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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Pushing Color (#1)

I have two new paintings. In both, I pushed color as a means of expression, and I like the results very much. To keep this blog to a reasonable length, I’ll describe them one at a time in two blog installments. Hey, you have something to look forward to!

The first painting is “Along the Way,” an 18″ x 12.” First, look at the reference photo:

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This is a fairly ordinary scene, but I liked the way the trees towered over that small shed. And the contrast between the sinuous curves of the road and the linearity of the pines appealed to me. But I felt that it needed some punch. So using the wonders of the computer, I distorted the entire scene toward red. Here is the result:

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Now, that was interesting! I didn’t want to make a painting that was entirely red-orange, though. Then I considered that red and green are opposites on the color wheel, making for great visual contrast. I decided to keep the green of the tree leaves and pine needles — as well as the natural color of the sky — and go ahead with the red distortion everywhere else. Here is the painting:

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I made the red much softer, but it is still most definitely there, even in the far mountains. The red makes the tree trunks stand out from the pine needles, which creates much more emphasis on that linearity. And I think the red – green combination makes for a far more rich and compelling painting than if I had stuck with “reality.” It has a somewhat Western feel, although the scene is right here in Middlesex, VT.

“Reality is overrated,” the saying goes, and when it comes to art, I generally agree. I admire realistic paintings, but I don’t want to make them myself. I want my art to say something more than the actual scene. I think this painting does just that.

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A Painting Challenge

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I took this photo this past May. Doesn’t it just sing of Spring? Robert Frost says, “Nature’s first green is gold/ Her hardest hue to hold.” That delicate spring green only lasts about three weeks and is gone, transformed into summer’s darker and sturdier greens. This scene has that lovely spring green in both the grass and the trees, and I very much wanted to paint it. But when I sat down to do so, I realized that it was not going to be easy.

The composition of the photo was great: see the way the lines of the hills lead your eye back and forth diagonally through the scene? So that part needed no adjustment. And the way that the far hills faded softly into the sky also was lovely just the way it was.

But there were two challenges, and they were significant ones. First, most of the scene is the same color! Yes, you can see slight differences in the greens, but they are indeed slight. The darker parts of the grass and the lighter parts of the near trees are almost the same color. And even the darker parts of the trees are not so much darker. And, for that matter, the near trees are very close in color to one another. Now, I did not want to change that too much, because all that juicy green was exactly what attracted me to the scene in the first place. But I was going to have to create more variations or I would end up with a painting that looked too uniform.

And, speaking of too uniform, the second challenge is that most of the painting is the same or similar value! “Value” is an art term referring to how light or dark something is. Changes in value are critical to making a painting interesting. In fact, I read somewhere – or perhaps heard it at a workshop – that “value does the work and color gets the glory.” That means we notice color but it’s the variations in light and dark that really are responsible for drama and interest. Yes, that scene has darker trees in the background and a darker line under the near trees. But the near trees and grass are very close in value. It was an overcast day when I took the photo, so there were no shadows or bright areas. I was going to have to invent value changes!

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Here is my solution. I made a number of changes in the colors, without, as best I could, deviating too much from the yellow-greens of spring. The two hills are different greens, with the nearer hill being more yellow and varied in color. I’ve varied the greens in the near trees, too, making the largest tree quite yellow-green, two smaller (and further away) trees also yellow-green, but a softer version, and that smaller nearest tree a light green but not as yellow. I’ve also found excuses to add soft ochres and orange-browns and even pinks here and there. They were indeed in the photo, but much, much more muted.

And you can see how I emphasized and even invented greater value changes than those in the photo. I’ve kind of “pruned” the lower branches of the near trees to emphasize the dark trunks and branches. I’ve exaggerated that little trickle of bright water in the lower left. And I’ve lightened the back grassy hill to make it a different value than the front one, as well as to emphasize the contrast between that hill and the dark line of the further trees. I do like the resulting sweep of that hill against the dark trees.

Every painting has technical problems, things that you need to change in order to make a good piece of art. That’s true even when the artist is being relatively true to the reality (as I am in this painting) and is not making more dramatic changes to convey feeling. This one had bigger challenges than most! But I do like the result, which I have named “Verdant,” for obvious reasons.

