You Asked, I Answered
Updated: Jan 2
Fine Arts students from my Alma Mater asked me questions about being an artist and here are my answers.
Pay It Forward
Wow! 2021 is nearly done and what a year it was for me. In the first half of the year we were still in Dubai and then finally repatriated in Germany—well I’m still an expat, technically speaking. Moving was the most stressful period but we managed. The best part amidst my breakdown was getting an agent and the cherry topping was booking three children’s book projects. My social media and website reach is both growing and it will only increase over time.
So I thought I would share what I have learned so far to you. It is true that with hard work, perseverance, patience and kindness to yourself, you will reach your goals. There is no other way. The Universe will listen and pave the way for you.
My only wish is that you pay these tips forward to the next generation of artists that you will meet along the way.
Why watercolor? What makes watercolor different/special from the other mediums?
I love the medium. Watercolor is beautiful! I love how delicate and transparent it looks especially when it blooms on the paper and the crisp edges it creates once dried that look like onion skins or flower petals. It’s gorgeous. It’s also a difficult medium to master and I am a sucker for difficult things.
I find it economical because you only need the paint, paper, brush (though quality tools will be expensive for sure but worth it) and water. No smelly and toxic turps, less clean up and quicker drying time. Whenever I am traveling I take my paints, brushes, a small pad and a mini jam jar for water and I can paint anywhere. Moreover as expats, we were constantly moving and shipping our stuff. Storing paper is much easier logistically than accumulating canvases or sculptures and then packing and sending them to the next country of destination.
I’m not saying I don’t like the other mediums out there. I tried oil, acrylic, silkscreen, sculpture, mixed media, digital painting and could make decent art with them but from the very beginning I knew that watercolor was going to be my weapon of choice. To be good at any medium, you need to be consistent.
What Inspires You? What connection do you have to your art? What motivates you?
Three questions. First, I am inspired by anything that catches my attention, may it be the clouds in the sky, the flowers I passed by on my walks, a bird—nature in general, or a pattern on a tile, my travels, an experience, a person, an artist, an artwork, a song, a shop window display, my dreams, a story I read—the world is my oyster! But I believe the most important part is your response to that inspiration. Are you going to make something out of it or will you just let it fly by?
My art is an extension of myself—my creative self because we humans have so many layers and being creative is just one of them. It’s a form of expression, too, isn’t it? Since I am illustrating children’s books, I am creating characters and a world wherein the readers can immerse themselves. I create an alternate universe that I also want to explore or even live in. A world where a lion can sit beside a zebra and a giraffe while having tea or a girl that turns into a bird once in a blue moon.
Making art was a form of therapy, too, especially during the darkest periods of my life. So my art is also my salvation in some way. I have also been told that my art have affected people in an emotional level or spiritual way.
At the moment, what motivates me is money. Yes! I want financial freedom. I have not earned anything in a decade because I took my masters for four years and then we moved from country to country in the last five, which prevented me from getting a job. That was also the reason why I went back to making art. But honestly, I do not need motivation to make art. It’s second nature. You will have to force me not to create anything.
What makes an artist successful? Give 3 things an artist needs to be successful.
You need more than three things to be successful. But what is success anyway? Do you define it according to the dictionary? Society standards? Or do you define your own success? To be successful you have to have a goal. An athlete has to reach the100m line before anyone else to win, right? How do you get there? You move your feet.
So as an artist, what do you want to achieve and how do you want to achieve it? When I rebooted my creative life in 2016, I didn’t have a clear goal. I just told myself I want to make art again without knowing exactly where that would lead me. The idea of a grand goal is overwhelming, I know. Sometimes you just need to take small steps towards that goal, like the athlete. So I made art everyday. I haven’t painted since college so I did not overwhelm myself by painting on canvas. I colored coloring books using colored pencils, gel pens and alcohol markers. Yes! Those that you could buy from supermarkets. I was obsessed but then got bored with the artworks. When I felt confident about my coloring, I started drawing again and colored those, too. I practiced nonstop and improved on my rusty skills. Then my artworks piled up. Somebody told me, if you are not earning from your art then it is just an expensive hobby. I had to reconsider my reasons for making art and of course my goals.
The Germans have the habit of asking you what you are doing. It is their way of small talking and assessing you at the same time. They are experts in efficiency that they have every minute of the day planned until the next decade or so! I was so intimidated by this question, I created my Instagram account and called it "wasmachstdujetzt" (What are you doing now?) just to document what the hell I was doing in my excessive free time in South Africa. I since changed in now to @misheru_does_art. So I wouldn't look idle I did anything creative I could think of, from drawing to baking to sewing and drinking tea in a hundred ways. Still I thought I didn’t have anything worthwhile nor any success story to tell. I was married without kids and unemployed. But this also made me realize I should start thinking of my art making as a business. This was going to be my career now. So I looked for ways how to capitalize on my talent. I educated myself through online courses on how to be an artist in this age and at the same time how to be a business person or at least think like one.
