For most artists, learning to draw with a light hand is an important part of the artistic journey. I’ve heard from many readers who complain of having a heavy hand, so I wasn’t surprised to receive the following appeal.
What can you do if you have not been able to overcome the dreaded heavy-hand?
Romona’s email conveyed not only her struggle with a heavy hand, but her emotional response. How many of us haven’t struggled with the dreaded heavy hand?
I have the opposite problem. My hand is so light that I have to increase pressure to reach what other artists consider light pressure. If you have a heavier hand, you may see no problem with a light hand, but it’s sometimes frustrating when I have to do several layers of light work just to get the same amount of color saturation other artists get with one or two layers!
The interesting thing is that what works for me in learning to draw with a heavier hand also works for those who want to learn how to draw with a lighter hand.
What is it?
Tips for Learning to Draw with a Light Hand
Here are a few of the training exercises I use, and that will also help you.
Change the Way You Hold Your Pencil
When you need to draw with a lighter hand, change the way you hold your pencil. Instead of holding it in a normal way, try holding it at the back.
Holding the pencil at the back reduces the amount of pressure you can exert on the pencil.
You will also be holding the pencil in a more horizontal position, which means you’re drawing with the side of the pencil more than with the tip. That means the pencil is skimming across the surface of the paper, hitting the high spots. Less color gets into the tooth of the paper and that produces a lighter value.
It also keeps the tooth of the paper from filling up so quickly, so you can add more layers.
Work at an Easel or Standing Table
Have you ever tried drawing while standing? If not, give it a try.
Working at an easel or drafting table changes the way you approach the paper, especially if the paper is in a vertical or nearly vertical position.
I was an oil painter for over 40 years, and while I usually worked with the painting lying on a drafting table, I did notice a difference on those occasions when I worked with the painting on an easel.
I have done some colored pencil work on an easel and can say that it changes the dynamics between my pencil and my hand, and between the pencil and the paper.
You don’t need a big, fancy easel like this one. A simple table-top model that’s properly anchored so it won’t move as you draw will let you know whether or not this way of drawing helps you.
Give it a couple of weeks, though. It will be uncomfortable at first.
If you try this, you might also want to experiment with working a little further away from your paper. Oil painters often work with the brush held in their extended arm. I don’t see why that wouldn’t work for colored pencils, too.
Keep in mind that you will lose a lot of control, so you’ll have to find the right balance between light-handedness and control.
Not all of these are designed to help you lighten your hand, but they are all helpful in gaining better control of your pencil. That, in turn, gives you a better ability to control the amount of pressure you use when you draw.
And that WILL help you draw with a lighter hand.
What About a Hand or Wrist Rest?
Typists use rests on their keyboards quite frequently. The rest is only an inch or so thick and you rest your wrist on it. It changes the angle between your hand and your drawing paper, and that might help.
It also takes some of the stress off your hand, and that is always a benefit.
I haven’t tried this myself, but it just might work.
Learning to Draw with Light Hand
Learning to draw with a light hand is a matter of being conscious of how you’re pressing your pencil against the paper all the time. That sounds tedious, I know. It’s so easy to get caught up in the process of creating that we forget how we’re creating.
That’s why I recommend the drawing exercises. You can do those in a drawing pad or on scraps of paper and I believe that if you do them regularly, you will see an improvement in your ability to draw with a lighter hand.
But I’ve used most of these tips myself and they have all helped me control how much pressure I use.
I want to thank the reader who asked the question for today’s post. She wants to know about overcoming new artist fears. Something all of us deal with at one time or another. Here’s her question.
I’m a beginner colored pencil artist stuck in beginner mode mostly due to “beginner fear”. I LOVE horses and landscapes, so I have enjoyed your blog very much.
After many years of owning horses, my body no longer lets me do that kind of activity, so I’ve turned to art. I even purchased your black horse tutorial but I’m terrified to try it. So I practice on things I’m less interested in, if that makes any sense.
I would love to hear from you and learn how to draw horses as well as you. Can you please offer your expertise on learning to draw horses in colored pencil? Did you have this kind of paralyzing fear when you first started? Thanks for any help.
First of all, thank you for your question, Celeste. I understand completely what you’re experiencing. The fact of the matter is that I chuckled out loud when I got to your last question. I STILL sometimes deal with this kind of paralyzing fear!
I actually think this difficulty could more accurately be called “new project fear.” Every artist experiences this moment of doubt or hesitation at least once. Some of us experience more than just once in a while.
Overcoming New Artist Fears
I understand working on “unimportant projects” before doing what I really want to do. Believe it or not, that’s a good way to get started.
You can consider those projects to be basic training if you like. You can also consider them warm-up exercises.
When you do projects like this, you’re getting more familiar with the pencils and paper, you’re learning what layering is all about, and you’re probably even learning what works and what doesn’t work.
After you’ve done a few of these, you’ll find the “real projects” far less scary.
