Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Saving a Painting that isn't Working

"Perfect Day in Kananaskis"
12 x 24

Sometimes it's hard to figure out why a painting isn't working. I'll have stared at it for hours and be unable to see it objectively anymore. It's just clear that it's wrong somehow.

Ideally, I'd ask another person for a critique. My husband and children have become very adept at spotting problems at a glance though it takes careful questioning to pinpoint what bothers them in it. But if I don't have another body handy, I use a mirror to dissect the piece. Holding a painting up to a mirror is a way to see the piece fresh, from another perspective. This is the same reason that some artists examine their work upside down, through the lens of a camera, or in a different light or context. Just popping a painting into a spare frame can give you a better sense of what's working and what isn't.

Another great aid is a little piece of coloured cellophane or acrylic that many art supply stores carry. It's usually red, and looking through it turns your painting into a values-only composition in which it's easy to identify weaknesses. Usually, with me, the painting is too mired in midtones. There are too few highlights and too few and isolated darks. Putting in some stronger lights, or consolidating and strengthening some dark passages can work wonders.

The important thing, though, is not to give up on a painting without exploring all of the possibilities for saving it. It's tempting to just toss a piece, but it's awfully satisfying to rescue it.

The painting above needed some mirror work to rescue, but once I boosted the highlights, it all came together.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

More Light through Trees

September Light
16 x 12
Mundane things touch me more deeply than extraordinary things do.

I've got pictures on my computer of fabulous, famous sites from my travels, but when I browse photos for painting references, I never settle on these as options. Instead, I get caught up, once again, in the magic of small moments like the one above.

This was actually done on location in my favourite city park, but it could be anywhere. What I hoped to capture was a universal image: something that we've all seen and enjoyed, but, because it has nothing of real importance, is seldom painted or even photographed. I did take a picture of the place but it contains nothing of the wonder that I found there. It shows a tangle of trees and undergrowth and an area of light in the canopy. This reminds me, again, that I should paint from life, or, failing that, work really hard to notice what it is that I love about a scene. It'll be my memory, more than the photo. that helps to make a painting.

But even on location, I had to work pretty hard to show how special and luminous the place actually was.  The tree trunks couldn't be just their mid-tone gray, they had to have a more definite colour and temperature.  I find that purple enhances forest shadows and creates the mystery and magic that I'm after.  It can also take over a painting as it did with this one on a couple of occasions until I stood back, reevaluated, and toned some of it down.  Then, to compliment the blue and red-purples, I leaned the colour of the leaves towards yellow and orange-green. 

It's not a realistic representation of what I saw, but it is faithful to the spirit of the place that day.  For me, that's what art can and should be.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow

 Little Creek and the Bow 
20 x 20

Winter Light 
11 x 14

I've embraced the season - finally - and am enjoying the patterns of light on snow once again.  Jill at Collector's Gallery forced me into this acceptance by mounting a winter-themed, group show which opened yesterday.  I had to do snow to do the show!

It's actually pretty tough to paint snow.  At first, when you look at it, there seems to be only cool shadow (usually blue) and warm sunlight reflecting off of the white.  But, as always, the more that you look, the more you see.

I find it's necessary to add warm reds into the lower layers of snow paintings.  This not only creates interesting grays as you layer on different blues, but it also supplies the warm end of the spectrum, without which a painting seems just too chilly and artificial.  To my eye, there are all of the colours of the spectrum in every scene, and omitting one leaves a sense of incompleteness to the work.  But that might just be me.

The paintings above are two of the works in the show at Collector's, and depict two of my favourite things: a creek in Carburn Park, where I jog every day; and light shining through trees.  Both of these subjects make up an inordinate amount of the pictures on my hard drive, and I've painted them many times. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Painting the Painters

16 x 12"

Winter arrived last week, and it blew in hard and fast.  One day I was in sandals, the next: snow boots. 
As it does every year, the first snow brought traffic to a halt, and that meant that the model did not make it to my class at the Calgary School of Art.  The poor woman spent her evening stuck in traffic.

Luckily, I have an intrepid group, and they opted to paint each other in the act of painting.  This is an extremely tricky thing to do: your subject is always in motion and expressions constantly flicker across his or her face.  It requires a certain "whatever happens, happens" approach to painting, or you're likely to get pretty tense. 

The amazing and wonderful thing was that no one got tense, and everyone got a very good likeness of their subject.  More than that, they all produced very emotional, touching works of the people that they knew.  It was a stimulating and invigorating experiment that I probably wouldn't have tried under ideal circumstances. 

It just goes to show that nothing is predictable in painting, and you should always just give an idea a try, even if it seems outrageous; perhaps especially if it seems outrageous.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Figures in Landscapes

Alpine Meadow 
18 x 20
This painting is unusual for me in that it has a figure, but he's not centrally important.
Normally I do either figure or landscape, but not both at once. There's something relaxing about putting a little person in there for scale and narrative, but not having to render him with any degree of detail or finish.

Though I love landscapes, I have found that they look empty to me without some people or their traces.
I guess that makes me truly urban, or maybe my aesthetic has been shaped entirely by European impressionism and post-impressionism. You'd be hard pressed to find a wild scene even in 19th Century western Europe; the land had been densely populated and cultivated since Roman times. Planted forests have lived and died on that continent. It makes North America seem rugged and untouched.

