Sunday, February 14, 2016

PAINTING DRAMA 1: An Art School Do-Over at The Oatley Academy

Looking back: Almost exactly seven years ago I started this blog. At the time, I was beginning a mentorship with illustrator Yuyi Morales and I wanted to share my journey. I also had this crazy idea to fund it by offering different amounts of art to those who contributed. It worked, but boy do I wish Kickstarter had been around back then!  Check out the original funding post here.

Little Red by Kristen Schwartz
It seems fitting that I’m re-igniting this blog to share my experiences from another mentored illustration program—Painting Drama. I spent quite a few years getting portfolio reviews at conferences from different art directors and the varying viewpoints were starting to pull me in different directions. It was time for regular guided feedback from one qualified person instead of many. Taught by Chris Oatley of The Oatley Academy, Painting Drama is about composition...and so much more. It was like an art school do-over for me. I went in as blank a canvas as I could and in the end, I learned more in 12 weeks of Painting Drama than I did pursuing my degree.

This was no workshop for the casual creation of art and I wouldn’t have applied if it were. I was looking for maximum growth, which, in my mind, involves great discomfort—a “Dark Night of the Soul”. For me, this term refers to an inner crisis that leads to great growth on a very personal level. It’s a place I go when I’m so far outside my comfort zone I feel I can’t handle things in my current capacity. I either have to give up or meet the challenge head on. There’s usually a feeling of hopelessness to rise above, then renewed resolve, followed by picking myself up and continuing on with newly acquired skills and perspective. The lack of anonymity in a mentored course creates even more discomfort. Stir in some blood, sweat and tears and it’s a success. I knew that in order to push my skills to the next level, I needed a big challenge to trigger that process. When the right opportunity appears, it’s necessary to trust…and jump.

And trust I did…
During the first weeks in class I discovered that most deadlines in Painting Drama were less than a week to complete thumbnails, comps and final illustration—on top of everything else in the lesson. My heart sank. Just doing an illustration took me a full week—never mind the thumbnails and comps. Hopelessness, dread and panic washed over me. What was I thinking? I was never going to survive. Everyone else seemed just fine and the more I looked at their work, the worse my work looked to me. I knew I would be getting kicked out of Painting Drama for failing miserably. BINGO—Dark Night begins!

To stay in the correct frame of mind when the panic took over, I asked myself what my purpose was for taking the course. The answer was, “To learn to see and create compositions more intentionally, to capture the essence of emotion and to reach my goals in children’s publishing”. That shift in thinking is what made all the difference in the world. It didn’t stop me from sometimes thinking I wasn’t going to finish in time, but remembering my purpose made me work much smarter and also made the process more meaningful. All the solutions were inside me...somewhere. All I had to do was be the best me I could and trust myself. On the second assignment I worked 17 hours straight solely on the illustration. I decided that wasn’t a viable option or habit I wanted to continue. So, I restricted my time on the actual illustration and became more thorough in the steps leading up to it. As I continued on, the illustrations went quicker and the results got better and better.

On the left: I used skills I already had to best meet the composition deadline. In this case I illustrated from photographs I took.
On the right: For the last assignment, I re-did the illustration to implement feedback and better meet my standards for a finished illustration. This time, I didn’t illustrate from photographs, but I referenced them. I relied more heavily on my emotions to complete the characters and environment. The time allotted was the same for both illustrations.

By being limited on time, I learned to use the skills I already had as a starting point. That way I was able to do the very best I could with the concepts I was learning. I ultimately began thinking about it like budgeting money and living within my means. Since I wasn’t willing to abandon sleep (=debt) and adopt an unrealistic lifestyle to finish an illustration, it was necessary to challenge my current workflow and find a better way. I essentially re-invented my way of working—a huge benefit for me and my clients. It became a profoundly exciting challenge and I achieved more in less time than I ever thought possible.

In constantly reminding myself of my goals, I also stopped paying as much attention to how “bad” my work looked. Instead, I was focused on composition first and the finish improved with each illustration. Painting Drama was like a creative lab where I felt safe to experiment, fail, refine, explore and work as hard as I could without being diminished for not being perfect. It was the environment I wish I had in college.

Conquering my past...
Heading off to Otis Parsons at 19.
I started out in college illustration classes as a “star student”. On two separate occasions at different colleges my departure from turning in "perfect" work after struggling with new techniques was met by the words, “I’m disappointed in you.” Both professors said these words in front of the entire class during critique. One continued on with a rant and the other continued by writing me a “letter of disappointment”. I was devastated. I’m not even fragile when it comes to critiques, but when they’re personal and it happens twice at a young age, creative growth can freeze in place. In that environment the idea of failing is terrifying…but failing is necessary for growth.

In Painting Drama, although sometimes pushing back the urge to hyperventilate, I felt safe enough to fail. I didn’t always get the concepts right on the first try, but Chris never said, “I’m disappointed in you”. He pushed us to “Be brave. Be honest. Be professional.” He trusted us to dig deep and do our very best and we trusted him to be honest without making it personal and crushing our artistic souls. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to be part of an environment like that. (I tear up just thinking about it.)

The results...
The composition concepts in Painting Drama gave me a new visual language and the best tools for creating compositions I’ve ever had. It’s all still sinking in and I think benefits will be surfacing for a long time. So far I have renewed inspiration as if my creative brain has been unlocked and I’m able to envision many more images, partially due to the time spent analyzing, drawing, and photographing my surroundings. It really opened up a new world. I also gained an appreciation for my own experiences in life and art. Time goes by. We live our lives. How often do we stop to realize the value of our experience? I learned to do that in Painting Drama and gained a much greater level of confidence in the skills I have. I don’t know if this will make sense, but I feel like Chris was “The Wizard” and he gave me a scroll containing the attributes I had forgotten or didn’t even realize I had.

He was also able to pinpoint areas each of us needed to work on. Because Chris knew our goals, he could advise us on skills we needed and next steps to take. In some areas I was closer to my goals than I thought and there were others I didn’t realize I needed to work on. It was invaluable information. The ability to give feedback to someone with their potential in mind, without discouraging them about where they are in the present, is a rare talent.

The time Chris Oatley puts into his students is unbelievable and beyond generous. He has remarkable insight into each as individuals, a point of view on composition I've never encountered before, and a genius way of delivering content and assignments that keeps everyone challenged to the utmost—in every way imaginable. I have never known an instructor like Chris and I know Painting Drama will continue to impact my art for the rest of my life.

I didn’t even get to the amazing community that comes with Painting Drama and all the Oatley Academy courses. Bringing together a nurturing creative community is yet another thing Chris has a knack for. Watch for upcoming posts about my amazing classmates!


  1. What a great pen Kristen ! I wish I could describe my PD experience as well as you. I can relate to so many things!
    Especially this : "Everyone else seemed just fine and the more I looked at their work, the worse my work looked to me." I think this crossed the mind of many of us ^^

  2. Thanks so much, Magali! It would be so interesting to hear more PD1 experiences. Looking at everyone's work also inspired me a great deal!