Is Talent Holding You Back?


Have you ever been told you have a “natural talent” for art?  I get it-- I’ve been told that, too.

You’ve probably thought it was a benefit….but natural talent can also be one of the largest obstacles to improvement.

The “talent myth” can make you feel like you can sit back and not worry about improving, thinking you will just naturally get better.

You might think, I’ve never really learned what I’m doing now and it seems to be working. So you reject learning anything new that may offer some artistic insight.

Some artists are even afraid of demystifying the process. They’re worried that they may not be able to intuitively engage in their craft anymore--and that’s definitely a scary thought!

Sometimes you have to “unlearn” before you can improve!

Believe it or not, there is a methodical approach to what you’re doing when you draw or paint.  If you’re open to discovering it, it can help you blow past your current limitations.  Talent can only get you so far.

So what kind of improvement can you expect when you break down the process? You will:

  • Develop more control of your craft when you know how it all works. 
  • Know how to make any necessary corrections.
  • Learn how to approach a drawing in the same way every time.
  • Know why you tackle the hair first (or last) on a portrait.
  • Learn to focus on shadows first and increase their value slowly as you build up the drawing.

…..and that’s just the beginning!

You can learn the building blocks that will take it to the next level-- and the first way to begin this process is to not let talent hold you back.

You want to level up your art--and that means you and I are a lot alike!  Tune in next time where I’ll keep sharing what I’ve learned on my journey. 

​​​​​​​Are You Drawing Backgrounds That Don’t Work?


Let’s have a little chat about backgrounds, shall we?

Most new artists feel the need to have a background in their drawing. That’s all well and good. 

An effective background can:

  • Add depth and interest to your subject.

  • Create context and keep the viewer engaged longer.

  • Help establish the focal point and allow the subject to stand out.

But an ineffective background can actually compete with your subject for attention. (Not good.)

Let me use a few photographs to explain what I mean.

small - model-807555_960_720.jpg

When you look at this photo of a little girl, your gaze is automatically to her eyes-- that’s the focal point. The dark irises are starkly contrasted to the white of the eyes (sclera).

What do you notice about the background?

It’s just a few blurry shadows and barely there at all. In fact, you probably didn’t notice it until I asked about it. That’s the sign of a background done right.

Can you imagine what would happen to the impact of this photo if it had one of those “use all the circles” backgrounds I’ve been seeing lately?

Let me show you:

imposed background - pexels-photo-220071.jpg

(You’ll have to pardon my quick photo edit, but I think you get the idea.)

Now instead of a realistic portrait, we have some sort of new-age space photo. The circles are incredibly distracting and the eyes no longer have our full attention.  Why?  Because the background has just as much contrast as the eyes do.

The entire tone of the portrait has been altered--and not for the better.

Here’s another photo example with an ineffective background:

small - Girl against rocks.jpg

Notice that the level of detail in the background is similar to the level of detail in the subject. The colors are similar across the board, too.

We see similar values in the skin, hair, and face of the subject as we do in the background of the rock, stairs, and leaves. The reason this doesn't work is because our eyes are naturally going to focus where there is more contrast.   The brightest, or lightest value, of this picture is the dress.  So our eyes are immediately drawn there.  It does nothing for the overall balance and composition and the focal point is uncertain.

A simpler background with less contrast would have created more focus on the portrait itself.  I've done this in the edit below.

Girl against rocks III.jpg



The same problem is happening in this photo:

small - pexels-photo-175701.jpg

The background in this shot is WAY too distracting.

Now that you’ve seen how this works in photography, you can apply the same concepts to your art.

My recommendation?

Don’t force the background.

If you can include a background that makes sense for your piece--one that is NOT distracting-- then go for it! Otherwise, just leave it out. Let the subject be the focal point no matter what!


***NOTE: All photos in this post are free to use commercially or personally without attribution.

You Actually CAN Erase In Colored Pencil

When I first started drawing, I was like most beginner artists and used only graphite and charcoal. When I discovered colored pencils, it felt like everything clicked. Suddenly, my drawings had the potential for greater versatility and depth. I'd hit the jackpot!

All those feelings of excitement quickly drained away the first time I tried (and failed) to erase the way I had been used to. Was it possible that colored pencil wasn't the versatile medium I had hoped it would be? Was my art career over before it even started? Would I be better off giving up entirely?

Obviously, I needed a little pep talk and some research.

