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What Makes “Good” Art?

What do you believe art is? What is art’s purpose? In many ways your beliefs will determine whether you think a certain piece of art is good or not. Since artists and experts don’t always completely agree on what good art is, answering these questions may be difficult, and any answer may seem subjective.

FOUR VIEWPOINTS.

1.) If you think that art should be an imitation of reality, then your definition of good art would require realistic light and shadows, accurate perspective, and proper proportions. 

Rosa Bonheur’s Painting – “The Horse Fair” (1852-55).

2.) A more formal interpretation of art would require good art to employ a traditional use of line quality, color, composition, and the other academic elements and principles of art. 

3.) Others might believe that good art must communicate a message. Good art has something to say to an audience and may try to convince or share commentary. Such art is often thought-provoking, having a moral or political theme.

4.) Finally, some people are of the opinion that good art must express the artist’s emotions and evoke an emotional response in the viewer. Creating an emotional connection is a goal.

Most people believe art ought to emphasize one or several of the above ideas. In What Makes Great Art  Andy Pankhurst and Lucinda Hawksley also discuss several other categories of good art ( for instance, art that focuses on beauty, movement, distortion, or symbolism). 

Joaquin Sorolla’s – “Walk On A Beach” (1909).

EXPERT OPINIONS.

Artists and art experts have offered their own individual definitions. One expert explained, “I have trouble describing exactly what good art is, but like pornography, I know it when I see it.” 

According to actor/director Michael Chekhov, great art has “a feeling of Ease, a feeling of Form, a feeling of Beauty, a feeling of the Whole.” (Note the repeated mention of the word “feeling.”) 

On medium.com, the author notes that good art is at least in part determined by “the clarity with which the artwork’s central idea or concept shines through.” 

Don Stone’s Painting – “Midwinter”.

The writer of artgoda.com says “good art has 1.) a strong emotional impact on the viewer, and 2.) leaves a long lasting, unforgettable impression.” Thus, great art evokes strong feelings and is not boring, but memorable. 

The art consultant Alan Bamberger feels “good art is an effective combination of concept, vision, and mastery of medium (the ability to get the point across). Good art is also uncompromisingly honest, unselfconscious, bold, ambitious, enlightening, original, challenging, and a feast for the senses. It doesn’t necessarily have to have all these qualities, but at the very least it has to keep you coming back for more… and never ever bore.” 

Artist Lauren Brevner has said “ I tend to have a visceral reaction to the piece… that’s how I know it’s good… It could be a quickening of my pulse, or butterflies in my stomach,… such a rush of emotion that I can’t help but feel drawn to it.”

For visual art specifically, another expert claims that the best artwork “shows a mastery of drawing, composition, color, and technique,” and that larger works, as opposed to tiny works, naturally have more impact. 

Andrew Wyeth’s Painting – “The Cummer’s Light Wash”.

 COMMON CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD ART.

There is some general consensus, however, about what matters in creating good art, no matter what the style. Good art tends to have:

1.) Good composition and design.

2.) A feeling of the emotions of the artist (shown perhaps with liveliness, vitality, boldness, fearlessness, verve).

3.) An expression of originality (a new way of seeing or an unusual viewpoint). The artist is able to create an impression or interpretation that is their own. 

4.) Beauty. (The image is pleasing to the eye.)

5.) Unfussy, economical, fresh brushwork (not overworked or overwrought). Every part of the image is essential, necessary.

6.) Clear central idea or concept.

7.) Magic (a memorable, emotional impact).

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Painting – “Lake George” (1922).

FOLLOW GUIDELINES WHILE CHOOSING YOUR OWN STYLE.

Each of us identifies with or gravitates to certain types of art. We have our preferences, no matter what the experts say. Your inclinations will dictate the elements you will strive to include in your own paintings and that you prefer to see in any art you might buy. What are your preferences? Don’t merely follow trends; decide for yourself what you like.

At the same time, your style choices should not ignore the characteristics of good art. “Good” art is, in fact, NOT completely subjective. If you want to create your own “good” art, you cannot just do your own thing with no regard for generally accepted guidelines like those outlined above in the previous section. Aim to incorporate into your painting the important components of good art as you paint, whatever your chosen style. 

In summary, get a good grasp of the basic techniques in your chosen medium, incorporate some of the guidelines for good art into your artwork, then concentrate on making art that expresses your own personality and feelings.

