An artist I respect recently thought of a scheme to get  people to buy her work. She sells inexpensive sweepstake tickets and has a draw, giving away several artworks a year this way.

It is clever. Artists need to be as creative in their promotion techniques as their work these days.

I am still enmeshed in an ongoing moral dilemma about doing the promotion needed to sell my art or not. Early in my career, selling went without effort. I had a show, I sold work. People came to visit, they saw something they liked they bought it. I had a stand at a quality juried art fair and sold work easily.

For some reason that all changed when I moved to another culture. Here in Holland, it was years before I created a good social network, but even then it couldn’t compare to being naturally embedded in my home town, Pittsburgh, where the people I and my parents knew, loved and valued art.

Here in the Netherlands, the shows I had sold little, people walked past my stands at the various mediocre standard fairs I did attempt to do (and then mercifully stopped with) , and there is only one friend of ours who, every few years, sees my work and falls hard for a piece and actually buys it.

Because I’ve known a modest degree of professional recognition and success, I refuse to take the low sales figures personally. My work, if anything is growing in quality and depth. The factors have more to do with a different mentality here in northern Holland about art, and buying art. And many artists I know are fighting an uphill battle with this and the fallout from an ongoing financial crisis here.

In the last years, I’ve argued that the path of selling  art was not for me, but it never really feels resolved. I hear about my friend and her sweepstakes tickets, putting in everything she has to be able to make her art, and I feel doubt about my own stubbornness in refusing to use the social media, in promoting my work more actively etc. One main difference is that strictly speaking, I don’t have to live from my art anymore. People who have chosen to survive from their art have harder decisions to make. But I do miss the feeling of having something the society values and will pay for. And it would certainly make my day if my work were to start selling again. Unlike most socially engaged artists, I still seriously paint and draw. And this creative work is the source I draw on to move out into the society and share my skills, and knowledge of the creative process. It is fundamental to it.

Yet writing this makes me realise that I’ve made a healthy decision for me-  I’ve stopped doing things which weren’t working, and which didn’t make my heart sing. But doing so also has severed me in some ways from my old tribe of struggling artists. It landed me in ‘the place between’- when the old wasn’t working and the new hasn’t yet materialised. But I think each of us who rejects a path that no longer fits us is forging a new way, for ourselves and for others to follow at some point. Each step on the invisible path creates a new way forward. But on days like today, it is lonely and uncomfortable.

Luckily there are artist friends I can still toss these dilemmas around with. And also people who have arrived in a similar place to me like Milenko Matanovic who says,

Long ago I decided that making art for galleries and museums was not going to serve my notion of making communities and society more meaningful, liveable, and beautiful.

 

Getting back to whimsical

February 19, 2015

I think this is the last painting (scroll down to end of post for image)I will be copying for awhile. It is by a contemporary artist, and it feels a bit trickier than copying someone who is long gone and would never know you were using his/her work for study.

I’m only going to show the original this time, realising that the point isn’t whether my copy is good or bad. It turned out quite well actually. It was the painting process which was important. And copying a whimsical subject helped me to reconnect with that side of my own work.

First, here are a few small selections of work done over the years in oil pastel, oil pastel collage and oils. They all have an element of play and humor which somehow went underground when I began to do still lifes in oils.
(If you look back through this blog at my oil paintings from the past few years, you’ll see that they are mostly realistic.) That was what I wanted to do, I needed to learn the medium better, and paint rather than draw. I’m still learning this.

Moon village oil pastel

Moon village
oil pastel                            (all by S.Zoutewelle except last image)

Encounter   oil pastel

Encounter oil pastel

And finally, the work below is ‘In Shining Armour’ by Susan Bower. What made me want to copy it was her casual handling of the greenish background areas, and the wonderful perspective going back to those pastel houses and terracotta rooves.  I love the sketchiness of her painting and the looseness of the forms.

Susan Bower, 'In shining armour'

Susan Bower, ‘In shining armour’

So my next painting will probably be inspired by this last period of concentrating on other people’s approaches, but will be more my own choice of subject.
By the way, I read that Van Gogh copied madly during his development, and destroyed those attempts during his life- there were more than 400 drawings and paintings that were copies of other artist’s work!

Oh just go ahead and copy!

February 8, 2015

Hitchens stillife, first sketch in watercolour crayon

Hitchens stillife, first sketch in watercolour crayon

What gets me painting is a tingling sensation, a momentary lifting of the heart when struck by something visual- a slant of light, two colours juxtaposed, the beautiful rounded form of fruit nestled in a bowl.
Though there has certainly been enough visual inspiration around, the drive to paint it has gone underground.

