Sometimes it takes a crisis to allow your unique creative soul to emerge – the part of you that’s ALL you, not someone else’s expectation or belief of who you are. Someone who found their true creative path in this way is Emily Christoff Flowers.
I came across her work not too long ago and featured “Listening to Maynard Ferguson” in my March roundup. I was totally taken with the piece and wanted to see and know more! I’m so happy she accepted my invitation to share her story, process, and work with us.
A Bit About Emily Christoff Flowers
Emily Christoff Flowers graduated from Bowling Green State University in Ohio with a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts degree, with a focus in figurative drawing. After graduation she spent the next 25 years doing commission portrait work for a living. She has been entering local art shows and competitions with her more personal art for the past two years. She resides in Newport News, Virginia. You can read and see more on her website.
Normally I would introduce you to the work of the guest blogger at this point but if you are unfamiliar with Christoff Flowers’s work, I don’t want to spoil the surprise! So without further ado, I hand the blog over to Emily Christoff Flowers
I have been a commissioned portrait artist for around 30 years. I love the challenge of creating drawings to capture the spirit of the client. I have always used pastel, and I draw both animals and humans from life as well as photos.
A few years ago however, I became restless to expand. I started searching for some sort of inspiration to create a series that had some deeper meaning for me, but I kept coming up with blanks. I spent hours reading and studying other artists. I drew every day. I even sent up prayers asking for signs to aim me in the right direction, but all I could do is draw what I thought people wanted to buy since that is all that I have ever done. I was very confused and had rock bottom art-esteem.
I think my low art-esteem started in art school back in the mid-80s. My drawing skills were above average, but my professors and fellow students often ridiculed me for wanting to draw like a photorealist. Phillip Pearlstein and Chuck Close were two of my major inspirations, but one professor actually teased me for liking these artists and said that I needed to paint like other artists of my day. If felt if I didn’t paint like the instructor I would fail my class. I needed to study and paint like Pollock, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, and of course the great Picasso, if I wanted to be a real “A”rtist, but the non-objective work just didn’t appeal to me.
On my last day of art school, the entire class of drawing majors was told to get a job at a place like a grocery store so we would have creative juice to come home and make great abstract work. I left art school dejected and more confused than ever. I don’t regret having gone because I learned about the importance of color theory and of art history, but my ability to make art actually regressed while in school.
Making a Living
Since according to my professors the “A”rt world gate-keepers obviously didn’t want me, I chose to go to work sketching 5-minute profile portraits in pastel at a large amusement park in Ohio. It paid better than working at a fast food place but not by much. I eventually made it my life career, rising in the ranks of a large company that did this type of souvenir art throughout the nation. For the next 30 years, I made my livelihood and supported my kids by doing these quick sketches, and also taking commission work from photos. I may be a horrible fine “A”rtist since I couldn’t paint like Jackson Pollock, but I was a damn good street artist.
As I aged and the sketching became more painful, I cut back to about 25 faces a day. I filled in the gaps by teaching quick workshops in resorts, teaching tourists how to make simple paintings and how to make coffee filter butterflies.
I knew I could do more than copy photos and play with glitter glue, so I attempted to go back to grad school in my mid-40s. The graduate counselors in two separate art schools told me that I was too old for grad school and that I was just a robot who taught other little robots. Although this was true, it hurt badly. I would not let these jerks keep me from fulfilling my life dream so I became even more bound and determined. So I studied, read, and drew frantically during most waking hours. I went out and bought all the expensive equipment needed to do outdoor art shows. I eventually quit my day job at the resorts determined to devote my life to selling my work at art shows.
My first two seasons I filled my show tent with well-rendered drawings of animals that I thought people might want to buy. It was hard work and I took it very seriously. There was no time for mistakes because I had to make money as an artist. I rarely sold a painting, but people seemed amazed at my technical ability. I just kept plugging away and making something that I thought would please clients. I was determined not to give up.
When Things Began To Change
Last February disaster struck my family. I was in the deepest state of grief and didn’t know what to do. When I was a kid I studied music, not art. I used to play the piano and trumpet when life got too intense, which as a teenager, was pretty much all of the time. Eight years of classical music studies and musical performance created a deep love for all music of every genre. When I was unable to play an instrument back then because Dad was napping, I used to put on headphones and automatically draw to the music to ease my pain. I didn’t care about the product, I just needed to stay calm and as a teen, it worked.
So last winter, desperate for any form of relief, I put on headphones, found an old photo of my daughter and just let it go. I was drawing two things that I loved. I was drawing my baby girl, and I was drawing to music almost as if I was performing it. I had absolutely no ambition to please anyone.
Since I have drawn in pastel as a portrait artist for so many years, the technical abilities of working in this medium is buried deep in my brain. So it didn’t require much thought to go through my standard process of drawing the figure. I could dive deep into the music, and the drawing would just float off of my fingers. It was almost as if my hand was guided and I was just watching. I ignored all of the rules of portraiture and just started making patterns that fit the David Bowie music that I was listening to at the time.
Most importantly, I stopped trying so hard. For the first time in decades I was painting only for myself. I didn’t really care how it turned out. I felt better and that’s all that mattered. I made mistakes, including my choice of paper, so I decided to do it again with another subject.
Next I found a photo of my sister I had taken a few years ago. Chopin filled my headphones this time. The painting is not really a portrait of her, although it looks like her, but is a biography of my own grief and about how Chopin calms me. Again, there were many mistakes and technically I was unsatisfied but I felt like I had just spent hours with a good therapist, so I kept going.
