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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Art Class!

We (myself and Cindy Griffith) taught beginning pastel painting this past Saturday at the Wood Art Gallery in Montpelier. This is perhaps the fourth or fifth time we have taught this class. It was our smallest class yet (some last-minute student illness), but the beauty of a small class is the amount of attention we can give each student.

I love teaching this class! I admire the courage that it takes to sign up for a beginner’s class: by definition, these are people without a lot of practice or, possibly, confidence. Pastels are an amazing medium, though, and are perfect for beginners, so I enjoy introducing folks to them.

The students did two paintings. The first was a quick painting of an apple, just as a way to get used to the materials. It’s always fun to see the differences in the paintings, given that it is all the same subject. Personal style is an interesting thing, and seems to be innate, with people’s inclinations – bold or careful, realistic or impressionistic – showing up right away. Here are the students with their apple paintings. (You can also get a sense of the gallery’s classroom space, which is wonderfully light-filled.)

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After lunch, we move on to their “real” paintings, the ones they have chosen to do. Most students bring a few photos to choose from, and I usually have the same advice about choosing for everyone: when you look at the photos now, what do you respond to most? It takes an emotional connection to the image to make a really great painting, I think. Again, I love seeing the differences in subject matter, as well as the variety of styles. Everyone gets stuck as they go along (of course, that happens to me when I’m painting as well!), but the beauty of two instructors is that no one has to stay frustrated for long. Here is the class with their finished or almost finished paintings.

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If they look proud of themselves, they should! Each worked hard, and struggled through the variety of artistic choices that are part of every painting: composition, color, technique, feeling. And each painting is lovely and, I think, expressive. Congratulations to all of them!

 

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The Jurying Process

I have just had two paintings (out of two submitted!) juried into the Vermont Pastel Society’s upcoming show at the Compass Gallery in Brandon, VT (5/29/16 – 7/29/16). It’s always so nicely affirming to have some art expert, whoever this person may be, select my work as worth including in a show. Here are the paintings:

DSCF1055 (3) “Sumac,” 20″ x 16″

Late-Day Grace “Late-Day Grace,” 16″ x 20″

Both are fine paintings, I think, so not a surprise that they got into the show. And (says she modestly) I usually get into shows when I submit work. But on the other hand, there is always a sort of random quality to anything involving art: it’s so very subjective.

I once had the opportunity to observe the jurying process. There were two jurors. The images were projected onto a screen, and they discussed each image. Their comments and selection process were fascinating. I certainly agreed with much of what they noticed. But it seemed to me that they were more critical of some of the stronger pieces and more forgiving of some of the weaker ones. I have seen this happen in art workshops as well: perhaps it comes from a feeling that stronger artists need constructive critique and weaker ones need encouragement. The bottom line is that some quite good pieces (by my standards!) were eliminated, including at least one from a fairly well-known and successful artist. And a couple of (according to me!) really weaker ones were included. It was a little like, as they say, watching sausage being made. Sausage may be yummy, but you really don’t want to know how it happens. And juried shows are usually fine shows, but of course seeing the show does not tell you what paintings were omitted.

What makes for good art? There are perhaps some universals, such as good composition or color harmony. That said, every “rule” in art is made to be broken. Most of us, though, can tell a decent painting from a poor one even if we can’t say how we arrived at that conclusion. But ultimately art is personal. What sings to me may leave you untouched. It’s true for jurors as well.

 

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A Change of Scene!

I am just back from a month in Tucson. I have never taken a vacation that long….retirement is great! Traveling with art gear is not so easy, but I wanted to take advantage of the change of scene to make art. So I cut back on how much clothing I brought. Hey, you have to have priorities!

I do love the Sonoran desert, especially the saguaros. They have such personality: except when they are quite young, each is unique. The Native people, the Tohono O’odham, say that they are like people, and it’s true. Here is “Saguaro Silhouettes,” which shows a few shapes, but they come in fantastic shapes, everything from the iconic two-armed version, to very many twisted arms. I invented the sky here, which in reality was variations on gray. I do love magenta!

Saguaro Silhouette

Everything abut the desert differs from my familiar Northeast landscape. The mountains, much younger, are jagged, and almost look artificial to my eye. “Thimble Peak Sunset,” below, shows some of this, with layers of rugged mountains. Thimble Peak, the tallest in this image, is certainly well-named.

