Thursday, December 17, 2009

12 Week Oil Class

I'm teaching a beginners oils class starting in January and still have some spots left.  Is there a better way to spend Wednesday evenings than playing with paint?  Not for me!
The course outline is posted below.  Hope to see you there!


Fat over lean?  Dark to light? Mediums?  Supports?
If learning oil painting seems as hard as learning a foreign language, this is the course for you.

In this 12 week course, we'll demystify this sumptuous, traditional medium and give you a solid foundation in the technical and creative aspects of oils.
You'll learn how to apply layers of pigment to create luminous, rich surfaces which will stand the test of time.

Our painting subjects will include still life, landscape and figurative and there will be plenty of demonstrations and individual instruction.

Cost: $300 for 12 weeks
Class size: Maximum of 10 students

January 6 to March 24
Wednesday evenings from 6pm to 9pm
TO REGISTER:  go to the Calgary School of Art website OR call Lisa at 403. 287-3106

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

People Watching

Everyone loves to look at people.  We watch them
in malls and surreptitiously on buses. We photograph them in foreign countries and, sometimes, we hang pictures of total strangers on our walls.  Such diverse painters as David A. Leffel and Malcolm Liepke have made great careers out of this fascination.
My favorite commissions are portraits for this very reason.  I know that, more than anything else I paint, these works will be looked at for a long time.  A picture of a person is never wallpaper in a room.  It has a presence; almost like a real person would.
Today I had the pleasure of delivering two portraits of young children to their mother. 
As with all commissions, I had a case of nerves before showing the paintings to her but, happily, she loved them.  The personalities of the children, as much as the likenesses, were clear to her eyes and she was delighted. 
I've included them here.  They're on copper and there is a lot of the warm, brushed metal visible in the works.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Painting on Copper

Like most artists that I know, I'm never content with my work.  I feel there are always ways to improve and new things to try in order to improve my paintings. 
Lately I've been experimenting with a new support to paint on: copper.
Copper painting has been around for hundreds of years.  Oils used on this surface don't crack the way that they do on more flexible supports like canvas because copper doesn't move with changes in humidity and temperature.  I've seen photos online of 400 year old paintings which look as fresh and bright as a 4 year old work.  And a painting on copper has great glow!
Degreasing is vital for the paint to adhere properly and, like everything to do with the technical aspects of oil painting, there are as many recommendations for preparing the metal as there are writers on the subject.  It's best to spend some time researching and pick a method that suits your own comfort level from rubbing the plate with garlic to sealing with alkyd or priming with lead white ground. 
I can't imagine putting a white ground on the metal because it's the natural colour that holds the greatest appeal for me in the first place. 
The above self portrait is on copper and has lots of metal showing through.  The surface is rich and luminous and the paints seem to have extra saturation on this support.  I'm definitely going to do more with copper in the future!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Expression takes work

Parallel Play 12 x 16

Last weekend I taught a workshop at the Calgary School of Art entitled "Expressive Oils".  I found that defining "expressive" was the most difficult part of preparing for the workshop!  The term became slipperier and more ambiguous the more I thought about it. 
What I finally decided was that "expressive" meant that I could see more of the painter than the subject in the final painting and I could see what the painter wanted to show me the most.  Expression is a complex mesh of composition, colour choices, brushwork and editing.  It uses the reference image as a starting point only and goes its own way from there.
Once I'd decided this, it was easy to prepare for the class.  The most important thing then became, "what do you like most about the image that you've chosen and how can you emphasize it in your painting?"  If you know this, you're half way to a good painting.
So the first thing that the students did was find the special thing - the focal point - in their photos.  Then we worked on simple compositional sketches that led the eye to that point.  If this meant that we moved roads and cut down trees or changed the shape of rolling fields, then so be it.  BC painter and teacher, Dianna Shyne, tells her students to "play God"  when they compose their paintings and she's right.  It's our job to create a world on our canvases, not to recreate a photo.
With this careful preparation, the actual paintings just seemed to flow.  I was impressed by the quality that the students produced, including two who were painting their first ever oils.  Starting a painting with so much thought seemed to lead naturally to completing it in the same way. 
As always, when I teach, I feel like I learn as much as the students do and what I learned - yet again- is that I have to do lots of thinking at the beginning if I want a painting to work out at the end. 

