The following answers are excerpts from questions that I've fielded over the years. I'm providing this FAQ with the hope that you may find some answers to your own. You can submit inquiries in the form at the bottom of the page, but please note that I or my assistant will answer only as time and interest permits. We can not answer them all.
Q: I have some problems about producing illustrations, I spend most of my time studying technical stuff (anatomy, light, color, etc) I always feel I'm missing something. I do not feel ready, are years that I can not find a way to create illustrations. Do you have any advice for me to try to solve this problem? I also wanted to know if you've written a book or some article on ideation, I found some video of TAD but I would like to learn more. Thanks.
A: In my understanding, illustration is comprised of three parts-
1. The message that you are trying to convey.
2. The means or the skill by which you are trying to communicate that message.
3. A personal curiosity that you are trying to answer through the creation of your work. Skill acquisition is necessary to communicate the message.
Most illustrators have a real challenge in acknowledging the critical value in their own curiosities and quirks as an integral component in the artistry of illustration. Every successful artist that I have taught has already had the answer to the third part through their lives-lived, and in the pages of their sketchbooks. As an educator, it is my role to teach them to value their differences as strengths, not weaknesses.
“Honor the familiar.”
Q: "How did you come by your process? I understand experimentation is the answer, but how did you learn in what direction to experiment in? How did you find your inner compass?"
A: I think of my process as a toolbox full of skills that I’ve acquired to bring closure to a problem. If I lack a tool and the solution requires it, I work towards acquiring that skill. In my personal direction, there is always a question that I am trying to answer through my work, which is an attempt to bring two disconnected, dynamic things together in a convincing way.
Q: "How do you incorporate the things you see from nature into your paintings so flawlessly? I paint one way and don't like it but I am inspired by patterns I see in nature- like the way a particular log has grown or the way tree branches overhead look but I don't know how to incorporate that into my paintings other than to copy it and then it just feels cheap."
A: You know, we all begin that way. We observe, document, and then design can come in later. As I produce more work, it is becoming more intuitive for me to design as I document, but I believe that comes from a trained eye and hand, formed over time. You begin to see and respond to shapes that you like and things such as flow, movement, and counterpoint begin to play a role. The best advice I can give to possibly side-step the near useless advice of “it takes time”, is to introduce the idea that the space around an object (negative space), can be drawn and used to influence the shape of the object (positive space) that you draw. Painters departing from purely representational observations often paint the shapes around an object more than the object itself. In this practice, you can be deliberate in how you carve, find tangents and simplify shapes (yes, simplification is at the heart of design:) There is an invisible armature/grid behind all design work.
Q: "Hello! Your illustrations are crazy good and i really admire your artworks. I thought, after seeing your illustrations that you might have some tips regarding drawing portraits or faces without using grid-lines (not that i have anything against them) and just using the eyes to figure out the relative proportions of different parts of the faces such as eyes,nose,upper lip,lower lip etc. If you do, can you share them with me?"
A: When I draw portraits, or anything from observation, I’m making choices based on the negative space between the features, as much as I am on the features themselves. Negative space becomes another means of measurement. The entire process can feel rather mechanical, until you begin changing the negative and positive shapes through your deliberate intent. You can pursue ideas giving weight, fluidity, geometry, making things quiet, loud, stoic, or any other idea that you are trying to channel from the subject matter to the final drawing. In these instances, I believe that the artist can move beyond simply creating a picture, into the realm of capturing a bit of the personality of the subject.
You can also get a visual awareness of the shape of things by pairing everything down to two values- light and dark. Group things together, and draw the relationship between the eye sockets, nose, mouth cheeks and head structure in this fashion, then go back an add details.
Q: "Would you happen to be looking for a sort of assistant or studio hand for the summer? even someone that will work for free?"
A: Sorry to say, but not at this time. You’ve brought up a great question, and I think that more young artists could benefit from the opportunity.
