4 Tips to Make Your Portraits More Realistic

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

fashion portrait of iris apfel by Dena Cooper

Drawing and painting realistic subject matter can feel like a daunting task but no one starts out with perfect technique.  Everyone has a style and process that works best for them but there are some tricks that have helped me considerably in creating work that looks and feels realistic.  Some of these tips may seem obvious but can be harder to actually put into practice.  Whenever I start to struggle with a piece or feel that burning urge to rip my painting in half and start over, I think about these four helpful tips I’ve learned in art school and beyond as a freelancer in the eleventh hour.

1. Draw what you see, not what you know

This one seems like a no brainer but turns out to be the mantra that I have churning in my head ALL. DAY. LONG.  It’s easy to jump into a routine of painting an eye the way you think it should look based on the countless other eyes you’ve painted in the past but it can be quite rewarding to separate yourself from your subject matter and replicate exactly what you’re seeing instead of the shapes you think are there.  A classic trick of the trade when struggling to get something exactly right is turning your whole painting and reference photo upside down so you are less likely to rely on your own imagination and more likely to stick to what’s actually there.  

2. Contrast is key

Contrast is the difference between the darkest darks and the lightest lights in a composition.  It’s no surprise that the correct amount of shading can make or break a portrait.  Many beginner artists that I’ve worked with are afraid of dark shading and often don’t leave white highlights in their portraits which I see as a huge missed opportunity to create drama and add that pop of realism in their work.  A great trick for correctly establishing your lights and darks in a reference photo is squinting.  You can see all of the highest contrasts by squinting at your reference photo and it can also be a great way to compare your work to your reference side by side.

3. Think of your subject in terms of shapes instead of lines

No one pulls a Michelangelo in the first grade.  We learn to draw using lines and are encouraged to draw even humans in a basic “stick-figure” form as children.  So, when taking higher level art classes, the first habit you have to break is thinking of the world as a series of lines.  Thinking about any object in terms of shape and form can help you see where shading needs to go and how the object is interacting with its light source.  Many artists will start a large composition with a light sketch of the shapes that make up larger objects.  Studying the placement of these shapes within the larger picture can really help lay the foundations for a proportionally correct composition.

4. Complementary tones breed neutrals

Probably the most offensive thing I see other artists do (unknowingly) is use color “straight from the tube”.  Mixing the perfect skin tone is something people ask me about a lot and I have to say it’s easier than you may think.  As a general rule, I mix all of my own colors with the exception of black (even using black from the tube is a huge “don’t” according to many artists - oh well).  For skin tone in watercolor, it’s simple:  Use a base tone of red or a terra-cotta and add water to dilute the hue.  Add the complement of your base tone (green) which will neutralize the red and give you a much more dull peachy tone.  I like to add purple or blue to that mixture to create shadows and I always add color with a very soft hand.  You can always add color but it’s harder to take color away.

Creating realistic artwork takes practice, patience and dedication.  Sometimes it’s necessary to paint one piece three times before getting it exactly right.  Persistence and a critical eye will advance the skill of any artist - I’m a firm believer that art can be a learned skill for those who invest their time and effort into bettering their technique.  I would love to answer any questions you may have about creating realistic portraits - shoot me an email or leave me a comment down below.

My Draw A Dot. Submission: Miu Miu

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Every month no matter how many commissions are on my plate I make sure to make time for Draw A Dot.’s illustration open call.  It’s always important to make time for your own artwork.  I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard art directors and agents say that they look for artists who are passionate enough about their work that they create in their free time.  Many times it’s during a personal project that artists tend to grow and evolve their style.   

Marcus Kan, the brains behind Draw A Dot., happens to be the art director and creator of several popular art blogs and sites online, including Fusion of Effects.  Through Draw A Dot. he features artists with a surreal illustration style that tell a story through their artwork.  When I first started entering his open calls, my work was admittedly less interesting with much less interaction with composition and story line.  I’m so happy to be part of an illustration community that pushes my style as an illustrator and challenges the way I see fashion as subject matter.

