Thursday, December 29, 2011

Painting Workshop in Marvellous Mexico

I'm pleased to announce that I'll be teaching a one-week workshop in Mexico from April 4 to 11. Both oil and acrylic painters are welcome.

During this total-immersion, life-painting course, we'll explore a range of subjects from vibrant marketplaces and cobblestone streets to lush, untouched jungles. We will use these subjects to tackle the real challenges of plein air painting: massing and simplifying compositions; accurately judging colour and value; and rendering a fleeting moment with honesty and believability. Expect your eyes to become keener and your painting more intuitive as the week progresses.

The workshop will be based at Casa Buena Art Retreat in the Mexican back country near old Port San Blas. Untouched by mass tourism, it's the perfect place to relax, create, and learn. Casa Buena's marvellous hosts will see to the daily needs and comforts of your stay, allowing you to devote yourself to a week of pure painting and discovery. 

COST: $1400.00 plus GST. Includes: instruction, most art supplies, 7 days' accommodation, transportation from and to Puerta Vallarta airport, all breakfasts, lunches and some dinners, entertainment and a day trip to the jungle.

Contact me or the Retreat for registration and information. I hope you can join us!

Casa Buena Art Retreat:
Jane Romanishko

Telephone in Canada:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Painting Demos

Wayne - portrait demo

Lauren - portrait demo

I teach two classes a week at the Calgary School of Art and I do a demo of some sort in most of them.  And every demo is done on the same canvas board.  I call it the Lucky Demo Board now because, while countless studio paintings flop, the paintings that I produce to illustrate a lesson seem charmed.  Though I'm tempted to keep some of them and a model once asked to buy a portrait of himself, I've become superstitious: that board is the only one that I want to use for each class.  To get a new one is to tempt fate.  Besides, there's a touch of the Buddhist in creating something and then eradicating it twice a week, every week.  Everything is impermanent.

My students are currently working on painting alla prima portraits from life and we've had two excellent models to work from.  Wayne's dark skin was a challenge after weeks of painting fair-skinned models.  We discovered, however, that the same palette that we'd used on Caucasians worked for him; just the proportions of each colour changed.   Strong, pure ochres, blues and purples were believable in this painting.

Lauren was a challenge because her complexion has the creamy softness and opacity of children's skin.  She has few obvious colour and plane changes, though, as I studied her, I began to see tiny, subtle ones.  This demo was significantly slower because I struggled to describe the dimension of her face without exaggerating or inventing colour changes.  I had to keep the colour delicate and smoothly applied to avoid hardness in her expression and in the mood of the painting.

These two paintings don't exist anymore but the Lucky Demo Board is cleaned up and full of the promise of another painting.  The joy is in the creating, not the keeping!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In Search of Loose Portraits

Edge Lighting 
24 x 20

Even the most relaxed, loose painters can seize up and paint uncharacteristically tight when they tackle portraiture.  I own the gorgeous book about the Russian-born Impressionist Sergei Bongart.  His work is as loose as it comes with the exception of a few commissioned portraits.   When you look at those, you'd never know it was the same hand that made them.   In order to secure a likeness, painters often have to push their paintings further than they normally would, connecting all of the dots that they'd rather leave separate.  

That effect was what I struggled against recently when I painted this model in dramatic side lighting.  To avoid getting too picky, I'd occasionally obscure an edge or mash the paint of her features together ("smooshing" is the highly technical term for this) in order that I could find them again with less precision.  I'm pretty happy with this piece, but know that I'll continue to strive to capture a likeness with fewer small brushstrokes.  My ideal and goal is to do most of the painting with a brush of at least 1/2" width.  There's no way that could look precious!  I'll let you know how it goes.

Happy painting!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

New Course at Calgary School of Art

Summer Table
18 x 36

I announced a new session of my course "Painting From Life" at the Calgary School of Art.  Gratifyingly, the Tuesday class filled right away.  There are still a few spots available on Wednesday evenings from 6 to 9 pm if you are interested in joining.  We begin the class on December 7.

The response to this course of study over the past year has been amazing.  People who have long painted from photos and had plateaued in their progress, have been making huge leaps in their skill.  Quite simply, that's because when we paint from an actual object, there is no need to guess or interpret in the way that we have to when working from photos.  Our eyes see more than enough concrete, verifiable information and that can launch our work to a new plane of sensitivity.  

So whether you can take the class or not, I hope you'll take a shot at life painting. You'll never regret the time spent.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

FCA Figure Painting Workshop

Painting and explaining - a right brain/left brain workout!

I taught a figure painting workshop for the local chapter of the Federation of Canadian Artists yesterday.  It went well and was very invigorating for me.  The workshop participants were all accomplished artists who knew their way around a brush and were passionate about painting.

While I have no painting to show for the workshop (I gave the best demo piece to our excellent and long-suffering model, Susen who probably needed chiropractic work after the long, reclining pose), you can see some great  results in Alice Saltiel's blog.  Alice's education included enviable amounts of life drawing and the work that she produced yesterday sure shows it.  Enjoy!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

In Defense of Oil Paint

Green Tea
12 x 16

More times than you'd believe, I've had people tell me that a friend, relative or acquaintance of theirs used to oil paint, but quit because it was too toxic. Now, I'm often told, they use acrylics instead.

