Saturday, February 28, 2015


This was a very interesting month for me.

For those just tuning in, the last couple of months of 2014 were miserable. I hit the breaking point with Starbucks, and I quit, but even with the light at the end of the tunnel in view I still put aside my art. 

I spent some time getting back on my feet. My pattern is to come off of deep slumps straight into crazy overcommitment, and this time was no different: halfway through January, I looked around and found myself staring down five deadlines and a convention packed into the shortest month of the year. But instead of the blind screaming bullrush I tend to revery to in situations like that, I did something different.

I hit this month like I haven't hit any prolonged period of time since my senior year of college. I was working around 35 hours a week at my day job, coming home, and making art, working deliberately along a do-to-list. With things laid out along a timeline, the usual panic was subdued: it actually felt good working until 12 or 1, even as I got to averaging five or so hours of sleep a night, because I could feel myself making progress. Saturdays were my opportunity to get a whole day in, often thirteen to fifteen hours, and on Sundays I worked for a couple of hours before taking a half-day off. It was awesome.

It was awesome, but listen, believe me when I say I know this isn't sustainable practice. I broke, more than once, and spent a scattering of days doing nothing in order to recharge. Working at the absolute edge of my capabilities meant that when one thing went wrong (having to stay several hours late at work a couple of days in a row) I had a… bit of a moment. I had to compromise, too - I had initially meant to do all five pieces as oil paintings, but it became very clear very quickly that it was an impossibility, and two of the five pieces wound up as drawings. 

But all of them are good, and they didn't exist twenty days ago.

I'm glad to have done it, but I'm glad to be done with it, too. Running headlong like that is exhausting; I have to be on point for every brush stroke. The risk I run when working like this is finishing so drained that I stop making art again - but as crazy as I had to get to hit each deadline, something about working so deliberately and producing pieces I'm so proud of has kept me from burnout at the end of it.

I have a lot of exciting things on my plate for the spring. There's a commission I've been sitting on for literally over a year that I cannot wait to get started on; there's a handful of Silmarillion minipaintings I have planned that might wind up being studies for larger pieces; there's the two Month of Love drawings that are waiting patiently to be done in oils. I've been rolling around personal pieces and projects and now, free from that soul-killing job and a rapid-fire month of deadlines, I'm so excited to get them started!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

SmART School, and 2014

So, the last posted blog entry about SmART School was about two months ago. There's a few reasons for that, but the best summary is that of everything I learned in Rebecca's class, the most important one was that I was truly miserable in my current situation and trying to step up the artmaking resulted in me breaking myself.

I mean, I learned other things, too. I think Rebecca finally got the idea and practical application of a finished painting's polish through my skull, and we also worked on color, and shape-thinking, and edges, and pushing gestures and being really thoughtful and deliberate about composition. I did good work.

Sword of Justice, 11"x17"

It's really just unfortunate that the main thing I took away from the class was I needed to get out of Starbucks. I think I needed that wakeup call - I'm a creature of habit, and the day-to-day of work had kind of faded into the background - but I found myself spending my days bone-deep tired and flogging myself through paintings I didn't have the spare energy to care about. No amount of sleep was enough, no amount of espresso could perk me up, and since I was lacking the emotional capacity to engage in my art I was leaning entirely on rote-learned technique and Rebecca's paintovers and critiques.

This was the straw that broke the camel's back, but it's also forced me to look at the wider picture of what I've done with my art in the two and a half years since I graduated school, and it's kind of bleak: while I've definitely improved technically and gotten real milestones under my belt (Spectrum, a book cover, two group shows) I have absolutely fallen off the horse in terms of promoting myself.

There's so much I have to take a hard look at. I need to work faster, and improve on my color thinking, and figure out where the hell I lie in the commercial/gallery spectrum, and work specifically toward one of those two instead of doing my current waffling in the grey area, and promote in that chosen direction. I need to keep myself active in the art community instead of shrinking back away from it every time I'm discouraged. I need to reach back out to mentors who I've gone into radio silence on.

I need to get myself going. 2014 was a year of a lot of very good stuff and also a yawning pit of floundering and not doing much by way of pursuing my passion as if I had any intention of making it my career.

The first step is realizing it. The next step is getting one foot down in front of the other.

