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. 

The Pressure To Perform

I have had a huge artists block that has lasted for over a year, and almost derailed my entire career. I have beat myself up horribly over this fact. The more I stressed about it, the worse it got, until one day I just said “I’m done”.

But I knew in the back of my head that was the furthest from the truth. You see, I’ve always painted or drawn. Yes, I’ve had periods of rest where I wasn’t very active, but that deep seated desire to create has always been there niggling away at me, making me feel incomplete if I wasn’t painting.

The expectations placed on artists today are unreal. There is this huge push to create daily. Daily painters, daily practice, a painting a day, daily posts on social media. The competition to get better, be the best. Look how easy it is to compare your work with the worlds artists. Imagine how much easier it would have been when artists didn’t have access to the worlds best artists instantly there to compare their own work to. How impossible is it to feel competent today?

The chatter, and resulting pressure, is TOO much! Maybe this works for some artists, but for others that kind of pressure is crippling, leaving many wondering if they’ll ever be good enough, or how to find time for all their commitments in life. Job, family, health, friends, and all the other daily, weekly, monthly things that need our time and attention.

For me, before my slump hit, I had an empty nest and a husband working long hours, living in the country in almost isolation – too far away for friends or family to just drop by. I had tons of time to myself and this made it easy to get studio time almost daily. (I took the weekends off.) Then my husband was laid off and transitioned to retirement. We got a new dog. We moved to the city close to friends and family.

Suddenly all those hours of solitude had vanished. If I was in the studio, I felt guilty I wasn’t paying attention to the new dog, the at home husband, cooking, cleaning, or out visiting friends and family. If I was doing all those other things, I was getting frustrated at not finding enough time to be in the studio. I couldn’t seem to find a happy balance.

Today, I’ve decided to give myself a break and quit stressing about it all. I do not have to produce 30 top quality paintings a month. I don’t even have to produce that many a year. I wonder what the storage rooms of some of these daily painters looks like. I know what my painting storage looks like!

Even if I could produce a painting a day, I couldn’t sell that many. What happens is that I end up contributing to the environmental mess the world is in, by landing many of those paintings in the landfill. The realization of the environmental impact of needing to produce like I was a robotic factory, has helped me get over all the anxiety I have had over the past few years.

Wouldn’t a dozen good, sellable paintings a year be better for the world? I know it is certainly more doable for what my life demands right now, and has made it easier for me to relax and enjoy my painting time guilt free.

Despite the message the only way to improve is to paint daily, I think the opposite has been true for me. A slower pace has given my brain time to catch up with all the learning I have done over the past few years. With fewer painting days, my skills have improved. I have more time to think about and plan a painting, rather than rushing in to get it done. Win, win!

We do not have to buy into this all or nothing scenario. If the message you are hearing over and over causes you anxiety, know that you do not have to adopt it. Define your own parameters for your artist’s life and create from a place of contentment.

This Quarantine Life

Life got real weird, real quick and I ran for the bunker. Both figuratively and literally. Inside my home, inside my head, and shut the outside world off mostly. I felt like a train derailed and questioned everything: life, art, the world, and where I was heading. My ability to concentrate took a big hit, so I puttered around doing this and that, and nothing at all. 

I made masks. I learned to make vector graphics. I took photographs, which made me question am I a photographer who paints, or a painter who photographs? (On a side note: I have been criticized in the past for being all over the place artistically. I view it as a highly creative person who, rather than getting a side job to help pay the bills, diversifies her creative outlets. A side hustle if you will, or a day job and the other day job!) Photography came first, and in this time of shut down has still provided a bit of income where art sales have been zero. Ouch! Even more surprisingly, I have had income from doing something which I regarded as totally frivolous and just for fun. Illustrations, which prompted me to take that aspect of my creative self a bit more seriously. 

Digital Illustration of a male peacock.

