Back to School

The list of art education I’ve had would fit on that little piece of paper inside a fortune cookie. Besides my high school art classes, I am mostly self taught. I went to college, but not for an art-related degree. I changed my major 4 different times while at West Virginia University and ultimately earned a Regents Bachelor of Arts degree which is basically a piece of paper that says that I earned enough credits (in multiple areas) to graduate. I like to say I know a little about a lot, but my parents don’t think its very funny considering they were footing the bill. My brothers had been very successful in college and went on to have great careers. I wanted to be successful at something, I just didn’t know what that something was. Making a living as an artist was the furthest thing from my mind even though I was constantly drawing and doodling on the sides of all my class notes.

After college, I ended up working as an administrative secretary at the College of Creative Arts, in the art department. I was still drawing, doing portrait work and even illustrated a book! At one point I asked one of the painting professors if I could sit in on a class and he graciously obliged. No credit, no grade, just taking a class because I wanted to learn. I never missed a class. I learned how to build and prep a canvas, how to blend colors, the importance of an underpainting and so much more. I also learned that I LOVED to paint. It wasn’t just fun, it was peaceful and helped calm my mind. My very first painting was a still life.

First oil painting, 2009
My first paintings hanging in a very prestigious gallery, our shed.

Since then I’ve done mostly portrait commissions and that is something I will always do, but I’m excited to explore different ways to express my creativity. I’ve actually already blogged on that topic here. But where do I start? I have a sketch book full with ideas, but which one do I pick? What if it is a total flop? What do I have to say? I’m a wife and mother, my day consists of packing bookbags and planning dinner, what could I paint that would be of any interest? So I decided to go back to school in a sense and paint a still life. My subject matter? Something I’m constantly surrounded by – my kids toys, and more specifically, their play food. This will be part of a series of toy still life paintings that I will eventually hang up in the kids room in a gallery style.

Toy Food
Still life, acrylic

I enjoyed applying those techniques I learned almost 10 years ago and I plan on doing a lot more painting. College is out of the cards for me now, but I don’t need a formal education to do what I love. Every artist is constantly learning and practicing. That process never truly ends and I’m excited to see where it takes me next.

The still life set-up
The reference photo
The underpainting
Finished and framed

The unfinished side of me

My husband likes to remind me that when I first decided to blog he had to talk me down from doing my planned 365 creative project (an art project, everyday, and then blog about it . . . for a year). At first I was offended, “What, you don’t think I can do that?!” and then I glanced over at my 3 year old who was going on day 3 of wearing the same socks . . . I have a real ‘shoot for the moon’ approach to my work but sometimes its just not practical.

I have been at a standstill (in terms of doing art) since the end of February, mostly because my youngest was given the opportunity to attend a great school that started this summer. When we found out she got accepted I decided to spend that precious time with her. Three year olds can be a handful but I love hanging out and experiencing life with my girl. I’m still grappling with not having her at home everyday.

I recently started following creative blogger Austin Kleon. He is a successful blogger, artist and author. He describes himself as a writer who draws. His most recent post spoke to me. He highlighted a quote from Kathryn Schulz, a staff writer for The New Yorker, that really resonated with me.

“For me, the engine of writing is almost always ignorance. I write to figure out what I think.”

I realized in the few posts I wrote that I learned quite a bit about myself through my writing and also my creative work. I’m not writing about what I know, I’m writing to find out. While writing my last blog post titled Mother of Angels, I realized I was finding out how I felt about my own experience with miscarriage; something that up until that point I had refused to confront. I was emotionally exhausted after that piece which is another reason why I took some time away.

During that time I did a few commissions here and there. A family member proposed a project to me. He and his wife had spent New Years Eve in NYC and he took an incredible photo of the ball dropping in Times Square. It was a rainy night and the lights from 7th Ave were blurred in the pavement. There were halos of blue, white, red and yellow. The buildings were casted with violet and blue light. The focal point is Times Square literally glowing like it is the heart of the city. It was a really cool shot. He asked if I was able to make a re-creation* of the picture and I accepted the challenge.

It has been a hot minute since I’ve painted and that is mostly because I’ve been raising tiny humans. Those two jobs aren’t easy to do at the same time. My previous experience with painting was with oil paints and while they are beautiful to work with they are also a pain and toxic . . . did I mention I’m raising tiny humans? Life is about paper plates, prepackaged crackers, paints that dry quickly, and brushes that can be cleaned with soap and water. I once viewed acrylic paints as the lesser of the paints; I was wrong. There is so much that can be done with acrylics and with different mediums they can paint like oils. I really enjoyed painting this piece and am so thankful for every opportunity that gives me a chance to paint outside of my comfort zone.

