When I was a kid, I started writing and illustrating books for my dad, because I wanted to try to cheer him up and make him laugh. My mom had died, and it was hard for him, grieving for her, and raising 5 kids on his own.
I wanted to be an artist, but everybody said, “That’s not a real career. You can’t make a living at it.” So I set art aside for a “real” career, but it always felt like, “This is not what I’m supposed to be doing.” After a while, the urge to paint became too strong to resist. I thought, I’ll take one art class, and if I’m not good at it, I’ll move on.
My first art professor (and most of the rest) was into contemporary art. She’d squint at my drawings disapprovingly and make remarks like, “You’re a throwback!” or “You were born in the wrong century!” I did a lot of things my art teachers didn’t appreciate, but I knew what I wanted, so didn’t let it get to me. If you’re going to be an artist, know what you want to accomplish so you can withstand the pressure of all the “expert” opinions you’re going to get as to why you should fit the mold. We’re all different, and that’s a good thing!
After a year and a half, portfolio all ready to go, I made appointments with several publishing houses in New York City. My dreams seemed about to come true! But then, something unexpected happened, and my whole life took a sharp detour. I ended up changing my degree course to Criminal Justice/Behavioral Science and earned a B.S. in CJ (with one course short of a double major in Psychology).
I learned a lot about people—some good, some things I wish I didn’t know. But the most important thing I learned is that most offenders in the CJ system can’t read at a 6th grade level, have no job skills, and once they’re in the system, they rarely get out because they go right back to the same environment that led them there in the first place.
I decided the best way to help was at the beginning, so I went into teaching. I wanted to be prepared to do my best, so I earned a Professional Clear, CLAD Credential and a Master’s degree in Cross-Cultural Education. I loved working with my students and loved each and every one of them as if they were my own. I couldn’t believe the conditions some of them were living in!
For those who believe that it’s “nature” not “nurture” that shapes a child, believe me, it’s mainly nurture. Given a loving, constructive environment, children’s special talents and abilities are able to grow, and they can fulfill their best potential. I wish I could make it so that every single child is brought up in a home where they’re sheltered and encouraged.
Back to the story… Statistics show that most new teachers leave within 5 years, and that was my original plan. Instead, I stayed in teaching for 12 years. The whole time, I prayed I wouldn’t lose the skills I’d worked and studied so hard to gain. I’d catch myself looking at people, places, and things, working out in my mind how to render it in a painting.
I guess I was developing all along without realizing it. When it became too difficult to put aside the artist part of me any longer, I resigned. I’ve been back in art for about three years now, and even though there have been a lot of trials, I’m thankful to be able to paint.
While I was teaching, I wrote a few manuscripts for children. My favorite one is about constellations, because all of my kids (and grownups, too!) would always tell me they wanted to know about them. It took two years of research, both on the stars and their stories, to complete it. I thought it would be so cool for others to be able to learn about the constellations without having to become an amateur astronomer to do it! The star illustrations are on scratchboard paper with watercolor pens for the colors.
Here’s one of Pegasus, which is actually a larger copy of a horse sketch I did when I was 14; it’s the only sample I have left of my art from childhood. I sent the manuscript out with a few sample illustrations, but heard nothing from any of the publishers. I guess they didn’t think there was a need for it, with all the information that’s on the internet.
But that’s not really true; a lot of the “sky maps” and information about constellations on the internet aren’t accurate. Also, you can’t look at a lighted screen, then look into the sky for a constellation, because after looking at light, your eyes won’t be sensitive enough to see any but the brightest stars.
Maybe it seems as though all of this doesn’t seem like a typical artist’s life story, and you’re right, it doesn’t! But my dad always said that we should be like they were in the Renaissance. He said we weren’t meant to do just one thing with our lives. “Inventors! Scientists! Philosophers! Writers! Painters! Architects!!” (My dad also always told us how wonderful books are, and he made us eat a lot of fish because he said it was good for the brain…)
My strongest artistic influences include many 18th and 19th century painters, especially the Impressionists and Naturalist painters from France and Britain. My favorite artist is 15th century Rembrandt; I’m overawed when viewing his work. My other favorites are Renoir, Monet, Turner, and Pissarro. By the way, if you’ve never seen any of their early “traditional” works, take a look at them—you’ll be astonished at their transformation.
It shows how much they helped each other to develop the style of painting we call Impressionism. It’s so fortunate for us that they had the courage to step out of the prescribed painting methods of the day. That’s why I joined the Doodlewash art community, because as artists, we need support and discussion with like minds to help each other grow.
I think my painting process is similar to most artists. I’m very fortunate to live in Southern California, close to the Safari Wild Life Park, San Diego Wildlife Refuge, and the Pacific Ocean. When sketching at the beach, it truly feels like I’m living the dream! I usually compose a painting with field sketches and/or photographs to use in the studio. This gives me first-hand experience with the sense of the subject as a vibrant, living creature.
I also spend time researching every subject to give me an adequate knowledge and understanding of it to transfer to the painting. If I can’t take my own photos of a subject, I use reference photos from my (tons of, of course!) reference books on art and nature or the internet (and yes, I give credit where it’s due! I’m a stickler about copyright).
After seeing J.W. Turner’s incredible watercolors on exhibit at The Getty about three years ago, I died and went to heaven! Just kidding, but it was a transformative experience! I took tons of notes—photos weren’t allowed, as these paintings were on loan from, and are jealously guarded by, the Tate Gallery—and started experimenting with watercolor on canvas. Turner’s papermaker had a special ground formula to prepare the paper so that Turner could achieve a lot of effects we don’t see nowadays with watercolor paintings. His results were amazing!
I did a lot of research and found that several of the Impressionists did the same thing, and even painted on canvas using this same ground. Who knew? I did more research and experiments until I found a solution that worked best for me: Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground. (I don’t get paid for advertising them, lol!) I’m still experimenting, and while at times (most of the time!) it feels like I’m over-reaching my skill level, it’s still rewarding, because I’m getting closer to the results I want to achieve.
Kolinsky Sable brushes are the only kind I use—good hair is important! My favorite brushes are Winsor & Newton, Series 7, but I also have some Da Vinci & Richeson brushes (and others, whose names have faded and are now unreadable). I use a variety of watercolor papers, but I think my favorite is Arches. I like medium- to heavy-weight papers because I do a lot of things that tear thinner paper surfaces. For paints, I only use pure, natural pigments (because they mix without muddying), and mainly use Winsor & Newton and Daniel Smith watercolor tubes.
I don’t use Photoshop or any other illustration programs. That’s probably considered a drawback in the technological age, but the tactile part of painting is one of the big attractions for me, not to mention, computers seem to leech away my creativity. I guess I see computers as a necessary way to get business done, but I don’t enjoy it “at all at all” as the Irish would say.
Last, but not least, I want to express my deepest thanks to Charlie O’Shields for all he’s doing. Charlie, you’re fabulous and inspiring—a talented artist, professional, friendly, and supportive to other artists. Truly a Renaissance kind of guy!
Creator of Doodlewash® and founder of World Watercolor Month™ (July) and World Watercolor Group™. Sharing daily watercolor illustrations and stories while proudly featuring talented artists from all over the world! If you’d like to be a guest artist on Doodlewash.com, contact me!