February 17, 2010

The Squirrels’ Birdfeeder Breakfast Buffet

Two squirrels eating sunflower seeds at the base of a tree in the grass
The Squirrels Birdfeeder Breakfast Buffet. Susan K Donley, 2009. Engraved clayboard with ink (scratchboard), 14×11 inches. ©2009 Susan K Donley. Backyard Wildlife Series

No bird feeder is complete without a clean-up crew of squirrels sifting through scattered hulls for the occasional sunflower seed. I saw these Eastern Gray Squirrels feasting under a bird feeder early one spring morning last year. The low, raking angle of the sunlight caught their fur coats and made them positively glow against the shadow cast by the trunk of the tree right behind them. Very soon, the sun moved on and the effect was gone leaving the squirrels to finish their breakfast in the shade, but not before I grabbed my camera to record the dramatic lighting. It inspired this painting in my Backyard Wildlife Series.

Squirrels are a perfect subject for scratchboard with their coats of gray variegated with black and brown. Click on the image here to go to a larger view. Then mouse-over to reveal a close-up of one of the squirrels showing the fine engraved lines depicting his fur. The white clay’s high reflectivity (compared to paper) really makes the glow, which pops them forward from the background.

Learn more about scratchboard here. See more artwork from the Backyard Wildlife Series.

October 27, 2008

Artist avatars: The 50-pixel self-portrait

Lisa Stewart, a Net-savvy artist and designer has posted an excellent blog entry “Brand YOU: Your Avatar (Part 2)” on the art of the avatar, how important these tiny self-portraits are to online branding for artists, and how to improve artist avatars. Check out part 1 also!

Prompted by Lisa’s call for examples of creative avatars, I combed my Flickr contacts for some that I thought expressed their owner’s art and make you want to click through to their photostream:

944A2F16-538A-44E8-8F3F-D9197EC40C20.jpg 2C4CEBB9-ADDC-4BBD-9F0B-CD5F2CF78F2F.jpg 01D50560-DAF4-49AB-A5F3-FCB575A7CBF9.jpg 8B0DE435-5EE6-48CE-8AE8-5C41206DEF69.jpg C2761314-9ACE-4FC4-9E87-C92AEB42B09D.jpg

donley_sq_icon.jpgMy avatar is a simple reduction of a normal-sized (8×8 inches) graphite self-portrait I did a couple of years ago from a candid photo. After reading Lisa’s excellent blog post about taking, choosing, and creating a creative avatar, I’m going to be re-thinking mine. All that detail doesn’t reduce well and I’ve been told the pose isn’t the most flattering to me (heck, I liked it because it didn’t look “fat”! ;-) Another project for January, after the holiday rush!

August 5, 2008

Concentration or Automation: What do you think about when you draw?

Close-up of easel showing graphite drawing and scratchboard

A visitor to my booth last weekend asked a very interesting question: “When you draw, do you have to concentrate, or it is automatic for you?” I answered her then, but have continued to think about it since: Meta-thinking about thinking while drawing, I guess!

My answer to my visitor’s question:I concentrate, thinking harder at critical points, like sketching in all the features; not as hard during more repetitive tasks, like texturing and shading. But its not verbal thinking: “Now its time to draw the eyes: first draw a circle for the pupil, then the iris, now the eyelid…”

Rather, I think visually, following a line with my eyes while my hand tracks the same line on paper. I look for the shape of “empty space” between parts of a face. I compare the lightness and darkness of colors to match them with my shading pencil strokes. None of this happens with words, which often get in the way.

My thoughts since then:I easily get totally absorbed in doing art, to the point of not being aware someone is talking to me. Or that several hours has passed.When demonstrating drawing in front of a class, invariably my voice trails off partway through. It’s nearly impossible to maintain verbal communication while focusing [ahem] intently on producing art. Betty Edwards noted this phenomenon 25 years ago in her classic book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

I’ve had entire classes of elementary kids go totally silent 15 minutes into a art lesson while working intently on their art. I’ve never been a subscriber to the “noisy artroom” philosophy, for the very reason that it’s impossible to focus, but never found it necessary to enforce silence if students were motivated and engaged.

