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High Road, Low Road, or Shortcut? Choosing a Road Ahead

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When looking at the road ahead which do you choose - the long winding by-way with the great scenery or the fastest, most direct highway? Do you have a destination or drive without a map?

Is there a reason you prefer one type of road over the other? 

What story do you tell yourself about it? Can you remember where you first heard this story? Was it at school, at home, or did you learn it from experience?

Can you question your belief to see if it’s still true?

When traveling do you plan every moment or do you arrive with no plans and wait to see what happens? Do you judge others for making the opposite choice?

Our culture values hard work and struggle. A person who practices for hours, sweats, and works late gets more credit than the one who produces the same product with apparent ease. This is one reason why so many artgoers prefer traditional old master paintings to modern abstract artists. The skill and the work are both apparent.

For years I bought into the idea that anything worth having came through hard work and suffering. For my art to have value I needed to be doing something so difficult, so challenging that everyone looking at it would be impressed by my skill and perseverance. I fell into the rut that choosing an easier way of making art meant I was “cheating”, as though a teacher or judge was waiting to evaluate me and find me lacking. 

Do you do this too?

When you judge yourself as an artist is this where you are most critical of yourself? Do you feel like you haven’t done (fill in the blank) enough to qualify as an artist? 

Judgment is as pervasive in the art world as it is everywhere else. I find it in the competition prospectuses I read and in the apologies written by online teachers who are criticized for sharing an easier way to do something. 

Constraints, provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas. I believe constraints enhance creativity, but transparent watercolor is not inherently superior to opaque watercolor, oil paint is not “better” than acrylic, and art created in the most difficult way possible, is not more deserving of an award or display than more expressive compositions.

On vacation, I choose my routes by starting with these four questions:

“Where am I going?”. Knowing where I would like to end up provides a meaningful way to evaluate the various modes of transportation that will take me there. 

The second question is “Why am I going there?”. When traveling for business efficiency matters, for vacation enjoyment novelty and beauty weigh more heavily. 

The next question, “Who is going?” further narrows my choices. Group and family travel constrains my choices with considerations outside my control.

The fourth question “When do I need to arrive?” helps to narrow down the remaining available selections. I wouldn’t walk the Camino de Santiago for speed, the Camino is about the journey.

Likewise, when you judge and create art it's important to ask the same four questions. 

“Where am I going?” is all about the destination. When you sit down to create a sculpture you will need different materials and tools than when you decide to paint a beautiful flower in your garden. Public art serves a different purpose than protest art.

“Why am I going there?” is an even more important question. Are you creating art to earn money, for a competition, for a class project, for enjoyment, or to combat stress? Are you creating because you enjoy solving difficult problems, or because painting makes you joyful? 

“Who is going?” determines who you need to satisfy for your project to be considered successful. Pleasing yourself is very different from pleasing a judge, teacher, or client. 

“When do I need to arrive?” will determine your choices regarding efficiency and productivity vs. meaning. With no deadline, you are free to take your time and meander through your creative process without a map for meaning.

Having answers to these four questions makes it easy to select your road. Once you know why you create art you can decide whether to explore on your own, hire a guide, or join a group. The long and meaningful path becomes a great pleasure and a speedy shortcut is no sacrifice when you know why you chose it. 

Creating in any medium is an antidote to stress and depression. When you create for the simple joy of it, not for money, or work you tap into a powerful right brain source that leads to innovative problem-solving, a sense of meaning and purpose, and a joyful, intimate connection with others—and with the world. When you are in this creativity zone anxiety evaporates.

Knowing why you create makes the entire creative process more enjoyable and satisfying and will keep you from judging others who employ different criteria.

I gave up suffering and difficulty as my yardstick for success and now measure my work by how much fun it is to create. 

I want my students to feel so good about their art that they look forward to their next opportunity to paint and feel fulfilled by each art experience. This does not mean that we take on easy projects. Challenge and problem-solving can be incredibly satisfying as long as the obstacles are not overwhelming.

In the 1930’s Soviet psychologist and social constructivist, Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) introduced a radical new idea to teaching that he called “the zone of proximal development (ZPD)”. Vygotsky believed that when a student is in the zone of proximal development for a particular task, providing appropriate assistance will give the student enough of a “boost” to achieve the task. Social interactions with a skillful tutor allow learners to observe and improve their skills.

The zone of proximal growth breaks large and difficult learning into small achievable challenges until the student is ready to take on the entire task alone. Sometimes the size of the goal becomes like a tall mountain that appears impossible to scale so students give up after the first sign of failure.

Good teachers build confidence


confidence builds engagement.  

Teachers help their students reach previously unattainable goals by stretching themselves a little bit at a time.  