Monday, November 16, 2009

Getting a Glow On

"Fishing",  Oil on gallery wrap canvas , 30" x 30"

What the heck is "glow"?
Some paintings have it and some just don't.  Glow is an amazing quality that many painters completely ignore or don't even know about.   It's a vibration in the painting which is revealed with the change in lighting conditions and gives up more colour and depth the more you look at it.  It's what makes some paintings magical. 
One of the most magical painters that I know of has mastered this glow: HE Kuckein.  A real painters' painter, Kuckhein's works are deceptively simple in subject and composition and don't photograph as particularly special paintings and yet, when you see them in life, you can't stop looking.  He's represented throughout Canada but whenever I'm in the Okanagan, I make sure to go to Tutt Art Gallery in Kelowna and check out his pieces.  The obliging manager has turned the lights off over his paintings to show me how the colours shift and shimmer with the change.  There is so much more to his work than just the surface layer. 
The folks at Tutt say that he wipes off semi-dry paint and applies new paint onto the roughened, partially-there pigment.  That way there are little holes in the colour which show through almost imperceptibly but react to different lighting conditions throughout the day.  This is called “broken colour”.
Another method to get broken colour is by adding rather than subtracting marks.  Instead of applying  strokes of paint in a dense fashion with full coverage of what's underneath, you can use lighter, airy strokes that leave little gaps along the brushstroke.  In this way, the underpainting shows through along the open streaks - no matter how subtle and fine -  of the subsequent brushstroke. 
You can also achieve broken colour by laying a stroke of colour next to another colour and not mingling them.  The Impressionists used this technique to wonderful effect. 
Still another means to achieve glow is by glazing one colour over another.  Fine, transparent layers patiently applied over dry paint, give a superb luminosity.  I'm not that patient.
Whatever technique you choose to get the glow, it's always caused by colour choice.  Usually a temperature change or a contrasting colour are selected to achieve glow.  If you're trying to show the effect of sunlight on a model's hair, instead of just adding white to the hair colour for the highlights, make the colour both lighter and cooler.  In the above painting, "Fishing", I showed the light-struck area on the boy's hair by adding successively-lighter variations of green and yellow-toned highlights which contrast in temperature and somewhat in colour with the warmer blues and lavenders in the shaded parts.
Glow is a painting tool that's often overlooked.  Painters get caught up in representing what they see but forget that we can do so much more than that.  We can use use this tool to make the viewer feel the magic of what we’ve seen.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Switching Mediums

A few years ago I decided to abandon watercolour and try painting on canvas instead of paper.  I wanted to go bigger and brighter and to get away from having to frame under glass.  I also really wanted to be able to touch the surface of my paintings without fear of ruining them with any traces of oil or dirt on my fingers.  Paper is not easy to keep pristine. 
I thought that acrylic would be a natural choice so I went out and bought a full complement of colours, and some canvases and set optimistically to work.  It was a slaughter.
The paint fought me all the way.  It dried quickly and flatly like house paint; it covered the colours beneath it very opaquely unless I started fiddling with different mediums to make it more transparent or more rigid or more something or other; and it wouldn't glow for me no matter what I tried.  I started to question whether I was capable of being a painter at all.  This was not a good time.
Luckily a friend suggested that I try oil.  I'd avoided it because it seemed difficult and intimidating.  It wasn't.  The first painting that I attempted wasn't actually that bad and, more importantly, it glowed.  From the start, I could see that this was a medium that was as beautiful as watercolour.  You could layer it, blend it and play with it like thick, bright frosting on a cake.  I was in love. 
The painting above is my very first oil painting.  It's a picture of the painter Sharon Williams addressing a canvas.  The colour is fanciful and unrefined but still, it has energy and heart.  I'll hang on to it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Artists' Models Online

Sometimes there's a pose that I want to paint but I don't have a model or one of my own reference photos to refer to.  If I want to know just how a leg would bend in a certain seated pose or how a torso twists and affects the shoulder alignment, I can go to a few websites to find out.  shows computer generated figures in action sequence poses.  The figures are, unfortunately, under flat light so this isn't useful for discovering shadows but some of the poses are useful.  I like the dancer series.  shows real people - not all nude or perfectly toned, which is nice - in a huge variety of poses.  Also good is that the poses are photographed in rotation so that you can view them from all angles.  As well, some of the shots are done with more dramatic lighting so that the form is clearly modelled.  The drawback is that you have to pay $5.99 to download the images that you want. is a very cool site that shows computer generated, flayed models.  Yes, no skin.  The idealized male and female models manage to project energy and attitude as they pose and show you their uncovered musculature and ligaments.  Somehow, it's not at all disturbing.  You can use your cursor to rotate the pose 360 degrees and there are even drawing exercises such as a timed 30 second drawing that you can do from randomly-generated poses. 

The Internet is a great resource for artists.  Let me know if there are any great artist-friendly sites that you follow and I'll check them out for the blog.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Vive la Difference!