Around this time, my daughter’s friend Richard stopped by one day wearing his live action roleplay costume. He looked like a character from a video game. I took some photos of him, put on the headphones with video game scores playing, and out popped this really strange drawing. This time was a bit different however because I did a preliminary painting on photoshop to print out as my reference. I found that I could change and combine photos entirely to fit my purpose. This was something I frequently did when working from client photos.
Next I found a rather unflattering photo of my stepson and put on some jazz trumpet music. After creating the preliminary drawing on the computer, I just started drawing. I still didn’t care if anyone liked it or not. I had enough animal paintings of cows and wolves from last year to fill my tent for my spring shows, so I just drew and forgot the trauma at home with my son which was steadily increasing.
I guess that four paintings are enough to call them a series which I simply named “Listening.” I decided to keep going with the idea of meditating to music and see how it affected my paintings. Around this time I also discovered Kehinde Wiley. He is not the only artist who combines pattern with the human figure, but he was the best that I had ever seen. His show in Richmond was a huge inspiration.
I came home from Kehinde’s show with my ideas verified. Yes, it is okay to work like a photo-realist. It is okay to enjoy drawing when it is your career. I don’t need a minimum wage non-art job. It is okay to make art that the world will most likely hate and not buy because it is not of a traditional theme.
I had to stop caring what the professors and gallery owners of the art world thought and just do what was right for me before my paintings could evolve. My habit of working very technically and correctly was no longer in the forefront, but I did start to pay more attention to the technical aspects of my work. It’s just the way that I enjoy working.
I soon realized that by combining tight photorealism with pattern, the viewer was brought into a deeper state of reality. I always sort of knew this because of my love of work by Klimpt and Mucha, but now the idea really hit home. I also noticed that contemporary photorealism is very different than the photorealism I grew up with. It is now much more than faithfully copying a photo and must have a narrative. For this reason I decided to keep my narratives rather vague, giving the viewer the opportunity to end my story themselves.
Ok, so enough about how I unblocked my art flow. Here’s a bit about my process.
I pick a song, artist, or genre of music that has meaning for me and listen to it as I trudge through my many stored photos.
I make a digital painting as my reference using photo shop and a digital tablet while listening to the music. Most of my photos are of my family and friends. Most of the pattern is a loosely rendered version of something I find and purchase on Adobe stock.
I prepare my paper. I cut it to slightly larger than the size I intend to work and tape it down onto foam board as I would a watercolor painting. If I am using UArt sanded paper, I will paint a base color by using rubbing alcohol to wet a layer of pastel. This base color keeps the drawing colors more uniform.
I map out the composition on the paper. I do this rather lightly with a charcoal pencil. I just want to check that everything is proportionally correct. Using a grid and turning the photo upside down usually does the trick for me. Sometimes I will trace my own digital painting. A note about tracing. Don’t let a traced map stop you from using loose gestural marks, or doing some fun exaggerating. If you copy your photo exactly by tracing your map, your drawing will look really stiff. Tracing is a tool and NOT a replacement for drawing. You will lose most of this map anyhow, so you better know how to draw and not rely on tracing. This drawing is the bones of your painting so learn to draw! Ok, sorry about the raving – I teach a lot of beginners!
I create a value under-drawing. I darken the shadows with Nupastel black, lighten the highlights with a General’s white conté pencil, and use a brown or some other medium-toned Nupastel to block in mid-tones. I often spray this layer with a workable fixative or blend it with rubbing alcohol and a brush. A note about using workable fixative. It will melt everything together and you will lose all of your beautiful sparkly layers, so use it only at the beginning of your drawing process. I like Krylon workable fixative. Once you spray it you will lose your layers but you can make new crisp marks on top of your drawing. This is a great way to create a multitude of glazed layers using pastel pencils.
I draw the topical colors over the value study. I am not worrying about getting the colors perfect. I just want to get it close to the final color so that I can play with adding weird colors later. Spraying it again will bring out the under-value drawing beneath the topical colors.
I fully work up the head and body using light glazes done with color pencil. I just work from left to right applying a detailed glaze with color pencils. If it gets too dusty I will spray with workable fixative. I do a majority of my drawing with the photo and the drawing upside down or on its side, and by the end of the drawing I rarely refer to the reference photo.
Once I have all of the details in the drawing I might spray it lightly one last time and then do one final layer on top of everything, including the figure, using mostly pastel pencils. Skin tone is rarely done with just “skin toned” colored pastels. I use a wide variety of greens, blues, yellows and oranges in transparent layers over the figure. I also like the little hatches and scratches of the pastel to show. These marks give my paintings much needed texture.
I don’t know that the drawing is done until I let it sit for a day or two to marinate, then I come back to it and sign it.
Ok, that’s about it for the process. My hope is to draw the viewer into my work (pun intended] with technical abilities then make them become immersed in the floating patterns as the figure seems to become lost in the music.
My advice to other artists who suffer from low art-esteem or are having a creative block is to just stop caring what the world thinks, paint what you love, and start having fun with what you are creating.
WOW – was that amazing or what? Spectacular turn around by Emily Christoff Flowers don’t you think? Emily’s story really shows both the power of art (and music) to get you through difficult times, and the change that can happen if you let yourself go and see what happens.
We’d both love to hear your reactions – to Emily’s story and to her artwork – so please leave a comment on the blog. I hope you’ll share this post with friends, especially those going through any sort of anguish be it mental or physical.
31 in 31 is On!
I’ve had a few people want to take up the challenge of 30 paintings in 30 days. Choosing October means 31 days and thus 31 paintings! I think it’s better to get going sooner than later though. So we’ll start 1st October. Who else is on board? Come on over to the HowToPastel Facebook group and confirm your participation! More on this next week…
Thanks, as always, for being here.
Until next time,
PS. If you’re feeling lost in your art or totally frustrated, why not give me a call so we can talk about it. Schedule a call by clicking here.