Archive for the ‘Artist’s Process’ Category

Sketchbook: No Direction

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012
Sketch Study of Woman in perspective

Sketch of Woman in perspective

Direction is a strange thing.

Sometimes it’s there, and sometimes it’s not.

Lately, it’s been… not.

Usually I have the opposite problem: all direction, no time or energy. I still have no time, but I’ve had the energy, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to apply it.

When I start work on a new woodblock print, I know what the image is going to be. I always know before I even start drafting the image what it is going to be. My preparatory sketches are a chance to work out the details, but the main idea is there when I begin.

The imagery isn’t floating around my brain right now though. I’ve got the energy to carve up some blocks, but the usual imagery isn’t floating around up in my head.

When I get like this, the answer is just to start drawing. The image at the right is a little sketch to try to work out a seed of an idea. There might be a tree that can grow out of that seed eventually, but not now. I drew it to see if there was something in that image that felt right to me, something I would want to make a finished piece with.

There wasn’t.

Below is a sheet from my sketch pad that is just a smattering of ideas on the same page. Nothing significant, just a few ideas to see if there is some imagery hidden in one of those ideas that I can extract for a print.

Sketchbook page

Depicting the regression to jets.

There was nothing there.

I’ve learned that when I regress to drawing jets, that the imagery I’m working with isn’t going anywhere.

Nothing wrong with jets, they just don’t sop up my creative juices in the way I am looking for.

Also, when I say “there’s nothing there”, what I mean is that the images in the sketches don’t hold any emotional resonance for me. They don’t make me feel anything, other than “that might be interesting”. To me, if “interesting” is the only emotion that an image evokes, that image is not good enough.

So, I go to an old stand by, I draw myself.

sketch of myself on a couch

Yours truly on a couch

This is a nice little pencil study, but there isn’t any juice in this. It may look ok, but there isn’t anything in this image that makes it interesting, or provides a vehicle for meaning.

This is gonna need more work. What do I do?

Actually, I do know what to do. This “woe is me, I am without direction” post is just a set up. I know exactly what to do, and I’ll let you know, just as soon as it’s done.


Monday, October 17th, 2011


My order of paper from McClain’s arrived packed in enough cardboard to make a fort.

So I did.

Current project’s hanging there in the background.

That’s all.

Why, yes, I have been hiding from the internet under a rock

Thursday, August 12th, 2010




hiding under rock drawing

The internet is rather tricky

Engineer vs. Artist Smackdown for Control of My Mind

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

The more work I do as an engineer, the less work I do as an artist.

I do, essentially, have two jobs.

From 8-5, Monday through Friday, I am a Mechanical Engineer, licensed by the State of California and everything.

I design very practical things in practical ways. If you ever go to the bathroom in Yosemite Valley, your waste most likely leaves the valley through my pump station. A few of you might drink tap water from plants I helped design and build.

Right now I’m busy designing the replacement heating, cooling, and ventilation systems for a large helicopter repair hangar. Last time I was at the hangar it was full of partially disassembled Blackhawk helicopters. Cool!

When I say “busy”, I really mean “really busy”. I took Saturday off last weekend, but was in the office for 13 hours on Sunday. The weekend before I put in about 25 hours between Saturday morning and Sunday night.

Deadlines are keeping me this busy, I have a lot to get done, and not quite enough time to do it all. Still, It needs to get done. Not doing it isn’t really an option.

For the last few weeks, my mind has been calculating pressure losses, looking up electrical load data, sizing ducts, and drafting equipment details.

It is left brain work, and when I get home, I have nothing left, and nothing goes right.

There’s a painting I started 3 weeks ago sitting on my work bench next to my desk. The paint on my pallette has grown a thick skin that I will have to eventually scrape off.

Every day, I look at this painting, and then think about how I should work on it, and I am neglecting it. I just can’t wrap my head around it though.

I can’t wrap my head around how to apply paint to the canvas right now, I can’t think about the risks I take with presentation when I paint, or the emotional resonance I may be trying to capture.

It’s a good thing, that I’m stuck in my left brain right now. I need my left brain, at least until the end of the day when this project submittal goes out.

I don’t just get stuck in left field though. The same thing happens on the right.

When I start digging into art, and get deep into my right brain activities, I have a hard time switching gears to crank out some rough and dirty engineering work. My job suffers when I am productive at night making art.

It’s quite a conundrum!

I think that the answer is to focus on the more “left-brained” stuff during the week. I can prepare paper, edition prints, even print during the week, keeping it nice and left. No creative stuff though. No image development, no painting, no “artsy” stuff. Keep it analytical.

Friday night, switch gears and swing out to the right for the weekend, and let myself hang out in that mode for two and a half days.

I think I have been trying to switch gears too fast, faster than I am naturally capable of.

Anyway, I’ll test this out, and see how it works for me.

