The Evolution of an Illustration – Crow Traverses the World

I’d like to be able to begin this post by telling you that all my thumbnails are finished and I’m ready to begin painting! Unfortunately only half of that sentence is true. I haven’t finished my thumbnails (thumbnail post here), but I am ready to begin painting. And since I don’t have anyone to tell me not to, I’m starting.

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Yep, took this photo all by myself since the husband is out of town. Impressive, right?

(Actually my husband told me not to, but he’s out of town and I’m not listening to him.)

This post will be full of process photos, and I’ll keep the words to a minimum. I think in this case the process is best understood visually. Enjoy!

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I begin by drawing the basic shapes on the image full size on a piece of tracing paper. I use this drawing to guide me when I cut the shapes out of painted tissue paper, and again when I glue them on the surface.

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This photo contains all of the shapes I’ll be using in this painting – a large curve, the crow, and the background sky.

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I glue the pieces of tissue paper to my background – a piece of painted mat board in this case. I start with whatever will be on the bottom layer and build from there.

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Placing the tracing paper over the image lets me place the crow in exactly the spot I had planned.

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He’s all glued down and beautiful! I mean, look at those great wrinkles in the paper. I love them.

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Everything is glued down and mostly dry, so it’s time to start painting. I’m darkening the earth, and painting the daylight just on the horizon.

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Again, look at those wrinkles! Aren’t they the best?

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I decided to add a few very faint stars, so I’m applying them with the tip of my knife to make sure they stay small and unobtrusive.

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Completed illustration. (This isn’t the final photographed image, so there will be a little bit of difference between this image and the final image in the book.)

 

Top-Secret Thumbnails and a Story’s Beginning

I have a confession to make.

I hate preparing for an illustration. Ok, maybe hate is too strong a word, but it’s not my favorite part. I just want to get to the cutting and pasting and painting because my first idea is always absolutely perfect.

Except sometimes it’s not. Sometimes my first idea is actually really bad.

So I do thumbnails.
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If you’re not in the art and design world, thumbnail might be a completely meaningless word to you. If that’s the case I’ll fill you in real quick.

Thumbnails are tiny, fast drawings. They aren’t supposed to look good, and in fact most people who look at them probably can’t figure out what those squiggles are supposed to be. That’s ok, because thumbnails are really just for the person drawing them. They help get ideas out of the imaginary realm where all perfect art resides. In this realm all art is perfect, and it’s only when you try to translate that perfect painting onto paper that problems arise. So, thumbnails are a quick way to see those problems before you put hours and hours of work into an idea that turns out to be ugly, or wrong, or simply not quite right.
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I don’t usually show my thumbnails, because most of the time they are fast and tiny and only make sense to me. I keep them secret because sometimes they’re just straight up ugly. But I’m showing them this time because I’m making a book, and I want to share the whole process with you.

It’s a children’s book, and a grown-up’s book, and an in-between book. It’s a book for people who love stories. And I hope it will be the first of many. I want to create a collection of illustrated stories from around the world. I’m searching for stories that aren’t famous, but are beautiful.

I’m beginning with a story I first heard years ago from a fellow illustration student – the Inuit tale “Crow Brings the Daylight.”
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I won’t tell you the whole story now, but you can look it up or watch as it develops here. I’ll be sharing posts of each illustration as I do them.

And, of course, you can read the whole story in the finished book. Digital copies will be free, and all proceeds from physical copies will be going to a charity that supports reading and education. (More on that later.)
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I’m creating this book to share a story. And I guess I’m posting about thumbnails, even though I hate them, because they’re part of a story too. They’re part of the process, the journey to creating my first all-by-myself, not-in-school illustrated book. So please jump into the story and be a part of it. Share your thoughts and I’ll share mine and we can watch the story grow together.

These thumbnails are about to get a little bigger.
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How I Discovered Wisdom in Mother Goose

“Cackle, cackle, Mother Goose,
Have you any feathers loose?”
Truly have I, pretty fellow,
Half enough to fill a pillow.
Here are quills, take one or two,
And down to make a bed for you.

