Village Portraits

This is the second town portrait I’ve painted. I’m enjoying trying slightly different approaches with them. They are small paintings (9″ x 12″), which gives me a chance to try something out without investing a huge amount of time. The first was a portrait of Worcester, my home:

The most recent painting is a view of Stowe. I’m looking at the town from behind the village, a view you can see partway up the mountain road. It’s a fall scene, and I used black paper for a stark contrast with the bright colors. A light touch with the pastels meant that the paper showed through just a bit, lending a kind of textured effect. I did very little blending, instead allowing the pure colors to speak for themselves. Here is the result:

“Stowe Autumn,” 9″ x 12″

I’m enjoying the various styles and the lovely simplicity of Vermont’s small towns. Perhaps this is the start of a series!

 

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Exploring the Abstract

I have never really understood abstract art, and mostly didn’t like it. Every once in a while I would see a piece that appealed to me. Generally, though, my reaction was just to pass it by. So it seemed to me that the best way to understand abstract art was to create abstract art.

It was an interesting process, and I discovered some things about abstract art itself and some things about myself as a painter. It turns out that abstract art uses all the same principles as representational art. I guess this should not have surprised me! As I painted, I paid attention to form, to variation, to color harmony, to composition. In fact, although I have often looked on this kind of painting as somewhat random, I found myself making artistic decisions with every mark I made. So much for the “any four-year-old could do this” theory!

The process, however, was different than my process for making representational art. I did far less planning. I experienced myself as somewhat more driven by feeling, even though feeling is also an important component in my other art. I worked faster, with pauses to look at the work before acting again. It was a kind of staccato rhythm rather than the more even tempo of painting a landscape.

Because representational painting is more structured, it is easier to work toward what I want to depict, just continuing on through challenges. Abstract art has no roadmap, or at least it does not at my current level of experience, which is virtually none. This meant that I made several pieces, and larger pieces, then used a mat to find the parts of the painting that were strongest.  Thus it took more paintings to get one (a part of a larger work) that was worth framing.

I was much more aware of my creative impulse as having depth and an embodied quality. It’s there with any art-making, of course. But without representational form as an intermediary, I had nothing to “represent,” so to speak, other than that impulse. I imagine that some abstract painters start with a particular feeling or experience that they wish to paint. Perhaps I will try that too. But in this case, I just painted what wanted to be expressed in the moment. It was freeing. Here is the result (16″ x 12″).

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I’ve titled it “Winds of Change.” Partly this refers to the artistic change of working abstractly. But it also refers to the changes occurring in this country. May the winds of change blow us toward justice and love.

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Imagination Meets Reality

Often I paint more or less what it in front of me, but this most recent painting is nothing like the photo! (Well, a little like it.) It’s a portrait of my home town, Worcester, VT. The view is one all Worcesterites know, from partway up the hill opposite the one on which I live. Here’s a photo from this fall:

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This was my starting point, then I set about making changes. The autumn colors would be a distraction for this piece, so I changed it to summer. I stylized the mountains, added more layers of them, and made them purple, well, because I can! And because I liked it! Same thing with the yellow and orange in the sky: Yellow is purple’s opposite, and the two together just sing. Further, the sky and mountain colors, because they are not real, communicate the magical quality that I wanted. I  created a greater sweep of field, because I wanted the additional contrast between the visual smoothness of the field and the texture of the forest. I eliminated many of the buildings, choosing just a few to represent the whole. I liked that most of the buildings are white, but I made a couple more of the roofs red, so that the red of the barn-like structure on the left had a little visual company. Here is the result:

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“Worcester Village,” 9″ x 12″

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A New Class and a New Painting

First, we (myself and my teaching partner, Cindy Griffith) recently had another successful beginner’s class! These classes are so enjoyable. I love seeing the remarkable variety of styles and subjects. And I particularly appreciate the courage it takes to be a beginner at something. Here are our students with their paintings:

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If they look pleased, they have every reason to be!

In addition, we have just planned the outline for an five-session intermediate class in pastel painting, which will also be held at the Wood Art Gallery in Montpelier. I am very happy with how we have structured this class. We are going to focus on artistic decisions and how to make them, helping students to see how a painting might come out differently depending upon your choices for an underpainting, composition, and color. I wish I’d had this class when I was starting! I’m looking forward to it. We are looking for students who have at least a little familiarity with soft pastels, but other than that, beginners are fine. If you’re interested, contact the Wood: http://www.twwoodgallery.org, or (802) 262-6035.

And second, I just finished a new fall painting, “Layers of Fall.”

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The photo for this painting was taken on a hazy day, and you can see that in the almost-vanishing quality of the farthest hills. Next are the somewhat muted colors of the nearer background hills. Then the greens of a field and the birches that are just starting to get touches of gold. Finally, right in front of you, is the brilliant intensity of the near maples. It would seem that I must have exaggerated those colors, but in fact, they are very close to those in the photo. Fall: the season of visual fire and heat before we go into the limited and soft color palette of the winter.

 

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Working With Light

Mary Oliver, in her poem “The Ponds,” says “…what I want in my life is to be willing to be dazzled……the light is everything.” I am increasingly drawn toward painting light in its various forms. I have a number of paintings that focus on skies: “The Happy Couple,” “Late-Day Grace,” “Thimble Peak Sunset,” “Gateway,” and “Sumac” are some of the more recent. Skies and clouds seem to me to express spirit, although light in other forms (“Softly, Softly” is an example) can depict spirit as well.