To summarize, the top 3 things an artist needs to be successful… Wait, scratch that. The top 3 things I need to be successful in my chosen career as an artist is to have a goal, be disciplined through constant practice and educate myself. The rest of the ingredients you will discover along the way.
What gives you the most joy?
Making art, drinking tea, a quiet day with my loved one or solo and being close to nature.
Which artist(s) are you most influenced by?
Gustav Klimt, Lizbeth Zwerger, Kay Nielsen, Isabelle Arsenault, Carson Ellis, Harry Clarke, Nakajima Rie, Wes Anderson, Hokusai, Beatrice Alemagna, Alphonse Mucha, Antonio Gaudi, Manolo Blahník and Alexander Girard just to name a few. I am also influenced by art movements and cultures like Islamic art, Art Nouveau, Impressionism, Nihonga and decorative art in general.
How do you define ART?
Art is anything created by humans. Discuss.
When did you start painting or when did you learn painting?
In school. I was quite artistic even in nursery. My teachers recognized that. But which child wasn’t making art anyway? The notable difference was that I was coloring my flowers black, which made my teacher concerned. My first painting on a canvas was in Grade 5, which was actually Elmer’s watercolor on a flour cloth! It was wrong and raggy but I was proud of it. I even framed it. I was imitating Bob Ross. I learned how to properly paint in college.
Best watercolor brand that you've used and why?
In my biased opinion and based from experience, Schmincke, a German brand is my preferred brand. But I have yet to test other professional brands someday. I can only compare it to Winsor & Newton and Reeves, which is a student grade brand. If you will compare brands, make sure you compare the same range, meaning professional range. But really, each watercolor brand has their own merits. The binding and pigment quality will differ and therefore will give you a different result. I like using Schmincke Horadam for the brilliant pigment quality, creamy texture and the availability here in Germany. I have been using it so long, I know the nuisances of the product.
If you want to read about my comparison of gouache paints (a thicker more opaque watercolor paint) read this blog post.
Why did you choose nature and emotions as your theme or why most of your illustrations possess those?
I would not call it a conscious choice but nature is almost always present in my artworks because I do like painting landscapes or creating an alternate universe. It also has to do with my location, I think. I began drawing or painting again in South Africa and that country is a poster child for biodiversity. I mean, where else can you see lions and elephants outside your car—in a safari park, of course not on the streets! We traveled all over the country and have seen so much awe-inspiring beauty. It is not the same in the Philippines, which is obviously rich in natural sceneries but the landscape in South Africa is different in every state. It is like a little planet on its own! The purple, pink, and yellow trees in spring and the thunderstorms in summer when viewed from our balcony in Johannesburg always took my breath away. That was inspiring.
As for emotions, this was not also intentional. But then again, I was creating characters, who will naturally display various emotions. Perhaps I was inspired by a certain feeling or sentiment at that time. An example of this was the introvert series where I illustrated in a whimsical way the struggles of an introvert like myself.
What is intentional is creating beauty. There is so much suffering, despair and ugliness in this world and a lot of artists are already expressing these themes in wondrous ways. I want my art to show what for me is beautiful in this world.
Since you have an Instagram art account, how did you grow audiences from nothing to 2k plus followers
Last I checked it's 3K now. You need to be consistent, engaging, and authentic. When I was starting my art career in 2016, I signed up to an online social media coaching for creatives with Sandra Aperloo of Creative Moods. She helped me understand social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest and how I could utilize those for my art business. She helped me how to plan my posting schedule. How often should I post? When is the best time to post? She also suggested ways how I could present my artwork on these platforms.
In Instagram for example, you need variety. Don’t just post a finish artwork. Show your process, too. Nowadays work in progress videos are all the rage. Why? Because these are engaging. Young artists or any art fans are curious about how a piece of art was made. Post a picture of your artwork while you’re holding it. If it’s a painting, hang it on a wall and photograph with maybe a little bit of flower arrangement. You have to help your potential fans or clients imagine where your art fits. Show something that inspired you. Talk to your audience through the description. Use proper language but not too formal. You need to be relatable. Gone are the days when artists were hermits or mysterious aloof personas. People may want to know more about your artwork and about you. Why did you make it? Ask them questions, too. If you are afraid to know what people think about your art, then you are still growing.
