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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Developing a Steady Hand as an Artist

One area in which new artists in particular have a hard time with is developing a steady hand. This was an area I struggled with for some time when I first became an artist. I tried different techniques but I found that working with a stylus was one of the most effective ways for me to gain a steady hand. Unlike a brush, there is little room for messing up when doing stylus work. Its precision taught me a lot.

Unfortunately there are not a lot of art projects that require a stylus unless you are a calligrapher or a mapmaker or something that takes precision. In those cases you probably already have a steady hand. I turned to an area of stylus art that is sometimes overlooked to help me with steadiness. The art of "illumination". 

An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented with such decoration as initials, borders (marginalia) and miniature illustrations.
Many of the ancient illuminated texts were about copying from other texts. But they were also about art and having an artists eye for determining colors and beauty and knowing when you could deviate from the prior artists work, or stay directly within it. 

I used illumination to train my hand to be more precise. And I found along the way that I loved doing illumination work. Illumination not only taught me precision but it gave me an appreciation for how difficult it really was to create manuscripts like the one above. Can you imagine doing something like that with a primitive stylus or quill not too mention doing it by candlelight? 

I began my illumination exercises in a simple way by just taking a black and white copy off my printer of something composed of lines and the using my stylus to pain over the lines. 

In time I grew restless with this and decided to illuminate some specific things for use in other pieces of art. This is an early example of such work.

All the text you see around the faces were illuminated pages created from the legendary Voynich Manuscript

I printed out each page first in low ink black and white. Low ink meant there was less chance of the ink running. I then took metallic inks and illuminated each page in various colors. The pages were then adhered to the canvas and around the faces using mod podge which coated and sealed the pages in whatever positions I chose to place them. 

Over time I used this technique time and again effectively. And over time my hand steadied considerably. What also occurred was that I refined my techniques to allow me to use illumination in new ways. I made what started as an exercise into a integral part of my artistic repertoire. 

For those who to try this exercise you want to choose something that is heavy on line content and not detail. For example, some of today's adult coloring books have great line drawing pieces in them. But you do not want to color them in. This is about teaching your hand to stay on the line.

I make my own by rendering some of my own art down to lines drawings. 

You will want a simple ball stylus purchasable at any art store. These are the ones I use

ArtMinds Embossing Stylus

If worse comes to worse you could also use a very narrow knitting needle, but a ball stylus is much more effective. 

Remember it takes a light touch to use a stylus. This is part of the training of your hand. If you press hard your paint will pool rather than flow and will indent the paper or gouge the line you are working on. Instead use a feather touch and go lightly over the paper. This may seem impossible at first, but after awhile you will get the proper touch. 

You may get a stuttering effect at first where the line work may look wider and thinner in places instead of all one width. Some of that can be avoided again by keeping a light touch to the line but don't become discouraged if it happens. The point is to stay within the lines.

Use very little paint on the stylus tip. You should not coat the stylus from top to bottom but just on its ball point. 

Put very little paint out on your palette to use. A drop will suffice (as above). Keep in mind that stylus work is slow, so if you put a lot of paint out it will harden on you and make it all the more difficult to work. You want to keep your paint fluid. Using just a drop is usually enough to go quite a ways. Add a new drop as needed, but not over the previous drop. Place it next to the previous drop. 

Keep your stylus clean. Clean the tip after every ten or so dips or else it will dry and cause problems. 

This is an example of a finished illuminated piece.

This piece began life as a simple black and white line drawing of a photo I'd taken. It was rendered down to just the basic lines and then overlaid with metallic acrylics and black acrylic. 

Lets look at an example of a piece I am currently working on. 

This was originally a poster on a heavy paper. It was quite old (30+ years) and the edges were torn and frayed. I centered the image over a piece of heavy board and glued them together. I then took off the excess edges leaving a 20" x 30" board backed piece. 

My suggestion is that once you've practiced illuminating your own pieces for a time, that you try something larger and back it using something like a styro board. Having a heavier surface to work with gives you more stability and allows your hand to move with more fluidity.

I've refined my techniques as I said, so not only do I board back a larger project, I also put a polyurethane overcoat on the piece before I begin working on it. This allows the stylus to move with more freedom and keeps the ink from pooling. The surface becomes almost plastic like and will not cause the ink to run. There is also the added ease of cleanup. If I do mess up or get paint where it doesn't belong I can easily wipe it away and move on. Here is the above piece with a coat of polyurethane on it. 

In the end, no matter what you do or where you take it, your hand is steadying and becoming more familiar with precision work. Don't overdo it. Take it in small stages. If your hand begins to cramp, stop working for a time. As you progress your time will also increase and you will notice discomfort less.

Remember to watch where you place your hand also. You want a comfortable position with your hand laying on the surface, not raised above it anymore than you need to have it. 

Keep your stylus as straight as possible, do not paint at an angle. 

You will develop your own style as time goes by and find positions that are comfortable for you. But it takes time and practice (like all great art). But with this one you are not only learning and new skill but exercising those vital hand muscles also. 

I will post final photos of the above piece later on this thread if you care to look back at it later. Questions or comments are always welcome.

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