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How to Get Started Again

I just wanted to ask for some advice on where to start making art again. I am currently working in the special needs education/rehabilitative sector and have consulted with several universities around seeking to apply for an MA in Art Therapy. However, all of them had declined my application given that I did not have any background in art but they urged me to complete a fine arts degree and try again.

I feel strongly about obtaining my Masters in this area as it would help so many of my students and patients (children, adolescents and stroke patients) in the Philippines who have difficulty communicating verbally but are all such visual learners. As such, I would really appreciate it if you can point me in the right direction on where to start practicing and which areas I need to start on. Full disclosure, I do not have any formal training in art at all but I am quite determined to learn. I have been doing some self-study from books and trying my hand at doing still life using pencils and watercolors.

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

I think a great place to get started is to create a daily sketching routine for yourself; it’s a terrific way to hold yourself accountable to make sure that you are producing artwork on a regular basis. It’s really helpful to establish a routine that you can rely on; perhaps you sketch for 15 minutes during your lunch break, maybe set an alarm for every evening at 6pm, whatever it takes to stay on track.

I have found social media platforms to be helpful too; I always make sure to post my work to Instagram at least a few times a week. You can track your progress this way and look back on older pieces to see improvement. Often times when you’re drawing a piece, it feels like nothing is happening in terms of progress, but if you can refer to older pieces you will see progress over time!

If you aren’t working in a sketchbook, it’s super helpful to set up a work space at home that is always waiting for you. Makes it so much easier to create work if you don’t have to lift a finger to get set up. Doesn’t have to be fancy, it could be a small desk that has a few materials on it, with a sheet of paper that is always ready to be worked on.

I found during art school that staying productive and simply creating A LOT of artwork was so important to my development. Every time you sit down to create artwork, it’s a contribution to your development and progress, no matter how good/bad the piece you are working on turns out. I have many students who give themselves a really hard time if their piece doesn’t go well, but every experience is important for one reason or another!

I highly recommend participating in our monthly Art Dares, there’s a new prompt every month and you can work in any media. It’s a great place to get ideas for where to start, and again, hold yourself accountable because the pieces are due on the last day of each month.

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Catherine Huang, Illustrator & Comics Artist

Catherine Huang
2017 Intern

It’s really inspiring to see how you want to explore art in this area, it’s one example of the countless directions art can take you!

Many things you can do to approach art have already been covered in previous comments. Keeping a sketchbook and having a daily drawing routine are all very useful things to do. As Prof Lieu mentioned, Art Dares are also a really good way to push yourself in making new art everyday. Not only does it give you the opportunity to try different ideas and mediums for each prompt under a deadline, but you can also see how others react to the Art Dares as well.

It’s extremely helpful to observe and communicate with other artists, whether they be professional or students themselves! It’s encouraging to be able to share your progress with others and receive feedback and support from them. Fortunately, Art Prof and its many social media platforms (facebookinstagramtwitter…you name it) is a priceless resource!

Another thing I would recommend is don’t be afraid. Whether it be trying new mediums, reaching out to others, or taking on a challenging piece of artwork, any attempt you make to try to better yourself is already a step in the right direction.

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Paridhi Mundra, Illustration Student

Paridhi Mundra
2017 Intern

It is so great to see you heading in this direction and taking upon the initiative of introducing art into your work! I feel, a good place to start is to begin in a medium or area of art or design (2D or 3D) that interests you but also, with which you have some familiarity. To start off, keeping things simple is the easiest. You mentioned creating still life. I would recommend building upon it.

Art Prof offers some really great courses, for Still Life and Portrait. This will help you cover foundation skills such as space, light and shadow and perspective. And this will also allow you to further develop your technical skills of pencil studies as well as venture into other materials.

I think another thing to look into is local art courses offered by universities and art organisations. See if they offer any short module courses or weekly open drawing/painting sessions (which will provide more flexibility with your work schedule as well) that you could enroll into. It will be a good means of connecting with other artists as well.

And lastly, one of the easiest ways of just getting into the process of creating art again is keeping a sketchbook. It is a wonderful way of insuring to sketch everyday and even though its not immediately realised, it eventually improves one’s thinking and creating process. It is also a great place to observe and explore, without the pressure of creating something finished.

It is a rumour that formal training is required to create a work of art, I think its important to keep working at it, something which you are already doing. So, just keep at it! The intersection of art and education is an area that interests me deeply and I am excited by the prospects of your initiative, and wish you the very best.

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Abstract Paintings

Can I ask a question about composition in abstract, nonobjective paintings? I’ve heard that the focal point can be multiple points in abstract art. Sometimes I’ve made an abstract painting, and when I’m finished, it seems like I’ve completed a background–my eye just slides across and doesn’t know when to stop- it seems decorative but missing something essential . Should there be a central image with abstraction? How does one begin to approach composition in abstract paintings? Any reference books you can suggest?  

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

I would say that in all paintings (regardless of whether they are abstract or not) there are no inherent rules to composition. What works in one painting (such as having a central image) may not work for another. I think the more important concern would be how you balance all of the parts of the painting in relation to each other. Frequently I see paintings that have areas that are engaging, but don’t relate to the other parts of the painting, making for a fragmented, almost patchwork quilt-like looks.

My recommendation if you want to think about composition would be to look at abstract paintings you enjoy, and ask yourself, what is this artist doing with their composition to keep it exciting? I find that starting with pieces that you enjoy, and trying to deconstruct what, in your opinion, makes those pieces exciting is one way to help define your own goals.

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Britt Sodersjerna

Britt Sodersjerna
2017 Intern

I think this is a really great question and I wanted to add my two cents on the matter. I think one of the greatest aspects of abstract art is its endless possibilities in composition. Without having to worry about fully – rendered objects, you really do have endless possibilities.

