Sherry Barrett's Art Inspiration
Copyright © 2019 Sherry Barrett
All rights reserved.
All rights reserved.
One day, while zooming down the stairs of The National Gallery in London to see a collection of Gaugin paintings on loan, I was stopped in my tracks by a famous painting. I had never cared to see this painting because I had seen prints of it in art books and on dorm room walls; and, frankly, I wasn’t impressed. But, here, in it’s original splendor, on the landing of a stairway, I was transfixed.
The painting was Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. I could not believe how beautiful it was, how vibrant the colors were, the background looked like real gold, and the flowers almost seemed to dance on the canvas. I could feel the warmth from the colors in this painting. I was humbled and captivated by this painting. The description informed me that Van Gogh intended this painting for his guest bedroom where Gaugin stayed for some time.
I later recounted this encounter as a secular-religious experience until a friend informed me there is no such thing as a secular-religious experience. She made the point that I had encountered the divine in the mundane. I have another friend who told me nothing is mundane, everything belongs to God. Just like God to be everywhere and reveal himself to us in countless unique ways.
Has this ever happened to you? Think for a minute, have you ever encountered God in the mundane? Do you have a story you tell over and over because it was such an unusual occurrence? Jot down any thoughts that come without judging them, like a brain storm session.
When my friend told me I had encountered the divine in the mundane, I was sad that I didn’t know it at the time. I was concerned that maybe I had missed a golden opportunity. Fortunately, God is not limited by time and space; so, I prayed and asked God, “Why did that painting strike me? What would you like to reveal to me through that painting?”
It came to me that when we encounter God, we know it on some level whether we have words for it or not. And, God is more vivid and captivating than any cheap image the media might try to give us of him. In life, don’t settle for the cheap imitations of God the world will offer, such as an old guy in a robe smiting people. There is a world of difference to be found in the real thing. Finally, God is warmth and light and something tells me he has the most inviting guest bedrooms ever.
Try this mental exercise I created:
You may be disappointed, or delighted, to learn that I fly through art museums. I have a short attention span so I need to get in and see all the good stuff before I get bored by the boring stuff. I scan the walls of a room to see what the general vibe is and if I like I enter; if not, I move on. I am not interested in all art. It may sound very illiberal and close minded of me, but let’s face facts, there are millions of artworks in this world and I have better things to do with my life than learn to appreciate art that makes me want to throw up. I don’t want those images stuck in my mind giving me nightmares. Also, I have seen enough Renaissance art and portraits to last me a lifetime and I don’t have 15 minutes to watch the video of your plastic bag floating in the wind. I choose not to interact with these images and artists because life is short, brain storage is limited, and I can meet you in the next room. If you still want to visit a museum with me, I will share with you my practice.
In 2010 I had to figure out what faith looked like so I could paint it. I was creating a series of paintings inspired by the life of St. Nicholas for a church of the same name. While summarizing my research the word faith kept coming back to describe how St. Nicholas lived his life. I couldn't get around faith so I had to dive into it. I now teach the method I used to find my image and I call it The Devotional Art Process. I still practice this process when I am trying to create an artwork to help me understand Biblical truths, solidify important life lessons learned, or remember things I don’t want to forget. I think you'll find this method useful if you too are trying to come up with an original work of art that will communicate more than a mere representation of things that already exists.
The Devotional Art Process
1. Ask God for help. Whenever I begin a new task I say, “Here I am God, use me.” In this way, I am inviting the divine to reveal what he will to me. I am letting inspiration know that I am sitting down to work and it may visit me any time, the sooner the better!
2. Flesh out the concept. I never have trouble with a blank sheet of paper because I just do a brain dump first thing to try to see what I already know or can know. A brain dump looks something like this:
4. Create the final image.
5. Share the final image with others and receive feedback.
In my “Faith” painting (pictured above), you see an anchor firmly caught in a cloud to represent St. Nicholas’ faith pointing others to God. I decided on this image because you can't really see "faith", you feel it. It made me think of boating. You can’t see if your anchor is holding onto anything under the water but you can feel it’s found something to hold because you don’t drift away with the tide or current. Likewise, when believers cast the anchor of their faith into the heavens, they learn that God holds them steady through the currents and tides of life.
Every art teacher has their own opinion on the subject of art supplies, but I'll tell you what has worked well for me. I like to begin with what I already have on hand and so I started my first oil painting class with one of those gift box sets of oil paints and brushes and a Bob Ross paint kit. Those two kits served me well until I knew enough to choose new supplies for myself.