I find this perception of oils bizarre. There is nothing about oils that is more toxic than acrylics or even watercolours and pastels. All of these mediums use the same pigments, just different binders. Oil pigments are bound with a drying oil such as linseed or walnut; acrylics are bound in acrylic ( a plastic); watercolours and pastels are generally bound in gum arabic. So a cadmium red oil is dangerous and so is a cad red watercolour, acrylic or pastel. It's the cadmium that is deadly, not the binder. This means that all painters, regardless of their medium, should avoid skin contact with their paints. I use nitrile-coated gloves when I work and I bark at my students when they put a brush end in their mouths.

What is toxic about oil painting, is the solvent that is often used for thinning oils and cleaning brushes. But it's entirely possible to be an oil painter and never use a solvent or to keep their use to a safe level. Many painters use only an oil such as linseed or walnut to dilute their paint enough to move it around on the canvas. And brush cleaning can be done entirely in soap and water, or by using a container of a cheap oil like canola to dunk the bristles into and swish the paint residue out, and then following that with mild soap and water. For those who want the swift clean up of solvent, it's possible to limit the amount of time that the solvent container is open so that its evaporation and indoor pollution are kept to a small amount. This may seem unacceptable to some, but they should remember that acrylics dry by evaporating ammonia-containing stabilizers and formaldehyde preservatives into the air. This is far from harmless.

So whenever I hear oils being bad mouthed, I make a point of defending them. Their reputation is undeserved and painters who steer clear of them out of fear are missing out on a wonderful experience. Spread the word!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Painting a Still Life Start to Finish

Berry Branch
20 x 16

I like the mental exercise of painting still lifes.  The set up alone can take an hour or more of tweaking and evaluating every aspect of the objects that I'm painting.  Things that I consider are: number, size, colour and shape of the objects; view point; repetition of colour, shape, and value; negative and positive shapes; balancing objects; light source; and much more.   If I can set the objects up well, the painting is easier, so I force myself not to skimp on this task.

Once it's set up, then I can work at leisure and that's when the fun begins.  I do a few quick thumbnail sketches to determine the overall pattern of dark shapes and shadows and to see if I can connect some of them and make pleasing abstract shapes.  Then - finally - I get to paint.  

The nice thing is that all of this prep work has made me very familiar with the subject and has allowed me to make a bunch of mental notes about how I'll paint it.  I might have noticed an opportunity for the repetition of a colour or the losing of an edge.  I knock in the lightest value and colour of the set up; not in a final, polished way, just as a marker to remind me of my tonal parameters.  From there, it's all midtones.  While the bright, impasto highlights on a subject are often the most exciting to look at, they are also the smallest pieces of paint and so I have to restrain myself and not put them in too early.  I like to tell my classes that it's like constructing a house.  You can't put the trim around the windows before you've built the foundation, the frame and all of the other less-exciting stuff.  But when you do get to put that trim on, it has a firm base, feels right and makes a statement.  So I work the midtones in as varied a way as I can, incorporating different warm and cool colours, an assortment of paint consistencies, brushstrokes and edges; all as a means of setting the stage for the lightest, smallest pieces of paint.

The final marks are the juicy hightlights, often applied with a palette knife, and some dark accents.  These little notes of paint create order out of soft-focus patches of colour, allowing the forms of the objects to come into focus.  It's the magical step and I always get a kick out of it.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving and happy painting!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Rendezvous Gallery, Vancouver, BC

Wood Sprite
24 x 30

I'm thrilled to have been invited to join the artist roster at Rendezvous Gallery in Vancouver, BC.  

I've been waiting impatiently for this piece to dry so that I could send it off with some others to the gallery.  For me, this represents the Vancouver way of life as I remember it when I lived there in the '80s.  Though it's a huge city, I always felt close to the lush green of the the West Coast rainforest, and I'd often hike down the hill across from the University of British Columbia to lie on the beach.  For a mountain-born, landlocked-raised student, it was paradise!

Although my paints are calling from their storage place in the freezer, I'll spend the day wrapping paintings and head to the UPS store.  If you're painting on this lovely Autumn day, put on some paint for me!

Friday, September 23, 2011

New Workshop at Calgary School of Art

There are still a few spots left in an oil painting workshop that I'll be teaching at the Calgary School of Art on October 29th.  The workshop is titled:  "Loosen Up Your Oil Paintings".

Many painters who sign up to be my students do so because they want to paint in a looser, more spontaneous way, but they don't know how to accomplish that on their own.  This workshop looks at all of the ways that paintings can be made looser and bolder from edge treatment, to colour choices, brushwork, and more.

It will be a fun day with lots of experimentation and hard work!  If you're interested in signing up, please contact the Calgary School of Art.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Painting with a Purpose

Calendula Bouquet
16 x 12

My classes at the Calgary School of Art started again this week.  Once again I'm teaching Painting from Life. We are going to start with still life, floral and, finally, figures.  I like to have a plan for the 12 weeks; something that ties every lesson together. This session will be all about "painting with a goal".

This summer I began to set myself goals for every painting that I did. This seems a bit over the top on the surface, but it served me really well at a time when I was a bit stuck - okay, really stuck. I was indecisive in the studio, not sure of the point of the paintings that I was doing. They all seemed to be covering the same ground in much the same way.  I was spinning my wheels and it wasn't a good feeling.

So I decided that each painting had to have a single, clear goal. Several still lifes were done as explorations of backlighting; it's effect on the colour of objects and their edges. The beach scenes were done to teach me how to paint water. I rubbed off a lot of paint on the way to learning that lesson. And the floral above was an experiment in colour and how little of it I could use while still creating the illusion of colourfulness. Every colour in this piece is greyed down and the lights on the orange flowers are actually greys and light greens. Yet it reads as a colourful painting with bright orange flowers. The key to this one was colour temperature changes.