My two most recent paintings are expressions of light, each in a different way. “Mary’s Field” is a painting of a friend’s pasture at dusk.

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This was a challenge to paint, because the contrast between the light in the sky and the darkness of the misty foreground, already in silhouette with the growing dusk, made photos inaccurate. Here are the reference photos:

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As you can see, the first photo darkened the foreground to the point of entirely near-blackness, while the second lightened the sky to the point of washing out its beautiful colors. My solution was to borrow from each while keeping the contrast of the trees against the sky. I lowered the horizon a bit to emphasize the sky, even though this puts it near the center of the painting, which is Against The Art Rules. I also decided to emphasize the angles in the field slightly, to help lead the eye toward the sky. I added a faint scumble of lavender and peach to the foreground mist to unify the painting’s colors.

This second painting is “Portal.” My cousin Max Hinz is a photographer, and when I saw the photo of this scene I was so taken with it that I immediately asked for permission to use it for a painting.

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Here I needed to do something similar, adding a bit of light and color to the near landscape, which was in almost total darkness in the photo. I used an underpainting of dark red in the shaded areas, which shows through in places, to relieve and contrast with all that green. I varied the greens, adding more light to the closest foliage in the bottom left. And I carried softer versions of the red underpainting into the tree trunks in the sunlit area and even a bit in the road.

Composition is tricky with a painting like this, since the focal point is diffuse. Of course, there is the circle created by the light. But can you see the faint slant of light starting near the top left of the road and going diagonally up from left to right in the sunlit area? This brings the viewer’s eye to the leaning trees in the upper right, which then encourage you to circle back down to the road.

I like this painting very much indeed; it seems to me to say something not only about light in the visual sense but also about being drawn toward increasing the light in one’s life. May we all be pulled toward such an increase!

 

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An Art Experiment

It’s a good idea — and fun! — to try something a little different every once in a while, in art as in the rest of life. I started my most recent painting with this photo:

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It’s hard to say what possessed me to take the photo. It’s a completely unremarkable scene, as you can see. Perhaps there was something about the half-hidden quality of that small meadow. Maybe it was the angle of the hill. There seemed an almost magical quality to it. But how to express that? I tried, with the computer, making the image much more green:

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Much more alive! But this still was not quite what I wanted. It lacked mystery. I tried for more of a blue-green distortion. Here it is:

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This was more like it. Look at this compared to the first photo. It has a very different feel to it, something closer to what moved me to take the picture in the first place.

I started painting, and got the bones of the painting down, but continued to feel like there was something more I wanted to express. I was not sure what it was or how to do it. When that happens, I have to let the painting sit for a bit until I know the next step. Often, in this situation, the puzzle of the painting stays in the back of my mind, especially when I am going to sleep at night. So, one night, I suddenly imagined the plants and bushes in the foreground with more sinuous shapes. That was it! The next day, I started painting again. Here is the finished painting:

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Look at the movement in the foreground plants and bushes! To carry through that feeling, I also made the tree leaves curly, though it’s hard to see in the photo. I held to the blue-green emphasis, although I put more yellow in the lively foliage to draw attention to it even more. I created more contrast in color and between light and dark, since the original scene is fairly uniform in both areas. The dark shadow under the far line of trees is even darker, making that hill shape more prominent, and the shadows in the near leaves emphasize and echo the movement of the shapes. I made the birches more prominent, since they are an important structural element in the painting.

I titled it “Green Fire.” Those foreground bushes look like flames, don’t they?

 

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A Commission

I recently finished a commission for my cousin. Commissions are interesting, and in some important ways quite different from a non-commissioned piece of art. When I do a painting, I am responding completely to my own vision, to what the scene means to me, to what inner experience I hope to express, to my own inclinations about color and emphasis. Then I put the painting out into the world and hope that someone who also finds it meaningful will see it. Of course, they may find a completely different significance than the one I intended. So there is a random quality to whether my vision also speaks to the viewer.

With a commission, in a way I am co-creating a vision with the buyer. Ultimately, it is my image, of course, and I will make the painting in a way that reflects my own style and artistic sensibilities. But I go into the painting trying to do what I can to express the buyer’s vision as well. My cousin has a good eye and was able to be quite collaborative with me. So after I made the painting, we worked together to refine some of the details until it felt right to her.

For this painting, there is a sycamore tree that my cousin particularly loves, and she wanted a portrait of it. She’d written a poem about the tree, so I had a rich source of information about what the tree meant to her and how she felt about it. She sent me photos, including photos of the background that she would like. Here is the result:

Joann's Sycamore

My cousin asked for some of the details, including the dove perched in a lower branch and the sailboat. I made both subtle, because I did not want to distract the eye from the tree. Better that they should be small surprises that the viewer finds a moment later. And she asked for changes in the color of the tree’s branches — sycamores do not grow here, so her specificity about what looked right was helpful. What you cannot see in this photo are the iridescent pastel colors that I added, wanting to give a bit of shimmer to the scene, especially in the water and the tree. The tree is beautiful, I think, in the painting and in its own right. I hope to see it “in person” the next time I visit her!

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