June 5, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
August 20, 2015
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.
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.
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’.
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.
August 16, 2015
I’m revisiting Shaun McNiff’s excellent book, ‘Trust the process’, first read 5 years ago. The subtitle says it all, ‘The artist’s guide to letting go’. Last time I read it, I experienced his thoughts as a confirmation that art making is completely separate from business. The posts I wrote on it reflected that. But this time around I am gaining so much from his deep understanding of creative processes, writing as well as painting.
One eye-opener for me was his suggestion to see the creative process as involving all of you. Therefore, you can kick-start visual creativity by, for example, moving your body, and taking cues from those gestures to make marks. I did this today, starting out by dancing to my favorite Andreas Vollenweider CD. I had some good quality smallish watercolour paper and the dancing led quite naturally, still moving, to making rhythmic strokes on the paper with watercolour crayons. Very quickly the paper and tools became too small to contain the gestures I was making, so I ended up on newspaper sized paper using large crayon blocks and ecoline inks with big brushes. I liked the wax resist effect, but soon I was combining charcoal, watercolour sticks, crayons and ink.
IT WAS FUN!
McNiff says you need to draw on a different set of evaluation criteria to review this kind of work: look at it for spontaneity, freshnesss, rhythm, whimsy. Work in series, let one image lead you to the next, and look at the whole body of work for signs of certain gestures and forms that you might want to repeat or expand upon.
I think you could do this to blast through blocks in any medium. He suggests starting out with notecards and making series of drawings (poems, writing ideas, dialogues, dance moves) on those. But if you want to work big like I did, you can still move from one to the next fairly quickly. Don’t correct or critique while you are working, just keep going and enjoy the process.
I don’t know where what I did this morning will lead, and I don’t care. It brought me straight back to my creative roots that was very moving. There was a sadness there for how I usually hem in my creativity to fit certain ideas I have about being an artist. Working this way was freeing, and I will revisit it and see where the process leads me.
McNiff’s ‘Trust the process’, is highly recommended for aspiring artists and certainly for art veterans like me, who can always use ways to loosen up, but also practical suggestions for further developing their work.
June 20, 2015
I’ve only recently begun to work simultaneously on two or three paintings.
And I’m discovering that there are numerous advantages for me in doing this.
First, I don’t obsess as much on one painting. Normally, I’ll spend a lot of time working into what I’ve set down initially to try to ‘get it right’. When, often what I had was already good and fresh, and I just should have left it alone! Having more paintings in the sidelines waiting for their turn, helps me detach (can you hear that sound of a suction cup letting go? Thwock)! and turn my beady eye on a new victim.
Secondly, each painting has its own character and demands a different approach in applying paint, colour, etc. (though I do try to work on paintings that have a similar palette). So it has happened that where I was getting too tight on one painting, and worked on one with a looser approach, getting back to the first one, I could let go a little easier. So far that has been the biggest advantage for me.
Third, trying to finish one painting in order to get to the next new one can put me in a frame of mind which isn’t optimal for taking the patient, caring steps needed to finish a work with honour. I am slightly bored with the end stages, I like the excitement of the first parts of the process best and have to discipline myself not to rush completion. So being able to work on several at the same time avoids the feeling of having to rush to get to the next one.
The one above is interesting, it is being worked on with others in the bottle series (see an earlier post):
Here was an earlier version of it:
I tried to keep those landscapey little blocks of green and pink in the background and background bottle, but just couldn’t pull it off. It was useful though, because those colours do shine through here and there in the present version (top of page) and liven it up.
I learned with this one that you can’t honour both intentions, realistic and abstract, at least I can’t – not yet. An artist friend, Eoin Mac Lochlainn, wrote in a recent conversation that it is tricky to straddle the line between realistic and abstract. He works in both sometimes and has shown them together. [Evidently I misunderstood a previous conversation Eoin and I were having, and he doesn’t consider the skies pure abstracts- see his comment below. Apologies, Eoin].Now that is tricky, but in this case I think he pulls it off. There is a clear intention there of showing the lovely empty skies with the abandoned fireplaces, and I feel they enrich one another.(Do look at the short video on his blog, and the music is wonderful).
May 21, 2015
This is the second oil painting in the series inspired by Rende’s photos of bottles against one of my previous still life paintings. See this post for the first one and some background info.
As I mentioned in the other post, painting something that is already beautiful is not my usual choice. But the richness he captured in the glass against the colourful painting spoke to me. I hadn’t worked with such saturated darks before, and I loved using them.
Nicholas Wilton’s latest post about colour is full of good practical information, a sort of Colour 101. And I appreciated that even though he gives workshops, he is generous about sharing his insights and knowledge for free as well. Basically he breaks down colour theory in painting to 3 main choices, and they all have to do with contrast. Are you going to use a dark or light colour next to your existing colour? Will it be saturated or diluted/toned down? And finally, will it be a cool or warm colour?
All these choices are going on instinctively while I paint. Even though I have a photo as reference, and this dictates my choices to some extent, effects, transparency, back and foreground can all be influenced by the 3 principles Wilton mentions. I’m starting on the third one now, a bit more ambitious as far as complexity. And it really does help to be more conscious of how the colour is going to work in the painting. Here are 2 previous phases of the finished painting above. In this one, after sketching in the approximate colours, I worked from dark to light and slightly more painterly than in number 1.
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).
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.
So here below is where I ended up a few days ago.
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.
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.