Join art challenges on Instagram. You would be surprised how many people are following these challenges. If you use the proper hashtags, people will find you. They may be your true “tribe”. I have grown my following through these art challenges. I just recently concluded Folktale Week and I have gained over 700 followers organically! Sometimes people will share your artwork on their profile hoping they would tag you and then your artwork becomes viral. Don’t even think about buying fake Instagram followers. What good will that bring you? Robots don’t engage and people will catch you and then your reputation as a serious artist will be damaged. Remember that your success as an artist does not necessarily rely on having thousands of followers. It may have worked for a few exceptional ones because they pioneered using the app and their following and popularity grew together with Instagram. Though it always helps to look at how these social media superstars present their profiles it's more important to focus on your technique and art making. Make art for you or your client. Instagram is just one of the platforms for your art. Don’t worry if you are losing followers, too. This only means that they are not your people. Instagram is such a niche environment that you can leverage by finding your target audience through the art that you create.
Join art challenges on Instagram. You would be surprised how many people are following these challenges.
In addition, I also realized that I create my best work through these challenges. Choose what best suits you and what is manageable for you. There are week-long challenges, 30 days or even 100 days. When you find the challenge you like, commit to it. You will also produce more pieces for your portfolio.
Engage with other artists you follow, too. When you see a post that really interested you, comment or ask away that burning question. Clicking that heart red is not true engagement. Ask what kind of paper they used, for example. Of course, be polite and true. Instagram’s algorithms love it when people are communicating through their platform because this means more people are hooked longer in their app. Instagram is after all social media.
Favorite watercolor combinations? like watercolor and color pencils or watercolor and marker.
Watercolor and colored pencils. The pencils add texture to the watercolor wash. I use Faber-Castell Polychromos, Prismacolor and Lyra Rembrandt Aquarell watercolor pencils. Gouache is compatible with watercolor since both are water-based. I use these interchangeably depending on the look I want to achieve. Gouache is perfect for flat renders. For paper I prefer Hahnemühle Leonardo 600gsm hot pressed for painting faces and cold pressed for general paintings. Water absorption and texture is wonderful. Read my watercolor paper test here.
Maximum time you spend in making one illustration?
This largely depends on the scale and amount of details I need to illustrate. But I have been making art almost everyday that I already know I could finish on average an illustration in full color in about 4 hours. If it is a double page spread of a picture book with lots of details, it can take 8-16 hours. It’s good to plan your attack on the composition. I paint during the day when there is natural light and then in the evenings I do my compositions in Photoshop on my laptop while we lounge watching TV or not. Quality family time is healthy.
How art or painting makes your day?
Making art makes me happy. When I am not making anything, I get that itch or I find myself flexing my hands wanting to grasp something like a brush or pencil. Sometimes I walk around the house with a pencil and sketchbook. But of course, there are down days as well, when I don’t feel like making anything. That is just my brain telling me to take a break and that is completely fine.
Favorite part in making an illustration?
Conceptualizing or brainstorming. That is the best part because you are exploring your mind, your memories, your soul and your environment for inspiration or ideas. The research part where you discover new things and finally piecing them together like a puzzle is the most exciting part. That Aha! moment when you get clarity from the muddle in your brain. Once I have got my concept down, then it is just a matter of putting that on a paper.
Do you ever experience art block and how did you overcome it?
Of course! Like I said earlier, sometimes my brain just needs a break. You might be distracted by other matters. In that case, deal with what is most important first. Stress kills. Respect your mind and body. Those are your best tools.
Or you might be hyper focused on your project that you get into that tunnel vision when you don’t see anything else. You solve a problem by looking beyond it not at it. However, it is difficult to have a block when you have a deadline—indulgent even. In that case you need to really push yourself. You have to be a professional in order to stay in this business.
You solve a problem by looking beyond it not at it.
The best way to overcome a blockage is to just walk away from your desk and do something else. That way, your brain is refreshed. Speaking of which, take a walk outside when you have time. Meet friends, shop, get coffee, watch a movie or go to a museum. You will be surprised how much different your mindset will be afterwards. My favorite trick is to do headstands because I’m literally upside down and therefore looking at a different perspective on things. I have written a blog about creative block here.
How does painting make you feel better?
Painting calms my mind. Like I said, it is like a therapy. Whenever I have too much brain activity, I head to my studio, grab my favorite tools and colors and just paint away. It also makes me feel useful. If you are a creative person, you should be creating, otherwise you will just be menace in the society. The five years that I was living as an unemployed expat became the best time for me as a creative. I had all the time and means in the world to pursue a career in art and now I am reaping the rewards of hard work, diligence, persistence and showing up in the art world. I am working on three picture books now and have a few more lined up next year!
What is your art style and how did you achieve your forte?
