Helene Schjerfbeck – Step-by-Step Formula for Her Style

Portraits in the style of Helene Scherfbeck, by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. See her step-by-step instructions!

In this blog post, I will show you how to create a stylish portrait and learn from a Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946).

The Famous Helene Schjerfbeck

Helene Scherfbeck had an impressionistic and fairly detailed style. But during the years, she became a true expressionist, a master of expressing the most essential through simplifying. She painted a lot of portraits, and many of them have become very valuable. The Red Haired Girl II was sold for 1.5 million euros at Sotheby’s last year. One of my aunts admired Helene Schjerfbeck, and many years ago, she bought me a book about her paintings. The book is called “Helene Scherfbeck – Elämä ja taide” (Life and Art), and it’s written by Lena Holger. To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of the style and didn’t even browse the book for years. But the more I have learned about art, the more enthusiastic I have become to study various styles. As I love to figure out a formula behind a style, it started to feel tempting to solve Helene’s secrets too.

Helene Scherfbeck - Elämä ja taide, a book about a famous Finnish artist, written by Lena Holger, published by Otava.

Independent Visions – Helene Schjerfbeck in New York!

There’s also another reason why I am writing this. Currently, there’s a rare opportunity to see Finnish female masters in New York, USA.   The Ateneum Art Museum, which is part of the Finnish National Gallery, displays an excellent exhibition at Scandinavia House from 29 April to 3 October 2017. The exhibition presents four early 20th-century Finnish artists from the Ateneum collection: Helene Schjerfbeck, Sigrid Schauman, Ellen Thesleff and Elga Sesemann. If you visit New York this summer, do go and see it, I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Here are a couple of Helene Scherfbeck’s paintings that you will see there.

Helene Schjerfbeck: Girl from California I (1919). Finnish National Gallery/Ateneum Art Museum, The Kaunisto Collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen.

Helene Schjerfbeck: Girl from California I (1919). Finnish National Gallery/Ateneum Art Museum, The Kaunisto Collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen.

I find the abstract nature of Helene’s style especially fascinating. The way she simplifies the spots where the light hits or where a shadow is formed is like she is building an abstract composition instead of painting a face.

Furthermore, the girl below is wearing a shawl that is like an abstract painting!

Helene Schjerfbeck: Girl from Eydtkuhne II (1927). Finnish National Gallery/Ateneum Art Museum, The Kaunisto Collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen.

Helene Schjerfbeck: Girl from Eydtkuhne II (1927). Finnish National Gallery/Ateneum Art Museum, The Kaunisto Collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen.

Mixing Helene Scherfbeck’s Style with My Personal Approach

One primary factor in building a style is the shape of the elements. I for one love organic elements and flowing form. Simple rectangles are not as appealing to me as more complicated and diverse shapes. However, I wanted to add Helene’s twist to a couple of watercolor paintings. As Helene Scherfbeck also painted still-lifes, I decided to paint a woman with a flower or two. First, I made a tiny painting and played with layers to create angular shapes. Then I painted a bigger watercolor painting with familiar flowing shapes but using the insights that I had got by painting the first one.

Watercolor paintings by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

After these two paintings, I was ready to record a simple formula for achieving Helene Scherfbeck’s style.

The Formula for The Modern Woman – Step by Step!

During this drawing process, improvise, but also check that your drawing is not symmetric. It makes the drawing dynamic and reduces stiffness.

1) Draw a couple of arcs to create a face. Then add rectangles and triangles for hair. It is a fun and easy way to add hair without focusing on the shape of the head.

A step-by-step guide to drawing a portrait in Helene Schefbeck's style, by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet, step 1.

2) Add a neck and shoulders by drawing a rectangle and a couple of triangles that point to different directions. Then draw eyes, mouth, and other facial features. Use as many geometric shapes and simple lines as you can. After facial features, turn the work upside down and complement the drawing with geometric shapes so that it’s more like a balanced, asymmetric abstract painting than a portrait of a woman.

A step-by-step guide to drawing a portrait in Helene Schefbeck's style, by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet, step 2.

3) Soften the shape of the hair, the clothing, and some of the facial features. Then color the face, neck, and hair. Helene Scherfbeck often used grayish colors for the skin and a more striking color for the hair.

A step-by-step guide to drawing a portrait in Helene Schefbeck's style, by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet, step 3.