Some amount of balance is key to engaging pieces and having flow can really keep a piece from looking too choppy and disorganized. That being said, I feel that the greatest part about painting is that you can easily go over something that you think does not work, or needs to be altered. There are no limits!

The best piece of advice I can offer is to find an artist, specific movement or style that inspires you- and find what you like about their work. Find out what you think makes them successful and incorporate those ideas into your own work.

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Amy Hollshwandner

Amy Hollshwandner
2017 Intern

I think another great resource to look at is principles of graphic design. Graphic design is all about creating a balanced image without necessarily relying on realistic representation of objects. There is a focus on value relationships, relative scale of elements, and the function of color, which I think are all things that can be translated to the world of abstract painting. I have found it helpful to read about concepts of negative/positive space and what happens when work gets too busy (too many visual “voices”).

There are tons of great design books out there. I love going to the art/design section of a book store and flipping through different books to see what catches my eye visually! For specific recommendations, I would suggest “The Little Know-It-All: Common Sense for Designers” by Silja Bilz. There is a whole section on fundamentals of design, where it talks about color relationships, pattern, and general composition rules, which I think could be really useful.

Two other books are “Geometric” and “Geometric Two” by Kapitza (a multi-disciplinary design firm run by two sisters). They are super visually stimulating, full of bright and dynamic compositions that very successfully use subtle asymmetry to achieve balance. Plus, they apply these graphic design principles to a couple different kinds of mediums, not only print/advertising.

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Surface Protection

My question is about surface protection. I like to work with acrylics on watercolor paper, and then mount that paper onto hardboard. I want to protect the surface, so the work can be hung without glass- I don’t like the barrier between the viewer and the art. I don’t really like canvas- the texture seems to be both loud and flimsy. Watercolor paper, the good stuff, is toothy and grabs the pigment in a way nothing else seems to- but can it be protected? Can a viewer get nose to nose with it? Is it considered archival to use some type of acrylic medium on the surface

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

A terrific solution to working on watercolor paper on a large scale is to stretch your watercolor paper on canvas stretchers. (as if you were stretching a canvas on stretchers)

Wet the watercolor before your stretch it, then staple it on the canvas stretches (same technique as stretching a canvas) The paper will look awful on the canvas stretchers while it’s wet, all wrinkled-BUT- the next morning, when the paper is all dry, you will have a smooth, perfectly flat canvas!

I was amazed the first time I did this technique, it’s fabulous and so easy! I used to do it all the time when I was in art school and didn’t want to pay for canvas.

I’ve stretched watercolor paper on canvas stretchers as large as 3′ x 4′, so I know it works on a large scale. This way, your watercolor paper is on canvas stretchers which is so easy to hang! If it’s on stretcher bars, I don’t think acrylic medium is necessary.

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Size of Artwork

My question is about size- I find myself wanting to work in a small scale- really small- ATC up to 5 by 7. I keep forcing myself to go bigger but the work I enjoy the most, and the results I like the most, are these smaller pieces. They feel intimate and like a quiet moment between two people- but I feel like this size issue is a limitation. Should I continue to try and force myself to work in a larger scale, and if so, what is the best way to start moving larger?

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

In my opinion, if you feel that working at small scale is the best fit for the effects you are looking to achieve in your artwork, then by all means do it! I don’t see a compelling reason why you need to force yourself to work at a larger scale.

In fact, I once went to an artist lecture in NYC where the artist admitted that he “didn’t know what else to do” so he decided to make gigantic paintings. To me, that artist didn’t have a strong drive to create artwork at a large scale; it’s common to see artists working on a large scale only because they think it will be more impressive, not because their artwork demands it.

I’m not sure whether you feel the size issue is a creative limitation, or whether you are concerned about selling the artwork. If you are concerned about sales, I can tell you that small artworks almost always sell more easily. (how many people can make room for a 4′ x 4′ oil painting in their house?)

Working large can be a logistical problem as well; I once created these woodcuts that were 2′ x 3′. After getting them framed (which cost an astronomical amount of money) the pieces were so large that I had to rent a truck to drive them to the gallery, another big expense I didn’t want to deal with. My new “rule” is that I don’t create artwork that doesn’t fit in my car!

If you do want to go bigger, I think a good way to start is buy a really inexpensive surface (like a roll of newsprint) so that you can feel okay about tossing it and starting again. If you stretch a 4′ x 6′ canvas, (which is very costly!) you won’t feel free to experiment because the surface cost so much.

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Casey Roonan, Comics Artist & Cartoonist

Casey Roonan
Illustrator & Comics Artist

I’m also someone who tends to work relatively small, and often feel pressure to work at a larger scale. When I create from that head space, however, more often than not it just doesn’t work; and instead feels stiff and false. The size you work at can be really personal – not only specific to you, but also to your interests in that given moment, and the medium you’re currently working in.

When I was in art school and learning how to paint in oils, I found that I could only make a composition work if I blew it up to a giant scale. When I was working on smaller canvases, I found that I was getting overly nit-picky with my marks, and as a result my paintings were extremely muddy-looking. Once I’d stretched a larger canvas and started using broader brushstrokes, however, that problem disappeared.

On the other hand, for my illustration work – which I do almost exclusively in ink – I feel more comfortable working within range of a 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper!

Just because you’re working small doesn’t mean you can’t be ambitious, though – Break up a larger composition into manageable pieces, if you have to! Try tackling your subject as a series of numerous smaller works that build to some kind of greater impact, as a whole… You could even plan a painting as a giant polyptych, like Andy Warhol’s soup cans, a Catholic alter-piece, or a Gasoline Alley comic strip.

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