I encourage young artists to write up a list of their particular skill sets and think of what they have to offer someone who is a busy creative. Likely, independent artists like myself don’t know how much they could benefit from a bit of help with shipping, organization, promotion- social media, print, etc., website design and development, canvas stretching, paint station setup, and a general hand with larger projects. My biggest challenge with the assistants that I’ve taken on is feeling obligated to keep them entertained when I don’t have a specific use for their services. If you can think of how you might fill that void for an artist, and present it in a professional light, there is a good opportunity that wouldn’t otherwise be advertised.
Q: "What suggestions would you give to someone who draws, but wants to learn to paint? I've heard the differences between the two and how painting is more subtractive than additive, but I feel as though I do not have the patience for painting that I do with drawing. I feel as though I cannot be as loose with it."
A: I find it to be just the opposite, in my process. Drawing is about control, and having some level of direction of the outcome in mind. Drawings tend to work and stay in the “specific”, while painting tends to start general and get refined down to the specific.
The first step is to get past the preciousness or concern over losing a drawing. If you’ve drawn it once, you can always draw it again. There are alternatives, as well, in transferring a photocopy to hardboard, or working on a surface other than the original drawing. Approaching painting that way alleviates the risk of destroying the drawing. My biggest struggle with painting has always been an expectation that it should somehow require less process, development and preparation than a drawing or illustration. If I skip over any step in my process, the likely hood that the painting will fail increases exponentially. No doubt, painting is work!
Q: "You often draw people at odd angles. I often struggle with finding reference for shots that match my vision (especially shots from above). Any tips?"
A: Thanks for the post. I’ve used a number of tools to my advantage- from shooting reference off of a ladder, a higher vantage point, to using toys. There have been a number of times where I’ve drawn from imagination, and have stuff with the process until things feel right. In each case, there is a departure from the reference to get the right feel and weight to the character. A good understanding of overlap and basic perspective seems to help a bit, as well.
Q: "I was reading an article you wrote about your Treasure Island project; and in it you wrote "In my role as an illustrator, I’ve always looked to add to the story; not to change, alter or reiterate, but to supplement a missing piece to the narrative that feels as much at home as anything the author has written." Could you talk about that process?"
A: Thanks for the question, Ben. I believe that the best paintings and illustrations give the viewer the sense that the picture is a window, and if they could only stick their head through that window; the world would be rich, deep, and continue well beyond that which we see hanging on the wall. The same is true of the best stories that we read. In light of this, an illustrator communicating a story has the ability to logically conclude events that were necessary to arrive at specific plot points, and can enhance the experience with a richness in scene, content and picture that compliments the text, while not feeling that the image is relegated to a secondary importance to the word. In short, the words and images work together to create a complete, well-rounded narrative that work in service to the story.
Q: "Lets say you have been trying very hard to make artwork for at least 8 years now and you aren't really seeing much improvement in the final artwork and when you go to make something really incredible, you get a physical feeling in your chest that there is this ball of light stuck behind an iron door that is bolted shut and that light is all of your personal voice just lodged at the base of your throat. What would be the first step you would would take to getting that door inside unlocked?"
A: In short, you need to frame your search in terms of a question, or a riddle, if that better suits. You will not “discover” your personal voice simply by painting more, or waiting for the materials to reveal something to you. You need to be seeking something very specific, that equates to a marriage of two or more disconnected things. Start simply and try to marry two techniques, materials, themes, ideas, etc. This will relate directly to your technical process only. Other fundamental elements of design, content, color, etc. will all require there own process, but in the beginning, simply focus on one consistent subject matter, and dismiss all of the other formal elements. These are studies in which you are trying to frame your preferences, and develop something of distinction in your work. While the individual components need not be original, the final outcome should be authentic, as it is infused with your intent, your choices, preferences, and most importantly, your experiences. This will take some time, and multiple pieces, but after quite a bit of trial and error, you will find an exciting way to marry these two seemingly disparate elements, and you will have answered the original question that you made with the inquiry of your work.
Relate this to the Scientific method, and it may become more clear.
Q: "Do you have advice/could you give some input on how you go about layering/building up tones with paint?"
