Things I Learned from an Artichoke

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”

-Earnest Hemingway

For many, these are unprecedented times. While most of us have read about the past when resources have been limited due to things like war, poverty, and supply and storage issues, many of us have never experienced ‘not having’ things with any great significance. We have been fortunate to grow up during a time in history when resources are readily available, be it food, supplies, or communication. But the past two years have somewhat changed that.

For the first time in many of our lives, we have had to ‘do without’ on some levels. In addition to the cost of lives and socializing, the pandemic has also affected the flow of resources throughout the world and there have been few sectors that have been able to come through it (so far) unscathed. As each new wave occurs, new areas of the supply chain are disrupted, and while we all seem to be able to adjust pretty well to these types of shortages, there is little assurance that even these new levels of availability will last. My guess is they will probably fluctuate, as we aren’t quite to the other side of this yet.

I find it interesting how outraged people can get over being inconvenienced in some of the smallest things. Those who are used to having things immediately or within days or even hours after ordering them are perhaps for the first time having to wait weeks or even months for them to become available to be delivered. It doesn’t sit well with them and I have heard many horror stories regarding the treatment of customer service employees because of this. I am not talking about necessities, per se, but rather things that are somewhat taken for granted and items of comfort or convenience rather than need. It is sometimes hard to do without when you are used to having things readily available to you for most of your life. I suppose it is what we are used to.

But is ‘doing without’ really a bad thing?

Again, I am not referring to necessities like medicine, food, and things like that. I am talking about the fluff in our lives that we have come to enjoy and sometimes even take for granted. The things that are again – more for convenience than anything. The ‘wants’ rather than the ‘needs’.

I am probably going to get a lot of backlash from this next statement, but I think that there can be something positive that comes from the situation that I described above: Appreciation and resourcefulness. Appreciation because I think that society as a whole has really taken a lot for granted, and resourcefulness because we learn to use what we have and make things work for us when we are unable to obtain exactly what we want.

I am not going to get political about these issues, but rather I am going to apply them to the driving force in my life that affects me the most – my artwork. The other aspects of this are not what I wish to discuss here, as that will be for another place and time. I want to demonstrate how we can take a less than optimal situation and use it to our advantage to learn and grow as artists. After all – much of it is out of our control so we may as well try to adapt to the situation or we have no choice except to abandon doing something we love or be miserable. I choose to make it work for me and help me learn.

With that said, let’s get on to the artwork.

Just before Christmas, I acquired a beautiful set of M.Graham watercolor paint that I wanted to add to my arsenal of watercolor. I was watching Steve Mitchell from The Mind of Watercolor on YouTube (his channel is here: https://youtu.be/SbofGEIU7SA I don’t think I have an excessive amount of watercolor paint (do we ever think we do?) but when I saw Steve talk about his favorite basic colors, I knew I wanted to try this set. You can watch his video to see what the set is all about if you like.

When I began painting, it was with acrylics. That was many years ago and any of you who follow see that I have branched out to many other mediums. (I am allergic to oil paint and don’t use that at all.) Over the years, I have come to really love painting with watercolors. At first, it was because I wanted to ‘tame’ them, as they are by nature a little harder to control than acrylic paint. But as I used them more frequently, I realized that not only are they a very versatile medium (You CAN get realism from painting with them!) but also they are a great way to learn color theory and mixing. The result is not only instantaneous but also since you can re-wet watercolors and use them indefinitely, you can expand the palette infinitely and use every bit of paint. They are my favorite learning tool for color theory and color relationships and by using them and experimenting with them I feel I have become a much better artist.

I remember when I began painting and used instruction patterns and books to learn. I was using Delta paint at that time and it was available in probably 200 colors. I was focused on learning and wanted to follow the instructions of the patterns to the letter, and many times I would chase all over from store to store to find a particular color that the pattern called for. Many times, I would find when using it that it was only for a spot of color here or there, and looking back it seems like such a waste of time. It would have been much easier to just tone the color(s) I had. But I lacked the confidence to do so. Oh – to be 30 or so years younger and have the knowledge I have now! But that would take away the joy of the journey, wouldn’t it?

So as I learn and grow as an artist, I am learning just how FEW colors you need to make a beautiful painting. This fits right into the situation I opened this post with – the lack of available supplies and trying to make do with what we have. In this situation, knowledge really is power and while many don’t know it, they probably have just about everything they need right at hand to make just about anything. All we need to do is educate ourselves a little more and learn.

With the onset of springtime, I was looking for something botanical to paint in my small 13cm x 13cm Hahnemuhle Zigzag sketchbook (another Christmas gift.) I wanted to do something detailed, colorful, and intense so that I could just pull it out in the evening and pick at it for an hour or so after ‘work’ while I wind down with a cozy murder show (I love murder mysteries!) I was going through the botanical photos on Pixabay and came across this beautiful photo by Matthias Boeckel.

I loved the vibrant colors from this artichoke and truth being told, coming from a large city and not doing much gardening, I have never imagined that they started out with such beautiful and vibrant colors. My choice was made.

My “fantasy” self would have tried to tackle the entire photo as a painting, but (fortunately) the logical side of me decided that the photo had much too much going on for my purposes, so I isolated just one of the plants to do as my painting.