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Welcoming New Artists

I have taught three art classes in the past couple of months, all with an artist friend, Cindy Griffith. While I have taught other things, teaching art is new to me. On the one hand, I think, “who am I to teach art? I still have so much to learn.” The common wisdom for expertise is 10,000 hours of practice, and I sure don’t have that! On the other hand, I think I am the perfect person to teach this class, precisely because I am not so far from being a beginner myself.

We have billed the classes as “Pastel Painting for the Absolute Beginner.” I like the title: it sounds inviting to me. What I want most from teaching is to make art feel friendly and accessible. I think I have said before that I used to believe that art was made by artists, who by definition were very talented people. My own talent is modest, and therefore there was no point in my making art. But I have since learned that, first, much of it can be learned, and second, that there are things like vision and feeling that count for as much as talent. I did not know! But I want these students to know that. I love making art feel within reach to people. We can never have too much art in the world.

Most art classes, in my experience, are not all that helpful. The workshops I’ve taken usually have a demo time (but seeing the instructor painting rarely helps me paint) and then painting time. Typically you might get a few minutes of instructor guidance. It usually does not seem worth the money to me.

We have tried to put together the class we wish we’d had when starting to paint. So, there is a little bit about materials, composition, color and value (light and dark), But we also walk the students through how to think like an artist and plan out a painting. I don’t think I have ever had any teacher who talked about all the decisions artists make, and how to make those decisions. How do you choose colors? How do you simplify a scene? How do you create a feeling? What choices help with composition? Of course, we are trying to do all of this — as well as to allow most of the class  time to actually paint! —  so we really just do an overview. But with small classes and two instructors, each student gets a lot of guidance. And I hope that the students come out of the class at least a little more prepared to think like an artist and a little less intimidated by Art.

One exercise we do as a warm-up is to have the students paint an apple. Here is a photo of the most recent class and their apple paintings.

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As with any of the classes, there are a couple of students who clearly are not beginners. And a couple of students who struggle more than average. But they have all made fine art. Every single one has a vision: every apple is different….even if all the apples came out of the same bag!

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Dreaming of Art

I have finished two new paintings. It feels good to be back to painting, even though I am not fully recovered yet. Here’s the first:

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I worked from a photo, which was not too different from the painting. How fun to see that treehouse in that wide, generous, gracious old tree! The sun was backlighting the tree, making it golden and magical. And the lupines in front added a kind of generous and almost careless beauty. It’s every child’s enchanted world. I decided to call it “Wanna Play?” to emphasize that feeling of invitation.

Most of the image for the second painting came to me in a dream! Here it is:

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Just before waking, I saw the sky much as you see it here, a soft peachy orange streaked with orange-red. And in the upper corner, a bunch of lilacs. I had a vague sense of green below without detail. So as I thought about how I would shape the painting, I decided to add a farmhouse in the distance surrounded by lilac bushes, with another lilac bush in the middle foreground. They are there, really, just to complete the scene. There is something I find mysterious and haunting about this image. Do you? I suppose that I would, given that I dreamed it!

One thing I noticed after waking about the image is that its colors make up a perfect color triad: orange-green-purple. If you think of a color wheel, the colors go around in a circle. It’s red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, returning to red. A triad is red-yellow-blue, or orange-green-purple, or the same thing with any of the in-between colors. I doubt I would have done this if I had been awake!

Throughout my life, I have occasionally, although rarely, had dreams that were a kind of gushing forth of creativity. I remember dreaming of many, many mandalas, each different. Or a collection of small clay figures of fantastic animals. Or decorated eggs in beautiful colors. I would awaken in amazement, thinking, “I made all that!” In the dream, they were just there; awake, I realized that they had come from me. I have not had a dream like that since I started painting, using my creativity. But I wonder whether, as with “Sky Lilacs,” I will get more images from the night?

