Sunday, 27 February 2011

Tree Paintings #3 Castle Meadows, Abergavenny

This is one of my favourite places to walk - and take photos, especially on a summer's evening, as long as it's not too wet underfoot! The River Usk flows through the Meadows, behind the distant trees and the Blorenge Mountain in the background, protects us from the worst of the South-Westerlies!

I've painted the clump of trees above many times, at various times of year and from different angles. But below is a different view - looking down into the Meadows from the top of the steep path that takes you down from the Castle to the Meadows.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Tree Paintings #2 Ancient Woodlands on Sugarloaf, nr Abergavenny

Sugarloaf Mountain from Abergavenny

I  have placed the two pastel painting below directly above one another as they show parts of the steep path up Sugarloaf in sequence. I almost always paint from photographs and the photos for these paintings were taken the very first time I ventured up Sugarloaf, in the late afternoon of a very hot August Day.

It was cool under the gnarled and twisted trees, which are part of an Ancient Woodland, but I think you can see how hot it was when I emerged into the open at the top of the path. There then follows a much more leisurely, flatter pathway, with sheep either side, before the really steep climb to the summit begins. Maybe you can follow the route on the profile of the mountain above?

It's possible to drive quite a lot of the way up Sugarloaf to a little carpark with  a fabulous view down over Abergavenny. But I prefer city driving to the narrow, steep and winding hills and I somehow managed to leave one of my mudflaps in a hedge up there, probably when I had to manoevre to allow a car to pass! 

I actually found being alone in the wooded part of the climb quite spooky and I much prefer to do that walk with friends or family!

The start of the climb...

Emerging out into the sunlight and a more leisurely gradient - for a while!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Tree Paintings #1 Queenswood, Herefordshire

Last night I was doing my usual round-up of the blogs I follow when I had an idea! 

I'd reached Nicki Ault’s blog and I’ve sometimes noticed a similarity between  her choice of subject matter and that of some of my soft pastel paintings, though I’d never particularly thought of myself as a ‘tree’ person. So I had a look through the low-resolution thumbnails of my old, defunct soft pastel painting website and was surprised to see just how often trees are, in fact, an important part of what I call my ‘proper paintings’.

Forests and woodlands have been in the news here recently as the government has done a U-turn in response to the huge public outcry against selling them off! Some say the government never intended to go through with it and used it to show that they are flexible and listen to the people. (It didn't apply to Wales in any case as we are 'devolved'). There’s some information here and do watch the (soundless) video! I thought it was hilarious, particularly the chap to the right who appears to keep nodding off at about 17 secs in!

So, by way of celebration of the protesters' victory, I thought it might be appropriate to post one of my many tree paintings on the days in between my regular posts, rather like Diana Ting Delosh’s daily bunny postings earlier this month.

The trees above are part of the Queenswood, in Herefordshire, which covers the top of a hill between the county town of Hereford, where I lived for four years, and Leominster in the north of the county. Leominster (pronounced Lemster!) is an attractive little town and I originally intended to move there – but in the end, Abergavenny won, partly because it is easier for my family to get here.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

How to Paint Portraits Effectively - Kerra Lindsey

This month's guest post is by Kerra Lindsey. Kerra is an established portrait artist but I came across her work through Greeting Card Universe and she also uses her art to creat delightful products on Zazzle. You can browse Kerra's portfolio on her website and read more about her on her blog

Here she shares with us some practical ideas for improving our drawing for portraits:

Put the Pencil Down!

You don't want me to say it but I'm going to anyway:  draw, draw, draw!  That's right--you want to be an impressive painter?  Learn to draw first--then practice until, well, your hands stop working.  Portrait painting can be unlike painting anything else--you may be going for a 'figurative' look and be satisfied with that--but if you want the piece to be recognizable, you're going to have move past the 'blocking' stage and get to the details.  Here's a great way to get geared up to do just that!

Sick of your pencil?  Not to worry--there is a way to draw with your paintbrush, too!  Not as easy to carry, and yes, you've got to have some water and a few other tools nearby, but the experience can help you move forward and avoid the 'boring' factor of repetitive lines.

Here's an exercise I've used with some of my students as a warm up in our 'drawing class'.  It brought about
smiles and enthusiasm for the piece we were working on and forewent the 'sigh' of pulling out the pencils.  We used watercolor to sketch and draw with.  The results were more than impressive!

We start with a blank piece of paper--no pencil guidelines to follow.  Then begins our blocking phase and instead of small, graphite lines, we use a round watercolor brush (sz. 6 for our 11" x14" area, almost dry), to create large shape areas.   There is no need to worry about hue at this point so I'm not going to cover that.  This exercise is for your brain to accurately interpret what it's seeing and portray that 3-D shape onto a 2-D object.--with a different medium than you've been using. 