A: This will sound a bit backwards, but I’ve often found my way to a rich, mature palette through making mistakes that I then paint over and into. My painting process is almost always painting light into a dark ground, or a well refined graphite drawing when detail is more important than shape/silhouette. It really is approaching the middle from both ends, or the same problem with two solutions. On one hand, I will create a full value pencil underdrawing and colorize it. Each step is additive in color, and I consider complimentary colors often as a way of enhancing a color, as well as desaturating it. This process begins with the specific and becomes looser or more general as I go. The second option is much more painterly, and begins with large masses that I am painting into. In this approach, I find that I am painting the negative space around a form to reveal the silhouettes, and adding detail to the interior of the form as a secondary step.
Q: "Do you have any advice on shipping large paintings overseas?"
A: I’ve been working on paintings for the past several years that are increasingly larger, and that are being created on a variety of supports- canvas, hardboard, and paper. With dimensions of upwards of 8’ x 6’, the logistics have presented some real problems.
Air Freighting and shipping the work was estimated between $1500- $3000 for two packages- 1 crate at 4’ x 3’ x 12" (largest painting on hardboard at 3’ x 4’) and one shipping tube at 6’ x 6" x 6" (large canvas rolled up w/o supports). One month’s advance notice wasn’t enough time to ship by sea. In addition, the shipping companies were requesting specific paperwork, with the possibility of paying a VAT tax (Value added tax) of 24- 30%. Tally this up with what the gallery would have to pay upon return for any unsold items, and the entire prospect seemed rather improbable, if not impossible.
My girl solved this problem for me. She mentioned the prospect of claiming the parcels as oversized baggage. At first, I dismissed the idea, thinking the items too big to ship on the same flight I was taking. As I looked into options, though, I soon realized that the airline (United Airlines) had some limitations, but they exceeded what I thought allowable. On United Airlines, oversized baggage is considered anything over 64 linear inches (l + w + h), while oversized baggage is accommodated up to 115 linear inches. The weight restrictions start at 50 pounds and go up to 100 pounds. For each overage, you will pay $200 for an extra bag/oversized fee.
We did a dry-run on the Wednesday before I left to see if the packages would fit. The dimensions were close, but the Skycap pulled someone in off the ramp to measure, and it all did. United proved to be very helpful through all of this.
In short, both packages were sent from Virginia, United States to Oslo, Norway for $600 total. Here is the breakdown:
Shipping tube WITH stretcher supports- 96" + 8" + 8"= 112" total linear inches @ 34 pounds- included stapler, screws, staples, laser level, etc.
Box with large painting (36" x 48"), 30 prints, two medium paintings on hardboard, 6 illustrations on board, one smallish painting on canvas, and disassembled pine stripping- $200 (overage on size) + $200 (overage on weight at 64 pounds)=
TOTAL COST OF SHIPPING: $600 + $64 (supplies)= $664
In addition, I was able to precut and ship all wooden supports for display, I was afforded an extra 2-3 weeks to paint the work, and there was no additional tax or charge.
It was a risk, as the work was uninsured- that was the only downside. I packaged it a neatly as I could and rolled the dice.
The boxes showed up- a bit worse for wear, but intact and for less than a quarter of the price that was previously proposed.
I’m attaching reference shots of the packaging materials, included work and costs of supplies for clarification.
1 @Flambeau Bazuka Brand Telescoping Salt Water fishing tube from Walmart - $50
1 Telescoping Flat Screen TV box from The Home Depot @ $14
1 Telescoping Flat Screen TV box from The Home Depot @ $14
Additionally, I highly recommend producing large works on heavy canvas that can be rolled, and connecting the stretcher bars without glue (screws only)- for ease of disassembling and assembling..
Q: "Hi Sterling, love your work. I discovered it only few months ago, but it's already of great inspiration for me. I have a question: what would you recommend for an anatomy book?"
I wish that I had a solid recommendation here, but life drawing was always an option for me. One bit of advice that is rarely acknowledged- you are your own best model; that is, become familiar with how you move, the cause and effect of gravity, movement, etc. on your frame. When drawing from imagination (memory), I’m often pantomiming the motion, expressions, etc. that are to be visualized in my drawings and paintings.