I recently photographed the still life paintings produced by some of my students at the Calgary School of Art.  They were all working from one of two set ups of jars of jam and apples and that's where the similarity ends. 
As you can see, each artist brought a very personal style to the subject and made it her own.  Though everyone used the same limited palette - Cad. yellow pale/light, yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, vermillion hue, ultramarine blue and titanium white - and began in the same manner with a purplish grisaille, not one painting resembles another. 
Personal aesthetics take over pretty fast when you start a painting.  One artist likes pure, clear colours, another person prefers to gray down all but the focal point area in her painting; one artist uses a few large marks, another uses lots of small marks.  Both accomplish the same thing: they filter the reality of what they see through their own consciousness and give us a glimpse of they way that they see the world.  
Maybe this explains why so many of us are sensitive in critiques of our works: these works are an externalization of our inner feelings, views and aesthetics as well as being technical outcomes.  Putting your painting in front of an audience and asking for feedback is, I've always thought, like standing in a room full of people in your bathing suit and saying, "Well, what do you think?"  It takes guts!
I'm grateful to my students for allowing me to post their bathing suits.  I think they look pretty darn good

October 31 Workshop Fast and Focused Landscapes in Oil

I'm teaching a new workshop at the Calgary School of Art this Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm!  We'll be focusing on finding the essence of a landscape and distilling it to make a strong, dynamic painting.  Students will be bringing their own photo references to work from and I'll walk them through the steps from picture to painting.  Workshops are always high energy and lots of fun and I'm looking forward to this one.

There's still room for more students so please call Lisa at 403 287 -7448


A lunch!  Never paint hungry.
Also bring a variety of small and large (size 4 to 12) brushes, a sketchbook and pencil, and 4 landscape photos.  We'll provide the paint and a canvas.   In this class, you'll finish an 11 x 14 painting.  Speedy painters might do two!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"The First Quality that is Needed is Audacity"

I read an interview with Roz Savage, an amazing woman who has rowed(!) across the Atlantic Ocean and is set to row the Pacific in a few months.  She said that she had been living the good life in London - husband, big house, good job, sports car - but she was discontent.
One day she wrote 2 obituaries for herself: one that could be written if she continued to lead the life that she was living at the time, and another obit that reflected a totally different, exciting and ideal life.  She compared the two and realized how far from her ideal life she was.  In a move that not many could make, she left everything behind and pursued her ideal life.  Now, years later, she is happier than ever: a single,  homeless, jobless ocean-rowing soul.  Clearly, as my students pointed out, a childless woman.
However, reading this interview had a huge effect on me and it's still percolating.  One of the first things that I did after I read it was grab the painting that I thought I'd completed and slap some big, crude, dark shadows onto it.  Then I attacked it with bright, bold, impasto paint and remodelled the areas that I'd thought were "alright" into areas that made a statement.  It seemed crucial to not let a tepid painting stay in the world when it was possible to create a bold one instead.  Winston Churchill, an ardent painter among other roles, said that: "(t)he first quality that is needed is audacity."
I determined to use my brush bravely and with lots of paint on it and to fear only the timid mark.
I've started a new piece, a large figurative one, with this in mind.  Though it's only just at the underpainting stage, I'm keeping Roz in mind with every stab and swoop of the brush.  My obit. should not read: "she was a competent painter"; it should say that my paintings were filled with energy, passion and life.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Recycling a Failed Painting

Sometimes I paint over an unsuccessful (okay: failed) painting when I feel the urge to experiment. 
The canvas can't be wrecked anymore and somehow that takes the pressure off and frees me to paint in a relaxed and loose way.  The paintings don't always work out but when they do it's because of this playful and low-pressure approach.
This series shows the original canvas - a smeared-off still life of some jars of jam - and it's transformation into a floral. 
I find it's easier if you rotate the work from its original orientation so that there isn't an established top and bottom to the piece when you start.  It's not a blank slate but it's interesting tone and colour which allows you to paint over it in a surprisingly free way.
When you do this in acrylic, it's a simple matter of just applying fresh paint, but it's different in the world of oils.  You have to either paint over a very old, dry work (a year of more), or know the "leanness" of the work that's already on the canvas.  I don't do this if the failed work has a full range up to quite "fat" (thick and oily) paint on it.  Then I'd have to paint even fatter: in nothing but impasto paint, to follow the oil painting rule of fat over lean and avoid a painting that will crack as it dries. 
In the case of this still life, I had rubbed off the majority of the paint while it was still wet and so what was left was little more than a stain on the gesso.  I could safely start a new work over this though I didn't thin my paint with any solvent which would have made it too lean; I only thinned with walnut oil.  The original colours are still visible throughout the work and add interesting, lively midtones to the new work.  I think it's good recycling and fun to boot!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Art Visions 2009 Awards