So I keep alert for that pinging, when my souls’ sounding has hit on treasure. Recently that has been happening with the work of other artists, so I follow where it leads.

First it was to the Isaac Israels portrait I did a few months ago. I just wanted to have the painting, not having 115,000 euros to buy it, I copied it and learned a lot by doing so.

Now I’m fired up by the more realistic work of Ivon Hitchens who worked in the middle of the last century. His abstracts are interesting, but it is the still lifes I gravitated towards. I saw my first one in ‘Flow’ magazine here in Holland (see below)  and have had it up in the studio for awhile.

Flowers, oil on canvas, Ivon Hitchens

Flowers, oil on canvas, Ivon Hitchens

I’m attracted to artists who somehow capture and release form simultaneously. I feel myself moving in that direction, and have been working that way in oil pastels for ages, but as soon as I pick up a brush things start having to be ‘right’. It is fine as a learning stage for these past 4 1/2 years of concentrated work on my painting, but slowly, I’m pulling out of that restriction and trying to find my own vocabulary.

So I really liked one of Hitchens’ still lifes, and made a spontaneous sketch of it with watercolour sticks (see opening image on this post). I bought some Caran d’ache ones in France and they are luscious.

Photo source

 

 

 

 

You draw with them and then go over your strokes with a brush and they dissolve into watercolour washes. I chose this medium because it was inexact and sketchy and would help me approach the feel of the original Hitchens painting below.

Still life by Ivon Hitchens

Still life by Ivon Hitchens

Then, after that preparatory watercolour crayon work, I did my own oil version below.

My copy of the Hitchens in oils

My copy of the Hitchens in oils

I love his greys, his greyed down greens, and the lovely warm orange pot. I also was charmed by the wonderful blue grey shadow shape running along the bottoms of those 3 white cups and the lighter grey negative shape it makes.

It was so nice to do, such a change from my usual way of working. So free and sketchy and painterly.

My next painting is also a copy. Giving myself permission to copy my favourite paintings is an unexpected gift. It gives me a chance to immerse myself in the world of some of my favourite artists, and to paint as if I were they. It takes away that yearning when I see a painting I wish I’d done, just to do it even though it is someone else’s style and discovery!! I know this is an important phase for me, opening possibilities in technique and content, so I’m going with it. It is also a lot of fun.

Cover

In 2011, my book ‘Chocolate Rain’ was published by Hawker Publications, UK. It has been received well and has steadily found its way into the hands of more and more relatives, carers and professionals who work with people with dementia.

Last month I received wonderful news, my book had sold out of the first printing and is being reprinted because it had been chosen along with 24 others as part of Reading Well’s Book Prescription list for Dementia! I went to the official launch while I was in London, met a few friends there, John Killick and Richard Hawkins to name two, and was inspired to learn more about this initiative.

Reading well is a health initiative of the Reading Agency, a non profit that encourages people to read more. Their Books on Subscription project is brilliant in its simplicity. They team up with libraries, health professionals, and health organisations to make self-help books on common health problems widely available through libraries.

At the launch I was most impressed by the transdisciplinary collaboration that makes this project possible. Reading Well’s Book prescription list for Dementia is actively promoted by the Society of Chief Librarians, partly sponsored by the Arts Council England, and works closely with health organisations like the Alzheimer Association. The combined efforts of all of these bodies make general health information, in this case information about dementia, low threshold and easily available to everyone through their local public library. Particularly cool, I find, is that doctors and other professionals (therapists, social workers, etc) can prescribe these books to their patients so that they can become more empowered by becoming informed about their-, or a relative’s condition.

Last year the books were available in 95% of all the libraries in the UK.

In its first year, the scheme reached 275,000 people with accredited self-help reading, helping people to understand and manage common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Library issues of titles on the core book list have increased by 113% and around 7,000 health professionals are using the scheme on a regular basis to recommend books.

What it means for me and the other 24 authors, is that our books will get a huge boost in getting out to where they are needed. Last year’s book saw large sales increases as well, which is only good news to anyone who relies in part on royalties for their income.

My book is an activity/support for carers book, additionally there are books on Living well with dementia, including, ‘Dementia Positive’ by John Killick, Luath Press. In the category, Support for relatives and carers,  Graham Stoke’s much lauded,’And still the music plays’, published by Hawker. And in Personal stories, ‘The little girl in the radiator: mum, Alzheimer’s and me’ by Martin Slevin, (Monday books).