By setting a goal for each painting, I forced myself to figure out how to meet that goal. And in this way I forced myself to learn new things about painting, and, ultimately, to improve. I hope that my students find this practise as valuable as I did.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Texture and Abstraction in a Painting

Polka Dot Bikini
21 x 24

In an effort to prolong summer, I've been busy painting beach scenes. They have also offered a chance to work on texture and abstraction in paintings. The water in this piece was done in several stages, starting with a warm, orange tone and lots of splattering and dripping. My medium for these drips was 50/50 oil and odourless mineral spirits. While I prefer the look of watercolour-like drips that you can get from using just solvent in the paint, this doesn't make a strong paint film and I don't do it.

Then I used pure colour without white to lay different warm colours into the water and the figure. Finally, after that had dried, I went back in and added the light effects. I modified the figure with the cool blues of the reflected water and sky, and I dropped blue sky onto the warm colours of the lake. Then I could work on the sun-drenched colours of the girl's skin in the light. This is my favourite part and is very easy to overdo. I love to lay the paint on thickly to get the right value and an interesting texture in those areas.

I debated the level of completion of the face but finally decided that I didn't want the viewer to get caught up in that part of the painting. The important part of the scene was the light and colour, not the specific child, so I kept her features out of it and just suggested a bone structure.

This method of working is not natural for me: I'm usually a wet-on-wet painter, but I enjoyed it. It was nice to be able to lay colour cleanly on top of dry paint. I'll be doing more of these layered pieces to see where it takes me.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Tutt Art Galleries, Kelowna, BC

Pink Pail 
12 x 16

Every year I go to Kelowna, BC to visit family and get some blasting sunshine.  And every year I pay a visit to Tutt Art Galleries to check out the latest works by H.E. Kuchein, Min Ma, Brent Lynch and other excellent artists.  So it is with great pleasure that I can now say that my paintings are hanging in Tutt alongside these painters' works.

The gallery is carrying a new series that I've been working on this summer and one that I'm pleased with.  I spent the summer teaching myself how to paint water in a way that showed its sparkle, depth and variety.  It was a long and often frustrating process and I wiped off much more than I kept.  Then, something clicked and I felt like I was achieving what I was after.  The secret was simple: lots of paint and lots of colour.  I also make sure to use both warm and cool colours in the water; this makes a believable effect in a way that just using different blues and greens can't.

Then I incorporated figures - my favorite subject - into the water and felt that I was onto something that made me happy.  My debt is to Sorolla and Potthast in these scenes of children, sunshine and water, and the series is a natural for a part of the country that is famous for its beach culture.

If you're passing through the Okanagan Valley, I hope you'll stop in and check it out for yourself!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Summer Paintings

Apricots and Violets   - 12 x 16
I know it's a great summer because I'm not getting any blogs done!  
I'm still painting every day, though, squeezing it in between a bumper crop of raspberries to pick and an epic battle that I'm waging against the slugs that are trying to eat my entire garden.  

Lately, my paintings have become about backlighting.  For the past few weeks, my still life set ups are against a window, augmented by a flood (you can just see it at the top of the photo).  There's something magical that happens when you see a subject lit warmly from behind.  The objects are all influenced slightly by a cool tinge and their highlights can be intensely warm.  In the painting, I mixed a good dose of Cad. Yellow Deep with Titanium white and laid it on thickly for the sunlit tablecloth.  It worked believably, especially when contrasted with the blue-grays of the cloth's shadows.  

By keeping the shadows in a midtone range, I increased the sense of illumination.  My first effort had a more Rembrandt-ish chiaroscuro effect with dark shadows and bright lights.  This didn't provide the airy colourful effect that I was after.  It seemed to weigh down the subject.  It also didn't allow me to play with colour interactions as much as I wanted.  Something should dominate: value or colour, and chiaroscuro is all about value.  Since this subject was so richly coloured, my path became clear.  

I used the paint very dryly in this painting - paint consistency is something that I'm also experiment with at the moment.  I like the broken look to the brushstrokes as it increases the feeling of sparkling light; it's a bit like the dust motes that you see in a bright sunbeam.  

I'll continue to explore the possibilities of backlight and have some plein air ideas for it.  If the berries and the slugs give me a break, I'll post them soon.   

Happy painting!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

FCA Workshop

Asters and Limes 
16 x 12

A couple of weeks ago, I taught a floral workshop in Kelowna, BC for the Federation of Canadian Artists Central Okanagan Chapter. It went really well - to my great relief.

Knowing what I can take for granted when I teach a workshop is the trickiest part. Do the painters know the colour wheel and concepts like complimentary colours? Have the oil painters heard of the "fat over lean" rule? How confident are their drawing skills? Wondering these things invariably keeps me up the night before the workshop, rehashing my lesson plan and painting demos in my mind. For this floral workshop, I spent the wakeful night deciding how many flower forms to include in the bouquet and demonstrations. At the last minute I eliminated some trumpet-shaped tiger lilies as being just too much information and decided to demo only daisies (disk shapes), peonies (half spheres and multiple petal layers), and snap dragons (upright, complex forms).

Between 9:30 and 4:30, we painted the three types of flower forms and then the workshoppers each finished a full bouquet. It was an impressive output made possible by the experience level of the artists.  All of them had wrestled with enough paintings in the past to know how to take on a new technique and not panic.  

