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Backgrounds!

May 28, 2013

Rose watercolor, 6x6 inches

Rose watercolor, 6×6 inches

One of the most persistent problems you hear beginners as well as more experienced painters complain about is ‘ backgrounds’.  In realistic painting, the subject is painted somewhere in the middle of the paper or canvas (since I’m talking about watercolors here I’ll talk about ‘ paper’), completed to satisfaction then oh, oh what to do with the  ‘background’.

It  is something like the dilemma of people cooking for vegetarians- they leave out the meat and all they have on the plate are the potatoes and beans!  You take away something and try to create a meal out of what’s left, instead of starting out with the idea of creating a vegetarian meal as a whole, using lots of different ingredients.

Are you still following me?

The way to solve the ‘background’  dilemma is not to try to figure out what to do with the background once you’ve completed the main subject but to treat the background as an essential ingredient, already integrated into the painting from the beginning.

Rose in process, working across the whole subject including background

Rose from above in process, working across the whole subject including background

It can help to decide on an overall color palette for the painting before you even pick up a brush. And look at the negative spaces, how the light falls, and try to shift how you see. Try to move away from perceiving just an object against a’  background’  to an intricate interplay of puzzle pieces- each equally important.

Anne's kitchen

Anne’s kitchen

Pears in sunlight 2

Pears in sunlight 2

These are basically travel sketches and I’ve been trying to keep my work really loose, so it only partly illustrates my point here.

This penny just recently dropped for me, so I’ve included some of my attempts in watercolor above. But it would be good to look at some classical oil paintings by Cezanne, for example, where the negative shapes are more clearly defined.

my trusty little traveling watercolor set

my trusty little traveling watercolor set

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Building in Braddock PA

Building in Braddock PA

When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, the city was awarded, ‘Most livable city’ a number of times.
And it was a wonderful place to live-  with its beautiful situation on the rivers, its numerous parks, prestigious universities, diverse neighborhoods, and general high standard of living.

For some people.

Preparing to go back this time, I stumbled upon a video revealing the other side of Pittsburgh as ‘number one livable city’ in the US.  I always knew about the poorer neighborhoods of Homewood, Homestead and the like.  We never ventured there because of the drugs and violence associated with them.
But seeing the conditions in Homewood now  shocked me awake.

So I resolved on this trip  to get to know not just prosperous Pittsburgh, but also the less advantaged side of my city.

Braddock building

When I started to dig deeper into this  part of Pittsburgh that was unfamiliar to me, I hit upon mayor John Fetterman and what he is doing in Braddock.  And all my lights lit up.  See the video of his Tedx talk about the transformation of a violent, neglected neighborhood into a community gradually climbing back on its feet.

When the steel industry moved out of Braddock in the 60’s,(there are still 2 working mills there) this town lost 90% of its jobs, population, and houses. John Fetterman, through a combination of vision, guts, brawn, know-how, partnering,and magic is helping revitalize this damaged community. What captured my imagination of course, was that the arts were high on the priority list of community-building projects.

near railway Mills and garden

Since I’ve been here in Pittsburgh, I’ve worked with Miss Rachel’s 6-12 year olds in the Braddock Carnegie Library, and am  going back today to assist in another craft session- Crafty Wednesdays being one of the many art, music, movement programs offered there.

Working as a white-skinned person and an outsider with a largely African American population brings up questions about integrity and effectiveness of social engagement. I’ll be exploring these further in future posts on Braddock and more.

Braddock youth garden project

Braddock youth garden project

Hometown

May 18, 2013

Walking through familiar neighborhoods, going downtown among the glittering skyscraper canyons, riding the incline to the view of my city- perched like a story on her 3 shining rivers, it is mine- my own place.

Every vista, every stone holds a piece of my history, and memory of loved ones and events.  As any expat will know, your adopted town can never be trly yours. Each inch of belonging, every word of a new language, each nuance of a new culture needs to be fought for and claimed.