Yet I enjoy listening to audiobooks and podcasts while working on my art, just as I enjoy listening when I drive. But when it comes time to do something tricky, like parallel parking or driving through an unfamiliar city, I turn off the audio, so I can concentrate.

Similarly, if I’m several hours into a drawing and things are going well as I repetitively build up texture and shading, I can listen in on a conversation and even mumble a few words. But for a full-fledged conversation, I have to stop — I can’t pay close attention to someone talking and drawing at the same time. No wonder — what’s the most important thing we do to show someone we’re listening? Make eye contact! Can’t do that while drawing!What do you think about when drawing? Any chance of doing art on autopilot?

July 21, 2008

A real peek over my shoulder – Easel at the Farm Festival


The forecast on June 28 predicted rain all day with 60-70% chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon and evening. Perfect day for a booth at Maggie’s Organics Farm Festival, eh? ;-)

Well, despite a lot wind on top of the mountain and in between several short downpours, it turned out to be a pretty nice day after all. Too bad the crowds listened to the weather forecast and (apparently) chose other ways to spend their Saturday!

It was nice to meet the other vendors, enjoy wonderful organic, vegan fare, and get a chance to work out in the fresh air. Here you can literally see over my shoulder the two pieces of art I demonstrated that day. On the top is a graphite portrait of mixed breed dog Smokey.

On the bottom I’m beginning to engrave a Sun Conure (parrot) onto Claybord Black. It’s a technique in need of an image consultant: The usual term “Scratchboard,” unfortunately conjures up artwork rescued from the trash or elementary school art projects using crayon and tempera paint! The grown-up technique, however, allows tremendous detail and vibrant color. I’m just starting to work with it.

Stay tuned for some finished examples — I especially love doing birds this way.

January 5, 2008

In Memory of Samson, Golden Retriever

Memorial Portrait of Samson, Golden RetrieverMemorial Portrait of Samson, Golden Retriever, Susan Donley, 2007. Oil Pastel, 9×12 inches. Commissioned Portrait, Private Collection.

Samson’s human dad Joe Mannato called me the day Samson died to commission this portrait. It touched me to become such an integral part of someone’s mourning process.

Besides capturing that winning Golden smile, the challenge with this portrait was to render the wonderful over- and under-tones that make Golden Retriever coats so beautiful. How do these dogs manage to be blonds and redheads simultaneously? It’s Golden magic!

Joe wrote me……on seeing the approval scan I emailed him:

Oh Sue you brought tears to my eyes, it is so incredible. This is a gift tome, so go ahead and post it on your website [before Christmas]. Thank you sooooooo much.  

And after he received the real thing in the mail:

Sue the portrait is amazing! Thank you so much, you brought tears to my ears. I can never truly express how I feel in words.     

I hope the portrait has helped Joe in the healing process by bringing back warm memories of this beautiful dog.

Art details: Sennelier oil pastel on Art Spectrum tinted primed pastel paper. Oil pastel with solvent under-painting.

November 15, 2007

Survivor Reaching for the Light

Painting of blooming dandelion growing between bricks

“Survivor Reaching for the Light,” Susan Donley, 2007. Colored pencil and Neocolor II on 9×12 inch Pastelbord.

I’ve always been a dandelion fan, from the days when I picked bouquets of them for my mom. The very thing I love most about them — their ability to grow and thrive anywhere — is exactly what puts them on lawn fanatics’ “Most Wanted” list. Give them a tablespoon of dirt and they’ll put down roots, send up shoots, and push their sunny blossoms skyward! Every time I see a dandelion making a go of it from a crack in a sidewalk, I can’t help but smile at their optimism and determination.

Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer at the height of dandelion season. From the moment I heard those words, “It’s cancer” to my surgery three weeks later, my heart never left my throat. My bone-chilling fear eased only when I took walks around the neighborhood. The neighborhood birds reminded me that “His Eye is On Sparrow.” The neighborhood dandelions were in full bloom, the perfect parable of survival, growing in lawns, through weed-smothering mulch, and out of cracks in the road. They not only survived, they thrived!

