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!

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!

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. 

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

Don’t Worry About Rejection

I had originally written a smaller version of this on my old blog, but thought it would be a timely entry for today. I had a hard rejection this week. It was something I had expected I would be rejected for, but had still placed a lot of hope in. I had built up a story in my head of the benefits of being accepted, and as soon as I do that, the rejection stings all the more. 

“Don’t worry about the rejections. Everybody that’s good has gone through it. Don’t let it matter if your works are not “accepted” at once. The better or more personal you are the less likely they are of acceptance. Just remember that the object of painting pictures is not simply to get them in exhibitions. It is all very fine to have your pictures hung, but you are painting for yourself, not the jury. I had many years of rejections.
– Robert Henri

That line starts a couple of paragraphs in Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit about painting for yourself. If you are an artist and haven’t read this book, I urge you to do so. If I could only have one book on my bookshelf, this would be it, and I would read it over and over again like the Bible. Because it really is the artists’s bible for the knowledge and insight it contains. While it won’t tell you how to mix this colour with that to get the perfect green, or how to hold the paint brush, it will tell you how to paint through authenticity and braveness. 

He goes on to talk about not trying to paint good landscapes, but of trying to show people what makes the landscape interesting to you. To show people your heart and your inner thoughts. Your paintings should be like hunting – a search for that special thing with meaning to you alone. There will be hits, where you capture that special thing, and misses. But each attempt records your progress in trying to define and understand that thing. The paintings act as stepping stones for others to use in trying to see and understand the specialness that first captured your imagination. 

It is easy to get sidetracked and forget Henri’s advice, especially after receiving hard rejections. The temptation is always there to adjust your work to follow the masses. Looking at who is being successful, what the gallery you want to be in is showing, or what your peers are painting can mess up your art and make you lose sight of your inner voice. That thing that made you want to be a painter in the first place. That thing that will, with time, set your work apart from the masses.

This week started with a hard rejection, but that rejection came just two days after an exciting acceptance. So why, as artists, do we tend to wallow in the rejection more than we celebrate the successes?  In a previous blog post, I’ve questioned whether the reason goes back to our basic learned fears from childhood. Being picked last for the school team, playing second fiddle to another child at home or elsewhere, or of not getting an A on that math test you studied weeks for. It is the fear, despite our best efforts, we are not good enough. 

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

When we have success it’s easy to brush it off as luck, a fluke, or something similar. We can have our little celebration and feel great for a day or two, until the next rejection comes in. The highs are never quite equal to, or as long lived,  as the lows. But those rejections really don’t mean anything, or shouldn’t mean anything. They can’t, without your permission, diminish the work you are doing and how far you’ve come in your career. To have no rejection means you have also not taken steps to grow and advance as an artist. 

“Take the history of art in France. Practically every artist who today stands a glory to French art was rejected and repudiated by the committees and juries.”
– Robert Henri

You must have confidence in yourself and the work you are doing. Use rejection as an opportunity to try and take an unbiased look at what you are doing. Can it be made better? What might be lacking? Am I being authentic to myself; my voice? Receiving 20 rejection letters means you have tried 20 times, which is far more than the person who only tried once and quit. And if you are going to try to have a career as an artist, you are going to have to face rejection, because the fact is the shear number of people trying to be an artist, is far greater than the number of opportunities to present or sell art.

Last year media outlets showed images of students taking the entrance exam for a Chinese art school. There were 7,000 hopeful students taking the exam that day, which consisted of painting and drawing exercises. The article also reported that 900,000 people take the national college entrance exam for art in China every year. 900,000! That is 900,000 people in one country alone that would like to make a living as an artist. 

Thousands of Chinese students vying to get into art school.

You have already proven you have the fortitude and stubbornness to hang in there and keep going just by believing in yourself and having the courage to make those submissions. Keep going, keep putting your art out there, and keep improving until your work is so good it can’t be ignored. 

Mary Mary Quite Contrary

It’s been a really long winter here in Alberta. I had, up until Spring arrived a few weeks ago, hardly been out of the house aside from weekly trips into town for groceries, and the odd trip to a nearby city for appointments. I was decidedly housebound and eager to see green and get outside to paint. This funk had extended itself to my work at the easel.

I’ve had various paintings on the go over winter, and have a whole stack of sketches waiting to be painted, but my contrary mood has me bored with it all. When a conversation with a friend who was experiencing similar problems happened, we thought maybe doing some focused exercises together (via the Internet since we don’t live close enough for in-person visits) would help. So we quickly put together a small group with the aim of doing monthly exercises into different topics to help refresh or refine our painting skills.

