Frequently AskedQuestions and Answers

Below are some of the many general queries that have been posed to Elizabeth Whelan in interviews, emails and other conversations with artists, clients, and students about subjects ranging from art careers and business to color theory, success, and art schools. Feel free to email with other questions that might be of interest!

For questions specifically about portraits or other commissions, please check the website pages detailing her Portrait Process and information about Other Commissions. For information on portrait prices, please see Portrait Fees.

Elizabeth Whelan Interview Q & A

  • How does an artist develop a style? +

    In my opinion, 'style' just happens; you will discover it when you look back at your work over a period of time. You'll suddenly notice that you like certain colors a lot, or that you really prefer the work you do in one medium over another, or one subject matter over another. I used to fret constantly about this style issue, liking everyone else's and not seeing that I had a valid style as well! In fact in many ways it was one of the biggest wastes of time, worrying about needing a style.

    My best advice is to try everything (medium, materials, technique, color palette) that appeals to you, like clothing. The items that suit you will stay in your closet, you'll discard the ones that don't, and sooner or later you'll end up with a particular wardrobe that is uniquely your own. It'll happen when it happens, and those who toss their own natural inclinations to doggedly follow every trend or become the flavor of the moment often melt away quickly because they haven't found the enduring appeal of their own art for themselves.

    You need to be able to like to produce your own art even when it's not trendy, however there's a lot to be said about being able to adapt a look that's in vogue when it comes to commercial work, so flexibility and the experience of experimentation will serve you well in that way. Eventually you can say no to work that doesn't appeal to you for a variety of reasons, and what you are left with will typically be the work you love to do, and that work will be examples of your true style.
  • What are your favorite paints, brushes and canvas? +

    I mostly use a mixture of Winsor & Newton and Sennelier artist and professional quality oil paints. I started with these and so their qualities are very familiar. I add in a different brand or two when I order new paint, to see how each formula stacks up against the paint I am already used to. Paint varies quite a bit from company to company in everything from exact color to consistency, drying time, etc. I'm currently experimenting with paint from Holbein, Gamblin, and Richardson, amongst others.

    The permanence of oil paint pigment can vary a lot by color. Nowadays I buy only the most lightfast oil paints. Professional oil paint brands offer a good range of very permanent colors, and there's usually information about this on each brand's website. Why would someone use a color that would fade, you might ask? If that painting was primarily created for reproduction, for example a book cover, then the color itself, or the price, might win out. (Many less permanent pigments are also cheaper.)

    For brushes I use both sable and hog bristle brushes, and now I'm venturing into the synthetics. I really like the Escoda Modernista Tadami brushes, which are synthetic mogoose and hold an excellent shape. Longevity is aided by keeping the rough dunking in caustic cleaners to a minimum, so I tend to wipe my brushes rather than constantly clean them as I work. At the end of a painting sessionI clean all my brushes with Jack Richeson's Linseed Studio Soap and warm water. (All the supplies mentioned are available at Dick Blick and other reasonably priced art supply websites.)

    With canvases, I really love The Fredrix Blue Label canvas as it's a nice professional grade of cotton canvas that works well for oil paintings and is reasonably priced. Many portrait artists like something even smoother, and Fredrix also has linen canvases that are wonderful. I sometimes use Claessens linen canvas which I buy in a roll and I like the #13 either single or double-primed. It can be hard to stretch and as it is a little slick, it is well suited for work with tiny detail.

    I also highly recommend using Gamsol as a solvent, it's a very artist-friendly product. I mix it with 2:1 with stand oil to make a nice medium.

    New Wave palettes are a favorite as well!

    My number one item of painting equipment has to be a paint tube wringer that allows you to get every last little bit of paint out of that tube. Paint tube wringers are relatively inexpensive to buy and will make that pricey tube of oil paint go much further.
  • What color theory do you use? +

    Although I understand all the various color systems: Munsell, Yurmby, etc., I had no real use for this information until I read James Gurney's Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter. If you want some practical color theory concepts that you can actually use in your artwork, I highly recommend this book. It has changed my otherwise dismissive view of color theory as Gurney manages to appeal to artists rather than making them want to stick their fingers in their ears and go, "La-la-la-I-cannot-hear-what-you-are-saying!"