Three Insights about Deliberate Practice and Art

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

This is a rather “practical” blog post, just an update on what I’ve been doing. No mushy gushy fun stuff today, just practical nuts and bolts about improving drawing skillz. I’ve been doubling down on this Deliberate Practice thing, spending an hour drawing most nights, this is an update.

I don’t exactly know how Deliberate Practice works, and I’m not going to pretend that I do. I’m not going to write about it with authority when I’m not really an authority on the subject (despite the rules of Blogistan). Eventually, if I keep up my practice, I will have authority on this subject matter, at least with regard to the practice of Fine Art creation.

I’ve said before, and I still believe, drawing is the most important creative skill for an artist. Artistic skill begins with drawing skill, and is capped by drawing skill.

So I want more drawing skillz, please.

While before I just drew, with no plan other than to draw, now I am following a plan. I bought a drawing instruction book, Keys to Drawing to work through. The book has 50 or so exercises meant to develop certain skills. I have worked through the first 6 in the last week, all of which have focused on observation, and recreating what I see into lines and shapes.

So far, I can’t say whether I recommend the book or not, but having a list of exercises has been helpful. I don’t have to think about what to draw, I just have to do the work.

I’ve had some realizations about Deliberate Practice, I have some tips, observations, etc.

First, having a plan works. Well. The first guideline of Deliberate Practice is that it is specifically designed to improve performance. I bought the drawing book mentioned above to fill this requirement. The book is, after all, specifically designed to improve performance. It may not be the best course for me specifically, but it is, in general, designed to improve skill. If I had a drawing instructor, I might get a better program, but I’m pretty sure that any program is more important than no program.

Second, I have to set a timer. If I plan to draw for one hour, I have to set a timer for one hour and work until the timer goes off. Watching a clock doesn’t work, setting the timer does. The process of setting the timer commits me to what I am doing for the time I commit to doing it. Something about it just works. Timers may be the most valuable productivity tool on the planet.

Third, I’m getting worse. This one was unexpected. As I’ve been working through this book, I feel like I’ve been getting worse and worse at drawing. For example:

two sketches of vegetables, side by side

The tomatos on the left were drawn months ago, before I was following any course of practice. The pepper on the right was drawn last weekend, as a drawing exercise from Keys to Drawing

The drawing on the left was done a few months ago, before I implemented any structure to my drawing practice. The drawing on the right was done last weekend as part of my structured practice. I think the tomato on the left “looks better” than than the pepper on the right.

The tomato on the left, however, was drawn the way I usually draw, and have drawn for years. I just applied the skills I already had as best I could. When I drew the pepper on the right, I was looking at the pepper differently, because I was instructed to, and attempted to depict different things about the pepper, and in different ways. In other words, I was using different skills, and different ways to draw, that aren’t as well developed as my “usual” way of drawing.

The big realization for me is that by getting a little worse, I probably am actually getting better. The new skills that I learn,and work to implement into my skill set, aren’t as developed as other skills, so when I use them, it seems like I am worse.

Follow My Progress

I created a set in my account, check out Sean’s Deliberate Practice Flickr Set, and follow along as I update it. I include a short description of each exercise with each of the drawings I upload.

Are you implementing Deliberate Practice into your routine? What are you doing? How are you doing it?

Deliberate Practice in Art and Drawing(Revisited)

Friday, June 25th, 2010

I’ve been thinking about deliberate practice in art a bit lately. I have time to revisit this, the spice mines aren’t taking as much of my time.

A little backstory, starting in late 2009. At the end of last year, I spent a while planning for 2010. I determined what I wanted to accomplish and how I was going to accomplish it. I had a plan in place, and it was good. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy“, however, and the new year saw me loaded up with work at DayJob. A lot of work (so much I only had a little time to send out a dispatch from the spice mines every now and then).

Things have shifted again, I’m still busy, but not so much that I’m working nights and weekends. My Utah trip was at a folcrum point. When I returned, work wasn’t requiring all my time like it had been for the first several months of the year.

I have time to dedicate to my art, but I don’t have a discipline of practice or schedule in place to make the most of it. Hence, time to revisit Deliberate Practice.

Deliberate Practice One Hour A Day

I’m going to mash 3 ideas together –

First, I want to revisit the idea of doing my most important activity for 1 hour every day. Drawing is the fundamental skill of art. If I am not improving as a draftsman, why should I bother?

Second, I want to create a clear program to improve my drawing ability. I just read Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath (of Made To Stick fame). The book is alright, but the topic is fascinating to me: how do people change? In the book, they focus on three ways to create change: our mind must know what to do, our emotions must be positive, and our environment must facilitate the change. 