I just got back from Kelowna, BC where I attended the FCA Art Visions 2009 Exhibition awards.  This is a juried show which is held in 3 local galleries: Gallery 421, Hambleton Art Gallery and Turtle Island Art Gallery.
85 works were juried in out of more than 200 submissions and my "Galiano Girl" got the gold medal and a prize of $2009.   She now hangs in Gallery 421, an elegant space in Kelowna's Rotary Arts Centre.
The evening opening was fun and exciting with an opening address by Mayor Sharon Shepherd and the presentation of awards followed by a chance to tour all three galleries, drink great Okanagan wine and chat with artists and art lovers alike.  I'm pictured receiving my award from presenter Jim Laing.
The entire exhibition is online at and it's worth a look.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Speed Painting

I only had about 11/2 hours to paint today before I went to teach my course at the Calgary School of Art so I took the opportunity to try a fast and loose portrait.
Instead of working long and hard for the exact colour that I was after, I approximated it, focusing on getting a colour to the right temperature in comparison to the temperature of the colour next to it and also focusing on hitting the correct value.  For example, the cheeks are a warm colour and the chin and forehead are predominately cool: the eye socket area is darker and cooler than the nose; and the right side of the face is warmer than the left which had natural, cool light falling on it.
Like the portrait in the previous post, this one was done from a low-contrast photo.  The child's face was creamy and monotonously-pale against a warm, reddish wall and a dark blue scarf.  It could easily have become too flat and graphic so I exaggerated the few value changes that I observed in the face in order to create dimension.  And, to be honest, it's boring to paint a simple, creamy oval when you could, instead, paint complex value changes and layer colours over each other.  The whole act of painting is fun and I hate it when it ends too quickly!
I just finished in time to grab a quick sandwich and head to class.  With more time, I certainly would have refined areas but, as an exercise, this was useful.  It caught the essentials without belabouring the point.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Something Wrong with the Mouth

John Singer Sargent is reported to have said that, "a portrait is a painting in which there is something wrong with the mouth."
I recently finished a portrait of my son and found myself agreeing with John in a big way. One stroke of paint was enough to make my handsome son look smug or chubby or simple minded. I was worried about the state that he'd find it in when he got home from school. I didn't want to scar him for life.
This was my third attempt at the picture. I'd taken some photos of him which had nice colours but very flat, direct light so there were no shadows on his fair skin. He looked like a creamy oval with eyes, nostrils and mouth. Not much to work with there! I had to exaggerate the tiny value changes that I observed and play up the warm and cool parts of his face to create variety and modelling. Around his cheeks and up toward his eyes, his complexion is warm and rosy but around his mouth, chin and forehead, his skin is cooler and paler. The tricky part was to keep the overall delicacy of his face and convey the low contrast which attracted me to the image in the first place. I also wanted to keep the strokes from tightening up into a realistic portrait, preferring instead to keep it loose and impressionistic with visible individual brushstrokes.

I find it really tricky to stay loose while also capturing a likeness. I wonder if that's why Sargent's commissioned portraits show relatively tight work in the faces and loose, bravura marks on the bodies and backgrounds. I prefer his non-commissioned portraits -those done of hired models or just for fun - as they have a consistent, low degree of finish to all aspects of the portrait. They are less about the individual person and more about the light that fell on them, their expressions, or the mood that they convey. And, as always with Sargent, these portraits are about the marks. He was a master of the kind of broad, flamboyant brushwork that I aspire to.

I pulled it together in the end and it's a good likeness that didn't get too tight. The final version is colour corrected and fairly true to the painting. My son wasn't insulted so I'm calling it a success.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Embracing you Inner Hermit

“One of the problems in having plans (appointments, meetings, visitors, travel etc.) is that it just might block out some creative act. In the process, some creative act may never get done because the mood has been broken, never to be recovered according to the original inspiration. This is why it is necessary to place a heavy guard around your thoughts and your time, so that they can't be interrupted at a crucial moment. You cannot afford outside commitments if you expect to do your real work. Those seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years are ticking away and there is no going back. You can never regain them” Quotes from RFM McInnis' unpublished biography

I keep this quote by the painter RFM McInnis on my desktop and look at it whenever I've just ducked another chore or stayed home instead of going out. It's my justification and reassurance that I'm not embracing isolation out of eccentricity, it's because I'm trying to make good art.
I've realized that I can't do meaningful work and still have a great social life; the two seem mutually exclusive. To make a significant and lasting painting takes solitude and contemplation. I put marks on, think about them, rub off some of them, layer over others and all the time I'm alone and alert to only the task of making the best painting that I can. The moment my family returns from school and work is the moment that I have to clean up and put the painting aside: no perfectly-judged marks are made after that.
This is why after a busy stretch of showing, group plein air painting and volunteering on a committee, I find my thoughts and work completely scattered and unsatisfying. I have to deliberately avoid my email inbox and any phone messages until mid-afternoon when I'm running out of creative steam and, after a few days, I can get the flow back and lose myself in painting.
The consequence of this is that I end up doing breakfast dishes at 3pm, washing floors at 10pm and sitting down at the end of the day at about the time that I should be heading for bed. But if there's a decent painting on the easel, it seems worth it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Gallery Opening

