Deeper into Art – The Whole Creative Process Part 1 of 2

When lockdown first started I found this wonderful organisation on the internet call Art Prof.

Their mission is…

“to provide equal access to visual arts education on a global scale, removing barriers that exist due to the cost of higher ed & private classes.”

I got in touch with one of the Professors, Prof Lieu, via YouTube comments and she gave me some excellent advice about how to work on references when you have a disability. Since then I have been watching their video’s on YouTube and really using what I have learned. I’ve had no formal art education so finding this organisation was incredibly valuable to me!

One of the important things I learned quite early on was that all of the work you do as an artist in getting ready to create a piece of art is part of the piece. Metaphorically this work is the soil in which your painting is planted.

My Process tends to be:

  1. Intention
  2. Inspiration and Reference
  3. Exploring
  4. Preparing
  5. Creating
  6. Assessment and Review
  7. Sharing

I have been using this new insight a lot recently and I thought this week and next week I would go through my whole creative process, including all of this preparatory work. This week I’m going to look at all of the preparatory work.


I wanted to make a piece of art for a friend of my family who is also a colleague at work. She is retiring at the end of this academic year. My friend is a Buddhist and we have talked about her practice and she has even “chanted” for me when I’ve been having a hard time. So I thought making a picture of the Buddha would make a good present.

Inspiration and Reference

To make a piece of art I draw on a wide range of resources. Some are personal, like my world view and things which are at the heart of what is important in my life, like my family and the natural world. Some are related to my direct experience of the subject I am working on. So with this piece it was my own experience of practicing Buddhism in the past and how that experience extends into my life now via mindfullness and Quaker Worship. Then there are those paintings and statues all by other artists which I feel a connection with. When I look at reference I’m looking for images which somehow resonate with that as yet unknown something which I want to create. It’s like saying something that really comes from your heart but because it’s visual you don’t need to translate it into words which, for me, always miss the mark somehow. Some people are so skillful with words, but my native language is entirely visual.

Here is a diagram of some of the most important resouces I drew on to make this picture. (In terms of reference I actually looked at approximately 20-30 different buddha representations in detail, but the three recorded here are the three which I found most compelling.)

(Please note the three buddha representations (top and right of the image above) and the picture of Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey practicing Soto Zen are not my own photographs.)

I think a lot of this part of the work is just on the edge of consciousness. It’s like I have a feeling I want to convey and I am looking for examples of objects, memories and images which are associated with this feeling in my mind. In this instance the feeling I wanted to share is a kind of wholeness and peacefullness which I’ve found through just being still in silence and being in natural surroundings.


During this part of the work I explored what I can do with these sources of inspiration within certain boundaries. I had a fixed time to do this in – about 2 weeks, which would have been 1 week if I’d decided to send the picture to the framers. It seems like a lot of time but I was back at work by then and having to do a lot of extra work to keep safe during the pandemic so it amounted to a fair amount less than that since I put my work first.

I thought pastels would be a good choice here. Although oils would have given me some lovely creamy smooth gradients I don’t think I could have got the picture properly dry in time, even using Liquin since I would have needed to mix in some titanium white for my bright yellow highlights and it always takes ages to dry. I could have chosen watercolours, or gouache but I thought pastels would be bright and warm.

I had some pastel paper at home, however all of the sheets I had at the time were a red burgundy colour, so I decided to work that into the picture.

I used to wonder if I should try to remove all restrictions and boundaries on my creative process so I could be “free” to create anything. But I now I think I see great value in these limits. They force me to be more creative. It’s very similar in feeling to the way, inside the earth’s crust, the forces of pressure and temperature create metamorphic rock. The restrictions of it’s environment are what make the really beautiful patterns.

Metamorphic Rock -from Wikimedia Commons

So my restrictions were:

  • It had to be done in a specific time period and relatively quickly.
  • It had to use the pastels and paper I currently have, so the background has to be burgundy.
  • It has to relate to Buddhism.
  • I would like it to convey a peaceful wholeness. (Strictly speaking this isn’t a restriction, but an objective.)

I began by sketching out a few doodles of the Buddha, looking at his whole body posture, his head and his hands. Of these I liked the head and the hands most. I decided on the head in the end. Although I had a good idea for a hands picture, it didn’t fit with the paper I have and is less obviously buddhist.

So I made some really quick sketches of Buddha heads to try to feel out the kind of head I wanted…

Most of the reference I saw incorporated a very curved round face. I wanted to change that. I decided on making his face look more distinctly male with sharper more angular features. I did quite few of these. The two at the top of this page were far too feminine, but my last two began to get to the feeling I wanted of a strong man completely at peace.