In time, I learned several erasing methods that give me more freedom and options. Thank goodness I didn't call it quits, because you CAN erase colored pencil--and it isn't even difficult!

To keep you from despairing like me, I've put together this little tutorial to show you some steps to keep unwanted marks off the paper:

Method number 1--Use a Light Hand

Using a light hand (also called light pressure) when applying the pencil is the first method I recommend.  To do this, hold the pencil comfortably in the tripod position. Keep your grip loose enough for the pencil to graze the surface of the paper using its own weight alone.  Holding the pencil further down the shaft (opposite the point) will help you do this.  If you use a soft touch and you’re careful not to burnish your paper too early, then you can erase marks if you need to.

Why it’s important:  

Keeping a light hand not only helps with getting tons of layers down but it also helps you to erase the pigment if you need to.  If you press very hard and grind the pigment down into the paper, it simply cannot be removed.  Are you a burnisher? No problem.  Go ahead and burnish, but wait to do it until the very end when there is nothing more to do on the drawing.

Method number 2--Work in layers

Build up the layer 1 to 2 colors at a time all over the areas in your drawing.  Only after you’ve done one layer of color everywhere will you move to the next color. Repeat the process of building up the next layer slowly and gradually, and keep the point of your pencil sharp the entire time.  Keep a test sheet of paper next to your drawing and take notes on order in which you laid down the pencil colors.

Why it’s important:

When you remove or erase areas of pigment in a certain area, you'll need to build the pigment back up in that small area using the same process as the section surrounding it. Without detailed notes about the colors you used and the order you layered them, you may find yourself constantly building up color in a fruitless effort to remember how you achieved your original look.

Method number 3--Erasing with Tap-Lift-Scrub

Like a boxer in the ring using 3 types of blows against his opponent, you also have to go at this removal process in these 3 creative ways.  

First, tap with a kneaded eraser or poster tack. If you’ve followed the first 2 methods then your pigment will be easy to erase! The idea of tapping is to gently touch the paper with the sticky adhesive of the kneaded eraser and allow the pigment to be lifted from the surface.  It seems to be more effective if you do this gently and keep moving your eraser to a clean area.  

Keep in mind, there is a law of diminishing returns with this method.  If you’ve done it a number of times and you notice that there isn’t anymore pigment coming off, then it is time to move on to part 2 of this erasing method.  In the lift approach, you can take Scotch tape and apply a small bit to the area. Press it down gently with the tip of the pencil and then lift up on the tape and you’ll see more pigment magically disappearing.  It's known as 'magic tape' for a reason!

Here’s a portrait I was working on recently where I used this very method to correct problems I had with the black pigment in the eyelashes. I followed these simple steps and I was back on track in no time.



If these first two methods don't work, go ahead and try the third choice as a last resort. This option involves using a synthetic eraser or plastic eraser to remove any last pieces of the pigment that have become a stubborn stain on the paper. There are also effective battery-operated erasers that make this process even faster and offer a lot of control.

So there you have it--  three ways to use whatever drawing techniques you like while enjoying the freedom to erase. What more could an artist ask for?

Behind the Scenes: 12 Things You May Not Know About Me

I'm a big fan of the Internet.

One of my favorite parts of running an online business is the opportunity to get to know people from all walks of life. I'm always intrigued by the variety of people who find Sharpened Artist.

It occurred to me that many of you might not know much about me, though--beyond the fact that I'm a colored pencil artist. So today I'm sharing a list of things you may not know about me:

  1. I come from a large family. My parents had 10 children, and I was #8.

  2. When I was 7 years old I was rushed to the ER after having my right hand caught in an air compressor.  The doctor did a skin graft from my stomach to patch up part of my 3rd finger.  You may see that scar from time to time in my videos. Now I can scratch my belly by just scratching my finger in that one spot. Ha!

  3. I grew up way out in the country of rural southwest Oklahoma.  My brothers and I hunted and fished a lot.  When I was about 12 years old I took a correspondence course to learn taxidermy.  I mounted birds and small animals.  Believe it or not, it was an artistic outlet.  

  4. I’m a conservative Christian. I espouse traditional values, and believe things that are not always politically correct.  I think there is virtue and value in maintaining things that have stood the test of time and are logical and orderly.

  5. I live in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio with my wife and 2 teenage daughters.

  6. I’ve worked in a systems/IT role for about 20 years at the same company.  My commute to work is 40-60 minutes in the morning and around an hour and a half in the afternoon.  I listen to lots of podcasts to pass the time.