On Saturday my work opened at Collector's Gallery of Art in Inglewood. The timing was terrific- coinciding with Art Walk - and we had steady crowds all through the afternoon.
The show introduced me and 3 other artists: Kari Duke, Bowabon Shilling, and Barbara Hirst to the gallery. For so many painters, the show was remarkably cohesive and looked stunning. Bowabon Shilling was unable to attend but I got to meet Kari and Barbara and found them both, as tends to be the case with good artists, generous and open people, interested in talking about painting and sharing tips and techniques. Kari and I ducked out to my car to look at some plywood panels that I had shellacked with amber shellac in preparation for plein air work. She does a lot of her gorgeous back alley scenes on panels and these boards interested her.
One of the nicest things was the fact that unexpected people came to see the show. Neighbours, past and present, seldom-seen friends (one with her two young children in tow which shows real fortitude) and relatives responded to my invitation and attended. Time slowed to a leisurely pace and I got to catch up with people who lead busy lives like mine but who value art and friendship enough to put that busyness aside for a while and visit. I realized again how blessed I am.
The show will hang for approximately 3 more weeks and I hope you'll check it out.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

And now for something completely different...

That's not a painting!
It's a still from my husband, David Christensen's, documentary which will be screening on Friday night at the Calgary International Film Festival.
"The Mirror" is a gorgeous film about a tiny medieval town in the Italian Alps that receives no sunlight for 3 months of the year because the mountains block the low winter sun. As a creative solution to this problem, the town erected a giant mirror on a mountain to reflect the rays of the sun down into the town square. David captured this event and the quirky inhabitants of the town as well.
The film is screening at the Plaza Theatre on Friday at 9pm. Hope you'll come out and see it!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I spent this weekend at the opening of Diamond Willow Artisan Retreat about an hour from Calgary in Turner Valley. There were 10 artists there for 3 days, painting and giggling madly in the rugged green landscape and it was a blast.
We discussed "values" at length and it had nothing to do with personal beliefs. Brushstrokes were admired, pigments were compared and the art business was scrutinized from 10 different perspectives which was enlightening for me.
I think it's important to get together with other serious painters now and then. Painting is a lonely business and it's easy to become a total recluse. Knowing that it's good for me isn't always enough so I often have to push myself out forcibly into the world rather than stay in my little studio and paint.
On the first day at the retreat, I set up behind the painter Alice Helwig and did a painting of her as she was painting. I've done this before while painting with Sharon Williams and it combines what I'm supposed to be doing - landscapes - with what I love most : figurative. I should have been having a great time except I could see past Alice to her rapidly-filling canvas and was beginning to panic at the comparatively-slow pace that my work was progressing. Was I in the wrong place? Did I belong in a setting with such accomplished and experienced painters?
My brush was flying rather hysterically over the board that I was working on and Alice, bless her, did a second painting while I fussed with my first. When she'd exhausted the possibilities of her location, she moved on and I slowed down. I'd done her figure and now I just had to adjust the landscape around her.
To my relief and pleasure, I managed to salvage the painting and turn it into something that I'm proud of. My evening beer felt well deserved.
I'm still ruminating on the painting of Alice and won't publish it now, but I've posted the one of Sharon above. It's called "Another Day at the Office" and shows the painter's life at its finest.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Still life, active painters

I met with my oil painting students for the first time yesterday at the Calgary School of Art. It's a diverse and dedicated group of painters, most with some oil experience but some without.

We dove right in with a still life painting, beginning, as I always do, with a transparent underpainting. The things that I found myself stressing throughout the class were: colour outside of the lines; stand back from the work; and hold your brush at the back, like a wand rather than near the bristles like a pencil.

I see that these are some of the ways that I achieve the looseness that I strive for in my work. If I hold the paintbrush near the bristles, I create a tight painting, best seen from up close. But if I hold the brush way back on the handle and stand an arms reach from the canvas, the work stands a chance of looking loose and spontaneous. It will come together coherently at a distance and melt into individual brushwork and colour up close. When lots of people are painting in this manner in one room, it looks like a graceful, old world dance. Everyone is stepping up to the canvas, marking it, and gliding back to have a look.

The results of this first class were amazing. I've posted a couple of them above and will post more as the class progresses.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

School of Art Opening

The Grand Opening of the Calgary School of Art was great fun.
The food and wine were abundant and lots of people showed up.