In music you start practicing with scales, then simple pieces of music adding more and more complexity a bit at a time until your practice becomes masterful. 

Hiring a mentor who spends time with you is a shortcut that allows you to move forward faster. There is no more efficient way to learn than having someone who knows how to do the thing you desire to learn support you in your process and make it easier for you to take over on your own

Drawing is the biggest obstacle for the majority of my students. Drawing is a skill that takes a long time and a lot of practice and failure to learn. I once did a portrait on commission and put at least 20 hours into my painting before I noticed that the eyes were crooked and one arm was too long. There is no amount of beautiful paint handling and no color technique that will forgive a bad drawing. 

Today I am going to share with you some of the scaffolds and shortcuts I use to help my students train their drawing abilities or work around them. Most were developed to help me in my own learning. If you believe the long and hard way to do something is always best and a shortcut will always take you where you don’t want to go, you can stop reading now.  

I use these shortcuts as scaffolds in my teaching to help my students paint realistic landscapes, birds, florals, and portraits of their children, grandchildren, and pets when their drawing skills hold them back. After a year or so, the scaffolding becomes an obstacle and my students often draw and paint without them.  

Scaffold for Inspiration - Pinterest

Whenever I am blocked for ideas I go to Pinterest for inspiration. Pinterest wandering is visual snacking and a half hour exploring there invariably provides me with dozens of inspiring suggestions for my next artwork. I can get lost for hours in all the art other artists create. Each image has links below it to similar images so follow your imaginary rabbits down their rabbit holes and see where they take you. Start by typing in some constraints for your next piece, and see what appears.

Take a look at some of the idea boards I created for projects I plan to teach or paint someday. I have one entire board just for Red Riding Hood. The variety of ways this simple story can be told in a single image never fails to get me going.

Scaffold for Inspiration - AI

The newest AI art generators translate your written prompts into visual images you can customize and fine-tune endlessly. You do not need any drawing ability to experiment with wild ideas, try new styles, or create fantastical landscapes, portraits, and even abstract art. Most of these new image generators are free making digital art accessible to everyone, eroding economic barriers.

Experiment with this digital medium to "play" with your ideas. AI will allow you to add complexity that you might not be able to generate on your own. If you are creating art to counter stress this is a wonderful medium that you can use anywhere you have access to the internet.

Scaffold for Focus - Binaural Beats

This is the fastest way I know to get into the creativity "zone".

Binaural beats are a form of auditory stimulation that can help boost productivity and performance at work. They influence brainwave activity to help achieve different mental states. Here's how binaural beats work and how you can utilize them to improve concentration and focus in the workplace.

Binaural beats are created when headphones play two slightly different tones in each ear. For example, if you hear a tone of 200 Hz in your left ear and a tone of 210 Hz in your right ear, your brain will perceive a third tone of 10 Hz, which is the difference between the two tones. This third tone is called a binaural beat.

Binaural beats affect your brainwave activity by training it to match the frequencies you hear. Brainwaves are patterns of electrical activity in your brain that can reflect your concentration levels. There are five main types of brainwaves: gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Each corresponds to a different mental state, ranging from high-energy and focused to relaxed and sleepy.

Different frequencies of binaural beats can induce other brainwave states. For example, binaural beats in the 1-4 Hz range can stimulate delta waves associated with deep sleep and healing. A study by Front Psychiatry proves that the delta frequency range helps with about a 26.3% decline in anxiety scores.

Binaural beats in the 4-8 Hz range can produce theta waves associated with creativity, intuition, and meditation. Binaural beats in the 8-13 Hz range can stimulate alpha waves associated with relaxation, calmness, and learning. Binaural beats in the 13-30 Hz field can produce beta waves associated with concentration, alertness, and problem-solving.

Those in the 30-100 Hz range can stimulate gamma waves associated with peak performance, memory, and cognition. One study by Frontiers Media backs that claim, proving that binaural beats in the gamma range impact the cognitive control state.

I use Binaural beats for writing these newsletters and whenever I need to concentrate for extended periods. I recommend them to my students with attention and processing issues.

Scaffold for Drawing #1 - Proportional Grid

The proportional grid method allows you to transfer any two-dimensional image onto a larger or smaller surface without worrying about complex math ratios, or calculators.

Measure your resource image and find the relationship of the short side to the long side. A typical photograph is 4x6, 5x7 or 8x10. Divide your reference image into 16 equal squares using the X Plus Diamond method shown above.

Step 1 - Draw a line from the top left corner of your resource image to the bottom right corner. Add another line from the top right corner of the image to the bottom left corner. Where they cross is the center point of your image.