I have found that negative drawing works wonders for getting your brain in the correct 'art mode', and I encourage such with my students to find the negative spaces and concentrate on them.  I try to follow a path of continuously smaller shapes and values paying close attention to how they interact with each other.

We draw all over he paper 'blocking in' the shapes that are found.  Remember, this is an exercise for getting your brain ready to paint accurately and you shouldn't give up if your 'exercise' doesn't give you immediate results.  It takes time and practice.

Here's a tip:  

If you find you are getting 'stuck' on a certain area stop yourself.  Focus your brain on the activity at hand--the negative shapes, and the feel of the brush in your hand as you trace your shapes from your object onto the paper.  Start with thin washes and increase the pigment as you get closer to the details. 


Thursday, 17 February 2011

Who needs Praise?

I’ve been reading about praise and encouragement (a.k.a ‘positive reinforcement’) in relation to children and I came across an interesting suggestion that we should only praise children for their effort and not for their talents. After all, we are born with our talents so we don’t deserve to be praised for them. Whereas we choose whether to work hard, to be persistent in the face of difficulties – or not.  

I think this makes a lot of sense and if teachers and parents made less fuss about children’s natural abilities and talents and rewarded effort instead, it would provide a level playing field which might well motivate the less ‘able’ and at least lessen the lack of confidence that besets most of the children I have taught.

But would it be sensible to apply this to adults as well - I’m thinking of artists in particular? It’s very clear from artists’ forums and blog comments that it is generally accepted that most of us need praise and encouragement about our work. If someone commented, ‘I can see that you’ve worked very hard and I think that is highly commendable’, wouldn’t we perhaps suspect an unspoken, ‘but’, such as, ‘but I don’t think your designs are up to scratch’?

So yes, when it comes to adults and their creative endeavours, the praise of our peers does support and encourage us in a fiercely competitive market! But I do think that we need to be discriminating in our praise of one another’s work to avoid our praise becoming devalued. I’m not suggesting for one moment that we should hold back from responding positively to something we really like.  But I have seen parents who, with the best of intentions, ‘positively reinforce’ every single thing that their child does – it seems as if they simply can’t stop themselves, praise seems to ooze from their every pore! And I’ve seen the way their children react – or rather, they don’t react any more because they are canny enough to know that they don’t deserve or even want this constant drip-feed of overblown admiration; so they just tune it out.

At times I’ve felt a little bit like one of those children when I read all the testimonials and wall comments on Greeting Card Universe and Zazzle. They sound very nice, and I’m sure many of them are genuine. But when they seem to come so easily, what are they really worth? Do they really mean anything? And worst of all, is there an ulterior motive hiding behind some of them?

It seems pretty clear that many of us are looking to our fellow artists for reassurance that we do indeed have enough talent to make our work saleable.  And I think this is fair enough in the beginning; but after a while we need to be able to assess our own work and find a confidence that doesn’t depend on the praise of others.  What will ultimately build our confidence is likely to be, in part at least, actually achieving those sales!  And that, by the way, may well take some of those qualities – hard work, persistence, even courage! – that are not innate talents but require effort from us!  (I had to dig very deep to find the courage to approach the owner of our local Art Shop and Gallery with my Christmas catalogue!)

Sometimes we don’t seem to be getting anywhere – this post about rejection on Terry Heath’s blog should encourage anyone who wonders whether they will ever make it!  

And that’s when the encouragement of our friends and fellow artists is worth its weight in gold!


Thursday, 10 February 2011

Painting to order

A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.Oscar Wilde

I wouldn't go quite so far as Oscar Wilde but I’ve sometimes been nicknamed ‘The Awkward Squad’ and I think that might be a good name for me because if someone suggests that I paint something, it seems to automatically become the last thing on earth that I am able to paint! 

Which is a nuisance because it means that there’s no way I could earn my living by painting to commission.
Some years ago, a friend suggested that I could maybe increase my income by making pastel paintings of people’s houses.

In fact I did undertake one such ‘commission’ for a friend. But after taking a lot of photos of the beautiful old house, I ended up painting, of all things, part of the garden in the semi-darkness with the house very much in the distance. It was the only‘view’ that seemed to appeal to me to paint it!

And since I came back to greeting card designing, I’ve had numerous suggestions of ideas for cards from well-intentioned friends but somehow I never seem to get round to even adding them to my list of card ideas because I know that I’ll never do anything about them; in any case, my list seems to get longer rather than shorter so ‘ideas’ are not what I’m most in need of!