The demos showcased the great variety of art that will be taught at the school: oil and watercolour painting, palette knife painting, encaustic, abstract mixed media and more. It was stimulating stuff, not least because there was a drawing demo with an unflappable, nude model.

My course begins on Tuesday afternoon at 1pm and I still have a couple of openings for anyone who wants to give oils a try. We'll be starting with still life work and I'm excited to see what people do with it. Hopefully there will be lots of unique takes on the same set up of objects and fabrics. I'll keep you posted!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Correcting Colour

The Internet is a great tool for showing your paintings to a wider audience but it's tricky to accurately represent it.

I photograph every painting that I complete under even light - an overcast day is great as the colours are not warmed up and made overly vivid as they are on sunny days - and then I colour correct it. This step is crucial because what the camera sees is never what my eyes see when I look at the painting. I have to make the photo match the work.

I use some freeware called GIMP. It's very similar to Photoshop but I prefer the price!
Usually I have to balance the colours and sharpen the image a bit but sometimes it takes much more work. Unless you've got a good set up for photographing artwork (which I don't), you run into a real problem with light reflecting off of the painting's surface. This is especially true of the dark areas which can look greyed and dead though they are colourful and transparent in life. In these cases I have to use the burn function of the program to try to darken the shadows up again. Nothing seems to reveal the range of colours that they contain so I always advise interested collectors to see the piece in person. A photo really doesn't show anything about a painting except its subject matter.

I recently bought a Spyder colour calibration system to help ensure that the work that I post looks like it should. It's not cheap but it was a necessity. I looked at my site on a few other computers and discovered that the paintings that I'd slaved over in GIMP, looked nothing like what I saw on my monitor at home. There was a certain cool gray that turned garishly green on other monitors. I had no idea that was going on! It was embarrassing to realize how long those images had been posted. Once my monitor was calibrated, I had to rework all of the paintings that had that particular gray mix. Oddly, most of the paintings that didn't have it were fine.

So now I know that the pieces that I see on my monitor are correct. Hopefully people who look at my site have decent colour correction on their monitors too. Really, it's better to see paintings in person.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Trying Again

The original photo

Version 1 "Lingering Rays"

Version 2 "Before Dusk"

I subscribe to Canadian painter Robert Genn's blog "The Painter's Keys" and today's posting set the tone of my day. He advised taking one of your typical works and repeating it in different styles: impressionistic, realistic, primitive etc. and also trying new methods for dealing with edges, contrast, detail and so on.

I didn't have a definite painting in mind this morning so I was open to his suggestion. I repeated a work that I'd already done once but did it in a more abstract style. It's from a late winter afternoon when the sun is just lighting one distant part of an otherwise shadowy landscape. The photo keeps calling me back because it has everything that I like: back lighting, long foreground and lots of blue. I think it's blue that made a painter of me because I'm so crazy about it.

Before settling on this final painting, I did 2 more: one brighter and more detailed with thickly applied paint and purer colours and one which had much more gray and only a few hints of impasto colour. Neither one suited me and I rubbed them off. But I didn't want to end the day with nothing to show for it so I tried one more time. This time I used thinner paint and muted the colours a lot. Parts of the work look almost like watercolour in their simplicity. I focused on getting the rhythm of the landscape in as few marks as possible and on not tinkering and painting over areas too often. There are layers but they're kept to the minimum that the painting seemed to need. It's a minimalistic painting but I'm pleased with it.

I've posted the piece as well as the first version that I did of it a few months ago and the photo reference.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Everybody needs some support

Artists love to experiment and one of the things that painters often play around with is different types of supports. That's technical language for the things that you put the paint on. Canvas is common and there are many different types and weights of it. For smaller paintings - under 24 x 24 - I usually buy ready-made canvases which tend to be lightweight but for larger works, I buy a heavy-weight cotton by the roll and stretch it myself. It seems daunting but it's actually easy. All you need are the stretcher bars (the four wooden frame pieces that you knock together with a mallet), a pair of canvas pliers, and a staple gun. Stretching the canvas as tight as a drum and planning what I'll paint on it later is very satisfying, meditative work. Unwrapping a purchased canvas is anticlimactic in comparison.

Linen canvas is a traditional, sturdy support which makes smooth, durable canvases but it's very expensive.

Another common support is a piece of wood. I've seen masonite and birch used as painting surfaces and recently painted on a piece of shellacked plywood which was given to me by Sharon Williams, a terrific plein air painter and teacher. Rigid supports like these have the advantage of not moving with changes in temperature or humidity and so preserve a painting against cracking better than canvas does. The important thing to remember is to seal the wood so that none of the colour and adhesives used in it can migrate into the painting over time causing "support induced discolouration". Good sealants include shellac and GAC 100 (by Golden).

