Painting the Self Portrait Step by Step

This morning seemed the perfect time to start my self portrait. Dawn was bright and the air outside a crisp 4 degrees Fahrenheit, so why not stay inside and fiddle with paints? Things turned out far better than I had anticipated. For those of you unfamiliar with watercolor painting, it’s done in stages, starting with the lightest and most translucent colors. Each wash gets gradually darker, and if you go too dark too fast, there’s only so much “erasing” you can do, because painting over something lighter doesn’t work — the darker color always shows through. So watercolors are fairly unforgiving. But I’ve found through the years of dabbling in it that I’m so drawn to watercolors done well, so I keep on trying to get better.

I thought it might interest you to see how one gets from a drawing through the various washes to the final product, so…

First there's a light line drawing (too much pencil shading can destroy a watercolor painting, so the key is to stop before you think you should).
First there’s a light line drawing (too much pencil shading can destroy a watercolor painting, so the key is to stop before you think you should). This photo distorts the drawing a bit on the squatty side. Better angles on the rest…
Next lay a light wash (you can always go darker). Mine is a mixture of burnt sienna and alizarin crimson.
Next lay a light wash (you can always go darker). Mine is a mixture of burnt sienna and alizarin crimson.
I added cobalt blue to the skin mixture to get the tone for the shadows and used a darker wash of the original, with a bit more of the red, for the lips.
I added cobalt blue to the skin mixture to get the tone for the shadows and used a darker wash of the original, with a bit more of the red, for the lips.
Cobalt blue for the eyes, starting light. I'll add some payne's gray to the blue in a later wash.
Cobalt blue for the eyes, starting light. I’ll add some payne’s gray to the blue in a later wash.
This is where I figured I'd really mess up. When you first start adding dark colors it's a little nerve wracking because they are so hard to fix if something goes wrong.
This is where I figured I’d really mess up. When you first start adding dark colors it’s a little nerve wracking because they are so hard to fix if something goes wrong.
Now for the hair. Lay in the lighter warm highlights first. I used raw umber for mine. I also darkened the lips a bit at this point.
Now for the hair. Lay in the lighter warm highlights first. I used raw umber for mine. I also darkened the lips a bit at this point.
Here's where I really started thinking this would not work. The hair just didn't feel as nicely rendered as the face, though I knew most of it would get swallowed up by the black background eventually. The reddish brown tones in my hair are done with burnt sienna. The darker the color the less water I mixed in.
Here’s where I really started thinking this would not work. The hair just didn’t feel as nicely rendered as the face, though I knew most of it would get swallowed up by the black background eventually. The reddish brown tones in my hair are done with burnt sienna. The darker the color the less water I mixed in.
Now we start to get the background color and the shirt color. With such a dark background, you can see the flesh tones started to look too light, so I had to go back in and darken them.
Now we start to get the background color (a mixture of payne’s gray and burnt sienna) and the shirt color. With such a dark background, the flesh tones started to look too light, so I had to go back in and darken them. I also added more of the crimson to my cheeks.
Here is the final product. I kept going back in and adding more shadow to counteract the dark background. Not sure I'm quite happy with the way the hair darkens and blends with the background, but overall it did turn out better than I thought it would. And with watercolor you have to be careful of not going too far. You have to quit while you're ahead sometimes.
Here is the final product. I kept going back in and adding more shadow to counteract the dark background. Not sure I’m quite happy with the way the hair darkens and blends with the background, but overall it did turn out better than I thought it would. And with watercolor you have to be careful of not going too far. You have to quit while you’re ahead sometimes.

And because it’s so fun to see a reference photo and a painting side by side…

Side by side, I can see where I went a little astray with the eyes. But, all in all, not too shabby, I think!
Side by side, I can see where I went a little astray with the eyes — one looks further back in my head than the other. But, all in all, not too shabby for the first try. I’m amazed I got the colors as close as I did.

You can definitely tell I am not a professional! But it’s a fun hobby to pull out now and then. Now the perennial problem…what do I do with it?