  7. My grandmother Henri inspired me to be an artist. She always told me that I was going to be an artist when I grew up, and I believed her.  I drew all the time as a child.  I often got in trouble at school for drawing during class.  

  8. I have always been a music lover.  I love to sing and I used to play guitar a little when I had more time for extra hobbies.  

  9. I’m very much at home in the kitchen.  I love cooking, baking, using knives, and making things from scratch.  

  10. I have a cat in my home named Mascara.  Yes, my daughters named her that.  I love that cat!

  11. My favorite hue is blue.  I prefer the cooler blues, but any shade of that gorgeous hue is great!

  12. One of my favorite simple pleasures in life is coffee!  I don’t care where I get it- Starbucks, the boutique coffee shop down the street, or my Keurig at home.  All I need is a cup of joe, a laptop (if I’m working on my websites), or a Stonehenge drawing pad and a few pencils and I’m transported to a happy place.


There you have it--12 bits of trivia about me. Don't worry, there won't be a test. :)


If you have a specific question about me, feel free to post it in the comments below!

Hollywood Gets Artists All Wrong

Have you ever seen a Hollywood depiction of an artist? The character is usually a moody, melodramatic loner who spends all their time shut away in a darkly lit room, pouring their genius onto the canvas as inspiration strikes.

Does that sound like you? No? Oh good, me neither.

Though it may seem glamorous to shut out the world and bask in the glow of your latest masterpiece, the truth is that most accomplished artists have a whole team of people contributing to their success.

Here are just a few people you'll want on your side:

1. Family and friends who understand the time it takes to create quality art and don't get upset when you have to decline social events to meet your deadlines.

2. Models who graciously pose for you until you get just the right reference shot.

3. Fellow artists who are on the same journey and just "get it" when many others don't understand your passion.

4. Local and online suppliers who keep you stocked with pencils, paper, erasers, and all of the other tools you need to carry out your work.

5. Technology experts and copywriters who give your website the professionalism it needs to attract paying customers.

6. Instructors and mentors who give you direction and help hone your skills as you grow. (That's me, and I couldn't be more honored!)

The stereotypical artist might prefer to go it alone, but you don't have to. Start building your team and reap the rewards of a valuable support system. It's one of the best decisions I ever made!

Do you have someone on your side that I didn't mention? Share your ideas in the comments!

Should I be entering art shows and competitions?

It's a question I am asked fairly often, and something that many new artists feel is a requirement to be considered authentic. Art shows and competitions are certainly not a requirement, but they can provide you with valuable experience. Here are my top three things to consider before entering your work in an art show or competition:

1. Do your research. Every competition is different, so the first step is to be familiar with the one you are entering. Due date, file specifications, and entry fee are all things to be aware of, but it can also be beneficial to do a little sleuthing about the judges. If you're into realism but these judges tend to prefer abstract pieces, for example, you may be better off entering elsewhere.

2. Consider your investment. Most art shows and competitions require you to pay an entry fee, which is typically used to pay for the building, insurance for the event, and that fabulous cash prize you are hoping to earn. It's important to decide ahead of time how much you can afford to spend on an entry fee. If art is not your full time job (raising my own hand here!) then you might not have a whole lot of extra cash sitting around to spend on entry fees. And if you still consider yourself a beginner, it may be a better use of those limited dollars to invest in some higher quality supplies.

3. Have realistic expectations. Most artists don't find competitions to be an instant jump forward in their careers, but they can be a great way to network, bolster your resume, and generally get your name out there. And most importantly, be sure that you are in it for the joy of the experience!

So there you have it--3 considerations for entering art competitions. What would you add to the list?

7 Steps to Take BEFORE Accepting Commissions

Accepting commissions may seem like a no-brainer. Getting paid to do what you love? Yes please! It's a wonderful way to build your portfolio and promote your business. But accepting a commission before you're ready can end up being detrimental. Here are the steps you should take BEFORE accepting a commission.

1. Have 10-15 pieces of that type (pet portrait, landscape, etc) under your belt. This will allow you to know your own timeline for completion, and patrons will be able to predict what a new piece will look like since you are already establishing your style.

2. Firmly set your pricing structure and make it available to potential clients. You may publish it on your website or have a document ready to send in response to an inquiry. Either way, stick to your guns on pricing! You don't want to gain the reputation of being someone who can be haggled with.