The one exception was when a friend asked me to make a birthday card with a black fairy for her granddaughter but that was simply a case of making a normal fairy card and changing the features and skin colour slightly.
It’s a shame really because I’ve missed opportunities on account of my ‘awkwardness’. The chimney sweep suggested that I should submit a suitable design to the Chimney Sweeps Association, a friend asked me to produce cards with a ‘farm’ theme for a farmer’s market he was in charge of. But so far, apart from a few sorry attempts to make something of a cow, nothing has come of either of these.

Unfortunately I think I have to somehow relate to what I’m creating and if I don’t, if it doesn’t really interest me, I just don’t seem to be able to come up with anything worthwhile. There are a great many categories of greeting cards on Greeting Card Universe, endless special days to celebrate, seemingly hundreds of situations that could require a greeting card. It seems as if all I would need to do is sit down with the lists and methodically go through them, creating a greeting card for each occasion. But I don’t seem to be able to work that way. I need the occasion to spark a response in me and if it doesn’t, no matter whether I may have the required skills, I don’t seem able to come up with the goods!

I am amazed, and full of admiration, when I come across websites where the artist offers to paint to commission, whether it be houses, boats or, more often someone’s pet. I suspect it must take a lot of self-discipline to do that, certainly more than I, the Awkward Squad, have!

Artists, painters, musicians and to some extent, poets through the ages have worked to commission and many of them depended on these commissions to make ends meet - and still do! I’m thankful that I’m not quite in that position because if I were, I’m sure I’d be a literally starving artist!

I don’t mean to be picky and maybe if I didn’t have any ideas of my own, I could try harder and perhaps even succeed in making something worthwhile out of someone else’s suggestion!

The trouble is, for me it’s a bit like being watched when I’m painting – it inhibits me and makes me start to think about what I’m doing and that’s not the way I work best. Just recently I was drawing a cat for a greeting card design but something wasn’t quite right with it. I kept changing things but still there was something wrong. My pad of paper was on the table when a friend phoned me and it was only at the end of our conversation, when I put the phone down, that I discovered that I’d unwittingly doodled the cat problem away while we were chatting!

I’m sure not everyone will agree with this quote from Ray Bradbury:

‘Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. You can’t try to do things. You must simply do things’.

- but it works for me!

(Your comments are, as always, very welcome!)

Friday, 4 February 2011

Adventures in Selling Greeting Cards - Part 2

‘Start small!’ chorused the friends and relatives when they heard about my Christmas sales in local shops but even so, I was utterly torn about whether to take this further or not. I’d previously decided to concentrate on stocking my online stores this year and hoped to have more time for painting  - and for the rest of my life!

When I finally made up my mind – after a great deal of agonising! – to continue what I’d begun before Christmas, it appeared that I could save myself time and trouble by getting the cards printed professionally. Unfortunately, this can be less straightforward than it seems as almost all printing firms want to print a minimum of 50 of each design. However, one of our local firms was willing to print fewer than 50, though at a price that was too high to even consider selling direct to the retailers but which just about made sense for selling on consignment (sale or return) .

So I narrowed my designs down from more than 500 to about 150 of those that have been most popular and compiled a catalogue to present to the shops – and made a second copy this time!

'Shabby Shack' gift Shop, Abergavenny
Abergavenny is in quite an affluent part of Wales and the town centre hasn’t so far appeared to be too much affected by the ‘economic downturn’. But the post-Christmas atmosphere in the shops was quite depressing with several shopkeepers I approached telling me that they weren’t sure how much longer they could survive. The bad weather was obviously a factor in the slow sales in the run up to Christmas but confidence is at an all time low because we know that the full effect of the Coalition’s ‘savage cuts’ has yet to be felt! I also heard that a couple of greeting card publishers have recently gone out of business, one of them quite a major player in the field.

I had always assumed that ‘sale or return’ (consignment) meant no risk at all for the shopkeepers because they were only paying for cards that sold. But I soon discovered that the risk of my new, fresh cards selling better than the cards they'd already bought and paid for was a deterrent to some shopkeepers when it came to taking my cards. This very thing had happened to the newsagent  at Christmas, when he was left with a lot of his old stock Welsh Christmas cards and had to offer them at half price after Christmas.

' Shabby Shack' Gift Shop, Abergavenny
However, I succeeded in interesting three local shops – two busy newsagents and a new small, but lovely gift shop (left and above)! Between the three of them, they chose 21 designs and the printer agreed to print 10 of each at almost exactly the same price as it costs me to print them myself with my thirsty new printer. The price didn’t include envelopes or cellophane packages so there was still work for me to do but at least I didn’t have to bother with the trimming and folding and the cards have turned out very well, being on heavier card than I’ve been able to obtain.