Because I like the way that paint adheres to fabric better than the slick way that it slides over wood, I sometimes make canvas boards by gluing canvas to a piece of masonite with lots of acrylic medium. This gives me the best of both worlds: the rigidity and portability of a board and the sympathetic surface of canvas. These canvas boards make great plein air supports. You can buy ready-made canvas boards and I can recommend the RayMar brand which comes in lots of sizes and surfaces.

I've also seen gorgeous work done on copper and aluminium sheets.. The gleam and colour of the metal shows through in the final painting. Like wood, these sheets need to be sealed first to stop discolouration of the metal and to provide a "tooth" for paint to adhere to. Before sealing, the metal has to be very well degreased - some people give it a light sanding and washing and then rub it with an onion for this!

Each of these supports allows you to make different types of marks and it's refreshing to try a new one once in a while and see how your manner of applying paint changes as a result.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Painting Support

I love a very smooth surface when I paint because it allows me to make long, elegant marks and calligraphic details without the strokes breaking up on the canvas weave. I have no interest in the actual texture of a tree, it's the big picture stuff: the value, shape and placement of that tree that grabs me. If I use big brushes on a smooth support, I'm more likely to produce the big picture and avoid the tightness of strict representation.
My usual support is a canvas with 4 coats of gesso on it. If I've stretched the raw canvas myself, I put the first 2 layers on with a credit card (knew I'd need that Sears card for something) to ensure that there are no pinholes in the gesso which would allow the paint to rot the canvas over time. A credit card also makes the surface quite smooth but you have to watch out for the slight raised drag marks from the sides of the card. After the final coat, I lightly sand the surface and wipe off the gesso dust. The finish is luxuriously smooth and inviting.
After all that work though, it's really a drag if I blow the painting!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Painting with Water

I recently searched an artist who was a huge influence on me when I started painting, the Australian watercolourist Joseph Zbukvic, and discovered that he's posted a beautiful website. It's well worth a look.

Like so many new painters, I started out in watercolour. It seemed more accessible than oils which have the intimidating mystique of the Old Masters clinging to them. I wish I'd known then that I was choosing the most challenging medium there is. Watercolour painting is an edge-of-your-seat art: you lay down a stroke of wet paint, making it much darker than you want because it lightens by 30% or more when drying. While it's wet, you drop in other colours, soften edges in key places and tilt and move your paper to achieve runs and bleeds. You blot, splatter, spray the mark with water and generally do everything that you can to make that mark final and interesting but not overworked. And you do it all in the minute or two before it dries. If all goes well, you end up with a something that glows in a way that no other medium can. Often, it doesn't go well.

Zbukvic's book "Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor" is filled with glow and a logical system for achieving it. More than any other resource, this book taught me how to paint in watercolour. Unfortunately it's skyrocketed in price and is now listed at $185 US on Amazon. Check your local library!

I've since switched to the leisurely medium of oils but I still admire those who practise the exhilarating art of painting with water.

I've posted one of my watercolours from back in the day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Painting System

Recently I taught an introductory oil painting workshop in one of the bright, new studios at Cactus Art in Calgary. There were 10 students of varying ability but huge commitment and we had a wonderful day.
We painted 11 x 14 landscapes alla prima on gray-toned canvases that I'd prepared earlier in the week by adding 2 extra coats of gesso and a gray ground.
One of the things that I stressed was that no matter what the subject, I always start my paintings in the same way; it's a formula that saves a lot of waffling and indecisiveness.
First I coat the entire canvas with a thin wash of a warm, transparent colour. This sets the tone for the whole painting and also eliminates the drag of a dry canvas.
Next I do a value painting of the subject using dark, warm colours - often a reddish-purple. I use size 12 brushes for this or house-painting sized brushes if the canvas is very large.
After that, it's just a matter of going back in with local colour of varying translucence and building marks. I love the show through of underlying marks so I never totally obscure something that I've brushed on. The initial wash is always visible in some places in the final painting.
The rest of the painting is a progression of marks woven together in increasingly light value and opaque paint.
Though it's a painting done in one session, the paint can stay quite fresh as long as there isn't much overbrushing. I settle the marks into the work by adding new colours and different stroke directions on top of them, not by stroking back and forth along the same mark which makes a dull, monotonous passage. Ideally, I lift the brush and reload it after 2 strokes, one from each side of a loaded brush.

It's good to develop a system that works for your painting so that you never have those insecure moments as you stand in front of a blank canvas, not knowing how to start. The first marks of my system eliminate that and help me get into the flow of painting much faster.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Starting in Oils: a 12 week course

Starting on September 15, I'll be teaching a 12 week oil painting course for beginner and intermediate painters. The course will be held on Tuesdays from 1 to 4 pm at the Calgary School of Art, a spiffy new facility attached to Cactus Art Supplies in SE Calgary.

