Home

The thing about tutorials

January 17, 2018

Just musing here for a bit. I’ve been immersing myself in some oil painting tutorials, wondering if I want to switch back to oils again after 2 years of acrylic work (and several years of working in oils before that). In the last post I shared some of my recent work on a garden theme. I was feeling that I needed to develop a more painterly approach to complement my tendency to perfectionist draughtsmanship.

charcoal garden study

Charcoal value study of garden scene

Most of the tutorials out there I find too slick. There are tips offered, but often they are only tricks on, ‘how to paint trees, fruit, dogs, kittens, mountain views water’ and so forth. I avoid those.

I settled on Colley Whisson’s work because of the ease with which he handles the paint and complex subject matter. But as I got deeper into trying some of his approaches out in my own work, I found that I was moving away from my own truth and toward someone else’s way of working. This might be necessary up to a point when trying to learn new skills, but I notice now that I’m trying to paint like Colley, not like me.

I never wanted to make realistic landscapes or scenes. And actually, I think the woollen-felt pieces I did in response to Piet Oudolf’s gardens are closer to my soul than the paintings I’ve done of the same subject. The more I’ve followed the tutorials, the closer my work has been getting to conventional landscapes. The challenge for me is in the technique, but the intention of the painting is getting lost, since it is pulling me in a direction that I don’t want to move in.

Take a painter I’m moved by- Jeroen Krabbé.  His joyful, decorative approach is totally unique to him (while many of the online oil painters are interchangeable to my eye). I’ve studied his work and seen his originals for the last 10 years and they always bring me somewhere new- in how I see, and in the possibilities of paint. The medium here is not so relevant, he works in oils, but his paintings would work equally well in acrylics. He’s a colour person like me.

images.duckduckgo.com

Jeroen Krabbé, from his site  

Oils are messy, they are stinking up my studio where I also spend a lot of time doing yoga, reading etc., and the clean up, despite not using terps or other traditional paint thinners, takes longer. I think I’ll finish up the one that is on the easel and put the oils back in storage for now and get back to the natural progressive process my work was moving in before I took this side trip. It was a fun trip, though.

Emerging from an incubation period, never fun for me. Painting dried up, writing not working, all that is left is busy work and household tasks. Am I one happy camper during these phases? Well, what do you think? Still, as so often happens, getting back to work after an uninspired stretch something new emerged. What I’d been waiting for, actually.

It started by pinpointing what I really care about, right now it is gardens, the ones designed by Piet Oudolf in particular. I’ve already done some felt works based on his urban prairie compositions, and I knew I didn’t want to get into depicting garden scenes realistically. (So fiddly with all the flowers- little dots and lines was not where I wanted to go.) So I just worked with super simplifying the shapes of clumps of plants, and concentrated on the wonderful interplay of colours and light. I also started a painting of just foliage- the dreaded foliage! There are good reasons why many painters shy away from trees and shrubs- all those leaves, and those pesky green shades! It is so challenging to not get lost in detail, and to differentiate the blue greens from the red and grey and yellow greens without everything getting muddy.

dream garden

Dream garden  Acrylic

In this painting you can see my attempt to translate a subject from felt to paint. I was aiming to keep it more decorative than realistic, it is still in progress. What I would do differently now is to separate the middle ground from the foreground, and also. either make it more graphic and abstract, or more realistic.

Here is one done at the same time, also not completely resolved (the right hand side needs more work), of what was essentially a green scene.

kl plantage1

Kleine plantage   acrylic

My breakthrough moment came after watching several YouTube tutorials. I may be a professional artist and painter, but after many starts and stops, I’ve only been painting continuously for about 6 years, and even if it was 36 years, I’d hopefully still be learning. So after I saw Colley Whisson’s tutorials in particular, I went to the easel and suddenly doors opened up.

There is a way painters see and think that is radically different from the way a draughtsman sees. The painterly way is to approach a scene through the values first, in big wide swathes of thinnish paint. Then the background and middle ground are coaxed out gradually by blending in different colours and strokes. Finally, the foreground is added in the same way. Big brushes, no finicky details and very little going back and fiddling with something. (Oil paints are best suited to this, but I work in acrylics for health reasons, so I miss a lot of that creamy blended look.)

This  bold approach requires one thing, though –  no,  several things, I’ll list ’em:

1 Complete control of technique and materials. If you are still searching for how to paint certain elements, I doubt you’re going to be able to work spontaneously and freshly.

2 Knowledge and experience of how to paint anything and everything. In other words, you have to know how to paint it before you start.

3 Before a brush even hits the canvas, you’ve already made some important decisions: palette, overall colourway (ie is the painting going to be mostly earth colours? or blues, or greens, pastel or vivid?…). What is your focal point? How is the light behaving, and how does that affect your subject?