It's that raw wildness that I'm unable to render in paint. Maybe it's just too huge and impersonal for me to contemplate. It makes my attempts at depicting it seem irrelevant.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Lure of Instructional DVDs

Autumn Bouquet II
26 x 30
I was browsing the trailers on the APV Films site the other day and ooh-ing and ahh-ing like a kid at a fireworks display. APV distributes art instruction DVDs and has some very good, international artists.

I love watching even the short promo trailers because they show the working methods of the painters. David Curtis paints as if he's assembling a jigsaw puzzle: he knows where each piece goes and places it unerringly in the correct value, shape and colour. Herman Pekel paints with abandon and glee, using credit cards for tools, sloshy, drippy paint, and layers that you can't believe he's able to apply given the amount of wet, mushy paint on the canvas. Maxwell Wilks starts his paintings in a random, sketchy, and muddy fashion and then pulls a light, pleasing, and harmonious work out at the end. And there are others: all unique.

The thing that stays with me, after watching all of these different approaches, is that it's their confidence that makes these painters and their work so inspiring. They work in a playful, but not sloppy method, using their old tricks, but also giving the impression that they are trying new ones out for size too. Pekel said it best when he advised:"at least once a week, discover something that no-one's told you. That means it's really, truly part of you." I think it's the constant search for something new and exciting about painting that keeps these artists fresh, and watchable.

I'm not sure if I'll order a disc; I think the most important teaching that I can get from these DVDs is to paint boldly and have a great time doing it.  All the rest is just detail.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Speed Painting a Model

24 x 36

I recently hired a model to come into my studio and Alice Helwig and I painted her. We had her for 3 hours, which seems like lots, but is nowhere near enough time. 

The good thing about the time constraint, however, is that I didn't have time to think, tweak, or fuss.  I had a big, ambitious canvas in front of me and, if I wanted to make the session worthwhile, I had to fill it with enough information to be able to finish the painting after the model left.  It was speed painting!

The first thing that I did was quickly draw the basics of the pose with a thin, brownish colour.  Then I switched to a big brush (size 12) and roughly slapped on all of the darks in the composition: shadows on her skin, dark drapery, hair, lips, eye sockets, everything.  

Right about then I was cursing myself for not toning the canvas first; it would have reduced friction on the brush and would also have meant less painting for me in the long run because there wouldn't be any pesky white canvas to cover.  But it was too late to backtrack and so I sped on, using big bristle brushes to cover the canvas in a hurry, and without the commitment of the definite marks that synthetic brushes make.  I love the quote by John Singer Sargent: "Start with a whisk and end with a broom."  It sums up the rough, sketchy work that happens under the dashing, dramatic marks that finish a painting.  

Next I blocked in some basic warm skin colours for her body and draped a cool, greenish tone over most of the shadows and the places where her form was turning away from the warm light.  I kept the shapes big and loose, ignoring any small variations like the little hit of orange light at her clavicle and her facial features.  

Then I blocked in a background to kill the white and got down to the business of painting with creamier, more distinctively-applied paint.  My favorite part!

The light in the studio wasn't this dramatic as there is no direct sunlight coming into the space, but I had a warm light on the model, and I exaggerated its effect on her body.

When the 3 hours were up, I had enough on canvas to finish the painting later.  Her body was done and the face was roughed in.  The eyes were closed, but I found her face too blank that way, so I repainted them open later.

This was great fun to paint.  I'll do it again, though I might go for a less ambitious size of canvas, or hire the model for a longer stretch.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fabulous Flowers!

Autumn Bouquet  24 x 20"

My next workshop is something new for me: florals. Lately, and ironically, given the time of year, I've really started to enjoy painting flowers. A big bouquet allows me to paint for much longer than any other subject that I've found so far, and that's what makes it so fun. I often overwork landscapes because they seem to be done much too quickly. Just when I'm warming up and getting a handle on the subject, I've pretty much filled up the canvas and painted everything of importance. Then I get into the unimportant stuff, then I tweak a bit, and then it's sunk.

Not so with florals. I can roam over the canvas endlessly, adding bits and flourishes. It's very satisfying!  

My workshop is on November 6 at the Calgary School of Art.  If you're in Calgary, I hope you'll sign up.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Make a Painter of Yourself

This week I had an email from a former workshop student asking for my help.  She no longer lives in Calgary, but hoped that I could still be of some help as an instructor for her.  That was incredibly flattering, but I finally had to conclude that I couldn't do long-distance art teaching.  So much of teaching well is being able to accurately judge paint consistency on a student's palette, or make a mark on someone's painting to illustrate a point.  Technology will never be able to cope with these needs.  

Instead, I suggested a few things that she could do in her new town: I told her to look for local, reputable organizations for artists; in Calgary it is the Federation of Canadian Artists, the Alberta Society of Artists, the Sketch Club, and several others.  Organizations like these are a good place to look for workshops. I also advised her to scour her town for artists.  She might happen across a painter whose work touches her, and who would be willing to teach her.

As well - and this is how I learned - I advised her to get out every book about painting that her local library has.  When those run out, find books online and have the library bring them in on inter-library loans.  I used the "how to" books to learn the basic rules of oil paint, and then moved on to looking at specific painters or art movements like Impressionism.  The more art that a student sees, the more she will be able to figure out what kind of painter she would like to be.  Finding an aesthetic is half the battle. 