All the animators that I know keep a mirror next to their desks to work out facial expressions and related movements.
Q: "I've always loved illustration and its what I am thinking about majoring in but I'm afraid it won't be financially best for me, I want to make at least 40k a year after taxes do you think this is possible with illustration if your not hugely famous?"
A: I would caution against approaching a career in illustration that way. While the point is obviously not fame (hell, “famously” illustrators can walk around in public just fine, and can only be identified by other illustrators:) you are clearly trying to become as good in the holistic sense, as you possibly can (communication, design, color, drawing, problem-solving, business, promotion, etc.) I would encourage all aspiring “illustrators” to shrug the title and the expectation that what is will be when you finish school. Focus on creative entrepreneurship, wherever that pairs with your interest and skill sets, and forge your own path. Sitting around and waiting for someone to contact you with an assignment(s) is a recipe for disaster in the coming years.
This is truly an exciting time to be an artist and we are quickly tearing down and working across the narrow margins between silos.
Wishing you all the best in your career, wherever it may take you.
p.s. There are many illustrators who are unknown, involved in studio work, licensing, scientific and medical illustrations, etc. that don’t get the recognition they deserve, but who make more than 40k a year.
Q: "Hi there-- your work is fantastic! I normally work with acrylics, but really admire your work in oil. I was wondering how often you use acrylics and about your opinion as to whether or not adding retarder makes for a similar effect to oil paints? I understand that there are some obvious differences, but right now my problem with acrylic paint is that some of my value changes are too sharp because of how quickly the paint dries. Thanks"
A: Yeah, acrylics are problematic in the difference between “live value” and “dead value” after they dry (my terms, not industry terms). I’ve developed a method that allows you to paint directly into gouache with acrylics so that it more closely resembles wet-into-wet oil painting in that your color mixes on your piece, not on your palette. Step 1: Full pencil value drawing. Step 2: Use a light midtone acrylic (I like unbleached titanium white, Liquitex heavy body, diluted with water) to both fix the drawing, and define a midtone value in one step. I apply gouache or watercolor liberally in areas that I want to be warm or cool (generally only two colors that are complimentary, i.e. orange and blue). Step 3: Once the gouache is dry, I paint the same midtone acrylic back into the gouache which turns the color either warm or cool, dependent upon the temperature of the gouache. The acyrlics still dry darker, but they are changing in value and hue in front of you, not off to the side. Step 4: Redefine darks.
Nothing supplants oils, but this is a process I’ve developed over the years that gives me some favorable results. Hoping this helps!
Q: "Do you have any advice on how to approach design. The rule of thirds? Anything else?"
A: The rule of thirds is a good primer. Rembrandt used it to great effect (whether consciously or sub-consciously). The best advice regarding design that I can give in this format is that all design is related to comfort. If you think of design as making someone comfortable in a given visual space, or physical space (or uncomfortable when applicable), that is a good way to begin the dialogue. If you were walking in the negative space, could you easily traverse the composition from one space to another? Identify the points of tension and remove them. Finally, build your own grid by drawing through your forms and making separate compositional elements relate to one another through design repetition and alignment.
Q: "Hey sterling, I'm an illustration student at Pratt graduating this fall. I'm terrified to be in the real world as I'm in the middle of a rut. I am not happy with my voice as an artist but I don't know how to get to where I want to be. I am constantly trying new things but I keep getting discouraged. I can see what I want in my head but when it comes out its different. I feel tight, like I'm so worried about the outcome that I can't enjoy the process. Is this normal? How do I pull out of this?"
A: Finding personal voice is the single hardest thing that you will have to do as an artist. God knows that I have searched, discovered, abandoned, only to search again. The discovery of something unique is always the answer to a question that you are pursuing. Think of it as a hypothesis. It is a thing that lives beyond your current skill set, your knowledge base and your abilities. If you knew what you were trying to accomplish, there would be little need for the labor in the pursuit of the thing. Leaving those things that you know behind means a departure from the academic understanding of what is quality and what isn’t. There is no set path and yours will be different than mine. Remember that each obstacle that you face is the end of the journey for most people and is seen as an opportunity to solve a problem by those with the confidence and belief that there lies a space where they alone will own on the other side.