A Self Portrait Photo Reference

When thinking rather halfheartedly about the new year I mentioned in this space that I might try to paint a self portrait in 2016. To that end I thought I ought to take a reference photo to guide me (looking in the mirror and moving all around doesn’t seem wise for a beginner like me — come to think of it, the whole thing may be a disaster). I think I have one I like…

Self Portrait Reference Photo

I have only now to decide whether I might like to make this even more interesting by trying out oil paints for the first time rather than watercolors. The dark background would certainly be easier in oils, though the skin would be easier in watercolor. Maybe I’ll start with a watercolor study and then do one in oils.

But don’t expect too much of me. It’s Ash Wednesday and today of all days I am more keenly aware of my limitations and all the ways I fall short. I’ve had some success in the distant past drawing human beings, but never painting them. I haven’t decided yet whether to show you the results of my efforts if they turn out catastrophically bad…

“Wasting” Time to Awaken Your Inner Creative Spark

While I spent most of my time in Albuquerque writing, one workshop I did attend was Kimberly Brock’s Tinderbox Workshop. Before we all packed for the trip, our Retreat Planner & Organizer Extraordinaire Orly Konig-Lopez told us what we should bring: a journal or notebook, magazines and glue, stickers and interesting paper, markers and pencils. It was clear that this workshop would have less to do with writing than most offered at writers conferences or retreats. As I had recently purged my house of unwanted magazines (see earlier posts on decluttering in anticipation of listing our house for sale in the future) I decided to bring my watercolors and some pastels.

I won’t go into details about the workshop content (except to say that if you have a chance to be in a Kimberly Brock workshop you should take it) but I will say that she had to assure participants that they were not “wasting time” by not writing and that there was not a “right way” to do the exercises. I’ll share a page from the journal I was working on as she spoke about creativity:

Underneath that collage is a pretty simple painting of a face with colors coming out from all angles — my interpretation of what Kimberly was talking about. When she said we were going to start covering it up with collage, I said to myself, “Um, no. I will not be doing that. Thank you very much.” I was happy with what I’d painted and drawn and I wasn’t about to obscure it with things pulled from magazines.

But then I did. And it was fun. It’s been a while since I did any sort of collage and it was pretty fun finding images and words that inspired me and went along with some of the concepts Kimberly was talking about.

When I got home, I didn’t want to put my paints away. The retreat was held at Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town, a beautiful space that really got under my skin in a good way. So I decided to paint one of the pretty outdoor spaces: the pavilion. Friday night we all ate BBQ under here and Saturday there was a gorgeous wedding in this space. But it was most beautiful to me when it was empty of people and dappled with sun and shadows.

It’s funny how creativity works. I went to New Mexico to write, to learn, and to meet other writers. Bringing paints was definitely not part of my original plan. Neither was collage. But I came home with a heart and mind full of the place and a bit of dormant creative spirit unleashed. So now I not only find myself painting, I’m also plotting a novel set in our hotel, with an ensemble cast drawn from some of the people I saw (and many more I am imagining). Opening the door to one part of your mind often lets in enough wind to blow open other doors.

When was the last time you let yourself just fool around with art supplies for a few hours? When was the last time you allowed yourself time to just have fun doing something kind of mindless, like you did when you were a kid? My guess is that it has probably been too long.

So when are you going to start?

Lessons We Can Learn Halfway to Black Belt

Last weekend our son was awarded his red belt in karate (which is just our shorthand for the real name of the marital arts system he practices — the American Advanced Combat System — which was developed by Sensei Dan Timlin and is based on Bruce Lee’s system of Jeet Kune Do). At his dojo, this means he has moved up to the advanced class, and he’s still just six years old.

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When we started him in martial arts about a year and a half ago (largely due to his obsession with TMNT and ninja stuff in general) we talked to him about the investment of time and money it would entail, about how when we start something, we don’t just quit when we get bored or tired of it.

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We needn’t have said a word about it because his enthusiasm and dedication has not waned one iota. The young guy next to him in the photos above and below is one of his instructors. He’s a fantastic teacher and incredible to watch on the academy’s demonstration team. He was just sixteen when Calvin started as a white belt in the basic class. He started at the dojo at age eight. When Calvin is eight, he will already be a black belt. When I think of my son someday being able to do the things that this young man does, I get giddy with anticipated pride.

