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Flogging the tulips

May 21, 2017

Well, that sounds misleadingly kinky.
But what I’m really referring to is the obsessive state one can get into when a painting isn’t working. I’ve had a couple of those recently, and have learned from them.

First I was working on a tulip-themed painting from a past photo of mine. The composition kind of inspired me, and some of the unopened tulip shapes as well. Qua style I was hoping to work loosely and spontaneously.
When I was a few days into it, I saw it tending toward my familiar way of working – more realistic and tighter than I’d hoped. I kept adding to it and changing it hoping to get more spontaneous as the layers built up. I like the right hand corner, showing some of the underpainting, but that’s it really.

flogged tulips, may garden 002 copy

I finally gave up on it because you can’t plaster a layer of supposedly ‘spontaneous’ strokes onto a boring painting and expect it to look as if you’ve been working that way all along, and:

  1. It wasn’t fun anymore.
  2. I didn’t like the original composition.
  3. I didn’t really want to paint flowers.
  4. It didn’t ‘sing, hum or give off light.'(one artist’s description of the work that soars)
  5. The painting as a whole wasn’t working.

So I stopped and started on some onions from a photo in a book on edible gardens. I ran into some of the same problems. I finally stopped flogging that one (oh, now the penny drops, ‘n’ést-ce pas’?) and gessoed over it.

Now I’m working on another onion painting from a photo and understand that the previous paintings were false starts in prep for this one. It is going well.

Here are the differences between flogging a painting/subject, and developing it:
Flogging
1 You’re trying to rescue or change the painting because it isn’t working
2 It isn’t fun and feels a bit desperate
3 It is hard to stop working on it and take some distance
4 You might be trying to lay some intellectual idea or style on top of a painting that is already fine in its own right
5 Most of your efforts only make things worse
6 You don’t have a clear idea of what you intended with this painting in the first
place

Developing
1 You have  a clear idea at the start about where you’d like to go with the painting qua style, composition, subject, colour, treatment. This doesn’t mean you know how it is going to look or that you don’t take risks, but that you have a general idea of what you want to do at the start.
2  Working on it is a pleasure, it can be challenging, but you are led step by step by your own good habits established over years of working, and by where the painting seems to be going.
3  Working on the painting feels like working with it. You are led by each stroke to the next, but there can be surprises along the way, new colour combinations, ways of applying paint, textures, different strokes.
4  Developing a painting means seeing it getting better and better because of carefully considered, confidently applied strokes, scumbles, slashes, dots, broad areas, etc.

These are the ones I can think of now. I’m sure you’ve encountered others, and I’d enjoy hearing any additions. Basically it comes down to this:

I started taking my painting seriously 6 years ago because I was in love with several artists’ work, and I discovered I also loved the medium; after a long career in graphic design and calligraphy, the minute I picked up a brush, I felt born to paint.

The works I admire look simple and easily done (Cezanne, for example, when in fact he suffered over every painting he ever did). Like many beginners/intermediates, I wanted to get to that spontaneous look right away. But that quality is reached only through discipline and eventual mastery, so that every stroke you set down is confident, because, guess what, you know what you are doing! And it shows. (Now there are some young talents out there to whom the technique comes easily, they have that ease, but they need to develop depth and content.) Here is one I tossed off in a half an hour and it has the quality I’d like in all my paintings. It worked because I’d painted the subject before and was confident and quick.

2 onions

So, if you catch yourself flogging, try to stop, get some distance, or start another painting, look for the joy, repeat the things that are easiest, work best and give you pleasure. Build on those, definitely reach out beyond your limits, but keep an eye on the pleasure factor.

And know when you start, why you’re starting a painting that you’ll probably be investing much time and energy into. Look into your heart and see if there is a connection there with the  subject, colours, composition etc. Try to have a clear idea of what you’d like to achieve at the end of those hours or days.

And go for it!!!!

Letterwork revisited

April 8, 2017

IMG_1667

Yikes, calligraphy. Here’s me about 10 years ago, (looking a lot younger than I do now 🙂  ), doing some heebie jeebie work for a friend of ours’ church.  I’m including it and a certificate done for the same person to show basically what my commissioned work was for 40 years or more. Precise, traditional, nerve racking a lot of the time. If you make a mistake you can start all over.

hugo's diplomaB

It took years to free myself up from the calligraphic, graphic design, and typographic training I had, to begin to find my own voice. Evert van Dijk, a dear friend of ours and fine calligrapher/artist was instrumental in helping me to get away from obsessive perfectionism and to find my own writing styles and rhythms. Also, the work I did with master typographer and calligrapher Jovica Veljovic helped me to allow small imperfections to appear in the work. He taught me that, if executed with knowledge and experience of spacing, letter weight, etc, the overall impression would be of competence and the little glitches wouldn’t be noticeable.