I hit a wall with painting, and I’m still trying to push through it in little pieces. One of the amazing things to come out of this is with five months of no painting sales, I didn’t have any pressure to paint ‘saleable’ works, so could put on the mad scientist hat and create experimental works and generally go wherever the winds took me on any given day. One day I might work on digital illustrations, one day I might paint. One day I might take photos. One day I might sketch. One day I might throw caution to the wind and combine several of those things as I did with the following pieces. 

I Dreamt Flamingos Lived Here – 11×11” – Mixed Media

This piece resulted from one of those super vivid dreams I had which I just couldn’t forget. I had dreamt that Flamingos came to our old farm (far, far from Florida!). They were so beautiful and tame. I was petting them and feeding them little morsels. But one became way too pushy and kind of ruined the party (and my dream). The piece involves graphite and coloured pencil on mylar mounted on top of a B&W pinhole photograph printed on watercolour paper. 

In a way it represents me coming full circle back to where my art career began in creating photographs combined with paintings. Back then I was doing abstract watercolour paintings and then printing directly on top of that. Or doing digital compositions combining abstract paintings with my photographs. 

This quarantine life has also proven an answer to a question I’ve often asked myself and others, what would you paint if no one was watching? I’m still hunkered down and trying to distance myself from the outside world, but I feel my inspiration and creativity ramping up into a higher gear than they’ve been for months. Who knows……maybe even a plein air excursion will be in the near future! 

Burrington, Monet, And Me

Arthur Alfred Burrington was an esteemed English painter. Although most known for his watercolours which formed the bulk of his work, he was equally adept at oils. Alfred received his training in London at both the South Kensington School of Art and later at Slade School. He went to Rome and Italy to study the great masters. In France he studied at the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts, under the tutelage of Leon Bonnat. He also studied under Gustave Boulanger and Fernand Cormon. The later taught such famed artists as Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, Vincent van Gogh, and several other highly celebrated artists. 

Burrington spent time at the artist colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany, before finally settling in the French Riviera at Menton. It isn’t known whether Burrington and Monet became acquainted in Brittany or Paris, but it is known that they painted together at Menton. Alfred is the subject of Monet’s ‘Portrait Of An English Painter, Bordighera‘ in 1884. 

Portrait Of An English Painter at Bordighera by Monet

The painting below is believed to be a painting of his father, Edwin Henry Burrington. The Burrington family was well established and highly respected in Bridgwater, Somerset. In 1848 at the age of 27, Edwin published a book of poetry entitled Revelations Of The Beautiful. Edwin was quietly involved in the literary circles, often writing articles in leading London papers, and was on the permanent staff with the London Press as the critic. His book of poems was well reviewed by the press.

A Visit From Grandfather – A Somersetshire Cottage by A Burrington

Edwin Henry Burrington was my husbands great x3 grandfather. Arthur his great x2 uncle. 

I have always likened painting to poetry. The melodic rhythm of the written word and abstract interpretations seem to echo with my thoughts of painting. I equate high realism in art as journalistic reporting. The facts as observed by one person. While impressionist and abstract representational art is more like poetry in its emotive suggestion which allows the reader/viewer to interpret the meaning. 

Many of my landscape and figurative paintings were drawn from inspiration of Burrington’s poetry. A nod to my husbands family history which is so rich in art and poetry.  

Nature Is Revealing – 8×10” – Oil on canvas panel

“The prosers of the busy world are they
Who never kindle mutual faith and feeling,
For such have hearts which waste themselves away,
Yet never know that Nature is revealing
Both love and loveliness by night and day.
The poets of the busy world are lovers,
The truest and the best.

Edwin Burrington

Vision Quest Part II

My Vision Quest series had been going well until someone commented about me not being of First Nations descent. I tried to brush the comment off, but something got under my skin. Then I started hearing other negative comments. People were quietly questioning if I was guilty of cultural appropriation for painting these images, which made me question myself. A long dry spell resulted.

The last thing I wanted to do was insult the people I was trying to celebrate through my paintings. I talked and listened to some other non-native artists who were representing First Nations people in their art. They all seemed to have a relationship with a native person. Some said I needed to seek approval to do my work, so I set off to do this, not having a clue how to actually do it.