Along with this I spend time looking at gallery sites online.  By doing this, I've learned which painters I like (or not) and then I've checked out the other galleries that they are in.  In these other galleries, I might find more painters that I enjoy, and follow the links to their other galleries.  Pretty soon, I have a long bookmarked list of galleries to look at regularly for inspiration and insight.  Studying other people's work has helped me to narrow down what attracts me in a painting: whether it's subject, colour, use of line or types of edges, or degree of finish, and this knowledge has helped me paint with real direction. 

Most importantly, I told her to paint as often as she could; to try for every day, but to take anything that was available.  Like learning a musical instrument, you have to put in the hours of practise.   

And that explains the images shown above.  They represent one week's work from two of my students.  A mother and son, they paint together on weekends, exploring and extending the lessons that we've done in class that week.  They argue about technique, look at painters online, email images of paintings in progress to me, and manage to fit art into full-time working lives.  I'm a help, but they have taken the responsibility for their learning and are putting in the time.  I have no doubt that they will become the painters that they want to be, and I know that my former workshop student can be successful too.  It all comes down to focus, passion, and time spent with a brush in hand. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Developing a Sketch

Bare Shoulders Study 12 x 9"

Bare Shoulders 20 x 16"

This painting was done from a 45 minute oil sketch that I did at the Zhaoming Wu workshop in the Spring.  The day was nearly done and I wanted to get in one more painting before the whole wonderful experience ended.

This is the first time that I have taken a rough oil painting, and used it as a reference for a finished piece.  I know it's common practice for artists to do this, but I've never felt it was right for me.  My style is a loose and spontaneous response to a subject and I've always felt that repeating it would make it stiff and lifeless.   I'm also someone who tends to prefer plein air pieces to studio work; I'm not about polish. 

But this sketch continued to hold interest for me so I thought I'd give it a go.  Mostly, I wanted to see if I could do something that was less monotonous to her shoulder and back area, and I wanted to tone down the palette.  The model had red hair and I had started the whole painting in such a brightly-coloured key that by the time I was doing the hair, I was practically using the paint straight from the tube in order to compete with everything else.  It felt pretty out of control. 

The biggest help on the revised version, was placing some lavender in her back.  This created the coolness that I needed and also acted to visually gray the figure because it acted as a near compliment to her peach-toned skin.  The power of using gray is something that is slowly making sense to me.  I've read about the importance of it for years, but it's only now appearing in my work.  I'm consciously trying to use it more.

From a more muted start, this painting went much better.  I could imply red hair with less pigment and her white top became more believable with gray-blue shadows rather than the strong blue I'd used before. 

This was so much fun that I think I'll revisit some plein air work and see if I can do a larger version and still keep the spontaneity.  It's nice to suddenly have a bounty of new projects to begin.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Gold Award at Art Visions 2010!

My mom accepting the Art Visions Gold award
"Digging" 30 x 30"

Yesterday was a very happy day!  I was once again awarded the Founding Patron's Gold Award at the FCA  Art Visions 2010 exhibition.  "Digging" did me proud.

Because I couldn't get a last minute flight out to Kelowna, BC, my parents accepted the prize for me, and toured the exhibition.  This year the show has grown to include a fourth gallery: Evans Fischer Gallery, along with Turtle Island Gallery, Gallery 421, and Hambleton, which is showing my piece.  The FCA even had a shuttle bus to get you from one venue to the other; a very nice feature.

My mom noticed a man examining my painting from a semi-crouched position, and peering upward.  It made her laugh because I had once told her that's how I toured the Metropolitan Museum in NY.  I'd look at a painting head on and then crouch to see the profile of the paint.  There's nothing so instructive as seeing where the paint is thick and where it is just a thin layer.  It's nice to know that someone wanted to learn about my paint application too. 

But what's really nice is belonging to an organization that promotes and rewards artists for their hard work.  I'm grateful to the FCA Central Okanagan Chapter for this honour and for the enormous amount of work that they did to make such a great show.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Art Visions 2010, Kelowna, BC

Art Visions 2010 is set to open once again on October 7 in Kelowna BC. 

I was fortunate enough to be juried into this growing show again this year, and my painting "Digging" will hang in Hambleton Gallery

The show is unique in that it encompasses 4 galleries in the art district in Kelowna.  Last year my work won the Gold Medal and I attended the event.  It was an impressive organizational feat, and the Central Okanagan Chapter of the FCA pulled it off without a hitch.  We all had a great time mingling and viewing art.  Opening night was chilly but the Okanagan wine that was served in each gallery warmed people up nicely. 

If you're in the Okanagan, I hope you'll attend this ambitious and exciting show.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Painting Out

Afternoon in the Rockies
9 x 12

I went out to Banff to paint with Alice Helwig recently and we had a great time. 
That's the easy part; the part that's tricky is having a great time AND producing some work. 

Both Alice and I talk while we work.  I'm not sure that it's always intelligent talk because we're also intently focused on our paintings, but it means that we work well together.   I got a painting and a half out of the day.  The half a painting is partially scraped out and awaiting revisions to clarify some design problems.

The piece above pleased me because it caught the drama of the light conditions.  We avoided our usual rainstorm by a few hours, but the clouds loomed throughout the day, and every time I looked back at the mountain, there was a new shadow pattern on it.  That was frustrating at first, and then liberating: I could do whatever I wanted, because I could never capture what I was seeing in the short time that it presented itself. 

