Talking Portraits with John Middick

Today I’m talking portraits with John Middick.

John is the creator and host of the Sharpened Artist Podcast, the weekly podcast for colored pencil artists.

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.

Amy, Colored Pencil Portrait by John Middick
Amy

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.

John Middick

About Commissions

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.

Intensity

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.

Future Plans

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.

Alessandra

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.

See how John Middick drew this portrait step-by-step in the February 2020 issue of CP Magic.
John draws this portrait step-by-step in the February 2020 issue of CP Magic.

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?

Carrie: It’s very hard to do.

That’s Talking Portraits with John Middick

My thanks again to John for meeting with me. He has a lot more to share in February’s CP Magic, which you can get here.

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!

I'm on the Sharpened Artist Podcast!

Guess what? I’m appearing on John Middick’s popular Sharpened Artist podcast today! How exciting is that?

Colore Pencil Podcast

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 am the guest artist for the February 3, 2020 edition of the Sharpened Artist Podcast.

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.

Why I Switched from Oils to Colored Pencils

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.

Hi Carrie, 

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. 

Blessings, Jana

Thank you for your question, Jana. I don’t mind answering business questions at all.

Why I Switched from Oils to Colored Pencils

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!

Image by Katya36 from Pixabay

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.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

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.

Why I switched from oils to colored pencils.
Even though my primary focus is now teaching colored pencils, I do have a website dedicated to marketing original artwork and promoting portrait work. In both oils and colored pencils.

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!

Yes, I have a website dedicated to my original art, but the main focus of my studio business is teaching and that’s the bulk of marketing energies go.

If I spent just half the time marketing original art that I do marketing this blog, I’d probably have sales.

And then I could answer your question more positively!

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How Long Should a Colored Pencil Drawing Take?

How long should a colored pencil drawing take to finish? Carolyn is concerned about the amount of time she puts into her work. Here’s her question:

Colored pencil seems to take SO LONG, yet the results are satisfying.  Am I doing something wrong that it takes me so long to finish a piece?  I drew an 11×14 dahlia that I photographed in Seattle in August.  I finally called it “done” last week.  Almost 3 months.

Carolyn

I love this question, Carolyn, because it’s so common, and still so personal. Let’s get right to the answer.

How Long Should a Colored Pencil Drawing Take

How Long Should a Colored Pencil Drawing Take?

A lot of factors need to be considered in answering this question. The amount of time each day or week you have to work on your art is probably the most important. If you work on art only in your free time, it will take more weeks or months to finish than if you’re a full-time artist.

In the main, however, five factors determine how long any given artwork will take to finish. They are:

Size

Complexity

Level of Detail

Tools and Supplies

Personal Preferences

Size

Size is obvious. The bigger a piece, the longer it takes to finish. I’ve completed ACEO sized drawings in just a few hours stretched over a week. Lets say about 10 hours.

Similar styles of portraits that are 11×14 take up to 30 or 40 hours depending on what I do with the background.

I once did a 16×20 portrait that took 72 hours and several weeks to finish (yes, I actually timed myself.)

The largest colored pencil I did took months to complete. I have no idea how many hours it entailed, but it was a fully landscaped horse portrait, so it took probably close to a hundred hours.

So a good rule of thumb is that the larger a piece, the longer it takes to complete.

This portrait was 20 x 24 inches on mat board. It took months and untold hours to finish.

Complexity

For the purposes of this discussion, complexity and detail are not the same. When I speak of complexity, I’m speaking of the elements in the composition. If it’s a landscape, does it have a lot of trees, water, a mountain, flowers, animals, etc? If so, it’s more complex than a landscape of only trees and hills.

A still life with flowers, a vase, grapes, a coffee cup and saucer, and a biscuit on a plate is a lot more complex than a still life with only a banana.

If two drawings are the same size, have the same level of detail, and the artist uses the same tools, supplies, and methods to draw both, the more complex drawing is most likely to take more time.

Level of Detail

Level of detail means the amount of details in the drawing, both overall, and within each element. A sketchy-style drawing has very few details and can usually be completed quickly, sometimes in a single sitting if it’s smaller.

Lots of artists who draw from life do this kind of drawing and can complete one or two or more drawings in an afternoon.

But if a drawing has a lot of detail, it will take longer to finish, just because all those details require time. In some case, each area of detail can be like finishing a separate drawing!

This portrait was created in my usual detailed style, it took several hours to complete.
I used the same reference photo for this piece, but since it’s more illustration than fine art, it didn’t take nearly as long to complete.

