The Pearly Story Behind "Dusting in Pearls"

I always feel like a walking paradox. I can get out in the garden with my shovel and sledgehammer and love every dusty dirty minute I'm out there. I spend the majority of my life dressed in my "grubbies". Yet there's a part of me deep down inside that still likes "the frillies", "the pearlies", and "the sparklies"--all the pretty things. Maybe it's all the great classic Hollywood movies I watched as a kid. I don't know. All I know is that I can be dirty and sweaty and still want to put on heels when it isn't practical; buy the prettiest apron even if it will get dirty; and don pearls when all I'm going to be doing is dusting and vacuuming the house. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't have to. I've decided to claim it, celebrate it, and have fun with it... and create some "pearly" goodness along the way.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Uncharted waters ahead

Because the summer heat around here is so oppressive, I spend the summer months indoors staying cool with the air conditioner. It isn't until sometime in October that I venture back out into the garden for the next 8-9 months until the heat drives me back inside again. So during the summer months, I do an awful lot of soul-searching and pondering. I do a lot of pondering while I garden the rest of the year, but it is often a different kind of pondering that is more spiritual in nature. My summer pondering is that of a woman in "hibernation" and often has a "cocoon effect" on me so that by the end of summer I'm ready to burst forth like a butterfly ready to take wing.

This summer, I've done a great deal of soul-searching and self-evaluation during my months of hibernation. And in counsel with my best friend (who is also my sweet spouse), I felt brave enough to take a step into uncharted waters in my creative journey. So I applied to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to the Master of Fine Arts program in Illustration. A large part of me expected to not get in, but I knew I needed to at least go through the process of taking the risk.

My creative journey has been a circuitous one. I've been creating with a pencil in my hand since I was old enough to hold one (my mom has the home movies to prove it). Through some wonderful serendipitous circumstances, I was able to attend a public school in first grade that had an art program with a dedicated art teacher who taught her students (me included) how to draw still life at age 7! Now that I reflect back on it, I realize was an amazing and rare experience that was. As I got older, I plugged along through various public schools (we moved frequently during my childhood). By junior high and high school I was choosing to take art as an elective no matter what. I learned sculpture, pottery, drawing, painting, and just about every other medium you can imagine.

After high school, I dabbled in a few college majors before settling on Commercial Art and earned my Associates of Arts degree at a community college. I walked out of that program with the training to be a graphic artist and the portfolio to prove it. I went to interview after interview for creative positions. But no jobs materialized. My dream had been to work for Disney, so I even trekked down to L.A. for a couple of months trying to get a job there. It didn't happen. It seemed I was not destined to be a professional graphic artist. I ended up working in secretarial and data entry capacities in order to earn money (good thing my mom had strongly encouraged me to take typing and 10-key in high school).

After a few unfulfilling years working in administrative jobs, I decided to go back to school and earn my Bachelor's degree. I was drawn to Mills College and ended up in their Art History program. My two years there were an awakening for me as a 26-28 year old woman. I gained a lot of confidence and self-assurance there. I did a lot of writing for Art History and enjoyed it immensely. My professors said I showed promise and hoped that I would go on to get my graduate degrees in Art History as well. But I didn't. I had to go back into the workforce and earn money again.

"Corporate America" was a bit kinder to me after I had my Bachelor's degree. I was able to get work in project administration capacities. I tried to carve out "creative" niches in my work as a technical writer and computer trainer. I was always the one that got to do the office newsletters and flyers.

But my "real" art still remained in a portfolio and in a secret place in my heart. My creativity found outlets in the privacy of my own home. I never earned a living creating art. And it always seemed like a very sad disappointment that I felt I needed to hide. Sometimes I'd get brave and send a set of slides to a greeting card publisher. I even invested in having some cards printed up professionally but couldn't sell them to retailers. I let my inner artist slowly go to sleep in a place deep inside me.

I got married when I was 31 years old. Within months of getting married, my physical health deteriorated rapidly. I had been burdened with chronic pain since I was 15 years old, but no doctor was able to diagnose anything other than PMS. By the time I was 31, I became completely incapacitated. So my husband became the soul breadwinner in our home. I stayed home and thought it was a good opportunity to try to get creative again. I tried my hand at cross-stitching. Once (at the prompting of my brother when he gave me a beautiful wooden easel as a gift) I brought out my paints and a canvas and painted one painting. I gave away most of my art supplies to my brother who was in art classes at the time. I figured I was passing the torch on for good. All my creative pursuits were limited and very "safe" like embroidery and sewing. I couldn't venture to the place where I had taken risks a decade before. That was too scary.

A couple of years after I got married, we bought our house and I delved into the adventures of remodeling and renovation. My creativity found an outlet in home construction as I tiled, sheet-rocked, taped, textured, laid hardwood floors, and installed trim. It also found an outlet in the garden as I took our dried up lot and made it bloom into a drought-tolerant cottage-style garden.

