Friday, April 27, 2018

Approaching the Canvas with Confidence

Last weekend was the much-anticipated "Art of the Portrait" conference in Reston, VA, and this year the Portrait Society celebrated its 20th anniversary. I'm so honored to have been a part of it, as a faculty member and a competition finalist.

Thursday night's "Face Off" demo kicked off the event with all the energy and excitement it's become known for. Fifteen artists gather around live models and paint for three hours, while attendees can encircle the room and watch and learn, visit with each other, and ask the artists questions during breaks. I absolutely love being part of the Face-Off, and this year I was in a prime spot, painting famous artist/author Virgil Elliott, alongside two of my favorite badass women artists, Rose Frantzen and Elizabeth Zanzinger.

Above: The final portrait of Virgil, 16x12", oil on Raymar L64 quadruple lead primed linen panel.

The finished paintings get auctioned off to raise funds for scholarships for the next year's conference. I love that it's for such a good cause, as there were several dear ones in attendance this year (including my sister!), who were there because they earned a scholarship.

The following morning, I made my main stage debut alongside my dear friend Quang Ho, and we were privileged to paint the beautiful and incredibly prolific Adrienne Stein. The topic of our demonstration was "Approaching the Blank Canvas with Confidence." So, instead of giving you a rundown on the whole weekend (which could take a while!), I thought I'd make this post about "painting with confidence", and share a few of the things we addressed during our talk.

I haven't always been a confident artist. To some extent, I agree with the statement, "Fake it till you make it." Everybody asks if I was nervous to be up there painting in front of 800+ people. The truth is, I was a little nervous (and baby boy starting kicking like crazy when he felt my heart racing, ha!), but as soon as I was on the stage, I was completely fine... and even if I hadn't been, I would have "faked it" till the nerves went away. As is always the case months before a big event like this, I lost a lot of sleep on nights prior to my arrival here, thinking about what I was going to say. But once I was up there, brush in hand... I felt very much in my element, doing what I love, and getting to share it with my extended art family. So there were no nerves -- only joy!

Look at that crowd!

(Photos above provided by Emily Olson and Adrienne Stein :-))

I think there is a direct correlation between confidence and self awareness, or what you might call mindfulness. How well do you know yourself? From a technical standpoint, do you know what your tendencies are (both good and bad)? For example, I tend to make noses too long. So I try to be mindful of this every time I start a portrait, making sure to take some extra time observing my subject in order to nail those proportions. On the flip side of this, sometimes we dwell too much our weaknesses, rather than our strengths. This is a confidence killer! Definitely work on improving your weaknesses, but be sure to capitalize on the things you're good at!

I can offer some practical tips on approaching a blank canvas (I talk about this in my DVDs). Here are just a few:
- Tone your canvas to get rid of the "big scary white."
- Do quick sketches first to "warm up" and become acquainted with your subject.
- Draw your design on with vine charcoal, which is very forgiving and can be easily wiped off.
- Or... don't make a mark at all at the beginning but rather, look a little longer at your subject until you find something that really grabs you... then go for it.

I think confidence can often be connected to your physical and mental health, or your energy level. I am always more confident when I've had a good night's sleep, and when I'm consistently working out and eating healthy. We tend to think of art as a sedentary activity, when in reality it requires the mental clarity of a surgeon and the physical stamina of a marathon runner!

Setting realistic goals for your painting. I know I'm not going to paint a masterpiece in 2 1/2 hours. And I know I'll have different goals for demonstration pieces than I will for studies that I create in the quiet of my studio or at a life drawing session. So instead of biting off more than you can chew, i.e. "I'm going to make a beautifully finished head in three hours," think about taking smaller steps at a time. "I will try different cropping than I'm accustomed to," or "I will only use four colors," or "I will get the likeness using broad strokes/big shapes and no specific details," etc.

The biggest point I can make about this topic is that we must banish fear from our vocabulary. Fear doesn't serve us in any way--in fact, it weakens and paralyzes us. We must learn to channel that fear and turn it into something positive, such as excitement or gratitude. One of the best things I've learned from Quang is this: there are no wrong decisions in painting, except to never make a decision. Inertia is the fundamental enemy of artists.

My Crossfit coach said something profound one day at the start of what everyone know was going to be a "destroyer" workout. He said, "When it gets hard, don't dwell on that part. Instead, approach it with a spirit of gratitude. Be thankful that you get to be here, and that you can move your body like this." Yes! This is so true of art as well! The instant you switch your mindset from "This is hard," to, "I get to do this!", everything will change for the better.

There is so much more I could say about this, but I'll close with this:  Art is meant to be seen. Most of us can agree that we are inspired by the courage of others when they step out of their comfort zones and allow the world to see them for who they really are. But the thought of us doing this ourselves makes us squirm. I love what Brene Brown says in her book about vulnerability, called Daring Greatly. When she needs to muster some confidence, she prays a "vulnerability prayer" that goes like this: "Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen." (Another great one by this author is The Gifts of Imperfection. I've been so inspired by these books! Check them out).

We'll never confident until we become comfortable with being uncomfortable. As Quang says, "I like not knowing where I'm going. I could be at the brink of disaster or at the edge of something truly great."



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