A Personal Example
I recently finished a portrait that took a long time to do. Part of the reason for that was that I was using Pastelmat for the first time for a paid portrait. I didn’t know what to expect.
So I started a second portrait, which was my “test portrait.” Before trying any new technique on the paid portrait, I tried it first on the test portrait. Then, after I gained confidence, I worked on the paid portrait.
When I finished and delivered the paid portrait, I repurposed the test portrait. It will eventually become a landscape.
So keep doing those sorts of projects until you’re comfortable with using colored pencils.
Transitioning to Tutorials
Once you’ve gained confidence with the pencils, transition into that tutorial by practicing parts of it. I like drawing manes and forelocks, so that’s often what I’d practice. But there is no forelock and not much mane on this tutorial, so you might try some other part of the horse. One of the ears, maybe, or the eye.
That blue ribbon under the head would also be a great practice piece.
If you decide to do practice pieces from the tutorial, do them small. 4×6 inches is a great size for studies. You can finish them more quickly than larger pieces. They’re also easier to let go of if they don’t turn out.
And if they do turn out, you’ve gained confidence!
Learning to Draw Horses & Landscapes
As for learning to draw horses and landscapes like I do, that’s no more complicated than making lots of drawings. My art didn’t always look like it looks now. It took lots of drawings, some of which were downright ugly!
Don’t be afraid to make ugly art. Every piece you finish (whether it turns out or not) helps you improve.
Overcoming Those New Artist Fears
Uncertainty is normal whenever you start something new. Making the first mark on a new piece of paper seems intimidating at first. You will get past that.
Start drawing, then keep drawing. Studies, full images, everything.
When you get ready, you can also study with someone whose work you admire, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. I give one-to-one classes by email (you can learn more about them here.)
A couple of my favorite horse artists teach on Patreon. Bonny Snowdon and Lisa Ann Watkins are excellent horse artists and both teach on Patreon.
The most important part is making the start and you’ve already done that. So sit back and enjoy the process!
As with most things, when you first begin, the world is at your feet. The sky’s the limit! Colored pencils are the best art medium ever and you’re going to create great art from the start.
Then reality hits.
You’re much better equipped for that reality if you remember these eight things.
Colored Pencil Tips for New Artists
1. Colored Pencils are S-L-O-W!!!
New products are being developed all the time that can speed up the drawing process for colored pencil artists. Watercolor pencils. Sanded art papers. Great new blending tools.
But colored pencils are still a naturally slow medium, and if you prefer traditional colored pencils on traditional papers, expect to spend hours and hours on each piece.
Especially if you prefer producing realistic work. Take your time and enjoy the process.
2. Not All Colored Pencils are the Same
Aside from variations in labeling and exterior treatment, most colored pencils look the same. Yes, some are round and some are octagonal. Most are wood-encased, and others have no casing at all. And they all look like pencils!
But they don’t all perform the same way. A set of cheap pencils purchased at the local craft store do not perform the same as a set of high quality pencils purchase from a dedicated art supply store.
To keep frustration levels to a minimum, start with the best pencils you can afford.
3. You Don’t Need a Full Set of Pencils
Despite all those lovely, beautiful, enticing colors, you can make a good start with just a few colors. Small sets force you to learn how to layer colors to mix new colors. You may not like all the new colors you make. I can just about guarantee you’ll hate a lot of them.
But that’s all right. Most artists learn more from their mistakes, than from the things that go right.
Smaller sets are also less expensive. If you make a few drawings, then decide you prefer another medium, you can give that small set away without guilt. Or regret!
4. Sharp is Good, but Not Always Best
You won’t have to watch many videos or do many tutorials to start hearing how important sharp pencils are. For many applications, that is true.
But dull and even blunt pencils are also useful in some applications. Try them for putting thin, nearly transparent color into larger areas.
5. You Don’t Need Solvents to Get Smooth Color
For years, colored pencil artists created wonderful works of art using nothing but pencils and paper.
Then someone discovered colored pencil layers could be dissolved and blended with solvents. Solvents allowed color to “soak” into the paper and fill in the tooth of the paper without damaging the tooth.
That meant artists could add more layers, get smoother color, finish faster, and even work larger.
That doesn’t mean you have to solvents. A lot of artists prefer the way their work looks if they don’t use solvents.
So if you don’t like the look of solvent-blended color, or are allergic to solvents, don’t worry! You can still make great art the old-fashioned way.
6. You Don’t Need Fancy Tools
There are a lot of new tools, gadgets, devices, and other accessories for the colored pencil artist in today’s market. All of them are useful to someone.
Most of them are fun to try.
Some of them may even help you.
But beginners don’t really need them. As a matter of fact, adding tools to your toolbox before you know how to make the pencils and paper work together causes confusion and maybe frustration.
Don’t be afraid to make bad art. All of us have done it!
When you wonder if two colors work together, the best way to find out is to try them together. If they do, great!
If they don’t, then you’ve learned something not to do.
8. Have fun.
I can’t mention this often enough.