The Horse Warriors – 22×28 – Acrylic On Canvas

I spoke to one artist who said I needed to consult with an elder. So I sent emails and tried to make phone calls to find out how to get in touch with an elder. Those efforts all lead nowhere. Calls and emails went unanswered. Finally I talked to another artist who volunteers with our historic park, which hosts an annual pow wow. I figured he might know of someone I could talk with to find out how to find an elder.

The name he gave me lead to a person who worked at a local friendship centre, but she’d quit the day before I called. However I explained my situation and they gave me the number for another organization in town. Finally success. I was able to make the arrangements to meet with an elder.

I was so nervous of how my work would be received. I went in to their resource centre before meeting with the elder and was able to show my work to a small group of First Nations people and the centres employees. The work was so well received. I can’t even say what a relief it was.

The meeting with the elder went as expected. I had already known in my heart the answers that I was seeking. I have been given a gift and a voice. It is my story I am telling – my impressions and thoughts of First Nations people and their culture. They can not give me permission to do my work, because it is mine and they have no right to say if I can or can’t do it.

There are certain protocols which could raise concerns, such as if I were to call it Native Art, which I have never done; or if I were to copy existing work, or paint on sacred items such as drums or teepees, or represent myself as being of aboriginal descent.

I was told that those who question me are doing so out of their own insecurities or jealousy. I need to ignore them and not let them get into my head. And finally I was told how to honour and talk to the spirits so that my visions keep coming to me.

Since that time the images coming to me have been overwhelming. It is like the floodgates have been opened. I can’t paint quickly enough to keep up with the visions and ideas. And I am full of gratitude for both the gift  and support I have been given. The spirits have given me, and others who have a similar calling, this gift. It is not up to me to question the reasons behind it, but to follow and honour it to the best of my abilities.

Vision Quest Part 1

I have been working on my Vision Quest series of paintings for several years. I can’t say when exactly it started or exactly why, except to say that I’ve always been driven to represent First Nations people through my work. Even within my photography there are many images that have obvious, and many not so obvious, connections.

I titled my series Vision Quest because that is how many of the images come to me – through visions, dreams, or abstract thoughts. Sometimes the work will be influenced by a story or event, and I’ll try to fit the imagery to the story. Sometimes the image comes first and I try to fit the story to that.

Daylight Dance – 11×14″ – Oil on panel


Why the First Nations people? I have tried to rationalize this over the years, but the truth is I don’t really know. It’s just what I’m being guided to do. In my rationalizations I have come to the conclusion that it’s because these peoples traditional ways represent what is missing in our society today. Respect, freedom, harmony between land, nature, and spirit; honour for the past and future, a sacred knowing that goes beyond science and logic; and living an artful life.European immigrants, of which I descend, tried to strip away the spirit, stories, and traditions of the First Nations people. I don’t know what part, if any, my ancestors played in the horrible treatment they received under the wave of immigration. I hope none since my Scottish history shares some of the struggles of the First Nations people of being displaced from their land and made out to be the savage enemy. They came here in search of freedom to live peacefully as farmers. I know of no direct ancestors that were involved in the political or military shaping of this country. When I dream I see stewards of the land who have taken care of our planet for thousands of years without the damage we have caused in a fraction of that time. Ultimately it is the struggle between freedom and oppression, an uncertainty for the future, and a belief that if we listened there is a way to live in harmony with the environment and each other. It is my hopes that I can give the First Nations people back some of their spirit and help celebrate their culture for the strength, beauty and integrity it deserves.

In part two I will share the some of the negativity that has resulted from this series, and what I’ve done about that. 

You Have To Start Somewhere

About this time of year 2 years ago I was working on an exhibition submission for my paintings. It was one of my first submissions for painting. All my documents (artist’s statement, bio, and cv) were written from a strictly photographic perspective, so it was necessary for me to re-write things. When it came to my cv I realized it was time to do some reorganization. Previously I had listed all my exhibition experience together and made the solo and two person shows bold to distinguish their greater importance. It was now time to separate the exhibitions in group and solo shows.