When gathering supplies to begin oil painting you'll need:
Newspaper - to protect tables and floors
Smock or Apron - to protect your clothing
Linseed Stand Oil - to create medium
Turpentine - to create medium and clean up oil paint
Oil paints - red, yellow, blue, black, white
Paint Brushes - Variety of sizes (2, 4, 6) and shapes (Filbert, Liner, Flat, Round)
Wooden Pallette or Tear-off Pallettes - for mixing paints
Two small jars - one with turpentine the other with turpentine linseed mixture
Rags or paper towels - for wiping excess paint off brushes
Canvas - You can gesso cardboard or wood; or, use a canvas board
Table top easel - Makes long painting sessions more comfortable
***Gloves and Low Odor Thinner - I am allergic/sensitive to everything so I prefer to use Low Odor Thinner in place of turpentine and wear disposable gloves when I paint with oils. It's also a good idea to wear gloves when using Flake White paint which contains lead. (We know lead is what made artists crazy back in the day and let's face it, we're crazy enough these days without assistance).
When purchasing oil paints, I recommend Winsor & Newton or Daler Rowney brand because they are affordable and have a great range of colors. When trying a new color, purchase a small tube (22ml) in case you don’t like it. Buy large tubes to replace colors as you run out of them. It's good to have a variety of warm and cool colors and you will learn that certain colors are transparent (Ivory Black) while others are more opaque (Flake White).
Beginning palette of colors:
These are the brushes I reach for every time I start an oil painting. You may notice I have several of the same size and shape, that's because there are times when I use one brush per paint color to keep my colors from getting muddy. Above pictured I have:
Signet Robert Simmons 42, Filbert, 6, 4, 2, 1
ProArte Series B Hog, Filbert 2, 1
Winton, Round Fine Hog, 4
Winton, Short Flat/Bright Fine Hog 4
Langnickel, Filbert 4, Round 2
College Oil Brush, Filbert 1, 2, Round 2, Filbert 12, Flat 12,
Bob Ross Script Liner, 1” Landscape, 2” Background
If you need to buy brushes I would recommend buying these hog hair brushes:
Oil painting takes some time to perfect, but the color richness makes it well worth it. Unlike acrylic and water color painting, oil paints are slow to dry. When living in England I had to wait a full week between layers of paint. You may be thinking what do you mean layers of paint? That's the magic of oil painting, around layer three, the layers of color begin to show through each other creating a beautiful depth and richness. Oil painting is one medium where I suggest you must get a book from the library or take a class. There are so many tips and tricks and ways of using this medium.
One tip I learned in class that I'll share with you involves acrylic paint of all things. It was a one day class painting in the tradition of the Old Masters and he had us begin by painting a greyscale version of the still-life using acrylic black and white. After we completed the black and white acrylic painting, which dries in minutes, we began adding layers of colored glazes over the oranges, bananas and plums. It was like magic as we placed the color and added highlights! So, if you're in a hurry, like me, consider an acrylic underpainting. But, you must never paint acrylic over an oil painting because the acrylic (which is water based paint) will not adhere to the oil (which is oil based paint). You know what they say about oil and water repelling each other!
Anyone can draw a person and get everyone to say, “Oh, that’s a person.”
O>-< See, I just did it using a keyboard. You might even say the person is lying down. But, you wouldn’t say it looks like anyone you know. It’s a symbol for person. Our brains are full of symbols for trees, flowers, rainbows and many other things that allow us to draw quickly when playing Pictionary and get the desired answer. But, these symbols are unsatisfying when we are trying to achieve the likeness of a family member. So, how does one get to the point of drawing things as they look to the critical mind? Here are some tips to get you moving in the right direction.
#1: Work from photographs you’ve taken.
From my experience, realism requires drawing from the real thing. I’ve been drawing off and on my entire life and I cannot whip out a realistic anything from my mind. I can make some cute cartoons or caricatures, and I’m an excellent Pictionary partner, but, if you want realism from me I need to be in front of the thing; or, better yet, a photograph. Photographs are helpful when learning because they can’t blink or move out of place and the lighting won’t change with the movement of the sun. The photograph also does the hard work of translating the 3-D object into a 2-D form.
#2: Draw on a large sheet of paper .