Next I made a bigger drawing combining the best parts of each of my sketches and then toned it to get a value sketch…

After this I wanted to work on my colour choices so I scanned the value sketch into a digital format and worked on it in Autodesk Sketchbook. I set my background to the burgundy of the paper which I was going to use and set up some brushes to mimic pastels. Here’s my basic colour sketch…

I wanted to have dark hair with a bluish tinge to it and I wanted my Buddha to have golden skin.

Then I started playing around with the composition and framing of my subject. I started with a fairly vanilla centred front portrait and then enlarged it to fill the frame. I tried moving it to the side but, although I liked this it’s the same as a famous Getty Image which is framed just like that. Then I turned it on it’s side. This definitely gave me the peacefullness I was looking for. It also kind of shows a Buddhist Landscape – with the head and neck of the Buddha actually “being” the landscape! I really liked this idea and decided to go with it. Here are some of the compositional ideas I had as I played around with it…

My final exploration on this picture looked at textures in the image.

I made the background textured with a mix of darker brownish reds. Then decided that I would love the Buddha’s face to be covered in dappled light – the kind of light you get shining through the leaves of a tree. This worked really well for me since I have a strong internal link between peacefulness and nature, so having dappled light is a way of having the effect of nature on the image implicitly. To do this I brightened the face and then added the dappled light…

There’s a feeling you get when you find what you’re looking for and I got that with this plan for my painting. So I stopped there and began to get together all of the bits and bobs I needed to make the picture…


I got together all of my materials…

… including my “kittycat” helper! (please excuse her having a little yawn!). Then I taped the edges of my paper and I was ready!

Next week I will go through the last 3 stages in my art creation process, Creating, Assessment & Review and Sharing.

Heron – Mixed Media

I do really love herons! I know they are the bane of many Koi enthusiasts due to their tendency to snack on much loved fish but they do have a certain predatory beauty. This week I drew an ink drawing of a heron and toned it with smudged pencil. I am continuing to work on integrating my textural studies into actual artwork.

Here is my rough pencil sketch…

This shot was taken once I’d refined my pencil work…

This was taken in the middle of inking the drawing…

Here is the completed picture…

Once I had my inks finished I felt I really needed some greyscale tones to help give the viewer the feeling of looking at water. Previously I’ve either done this digitally or with a range of grey brush markers. For this drawing though, I really wanted to add some smooth grey gradients so I decided to mix up my media a little and use pencil for this. Rather than drawing the graphite onto the paper I used the graphite shavings from a mechanical pencil sharpener…

…and rubbed them on with a tissue. I had to practise this technique on some scrap paper a few times but I found I could get a lovely smooth gradient this way. Then I use my putty eraser and a fine mechanical eraser to remove the shading from the places where it went over a line. I am really pleased with how this turned out. I will use this technique again.

Reviewing this particular picture, I can see that my textures are very gradually improving. I would still like to develop more range and finesse with this. I am also quite pleased with the way the water ripples around the heron’s feet read. I think the smooth gradients really help this effect.

I also keep wondering if I should have added some indications of lanscape in the top left corner. It might look good to see a vague sense of a horizon line. Just a few marks to give the viewer an indication. At the time, I refrained from doing so because I liked the striking outline of the heron’s head and I thought putting in some landscape would detract from that. Sometimes drawings seem to ask for a change but I don’t always know exactly how to handle it. In the end I decided to leave it and just sit with the picture as it is. Sometimes, when doing this my unconscious mind seems to keep working ont eh problem in the background and days or even a few weeks later I figure out the answer.

Digital Painting – Chameleon

For the last few years I have asked my son for feedback on my art. Basically I show him the picture and ask him to guess what my subject was. If he can guess it correctly I count it as a good’un. But I want to move further on and deeper into my studies, so I’m going to try setting myself objectives as I draw and paint, more than just the simple realism-based aims I usually work on.

  1. I want to think harder about my use of colour. Specifically for this week’s work I want to try using a classic 90% : 10% ratio of complementary colours (green : red) and I want to avoid over-saturating my work. (Colour is like a drug to me, but I frequently enjoy paintings with more subtle colour, so I want to have a try at painting more like that.)
  2. Secondly I want to be able to paint more confidently. So this week I’m going to use the freedom of being able to digitally jump back a few steps to particularly focus on the work I do after the blocking in. I often find the gap between the image of the finished painting in my mind and my blocked-in beginning to be quite daunting. I know what to do next at that stage; I just find it hard to push through and do it. I think lots of practise will help.
  3. I want to change up my constant attempts at realism for a range of different approaches. I really enjoy the art of a French Painter called Henri Rousseau. He painted a lot of animals and plants in jungle-like scenes and, like me, he was self-taught. So, this week, I’m going to try to paint a chameleon in my version of Rousseau’s style.