This seemingly simple act took me back several years to when I first started to submit my photography for exhibition consideration. I had taken a professional development workshop on writing artist’s statements, resumes and bios. I remember sitting there with a blank piece of paper wondering what I could possible put down on my resume. I remember looking at the examples we’d been given thinking I’d never get there. Going from a blank paper to having pages of exhibitions, awards, and collections seemed as daunting as a kindergartener looking at the road to a law degree.

County Road 8×10 Oil

I had to really stretch to get something on paper for my earliest cv. I had things like a high school exhibition and award and an online exhibition. That’s all the photography exhibition experience I had. Luckily I did have some experience with fibre arts events, which at the time I had never considered an art form. I had participated in some juried fibre art shows through the provincial guild and had won some awards for my fibre work, so I included that. Thankfully my cv wasn’t too empty, but most of what was there was totally unrelated to what I was doing at the time. The road seemed long and steep.

Now here I was, a few years later, with a 3 page cv totally related to photography and a need to separate exhibitions like I remember seeing at the beginning of my journey. I even excluded many exhibitions, such as duplicate events or shows of less importance. I was being offered exhibitions, turning exhibitions down, and being highly selective of those I did, but I was starting out all over again in a different media. Sure I had lots of exhibition experience with photography, but I was an unknown within the world of painting.

What’s the point of all of this? I know the road looks daunting, but it is only our own fears and insecurities that stand between that blank piece of paper and the three page CV. I started out with virtually no experience. Everyone does. So if I can do it, so can you.

One thing I have done consistently is set realistic goals. Once a year I set goals for myself that I think I can achieve. I started small, and with each success I set a goal that would take me to the next step. Here’s a look at some of my past goals that show how each one was just a bit beyond the last.

  1. 2007: Have a photograph in a public exhibition.
  2. 2008: Have my work in a museum show.
  3. 2009: Have a solo show.
  4. 2010: Have work in a show outside Alberta.
  5. 2011: Have work in a major exhibition.
  6. 2012: Have work in a government sponsored exhibition.
  7. 2013: Have original art in a public exhibition.
  8. 2014: Be accepted into the Federation Of Canadian Artists.

I can’t emphasize enough how important this goal setting has been to my career. Faced with that blank page and not knowing which way to step, goals have given me something to focus on. When I get out of bed in the morning I have a purpose to work towards. Yes there is art making, but being professional means you have to do more than just create the art. You have to know what to do next, and my goals have made it clear what’s next. I’ve presented a simple list, but in reality my goals have been a bit more complex than one simple item on a list. I always have a goal for learning or skills improvement as well as career milestones. 

If you haven’t set goals for your art career, do it today. Set realistic goals – also write ideas on how you plan to achieve them. Then enjoy the ride as you watch those goals coming to fruition. And enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling you get five or ten years down the road when you can look back with pride on all you’ve achieved.

Take A Vacation

I just got back from holidays. My trip ended up not being anything like what I’d planned. I had planned for my husband and I to rent a house on the beach of a mountain lake for the week. We were just going to kick back and relax. I’d planned to do some painting and my husband planned to read and soak up the sun.

Before leaving I’d read an article about how nobody takes a true vacation anymore. Sure people go away but they bring their laptops, smart phones and/or tablets with them so they can stay connected to work, friends, and family. Many continue to be engaged in their work and don’t give their brain a rest. I considered this as I packed my paints, cleaned my camera, and gathered my work tools. The article talked about why it’s important to disengage the brain from work. (I wish I’d noted the article so I could link to it…)

Surely that’s for other people though. People who have high pressure jobs or don’t like their jobs. That’s not for us creative types that are living the dream. Right?! Wrong. 

My planned vacation came to an abrupt halt when we arrived at our cosy little beach house to discover it was anything but cosy. With mouse droppings all over the kitchen and an invasion of ants in the living room, we made an about face and left, scrambling to find other accommodations that would accept our dog. We did find other accommodations, but we weren’t on the lake, or even in the same area. The accommodations were nice, but not conducive to setting up an easel on the porch to paint. So my paints remained in the car and I took a true vacation. 