Trust me, you do not want to draw a full length portrait in a 4”x6” journal. You would need the steadiness of a surgeon to place every mark where it needs to be. I once did a small pencil drawing of my daughter and she looked crazy in the 6” x 9” sketch. I kept looking and looking trying to see what I did wrong. I had to erase the corner of her eye and draw the corner with one pencil dot. With one dab of the pencil it was perfect, but, I had to remove the dash that was wrong so I could place the dot to get it right. A DOT! Larger formats are more forgiving and provide more room for error.
#3: Spend more time looking at the subject than your drawing.
Don’t dive into drawing right away. Sit there and really look at what you’re drawing for a minimum of 5 minutes. Set a timer. Spend that time tracing every line you see using your imagination. Where are the darkest darks and the lightest lights? Is this composition short and wide or tall and thin? Plan how you will put it on the paper: horizontal or vertical? Will you use a 2B or 6B pencil to draw a baby? What part of the image do you want at the center of your paper? What do you like most about what you’re looking at? Don’t lose that! What is in front and what fades into the background? Really map out the drawing in your mind.
#4: Realism requires questions, corrections, erasers, and rulers.
For realism to blossom, your perspective lines must be spot on, your horizon needs to be level, the walls of your house need to be straight, and the person’s face must be in proportion to itself. Break out your library card and check out books on perspective, proportions, and drawing realistic faces. Erase errant marks and straighten wavy lines. You must keep looking at the original and compare it with the marks you just put on the paper. Does your line have the same slope? Correct it. Is the house really taller than the tree? Yes, it is a newly planted tree. Reassure yourself because your brain might try to make the tree to tall.
#5: Draw something, or someone, to whom you aren’t emotionally connected.
We are often unsatisfied with subjects we know very well because we are experts on the subject and emotions can complicate things. Our logical brain says, "Something isn't quite right with this drawing.” Our pet can look like a stuffed animal instead of the warm, charming critter we know them to be. While you are learning to draw more realistically, maybe avoid friends, family and pets for subjects.
#6: Practice and patience lead to improvement, not perfection.
As you practice drawing you are building your visual vocabulary of how you create various 3-D objects on a 2-D surface. You will never be as perfect as a camera because you are not a piece of machinery. But, with enough practice you just might trick the human eye. Artists are playing an instrument that requires practice and tuning. Just like musicians, artists must practice 8 hours a day to perfect their performance. But even musicians who play a piece perfectly as written, can sound a little different. That’s the magic of humans and snowflakes, no two alike. Artists put a bit of themselves on the paper and that’s okay, even in realism.
It takes patience and persistence to achieve a realistic replication of an image and the artist must push through the moment when they most want to quit because that is often the moment they are on the verge of a breakthrough. Remember, what you draw tomorrow will be better than what you drew today because you never stop learning and improving.
A student from my alma mater was writing an article for the Chimes about Calvin Alumni who entered ArtPrize this year and saw my name listed on Calvin’s website. She asked me to answer the following three questions; and, although I didn’t get back to her in time for her publication deadline I thought I’d share my answers with you.
-How did Calvin College impact your journey as an artist?
My Calvin education taught me to care for our culture and contribute to the redeeming work Christ is doing in my sphere of influence. I take that charge seriously and hope it informs my work. On a practical level, photography and graphic design classes I took really inform my process as an artist.
-What inspired this installation and what is your hope for how the public interacts with it?
I was deeply touched by the #MeToo movement and the number of people it has affected. A few years ago I drew the image of a woman on a pier tied to a barge of trash for a friend. She was sexually abused as a child and this was an image that came to her in her healing process. The meaning, she discovered, was that she should forgive her grandfather and let go of those memories so she could move forward in freedom and not have those past events define her. It didn't matter who put the rope around her neck, she could take it off. She suggested the image could be improved if I painted my own trash and what freedom would look like for me. I was not eager to undertake this project and was avoiding it until I saw a Facebook video on forgiveness that gave me the title for my painting. I realized art could begin a journey for others who need to find healing for their past through forgiveness. They may not find justice, but they can find freedom. On my website I have links to many tools for working out forgiveness that I've come across since undertaking this project. My hope is that this painting will provide a way forward for those who are still held hostage to painful memories tied to them by un-forgiveness.
-Have you entered anything in ArtPrize before?
This is my first year participating in ArtPrize. I chose to enter ArtPrize so that this painting might contribute to the conversation around #MeToo in our country. These problems won't be solved in the courts or legislature; but, by individuals taking courageous steps to heal their fractured identity.