This is, I think, the biggest handicap that painters can throw in their own paths: insecurity.  Most paintings start out sketchy and ill formed, but most can be turned into something of value.  We just have to keep working at them without giving in to the niggling little doubts that tell us the painting is doomed from the start.  Eventually, as we add more paint, things begin to suggest themselves: a repeated colour scheme, a rhythm of shapes, values or patterns, or exciting edges.  There are endless ways to make a good painting and we just have to be patient enough to work on and allow these ways to become clear to us.  

It was great to be in a room full of painters who understood that.  I'll bet they could have handled the tiger lillies, too.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Learning from John Singer Sargent

After Sargent
20 x 16

I waffle between an allegiance to the colourists and a love of traditional tonal painting.  While I lean towards Sorolla in my colour choices, the work of Sargent is what inspired me to try oil painting in the first place, and I still love his paintings.  So I decided to attempt a copy of one of his most tonal paintings.  This Sargent portrait allowed me to explore several new things: thin paint application, muted palette and a very realistic portrait.  It was quite a learning experience!

What struck me most was the thinness of the paint layer that I had to use.  Like Sargent, I toned the canvas with a thin wash of gray, then I massed the shadows in earth colours.  The pale skin and background were applied with far less paint than I would normally use (I love buttery slabs of paint) and the shawl - in a miracle of minimalism - was created with just a few bluish and cream strokes over a warm underpainting.  I only got to pull out the impasto on her brooch and that seemed to sit violently on top of the painting at first.  I left it and, by the next day, it had settled down into the painting a bit and looked alright.  Some of my students once referred to this as the wonder of the "paint fairies" and I think they were right.  Sometimes a day of rest makes all the difference in a piece.  I did have to add a bit of thick paint in the background and a couple of marks on the scarf so that the brooch didn't feel too isolated in its thick consistency.  And, to be honest, I need to see chunky paint sitting up on top of a canvas or it just doesn't feel like a fun painting to me.  

I got into some trouble when I made "one more little adjustment" (always my downfall) to the area beside the mouth on the left.  As soon as the paint reached a slightly greater density, her expression hardened.  It was tiny, but perceptible.  That area only worked when the thinly-painted cheek could butt up and flow into parts of the thinly-painted mouth.  As soon as the cheek got one extra stroke, the mouth seemed isolated and in need of repainting.  Trying not to panic at seeing her go from fresh girl to hardened harpy, I opted to let the whole thing dry and then laid one single, fresh stroke into the cheek in order to enliven it again.  It's not as good as if I hadn't touched it at all, but it's improved.  

What I learned: 
- Damn!  Sargent was an amazing painter! 

- A palette that looked like thin puddles of mud could yield a luminous, subtle work.  My main colours were: cad red light, yellow ochre, trans. red oxide, ivory black and cerulean blue.  I added a tiny amount of cad. yellow deep to the background and to freshen the cheek area.  

- Hit the values hard and distinctly in the initial lay in.  The impact of this work relied on the strength of painting in her hair, eyes and mouth.  They had to be dark from the start.

I'm going to attempt a copy of one of Sargent's sumptuously-draped figures at some point.  He could paint fabric like nobody else.  I just have to find a good detail of one of his paintings so that I can understand the play of chaotic brushwork that he used in order to create the illusion of light playing on satin and velvet.

If the word "copy" is raising uncomfortable, elementary-school-instilled feelings in you, disregard them and give a copy a try.  Your favourite painter may be gone, but his or her work is still here and can teach you so much.   Reading about their methods is not the same as actually copying them; the act of recreating a painting is one of the best ways to learn.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

AFA Acquisition

Weeping Birch
32 x 26

Every year the Alberta Foundation for the Arts purchases artworks to add to its collection.  This provincial government-funded organization has been acquiring Alberta artists' works since the '70's and has, according to its website, a $10 million collection.  The works are loaned to galleries and for provincial and national exhibitions.

This year I submitted "Weeping Birch" for the AFA's consideration and was accepted.  The more I ponder this, the prouder I am.  My work will play a part in representing the arts for this province.  How cool is that?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

New Course at the Calgary School of Art

Ballet Dancer
32 x 26

I'll be teaching a new Painting From Life course in September at the Calgary School of Art.  
I hope you'll check out the link for times and dates.  Maybe I'll see you in class!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Portrait Sketch

18 x 14

I took full advantage of my son's financial debt to me this weekend and coerced him into sitting for this portrait sketch. I pay my kids $10/hour for their modelling services. Any less and their energetic bodies would be unable to contain themselves; they wouldn't think it was worth it. He listened to an audio book of a Flavia De Luce mystery which kept him engrossed. Even so, I only managed to get him to sit for an hour so I worked at full speed on this painting.

Knowing that I'd be rushed, I opted for a limited palette of Cad Yellow Deep, Ivory Black, Transparent Red Oxide, Cad Red Light, and Titanium White. The resulting painting is more opaque than I'm used to because it only contains one transparent colour and because I barely used any medium, choosing to apply thick, tube-consistency colour throughout. It's also more muted than usual because black is used as as blue. I'd be interested to try another sketch using Ultramarine Blue instead of black. He still owes me $5 for a video game, so perhaps I can talk him into sitting next weekend.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Backyard Plein Air

Apple Blossoms
16 x12

  Wimpy plein air painter's set up

We are finally getting some nice weather and it's making me restless in the studio.  But, since I'm not a particularly hardy plein air person, I decided to stay in the backyard and enjoy the plein air experience with ready access to a bathroom.

