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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Ten Fun Things To Liven Up Your Art!

Don’t know what to paint? Disappointed in your last paintings and feeling inadequate? Bored with your art? Need some inspiration? Craving some creative calm? Try something new!

Here are a few things to excite you and help you change your art up:

1.) Invest in a new brush! But, don’t buy just any old brush. As a watercolorist, it’s so much easier to paint well with a decent brush! Here is my new favorite brand. Give yourself a boost with an ESCODA Versatil brush, a SYNTHETIC brush designed to have the attributes of a natural kolinsky. These brushes hold a lot of water, have a firm spring, a sharp point, plus durability. A size #10 pointed round sells for about $20 (on dickblick.com, jerrysartarama.com, or cheapjoes.com). Nothing makes play more fun than a new toy! What a treat!

2.) Take an actual (or virtual!!!) trip to a museum to get inspired. For instance, the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, Belgium, currently has a Jan van Eyck exhibit up ( through April 30, 2020) entitled “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution”. While the actual exhibit is closed until April 5, zoomable images can be found at closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be and on their Van Eyck page.

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What art did you enjoy looking at? What did you especially like? Can you borrow some ideas about technique, treatment of light, or use of color to adapt to your own paintings? Track done another museum you’d like to check out. Look at the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits (https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions), The Worcester Art Museum (https://www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/), or The Wadworth Atheneum Museum of Art (https://www.thewadsworth.org/), for example.

3.) Try a new brand of watercolor paper. Make sure it is ARTIST GRADE 100% cotton fiber (NOT cellulose), such as Arches, Waterford, Fabriano, Lanaquarelle, or Indigo Handmade. Most of these brands can be found online (dickblick.com, jerrysartarama.com, or cheapjoes.com). Remember that you can sometimes buy an assortment of different papers, or a pad or block of a different brand – you needn’t buy full sheets. I recently got some Indigo paper from amazon.com and am looking forward to giving it a try. These papers made of cotton absorb paint much more evenly and make it easier to paint well! They are definitely worth any extra cost. Experiment!

4.) Find some inspiration by buying yourself a new or used watercolor book to immerse yourself in. Learn about all the critical ingredients that turn paintings into art with Joseph Zbukvic’s Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor or Thomas W. Shaller’s Architect of Light: Watercolor Paintings By a Master. Or look into the amazing John Singer Sargent: Watercolors (https://www.amazon.com/John-Singer-Sargent-Erica-Hirshler/dp/0878467912/ref=sr_1_6?crid=2FWU61E1CBLTR&keywords=john+singer+sargent+books&qid=1585064924&sprefix=%2Caps%2C162&sr=8-6). Looking to shake things up? Try Mark Mehaffey’s Creative Watercolor Workshop. Or, if you’re a beginner, check out Watercolour For Starters by Paul Talbot-Greaves, Let’s Get Started by Jack Reid, or Painting For The Absolute and Utter Beginner by Claire Watson Garcia.

zbukvic.jpg

5.) Gift yourself a new tube of watercolor paint in a color you might like but do not have. Wouldn’t Daniel Smith’s Lavender be beautiful? Try a tube of Cobalt Teal Blue, Quinacridone Gold, or Bloodstone. Fun!

6.) Look at your paints in a new way by arranging them in a round palette (see robax.com) in a color wheel format. To learn how much easier color mixing can be with a color wheel format read my recent blog post Color Choices For a Circular Palette, published 2/11/20, https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/02/11/color-choices-for-a-circular-palette/.

7.) Sign up for a watercolor workshop with a talented artist. Now is the time to plan! Get a couple of your friends to go with you, if you want, and make a day of it. I’m really looking forward to a Robert J. O’Brien workshop with two of my friends at New England School of Fine Art, Worcester, MA., http://www.nesfa-worcester.com/index.html, entitled ‘The New England Landscape’, on May 30, 2020.

8.) Or perhaps you’d enjoy taking an online workshop. Many artists offer online instruction. I have been developing several online art workshops that will be available in the near future. Stay tuned for news, or contact me to express interest. In the meantime, look at the offerings from artists Angela Fehr, Rebecca Rhodes, Anna Mason, or Birgit O’Connor. Courses are also available from Artist Network, https://www.artistsnetwork.com/, or Art Tutor, https://www.arttutor.com/classes. Some classes can also be found for free at jerrysartarama.com. And finally, YouTube has many free videos on watercolor technique.