‘Chocolate Rain’ is available at the many Dementia and Care congresses organised by Hawker publications in the UK. And on line from Book depository, Amazon uk, etc., and directly from Hawker publications.

 

My much loved aunt Evelyn died at the beginning of the month. I’ve written of her beautiful piano playing here.

I attended the funeral, and my cousin graciously offered me the now vacant apartment in London for my stay. My aunt and uncle owned 2 Vuillards which hung in the sun-filled living room. During the nearly 2 weeks I stayed at the flat helping go through my aunt’s things, I was able to be in the presence of these two paintings in all lights, and to study their surfaces closely – without a museum guard jumping up to tell me I was too close!

One of the Vuillards hanging in my aunt's flat

One of the Vuillards hanging in my aunt’s flat

In a sad time, they gave me much joy. I read up on Vuillard while I was there and learned that he lived from about 1860 to 1940 and was a member of the Nabis or ‘prophets’. These artists, among them, Maurice Denis and Pierre Bonnard, were post-Impressionists, exploring new approaches to painting. They felt the Impressionists were too slavish to creating  paintings to ‘charm the senses’. Additionally, the Nabi painters were striving to break through the restrictions of copying nature and were looking for ways to use more fantasy in their work.

Reading about Vuillard’s work and life gave me a lot of courage in my own journey as a painter. He and his contemporaries were dealing with similar dilemmas we modern artists confront. For example, Vuillard’s instinct was to paint intimate scenes on small canvases, while his contemporaries were striving to create grand works taking years to complete. Equally important was that in the late 1890s, the current idea was that large mural decoration was a higher form of art than easel painting!

So what I love about Vuillard is how he quietly went his own way despite considerable pressure from his friends, his group and the times he was living in. He admits in his letters that it was a struggle to keep to his own path, but he did.

After an inner crisis about his life and work, which was described as a conflict between his intellect and his artist’s sensitivity, and which was ongoing,  he writes,

‘The only guide left to me was instinct, pleasure, satisfaction; the area in which I was quite certain of anything got smaller and smaller, all I could do was the simplest possible kind of work.’

‘The important thing was that I had a basis on which to go on painting pictures, this work brought results. It allowed me to put one or two ideas together in ways that didn’t too much violate my conviction that everything must be summoned forth from one’s own innermost being’.

-quoted from ‘Vuillard’, John Russell, Thames and Hudson, London 1971

Colourful corner

Colourful corner

My writing time has been going into my book. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy making things with my hands as well as my head. Above is my favourite corner in the studio right now. And below, the wall above my work table showing some abstract acrylic paintings I’ve been working on, and a collection of crocheted mandalas mostly done for their colour combinations.

Wall above worktable

Wall above worktable

The rag rug has a story directly related to my book in progress.

The book is about the changes I’ve experienced and observed in the arts in the 40 years of my visual arts career. One thread is about my personal journey away from the life of an exhibiting artist and graphic designer towards a more socially engaged art. The second thread is about the role of the arts in times of transition and how the arts are changing to meet the needs of society now.

In the course of the writing and research, I’ve stumbled upon several wonderful examples of artists practising the new arts. Some are old heroes like Lily Yeh, but others are new to me and have in their own ways, ignited my imagination.

One of these people is Fritz Haeg whose work I came across when researching new art trainings and landed at the Mildred’s Lane site. Haeg trained as an architect but early on became deeply involved in questions of how we live, and how we create ‘home’ with what is around us.

This is short video is a good intro to his work. I was inspired by his huge rugs, finger crocheted from used clothes and textiles. They are 30m across, tour some of the major museums, and have been added to by people at each location. These warm objects invite sitting, reclining and meeting in an often otherwise sterile modern museum environment. People are invited to bring other home crafts related to food and gardening- what is growing in the garden that day, flowers found outside, preserved fruits, dried herbs. All are displayed on the rug, forming an intimate environment and what Haeg calls a ceremony in domestic living.

His other projects are as compelling- Edible estates was about turning unproductive suburban lawns into edible gardens and community meeting places. That is for another post.

Haeg says that his art is about creating at least part of an ideal life he doesn’t have (and which doesn’t exist in our society) yet. For me, and I think for him, too, that has to do with more nature in our daily lives, being closer to our food sources, and belonging to a close knit community.

I identify with this, and must say that by making a smaller version of his rag rugs myself, I feel like that ideal life is just a bit closer. Sitting on the floor of my studio, ripping strips of cloth to weave into my rag rug, I feel connected to his work in active way. And of course my friends and acquaintances are exposed to this as well so the inspiration keeps rippling outward.

