Being an Artist in the Digital Age

Armand Cabrera


I had two computers fail last weekend. My workstation, the CPU fan failed which was reasonably easy to replace although with the storms it still took a week. My laptop was a complete failure of the drive and since its a ten year old xp machine it ewas time to let it go.

I rely on my computers to give me the date and time, keep my calendar of appointments and update me with current events and weather. Most of my correspondence is through email or text.  All of my advertising and marketing is digital now too. Social media and portfolio sites play a big part in my presence as an artist and of course there is still this blog. All of which I need to be able to access on something besides the two inch screen of my Smartphone.

Of the two computers the laptop was expendable so I’m glad the situation turned out how it did but the whole incident got me thinking about how much technology has changed how I work in the past ten years. While I’m no Luddite compared to people my same age, I’m sure the younger artists out there are rolling their eyes right now at me saying “please, you still work traditionally for the final image you are making.”

Even with my traditional work I have let computers into most of the process. Photo reference is shot with my digital camera and editing is all in the computer, as are compositional sketches and color keys. I no longer have to print out images to work from in the studio I have dedicated a large monitor for that. If I do print things they get printed from the computer.
This last week has left me picking up old ways of working, lots of pencil thumbnails and some small color sketches and painting from field studies. What I noticed immediately is how much the preliminaries in the traditional process matter and how much more focused I am working that way.
My traditional painting is the end result for me, but even so, digital tools really allow decision making to be put off indefinitely and I think that matters a great deal in painting. One of the reasons painting outdoors from life is so important is it forces decision making during the process whereas working in the controlled environment of the studio, especially with tech, does not.
Going forward I am going to be paying more attention to this to see if there is a way to use tech in a way that doesn’t short circuit decisions and leave everything up in the air in a fluid state of endless process and multiple outcomes.

Getting to the Heart of a Subject


Armand Cabrera
 Dennis Miller Bunker


Art can be many things depending on who you ask the question of. For me art is getting to the heart of a paintings subject and revealing something of that understanding. It is not just copying the surface quality of the theme blindly, nor is it imposing so much of my personality on the thing being painted that it reveals nothing of the subject.

Painting, at its best, in my opinion, is a discourse between the artist and their motif and it takes a couple of things to accomplish. One is the ability to translate the message and get it on the canvas in a way that is not overworked. The freshness and economy of the application is important to the statement.  It says that you understand what you are communicating.

Isaac Levitan


To do all that though one needs to listen and look, absorb the image and understand its essence, finding the qualities of the thing that makes that scene, in those moments, a unique event never to be repeated. It requires approaching every subject with humility and openness to what we are experiencing and seeing.
The artist must be careful during the process and make sure they are avoiding rote answers to design and composition color and brush work. It is engaging all the senses in the development of the image. Fighting the comfort of what you know you can do and pushing yourself to the limits of your abilities and experience something new is the only way of achieving this.
Maurice Braun

Perspective and Its Importance


Armand Cabrera

Almost all of my effort in teaching goes to restating fundamental principles to my students, even those that have achieved some small amount of success. Many of my students have always been interested in art but did not pursue it as a career and so many of them lack the basic fundamental skills needed to create the proper framework to place their paintings over. Students often worry about developing a style but in my opinion style is irrelevant when the fundamentals are lacking. 

The biggest problems in their paintings come from a lack of drawing skills and little or no understanding of linear perspective. A simple understanding of perspective includes vanishing points, eye level and horizon lines and a station point.

Anything you paint that has volume to it needs linear perspective to accomplish competently; Portraits, still life, landscapes, seascapes, city scenes; all of them need a thorough understanding of basic perspective. The more complex a scene becomes the more understanding you need. Think of all of the situations that come up in paintings that have groups of animals or people or reflections, shadows or anything with a complex structure to it. All those situations will need an even deeper consideration of perspective. Why go through your life avoiding those things or painting them badly because you lack the understanding to paint them properly?

