Her Christmas house decorations were amazing and cost nothing. On top of that – she was a Cap and Gown Pianist (in other words she was capable of pursuing a career as a professional pianist and did in fact have the opportunities offered her – but as the oldest sister of a large war time family it was not to be an option – she had to look after her siblings or go to work).

  • Could she draw?   I have no idea, but I took after her in all other things – anything to do with my hands,  came easy for  me. But my guess is that she probably would have been able to draw too, had she not been kept so busy with the necessities of life during wartime Britain. – keeping people clothed and fed.  If she was here today – I could teach her to draw for sure.
  • Did she earn a good living?  Absolutely not.  During the war needs came first.     Some would pay her two shillings for her skills in making a dress – but that was rare.
  • Conclusion – she gave more away than ever she earned or charged for her time her skills and talents.  Some of you will have similar stories in your own family.

It was second nature to her to give rather than charge for her skills.    Now of course part of that is because women had for centuries been expected to give rather than charge, and the idea of a woman having a ‘career’ in working class Britain back then was a bit ‘far fetched’.   Boy have things changed some 80 years later.

Of course the real issue here is ‘Was she happy’,  giving and providing and helping and ‘saving the day’ on many occasions when she sat up most of the night sewing a special dress for a special friend.     I don’t think she would have even questioned her role back then. It was rare that women did.   But this much I do remember – she felt she spent her time wisely – she  loved to learn, and of course back then it was the done thing for women to stay home and she never felt the pressure of having to go out for a wage.   Now that is a freedom many people today would value.

So What Did I Learn from This as an Artist?

Well there are a few things:

  •  It is natural to create – on any terms and in any fashion; at lease it was in my family.  (My mother considered herself the only non creative member of our family.    Not true – she created the fun, the laughter and the chaos which was the backbone of the family.   Amazingly she judged herself as non creative until she took up knitting.   But she did undervalue herself as a result of being surrounded by creative members of the family).
  • It was absolutely the expected thing for women in Ada’s day to be creative.   Homemaking and nurturing the family was expected of women; and that involved a lot of ‘improvisation’ which today we might call ‘artistic inspiration’ and ‘artistic licence’.
  • Being creative and being artistic – are the same thing.
  • I learnt that producing artwork – for me – was and remains something totally detached from financial considerations.    That said I have needed to earn an income.
  • I’ve discovered I cannot do anything without the ‘artists eye’ coming into to play.   Someone said recently that you can tell my garden is the garden of an artist.   Did I think of that?  No.    I do what I do – I cannot see with the eye of the beholder.
  • I can say now that the best work I produce, or the work I am happiest producing, is done for my own pleasure and gratification – not for clients.    (That of course is not unusual for successful commissioned artists to feel that way – one of my idols John Singer Sargeant felt the same, as have countless other artists).
  • I still love to learn and grow as an artist.    I never want to stop learning.   In fact continual growth is up there with my primary reasons for wanting to do what I do.    Just like my grandmother’s passion was for more and more intricate and interesting patterns.

Above All Else: I learned that to be an artist is to value the nurturing role.   This is true of me but may not be for everybody.   Maybe it is because of the wonderful role model I had that I link creativity with nurturing.   It is what makes me a passionate teacher. I absolutely thrive in the teaching role and seeing others develop and progress.   And true to say the older I get the more I realise that the wealth of knowledge I have may not be ‘passed down’ if I don’t take positive action.

So it means that for the forseable future I put my own work to one side and get on with the development of the courses.   The emails I have received from those concerned that what I am doing is career suicide (yes one mail actually put it that way and I understand her point).     But there is no other way and what I have planned re tuition needs time and focus to get it done properly.  A few select commissions I would never refuse, but those apart my studio has morphed into a recording studio.

In a way it is exciting were it not for the sheer size of this project.   But Onwards and Upwards, and if I am lucky I will have a few well trained and passionately dotty pastelists to show for it all in the end.

 

 

And that is what this blog has been about.   My Grandmother has been a lot on my mind lately.

 

SO please let me know if any of this resonates with you.   Did you have an Nanna Ada in your life?     Share your story – it will be much appreciated by many if the last blog response is anything to go by.  Comment below.

Ada doing what she always did
used her hands – this time knitting.
Me doing what I did when
Debs was asleep!  1974/5

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