Abstracting the Landscape

This was my starting point. What a dramatic sky! I especially loved the dark curve in the lowest part of the big cloud just over the horizon and toward the right. I painted a fairly accurate version, although I amped up the colors, making the clouds more violet and that hint of peach-pink over the hills more pronounced. It was lovely, but it just did not do it for me. I wondered why.

Look at the photo. The sky is full of movement! I wanted a painting with that kind of energy, that kind of spirit: a roiling, glorious cloud explosion. I started cautiously, accentuating and defining that lower part of the cloud even further. I found myself giving it a little curl on the left. I liked that! Why not, I thought? Why not just go for it, make the sky full of swirls?

Worst case, it would fail and I would throw it away. It wouldn’t be the first time. When I was first starting to paint, Jayne Shoup (check out her amazing art: http://www.jayneshoupstudio.com) invited me to her studio, showed me lots of particulars about materials, and answered my many questions. I remember her saying that when she finished a painting, she judged whether it was successful. If not, it went into the fire. That was certainly a freeing thought!

I started looking at the parts of the clouds as just shapes, then made those shapes more evident, adding curls to show the movement. I pressed on, until the painting was no longer an exaggerated realism, but something quite different: a sky full of activity. Finally, I thought, looking at what I had done: Here is the spirit of that sky! This is the result:

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As someone fairly new to art, it can be hard for me to get a real sense of where my work stands relative to others’. Visual art, like all the arts, is very subjective, although there is perhaps some general agreement about levels of quality. You know the difference between a Broadway play and a high school production, even an excellent high school production. But within those general categories, it comes down – at least largely – to the viewer.

I once submitted a painting to a juried show. It was declined. Soon after, I submitted it to another juried show, more prestigious than the first, where it was accepted and sold before the opening reception. I had a similar experience with writing some years ago. I submitted a manuscript to a professional journal, and they rejected it. The rejection letter was so vague that I had no guidance about how to revise it. So I submitted it untouched to another journal (and again, a more prestigious one), where it was accepted and used as the lead article in that issue of the journal. Go figure.

For the last few years, I have been been bringing paintings to the Champlain Valley Fair here in Vermont. The art show attracts a large number of artists, from beginners to professionals. I fall somewhere in the vast in-between. And I have won awards there! It’s only the Fair, but it is so gratifying to know that someone (they do use judges who are well-known artists or gallery owners) finds my work worth a ribbon. And this year, for the first time, I won first place in pastels! I am so psyched about this! Here is the winning painting (“Why I Live Here,” 18″ x 24″):

And here, for your perusal, are paintings that have won awards in prior years:

“Afternoon Enchantment,” 16″ x 20,” second place:


“Gateway,” 14″ x 11,” second place:


“Cool River Depths,” 9″ x 12,” third place:


“My Neighbor’s Barn,” 16″ x 20,” honorable mention:


“River of Corn,” 9″ x 12,” honorable mention:

And there they are:  The prize winners! Don’t you wish adults got prizes more regularly?

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Sometimes Art Fights Back!

Last summer I took photos of a local pasture:

With the photos right next to one another, you can see that it’s two sides of the same pasture. That large clump of trees at the right of the left hand photo (that’s cut off by the edge of the image) is the same seen in its entirety in the center left of the right-hand photo. I took the photos a few days apart, and you can also see that the field has been hayed in the meantime.

I really loved the sculptural aspects of this landscape: the curving shape of the land, the sinuous lines of the grasses. Those lines are especially obvious in the image of the hayed field on the right, but you can see them in the left image as well. See the slightly bluer band of grasses snaking down from the tree clump to the foreground? The slanting lines of the brighter yellow-green coming from the left side?

I wanted to emphasize all that movement, and color seemed a good way to do it. Green-on-green is subtle. I was not interested in subtle!

I used black paper, wanting to let some of the black to give texture and depth to the grasses. I set up side-by-side easels so that I could work on both paintings at once. I thought that might make it easier to be sure the paintings were connected. I imagined two paintings that could each stand alone, but that would also work beautifully together. I worked on the lines of the pastures first, since they seemed the most important part of the paintings, and I wanted to get them right. But they were not right. The colors seemed a bit off to me, and the whole thing seemed too stripey. Ugh. Here is that stage:

Can these paintings be saved? Not as they were! I washed out the whole thing. Art Spectrum paper will take washing, at least up to a point. I might have overdone it! You retain a ghostly image, but that’s just fine if you are doing the same painting. I tried again. But the washing had damaged the paper a bit and the ghost image meant that I lost the texture that I wanted from the black paper. I overworked it in my efforts to get something I liked. I threw them both out.