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When Should I Use Masking Fluid?

Preserving lighter shapes in your watercolor painting is tricky. Sometimes you can simply paint, with care, around them. As an alternative, however, you can preserve the light areas or develop special effects by taking advantage of one of several masking or resist materials available. These include candle wax or wax crayons, dripped wax, rubber cement, packing or masking tape or Scotch Magic tape #810, masking Frisket film, and liquid latex fluids. The two types of masking materials that watercolorists use most often are liquid latex masking fluid and tape. Apply the masking, paint around it, then when the paint is dry, remove the masking (wax resists cannot be totally removed) to reveal the lighter shapes. Rubber cement pickup erasers are easy to find and use to remove masking, or you can rub with your finger if the mask-covered area is not overly large.

Not every light area should be masked, as masking can inhibit spontaneity or alter your painting process. Consider your purpose in masking. Masking can allow you to save delicate white areas in a picture and protect intricate lighter areas temporarily from nearby dark paint. I have also used masking fluid to make sense of very complex areas in a painting. For example, in this White Primroses painting, I masked many but not all the flower petals in order to distinguish and simplify the painting of leaves and negative spaces.

White Primroses Watercolor – Masked some of flower petals.

Masking can also create interesting special effects. Splattering masking fluid before painting can create the impression of snow falling. Use an old toothbrush dipped in mask by gently dragging your thumb over the bristles to get spots of mask. Splatter from a variety of directions to suggest snow swirling. Or try dropping masking fluid into wet paint and allowing it to dry before removing mask. This technique is said to create the effects of moss or lichen on a wall. You can also create textures to suggest tree bark or rocks. Apply masking fluid, let it dry, then gently rub the mask with your finger to partially remove some of the mask, leaving uneven blotches. Paint the area, and when it is dry, remove the rest of the mask. 

It’s possible also to paint color first, let the paint dry, then mask to protect the first color, and later add more paint. Or you could mask multiple times, between several applications of color. Multiple masking, however, requires good quality paper! Transparent or semi-transparent colors, which layer well, work best for multiple masking layers. 

MASKING WITH LIQUID MASKING FLUID.

Masking fluid is an emulsion of natural latex, water, and ammonia (used as preservative). Many brands of masking fluid are available, although quality varies. I find Pebeo, Grumbacher, and Winsor Newton to be the highest quality, but you can also search for other brands that suit your needs. My favorite is Pebeo Drawing Gum, which covers smoothly and is easy to see because of its gray-blue color. I find Grumbacher’s bright orange to be very distracting, and Winsor Newton’s clear and lightly tinted options difficult to see on white watercolor paper.

Ducklings Watercolor – Masked edges of ducklings and their bedding material.

TIPS:

  1. Make sure to test your choice of masking fluid on your watercolor paper before using it on your painting. Some masking fluids can damage softer, poorer quality, or student-grade types of watercolor paper when they are removed. 
  2. DON’T shake masking fluid; it’s better to stir it gently. Shaking adds air bubbles, and too much agitation can cause the fluid to clump or start to solidify.
  3. Let masking fluid on the paper air dry naturally. Adding any heat, from the sun, a heater, or a hair dryer, makes it extremely difficult to remove without damaging the watercolor paper. Similarly, I don’t apply masking fluid to wet or damp paper because it seems to be absorbed into the paper and become permanently attached. I have read that you can wet the paper and float in the masking fluid to create a soft-edged shape; however, that technique doesn’t work well for me.
  4. Don’t leave masking fluid on the paper too long. It becomes more difficult to remove as time goes by. The time limit for removing the masking fluid may vary by brand, yet I would try never to leave mask on the paper longer than a week or two. I have seen masking fluid carelessly left so long that it becomes permanently bonded to the paper.
  5. Let the masking fluid completely dry before painting over it. Keep the cap closed tightly when the container is not in use, as masking fluid dries when in contact with air, and the contents of the masking fluid bottle can deteriorate quickly.
  6. Remove your masking fluid only when you have finished painting around it AND the paint is completely dry. 
  7. While hard edges result when masking fluid is removed, the edges can easily be softened by wetting and tickling the edge with a somewhat stiff brush after removing masking fluid.
  8. Apply masking fluid with careful attention to detail. If you are sloppy or careless, your preserved light areas will also appear messy and unattractive when the masking fluid is removed. Practice your application technique on scrap paper until you are able to apply masking fluid carefully and neatly.
Red Bumpers Watercolor – Masked ropes, bumpers, light edges of boat and oar against water, highlights on darkest boat.
Pumpkins Up Close Watercolor – Masked only outline on stem.

