Sunday, January 31, 2010

More, The Art Spirit

6x8, watercolor on Tyvek

A few more jottings that spoke to me  me from Robert Henri's, The Art Spirit:

-We must paint only what is important to us, must not respond to outside demands.

-The painter that bowls you over at first sight and the next day loses the power to attract your attention is the one who always looks the same.  It has a moment of life, but dies immediately thereafter.

-Originality.  Don't worry about your originality.  You could not get rid of it even if you wanted to.  It will stick to you and show you up for better or worse in spite of all you are anyone can do.

-No knowledge is so easily found as when it is needed.

-The habit of digression - lack of continued interest - want of a fixed purpose, is an almost general failing.  It is too easy to drift and the habit of letting oneself drift begets drifting.  The power of concentration is rare and must be sought and cultivated.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Caleb Revisited and The Art Spirit

This is the same painting of Caleb, with the background darkened and dulled down.  I also decided to photograph it instead of scanning.  The scanned image was more garish than the original, and I guess the lesson here is to try both ways and see which one works out to be more accurate and pleasing.  I was working from a photo that I did not take, though I know (or at least knew) Caleb, and that is part of the reason this portrait is a little static. As an experiment with a new material, I think it works, though.

I stumbled upon a blog recently that I haven't followed long, but find intriguing.  It's called Following the Masters, authored by Michelle Burnett.  She posts information about master painters, this month it's Robert Henri, and both suggests reading and painting challenges.  It was from this blog that I decided to read Henri's collection of notes, letters, and lectures called The Art Spirit.  My fiction has suddenly been shoved aside, and I find myself eagerly reading his insights on art.  I thought I'd post some of the comments that ended up in my journal in the next few posts.  Most of these were written around 1915-1920.

Following the Masters

- An interest in the subject, something you want to say definite about the subject; this is the first condition of a portrait.  Completion does not depend upon material representation.  The work is done when that special thing has been said.

To start with a deep impression, the best, the most interesting, the deepest you can have of the model to preserve this vision throughout the work; to see nothing else; to admit of no digression from it; choosing only from the model the signs of it; will lead to an organic work.

-From my point of view the simpler the background is the better the figure in front of it will be, and also ...the better the figure is the less the observer will need entertainment in the background.

-At time, secreted in the appearance of a simple tone there is a gamut of color, a shifting across the spectrum which keeps the thing alive, illusive, and creates a mystery of depth.

-The art student of these days is a pioneer.  He lives in a decidedly colorless, materialistic age.  The human family has not yet come out of the woods.  We are more barbarian, we are still barbarians... We have yet as a body to come up with the art of living.  The art student of today must pioneer beyond the mere matter of fact."

-I believe the great artists of the future will use fewer words, copy fewer things, essays will be shorter in words and longer in meaning.  There will be a battle against obscurity.  Effort will be made to put everything plain, out in the open.  By this means we will enter the real mystery.  There will be fewer things said and done, but each thing will be fuller and will receive fuller consideration.  Now we waste. There is too much "Art" too much "decoration," too many things are made, too many amusements wasted.  Not enough is fully considered.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Caleb, in Tyvek

10x14, watercolor on Tyvek

I ordered a package of Tyvek from a blueprint company, and have been playing with quarter sheets to get used to the texture.  This portrait is of a New York City musician and composer who is also my former student from middle school English class - Caleb Burhans.  He is better looking than this attempt suggests, and the painting is better too.  No matter how I played, I couldn't adjust the color to look like the original, which is softer than this.  I like working on the Tyvek, which just does not buckle, and has an interesting surface texture.  Unlike Yupo, which is slick and from which it is easy to lift color, the watercolor settles into the little fivers of the Tyvek, and which it lightens, it never goes back to white.  So, planning is necessary.

This is a another experiment on the synthetic paper.  I had played around all afternoon with creating background texture, didn't like any of it, and scrubbed as much out in the sick as I could manage.  Then I decided to just draw over the top with watercolor sticks and pencils, and I like that effect better.  I also used plastic tapestry mesh to create more texture to the right of the hog.

I have a whole package of the Tyvek to try, so you may see more soon.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Button, Button...

6 x 6 inches, colored pencil and graphite

This is a small colored pencil piece I complete in 2008, after a workshop with artist Kristy Kutch.  It was fun at the time, and I was pleased enough to plan a companion piece.  After my mother's death I inherited her tin of saved buttons, and I thought using the repeated shapes would be interesting, and also a tribute to her and her sewing.

