5 strategies for creative living.

“Starving artist” is a common trope for a reason; we’re often starving. And I think that people get pretty squeamish when talking about money, especially artists because we’re afraid of fitting that stereotype. I’ve certainly had my run-ins with bank overdraft fees, so I get it. My goal with this post is to share a little of my personal story about how I’ve actually made things work as an artist. So let’s keep it real: I have no idea what I’m doing and I’ve managed to do it since 2013.

Maybe I’ll share the ins and outs of my story in a chronological fashion another time. But for the purpose of this post I’m just going to share five specific realizations and strategies I’ve used since then that have helped me make things work.

Think about work/trade living situations.
When I first decided it was time to get serious about art, I couldn’t pay rent. Which, is kind of a problem. But something people don’t talk about very much is that rent isn’t the hard and fast rule that people think it is.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This isn’t about doing things the easy way or getting out of anything. It’s about allocating your resources and deciding how you want to spend your time. Once you start looking down this road, you’ll find artist residencies, work/trade living situations, jobs that include housing, van life, etc.
You’ll have to put yourself out there and be a little aggressive sometimes. I’ve lived in some wild situations, and since I own virtually nothing, it’s been easy to go from opportunity to opportunity as they’ve presented themselves.
Now I know that we aren’t all that mobile, and we don’t all want to move that much. That’s okay. All I’m saying is if you’re at a crossroads, consider and investigate other ways of living. It can be either a short-term plan, or a long-term strategy.
One of my best friends found an incredible living situation where she feeds horses in exchange for a beautiful apartment. I’ve found multiple jobs now that included housing for part-time work, leaving me free the rest of the time to focus on my art. And I know many, many artists who have lived for months or years in residency programs or fellowships.
Again, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This isn’t about going out and looking for handouts or favors. It’s about opening yourself up to another way to solve the problem of a living situation. There are alternatives out there if you’re interested, and it might be a life changing, awesome thing to investigate it.
A great place to start if you’re interested in this is: www.artistcommunities.org
It’s a (reasonably) comprehensive list of the residencies and fellowships available to artists around the world. I have found many opportunities through this site, including a job that lasted two years.

Cut way down on expenses. 
This one is obvious. It sucks, but it’s obvious.
It’ll look different for everyone. For me, it’s looked like avoiding lots of debt.
Over the past five years I have identified and paired down all my needs to a specific dollar amount. I know exactly how much I need each month to survive, and how much I need to thrive. And I’ve been real with myself about what my needs are and what I can and can’t do without.
To be clear: not much gets under my skin. I also have no pets, kids, school loans, car loans, or cell-phone contracts. Not everyone is that untethered, nor should they be. My needs are very simple and most of what I like in life is free or very cheap.
Not everyone will be as low maintenance as I am. Some people will be lower. Either is totally fine. Whatever the case, I think if you want to pursue a creative life, you may need to make peace with some budget cuts at some point. And you’ll probably need to get creative with your finances too.
There are billions of resources out there on how to handle your money better, this isn’t one of them. It’s just my personal experience that budgeting well opens up a lot of doors.

Don’t say “no” very often.
I think one of the things that’s propelled my life more than anything is that I just don’t say no very often. If you give me a book, I’ll read it. If you invite me to a seminar, I’ll be there. I open far more doors than I close, and I have always been amazed at what happens to people when they say yes more often.
Don’t get me wrong. Some things are just stupid and you don’t have to invite every moron with a creative idea into your life. “No” is an awesome word and I love to shut the door on dumb ideas. But, if you’re not sure about something, just try it out.
From my experience, our lives are mostly shaped by conversations with other people. So don’t just hole up at your desk. When you see a door that looks interesting, open it. You can always close it later if the room turns out to be full of idiots.