3. Decide how much you will require as a deposit--and yes, you need to take a deposit! This will deter clients who aren't serious about paying for the final product.

4. Agree on a detailed reference photo BEFORE signing a contract so that you have something you can work from. People look at your best work and expect that their commission will look the same. This won't happen if the reference photo is sub par. Until you have a clear photo in your hand, do not accept the work.

5. Develop a contract for services rendered. Be very clear about the scope of the work that you have agreed to do, and the financial responsibility of the patron.

6. Find out the patron's preference for social media sharing of their piece, both in-progress and at completion. If the piece is a gift, they may want you to wait. There also may be privacy concerns if the subject is a minor. Before accepting the commission, this is a conversation you need to have.

7. Have marketing materials ready to send with the finished piece. You'll want to have these ready before you start so you won't be scrambling to throw something together when you've completed the work. Consider a high-quality business card at the very least.

8. Don't be afraid to turn down a commission if something feels off. If you are not going to be a great fit for this patron, there are plenty of other artists out there who may. Don't feel obligated to accept just because someone asks. Value your own time and skill, and feel free to be selective.

By taking these steps before you ever accept a commission, you'll be ready to respond at the first request and communicate how professional you truly are!

What are your tips for successful commissions?

Is There A Right Way To Draw?

I can answer this question quite emphatically:  No, there is not a “right” way to draw.  But I think there are some more effective ways to draw and I think there are some less effective ways to draw.  What do I mean by that?  Allow me to explain.

If you think about the mechanics of drawing then you’re probably visualizing a writing instrument, a paper and maybe a reference or at least an idea that is being executed, right?  Yep!  Those are the base requirements to get started.  But drawing is so much more than this.   

I hear artists, especially young artists, talk about how they like to just draw from their memory.  If you’re attempting to just get a quick sketch (concept) on paper then that’s a good way to do it.  But if, on the other hand, you want to develop a drawing that is dynamic and full of life, then I suggest putting more planning and thought into it.  Drawing from memory is not wrong, but it could be described as less effective.

Start with this checklist that you can walk through in your mind:

What are you wanting to convey?  Try to be as detailed in your response as possible.

Do you have a reference for your drawing?  If so, is it detailed enough for you to see what you need to see?  

What tools in particular are you going to use?  What about pencils, paper, size of paper and placement of the subject on the paper?  Are you going to allow a lot of negative space around your drawing or are you filling the paper entirely?  Are you going to draw a background or not?

Once that preliminary planning is done, there is a second part to getting started.   At this point you could dive in and probably be fine.  But ask yourself, is there anything about this process that involves something brand new?  Maybe you’re using different pencils or paper that you’ve not drawn on before.  If that’s the case then you will want to test on a separate page to determine what will happen so you can eliminate any surprises.  

Now you are making your first marks on the page.  You want to start with a light hand so that you can erase anything that you may want to alter later.  This is the reason I always start with a dark pencil or at least a middle tone color so that I can see what I’m drawing and so that it can provide a skeletal framework for me to work inside of.  

As I progress in the drawing process I am constantly refining my line drawing and I am erasing the line drawing where I may have made incorrect marks.  Specifically, I’m looking for incorrect proportions in a face, I’m looking for a form shadow that is too overbearing, and I’m looking for something in my drawing that is starting to draw too much attention.  When you’re just beginning you probably do not want to draw more than 15 or 20 minutes without taking a break.  Why?  Because you will grow mentally tired and may make a decision that is not in balance with the entire drawing and you may inadvertently create an eye-sore that you will have trouble removing later.  But after a 5 or 10 minute break your perspective will be fresh and your vision will be clearer.  Remember that drawing is more about seeing than it is drawing.

If you draw with a heavy hand at the beginning and you develop one area (like a neck for example in a portrait) and you’ve left the forehead alone, then you will need to remember exactly how you executed the neck.  It is so much easier to go ahead and do the layers all at the same time.  If you lay a base layer of “brown ochre” down in one area of your drawing, then just make sure you layer that color everywhere (of course the coverage will vary according to subject).  Once that is done, then move on to the next layer.  

What about the stroke?