Our first exercise was colour shifts: using different colours of the same value in larger shapes. I thought I’d start with doing some block studies, but the problem is I only have a couple of blocks. When I saw the candy jar with liquorice allsorts, I saw blocks of a sort. Perhaps not quite as easy as the solid colour wooden blocks that many artists use, but block shaped objects which could offer that spark of fun I am always looking for in my projects. So I set up a couple blocks, then thought “I need something else”, and saw the rubber duck in the bathroom and added him to the set up. “Why not?”

Before I knew it I was taking a left turn from my regular landscape work, studying some key skills I’d always been meaning to study, refining my skills in both painting and seeing, and most important…..having fun and getting excited to show up at the easel each day. Three little still life paintings featuring the candy have been done so far. More will likely follow. 

What A Sweet Duck – 8×10″ – Oil on paper

Identifying areas of skill that you’d like learn or improve on, and setting up some exercises to study and practice those skills is a great way to help get over any creative slumps. Even if it doesn’t directly help with a slump, you will have a reason to show up at the easel each day and be working to improve your painting abilities. Self-improvement can never be a bad idea; and showing up to the easel every day is half the battle. 

“Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert

Here is a list of other things I often turn to when I am feeling stuck or frustrated:

  • Do something completely different for a day or two. My muse always seems to show up if I go out and commune with nature. Go for a walk, or a drive in the country. Do some baking, or clean the house. Meditate or exercise. Don’t go visiting friends. Don’t do something that requires a lot of thought that isn’t related to your work. It’s okay not to directly think about your art, but you want to allow those thoughts to happen naturally. Spending time alone is important for allowing you to zone out and get in touch with your inner voice. 
  • Quit looking at other people’s work. If you are in a slump, your monkey voice is likely pointing out all the areas you are inadequate and how much better everyone else is. If that is happening, even slightly, unplug yourself from the temptation to compare. If you have to unplug the computer to keep yourself from checking into Facebook daily, do it. The world won’t implode in your absence! 
  • Grab your sketchbook and sketch whatever is in front of you. Don’t set up anything, just draw what is there now. Your coffee cup, the paintbrushes sitting idly on the table waiting to be used, your breakfast, the dog or cat, your spouse, whatever is in front of you. Don’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes. Don’t over analyze it and don’t be precious with it.  You are not creating art. You are exercising your hand eye coordination. Bad drawings, horrible drawings even, are to be expected. Do this once a day at least until your slump is over, or longer if you find it a valuable exercise. 

    A similar exercise is to use a small viewfinder and randomly place it on a magazine, newspaper, or other image and sketch whatever the viewfinder happens to land on. 
  • Start over: take an old painting that you don’t like and sand it down. Be sure to use proper safety practices by wearing a particle mask and surrounding your work area with dampened newspapers to catch the dust, which is toxic. Paint over this old painting with whatever. Taking a old painting that was likely to end up in the trash, and reusing it, frees you up from being precious with a new canvas. Who cares if you have to toss it in the end. It was likely going to end up there anywhere. Alternatively, use paper – coated or not. I like to use uncoated paper because there is absolutely no expectation for archival survival. In other words – I know it’s not going to last and can’t be sold, so I’m free to make a mess. 
  • Ask yourself why you paint. It’s pretty simple really. If you can get in touch with what inspired you to become a painter in the first place, you’ll be well on your way to ending that slump. 
  • Give yourself permission to fail. Along with this, give yourself permission to play. Just show up at the easel with your permission slips, and do something. Anything. No rules. “Today I am just going to play.” “It’s okay to produce bad work today.”
  • Read fiction, poetry, or artist biographies. Don’t read art technique or how to books though. How about W.O. Mitchell’s “Who Has Seen The Wind.”? Or watch a movie. Not those horrible American movies loaded with violence and special effects though. Look for foreign films. I have become a huge fan of British programming on Netflix. So many are well written, lack the crudeness of American television and film, but also have beautifully inspiring cinematography. A well written piece of fiction, be it book or film, can spark my imagination like nothing else. 
  • Do a master copy. Pick your favourite historical painter and do a copy of one of their paintings. 
  • Finally, take the Buddhist approach: “This too shall pass.” Everything is temporary. The world is always changing. Day to day, minute to minute. So just go with the flow and enjoy the beauty of rest and renewal. Oftentimes slumps happen right before creative leaps, so there’s actually good reason to celebrate the slump rather than trying to fight it.  

“The will to do springs from the knowledge that we can do. Doubt and fear are the great enemies of knowledge, and he who encourages them, who does not slay them, thwarts himself at every step.”
– James Allen 

What about you? What are some strategies you have used to help you overcome a creative block, or slump?