That’s because it’s so easy to get caught up in the creative process that you forget to have fun. Especially after you’ve been drawing for a while and you really want to improve.
The best way to improve is to do a lot of drawings. The best way to do a lot of drawings is to have fun with every drawing.
Those are My Tips Colored Pencil Tips for New Artists
Keep them in mind as you begin exploring your colored pencils and your art journey will get off to a much better start.
They also work for those of us who have been making art for a while.
All of the original five cats still live with us. Basil, Bing, Bob, Bud and Lou have grown into fine, handsome cats. They are all healthy and happy, staying indoors at night, but getting outside as they wish during the day.
It’s been so hot the last few weeks that they’ve spent most of their days sleeping in cool, shady spots, but I have seen some chasing flying insects and hunting grasshoppers.
In other words, being cats.
We rescued poor Basil with bad infections in both eyes. His mother hid her kittens in a hollow of a tree, and dirt and debris was stuck to Basil’s left eye. When we cleaned the eye, the third eyelid appeared permanently closed. The eye eventually healed, but sealed itself, and we were never able to determine whether not there was actually an eye in that socket.
Basil still has a unique “air” due to the lack of a left eye, but that hasn’t hampered him. Much. He did have difficulty learning to climb and jump, requiring us to rescue him from high places a couple of times. But once he learned how to judge distance, he was fine. He now makes routine visits to the second story windows that overlook a low roof.
He’s grown into a lean muscled, long legged fellow, that doesn’t back down from opponents (even big dogs,) but is affectionate toward us.
One thing he hasn’t done is grow into his ears. They still seem too large for him!
Bing is a small dog in a cat’s body.
And a chatterer. He often greets us as the back gate when we’ve been away and escorts us to the house, talking all the way.
Pick him up and he automatically rolls over to have his ears rubbed. Sit down without him already on your lap, and he cannonballs into your lap. He is definitely not an old lady cat!
Bing went missing for two weeks in September 2019. We have no idea where he went or what he did, but he was in good shape when he returned. Maybe just a little lighter.
He now weighs in at around eleven pounds, which makes his floor-to-lap cannonball routine all the more startling for the unwary!
Bob, the first member of the Kitten Posse, looks a lot like his littermate Bing, but is much more reserved. He still has the dreamy-eyed expression that made him the subject of an old email drawing class.
He spent about a week as the only orphan. When the next two came into the house, he looked a little dismayed at having them in his overnight bed. Sometimes, he still looks that way!
Reserved or not, he’s still friendly and often comes inside to help me clean litter boxes even on nice days. Quiet he may be, but he likes being outside and is quite often the last one to come in. Most of the time, I have to go and get him.
Once or twice, he spent the night outside after mysteriously disappearing at evening.
Bud was the smallest of the original five and had persistent respiratory problems. Despite that, he was playful. I have photos of him tussling with the others, playing around the keyboard while I worked, and napping with the younger kittens.
He was “best bud” to Ember, a young adult female about two years older than he. She was never well, and usually ate best when Bud ate with her. When she died early this summer, Bud seemed a little lost.
He continues to have respiratory problems, though they seem to have settled in his sinuses now. It amazes me that he remains so friendly after all the treatments he’s put up with it. He’s like a bucking bronco to medicate, and hides if he sees us with a pill popper or syringe (even if they’re not meant for him.) But through it all, he remains affectionate.
Lou is still the biggest of the five and tops out at twelve to thirteen pounds in the winter. During the hot summer months, he slims all the way down to about eleven pounds.
Despite his size, he’s pretty mellow with us. Definitely an armful when carried.
He behaves toward the non-posse-members as though he’s boss (or wants to be,) so he sometimes spends afternoons inside to prevent his running the older cats off.
Like Bud, Bing, and Bob, Lou suffers lingering respiratory problems, though nothing as severe or persistent as Bud. A little face cleaning now and again is all he requires.
As of the date of this writing, I’ve been unable to get a good photo of Lou as an adult, but will add one when able. Just imagine Bing mostly white, and you have the idea. They are built a lot alike and no wonder. They are litter mates.
Later Posse Members: Pee Wee and Her Siblings
After the original Kitten Posse was settled, we took in four other kittens. Pee Wee and her three siblings; cousins to the original five.
One of them, Brummel, is no longer with us, but the others are doing well.
Pee Wee is the smallest member of the Kitten Posse, though she’s grown more than I expected, given her poor health as a kitten. If there’s a “teacher’s pet” among them all, she’s it. At least in her own mind. If I happen to lean against the kitchen counter while talking to the chef (Neal,) it isn’t long before Pee Wee is as at my feet, gazing lovingly upward. If I pay no attention, it isn’t long before she takes matters into her own paws!
She also loves jigsaw puzzles, especially rolling around on partially assembled puzzles (while I’m working on them,) and loose pieces. She’s a good companion, but not much help.
Rebel has grown up to be as big as Lou, which is a surprise since he wasn’t remarkable for size as a kitten. He’s not the bravest cat in the pride, preferring to be safe rather than sorry. He gives the older neighborhood toms wide berth and sometimes also retreats from the three older females. He’s also cautious around strangers, though he’s friendly with us.