Q: "In all the interviews and questions you've answered online all of what you say sounds so deep and philosophical and complex even if its a simple question. Do you ever turn off the whole smart/deep thinker thing and talk and act like a normal guy or is that switch permanently on for you? not that its a bad thing it just makes you less relatable I guess."
A: Tough question to answer, but I think there is an honesty to it that warrants response. As a person, I’m probably a bit too relatable. We could sit down, have a beer and the good times would roll. Although the trend today is to be liked by everyone, and instant gratification comes easy, art and writing that delivers what we’ve always expected or only supports that which we know doesn’t do much for me, or any of us; sorry to say. At the heart of it, I make things out of a need to challenge that which I know and for personal betterment and mastery. If millions of artists reached for that as a goal versus the seeking of popularity or fame by playing to fashion, could you imagine the good that we could do? The things that we write, draw and sculpt are a reflection of who we are. Why not put our best forward?
Q: "Hey Sterling! Who would you say are your artistic inspirations and what gives those people that qualification for you?"
A: My artistic influences run the gambit from Picasso to Bernini. I am intrigued by writers, theory, facility, ambition, and honesty in work. Art history is a humbling consideration, and time even more so. While influences are certainly important, I am continually trying to dig deeper into what motivates me at my core. What do I love; what to I loathe. That’s where the rich shit comes from.
Q: "I recently moved to nyc and dont know anyone here, and networking to me seems like going up to random strangers and butting into their conversations to attempt to make friends awkwardly, do you have any advice for me to make networking in the illustration community easier in NYC?"
A: There are a number of professional organizations and events in New York that organize like-minded people. The social part can be a bit of a tough puzzle to crack. The best option is to put yourself into a situation where the environment is casual. Eagerness can rub people the wrong way. Simply be in the right places and the opportunity for conversations should present themselves. It doesn’t hurt to have a sketchbook on hand- it is utilitarian, but also presents an iconic statement that you are a thinker- drawer/writer, etc. AIGA, Society of Illustrators, American Illustration, SPD, and many others.
Q: "What do you mean by methods of accountability?"
A: Obligations that we establish by setting goals and committing to long term plans. These are difficult if done alone, but our chances of success increase significantly when we involve others. Taken a step further, professional obligations that aid us in affording our own time, bought back from other obligations, increase an artist’s opportunity for success even more significantly. How one defines success is another question.
Q: "What advice would you have for a budding 20-year-old illustrator?"
A: Surround yourself with one hell of a community. Develop mechanisms of accountability for producing, showing and sharing your work.
Q: "Hi! I love your art! I've been ogling at your works wayyy back, just so glad that I found your tumblr account. I can see that you are a fan of Toulouse Lautrec too! (sorry, it's just an assumption basing on your color palette and lines, I can sense some Klimt also! Nonetheless, your works are amazing!)"
A: Thank you for the note. I enjoy Lautrec’s work, although it’s not had much bearing on what I do. Klimt, much more directly and Shiele would be in the same company. My two biggest art heroes are Bernini and Picasso (opposite ends of the spectrum). I’ve tried to acknowledge direct influences within certain work and dilute the more potent ones by allowing others in. All the best to you in your endeavors.
Q: "I saw a video of your working process and noticed that the painting technique you use seems like watercolor but takes more time to get dry. What kind of of ink is that? Or the secret is in the paper quality? By the way, your work is amazing! Do you have any special influences? I guess I have a kind of lack in references visually similar to your style, which I adore! So many questions. Thank you for being inspiring. =]"
A: In that particular demonstration, I’m using watercolor over acrylic- the plastic of the acrylic makes for a slower drying time. I often use watercolor and gouache interchangeably as they have similar properties that allow we to reactivate them- even after they’ve dried.
Please note that I will only answer questions, as time and interest permits, and that I can not answer them all. Think Louder, Sterling