Well, I’ve recently had a chance to do some lettering again. And Jovica’s tip really came in handy. Rende and I made some signs for our local edible garden. I wanted them to be nice, but since there is a fair chance of them getting stolen or damaged, I didn’t want to spend hours and hours on them. So without lines, no sketches, no preparation except 3 layers of varnish, I just took a loaded brush and lettered them freehand. You will see that they are not perfect by any means, but (especially because they are read vertically) they make a convincing impression of good lettering.

bord peulvruchten

finished wood moestuin signs

The signs are to label the beds for crop rotation, which happens over a period of 4 years. The idea is the first season, to plant the vegetables (like potatoes) which take the most nutrients out of the soil in one bed, and the next season to plant much less demanding plants in that bed, moving the potatoes to a new bed. The translation of the Dutch is:

Vaste planten= perennials
Aardappels= literally Earth apples  or potatoes
Peulvruchten= legumes like peas, beans, snowpeas, sugar snaps
Koolgewassen= cabbage-like veg, broccolie, brussels sprouts etc
Bladgewassen= lettuces and other leafy greens including squashes
Wortel & knol= root veg, like carrots, onions, celeriac

And now for something entirely different. I was inspired by a friend’s book of poetry and photographs to pick up my pens and brushes again for some freehand calligraphic art.  Here are some of the results. And here is Jörg’s website (German language).

take me across1

take me across copy

The style used here is inspired by my piece, ‘Wage Peace’ which you can see and read about here.

Real felt birds

March 11, 2017

DSC06637_DxO resized

photo Rende Zoutewelle

Painting has been low key for awhile. I’ve tried showing up at the canvas anyway, but end up just rehashing stale ideas. It is a period where I need fresh input, so I’ll be giving it a rest until inspiration comes again.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on the little guy above. I’m not quite sure what got me started on making felt birds. I had made a flock of them as brooches several years ago.

Maybe it is because the birds around here (northern Europe) lift my spirits. Not only do I regularly see blue cranes on my walks, but also flocks of geese stringing across the big skies chattering and calling to each other; and that rare treat, a swan family, whooping above with the wonderful whooshing of the wings. You just feel like you got blessed when they have passed by.

My husband has rigged up several bird feeders close to our large dining room windows and we’ve come to know the regular visitors well. Sparrows of course, coal tits like the one above, chaffinches, blue tits, ring doves, and English robins are the main ones. I just love the coal tits with their neat little black fronts and soft yellow bellies and sides. They like sunflower seeds best and will perch at the feeder tossing out everything else until they get to a prize, then they retreat to a higher branch and crack it open by holding it between their claws and pecking at it until they get to the meaty part. Chaffinches and robins will sit on the ground gratefully picking up the rejects thrown out by the coal tits. Watching the interactions between the birds is also entertaining.

coal tit n finch1

So basically I made these birds to keep me company upstairs in my studio. The chaffinch is kind of crude, it was a first prototype . They definitely have some kind of presence, though, because our dog is jealous of them!

DSC06639_DxO resized

photo Rende Zoutewelle

If I do make more (not for awhile, they are So Much Work) I’d do a sparrow next.  They are incredibly beautiful when you stop to look – with soft grey feathers and reddish chestnut caps and streaks of black, and various browns on the head and wings. There are also white accents, bringing out the contrast of all the different feathers. And did you know there are dozens of different types of sparrows? I didn’t until recently.

Anyway, the weather here is more springlike, so instead of sitting inside making felt birds, I’ll be out in the garden enjoying the real ones!

Canals and edible gardens

January 14, 2017

boss-farm-and-canal

 

barge-on-canal

These two images were a departure of sorts for me, they are based on some photos I took  in high summer last year. I don’t get inspired much by the idea of painting landscapes, it feels too limiting. But these two small format pieces on panel were done with a large brush to keep from getting caught up in details, and I like their freshness.