    In addition to color I do pay attention to contrast and value, and color temperature (warm or cool). At the start of a piece I am interested in good composition and lights and darks which will pull your eye around a piece.

    I also believe that learning about color mixing by trial and error is very useful. You can have all the color theory in the world, but when you try to put a pale thick blue paint with a thin yellow, certain things are going to happen and it's good to know what those are before you glob a pile of blue on your palette and spend an age mixing up a huge mess of green when all you needed was a little bit! Take some time to mix your favorite paints with each other and see what happens. Those charts you can make showing color mixes are actually a very useful reference tool and are worth taking the time to build.

    Color can be used in so many interesting ways and it can be enlightening to experiment. For example, I was sketching in the woods the other day and decided to do some small watercolors of trees using any color except brown. I got some wonderful bark texture from shades of purple and gold and turquoise, really unexpected and beautiful. That sort of playing around on a small scale can really improve your larger work and provide you with some new ways of looking at familiar subjects as well.
  • What are some tips for art career success? +

    Deliver a product of consistent quality, at your highest level of ability. As you develop as an artist so too will your skill level, but you can't give one client stellar work and do something terrible for the next.

    Be able to deal with the ups and downs of getting paid, mostly not on time. After your business becomes established there will be a more consistent cash flow and you can build a financial cushion. However to begin with, the best way to handle the feast and famine situation is to keep out of debt. If you leave school with debt, take any job you need to in order to pay it down as quickly as possible, and then stay out of debt to the greatest degree you can.

    Recognize what helps you to be creative, what times of day are the best work hours for you, what environment works best, and then try to create that environment and work within that schedule.

    Be able to diminish the distractions and focus.

    Lastly, build a solid network. The support of family, friends, clients and acquaintances can help you on both a business and personal level!
  • What do you like doing when you’re not working? +

    I really like to be outside doing anything from gardening to sailing, hiking, plein air painting, sketching, that sort of thing. Except when it's super-cold! I used to spend a ridiculous number of hours on end working in my studio. Now I achieve a better balance between indoors and outdoors.

    I also read a lot, and in the winter I pick up more indoors hobbies such as printmaking, quilting, knitting, carving, playing the piano - I like making useful objects. I particularly love learning how to do skills by hand.
  • Does it help to have an art education? +

    I don’t have much formal art training, so perhaps the most valuable advice I can give is that you don't need to go to art school or have a degree to become a professional artist and make a decent living. That doesn't mean you can't pick up some useful info at a school -- an introductory drawing class I took years ago taught me fundamentals that I still apply to this day. (Thank you, Prof. Vincent Castagnacci, University of Michigan!)

    Later when I was in the role of an art director, I found that some of the best and most qualified graphic design and illustration applicants I had were the products of vocational schools, where real-life skills were being taught and the expectations for salary and entry-level work were far more realistic than those applicants coming from high priced schools.

    And there's nothing like some instruction from someone whose work you admire, or who possesses skills and technique that you want to acquire. Many incredible professional artists also teach classes and workshops, perfect if you don't have the time, ability, or funds or desire to pursue a degree.

    I started out as an entry-level junior illustrator for a screenprint business, and built on that experience with other illustration and design-related jobs until I had enough skills to break out on my own as a freelancer. After building a very successful solo business I decided to transition to fine art.

    Rather than rely on trial and error to learn the fundamentals of the craft and the business, I sought out Daniel Greene and Burton Silverman, two artists I hold in very high esteem, and took workshops with them. In my opinion this sort of targeted learning, when you need it, is of more value than a bunch of required classes in which you may have little interest.
  • How can an artist build their business? +

    Do great work, learn business and marketing basics, start employing them immediately (these days there are lots of great books out there aimed at artists).

    Accept even the most simple jobs and do them well, success will build upon itself.

    Don't worry about developing a style or a name, just worry about doing your best and keep learning.

    Have a good portfolio website and don't get sucked into spending a bunch of time on social media showing your work to your friends.

    Investigate what other successful artists with work similar to yours are doing to gain exposure. Build on these ideas to develop your own market.

