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Mural of an F-16 painted in a Barracks Common Room

Three Habits of Highly-Effective Artists

Because we paint a lot of custom work at Baron Air, buyers often want me to critique their homemade designs.  Some of the designs are good and some are not so good.  The good ones are a pleasure to work with.  The ‘not so good’ ones can become challenging.    I think of an individual’s artistic ability the way I think of a person’s singing ability.  Basically everyone with a voice can sing.  Some people should never (ever) sing; but that’s a small number.  Most people can sing to varying levels.  Furthermore, many people show a talent for singing and, in fact, could sing very well if they had the proper training.  I believe most people could draw and paint very well if they practiced these three basic art habits:

Habit 1) Keep the Main Subject the Main Subject

1986 Harley Softtail Oil Painting by Ric Esrey

1986 Harley Softtail Oil Painting by Ric Esrey

If, in the middle of my discussion about art facts, I started talking to you about cream cheese, Oreo cookie balls, you’d probably say, “Time out.  What does that have to do with art?”  The same thing happens in a painting.  For instance, in the 1980s, I painted a mural of an F-16 fighter jet.  The buyer loved the finished mural but he asked if I could add a fighter pilot in the lower corner.  I said “yes” but I really wanted to say “no.”  Unfortunately, I would have to do more than just add a person to the bottom corner.  I actually had to repaint the F-16 to ‘remove the details.’  Instead of the main focal point, the F-16 had to become the background for the new main subject, the pilot.  The motorcycle painting, at the left,  is a better example of this technique.  You should have no issue identifying the subject of this painting as a Harley Davidson motorcycle.  Here are the steps I used to find the main subject of this painting:  a) Exaggerate the contrasts around the main subject.  b) Sharpen the focus by careful rendering and increasing the detail of just the subject.  If needed, you can blur the background elements.  c) Use more textural effects and intense colors around the main subject.  Naturally, you’ll have to apply these devices more or less stringently depending on your painting.  For example, strong lighting or intense colors may already provide enough contrast to bring out your focal point.

Habit 2) Color Appropriately

Fire and Ice Wolves Detail

Fire and Ice Wolves Detail

There is a difference between painting a cartoon and painting a realistic scene.  For example, the picture of the Fire and Ice Wolves is still a cartoon even though I painted realistic details.  The reason is because I didn’t worry about color temperature.  Anything goes in a cartoon.

For a realistic scene, you need to compare temperatures.  For example, on a sunlit day, colors in the light will have varying amounts of red or yellow.  Shadows will appear cool, which would look blue, purple, or grey.  Most importantly, the first few colors you use will affect the look of later colors.  So look at your subject (or your reference photos) and ask yourself:  a) What are the main colors?  b) Are they cool or are they warm?  c) Are they bright or are they dull?  In general terms, if you want your overall painting to feel vibrant and bright, emphasize the warm colors.  If you want the overall look to appear calm and moody, add more of the cool colors.  If you’re painting a cartoon, don’t worry about it.

Habit 3) Use Varying Edges and Gradients

Terry Hill shows how to use a stencil

Terry Hill shows how to use a stencil

An artist needs the ability to produce hard edges and soft gradients.  You use hard edges when a form changes abruptly, for instance when a building turns a corner.  You need soft gradients within the subject to give it form.  The gradients help you make something look three-dimensional.  In a strategic sense, use the hardest edges around your center of interest.  This is also where you would use the highest contrast gradients.  You would use soft, or indistinct, edges and less-intense gradients for more distant  or background elements.

When I painted using a brush and acrylic paints, I discovered that producing hard edges was easy.  It was more challenging to paint gradient tones.  The opposite is true when using an airbrush.  The airbrush is great at producing soft values.  Yet, you need stencils, templates or masks to make truly hard edges.  Of course I can’t cut templates and masks for every shirt I airbrush.  That would take too long.  Instead, I use ancient airbrushing techniques that I learned in the 1980s to make hard lines.  For instance, I can airbrush a relatively hard line by keeping the tip close to the shirt and using a quick stroke.  Also, I prefer to paint on black shirts because I can easily cover any overspray (which makes edges look soft) with black paint.

Even though you need the skill to produce the different edges and gradients, it is equally important to recognize them.  Only careful observation will help you understand where to use hard and soft edges and where to use gradient tones.

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