The apple trees were in full bloom, and while I think they're a better watercolour than oil subject, I had to give them a try.  It took a while to figure out how to give a sense of strong light on such pale forms, but I finally found that frequent temperature changes created the illusion that I was after.  Each bunch of white blossoms is made up of many colour temperatures layered on top of each other; and none of these colours is actually white.  Over the initial cool greenish or purplish grey, I brushed warmer, lighter peach and pink hues.  Then, for the final hit of strong light on the edges of the petals, I placed quite intense orange.  This made a nice contrast to the cerulean sky, but didn't believably read as light.  By throwing one more dollop of cool blue-white on top of the orange, I finally got the sunstruck look that I was after.  These many overlaps create a vibration that approximates the luminous quality of actual blossoms.  How my amazing tree does it, I'll never know!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Alberta Pharmacists' Association Centennial Commission - the process

The unveiling in Jasper - photo by Jim Dobie

Completing the Circle

This weekend I drove the spectacular road to Jasper, past glaciers, mountain goats, mountain sheep and even a grizzly, to attend the unveiling of a painting that I did for the Alberta Pharmacists' Association. The association is celebrating its 100th year, and they had decided to commission a painting to mark the event.

Using the Alberta Foundation for the Arts as a advisers, the Pharmacists' Centennial committee had selected a group of painters whose work interested them, and invited them to apply. We submitted CV's and portfolios.

From there, the committee chose 5 artists to paint maquettes and send those along with a written explanation of the work.   I was one of the painters chosen, but, when I read the commission requirements, I was daunted.  The committee wanted to show both the history and the future of pharmacy in Alberta, as well as the collaboration of pharmacy and other professions such as nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, nutritionists and pharmacy technicians. And the work could not exceed 24" in either dimension.

It took some thinking!

Finally, I settled on a circular composition and placed the figures along it using stock images from the Internet to find poses. Then I played with colour schemes a bit like Goldilocks checked out bowls of porridge: too hot, too cold, just right. In all, I painted the maquette 4 times in one week until one satisfied me. The painting was still a bit sticky in spots when it was delivered, but I did make the deadline.

Happily, my work was chosen for the final commission.

With the help of a lab coat and using myself, my husband, and a friend, who is a nurse, as models, I got photos of all of the poses that I needed and the painting came together over about a month.  Because of the complexity of all of those figures, I worked slowly and let it dry many times along the way. It was delivered in October but the identity of the chosen artist was kept secret until this weekend's unveiling.

The painting will hang in the reception office of the Alberta Pharmacists' Association, and prints of it have gone to diverse locations such as pharmacies and associated offices around Alberta. I even had the pleasure of handing a signed print to the Honourable Gene Zwozdesky, the Minister of Health and Wellness.

I've said it in past blogs, but it bears repeating: it's important to join professional associations. Had I not been a member of the Alberta Society of Artists and the Federation of Canadian Artists ,it's unlikely that the AFA could have found my work and brought it forth for this commission. Those memberships have brought me great opportunities and, as artists, we need every opportunity that we can get!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

An Homage to Degas

Pondering Degas
30 x 40

A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers

Some paintings are special. I keep coming back to them, studying brushwork, colour harmony and composition to see what it is that makes them stand above the ordinary. If I'm lucky, these paintings have been done by me at some point in the past when I was immersed it that wonderful paint zone in which nothing goes wrong and each mark is confident. Usually, however, they have been done by others. Then they become the standard for me to aim for.
My favourite Degas painting is one of these magical ones: "A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers" which is in the Metropolitan Museum in NY, makes me overwhelmingly happy whenever I see it. I love the unorthodox composition which has a woman placed at the edge of the canvas and peering out of its frame. Both of these facts are no no's according to the many books which state compositional rules - and yet it works. Degas keeps the viewer's eye from following her eyes out of the canvas through the use of the bright door frame edge above her head, and allows us to appreciate her by making her figure simple and calm next to the extravagant, highly-detailed flowers beside her. I love the way that he linked her to the bouquet by echoing the flowers' forms in her ruffled cap and blouse front. Though she is simply painted in comparison to the flowers, Degas managed to make her the the most important subject in the frame. Is this because we naturally look at people with greater interest than objects, or because of the way that he led our eye to her, framing her with the architecture around her, and even punctuating her head with the tower in the painting behind her? The more that I look at this piece, the more complex it becomes.
Because I couldn't get it out of my head, I decided to paint an homage to it. I set up a huge bouquet and roughed it in, and then hired a model, Susen, to sit for the figure. Susen was actually the reason that I plunged in and decided to paint this in the first place, because she has an inward gaze and stillness that seemed just right. She wore a wine-coloured cloche and a lightweight blouse with embroidery around the neckline and these elements led me to enhance the deep reds in the bouquet and use them as a link to her figure. I deviated from the original by adding a dark drape at the front of the table to lead the eye in and by placing a stalk of light flowers to beside her head as a visual stopper instead of a doorway.
It's not Degas - the Met wouldn't sell - but it makes me happy and carries both the original and the new within it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Setting up a Still Life

Sitll Life with Limes
36 x 24

Still life set ups can be tough to compose. I went to a second hand store and bought several bowls, plates, vases and cups to add to my meager collection of elements and, this new selection suddenly overwhelmed me. It's much easier to set up an arrangement when you only have 4 vases to choose from.

I wanted to use limes in a set up because their colour caught my eye at the supermarket, but I struggled with choosing objects to place with them. I decided that I would use warm colours to contrast with the green fruit. Because the fruit is rounded, I needed to echo their shape elsewhere, so I put a platter at the back.

Too much roundness is boring, so in went the upright glass vase and, for more variety, the short, dark vase.

The small blue flowers are a nice touch of small, irregularity in a composition which would otherwise be made up entirely of large, simple shapes.