This month the open call was based on the Miu Miu Spring 2017 line, full of vintage pin-up beachy vibes.  The psychedelic reference to the 60’s and 70’s in the form of fit-and-flare coats paired with floral swim caps created such as interesting basis for fashion illustration.  I could not have had more fun creating my own punchy print made of synchronized swimmers donning my favorite swimsuit mixed with components from the actual prints from the line.  Today Marcus will start posting his nine favorite illustrations from the open call on Draw A Dot.’s Instagram and I encourage you all to follow along and hopefully find a few new exciting artists to follow.

Interview with Elle Sees

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A few months ago Leila Cole of Elle Sees, a creative content agency, contacted me for an interview.  I love talking about my journey to illustration and was more than excited to collaborate with Elle Sees to open up a bit about my daily schedule as a freelancer and some of the things I do to get (and stay) inspired.  I take every chance I get to share my experience as a creative freelancer and welcome questions that may help others find their footing in the industry.  I plan to compile a list of frequently asked questions for all of my friends, fans and followers but for now, here’s my interview with Elle Sees:

Where did you grow up/hometown?
My parents separated when I was very young so I spent my summers in Fredericksburg, Virginia and the school year in St. Johns, Michigan. I’m definitely a Virginia girl at heart and I moved there to go to college shortly after graduating high school.

Although we realize that no two days are alike, what is a typical day like for you?
I’m not at all a morning person, so holding a steady schedule is definitely a challenge for me. I start the day with the best coffee I can get my hands on and the obligatory emails that come with running your own business. Most of my days are spent painting in my studio in Brooklyn but about once a week, I try to schedule all of my meetings with clients to get out of the house and socialize.

What projects are you currently working on?
I’m getting ready to launch my blog, "Brushstroke a la Mode". It’s centered around my life as an illustrator and I will be sharing some intimate details about my past, present and future as a creative, hoping to inspire others to take a leap of faith into their most creative lives. I’ve always loved writing and I’m so excited to share some of my thoughts and experiences with my audience.

What are your must haves for productivity? What gets your juices flowing?
The official answer is Stumptown coffee - I promise I’m not an affiliate! I would have to say the key to my productivity is knowing when to step away from a project and come back with a fresh perspective. As an artist I also find it absolutely essential to have the very best materials (that I can afford) on hand at all times in addition to a well curated Spotify playlist.

What’s the most challenging part of your career? Receive any ‘vote of confidence’ lately that you’re so glad you did?
The biggest challenge I face daily is the question: What’s next? I’m constantly thinking ahead to what my next move will be and setting small goals for myself. When I meet those goals, it’s beyond satisfying and there’s usually some sort of embarassing victory dance. My latest victory would have to be winning the DrawADot. open call for Maison Margiela which had me smiling ear-to-ear for 48 hours minimum.

How do you stay inspired?
I feel so lucky to live in New York City where some of the world’s best art museums are at my fingertips. At least once or twice a month, I try to do something new and culturally significant in the city, but sometimes just walking down the street is enough to renew my creativity and point me in some new direction that I hadn’t thought of before.

How would you describe your creative process?
My creative process is constantly evolving. I started my career as a womenswear designer which is why I am constantly looking to fashion for inspiration. I love painting runway looks and model portraits, so I’m perpetually on Vogue.com or flipping through magazines looking for an image that strikes me to interpret in watercolor.

Where do you go to hideaway?
My apartment is a visual oasis for me. I love staying home with my husband on the weekend or cuddling up with my cat and reading. It’s so important to have a comfortable space that you can retreat to and I feel so lucky to have accomplished that in my Brooklyn apartment.

What are you most proud of/your most satisfying accolade thus far?
My hometown in Michigan wrote a newspaper article about me and I was so touched by their pride. A few family members and friends in the area clipped the article and sent it to me.

Any SPRING 2017 “must-have”?
Mules on top of mules! Embroidered mules, Gucci mules, heeled mules...they’re all so good! My favorite are the Alberta Ferretti 'Mia' mules that I illustrated.

Words to live by?
Anything is possible in this life. If you want something go get it - you get one chance to make the most of your circumstances.

