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:


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:


“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:


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:, or (802) 262-6035.

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


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.


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:

DSCF0759                      DSCF0760

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.

DSCF2524 (2)

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:


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:


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:

DSCF2381 (2)

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.)


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.


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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