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Finished painting resting on the palette

 

I started this Mother Goose painting 4 years ago. Well, sort of. After completing my blackbird drawing I decided to do a whole series of stippled nursery rhymes, starting with Mother Goose. I sketched out all my ideas, finally choosing one similar to this composition. I even started stippling – adding the tiny dots that make up the image one at a time. The problem was, drawing that way takes forever. After a few hours, the drawing was relegated to a portfolio of pieces I’m sure I’ll “get to later.”

Later has finally arrived. Well, sort of. I’ll probably never finish that drawing, but I’m happy to poach all of it’s best parts for this painting of the nursery rhyme queen.

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Trimming the edges after gluing down painted tissue paper

There was one major change I made from the drawing to the painting. In the original drawing, the background was going to be white. In the painting it became a night sky.

While I was rolling ideas for this painting around in my head, I came upon a beautiful passage in Meir Shalev’s bewitching novel, A Pigeon and a Boy.* In it he stated that geese are one of the only large, migrating birds that fly at night. It was a beautiful idea that I decided not research just in case it wasn’t true. I knew that Mother Goose had to have that night sky behind her.

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Adding color and detail

While I painted the stars and the sky, the uplifted wings, and the bright orange beak, I realized something about Mother Goose. Every time I’d heard the nursery rhyme growing up, I focused on the line, “And down to make a bed for you” while completely glossing over the line right before it.

Here are quills, take one or two

Perhaps it’s because as a little girl I didn’t really know the significance of quills. Now that I’m older, when I look back on this rhyme, I see Mother Goose in a whole new light.

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Final details

Mother Goose wasn’t just about making beds. She wasn’t just about nice stories and soothing rhythms to be murmured before sleep. Yes, she gave the boy down for a bed, but she also gave him quills. Quills are for writing. Quills are for learning and education and inspiration.

Maybe I’m taking the metaphor too far, but I like to think that what Mother Goose is trying to tell us here is that nursery rhymes and children’s stories are more than just cute entertainment.

Nursery rhymes and children’s stories make us wise.

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Completed Mother Goose

 

 

 

Notes:

*A Pigeon and a Boy is a strange, but beautiful novel. It’s not easy to summarize it or explain what it’s about. It’s not a love story, but it’s about love. It’s about pain and war, beauty and peace, tourists and buildings, growing up and dying. And pigeons. If you’d like to wander through a landscape of words and immerse yourself in the unfolding of a story, I’d highly recommend it.

Women of Valor: Yan Yongchun

Last summer I visited the Kimbell Art Museum’s samurai exhibit, where I was captivated by a piece of armor. It wasn’t the most elaborate or outstanding piece, but it told such a beautiful story that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The imagery rolled about in mind and stirred my heart.

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Sketching out the composition and details.

It was the image of a lion in a field of peonies, and the story it told goes something like this:

The mighty lion has only one enemy – a tiny parasite that devours his strength from the inside. When the lion begins to feel weak, he has only one hope. Peonies. The parasite hates the smell of peonies, and when the lion enters the field the parasite must leave.

Since this parasite is the lion’s only weakness, when a lion is surrounded by peonies she is invincible.

The first layers of paper and color.

The first layers of paper and color.

I had to paint a woman of valor as a lion among the poppies, and immediately began searching for a story that fit. This search lead me to Avice, a close family friend. I’ll let my mom introduce you.

“Avice is one of my best friends. She truly is a woman of valor, but she is also humble. Her gifts shine with a soft light, but don’t be fooled. She is a mighty warrior. Her instruments of battle are prayer, prayer, poetry, music, service and more prayer. She is a very good friend to have. I am honored to hold her so near to my heart.” – Gwen Meharg (Mom)

Adding details with acrylic paint.

Adding details with acrylic paint.

Avice suggested I feature Yan Yongchun (嚴詠春) as my next woman of valor, and her story was the perfect fit.

Yan Yongchun lived in China in the 1700’s*. She must have had a lovely smile, or been an excellent cook, or had a stunning personality, because biggest, baddest guy around decided he wanted to marry her. She must have also been strong willed because, rather than being forced into marrying him, she disappeared into the mountains. She stayed there for 2 years learning a form of martial arts from the Venerable Wumei, a Buddhist nun.