4) Add light and shadows on the face. Use mostly simple geometric elements.  Then turn the work upside down and finish the abstract composition by using color to balance the painting. Remember to maintain the asymmetry!

A step-by-step guide to drawing a portrait in Helene Schefbeck's style, by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet, step 4.

5) Remove some sketch lines and add more finishing details if needed. If you used long lines, make some of them shorter so that your drawing is not so stiff.

A step-by-step guide to drawing a portrait in Helene Schefbeck's style, by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet, step 5.

Helene Scherfbeck’s Style – The Combination of Simplicity and Softness

Even if Helene Scherfbeck’s style is very graphic, she also embraced uneven edges and soft color changes. This softness combined with distinct, even clumsy-looking geometric elements is the essence of her style.

A portrait in the style of Helene Scherfbeck, by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. See her step-by-step instructions!

She also uses strong lines and bold colors to draw the viewer’s attention to the selected details. However, she does that very sparingly like there would be a limited storage of lines and pigments.

A portrait in the style of Helene Scherfbeck, by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. See her step-by-step instructions!

Find The Passion Behind Your Many Styles

I often find it distracting when people talk about their personal style like it would be the final destination for their artistic journey. They say tat once they have found their style, it would be like coming home and they would never need to go back to explore. I think it can be a harmful mindset. It leads to thinking that artists could be divided into three categories: a) those who search their style, b) those who stick with their style, and c) those who are afraid of going deeper because they don’t want to stop playing. That kind of controversy is not good at all! Going deeper allows, not prohibits, playing! Creative people are meant to travel spiritually!

Portraits in the style of Helene Scherfbeck, by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. See her step-by-step instructions!

Instead of searching for your perfect style, your final destination, connect with your passion! Your passion can be like a base camp for your explorations, energizing you to take up new challenges.

Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet, a Finnish artist inspired by art history.

Sign up for The Exploring Artist to discover the passion behind your art
and to become more confident with the big word “artist”!

The Exploring Artist, a coaching program for building an artistic identity by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

Tribute to Georgia O’Keeffe

Oak Leaf by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. Tribute to Georgia O'Keeffe. Watch the video of painting this!

When walking the dogs, I wondered what could I take with me for the next painting. I saw a fallen oak leaf and felt a bit melancholic; it’s time to say goodbye to summer. Then I did exactly what Georgia O’Keeffe, an American artist (1887-1986), would have done: I picked up the leaf and once got home I painted it! Here’s how I got to know more about her and her painting style.

Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe

When so many of the participants of Imagine Monthly, my monthly art journaling class, named Georgia O’Keeffe as a favorite artist, my project during the summer was to get to know her better. I only knew that she had painted large flower paintings and some abstracts. But I didn’t know anything specific about her background and about her way of working. So I purchased a book about her life. It’s written by Laurie Lisle, and it’s called “Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe.” I bought an audio version so I could listen to it while I paint. I don’t recommend the book to anyone who wants to read an entertaining novel. I think it’s more like a historical study. But for anyone, who wants to learn the facts, it’s excellent.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Mindset

There are two things that I have thought a lot after reading the book. First is Georgia O’Keeffe’s personality. Apparently, she was not a very social person and quite straightforward in her sayings. Second is how her photographer husband supported her both by being her manager and her muse. I don’t think Georgia would have discovered her painting style without the discussions with her husband related to photography. These two facts make me believe that her mindset was very analytical. Even if she was a visual artist, she also was a scientist in her closed personal world. She examined plants like they were scientific specimens. It was like she could measure beauty and then create a new version of it. The more I listened to her life story, the more fascinated I became about her.

Those who live in the UK or are visiting the UK: There’s a big exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern until October 30!

Botanical Discovery – Create Unique Collage Art!

As a part of Imagine Monthly Fall 2016, I have published a class where you can create botanical art inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe. It has directions on how to cut organic shapes from watercolored papers and build a painted collage out of them. Sign up for Imagine Monthly and get this class immediately after registration!

Botanical Discovery, a collage art class by Peony and Parakeet. Inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe.

Painting an Oak Leaf – Watch the video!

The oak leaf shown at the beginning of the page is an acrylic painting on an art journal. I made it as a tribute to Georgia O’Keeffe and recorded a short video of the process. In the video you see me painting with a broad brush and flowing strokes. This is one of the techniques that I’ll show more in depth in my upcoming workshop Nature in Your Mind. I hope to see you there too!

