Affordable alternatives to becoming “self-taught”

April 1st, 2020

Many amateur artists seem to pride themselves on being self-taught.  But have you ever noticed how few professional artists claim to be?  There are exceptions, and my hat goes off to them.  No fooling. They are remarkable!

It’s true that self-directed learning may seem to be the only option some artists feel they have if they can’t afford either the time or money for formal training, or if they are geographically or socially isolated, as so many of us are now. But fully self-directed learning can be difficult and slow.  The greatest problem with it is that most untrained artists often don’t recognize what they don’t know.  So they don’t know what they still need to try to figure out.

Without guidance from knowledgeable sources, they may be oblivious to artistic principles or techniques that would markedly improve their work.  So unless they discover answers through conscientious observation or through trial and error, their work will be very slow to improve.

In truth, in today’s world, anyone with internet access has little need be solely selftaught.  Lessons, tips, artist blogs, comprehensive art courses, museum collections, on-line galleries, as well as discussion forums are all available.  Many are free; others can be accessed for a nominal fee, compared to the cost of attending a brick-and-mortar art school.  Online examples of both good and bad art abound. The difficulty for untrained artists is to discern the difference, beyond their personal preferences of subject matter or style.

So, although it’s an easy term to employ, claiming to be “self-taught” is a rather foolish act of hubris:  either unintentionally admitting to having limited one’s learning by choice, or failing to acknowledge all the influences to which one has been exposed.  After all, what part might have been played in one’s education by the galleries and museums browsed, videos viewed, how-to books read, community classes attended, other artists watched and listened to, …?   With rare exceptions, these are the teachers from whom most “self-taught” artists have actually learned.

Although the artist may not have received formal training, he or she is still both student and facilitator who decides what and whom to study.  That’s self-directed learning.  But unless the artist has painstakingly worked out the design principles and mastered the medium and techniques in isolation, it’s foolish to limit oneself to self-teaching.

I received little art guidance (and even less formal art training) in public school, but I later found many sites online that offered classes and how-to tips. I learned from knowledgeable friends who were kind enough to point out what I was doing right and problems I should watch out for. Eventually I was fortunate to find a comprehensive online course (Virtual Art Academy) that filled in the gaping holes in my understanding of art, with knowledgeable and encouraging feedback through its student forum.

So I certainly can’t claim to be self-taught! Nor would I want to. Guidance from other artists has been invaluable in my own artistic development.

Now I like to give back to others whose artistic endeavors may be self-directed, as my own were.  Although I completed the Virtual Art Academy course several years ago, I feel strongly enough about its benefits for artists wanting to increase both their skills and understanding of artistic principles that I remain actively involved in the student forum.  And I continue to learn as I review the continually supplemented and updated curriculum, and as I review the lessons with increasingly experienced insights.

If you would like to read more about me or my work, you can sign up here for my free monthly newsletter, “Around and About” in which I always try to share some of my own learning, struggles, practices, and more, including a monthly critique to provide some insight into what works, what doesn’t, and why.

I wish you increasing satisfaction and success with your own work.  And whether you’re formally trained or self-directed, I encourage you to keep learning!

What’s in a name?

March 15th, 2020

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but the wrong title for a painting can stink.

"Zion, Face to Face" by Charlotte Mertz (9"x12" oil, 190701-o)

“Zion, Face to Face” by Charlotte Mertz (9″x12″ oil, 190701-o)

Initially, when seeking a title for this painting, I had been concerned that there might be some question regarding what was casting the canyon wall into shadow. But, by titling this painting “Silhouettes and Shadows” as a clarification, I inadvertently misdirected the viewers’ attention to unlit sections rather than to the sunlit area of the painting that the shadow underscored.

After allowing the painting to rest and resonate with me for some time, I knew that I needed to find a more appropriate title that would both identify Zion National Park as the specific locale the scene depicted and emphasize the lighted portion of the stone wall rather than the supporting features of the shadow and silhouetted trees.