Tools and Supplies

If you use just colored pencils and no solvents, blending tools, or special papers, it will probably take longer to complete a drawing, than if you used solvents, blending tools, or special papers. Solvents especially are time-savers for colored pencil artists.

So are watercolor pencils. You can lay down base colors very quickly with watercolor pencils if you want to, then let the paper dry and finish the drawing with regular colored pencils. The time saved with the watercolor pencils can sometimes significantly reduce the amount of time needed to finish even large pieces.

(I wish I had known about watercolor pencils back when I did that big portrait!)

Personal Preferences

Finally comes personal preferences. This includes the method of drawing you use—lots of layers applied with light pressure or just a few layers applied with heavier pressure.

Your personal preferences include (but aren’t limited to) the reason you’re making art in the first place, your goals for art overall and for each piece, size preferences, subject preferences, and too many other things to mention here.

Most important, however, is this.

“Colored pencil seems to take SO LONG, yet the results are satisfying.”

Do I need to say more?

So How Long Should a Colored Pencil Drawing Take?

As long as it takes!

Don’t worry about how long it takes other artists to do the same kind of art. Some will finish their pieces more quickly, and some will take a lot longer! Just enjoy what you’re doing and keep making great pieces!

If you find the process satisfying and you like the results of the time you spend, then don’t worry about how long it takes you. The process is as much a part of the pleasure as the finished drawing.

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Where Do Art Ideas Come From

Today’s question is about that mysterious thing called inspiration. Specifically, where do art ideas come from and what inspires me.

I can tell you one thing very easily. It’s not always the same things.

But lets get the question first.

Where do you get your ideas/inspiration? I love drawing landscapes but [don’t always] know what to draw.

I think I’ll tackle this subject in two parts, since ideas and inspiration aren’t always the same thing. Let’s start with inspiration.

Where Do Art Ideas Come From

Where Does Inspiration Come From?

I get inspiration from a number of places, many of them unexpected.

Movies & Music

For example, I love movies like The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and John Carter of Mars.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Epic movies in which characters face huge challenges, daunting hardships and villains of the worst sort, and still come out victorious. Victories often come with losses, suffering and grief, but in the end, their noble deeds leave me wanting to do noble deeds. Most of the time, that means writing something noble, what I’ve come to think of as The Noble Novel.

But it can also affect artwork. A noble painting? A grand drawing? Something that stands the test of time and moves people decades later. That’s inspiration.

I get the same type of inspiration from music, especially classical music. The William Tell Overture (otherwise known as the Lone Ranger Theme.) The 1812 Overture. Bach. Beethoven. Mannheim Steamroller. The Piano Guys! The kinds of music that make my spirit soar, also tend to make me think about making art that soars, too.

Nature

Towering thunderheads provide artistic inspiration. The first snow of the season and also the last, especially if it happens to be that kind of snow that comes down in big, fat flakes that you can hear hitting the ground. Gives me a thrill just to write about it!

Rain. Thunder and lightning. The dramatic and often colorful lighting in the evening (I don’t often see the dawn.) The glisten of street lights on a wet street at nighttime.

As you no doubt can tell, it doesn’t always take much to inspire me.

And the things that inspire can change according to my mood, circumstances, and wellness. But you get the idea, I hope. Inspiration comes from all around.

Where Do Ideas Come From?

Ideas sometimes come from all around, too, but they’re not usually on such a grand scale.

Remember that thunderhead I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago? I have seen clouds that have prompted me to do cloud art. I have drawn clouds both from life and from photographs I’ve taken. At one time, I even thought about doing a series of cloud portraits. I do live in Kansas, after all, and we have thunderstorms as a matter of course. There is no lack of subjects for cloud portraits.

But the Flint Hills also present plenty of ideas for landscape drawings. Believe it or not, the vastness of all that distance with so little evidence of population (not even a glow on the horizon in many places) tempts me to try to capture the same bleak beauty.

Water scenes give me ideas for art. Weather gives me ideas for art. Animals do, too.

So Why Is It Sometimes so Hard to Find the Right Idea?

Now we come to the crux of the matter, don’t we?

After reading the rest of this post, you’d think I never lack for an idea to draw. If that’s what you think, then you’re wrong. I often struggle with finding or settling on the right idea.

Too Many Ideas

Part of the problem is that I frequently have so many ideas that I don’t know which one to do next. They all look so good that it’s difficult to pick one and just do it (which is usually what my husband tells me to do.)

The readers touched on this when she said there are so many beautiful landscapes, she doesn’t know what to draw.