Step 2 - Use a T-Square to draw a vertical line through the center of the "X". Then draw a horizontal line through the center of the "X". You should now have 4 boxes of the same proportions (relationship of the long to the short side) as the resource image.

Step 3 - Use a ruler to draw a diagonal line that connects the top of the vertical axis to the horizontal axis. Use your ruler to connect all 4 sides of this "diamond" shape. You should now have 4 boxes each with an "X" in the center.

Step 4 - Use a T-Square to draw horizontal lines through the center of two "X"s in the top and bottom row. Then draw vertical lines through the center of the two "X"s in the left and right columns. You should now have 16 boxes of the same proportions as the resource image.

Measure your destination surface and draw a box onto it that has the same relationship of the short side to the long side. Let's say your resource image is 4x6. Then your larger image could be 8x12 (twice 4x6), 12x18 (3 times 4x6), 16x24 (4 times 4x6), or 20x30 (5 times 4x6), and so on indefinitely. Once you have your large proportional box use the X Plus Diamond Method to draw a grid of 16 squares. Both the resource and the destination image should have the same number and shape of grid squares.

The blocks divide your original complex scene into smaller bite-size chunks making it a lot easier to judge the positioning of the (out)lines inside each block.

The beauty of this method is that you can further cross in (draw an X) inside a single box in your detail areas and you only needed to do math one time at the start!

This scaffold is very useful in creating accurate drawings and training hand-eye coordination.

Scaffold for Drawing #2 - Projection

Using a projector to trace art is more than a shortcut; it’s a gateway to unlocking your artistic potential. Projecting and tracing not only gives an advantage to those who struggle with drawing, but it also saves time! You can use projectors to trace onto wood, fabric, walls, glass, and more. The key is to ensure that the surface is flat and stable and the projector can be positioned at an appropriate angle for accurate tracing. Fusing traditional craftsmanship and modern technology can lead to extraordinary creations that captivate and inspire. So, whether you’re an established artist seeking new horizons or a budding creative looking to elevate your work, embrace the magic of projectors and let your imagination soar.

Step 1. Set Up Your Projector

Place your projector on a stable surface, at the right distance and angle to project onto your working surface. Check to see if it’s connected to a power source and any device (like a laptop) containing your artwork.

Step 2. Prepare Your Resource image

Ensure your source photograph or sketch is in digital format. Adjust the image’s brightness, contrast, and color settings to achieve the desired clarity and contrast.

Step 3. Position Your Surface

Place your canvas or paper on the surface where you want to transfer the image. Too much of an angle will distort your image. Make sure it’s flat and stable. You can secure it in place to prevent any accidental shifts during tracing.

Step 4. Project Your Art

Turn on the projector and adjust its focus, size, and position until the image covers your canvas or paper. Play with the settings until you achieve the perfect alignment.

Step 5. Trace With Precision

Now comes the fun part – start tracing! Use a pencil, pen, or any desired medium to follow the projected lines and shapes onto your surface. Take your time to ensure accuracy and detail.

Step 6. Add Your Personal Touch

While tracing, don’t hesitate to add your unique flair and creativity. Adjust details, experiment with colors, or even modify the original design to make it your own.

Step 7. Fine-Tune And Finish

Once you’ve traced the entire image, turn off the projector, and allow your artwork to dry if necessary. Now, it’s time to refine and enhance your traced art. Add shading, highlights, and additional details to make it yours.

Scaffold for Drawing #3 - Lightbox:

A lightbox is a tool, just like pencils and pens. If it makes things easier for you, use it! Lightboxes can quickly improve your drawing process and allow you to make fewer mistakes. Not only does a lightbox help you trace your image or copy and refine previous drawings, but it also improves muscle memory. Lightboxes are kid-friendly since it’s much easier for a small child to learn to draw by tracing on top of a previous drawing.

Many calligraphy and lettering artists use light boxes to improve their work and perfect small aspects of it. I love using lettering in my work and it would be almost impossible to keep my lines straight and the kerning correct without a lightbox. Animators also rely on lightboxes to accurately draw frame-to-frame changes. The lightbox allows them to view the previous frame while developing a new one.

I use a lightbox to combine images - add a bird or bug to a flower or a boat to a landscape. They also make it easier for me to correct my mistakes and start over or flip my image when a drawing is headed in the wrong direction.

If you already have images painted, but you want to experiment with different styles of coloring or you want to make a “color this image” assignment for your kids, a lightbox will be very helpful. Just grab a base drawing, trace the outline of the image, and have fun coloring it! A lightbox is also very helpful when you practice new styles and techniques.

The price of light boxes has dropped tremendously.

For example, the LITENERGY A4 costs around 15 to 20$ (click to check the price on Amazon), it has an adjustable light and is very lightweight!