In many instances, artists find it preferable to avoid citing specific locations painted, allowing the viewer to imagine a location based on their own background and experiences.  In the case of a well known or iconic location, however, it is often advantageous to specify it in the title.

In Zion National Park, the names of many of the geological features allude to biblical references.  The new title I selected, “Zion, Face to Face,” specifically cites the name of the park. “Face to Face” may be understood in either of two ways—first by suggesting that the viewer is seeing Zion “in person” through the eyes of the artist, and second by suggesting that the shadow is cast by a second wall facing the one illustrated. In either case, it draws attention to the textured rock face of the canyon wall instead of to the peripheral, shadowed areas.  The phrase “Face to Face” also alludes to a biblical passage in I Corinthians 13:12. For those familiar with the passage, this, in turn, underscores the brilliant light and clarity of the park’s atmosphere.

So the new title, rather detracting from the painting, now contributes to and enhances the intended concept of it.  Can it get any sweeter than that?

The value of comparison

March 1st, 2020

Artists are frequently warned, “Don’t compare your work with others.” And, to a degree, that’s good advice. Particularly when we are first learning to paint, we tend to become caught up in trying to be “as good as” someone else and lose sight of how far our own work may have already progressed in relation to where it used to be. The tendency is to try to become “as good as” someone else by doing what they are doing or by adopting their methods or materials, rather than trusting our own voice and hand.

Although it is valuable to learn alternative techniques and extend our understanding and ideas by viewing the work of other artists, we also need to find what works best for our own approach and purposes. By comparing the quality of our early work with that of other artists, we are often (rightly) humbled that ours doesn’t quite measure up, while at the same time we can lose sight of what’s good about our own work. That kind of comparison gives us a challenge to overcome, something to strive for. But by mistakenly adopting methods or “tricks” of other artists, we may become discouraged because their techniques might not work as well for us.

So we need to be careful when making comparisons.

However, as our work advances and we begin to develop confidence in our own methods and style, comparison to the work of other artists can be helpful.  It can give us a more healthy and balanced perspective on how much farther we have to go, in what areas we could benefit from further improvement, and whether our price points may need to be adjusted to align with work at a similar level.

"Getting to the Point," by Charlotte Mertz  (10"x8" watercolor, #190906w)

“Getting to the Point,” by Charlotte Mertz
(10″x8″ watercolor, #190906w)

Showing my painting, “Getting to the Point,” in the National Art Exhibition (on display now until March 25, 2020) at the Visual Arts Center, in Punta Gorda, Florida, has given me just such an opportunity. It was a great honor to have my work juried into this outstanding exhibition. But it also called my attention to some areas that I ought to pay closer attention to:

For one thing, it brought to my attention how much smaller my work tends to be than most of the paintings on display. So I would probably be wise to consider working more consistently in a larger format, at least on any studio paintings, even if I keep them smaller when working en plein air.

I had framed the painting in a professional but simple manner in a way that complemented the subject, but I realized belatedly that a more elaborate presentation would have displayed it in a better light in comparison to the paintings shown nearby.

And my price point was by far the lowest of all the paintings shown, even taking into account the comparative differences of size and medium. Has the time arrived for a price increase? It would appear so. I have been undervaluing my work! (If you want to acquire one of my paintings for yourself, now would be a good time, before my prices increase next month! Contact me.)

So, without comparing the quality of my work (which is already high enough to be juried into a national exhibition), comparison with the other work presented in the show has still taught me a lot. I loved seeing the other artwork in the exhibit, and some of the paintings deeply touched me emotionally. I appreciated the judge’s comments about why she had selected each of the prize winners (a couple of which surprised me, but which I understood when she explained the reasoning behind her selections). The judge, Dawn Emerson, was also kind enough to seek me out to tell me directly what she had particularly liked about my composition, though it had not been awarded one of the cash prizes.