Create collage art inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe: >> Sign up for Imagine Monthly
Paint nature themes with your left and right brain: >> Sign up for Nature in Your Mind

Painterly Collage in Rut Bryk’s style

Art journal spread by Peony and Parakeet, see instructions of how to make this!

Here’s my recent art journal spread, inspired by a Finnish ceramic artist Rut Bryk (1916-1999). Espoo Museum of Modern Art Emma is currently showing her work and as a big fan of her work, I had to see the exhibition!

Rut Bryk

Paivi Eerola from Peony and parakeet at Rut Bryk's art exhibition

Rut Bryk is very known in Finland but not so famous worldwide. However, you might know her husband, a skillful designer and sculptor Tapio Wirkkala. Rut Bryk was an illustrator who got a job at Finnish ceramic factory Arabia in 1940s. Her early work was fairly naiive and illustrative. But after working with ceramics for some time, she began adding textures to her work. Her 50s pieces were very mid-century modern.

Ceramic art by Rut Bryk

In 1960s her work grew more dimensional and abstract.

Ceramic art by Rut Bryk

The abstract pieces she made are stunning.

Ceramic art by Rut Bryk

This black city view is one of my favorites.

Ceramic art by Rut Bryk

Many of Rut Bryk’s artworks are composed of small ceramic pieces. They look like quilts or crocheted blankets to me.

Ceramic art by Rut Bryk and Maaria Wirkkala

Rut Bryk’s and Tapio Wirkkala’s daughter Maaria Wirkkala is also a well-known artist. She had made an installation of Rut Bryk’s excess tiles for the exhibition.

Collage in Rut Bryk’s Style!

Get inspired by Rut Bryk’s brilliancy and create a collage
with these step-by-step instructions!

You will need hand-decorated papers, acrylic paints, marker pens and gel medium or paper glue. See ideas for hand decorated papers: Basic Instructions, Frugal version, Kiwi, Arboretum, Spring Flowers (PDF download)

1) Paint the Background

Paint the background black.

2) Cut Collage Pieces

Cut collage pieces to simple shapes like rectangles, triangles, diamond shapes and circles. Cut big, small and medium-sized pieces. To make the pieces look like handcrafted ceramic plates, round the corners and soften the straight edges so that they are slightly wavy. Don’t worry about the colors too much as you will be painting over them.

Create Rut Bryk inspired collage! Paivi from Peony and Parakeet shows how!

3) Glue the Pieces

Using gel medium or paper glue, begin glueing the pieces on the black background.

Pile up pieces so that some smaller pieces are glued on the bigger pieces. Before glueing, add black paint so that the piece on the top will have soft black borders. This will make your work look more dimensional.

Create Rut Bryk inspired collage! Paivi from Peony and Parakeet shows how!

Don’t fill the whole background but leave some of it black.

Create Rut Bryk inspired collage! Paivi from Peony and Parakeet shows how!

4) Paint Lightly Over the Pieces

To make the pieces look softer and to mute down their colors, add thin layers of acrylic paint over them.

Create Rut Bryk inspired collage! Paivi from Peony and Parakeet shows how!

Paint blocks where the black background is visible. Use neutral, fairly dark colors that suit well with the black background.

5) Draw Spotted Grids and Frame Collage Pieces

With marker pens or felt tip pens, draw spots so that they form grids. These grids can continue over the blocks. Also the size of the spots can vary. I use Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens as they work well on acrylic paint.

Create Rut Bryk inspired collage! Paivi from Peony and Parakeet shows how!

Frame the painted blocks and collage pieces with a black marker so that they look firmly attached to the background. I also used white chinese marker to add few white lines here and there.

Create Rut Bryk inspired collage! Paivi from Peony and Parakeet shows how!

6) Paint Slightly Over Some Areas

To finish your work, add thin layers of paint for some areas. These painted areas represent light and shadows over the overall composition.

Create Rut Bryk inspired collage! Paivi from Peony and Parakeet shows how!

Here’s my finished spread again.

Art journal spread by Peony and Parakeet, see instructions of how to make this!

Extra Project – Decorating a Box

My husband has made a wooden box for my paint tubes. I have painted it golden but the bottom part of the lid needed some decoration. I had already painted the framed area red so I just added black paint under the collage pieces.

Decorating a box with collage pieces by Peony and Parakeet

Then I continued the process like in the instructions. Finally, a layer of gel medium was added to protect the paper pieces.

Decorated box with collage pieces by Peony and Parakeet

I like the idea of opening the lid and seeing the collage.