If that’s out of your budget or you just want to Do It Yourself, then here’s how you can make your own drawing lightbox.

  1. Get a transparent container. Anything will do as long as it’s clear on the top. Storage containers usually work very well with this since they are transparent and have a rectangular shape.

  2. Put some portable lights or a lamp inside the container! You’ll need a light source so you can see through the original drawing.

  3. You’re done! Just turn the lights on, close the container, put the base drawing on top and then a sheet of paper for you to trace over it.

Scaffold for Drawing #4 - Photoshop Digital Tracing

You can turn a photo into a coloring book image for tracing using Photoshop. This one takes a little more time and doesn't work with every photo, but when it does work it's a huge time saver.

Step 1. Choose a Photo

Take a photo of your child or you. It is preferable to start with simpler shots with a solid background, or in which the main subject strongly contrasts with the background.

Step 2. Upload the Photo to the Image Editor

It doesn't matter which editor you use to make a coloring book; just make sure it has the Layers function, as well as tools for painting, retouching, and color correction. I use Photoshop for many things but I suggest you try Online Photoshop Editor. It's free, runs in a browser, and has many powerful tools.

Step 3. Duplicate a Layer

Duplicate a layer in the Layer window by right-clicking on and choosing Duplicate Layer. If you don't have the Layer window, go to Window - Layers. You can also just drag the layer to the New Layer icon at the bottom and it will be duplicated.

Step 4. Make the Photo Black and White

Similar to other methods of creating a coloring book, you need to remove colors from the photo. To do this, click on Image > Adjustments > Black & White.

Step 5. Invert the New Layer

At this stage, you will turn the new layer into a negative of the original photo. You can do this by selecting Image - Adjustment - Inverted.

Step 6. Adjust the Filter

Your photo probably looks very strange now, but don’t worry. It is inverted. Now, you need to apply a filter that will preserve only the outlines of the photo and remove the details and color. Go to Filter – Filter Gallery select "Glowing Lines" and adjust the Line Width and Edge Brightness sliders until you are satisfied with the image.

Step 7. Invert Layer

Turn the new layer back to black lines on a white background by by selecting Image - Adjustment - Inverted.

Step 8. Final Stage. Setting Layers

Open Image – Adjustments – Levels and drag the sliders until the photo looks like a coloring book.

Scaffold for Drawing #5 - Enlarging and Transfering your Drawing

Once I am satisfied with my drawing, it's time to transfer it to the final support. I generally work out my sketches on 8 1/2" x 11" sheets of tracing paper. Working small helps me pay attention to how the larger shapes relate and I keep myself from getting overinvolved in the details. I calculate how much larger I need my final drawing to be using a proportional scale. The FedEx office near me has a large format printer that can enlarge my work to the size of a full sheet of watercolor paper for about $5. Alternatively, you could use free service to slice your enlarged image into printer paper size blocks that you can tape together yourself. Upload an image, choose your options and then download and print out your own enlarged version of your drawing.

I correct any errors, straighten lines and add detail that will enhance the final artwork on the enlarged printout of my small sketch. When I am ready to transfer my image onto the final paper or canvas I place a reusable sheet of graphite paper between my enlarged copy and my watercolor paper. I tape my enlarged printout securely to my watercolor paper so it won't slip while I am working. I leave two sides open so I can slide my graphite paper around as needed.

Watercolor paper is fibrous so it catches on the pencil and erasing damages the sizing in the paper. This method ensures that I get my underdrawing correct on the first shot. The graphite marks can be erased to some extent and the sheet of graphite paper can be moved around under the cover sheet so one sheet of graphite paper is enough for a full sheet of watercolor paper.

Shouldn't we celebrate taking the shortcut if there is a way to do something important more easily and more efficiently? Shouldn't we encourage working without a map if the long road has more meaningful connections? Why we create is more important than how we create. Choose your road and let others travel the way that suits them best.

Creating art should be serious FUN. FUN is an acronym that stands for Fulfillment, Uniqueness, and Next. Artists should be fulfilled by their work. Embrace your special and unique magic and let your imagination soar! Seize new ground, keep growing, and try something new. 

Whether you’re an established artist seeking new horizons or a budding creative looking to elevate your work I hope I have given you some pathways to unlock your artistic potential even when the going gets tough. If you struggle with drawing feel free to use the scaffolds and shortcuts to practice and build your drawing confidence. If you would like my mentorship, guidance, and advice in finding your own personal path please reach out to me. It makes me happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you.

If someone shared this newsletter with you and you'd like to subscribe, please reach out to me below with your email address. I promise, no spam, no overloading your inbox, just the good stuff.

 I welcome the opportunity for connection, conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions. 

With Light and Delight



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