I tried something new for this piece because the Raymar panel that I was using was untoned, and I had to work fast.  Using a muddy mess of mostly Transparent Iron Oxide and Ultramarine - along with whatever was lingering in my brush - I sloshed on an overall dark wash with a mix of odourless mineral spirits and walnut oil (my usual medium).  Then I went straight to the most exciting part: the lit-up mountain, and put it on with a few heavy, impasto marks. 

At this point I had the lightest light and nearly the darkest dark.  It was easy to just develop the mid range from there. 

The tricky part was layering over that initial wet mud without contaminating the subsequent layers.  I had to watch the paint consistency to make sure it was always fairly heavy and would both cover the dark, and flow off of the brush without much pressure.  When I describe this pressure to my class, I tell them to imagine they are petting a bug with the brush.  Their goal is not to squish the bug.  This image seems to help them ease off the brush and lay strokes on gently and cleanly.

I'll try this very direct method of painting again in the future.  It's raw and rugged: exactly what plein air is all about.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Workshop October 2

Painting the Figure
The Long Pose
October 2, 10am to 4:30pm

I'll be teaching a workshop on October 2 at the Calgary School of Art.
I thought it would be nice to teach a long-pose figure painting which allows time to develop a finished painting.  Normally I work the painters fast and hard in my workshops and have them do 3 to 4 paintings over the course of a day.  They leave pretty tired, but with signs of a definite progression. 

Nice as that progression is, I saw the value of a long pose when I did Zhaoming Wu's workshop in the Spring.  We had a pose for the entire day, and not even a face to work with.  I managed to snag this profile view when we were setting up but some painters spent the day looking at a spotlit back.  And yet, they managed to do interesting things with that because they had the time to fully explore and develop the painting.  We still left tired though.

I'm interested to see what students do with a long pose.  When there's no time constraint, I believe they'll start to really notice the small subtleties of form and colour temperature.  

The course still has room, so if you want to see what you would do with the opportunity to paint a single pose during a day, sign up and join us.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

CIPA Exhibition in Calgary

 Images from the 2008 CIPA Exhibition

I'm very excited to have been asked to be a member of the awards jury for the Canadian Institute of Portrait Artists' national exhibition. 

CIPA holds a juried, biennial exhibition in Canada, and this year it is going to be showing at Mount Royal University here in Calgary. 
The dates are: September 21 to October 15
Venue: 2nd Floor, Bissett School of Business, Mount Royal University

I'm looking forward to seeing the show in advance and hope that you'll check it out while it's in the city.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dazzled by Light

12 x 24"
I realized while I was on vacation in Kelowna, BC that Calgary's light sucks!

Calgary has a very cool, hard light for most of the day, only breaking into warm, saturated colour in the morning or evening. 

By comparison, the light in the BC interior is an impressionist's dream all day long.  I've never been to France, but I suspect the light is like what I saw on my vacation: warm, rich, and full of colour bouncing in every direction. 

The painting above is from a photo of my son fly fishing in a small lake near Kelowna.  When I painted it, I tried to remember the magical, atmosphere and let myself introduce lots of reflected warm and cool light.  The underpainting is ochre which softens and warms all the colours on top of it. 

I'm glad that I painted this within a couple of days of returning from our trip.  Like most photos, the picture that this was taken from doesn't capture much more than the basics of colour and pose.  Having the memory of that day fresh in my mind let me recreate the scene as I experienced it with my wondering (and envious) eyes.

Who knew there were so many fly fishermen and women in the world? 
Since starting on this subject, I've had comments and queries from all over.  Recently, an Italian blogger wrote a piece about my work in part of an ongoing series of fishing art blogs.  Here's a link to Mattia Romano's fascinating blog; you can practice your Italian!


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Presentation Counts

9 x 12

Last week I visited a frame shop in Kelowna that I've wanted to see for some time: Classic Gallery Framing.  I've looked at their frames online, but, like most people, I need to see the real thing before I'll buy something.  What really interested me was their plein air frames. 

When I was in New York recently, I noticed that many galleries frame work in these seamless-cornered, gold frames with no liner.  This is not the Calgary aesthetic, but boy do I ever like it!  The simplest little painting looks like a million dollars when surrounded by gold.  I also like the fact that there is no linen liner to collect dirty fingerprints and dust. 

I bought 3 different styles of plein air frame: 2 gold ones and a black one.  The picture above is of the simplest of the frames that I brought home and shows just how effective gold can be.  If it's good enough for New York, it's good enough for me!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Working out Problems in Small Paintings

Pony tail
9 x 12

I'm having fun painting these small figurative pieces right now.  They help me work out problems and experiment without committing to a large canvas.  They're also a great way to keep working during this most distracted, and busy season.

The model for this painting was sitting under warm halogen lighting which created powerful shadows on his body.  The accepted rule is: "warm light, cool shadows or cool light, warm shadows.  In practise, however, this is never wholly the case.  I find that there is always some warm and some cool in the shadow, and everywhere else on the skin for that matter.  

The young man's back was predominately warm but, as his torso turned from the plane of the back to the side, there was a distinct coolness.  I painted it very green because I prefer a powerful statement to a small one any day.  There was also a strong warmth on the side of the body where the model's arm reflected its warmth onto the torso.  Then, around to the front, I put in the fun little highlight on the belly which described both the wrinkly nature of his slouched abdomen and the hot, bright light.  It's tough to tell in reproduction, but there is a lot of yellow in those highlights.  On the palette, it looked far too yellow, but it worked fine on the painting amongst all of those other exaggerated colour statements. 