Lack of White Hot Passion

Another part of the problem is that I’m hardly ever aware of the kind of passion I think other artists have when they speak of passion for subject. That white-hot fire in the belly that won’t leave you alone. I don’t remember ever feeling anything to that extent. So I’m thinking, “I don’t feel white-hot passion for this, so it must not be the right thing to draw,” even if it is the right thing to draw.

And sometimes, the problem is that I just don’t want to do the same kinds of subjects again. I addressed this issue in a post titled, When You Get Tired of Drawing Your Favorite Subjects, so I won’t do more than just mention here.

What Do You Do When You Can’t Decide What to Draw?

This is where the rubber meets the road. You can have all the great art ideas in the world and still feel stumped.

I don’t know if these things will help you because they don’t always help me, but I offer them anyway.

Pick Something and Draw It

When you can’t decide what to draw, but you have lots of ideas, just pick a photo and draw it. If the ideas are all about equal, this is a good way to get started.

Combine Two or More Ideas

You might also try combining the best parts of several photos into your own composition. That’s perfectly all right, even if you are drawing a specific location. If you don’t want to do that, try drawing the most significant part of the landscape. A tree, maybe, or a pond.

Do a Series of Small Studies

Something I like to do is small studies. One or two colors of pencil on colored paper keeps me from getting bogged down in detail. If you sketch fairly quickly, you can work your way through a collection of photos in a few days. It’s entirely possible that one will grab your attention enough for a more complete drawing.

And even if that doesn’t happen, you’ll have a nice collection of sketches when you finish!

Don’t Focus on Passion

If you have the “passion problem” that I described, then the best thing to do is ignore the idea of passion in art. Draw whatever appeals to you and call it good. We’re not all made the same. There are different levels of passion and some feel it hotly and some feel it temperately. I, for one, have an easier time feeling compelled to do something than feeling passion to do that thing. Maybe compulsion is some form of passion. I’ve been told it is.

Whatever the case, don’t let the way other people react to their work dictate how you react to yours. If that’s what you’re doing, it’s sure to stifle your natural creativity.

Conclusion

I hope I’ve answered this reader’s question (and that of anyone else dealing with the same issues.) Art ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere and everywhere. At least for me.

I feel like I’ve gotten a bit off track, but this is something I wrestle with on a regular basis, and I can tell you from experience that there have been times when it totally shut down the creativity.

Whatever else you do, don’t let that happen to you!

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When You Get Tired of Drawing Your Favorite Subjects

Be honest. Have you ever gotten tired of drawing your favorite subjects?

Everybody has something they love drawing. That subject is their go-to subject. It comes above every other subject they might ever consider drawing.

Some artists love still life art and assembling the elements of a still life is as much fun and making the art.

Others are drawn to animals and prefer pet portraits or wildlife art.

Still others specialize in human portraits or landscapes or urban scenes.

When You Get Tired of Drawing Your Favorite Subjects

There’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone is born with special interests and everyone gains life experiences that sharpen those interests or introduce new interests.

But what happens when you grow tired of drawing your favorite subject?

When You Get Tired of Drawing Your Favorite Subjects

Don’t be like me when that happens! You’ll end up stifling your creativity!

You see, I’ve been doing horse portraits for forty years or more. For most of that time, I thought I’d never do anything else. I saw no need to. I loved the look of horses, their long manes and tails, the way they moved and even the way they smelled. What else did I need?

Then came my first look at the Flint Hills of Kansas and all of a sudden, the idea of doing landscape art leaped into my mind.

Tired of Drawing Your Favorite Subjects? You may be on the brink of discovering a new favorite.
This is one of my favorite views of the Flint Hills, and the one I’ve tried most often to capture in art. I have photos of it from almost every season. The only thing I lack is a thunderstorm shot and a snowy shot.

At first, I resisted it. I wasn’t a landscape artist; I was a horse artist.

Then I decided to pair my horses with landscapes. That made sense, after all. Horses are part of the landscape around here. A big part.

That idea produced a couple of nice colored pencil pieces, but no more.

Afternoon Graze is the best of two colored pencil pieces pairing my previous love (horses) with my new love (landscapes.) I haven’t given up on this idea, but I confess to being drawn more to the landscape than the horses these days.

Since then, I’ve struggled to draw anything.

Yes, there are lots of fun pieces resulting from experimenting with my first set of artist quality watercolor pencils or new papers. And there have demonstration pieces for blog posts and tutorials.

But what I call “serious art” has dwindled to the point that it’s now been nearly a year since my last finished piece!

So what’s going on?

I haven’t really given that much thought because I have been busy doing other things. Things that need doing like writing and designing tutorials and improving the weekly newsletter.