Heart of the City, 2019
acrylic on canvas

What I have learned is that I only had a vague idea about what I wanted my blog to be. Am I a portrait artist, a painter, an illustrator? Am I all those things? Am I none of those things? (I’m basically Po from Kung Fu Panda 3)I’m going to write and create my way through these questions and more. I’m ready to get back to work, hopefully I can reach some peace with it all and as an artist find my voice and path, much like Po.

*recreation: Some thoughts, more than one person has said something to me along the lines of “Is it really art if you are only copying a picture?” Art is so subjective, I’ve seen some things in the MOMA that I wouldn’t consider art and I’ve seen things my kid has brought home from school that looks like it should be in a museum. From the outside I guess I can see where someone would ask that question. But there is such a process to it all and for me it is a re-creation. I’m not copying the image, I’m using the picture to create something new. Same with the NYC painting, it is not the exact picture, I pulled out the parts of the picture that I thought helped give that feeling of being there that New Years Eve night in New York City. Everyone has their opinion on what art is to them. And that is what I think is great, there is an artist for every definition.

Stop! Collaborate and Listen

“Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist when he grows up.” ~ Pablo Picaso

One of my favorite memories as a child is coloring. My mom entered me into countless coloring contests. I once won a Nintendo (with Duck Hunt) and a $500 shopping spree through different coloring contests. To this day I still get super excited over a new box of freshly sharpened crayons, even if they aren’t for me. I couldn’t wait to start coloring with my oldest however she was never really one for coloring books, she has always liked to draw her own pictures and color them. Her imagination impresses me everyday. And it reminds me of a time when I use to let my imagination run wild. I don’t know whether its the responsibility that kills creativity or the expectations of adulthood, but whatever it may be, the days of drawing space ships with butterfly aliens that shoot flower laser beams is a thing of the past. Instead you find joy in things like organized closets.

I wish I could say that when I was younger I had the same carefree, reckless imagination that I see in my daughter. I was very much the same as I am now, I had a strict attention to detail and would get upset when my projects didn’t turn out the way I wanted them too. I love watching my daughter work, she is carefree and vibrant. She could care less if its perfect or if it even makes sense, she draws it because she wanted to and she loves it.  Fortunately, she doesn’t have to concern herself with how to pay for gymnastic classes or new Nikes, so yeah maybe it is responsibility that kills creativity. 

I took a page from her these past couple weeks that I’ve been in this creative slump. I’ve wanted to collaborate on something with her for awhile and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. My youngest got in on the collaboration too, although at 3 she has trouble keeping her attention on anything that doesn’t involve My Little Pony or pancakes. 

We tried a couple fun little art experiments. First I did a quick portrait sketch of the two of them and then let them finish the picture. As you can tell we are super into mermaids at the moment. Joanna, the 3 year old, made everyone a black bird and it looked terrifying so I decided not to include that one.

The Adventures of Kara and Joanna by Kara + Jann

Next I drew onto pictures that the girls had drawn.  It was fun adding onto their ideas. However, the look on Joanna’s face clearly meant she couldn’t understand why I had ruined her already perfect picture.  Joanna is going through what I like to call her bird period, much like Picasso’s Blue Period. If Jo is drawing, she is most likely drawing a bird. She drew four birds and told me that they were Daddy, Mommy, Kara and Joanna. I gave the main birdhouse a bird tree-house and that tree-house got a tiny bird house. Meta birdhouse.

Joanna (3) Bird Family

Kara has watched me over the past couple years creating my paperslides. I cut, paste, roll and stack paper in all kinds of ways to create these illustrations set to music. So every now and then she will do the same thing, it amazes me how patient she is cutting out tiny pieces of paper and gluing them together, here she used that method to make the bees.

Kara (6) Paper Bees

And finally my favorite. Kara drew me some fish the other day (it was actually a part of a book she made about fish). I made a sort of tunnel book and then made an aquarium scene which I back-lit with blue light and then photographed. I’ve long been a fan of Elly Mackay and her work creating whimsical scenes from paper.

Kara + Jann, Rainbow Fish

This isn’t the end of my collaboration with my girls. We are already working on some other fun projects. But more than that, it really got me excited about maybe going bigger, maybe make some collaboration art with the elementary school kids and then auction them off for charity (the work not the kids). I love getting to peak into the beautiful and unadulterated creativity of a child and getting a glimpse of what it was that made me want to be an artist in the first place.

