Learn formal perspective and figure drawing. Nothing can replace this knowledge! If you want to be loose and abstract, then do so, but not because you can't draw in the first place.
Experiment. Your style, your preference of medium, and material will be your own journey. Nobody else's methods will work, they will only become barriers and rules that will stifle your own natural flow of expression.
Go to museums, study what's been done, and how, to glean insight into your own process. If doing something makes you happy, that's how you know it's part of your process.
Resist the temptation to use photographs and copying at the outset, or as a replacement for learning how to draw - that is, if you ever want to tap your true imagination. The ability to use your inner sight will wither if you don't ever tap it! How will you ever know what's in there, if you don't fumble through your own inept efforts to see what's going to come out. Resort to outside reference too soon, and you'll stifle your chance to discover what lies within the circle of your own resources.
Recognize that drawing is a mechanical skill - with effort and applied practice, anyone can learn to be competent. People who say they can't draw, are usually people who have no desire to draw. Whether you're a genius at the outset does not matter - I've seen the workmanlike artisan walk past the gifted talent who fails to keep painting, every time!
If you don't do your drawings and paintings, nobody else can. That by itself gives them value. If you don't share your visions, something unique will be lost - and a one of a kind is always a positive contribution to the world, no matter what the going trend in the art or publishing world happens to be at the moment. If you never create what's in your head, it dies with you. That is the only failure that has any meaning whatsoever.
Look at where your work is leading, and then expose yourself to the pros who are already doing it! Don’t just look at printed copies, but seek out the original works. Honestly measure them as your yardstick to expose where you have strengths and weaknesses. Then flourish your strengths - study and strive to build your weaknesses to a higher standard.
Never quit. Or that's where you'll be for the rest of your life - nowhere. A dream unexpressed can't be shared by anyone, and the loss of that is incalculable.
Follow your heart. Do what makes you sing. If that's not the going thing, then ignore the going thing. There is no substitute for your natural enthusiasm, and that is the only incentive that will keep you returning to the drawing board day after day, all the time. Genuine attention is something you can't fake - and if the going trend bores you, you're going to either hate your job, or find making pictures a chore. Guess what: you can't fool your viewer, either. Tell yourself the truth. If your direction runs counter to the going fashion, recognize that you're a trend setter, and get on with it! Let somebody with less drive and originality be the mechanic who follows your dust!
I begin with a pencil drawing. This is done to full size, in careful, refined detail until the composition is all the way worked out.
Next, I cut a piece of untempered masonite, and gesso it with a mixture of two parts acrylic gesso, to one part water, to one part matte medium. The last two layers are toned with payne's gray, to create a light gray ground.
The drawing is transferred onto the masonite. I use Don's method of making homemade transfer paper - get a sturdy piece of vellum tracing paper, color it black with graphite (pencil lead) then wipe the colored surface down with lighter fluid. This creates a fantastic transfer paper. The lines can be erased after transfer, if need be, and the sheet can be reused for a long time.
I seal the drawing down with matte medium.
I proceed to oil paint, and use a medium made from copal resin and stand oil. The mix I prefer is not commercially available any more, but the recipe is described in Frederick Taubes book.
An underpainting is begun in raw umber, toning in the darker values. Then paint is applied, background to foreground. The lightest lights and the darkest darks are laid in last, to choose what will be emphasized and sparkled up. Highlights are opaque, and shadows are done with glazes (thin paint suspended in a wash of medium, to give a "stained glass window" effect. The light passes through the toned glaze, and bounces off the underpainting underneath, which gives the painting a vivid translucence in the shadows. I use Windsor Newton series seven sable brushes, and others made by Raphael.
Each painting takes about three passes to finish. The entire process may take me 4 to 6 weeks.
I work in a north lit, daylight studio. After dark, I use special lightbulbs balanced to a daylight spectrum to maintain the consistency of the workspace. I have a drafting table that can be instantaneously adjusted from vertical to horizontal with a foot pedal - this keeps me from getting a stiff neck from fatigue. Often, I refine details by turning the painting upside down. This breaks my perception, providing a different perspective, to expose any awkward passages. Also, I indulge my addiction to music at all times - choosing music to match the mood of the painting, or to keep me wakeful when the deadlines keep me burning the midnight oil.
In addition to the progress slideshows on this page, you can also see a progress video showing the process Don Maitz used on the oil painting, Gunslinger of Eld, available on Youtube.
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Special thanks to Jeff Watson and Andrew Ginever for their tireless friendship and website support through the years! - JW