in the studio

FIT & FINISH

This is a phrase I’m using in my head right now to reflect how perfect or finished or technically exact an image is. I don’t feel like I’ve found the right balance for this yet. How much of it is about my technical skill and how much is my voice, my heart coming through in the work? And how the heck do I do that?

I’ve noticed that, often, as I develop a painting, I actually like the under layers better. Is that because I can see the potential but haven’t got the mistakes down yet? Or because something gets lost for me, the more I try to get it just right? Does the spontaneous energy that started the image get lost in the continued effort and attention?

Here’s an example of one of the paintings I developed at the VSC…

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   (above) In process: 2nd Study of Tamatha, May 2019. Oil on canvas. 15x20″

Even though the last painting seems technically more completed, to me the most exciting of these is, ironically, the first one – just black and white and with lines that show the process, the architecture of developing the image. But can anyone else see what I see in it? I suspect that I see more than anyone else would because I have a notion of what the lines represent. It might be the difference between someone looking at Chinese characters who does know the language and someone who doesn’t. We would look at the same thing but see totally different things – I would see random lines and they would see words and ideas. In some ways, each of the lines, curves and shadows in the first image is a placeholder for me – but not one that others can necessarily see.

I do like parts of the development of the shirt, the skin, the roughed-in background… but I also love the idea of the original structure showing through – so that you have a sense it is very much made by a person. (I tend to think of this as the painting’s fingerprint – warts and all – and that the fingerprint is what you’re really looking for when you choosing a painting or thinking about art that you like). 

It seems like the answer is probably in building layers up intentionally – so that they keep adding a sense of a painting being constructed, not just appearing as if it came out whole cloth. Can I develop better skill in knowing which parts to build in detail and which parts to leave sketched out? And, of course, how do I incorporate this into thinking for future work?

Posted 2 days ago

A WEEK AWAY

Just finished a short residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Every year, the VSC offers a chance for Vermont artists to apply to spend one week there and this year I got to go. They provide a dorm, a studio and all meals. It’s pretty much a dream opportunity for someone like me — so often the organizer of minutiae in my family’s life — to get to be provided for and without demands for a week.

I painted my little heart out. It was remarkable to have so many hours each day to work, take a break, and come back to the work. The studio they gave me was so beautifully lit that I could even paint in the evenings after dinner. I would sip a glass of bourbon and keep working till 10 or 11 or 12, then take myself over to my dorm (23 steps away) and hit the hay. Deluxe. 

For the last couple months, I’d been noodling on how to use painting to try and get at some of the struggles people go through — but without making depressing pictures. Also, wanting to paint portraits of regular people, and not just models. At first I talked to a few friends about modeling for me and I developed some ideas for what I would have them do… but these images came from my experience and it felt sort of fake to essentially pop their bodies into paintings about my issues (if that makes sense). But as we talked, I realized that they already had some images that resonated for them and so we worked together to set up a couple photos I could use as references last week. 

I envisioned these as studies for larger pieces… for a few reasons. It takes some pressure off to think of it as an exploration and not a finished piece, so I can relax and try to worry a little less about how it will come up. Smaller pieces often take less time and I only had a week. I could see if these pieces would even work — would they get at what I thought I wanted? Would other people be able to see what I hoped?

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     (above) a few of the studies from the week, all oil on canvas, various sizes

In the end, I’m not sure if I will do all of these, or any of these, as larger paintings. Although I do think they’re evocative, I’m not totally satisfied with the style — what’s the level of fit and finish I am going for in these images? The week helped me explore a bit of this, but I don’t feel like I found the answers yet. Well, on the bright side (which of course I only see at certain moments), this gives me some good homework for the future.

Posted 1 week ago

TEACHING

I launched a Guided Studio Class in January on Saturday mornings and it has been even more fun then I hoped. We have nine adults enrolled and most of them make it every week, bringing their diverse projects and their open hearts, and ready to try new things and take new risks. 

I have one person working on learning to draw, another working with a pen & color-wash approach, and the rest working in acrylics — but those 7 acrylic painters all have different levels of experience, confidence, and interest, so I get to have 9 totally different strings of conversation throughout the class.