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Now, I’m posting about this partially to share my joy in my son’s dedication and his achievements. But it’s not all about bragging (it is a little about bragging).

It’s also about persistence and drive and dedication to an art. It’s so easy to start something big and then quit when we feel like we’re not making enough progress. Calvin could have watched his teacher do incredible takedowns and disarms and flying kicks and thought to himself, “I’ll never be able to do that. It looks too hard and I don’t think I’m fast enough or strong enough.” But he didn’t. He saw some majorly cool moves and thought to himself, “I want to do that.” And then patient and caring teachers came alongside him and said, “You can do that — but it takes discipline, training, and focus, and we’ll help you get there.”

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And his parents came alongside and gave him encouragement, took him to practice three nights a week, reinforced the lessons he was learning at the dojo, trained with him at home. Because while in some ways martial arts are an individual sport, no one learns best in complete isolation.

What about you? Are you trying to write all on your own? Trying to figure out your camera all on your own? Trying to figure out how to make a certain effect in a painting or Photoshop or a recipe all on your own? What are you trying to do solo that would be easier if you had support, if you had a teacher or a more experienced friend who could answer your questions?

It’s tempting to do art alone, especially if you’re an introvert. And there are plenty of opportunities to practice alone, and that’s not bad. But who do you have who can encourage you and help you adjust your technique if you’re doing it wrong or perhaps just not the easiest or most efficient way?

When I went out to take pictures of the aurora on Saint Patrick’s Day, it was a friend who told me that the aurora was active. That same friend was there when I had questions about how best to photograph them because he and I once had almost the exact same camera. There were a few things I had to figure out by myself, but he was there on the other end of the phone when I had questions. And when I posted a photo on Facebook, he was the first to compliment me on it. How encouraging!

In my writing, I have two great groups of writers who can encourage me to stick it out when the going gets rough and who can share expertise and advice. One is online (Women’s Fiction Writers Association) and one is in the flesh (Capital City Writers Association). Another writing community that is so instructive and encouraging is Writer Unboxed. Beyond that, my husband and a few close friends serve as encouragers, first readers, and sounding boards.

You can do so much more and so much better work when you have a community of like-minded individuals supporting you. If you quilt, join a quilting group or guild. If you paint, organize outings to paint plein air. If you love to bake, create your own informal school or throw a recipe sharing party. If you write poetry, find a local place that can host readings and put the word out to poets in your area. If you’re a musician, schedule a jam session.

When things get tough and your art won’t cooperate or you’ve faced rejection, that’s when you need support. And you’ll find that if you cultivate a community intentionally, that support will be there for you the moment you need it. Those people will keep you from quitting, they’ll celebrate your successes with you, they’ll help you grow, and they’ll feed your desire to succeed.

Your initial passion and intensity may come from within…

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…but you can bet that it’s easier to maintain when others are there to hold you up.

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Overcoming the Fear of Inadequacy

This is a picture of my son.

CalvinSelfPortraitMarch2013Age4

It is a self portrait made back in March when he was still four years old, sent home in his personal file when he left his daycare/preschool and started kindergarten. Being four, this is as skilled as his self-portrait could be, even though I know he really sees himself more like this:

Do you ever feel like your talent may not live up to your own expectations?

Does that fear keep you from trying something great?

In almost any creative endeavor, we have an idea of what we want the end result of our efforts to be. The knowledge that our labors–our writing or painting or sculpting or songwriting or drawing in crayon–may never quite live up to the perfect standards we have in our heads can keep us from trying. One can feel paralyzed by potential.

But one must still write. One must still create.

My son may not be a real ninja turtle, but he is taking karate lessons.

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If you don’t try, you can’t fail. But if you don’t try, you can’t succeed either.

You’ve got to start somewhere.

Portrait by an Artist of a Young Man

This is my son, done in acrylics by a wonderful artist, friend, and consummate storyteller named Tiffany McGillie.

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You can view and purchase her work at her Etsy store. I commissioned Tiffany to paint this as a Father’s Day gift for my dear husband, Zachary. This is the first painting I’ve commissioned and the first I’ve purchased directly from an artist. It will not be the last.