Silly me.

This is the companion piece, started in 2008, set aside until yesterday, finished today.  I'm not sure why I could not bring myself to finish this picture for so long.  I think it is like when I ate so much salt water taffy at the county fair a few years ago that even thinking about the candy makes me queasy.  All those little circles were driving me up the wall.  But I took myself in hand and sat down last night, vowed to finish it so I could clear off part of my workspace.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Inspired by Haiti

The other day I was looking at the horrific news reports out of Haiti, and I saw a news photo of two women sitting awaiting help.  What struck me was their posture, and the wonderful colors of their dresses and headscarves.  I cropped the photo, simplified it on Photoshop, then graphed out the results on newsprint, which I then taped to a piece of illustration board.  In some ways the results look a little like a paint by number kit.

I dug into my files of colored papers, mostly clipped from fashion magazines, catalogs, paper bags, and pages from old dictionaries.  I even had some colored paper I stripped from old matting.  I selected some colors to use, and put them into stacks by color.

After I transferred the design to the illustration board I quickly added some watercolor to help me see where the pieces of prepared colored paper would go.

At this point I use tracing paper to make a pattern for each shape as it is placed.  Then the pattern goes over the selected scrap of paper and is carefully cut out and attache with a glue stick.  I do all my gluing on an old telephone book, turning the pages as they become sticky.  I find that using a little embroidery scissors works best for the little curvy pieces.  I cut out the biggest shapes first, then layer in smaller details.

This is the final result, 12x12 inches.  I let some of the illustration board show because I like the little flashes of white and watercolor.  I also try to cut the larger areas, like the black into smaller shapes so that these blocks of color are broken up a little.

I like the whole process, simplifying shapes, selecting papers, layering on of pieces.  The end result reminds me of a colorful quilt - only much quicker and easier to do.  I also like the fact that the image appears somewhat abstract at first glance, and then the shapes begin to make sense.

I'll live with this a few days, decide if I want to make any additions, then I will coat the front and back with matt medium, which will secure all the pieces and prevent the picture from warping.

Monday, January 18, 2010

I've Been Framed!

16 x 20 inch vintage paint by number

This morning after we hung the new art show at the Janesville Performing Art Center, I headed off to my favorite consignment shop for a cuppa joe, the current news, and a 16x20 used frame for the frog band watercolor.  I didn't want to spend much to display the painting, so I headed to the shelves of framed items.  There's all sorts of things from which to choose, everything from faded prints, to someone's nice cross-stitch, to photos, to black velvet Elvis.  Usually the frames need work, sanding, maybe repainting.  But today the frame that seemed to suit my needs best was varnished pine, definitely 50's.  Inside was this cockatoo, painted on canvas board, and even signed.  I love the colors, which remind me of my grandparent's 1960s ranch house with pink tiles in the kitchen and bathroom.  It was dirty, a little wrinkled at the bottom, and there was a wee hole left by a nail or a screw in the upper left corner.  It looks like it might have been attached to a restaurant or motel wall.

Paint by number kits were the rage when I was in elementary school, and were my favorite craft activity.  I remember sitting at the kitchen table completing little scenes from the national parks.  To this day I want to see Yosemite, at least partially because I slaved over a little acrylic painting of the waterfall there.  I may have painted a scene or two featuring a barn too, since we lived on a dairy farm.  Mom and I both liked to complete the kits, but I also enjoyed gluing colored pebbles into designs that looked like bull fighters, or harlequins. Homemade decor kits were lots of fun, if not particularly original or beautiful.  We melted plastic pellets and made artificial foliage for flower arrangements.  We mortared little tiles into trivets.  We wove pot holders.  Stop me before I get lost here in nostalgia.

Anyway, the owner of the shop tells me that old paint by number pictures sell well as collectibles, so after I took the bird picture out of its vintage frame, I took it back to the shop to resell. The honey colored wooden frame looks grand with my watercolor, and I indulged in some happy memories as well.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Eclectic Art

11x14 inch watercolor on Yupo (sold)

I just finished three days of painting in a studio workshop.  My friend Mary Ann Inman runs a series of art workshops called the School of Eclectic Art, and she happily accommodates artists in many media, and many skill levels.  Because of her individual attention and positive attitude, she has many repeat customers.    Lately her workshops have been held at the Fitchburg Senior Center, a lovely facility that also houses the city hall.  While I have been retired from teaching for three years, I've not thought of myself as a "senior" and felt a wee bit strange driving there this week, where lots of folks were sitting reading newspapers or playing cards, nursing coffee or catching a reduced price lunch, or bowling on a Wii station.  Upstairs there was a square dance session going on.  I know, it's my issue, and I need to deal with it.