And of course, like any good teaching experience, I am learning from my students. One has me dabbling in water colors for the first time; another has me looking closely at paintings she admires to figure out how the original artist rendered the magic she did on the canvas, so that my student can, in turn, learn how to set up that feel for her viewer; and I am struck by how differently each of us approaches making an image.

It’s a joy working with people who want to explore and learn, who want to try new things in their lives, and who are ready to see challenge as an opportunity and not an obstacle. It’s energizing to find common interests and experiences with people who were previously strangers (or nearly so). And, oh, what fun it is to come over to one of paintings and hold it a ways out in front of the artist — to give them a sense of what it would look like if it was on a wall. When students get that perspective, suddenly they can see their work the way others would and they see what is good about it, not the flaws. Their faces light up and their shoulders settle and there’s a glint of pride in their eyes. 

Posted 9 weeks ago

WORKING BIG OR SMALL?

I’m a big fan of David Hockney’s work, especially once he relocated to the United States in the 1960s, when he moved to the representative and figurative work that he is so well known for — semi-nude hipsters in the shower or on the bed. It feels joy-filled and impish. 

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         California Copied From 1965 Painting in 1987 by David Hockney. (Image: LACMA)

I imagine him chuckling to himself as he painted: can you believe I can get paid to paint a hot guy in his underwear? that sort of thing.

Around 2007-2012 he returned back to his native Yorkshire (England) and painted some large landscapes — often 5 feet by 15 feet, composed of 6 or 8 individual canvases — that might be of a road through the woods or something similar. “To me,” I read from an online commentator, “they also play with a sense of memory, shifting focus in a scene, and the difficulty of grasping and remembering a whole moment. It’s very much the artist’s gaze, moving across the scene, recording pieces in an attempt to capture the whole.” This idea captivated me… 

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                     Winter Timber by David Hockney, 2009, 9′ x 20′ (from countryliving.com)

At that point, I almost always painted on fairly small canvases. 11x14” was one of my favorites — they’re large enough to get in some details but not get bogged down in tiny brushes to do so, and small enough to fill up or take shape quickly. You can go from inspiration to near completion in a single day.

Usually if I tried working on a large canvas it felt like I would be painting and repainting the surface over and over again, trying to get it right and struggling to successfully translate my idea to the larger size. Well, other artists can paint big I thought, but it’s not for me.

Then I got hooked on 12x12” squares, which seemed neat and tidy (all sides equal!); small enough to finish in a concentrated couple days; and the square shape pushed me to compose my images a little differently than those I’d grown up with on film cameras or the television. A couple years ago I started playing with the 6” x 6” panels that have been so popular lately. They make for little jewels of paintings — a small but complete thought, executed in an afternoon. 

Somewhere in there, though, I also started playing with canvases that have a 2:1 ratio of width and height. Usually they’re on the larger side for me (18” x 36”) — nowhere near as big as Hockney’s but large enough that if you are close, you won’t be able to see the whole thing at once. When the canvas is horizontal, it feels just a little bit larger than the eye can take in — which feels like it invites you as the viewer right into the picture. As a vertical, it pushes toward a pleasantly wonky composition or human sort of scale. I do still find it challenging to execute a whole painting of this size in what feels like a fresh and lively style… This fall I started slicing some of my 12x12” panels into two 6x12” panels and those too are fun — the ratio I like so much invites a slightly unusual composition or subject, but the sizes are small and paint up on an impulse — which hopefully makes them more immune to the tendency to overwork (which leads to loss of spontaneity, energy). 

Big, small… The in-process shot I posted last week is an exploration to connect the two… A bigger picture, supported by the smaller snapshots that perhaps bring more perspectives to the first than it could have as a stand alone. We’ll see.