Thimble Peak Sunset

Every plant and animal, it seemed, was new to me as well. I enjoy learning about another ecosystem. I’ve been to the Sonoran desert a few times, learn the plants and animals each time, and then forget them and need to re-learn them when I go again. But of course that is part of the fun. Here is a more intimate landscape, “Desert Companions.”

Desert Companions

As an artist, I am especially tuned in to the colors of a landscape, and the desert’s colors were a change as well. The greens are generally more muted, often a gray-green. In fact – with the glaring exception of desert blooms, which are spectacular – the colors in general are softened compared to colors in the East. But the shapes make up for it! I’ve already mentioned saguaros, the soul of the Sonoran Desert, but the chollas and prickly pears have varied and fascinating shapes as well. The prickly pear pads look almost balloon-like, albeit flat, and I decided to play with that idea in this next painting, “Neon Cactus.” I really had a lot of fun with this!

Neon Cactus

Finally, I did make one watercolor while there. I was amazed to see the birds routinely perching on cacti. They are covered with thorns! I don’t know how the birds do it, but I guess if you live in a desert, where most everything has thorns, you get comfortable with that. Here is “A Prickly Perch,” which conveys just that.

A Prickly Perch

It’s a good thing to paint new environments occasionally. Much as I love the forests of the Northeast, a visit elsewhere is a vacation for my vision. It’s a challenge to my painting habits as well. I rented a condo when I was there, and the woman in the condo above me confessed that she would lean over her porch railing so that she could see what I was painting. I invited her in to see the paintings, of course. Taking the trouble to spy on art in progress is a complement!

 

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A Change of Medium

I have been very clear about wanting to stick with pastels as my medium since I started painting about six years ago. I am relatively new to art and felt that there was so much to learn about pastels that I did not want to muddy the waters with another medium. But this past fall I was looking at the Community College catalog and saw a watercolor painting class. “Why not?” I thought. When you are 65 or better you can take any class in the state college and university system for free, meaning just the registration fee. I signed right up!

It was a great experience. The teacher was encouraging and knowledgeable, the other students diverse and enjoyable. I struggled with the medium, especially at first. It’s not very forgiving: you cannot erase or layer over any mistakes very readily. You can do both with pastel and no one’s the wiser. It took some practice to begin to get the drift of how much water to use. And it does not necessarily stay where you put it!

That latter quality, however, can be a strength of the medium, and I discovered that it makes beautiful skies, water, and snow: all things that are not very defined and that benefit from the loose transitions from color to color that is easy with this medium. It can have a particularly luminous quality, because of the transparent nature of the pigment. I liked that quite a bit. I can see that I have a long way to go before I develop any real expertise, even the level of expertise that I have with pastel. But I at least got friendlier with the medium and am happy with some of what I produced. Here are a few examples:

Jamie's House

“Jamie’s House” This is a large painting (about 21″ x 29″) and certainly took a lot of time. With watercolor, you have to plan out carefully how you will approach the painting, because once it’s down, it’s down for good. I worked more or less from back to front, with sky first, then the distant hill, then the house and barn, the foreground grass and leaves, trees, then finally the cars, the person and the dog. You can use masking fluid to cover things that you want to keep paint off, and that was necessary for the tree branches and some of the details. The painting sold right away, hooray!

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Here is a watercolor version of the pastel painting “Gentle Evening.” (9″ x 12″) You can see the lighter quality of the image compared to the pastel.

And finally, perhaps my favorite…..

Cupcake!

“Cupcake!” 9″ x 12″. We did still lifes in class, which of course are terrific exercises, but I do loathe them. I rarely like them as paintings. They just seem like a collection of dead objects to me. So I asked if I could bring in something, and this is the result. It was not easy….well, I guess none of these paintings were easy, given that I did not know what I was doing. But it was fun, because I liked the subject. And when I was done painting it, I ATE the subject! I actually framed this one and have it for sale on my “Town Scenes, Flowers, and Food” page. I may well frame the prior painting too.

I am off to Tucson in a couple of weeks and will be there a month. This is an experiment in shortening winter. I have various friends joining me throughout that time. I will be painting the Sonoran desert, which is a landscape that I particularly love. I will report when I get back!

 

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