Emotion? Check. I’m pretty motivated. Environment? Check. My apartment is filled with art supplies and places to draw. Clear plan in place? Che.. er, hmm. Maybe I’ll just, uh… draw something? Often, my hang up to drawing is, “what am I going to draw?” It is not a hard decision to make, but just having to make the decision makes the process harder. I am shopping for jam, and there are too many choices*.

What I need is a clear plan of study, so that when I sit down to draw for an hour every day, I don’t have to think about what to work on, I just continue with the plan. I just got one of those 33% off coupons for Borders, my plan is to buy a drawing instruction book on my way home from work today. I hope this will provide the type of structure that I am looking for, so I don’t have to deal with paralysis of analysis.

That said, if anyone has a suggestion for an intermediate to advanced drawing book, please don’t hold out on me. Leave a comment with a suggestion. 

Third, Deliberate Practice. As a refresher, here are the characteristics of deliberate practice:

  1. It is designed specifically to improve performance
  2. It can be repeated, a lot
  3. Feedback is continuously available
  4. It is mentally demanding
  5. Typically, it is not that fun

I think this plan will hit all of these cylinders.


I was talking to my dear friend Ivana last night, I told her about my usual routine of working a bit in the morning, going to the DayJob all day, then working again in the evening. She pointed out it is rather a lot to do.

I started thinking about my motivation, because the productivity I am shooting for goes against the common view of what is “balanced”.

I think that what motivates me is imagining myself in 10 years, looking back at what I did over those years. I want to show that I accomplished something, grew my abilities, and did something.

The only way to do that is to work. A lot.



The example of too much jam is from an often cited study in which shoppers were first shown a display of 6 flavors of jam in a grocery store. The number of sales were recorded, then the display was modified to show 24 flavors of jam. They sold less jam when there were more options, the conclusion is the more choices we have, the more difficult it is to make any choice at all.

Click here to go back up.

Dispatch: Coloring Ductwork And Understanding Problems

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

I got to work this morning and found this on my desk:

engineering drawings

Ductwork Layout in a building, color coded for clarity

Turns out I made this the day before. By the time I was finishing this, around hour 12, I wasn’t taking a bird’s-eye view of what I had done.

I got to work, saw it all laid out in front of me and thought it looked kinda neat. After all, it is kinda neat. My supervisor walked by this morning and said, “Ooooh, pretty”.

It’s ductwork. Pretty ductwork. Green and blue are supply ducts, Red is return and exhaust ducts.

The color coding helps me wrap my head around what is what. I’m retrofitting an existing building, and what I need to design depends on what is already there. It’s a lot to keep track of, color-coding helps me keep track of it. What you see above is one floor on one half of the building. It’s a big job. Sometimes it feels bigger than my mind.

I get sucked into this type of work. I can do it for hours on end.

It is soothing, in its own way. Each new duct I color in adds to my understanding. I assembled this puzzle in my mind throughout the day, adding piece after piece, until I understood how all the pieces fit together. I know what each piece does, and how the new pieces that I have been tasked with adding have to fit into this overall system.

Understanding calms me down. It helps me focus, and once I have understanding, I know how to proceed to complete the task.

Most problems have simple solutions, once you know what the problem is.

The tricky part, the part that may require days of coloring in ductwork, is fully understanding the problem.

Dispatches from the Spice Mines

Monday, April 19th, 2010
pencil sketch of cubicles

Pencil Sketch, dispatched from the Spice Mines

The best laid paths cannot pass through a brick wall in the way.

I had a path set out for myself. I spent the first weekend in January planning 2010. A painting every week! A new woodblock edition every month!

I had an assumption built into those plans, I would not be too busy at the Spice Mines in 2010. I would be just busy enough to keep on working, but not so busy that I would have to commit an extra amount of focus to the job.

Those plans have flown out the window as this year progressed. The Spice Mines have gotten spicier and spicier over the last few months, and now, after already working plenty of nights and weekends, I see myself spending even more time in Chateau Spice.

I’ve been fighting it and fighting it, regular readers have seen my posts about being behind at work or how to focus after a long day of work.

I’ve been fighting it, trying to figure out how to work hard all day, then come home, shift gears, and make beautiful art at night.

Luckily I have good friends, friends who not only help me sort this stuff out, but that prompt me to sort it out for myself as well. My buddy Dave teaches people stuff, how to blog being what he is publicly known for. He teaches other stuff too, like how to get your head right, but that tends to be in our private conversations.

Yesterday Dave called, “what you up to today?” and I had no idea. My plans had fallen so far behind, that once I got a goodness gracious free day to work on art, I didn’t know what to do with it. He told me to come over later in the day, and we’d set stuff straight. He bought me tacos too, and I very much appreciate those as well.

As I did laundry, cleaned my apartment, read some comics, and took a nap, I got to thinking about my situation, cuz I knew Dave and I would be hashing it out later. Big revelation, fighting my situation is the hardest part. I realized a little emotional jujitsu may be in order, and instead of trying to work against my need to double down on the DayJob, I should use that as the fuel.