Decorated a box with collage pieces by Peony and Parakeet

Thank you, Rut Bryk!

Rut Bryk inspired collage art by Peony and Parakeet. See instructions!

Expand Your Artistic Imagination!

This blog post is an example of how you can learn and get inspired by famous artists. This is how I see it:
– If want to find your own uniqueness, examine all kinds of artists and styles!
– If you have already found your style, keep on experimenting and expanding your skills!

It’s exactly what my art journaling master class Imagine Monthly is all about. Every month I will introduce new artist or style and you will get detailed instructions on how you can get most of it.

Imagine Monthly Spring 2016 ended in the end of June, but you can still purchase it!
Imagine Monthly Fall 2016 has begun in August, but you can still sign up!

Imagine Monthly Fall 2016, an art journaling master class by Peony and Parakeet

At Imagine Monthly Fall, you will get 5 mini-courses, 1 per month, and a great community of like-minded people.

Make the decision to move forward in art journaling!
>> Become my student and sign up now!

In the Spirit of Cassandra Tondro

The Rooster, mixed media painting by Peony and Parakeet.

This painting is a monotype print where I have added only few collage pieces and a couple of little details with pens. In this artwork, the rooster is waking us up to notice that in art, whether we are makers or viewers, we are always in the middle of an experience. Thus, if you want to become a better artist, you should not focus on the final results only, but also on the experience.

Cassandra Tondro

There’s a particular artist that I want to introduce for this subject. She is someone that I greatly admire, Cassandra Tondro. I am most honored to have Cassandra Tondro herself answering to my questions! I also got her permission to publish her photo and my favorite artwork of hers called “Illusion” in this post.

Artist Cassandra Tondro

The Supplies

Cassandra Tondro has not only thought through about what kind of paintings she wants to create. She has dug deep into the whole creative process. The development of her current way of working has started steps back from what most of us would think. She wanted to find an environment-friendly solution and discovered a way to work with leftover house paint.

I did not have extra house paint but some odd jars of similar kind of fluid paint like Tim Holtz’s Distress Paint. I also diluted few old acrylic paints with water to get more fluid paint colors.

Fluid acrylic paints

Working with Colors

Cassandra Tondro has made videos of how she works with the paint. Instead of plastic sheet and canvas, I decided to use a glass plate with blank watercolor paper. My plate is about 12 by 12 inches.

Monotype pront with acrylics on a glass plate

While I poured colors on the plate, I thought about how suitable this process is when you want to forget the rest of the world and have a quality time with your favorite colors. Cassandra Tondro embraces quietness while working:

I like quiet when I work.  My experience is that we are surrounded with so much noise all the time — traffic, cell phones, airplanes overhead, radio, videos, Musak in stores.  My studio is my refuge from all of that.  I like to be alone in the studio — no phone, no computer, no Internet connection — and I like it quiet.

I agree. This is a process where colors are the music players, and the painter is the maestro, fully focusing on how to make it all work together.

Unpredictability

One general characteristic of art is an unpredictable creating process. While you have to accept more unpredictability than usually, there’s a lot what you can control. Choosing the colors and creating color mixtures is one thing. Composing color areas is another. But as Cassandra says, this is an experimental process. Experimenting is also very freeing. As I was unable to repeat the strokes that I usually do, this process tweaked my style to an unpredictable direction.

Movement

When I pressed the watercolor paper against the glass plate, feeling colors crushing between the plate and paper, I felt like running. This process involves physical movement, even if you are working on the table, instead of laying the paint on the floor like Cassandra does. The action, combined with colors, lifts your spirit, forces you to concentrate and makes you curiously excited.

Monotype printing

When the paper is turned over, and the artwork is revealed, there’s no quietness anymore! The colors have found their home. They have abandoned the hard glass, and now lie rearranged on the soft paper. A good 24 hours of dry air and they are there to stay!

Fresh acrylic paint

A warning: Once you have made one, you won’t be able to stop!

Monotype printing with acrylic paints

I got fascinated by everything, including the cleaning of the glass plate!

Paivi from Peony and Parakeet

Inspiration

I asked Cassandra where she gets her inspiration for painting:

My inspiration often comes from dreams or during meditation.  I like to meditate before I start to paint.  It sets the mood for creativity, and ideas often occur to me during meditation.  Another good source of inspiration for me is taking a walk.  Getting outside and walking frees up my mind, and I sometimes get ideas that way.