But thinking ahead to when it comes to re-stocking, outsourcing the printing is going to present me with another problem. The printer has recently printed 10 identical cards for me that were ordered through my website as a result of my e-newsletter. And the price he charged me was OK for a website sale, with no retailer to take their ‘cut’. But it wouldn’t make sense for selling through shops. So it’s looking as if I’ll have two alternatives, neither of them perfect:

1. Wait until all the shops need restocking and get them printed at the lower price all together – but this will probably leave some of the shops with gaps in their displays.

2. Print the small re-stocking orders myself – but the cards would be of a slightly lower quality as I can’t get the 300 gsm card myself.

This is as much of a new venture for the printer as it is for me and he’s inclined to say that we’ll have to ‘play it by ear’, which isn’t very satisfactory - but I can understand his caution. He has already shown himself to be the most flexible printer in town and I’m grateful for that.

But this all leads me to wonder, is it really feasible to ‘start small’ in this business? I don’t want to discourage anyone who wants to have a go at selling their greeting cards through retailers but at the moment it seems to me like an awful lot of work and worry for quite a small return. My profit is only slightly higher than the commission I receive from Greeting Card Universe for far less work.

On the other hand, a very helpful post by 'ArtsyShark' has made me wonder whether, in future, I could solve at least part of my problem by only offering my cards to retailers who have a similar customer-base, thus reducing the number of different designs to be printed. Do have a look at this post from someone who has years of experience in the business!


Thursday, 3 February 2011

Adventures in Selling Greeting Cards - Part 1

Time for an update on my card-selling endeavours and a warm welcome to all new followers!

Back in November I decided to see whether there was a local market for my Christmas cards and I’m pleased to say that it went better than expected - in spite of my mistakes!

The Art Shop & Gallery, Abergavenny

Our lovely little ‘Art Shop and Gallery’ sold out of my Reindeer and Snowballing collages completely. As you can see from the picture (right) it's a tiny shop but packed to the gills with all sorts of goodies for artists to drool over!

 And a nearby newsagent who also sells all things Welsh, (below) re-ordered the photos of the snow on the mountains, with ‘Season’s Greetings from Abergavenny’ twice!
Welsh items for sale in the B4A newsagent's, Abergavenny

Considering how many people buy their Christmas cards very cheaply in packs, often Charity cards, I felt I’d done well and succumbed to suggestions from friends and relatives that I should build on this little success by offering my other, non-Christmas greeting cards for sale in local shops on ‘Sale or Return’ (consignment).

It’s always nice to see one’s greeting cards on sale in the shops – even nicer to hear that they’re selling well! But if, like me, you have neither a lot of money or time to invest, it may be useful to know about the difficulties that arose that I wished I had anticipated. (In the following four problems I encountered, there were clear solutions but it was nevertheless hard work and time-consuming and approaching the shopkeepers for the first time took me way outside my comfort zone!)

1. In many cases, November was too late to be offering Christmas cards. Several of the shops I tried told me at once that they already had their Christmas stock and didn’t have room for any more.

2. If you are showing the shopkeepers a catalogue of your designs, it’s a good idea to have several copies. It took me several weeks to visit half a dozen shops because the shopkeepers wanted to browse through the catalogue at their leisure so kept it for several days, preventing me taking it to other shops.

3. Make sure you have samples to show to the shopkeeper. I found the following pattern kept repeating itself – when I introduced myself the shopkeepers looked doubtful, when I  showed them my catalogue, they looked mildly interested but when I took out a couple of samples, one of them packaged, the other open to inspection, their whole attitude changed, their eyes lit up and they were definitely interested!  (It may be worth buying a few of your cards through Greeting Card Universe or Zazzle to use as samples, if you can get them at a time when there’s a special offer going – which seems to be much of the time!)

4. Try, if at all possible, to make sure that your cards are displayed in a good position in the shop. In one shop I found my cards down on a low shelf  between the counter and the window, with baskets of buttons on top of them - twice! Eventually I got them moved to a shelf where they could just about be seen but to get at them to browse would have involved asking the shopkeeper to get up out of his seat behind the counter – so I wasn’t at all surprised that none of them were sold!

In spite of all this, I decided to go ahead with offering my non-Christmas cards locally in January, having learnt from my mistakes. But it’s not been completely plain sailing so I’ll continue with my ‘Adventures of a One-person Greeting Card Publisher’ in Part 2 tomorrow...