Take A Trip

One of the things I love about doing illustration work is the worlds that open up to me. With a recent request for images to go with the term Arabic, I was taken on a journey to a world far away. One in which, despite the amount of times its in the news, I actually know very little about.

Researching all things Arabic led me to learn about the bird market in Kabul, that the colourful camel trappings are handmade, the different names of traditional clothing, and a whole lot more. There are Buddhist temples in Afghanistan, and a 55 meter Buddha statue. I got to meet people I wouldn’t otherwise know, by getting permission to use their likeness in my images. Beautiful people and beautiful hearts are not confined by borders or religious views. If only the love people have inside them could remain uncorrupted by borders and cultish religious manipulation.

Painterly illustration of a beautiful Arabian woman in a white hijab with roses and lights.

These are just a few of the images resulting from my virtual journey to far away lands. Many will be available from Arcangel Images. Today the Arab world, next the Asian one, with a stop in the Wild West! I have been assured 2022 is going to be an exciting and busy year!

Artfully Walls

I am pleased to announce museum quality reproductions of select images are now available through Artfully Walls in the USA and UK, with shipping to Canada, Australia, Ireland. Unlike other print outlets, the artists are handpicked by Artfully Walls, and the artwork is highly curated. Works purchased are fully guaranteed.

Some pieces are available on canvas, while others are available on paper, with or without framing.

Framed print of “Sing”

Me: The Early Years

I am always quite surprised when people want to know my story. To me, I am the most unremarkable boring person alive. I do have a past and many stories, so I will indulge in telling them. This is a follow up to a very condensed version posted to Instagram.

At age 2 my mom recognized my love of drawing and made a note in my baby book that I was “very artistically abled from the time she could hold a crayon”. I suppose when this is mentioned from such a young age, it is no wonder that I followed an artistic path in life. Was it nature or nurturing? I often say I was born to be an artist.

I can’t remember ever not drawing or taking pictures. I spent many hours in my bedroom quietly colouring and drawing. My favourite gifts as a child: colouring books, doodle art, paper, crayons, pencil crayons, paint, paint by numbers, modelling clay or play doh …….I remember this creepy crawly insect maker once that I liked.

When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up the answer was either jockey or artist. My love of animals was (and still is) equal to my love of creating. I took every art class possible through school. The first time I got sent to the principals office was in grade 7 for drawing anatomically correct nude males. It was art to me, but apparently totally inappropriate to be showing my classmates.

Me age 5 adoring the poodle (with my sisters) – not much has changed!

I think it was about grade 7 or 8 that my art teacher recognized my abilities, but more that my rebellious attitude was totally tamed by allowing me to express my creativity (ie: doodling during other classes). Mrs. Potter was very encouraging. I had other champions too, like my maternal grandmother who dabbled in painting.

Dog drawings from circa 1978 age 14.

Also in junior high I argued against taking home ec in favour of shop class, because shop class got to do photography, which was my other love. From a young age, I would bug my parents to let me use their camera. I got my own crappy little 110 film camera sometime around grade 7 or 8. I loved shop class, and learning how to develop film. We also had to do some metal and leather work, which I also preferred to doing domestic things like sewing and cooking. In hindsight, I wish I’d learned to sew.

In grade 10 I had a fantastic art teacher for half a semester. She was a ‘real’ artist, not just an art teacher. She was a terrific drawer. She had been trying to convince the school to allow the art class to use a live model. It never came to fruition during my time there. We moved after my first semester to a small country school with few resources and not so great of art teacher. It was a big let down, but I still took all the classes available. Although I still loved the drawing and painting assignments, I also fell in love with sculpture.

At 16 I started working at camera stores and 1 hour labs so that I could buy a 35mm camera. I eventually did, starting out with a Ricoh camera and then later upgrading to a Canon. I entered both artwork and photography in the community fall fairs art categories and won a few ribbons, which further encouraged me.