Close up of cotton yarns and rag rug

Close up of cotton yarns and rag rug

Lucie, our fox terrier went immediately to my smaller crocheted rag rug in progress.

Lucie on rag rug in progress

Lucie on rag rug in progress

She looks innocent doesn’t she, but she occasionally has continence problems and when she got up, the rug was soaked through. Luckily it survived machine washing and drying. So now we know that.

And she’s not allowed on them any more.

Here is a detail of the crocheted one a few steps further along. They are so much fun to do. See Fritz’s tutorial to make your own. (The one shown below is not in the tutorial, but is just a simple crocheted spiral using narrow strips of cloth instead of yarn. It is really easy.)

Small crocheted rag rug

Small crocheted rag rug

The breathing in the painting

November 18, 2014

‘…it is fairly easy to imitate his technique.’  Famous last words! (See previous post)

I’m in the completion stage of copying in oils, an Isaac Israels painting.

There are various ways to copy a painting. If you want to reproduce the subject perfectly, you can meticulously fake the paint strokes by using small brushes to get the desired effect. That is basically drawing.

But my intent was rather to learn how to paint the way Israels paints; to get inside the process and as spontaneously as possible, imitate his ‘handwriting’. Calligrapher,typographer Jovica Veljovic speaks of the ‘breathing in the writing’- the sense of rhythm, spirit, pressure etc, contained in the way the pen makes marks on the paper.

I used to do an exercise with my calligraphy and drawing students: sign your name quickly without thinking about it too much. Now, slowly copy that rhythmic, spontaneous form, trying to duplicate all the little twists, curves and changes of pressure of the original. You’ll see that your result looks awkward, it is almost impossible to capture the flowing unselfconscious feel of the original.

Trying to paint like the artist did is like finding the breathing in the painting. You are forced to be there, with him in his studio, at the moment he was confronted with this model, the lighting, the colours on his palette. And to understand how he was thinking, why he used the colours he did, what order were they put on, rubbed out, reapplied?

Working this way, you enter the search with him, because every painting is a journey of discovery with lots of wrong turns, and a lot of painting is simply correction. My husband saw a recent stage of my painting and said it looked to him ‘better’ than the original. By which he meant, perhaps, neater, less ‘splotchy’.  But that isn’t the point of the exercise at all! It is to try to get into a mode where I understand the artist’s ‘handwriting’, and though the aim isn’t to reproduce his signature, it is to ‘write’ in the same kind of rhythm.

To start, I prepared the canvas board with a layer of acrylic the same colour as untreated linen canvas because this shows through in places on the original painting.

I drew the figure freehand in charcoal, using a horizontal and vertical axis for reference (first having traced the magazine picture and added those same axes to the tracing).

First oil washes

First oil washes

The next one blocks in the colours.
blocking in color

A later stage develops this further, trying to keep the painterly strokes.Deepening colour

As I got deeper into the process of painting the face, I started to see what I had taken on. One way a painter works is by applying paint and then modifying it on the paint surface. So what I am trying to capture is often a brushstroke with either an adjoining colour on the edge of it, or one that picks up underlying colour. That’s why exact rendering with one brush and one colour at a time wouldn’t teach you anything about how the artist painted, nor would it give an alive result.

In the next images, you’ll see the limited palette I chose for this painting (details upon request); the brushes- in the end I had 12 different brushes going, with about 5 of them for just the flesh tones; and the skin tone part of the palette. This last one is important,- I found it easiest to mix a warm light, middle and dark skin tone, and a cool range of the same before I started painting. I almost never used them pure, but usually mixed a bit of cool and warm, or whatever I thought I needed at that moment. It helped come close to the streaky, painterly effect I liked so much in the original.

Here is a detail from the original photo of the painting,(I have to go see the original original sometime!)  It is hard to see here, but the dark strokes in and above the eye are mixed with the flesh tones surrounding it, and there is also blending and reflection of the daylight blue hitting the nose and the  burnt sienna defining the hollow area below the eyebrow. Also, when painting in the hair, you can see directly to the right of the eye, how the strands of hair also pick up some of that warm flesh tone on the cheekbone.

Close up of original

Close up of original

So here below is where I ended up a few days ago.

starting to look like something

starting to look like something

Even though the face is a bit blotchy, it captures the feel I wanted.

I worked on it more, and where I am now (below) may be closer in surface appearance to the original, but I feel it loses some of the spontaneity of the paint application.

201418nov_2425

Current version

 

Here are my two recent versions next to the original.

There are still a few things I want to work on, but this is more or less what I want to share of the process.

 

 

 

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