Every day I walk through these wide open Dutch skies and fields. There is a lot of water where we live, giving movement and direction to the flat, spread out landscape. I am constantly moved by the land here, how the light hits trees and fields, the changing colours throughout the day. It would be a natural painting subject if it weren’t milked ad infinitum by good and bad local painters. I have rarely found an ‘in’ to painting my surroundings because I like to use lots of colours and I need room for fantasy as well as reality.

Here is another realistic one from the same series:

leens-road-to-wehe

 

leaves-trees-houses

This piece, done more recently, is more in line with what comes naturally to me. I love how the landscape elements creep into the still lifes, or is it the other way around? It is also large, 50 x 50 cm.

This one below was more successful to my eye, I knew more about where I wanted to go with it.

stillife-landscape-copy

Pears and bottles   acrylic on canvas board

I love the small boat in the upper left corner, floating on a sewn sea with little red stitches. These pieces definitely have their own rhythm and structure if I step aside and follow where they want to go.

The latest in the series:

honey-garden

Honey garden      acrylic on canvas board

 

There were lots of surprises here, it is quite large, 50 x 70 cm. The little boat has returned to a more prominent place. The beet is kind of archetypal and the spirals please me.(There are elements reminiscent of some of Bob Knox’s work. A fellow artist from Findhorn who taught me by example, just how fun art could be. If you google him you’ll probably come up with a lot of his beautiful New Yorker covers.)

Leading on from here, ‘Garden’ is my new theme, I think. I’m totally inspired by our community edible garden and the work of Fritz Haeg.

 

 

What we really need more of

December 7, 2016

I’m writing this one off the top of my head, no research, not a lot of links, etc., though I’ve written about the topic extensively in my book in progress.

A very young child appears on Idols or on YouTube and a talent is discovered. Take Jonathan, a three year old at the time the video of him was put online, ‘conducting’ a Beethoven symphony in the living room.  It was hysterical, but also so fresh, so open and completely uninhibited. Picking his nose (gratefully most of that was cut out), and at the end, losing his balance and giggling uncontrollably on his back on the carpet as only a 3 year old can.

Couple of years later- Jonathan at 5 in a tux  conducting a real orchestra, very serious.

First of all, a disclaimer here- in J’s case, I think there is a genuine desire to conduct, and the hunt for fame and money doesn’t seem to be the motivator. There is truly music singing in this kids veins. So please, if any of his relatives see this, don’t be offended. I’m sure he’s maintained a lot of his original purity.

I’m actually thinking less of him and more of the kids that appear on Idols, with their pushy parents, greedy for the recognition and money the kids talent can be used to gain.

What I’m trying to point out here is that important things get lost when what starts out as a gift gets turned into a commodity.

Having the ability to sing, conduct, dance, etc is a gift. It is connected to intimate internal values like life path and purpose. It needs time to develop and mature and become one’s own. Gifts are connected as well to the larger whole, our gifts are gifts to our community as well as for ourselves. In many non Western societies, the gift is how money and goods move around, and there are clear guidelines for how a gift is handled. Is it kept or passed on? Is it used up, is it used as a diplomatic gesture? There are myriad ways a gift travels and as many ways it influences what it comes in contact with. Gifts are powerful, they can awaken forces which contain the potential to incite or heal, to create or break connections, and more. They engage the imagination and call to unseen powers to participate in the giving and receiving.

In many folklore tales, hoarding a gift for one’s own enrichment is often the first step on a road to calamity. And we feel this-  we know why when something for the the good of the community is appropriated for personal use, it is wrong.

Lewis Hyde says that every artist labours with a gift. He names 3 ways an artist and gift interact: first is the gift of talent the artist has; the second gift aspect is developing the talent and engaging in the creative process, the artist moves to a new place; and third, the result or product of this process is also a gift. Hyde acknowledges that each artist needs at some point to find out how to keep the qualities of the gift amidst the inevitable pressure of interacting  with a purely commercial system.

When young Idols winners, or young, undeveloped art talents are pushed into the spotlight before the talent has matured, before the person himself is mature enough to understand the nature and application of their gift, then we all lose something precious. The artist and their work become links in the commodity chain, and the values change from giving, gifting, freedom of expression, taking risks, doing something for the love of it- to ‘What do I get for it?’ We all know what that looks like and there is really nothing new to learn from it. Same old same old buy and sell.

But next time you see a conductor lost in the spirit of the music, leading his orchestra to new heights, or an artist working on a project making urban wildlife habitats purely out of love for the animals, or anyone at all using their hands and skills for love and/or betterment of something, try to see what that does to you.