I left the background very rough with a great deal of transparent underpainting visible.  When I paint, I'm always trying to figure out when a painting can stand on its own.  That's the moment when, ideally, I'll stop working on it.  Sometimes I actually manage to do so.  Often, I ignore that moment and continue painting until the canvas has dense paint everywhere, and I've lost a sense of freshness and spontaneity.  This time I stopped in time.  The chair is implied, and the jeans are cursory, but this helps to keep the focus where I want it: on the torso.  

I think that I learned a lot from this piece. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Altering an Oil Painting

Dappled Light 
9 x 12

Cows.  Not my usual subject by any means. 
Sharon and I drove around in the lush, green countryside recently and found a small herd sheltering from the afternoon sun under a stand of trees.  Before they decided to move back to grazing, we set up on the road nearby and started to paint them. 
Inevitably, I suppose, they did move - a lot.  Cows moved in and out of my view, but, because they all have similar colouring and shape, I could refer to another cow to finish painting anyone who had risen and moved on. 
Originally this piece had an extra cow in the lower left corner.  I thought it would be a good, diagonal lead in to the composition.  It wasn't. 
Luckily, I hadn't used much impasto paint on that one, so I just shaved off some of the thicker dry paint with a palette knife and painted grass, tree trunks, and the legs of the cow on the left in the newly vacated spot. 
I just love the flexibility that oils give to make major changes like these.  I couldn't have done that when I painted in watercolour!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thinking - But not Overthinking a Painting

 Country Roses
16 x 12

My roses are loving the cold summer that we're having: no scorching sun to burn their petals and dry their roots.  I'm glad someone is enjoying it.
This painting was a challenge because the roses are such a pale, delicate pink.  I had to choose a grayed shadow colour which tied in with the pale, cool background but didn't vanish into it.  Some of the background green is in the flowers, but, after a lot of experimentation, I went with a warm, blue-gray for the body of the roses.  That, and the background green reflect down into the glass vase and create a cool, curved form within the warmth of the ground colour.
Glass is fun to paint as long as you paint just what you see: shapes, values and colours.  As soon as you let your mind note that you are painting glass (and that's been called difficult by many painters) the task becomes nerve wracking.  I did my best to subdue that labeling part of my brain and just rely on my eyes.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Different Takes on the Same Subject


Daisies and Bells 16 x 20

Daisies and Bells 2  20 x 20 

Starting in September, I'll be teaching a course in painting from life at the Calgary School of Art. 
It's becoming very clear to me that photos are a weak reference for paintings and that I need to work from life as often as possible. 
Last week Sharon Williams and I painted a still life of some flowers from my garden.  The flower arrangement is holding up surprisingly well, so I've painted it again, using a different colour for the background. 
The first time the background was the strong, warm red of my studio wall which, when the light hit it, leaned orange.  Because of the hot colour scheme and the lively company, this painting is full of bold, thick paint and drama.
The second time I put the vase against a creamy white fabric.  The incandescent light turned the background a pale, creamy cool.  That, and the fact that I was alone in the studio, changed the mood of the painting from vibrant and vigorous to muted and more subtle.  I found it more natural to avoid big impasto marks and to work more delicately overall.  There is a lot of transparency left in this painting, and a greater degree of translucence than in the first one. 
I'm not sure that I would have even bothered painting these pieces if I'd only had the photo to work from. 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Speed Painting

This week I taught a workshop in Kelowna, BC on figure painting from life.  The people who attended were all experienced painters, and members of the Federation of Canadian Artists, Central Okanagan Chapter. Their questions were keen and knowledgeable, and their skills sharp, which made the day a real pleasure for me.

When I teach a painting from life workshop, I have the students produce 4 works in one day.  It makes for some very tired painters!
There are 3 small paintings of 20 to 30 minutes and a longer, and larger piece done in about 2 hours.

The reason for such a prolific day is that I want students to have a chance to make several starts in the technique that I'm teaching in order to solidify it for themselves.  Practise is the best teacher.  But I also don't want them to have a chance to overwork and fiddle with a painting.  In such an accelerated day, there is no opportunity for fiddling, and the result is that everyone produces at least one focused, clear painting. 

I feel like I'm torturing the painters sometimes when they groan out loud at the announcement that their time is up, but I soldier on to the end each time because that's invariably the time when someone remarks that it was a good thing to be under such a strict schedule.  It forced them to concentrate on the essentials of the model's pose and not sweat the small details. 