After a few years of working on the house despite my chronic pain, I finally found a doctor that listened. A month after my 39th birthday, I underwent the surgery that revealed I had been plagued with a crippling case of endometriosis for over 20 years. I was given my life back. For me, life really did begin at 40. I spent the next 1-2 years healing my physical body. But my inner artist was still fast asleep.

It wasn't until the spring of 2007 on a vacation, when I started shooting photos on the beach that I realized there was a creative artist in me that, like Sleeping Beauty, was ready to wake up. However, because I have to allow myself to be slightly vulnerable when I create, I had to take things slowly and ease into it again. The more involved the creative method is (like painting), the more vulnerable I have to be to create. I had to take baby steps. I couldn't just jump back in with both feet. It was too scary.

First, I ventured into photography again because that was the safest place to start. I could shoot what I saw. With a digital camera, I didn't even have to worry about wasting film. If a shot didn't turn out, I hadn't taken a huge creative risk. I could just delete the image. I started dabbling in some post-processing techniques using Photoshop to get a little more creative with the photographs. But things still remained pretty safe. And it helped that I shot a lot of my images in my gardens and places that I loved.

Then after about a year of that, I started playing with some digitally produced art. I doodled using my computer and a newly acquired digital tablet. Creating that way was pretty safe too, because I could always hit "undo" or erase something. Nothing was really permanent.

I did that for a while, until I felt safe enough to get my sketchbooks back out and started sketching in them. One sketchbook hadn't been touched in over 10 years. This step was pretty hard. I found myself wanting to make every sketch be perfect. Sometimes, I would find myself paralyzed and unable to sketch anything because of the fear of sketching something wrong and not creating a "masterpiece" every time. It was very hard to make myself take risks in that sketchbook (it still is).

I also invested in a new set of watercolors (my original tubes from 20 years ago had dried up). I brought out my unused watercolor paper from 15 years before and started painting in watercolors again. I successfully took that step into a more vulnerable place.

Then my father-in-law passed away in April 2009. In his spare time, Dad was a very talented painter in acrylics and oils. After the funeral, my mother-in-law gave me all Dad's blank canvases, his vast collection of exquisite brushes, and his entire set of paints. I drove home with a mini art supply store in the back of our vehicle. I let the canvases sit for a couple of days, but they kept "calling out to me". In the midst of my grief, I knew Dad wanted me to paint something with everything I'd been given. I brushed the dust off that wooden easel my brother had given me 10 years before (it still looked brand new), and I made myself put a paint-laden brush to canvas. That was really hard. I couldn't hit the "undo" command when I was painting. It was just me, the brush, the acrylic paint and the canvas... and Dad, who I could feel quietly prodding me on. But once I got into the groove, boy, did it feel good.

Every step of the way, I felt myself getting closer to my artistic core--the place where I had to be willing to be vulnerable in order to create.

At the same time as I was taking up painting again, I also started taking floral design classes at our local adult education center. I am an introvert with some social anxiety, so going back into a classroom setting again with strangers was a huge step for me in my creative journey. I had to learn all over again how to allow my creative work to be critiqued; how to create in the midst of others observing my creative process; and how to make mistakes in front of an instructor and classmates. It was hard at first. But I persevered and can honestly say that I welcome those aspects of the creative process now. I actually thrive off of it.

It seemed inevitable that my next step would be to revisit the idea of pursuing my graduate degree after I had put that goal on hold for 15 years. I chose the Academy of Art University in San Francisco mainly because of it's online degree programs. Only a few years ago, the idea of being able to get an MFA in Illustration completely online was unheard of, and now the Academy of Art University is the pioneer in making it happen so an artist can earn an art degree and live anywhere in the world.

After I sent in my application, I braced myself for rejection, because rejection is what I've known when it came to the art that came from my core.

To my pleasant surprise, I received my acceptance letter to the Master of Fine Arts in Illustration last week! I will start the program the Summer semester of 2010 (just after I've completed my floral design certification program). This past week has been a week of letting it really sink in that this is real. The artist in me is finally fully awake again.

And now I'm taking a maiden voyage on uncharted waters. I hope you'll join me as I do. I'll continue to chronicle my artistic journey here at the Dusting in Pearls blog. And I hope that somehow as I share, my experiences will benefit someone that needs to awake their inner Sleeping Beauty as I did.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Behind the Scenes: Autumnal Bouquet

For this post, I thought it would be fun to share how I go about digitally altering a photograph to make it look like a chalk or pastel drawing like "Autumnal Bouquet" (above).

The first thing I do is find a promising photograph that I've taken of a flower arrangement. I find that the best floral photos are taken in indirect natural light. That means that if the object I'm shooting is being lit by sun come in a nearby window without directly shining on the object, it'll be great lighting. I like to use auto-focus when I shoot so that I get a crisp focus. I aim at the central object in the arrangement (in this case the yellow mum) and then shoot. I take multiple shots just to be sure I've gotten one really good sharp shot.

After I take it back to my computer and bring it into Photoshop (I use CS3, but Photoshop Elements will work too), I make the photograph the first layer in a file.

