Inspiration, Instruction, Musings
Copyright © 2019 Sherry Barrett
All rights reserved.
All rights reserved.
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?
Art Group met at my house last night. I love my art group. There are six of us who get together to paint, draw, and just talk about our lives nearly every week of the year. Sounds perfect doesn't it. To be honest, I never want to go to art group, or host art group, even though I love art group. I'm lazy, we meet at night, and I just want to be in my pajamas and go to sleep at night because I'm really not my best self at night; but, once we're together there is no other place I'd rather be.
The Newcomer's Art Club in Oxford, England really saved my sanity in so many ways for those years I lived abroad. Having someone who's glad to see you every week is important. Some people don't have the luxury of getting together with friends to paint. Many schools across the country are cutting art programs all together. I've been thinking about how I can help those who long to be creative but don't know how to go it alone, maybe expatriates in a foreign country, or who live in a rural community, or for one reason or another don't have friends to paint with or access to friendly, non-competitive instruction.
So, I've started a YouTube channel. It's nothing fancy, just me teaching you how to do some art that I'm interested in and giving you tips and tricks along the way. I know I'm not really there with you, but I hope it feels like you have a friendly, encouraging artist friend in me who will help you try new things, cheer you along the way, and answer any questions you have about art. If you like me or love me please subscribe to my YouTube channel so that it will become more findable for the people who need it most. Thanks for all the support you give me friends! I appreciate you.
Check out my introduction video and share this url with friends you think would benefit: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xq3FX4HOOQ0
The truth is, “Not much.” I think many artistically inclined people never get started painting because they think, “I don’t have the space, time, or money to paint.” But, that’s just wrong thinking. Instead they should think, “What do I already have that I can use?” Once started, they will find the time they spend learning to paint flies by blissfully. Jane Austen wrote her novels at a desk no bigger than a side table with ink, pen, and paper. I have painted on my lap while perched on some uncomfortable rocks in the fog. Go through your house, see what art supplies you already have, open up a TV tray table and get started.
Recently, I went to the beach with my son for some impromptu fishing and muscle harvesting. I intended to paint the landscape if the tide was high, so I grabbed a few things on my way out the door. Now, I’m an artist with hundreds of dollars worth of supplies ready to go, but my daughter snagged my favorite water color paint set. (I would complain about the theft except that she uses them more than I do and makes beautiful water color paintings). So, I was left to grab paints from a water color paint by number my daughter received years ago, 4 half sheets of left over 9”x12” water color paper, an acrylic clip board, plastic cup, pencil, 2 paper towels, 2 paint brushes and 3 water color pens. I totally forgot a pallet for mixing colors. Oh well.
It was slightly overcast at the beach, which is great in California so you don’t go blind as an artist, and the tide was high so I found a rock and set out to start painting. For some strange reason, a bank of fog rolled in from the ocean so thick I could not see where my car was parked about 30 feet away. So, much for practicing landscape today. I rummaged around in my bag and found an image I printed out from Pinterest. I remember being frustrated because the original site was no longer up so I couldn’t find any instructions for how they created the image, but I liked it enough to print it out anyway and use it for inspiration. Well, I grabbed a CD from my car and ta-da I cranked out 4 paintings. Once the fog cleared out I was able to use the local landscape for inspiration to make the Pinterest artist’s idea my own. Can you tell which paintings I created during the fog and which ones I painted once the fog lifted. LOL. That's real life right there.
Lesson learned: You don’t need everything to be just right to create beautiful art. You just have to be present to the moment and use the supplies at hand. Don’t make excuses for why you can’t make art like, "The fog rolled in." You’re an artist. Fact: if you're human you're a creator, even if you just create messes. Artists are perpetual problem solvers (rummage in your bag, car, wherever, MacGyver the situation). You've got this! Go paint.
One day in England, I found my kids digging my art out of the trash. I said, “What are you doing? That is terrible.” They said something like, “This art is going to pay for our kids to go to college someday. Remember all those sketchbook pages of half drawn people we’ve seen in the art museums by Picasso, Van Gough, Rembrandt…one day, someone will want to see your not-so-great art, too.”
That was the day I learned that the art I create isn’t necessarily for me. I don’t have to think it is good or valuable for it to do good or be valuable. I am shocked by some of the paintings I’ve sold because I can see so many things that, “I could have done better.” But that piece of art was just as it should be for the purchaser, it was meant for them, and I was fortunate enough to participate in the creation of it.
If artists do their jobs well, people will see things they’ve overlooked their entire lives. They will learn that clouds are not white and the sky is not blue. Artists reveal that clouds can be white on top, but they have silver, gray, pink, purple, and shades of blue throughout. The sky is most blue when you look directly above your head and it is a lighter blue the closer you look to the horizon, unless you’re observing a sunrise or a sunset when the sky can be gentle purples and pinks, or brilliant yellows and oranges. It is fine to see blue skies and white clouds, but it is better to see the full truth of what you are observing.