But perhaps most valuable to me was the opportunity to compare my work with other paintings presented in a high-quality exhibition, showing me that I need to revamp my thinking about the business side of my art even as I continue to further develop my painting skills.

Palette types — pros and cons

February 15th, 2020

Having written last time about how I tend to lay out a watercolor palette, I thought it would be appropriate this time to show you some of the actual palettes I use and point out some of the pros and cons of each type, along with how I have adapted them to suit my own purposes. There are many manufacturers and numerous variations of these and similar palette designs. My intent here is not to list or compare them all but to show you several possibilities and some of the benefits and drawbacks each design might have.

 

Palette---Tom-JonesA standard large table-top palette (like this one by Tom Jones), provides a good number of individual color wells. Many include a fitted lid to help keep paints from drying out. This general design is available from a variety of manufacturers in both plastic materials (some more prone than others to cracking and staining) and ceramic (heavy but durable).

Pros: The large mixing area allows for a lot of free-flowing color mixing and includes enough space that supplemental colors needed for a specific painting (such as the green-gold shown here) may be temporarily added.  I also like to keep a bit of kitchen sponge available for both cleaning the palette and to draw excess moisture from my brush.

Cons: The downside is that it takes up a lot of space on (ideally) a flat surface. Lightweight plastic lids may tend to crack.

Adaptations: If more well space is needed, the larger wells on some types may be divided with “walls” created by strips of hot glue. Paint names can be written on removable tape along the outer edges of the palette.

 

Palette-Cheap-Joes-piggybacCheap Joe’s version goes a step further than most tabletop models by providing a PiggyBack palette that fits into the lid of their large plastic table-top palette.

Pros: The PiggyBack can either hold additional colors or may be used, as I often have, as a slender travel palette, using the lid as the mixing tray. The palette and lid are not attached so may be used separately or set atop each other to save space.

Cons: This setup does not allow space for a sponge. The plastic stains from certain pigments (but is cleanable with isopropyl alcohol). When set on an easel tray, the lightweight plastic (particularly the lid) is subject to getting blown around in the wind.  Note that paint introduced into any travel palette should be allowed to dry flat before transporting or any pooling paint may migrate into nearby wells, as the yellow paint has done here.

Adaptations: I add paint names on slivers of tape between the wells so they can easily be replaced if I change colors. I have also added a spot of white gouache on the lid, and allowed it to dry, for emergency touchups in the field.

 

Palette-Cotman-half-pan-pocA more traditional travel palette is represented here by a Cotman half-pan field version. Alternative Cotman field palette designs may include a water bottle and attachable cup.

Pros: This particular pocket-or-purse-sized palette came with a small #5 round brush, which fits into a specially designed groove next to the paint wells. The half pans allow for a greater variety of colors, and the small mixing wells in the relocatable tray (shown here attached at the right), can double as supplemental color wells. With the exception of a flexible plastic thumb band around the hinge side (which gave out after many years of use), both the brush and the sturdy plastic casing have held up extremely well. Individual, half-pan cups for the paints are removable and can be replaced with half as many full-sized pans if preferred.  (But be aware that not all pans and half-pans are made to the same dimensions so may not be interchangeable among all manufacturers.)

Cons: Cotman paints are the student grade made by Winsor-Newton, so, though not bad, they aren’t my usual choice for colors.  Again, note that tube paint introduced into a travel palette should be allowed to dry flat before transporting. Even dry pan paints should be permitted to dry again after use to prevent spillage.

Adaptations: I unwrapped the individual pans and removed the dry blocks (pans) of Cotman paint, replacing them with tube colors from brands that I prefer, and allowing them to thoroughly dry.  I also modified the setup by adding a thin bit of sponge both under the brush tip to absorb any remaining moisture after use and by taping another piece into one of the mixing wells (thin enough, even when swollen with moisture, to allow the box to close). I also taped a list of paint colors to the underside of the removable panel on the right for reference.