Whereas, going back to one’s roots without expectations yields all these things as  gifts. The landscape speaks a familiar language that resonates deep inside one’s footsteps-steps taken on one’s own home terrain, where one simply is.  Not the enemy, not the outsider, but a natural part of it all.

The people actually all speak your mother tongue (praised be!!!), you can respond to a joke or a flirt or a tease in a millisecond, you know the language in all its complex layers and twists.

In Holland I’ve rooted in certain ways, of course– after 30 years there! My garden is an ongoing marriage between my vision and energy and the place where it grows. Several horses that I know well provide me with a connection to the animal population, and the cranes, geese, and other birds sing in a language understood by every heart. My home with my husband provides a haven.

But it isn’t my hometown like Pittsburgh is and always will be.

After a fantastic 2 1/2 days with Jeff and Joyce up visiting, I had to get used to being on my own again. We’d spent the days touring Pittsburgh neighborhoods, talking about old times, laughing and stopping for yummie things every once in awhile. Thursday night I made a big salad and we ate out on the deck with the fairy lights on, magical. And last night we made a nice dinner here and had a cozy meal while it stormed outside.

So when they left, first I walked over to the house where I grew up.  In that neighborhood I met a man walking a dog and we walked together through part of Frick Park, turns out we went to the same grade school. That shared history is one thing I really miss living outside of my own culture and place.

Later,  I revisted Square Café where J&J & I ‘d had lunch yesterday, and sat at a table for one. I’d had a brief exchange with a lady on the way to the counter to order, and at some point she came over and said I was so sweet looking she just had to come and wish me Happy Mother’s Day (I figure Lucie counts as a child of sorts, so thanked her 🙂 ). We got to talking and had a warm conversation. She went back to her table and later come over and gave me the cookie pictured to welcome me to Pittsburgh. She told me her son is a cook at the café. So we talked some more, and she came around and we posed for the picture, I’d given her one of my little silk ribbon roses.

When she left, I got to talking to the couple seated next to me, and that was really nice as well. We all agreed what a friendly town Pittsburgh was. Well, mostly….. I was walking through my neighborhood this past week and a car came tearing around the corner with 5 police cars screaming after it. It was a real car chase, but not at all entertaining. There was only fear and desperation, and a real risk of someone getting seriously hurt as the car tore through all the intersections, it really shook me up.

Other than that, though I feel safe and comfortable here, on the edge of Wilkinsburg.

Pittsburgh spring

May 7, 2013

Pears in sunlight

Pears in sunlight

Pittsburgh, PA   May 7, 2013

I’ve arrived in the middle of a perfect Pittsburgh spring. The watercolor above captures the sense of it for me, sunny, homey, comfortable.
(It was made in the spirit of Richard Houston’s wonderful loose painting a day series. I’ve linked to his blog in previous posts if you want to see his work.)

There has been a long string of warm sunny days. All the cherry and apple blossom trees are in bloom and the neighborhoods here are abundantly endowed with them

What a gift to be able to walk on streets you’ve only been able to dream about- to see the familiar pavements and plants and hear the much loved bird song- especially of the cardinal. It is so sweet and melodious. The parks and Panther Hollow and Schenley lake- those amazing deep clefts with shale outcrops and tangled undergrowth that I know with a kind of visceral knowledge, like the scent of home or a loved one.

Image credit

Anyone who has given up or lost a landscape one has truly loved will probably recognize the unexpected feeling of being held, loved and received in turn by that same landscape.

I’ve been here for 2 weeks now, mostly just adjusting -in the beginning it felt like another planet. Now I am in the house I’ll be staying in for the next 3 weeks. After the social whirl of meeting old and new friends has died down a bit, I’ll get down to some serious exploring and museum visiting.

Here is where I am staying, in a great mixed bag of a neighborhood on the east side of the city.

Barbara's house

Barbara’s house