My experience every time is that it opens a place of generosity and inspiration in myself.

Isn’t that what we really need more of?

This is part 2 , scroll down for part one, ‘New eyes’.

In some ways I envy artists living in the time of Matisse (late 19th early 20th century). They had a clear artistic tradition to rebel against. In other words, their explorations made sense and had a context. They were responding to what had gone before, whether they were building upon that tradition or setting off against it. The Impressionists left the hard boundaries of classic realism and idealised philosophy of Romanticism to explore the transient effects of colour and light.The Fauvists were looking for individual emotional expression through simplified form and colour. Each of these movements of the time appeared new and even radical to the eyes of their contemporaries. There were discoveries being made about just what a painting could be.

In our times, everything in painting seems to have been done, so there is very little to react against except perhaps art as commerce. Anyone trying to find their truest work is basically on their own.

Matisse came to painting relatively late in life (his early 20s). His father worked in a textile shop and his mother was a haberdasher. Matisse grew up in the heart of the textile district. He had a classical education, but also attended an art school for decorative techniques applied to fabric.

Only after an illness where he was confined to bed and began to draw did the spark catch fire, and in 1890 he began an avid search to further his art education.He attended various popular art institutions of the time including the École des Beaux arts where he was a student of Gustave Moreau. He started out like almost all of us, learning the rules of perspective, colour, and how to paint. Here is an early work.

matisse-atelier

source  Atelier under the roof 1903 H Matisse

He’d been drawing and painting by this time for about 12 years. I call this ‘early’ because in his oeuvre of nearly 600 works, this is an early stage.

Matisse went through a difficult period in the beginning of his career, but unlike many starving artists of the time soon had success, which by 1912 was international. He had the means to travel- to London where he was influenced by the paintings of Turner, and to Corsica which revealed the wonders of Mediterranean light. Later, exposure to the art, textiles and masks in Africa made a deep impression on him, as did the Byzantine art and icons of Russia.

This painting is from 1904, and was an experiment in the theories of Seurat. Placing small dots of colour next to one another to be combined visually in the eye of the viewer.

 

matisees-a-la-seurat

source   Luxury, peace and pleasure 1904 H Matisse

The painting below seems to be influenced by Cezanne, and the one underneath that was an early experiment in using short thick strokes of colour like van Gogh.And finally, a flirtation with cubism, which didn’t last for more than a few paintings from 1916-1918.

1911-henri-matisse-view-of-collioure-and-the-sea-1911

source   View of Colloire and the sea   1911  H Matisse

 

 

1898-sunset-in-corsica-henri-matisse-1898

source   Sunset in Corsica 1898

1947-henri-matisse-portrait-of-lydia-delectorskaya-the-artists-secretary-1947

source    Portrait of Lydia Delectorskaya, the artist’s secretary, 1947 H Matisse

 

 

New eyes

November 1, 2016

matisse

Have you ever noticed that something you’ve looked at for years can suddenly come alive and take you to a completely new place, enabling you see through new eyes?

That’s what happened to me with Matisse. I’d always liked his exuberant work but no more than dozens of other artists I admired.

Recently, several friends coincidentally sent me cards of his realistic paintings, then I ran across a larger reproduction of the woman above in a magazine, and voilà I was gob-smacked.

Reading of his life and taking some time to study his whole oeuvre, I began to understand why this artist and why now.

The obvious answer is that his whimsical and direct way of painting answered some call in me to be more direct in my own work. But going deeper revealed other insights.

What distinguished Matisse from many of his contemporaries was his refusal to be pigeon-holed in any one of the numerous movements in art that were coming and going at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th centuries. He flirted with Impressionism, worked in a neo-impressionist style, and was considered the French leader of the Fauvists.

But he only used each mode of working as long as it served his search for his true work. When he had integrated the techniques and philosophies of these approaches, he left them to continue his personal path of discovery.

One thing I love about his story is seeing how he was influenced by each of his encounters with contemporaries. And what contemporaries they were! He was good friends with Picasso,bought sketches by Cezanne early on, rubbed shoulders with Seurat and tried his hand at pointillism, and was blown away by Gaugin’s Tahiti paintings. Imagine being alive in those times with all of that going on! What a challenge to navigate these different streams and still come out with something original and authentic to your self. This is what touches me most about Matisse’s life long quest through painting.

Next time I’ll take you through some of his early paintings,  and I’ll show the influences on his work and how he continually outgrew them.