If there are any questions you have about freelancing or even illustration techniques, my door is always open and I would be happy to help!  Leave me a comment below or shoot me an email.

Vetements x Manolo Blahnik Collaboration

Monday, June 12, 2017

Watercolor fashion illustration of Vetements x Manolo Blahnik Collaboration boots by Dena Cooper.
This week I finally got around to illustrating one of my favorite pieces from the Spring 17 runway.  Vetements has been controversial in the fashion world for the last few years.  Founder, Demna Gvasalia, has been praised for his fresh vision and original take on street style but criticized for recutting branded clothing and styling it for the runway.  Whichever camp you’re in, you can’t deny the power of starting a dialogue, something which Vetements has done with ease time and time again in the short time they've been showing in Paris.  

I was reminded of this fresh new brand when reading last week that they are pulling out of fashion week for the foreseeable future, bringing up the big question that the fashion industry has been pondering lately:  Are runway shows still relevant?  Gvasalia claims, “I got bored.  I think it needs to enter a new chapter. Fashion shows are not the best tool.  It’s become repetitive and exhausting.  We will do something when there’s the time and the need for it. It will be more like a surprise.”  I couldn’t be more excited to see where Gvasalia takes his presentation of Vetements for the next few seasons. 

For now, I will definitely still be revisiting their past collections for gorgeous jewel toned inspiration.  I couldn’t resist the waist-high satin boots from their Manolo Blahnik collaboration or their dramatic long sleeves and oversized hoodies that elevate the way we see street style and challenge the way we dress for every-day life.  Tomorrow I’ll be heading over to Dover Street Market in Manhattan to see the current collection up-close and personal.

The Runway Illustrated: Marchesa Fall 2017

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Runway Illustrated is what I hope to be the bread and butter series of Brushstroke a la Modé.  I will be illustrating some of my favorite looks from the runway and talking about how some of my favorite designers have changed my perception of fashion.  This week, I’m starting with my all time favorite lady-team, Marchesa.  

Marchesa is one of those collections that I can’t wait to explore every season.  I started stalking Marchesa on the runway in college and would say they were a great inspiration to my aesthetic in design school.  Keren Craig and Georgina Chapman have such a unique eye for the modern-day Cinderella in all of us.  At a time when fashion has veered from conventional femininity, Marchesa has stayed true to their vision, celebrating the female figure with intricate detailing and voluptuous silhouettes.

One thing I love about Marchesa is their affinity for fashion illustration.  They’ve had artists like Katie Rodgers of Paper Fashion illustrate live for their bridal presentations as well as for their social media accounts.  They also share fan artwork with the tag #marchesafanfriday on their Instagram on Fridays.  It’s so exciting to see designers with a real appreciation for fashion illustration. 

The look that caught my eye from Fall 2017 was a romantic lavender gown with soft feather details.  The oversized draped bow is delicate in combination with gorgeous embroidery and embellishment giving the look a true Marchesa romance.  I love illustrating such intricate details in a gown as it brings such dimension and contrast to the finished artwork.

If there are designers you’d like to see illustrated in the future, please let me know in the comments.

You can see my final illustration featured this month on DrawADot.

My Story: How I got into Illustration

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Fashion and art have always been a part of me.  It's cliche to say I've been drawing since I can remember but that's the absolute truth.  I can remember several times throughout elementary school that kids paid me to draw them something and the praise I gained for my artwork was truly addictive.  It's no shocker that I sought out a creative career as an adult but illustration was never a career that I planned for.  I started my professional career as a fashion designer straight out of college but I couldn't be happier with the opportunities I've stumbled upon since taking a leap of faith and moving to New York City in 2012.

After landing a job at Calvin Klein as an assistant designer, I was on top of the world.  I was finally reaping the benefits of all my hustle in the fashion industry and loving my new team.  Unfortunately, the universe had its own ideas.

I started to notice changes in my energy levels:  Some mornings it was almost impossible to drag myself out of bed.  I began taking sick days due to pure exhaustion and when I did make it to work, I would sometimes fall asleep at my desk.  I was also gaining weight in a slow but steady stream and no amount of cycling or pilates was counteracting it.  I went to a few doctors but they were all convinced I was stress eating and exhausted from my new job.