Posted 11 weeks ago

JENGA MEDITATIONS

Was out of the studio last week trying to put the kitchen and basement back together after a kitchen remodel. Glad to be back, but as usual, battling a few demons and such that keep me on the couch or doing crosswords instead of painting as much as I envision. Still, some exploration that is at least what I want to be exploring, even if I’m not sure if it comes together yet. Here’s a shot of some in-process work from this week:

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works in progress: Jenga Meditations 1-4, oil on panel, 6x6″ & Jenga mom, oil on canvas, 11″x15″

Posted 12 weeks ago

I got some props for some pix I have in mind. Looking at the collection, why ARE they all SO white? Every fairy, baby, elf and queen is light light light. How hard would it be to change up the skin tints a little bit, oh plastic makers? The planet is filled with so many great colors of skin and this is what we get?Crikey.

Posted 12 weeks ago

FIGHTING MYSELF, FIGHTING THE PAINT

A struggle this week to stop getting in my own way. I think at the most basic level, it still feels like I’m struggling to figure out how to use the oil paints in a way that matches up to how I think about developing an image. I am definitely an artist who likes to start with a general shape then start to lay in colors, then start to refine colors and details as I go… In acrylics, 3-4 starter layers can all be applied in the same morning. I’m struggling to figure out how to do that in oils, though, which stay wet and quickly become a slippery mess.

For much of the last two years, I’ve tried to really change my approach to developing images so that I’m aiming to put the right color in the right place the first time. But this approach, which works so beautifully for some, leaves me feeling almost bruised by the end — I’m fighting every intuition I have for however many hours I struggle through the painting.

This week, after realizing I was melting down, I feel like I’ve been trying to go back to square one a bit. Of course, first I had to peel myself off the couch to actually get started again… But I’m working on a simple self-portrait (from a photo I snapped on the couch in an effort to paint the couch instead of lay on it) and really trying to think about the steps and layering process. It feels hopeful.

I finished the first one Tuesday and, while less painful, it still felt smeary and messy by the end. With that one, I did an outline and then underpainting, mixing colors as I painted. Somehow the painting feels a little flat (which is impressive considering how much paint was smushed on at the end!).

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Wednesday’s felt closer. I made more of an effort in the initial sketch to mark out darks and lights; and pre-mixed colors, looking for two mass-tones in each part of the painting, that I could lay in as an underpainting with just Gamsol. Then I adjusted the mass tones in various spots and added a bit of medium to the mix, and really tried to notice which brushes added paint and which seemed to remove it. Still, there’s some smear on the top layer, sigh. And, it feels like there’s not enough value contrast in the face — the photo doesn’t have much, frankly, and I think I need to push/exaggerate the contrast. 

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I started a third with the aim to exaggerate the values on the skin beginning with my initial paint sketch, then pre-mix mass tones and put them on in that exaggerated fashion in a light-medium-dark range on the face (I used the notanizer app on the phone), and see if that could help the face feel less washed out. I spent quite a bit of time trying to get the facial features in better proportion… I then added in spots of color – the pinks and the blues you can see on the face… 

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Although it doesn’t feel like they photographed well, I don’t hate them, I even like the last one – it feels more like the direction I keep hoping to find. Regardless, they’re certainly further along than they would have been a year ago — I better notice that progress since I also spend so much time criticizing myself for not making more :-0

Posted 15 weeks ago

ON BLACK PAINT

The other day in a painting class, someone asked me what the difference is between all the blacks that are available — Bone Black, Mars Black, Payne’s Gray, Ivory Black, Carbon Black, Ebony Black… When you squeeze out dabs of the different blacks on a surface, they really look quite similar.

A few differences start to emerge once you start trying to use the paint on the canvas, because you are thinning it a bit as you spread it. Now, they might show themselves to be more transparent or more opaque; some will seem a little less dark and some will hold that sense of being very very dark; the color might appear to lean a little more toward a warm kind of blackness or more towards cool (think chocolate-black versus blue-black). 

One of the places it’s easier to see the difference between blacks, though, is when you mix them with other colors. Mix 5 different blacks with white and you will get 5 pretty different grays — which you could use as is or mix with a tiny bit of purple or green to get a lovely shadowy color to use on a face or a sidewalk or a tablecloth. When you mix the blacks with other colors on your palette, you realize that they behave more like a very deep but neutralized color themselves. Add a little yellow to Ivory Black to get an earthy green; add a cool red to Payne’s Gray to get a deep purple; add bright red to Mars Black to get a warm brown. 