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9.) Find yourself a new piece of art equipment to help you paint better and LEARN TO USE IT. A gray scale or value scale, for example, can help you create more dynamic and effective paintings by improving your light and dark contrast. Don’t know what a gray scale is? Read my blog post Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?, posted 5/21/19, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/05/21/why-should-i-bother-to-use-a-gray-scale/, for more information.

Rankin's value scale.jpg

10.) Finally, try something NEW or BREAK SOME RULES! Don’t take things too seriously. Paint with some unexpected colors, or unusual color combinations. Add some complementary colors that you don’t actually see in your reference image to add interest to your painting. Or zoom in close to your subject to crop out unnecessary details. Change your viewpoint in your picture to either raise or lower the horizon line. Try looking down on your subject, e.g. painting a lake looking down from a cliff. Alter the mood in your painting, perhaps creating a more somber, dark, heavy, moody image. Or try charging your colors ON your paper (see the watercolors of John Singer Sargent, especially his images of sunlight on stone, one of which is below) to add life to your picture and prevent a flat lifeless wash. Or exaggerate your lights and darks. Above all, focus on the PROCESS of painting without worrying about (or even considering) the result.

john singer sargent.jpg

John Singer Sargent watercolor.

Choose one of the ten above suggestions to try – begin with the one that excites you most. Then try another – just keep painting or thinking about your art. Strive to keep calm through your creativity. And ENJOY your painting!

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Painting… With Attitude!

TECHNIQUE. 

Learning and practicing your watercolor TECHNIQUES until they become second nature will help you attain painting success. A little knowledge is helpful, as well. Get to know the ELEMENTS OF DESIGN (color, line, value, shape, and form) to create the effects you want. (See my blog posts Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition, https://wordpress.com/post/leemuirhaman.com/401, posted 10/16/2018, and Creating Form and Space In A Painting, https://wordpress.com/post/leemuirhaman.com/390, posted 9/18/2018, for additional information about design elements.)

MINDSET OR ATTITUDE.

While technique and design elements need to be mastered, an artist’s mindset (or attitude) has a huge effect on every aspect of painting! Whatever emotions an artist is experiencing can often be observed in their painting. Uncertainty and fear can come across through tentative, uncertain brush strokes or pale, washed out colors. A creator in a rush can be sloppy and less than observant. A tense artist trying to control their pigment paints a stiff, tight picture, while a confident painter creates with a bolder, looser stroke. In many ways, painting echoes and reflects each artist’s attitudes and emotions.

Swinger painting.jpg

Sometimes the hardest thing to master about watercolor painting is our own mindset or attitude toward our painting. So what is an effective mindset for an artist to have? How might a painter think about the process of painting?

DON’T LET FEAR CONTROL YOU.

Try not to let fear of making mistakes or looking foolish hold you back. Everyone makes mistakes – that’s how we learn. No one will think less of you if you have difficulties. Don’t hesitate to paint – just begin taking action. Start! Everyone can learn to improve their painting!

Ducklings painting.jpg

AVOID JUDGING.

Strive to not put yourself down. Show compassion and encouragement to yourself instead of judging and criticizing your efforts. None of us will ever paint a perfect picture. Give yourself credit for being brave enough to paint!

 

BE OPEN TO THE PAINTING PROCESS.

Make an effort to be open-minded. We don’t always know what will happen next in art (or in life). And that’s okay! Your painting may go in a direction you don’t intend or expect it to go. It may take longer than you expect for your skills to improve. You don’t always have complete control when painting in watercolor – trying to force watercolor paint to do your bidding instead of flowing with it can cause frustration. Trust the process.

Tomatoes painting.jpg

PERSEVERE.

Stay optimistic. Keep trying. There will be ups and downs during the learning process – learning (like a baby’s growth) seems to move in spurts, or a spiral. A discouraged painter will tend to avoid their art and be less likely to practice and improve. Persevere.

ENJOY YOUR PAINTING.