    Have business cards at the ready at all times, and exchange cards even when you think the person your are conversing with is not a potential client. Network building is an important part of any business.

    And I'll say it again -- do great work!
  • Do you have advice for freelancers? +

    A few key rules of thumb that have worked very well for me are:

    1) Keep your debt as low as you can, and pay for things in cash whenever possible. You can be far more flexible in terms of location and type of job/salary if you aren't worrying about a mountain of debt. When you make money, invest it back in your business -- supplies, training, equipment, whatever you need to keep you up to speed, but don't overdo it. Pay off the debt you have as quickly as possible, even working a second job to do it.

    2) Do a regular cost analysis and have a good understanding of how much it takes you to operate your business -- rent, utilities, taxes, etc., down to the paper and ink you use in the printer. Add on a decent profit plus another percentage to cover surprises, and stick to your rates. If you don't, the only person to lose out is you. A good book for commercial artists help you develop good business practices is: and there are others -- the important thing is to think of yourself as a small business, and learn how to run that business profitably.

    3) Learn how you work, and make that work for you. By that I mean figure out if you're a night owl, a morning person, do you need a pot of coffee on hand, do you need to take a break every hour, do you like audiobooks, do you like silence. Whatever it is, make that the way you do your work. There's no need to fight against your own nature, you won't produce your best work. Figure out what it takes to get you to sit at your easel, drawing board or computer for the hours it will take to complete the job, and do that!

    4) If you are a web/graphic designer or commercial illustrator, I highly recommend that you don't do spec work. Your time and talent has value, and people often only value you as much as they are paying you -- sad but true. Stick to your rates and do equally good work for everyone.

    That being said -- and particularly for people in the fine arts -- there may be causes or businesses to which you want to donate a painting or similar for fundraising efforts. Or a designer may wish to contribute layout services, or an illustrator a pro bono illustration to a favorite cause. In that case, do keep the upper hand. Artists choose which painting; designers and illustrators, make sure you retain complete creative control of the project, and that others on the project are volunteering their time also. Be generous if you can afford to do so, but remember your unique talents have value.

    5) Put your title (illustrator, graphic designer, etc.) and contact info in your email signature, starting now. Use it when you write to everyone. It will remind people who you are and what you are up to -- you never know what contacts your families and friends may have, and it is good practice for the business world.

    6) Have some friends or other business people you can get together with for coffee every now and again and talk about work challenges or just have a laugh. As a freelancer life can be quite isolating and Facebook is no substitute. Find other busy creatives and take a break when you can, it will help immeasurably!
  • What do you love about being a professional artist? +

    To begin with I was simply happy to be making a living! Now it's about the happiness art can bring, and particularly with portraiture. I like to use my skills to help other people, businesses, artists., etc. -- I want us all to succeed.

    I also love the flexible schedule of a freelancer, having time to think, having my cats in the studio with me, and most importantly, making a living doing something for which I seem to be well-suited.
  • Do you feel successful where you are? +

    There's always more to achieve but I'm very content with my current situation. It's important to strive and to have attainable goals, but it's also important, particularly for a freelancer or solo worker, to recognize when you've met intermediate goals and to give yourself a pat on the back.

    I am extremely happy to have been able to pursue life as an artist for so many years, and in so many capacities. I have worked in many aspects of graphic design, web design, illustration and fine art. I've been able to use my skills to help other businesses, particularly start-ups, and put marketing and promotion knowledge to use for them and for myself. And there's so much more to learn!

    Now I am at a point where I am concentrating diligently on fine art with figurative work and portraiture as a primary focus. The challenge of creating a perfect likeness is all-consuming and it a great way to employ a wide variety of artistic techniques that I have picked up over the years. To be able to paint a portrait and bring happiness to people on a personal level is a wonderful feeling! That certainly meets my definition of success.
  • What challenges did you face when starting out? +

    You mean beyond the usual 'lack of income' issue? When I started freelancing my biggest challenge was that I was not very knowledgeable about business. I had to learn about sending proper invoices, how to make your materials look professional, that sort of thing. I spent a lot of time researching what others did.