Maybe I'll set the timer for myself in the studio tomorrow, and avoid fiddling for a change!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cleaner Brushes Faster

Warm Tones
16 x 12
I hate cleaning paint brushes, and yet I never manage to complete a painting with less than 20 brushes.  Mostly it's because I don't want to have my solvent open and evaporating beside me for hours, so I keep it closed until the end of the painting session.  In between, I just wipe the brushes briefly in a rag, or, unfortunately for me, grab another brush from my overly-large supply.  You really can't have too many brushes!
But clean your brushes you must if you're going to produce nice work.  I've looked at some of my students' brushes, and found them to be little more than sticks because of all of the old, dried up paint crusted in between the bristles.  There is no hope that those brushes will produce the sensitive, painterly layering that these painters are yearning for.
The good news is that even my 20-brush sessions don't take all that long to clean up.  I follow a simple order that minimizes open solvent time and keeps the brushes soft.
First I wipe as much paint off of the brush as I can using a rag.  Paper towels are not as effective.  A 15" scrap of an old t-shirt will clean all of the paint off of all 20 brushes and it would take 10 or 15 paper towels to do the same thing.  This has also encouraged me to clean out my closet with an eye to making paint rags, and that's not a bad thing.
Next I put them in a coffee can of odorless mineral spirits with a grid at the bottom.  Scrubbing the brushes against this a couple of times will get almost all of the paint out. 
It's important to change the solvent regularly to keep it working effectively.  I decant the cleanish liquid off the top and discard the sludge at the bottom of the can into a lidded bucket which, when full, I take to the firehall as hazardous waste.
After this, I wipe the brushes again to remove most of the solvent, and then I put them in a small bucket with a generous squirt of castile soap in the bottom.  I fill this up to mid-ferrule with hot water and let the brushes sit in it.  They can stay for hours if they're bristle brushes, or just for a few swishes and then a rinse if they're soft synthetic brushes which will permanently bend in hot water.  Dishwash soap is a bad choice as it is so powerfully degreasing that it leaves the brushes splayed and dried out.  Castile is a vegetable oil soap which is very mild.  A gentle shampoo would also work.
And that's it.  I don't squish my fingers between the bristles at any point, because it would take me hours, and I don't need to.  I never have paint trapped in there after this cleaning routine.  If cleaning brushes has been a grind, I hope you'll try this method and get on with the good things in life.
Happy painting!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Commit to your Art

The Cast 2
14 x 11

As a painting instructor, I find that, though all of my students come to me with the desire to be painters, and an interest in art, not all of them are ready to commit to art.  And if they don't commit, they don't improve; at least not as they'd like to improve: dramatically.

To commit, a painter has to leave the old priorities behind - a clean house, mowed lawn, interesting and innovative meals - and put all of that reclaimed energy into painting, looking at paintings, and reading about painting.  Above all, to be a painter takes time.  Like playing the piano, you can't get better if you don't practice every day. Talent in painting is just a well-trained eye and the patience to create endless amounts of paintings that you will eventually throw away.

And to be a good painter, a person has to need to be one.  Simply wanting to be one isn't enough; it has to be an ache, a yearning, a deep ambition.  Because learning to paint has such moments of deep frustration that you have to have a deep desire in order to carry on. 

The good news is that painting is highly addictive, so the students who begin out of interest, often become painters who decide to commit, and who discover a deep need within themselves that only art seems to fill.
Clean house be damned, we'll be happier and better people if we live our passions.

Monday, June 14, 2010

An Education

12 x 16

An Education

I went to a Zhaoming Wu workshop in Edmonton this weekend at Pros Art School.  It was a fantastic experience.  Artist and school owner, Gene Prokov does a very nice job with weekend workshops, right down to the elegantly-presented, home-cooked food that we are served for lunch. 
On Friday evening there was a wine and hors d'oevres meet and greet, followed by a 3 hour demo by Zhaoming.  What impressed me was the absolute focus with which he moved the piece steadily to completion.  There was never a moment when he seemed uncertain about which direction to take in the painting, and it progressed cleanly and clearly from the first sketch of the model to the final, sumptuous painting.  That's experience!
On Saturday, we broke into two groups, each with a draped model, and spent the day trying to recreate the precision painting that we'd seen the night before.  Not as effortless as it looked! 
I backtracked, waffled, fudged and fiddled the day away.  It took an hour to make a 2 inch section of shoulder turn in a believable way, with all of the planes cleanly rendered, softened where they needed, and sharp where they needed.  In the end, with Zhaoming's help, I found my way and got an adequate result, but it lacked strength and assurance. 
I spent the evening reviewing the steps from Zhaoming's demo, and plotting a more successful approach for the next day. 
Sunday, after (too much) coffee and a fortifying breakfast, I launched into the second painting.  My focus was on the steps, and on the brushwork.  Z. uses very precise, crisp, synthetic flats, and the distinctive marks that they leave are important to his style.  I'd brought a few flats but most were bristle, and they leave a more open, broken mark.  I used these only for the underpainting, and switched to my few synthetics for the upper layers, concentrating on crisp marks.  The model breaks were a great opportunity to plan a comprehensive brush buying trip when I returned to Calgary. 
The painting above is the result of Sunday's work.  It went more quickly and didn't wander.  At least, not much. 
What I liked about the workshop was that I learned something new, but don't feel like I need to renovate my own style completely.  The lessons that I received comprised a deepening of my knowledge and skills, and showed me how progress from my current level to a higher one.  An absolutely worthwhile experience!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Practise Non Attachment

Old Soul
16 x 12
A gallery owner once told me that some works didn't sell because, he believed, the artist was too attached to them.  That clinginess lingered in the finished work and turned off potential buyers.
Flaky?  Maybe.  But it's pretty easy to get attached to a work. 
I put my in-progress paintings up on the wall so that I can study them throughout the day and figure out my next move.  Seeing them every day can  make them feel like part of the decor: an indispensable part, and that does make letting go pretty tough.
But letting go is easier if I concentrate on the process of painting, rather than on the product.  If the thrill is in the problem solving and paint application, then, once those are done, the finished painting feels like a piece of history.  The experience will stay with me even after the painting has found a new home.
So I practice non attachment, and send my works out into the world with my blessings, hoping that they never return.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Paintings of Nothing

One of my students remarked that I paint pictures of nothing.  She didn't mean this as an insult; she said that I make nothing look good.