Sometimes you have to admit defeat.

But the idea continued to call to me. I really wanted to make those paintings. After a break of a month or two, I tried again, this time doing one painting at a time, hoping that it would feel less daunting that way. Sometimes when I am stuck with a painting, I think my creative mind works on it while I am going about my life. Occasionally I have dreams offering solutions. Often, I just leave the painting up on the easel and look at it once in a while until the solution seems clear. But in this case I guess it was the passage of time and whatever mysterious thing happens in some subterranean way. It also helped that I tackled it during my painting retreat with my friend Cindy, so I could get moral and artistic support!

It worked. I finished the first painting, tackled the second, and was happy with both. Hooray! At long last! Here they are:



I love them! It’s exactly what I wanted. They are clearly twinned, but each is complete in itself. The colors are similar, but the balance of the colors are somewhat different in each. They have that texture of the black paper. They have movement, lots of movement. One thing I did was to remove the foreground grasses in the photos, which I realized were just a distraction. I omitted the pinks, which I liked but which complicated the palette too much. But mostly I gave it time. And mostly I didn’t give up.

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A Painting Retreat

I spent six days, more or less all day, painting with friend and fellow artist Cindy Griffith. It was demanding! It’s great to have company for something like this, not only for the critique (although that helps enormously) but also for the company. Who knows if I would have stuck it out otherwise? I think it would have been too easy to decide that I really needed to get some laundry done, or run into town, or (truth be told) just goof off.

I started with the unfinished painting already up on my easel.

  “Pastoral,” 11″ 14″. I did an underpainting in oranges and reds, which peek though here and there, adding a little liveliness to an otherwise quiet scene. The focus is on those beautiful clouds (which I enhanced, naturally!) and the relationship between the land and the road and attached path, with the barn something you notice later.

  “Golden,” 9″x 12″. After all that quiet, I wanted intense color, and this as it. In the late afternoon light, autumn colors glow. The task here was to create enough muted areas (the further hills and the shaded foreground) to make the bright areas pop. I like the result.

  “Lake Country Birches,” 12″ x 9″. Then I went to a scene from recent visit with my cousin. I’d brought a number of reference photos with me for this retreat.  Choosing one to work from is an interesting thing: what appeals to me one day might fall flat when I look at it another time. Rocks, birches, goldenrod, lake, and distant hills. I love the layering here, bringing the eye from what is right in front of you into the distance.

I’d warmed up enough, I decided. I took a deep breath and pulled out the photos for two paired paintings that had been eluding me. I’d worked on them twice before, and both times had been dissatisfied and thrown them out. As you can imagine, I was a little apprehensive about trying again! But this time they worked. I guess I learned something from those four failures. Here they are:


These are “Pasture Rhythm 1” and “Pasture Rhythm 2,” each 16″ x 20″. They are two sides of the same field, and I very much wanted to make twinned paintings that both stood alone and were clearly connected to one another. It occurs to me that this is a great metaphor for a good relationship! I am very happy indeed with the result. I used black paper and a light touch in the foreground to indicate texture.

After that challenge, I felt that I needed a little respite, and pulled out two mostly finished paintings that just did not quite work. In both cases, I liked the start that I had made, but could not figure out what was needed to make the paintings come togther. It’s amazing what ignoring a painting for a few months can do for your understanding of it! In both cases, I figure out what changes I needed to make without too much trouble. Here they are.

  “Judy and Lily, 12″ x 9”. This is a departure from my usual style. I was experimenting with making looser, more energetic marks and not blending. This does not mean that it was easy, however! I have two or three other versions of this that did not work at all.

  “Laden,” 7″ x 5″. Heavy snow and the cool blues and purples of winter. This little scene is right outside my window.

And next…..

  “Sky Song,” 9″ x 12″. I invented the swoop of the sky here, although the rest of the scene is pretty faithful to the actuality. I like the solid, still quality of the November earth contrasted with the uplift of the sky.

Apparently I had transitioned into the realm of spirit in my painting at this point in the retreat. I was drawn to another photo of sky, and decided that I wanted to change the cloud shapes so that they suggested wings. Here is my final painting from the retreat.

  “Winged,” 11″x 14″.

May these paintings feed your spirit as much as making them did mine.


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Vermont Autumn

The leaves have turned and all is glorious. On the back roads the air smells vaguely of apples: wild apple trees are common, and the dropped apples feed deer, bears, and others. Here, for your enjoyment, are some of my more recent fall paintings.