Our painting group was eclectic indeed, and certainly not my idea of seniors.  Most were retired, though not all.  Most were women, but a couple men painted too.  Most worked in traditional watercolor, though some were working in mixed media or collage.  I decided to paint on Yupo, a smooth synthetic paper that lifts very easily.  I had two projects in mind, both suggested by online challenges.  The more complicated one is a Florence street scene, and it needs more attention before I share.  I'm fascinated by Google Streetview, and that is where the Italian scene originated.  I also worked on a project for the Watercolor Passion challenge.  This one is "stuffed animals," and instead of thinking stuffed toys I went with actual stuffed animals, taxidermy.  Earlier this month a set of Mexican stuffed frogs playing instruments showed up at my local consignment shop, and I determined that they would be my subject.

I had an idea that I could lay in a loose and textured background, something a little drippy to go with the three amphibians, then I would lift out the frog shapes.  As I painted them I occasionally misted them with clear water to make splotches.  I had a great time, and I was pleased with the result, though I have no idea what to do with these critters now that I've submitted them to the challenge site.

Fellow workshop painter Cheryl Breunig completed several landscapes.

So now, after three days of work I have one and three quarters paintings done.  Three days out of the house working just on art.  Three lunches away from home, filled with interesting talk with people who also put lots of energy into making art.  Three days of getting feedback on my work, and being inspired by other people's vision and skill.

I hope I can keep the momentum going.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

First Try: the Virtual Paintout

9x12 inches oil on canvas board
Ille Rousse, Corsica (available)

I've been casting about in my mind trying to decide on some artistic goals for 2010, and mostly failing to come up with anything except to keep experimenting with various media, and to learn more about the tubes of water mixable oils that have been languishing in my studio.  I also have a short term decision to make, since I signed up for a three day studio class near Madison, starting tomorrow.  What to work on?

I may have found a focus for the studio class and a goal.  Last year I enjoyed participating in a monthly online challenge called Virtual Sketchdate,  I enjoyed interpreting the photos there both as watercolors and as paper collages.  I loved seeing other people's interpretations, and getting feedback on my own efforts.  Sad to say the VSD is no more, the authors of the project have moved on to other things, perhaps painting more themselves and spending less time organizing projects for other people.

I'm happy to say I found another online challenge that looks interesting, the Virtual Paintout.  Bill Guffy uses Google Streetview to find scenes to paint.  Recent locations include Nova Scotia, Paris and Seattle.  This month the topic is Corsica.  I spent a couple happy hours taking a virtual drive on the French island, and finally settled on this scene in Ille Rousse.  It was a challenge in lots of ways.  It was challenging to find a spot I wanted to paint.  There were scenes in cities, along country roadways, bridges, ocean views.  What to choose?  I had to learn the Streetview program, and then figure out how to take a screenshot and edit it.  Then there was the actual painting.  I don't paint a lot of city scenes, and perspective isn't my strength.  I am also inexperienced in using oil paint.  Still, I had fun in both exploring Corsica and in painting this scene.

So, one goal for 2010 is to participate in at least six Virtual Paintouts, and to use my water mixable oils in most of them.  Short term, I have a scene chosen from Streetview in Florence to paint in my workshop.  It should be fun because we're traveling to Florence and Venice in March.  It'll be a chance to practice my perspective more, and to dream a little about our upcoming trip.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Of Art and Hardware

I painted this little acrylic last autumn when the trees were at their most colorful best.  I liked the way the roof of the bus station contrasted with the red leaves, and I have always been a sucker for old-time signs.  One of my favorite ways to waste time is to go down to my local Ace hardware and pick up cleaning supplies, or paint, or glass for framing.  While I wasn't thrilled with my lettering in this painting, I was flattered and pleased to get an email from a man yesterday requesting permission to put the image on his website.