1981 Working at the camera shop

At 18, unbeknownst to my parents, I applied to the Alberta College Of Art (now Alberta University of Art). My portfolio had been based largely on photographs of my sculpted masks. I was accepted. When I showed my acceptance letter to my mom, she said they wouldn’t pay for it. I was too young and naive to know there were other options to fund an education. So my dream died there.

I didn’t quit drawing, painting, or taking photographs, but I did quit dreaming of being an artist. I went to business school. Started working at an oil company in their accounting department, and started taking night classes to earn my CPA (certified public accountant). In the midst of this I found my soulmate. Move to a small town in the middle of nowhere, got married, and had a baby.

Stay tuned for the middle years.

The Making Of Night Stalker

When one of my agents mentioned process videos, I will admit that I had a bit of a freak out. I am such an intuitive worker that it’s hard to document a step by step process or anything I follow when processing my images. The other problem is that I often spend hours on an image going back and forth, playing.

What happens if I do this? What would this setting look like? A lot of times, when asking those questions and experimenting, the work takes me in a different direction than what I had originally intended.

When I started with Night Stalker, my original intention was a daylight scene with the silhouette set in. I start my edit in Lightroom optimizing the photo and making colour edits to set the mood. Then I’ll open it up in Photoshop and play around. It was then I thought it would tell a better story…..have more suspense….if it was a night scene. I had not done a complete day to night edit before so there was a lot of experimentation.

Anyhow, these videos require a bit of a learning curve on my part, so this is pretty basic and rough. I will be attempting to do more, and will hopefully improve on them.

Cindy Revell

Yesterday, after several years I finally got to meet, face to face, with an under-appreciated Alberta artist whose work I have adored for years. Cindy Revell is from Sherwood Park east of Edmonton, and is best known for her whimsical paintings featuring fantastical creatures and richly patterned tapestries. Cheerful, bold colours, exquisite brushwork, and a bit of humour makes her work playful, fun, and quirky enough to stand out.

In a world of decreasing options and generic sameness, the uniqueness of her work is enough to make Cindy’s work attract attention, but the paintings are expertly executed as well. These paintings are for the dreamers, the poets, the adults who refuse to let go of their inner child, and the bold who embrace difference.

During our conversation, we talked about the struggles of not being mainstream…..of being uncommon. Our society has become so trained to sameness and lack of choice, that it isn’t always an easy road when you choose to go against the norm. The artist’s life is a struggle at the best of times, but then adding in quirky often makes the climb even steeper. But Cindy has climbed over the roadblocks to have a successful career as an artist, teacher, and mentor.

Speaking of mentoring, Levelling Up Mastermind groups will be starting a small group mentoring session with Cindy in the near future. I can tell you, if you are on the artists path, this is one session that will provide valuable guidance you won’t soon forget. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to gain the experience and knowledge of one of Canada’s most under appreciated artists. (No I am not being paid to say this!)

Best of all, from our all too short of visit, is that we now are the proud owners of Night Whispers by Cindy Revell. The painting featuring a red deer and blue bird in conversation on a rich tapestry against a backdrop of leaves, is so absolutely perfect for our new home. The stories and connections this painting invokes are many.

From the memories of deer sleeping outside our windows on the farm, to the bluebird houses hung around the property, to my love of textiles and past work in the fibre arts, to our move to Red Deer, and to how the first night in our new home I marvelled at the sound of the leaves whispering outside the bedroom window that night (and many subsequent nights). We were even talking about our days raising sheep and the 2 am visits to the lambing pen to check ewes, and how I missed those night sounds. The Night Whispers, that only those who sit in the quietness of the night know.

Cindy, we are overjoyed with this painting!

The Making Of

I post images all the time of completed works, but never really talk about the technical aspects of making the image. Sometimes an image can appear to be quite simple, when a lot went into making it. Other times a complex looking image was very simple to do.