So here's to 2015: A new job, a renewed fervor, more skill and more knowledge than before. There are things are brewing; I just need to grasp the will to make them reality.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

SmART School Week 8

Those of you keeping track might have noticed that there was no Week 7 post.

Right on the tail of the class before last, I was ill - and then I went down to Florida to be with my Dad as we said goodbye to my grandfather. He died on the 19th, a Sunday, and though I was back in New York in time for last week's class, I hadn't actually gotten a chance to draw or paint at all since the previous week. So I showed up for class more or less to just be there, and painted as much as I could after it ended, and didn't bother to write a post about it.

And then I walked into one of the worst weeks at work I've had in a while, and didn't get a chance to make art at all until yesterday.

It's been rough, man.

I did get a lot done yesterday, but I feel awful over how much time I've lost. There's nothing to be done but to go forward with a fire, though.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

SmART School Week 6

Rebecca had told me to do one more color study off of her correction, and bring that into class to confirm that I understood where she wanted me to take my color.

This class was mostly me getting the go-ahead on getting the painting itself started: my study was more or less there, and the corrections Rebecca had were minimal (which is good, because something with the Dropbox screwed up and the paint over files disappeared).

So I started the painting.

There is nothing quite like the hatred and despair of a first scrub-in, where everything is awful and nothing works. Usually it's not quite so dramatic, but this was a palette I was still adjusting to, and I've been fighting off a cold/fever for a bit now which of course makes things harder to be positive about.

Usually when I get like this, where my emotional response to my piece is ">:|", the answer is I have to pick a part and just render the crap out of it, to give me something to feel good about.

I kind of lost the drawing in the hand I was working on, and clearly didn't get to the left hand at all, but this makes me happy. Cutting into the hair and getting in the volume of the flesh has gotten my momentum rolling again after what seemed like five years of color studies, haha.

Beyond working on this, I also started thinking about my next piece. I had originally been intending to work on a commission for a friend, and had even taken reference - but it's another ethereal lady with a tree, and doing two of those in a row seemed like a poor choice. So I started looking through my stock of unused thumbs and unexplored projects.

What I found was the original set of thumbnails I did for the IMC from the summer before last. I'd dropped these in favor of what eventually became The Long Path, and for good reasons - but there was something about these that made me come back. Rebecca chose number one, and I started to gather reference for my frankenstein as the week ended.

I have more to do before this is ready to go to drawing, and I need to figure out what part of my gesture is actually achievable by human bodies, but the heart of the painting - Oberon's gesture - is there. Exciting!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

SmART School Week 5

This was a kind of frustrating one.

I had spent the previous week running headlong at a deadline and Rebecca had told me not to worry about the stuff I was doing for Belle Dame, but back before that commission had hit she'd asked me to pull up one of Waterhouse's multi-figure paintings to key off of, and I had enough time to do that.

In class, I got some final critique from Rebecca on my cover, and then mentioned that I'd also put this into the folder. "This is the one I'd been thinking of!" she said. "I want you to use it like a map."

As I sat down to do just that, I'll admit that there was frustration even as I understood why this was important to do. This was like nothing like I'd been shooting for in my studies - beyond the fact that I'd been going for a different palette, this was so much more chromatic, and had much more contrast, than anything I'd pictured for the piece. This was, in my thinking at that moment, a left turn from image that had been forming in my head.

My frustration turned the 'map' study into a gross muddy mess, which in turn only furthered my frustration. I knew why Rebecca was having me key off of Waterhouse so directly - we'd discussed how he was a master of limited palettes and using contrast and chroma like scalpels, all if which I aspired to - but all I could see was a horrible color study. (It's dumb, looking at it now and seeing how I was pulling down my chroma in really gross ways, paying no actual attention to value... congrats on setting yourself up for failure, Jenna.) So I did another one, more in-line with the mood I was fixated on and the colors I was comfortable with, and sent them off.

Rebecca returned a color study with the actual clear separation of values and handing of color that I'd missed in my stew of 'but it's not working ): ): ):'. She told me to do a study off of hers (with the Waterhouse nearby), and then go to paint.

Which is, of course, when I got sick. So I'm bringing in the study and not really anything else today to class, which is a bad feeling in and of itself, but at least I know I'm just shy of actually getting to paint.