John Mcvey comes from a family whose living is made in the hardware store business.  His website is an ode to hardware, in his town and everywhere.  I was fascinated to browse through his site, a collection of all things hardware.  My favorite part has hardware related articles, poems, stories, photos and artwork.  I think I could have as much fun browsing through his online collection as I have considering which drawer pulls might be candidates for updating my bedroom dresser, or dreaming about which paint chip would be just perfect to brighten the studio.  On cold days like this (it's below zero this morning) it sure it warmer than going out.

Here's the link if you would like to see:

Friday, January 8, 2010

Wild Things

pen and ink, marker, in my sketch book

Last week on my birthday we went to Madison to see the amazing film version of Maurice Sendak's 1963 Caldecott winning children's book Where the Wild Things Are. I was mesmerized by the visuals, and charmed by the child who portrayed Max. Unlike Ralphie in A Christmas Story, who is forced by his mother to wear a pink bunny suit, and is the image of misery, Max wears his wolf suit proudly. He is a wolf, a wild child, king of the wild things. I was intrigued by the way Dave Eggers and the other writers built on the basic story, giving it an even more universal appeal. Who hasn't been angry at the slights and limitations of his or her life? Who hasn't wanted to clobber her tormentors? Who hasn't wanted to start a rumpus?

All this led me to remembering my youngest sister, Mary. She was a sweet child, though she and my youngest brother, who was only a little over a year younger, got into plenty of trouble. "Let the wild rumpus start!" could have been their motto for several years. At any rate, in 1960 Santa brought her a flannel tiger suit. Perhaps Mother had been reading Winnie the Pooh, or maybe it had something to do with Kellogg's Tony the Tiger, or even the Esso gasoline ads that promised to "put a tiger in your tank." Mary loved her tiger suit, which at first was too large, so that the feet flopped. She wore it to sleep in. She wore it to play in. She wore it every day, everywhere, until finally she either outgrew it or it fell to rags. Mary earned her nickname, Tiger, a name she answered to her entire life.

I wonder if Sendak had a child in an animal suit?

Monday, January 4, 2010

January 4, 2010

watercolor, three vintage bitters bottles

It's cold and gray outside, and last night I was inspired to paint a few of the little bitters bottles I put on my bedroom windowsill for a touch of color. I'd like to know more about them. They have great names like ruby ball and claw, cobalt waterman, green mini corncob. I wanted to get going, start painting, after a few weeks of sloth. The transparent glass was a challenge, but fun to try. I especially liked the way the colors bled into the shadows beneath the bottles.

Here's a poem by Wendell Berry, a writer I have begun to read in the past year. He talks about writing poetry, but the ideas could be applied to painting as well.

How To Be a Poet
Wendell Berry
(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.


Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.


Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

2009 Reading, Some Favorites

I participate in a couple online book groups, and a local group. These folks give me lots of ideas of books to read, so many in fact that in 2009 I imposed an 500 page limit upon myself. I try to read a combination of fiction and nonfiction, and I like to do some re-reading of books I read when I was in high school and college, just to see if I can get more out of them now. I usually do. I also enjoyed reading some children's classics that I somehow missed before, and these were a delight as well. It's probably silly to list an arbitrary ten books, when I read so many (over a hundred, including some books of poetry and some drama), but I do it every year. I didn't include any art books, or books I was reading a second or third time. For better or worse, here goes:

Affinity - Waters, Sarah
The setting is Victorian London. There are two female leads, Margaret Prior, a nervous, pale, and unhappy girl who decides to visit lady prisoners at Millbank Prison after the death of her father. The other principal character is one of those prisoners, Selina Dawes, a spiritualist convicted of causing the death of her patron. This is in many ways a classic gothic novel, complete with creepy settings, mourning for lost loves, ghosts (maybe), and an undercurrent of passion. The story unfolds in chapters that alternate between Margaret's diary and Selina's. Waters never fails to pen page turners, and this one had me up late, anxious to see how the tangled web of the plot unraveled itself. The plot has more twists than London streets, a real pleasure.

Elegance of the Hedgehog, The - Barbery, Muriel
I wasn't keen to read this novel, chosen by my local book group, but I'm glad I did. I enjoyed the two protagonists, both of these bright outsiders, use their intellect as a sort of defensive shell, and each learns something from one another. The young girl reminds me a little of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Some of my group were put off by the discussions of philosophy, but others (including myself) found this to be a satisfying novel.