Show up.
Definitely closely related to the last idea, but in my mind it’s different. From what I can tell, the world belongs to people who just show up. I struggle with this one a lot, but I’m definitely getting better.
When you’re having a conversation with someone about your art, be there. Have answers, have prices, have a plan. Make it easy for people to interact with you and get shit done with you. Half the time that you end up employed it will be because people just like dealing with you. The quality of your art matters, but if you’re an incredible artist who sucks to talk to, people won’t hire you.
So show up fully, be clear, and don’t flake out. If you say you’ll do something, even if it’s small, do it. Communicate clearly and ahead of time if you need to change the plan. Be consistent. Be easy to deal with. Just show up and be as tangible as possible when talking art and business. It matters.

Don’t be bothered by doing other work.
This has been a huge one for me. When I set out to be an artist, I envisioned making all my money with my brushes.
But about three years in, I realized that I don’t actually like making art full-time. I have a cap, about 25 hours a week of painting and I’m good. After that, it becomes a grind and I begin to resent the thing I love most. Rather than let that set in and experience burnout, I began experimenting with other jobs that interest me and bring home the bacon.
Maybe you want to paint full-time and make all your cash with art. Hell yeah! You do you boo.
But I think it’s important to recognize that if you start to get burned out, or you’re like me and you realize that you want to diversify your time a bit more, that it’s not a failure or a letdown. Being an artist looks like a lot of different things. Some people make money with it, some people don’t. And some people, like me, make most of their money with it, but not all.
Once I opened that door in my life and began to peek through, I grew a lot as a person. I became a yoga teacher, directed an artist’s residency, started directing community art programs, and found myself pursuing whole new avenues in outdoor education (one of my big interests). Basically for me, when I was trying to make art my only gig, I was stifling myself.
Everyone’s different, but I just wanted to throw this one out there. It’s not a failure to not be a full-time artist. It’s not a failure to make sick art and work a “normal job.”
When I was directing an artist’s residency, I noticed that so many of the artists seemed to be ashamed that they weren’t full-time artists. And I get it, from the outside, it isn’t obvious that an art career can exist in varying degrees. It looks like an all or nothing pursuit, and if you’re not in the “all” camp, then you’re probably nothing. But that’s just not the case.
So for me, a huge part of my journey has been recalibrating my expectations and making peace with what I actually want. If your art starts to feel like a boundary, break that shit up and try adding something new to the mix. You might be the world’s raddest ski instructor, but you’d never know it if you spent all your time drawing. Your life is bigger than your art. Let yourself grow in whatever direction piques your interest and trust yourself to continue creating along the way.

Alright, there they are, five strategies that have helped make my life work. None of these are gospel, they’re just what’s worked for me so far. Use or discard as you need. It’s a hard thing to create a life doing what you want, and sometimes it might not go smoothly. Don’t be too afraid to biff it sometimes too.

The greatest art tool known to man.

I’m not going to apologize for this gross exaggeration later, and I think when you use this tool, you’ll see why. Actually, you’ll probably thank me.

If you’re a watercolorist, you know that one of the most challenging things about this medium is that it’s unforgiving. It’s just the nature of a transparent medium. Everything you do will be visible forever, and it’s a hard medium to control in the first place.

There is little you can do to really mitigate that reality, but there is a tool that can help you out:

This is the closest thing I have found that can bring your paper almost back to white after you’ve painted on it. It’s incredible.
To demo, here’s a little color swatch I did on cotton paper:

And here, with half of it magically erased:

As you can see, it’s not 100% back to white, but it’s pretty damn close. And with another layer of paint, you’d never know what was there before.

My method of using it is to cut off a small part of one of the larger erasers (about a 2″x2″ square) dip it in water and wring it out. If it’s sopping wet, you won’t have as much control over the erasing process.
With your damped eraser, cover the area in clean, smooth strokes. If you scrub, you’ll blast right through the paper. Think of it as wiping off the paint, and you’ll have a better time.
Once the paint is gone (or as gone as it’ll get), you’ll see a ton of little pills on it like an old sweater. No biggie, those are just the remnants of the layer of paper you just wiped off. Wait for your painting to dry, and then brush them off.
Voila! A new painting surface.

Now before you go erasing everything you’ve ever painted, there are limitations to this incredible tool.