There are many tools available to use in applying masking fluid. Use one or many, depending on the effects you want to create. Possible tools include inexpensive synthetic cellulose brushes, sponges, sticks and toothpicks, a dip pen, a palette knife, found objects like pencil erasers, leaves, the handle of a paint brush, or bottle caps, a cheap synthetic brush, a toothbrush to create spatter, and my favorite, a ruling pen. (Be extremely careful to protect any brush you use by first applying soap to the brush and wiping any excess soap off prior to dipping the brush in masking fluid. Immediately after applying the mask, rinse and soap your brush again, then rinse, to remove masking fluid before it dries and adheres to the brush. Also, keep masking fluid away from clothing!)

Let’s Pig Out Watercolor – Masked light against dark edges and foreground straw.

MASKING WITH TAPE.

Tape can be used to mask larger or straight areas (e.g. parts of a building or the horizon line) in a picture. Masking film (which is available in sheets) can be used to cover and cut to fit larger areas of a picture, as well. Brown packing tape (lightweight economy grade) or Scotch Magic tape (#810 only) work better than masking tape on ‘Rough’ watercolor paper. Masking tape can be too thick to bend and adhere well to the numerous depressions in rough paper, allowing watercolor paint the chance to sneak under the edge. Experiment with different brands of tape and paper. Again, test the tape on the watercolor paper you intend to use to make sure tape removal does not cause damage. Good quality paper, such as Arches or Saunders Waterford, is preferable to poorer quality or student-grade papers. 

To mask objects with tape, cover the shape with tape (overlapping edges if more than one strip is needed), then use a very sharp  X-acto or craft knife with slight pressure to carefully cut around the saved shape, and remove excess tape. Don’t use too much pressure when cutting the shape with the knife as you can apply so much pressure that you cut into your paper. Experiment first on a test sheet. After cutting the tape, press the tape down firmly. Paint.

Tape can also be precut prior before application to your paper. For example, to mask a window frame or a picket fence, you could attach a strip of packing tape to a self-healing cutting mat, cut narrow strips in the tape with your X-acto knife and a ruler, and then apply the strips to mask out a window or fence on your watercolor paper.

Personally, unless the area to be masked is large or straight, I prefer applying masking fluid with a quality, vintage German ruling pen (purchased on Ebay), as I have better control. I seem to struggle with tape, finding it difficult to apply, cut accurately, and also to remove. You should try it, however, as it has some advantages.

MASKING WITH BOTH FLUID AND TAPE.

If desired, masking fluid and tape can be combined to make it easier to mask larger areas, or a combination of a hard-edged area with nearby uneven areas. Both masking fluid and tape might be helpful if you wish to protect: 1.) blotchy, partially snow-covered ground (masking fluid) and a large, hard-edged snow-covered roof (tape), or 2.) a grove of tree trunks (tape) and a few leaves (masking fluid) that will be painted in contrasting colors or values, or 3.) lots of sky reflections on a lake (tape for straighter reflections and masking fluid for more erratic ripples).                                                   

First, apply overlapping pieces of tape over the chosen masking area. Press down lightly and carefully cut tape with an X-acto knife. Remove unwanted tape pieces, then press the remaining tape down firmly on the paper. Add masking fluid and let dry. Proceed with painting.

AVOID OVER-DEPENDENCE.

Try not to become overly dependent on masking materials. Instead, practice and improve your brush handling skills so you don’t need to use masks as often. Think about whether you can easily paint around an area and whether you need masking at all. Not every painting benefits from the use of masking. Sometimes painting is more spontaneous and quicker without masking. Choose the times when applying masking fluid or another type of mask material makes sense for you.

My Swamp Watercolor -No masking used.

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Loosen Up And Get “Painterly”!

I hear a lot of painting students wanting to loosen up their art. What do they really mean? I believe we all strive for looseness so that our art appears fresh and relaxed, not overworked. Another term for loose might be “painterly.” 

DON’T OVERTHINK IT.