Here’s my basic outline of a chameleon. I looked at a reference for the animal itself and made up my foliage completely.

The I added a background so that my colour choices would follow my plan for colour in this picture.

I blocked in some branches and leaves, remembering to use plenty of red in my browns. This is close enough to red to work as a complementary colour.

Next I roughed in my main colours and shadows, trying to give my Chameleon and strong sense of form from the start.

Then I removed the line art. This was the stage of the painting where I generally find things tricky. So I focussed on filling in medium sized forms, values and colours in the same way as I’d just blocked in the whole animal, but working on medium sized shapes, like the stripes and the eye.

Again, as I coloured the edges of the stripes on my chameleon’s side I pushed the raw sienna colour on my reference to more of a burnt sienna, so that there was more red in the colour. I also pushed the cream of the middle area of each of the big stripes to a more pinkish cream. I was hoping that I could metaphorically smuggle in the red via my browns to balance and highlight the green a little.

Next I started working on the details on the face and the bumpy texture of a chameleon’s skin. I tried to hint at the texture, rather than drawing every little round bump. This bit still took a long time to do but my earlier work on texture is now beginning to pay off.

Once that was done I varied the values of my leaves to give the viewer a hint of the play of light around them and painted on some 3D style veins. I wanted the leaves to look regular enough so that they can be recognised by the viewer, but similar in style to Rousseau’s almost animation style painting.

My last job was to import this into photoshop and adjust my settings. I had been working in a dark room with a lit digital screen and this made my whole picture a little too dark. So I adjusted my levels to make the finished digital painting below…

And here (below) is one of my favourite Rousseau paintings The Dream, 1910, oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Beautiful, isn’t it?!

Trainers – Digital and Traditional

This week’s art is a traditional ink drawing of some trainers and a digitally coloured version of the same drawing. I have been working quite a bit on these two areas recently, ink drawing and digital colouring. My aim is to improve my skill in both.


Ink drawing aims

With the ink drawing I particularly want to be able to emulate artists like Olivia Kemp. Here is a link to her Instagram where you can have a look at her art: Link to Olivia’s Work.  I think her textures are amazing!

Now, some of what makes her art wonderful is the huge attention to detail, which means working on a bigger canvas and taking more time to draw. My ink drawings take about an hour to do and then half an hour to colour if I’m doing it digitally. So I think planning and drawing a bigger, more longterm, ink drawing would be a good step forward. The second thing Olivia seems to do is to take care with each line. I do think before I draw, especially when working traditionally, but I don’t take such care of each mark I make, so I could work on that too. However, the most impactful thing Olivia does, that I’m only beginning to work on, is to use varied textures for different materials and objects in each scene. Until recently I only used hatching and cross hatching and sometimes little dots, which is very limiting. On top of that I don’t really like the look of my cross hatching. So these are all things I’m going to work on going forwards.

In this picture I concentrated on making the canvas parts of these shoes look like canvas and, more than that, look like canvas that had been stretched to someone’s feet. I used hatching, but in a very controlled way so that I could show the viewer how the pressure from the laces molds the shoe to the wearer’s foot. I also experimented with using cross hatching in a very broad way to indicate the pattern of threads in the laces.


Digital colour aims

With digital colouring I’ve been studying colour theory some more and trying out different techniques and approaches. In today’s art I felt, for the first time, that I was able to really use some of this new learning in a way that felt natural and normal. It’s like the difference between struggling to play a difficult scale on the piano (which I’ve been metaphorically doing for a while now in my colour work) and being able to naturally use that scale without thinking in a piece of music.

Here are my process images…

With shading and some halftone ink added – this is my finished traditional ink drawing…

I also scanned this drawing in before I added the half tone ink so I could colour it digitally which turned out like this…

I made some subtle changes to the way I colour here, adding a range of hues for the violet canvas colour, from a darker, low saturation navy blue to a mid saturation magenta added in the centre of the violet colour where warm light would be hitting the shoe. I also changed the colour of my shadows. They still read as grey, but are actually a dark airforce blue. You can’t easily see the difference just looking at this picture alone, but just using greys left the image looking dull compared.

So the final question is, which picture is best? Well, I don’t know. I love the purity and simplicity of ink on paper, but I like the freedom and possibilities of digital art.

I would be really interested to know what do you think?