  “Stowe Autumn”




   “Fall Layers”


   “At the Mountain’s Feet”


   “My Neighbor’s Barn”

A little visual gift from Vermont! Enjoy the season.



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Going BOLD!

I love powerful colors: they can make you look at a landscape in an entirely new way. The last three paintings I’ve made reflect this. Here they are. I’ve included the reference photos that I worked from, because it’s worth seeing the liberties that I took with color and other elements, especially rhythm and movement.

Here is the first reference photo. I liked the sweep of the field, with those tractor ruts, moving your eye around to the distant trees.

And the completed painting: “In Green Pastures,” 12″ x 16″. See how I exaggerated the swirls of the field? I added foreground elements so that the scene did not just “fall off” the bottom of the page. And of course I amped up the color and the curves of the hills. This is the feeling of the scene, at least to me, if not the literal actuality!

Here is the next reference photo. This is Caspian Lake, in Greensboro, VT. I responded to the layering here: the foreground goldenrod, the curve of fields with trees, the lake with the hills in the distance.

And the result! “Yin-Yang Landscape,” 12″ x 16″. The title refers to the contrast between the quiet of the lake and the fiery movement and color in the foreground. Yes, the elements are all there, but would you even recognize this scene? The colors are not only exaggerated, they are changed; the fields now include purple and dark red. I made the foreground shades of turquoise to harmonize with the color of the lake. And the goldenrod became some dark red flowers from my imagination, the better to contrast with that bright green field. I repeated colors: the red in the field and the flowers, the turquoise in the lake and foreground, and the purple in the distance as well as in the field’s shadow and the foreground. I am very pleased with the result!

And the final reference photo. It’s washed out, but you can get a sense of the image: a driveway leading to the lake (this is also Caspian Lake) and a home in the distance among the trees. The grasses appealed to me here, as well as the slightly mysterious quality of the road and the partially-hidden house. Here’s the painting:

This is “Headed to Camp,” 11″ x 14″. Now the focus is almost entirely on that camp road, the grasses, and the shining destination of the lake. The house is barely visible. I used a limited palette of magentas, light turquoise, greens, and a touch of gold. I do love the effect of those colors on the grass. I “moved” trees and bushes to frame the scene. And, hey, I can make a light magenta sky if I want to!

With all of these paintings, I used a similar technique. They are done on black paper, which I have allowed to show through for texture (for example, in the camp road) or for rich darks (in all three of the paintings). I often exaggerate color and movement, but I have carried that further than usual in these paintings. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted to proceed and about colors, although as with any painting, the painting itself starts to make demands after a while. And I worked slowly, considering almost every stroke. Since I wanted to make use of the black paper, I couldn’t just cover it up. I am very happy indeed with the results.

So for your next painting, go BOLD!


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Painting Conversations

This is a dual-meaning title! I’m referring to my latest painting, “Sky and Lake Conversation,” as well as the process of painting it. Here’s what I mean…..

My painting started with this reference photo.

Lovely, isn’t it? I have been drawn to (ha, ha: art joke) these complex skies lately. They are so evocative. Of course, they are also difficult, and when I am painting I am complaining to myself about wanting to paint such complicated clouds. In the painting, I lowered the horizon to further emphasize the sky and added darker colors, even a dark red, to further dramatize the clouds. I painted the clouds with more variation in dark and light than the photo as well.  I saturated the colors somewhat, painting richer blues and exaggerating the salmon colors. I lightened the glow of the unclouded sky, since that was much of what appealed to me in the scene. Here is the initial version of the painting.


At this point in any painting, at least for me, it is time to ignore the reference photo. The photo starts me off and reminds me of the basic shapes and colors, as well as the feeling, of what I want to convey. But once I have that down, there is a conversation between the artist and the painting. This painting still looked too simple to me. It lacked something. The non-cloudy areas of sky somehow seemed too empty. I added more soft colors to the open sky areas. This meant that the lake reflections also needed to be altered. I also slow down at this stage of painting, making a small change and checking the effect before making another. I included very dark greens in the low hills, to soften the almost-black quality there.  I added the tiniest touch of an almost neon orange in the “sweet spot” of the orange glow above the center right hills. Some of the clouds seemed too dark, so I changed that. I went back and forth, sky and lake, air and water. This is the final painting.

Next comes the matter of the title. What am I saying with this painting? It’s about the relationship between the sky and the water, just as it was when I painted it. So I am calling it “Sky and Lake Conversation.”


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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″).


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:


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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