Yan Yongchun perfected this martial arts system, and when she was ready she challenged her big, bad suitor to a duel. Using her newly acquired skills (skills that focused on technique rather than raw power), she defeated Mr. BigBad and instead married the guy she wanted to. She taught her chosen husband her martial arts technique, now called Yongchun**, and from there it spread through the years and across the world.

Painted peonies (my favorite flower!)

Painted peonies (my favorite flower!)

So, how do all these stories come together? When I look at the story of Yan Yongchun, I see a lion in a field of peonies.

Power and beauty, lion and flowers, woman and determination.

Yan Yongchun didn’t cave. She didn’t take the easy way out. She studied, trained, worked and in the end she became, like the lion, invincible.

Lion detail

Lion detail

In the illustration Yan Yongchun is yellow and gold, the colors of warmth, royalty and lions. If you look closely, you can see the silhouettes of lions prancing across the painting. She is surrounded by bright red peonies in full bloom. And she is modeled after Avice, who I hope is always surrounded and strengthened by beauty.

Completed Illustration

Completed Illustration

Notes:
*Yan Yongchun’s story is steeped in myth and legend, and it is impossible to know what is historic and what is embellishment. I don’t think that really matters though. What’s important is the spirit behind the story. That’s the reason the story has lived on.

**Yongchun is also called Wing Chun and is well known today thanks to Bruce Lee.

The Awkward and Majestic King of Birds

Albatrosses.

The novel I just finished called them the king of seabirds. It’s safe to say they earned that title because of their incredible size, and their dedication to the wide open waters. Albatrosses spend much, much more of their lives at sea than on land.

But albatrosses might be king of more than just seabirds.

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I’d like to propose that the albatross may be the king (or queen, or general monarch) of lovebirds. This may seem strange, because we tend to think of love birds as those cute and colorful little parrots, or even the elegant swans that so often swim in pairs. But if you look at the rate that birds find a mate and stick with them, albatrosses win every time. Albatrosses, the sea-faring birds with 12 foot wing-spans, get together and get together and get together again. Over and over for life. (Check out this charming post by Robert Krulwich for all the lovely details.)

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With all the attention that more elegant and more beautiful birds get, I thought it was time to give the awkward albatross a little time in the spot light. (You can’t have a body that small with a 6 foot wing on each side and not be kind of awkward. It’s a majestic awkward.)

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Of course, humans are a bit different from albatrosses. We don’t usually make nests in cliffs, or spend years flying mostly solo over the ocean. We prefer our raw fish wrapped in rice and dipped in soy sauce, and most of us don’t have 12 foot wing-spans. But I think we can still take a bit of beauty from the story of the albatross. Be awkward, be different, be majestic and don’t worry about all those other birds who are way cuter than you are.

You can still be king (and queen).

How My Favorite Professor Got It Very Wrong

Back in January 2011 I walked into my first illustration class. It was with my favorite professor, but I didn’t know that yet. I didn’t know that my classes with her would revolutionize my style, and teach me a huge range of techniques and skills. I knew that most of the other students didn’t like her, and I knew that she wasn’t known for being the nicest professor around. So I sat in my desk, close to the front, but not on the first row. I wasn’t that bold yet. And we were handed an assignment.

The assignment included was to illustrate a nursery rhyme.

Sing a song of sixpence

A pocket full of rye

Four and twenty blackbirds

Baked in a pie

But we had to illustrate the nursery rhyme with a pirate theme, because the printed assignment also included a webpage that claimed that “Sing a Song of Sixpence” was a recruiting poem for the infamous pirate, Blackbeard. This sounded a little far fetched to me, but the source was Snopes so I figured it was true.

Then I looked it up.

It wasn’t true.

Not even a little.