Make friends with him, though, and he’s all kinds of affectionate.
I’ve tried on several occasions to photograph Rebel as an adult, but he’s shy by nature and photographing a black cat in the shadows is challenging, to say the least!
Sorrowful is next in size to Rebel. She would like to be an outdoor cat, but is confined to the inside, because the outdoor cats simply don’t like her.
She also had one scare with a car (which I saw.) When she manages to sneak outside, she stays away from the street, but we keep her inside for her own safety.
Maybe, once the other Posse Members accept her, she can spend time outside. Until then, she gets time in her own upstairs room with an open window. Complete with all the amenities.
So That’s the Kitten Posse Update
Those orphaned kittens not only survived my mothering, but have grown into big, mostly healthy cats. For the most part, they grew up better than I could have hoped, given the rough starts a lot of them had.
Today, I want to share three strategies for getting things done.
I decided to address this topic because several of you have remarked on my level of busy-ness so far this year, and it’s true. I don’t remember the last time I had so many things going at the same time for so long.
I’m guessing a lot of you are experiencing the same thing, and wondering how in the world to keep everything on track! So let’s talk about three things that help me stay on top of my work load.
Before I get to those strategies, let me set the record straight on one thing: Balance.
There’s a rumor that you need to balance work. I’m not sure what that means to you, but when I hear that word, I see a pair of scales. You know. The old-fashion, scales of justice type scales.
The theory so far as I understand it is that you must give equal amounts of time to each area of work or each task every day. Nice theory. Not practical.
At least not for me.
Most days, one of my tasks requires the bulk of my attention for a short period of time. A week or maybe two. I must set aside other things until that task is finished in order to meet a deadline. In the old days, portraits often demanded my full attention. These days, I dedicate the last week to ten days of each month to finishing and publishing the magazine.
I simply cannot “balance” all of the things I want to do every day and get that Must Do thing done on time. Something has to give, and it’s almost always “balance.”
So if balance doesn’t work, what does? Here are the three most productive strategies I use for getting things in a timely fashion.
Strategy #1: Prioritize
The first strategy is prioritizing: Looking at the things I need to do, and deciding the in order in which they need to be done.
Prioritizing happens at several levels. Some tasks—like the magazine—can be prioritized on a monthly basis. I know when I need to give my full attention to layout, design, and publication and I block those days off on a monthly basis.
Some things are on a weekly cycle. The weekly blog post and newsletter fall into this category.
And then there are daily priorities. Usually cat chores and house chores, but also drawing or sketching.
At the beginning of the work day, I look at what needs attention that day and list those items with brief descriptions. For example, on Tuesday of this week, part of my list looked like this.
I know the blog and newsletter needs to be finished, proofread, and scheduled by the end of the day Friday. It’s possible to do everything in an afternoon if necessary, but I prefer to take my time and be more careful.
I could have added a number of other things to that list, but they weren’t priorities on Tuesday, so would have presented distractions.
When I finish the priorities, I move on to other things.
How Do You Get Started?
Take a look at what you need to do this month, this week, and today.
The absolute best way to do this is to have an ongoing or long-term list. Why? You probably have things that need to be done on a repeating basis and other things that are accomplished over a period of time. Long-term things may become lost in the day-to-day without a long-term list. It’s happened to me!
Block out time to do the things that Must Be Done this month.
Set aside a specific amount of time each work day to work on that project, or block out a few days dedicated to that project. Do the same thing across multiple months for those projects that are too big to finish in 30 days or less. Give priority to projects with a specific due date, like portraits.
Block out time week-by-week for weekly work.
Do the same thing for weekly tasks. I know a blog post is due every Saturday, so I automatically plan writing, editing, illustrating, and proofreading a blog post into the weekly routine. Usually, I give a little bit of time three or four days a week to various parts of it. See more in Strategy 3.
Block out time each day for daily work.
I include cat chores, house chores, and sometimes yard work in this category. I do these tasks every day regardless of whatever else is waiting, so I set aside an hour or so at the beginning of the day for them.
Some basic business-related tasks also happen every day. Checking for blog updates and doing social media, for example. Once done in the morning, and they’re finished for the day.
It’s always most productive to prioritize the big things first, then fit the little things in around them.
Strategy #2: Discipline
Discipline is also important. Prioritizing your work does no good at all if you lack the discipline to stick to your priorities.
I confess. Discipline is my weak link. Prioritizing is easy because a lot of what I do includes a deadline. I know how much time most of those things take, but I have difficulty preserving that time. It’s kind of like preserving the highlights in a drawing. I tend to work right over them!
How Do You Get Started?
How you implement discipline depends largely on your daily routine and your personality. If you work best under a little pressure, set a timer when you start a task, and stop when the timer goes off. You can use an egg timer or a digital timer. The type matters less than having a timer of some kind.