What she did mean was that I don't bring in reference photos of scenic lakes and mountains for the demos on landscape, instead, I bring images of  - well - nothing, really.

One week it was a picture of a dried out marshy landscape with a line of dusty, winter-weary evergreens in the background.  But it did have a point to it: there were some low, scrubby willows in the mid-ground which were beginning to come to life.  The branches were an unusual lime-green that I'd never seen in willows before.  That was the focal point for me and what I emphasized in the demo.  Everything else was just the stage on which this main character could be dropped.

If you really look at what's around you, there are paintings everywhere: in the shadow that a tree casts on the ground, in a puddle in the dirt, or in a cranky child on a couch.  There is something interesting, arresting or beautiful absolutely everywhere.

This subversive idea should never be revealed to your non-painting spouses, however.  When you tell them that you absolutely must go to Provence for that painting workshop, you need to be able to tell them that France's scenery is so much more paint-worthy than anything that you have at home.

Above is a photo of nothing and the painting that it inspired.  The point of this was the unusual light on the field behind the fence of this rubbish-strewn yard.  There's beauty everywhere.

Friday, May 28, 2010

People Watching People

Red Couch
11 x 14
At MOMA in NY there is, currently, a wildly-successful exhibit of a real woman, the artist Marina Abramovic, who sits silently in a chair for the entire day - no bathroom breaks, no food or drink.  Across from her is a chair for another person to sit and gaze at her.  Some people sit for minutes, some for hours, but most seem moved by the experience of being allowed to look at her openly.  Many people cry.  Wonderfully, there is a flickr photostream which documents the portraits of these people as they look at Marina and it also notes the length of time that each one sat.  
I won't get to see this exhibit but I think I understand something of the intensity of looking at a human face.  We all do.
I feel it often when I look at paintings of people in museums. Gazing at the faces of men and women, I'm struck by the fact of their presence - their personalities - fixed on canvas though their bodies are long gone.  It's a melancholy experience and has a complexity that I've never felt in front of any other subject matter.   I've never wondered about the experience of a tree in an old landscape painting, or whether a piece of fruit in a still life was eaten after the painter was done.
But with a painting of a person, I wonder how that person lived, loved and died.  I imagine the relationship between the painter and the sitter, and I think about how short our lives are.  All this narrative and emotion from some paint on a canvas.  Imagine the thoughts that Marina must evoke.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Warm-Up Painting

Spring on the River
12 x 16"
I don't know about the rest of you painters, but I can't do a decent painting right off the bat.  Each day I have to struggle through a warm-up painting that is stilted and pathetic before I can achieve a loose and interesting one. 
I've learned to make the warm up very small and just get it over with, but I can't skip it altogether and go straight to the good painting, or there won't be a good painting. 
I painted the plein air above when I was out with the excellent painter, Sharon Williams
We chatted through my warm-up painting (my fisherman had a big head and appeared to be made of wood) and fell silent to concentrate for the second ones.  Sharon managed to bag both paintings - she's clearly not a warm-up painter - and I got this one.  
I'm pleased by the gesture of the cast, and the sunlight and freshness.  It was a great day.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Finding the Painter Again

 Quiet Afternoon
20 x 20

I've spent the past several weeks - okay, months - struggling with my work.  Nothing quite pleased me.
I tried: different supports: copper, board, smooth, rough; different undertones: bright, earthy, neutral;  different methods of applying paint: thin and transparent, palette-knife heavy; and I've tried different colours.  Heaps of paint were sacrificed every day and there wasn't much to show for it. 
But, in the past couple of weeks, I feel like I've gotten my groove back.  It's not the same groove - my palette and application have changed somewhat - but it's related, and boy, does it feel good.
It seems now that the struggle was necessary for me to produce new and confident work. 
Not that much has changed on the outside; I added a couple of new colours to my palette and reduced my use of others and I experimented with new subject matter.  But on the inside, I feel like a different painter.  Having tried so many techniques and styles, I have been able to rule out a lot of options as "just not right for me".   Now I can move forward knowing that, while there are a lot of other ways to paint, I've tried many of them and have discovered (or rediscovered) the one that pleases me the most. 
That's a relief!