In the making of Shadow Soldier, I had drawn the silhouette of a military figure in vector format, and then was looking for the right setting to place him into. I am always trying to think like a storyteller, and how can an image help tell a story. What kinds of stories are being told and the characters that might be needed is always something I’m paying attention to. The suspense genre is popular, and I love making images for this category of literature.

Vector illustration of a man in military gear.

I had originally been thinking of a night scene. Maybe a forest or barren landscape, but when browsing through my photo library, I spotted one of a darkened corridor of a brick building. A narrative instantly popped into my head. The image had some problems I would have to overcome in order to make it work. Mainly that it was in landscape format and had unwanted elements (either side) of the composition.

Dark brick corridor photo.

I wanted the figure placed towards the back of the corridor. Needing room for copy space, I couldn’t just crop out the sides and get to the right vertical dimensions needed for a book cover. I would have to ‘invent’ some of the top and bottom of the scene; make up the cement of the sidewalk and bricks of the building.

I took several hours to come up with a convincing recreation of the building to fit the correct format. I also wanted to simplify the fencing seen in the background by the window so the background of the soldier wouldn’t distract the eye. I used quite a few different brushes to try to match the wall on the left side in the background.

Then playing around with colours, curves, textures, and such, I arrived at a the following image which has a strong narrative and would be perfect for a thriller, suspense, or historical novel.

Photo composite illustration of a soldier in the shadows of a brick archway.

What is the narrative in your mind when you see the finished image?

European Wall Art

I am pleased to announce a collaboration with Posterlounge. Although my art has made it to Europe in the past, this is the first time reproductions have been widely available to the European Wall Art market.

Posterlounge is a family owned German decor company that offers in-house production of high quality art reproductions. The company now services the European wall decor market with websites in English, French, Spanish, Italy, and of course, German with a curated collection of contemporary and historic artworks, photographs, and illustration.

Their motto is “Art For Every Wall”, and I am happy to be represented by them. You can choose between posters, canvas, acrylic, aluminum, wood, and foam board prints, wall stickers, gallery prints, and framed art prints. Truly something for every wall.

Roberta Murray at Posterlounge

On Thinking Like A Book Cover

I split my photography between photos for the wall decor industry and the book publishing one. When shooting for book covers, I need to adjust my thinking quite a bit from that of the fine art or decor market, which is more concerned with producing a pictorial image that can enhance a living space.

For the book cover market, I am looking for the story, or the potential story. There are times when the two can overlap, but I usually put myself into a different frame of mind for covers. Since I like a good mystery or suspense story, I often try to think in terms of that genre when out shooting. The resulting images often have a bit of a dark undertone to them. Like this bison skull, below. It has a clear bullet hole in the head. Overall the image tells a story that could be successfully used on the cover for a variety of stories, besides the stereotypical western genre.

A bison skull with a large gunshot wound.

The image below of the old fashioned workshop, could be used on the cover of a suspense novel. Perhaps a story about a mass murderer, or the disappearance of an important person. But it could just as easily be about the breakdown of a marriage. The loss of a grandparent, or a story set in the past. What about a story about a seemingly idyllic neighbourhood with a dark secret. Is it the caretaker?

An old farm workshop with antique tools.

Even seemingly random subjects can make great book covers. I would never have thought when I snapped a photo of our cat on the fence with a specialty camera set up that it would end up the cover of James Patterson novel, but it did.

The silhouette of a cat sitting on a fence.
James Patterson Book Cover

The book cover industry engages my creativity and imagination and allows me to become a bit of a storyteller in seeking out and composing my images. It’s a job I truly love.

You can view my portfolio’s of images for licensing on Arcangel Images and Millennium Images.

About Storykins And Staffage

In painting Staffage is the human and animal figures added to a landscape scene used for decoration rather than the main subject. Their importance lies in the life they add to an otherwise static scene. Storykins derives from the Dutch storykens meaning Little Stories. These elements can animate the scenery and bring the viewer into the narrative of the scene. They can help provide scale, enhance the composition of a painting giving direction to the eye, or provide an anchor. Often, though they are small and painted without detail, they become the focal point. 