You have one, maybe two rounds with this before it destroys the paper.
Watercolor paper is delicate. Some papers are more delicate than others (100% cotton handmade paper is pretty hardy), but they all break down after a certain amount of abuse. It isn’t canvas. One pass with this will remove most of the sizing on the paper, and the next layer of paint will not go on as evenly. But it’ll work. Two passes, and you’re done painting on that part of the paper. Three times with this tool, and the paper will likely start to rapidly disintegrate.
So use it wisely. It won’t save your painting too many times.

Nothing can bring paper back to 100% white.
Well, except carefully scraping the paper with a razor, which I do sometimes. But since that destroys the top layer of paper, scraping isn’t a viable option for removing large sections of a painting. The reality is that once you get paint on watercolor paper, it’s just not going back to white. This tool will get it pretty close sometimes, but never all the way. Keep that in mind. You still have to painstakingly plan your whites.

You’re still pretty screwed if it’s a dye color.
Remember the pigments vs. dyes episode? A dye color actually changes the color of the fiber in the paper. You can’t really scrub that out. If you use this tool on a dye color, you’re going to be scrubbing actual bits of paper away to remove the color. Which will work, but it’ll be much harder on the paper and you risk ruining it. So you still have to be careful with dyes.

Other than those caveats though, meet your new best friend. Go buy some and keep them handy. They’re truly the best.

Tilt as a tool.

Because watercolor is water, and water always runs downhill, your paper tilt is another tool for you to get to know. Just like your brushes and paints, the angle at which you’re painting is important.

Some people like to paint flat, others vertical, and the rest of us paint at a tilt. Whatever you do is fine, it just depends on what you want.

For a reference, I made three little examples for you to look at:

And on closer inspection…

This one was painted and dried flat.

You can see how the pigment stayed relatively even, and coalesced around the edges a bit. There’s a very slight bloom in the middle, as the edges dried faster than the center, but in general the pigment is dispersed and moving evenly.

This one was painted and dried at a tilt.


The second was left to dry at a very slight incline (about 15 degrees). You can see how it pooled at the bottom, and some of the pigment was carried back up by the standing water.
Some people consider this effect to be desirable, some people will give you a bad grade for it. Either way, just be aware that if you leave water to dry at a tilt, something like this will happen. You can use this to your advantage, and analyze a puddle on your page and decide where you want it to pool, and rotate your painting accordingly. Neat, huh?

This one was painted and dried (nearly) vertical.

The last one was painted and left to dry at a near vertical slant. Vertical is a hard angle for watercolor, and frankly I rarely paint this way. But, I’ve seen some incredible artists who do. You have to use much less water and build up layers of color patiently. Too much water will drip immediately. But done well, the effects are clean and even. I was a little impatient with this, and water still pooled a tad at the bottom. Oh well, you get the idea.

For me, I tend to paint on a very slight incline. Totally flat is fine too, but I usually end up propping up one end of my painting on a book at some point. I like using gravity to direct the paint, and I personally like the way watercolor looks with some controlled blooming.

But to each their own.
So there you have it, one more tool for your box: painting incline.

How to load your brush.

A good watercolor brush, if used right, can be much more than just a dip and go type of tool. It can be loaded up in all different ways to create all manner of effects.

For simplicity, I’m going to break down this post into two sections: water and pigment.

As we’ve gone over, watercolor is all about controlling water. And how much water you saturate your brush with will have a huge impact on how easy this is for you.
One of the biggest game changers you can learn is this: don’t just jam your brush into your water the same way every time. For some brushstrokes, you will want more or less water. Load your brush up appropriately.
Here’s a basic breakdown of how far to dip your brush in:

If you load your brush with too much water for what you’re working on, you’ll lose control of the painting and make a mess. If you don’t load enough water into the brush, you might make streaks. The only way to get the hang of this is to just practice a lot. Just practice with the awareness that your brush doesn’t need to take a polar plunge every time you use it.

So that’s water. Now you know that there is a technique to develop when it comes to dipping your brush. Pigment is no different.

One of my favorite things about watercolor is how much is going on in every square inch of painting. It’s a very collaborative medium, and it has a mind of its’ own. A way for you to take advantage of this characteristic is to play with loading multiple unmixed pigments into your brush at a time. The results are complex brushstrokes that look like a rainbow.

