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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Two Sister Paintings

I don’t mean that these are paintings of sisters, though! They are from photos taken during the same late afternoon winter walk, and you can clearly see the “family resemblance.”

Dusk Comes Early “Dusk Comes Early,” 9″ x 12″

I was drawn to the softness of this scene. The gold of the dried grasses poking up through the snow echoes the gold in the sunset. The path is only subtly visible, mostly because there are no grasses there, and I like the small evergreen that stands like a little sentinel to one edge. The glow of the sky limns the edge of the mountains with light.

DSCF1323 “Gentle Evening,” 10″ x 8″

I must have taken this photo slightly before the prior one, because the colors of the sky are just starting to show in pale pastels. The mountains have even more light on them, a wash of pink and gold. I like the intimacy of this scene: it feels to me that I am standing right behind that tree, looking at the mountain beyond. I let both trees here go off the page, to better draw the viewer into the scene. And again here are those gold grasses.

In both scenes, I used my artistic license to increase the colors. Winter, even at sunset, can be so monochrome. I exaggerated the colors in the sky and added them to the snow, even the snow on the tree branches. Here is the reference photo for “Gentle Evening,” so you can see the changes.

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And the reference photo for “Dusk Comes Early”:

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Here I had a somewhat different challenge. The colors in the sky are lovely, but because it is later in the day, the foreground is quite dull and the mountains and trees almost in silhouette. The grasses are too prominent, adding a distracting messiness. All of these things can be changed, and I did!

If you compare the photos to the paintings, you will see that I made both scenes much warmer than they were in actuality. They have pinks and yellows that were perhaps barely suggested in the photos, but are clearly present in the paintings. My goal, as always, is not to show reality. You can see reality for yourself. My goal is to show something of the spirit of the place, something more of truth than reality. I hope that both of these paintings do just that.

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A Painting Intensive

This past week I did a four day painting retreat with another artist. We set up in my home, painted from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, then just left our stuff there for the next day. I had anticipated becoming exhausted and overwhelmed by this: painting is very demanding. Usually I can paint for perhaps three hours at a stretch and then need to stop. I had even purchased a big bag of peanut m & m, guessing that there would come a time when we had to lie on the couch and eat them before we could manage to paint again!

But in fact it was fine, and I even wished that we could have extended it for another two or three days. Amazing. Some of that was the company of another artist, someone with whom to consult (“does this look right?”) and complain (“this is hard! this isn’t working!”). Although I think that much of what is helpful about painting with another artist is just to be in the room with another person who is engaged in a similar process and struggle.

I made a number of new paintings, and I like all of them. Three are pastels; here they are:

Softly, Softly This is “Softly, Softly,” a portrait of a particular dawn. I was so attracted to the soft pinkish sky and mist, with the silhouette of the trees and bushes.

Winter Brilliance “Winter Brilliance,” a painting of just that: one of those sharply clear winter days when both sky and snow glow with light.

Gateway And finally, “Gateway.” I thought of the name of this painting when I took the photograph for it, as occasionally happens. The trees framing the morning looked like a door to me, opening into the day. I love the image and the concept.

My painting companion sometimes works in acrylics and brought her acrylic painting materials for me to try. It was so interesting to use a completely different medium! It handles very differently from pastel, of course. Perhaps it was a matter of my unfamiliarity with the medium, or the distance provided by using a brush instead of my hands, but I found myself making somewhat more abstract and bolder images. Here is the first:

Holding the Sky I named this “Holding the Sky.” I put the tree in first, using an image of a local tree for reference. Then I put in the sky, or what I suppose passes for sky. It certainly is not like a “real” sky! As I painted the sky around the branches, the daubs of paint went over them in places, creating a sort of jagged effect. While I had assumed that I would re-establish the branches, I found that I liked that rough quality very much and mostly left it.

The next painting was the result of one of those inexplicable artistic impulses that one gets. I almost always paint landscapes, but I suddenly decided that I wanted to paint the aurora borealis. I guess that’s a landscape of sorts. Here it is: light in the sky mirrored by the water below.