One particularly determined survivor spoke to me from our neighbor’s steps. Growing in dense shade in a crack in the mortar between the bricks, its profuse blooms reached out to the sunlight that only appeared a short few hours out of the day. What a symbol of hope! I took several photos of it, though I hardly need the photos to conjure its image from my mind, it has become such a part of me by now.

When Ann Kullberg announced that dandelions were the theme for her Member Theme Show this year, I had to honor my dandelion co-survivor! I took the opportunity to try the new technique of working with colored pencil over an underpainting with Neocolor 2 on Pastelbord.

During the close observation that drawing demands, I realized this dandelion, was actually two different plants of different species. I think there’s a potent lesson to be learned in that, as well!

November 5, 2007

Drawing pets from life

I’m often asked “Do you actually draw pets from life?” by pet lovers who wonder what my secret must be to keeping a dog or cat still for the hours it takes to finish a portrait. The only magic I employ for long sittings is the magic of photography. It’s hard enough to get a pet to stay still long enough to take a photo, much less to do a portrait!

gesture sketch of poodle eating boneI do draw from life, but the detailed drawings drawings I’m known for are not the result (they take 8-10 hours to do)! When I draw from life, I try to capture the lively movement that would drive me crazy if my goal were a detailed portrait. In these sketches (called “gesture drawings” by the artists, for obvious reasons) I quickly try to follow the movement of the animal with the movement of my hand without letting my brain interfere too much. No erasing — I just leave the lines be to record the action. I love looking back at these sketches, since they trigger vivid movie-memories of the live action.

These two drawings of my Standard Poodle Rosie record her chewing a raw knuckle bone with great gusto right beside my desk chair.

gesture sketch of poodle eating boneI don’t expect anyone else to appreciate them (that’s not the point) and they usually stay snug in my sketchbook. I’m surprised that occasionally someone does respond to them, which made me decide to post some of my favorites here from time to time. If you don’t “get” them, ignore — it’s like trying to read someone else’s notes. If you do “get” them, enjoy!

February 13, 2007

Mini-art experiment: Combining graphite and scratchboard

Rosie's First Night Home
This was a fun little experiment! After admiring all the scratchboard work on Ampersand’s Clayboard, I picked up a free sample at the art store. In my graphite drawings, to make soft lines, I can always use the eraser to draw with to lift graphite from the paper. But I always have to plan ahead when it comes to fine, sharp white lines. Before I even begin to apply pencil, I incise fine lines into the paper with a sharp point (I like small knitting needles for this job). If I’m careful not to “bruise” the paper with too much pressure on the pencil, the lines stay below the surface of the paper and stay white. That’s the secret to white whiskers on drawings like this Cocker Spaniel or this Havana Brown Cat.

So, the scratchboard drawings on clayboard made me jealous of the ease of being able to make fine white lines anytime during the drawing. I wondered if the clayboard had enough tooth for graphite — paper has to grab the graphite particles and hold onto them. if you’ve ever tried to write in pencil on slick magazine pages (whose slickness comes from the same clay coating on clayboard), you’ll know why I had my doubts. I hadn’t heard of anyone using graphite on clayboard, but, I figured, what the heck: Why not give it a try on the free sample I had?

I chose my favorite, but most challenging, subject, my black Standard Poodle Rosie (when she was a puppy). That black, curly coat is so tempting to draw, but so hard to capture details and highlights hidden in the layers of black, very black, dark black, dark dark black, and black-hole black! Wouldn’t it be great to combine the subtle shading of graphite with the sharp detail of scratchboard? But could I get the darks dark enough on the slick clayboard?

I was pleasantly surprised at the results, displayed here in close to actual size (about 3×6 inches). The slickness of the board emphasized the texture of each pencil stroke — both a feature and a bug, depending on whether the subject is a Poodle or a Doberman. The scratchboard lines were a lot of fun to do and really make the highlights pop in a way that would be hard to duplicate on paper. Meanwhile, I could still use pencil techniques that would be difficult in standard solid black scratchboard. It was promising enough that I plan to experiment further. Stay tuned…

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Random peek into my sketchbook