Lowbush Surprise – 8x8x1.5″ – Oil on canvas

Okay….I won’t say I didn’t think about painting, because I did. I read my Sergai Bongart book and Plein Air magazine. I brought my sketchbook everywhere I went, but I didn’t lay a mark on the pages. I also took photographs. I thought about that article and how impossible it would be to fully and truly disengage from art for a week. But my semi-abstinence had some surprising results none the less.

When I got home I found I couldn’t wait to get to the studio. I promptly started a commissioned painting that I’d been procrastinating on, and then the real surprise hit me. All kinds of inspiration for my Vision Quest series started coming to me. Visions I thought had dried up earlier in the year. 

Was it the vacation that renewed my visions or was it something else?

While on vacation we had a few bear encounters. One in particular was a special treat. We got to watch a mom and two cubs up close for an entire day – eating, resting, playing, and peering in our windows to see what we were doing. It was one of those events that won’t be forgotten. A true joy. 

I’ve noticed that I have periods of high creativity after seeing bears. Is it co-incidence or is there something there? The seeing of bears usually goes hand in hand with vacations, so it’s just as likely the vacation is responsible. I guess I’ll truly never know, but will treasure each encounter and enjoy the bursts that follow.

I’m also going to recharge my batteries occasionally and spend some time away from painting, treating it as an important part of my creative process. 

Why Do So Many People Give Up?

There are so many people in the world who want to be an artist. Evidenced by the healthy enrolment at a huge offering of art instruction across the country. Of those starting out with a dream of being an artist I’d hazard to guess more than 2/3’s will give up before they reach their goal. Why? 

For many people their enrolment and interest in art is nothing more than as a pastime or hobby, with no dreams of becoming the next Monet. I make no judgements on whether people in that group are considered artists or not. That is a completely different context from what I am referring to here. People falling into this group very well may have traits similar to the working artist, or they may not.

For others failure is often the result of a lack of commitment. Although the actual reasons can be as varied as the personalities of those trying to become an artist, commitment lies at the roots. There must be a commitment to overcome financial hurdles, commitment to finding enough time to dedicate to creating, commitment to overcome all of the roadblocks along the way (and there are many). 

Impressionist 8×10” oil on panel plein air landscape from late spring.

For the working artist, their commitment is often at a level of obsession. I know few painters who do not eat, sleep, and live painting, often at the expense of many other things in life – a clean house, a well manicured garden, elaborate meals, and even an active social life. You will likely find the friends of an artist are other artists. Few others understand how our life works and the need to give our art (and spending copious amounts of time alone) priority over being available to socialize.

Few people are willing to give up enough of their time to dedicate to art. It isn’t something one can excel in without putting in more time than the occasional free weekend every couple of months. It requires daily study and practice.

A successful artist has determination. A quality needed to overcome failed paintings, rejection notices, and the difficulties of selling art. Their desire to succeed must overcome their fear of failure. They must have the attitude that nothing will stop them from realizing their goal. There has to be a stubbornness to get over being bad at the beginning, because almost all of us are.  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”, is the mantra of many.

A successful artist has a fire in their bellies that can’t be ignored. Call it passion, yearning, obsession, or whatever you want. It’s a quality that can’t be forced. Maybe we don’t all have it at the beginning, or maybe we do. I don’t know. But I do know, a  successful artist becomes addicted to creating to the point they must create just as much as they must breathe. There is no question to them not being an artist. It goes beyond an occupation to being who they are as a human being.

As a painter, my obsession is such that while driving I’m not seeing trees and valleys, I am seeing cadmium yellow light with cerulean highlights,  yellow ochre with ultramarine shadows, and cadmium red, ultramarine, titanium white, and just a hint of yellow ochre in the valley. While working in photography I saw compositions, the play of light, and visual stories waiting to be told. Perhaps a sculpture sees angles and contours. I often think it’s an addiction far worse than drugs or alcohol. No interventions required……….