I’ve also started writing a book based on the best posts from this blog. So it’s not like I’ve been sitting on my thumbs waiting for inspiration.

But a few days ago, a radical thought popped into my awareness.

Why am I waiting for inspiration to make another horse drawing when what I really want to do is a landscape?

You know, when you’re an artist, that’s one of those thoughts that pretty much stops everything in its tracks! You cannot not give it serious consideration.

I look across the room as I write these words and I see the line drawing of Thomas clipped to the sample of Clairfontaine pastelmat.

The finished line drawing for a portrait of Thomas, our oldest cat, recently deceased.

I received the sample this summer but didn’t know what to do with it until after Thomas had passed to the other side.

Now, I have the following dialogue with myself every time I look at the drawing.

“I wonder how that paper would work with a landscape?”

“No. That paper’s meant for Thomas’ portrait!”

And then I remember that stunning thought from a few days ago.

Maybe it’s time to move on.

I still haven’t taken that line drawing off the Pastelmat, but the idea grows more appealing every day.

And yet, I waiver between wanting to keep doing what I’ve always done because, well, that’s what I’ve always done and doing something I want to do more right now. It’s difficult to let go of old habits even when there’s the possibility the letting go isn’t permanent.

I hope you’ll forgive my rambling this way, but I know that when I struggle this much with something, there are others out there wrestling with the same dilemma.

That’s perfectly all right! It’s part of the growth process in life and in art.

So what should you do when you get tired of drawing your favorite subjects?

If you’re torn between making another drawing of a subject that’s been a personal favorite for years (or decades) and doing something new, don’t fret. It’s not unnatural. It may instead be a sign of growth.

Let go of that old habit and try your hand at the new idea. Maybe it won’t go anywhere, but maybe it will. Maybe you’ll discover a new Old Favorite. At the very least, you may discover ways to improve on drawing that Old Favorite.

That’s what I’m going to do.

Let’s try it together and see what happens, shall we?

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Drawing Tips to Minimize Hand Stress

Today, I want to address a topic that’s near and dear to all artists, regardless of age, or type of art: our hands and ways to minimize hand stress. The article is prompted by the following question.

Carrie,
Boy, do I love coloring with my pencils…but I can get a sore right hand. Especially since I have Carpal-Tunnel Syndrome. Besides setting myself time limits, what else helps, in your experience?
Thanks Much, Denise

Drawing Tips to Minimize Hand Stress

Denise asks a great question. Even if you don’t have Carpal-Tunnel Syndrome, there will be times when the repetitive nature of drawing causes hand and wrist fatigue, discomfort or pain.

But there are ways to manage those symptoms and possibly prevent them altogether.

Drawing Tips to Help Minimize Hand Stress

The best way to minimize hand stress is to take breaks. If you can draw comfortably for half an hour, then start to feel stress or discomfort, take a break from drawing every 25 minutes. It’s best if you leave your drawing table or easel and walk or do something else for five or ten minutes because that gives the rest of you a break, as well as your hands.

But just putting down the pencils and doing some simple hand exercises at your drawing table or easel helps strengthen your hands, improves flexibility, and relieves fatigue.

Beyond that, here are some drawing tips that may also help.

Solvent Blending

Using solvent to blend colored pencil allows you to continue drawing with colored pencil, but reduces the amount of time you need to spend on each drawing, and reduces the number of strokes.

If you blend by burnishing, you’re exerting a lot of pressure on the pencil. That usually also means you’re holding the pencil more tightly. Both things cause stress to the muscles of your hands and fingers. Solvent blending eliminates much of that pressure.

Drawing Tips to Minimize Hand Stress - Blend with Solvent

Water Soluble Colored Pencils

Try using water soluble and traditional colored pencils together. Draw with them dry or use them like watercolor to do as much of the work as possible, then add details with traditional colored pencils.

You won’t need to work as long on a drawing, and can cover more area more easily with a brush than with individual strokes no matter how you use water soluble colored pencils.

Mixed Media

Watercolors, inks, markers, and even acrylic paints make great under drawings for colored pencils. Just make sure to use them for the first portion of the work, then add traditional colored pencil over them (none of these mediums stick very well to colored pencils because of the wax or oil binders in colored pencils.)

Drawing Tips to Minimize Hand Stress - Watercolor Pencils

Art Products that Help Minimize Hand Stress

Sanded Pastel Paper

I know what you’re thinking: Sanded pastel paper will make drawing more difficult.

That’s what I used to think, too, but it isn’t true. Believe it or not, the drawings I’ve completed on sanded pastel paper have been finished more quickly and with less stress than similar drawings on regular drawing paper.