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Learning how to think about and use black usually begins with an effort to paint a shadow or darken a portion of an object. How many times did I think, I’ll just darken this red with a little black, only to have the color really fail? The black paint acts as its own color with its own characteristics — and not as the darkening filter we intuitively expect.

Most professional painters don’t buy black paint. They argue: how often do we see something truly black in nature? If we look at the darkest of darks in our world, they are usually dark browns — say, in the shadowed crevice of a tree trunk — or dark greens — the shadow of a tree on grass— or dark gray — the most burnt part of a stick of wood. So, when they want a something very dark on the canvas, most painters will just mix up a very dark color and use that instead (say a dark blue, green and red).

So, how to paint that shadow? Ah, one of my biggest challenges! But, to paint the shadow, we have to look at the object and identify not the phenomenon of the shadow, but the color of the shadow – which is the color of the thing in the spot where the shadow is falling. It will probably be a mix of all the primaries (and probably not as dark in value as a black) and the challenge is to find a mix that will sit right in the painting both color-wise and value-wise. If you’ve got “black” on your palette, it’s okay to use it to make this color, but think of it in terms of adding a very dark blue or a very dark green as you add it sparingly to your other pigments, then adjust accordingly with the addition of other colors too!

Posted 17 weeks ago

NEW PLAN!?!

Although my life still orients around the school calendar because my kids are all at home, I do like to use the beginning of the year as a chance to check in on how things are going in my life — do some reflection and goal setting. I had made an effort to reframe some of my thinking about my work in October, and it was good to reflect and maybe reframe.

While my goals in October made sense, the main way to measure success was in terms of revenue… And while I do want to focus on increasing revenue, I noticed that any time I spent on efforts that weren’t clearly tied to revenue was accompanied by guilt and a sense that I was wasting time. This also discouraged me from taking risks in my painting because I was too-often asking myself if it would help or hurt sales.

People often say to me, “But it’s not about the money!” I think most of them probably have actual paychecks. I used to have normal jobs; I was even the prime breadwinner for a few years, back before kids. But it’s been a long time since I made a direct financial contribution to our family coffers and, while I don’t want to obsess about money, feeling like I was moving in the direction of generating net-positive revenue would be pretty great. 

Anyway, last week I set some process/practice goals for the next 5 months (realistically that’s about all I have before school starts winding down and my independent schedule crumbles for the summer) that I hope will value not only getting paintings finished (for sales or shows, etc) but also learning new things and exploring new ideas.

The figure sessions are an example of something that felt important and valuable — plus really fun and stimulating — that was not likely to generate direct sales. In my old plan, it was hard to justify the time because it kept me from working on paintings that might actually sell. The new plan acknowledges that these figure sessions are something I value and are a good investment of my time in the long run — for skill development, meeting other artists, and staying really engaged in my work, among other things… 

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           Katherine. Oil on canvas, 9″x12″. 1/7/19

That thought-work made it even nicer to be back at the figure session this Monday. I felt pretty pleased with the painting I pulled from the canvas by the end of the 4 hours.

Posted 18 weeks ago

GUIDED STUDIO WORKSHOP

I started teaching my guided studio class this past Saturday. It was so fun! I think students were pretty satisfied with our first day.

The idea is to help beginner or intermediate painters develop some momentum in their practice — by scheduling weekly time for them to paint, helping them develop confidence, and building some skills around color theory, drafting, etc. It’s every Saturday morning for 3 months, so I’m hoping people will really feel some shifts in their work.

The class is actually modeled after a yoga class I used to go at IndyYoga. In that class, everyone came in with different levels of skill and experience. Over time, the instructor got to know how to help each person in their own practice. In addition to liking the yoga, I liked that we drew from a fairly steady group of participants — no one came every week, but almost everyone came pretty regularly, and our motley crew always arrived grateful for the chance to practice and to be at that place, with that teacher, in that moment. We’ll see if I can figure out how to recreate some of those feelings in this class.

Posted 18 weeks ago
 

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