When we are just learning to paint, we often strive for an exact likeness of what is being painted. This approach may cause us to overthink and overcomplicate what we are doing, trying to get our picture “just right.” We become focused on painting precise details. As a result, we hold our brushes (often too small brushes) tightly and increase our tension. Stiff, controlled, overly detailed work can result.

WHAT EXACTLY IS “PAINTERLY”?

Many painting students soon realize the value of expressing themselves in a more “painterly” fashion – an approach creating the suggestion of form by utilizing colors, strokes, and textures, in contrast with a linear or graphic method involving the drawing of line. The term “painterly” was popularized by Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945), who used it to describe the characteristics of paintings. A painterly picture tends to be expressive, to focus on more simplified shapes, and to limit detail by using hard and soft edges.

Some painterly artists include Pierre Bonnard, Francis Bacon, Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Renoir, and John Singer Sargent. More linear artists are Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Ingres. According to wikipedia, “contour and pattern are more the province of linear artists, while dynamism is the most painterly trait.”

“Painterly” – J. S. Sargent Watercolor, Brook Among Rocks, 1910.

TIPS.

We all want our art to appear confident and spontaneous, while suggesting depth and emotion. But how can you transition your art from overly detailed to looser, more relaxed, and expressive? Painting looser may require a shift in both process and thinking. 

  •   One tip to loosen up your art is to use larger brushes, which allows you to make fewer, bolder brush strokes and which prevents overdoing details. 
  •   Paint with quick and lively, confident brush strokes. 
  •   Try to focus on more simplified shapes to avoid getting distracted by unimportant details. 
  •   Paint hard, soft, and lost  edges to help the viewer get interested and involved while looking at your image. 
  •   Directional strokes, such as those used to create a swirling cloud or flowing water, help you describe movement and the essence of a scene without painting every detail. They can help direct the viewer’s eye toward the focal point. (Interestingly enough, directional strokes themselves can actually follow a direction and pattern that simulates what you’re painting. They can swirl like clouds, blow like hair in the wind,  or flow and ripple like water – a visual form of onomatopoeia.)
  •   Further, you may be interested in exaggerating certain elements in your painting, such as pushing colors beyond what you actually see, to emphasize your interpretation of your subject.
“Painterly” – J. S. Sargent Watercolor, La Biancheria, 1910.

I believe another factor causing tight, overly detailed paintings is an artist’s mindset. When we want to create a “perfect” picture and we feel unsure of our painting abilities, tension and insecurity result. The body naturally tenses up, we worry about results, and expressive work becomes difficult, if not impossible. 

Therefore, often before I begin a painting session, I do a “warm up,” like an athlete stretching and warming up before exercise or a race.

“Painterly” – J. S. Sargent Watercolor, Villa Di Marlia, Lucca, 1910.

Before I get to serious painting, I try to relax and play a little. I get out a sketchbook or several pieces of watercolor paper (perhaps 7X11” or 8X8”, the size doesn’t really matter), and begin to make some watercolor marks. It doesn’t matter what kind of marks or what color they are. It’s just an exercise, an experiment designed to get you moving.

Never mind what you end up with! Sometimes it may be hard to even begin if you’re worried about what the marks will look like or whether they’ll be any good. It doesn’t matter! Make a mess; fool around.

For me, it doesn’t always begin easily or feel like fun. Usually, I start making tight, hesitant marks, often feeling unsure. After one page is full, I grab another and continue. I’ve used brushes, spray bottles, sticks, sponges, etc. I keep going UNTIL I start to get sloppy, confident, boisterous. As I go along, the marks somehow get looser, freer, and more beautiful; I like them much better than those I made when I began. I start feeling more relaxed, having gotten over the worry that things won’t turn out well. I eventually move beyond the resistance, past any hesitancy to start, away from the  belief that art is a struggle, that the work needs to be perfect. 

My mood gradually changes to loose and easy without my forcing it. As the marks become looser, so does my mindset. I’m ready to carry over and try to maintain this mood in my paintings. And with this more relaxed attitude, I worry less about making mistakes and feel more comfortable listening to my own intuition and expressing my ideas. 

“Painterly” – J. S. Sargent Watercolor, In A Medici Village, 1906.

TRY IT.

Once you’ve felt this more relaxed attitude and tried these tips, understand that you can recreate the mindset yourself and begin to paint more loosely whenever you want to. 


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Try Plein Air Painting This Summer… Get Outdoors!