I’ve also observed (in hindsight,) that I don’t notice my hand aching as much. The fact is that my brain and eyes tire faster than my hands when drawing on sanded pastel paper.

Drawing Tips to Minimize Hand Stress - Use Sanded Art Paper

The reason is that sanded pastel paper produces an almost pastel-like powder that you can blend into the paper with a paper blending stump or bristle brush. This blending method extends the use of the pencils, and reduces the amount of pressure required to fill the tooth. That reduces the number of pencil strokes you need to finish a drawing and that reduces overall stress to hands and fingers.

Woodless Colored Pencils

Woodless colored pencils are solid sticks of color. There is no wood casing. They can be used and sharpened just the same as regular colored pencils, but you can also use them like pastels and draw with the sides. They’re great for laying down large “washes” of color on sanded pastel paper, and then blending either dry (with a bristle brush) or with a solvent.

Need a fine line? Sharpen the stick with a knife for a chiseled edge.

I use Koh-I-Nor Progresso pencils because most of them are light fast, but Prismacolor also makes a line of woodless pencils called Art Stix.

Brush & Pencil Powder Blender

Brush & Pencil makes an excellent blending product called powder blender. Powder blender blends colored pencil more quickly and completely than anything else I’ve ever seen. You can use it alone, or in combination with Brush & Pencil’s texture fixative.

Products can be purchased individually or as part of a kit from Brush & Pencil. Some of the individual products are also available through Dick Blick.

I have not yet tried either of these products, but have seen them demonstrated and am very impressed. They are definitely on my wish list!

Other Ideas That Might Help

These simple changes in method and technique can also help minimize hand stress, pain, fatigue, and discomfort.

Use Different Types of Strokes

Change up the type of strokes you use. Work with circular strokes for a while, then switch to directional strokes. You’ll still need to take breaks, but changing the type of stroke changes the motions you make with your hand. This simple change in routine helps avoid discomfort.

Also, if you usually stroke with the pencil moving away from you, try stroking with the pencil moving toward you.

Change the Way You Hold the Pencil

Most of us hold the pencil in a normal hand writing position most of the time.

But you can also hold the pencil nearly vertical and make most of the same types of strokes. You’ll also have more control.

Or you can hold the pencil in a more horizontal position and draw with the side of the pencil. This is especially useful if you need to use very light pressure for part of the drawing.

Drawing Tips to Minimize Hand Stress - Change How You Hold the Pencil

Change the Angle of Your Desk, Easel, or Drawing Board

If you work at a drawing table, change the angle of the table top if you can. If you work on a drawing board, put it in a different position. You might even try working with a drawing board in your lap.

Work Standing

Working standing up puts you at a different level relative to your drawing table or easel. Consequently, your hands and arms are at a different angle, too.

A standing desk, a drafting table, or an easel are great ways to work on art and stay on your feet.

Bonus: You keep the rest of you in better shape, too, since you move around more when standing. At least I do!

Conclusion

We all need to be more mindful in how we draw. The best way to avoid hand and wrist pain is to find ways to prevent it.

There are many reasons you might be dealing with hand and wrist pain. The best first step is consulting your doctor to find out why, then treating that underlying problem.

I make no claims on medical knowledge. I’m not doctor! These are just a few things I’ve found myself doing to get through long work sessions.

My Colored Pencil Wish List

Let’s have a little fun today. Something totally off topic as far as tutorials, discussions, and techniques. Let’s take a look at my colored pencil wish list.

And yours, too, if you care to share.

Colored Pencil Wish List

Let’s face it. No artist can have too many supplies.

Remember the last time you went to an art or craft store? All those open stock pencils in their nifty display rack. Sheets of paper, and accessories.

Those beautiful colors are enough to make your mouth water (and that’s just the lacquer!) I don’t know about you, but it’s impossible to have too many colors.

Or too many pencils.

My Colored Pencil Wish List - Faber-Castell

But most of us can’t afford to buy every colored pencil we see. The budget just doesn’t allow for that. We begin where we can and wish for others.

That wish list is what this post is all about.

My Colored Pencil Wish List

Here are other pencils on my wish list, in alphabetical order.

Caran d’Ache

Caran d’Ache is a Swiss company producing a range of writing and art supplies. Their colored pencil product line includes Pablo, Luminance, and Supracolor Soft Aquarelle pencils.

Caran d’Ache Luminance are probably the best known, and they are about the best wax-based pencil available, but they are quite expensive at $4.49 (currently at Dick Blick) for single pencils.