But man, I forgot how hard it is to break out of comfort zones. It's a gross, uncomfortable process. I like to think that I push myself in my art, but there's always that edge that I shy away from before I even get close, and in doing so it's easy to forget it's there at all. I've been out of school for a couple of years now, and the IMC is more about flying by the seat of your pants past your own limits than about methodically working on your ruts and comfortable old ways of thinking.

This is the first real block I've encountered in Rebecca's class thus far, which kinda gives me something to judge myself against: where I am in the steps leading up to this is clearly something to be proud of, because she is absolutely nailing me to the wall over my color and value and let everything previous by with varyingly minor degrees of critique.

So, alright. This is where I set my shoulders and work, then.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Whiskey and Water

About a week and a half ago, as I sat in a panel at Illuxcon, something amazing happened: an email landed in my inbox from Elizabeth Bear, about doing a cover for an ebook version of her novel Whiskey and Water - to go live October 4th.

For those of you who don't know, I've been a big fan of Elizabeth Bear and her books for years - those of you who've been with me for a while might remember that two years ago, as pieces for school, I painted mock covers for several of her novels, Whiskey and Water included. The deadline for this was insane, but there was no way I wasn't taking the job.

That evening, I thumbnailed while waiting on line to get my Showcase table, surrounded by great artists, friends, who were excited to help me bounce ideas around.

I sent Bear this thumbnail the next day, on Saturday. On Sunday, I collared Drew Baker just before he was about to leave, and took my reference.

At this point, between the incredible weekend of Illuxcon and the fact that I was working on my first book cover commission, for Elizabeth Bear, due in less than two weeks, I was more or less in a screaming panic - which is why this is the first drawing that I did:

This is where last week's SmART School class came in - and it is thanks to Rebecca Guay that what I turned over for Bear's approval was this instead:

I turned around revisions the next day, character details that I'd neglected or forgotten. I'm really, deeply grateful that this was a book that I'd read and gotten immersed enough in that even years later, I had a clear idea of who I was painting and what I wanted to show.

(Tattoos are hard. I had some specific things that the tattoos were - neo-tribal, mazelike or labyrinthine, intense blackwork - but since I'm not a tattoo artist and also not about to copy someone else's work, it brought me up kinda short. I'm very pleased with the design I wound up making, but that was probably the biggest single issue in this process that wasn't the 'Jenna is too overwhelmed to make good picturemaking decisions' moment from before.)

Those revisions were approved, and I went to the board, a week ago.

I painted small - a board 10" on the longest side - and I am still a little shellshocked that what I needed to have happened, happened: the paint went down as it needed to go down, the decisions I made were the correct ones, the painting built itself up and did not stop.

And on Sunday, I finished it.

It's time for me to stare at a wall until it penetrates that I finished my first cover, for my favorite author, in less than two weeks start to finish. I'll leave you all with how it will appear when it goes live on the 4th.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

SmART School Week 4

Whoops, I'm writing about last week's class literally while sitting in this week's class.

So what I brought to class last week was more prepwork, gearing up for the jump to paint.

I'd done that set of color studies for the mid-week critique, and gotten some good feedback from Rebecca about how I was losing my value structure in pursuit of these colors I had in my head. The solo study was done larger, so I could zone in a little more on what I was trying to do. I also got the drawing on the board and scrubbed in a value study.


I also brought something completely different into class!

This has nothing to do with Belle Dame Sans Merci. But that weekend previous, as I was sitting in a lecture at Illuxcon on September 20th, I got an email enquiry about doing a cover for an ebook release of a book. The enquirer was the book's author, Elizabeth Bear, and the deadline for the cover going live was October 4th.

I did thumbnails that day and got one approved, and did my drawing on the day after I returned from Allentown, and I brought it to class because I had gone from nothing to a final drawing in less than four days and just knew the panic was affecting my judgement. 

I'm going to make a separate post about the process of this cover, but I just want to say that I could have wept with gratitude over the critique I got. I went from a drawing that is a bunch of poor decisions stitched together awkwardly, with a figure who was just miles away from the mark, to.... well, I'm sitting here with a finished painting waiting for one last critique round, aren't I? :D