Summer and the longest days of the year have arrived; it’s the perfect time to get out for some fresh air, to relax, and to paint. Painting outside in nature can be fun and different, whether you make it a field trip to the woods, a park, a nature preserve, or just sit out on your own doorstep. If you’ve already planned a trip to the beach, gather your sketchbook and paints to take along. Take a few painting supplies when mountain climbing. When you reach the summit, you could rest while doing a quick sketch and painting of the view. Or sit on the dock at the lake to paint the clouds and water. A change of scene can encourage close observation and inspire us.

Ocean view inspiration.
Summit View Inspiration.

MATERIALS.

Before starting out, consider your supplies. Keep your art kit on the small and lightweight side since you’ll be carrying it with you. Pack it in a bag ahead of time, so you’ll be ready to go when the time is right. 

In my kit I include a small sketchbook (that I use to record color and weather observations, to create thumbnails, to make sketches and contour drawings, to experiment with color matching (i.e. as a test sheet), to make notes of ideas). I also pack a small ‘block’ of watercolor paper (which is easy to hold on my lap for painting). I suggest including a watercolor travel palette like this one from amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Winsor-Newton-Cotman-Water-Colour/dp/B000PD3LY4/ref=sr_1_23?crid=1T41EILMKX301&keywords=winsor+newton+watercolor+set&qid=1656615455&sprefix=winsor+neton%2Caps%2C128&sr=8-23.  (When the paint in the small half pans has been exhausted, I refill the pans from watercolor tubes in my choice of colors.) The above set includes paint, a travel brush, and small water pots as well as a water container. If your paint set doesn’t include a brush or two, water in a container, and a water holder (for painting and cleaning your brushes), you will need to add these to your kit. If you prefer, water brushes (which have a water reservoir attached to a nylon brush) are available, so added water would not be necessary. I have some water brushes, but personally I don’t find their quality to be very good. A pencil, eraser, paper towels (or tissues), a viewfinder, perhaps some water-soluble drawing pencils, and watercolor pencils are also good to bring along. Depending on how far I will be going, I might also bring a hat, a folding chair, and something to drink. 

I enjoyed making my own small accordion sketchbook to take on outdoor sketching trips recently. I cut a full sheet (22X30″) of watercolor paper into three strips, attached them to each other, and used two pieces of leftover mat board for a cover. I keep it closed when not in use with a covered elastic headband. The finished sketchbook size is 4X6″; it opens into a continuous painting area of about 6X72″, or 18 pages on one side, and 6X64″, 16 pages, on the opposite side.

Handmade Sketchbook With Mat Board Cover.
Handmade Accordion Sketchbook Opened.

HOW TO CHOOSE WHAT TO PAINT.

When you arrive at your destination, look for a comfortable, interesting spot. The first part of your process involves looking around to get familiar with what’s in front of you. Look closely and think about what draws you in. Take your time. If you have a viewfinder, use it to help you pick your subject for painting. (You can make your own viewfinder by cutting a rectangle out of white card stock.) Looking through the hole, move the viewfinder closer and farther away from your eye to “zoom” in and out.  Wait for a composition to come into the frame that appeals to you. 

Wood Pile Inspiration.
Bare Trees Inspiration.

You can also plan a composition by drawing several quick thumbnail sketches in your sketchbook to begin to translate what you see into two dimensions on paper. See this blog post for more information on the advantages of thumbnails: Hold Your Horses!, (7/17/2020), https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/07/17/hold-your-horses/ . Sketch out various viewpoints or arrangements of the scene to find your preferences. Pick one of your thumbnails to paint, without overthinking.

TIPS.

There is no need to include everything you see in your painting. In fact, your picture will be stronger without including every detail. Observe the scene closely, but allow yourself to improvise, be spontaneous, even play, using what you see as your starting point. Feel free to paint smaller and quicker than you usually do, since the light will shift and the weather can change unexpectedly. If desired, use your smartphone to snap a couple of quick pictures of the light or colors just in case you need the information later.

Notice big shapes and a range of lights and darks. Look for patterns, color combinations, or shadows, for instance, to focus on. For more information about how to think about shapes in your artwork, look at Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!, (7/16/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/07/16/simplify-your-watercolors-by-focusing-on-shapes/

Barn Shapes Inspiration.
Purple And Green Cabbage Color Inspiration.

YOU GET TO CHOOSE.  