For me, learning to paint means unlearning a lot of habits from a lifetime of precision work-  illustrating, graphic design, harpsichord decoration.

This one is going in a direction that feels right. What I love best about Colley’s work is how juicy and fresh it stays through every stage. A lot of that comes from working wet in wet, probably. My  working method of layering colours tends to gradually tighten up without me really meaning to, and eventually losing that freshness. But progress is being made. Right now I use retarder with my acrylics which keeps them moist longer. This one below is almost done. Can you see the difference in approach?

autumn garden less contrast1 copy

Autumn garden      in progress  acrylic

And this one was added after I posted this, I felt the one above didn’t have enough light in it, so added the lemon yellow strokes and some other highlights. Now it is done.

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.

 

 

Back to work

October 1, 2016

It has been a challenging summer dealing with various health issues. But now I have energy again to share some of my life with anyone interested.

Making artwork has never really stopped. Some weeks after the op, I was already painting a copy of a  Matisse stillife. Spring inspired me to paint trees, then I got sick in June and things ground to a halt for awhile. Around that time I started sewing a quilt by hand, having bought 2 packs of beautiful Tilda cotton squares on sale. I liked the slow pace and the kind of mindless precise work.

Fall brought new inspiration. My last post had been in June and, with the onion paintings, I had broken through to a new way of working, .

onions2

Onions2 acrylic

It was kind of intimidating to try and pick that up again, I’d tried and failed a few times. So I decided to ease into painting again by doing something familiar. I feel most comfortable working in defined areas, like patchwork really. My oil pastel drawings tend to begin as grids, so I chose a few of my favourites and began copying them in acrylics.

It is so true that just working, regardless of being inspired or not, most always opens up the next step.

Even though I stopped again after completing these 2 below, doing them launched me into a new phase in my painting. More about that in the next post. Meanwhile…

When stuck in one medium it is often helpful to go to another. I decided to make collages out of some old oil pastel drawings. I did one a day for a week, here they are:


take care, til next time.

 

To the loyal handful of followers, thanks you make it worthwhile. And to new passers by. thanks for dropping in. It feels good to be sharing my joyful discovery painting mystery tour with you.

Continuing with the  ‘Spirit of Trees’ series, I took on an unfamiliar subject this time-  landscape/architectural. This painting is a lesson in overworking, and why it is so compelling, even though 9 times out of 1o it goes wrong. Below is a version I found ok but too fussy (with the detailed roof tiles). I wanted a yellow tree per se. And I wanted to keep it painterly and fresh. But I kept trying to get the whole thing looser, and eventually, I feel I lost the sunniness of this version. See painting under this one.

grandfather tree sunny copy

Grandfather tree sunny        50 x50 cm acrylic

 

grandfather tree greenish

Grandfather tree meets the walking dead

In my search to use my own colours rather than the given ones (see that the warm terracotta from the rooves is replaced by greens), I feel I lost something of the warmth of the first version. It kind of looks eerie, like the light before a bad storm moves in.

Between this phase of the painting and the previous one, I had also painted the sky soft yellow, you can see the remnants of that behind the buildings. That move killed it, so I reinstated the blue. You know what?, it began not to be fun any more, yet I’d started it with a wonderful sense of excitement. I’ve learned ( I hope!!!) to stop when the joy goes underground and painting becomes about trying to ‘correct’ something, or ‘get it right’. The fatal flaw in this painting was that I started with a concept (yellow tree) and didn’t listen enough to the subject or the painting.

A few days later, I got inspired by a photo I’d made of two onions on my work table. I took an old painting and drew right ontop of it, then started in painting rapidly, leaving some patches of background exposed. I loved it so much after the initial blocking in, that I didn’t dare to work on it any more.

onions1

Onions1 acrylic

So I put it aside and started a new one ontop of yet another old painting. I listened better this time and kept the freshness. It is mostly done, see below.

Here is what I learned, the lessons are particular to my own trajectory toward an intuitively sensed goal of where my truest work lies. So maybe they will be applicable to you, maybe not, but here they are:

  • let parts of the painting remain unfinished if that’s what looks right
  • cherish the roughness, don’t try to paint ‘beautifully’
  • don’t try to have everything make sense
  • follow the painting, not my original ideas about it when I started
  • don’t describe, dance.
  • the goal isn’t to get the subject right, but to get the painting to feel good, true

By the way, I feel that this tutorial taught me more in a few minutes than several advanced painting workshops I’ve taken. And buying a brush similar to the one this woman used was also a revelation! Materials help or hinder so much.