I have my Steve Mitchell set of paint set up in my favorite palette. It is a beautiful wooden palette with the plastic cubes that I showed in previous posts. The palette holds 24 paints, and I have 23 in it. Besides the 10-paint set from Steve, I have several of the colors that I use frequently with my classes from Maria Raczynska on Patreon (https://www.patreon.com/mariamorjane/) She is one of my go-to teachers for ‘loose’ style watercolors and I like to have some of her favorite colors handy. I decided that I wanted to try to paint this beautiful artichoke using as few colors as possible and mixing. (PS – Steve has lots of wonderful videos of mixing colors on his channel. I encourage you to check them out if you are interested.)

I began by looking at the photo very carefully to dissect what colors I would use. At this point, I try to think in ‘layers’ and figure out which tones and colors are present in each area and in which order to apply them. I began to apply very light washes of color, allowing each section to dry completely before adding over it. I skipped around and worked each section individually as if it was a separate piece.

After the overall base toning, I began at the top and worked on a couple of sections at a time (still skipping around) and I added layers of colors, treating each section as if it was its own painting.

After the third night of working on it, here is where I was:

And finally, I finished it last night:

The photos may be a little grainy because the picture is quite small – about 13cm square. But I wanted to show the detail that I did in a small space. The Hahnemuhle paper was the perfect choice for this type of painting – as it held the many, many layers that I applied in some areas without disintegrating. I was very impressed with it.

I wanted to show the final painting next to my reference:

While it is not ‘identical’, it is pretty close. Close enough for me.

The best thing about it is that I only used about SIX colors to make all these beautiful shades!

This is the remains of what is left on my palette. You can see that I was able to create a full range of tones and shades using very few colors. The colors meshed so well with each other because they were really made from the same two or three mixes. You just ‘lean’ one way or the other to get more of one tone or another. Once you get the hang of it, it really is “Easy/peasy” and you will wonder why you ever did things differently.

I will admit, this is one of those “I wish I knew . . . ” moments that would have saved me a fortune in paint. But then again – what fun would that be? As I mentioned, I really don’t have that many watercolor paints compared to many that I have seen many own. But I will say that if someone is looking for a really decent start-up set of colors, Steve’s set of 10 paints is an excellent start. I highly recommend it for those who are looking to learn some color theory and not have to pay a fortune for excellent quality paint.

I think the best part of learning basic color theory is that you can apply this knowledge to just about any medium you work with. As I said, working with watercolors gives us instant results. You can see how the colors you are mixing work together immediately and adjust them accordingly. Even though there are color charts and color wheels to assist you, actually working with the colors and pigments truly is the best teacher. Nothing can replace personal experience.

As a result, you will find yourself using fewer colors and perhaps running to the store less. Once you see how mixing colors yourself is not only easier but also makes your paintings more cohesive, you will wonder why you were so stressed over getting every single color under the sun. I find that some of the paint companies seem to enjoy discontinuing some colors and introducing ‘new’ colors every year, only to bring back very similar colors that they pulled a few years previous. It is very difficult to keep up with them – especially now that the supply chains have issues.

So I guess I learned a great deal from painting this artichoke. I learned that they can come in beautiful colors. I also learned so much while trying to replicate the colors and was able to achieve them by mixing just six different colors together. I learned that being patient and allowing the layers to dry completely allows us to kind of see through the layers and recognize each independent color as opposed to them mixing together. And most of all, I learned that you do not need a lot of colors and supplies to make a beautiful, colorful painting. Probably my biggest reward was when one of my friends mentioned how ‘colorful’ the piece turned out. I was very proud to mention that I only needed six colors.

Will learning to mix colors solve all of your supply chain issues?

I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that. But I will say that it will help alleviate a great deal of stress you may be experiencing when painting – especially when you are painting a project following someone else’s pattern.

The freedom you get from mixing and adjusting your own colors grows exponentially each time you do it. Even if you make a mistake and come up with an undesirable result, the mere act of trying will stick with you and you will learn from it. Either way, you win.

I had a busy week and am nearly done with the next bird in my Songbird Ornament series that I have been designing. I should have more on that in my next post. I painted a pretty Goldfinch to go with the Eastern Bluebird and American Robin. All I have to do is finish up the pattern and it will be on my website soon. You can see the series here on my site: https://tolepaintingdesigns.com/

Thanks for stopping by and reading. I love sharing my process with you all. It is a large part of what makes creating so much fun.

I wish you all a great week ahead.

Until next time . . .

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Vera says:

    Great blog! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. beautiful work Sheila. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have to admit Sheila, that I have a tendency to buy the colours of paints that a pattern requires. When Iā€™m free handing a design myself I go with whatever I have on hand and try to mix colours to get the affect I need. I must take a look at You Tube more often and follow some lessons. I can see from your painting that beautiful colours can be attained easily. Thank you for sharing your process. Beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My wife works in oils, water color and acrylic and mixes most of her own colors. She really likes that process as it gives her the exact color she wants. I’ve been amazed about how few colors she actually has in her supply. Even last year when we were doing tie dyed shirts, she’ barely buy more than basic primary colors because she preferred to mix her own.

    The world would be a better place if we just learned to use what is around us rather than stressing on what we can’t get.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that. The more I mix, the more I like mixing. I am painting something personally (for me) from an acrylic pattern and I am oddly aware of the limitations of the medium. It took a while to ‘warm up’ to using acrylics again, as I have been getting rather used to other mediums that I can manipulate for a longer amount of time. It sure keeps me on my toes! Thanks for stopping by. šŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

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