Artists and Christians, like other humans, do not get things right the first time, or the second, or third. However, artists exhibit what they think is their best art and hide the rest in portfolios under their beds. Christians sometimes act like they have it all together in public, hiding their failures at home. This pretense is not the genuine human experience even though we behave as if it is. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, or behave perfectly. He asks us to acknowledge His perfection and live a life loving Him and those around us. It’s that easy--and that hard--so is the truth.
With this understanding, today, I acknowledge my mistakes and find relief in the fact that I don’t have to hide my imperfections. I have not yet arrived as an artist or Christian, but I will continue to practice both. In the meantime, for your amusement, I provide a painting rescued from the bin by my daughter and one of my first art videos (it made my art group laugh to the point of tears). I don’t think you have to be an artist to know how bad this video is: you know what color you get when you mix red and white, right? Apparently, I forgot in a fit of patriotism. Anyway, a painting and a video to reveal the full truth of my experience as an artist and a Christian.
My husband met Philip Yancey at an event last year and received a copy of his book Vanishing Grace. Justin enjoyed his dinner conversation with the author and suggested I might enjoy his book. I finally got around to reading it and this part really grabbed hold of me:
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.
As a Christian artist I have a responsibility to dispense Grace. To do this effectively, I must become the best artist I can be so that my skills do not interfere with the message. I must spend hours practicing and refining my art in order to present the most clear and understandable images possible.
I am often quoted as saying, "Just because you're a Christian doesn't mean you can suck at your job". As Christians, we must be better at our jobs than the average person because we are representing the King. Christian art should never be synonymous with second rate, just okay, cliche, or predictable art. If we do our job properly, Christian art should mean inspired, beautiful, truthful, insightful, excellent. I may not be there yet, but I have a life time to perfect my artistic skills and leave something that outsiders of the faith will hopefully respect, admire, and stir them to investigate the source of my beliefs and their own. In the end, I hope to be remembered as a dispenser of grace-filled art for a hurting world. What are you dispensing?
Everything in our lives does not need to be a masterpiece. Everything in our lives does not need to be perfect, have purpose, or change the world. Sometimes we just need to play. Sometimes we just need to be present and enjoy being alive and available to the magic of the moment.
From my last post you know I’ve gone through some relational difficulties. It has been emotionally exhausting and caused a background illness to rear its ugly head. This kind of thing can kill art. Or, I should say, I let it kill my art. I was too much in my head. Everything I was working on was too precious, it had to be perfect, it wasn’t communicating what I wanted, and I was frustrated. So, I stopped drawing and painting. Quitting is easy, but dangerous. Like exercise, it takes a long time to get into shape and only days to fall out of shape.
This is why we have to be part of a community. A friend from one of my art groups has been flooding my inbox with YouTube videos for various acrylic painting techniques. Some of the images piqued my curiosity and after watching every YouTube video she sent I could not wait to paint again. But, this playful painting style did not come naturally to me. My first two images were very controlled, and beautiful, but not quite play.
I’ve been reading The Good and Beautiful LIFE by James Bryan Smith and he says, “Play cannot be controlled, no matter how hard we try. Sports teams try to keep the game under control, but that is impossible. Every ‘play’ that happens during a game unfolds in unexpected ways. This is what makes play so entertaining. Spontaneity is one of the spiritual benefits of play. We learn to let go. We relax, let ourselves become vulnerable and open up to whatever happens.”
The next dozen images were truly play. I hadn’t created abstract/expressionist paintings since high school and I forgot how much fun I can have painting. The hours flew by and I covered every canvas in sight and used up 8 bottles of 10 year old paints that weren’t good for much else.
If you’re stuck in your art (or your life), stop and play. You can’t afford not to. It’s not a distraction, it’s not a waste of time, it’s not a waste of art supplies. It’s good for the soul and that’s good for everything. Ask yourself, what would it look like for me to play today? I give you permission to play and invite others to join you…I bet they need it too.
Drawing an all-white object is a great way to learn that all-white objects are not all white. With careful observation, the artist is forced to take note of the dark, medium, light and bright whites that give white objects their shape. The artist also notices that white objects do not exist in an all white room. Sometimes the space around a white object is equally important in telling the tale of the white object. So, sharpen your pencil and start drawing that white bird bath, chair, trellis, or whatever catches your eye .
Yesterday was a bad day. The kind you hope never comes, but will come because we are humans in relationship with each other. I was trying to go about business as usual, to keep my sanity and not overthink things, when I came across the most amazing photo on my home banking website. It was the image you see above. This image brought to mind the smell of fishy water, the sound of clinking sailboats, and many wonderful childhood memories. The long shadow cast by the crab reminded me of waking very early during summer vacation with my brother and sister to walk down to the beach to go crabbing. I can feel this splintery dock under my feet as I walk along to find the perfect spot. I remember the indents in my knees from the rough wood as I knelt down to tie my line to a plank. The thrill of slowly pulling up the string, straining for a glimpse of a crab on the bait through the murky waters of the Chesapeake, while sibling one or two stands by with the net, ready to scoop the crab before it can get away. Once we get the crab on deck, we examine the brilliant colors, the size of the claws, is it a fighter or is it chill, is it a keeper?! I think this one is too small to keep and will be allowed to scuttle sideways back into the Severn River. Most days we would return home from crabbing empty handed but happy for having "caught" half a dozen, too small crabs. Mom would make us a tuna sandwich for lunch and Dad would remove the splinters we acquired from the pier as we recounted the glories of our morning adventure.