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Notes From ArtPrize Artist Week September 18, 2018 speaker Matthew Patulski
SECURE DIGITAL IMAGES
It’s important to protect acrylic paintings you like by varnishing or framing them behind glass. Acrylic paintings can get dirty like any other plastic object in your house, imagine an exploding soda or great-aunt Edna smoking. A proper varnishing is the most cost effective solution for large canvas paintings. I recently varnished a 4’ x 6’ acrylic painting and thought I’d share what I learned. Let it be known, there is the right way to do things and then there is your way to do things. You have to do what works for you, your space, and your budget. Disclaimer: Always follow manufacturer’s directions, even if I don’t.
I haven’t written a blog for a while because I am in, what my family refers to as, ”mad scientist mode". Mad Scientist Mode means I don’t do my hair or makeup, I wear paint covered clothing every day, I paint, I sleep, occasionally eating when reminded, and leave the studio only when necessary. I send the briefest texts and emails to friends and shorten the phone calls with family. I’m not available for lunch dates or play dates. I am not sad or mad at you, I hope I am not rude or hurtful, I am just a mad scientist on the verge of an artistic break through in my lab and I cannot be bothered until there is success or an explosion. (The above image is the bottom right hand corner of the all-consuming 4'x6' painting I'm working on.)
In March I got the idea for a painting that I thought might land a spot in Art Prize. I started work immediately because I have to convince someone that this painting is awesome before June 28th so I can be part of the show in September. So, every day I plug away at the painting and each day it looks more awesome. I can easily pass a day lost in the joy of the minutia of the painting. Don’t get me wrong there are other times when I have to walk away because something isn’t working and I'm frustrated, but that’s what happens when you’re creating something that doesn’t yet exist. It takes time to figure out this world and its conventions. It amazes me how my brain seems always to be working the painting in the back of my mind as I do other things. Suddenly in the middle of making dinner I’ll get an idea for how to fix something and then I can’t wait to get a paint brush in my hand and see if I’ve actually solved my problem.
This painting is definitely testing me. It's exhausting working as a slave with or without inspiration. I like the instant gratification of drawing and really haven’t painted anything this big and detailed and personal…well…ever. I find myself hearing in my mind the advice I often give my students….keep adding information, add shadows and highlights, add the next level of detail. Don’t give up, the more information you add the more the painting will make sense and come alive. Sure enough, while a sand beach will do, I’ve learned that a pebble beach is magnificent. While a vague impressionist style contains all the necessary information, realism can be a more powerful communicator. It's okay that no part of the painting is finished until the entire painting is finished. Tweaks are necessary to keep large paintings cohesive. It’s exhausting infusing a painting with yourself and your experiences, but the painting takes on a new level of believability, intimacy, and power when we’re brave.
So, I’m afraid my blog and instructional You Tube videos will necessarily be interrupted by Mad Scientist moments. As an artist, I am a slave to inspiration when it comes and calls my name. I must answer. If I don’t, inspiration will leave me and find someone else to bring it to life. So, I beg your patience as I pour my heart and soul on a canvas and try to capture for you to see what inspiration has whispered in my ear. Once the painting is finished, I will return to blogging and YouTubing, hair and makeup, cooking and cleaning and lunches with friends. Until then, I'm in a different kind of good place. I hope you too will listen for, and surrender to, inspiration in your life and see where it leads.
"While discussing the growing antipathy toward Christians, a friend remarked to me, "There are three kinds of Christians that outsiders to the faith still respect: pilgrims, activists, and artists. The uncommitted will listen to them far sooner than to an evangelist or apologist." Although nonbelievers do not oppose a spiritual search, they will listen only to those Christians who present themselves as fellow-pilgrims on the way rather than as part of a superior class who has already arrived. Activists express their faith in the most persuasive way of all, by their deeds. And art succeeds when it speaks most authentically to the human condition; when believers do so with skill, again the world takes note." Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace p. 89
As artists, we have the opportunity to be grace dispensers. We can add to the truth and beauty of the human experience. It is important that we are the best artists we can be so that our lack of skill does not impede the image we feel compelled to share. If we do our job well, we should bring hope, clarity and a curiosity about what we believe and why we live our life the way we do. Artists are not needed to add to the chaos and noise of our world. There is plenty of ugliness on display in the nightly news. Sadly, I can’t undo the tragedy that happened at a Florida school last week, but I can accept the invitation to share in the task of dispensing grace and hope to a hurting world. How will you be a grace dispenser today?
Sherry Barrett is an active artist who takes inspiration from great works of literature, historical figures, and wise people.