People interested in learning more about perspective as it applies to your painting and drawing can find the information in the books ‘Perspective for Artists’ by Rex Vicat Cole from Dover books, ‘Drawing Scenery; Landscapes and Seascapes’ by Jack Hamm and ‘Successful Drawing by Andrew Loomis’. Of those three books the first one by Cole is only one that focuses on perspective exclusively. The other two cover it in conjunction with good drawing principles.

Artistic Intent

By Armand Cabrera

“Brush strokes carry a message whether you will it or not. The stroke is just like the artist at the time he makes it. All the certainties, all the uncertainties, all the bigness of his spirit and all the littleness are in it.” —– Robert Henri
 Intent is often overlooked when creating a painting. Intent is different than an idea for a painting. The idea is subject or narrative of your image but just as important for the image is the why of it. Why make this image?

In my opinion it is intent that drives the creative process and affects the outcome of the final image. Why not make it conscious? I would argue the best paintings an artist can make have a clear intent from their author. The artist has found something to say about the subject being depicted.  There are more utilitarian forms of intent like only painting to make money or painting to be famous or just practicing for improving ones skill but even there knowing the purpose of your work will affect the outcome.

Every artist who has ever attempted to sell their work has had to deal with compromise. Once you put your work up for sale you begin a form of collaboration.  Better to have that collaboration at the beginning of the painting process before the artist actually starts the image than the end.
 At its best all parties respect their roles in the transaction and this allows the artist to willingly accept the work being requested or purchased outright. In its worst form selling art can be a nightmare, it is a job with the artist being little more than the one who renders the idea with little other input into the creation.  Sometimes an artist can be asked to change a finished piece of art to accommodate an interested client. To the degree the intent of the picture is embraced by the artist the better chance that artist has of creating something worthwhile.

Working from Memory and imagination


Armand Cabrera

In the book 40 illustrators and how They Work N. C. Wyeth says “Every Illustration or painting I have made in the last 30 years has been from the imagination or memory. However, I have constantly studied from the figure, from animals and from landscape, and have especially stressed the training of my memory. ”

Another quote from 40 Illustrators and How They Work

“Wyeth, asked for an account of his technical procedure, gave me the following: This painting was made entirely from memory, which is my customary practice for creative painting.”

The interview was from 1944 a year before Wyeth died which means all of his illustrations going back to 1914 were created this way. I take this to mean although he painted and drew from life; he did all of his illustrations without reference in that time frame. That would include Robin Hood and everything after that but not Kidnapped or Treasure Island.

In the book Three generations of Wyeths Andrew makes similar claims about N.C. so I have no reason to doubt it without proof to the contrary. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. During his lifetime, N. C. Wyeth created over 3,000 paintings and illustrated 112 books.

Some quotes by Andrew about his dad.

 “Pa was also a master of still life. I think he felt that he needed to work from life, and I can understand that. If you work all the time from your imagination as Pa did for his illustrations you think I got to go out and eat a good roast beef or something. You need to nourish yourself. Working completely from the imagination is very draining experience.

“When it came to illustrating pa had an amazing ability to do them without a model”

“Pa’s animals are outstanding in his illustrations. He could do a horse on its back, flying through the air, or in any position you’d want.” I asked him once “How did you learn to do a horse in so many positions without a model and make it really alive?” Well I’ll tell you on the roundup I had the chance to cut up a horse that had died. I’ll never forget the anatomy of a horse.”

Talking with other artists about this, it’s interesting that a lot of people can’t accept someone could work this way. That is not to say I believe he did everything completely from his imagination. Andrew even says N.C. used his children for difficult or tricky things like a foot here or hand there and had them pose so he could get a clearer image of his idea. He had an extensive collection of props and costumes that he kept for reference.  But that is still a different thing than a lot of today’s painters and their complete reliance on photographic mimicry. Where it is not enough to just refer to the reference but it must be slavishly adhered to at all cost even the success of the painting.  NC Wyeth had a completely unique style that has been often imitated but never surpassed I beleive the basis for that is in his imagination.