I taught a one day workshop there a few weeks ago and it went really well. The studios are bright and new and there's the convenience of having an art supply wholesale store attached to them; just the thing when you discover, as I did, that you've forgotten a key colour!

The course will cover: composition, colour choices, brushwork, and the technical details of solvent-free oil painting. As well, we'll experiment with a number of different subjects including landscape, still life, and figurative and we will work both from life and from photographs.

I've included more details on my website, so if you're interested in signing up, have a look and contact me through the site.

Happy painting!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Work, work work

The most common comment that I hear from spectators when I paint on site at an exhibition is a variation of this:

"I wish that I could paint but I don't have any talent. I can't even draw a stick figure."

It's a sentiment that I don't believe for a minute but there's nothing that I can say to change that person's mind. She's decided that you're born with or without talent and that's that. It's an easy out and a self-fulfilling pronouncement. Telling yourself that you can't do something is the best way to ensure that it's true.

Looking back a few years at my first paintings is enough to convince me that I don't have a natural talent for it, but I do love painting above all other pursuits and I've spent lots of time trying to improve my work. Malcolm Gladwell noted in his book The Outliers that it's the time and the quality of the time that a person devotes to a discipline that determines his or her level of proficiency. To become a master at anything, whether art, music, sports, or computer programming, Gladwell said that you have to devote 10,000 focused hours to it.

I'm nowhere near 10,000 hours but I'm working on it. I paint daily and critique the results mercilessly, frequently rubbing out the day's painting in the afternoon and starting fresh the next morning. Occasionally I'm pleased with a piece, often I'm not, but I'm constantly learning from what I do and applying these lessons to the next paintings in the hopes of improving my art.

This isn't talent, it's hard work driven by a passion. Anyone can do it if she goes beyond just wishing that she could paint and deciding that she will paint, and paint and paint.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Transparent, Translucent, Opaque

When I look at paintings, I'm drawn to the variety in brushwork and paint consistency more than the subject matter. Paintings in which each mark has the same level of opacity as every other mark are ultimately boring for me to look at no matter what they depict.
The artist Stephen Quiller teaches that a painting can, and should, have a full range of paint consistency from transparent to translucent to opaque.

Transparent areas are the first ones that I lay in. They have pure pigment with no white whatsoever. The paint is thinned with a medium or scrubbed in with the brush but either way, it is see through. It acts like a glaze in watercolour, allowing light to penetrate to the lower layers or to the canvas beneath.

Translucent layers come next. They also allow show through but less so. The paint is modified slightly by the addition of white or an opaque pigment such as cerulean or yellow ochre. These layers give body to the colour and cut the raw look of a totally transparent oil painting. They are also used to lighten the value of an area.

Opaque layers are the final ones that I apply. I add more white to the paint to get the lightest values of the painting and to add a visually-interesting body to these sections. It's in these layers that I get to play with impasto and show off brushwork, the stuff that gives a painting real character.

All of these paint consistencies work together to make a rich surface in the final painting and omitting one of them can result in a tedious and homogeneous final work.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Painting for a Crowd

I was painting at the Calgary Stampede recently in the "Artists' Window". It's the 3rd year that I've done it and it's always worth the trouble of packing up my paintings and art supplies, fighting the rodeo traffic and setting up in the Round Up Centre. For the 4 hours that I'm there, I paint (never anything worth keeping as it's a very short time) and chat with the many people who come to watch and look at my work. The appeal of watching someone apply paint or draw seems to be universal. As the object of this attention, it's hard not to try to give my viewers something worth seeing: a definitive brush stroke; a dramatic value change or a bold new colour passage. The temptation to be worth the attention is strong. However, fighting that temptation and trying to maintain flow and pacing despite the presence of people standing behind me is a discipline worth undertaking. I figure if I can tune these spectators out, and make a decent painting, I'll be a better painter for it.

A few weeks ago I did something similar but on a much more challenging scale in Chicoutimi, Quebec at the Symposium International Jean-Paul Lapointe. More than 40 artists from around Canada, the States, and Europe exhibited their works and painted for 3 days in front of a steady throng of people. I was told that 40,000 people passed through the venue in those 3 days. Many of them commented and most stopped to watch for a few moments. At first, I thought I'd never achieve focus but, during the 12 hour painting days, I found myself able to tune out everything but the task of mixing and applying paint. I became almost as competent in that bustling setting as I am in my studio in Calgary. I counted it as a great accomplishment. I've taken a few workshops and have always marvelled at the way the instructors could paint and comment on their works while standing in front of an audience. I see now that, like absolutely everything else to do with painting, it's a matter of practise.

It seems an impossible task at first but, with repetition, it becomes routine.