Luminance pencils are available in 76 colors that are highly pigmented and can be used with all the same blending methods you might use with Prismacolor. Their pigment core is soft and ideal for layering.

But what sets them apart is their opacity.

Most wax-based colored pencils are translucent in nature. You can see the influence of each layer of color through all the other layers you put over it. That’s why it’s so difficult to make white or light colors show over dark colors.

My Colored Pencil Wish List - Luminance

That is not the case with Luminance. You can draw light over dark for striking results.

The Pablo line is to Luminance with Verithin is to Prismacolor Soft Core. A thinner, harder pigment core that holds a point longer, and is great for fine details.

Derwent Drawing Pencils

Derwent Drawing Pencils have been around since 1986, when Derwent introduced the original line of six colors. Now with 24 colors, they are starting to step onto center stage with colored pencil artists.

Each color is a soft, “earthy” color. The pencils themselves are bigger than most colored pencils. The pigment core is 8mm (Prismacolor is 3.8mm). But they’re also very soft, so they lay down a lot of color quickly.

Colored Pencils 1

What attracts me to these pencils is the muted colors, which are ideal for drawing landscapes or under drawings.

They’re a medium priced pencil, currently listed at $2.02 each in open stock on Dick Blick.

Derwent Lightfast Pencils

Derwent Lightfast Pencils are brand new to the market. They are specifically designed by Derwent to be 100% lightfast; that is, every color in the collection is lightfast.

How lightfast? The company has tested them by ASTM Standards (D-6901 to be specific,) and every color is guaranteed not to fade in 100 years under museum conditions.

They’re an oil-based pencil that performs almost like a wax-based pencil, with smooth lay down and great pigmentation.

Colored Pencils Pencils 2

The downside?

There aren’t many colors, yet. Only 36.

They’re very expensive. The full set is currently $102.56 from Dick Blick. Single pencils are $2.65 each from Dick Blick.

Derwent is planning on introducing 36 more colors in the Lightfast line, but the roll-out date is still unknown.

But they are on my wish list!

Dick Blick Studio Artist’s Colored Pencils

If you’re just getting started with colored pencil drawing and want a high quality pencil for a reasonable price, you can hardly do better than Blick Studio Artist’s Colored Pencils.

The pencils are available in a variety of sets and open stock (91 colors) for about a dollar a pencil. They are a wax-based pencil, with a thick, soft pigment core, and can be used with layering and blending methods.

I’m interested in trying these pencils both because of price, and because they are manufactured by the same company that manufactures Utrecht Premium Colored Pencils. I think of Utrecht as an old, and respected company, so am interested in their colored pencil products.

Colored Pencils

Koh-I-Nor Polycolor Dry Color Drawing Pencils

I can’t say much about the Koh-I-Nor Dry Color Drawing Pencils that I didn’t say about the Koh-I-Nor Woodless Progresso pencils (see below.) I’ve been so happy with the woodless pencils for general drawing and on sanded pastel paper, that I hope the Polycolor pencils live up to the same standard.

Polycolor pencils are oil-based—another advantage as far as I’m concerned—and are moderately priced below a dollar each for the full set of 72.

Colored Pencils on a Diagonal

The only drawback—and it is significant—is that they are not available open stock. For that reason, they wouldn’t be my first choice from this list. But in my opinion, price makes them worth a try.

Someday.

Lyra Rembrandt

Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor pencils are also oil-based, so they produce less wax-bloom than wax-based pencils.

The closest I’ve ever come to these pencils is having some how once gotten hold of a Lyra Splender Blender. That was back before I knew the difference between wax-based pencils and oil-based pencils. I used it to blend Prismacolor and it worked great.

They’re available in a wide range of colors open stock and in sets. Open stock price at Dick Blick is $1.72, so they’re a moderately priced pencil.

Colored Pencils in two Rows

Colored Pencils I Wish Were Available

More Colors, Please.

The Koh-I-Nor Progresso Woodless pencils are fabulous to work with, especially on sanded art surfaces. But they come in only 24 colors, some of which are of no use to an animal or landscape artist! I’d love to see more earth tones, and “earthy” blues, greens, and yellows.

The same goes for the Derwent Drawing Pencils. Those muted tones are said to be beautiful and the pencils themselves a delight to use. I have only the Chinese White, but I definitely plan to buy a set one of these days. Twenty-four colors is a great start, but I’d really love to see a wider range.

Prismacolors the way they used to be.

Who wouldn’t want that?

I have a pencil or two dating back to the Eagle days, as well as a few that are newer, but still predate the current Prismacolor. I would dearly love for someone to buy back the brand and get back to manufacturing a colored pencil for artists and by artists.