My best advice on this is to figure out how you work best, then devise your routine based on that.
Maybe you work best in total silence or with music in the background. Or maybe you like a visible list posted in a prominent location, reminding you what still needs to be done.
The key is finding the method that works best for you and using it faithfully.
What helps me most with discipline? A 15-minute task list.
Strategy #3: 15 Minute Task List
One of the most helpful things I do is what I call a 15-minute task list. Repeating tasks (like checking websites for updates to install) are on the 15-minute task list.
So are things that take a week or more to accomplish. When I work on a book, for example, I give 15 minutes a day five days a week (and sometimes six days) to writing. 15 minutes doesn’t seem like enough time to finish anything, but it’s amazing how those minutes add up.
What’s usually on my 15-minute list? Checking for blog updates tops the list. I write home every month, so adding to my letter also has a place on this list. When I need to write a freelance article, that’s on the list.
But you don’t have to do 15 minutes. Any short length of time works.
Right now, I’m trying to set aside 30 minutes a day to do a quick sketch or work on a more involved project. When I’m able to do that, my projects make progress. Plus, it’s more satisfying to spend that half hour a day and make a little progress, than to wait for a larger block of time and make no progress because that big block of time never happened.
How Do You Get Started?
Identify the things you do every day or the things that could progress if you worked on them a little bit each.
Set a time limit for each thing. You can start with 15 minutes like I did, or ten or twenty.
Work on each thing on that list for the set amount of time. When the time is up, move on to the next thing.
Those Are My Strategies for Getting Things Done
These are the three that help me most, but I know there are other strategies, as well. What works for you? Share your tips in the comments below!
Dan Miller is the featured artist in the April 2020 issue of CP Magic, and is a great writer as well as artist. So I invited him to write about an art topic close to his art (and heart.) He responded with this article about simplification in art. I know you’ll enjoy hearing his thoughts on this important topic.
Evergreen, Colorado is that magical place situated over the rainbow. Upon arriving 22 years ago, we discovered a land of silvery aspen where bluebirds fly, red foxes hide and each morning begins with a golden sunrise. Away from the confusion of suburbia, I found more time to simplify my work. The true essence of nature became obvious.
To simplify is difficult.
I like to choose a motif and use all of my senses in a thorough examination. Observe the subject intensely and memorize the attractive, essential features. My camera is an indispensable tool in the process. It’s a digital eye that freezes a fleeting moment in time.
I have deep reverence for nature so when I wander alone into a remote wilderness, it’s a spiritual experience transporting me closer to heaven. In order to create an honest representation of the image fixed in my mind, the scenery is simplified while using bold contours and coloring. My drawings are heartfelt expressions depicting the grandeur of the American West.
Spectacular landscapes are much harder to break down because in my enthusiasm to replicate the scene, the inclination is to include every detail. Unfortunately when that happens, the soul of a place becomes lost and the expression becomes complicated and troublesome to grasp.
When drawing a tree, I try not to reproduce every branch and needle. I employ techniques in regards to pencil pressure and color blending while at the same time stylizing the essence of a solitary pine. I break the tree’s complicated shape down into its basic elements, exaggerate the color and capture its personality in an effort to create a more expressive piece of art.
Contrast and Color
If I’m lucky, I’ll dream about a work in progress. Then it’s almost as if the simplification becomes interwoven into the subconscious. In technical terms, the art theory is surprisingly simple. More contrast and colors equals complex, while less contrast and colors equals simple.
I’ve learned much from a deep appreciation of art history. The first cave paintings are sophisticated simplifications that exhibit a graceful elegance. Creating beautiful abstractions by eliminating unnecessary details while preserving the spirit of the whole is something artists have been striving to achieve ever since.
Stay True to Your Personal Style
The temptation to emulate my artistic heroes is irresistible but my artist-father preached from the pulpit of originality. He urged me to stay true to myself and not be influenced by what others are doing. I was challenged to develop interpretations unspoiled by imitation, criticism and greed.
My approach is not formulaic. It’s been a matter of accepting and embracing my natural style while resisting the ever-changing, fashionable trends. An eternal mystery to me is how an emotion conceived in the heart emanates into an eager left hand where it’s delivered by pencil point for all to see.
Spending many years painting commercially to please a fickle audience, caught me up in the competitive affectations of photorealism. A fascinating movement but if executed improperly yields cold and lifeless results. I chose to follow my heart and returned to a little box of wooden crayons.
Learning from Nature as well as Art History
I’ve spent the past couple of decades laboring to uncover a nice middle ground between photo-realism and abstraction. In order to achieve this, I’ve spent countless hours studying nature, art history, science and religion but mostly I’ve worked on drawings. I’ve experimented with different compositions, color schemes and paper, hoping to arrive at a more personal interpretation.
I began listening to the old masters from the past. Albrecht Durer admitted, “As I grew older, I realized that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.”
Hans Hoffman instructed, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”
Vincent Van Gogh revealed, “How difficult it is to be simple!”
