Being an artist has its challenges, whether you’re in pandemic times or not. I’ve been drawing portraits and painting all kinds of things since I was a kid. Then, I grew up and kept questioning how well I’d be able to survive off my drawing abilities alone. Small businesses struggle the most in problem economies, and I experienced the struggle, too. Aside from earning a lucrative income off your art and the issues that arise in creating such a lifestyle, there are other issues I’ve stumbled across in my art career. Drawing, specifically, has opened my eyes to all kinds of things regarding my emotional health and my desires to produce work that has me saying, “WOW!” (Good wow, that is.)
Portrait art comes with a series of challenges I couldn’t have anticipated once I started my art business online. Even with years of professional experience in art and majoring in fine art in college, I was not aware of some road blocks I might encounter. The creative process is a process for a reason–artists spend hours upon days producing detailed portraits or landscapes, striving for a kind of perfection that takes the eyes of an artist to achieve. Many art schools don’t prepare artists for the real world of business or offer a realistic insight into how tough being a working artist is. The biggest hurdle I’ve faced as a drawing artist is knowing when enough is enough and when it’s time to stop or step away from an art piece.
My family and friends often ask me, “How do you know when a drawing or painting is finished?” The question still haunts me sometimes while I’m producing any project. What those on the outside looking in don’t realize is that portrait I just finished took me more than ten hours to complete. It takes time to achieve realism and a lot of breaks so my eyes and the way I’m perceiving an art piece don’t blur. Eye strain can cause confusion in how you view a piece, which is why it’s a good idea to take a lot of breaks.
Sometimes, after spending five hours on a drawing, I’ll sleep on it, and the next day find myself asking, “How did I miss x, y, and/or z?” Apparently, this happens to artists quite frequently. Even after my brain says, “OK, drawing is done,” my eyes are saying something else, that more attention needs to be paid to certain areas. Usually, when I’m about to post a portrait or landscape, my eyes will catch something and I’ll rush back, eager to solve what I’m not liking. I’ve been getting better about this but man, it’s when it comes down to sharing my art with the world when my brain is like, “AHHHH, Not YET!!!”
Now, though, I have a system for drawing portraits. I begin with the eyes and work my way down; the nose, the mouth, and then the hair or skin. In the moment, I’m heavily focused on not miss-stepping or forgetting something–a detail that needs sharpening or reducing or a shadow that needs to be lighter. Starting from the top and working my way downward prevents smudging and a messy sheet of paper afterwards, but most importantly, I’m checking off my list of tasks as I work. I often have to remember to breathe and go slowly.
Anxiety strikes when I think I’m almost finished with a portrait and then ask myself: “What and how much detail should I emphasize in this drawing?” This is where another hurdle comes into play for me. To achieve realism, you must draw what it is you’re seeing. Realism is not the act of creating something perfect; it’s about striving for how accurately you can render according to real life. With every single drawing I’ve done, I find something wrong with it or something I need to edit up or down. I realized that having a system with portraiture or whatever it is I’m creating makes the process a lot smoother with less last minute panic runs.
Other times, I’ll work on a drawing for nine hours and feel that I’m not capturing the likeness I’m struggling to achieve until the very last marks I make. That’s when I know a drawing is finished, when I’ve got the persons individual characteristics down to the nines and there is nothing I want to change. All of the effects are spot on from the glinting eyes to the smooth texture of the skin and hair. I had just published my recent drawing tutorial to my art channel, Tessa Koller Art covering how to distinguish skin textures in a portrait. Skin and hair are different types of smoothness. I chose one of my original photographs of a baby with an older person so you can really see how I utilize all my tools to achieve such effects.
Capturing likeness is very different from doing a generic sketch of your subject. Those are two separate tasks wrapped into one drawing. Tracing messes me up a lot, which is why I don’t and won’t trace. I’ve tried that in the past and what happens is the areas in a photo that are darkened or obscured due to shadows and highlights or stark contrast, tracing causes me to misread an angle or a mark I need to get right. In fact, when I’m rendering a reference photo, I approach the initial sketch more like a mathematician. If I’m drawing one person, I rely on a center line for feature placement accuracy. The same applies with the center line for portraits of more than one person.
Overtime, my artist eyes have developed to the point where I can eyeball shapes and angles and don’t need to rely on a method to achieve accuracy. For client projects, however, I use my mathematical method because I want to stress accuracy with proportions, shapes of the features, angles and so on. Drawing really is a matter of being skilled in translating what you’re seeing on paper and giving it a three-dimensional look. This translation can only occur successfully with practice, patience and a desire to produce a beautiful piece of artwork.
Methods such as the center line or the grid allow you to sharpen your eye. The more you keep doing these methods, the more you start to naturally understand the structure or anatomy of a portrait. I began developing this skill at the age of eight and continued doing art every single day. It’s what I was exposed to and fell in love with immediately. Merely doing art or the act of drawing benefits your brain and mind in interesting ways. From emotional balance to enhanced cognitive functioning, I’ve noticed these differences in my brain/mind health.
Back in 2010, I stopped doing artwork for a long time and it wasn’t until 2020 while in quarantine when I picked portrait drawing up again. Doing art is like practicing Yoga or meditation for me. The act of drawing, painting and sewing puts me in a Zen state of complete calmness. Every day, I do something creative because it plants me in the present moment and slows the speed of life down. Quarantining and staying home a lot has given me the opportunity to hone in on exactly how I want my art brand to be, how I want to sell and market my art, and my drive for becoming a better artist.
Several artists from the past have said how grateful they are to be able to survive off their obsession, and I finally get that now. What people don’t realize is that not only is doing the art difficult in it of itself, sharing the art you’ve done with the world is even more difficult. Before I post anything, my heart is pounding incredibly fast. I never know how someone or people will react to something I’ve produced. People must know that I’m not trying to garner a reaction from others. Instead, I’ve learned and witness how just looking at a piece of art impacts one’s brain and mind.
This is one reason I draw, paint, cook or sew–it puts me in the best kind of mental and emotional state. I’m not overthinking or worrying about nonsense. I’m simply in the moment and it’s a reminder of how beneficial being in the moment truly is. The hardest part about making art is learning to let go of perfection and focus on enjoying the act of doing it. When I’m doing art, nothing else is weighing me down or causing unnecessary stress. Doing any kind of art is a brain, mind, heart, hand and eye connection. Connecting with yourself is the best connection to make. And running an art business and being an artist is the greatest and most rewarding career, I think, to have. Despite the challenges that come with this career, I love and am grateful for every second of this craft.