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Encounter

June 4, 2017

There is a buzzard living close by. I call it a falcon, but the Dutch names for these birds of prey are different than the English, and evidently the bird that I see around here is not native to the US. Here he is, buteo buteo, native to the UK and other parts of Europe.

Well, I’m in love with this bird. In the early spring I’d be walking the dog, crashing rather thoughtlessly through the grass and bushes and suddenly this huge span of wings would lift out of nowhere and circle away. Once I became aware of coming into his territory, I became more careful and I also started bringing the binoculars. He still took off when I was many meters away, but gradually, I began to approach that area of trees more cautiously. And I would be rewarded with him staying where he was and watching me as I passed by.  I began to recognise his and his sort’s cries as well. And would look up and see one or two of them circling high in the sky. My relationship to these birds has enriched my life so much.

So when I heard that in a nearby town there would be a bird-of-prey demonstration, I made sure I was there. To my delight there was a chance to actually have the birds perch on one’s arm with a falconer’s glove. At first he had a blinder on because of the crowds and noise, but then the hood was taken off and wow, there he was! I was gobsmacked, he didn’t regard me with one eye like many birds do, but turned to face me fully, with both eyes fastened on my face. I could hardly breathe from the power of that stare, and I must admit that it wasn’t comfortable. Those eyes are unblinking and black without a glint of light in them. No warmth at all.  I ‘got’ that you never really tame these animal- they remain predators who kill, or sometimes eat their prey alive. They are certainly not pets or pettable.

falcon 1a

But looking into those eyes and having that magnificent creature on my arm was so amazing. It was like seeing some gorgeous natural phenomenon with just a hint of potential violence, like a thundering waterfall, or a mountain, or sun flares. It was truly awesome.

falcon 2

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!!!!

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.

Crowded stilllifes

October 23, 2016

cr-stillfe1-begin

underpainting and first forms sketched in        acrylic 40 x 50cm

HI folks, this is a continuation of the series I’m working on which seems to be about dancing between realism and abstraction. I needed to keep the freshness of this  underpainting and sketch, so I let go of certain givens, like making the yellow ball (which was a pomegranate) bright rose red. When faced with a decision, I chose for ‘feels good’ for the whole painting, rather than ‘right’. Looking at this now, I can also see how landscape is coming in, through the patches of green, like crops seen from the sky. (The red and yellow stripe are the Dutch bulb fields 🙂 ).

cr-stillfe1

Crowded still life 1    acrylic 40 x 50 cm

Above is the ‘finished’ piece. It simply means where I chose to stop working on it. Some things aren’t ‘completed’. But it is the imperfections I love so much in others’ work so I left them in mine.

The next piece was quite different. I wanted to work with more neutral colours. It is painted over a few portrait studies I did,  you can see a face peeking out behind the small dropper bottle at the upper right.

glazes-begin

Neutral underpainting    acrylic 40 x 50cm

Without really thinking about it consciously, I started painting this with glazes rather than solid colour. I think that I was quite intimidated at first by the strong and dominating shadows, and this was a way to approach them cautiously.I really loved the black broken lines of the charcoal sketch, so with dry-brush I imitated them in places.

cr-stillfe-glazes

Crowded still life 2  acrylic 40 x 50cm

For some reason one of my favourite areas in this painting is the little rectangle with the orange and greenish blue plum on the lower right just next to the plate with radishes. I also like the shallots.

It would be tempting to ‘fill in’ everything (see bottle and dropper bottle upper right), but my instinct was to leave it. These paintings are done in a spirit of following where the painting leads. There are lots of open areas, spatially as well as in content. I like the surprises I got while painting it. Things happened which  could never be planned. When you’re in that kind of flow, each painting opens out naturally into another one. I don’t have a subject yet, but this exploration will definitely continue.

Next post will be about Matisse. ah lovely.

airy-blue-stillife

airy still life       acrylic    40 x 50cm approx.

One of my present challenges with painting is to distil some basic elements out of a crowded composition.

I don’t like to set up still lifes these days, they strike me as too formal. So when certain aspects of our messy kitchen counter caught my eye, I took a picture and decided to work with it purely as a starting point. This first piece above wasn’t entirely to my satisfaction composition wise, but I liked that I was able to break out of slavishly following the actual photo.

kitchen-still-life-1a

Later, I revisited this set up from another angle. This time I used a specific underpainting which was a previous failed work. Last post I talked about using some of my oil pastel drawings as models to kick start my painting. Take a look at the lower left panel of this piece below.
fields-n-trees

I decided to enlarge that as a separate painting. It didn’t have enough design elements to hold interest, but it made a great underpainting for the next still life I did.

I let the composition and colours of the underpainting lead my decisions in this still life. Finally, my two ways of working seem to be coming together- the realistic, and the freer, fantasy approach. I need the everyday objects to anchor and engage my attention. But  I also need the room to be able to play with colour and light. I also enjoy the freedom of not having to explain everything. Areas are left out of focus and a little mysterious.

That’s why I feel that the approach to painting which speaks most to me is as poetry. Distilling the essence of something without explaining the magic away.

A lot of realistic painting bores me because of the intellectual approach. Just imitating the likeness of something even if technically well done isn’t necessarily art. As either viewer or maker, it doesn’t bring me anywhere new, it doesn’t open any doors in my heart or soul.

Here is a merged photo of the still life over the under painting.

merged-layers

More in this series coming soon.

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.