Here is the second onion painting, almost done. It makes me very happy.

onions2

Onions2 acrylic

Grandfather tree

April 27, 2016

opa tree

Grandfather trees    acrylic on canvas board

I’ve been working on the Spirit of Trees series. Though none of these are finished, I thought I’d show them in progress anyway. These guys above are massive trees, beeches, I think (?), growing on our neighbour’s patio. They have such presence.

colorsamples

colour samples      inspired by Alexey Kvaratskeheliya

 

Above are colour experiments inspired by the art of Alexey Kvaratskeheliya, see a previous post of mine for details. I’m inspired by the combinations and you can see I’ve been trying out some of them on the foreground of ‘Grandfather trees’.

I’ve worked further on ‘Before trees’, here below:

before trees3

And the third one in progress is this little one:

pastel trees

Pastel trees

 

Before trees

March 19, 2016

Working on the sampler for Jude Hill’s online course I’m following (well, dipping into) is giving me insights into how I work generally.  The idea here is to weave some fabric strips together as a base, and then work on the grid formed by the strips of cloth.

spiritclothsampler2

spiritcloth sampler, in progress

I chose the circle as a uniting theme, but the tree wanted to be there in the middle, and when it appeared, the work stopped being an exercise and connected with my heart.

Someone once commented that I should stop working in all those little rectangles in my art. But this way of working speaks to me, is actually a part of my personal visual vocabulary. I realise I feel most comfortable within defined spaces where I can play with edges, defining them, letting them fade, overlapping. And each square a little story of its own. If you look at Jude’s work, you see her breaking out of the grid repeatedly, but it is there as a strong basis to the design, holding all the separate parts together.

You can see in the next images, how I like to work. I used an old painting(shown upside down) below.

background painting before trees

old painting used as background for Before trees

On the painting below, you can still see part of the neck of the greenish bottle (far right) showing if you look carefully. And other areas have been painted over letting parts of the background show through. Using an old painting as the background determines the palette a bit, and some of the movement.

before trees

Before trees

But I got stuck fairly quickly on this one. It was too familiar and I wasn’t learning much  by continuing with it. Using prompts from Flora Bowley’s book, mentioned in several previous posts, I decided to risk ruining/losing what I had in order to find something new. So I turned it upside down and treated it like a background.

Ah, trees again, they just wanted to be there. To orient between the old and new versions, look for the yellow sun on the painting above, and now you’ll see it peeking through behind the big tree on the left.

before trees2

Before trees, worked on further

Here is a later stage.
So, for me, the textile work at teh top of the page,  and painting are intimately related. They are both about layering, not planning overmuch, following where the work seems to want to go, and being patient with all the twists and turns on the way.

before trees1

Before trees, more definition

Painting adventure

December 16, 2015

There is a lot of movement happening in my life, and it is reflected in my painting. I’m leaving old ways of seeing, and familiar approaches, and embarking on ‘The adventure of a lifetime’ (A plug for Coldplay’s new single YAY!!). The freedom I have in inventing when working in oil pastels has finally transferred to paint. I’m working in acrylics because I like layering and they dry fast.

I won’t take you on the complete journey, but this particular stream started months ago. I have mentioned that I do collages for relaxation and processing of any issues up for me. I always really like them, they surprise me and are fresh. So this one, with the painting by Alexey Kvaratskeheliya at center stage inspired me to try an oil pastel painting using the same kind of little shards of concentrated colour as Alexey K.

Happy collage

Which resulted in this piece:

Of dreams oil pastel

Working with colour in this way feels very natural to me. (This piece is in our currently running show at Scherer design store. In a few days they will have our exhibit announced on the site.)

I wondered if I could work this way in paints, but it is different when you can reach for one of 121 concentrated oil pastel colours, or you have to mix them yourself and keep using clean brushes to apply them.

But one evening I took a little piece of cardboard, and intuitively began working in small colour areas. That freed me up to take another step- I took all the leftover colours on my palette and made a background on a previously painted canvas with the partly dried paint and palette knife:

Underpainting with palette knife

Then I painted over it intending to work into the result below, but I like it so much I’m leaving it as is.

Horse acrylic on panel

The next two happened around the same time:

They are both painted in acrylic over previous paintings, taking cues from the background and at the same time evolving their own unique forms.

This method of working really suits me. I work messily and spontaneously on an already painted canvas and things just happen.
Gee that Flora Bowley book mentioned in the last post must really work, I haven’t even read it yet and my work is undergoing a major reorientation! 🙂

All of the preceding are quite small format- around 30 x 30 cm. Then I retrieved one of the fairly free paintings from this summer where I was trying to lose form, and painted over it. The tree emerged, and I worked into it some, but not much. It captures the energy I need most to connect with now as I face major surgery tomorrow. Hopefully I can bring it into the hospital where I can see it.