My art agents always told me that they let the art speak for itself whenever they are presenting my portfolio to clients. It is quite difficult to define my own style because I don’t see it. Strange, but it’s true. It’s the same as not knowing how to describe my own face when I speak. I don’t know my own mannerisms but people who know me well could pick on my ticks. Similarly, some people recognize my artwork already, which is good because a style is already apparent. I will just repeat what my clients and peers say about my artistic style.
“I’m really drawn in by Michelle Carlos’s artwork and I think she would be perfect for this story! It has the mystical, dreamy quality we’re looking for along with spectacularly detailed animals.”
“These are really lovely, and your eye for detail is impeccable!”
“By chance, we had the incredible fortune to discover Michelle Carlos. Her depiction of rich textures is what drew us to her work. Born in the Philippines, living in Singapore and Germany, and now residing in South Africa, we are sure her work has been deeply informed by a wide world view. Her talent is matched by her insistence on cultural understanding, respect, and integrity of the patterns she represented for our Global Patterns series.”
“Looking at your work I just feel like challenging myself to tey (sic) to add more detail to my work and to try new things. Your work is so original and so fresh and different. I am a big fan!”
The key words here are mystical, dreamy, spectacular and detailed, which are all accurate because I intended them to be that way. As said earlier, I want to make beautiful art and perhaps my personality is shining through my so called style. Remember that your art is an extension of yourself.
In a conference about branding, we were asked to write down a description of our brand using the senses and this is what I came up with. My brand will:
smell like slightly burnt caramelized almonds and cotton candy
wear an embroidered blue tutu dress with camel leather jacket, suede ankle boots and red lipstick
taste like salted caramel dark chocolate tart or dulce de leche
In short, I want my style to look and feel dreamy, sweet but with that touch of darkness and whimsy to get that Umpfh! as opposed to a straightforward pretty fairytale storybook art. And by the way I love chocolate but only the dark kind and could not resist caramelized almonds or anything caramelized. I also own a blue tutu dress and leather jacket and will always wear red lipstick to amplify my look. Knowing yourself and your tendencies paired with constant practice and experimentation is how you create your own unique style.
Basic things that needed to acquire when you are just a beginner when it comes to using watercolor?
I purchased cheap tools first and then practiced, practiced, practiced. Obsess the minutiae—the little details, the nuisances of your medium, your interests and your technique. Test your tools, like your paper, which will save you time and money in the long run. Once you are confident about your technique, get the best material your money could buy, which will make your life easier.
What inspires you?
I answered this earlier but just to expound on this topic further, whenever I have a project, whether a full picture book or a single picture, I always create a mood board. This helps me organize my concept, follow a look and decide on a color palette. It is typically a collection of images and artworks that I found inspiring and befitting in my concept. This is not copying but rather a style direction. For example in the Tarlac Province tourism campaign, I created a collage of the flora and fauna endemic in Tarlac with a bold lettering against the botanical backdrop. The mood board also helps the client understand your initial idea. This visualization helps me stay in that direction. It also becomes my desktop wallpaper while the project is ongoing so I am always reminded of my concept.
Who influenced you to do or make art?
I never really thought of this because I have been making art since I was a child. All children are artists but only a few carried on. I just kept going until I stopped after college to work in the film industry, my main dream back then. After college I really did not want to be a typical artist—just painting on canvas and peddling my artwork in galleries and doing exhibitions. But at the same time, I knew that I have always been a creative person. My parents were supportive. They did not restrict us. They gave us freedom to choose our own paths. A few years ago I had cancer and I faced a future of unemployment. I told myself, make art again. I knew this is one thing I am naturally good at. A film director once said to me, “you cannot deny the call of art.” I found that to be true now.
Explain the method and techniques of your style/trademark.
I would like to call my technique a hybrid traditional-digital collage, which means combining hand painted techniques and a digital process. I paint everything using watercolor and colored pencils, hand letter texts, scan high res and then finish everything in Photoshop. In my opinion the textures created by watercolors are still incomparable to digital painting. On the other hand, the effects I could create in Photoshop add a surreal layer onto the artwork as you could see on the video above. Likewise I like that flexibility of being able to move elements around. This way, I am able to utilize the best of both worlds.
Any tips that you can give to us artists that are having a hard time handling a paint brush?
I cannot emphasize practicing enough. If you are uncomfortable holding a brush, try painting vertical lines, horizontal lines, diagonal repeatedly on a piece of paper. Continue with shapes as well until your fingers hurt or until you can draw straight lines. Do this again the next day until your brush becomes your 6th finger. Familiarize yourself with the brush types and sizes and know how you could use them effectively. Practice. Always.