Try to find something you like in each painting you work on. Make time to paint what interests and excites you. Be inspired. Laugh. Enjoy yourself. Play! You’ll be more likely to continue with painting.

Goose girl painting.jpg

EXPERIMENT.

Eventually, as you become more practiced in technique, you will become more relaxed when painting, and able to experiment. You will become better able to plan and respond to your painting as it develops. Your goal is to listen to your own reactions to your work and adapt to what is happening on the paper, without panic or self-criticism.

Remember to paint what interests you and pleases you. Play! To read more about how painting can be affected by attitude, see my blog post I’ve Always Wanted To Paint Watercolors But I Don’t Have The Talent (7/20/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/07/20/ive-always-wanted-to-paint-watercolors-but-dont-have-the-talent/.

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Those Troublesome Greens!

Green is one of those colors, along with gray and brown, that create problems for painters, which may be one reason that beginners seek out ready-mixed colors.  After all, color mixing can be confusing and unpredictable.  While the ready-mixed greens sold in tubes are convenient, the colors available for sale are generally NOT the greens found in nature.  And even if you can find some greens that look reasonably convincing, who can afford to buy even a dozen tubes of different convenience greens?

Foliage varies greatly in color and value, with each plant producing its own variation of green.  Color and value also change with distance, weather, time of day, and season.  In reality, the greens of nature show infinite variety.  Therefore, realistic, natural greens require the painter to be able to mix many suitable variations of green from a limited number of paints.  But where do you start?

The color green is made of blue plus yellow plus a small amount of red to tone the color down and naturalize it.  Take every yellow on your palette, and combine each with every blue.  Note that mixing a cool yellow with a COOL blue creates a bright and vibrant green (for example, Hansa Yellow Light with Winsor or Phthalo Blue).  By mixing a WARM and a COOL or two WARM colors, you get a duller, less intense green – because both the warm yellow and blue have some red in their pigment.

green from Ultramarine Blue, Phthalo Blue, Cerulean, Cobalt.jpg

green from Payne's Gray, Manganese Blue, Blue Apatite.jpg

Greens Mixed With Various Combinations of Blue and Yellow.

Another way to create natural greens is to use ready-mixed tube green as a starting point but then to add other pigments to it.  DaVinci Sap Green, for instance, can be the principal ingredient in a whole range of mixtures.

greens from Sap.jpg

green from Viridian, Chrome Oxide Green, Green Gold..jpg

green from Phthalo Green.jpg

Greens Mixed With Pre-mixed Tube Greens.

You can create even more mixtures by changing proportions of each color in the mix.  Catherine Gill in Powerful Watercolor Landscapes (2011) describes a very effective technique for mixing numerous related colors by changing proportions in a mixture.  She makes a “mixing trail” (p. 122), using two colors on her palette.  Instead of mixing two colors together in the beginning, she puts the two colors on her palette, leaving a space between them.  She suggests you take a little of the first color and mix it with the second.  Then, take successive amounts of the second color, and mix with the first until you have several distinct hues.  The space between the two colors is the area where you make the “trail.”  The colors will all be close in value because you haven’t picked up any water.

Catherine Gill also describes a “mixing hub” (p. 123), which is a collection of mixing trails laid like spokes around a central pigment.  The hub allows you to create a variety of related colors.  The hub pigment is in all the mixes of the hub, ensuring color harmony.  And again, since you add no water as you create the mixes, values remain constant.

To simplify mixing greens somewhat, you can think of five basic green mixtures, as suggested by Bruce MacEvoy (on handprint.com).  A BRIGHT green could combine Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG 36) and Hansa Yellow (PY 97).  A COOL green could combine Prussian Blue (PB 27) and Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG 36).  Combining Prussian Blue (PB 27) and Hansa Yellow (PY 97) produces a LIGHT green.  WARM green comes from combining Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PY 36) and Burnt Sienna (PBr 7).  Finally, put together a DULL, DARK green with Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG 36) and Quinacridone Rose (PV 19).

Five Basic Green Mixtures.jpg

Five Basic Green Mixtures.

With experimentation, you will find many mixtures that work for you.  Make a chart, for handy reference, of your favorite mixtures.

Condensed Chart of Favorite Green Mixes.jpg

Condensed Chart of Favorite Green Mixes.