I’ll probably do that. You’re probably gonna see a lot of art and drawings about being at work and stuff for the next few months. You probably won’t see much promotion or sales stuff here either. I figured out I have time to make art, or I have time to sell art.

Not both.

I’m opting to make art.

Too Busy To Work (or, why TV is so popular)

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

When the DayJob piles on the work, it doesn’t just eat up on time, it eats up on energy and motivation.

I’ve been wrestling with the DayJob lately, they have been loading me up with work. It hasn’t started to push into my free time yet (though I see that coming), but it has sapped a lot of my energy and focus.

When I started this crazy art venture, I wasn’t overloaded at work. Every now and then I would have to work late to catch up, but it was infrequent. Now, however, I have a constant, heavy, stressful load of work.

By the time I get home from work at 6pm, after stressing about the 3 jobs I have due in the next 2 weeks to 2 months, as well as the “gotta have it now” emergency work that gets thrown my way, I am mentally drained. I am not in a mental position to focus on writing, editing audio or video, and most of all, art, which requires plenty of focus.

I am not one of those crazy powerhouses of energy that can go and go and go.

Is it just me?

I have a feeling that a lot of jobs are like this, and a lot of people’s lives are like this. Fresh in the morning, drained in the evening. I hear this from my coworkers, later in the afternoon, their brain is fried, they can’t focus on stuff anymore, and not much gets done.

By the time work is over, and the commute home is complete, there isn’t much energy left for mush else. Food. Booze. TV. It’s not that I don’t have time to work for a few hours in the evening, it’s that I don’t have the capacity to work in the evening.

Most evenings, when I get home from work, I want a big plate of food, a few beers or glasses of wine, and to sit and blither out watching TV or some movie. I don’t even like TV (except Lost, that show is tha bomb), but it feels good after a long day at work. It feels like I am relaxing and more so, recovering.

I really believe this is why TV is so popular. It’s not what’s on TV, but what everyone does all day before they watch TV. There isn’t much left upstairs for anything else after slaving away.

So… what to do about it?

After all, I want the fire back. I wake up with it, and it is dim by the end of the day.

Honestly, I’m not sure.

I’ve been cranking up my diet, eating healthier foods, that helps.

I give myself my best time, ie. the morning. I just have to teach myself how to wake up early on a consistent basis.

I think that adding physical exercise to the mix will help. I may start doing some sort of physical activity first thing when I get home. I’ll try this out and see how it goes.

What about you? Do you have any secrets about how to recharge after a long stressful day of slaving in the spice mines? I’d like to hear it. I haven’t solved this one yet.

I will solve this one. It is just going to take some work, practice, problem solving, and trial and error.

I’m a Printmaker, Not an Artist

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Artists get show horned together, as if we are all the same.

It doesn’t matter what subject or what medium, society thinks we are pretty much all the same thing.

Painter, sculpture, illustrator, printer, photographer, all the same.

Luckily I don’t remember specifically who I am going to pick on next, it was someone in Blogistan, or on the Twitter Show. This person was pimping out their “art training”, and from what I could see, all artists got the same training.

We’re not the same though. The skillz required to create a great painting are quite different from the skills required to make a great sculpture. Illustration, yet other skillz. Printmaking? Forgeddaboudit.

There are some basic skills that each of these different types of artists must have, but after those skills are worked out, the skills become wildly different.

I got to thinking that an artists medium is sorta like being a specific type of engineer. Nobody would offer the same training to both a Mechanical Engineer and a Structural Engineer.

A little digress, In the Spice Mines (my term of affection for my DayJob), I am an Engineer. A Mechanical Engineer in fact. I work with Electrical Engineers, Structural Engineers, Civil Engineers, and Architects (sigh) on a regular basis.

We all had the same foundation training in math and science, but the details of what we know are very different. I know enough about each of these to get by (480 volt 3 phase! #5 @ 12″ on center!), but the specialization between fields of engineering is rather different.

Electrical Engineers are concerned with voltages, power, and signal; Mechanical engineers concern themselves with pressure loss and heat gain; Structural Engineers think about shear stress and moments; architects concern themselves with getting their latte right.

Nobody would offer the same training to each of these types of engineers.

Why, as artists, are we offered the same training, wrapped as “artist training”?

I think it is because we think of ourselves as artists first, and our medium second. Contrast this with engineers, who think of them self as an Electrical or Mechanical Engineer first, and an engineer in general second.

I’d like to see artists identify with their medium first, and as an artist second.

“Artist” has too much stigma. Too much baggage.

“Artist” doesn’t capture the very different skills required to produce very different art.

I am a printmaker. I am a painter. Sometimes, an illustrator. I am not a sculpture, or a photographer.

Does this make me an artist? I guess, but after the above, that is just a trifle.