The stroke that you use should be something where you are holding the pencil with a comfortable grip and with a motion that you can sustain for a long time without tiring.  You can also use a variety of strokes, but they should always be controlled and not strained.   The pencil should be able to rest comfortably in your hand to allow you to make the mark you intend to make.  You never want a situation where you are wondering where the tip of the pencil is going to end up connecting with the paper.  

Finally, once you make a mark please never think that you have to live with that mark.  If you don’t like the mark you just made then erase it and do it again.  You will get better at making marks and it will get easier to control.  But don’t make the mistake of waiting until an hour goes by, thinking in your mind, I’ll just correct those mistakes later.  Do it now.  Take care of it while you remember what you need to correct.

Is this the only way to approach a drawing? Absolutely not. But this is what I have found to be more effective time and time again.

Stay Sharp!

Ready to get started using colored pencil?  Download my getting started guide!

The Power Of Middle Values

The Power of Middle Values

As an artist, I often get questions from people about their own drawings. One of the things I hear over and over again is, “How do I get my drawings to look more realistic?” This question is usually followed by an exasperated sigh, as if the budding artist is close to giving up.

This is a current commission I'm working on and you can see that the face is all rendered in monochromatic, only one pencil color.  I'm using Bark, Inktense, from Derwent.  

Conventional wisdom would tell you not to create a line for something that should be represented as a curve or an edge, opting to use shading to represent everything instead (even where you think there is a line). This is very good instruction for achieving more realistic drawings, as it will call your attention to shape, size, proportion, and relationships to negative space. These are all good things to be aware of.

But I think the most realistic drawings come when an artist develops the ability to see value changes and differences in the middle values. The average joe can usually tell the difference between the darkest values and the brightest values, but to go beyond that and start to make judgments in the middle values will bring your drawing to a whole new level.

I know what you’re thinking—Sure, John, sounds great. But how in the world do I learn how to look at middle values? I’m so glad you asked!

One way to do this is to begin using a technique from the old masters called the grisaille (pronounced GRIZ-EYE) method. (This has nothing to do with a grizzly bear, or its eye… though that would make an interesting drawing.) In the grisaille method, you render your entire drawing by reducing down to values. For example, if I am drawing a colored pencil portrait then I will first draw the entire drawing using 1 or 2 pencils colors. I will only use light pressure in the lightest areas. I will cover the entire face with the pencil and will not go on to until I cover the entire face.

Think about it in these 3 steps:

  1. Outline. Create a very soft (nearly invisible) outline of the proportions. The outline of the face, the edge of the hair line, the outline of the eyes, then nose and mouth.

  2. Go Dark. Next, gently increase the value of all the areas where you see shadows. For example the corners of the mouth, the corners of the eye, the underside edge of the nose.

  3. Make the Middle. Finally, with a very dark pencil and with the lightest touch you can possible make increase the value in areas that you consider the middle values. Here is where the magic will begin to happen. By “lightest touch possible” I mean that the only pressure you exert in nearly just the weight of the pencil itself and you are only controlling the direction of the tip! EXTREMELY light touch. Imagine that the paper is a pressurized bomb and if you press too hard it will blow up in your face. Ok, that was extreme. You get my point, right?

"What Is Your Favorite Paper?"

It's a question I get often.  

A colored pencil artist has many options when it comes to paper!

One of the things I like about using colored pencils is you can use so many different types of papers or supports.  Anything from canvas, paper, glass, wood or stone or even some I haven’t thought of! 
I have used and tested several different papers and have settled on a few.  But there is one that I tend to use more than any other.  That paper is Stonehenge from Legion paper. 

Here are the reasons I like Stonehenge:

Tooth: The tooth of the paper refers to the texture on the surface of the paper, sometimes called hills and valleys.  The tooth of this paper has a random texture and is still smooth enough to get good detail without having to fill in a lot of layers to do it.  But, if  you want more layers it can take a lot of layers! 


This paper is made of 100% cotton and is acid free.  This means it will stand up to a lot of reworking and solvents and still maintain its original shape and not buckle as long as it it’s taped down flat.  It will also last many years and is archival because there is no acid in the paper making production. 


So far the company has stood behind its product and has consistently produced a good product.  It is always consistent in quality and you can rely on the paper from a new purchase is going to be just like the last time you bought it.

90 lb:  

The thickness of the paper is 90 lbs.  It is just about the right thickness.  It is not so thick that you can’t print on it.  It’s also not too thin that it seems flimsy.  

What is YOUR favorite paper?  I'd love to hear what you like!  leave me a comment.