Outdoor painting is a good way to start moving beyond copying because you don’t use others’ photo references. You get to decide your own subject and your own focus during your painting session. Paint what you find most interesting. You can choose to include or leave out whatever you wish. Since you will be in control of determining your main concept, edit out anything that is not important to the story you will be telling in the painting.

MANY APPROACHES.

There are many ways to approach outdoor painting. Generally, outdoor paintings tend to be done more quickly and loosely than studio paintings because time available is limited. So, simplify and try not to get bogged down with details. Instead, one way to begin painting is to use light washes to block out the main areas of color on the paper. Then work on the lightest areas first. You can gradually build up and intensify colors as you proceed to create depth and detail. 

One artist I know begins by loosely painting colored shapes first, then drawing line and detail later when the original colors have dried. She uses various materials for these later layers, sometimes choosing more watercolor, or perhaps Pigma micron pens, Faber Castell Pitt pens, or Caran D’Ache Neocolors. Another artist friend will start with a loose, very light pencil sketch before applying any paint. Yet another artist I know makes a lot of separate watercolor marks (squiggles, dashes, dots, lines, blobs), but no washes of color to describe the scene, much like pointillism. When the color on the paper has dried, this artist lightly softens marks to merge colors, fill in white space, and create shadows.

FINALLY.

Give plein air painting a try, especially if it’s new to you. You may just fall in love with it. It can be fun to experiment with something new and different. 

Paint what inspires you. And when your painting session is done, your outdoor painting can stand on its own or become the basis for a later studio painting.

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Find Your Inspiration And Create Original Work!

When first learning to paint, I wanted my paintings to look exactly like the references I used. I desperately hoped to acquire skills and technique so I could recreate the work of other artists. I searched for watercolor instructors to take classes so I could learn how to copy! After all, isn’t that how we learn? We copy and practice, taking advantage of another artist’s suggestions about color, style, and composition. Over time, I became an excellent copier, and I became more confident in my painting skills. However…

MOVING BEYOND COPYING.

Copying started to bore me. Ugh! My paintings were technically well done, but there was not much of me or my personality in them. For instance, my painting of a luna moth on tree bark was accurate, but now it seems a bit flat and static to me. At some point I realized that there had to be more! 

Luna Moth On Bark Watercolor Painting.

Things definitely got more interesting to me when I began to alter and interpret references. In a painting of Boston Marathon runners, for instance, I removed some runners and transformed one into one of my sons, who ran cross-country. I painted my first granddaughter as the young girl on a carousel. Another granddaughter I painted with a pile of gingersnaps that she had absconded with. This was a much more satisfying way to paint!

Wren and Gingersnaps Watercolor Painting.

I really began to want to move beyond copying. I soon yearned to learn how to design my own work and tell my own stories in my art. At the same time I continued to study watercolor technique and composition, knowing that I still had more to learn.

PERSONALIZE.

I don’t think anyone can tell you how to create art work in your own style. No one can tell you what issues are important to you. You have to do that for yourself. We are each unique individuals who see the world based on our own experiences and interests. Your style, like your handwriting, cannot help but come out. But style is more likely to emerge when we stop copying every last detail of an image and begin to interpret references.

Listen to yourself (notice your feelings) to better understand how to create work that has meaning for you. Worry less about whether your art is ‘good enough’ or what others will think of your work.

HOW?

Sometimes you don’t know where to start to create ‘original’ art. I remember not knowing how to design a painting or even what I wanted to paint. I felt at a loss and uncertain. I had to get to know myself better and become more confident even while I was learning more about art. I needed to reconnect with my own intuition and become more aware of my own preferences and feelings. And trust myself. That kind of growth is not likely to happen all at once – it certainly didn’t for me. I often felt that I knew better what I didn’t like than what I did like. Gradually, though, I noticed being drawn to some topics, some compositions more than others. I found myself wanting to eliminate certain parts of a reference or to combine two reference photos to build a scene more interesting to me. I was even excited to take some of my own photos to use for reference. With time, I began to acknowledge my own independence and value my own opinion. It remains an ongoing process; it isn’t always easy. I continue to wean myself from over-dependence on others’ photo references. 

LOOK INWARD.

To begin to reduce a dependence on copying and using other artist’s ideas, start to look inward. Look for your own inspiration. What  interests you? What excites you? What gives you joy? What kind of painting do you enjoy seeing or creating? 

Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction. (Rumi)

Experiment and try new things. Notice where you lose track of time and fall into the enjoyment of painting. Are you fascinated by landscapes and paintings of the outdoors? Do you prefer flowers, or a still life? Could you spend all day exploring colors? Does it thrill you to see paint flow? Or would you rather paint lots of details close up?

There is no formula. What do you want to create? What would you paint if no one was looking? What makes you happy? What do you always return to in your art? That is your inspiration.

What do I like? I find I really enjoy painting landscapes, the outdoors, or scenes relating to the disappearing traditions of New England. I seem to be searching for the forgotten, the lost, the answer that’s always right around the corner – I always seem to be searching. I’m drawn again and again to images of dirt roads, doorways, windows, streams and rivers moving on, distant hills, fog and mist. 

Flowing Forward Watercolor Painting.
Tristan’s Fall Road Watercolor Painting.

DON’T FORCE.

You cannot force insight or creativity or intuition, but you can be open to them. Find a place of calm inside yourself, not of fear, self-doubt, or anxiety, to better notice your thoughts and intuitions. In other words, a fearless open mind will invite creativity in. 

Personally, I find it hard to ‘let go’ of striving, to create a place of acceptance and calm in my mind. My tendency is to keep pushing, to produce results, which doesn’t always end very well. I have to keep telling myself that things happen in their own time, on their own schedule, sometimes when you least expect it. After all, some of my best painting experiences happened unexpectedly when my hand and my brush took off and left my ego behind; then the painting somehow flowed and took on a life of its own. 

Pitcher and Pears Watercolor Painting.

You could describe this letting go and being open as Annie Dillard did in Pilgrim At Tinker’s Creek. She describes one way of seeking not “as actual pursuit” but as putting “myself in the way of“ what is being sought. She adds “Something might come; something might go.” Roger Ebert said it another way. “ The muse visits during the act of creation, not before. Don’t wait for her. Start alone.” In other words, keep on painting but don’t try to force anything.

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. (Pablo Picasso)

HOW COULD I DO IT?

A helpful resource to build for yourself is a FILE of inspiring images. You can cut out pictures from magazines (of colors you like, shapes that might work in your art, interesting people, beautiful vistas). Photos taken on a walk could be added to your inspiration file. Gather online images from Pinterest, Facebook groups (such as ‘Landscape References Photos For Artists’ or ‘Free Reference Photos For Artists’ ), or websites of copyright free images (pexels.com , unsplash.com , https://publicdomainarchive.com/index.html , watercolor world (https://www.watercolourworld.org/), Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/), British Library Copyright Free Images (https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/albums)) . Check museum websites for copyright free images ( for example, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/the-collection ).

You can file or organize images by topic to make later retrieval easier.

I look for inspiring images from my photos taken on walks, by scrolling various online copyright free sites, in books, and compiled images from  several of my photographer friends. I search for shapes, colors, themes to adapt for my art.

You could visit museums near you to look for inspiration. Start sketching, whether everyday objects, shapes, or the view out your window, to create images to inspire your art work. Go for walks (and snap your own photos) in the woods or parks, around your town or city. Notice and take note of what interests you.

IN PRACTICE.

Be open to new ideas. When you choose to adapt a reference, use your intuition and imagination to create something original. A reference can be a mere starting point for your painting. This approach often works for me because I think of each painting as a kind of puzzle to be solved. I enjoy the ‘detective’ work of figuring out how I might approach and create a painting. 

Try to notice your own reactions as your work progresses. Does it feel right when you eliminate parts or simplify details? Do the changes make your statement stronger? Could you combine several photos into one painting? Rearrange objects to emphasize your center of interest? Make sure to include both soft and hard edges, maybe lost edges, to encourage the viewer’s imagination? What if you change the mood, season, or time of day? Try to include some visual energy in the painting. Varying the quality of light can create contrast or a glow so that you are not recreating a flat, dull scene. Change the viewpoint by zooming in for a closeup or pulling out to create a distant vista. Altering your color choices can also give a very different feel to the work. Or you can totally shake things up by taking only colors or shapes from your reference to create abstract paintings. You can even paint completely from your imagination, without any reference.

FINALLY.

Experiment. Ask yourself, is this painting working for me? Take credit for taking action even if it doesn’t work. Then keep going! Finding your own inspiration can be exhilarating!

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