Colored Pencils in a Circle

That’s My Colored Pencil Wish List

At least at present. Who knows? Something new may come along any day, and merit addition to this list.

But isn’t that the way it is with art supplies? There’s always something new!

What pencils are on your wish list?

Tips for New Artists

I know from reading emails and answering your questions that there are a lot of new artists in my audience. So I thought it would be a good idea to share a few basic tips for new artists; the sort of things I wish someone had told me decades ago!

Tips for New Artists

Tips for New Artists

1. Be prepared to persevere.

The real secret to success is getting up one more time than you’re knocked down, plain and simple.

The world doesn’t owe you a living.

Neither do the people around you. You may be the most talented artist since Rembrandt, but even he had to persevere.

2. Develop a thick skin.

From the first piece of art you make to the last, there will be critics.

You have to learn to deal with people who criticize your work, your methods, your marketing… probably even you. They are as much a fact of life as the sun rising in the east. Learn not to internalize it.

Tips for New Artists - Develop a Thick Skin

3. Learn to learn from criticism.

Some of the criticism may be warranted, so you can’t automatically discard it all, but learn to be gracious.

Analyze criticism at face value and glean the comments that will improve your skills as an artist, and in dealing with people (and let’s face it, most of us like nothing better than to shut ourselves up and make art!)

4. Draw (or paint) every day.

Don’t fall into the habit of thinking you need to wait for inspiration to strike before you make art.

Don’t accept the lie that you need large chunks of time, either.

I’ve lived both and know they are not true.

The best way to be an artist is to make art. Every day. Whether you feel like it or not. Whether you have the time or not. Even if it’s just a few minutes to doodle on a napkin, make use of it. Nothing is more discouraging than waking up one morning and realizing it’s been a year since the last time you made art.

5. Set goals.

You’re probably as tired of hearing this as I used to be. Get over it. I had to and when I did, I learned just how valuable goals can be. And easy.

Start small. A sketch a day, maybe.

If a time goal works better, set a time goal. Just make sure you’re drawing for that five or ten or 60 minutes each day and not doing Facebook or the on-line crossword puzzle. They DO NOT count as making art.

I’m sorry to report that one of my favorite activities (browsing Pixabay) also doesn’t count as making art!

Tips for New Artists - Set Goals

6. Develop a system to monitor goals.

Try a calendar with big squares. Jot a few words about what you did each day.

Or try a white board list, or even a text document or piece of paper.

Decide on your goal for the week or month, then decide what you need to do each day to reach that goal. For each day you make art, record the amount of time you spent or what you drew. You’ll be surprised how quickly it adds up.

7. Don’t let your goals rule you.

You may be thinking this is a contradiction. It’s not. Life happens. There will be some days when, despite your best planning and intentions, you just can’t draw or paint. Don’t let it stress you out. That’s part of the reason I like weekly and monthly goals in addition to daily goals. If you miss a day, you can make it up somewhere else and the weekly or monthly goals provide the incentive to do so.

8. Have fun.

Whether you make art for personal pleasure or as a livelihood, have fun.

For some, making art will become like a job and will require you treat it like a job, maintaining regular hours and behaving like your own employee. Try not to lose sight of the joy of art. The reason it drew you in the first place. Take time to nurture that, to grow it as you grow your career or hobby.

You won’t regret it.

Those are my tips for new artists. What can you add to the list?

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When Should You Start a Drawing Over

Ordinarily, I’m not an advocate of do-overs on artwork. Once you allow yourself to start a drawing over, it get’s easier to do the same the next time. Before you know it, starting over is a habit.

I know. I’ve been there. Of all the portraits I’ve painted over the years, I would guess as many as a third of them were started over. Sometimes two or three times. My personal “best” is  four start-overs.

That means I started that painting five times before finishing it!

Sometimes there were good reasons for starting over, but I’m sad to say most of the time, I was just frustrated. Usually because things were more difficult than I liked.

I don’t claim to be an expert on very many things, but on starting drawings or paintings over…. Let’s just say I’ve made it an art form all it’s own.

What to do when You Feel Like Starting Over

Before we go any further, let me assure you that breaking this habit is the best option.

I’m always working on breaking my start-over habit. When I get frustrated with a drawing, I try to take a break. Sometimes it only takes a short walk to get past the desire for a fresh start.

When Should You Start a Drawing Over - Go For a Walk

At other times, it requires an overnight wait, or a weekend break.

Sometimes I work on something else for a while, or work on a different part of the drawing.