    A business woman I know could see that I was trying, and gave me some good basic advice about how to run a small business and actually make a profit. When I started looking at the process as being a matter of sales, creating a consistently high quality product, delivery, supplies, promotion, costing, etc., I was able to start making a living.
  • Is there anything you don't like about being an artist? +

    I really dislike having to badger people for payment. It's completely uncool to ask someone to work hard for you, and not pay them in a timely manner for their efforts. It shows a lack of respect and certainly doesn't make the artist think on the client in a kindly manner. But I do enjoy a lot of the other business aspects of the job, because they require creativity (marketing in particular).

    I also don’t appreciate clients asking me to do work in the style of other artists. I want to be able to do my best work, in my own style. I am not going to copy another artist’s work. It’s important for an artist to know that they are being ethical and true to themselves. People are asking us to exchange a very personal talent for money, so we need to be the gatekeepers of our own souls and make sure we are using our powers for good!
  • How many hours does it take to paint a portrait? +

    Each painting has so many variables. Pose, lighting, background, patterns on clothing, all of these things play a part. I do have ballpark figures I use to estimate if I can complete a particular painting within a requested timeframe, but I purposely keep these loose. The painting process can include any number of surprises!

    Most of the very realistic work I do takes weeks and months to complete as I work in layers and so paint needs to dry before I can proceed. And surprisingly, I have found that a smaller canvas is not necessarily easier or faster to produce.

    Typically it takes me between 2 and 6 months to complete a portrait, and I know when a portrait is complete not by the number of hours I've put into it, but by some internal signal that says, "That's it! Put the paintbrush down and walk away!"
  • What/who inspires you? +

    Let’s see:
    I really enjoy the artwork of so many artists, past and present. Off the top of my head I'd have to mention Hokusai, Ilya Repin, Albrecht Dürer, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Vincent van Gogh, and the Canadian painters The Group of Seven, Emily Carr, and Clarence Gagnon. And I would say my current approach to painting and my painting life has been strongly influenced by contemporary artists Daniel Greene and Burton Silverman.

    I'd also like to sing the praises of the Portrait Society of America. Their annual conference has introduced me to many extraordinary artists whose tales of determination are a daily inspiration.

    I am also inspired by the great outdoors, by good writing, and by anyone who is working hard at their job no matter what it is!
  • What areas do you feel are lacking in art education? +

    Recent years have seen great improvements in courses preparing artists for the real world, and I like to see emphasis on what might be called 'freelance prep'. There are full-time positions to be had in various aspects of art and design, but eventually many artists -- both commercial and fine art -- will end up working for themselves in some manner.

    Business fundamentals -- billing, contracts, professional conduct, marketing and branding, self-promotion -- are an important part of a professional artist's life. Artists can keep themselves up to date in these areas in many ways: online, library, class, on the job, at a conference, and there are some very good books on business for artists/small business that can help you target what you need to know.
  • What is the most exciting project you’ve worked on? +

    Hmm, that's a tough question. What I have found over the years is that many projects and commissions tend to be exciting in some way: either the subject matter or composition captures your imagination, or the client is one you consider important and you want to honor them, or the audience is one you particularly want to connect with. And it's important to find that exciting element and hold on to it, as that feeling will keep you working on the project with enthusiasm through the difficult stages (and there usually are some of these for every painting!)
  • What skills are essential to be successful in art? +

    Oh, some sort of ego the size of a jumbo jet, a complete disregard for common sense, an ability not to listen to the sound advice of others, etc., etc.! It's also nice if you can draw.

    Seriously, though, there are so many different types of art and so many different approaches that I can't really identify one set of skills that apply to everyone. And we all have different ideas of what 'success' means.

    I do believe, however, that it is helpful to develop business skills along with art skills; to constantly work at improving your art skills; to not get in the rut of churning out the same thing over and over; to understand that relationships matter just as much as talent; to work hard to develop your own vision rather than catering to trends.

    Most important is to love creating art, because success may not mean financial security, it may not mean fame, it may not mean a full-time job in the arts. It may simply mean being happy producing work that you love. And often taking that attitude will bring you some of the other perks as well!
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