You need a larger brush to play with this technique. The idea is to incorporate multiple pigments at once, without mixing them on the tray.

Here, using a 3/4″ flat brush, I filled in an area by putting multiple pigments in the brush at once. So for an example, I would fill the brush with naples yellow, and then dip just the end in mauve before making a wash. Or I’d fill the brush with purple, and dip the right half of the brush in blue. Taking that approach, I filled in this rectangle:

With the exception of the hard purple line where the previous layer had dried, you can see that the colors move into each other gradually while still being distinct.

This approach is different than adding colors one at a time onto a wet painting. To show the difference, I did a similar painting but instead of loading the brush with multiple pigments for each brushstroke, I added them one at a time.

You can see that even though the colors and layout are similar, the effect is different because the colors are essentially colliding and push each other out of the way as they meet. Whereas if you put them in the brush at once, they wash onto the paper smoothly and at the same time, creating a more uniform look.

In my opinion, flat brushes work best for washing on multiple colors, because you’re making a broader contact with the paper, but round brushes are fun to play with too.

I hope that all makes some sense! It’s subtle, but a helpful tool to have sometimes. The more effects you can intentionally create, the more interesting your paintings will become.

Happy painting everyone!

How I paint fur.

As you’ve probably noticed, I paint mostly animals. They’re just cuter, ya know? And they’re fuzzy.

Fur and fuzz are difficult to paint in watercolor; it’s not a very furry medium. When you’re approaching a difficult subject, it’s helpful to sit and analyze what the challenges will be. Here’s what you’re up against with fur:

  1. An animal’s coat is made up of gazillions of individual strands of fur. But it moves in cohesive sections, like solid objects. So you have to communicate its uniformity, without losing the fact that it’s an army of individual hairs.
  2. Often you’ll see a dark undercoat, with a frosted top coat. Which results in a layered effect, which is hard to communicate cleanly with watercolor. You have to plan out all the areas that will stay white, which is a strategic nightmare with some fuzzy animals.
  3. Fur has a direction to it. This is one of the things that makes animals so fun to draw, but it requires a lot of thinking ahead to paint. If you don’t observe and plan for directionality in fur, you just end up with a mushy looking animal. Direction creates form, and form makes your work convincing.

Those are the main issues I’ve found when painting furry animals. To demonstrate my approach to this, I picked a photo that I think demos all these pretty well:

RF- European grey wolf (Canis lupus) running through snow in birch forest, Tromso, Norway. Captive, April.

I found this through a Google search. I couldn’t find the name of the photographer. Hopefully they won’t mind me using this to demo. Looking at this picture, we can see all the challenges I mentioned:

  • This wolf has lots of fur that’s moving in sections. To identify the sections, think about the form underneath the fur first. The fur will form little sections that correspond with the underlying form. To identify form, focus on the larger shapes, and where the light and dark sides are. Here’s how I break things down in my mind’s eye:
  • This wolf has yellow/brown undercoat, with a white/grey topcoat and black accents. To communicate all this, I’ll need to leave some flickers of white poking through, which I’ll need to plan for. Here’s how I break that down in my mind before I reach for any paints:
  • This wolf’s fur is going in all different directions. We can tell a lot about his form, and how he’s moving based on the direction of his fur. Before I start drawing, I’ll be sure to sit and look at his fur for a few minutes and make a mental map of all the different directions his fur has. Looking something like this:

Once I’ve figured all this out, I have enough information to make a game plan and I’m ready to go:

Step one: draw out a basic structure to paint in. You can see some of the sections that I’d already mapped out in my mind, and a few lines that indicate form and fur direction.

Step two: block in areas where I see yellow. I have a few favorite yellows that I use: Winsor & Newton’s naples yellow, DaVinci’s yellow ochre, and Holbein’s imidazolone brown (similar to Indian red but a deeper red and more transparent).