Scanning or photographing the artwork and looking at it in a different context is also helpful. Things look different on a computer screen or in a photo. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but always different. That change of perspective is often enough to keep me on track or get me back on track.

Maybe those tricks will help you, too. Or maybe you have a few tricks of your own (please share them if you do.)

The point is that it’s not always necessary to start a drawing over. The honest truth is that learning to work through those periods of dissatisfaction or those Ugly Phases is good for us. We finish more drawings and learn how to handle the rough patches when we persevere.

For more tips, read How to Finish a Drawing That No Longer Inspires You on EmptyEasel.

But…

…there will be times when your best option really is starting over.

So how do you know when starting over is the best choice?

When Should You Start a Drawing Over - Decisions

When You  Should Start a Drawing Over

Here are some of the main reasons—legitimate reasons—I allow myself to start a drawing over. Most of them come out of my years of portrait work and satisfying clients. Hopefully, they’ll help you when you’re faced with the same kind of decisions even if you don’t do portraits.

It may be time to start a drawing over when you’ve badly misdrawn the subject.

I don’t know about you, but some of my worst nightmares began with a bad line drawing. I learned as an oil painter that I could always correct problems in a line drawing during the painting process. Just redraw it in paint and move on.

Colored pencils? That will not work.

And if you happen to have a lot of color on the paper or have burnished or blended with solvent when you discover the problem, you just about have to start over.

From scratch.

With a new line drawing.

An unrecoverable error may be a good time to start a drawing over.

So what is an unrecoverable error? That depends on your preferred medium.

For oil painting, I considered peeling paint an unrecoverable error. I remember one time when paint actually began to flake and peel before the painting was half finished. I don’t recall what happened to make the paint peel, but once the peeling began, there was no way I was going to finish that portrait.

Yes, I could have sanded the panel down and simply repainted the bad layers, but my clients pay a lot of money for my portraits, and there was no way I was going to deliver a questionable portrait. Starting over was the only option.

Colored pencils come with a different set of unrecoverable errors because it’s so nearly impossible to cover up really bad mistakes. Even if you can lift color, you can rarely get back to bare paper. That means there’s a risk of seeing a “ghost” of the mistake through the newer layers of color.

You can’t fix or cover up the mistake.

I know what you’re thinking because I’ve been there myself. A lot!

Mistakes that are just a nuisance in oils or acrylics can be major calamities in colored pencils! Right? It’s so difficult to cover up anything but the smallest mistakes because colored pencils are so beautifully translucent.

I’ve learned over the years that not all mistakes that look catastrophic really are. Colored pencil artists have a lot of tools available that make covering up even big mistakes easier than it’s ever been before.

When Should You Start a Drawing Over - Big Mistakes

And even if you don’t have access to those tools, there are ways to lift and replace color, and cover up big mistakes. 

Read How to Fix a Big Mistake for a step-by-step tutorial.

That doesn’t mean that every big mistake can be covered up or corrected, though.  If something is beyond your skill level to fix, or when attempts to fix it end up making things worse, then it’s time to think about starting that drawing over.

The problem can’t be cropped out of the composition.

One of the first options I consider when I find major problems is cropping the drawing to eliminate the problem. If a major mistake is close to the edge of the drawing, you may very well be able to crop it out, or mat over it. That should always be the first option.

But what if the mistake isn’t near an edge? What if it’s right in the middle of the drawing or in a position that makes cropping the drawing difficult?

If there is no other way to fix or mask the problem, starting the drawing over may very well be your best choice.

The support gets damaged beyond repair.

I once tore the surface of the drawing paper right in the middle of the drawing. Pulled the sizing right off the internal fiber of the paper while using tape to lift color. I thought it was ruined!

Fortunately, my husband (and the Colored Pencil Solution Book by Janie Gildow and Barbara Benedetti Newton) showed me how to repair the damage and finish the drawing.

Punctured, torn, or heavily stained paper, on the other hand…. Those are another matter.

Maybe you can crop the damage and salvage the drawing, but if you really want to finish the drawing as you originally designed it, starting over is the only option.

Should You ever Do a Portrait Over for a Client?

This is really a personal choice. Most artists would answer that question with a very firm, “Absolutely not!”

But my word has always been my bond, and I have made extensive changes to portraits to satisfy clients. Especially if I felt the problem was due to my carelessness, laziness, or something else. That hasn’t happened very often, but I can think of at least one client for whom I not only ended up doing the portrait over; the delivered portrait was a totally different concept from the original concept.

Conclusion

I hope these tales of woe from my studio help your make the decision whether or not to start a drawing over when the need arises.

But what I really hope is that they’ll help you avoid getting into that position in the first place! 😉