 

Palette----En-Plein-Air-ProThe En Plein Air Pro Travel Palette is a somewhat larger travel setup with more wells, intended to accompany the En Plein Air Pro Travel Easel. (Their standard watercolor palette, which fastens onto a tripod, is similar to the large tabletop design shown above, with a generous central mixing area surrounded by individual wells.)

Pros: This palette has several more wells than most of the other travel palettes I’ve seen. It also provides a bed large enough to store several brushes. And it includes a thumb hole so the palette can be either kept in hand or laid on a flat surface, such as a lap or an easel tray. The well lid cover helps to keep any still-moist paints in place within their wells when closing up after use. And the mixing wells in the main lid have slight ridges between them to help separate individual puddles of paint mixtures.

Cons: This palette is larger than many travel palettes, so it won’t fit comfortably inside a pocket or purse. Although I haven’t used it much yet (it’s a recent acquisition), I do anticipate some leakage from well to well, despite the interior well lid, if the kit is closed up with still-wet paint and not packed flat. This can compromise the purity of the colors in adjacent wells. But that is true of any travel palette. (Staining from this kind of leakage is evident between the wells of the PiggyBack palette above.)

Adaptations: I’ve taped a list of the paints onto the well lid for easy reference, and have included a bit of sponge in the well provided for brush storage. Again, I’ve added a spot of dried white gouache in one corner of the well lid for emergency touchups in the field.

 

Palette-QOR-metal-storage-bAnother palette design you may encounter is illustrated here by the metal box provided with (the larger) QoR Modern Watercolor set. (The small sets come in smaller boxes with both fewer and smaller wells.)

Pros: An advantage of this type of box palette is that I can keep the tubes with the palette for replenishment as needed, along with a few other miscellaneous supplies.

Cons: The temptation with this kind of arrangement is to fill the (shallow) cups randomly with the colors needed for a specific painting. This leads to less efficient mixing and the need to clean off any residue for the next painting, which tends to waste expensive paint.  I find it more helpful to maintain a consistent arrangement, which is difficult to do when the cups are distributed as these are. This layout is also more conducive to developing the bad habit of mixing within or between the home wells rather than in the larger “mixing” well, which offers very limited space.

Adaptations: Note that this palette is currently in transition. As the pans empty, I will eventually move the blues in the second row from the left, up one spot, leaving the quinacridone magenta separate from the manganese blue, with which it now shares a well. The combination of the two colors is beautiful, but it is difficult to keep them from unintentionally blending when they are kept so close together—a situation that occurred when I needed to add magenta (a cool red) to an already full palette.  I have since eliminated one of the less-used colors to make room for the change. Overall, I feel that the disadvantages of this design outweigh the benefits.

 …

Conclusion: Of these designs, my favorite is the standard table-top (or tripod-mountable) style, which provides a generous, adaptable mixing area surrounded by a large number of wells large enough to easily accommodate at least an inch-wide brush.

For short travel jaunts and quick-sketch convenience, I usually prefer the Cotman pocket style palette.  For even easier painting, this palette pairs well with a waterbrush, whose self-contained water reservoir precludes a need for a separate water container and an extra hand or surface to hold it.

For longer plein air excursions, when I am likely to carry an easel and want a wider range of colors from which to choose, I expect to opt for the En Plein Air Pro Travel Palette.

National Art Exhibition Opens

February 7th, 2020

I thought I’d throw in an extra blog this month to let my followers know that my painting “Getting to the Point” is appearing in the National Art Exhibition this year.

"Getting to the Point," by Charlotte Mertz  (10"x8" watercolor, #190906w)

“Getting to the Point,” by Charlotte Mertz
(10″x8″ watercolor, #190906w)

The exhibition opens today (February 7) at the Visual Arts Center, Punta Gorda, Florida, and will run through March 24, 2020.