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The Nature of Creativity

 

It’s been some time since I posted, but I have a good reason: I got pneumonia! Apparently it is typical of the illness to need weeks to recover, even after the bug itself has been knocked out by antibiotics. Who knew? Not me. I have been very fatigued and portion out my limited energy in small tasks punctuated by periods of rest.

One thing that has been interesting to notice is that until this week, I have been unable to paint. I have had the energy to do the dishes or make lunch, so why not paint? After all, it can be done sitting down and requires very little physical activity. But the energy of the spirit required is significant, and it is not available when I am as sick as I’ve been.

Noticing that made me curious about the nature of that energy. Certainly part of it is focus and concentration. An artist friend calls painting her “brain rest,” not because it is restful, but because when you are painting you really cannot think of anything else. Your mind is totally occupied with the artistic decisions you are making virtually every second: is this color right? Should this be darker? Are these shapes harmonious? How does this work with what I already have on the paper?

Part of it, however, is something more ineffable. It’s the thing that I referred to as the “energy of the spirit.” It’s the essential creative force. I am reading “The Gift” by Lewis Hyde. I just started the book and I am guessing you will hear more about it in this blog, because already it seems unusually insightful. Here’s what he says about creating:

“We also speak rightly of intuition or inspiration as a gift. As the artist works, some portion of his creation is bestowed upon him. An idea pops into his head, a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind, a color falls into place on the canvas. Usually, in fact, the artist does not find himself engaged or exhilarated by the work, nor does it seem authentic, until this gratuitous element has appeared, so that along with any true creation comes the uncanny sense that “I,” the artist, did not make the work. “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,” says D.H. Lawrence.”

I completely understand what he is expressing here. I felt the same thing as a writer, and I feel it as an artist. In that sense, the heart of creativity is the ability to open a channel to the “not I,” to the gift of creation. That is what comprises the real energy needed for painting. That is what art is all about, and it is not a small thing. Inviting the muse is the real “work” of art; the rest is secondary. It is what costs more than I could spend when I was most ill, and it is also what is most gratifying about making art. It is a connection to the sacred.

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Finishing a Painting

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Here is my latest, titled “February Dawn.” I won’t say “…and greatest,” although my favorite painting is often whatever I have finished most recently. The photo, as always, doesn’t do it justice, but I love the slant of the light on the snow, the contrast between the cool snow and the almost-hot play of the sunlight in the trees, and the surprise of that little window in the back of the shed.

There is something so satisfying about finishing a painting. Some paintings fight back, but this one came fairly easily. Painting is always work, taking great focus and many, many decisions. Sometimes, though, as with this one, it seems that most of my decisions are perfect right off the bat. Other times, it seems as if every color I put down is not quite right. I layer something else over it, or take it out altogether. With the hardest ones, I do that repeatedly. Interestingly, whether it’s easy or a struggle seems to have no bearing on the quality of the finished product. And there is also no way to tell ahead of time which images will be a struggle to get right. It’s mysterious.

Having it come easily is a gift, though, and I enjoy it when it happens. In my imagination, when I become a better artist (in some land and time far, far away!), all paintings will flow like that. I am pretty sure, however, that this is not the case. I have taken a couple of workshops with Liz Haywood-Sullivan, a very well-known and accomplished artist. Invariably, when doing a demonstration, she will on several occasions try a color and announce, “not that one,” or “too dark.” She does not seem to get to the stage of having to re-do parts of the painting, so I think she catches her errors more quickly that I do. But she does indeed make errors. It is very reassuring.

As making a particular painting comes toward a close, I paint more and more slowly. At that point, it is a matter of tiny adjustments: a hit of light here and there, a darkening of a shadow, small additions of color variations. When I start a painting, I often work for quite a while before standing back to look at it and assess. You need to get enough down to have something to assess! But toward the end, I assess after almost every stroke of pastel. Does this add something or not? What else would make the painting sing?

I have three criteria for when I consider a painting done. First, it’s done when I can find nothing more that I feel it needs. I am satisfied with the composition, the colors are in harmony throughout the painting, it says what I want it to say. Second, I always get feedback from a  couple of fellow artists, so it’s done when they have added their critiques and I have made decisions about their suggestions. But finally, it is done when it lifts my heart. My hope is that each painting will lift someone else’s heart as well.