Then I use the "Place" command to place a texture from a separate file into my current file as a new layer. In this instance, I used my own texture "Toasted Marshmallow".

I enlarge the texture so that it covers the original photo layer completely (don't worry, the other layer is just underneath like one piece of paper on top of another). Then with the new texture layer selected I go to my "Layers" menu and select "Screen". Then I reduce the opacity of the texture layer to 60%. And it looks like this:

Next, I use the "Place" command again to add another texture layer. This time it's my own texture "Autumn Haze".

I rotate and resize the texture so it covers the other two beneath it completely. Then I select the texture layer and reduce the opacity to 70% so it looks like this:

See how it's starting to look like a faint drawing? At this point, with the top texture still selected, I change to the eraser tool and choose a soft edged brush at 10% opacity. Using my digital tablet and stylus (you can do it with a mouse too although it's easier with the tablet and stylus). I "draw" on the edges of the petals to erase away the edges where the light highlights them. I erase away in shadows too. I change the size of my eraser depending on the detail I'm erasing. For the petals, I use a small eraser and for the background I use a large eraser.

Then if I want to enhance some of the shadows and highlights even more, I select the original photograph layer and with the dodge and burn tool set at 10%, I "draw" over a few of the highlights and shadows to really accentuate them as if I was going in with white or dark chalk and deepening those areas.

And the final result looks like this:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Dusting in Pearls Bookstore

The book above is just one of my treasured references that I use in my studio for creating. I also have books that have become cherished favorites for other reasons. That's why I decided to open the Dusting in Pearls Bookstore (powered by Amazon). I've only put books in the bookstore that I've read and/or own and that I highly recommend. You'll notice that I now have a link up in the header of this blog that says "Bookstore" and also a link box in the right-hand column on the blog that links to books featured in the Dusting in Pearls Bookstore.

The departments in the Dusting in Pearls Bookstore are:

  • Pearly Creating--filled with books that I reference regularly for creating in my studio
  • Pearly Living--all books that are part of my arsenal of essential books for living
  • Pearly Dreaming--features books (fiction and non-fiction) that have been instrumental in helping me to dream of what I want to be now and in the future
  • Pearly Gardening--my collection of gardening books that I use in my adventures in the garden
  • Pearly Home Improvement--the books here are the critical references my husband and I used to restore and renovate our little home, Rosehaven Cottage
When you order a book through the Dusting in Pearls Bookstore, the order for new books is taken, filled, and shipped by Amazon. You get a beautiful new copy of the book shipped directly to you!

So have fun virtually snooping through my library! Click on any of the bold words in this post to go directly to the Dusting in Pearls Bookstore.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Behind the Scenes: Downward Dog

Click on any of the images in this post to view larger

For this week's "Behind the Scenes" post, I thought it would be fun to share with you how I create an illustration piece from start to finish.

I did a rough sketch of a little dog on the back of some scratch paper when I was sitting in a meeting (it keeps me focused). I sketched it with the ballpoint pen that I had with me and didn't worry about the scratchy sketch lines that always happen when I sketch. I wanted the dog to be in a stretching "play with me" pose so I roughed out the basic shapes of its body lightly and then sketched in the details over the top with heavier strokes. If I make a mistake, I don't worry about it. Afterall, it's a sketch.

This sketch sat on one of my idea boards for months. My "idea boards" are a white board and a bulletin board I have behind my computer workspace with lots of sketches, clippings and ideas on them. That's where it sat until I had the inspiration to move on further with it.

Once I was in the mood to start playing with it more, I scanned it on my flatbed scanner so I had it in my computer as a TIFF file. Then I opened the TIFF file in Photoshop and started cleaning it up. For clean-up work, I use a Wacom digital tablet and digital pen on the eraser setting with a crisp edged brush at various diameters. I liked some of the sketchy lines, so I was careful to not erase those.

After the little dog was cleaned up to my satisfaction, I opened another Photoshop file and placed the cleaned up sketch as one layer and a scan of an old page of a book as another layer. To change the color of the blue ballpoint sketch, I went into "Curves" to adjust the RGB levels on the sketch layer and tweaked them until the sketch lines were a warm brown. I just eyeball it as I go and don't worry about specific numbers. Then I made the sketch layer a "Linear Burn" over the old page layer to make them more cohesive like I'd sketched the dog on the old paper.

The coloring part was next and that's always fun. I used my Wacom tablet and digital pen again. I almost always set my brush to 20% opacity or less so I can get a washy effect similar to art markers or watercolors. Everytime I changed colors, I made a new layer so I can always go back and remove a layer I don't like without destroying the rest of my work.

Once the illustration is all colored, it's done! Then I can take it and put it into composition like the one below. To make the composition below, I scanned the inside of an old library book that happened to have a fun title that worked with the illustration. I placed that scan as one layer and then placed the dog as another layer. I added a drop shadow on the dog layer to accent it. Then I added a text layer with the "Downward Dog" text down the left-hand side and reduced the opacity so it wouldn't distract the eye from the illustration of the dog.

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