Step three: brush in another few layers of fur, building up from the yellow. I like to use a combination of dry brush technique, and individual dabs made with a liner brush. I build up deeper and deeper layers by mixing blues, greens, and purples with the imidazolone brown to try and communicate all the different layers happening in his coat.

Step four: finally, I go in with black and tidy up. I use black very sparingly in my work, because it’s sort of the end of the road as far as color goes. It’s a ‘dead’ color, in that it lets nothing through. Black catches your attention, and it’s almost like a comma for your eyes. It holds your interest for a brief second and communicates importance or change. So it’s usually the last thing I reach for, to put the finishing touches on something.

That’s it! Now you know my fur-painting technique. I’m sure there are other ways to do it, this is just my style and what works for me.

Happy painting everyone!

UPDATE: Something I thought about after making this post is that (to me), there is a slightly different approach to take when painting all white or all black critters. Animals with white coats are a strategic nightmare to paint because they’re often puffy and don’t have many defining features besides eyes and toenails. And as beautiful as your dog’s glossy black coat may be, it’ll be hard to paint without turning him into a little lump of coal.
So I’ll have to make separate posts for those at some point, but in the meantime, this is a good start for painting the fuzzies.

Why all the papers??

If you’ve ever gone to Michael’s to get watercolor paper, you probably got overwhelmed and frustrated. There are so many varieties, and prices will range from 5 bucks a pad to over $100 for a big block. Watercolor paper has a lot of different varieties and qualities, and throughout your journey you’ll probably experiment with a lot of them and end up finding a favorite.

So what separates watercolor paper from other paper? Why can’t you just use regular drawing paper?
Watercolor paper is either made out of wood pulp and coated with a sizing that makes it water resistant, or it’s made out of cotton and is actually closer related to fabric than paper. Sometimes it’s a blend of the two. Either way, it’s designed to withstand water without breaking down. If you submerge good quality watercolor paper in the bath overnight, when you come back in the morning it’ll be good as new. If you put normal drawing paper in the same situation, it’ll disintegrate.
For learning, I recommend buying the sized wood-pulp: it’s cheaper and cheaper is better when you’re just getting off the ground.
There’s no point in stressing yourself out with the knowledge that every sheet was handcrafted in a paper mill that’s older than the United States when you’re still learning what a glaze is. That in mind, my favorite student grade brand is the Canson XL Series. It holds up well, isn’t a nightmare to paint on, and is cheap.
It looks like this and costs about 12 bucks:

This stuff is awesome because it lets you learn without wasting money. Eventually you’ll outgrow it and want to move up to cotton paper. Just keep in mind, once you start painting on cotton, you’ll never go back to anything else. Gotta just trust me on that one. After cotton paper, all other papers feel like painting on turds.

Another choice you’ll have to make is hot press versus cold press.
The name has to do with how it’s processed, but the end result is one is smooth and the other is bumpy. Hot press is smooth (it’s essentially ironed flat) and cold press is bumpy.
When you’re just getting going, I recommend cold press.
Why? Because watercolor travels quickly, and the bumps are tiny little speed bumps that slow things down and disperse pigment more evenly for you.
There are advantages to both, and I keep both around for different projects. You do achieve slightly different effects with each paper. For a comparison I did a quick little demo where you can see the differences:

The painting on the right is done on cold press, and the one on the left is done on hot press paper. For a quick rule of thumb, hot press is generally harder to paint on and will yield much harsher results. It is ideal for projects that are very detailed, as the rougher finish of cold press can make detail work difficult.
You may also see the rough option in the paper lineup. That’s just cold press paper on cocaine and is enjoyed by the texture enthusiasts of the watercolor world. I hate it, but to each their own.

You’ll also notice that watercolor paper comes in lots of different weights. The heavier the weight, the thicker the paper. In my opinion, anything under 140 lbs. isn’t worth your time. Anything heavier is unnecessary.