Snopes made it up. Did I go and tell my favorite professor? No, of course not. Remember, she wasn’t my favorite professor yet, and I wasn’t even bold enough to sit on the front row. I wasn’t about to tell her she was wrong. Instead, I didn’t include any pirates in my illustration. I did this instead:

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Favorite professor liked it, even without the pirates.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, winter 2015. I decided it was time to go back to my roots. Not just my college roots, but my first ever read-to-me-and-I’ll-memorize-every-word-you-say roots. Because I know all the nursery rhymes. I think I knew them before I could talk, but who can say for sure. (I couldn’t.) So I pulled out the nursery rhymes, and low and behold the blackbirds started flying out of the pie all over again.

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Step One: Cut out lots of tiny birds.

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Step Two: Glue them to a beautiful piece of wood.

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Step Three: Paint the pie first because pies are the most fun. Also, don’t forget to paint the birds.

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Step Three: Add in some tiny birds because 24 paper cut outs was just too many too fit on that little piece of wood. Ta-da!

Thus an old school assignment comes around again and turns out very well, even without the misplaced reference to pirates.

P.S. To any other past professors who might be reading this: You were probably also my favorite.

Merry Christmas Card! (This counts as a card, right?)

Merry Christmas, happy New Year, and all around good cheer! This last year has been a wonderful whirlwind of travel, family, friends, art, food and a few really good books. Since it’s hard to summarize a whole year, present you with 12 short paragraphs, 12 photos of us, 12 pieces of art by me and 12 by Matt – a little glimpse of each month.

But, just in case you’re behind, let’s start with a very quick history.

June 2013 – Ruth and Matt get married – Yay!

November 2013 – Ruth and Matt fly to Portugal – Yay!

We both work as freelance artists, so we can live anywhere with an internet connection.

Now that you have some context, let’s get started:

 

January

We spent most of January in Foz do Arelho, Portugal and the surrounding area. Portugal is a stunningly beautiful country. We climbed castle walls and succulent covered cliffs, walked along the beach every day, and met some wonderful people.

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Óbidos, Portugal

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February

February found us in Makarska, Croatia. Makarska is nestled along the coast of the Adriatic sea between the water and the Biokovo mountain range. We lived a couple of blocks from the sea side and watched unbelievable sunsets over the water from our balcony. I’ve never seen such beautiful landscapes before, and the water was clear and bright turquoise.

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Makarska, Croatia

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March

In March I turned 25. We took a birthday week to hike along the coast and visit Split, Croatia (location of one of Emperor Diocletian’s palaces), where I was incredibly thrilled to see an actual Egyptian sphinx! (Imported by Mr. Diocletian back in the day.)

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Makarska, Croatia

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April

In April, Matt joined me at the quarter century mark and we celebrated with a trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia (location of the castle where they filmed Game of Thrones) and a move to Athens, Greece!

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Dubrovnik, Croatia

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May

Spring lasts ages in Europe, and we enjoyed months and months of beautiful blooms. Greece had the biggest bougainvilleas we’ve ever seen, and their blooms covered buildings built before Christ all the way to now. Walking the acropolis was also magical, like being transported back in time.

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Athens, Greece

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June

In June we celebrated our anniversary on the Greek island Aegina. We watched dolphins swim around our ferry, ate amazing food, splashed in the sea, visited an ancient temple and made the huge mistake of biking across the entire hilly island on a 95 degree day. (Just kidding, the bike ride was great. Mostly great. Just block out the heat, the sweat, the burning calves and the need to pee with no bathroom in sight and it was perfect.)

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Temple of Aphaia, Aegina Island, Greece

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July

In July we visited Corinth and the rode the tram along the Athens coast. We ate lots more yummy food (Greek food is everything it’s cracked up to be. Plus a little more.), visited friends and stopped in the Istanbul airport before an incredibly long flight back to Texas. We can’t wait to actually leave the airport and visit Istanbul next time – the city called to us from the horizon and the cultural mix of people was fascinating.

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Piraeus, Greece

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August

In August we got our first car (we love our Prius), visited lots of museums and did a bit of USA travel. I went to Washington state for a gathering of women artists, Matt took his first business trip to Las Vegas and traveled to Atlanta for a good friend’s wedding.