The simplification of my style has been a gradual, uncalculated transformation. An arduous process chocked full of confusion, doubt and failure but in the end it’s worth it. For a humble truthseeker like me, it’s been a revelation to discover that the simplest things in life are often the truest.
How Does Simplification in Art Look?
So how does Dan’s work compare with his source material? Here’s the reference photo he used for his CP Magic tutorial.
And here’s the finished artwork.
My thanks to Dan for sharing his thoughts on the importance of simplification in art, and staying true to personal style.
Hopefully you’ve found some encouragement from Dan if you’ve been thinking about simplifying your own work.
Dan is the featured artist in the April issue of CP Magic, where you can read about his artistic journey, life experiences, and see how he creates his beautiful work.
Time for another artist interview. This month, CP Magic is talking art with Carrie Lewis, discussing some of the challenges of being an artist.
Carrie has been painting and drawing since she was old enough to hold a crayon. In the late 1990s, she began doing more colored pencil work, which is now her primary medium.
She blogs regularly about all things colored pencil, and publishes the monthly e-zine for colored pencil artists, CP Magic.
She’s currently in the process of designing a new course.
Carrie is the featured artist for the March 2020 issue of CP Magic, where she talked at length about her art story, as well as presenting a landscape tutorial on Pastelmat.
For this post, Carrie talks about the things that have given her the most challenges as a full-time artist.
The Challenges of Being an Artist
CPM: Thank you for agreeing to share a little bit about what it’s like to be an artist. How long have you been an artist?
Carrie: I don’t remember ever not being an artist. I have a photo of a drawing I did in crayon on the bottom of a dresser drawer, but I don’t know how old I was at the time. The earliest drawing I have was drawn when I was 7-1/2 years old.
CPM: And you’ve been doing art ever since?
Carrie: Pretty much, other than two periods when I stopped. I’d say I’ve spent fifty years (more or less) making art. Mostly horse portraits, but some for myself, too.
CPM: And are you full-time now?
Carrie: As full-time as possible with so many other things also going on. To be more specific, I’ve not had an outside job since August 2009.
CPM: So you’ve been making art more than enough time to encounter some of the challenges of being an artist.
Carrie: Oh, yes! Even before I went full-time, I encountered challenges. Some types of difficulties were the same in both parts of my art life, but some where unique to each part of the journey.
The Biggest Challenge of Being an Artist
CPM: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced when it comes to art.
Carrie: That’s easy! Making time for creating.
I used to say “finding” time to make art, but then I realized that I had the same amount of time every day. Twenty-four hours. The trick was making the time for art by letting something else go.
CPM: Does that really work?
Carrie: Absolutely. When my husband and I decided by mutual agreement to unplug the television set many, many years ago, productive time suddenly seemed to expand. It may not seem like much, but an hour a night spent drawing instead of watching TV speeds up the drawing process significantly.
Even if someone gave up just one night of television, that’s an extra one to three hours of art time a week.
If they stopped TV altogether, like we did, that’s a week full of evenings to draw. Imagine what you could do with five to fifteen extra hours a week, not counting weekends.
The trick to making the time for art is letting something else go.
The Most Surprising Challenge of Being an Artist
CPM: What was the most surprising difficulty about becoming a full-time artist?
Carrie: It was quite a shock to discover that I couldn’t paint or draw eight hours a day!
You see, I’d always had to work around a full-time job. The job was necessary to pay the bills and support the art habit. I’d been successful painting portraits most of that time, and was able to do one a month around my work and family schedule.
But when I became a full-time artist, I really expected to double or triple production. It would be easy! I’d just have several pieces in progress at the same time. I was doing oils then, and would move from one painting to the next while the others dried.
So it was something of a stunner to discover I had, at best, five hours of productive creative time in me. After that, the battery ran dry. Most days, I could work four hours before running out of energy, no matter how many paintings were in progress.
Creating is a very mental exercise and if you work standing as I did and often still do, it’s also physically taxing.
The Most Persistent Challenge for the Artist
CPM: What challenge has been the most difficult to overcome?
Carrie: As a one-artist-show, there are also other things to do. Blogging. Bookkeeping. Inventory control. Customer fulfillment. Marketing. It’s all my responsibility. Until I’m making enough to hire someone to do some of those things, I have to do them.
In one way, I haven’t really given up the “outside job,” because I consider all of those things to be my day job. I just don’t have to leave home to do it.
The real difficulty is not that they have to be done. That’s just a fact of life if I want to earn a living with my work (which I do.) The real difficulty is that I so often find myself back in the position of having so little time for creating art.
And I can’t give up TV, because we’ve already done that!
CPM: LOL, I hear you on that.
Thank you to Carrie for being so open about the challenges of being an artist.
Thank you, Reader, as well. I hope you enjoyed the conversation. You can read more about Carrie and her life as an artist in the March 2020 issue of CP Magic. She’s also provided a stunning and dramatic landscape drawn on dark Pastelmat.
