I always include chickens in my online courses on drawing and painting birds. There are so many things that make a hen fun to draw — scaly toes, fierce beady eyes, all those feathers — and everyone has a basic understanding of chicken anatomy. This lovely girl was a demo for the current session of Birds in Watercolor and Beyond.
I know, I know… ink and gouache resist was supposed to come several weeks later in my course schedule for “Birds in Watercolor and Beyond.” But I just couldn’t wait to share it. My all-time favorite painting technique, its inky outlines and sudden transformation (as the result of spraying it with a garden hose, the best part of the whole process) remind me of my years spent carving colorful raku tiles. There’s more information on the process in an older post.
I’m honored to be giving a short talk today at Mobile Museum of Art. The topic: using a WordPress blog to help your creative business take flight. In a few short years, The Illustrated Garden blog has become the engine that drives my very intensive, full-time work schedule. Traffic passing through this portal carries a happy cargo of illustration assignments, commissions and people from around the world who want to sign up for an online course with me. Sometime next month, I’ll pass the 600,000 visitors mark. Here are a few things my blogging journey taught me:
Be true to your vision. What do you want your blog to be? It’s important that you understand your focus and remain faithful to it. Put it in writing – a single sentence can be enough – and then stick to it. Don’t get distracted. If this is a studio blog and you consider yourself a professional artist, then your politics and religion need to stay away. You can always start another entirely separate blog for your opinion pieces. This one is reserved for your art business. Don’t assume you know your readers. The internet is worldwide, and you will attract a broader and more diverse audience than you ever dreamed.
Be consistent. In the beginning, when you are working hard to develop your subscriber base, post at least 3 times each week. A post can be short, but at least two of those posts should include an image. Use tags. Lots of people “tag surf” and they may enter “sketchbook” or “watercolor” or “raku” and then browse all the posts with that tag.
Use tracking to monitor your site traffic. WordPress provides tracking statistics that will help you understand the ebb and flow of visitors to your blog. What makes your day-to-day numbers go up? Do more of that. Where do your readers come from – what web page were they on just before they landed on your blog? Where are you in the search engines when you Google your special subject? How can you distinguish yourself? Encourage comments and keep your overall tone positive.
Be yourself. Blog content is personality driven. Think of it as “branding” for the individual artist. There are already dozens of aggregate blogs reposting outside content they find interesting, so don’t do that. Find ways to reveal yourself, to speak in your own unique voice. Everyone loves to peek into your sketchbook; let them peek. Everyone loves to see where an artist works; show them your studio space. If you are a potter and you posted a photo of a stoneware soup bowl, include your grandmother’s recipe for vegetable soup. What is your favorite art tool? How do you have your workspace arranged? Do you have a dog or cat who keeps you company in the studio? What inspires your best creative work? What do you love? Other people love it, too.
Be generous. I am a firm believer in the two-to-one rule and it has never let me down: give to your readers twice, then ask them for something once. Giving can be interesting content, pictures, a tutorial, or even an actual giveaway. The best giving, and the one that will repay you for years and years to come, is information. That’s what beings people to the internet in the first place. I posted a short “how to draw a petunia” tutorial four years ago that still gets 40 or more hits every week, week after week, month after month. That little tutorial brings 2000 unique visitors to my blog each year. Instruction is a wonderful gift. It can be anything useful related to your art: how to choose a good watercolor paper, how to clean paintbrushes, how to build a display for an art show, anything.
Asking is when you want the reader to take some sort of action: buying something, signing up for something, leaving feedback for you, taking a survey on your site. In the beginning, giving away small things (they can be very small – I have given away stickers, handmade greeting cards, a stuffed cat, tiny drawings) will create nice spikes in your web traffic. Tag your posts “giveaway” because there are people who search indiscriminately under that term. You will capture a certain percentage of these folks, and then they will become regular visitors. It’s not something you will always do, but it is very helpful when you are just starting out. Don’t do it too often. Twice a year is plenty.
Be careful. Don’t make your creative content an easy target for copyright violators. Don’t run large-format, high resolution photos of your artwork. Find out what the actual column width of your blog is, and size all your images to that width, but no larger. I selected a theme with a 500px column width, which is too small to be attractive for reprinting on paper. If you are using a blog format with full-page photo width, consider adding a watermark to your images. Several sites offer this service at no charge. The cold truth about copyright violation is that if someone uses your images without your permission, there is little you can do. Copyright prosecution is expensive. So it’s best to make it difficult to get them in the first place. I wish I could tell you that this is rare, but it’s not. I personally have had one experience with it, and the user responded to a polite request to take the artwork down. I got an apology. I was lucky. If you don’t scan the work, but show it as an easel shot or on the drawing table, that works well, too. Otherwise, keep it at 500 px or below.
Be social. I started my blog five years ago. As recently as two years ago, a self-contained, stand-alone blog was enough. That is no longer the case. You must integrate your blog with social media, and it’s quite easy. When you post a photo on your blog, post it also in Instagram. Make sure your first sentence is interesting, and use a plug-in that will automatically post it on your Twitter feed with a link back to the rest of the post. Ditto for Facebook – cultivate the habit of posting the URL of your new posts, on your news feed. Now you are pulling readers from three vast and ever-growing reservoirs.
If you liked the atmospheric effect created by dripping alcohol into watercolor wash in the earlier mermaid post, here’s a very similar drawing with a slightly different background texture. Sprinkling ordinary table salt into your freshly painted watercolor wash makes a rich, grainy texture that looks a little like crystals, a little like foliage. It’s a fun and slightly unpredictable way to make interesting backgrounds. I salted only the top and bottom of this small (4×6) rectangle, so that the middle would be smooth enough to add a fairy and her friend. They were painted in watercolor, with finishing details drawn in Prismacolor (the color is Terra Cotta).
Any type of salt will work. Using coarse salt, such as rock salt, results in a larger pattern. Sprinkle it directly into the wet watercolor layer, then allow it to dry completely. Overnight is ideal. Then the grains of salt can be brushed gently away to reveal the textures beneath.
This simple “profile view while holding something up” is a pose that works well if you are not yet comfortable drawing hands. While it offers plenty of possibilities — she could be holding up a small bird, a flower, a soap bubble, a friendly insect — it’s still rewarding to be able to choose whether or not you wish to paint realistic hands. Click here to see my tutorial on drawing them.
… in my online course, Drawn & Decorated Watercolor Lettering, which begins Monday. Learn at your own pace with as much guidance and feedback as you like. Step-by-step techniques include Celtic, Art Deco chrome, illuminated Medieval letters, hand lettering tricks from the Golden Age of advertising, and much more. Create your own personal alphabet!
Each lesson appears on a password-protected site and includes video and printable illustrated pdf pages. Absolutely, positively no previous experience necessary. The cost of the 10-lesson course is $50.
I’m in the lake country of central Florida this week, painting some of the local avian citizens in preparation for the upcoming online course, Birds in Watercolor and Beyond. I sketched these sandhill cranes, an adult and a juvenile, this morning. Now I’m making a quick color study in watercolor and white gouache. (I’ll post another image when it’s finished.)
Sandhill cranes are abundant here: they stalk along the roadsides and peer in through patio doors. They make a rapid, beeping call like a flock of chatty space aliens. At four feet tall, they can easily look into your car window while you wait in line at the drive-through. They are ideal drawing subjects.