West Virginia Girl

Last week I stated that I’m not just a portrait artist. This week I tried my hand at watercolor. I have not painted much with watercolor, my first foray was a wedding map I did for family (picture below).  I’m not that familiar with this medium.  But like most things I don’t know how to do, whether it be cutting hair or fixing my dryer, I resort to YouTube tutorials.  If you ask my girls they’d say I’m a better at watercolors than I am at cutting hair.
This week I’m starting a series of West Virginia paintings. There is no secret I am a West Virginia girl. Don’t get me wrong, I love living in NC and there will also be a series of NC paintings in the future, but my heart belongs to those WV hills. I ran into a man wearing a WV shirt the other day and I asked him where in WV he was from. He told me he isn’t from WV but vacationed there last summer and fell in love with the state. I told him I was born and raised there and he responded “you lucky duck.” I do feel lucky to have grown up among those rolling hills. There is a beauty and peace to that place I can’t explain.  Part of my state pride comes from it’s beauty, the other comes from it’s people. WV is remote and its terrain can be unforgiving. This is part of why I love that place.  But for early settlers and my ancestors, it wasn’t easy to say the least. Its part of why I think the people of WV have such state pride. We come from a long line of tough and resourceful people. Tough, resourceful and kind. After visiting West Virginia, John F. Kennedy famously said “The sun doesn’t always shine in West Virginia, but the people do.” And that is the honest to God’s truth.
For this weeks post, I did 2 watercolor paintings. I decided to video the painting process. The music in the first video is one of my favorite songs, its titled West Virginia Girl by Mike Morningstar. WV is famous for its rolling hills and beautiful landscapes.  But some of my best memories are during those winter months when the hills are dark and the fog is setting on them, a different kind of beautiful.  This painting reminds me of the line from John Denver’s Country Roads “dark and dusty painted on the sky.”
Dark and Dusty
The second painting is of the New River Gorge Bridge. I wanted to try pen and ink over watercolor with this piece.
New River Gorge Bridge
I wouldn’t update my resume just yet with watercolor artist, but I do have fun with this medium.  I like that it takes me out of my comfort zone and forces me to just let the paint go where it wants to go. I feel like Bob Ross a bit, there were a lot of happy little accidents that turned out looking really cool in the end.  Eventually you will be able to purchase these and all my other prints from my FineArtAmerica profile.

Not Just a Portrait Artist

I want to be more than just a portrait artist. This feeling especially hits me this time of year. I’ve finished 7 portraits and have 3 more to go before Christmas.  I get burnt out on drawing them, I couldn’t keep this kind of pace up year round.  That itch to do more and find out what kind of artist I am other than a portrait artist gets stronger and stronger.  I have these images I want to create so badly, images that I hope invoke the same feelings they give me when I look at other’s work. Its the same feeling I get when listening to good music (listening to Tyler Childers while I write). The same feeling I get when I’m in the mountains or at the beach. You can’t describe it but something washes over you like I’m both at peace and want to get to work at the same time. However this week I’ve been in a rut, both with my work and just in life in general. My faith has been shook. One of those times when you have more questions than answers and its hard to stay focused when your brain is going in a million different directions.

What I’ve come to realize in the very short time I’ve been writing on this blog is that some weeks won’t pan out the way I want them to and thats ok. I’ve also learned inspiration doesn’t come to you while you are browsing the internet looking for it, it finds you when you are working. A good friend recommended doing something creative everyday, whether it is good or not, just do it and eventually after you’ve done this hundreds of times you can look back and see that progress and you’ll be better for it. I’ve probably done close to 70+ portraits, not quite in the hundreds yet, but I am still learning and still improving.  I decided to stick with what I know this week while I’m sorting through the rest. I thought it would also provide a good opportunity to show you my portrait drawing process.

A quick rundown of the portrait drawing process.

I usually start with a client sending me photographs. Not all photographs make good portraits. Its also good to have several different pictures of the subject so I can get a better idea of how they look. I probably took 2 dozen of myself to get the perfect light and angle. Next I use a projector to project the image onto my paper so I can do a quick sketch for sizing. This step has saved me so much time. I use to agonize on the size of the subject and in the end wishing I’d just drawn it a half an inch smaller. So with the projector I can size the subject up and down until I find the perfect size. I leave it at a quick sketch, if you put too much detail in at this step I feel it makes the portrait less dynamic. After the quick sketch, I lay in the shadows and highlights in large sections. And from here on out its all a matter of connecting these shadows and highlights like a puzzle. This is my favorite part of the process. The final step is to pull out the highlights and add the fine details like eyelashes, stray hairs and eyebrows. The last thing I do is spray the portrait with a fixative so it doesn’t smudge. Then I wrap it up, mail it out and spend the next three days hoping the client is happy when they open it up. Every portrait is different and each has its own sets of challenges and I really do learn something new from each one. I find myself smiling as I’m drawing sometimes because I do really love drawing portraits, bringing life to a photo is one of my greatest joys. But I feel I’m meant for more.

I’m hopeful that through this blog I’m going to be able to find my voice as an artist. Through developing my work and also writing about it, I’m hoping to find who I am other than just a portrait artist. There is something else there, I just don’t know what it is yet. But if in the end being a portrait artist is all I am, I’m going to be the best one that I can be.