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Fishing the River
20 x 20

"I want to paint like you" is a phrase that every instructor hears regularly.  Some bristle at it, sometimes with good cause.  I heard about a painter who walked into one of his galleries and thought that certain paintings were his own.  They turned out to be those of a previous workshop student, a fellow who notoriously - and successfully - mimicked the styles of everyone that he learned from.  And he learned from plenty, from the sounds of it.  His style underwent numerous shifts over time as he took more and more workshops. 
This mimic is, however, the exception.  Usually, when a student says that she wants to paint like me, it means that she likes my aesthetic, the way that I translate the world onto canvas.  It's a necessary and positive thing to say because it means that this person is identifying her own interest and future path.  She has looked at all of the instructors and their work and decided that mine is the path that she wants to be on.
Finding your own aesthetic is crucial to becoming a confident painter.  The time you spend in galleries, on gallery sites and in the library, is vital.  When I first began painting, I worked my way through the history of art, one fat, heavy, library book at a time.  And when I found a painter whose style I loved, I got out books on him or her and tried to discover how they worked - what their technique involved.  Sometimes I'd try to copy one of their works or, at least, their palette or brushwork in a practice painting.  It's a good way to learn how they created the magic that they did.   My favorites are, to this day, Berthe Morisot, Sorolla, and John Singer Sargent.  Of the contemporary artists, I feel like I've found kindred spirits when I look at Russian Impressionist painters like Sergei Bongart
In this age of self-made men and bold individualism, we unrealistically expect painters to have their own unique styles right from the start.  None of us do, however.  We all follow someone else's path before we discover how to make our own.
Apparently, even the mimic is now doing his own work.  He's discovered the piece of the path that is legitimately his.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Less Can be More

This week, the New England painter, Nita Leger Casey, posted a painting challenge on "The Nahsua Artists Breakfast Club" blog.
The challenge was to paint her landscape photo using just 2 colours plus black and white.  The colours were Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna.

I can't resist a challenge, so I gave it a try.

Everyone knows that you can mix every colour from the 3 primary colours: red, blue and yellow, but who knew that black could be the "blue"?  When mixed with yellow ochre, it gives soft, muted greens; with burnt sienna, it makes a smoky purple (which I didn't make use of, now that I look at it); and with white, it mimics a muted blue.

None of the colours are dramatic show-stoppers, but they do create a pleasing, earthy range of colours that's perfect for landscapes.

This palette reminded me of Anders Zorn, the famous Swedish painter of the late 1800's and early 1900's.  A brilliant figurative painter, he was known for using an extremely limited palette and, somehow, making it look like a bountiful assortment of colours.  Zorn's colours consisted of: Vermillion (Cad Red Light makes a substitute), Yellow Ochre, Ivory Black, and White.  Occasionally, he'd add Ultramarine Blue or a Cad. Yellow.

The advantage to using so few colours is that you have to think less about which colours are the best for a specific subject and, instead, focus on paint consistency and brushstroke.  As well, there's no denying it makes harmonious paintings, because of the repetition of subtle variations of so few colours.
I think I'll try this again, but next time I'll try to maintain more transparency.  This piece has some thinly-applied, transparent darks in the shadow forms, but I'd like to see it done with a lighter touch everywhere - less white overall.

If you want to see more limited palette suggestions, check out this post in David Rourke's blog "All the Strange Hours".  Maybe you'll want to challenge yourself and give one a try.

Happy painting!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Fishing Groupie

Magical Morning
20 x 20
I'm really hooked on fly fishing: not doing it, just painting it.  Luckily for me, the Bow River is a world-class, trout river.  I don't think that there's been a week that I haven't seen a fisherman or several standing in the current, trying to outwit a fish.  
I make sure to carry my camera on my walks so that I can capture the action.  
This image is, again, a composite of two references.  The pose of the fisherman was taken from a photo with really flat lighting and the lighting came from a reference with no action.  Put them together and I'm happy.  
I liked trying to create depth through the use of the line and the small splash in the foreground.  This and the graduated width of the ripples, helped to create the illusion of a fore, middle and background.  
But I think what pleased me the most was getting the mood right.  The man in the photos was quiet and focused as he fished, completely lost in the moment.  Some of that focus is there on the canvas.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Be a Joiner

30 x 30"
For artists who want to begin exhibiting and selling their works, one of the best suggestions that I have is that they should join a reputable society. 
I belong to: the Federation of Canadian Artists - a national, non-profit organization with over 2000 members and a great reputation; the Alberta Society of Artists - also a non-profit organization which is incredibly active in this province; and the Leighton Art Centre - a non-profit centre which has a gallery and provides art education, events, and workshops.  Each of these groups has a gallery and plenty of opportunities to show work in the different, themed exhibitions that they hold throughout the year.
Beyond the chance to exhibit, associations like this are a great way to increase your exposure.  The FCA and ASA have websites with individual artists' bios and works featured on them.  These sites have brought several commissions my way since someone searching for an artist in Alberta or Canada will invariably come up with one of these organizations. 
And the credibility of belonging to a juried groups is very reassuring to a potential buyer.  In a world of degrees and credentials, these groups show that you are a serious professional who has achieved peer recognition. 
This month I'll have work in a couple of member's shows in Calgary: the "8th Annual Juried Members' Show" at the Leighton Art Centre and the "New Members New Work" show of the Alberta Society of Artists in Lougheed House.  The painting above is my entry for the ASA show.  If you're in Calgary, I hope you'll check them out.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mix and Match

Rarely is a reference photo good enough to paint without making some changes, big or small.
Sometimes I just move a tree, other times I do much more.

The painting above is the result of the combining of two photos: picture A had a great pose and Picture B had wonderful light and a beautiful setting.  The hard part was to change the light on the figure in A in order to fit him into his new surroundings.  Luckily, he was wearing the same shirt in both photos, so I could see what setting B did to the colours and extrapolate onto the fabric folds from A. 
Confused yet?  I sure was.
In all, this was a challenge, but also a pleasure.  I've wanted to do something with both of these images for a couple of years, but didn't feel competent enough to pull it off.  This painting shows me that my skills have grown.  That's always a nice feeling.