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Texas

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September

In September we took a week long road trip. We swung by New Orleans and dipped our toes in the gulf, spent a couple of days in Atlanta and Charlotte visiting good friends, stopped at the best brunch place in the world (Matt has high brunch standards, so this is a legit endorsement) to visit another wonderful person, drove through D.C. at sunset (wow!), and paid a jaw-dropping amount of tolls before finally arriving in Delaware.

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Philadelphia

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October

The family we lived with in Delaware quickly became like our second family. (Third family? Do we count our individual immediate families as two? Or do they share the first spot? Anyways, the point is we love our Delaware family in addition to our Meharg and Miller families.) I loved picking tomatoes for lunch from the garden (the smell of tomato leaves is one of my favorite smells) and Delaware is full of incredible gardens and natural treasures. We also were privileged to visit Philly and NYC, the enchanting Cape May, and many, many art museums.

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Cape May, New Jersey

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November

In November we stopped in Pittsburgh (on the way to Michigan) and savored the international flair of the city. (I found my favorite candy from Poland – candy I couldn’t find in our 9 months in Europe!) We arrived in Grand Rapids right before the snow and spent 3 weeks visiting family and friends and celebrating Thanksgiving before stopping in Missouri for a little more family time.

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Pittsburgh

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December

Hang on, it’s December already? Well, we’re back in Texas spending the Christmas season with my family. We’ve painted lots, cared for a couple rambunctious cats, and visited more museums. (Surprise!) Now that we’ve reached the end of the year, I can happily say that Matt and I don’t know of a single goal we set for 2014 that we did not accomplish. (I don’t remember where I put our list of goals. I also don’t remember our goals. I think it’s safe to say we were totally successful. If you too want to be totally successful this year, don’t be intimidated by our accomplishment. You still have a few more days to lose your goals!)

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Texas

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That’s the end of our 2014 story. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

If you want to keep up with us next year you can follow me on this blog (I promise to start updating again) and Matt on Sunflowerman.com. Or find us on social media:

Facebook – Ruth Meharg & Sunflowerman

Instagram – @RuthMeharg & @Sunflowerman

Women of Valor: Amelia and Esther

Inspiration is a funny thing. We look at people we know, and people we don’t know, people living and people who have passed on, and we let something in them touch us, push us, move us. I like to think that inspiration multiplies. Someone inspires you, and in turn you inspire someone else, and our society is lifted onward and upward. So for this post I’m doing two women of valor, one who has passed on and one who still inspires.

Meet Amelia Earhart and Esther Mbabazi.
Amelia Esther

A few months ago one of my amazing friends, Ruth Deal, suggested I include Amelia Earhart in my Women of Valor project. Of course I thought Amelia was a perfect fit for the project. Here’s what Ruth had to say about her:

Amelia Earhart has been my inspiration since the 2nd grade. I’ve always been inspired by her sense of adventure and desire to be be free no matter the cost. She accepted change. And married it. [My first daughter] Selah’s middle name is Amelia mainly because of how much this women whom I’ve never met has spoken into my life.”

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Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic ocean. Her first flight was as a passenger, but it wasn’t enough and a few years later she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and ultimately disappeared while trying to circumnavigate the globe. Those are the facts that everyone knows about Amelia, but of course she was much more than just an aviator. Ms. Earhart was a best selling author, a teacher and a supporter of women’s rights in the days when women had very few. And Amelia was also a dreamer.

I know, that’s a pretty big claim to make. But here’s why I say it. As a child, Amelia kept a book of newspaper clippings. She cut out every article about women who inspired her, women who were excelling in fields dominated by men. And when she discovered aviation, the field she would flourish in, she did everything in her power to pursue her dream.

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As I was working on Amelia’s portrait, I happened across the story of another amazing woman pilot – Esther Mbabazi. Last year Esther became Rwanda’s first female pilot at the age of 24, after dreaming of flying for 20 years. When she was 4 she watched planes flying overhead and dreamed of being that mysterious pilot, and after graduating high school she packed up and bought a one way ticket to pilot school.

