Live Preppy

Preppy was a term tossed around a few decades ago. It referred to the behavior of someone who went to a preparatory school.  Or, it could refer to a logo-laden dress code.  The word and the style fell from favor, but I’ve always liked the sound and decided that it could be re-defined and re-cycled for better use.  All of us have heard the honored motto, “Be Prepared”.  As artists, we must always make an effort to be so.  But my new definition means a bit more. I would like for you to consider not just, being prepared, but also living in a state of preparedness.  Living preppy.

Here are a few ways an artist can live a preppy life.

Live in a constant state of awareness.

Collect information, file visual data.  You never know when some wonderful visual experience might happen to you.  Be ready.  Be aware that ideas are all around you.  Write them down if you don’t have time for a sketch.  You may be unhappily surprised if you don’t get into this practice.  You’ll have a wonderful idea, see a great motif and believe that you’ll surely remember.  But there is so much data attacking all the time that you may not remember.  Carrying a small sketchbook, or even a little notebook is such a great habit.  I wrote a note last week, “long deep blue morning shadows from tree line silhouetting foreground interest”.  That doesn’t sound like much, but it was just the jolt I needed to remember the idea and return to the location at the right time of day.

Stay prepared by keeping your skills sharp.

Tuesday’s Twos, Permanent markers on Bristol paper. Two-minute gesture drawings.  These improve my observation skills and make all my drawings more lyrical.  Look for the gesture in everything.  It’s there.

This seems obvious especially if you are just beginning your artist’s journey.  You are at that part of the learning curve where you must practice every skill such as drawing particularly, but also value study, color mixing, and even perspective.  But as we advance, we get to a comfort zone, trust in our skill set and stop working to advance.  So, you’ll stay just where you are.  Drawing improves because you seek to improve it.  And even the most gifted artist will tell you that they wish they drew better.  Make practice of your skills a part of your life.  Those tedious color charts are invaluable.  Drawing either on your own, or with a group is one of the best things you can do to advance your art.  And draw just for the sake of drawing.  You will gain such amazing memory, both mental and physical.  Your hand will want to do just the right thing.  But it takes some dedication and commitment to keep those skills moving up the ladder.

Your drawing practice doesn’t need to be limited to life drawing. There may be no life group near you. So start a group.  Get some artists together and commit to draw on a regular schedule.  You could draw each other. You could have a day when you all bring a favorite object.  You could go out and have “celebrate tree day.”  Just draw.

Prepare before you begin.  Solve problems before they exist.

Get into the habit of exploring an idea, a composition before you begin a painting.  This can assume many forms and one or several may work for you.  These will probably be different for each artist.  There are a couple of things I do that help me get closer to success.

When I’m painting, especially en plein air, I always begin with a drawing.  It is nothing formal, not even meant to be a good drawing.  That’s not my purpose.  I’m moving the pencil around, working it out.  I’m studying the few basic values, thinking visually.  I write on the drawings, make any note that might help. I start the process in the middle of the page and draw out from there, leaving myself plenty of room to change the cropping of the image.  At this point, I don’t know the format, whether it will be a square, rectangle, perhaps a long format.  That hasn’t been determined.  I need to spend a little time with the subject and let that dictate the ratio.  This also slows me down and that is a good thing.  I notice that I have more failures when I jump in too soon.  And I have noticed this in so many artists.  We love to get right into the wonderful paint and may find out at an unfortunate later time that the composition is just not quite there.  That is no fun and it is so difficult to try to change it in the middle.  Why not begin with success?  Then you can truly enjoy the painting process with less worry because you’ve nailed the composition.  And since you’ve been practicing your drawing, no worries about getting it in correctly.  I do these sketches inside as well.

Painting one of Santa Fe’s blue doors. Photo courtesy of Paulette Alsworth.

To the left is a typical set-up for me.  I always keep these composition drawings close-by as I go through the painting process.  A little bungee cord keeps it from falling into the palette.  I learned that detail the hard way.

I also love doing tiny color sketches.  I may be preparing to attack a new subject or I may be searching for a fresh idea on a subject I’ve done often. Either way, I find it so helpful to take time to do some of these tiny studies.  I mark off scraps of canvas, or even paper to the scale that I’m thinking about.  I keep these around the studio so I can grab one that will work for a 4:5 ratio or a 3:4 ratio.  And then, I may ignore that altogether and just go for a new ratio that suits the subject. These sketches are done very quickly, no detail, no fuss, just the big ideas.  They often look more like abstract paintings than the subject I’m about to tackle. But that’s the point.  If an idea works in the abstract, it works in every way.  And because they are so quickly done, I tend to explore ideas more thoroughly.  I do these on a separate day than I’m planning to start the painting. That way, I don’t rush to decide on the composition.  I live with it a while, study it.  There is such joy and freedom in this type of preparation.

A page of composition ideas with roosters
by Joe Anna Arnett

So whether it is pencil sketches, tiny color abstractions, value compositions with markers, being prepared will not only save you from some problematic compositions, but it will advance your journey at a much more rapid pace.  That’s right.  That’s what I said.  Taking the time up front, being prepared will get you to the goal more quickly and with greater success.

The page of composition ideas shown on the right was done in oil on ordinary brown paper, brushed with shellac.  I taped off the rectangles in a 4:5 ratio for a later 12” x 16” canvas.  The sketches are only about 4” wide. Use a big brush and leave the details out.  Several of these will result in paintings later on.  This type of exercise, done on a cheap, non-permanent surface, is so liberating.  You’ll find that ideas begin to flow.

“Lunch Hunt” by Joe Anna Arnett
Oil on mounted linen –  12” x 16”  
One of the little sketches developed further.

Think about it when you wake in the morning.  What can I do to live preppy today?  Take a sketchbook on my walk?  Make notes of interesting ideas?  Take time to keep my skills at performance level?  Make preparatory drawings and studies?  Think it out.  Prepare and then go for it with great gusto knowing that you are prepared for success.

Nice going, Preppy!

 

 

 

 

 

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