Finally, the way you apply your pigments to paper can alter the appearance of your greens and foliage.  The first option you have is to mix your color ON THE PALETTE before you apply it to paper.  A second option is to apply separate colors TO YOUR PAPER, allowing them to mingle on your paper.  This technique creates a more varied, dynamic color mix.  Third, you could GLAZE one color over a DRY wash of another color.  Glazing and layering are similar processes.  They both change value.  Glazing uses a very thin, transparent wash of one color over another color.  When warm colors lie below a cool glaze, the resulting color mix is luminous, vibrant, and glowing.  Starting with a cool color and putting the warm color on top gives a heavier, denser glaze.

Finding a variety of natural greens to paint convincing foliage can be confusing and frustrating.  As painters, we know that ready-mixed greens are not sufficient.  Therefore, you should take some time to experiment with all the yellows, blues, and greens on your palette, adding touches of red to some of your mixtures.  Make a chart of your favorite blends for handy reference.  Experiment, and have some fun!

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Painting Decisions Along The Way…

In Greek mythology, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, sprang fully formed from Zeus’s brow. Painting, however, doesn’t work that way. Even when a painter has had many years of painting experience, the creation of a painting takes much thought and trial and error. A great picture does not necessarily happen easily, quickly, or without struggle. Beginning artists may think that with a little more experience and practice they should be able to paint well, to know what they need to paint satisfying pictures. It is not, however, a skill that you either have or you don’t. Self-taught painter Dan Scott ( drawpaintacademy.com) has described well the necessary process for ALL artists (whether beginner or advanced) to continue to evaluate and make ongoing decisions while painting every picture.

Dan Scott writes:

“Something you may have noticed from watching my painting demonstrations is that it is not a straight-line path from start to finish. There are all kinds of twists and turns as the painting progresses.

It starts with a rough vision in my head – what I think the painting will end up looking like. Then, more often than not, that idea morphs and transforms as my brush hits the canvas.

I go in a different direction with my colors. I change the position of that tree. I make mistakes I need to fix (and mistakes which I cannot fix). I realize my color palette cannot mix some of the colors I need, and so on…

By the end, the painting sometimes only has a slight resemblance to my initial vision. But that is OK.

This is why I don’t like to talk as if there is some kind of set formula for creating a painting. Of course, I do use certain techniques and processes over and over again, but I always try to remain flexible in my approach.

I prefer to treat painting as a “choose your own path” kind of thing, or in other words, a long string of decisions and problems you need to solve. The outcome depends on the quality of your decisions along the way, not how well you are able to stick to some predetermined path or process.

All the techniques, processes, tips, hacks and tricks are just tools at my disposal to help me along the way. Nothing more, nothing less.

So, if there is anything you should take away from my painting demonstrations, it is not how to go about creating a painting from start to finish, it is how to make decisions.”

Dusk farmhouse snow darker.jpg

Along the same lines, in recent watercolor classes at Lee Muir-Haman Watercolors at Tumblers Bottom Gallery, 30 Main Street, Ayer, MA., we have been exploring and learning about values while working on several twilight snow scenes. It has been necessary to continue to evaluate our efforts as we paint. Is the nighttime sky too dark or not dark enough? We know we need to still have the contrast between lights and darks, even though the picture has more dark values than light, for the painting to have impact. How can we paint the glow from a lit window or the reflected light from a streetlight? We create a plan, try it out, then evaluate to decide whether we have achieved what we hoped for. No? How can we increase the glow of the lights? Perhaps we should increase the contrast by darkening our color close to our lightest values. Perhaps we should employ the complementary color of our light source color in mixing our dark to make things pop more. This improves the picture, but there is still not enough glow. It seems that we may have put too thick a layer of color on the lights.Let’s try to lift some color off or maybe scrape – the light should be whiter. Now, the lights look good, but the shadows are too pale in relation to the light, particularly in the snow in the foreground. Let’s add more and stronger shadows. This helps to create depth and lead the viewer into the picture toward the light. Details in the distance need to be softened more – distance blurs detail, as does darkness. Through trial and error, the paintings start to look better. We squint our eyes and study our work again. Finally we are satisfied.

 

nighttime City at Night.jpg