The next choice was perspective. I chose an aerial view in order to achieve a sense of spaciousness around the objects and to give lots of room for the warm, light-struck fabric which covered the table.

If you'd like to play with setting up still lifes, have a look at the National Gallery of Art in Washington's site. It's meant for kids, but I had a great time manipulating objects, drapes and lighting in their virtual picture frame.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

9th Annual Juried Member's Show at the Leighton Art Centre

24 x 36

I hope you can join me at the opening of the Leighton Art Centre's 9th Annual Juried Member's Show on April 29.  The opening reception is from 6 to 9 pm and they always have great munchies.

My piece "Daydreaming" was accepted into this show and I look forward to seeing all of the other works that were selected.  
See you there!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Linen Revisited

Dragonfly Cloth
20 x 16
I got another shipment of linen this week: this time I went for the #13 double primed Claessens. It's lovely and smooth and takes the paint in a totally different way than gesso. But, still, there are a few tiny pinholes of light when I hold it up to the light. Fewer and much smaller than the single primed linen, but still there.

This time, I emailed Claessens about it. While one faulty batch seemed reasonable, I doubted that such a reputable company would have lots of them out there.

I got this encouraging reply from the company:

"Pinholes are a common "problem", it all depends on some technical elements. We are aware that this does not look nice. You will probably have seen on our site that all of our canvases are glued before the coatings are applied. This glue is applied for some reasons, one is to protect the linen fabric from the paint used; both our coatings and your paints. The pinholes are just in the coatings not in the glue. If the glue is not well applied it would show on the back and paint would pass through. I suppose this is not the case.

The pinholes will not influence the fact the painting is archival or not. From our experience paint has not a large influence on the canvas in the long run, the biggest treads are the fact paintings are kept in bad conditions: humidity, dust and so on. If a painting is kept in good conditions then we do not expect problems in the future. Can I refer in this context to the efforts museums and galleries do to keep humidity and airflow controlled.

If you are also looking to have an as smooth surface as possible you can eventually decide to add an additional layer, this will brightened at the same time the canvas and cover the remaining pinholes."

I quickly ran out to the studio to examine the back of a painting - no paint had come through! All is well and I can now use my linen in peace. I'm a worrier about the archival potential of my work and so this sort of issue can, literally, keep me up at night.

In light of this information, I've removed the earlier blog about the linen pinhole problems.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Experimental Painting

Weeping Birch
32 x 26

Robert Genn's recent letter about the importance and fun of artistic play really struck home.  Sometimes it's easy to get too serious in the studio and I find myself editing as I paint.  Instead of exploring and trying to find new ways to use the paint to express myself, I do the same sort of subject that I've done before, thinking ahead to its placement in one of my galleries.  Consistency of work does matter to galleries.

Luckily, I catch myself now and then and allow myself to just play and try new things.  "Weeping Birch" comes out of this spirit.  I wanted to paint a portrait of the tree in my front yard, making it as multi layered and majestic as the tree itself.  Instead of working wet-in-wet as I normally do, however, I made drippy, spattered, warm layer of abstract colour over the entire canvas and let it thoroughly dry.  Then I went over it and painted the tree, making sure that plenty of the underpainting was untouched in the final painting.  The white, papery trunk of the birch allowed lots of scope for playing with bright, light colours and, by using more medium than usual, I could create textures that didn't immediately look like brushwork.  This was a refreshing change in the surface of my work.

I enjoyed this method of working and am going to do more of these.  The only thing that bothers me is waiting for the underpainting to dry.  Still, if I get several paintings underway at once, I should be able to overcome my impatience.

Next, I think, I'll do a figure using this approach, and I'll do more work in designing the underpainting.  This play has, I hope, launched a series.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Problem with Great Skin

"Drowsy Model"
16 x 12

This gorgeous, young woman, Julie, recently modeled for my students and me. She has the most amazing skin: like thick cream. She modeled for two classes and in the first one I lit her with the regular mix of colour-corrected fluorescent and halogen spots. It was impossible! Her skin had such a variety of subtle warm and cool colours on it which this basically cool, flat light brought out completely. So when we tried to paint her, the results verged on bizarre: lavender, mint, rose, cerulean - she had them all.
The second week, I lit her with just the warm spots and turned off the fluorescents. Then I moved a spot over each painter's easel so that we were painting under the same light. This is important. It's much harder to get a good, believable painting when your canvas and your subject are lit differently.
The dramatic lighting helped us a lot. Julie's skin took on a simplified warm colour with fewer variations across her form and we had the benefit of a strong value pattern to play with as well.
I'd like to try to paint her again sometime under the flat lighting because I didn't succeed the first time, but I was pleased to have found a way to capture her at all!

Monday, April 11, 2011

FCA Award of Excellence

32 x 32

I was notified that "Fishing" received an Award of Excellen
ce in the FCA Thompson Nicola Shuswap Chapter show which opened this past weekend in Kamloops, BC.  
I am honoured and pleased!

Yesterday I went out for some plein air with my son.  He fished (with a rod, not with his hands as he did in the painting above); I painted.  Luckily, I photographed him fishing because by the time I was ready to put him into my landscape, he'd moved off down the river.  Painters are not as mobile as flyfishermen so I couldn't follow him.  I will try to pop his figure into the landscape today in the studio.  I'll post the results if they were successful.  If not, well, it was a great day in the sun anyway.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Calgary Sketch Club Demonstration

 Daisies and Country Roses -demo painting
14 x 18

Last week I did a demo for a local artists' group, the Calgary Sketch Club.
It was a lot of fun and a bit of an experiment.  I decided to try my limited palette out for the floral and, because I'm not that familiar with it, I was taking a risk!  