I knew I needed to draw this photograph from my bank's web page, because there was healing to be had in this image for me. There was a place for me to visit in my mind to serve as a break from a broken relationship I needed to address later that evening, the unexpected death of a friend, and the waves of tears that kept overtaking me unexpectedly throughout the day.
Tough as I may think I am, emotions sweep over me like waves of the ocean sometimes. They drag me down, rake me across the bottom and spit me out again with a mouth full of sand. I've learned from the ocean to grab a breath of air before the next wave hits, because it will be coming shortly after. Art is one way I catch my breath.
Art, for me, is a place of rest. A time to slow down and look and really see. I allow myself to be absorbed into the scene and feel something else for a while. It saddens me that the arts are vanishing from our education system. How will people find rest for their minds? The STEM subjects may cure illnesses of the body eventually, but the arts are soothing to the everyday bumps and bruises of the mind today. The arts provide the brain an alternate route, another way to find solutions to the problems we encounter, a time outside of time, a place outside of here and now.
Today, art taught me that the loss of my friend is like coming home empty handed. I am sad for myself because her company was delicious, but happy for her because she is safe and happy where she belongs. I learned that friendship is worth the splinters left in my life that will be painful every time I step on them and take time to heal but serve as lovely reminders of the memories built together. Today, art helped me catch a breath between the waves of repairing a broken friendship and mourning the loss of a dear one to death. I dedicate this drawing to the memory of my dear Elena who is now with her Jesus. Your life mattered my friend and you will be greatly missed. Thanks for all the splinters.
Have you ever wondered what artists are doing when they seem to be glaring at a pencil they are holding at arms length? It may look ridiculous, but this is how artists take measurements. We don't carry a measuring tape like a seamstress, but we've learned to measure with one eye, a straight arm and a pencil, paintbrush, or just our hand. Proportion helps to harmonize our drawing with itself.
To practice drawing in proportion find an object in your house that you'd like to draw. I chose to try my cup again.
1. Place the object on the table in front of you.
2. Take your pencil in your drawing hand, extend that arm fully until your elbow locks. Close one eye and look at your object behind the pencil.
4. Place the tip of your pencil at the top of the object and slide your thumb nail down the pencil to the bottom of the object. That space from the tip of your pencil to your thumb is your height measurement. For this exercise, transfer this measurement directly onto your paper by placing your pencil on the paper and marking with the top by rocking your pencil so the lead makes a mark, then point a finger where your thumb nail is on the paper and make a pencil mark by that finger.
5. Next, turn your pencil horizontally, fully extend your arm and lock your elbow, close the same eye and look at the object along the pencil. Place the tip of the pencil on the far left side of the object and slide your thumb along the pencil until your nail reaches the far right side of the object. Transfer these width measurements to your paper in the same way.
6. You can also take more measurements. Perhaps you are drawing a wine glass and you need to determine where the glass ends and the stem begins. To do this, measure from the top of the glass to the start of the stem. Mark that distance on your drawing. Now, keeping your thumb in place (or remeasure the top again if you lost it) slide the tip of your pencil down to the start of the stem, where does your thumb land in relation to the object? Is it the bottom of the stem or the base of the glass or far below the glass on the table? Use that measurement to get the bottom half of the glass in proper proportion to the top. If you are measuring a brandy glass, the stem may begin 1/4 from the bottom of the total measurement; whereas, a wine glass stem may begin in the middle of the total measurement.
7. Proceed to draw your object within those boundaries and you will be delighted with the results. Measuring always ensures that people won't mistake your brandy glass for a wine glass.
Tips and Tricks:
1. Always close the same eye. (Go ahead, close your left eye, then your right eye while looking at your pencil and see what happens.)
2. Always fully extend your arm and lock your elbow, otherwise you will get a different measurement every time you put your pencil in front of you.
3. Try not to wiggle around or tilt your head. Stay put while measuring.
4. If your eyes refuse to cooperate with pencil measuring, take a photo of your object and print it out on your printer in black and white. Get out a ruler and literally measure the object in the printout. Place those measurements directly on your blank paper to serve as guidelines. Now make yourself draw within those boundaries and your object will be in proper proportion.
If a drawing is bothering you, it's often because something is out of proportion. I was recently helping a friend with a sea turtle that didn't look quite right. We laid her pencil on the turtle's shell and then on the front flipper to check the proportions. We couldn't believe the sea turtle's front flipper was as long as its shell. She had to make that front flipper longer than seemed necessary. But as soon as she lengthened the flipper, the drawing came together. Correcting a mistake is so much easier than starting all over again, so don't be afraid to measure before, during and after. Erase and replace faulty lines to get that proper proportion. And take heart, the more you practice the better your brain will get at seeing proportion without even measuring.
Sherry Barrett is an active artist who takes inspiration from great works of literature, historical figures, and wise people.