The podcast was created in 2015 and John says his primary focus was offering encouragement to fellow artists. He accomplishes that goal by not only sharing tips and techniques for drawing, but by interviewing other colored pencil artists. Giving them a chance to be heard and encouraged.
John is the featured artist for the February 2020 issue of CP Magic, where he talked extensively about his artistic journey and other subjects. He also provided a tutorial for that issue.
But for this post, we’re talking about his favorite subject: People. Specifically, faces.
Talking Portraits with John Middick
Why Portraits of People?
Carrie: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me, John.
You draw a lot of subjects, but what I think of when I think of you as an artist is portraits. You obviously enjoy doing human portraits. What makes them so attractive?
JOHN: I’ve always been very, very interested in people, the human condition, and understanding people. Faces are fascinating.
But I think a lot of it is because I was so terrible at drawing people as a child, and I wanted to be good at it. I would try it and couldn’t figure out how artists were able to do that.
Back in the 80s, I’d go to the mall once in a while and see artists set up in the middle of the mall. They were creating art right there on the fly, doing commissions of people sitting there or painting from a photograph or something. It was the most fascinating thing I’d ever seen in my life.
I remember someone painting a portrait. Someone’s just sitting there in front of them, and they’re painting and I was just dumbfounded. I could not believe that that was possible.
Now I feel like portraits are just one of the most compelling pieces of artwork. Obviously, it’s my opinion, but there’s just something about being able to depict a person.
And it’s not just copying who this person is.
It’s also showing the personality and showing something that you just can’t get with a camera. I’m fascinated with that.
My mom had to tell me, “Come on, we are going,” because I just wanted to stay there. I was just blown away at that.
CARRIE: You do commission work?
JOHN: Yes, I do. In fact, somebody just contacted me about doing a cat. I do animals once in a while. I will do just about any commission somebody asks me to do, and I have a good photo reference. Or preferably I can take the reference photos myself.
But mostly I do portraits with commissions, but I’ll do the occasional cat or dog or something like that. Or a farm or something like that.
I love doing commissions, too. A lot of people don’t like it and talk about how awful it is, and there can be a downside. But there’s something exciting about giving that piece of art to the individual after it’s all completed. They love it and some fall apart.
Carrie: I’ve had that happen to me more than once. It’s such a good feeling.
John: You can’t replace it.
Carrie: No you can’t. Sometimes it’s worth more than money.
John: I’m not getting rich on doing commissions. You’re not going to really make a whole lot doing portraits , some artists I guess would. But there’s a reward to being an artist that has nothing to do with money. I don’t know about anyone else, but I need to be stroked once in a while; to feel good about what I do.
Carrie: What plans do you have for future works?
John: I have a series I’m about to start working on that I’m so excited about. And I’m hoping I can execute on this. I should be able to between teaching and things I’m doing, but I want to show people with technology.
I’ve always thought it was interesting that every time we adopt some new little innovation in technology, all of us as a species start using these things in some interesting ways.
Like one time I was at one of my daughter’s basketball games. Everyone was standing up with these huge iPads. All these parents right in a row taking pictures and videos with their iPads.
Carrie: And now it’s cell phones.
John: Yeah, yeah, they use cell phones. Used to be the flip phone, they would bring out their flip phone at a wedding trying to take pictures.
So I’m the weirdo in the audience. I usually have my camera and I’m taking pictures of people taking pictures of people using cell phones. I’m trying to make a series now out of that because I’ve been collecting reference images for a long time.
Carrie: Is this series going to be serious?
John: That’s a good point. It could be whimsical. I don’t know. I think it will be more of a focus on the person.
I’ve got this huge folder of files, and I’m hoping I can pick out some things that are interesting enough. My challenge is figuring out how to make this about the person and not about the object that they’re interacting with.
Carrie: Long-term series or just a few pieces?
John: I’m thinking it’ll probably be a long-term series. I’ve never really done anything like that.
I’m always impressed when somebody has a very nice cohesive body of work. Some of the other colored pencil artists have been working in the medium for a while. I like that. I always had that goal, but I’m always doing other things like teaching classes and writing courses. I feel like I don’t take enough time for my own artwork.
And so I’m going to try to do that. That’s where I am right now. But it’s hard to do, isn’t it?
Don’t forget about the Sharpened Artist Podcast, and if you really want to dive deep into portrait drawing, John’s Face Value course is just what you’re looking for. There is a waiting list for the course, but you can add your name to the waiting list here. John tells me the course opens one time per year and will be opening soon in 2020. For more info or to reserve your spot go here!
Guess what? I’m appearing on John Middick’s popular Sharpened Artist podcast today! How exciting is that?
Cincinnati, Ohio artist, John Middick created the Sharpened Artist Podcast in the summer of 2015. A weekly audio show dedicated to colored pencil, the podcast reaches artists of all skill levels across the country and around the world.
“The biggest reason I started the podcast is to help encourage new colored pencil artists, and provide tips and techniques to learn this new medium,” Middick says. “I was also able to give a voice to many colored pencil artists through artist interviews.”