Watercolor paper also comes in a lot of different formats.
You have individual sheets, blocks, pads, and rolls. I’ve bought them all and they’re all great depending on your project.
When you’re just getting going, I recommend a pad of paper (I’ve never seen student grade paper in any other format).
Pads of paper are pretty straightforward.
Sheets are great for large paintings, or several smaller paintings if you need a size that isn’t standard.
Rolls are the only way to do gigantic paintings, if you’re inclined.
Blocks of paper are ingenious. They are glued down on all four sides instead of just one side like pads of paper. This keeps the paper taught and prevents buckling while you paint. After your painting is dry, remove the top page by carefully separating it from its’ flock with a pallet knife (back of a butter knife is fine too).
Because I’m a paper hoarder, I buy all of these formats with abandon. But you don’t need to do that. Just buy what works for you.
Whatever format you like, the brands I recommend are:
#1: Arches
#2: Fabriano
Learning/sketching: Canson

and I just started buying a brand called Fluid 100 that I’m very happy with*, but haven’t used enough to fully vouch for yet. But, it’s cheap and 100% cotton.

The takeaway for a first-timer should be: a pad of medium weight student grade cold press watercolor paper. Canson XL Series is my favorite for that. Have around 12 bucks ready.
As you grow, I think you’ll find that paper is just as interesting and variable as the paint and brushes.

*Update on Fluid 100: I really like it, but it does not hold up as well as Arches or Fabriano. It’s nice to draw and paint on, but things like tape or erasing will damage it much faster than the other brands I use. Still, it is easily half the price and I will keep buying it.

How to stop yellow from ruining your life.

I think anyone who has ever tried watercolor has had this experience: you’re painting along, maybe your painting looks like a super sweet rose and you know your mom is going to love it, and suddenly it looks like a cat puked on your paper. And the weirdest part? It happened fast. Rose one minute, cat vomit the next.

Even though I wasn’t there when it happened, I can almost guarantee I know what went wrong. And that is this: you weren’t aware of how watercolor yellow works.

I’ve known people that were watercoloring for years, totally mystified that certain paintings just didn’t work out. Because no one had explained this simple rule to them. Which is that yellow doesn’t play by the normal watercolor rules. I lucked out with an incredible watercolor teacher when I began painting, and this was one of the first things she taught me, thus saving me lots of ruined paintings.

One of the main battles people have in learning watercolor is that it’s hard to wrap your mind around a transparent medium. We aren’t used to looking at the world in layers, and it’s hard to retrain your brain how to break down what you’re seeing into transparent layers of color that you can replicate in a painting. And yellow really messes this process up, because it isn’t transparent like other watercolors are.

GASP

Basically, what happens in watercolor is this:

And basically, what yellow does is this:

So when you’re going along, painting your rose, and you think, “some yellow would look sweet right now.” But then you go and slap it down on top of 3 other transparent layers, and you interrupt the entire process of watercolor. Because unlike other watercolor pigments that allow light to pass right on through, yellow reflects light. It stops the light from reaching the other colors and creating that beautiful layered effect that we all love. The resulting mess is what we watercolorists affectionately refer to as “mud.”

So what’s to be done?

Put yellow down first.

It’s really that simple. When you’re planning out a painting, look closely at your subject and identify all the areas that will be warm. And go in with your yellow, and block it out.
Then, this can happen:

And, to continue this idea, different watercolor pigments do have differing degrees of transparency. In my experience, the majority of yellows, oranges, and warmer reds will present a similar issue.
So as a general rule of thumb, put all warm colors down before cold colors.

If you absolutely must put yellow down on top of other colors, don’t use watercolor. Use a dye (I like Higgins yellow dye ink for this). Dye is transparent by nature (blog post on dyes vs. pigments coming up for sure), and won’t have the same effect on your work.

To demonstrate this a little, I took a video last night of a portrait I’m working on so you can see my approach:

Working with a couple different yellows and my flat brushes, I block in the major areas where I see it peeking through. Tomorrow I’ll go in with the rest of my pallet and finish the painting.

So, there you have it. A simple, but very effective shortcut to help you out in your watercolor journey. There are lots of other sudden and mysterious ways to trash a painting, but this is one of the main pitfalls I see people fall into with this medium. In watercolor, it’s not enough to know about colors, you have to know what order to put them in to get the best results. And when in doubt, yellow goes first.