It looked like I was going to regret this decision when I tried to mix a reddish purple right at the start.  Instead of putting the usual Cad Red Light on my palette, I'd used Cad Scarlet which contains the same pigment: PR 108.  They may have the same number, but Cad Scarlet is definitely more of a yellow red; totally inappropriate for purples.   Luckily, I'd packed the CRL just in case, so I scraped it off the palette and carried on.  

After that, things went smoothly, to my relief.  There were lots of good questions which really helped to make me feel at ease and the limited palette surprised us all with its versatility.  There's always a wonderful moment the first time I show how ivory black and white make a beautiful, vibrant blue when applied next to warm colours.  It seems like magic. 

Below are a couple of pictures of the demo in progress and the picture above shows the finished piece.  The demo was about 1 1/2 hours, and I put in another 45 minutes in the studio the next day, mainly pumping up  the lights. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

New Course Starting in April

Painting From Life

I'm announcing a new 12 week course beginning at the Calgary School of Art on April 12. Once again, I'll be teaching a "Painting from Life" course but, because my students are getting so accomplished, I'm asking that new students have some previous painting experience; not a lot, but it would be tough for absolute beginners to fit into the class.

It's wonderful to see the progress of the painters that I've been teaching for the past 1 1/2 years. I don't put all of that improvement down to my instruction, though. I see the positive influence of working with a group as having had a great impact on the individual painters. Often, when someone is unsure of how to proceed, she'll walk around the room, checking out the many different painting styles. Something about this small stroll acts to inspire and reinvigorate that painter and, when she returns to her easel, it is with some fresh ideas. Each of my students is starting to develop a distinctive and unique style. This, I believe, is the goal of art instruction: to help artists find their own voice.

There are still some spots in this class if you are interested in joining.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Inspiring Still Life

Daisies and Brushes
16 x12

William Nicholson

Painting from life is wonderful, but it does have me casting about for subjects sometimes.
In my studio, I have a huge bucket of fake flowers that look incredibly realistic. There are also a few vases and some fabrics from the curtain section of Value Village - a second hand shop. But I'm not a knickknack person, so I don't have many props to go with these still life objects. As well, I find myself casting about for pleasing arrangements.

Sometimes I find inspiration in set ups that others have already done. You can't go wrong with Cezanne's still lifes, for example.
The painting above was inspired by the one below it. I saw this gorgeous, simple still life by William Nicholson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY last year and loved it. The lighting, muted palette and intimacy of a garden table all created a magnetic atmosphere around this piece. Strangely, I also felt the presence of the painter very strongly in the painting; as if he were still lingering in the lovely moment that he created. That sounds weird, but how else do you describe the intense feeling that only a few paintings give you? I walked right past a lot of spectacular work that day with barely a glance, so it's odd that a few primulas and a pair of scissors should make me stop and gaze with pleasure.

It was this atmosphere and colour harmony that I tried to capture in "Daisies and Brushes". How wonderful would it be if someone, someday, felt the need to stop and gaze at it a generation from now.

Monday, March 7, 2011

More on Shipping and Oil Grounds

24 x 36

Happily, my paintings arrived in good shape at the new gallery. Now we're working on getting them to look right on the Artym's website. That's the problem with different computer monitors: I sent images to the gallery which looked correct on my monitor, and these images look washed out and wrong on their website.  Something is being lost in translation, but I'll be darned if I know what it is.  We'll continue to work on it.

The painting above is another one done on an oil ground.  I continue to be pleased with the surface because of its non absorptive quality.  If I don't like a colour or a mark, I can just wipe it back to pure white and try again.  This reversibility has freed me to experiment more than I used to in a painting and has made my studio time very exciting.  Non painters would think I was nuts if they saw me cackling and grinning as I painted and wiped and danced gleefully around the studio, but I know that anyone who's reading this will understand. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Shipping Paintings

Daisy Days

My floral work has been accepted into The Artym Gallery in Invermere, BC and I'm very pleased. It's a gallery that I've watched online for years and will be honoured to be a part of. But this inclusion has raised the issue of shipping paintings; something that I've only done a few times in the past, and never with a bunch of paintings at once. I've now spent hours researching how to pack my work so that it arrives without swayed and dented canvases.

The options seem to be cardboard or wood. I'm not patient enough for the drilling and sawing of building a wooden crate, so I decided to go with the cardboard option: this option by Susan Blackwood at Oil Painters of America. Of all of the sites, and Youtube videos that I looked at, this one seems the most elegant, simple way to secure paintings for shipping. I'm off to buy the styrofoam today.

Before I put the paintings in their box, I'll cover the painted side with tracing paper or wax paper to ensure that they don't pick up any bits. Some people use bubble wrap across the front of a painting, but I was at a gallery when a shipment of paintings came in from another city, and I saw what bubble wrap can do. There were little dots permanently imprinted over the entire surface of several large oil paintings. It was an artist's nightmare.

Wish me luck with getting the pieces safely to their destination.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Oil Primer Instead of Acrylic Gesso

In the Woods
20 x 16

This week has brought a revelation! Those are always good.

I've been flirting with the idea of painting on linen lately, but the price has put me off every time I research it. So I did the next best thing and bought some oil primer to apply over my usual cotton canvases. The canvases have to be gessoed first to stop the oil primer from destroying the fibers.   I know: I should be using rabbit skin glue instead of gesso, but I'm not there yet.  Talk to me in 6 months and I'll likely be using bunnies.