Middick interviews colored pencil artists who are working on their art in isolation. The public sees their work and knows them by name, but rarely gets to meet them. And they don’t often get to meet each other.
“Hearing their voice created an intimate experience for the listener,” Middick goes on to say. “I quickly started getting listeners emailing me talking about how they felt like they were getting to know the artist’s behind the artwork.”
I’ve listened to the podcast for a long time, and have been encouraged and instructed by many episodes. So it’s a special treat to be able to give back to the podcast and its listeners.
John and I talked about my artistic journey, colored pencils in general, and the artist’s life. I hope you’ll join us. I’ve designed a very special and hopefully helpful giveaway to accompany the podcast.
Jana wants to know why I switched from oils to colored pencils, and if I’ve noticed one sells better than the other? Here are Jana’s questions.
These are business related questions instead of technical ones, so if you choose not to use them on your December questions posts, I will understand.
1. Why did you switch to colored pencil from oils? I ask this because I went the opposite direction.
2. Do your colored pencil pieces sell as well as your oils did?
Your blog with all its tips and helps is so interesting to me because you reinforce much of what I tell my drawing students. Since I teach primarily how to draw with pencil, it is only my more advanced students who go to colored pencil, so I read your blog to be sure I am not leading anyone astray. (It has been about 15 years since I was active in the CPSA or used colored pencils other than as accents to my graphite.)
Thank you for your thoroughness and clarity.
Thank you for your question, Jana. I don’t mind answering business questions at all.
Why I Switched from Oils to Colored Pencils
I’ve addressed this subject more than once in the past, including a similar question earlier this month. But I wanted to answer this question because it also includes a question about sales.
And every artist trying to turn their artwork into money wants to know about sales!
I switched from oil painting to colored pencils for two main reasons, with about twenty years between the the first reason and the second.
Chapter 1: Convenience
For over forty years, I painted portraits of horses. I was an oil painter because that’s the medium I learned as a preteen and teen. By the time I sold my first portrait at 17-years-old, I’d already been painting for several years. Continuing to oil paint was never a question. I often told people I’d retire when I fell face down in my palette!
Part of my marketing strategy (if you care to use such lofty terms) was attending horse shows and trade shows. Michigan hosted two big shows every year. The Lansing Stallion Expo in March and the North American Horse Spectacular in Novi every November. For many years, I attended both with a collection of paintings and drawings, but my primary goal was lining up portrait work.
I saw artists working at those shows and thought it would be cool, but oil paints are such a nuisance to travel with. They pack all right if you don’t take everything in the studio, but working on a painting in public is risky, and getting wet paintings home safely is no picnic either.
So in the 1990s I started looking for another medium that traveled better. I wanted something that could produce oil painting-like results, high levels of detail, gorgeous color, AND was easy to transport and use on location. Pastels were out because I’d already tried those and disliked them, so colored pencils were the only choice.
I intended to continue oil painting. Colored pencils gave me a second medium to offer clients, but I really preferred to work in oils.
Most clients chose oils, but some preferred colored pencils. One couple even opted for watercolor colored pencils. Talk about a step outside my comfort zone!
Chapter 2: Changing Focus
Eventually, portrait work tailed off. I think the move to Kansas had a lot to do with that. Most of my clients were from Michigan and I had been active with the Michigan Harness Horseman’s Association since the second year it hosted a benefit art auction. Many clients purchased their first portraits there and some of them became repeat customers.
Kansas isn’t that far away from Michigan, but it was too far to make the trip to the MHHA auction every January. I continued participating, but by long distance. Then they canceled the auction.
After that, it didn’t seem to matter what I did, I couldn’t sell a portrait to save my life. The last portrait was completed in 2016. An oil portrait for which there’s a moving story. But still the last portrait.
Back then, colored pencils were just starting to catch on, thanks to adult coloring books. I enjoyed them. They were a lot easier to manage in my studio (which is one corner of what should be the dining room,) and they were still portable. My husband played in the Wichita Community Band and I could take pieces to work on during weekly practices.
So colored pencils became my primary medium.
Long Story Short
(I know. Too late for that, isn’t it?)
A decision that began as a matter of convenience became a matter of finding a marketing niche twenty years later. Simple as that.
I haven’t completely given up on oil painting. I still love the process, the colors, the results, and even the smells. But let’s be honest. With cats and kittens in the house, it just doesn’t make sense to try oil painting!
Maybe some day I’ll get back to it.
That’s why I switched from oils to colored pencils. Now about selling original art….
Oil Painting Versus Colored Pencils in Art Sales
The other part of Jana’s question is about sales. Have I noticed one medium outselling the other?
The cold hard truth is that my originals aren’t selling. At all. Any of them.
It’s been a couple of years since I sold original work and those were mostly ACEOs through eBay. Most of those were oil paintings, but mostly because that’s what most of my ACEOs were.
Now, before you begin feeling sad for me, let me add that my work doesn’t sell because, quite frankly, I don’t market it!