Tree 1 acrylic on canvas board

Tree 1     acrylic on canvas board

What we need more of

November 24, 2015

 

 

Art holds time, oil pastel collage, S Zoutewelle-Morris

Art holds time, oil pastel collage, S Zoutewelle-Morris

It has been ages, nearly 3 months since I posted. Hi again, to the handful of faithful followers who make this worth doing.

Crazy months dealing with health issues. There is an operation coming soon, and hopefully after that things will settle down into a more normal routine again.

My art is in a turbulent period of its own. I think I included some of the newer experiments this last summer,where I was letting go of form and trying to paint more intuitively. I’ve been more comfortable with watercolour sticks (a kind of crayon that is water soluble) and collage lately, than oil paints. I want to do quick, spontaneous studies rather than labour over one painting.

Rende and I have an upcoming exhibition in a high quality interior store here in the north of Holland. He’ll be showing woodwork and photography, and I’ll hang 18 pieces, oil pastels and oil paintings. I’ll link to the site when they’ve got our info there.

I know I’ve posted the art above before here, and probably the quote as well, but it is worth repeating:

What we need more of is slow art; art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in ten seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures.
In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.
– Robert Hughes

 

Taking risks as a painter

August 20, 2015

Beets from garden - oils 50 X 60 cm

Beets from garden – oils
50 X 60 cm

Have you ever attended a painting workshop and been given a chance to work completely outside of your habitual approach? You’re freed up, you make some pieces that really surprise you during the day, new possibilities suddenly seem endless. You go home on a ‘workshop high’ resolved to start working more freely from now on.

Here you are, back at the studio- there is a blank canvas in front of you, all your materials are there arranged as usual, your workspace is the same. The stimulation of the other people, the instructor, the unfamiliar environment, and above all the uninterrupted time just for you, are in the past. You try to recover that feeling of freedom, but before you know it, you are working as always, wondering how to get out of a rut.

So how does one integrate new insights and experiences into old work patterns and actually begin to let their work change and grow? Many of our habitual ways of working have grown with us and are an important part of making our unique kind of work. But sticking exclusively to one way of working doesn’t lead to the kind of risk taking that is needed for growth and renewal.

I’ll share a recent experience with some visuals which may help.

In my last post on artists needing play time, I spoke of Shaun McNiff’s suggestion to begin working, not out of a concept (the mind), but out of the body- using a movement or gesture and translating that into marks on the canvas. And then using the interaction with the materials to keep taking steps in developing the composition.

I’ve been working in oils commitedly for 4 years this month, completing around 15-20 paintings a year. Mostly I’ve been learning the medium, since in my career I worked mostly in watercolours, drawing and acrylics. I feel constrained by just realistic painting, and have been trying to free myself up to work more loosely, to let go of realistic portrayal and to use colour more intuitively.

The painting of beets opening this post is my most recent one, I liked where it was headed, but it was still too slavish to the photo I was working from. In the weekend, I did as McNiff suggested in his book and used all kinds of media and movement to do a series of free work. Here are the results below.

free expression drawings

free expression drawings

At the time I couldn’t see how to bring what I’d learned into my oil paintings. So I did a series of watercolour stick drawings, but first scribbled and sketched on the paper with white crayons. You can see the white lines showing up through the watercolour sticks since the white wax lines resist the water medium. I liked this effect, and the second one down, I loved for its subtlety and spontaneity.

watercolour sticks and crayon 3

watercolour sticks and crayon 3

watercoloursticks and crayon 2

watercoloursticks and crayon 2

watercolour sticks and wax crayons1

watercolour sticks and wax crayons1

What I wanted to do was bring in that same kind of spontaneous, airy spaciousness into my oil painting. The painting of the beets, by comparison to where I want to go, is very dense and concentrated.I like that but I want to be able to choose that look, not to do it because I can’t do anything else.

I started with a 50x70cm canvas board and began with movements and gestures while listening to music, only having a faint idea of where I might want to go with it (the subject is that Beets revisited). I didn’t do a drawing, just squiggled on some shapes with a brush.
I love the feel of it, I used oils thinned down and let them run. There will be beets and leaves and thicker paint, but it will be very different from the first one. I have no idea where it will end up. This is ‘trusting the process’.

Start of New Beets

Start of New Beets

One more thought to add. What inhibits most professional artists from doing this kind of risky experimentation (it is scary) is the need to stick to the things that sell. I’ll probably be producing substandard work for several months at least while I experiment with this new approach. Another inhibiting factor is your idea of yourself as a ‘good’ artist. Changing your approach is going to produce cr*p for a while. Accept it. It is the only way to move forward and go deeper.

later: I did a little more work on it and decided to just leave it as it is. The qualities it already has are enough for me right now, they remind me of where I’m headed and I didn’t want to overwork it and obscure them.