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When I heard Esther’s story, I couldn’t help comparing her to Amelia. Both women were determined to do something new. Amelia wasn’t just the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, she was one of the first humans to do it. Esther isn’t just the first Rwandan woman to fly a plane, she’s also among the first Rwandan pilots, male and female. And now Esther isn’t the only woman flying in Rwanda. She helped make a way for others to follow their dreams.

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Inspiration spreads. Somehow when we pursue our dreams, we can open up doors for others to chase theirs. When we celebrate the success of others, it lifts all of us up. So who inspires you? Let me know, I just might paint them!

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Oh, and those little birds? They are Northern Wheatears. During their migration they fly around the world.

Evolution of a Style

I was recently asked what my “essential image” was. Supposedly this is a single image that continually inspires the art one creates. I found that not only did I have no such image, I can’t even imagine having one. The idea of a single anything being a source of inspiration is one that completely baffles me. Everything I create is influenced by my whole life, by everything I have seen, heard, experienced and even the people I have met. But the question did make me think a bit about the evolution of my work and how I got to where I am now, which is what this blog post is really about. Let’s start back in early 2011.

The first tissue paper collage I ever did was this Daddy Long Legs.

Daddy Long Legs

I created it in one of my very first illustration classes at SCAD. The assignment was to use Eric Carle’s signature technique to create an insect. (Think “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”) This meant hand painting tissue paper with acrylic paint, cutting shapes from the paper and gluing them onto a plain white background. It was a fun project, but I didn’t see much future use for the technique. In typical artist style, I kept the extra bits of painted tissue paper anyways. You never know when you’re going to use things again!

I didn’t touch the paper for year, but then I accidentally ended up in a collage class. I wasn’t planning on taking it, but the class I had signed up for wasn’t what I was hoping for so I switched over. Turns out it was one of the most significant classes I took at SCAD. It started out with this bear.

bear

 

 

We were practicing the encaustic technique in class, which means we were using layers of hot wax to attach paper to a surface. (It’s a wonderfully fun technique, but please do lots of research before you try it. If the wax gets too hot, breathing the fumes can cause permanent brain damage. My mom never listens when I try to tell her this.) My left over tissue paper was perfect for our projects, and I discovered that I loved being able to see the layers of paint and the brush strokes on the paper. So I tried a little lobster, without wax this time. Just paper, paint, glue and a touch of pen).

lobster

And then I tried something bigger, with no pen, just paint. It was a simple landscape, but I was developing my own technique. It was no longer something I was borrowing from Eric Carle, it was becoming something more, something that fit me much better.

landscape

After the landscape I decided to try something less experimental, and a little more realistic. Enter the portrait of my little sister, Jubilee.

Jubi

 

All the experimenting led to my first published collage illustration, a painting called “Women, Art and Censorship.”

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Now, in the middle of 2014, I’m still creating art using the tissue paper collage technique. Still learning new ways to use it, still practicing making it my own. Still taking a little idea here, a little inspiration there, and trying to weave it all together.

 

 

Circle a Day: 66 – 74

Well, we are back in the States! We hit the ground running, and it doesn’t look like life will slow down soon. I have managed to squeeze in opening an Etsy shop however, and these circles I painted in Greece are now for sale. I’m planning to do a few more like these, personally I like the square “frame” in the background. How about you? Are the squares a good addition?

66 owl

Sixty-six – Owl

Sixty-seven - Octopus

Sixty-seven – Octopus

Sixty-eight - Zebra

Sixty-eight – Zebra

Sixty-nine - Manatee

Sixty-nine – Manatee

Seventy - Pigeon

Seventy – Pigeon

Seventy-one - Firefly (Lightning Bug)

Seventy-one – Firefly (Lightning Bug)

Seventy-two - Kiwi Bird

Seventy-two – Kiwi Bird

Seventy-three - Porcupine

Seventy-three – Porcupine

Seventy-four - Polar Bear

Seventy-four – Polar Bear

Check out my new Etsy shop if you haven’t already, and if you have one let me know! I’d love to see yours!

https://www.etsy.com/shop/RuthMeharg