After a year of struggle, I decided to resign and take some time to work through my health issues.  It was heartbreaking for me to let go of my design career, but I knew I needed to focus on my health and dedicate my time to healing.  I was sleeping close to 18 hours a day and essentially watching my life pass me by.  Doctors were hesitant to label my health issues, so I went untreated for Hashimoto’s disease for two years, causing significant weight gain, new food allergies and a host of other undesirable health problems.

It was during this time that I realized I needed a creative outlet.  I decided to try my hand at watercolor as I had seen some beautiful watercolor paintings online and was intrigued to try it for myself.  The beginning was rough.  Watercolor takes a good deal of skill and technique.  Through countless hours of practice and plenty of botched paintings, I found my footing.  

I (almost) feel lucky that my health forced me to take some time away from design.  I never would have had the courage to quit my day job to pursue art as a career and I couldn’t be happier with my new-found purpose in life.  I have been a freelance illustrator for almost two years now and I am happier than I have ever been mostly due to the creative freedom I enjoy on a daily basis.

My weight gain is still a struggle.  I have found a doctor who listens to me and I’m well on my way to recovery, however weight loss is a very slow process for someone with hypothyroidism.  I have spent the last few years hiding from friends, family, and followers, embarrassed about the dramatic change in my appearance.  Sharing my story and my struggles with all of you brings me a wonderful feeling of freedom and acceptance.  I'm so happy to finally be able to open-up and share how I turned one of the worst things that's ever happened to me into one of the best.

How One of My Idols Became My Mentor

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

fashion illustration by Jessica Durrant for Dena Cooper's blog, Brushstroke a la Mode

It was scrolling through Pinterest in 2012 that I stumbled upon Jessica Durrant’s gorgeous work for the first time.  There’s something so effortless about the way she combines her lines and washes of color that makes anyone think they can pursue watercolor with ease.  Pick up a paint brush and you might find it to be a little harder than it looks.  I know because that’s exactly what I did.

I’ve been drawing since day one (okay, maybe day two) and I’ve always spent my free time sketching in pencil or charcoal.  I went to school for fashion design and before that, I had an extensive background in fine arts but I had never touched watercolor before.  I bought my first novice set of watercolors with a pack of brushes and a pad of inexpensive paper and I got to work experimenting with this new fluid medium that bled all over the page at any contact with moisture.

fashion illustration by Jessica Durrant for Dena Cooper's blog, Brushstroke a la Mode
Needless to say, conquering watercolor took me a great amount of effort and practice but I’m not sure I would have had the inspiration to try without seeing Jessica’s amazing talent.  Since then, I’ve followed Jessica on Instagram, Pinterest, Youtube and her blog.  Her voice in the illustration community is one of positive energy and encouragement which is especially unique given the competitive edge to any creative industry.  She is constantly striving for transparency with her audience which is what makes her followers such devoted fans of her work.

I was over the moon when reading Jessica’s announcement that she would be participating in a mentoring service called RookieUp and went straight to their website to book an hour with her on the phone.  RookieUp is an online platform connecting creative professionals to those in need of a mentor.  There are several experienced professionals from web designers to photographers and illustrators all with differing specialties.  

fashion illustration by Jessica Durrant for Dena Cooper's blog, Brushstroke a la Mode

On the morning of my call, I was filled with excitement at the prospect of chatting with an artist I had been following and worshiping for years.  When the phone rang it was like talking to an old friend - Jessica was so warm and considerate.  We talked about building a freelance career, finding clients that speak your language (figuratively, of course) and dealing with rejection as an artist and a professional.  Almost two months later, many of Jessica’s words are still on repeat in my head.

The experience was unforgettable but furthermore, Jessica has stayed in touch on Instagram when she has a spare moment from her dream job.  I will definitely be using RookieUp to contact her again in the future as my illustration career progresses.

All artwork is intellectual property of Jessica Durrant.  Thank you so much to Jessica for allowing me to use her work as a part of this post.

by mlekoshi