My new book, Creative Renewal: An Invitation to Start Making Stuff and to Stop Clicking Stuff, is now available. Today, I’m sharing part of a chapter about my high-stakes aim to design my own cover.
I wanted to walk the talk of this book by creating my cover, ideally using oil pastels. It felt like a high-risk, high-reward way to introduce readers to this book and embody what creative renewal could be in practice.
I’ve invested a good bit of time into oil pastels, and they have fast become a favorite activity in the evening, on the weekend, or on vacation. I’ve never been able to find formal instruction in our town and would never consider myself professional. Oil pastels are just a much-loved hobby for me right now that brings a lot of joy into my life.
Putting one of my works on the front cover isn’t a declaration that I’ve arrived as a professional artist. It’s an affirmation that I take my creative practices seriously, and I hope you can do the same. Putting a piece of art on the cover that I created as a hobby highlights the work I’ve put into a part of my life that falls under the “leisure” category.
Of course, once I committed to such a project, I was overcome with doubts. My family usually sees most of my works, and the general public can check out a few dozen on social media. In my early days with oil pastels, I put some of my “better” drawings on social media and later regretted putting such terrible works up. Putting one of my projects on the cover felt like a big step and commitment.
Even more perplexing, I’ve been trying to shift toward more impressionistic oil pastel landscapes. It’s tricky to blend the colors just right to get some of those oil painting effects, textures, and color blends.
There’s always a temptation to bind myself to only the colors I can see on the reference photo instead of venturing into a broader range of shades. Veering into more splashy blends of colors that build up on the paper or expanding the color and value range feels like I could be venturing into a disaster of splattered colors.
As is typical for landscapes, I first laid down a rough outline of the basic features, including the clouds, trees, and river, including a few rocks in the foreground that I positioned a bit more in a prominent position. Then I filled in the sky and clouds to get them as close to finished as possible, alternating between a light gray and dark blue shade for the darker shadows. I’m not an expert at clouds, but they turned out well enough. The real challenge awaited along the line of trees.
Trees can perplex me because they often have vibrant colors popping out of them, but they’ll look like a mangled mass of dots or lumps if I don’t get the shadows around those colors just right. I’ve done plenty of oil pastel tutorials where the instructors filled in the different shades of their trees, and though I’d followed their every stroke carefully, their results couldn’t have been further from my own.
When it comes to oil pastels, some of the lighter colors have a hard time standing out when placed on top of the darker ones. That means it’s often ideal to start a tree with the lighter colors first. Even the brightest red or orange tree in a subject photo isn’t purely red or orange. There may be shades of yellow or even a hint of green as the leaves shift from summer to fall.
Drawing lines of trees with oil pastels is where precision goes to die, and more impressionistic representations of reality kick in. Danger lurks in such detailed tree lines, and I often imagined dropping my oil pastel into the trash can.
I gave myself one shot at the cover. Whatever happened would happen. I’m an amateur oil pastel artist who pursues a weekend hobby. I’m not issuing a rallying call for creating professional artwork for sale in galleries. I’m just a guy who loves creative projects and encourages others to give them a shot because I’ve found them beneficial and restorative.
Having an amateur bit of artwork on the cover is the point, but I didn’t want it to look like hot garbage. I poured over that glowing tree line, mixing in shades of yellow, orange, red, burgundy, green, and brown. Each bright tree stood out on its own before I dared to fill in anything darker around it or add shades to the branches and clumps of leaves.
Once I felt safe with the trees, I had to figure out the rocks and water. There’s a lot of dark purple mixed into the swirling bits of water and rocks as I tried to give the foreground a bit of depth and texture. The dark grey of the stones started to dominate, so I layered like crazy to soften those dark smudges. Of course, some shaded bits called for dark gray blobs, so I had to add lumps of dark gray without making them “look” like dark gray smudges.
When I was pretty close to being done, I sheepishly brought the drawing down to my wife for critique. I can trust her to be honest or at least praise the tiny little bits that are good—which is code for the rest of it looking like hot garbage.
“Oh!” she said as if shocked that I could have done this drawing.
“Look at those rocks! They really look like rocks in the water!”
She was very clearly surprised, and she couldn’t hide it in the moment. Apparently, it helped to take my time on this. The pure terror of putting this drawing on the book cover “no matter what” helped me do a better job on that oil pastel. It certainly eclipsed the absolute disasters I’d made in the previous weeks.
The more I think about giving an oil pastel drawing to someone or displaying it on something like a book cover, the harder it is to decide when it’s “done.” If I’m making something to hang up in my office for a little while, it’s not a big deal to find a tiny dot of paper that I hadn’t fully covered with pastel. But my gosh, if the oil pastel is for someone else, I practically stick my nose on the paper to make sure every stroke is PERFECT.
Well, maybe not perfect. Impressionistic oil pastels make “perfect” hard to nail down. I just want things to look like they belong and don’t look out of place.
The higher the stakes, the harder it is to finish something. Sometimes I’ll just leave a lineup of supposedly done oil pastels on a shelf in my office so I can tinker with them a bit should something stand out.
Once I stick this oil pastel drawing on the cover of my book, there’s no tinkering. Dabbing oil pastels on a matte book cover isn’t going to work out great.
My one comfort as an independent author is that many people will likely purchase this book on Kindle, so they’ll only see a tiny black and white postage-stamp-sized version of this cover. That’s one medium where I’m sure my limited oil pastel hobby abilities can thrive.
The joy of creativity is for everyone.
Creative Renewal helps you move past the fears and doubts that block your creative hopes and dreams, inviting you to explore your creative interests and unleash your creative expressions.
It’s on sale for release week!