During the 19th century books of staffage were published for artists with hundreds of examples to use for their painting. Often, these same symbols can be identified in multi paintings of a given time period – both by different artists, and the same figurative symbol used over and over again by the same artist. 

Most Old Master landscapes featured staffage in the form of people going about their daily activities, livestock in the fields, or wildlife as a part of the natural environment. A marsh is a busy place teeming with life. To paint it devoid of even an insect, frog, or bird, would be to depict a falsehood that can’t portray the cacophony of sounds and actions present on a summer day.  

Claude Monet – Lane In Normandy (altered)

Does Claude Monet’s Lane In Normandy tell the same story, or have the same interest without the two little boys walking in the lane? (Digitally altered to remove figures above. Original below.)

Claude Monet – Lane In Normandy (original)

What about John Singer Sargent’s Olive Trees, Corfu? Can the painting be considered as successful without the figures as with them? 

John Singer Sargent – Olive Trees Corfu

In my own work, I have found adding human or animals symbols to my landscapes has greatly improved the storytelling quality of the works, and is providing a vehicle for buyers to be able to form more emotional attachments to the works. The challenge is being able to come up with the symbolism necessary for telling the story. In the absence of staffage sample books, it is necessary to create your own inventory of samples that can be added to the painting when necessary. 

I can often be found in the evenings watching a tv show while creating my little sample cards filled with small figure sketches. I try to add only enough information in these sketches to tell the story, and to be able to interpret that figure onto the canvas. Much like a chef has their recipes of sauces, or a musician has their keys and chords, these little drawings are a base that can be used to mix and match to suit the mood and theme of a painting. 

Pen and ink figure thumbnails for staffage.

Whether your decorative elements are human or animal, there is a great benefit to having a ready made supply of samples to reach for at a moments notice when your fancy strikes, or the need arises. 

When Brian Was A Boy – 16×20” – Oil on canvas

When Brian Was A Boy above, is an example of the use of staffage in one of my paintings. Here the figure provides the anchor point of the painting, but also helps tell the story. Where is the person going, or where have they been? What is on their mind? The title suggests maybe they are thinking of away times. Perhaps remembering life on the prairies when he was a boy. The stories that can be played out go so much further, than if the landscape had been painted without life in it. 

Without the figure it becomes a nice landscape painting. The story becomes about the weather and season, and not much else. The viewer can pass by it quickly without much thought. With a figure added to the landscape there is something for the viewer to stop and consider, to linger a little longer over, and hopefully, fall in love with the story of their own invention. 

Pre Planning The Perfect Painting

Once I finally settle down on an idea for a painting, I get impatient and want to see the end result before I’ve even started. In my attempt to slow down and be more deliberate about my paintings, I am attempting to preplan them, by manipulating the reference photo to strengthen the design, and test colours.

One of the problems with trying to get mountain reference photos for paintings is that our Canadian forest is heavy. Unless one can get a special vantage point higher up or further away, which is usually not easily achieved (especially the further away one if you are right in the mountains), finding an interesting composition is difficult.

Take the following photo as an example. I wanted to paint the lakeshore and canoes. In the original you couldn’t see the distant slope and mountains. It was just a solid block of trees. I suppose one could make an interesting painting from that if you made the subject about the trees themselves, and found some sort of rhythm to them.

Altered reference photo

I’m not so keen on evergreens and think the overall photo would be quite boring as a painting. Previously I probably wouldn’t have attempted it and ended up with a dud to throw away. Now, I’m trying to work out the potential problems before I even get to the canvas.

I want to reduce the number of canoes, open up the forest and create a path to guide the eye through the painting, and give some colour to the sky. So I attempted to illustrate these ideas digitally on top of the reference photo, playing with both the design and colours. It’s just a rough roadmap to help me visualize what I want.

Digitally altered reference to plan painting

Now to see if this pre-planning results in a successful painting. What changes would you have made if you were painting this?