I spread the thick, heavy stuff on and then I twiddled my thumbs for a week while the canvases cured. Finally, I began to paint. It was amazing!

The experience is nothing like using a commercial canvas. The paint keeps its separate strokes more easily instead of melding marks together as happens on gesso, and the paint sets up much more quickly than I am used to. Using just oil as a medium, the paint was almost dry the next day. That's at least a day or two sooner than on gesso.

But the best thing - saved to last, as all best things are - is the colour. I've never seen the paints look so luminous. When I brought it in from the studio, my son thought it was painted on copper because it had that inner glow that copper paintings have.

I'm still experimenting with application of the primer because the first effort was too thickly applied and created a very slippery surface, but I'm loving it!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Reworking a Dry Painting

Mandarins and Stocks 16 x20"

I've been enjoying my fabulous fake flowers and painting lots of lush florals in the studio lately. The snow may sparkle outside, but inside it's mid summer.

While most of my paintings are done wet in wet in one session, this piece has had a couple of different incarnations on its way to maturity. I've changed the colour scheme almost completely from the original which had a more neutral beige background. By draping broken strokes of blue over it, I linked the blue in the vase with its setting, and created a nice vibration in the background. This would have been hard to get had the underlying paint been wet.

When I go back into a painting that has dried, I make sure that it is, in fact, thoroughly dry. If you paint over oils that have begun to set and are sticky, you run the risk of premature cracking down the road.
Then I oil the piece out to reduce friction and resaturate the colours. To do this I brush a thin layer of walnut oil (my usual medium) over the whole painting and then rub away most of it, leaving just a whisper of oil behind, When I paint over this, it has the smooth, easy application of wet paint. This extra layer of oil, also helps to fatten up any sunken areas of the painting which have become matte and unattractive as they have dried. This is a particular problem with the darks, which tend to be applied in a leaner way, either through thin application or by the addition of solvent.

I think this piece is done now. I hope you like it!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Composing a Floral Painting

Mandarins and Bouquet 
24 x 30
I've been experimenting with different compositions for still life. It feels like every bouquet that I set up is a repetition of something that I've seen in other paintings in the past. This is particularly obvious when the flowers are in a vase. Richard Schmid, in his book Alla Prima, notes that he does everything possible to avoid depicting his florals in vases, and that remark really got me thinking. Flowers are a wonderful subject, but they do look tamed and conventional in a vase. Schmid deals with this problem by laying flowers on a surface like cloth or a bowl. They are often in a horizontal position.

Another possibility is to change the usual perspective as I've done here. I kept the vase - special because it was a gift from my mother - but put the set up on a low table in front of my easel. I also tried to introduce a greater depth of field by laying oranges on the foreground cloth.

As always, negative space was the most interesting part of the composition for me. I love the spaces between the flowers and their stems more than I love the flowers.

This type of set up is one that I'll continue to experiment with. It's vigorous and interesting to me.
I hope you agree!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Demo for the Calgary chapter of the FCA

One hour figure demo 20 x 16

After some tweaking the next day

I was invited to give a painting demo at the local chapter of the Federation of Canadian Artists last night and the result is above. 

It may have seemed ambitious to do a figure given that I only had one hour to demo (!) but I actually do figures more quickly than any other subject.  If you know anatomy, it's very straight forward.  Florals, on the other hand, can take me hours more (or as Sharon Williams tells it, I take an hour to do one flower).

The hardest thing about demos is coordinating your painting brain with your social brain.  You have to be able to talk and answer questions coherently, and still make good choices about painting.  And you have to do it with a large room full of artists right behind your back.  It's a bit intimidating. 

Still, it was a lot of fun and, like all painters, the audience were a supportive, interested bunch who really enjoy watching how someone else approaches the craft of applying paint to canvas. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Portrait Problems

"I've noticed in portraiture, if you don't get it right early on, you don't get it. Continuing to fiddle with a likeness generally takes it further and further away until you are looking at some other person altogether." Robert Genn

That comment was in Genn's popular and insightful blog "The Painter's Keys" last week and it really struck a chord with me.

I did these two commissioned portraits recently and noticed the same phenomenon that Robert Genn remarked on when I began to fiddle with the little girl's features.

She is 4 years old, but precocious. Her articulate forthrightness is beyond 4 - more like 8 - and it's hard to represent her at her chronological age because of it.

I take lots of photos for a portrait because I know the kind of lighting that works for me, and also because it helps me to get to know the sitter, and figure out how to portray her. In the case of this girl, I found that the images were evenly split between those that showed a 4 year old, and those that showed a more mature child. I sent the best of each to her mother, and asked her to pick the ones that most showed her child's personality. All of the ones that she picked were mature; she sees her daughter as a strong, independent person and the baby-like pictures didn't ring true.

So, with great gusto, I painted the portrait. My kids, who know her, felt that it captured the girl, and I thought it did, too.

But the painting was in my studio for too long, waiting for me to finish her brother, and I began to second guess myself. Did she look 4? Shouldn't she?
I started to fiddle and tweak, to add volume to the cheeks, and shorten the neck. And the more that I did, the less it looked like her.

Luckily, the paint underneath my additions was dry and I could wipe back to it when I realized that I'd gone too far down the wrong path. I removed most of my changes and refreshed some areas that had become muddy with the unnecessary work, and there she was again. My kids said it looked like her, and I forced myself to stop.

Her brother, by contrast, was easy. The photos of him all showed the same sweet, shy person, and he fell off my brush.

It was a reminder to me to go with my instincts and save myself some trauma and work down the road.