Between Heaven and Earth This image in particular is a departure for me, but I do like the mysterious quality, just as the aurora itself has a mysterious quality.

All in all, a successful four days, I would say! I will definitely try it again. It was not easy to protect my time, even for only four days. I may be retired, but it is amazing how many claims there are on my time, things that need to be scheduled or time-sensitive things that need to be done. But it can be done, and is certainly worth it. I learned that I have more creative stamina than I thought I did. I learned that I like acrylics and that while they will have a certain materials-based learning curve, an artist is an artist and brings that sensibility and knowledge set to any medium. I learned that I can put my life on “pause,” more or less, for a few days and immerse myself in the flow, the demands, the struggles, the satisfactions, and the occasional gifts of creativity.

 

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Autumn in Vermont

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Here is my most recent painting, “Fall Fishermen,” 9″ x 12″. I took the photo last year; we had a remarkable foliage season, with very bright colors that lingered longer than usual. This year is shaping up a bit differently. We had a few days of wind just as the leaves started turning, which means that we lost some of them. And we are not quite at peak color – at least not here in Central Vermont – which means that the season is unusually late for us.

I have exaggerated the colors of the foliage in the painting, but not by much. I enjoyed the symmetry of the reflections in the water. Interestingly, on a still day such as this, reflections can be very detailed, almost mirror-like. But if you paint it that way, it looks false. Instead, I blurred the shapes just a bit and darkened and muted the colors – again, just a bit.

Art is odd that way. To paint well, you need to learn to see, meaning to really observe color and shape and the reality of what is in front of you rather than your mind’s representation. Most people who say that they cannot draw really are saying that they have not learned to see; they are drawing some internal template of a tree, for example, rather than the unique (and usually flawed) tree in front of them. On the other hand, if you paint exactly what you see, it sometimes looks artificial, as with the reflections on the pond. Also, in most cases, reality is better represented with at least slight exaggerations to color or light.

Fall foliage in Vermont gives the impression of fire, of a wash of hot colors. Yet, if you look at any specific scene, even at the peak of a great year’s foliage, in fact many of the trees are a little muted, or still somewhat green. It’s the task of the artist to show the viewer what foliage looks and feels like, not the photographic truth. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it is the task of this artist to do so!

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Pushing Color (#2)

I change color in a variety of ways so I can better express the feeling of a place, but there are a couple of recent paintings (see prior blog) in which I pushed color primarily in one direction. The last painting was a push toward red; with this painting, I went toward blue. Here’s the reference photo:

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This is the Black River, in Craftsbury, VT. I was delivering art to the Art House up there and mentioned that I was taking reference photos. The woman working there suggested I go look at the river right behind the building and this is the scene. Thank you, Ceilidh!

The composition is great, I think, with that wonderful triangular rock cutting into the bright reflection in the water and the angle of the river as it disappears into the distance. But to my mind, the colors add nothing in particular to the scene. The softness of the colors is appealing, but I wanted a way to express the depth and distance of the river’s path, the quality of something almost like secrecy as the river slides out of sight. I fooled around with possibilities, and this is what I liked best:

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Mmmmm, look at those blues! They add a coolness to the scene and exactly the mysterious quality that I wanted. Here is the painting itself:

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I preserved the softness of the original scene, especially in the reflections in the water. Interestingly, I have discovered that while reflections can appear quite sharp in actuality, they look artificial if you paint them that way. The entire painting is much more blue, not unlike the second (altered) photo. However, it still look real, almost as if it could have truly been these colors. This is because I have kept the relationships among the colors accurate, including relative darkness and lightness as well as the variations in blue and green. The one thing I did change was the lightness of the sky and the sky’s reflection in the water. Those I made brighter than my altered photo, wanting to emphasize the mirror of the water, which after all, was much of what attracted me to the scene.

And there it is, from original photo to concept to painting. To my mind, the most important part of painting is not the faithful rendition of what you see (although I greatly admire artists who do this!), but the addition of feeling, of something to convey the spirit of the landscape. I titled this painting “Cool River Depths,” and I hope it conveys just that.

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