 

 

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Art and Paychology

Art and psychology – they seem pretty different, don’t they? One is mostly images, the other mostly words. One is Official Health Care, reimbursed by insurance; the other is, well, reimbursed only when a painting sells. But I have been thinking about the commonalities as I transition out of being a psychologist.

Both are creative endeavors. Psychology, you think? Creative? But it is. With psychology, you have to take the complexities of the person and situation before you and find a way to make sense of it that is coherent and effective. I wonder, what is the story here? And how can I make a difference with that? Truly, that is not unlike looking at a landscape and finding an effective way to express what I see. It means noticing what’s important and winnowing out the distractions. It means considering what it is that’s unique about this particular landscape and how I can convey that. What is the story this landscape wants to tell and how can I best assist that?

Both endeavors require authenticity. I bring myself to the struggles and resources of each person I see for therapy. And I bring myself to the particularities of the landscape I paint. If the painting does not include me in some way, it fails.

Most importantly, though, is that both psychology and art demand that I hear and see below the surface. In therapy, people tell me what they can about who they are and what they’re up against. But what I listen for is what is unsaid: what are the feelings that they are not expressing? What is the hurt that is unacknowledged? What courage or persistence or skills do they have that they take for granted? In art, too, I try to look below the surface. Yes, it’s a forest or a meadow or a sunlit path. But what is the feeling of the forest? Mystery? Power? What secret does the meadow hold?

Consider “Afternoon Enchantment (a 16” x 20” painting, in “not so traditional landscape”). Here is the photo I used :

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As you can see it was a heavily cloudy day, and the sky was darker and lighter gray, with only the barest hint of pale gold toward the horizon and barely visible in the clouds. The land shapes were fairly flat. I was very taken with the sky in this photo: all those cloud layers, that moody flat light. To me, there was almost an enchanted quality (thus the title!), a sort of otherworldly feeling. How to paint that?

Below is the painting, so you can see my solution. I started with changing the shapes to make for more drama and movement. See how the far hills and the sweep of the field are curvier? And look also at the shapes of the clouds. I have made them swoop more in a subtle U-shaped curve. I made the trees on the far right taller and the fir trees on the left more prominent. The result is a kind of rising up movement in the land and a pulling down movement in the sky.

Then I changed colors, painting the darker clouds blue-lavender and the lighter ones a sort of ocher. These are not exactly your traditional sky colors! I put them in the trees and field as well.

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This painting seems successful to me. Yes, you can see the elements in the photo: the clouds and meadow, trees and hills. But you can also, I think, see the elements not in the photo: the moody, magical feeling that this landscape has, at least for me. So I hope to continue to bring my penchant for looking below the surface as I leave psychology and move toward art!

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Happy New Year!

I’ve retired! This seems wildly improbable to me. It’s as if I woke up one morning and was told: You’re Norwegian now! Huh, how about that? Well, Norway is lovely. I’ve visited Norway, although visiting and living there are two different things. The Norwegians seem to like it; that’s what they’ve all told me. “It takes a little adjustment,” they say, “but it’s great here!” But mostly I think: I have no idea what it’s like to be Norwegian. I’ve been American my whole life.

So far, I feel in a state of suspension. I am not working, but I do not feel like my life and time is my own yet. Once in a while something hits me. At the end of the day, I think that I should check my messages. And then I realize that I don’t need to do that at all. I leave Friday to visit friends and family in California, so that, I imagine, will simply feel like vacation. After that, who knows?

On my last day of work, I got my hair dyed blue. I have been planning this for a couple of years, so it was not impulsive, although I’ll grant you that it is somewhat unusual! But it is a nice symbol to me that I am not a professional any more. It’s a reminder that while I am the same, my life is not.

I have finished the first painting of this year, although I started it last year. I have not found a title for it yet. I am happy to consider any ideas! Email me (mhill@myfairpoint.net) if you get an inspiration. Here it is.

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And here I am with my blue hair! I may need to wear that vest all the time!

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