This kind of art thrives on the freedom. When I look at my pieces, I hear the colors thanking me: “You released us!” And as colors are so close to emotions, it feels like they have been released too.

Monotype printing with acrylic paints, by Peony and Parakeet

This is the next print after The Rooster.

Monotype printing with acrylic paints, by Peony and Parakeet

This piece was made on canvas textured paper instead of watercolor paper. It is not quite as sharp as those made on watercolor paper. If you create small pieces, as I did, I recommend using thick watercolor paper.

Peony and Parakeet experimenting with Cassandra Tondro's technique.

I composed the gallery-style image on a black background, but I think that Cassandra’s work would look beautiful on a brick wall. I like to imagine how the colors would have flown in the air and crashed against the hard blocks.

The more you experiment with this technique, the more you begin to appreciate Cassandra’s paintings. I see her art very powerful. Maybe because it is something totally different from my own, which often includes too much expression, too much explaining. Cassandra’s art is the art of listening. Watching her paintings makes me think: I am free to live, I am accepted, there’s no need for talking.

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Create Abstract Botanical Art!

The Odd Nature, a collage by Peony and Parakeet. Read about how to create abstract botanical art!

Last Friday I saw impressive paintings. When I see something that appeals to me, I try to analyze that in pieces. It is fascinating to find out little things that make a painting so memorable. I created this collage called “The Odd Nature” by using those factors. The whole subject – abstract botanical art – is mind-blowing.

Inspired by Hilma af Klint

Starting from the beginning: I was at Hilma af Klint‘s exhibition at Kunsthalle Helsinki. I had seen few of her work before, but never this many at the same time. Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) painted botanical art and landscapes but then moved to create abstract art. She was a female artist and one of the pioneer’s of abstract art. When that is combined with her interest in spiritual ideas, no wonder she did not make her work public. In fact, she ordered that her work should be shown not earlier than 20 years after her death! Look at some of Hilma af Klint’s paintings at Swedish Moderna Museet’s website.

Botanical shapes and Paivi from Peony and Parakeet at the exhibition of Hilma av Klint

Here’s what inspired me with Hilma af Klint’s art:
1) Odd compositions that were skillfully balanced.
2) Graphic, often decorative shapes which reminded me of plants and biology.
3) The combination of bright and muted colors with great contrasts.

Zoom in on Nature!

After the exhibition, I began to think how far we often look the world around us. To me, it felt like Hilma af Klint had divided living objects like plants in small components and then constructed new pieces out of them. So I began to zoom in the photos I had taken from my garden this year.

Apple blossoms in black and white. Read about how to create abstract botanical art!

When thinking about the structure of an apple blossom, I remembered something which is small too: the little box where I save the tiniest scraps of my hand decorated papers.

A small box of hand decorated paper scraps. Read about how to create abstract botanical art!

Creating abstract botanicals from the paper scraps would be the thing to do!

Color Inspiration

Light in the garden. Read about how to create abstract botanical art!

The idea for the color scheme and the atmosphere came from this photo, taken just while ago. I painted the background blue purple by adding several layers with watercolors.

Collage Shapes

After the background had been finished, I began to create the abstract shapes.

Read about how to create abstract botanical art!

You can easily create intriguing collage pieces by combining small scraps together. Your cut shape does not need to be perfect before gluing it on the background. You can think the shape as a beginning of the final shape. You can add more details with paint and pen around the shape later.

Read about how to create abstract botanical art!

Composition

When gluing the shapes before they are finished, you need to take bold moves in the composition. I advise not to think of the composition more than this: make sure that the shapes are not evenly spread on the background. After the preliminary shapes are glued, you can then continue working with them by expanding them with painting and drawing. At the same time combine some of the shapes together and create new, smaller shapes to balance the work.

In my work, the center of the work is left almost empty. There I created a tiny detail which adds dimension to the work: a blue horizontal line near the two small circles.

A detail of the collage by Peony and Parakeet. Read about how to create abstract botanical art!

So why not pick up your scraps and honor Hilma by creating surrealistic botanical art!

The Odd Nature, a collage by Peony and Parakeet. Read about how to create abstract botanical art!

Read also

Fun Designs from Decorative Papers – An easy technique to create collage elements.
How to Draw a Rose – A simple rose seen in the collage above. You might want to use it as a decorative element too.

Create more hand-drawn collages: Buy Doodled Luxury!