Evidence of Things Unseen - Wiggins, Marianne
I never wrote a review, so I stole this from the Amazon site. This novel was a discovery, one I will remember for a long time. Maybe one reason was that I read it right before I visited the Hanford site in Washington state. In 1911 or so my grandmother attended elementary school there.
In Evidence of Things Unseen, Ray Foster's passion is light, whether bioluminescence, starlight, or X-rays. He returns home from World War I and falls in love with Opal, seeing her for the first time through her father's glass blowing tube. Ray's best friend from the war, Flash, gets in trouble and Ray and Opal are forced to move to Tennessee. Ray gets a job with the TVA and takes a portable X-ray machine to county fairs to show people the bones in Opal's feet, and eventually works on the atomic bomb project at Oak Ridge. It is this passion for things unseen that eventually brings tragedy to their lives, and harbors ill for all of humanity.

Graveyard Book, The - Gaiman, Neil
I heard good things about Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, and for once the hype was justified. This YA novel appealed to this not-so-young reader very much indeed. The plot combines a murder mystery with a charming story of a boy raised by (nope not wolves) ghosts. A sort of Jungle Book of the graveyard. It begins with an English family of four, and three are killed. The baby, later called Nobody (Bod) Owens, is raised, taught and guarded from harm by the spirits of the departed. There is humor, action, and suspense. Great fun.

In Defense of Food - Pollan, Michael
The book has three main sections: The Age of Nutritionism, The Western DIet and Diseases of Civilization and Getting Over Nutritionism. There is also a good list of sources and resources for further reading. In the first section he defines nutritionism and casts doubt on much scientific research since World War II, especially Western society's low-fat craze. It had me remembering various "food pyramids" I studied in 4-H and high school classes, and wondering how much was at least wrong, or at worst harmful. He suggests that science does not completely understand what nutrients and micronutrients are necessary for health, and certainly does not understand the symbiotic relationships among nutrients. If it did, Americans would not be suffering from disease and obesity as much as they are. In the last section he makes some general suggestions for more healthful eating. Eat food, preferably something your great grandmother would recognize as food. Avoid foods with unfamiliar or unpronounceable ingredients - including high fructose corn syrup. Avoid products that make health claims. Shop the outside of the market and avoid the center where the highly processed foods lurk. If possible shop at farmers markets, or garden and grow some of your own food. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Popeye was right. eat wild foods when you can. Eat more slowly. Have a glass of wine.

Reservation Blues - Alexie, Sherman
At the beginning of Reservation Blues, Simon, an Indian who only drives backward (?!), notices a black man with a guitar by the side of the road. Is he lost? The solitary man turns out to be blues legend Robert Johnson, who acquired his prodigious musical talent through a deal with the devil. In the course of the story the cursed guitar passes on to the geeky and sweet Indian storyteller, Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Thomas, who is friends with two other Spokane Indians on the rez, and decides to start a rock band, Coyote Springs with his buddies. The plot centers on the way the friends interact with other people, a mysterious shaman/music teacher called Big Mom, and each other. I enjoy the way Alexie develops his characters, and the funny and poignant way he shows what life is like for them. One of my favorite scenes was when Coyote Springs does an encore song, Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.

Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The - Wroblewki. Dave
I enjoyed this sprawling novel set in my home state, Wisconsin. Before I ever started reading I knew from conversations with other reading friends that the plot was loosely based on Hamlet, so the way the plot unfolded did not surprise me. I was drawn into the life of Edgar, his mother and doomed father, and the very special dogs they trained. The elements of fantasy, or perhaps magical realism, didn't bother me at all. In fact the novel had elements I have always enjoyed in literature, a rural setting, animals, a protagonist who is something of an outsider, a touch of the supernatural. I also loved the writers style, his poetic use of language and sensitivity to the pain of loss.

Tale of Two Cities, A - Dickens, Charles
I find it difficult to believe that I did not read A Tale of Two Cities as a student, but I didn't. Maybe it's better that I waited until Dickins' wonderful story, at turns horrifying and inspiring, could be really appreciated. I knew, in general what would happen - I must have seen the old film - but I was not prepared for how vividly the characters are drawn or how beautifully the language is crafted. I was not prepared for the savagery of the action, or for my emotional reaction at the end. Dickins writes a cautionary tale of the terrible fruits of oppression, for in this novel aristocratic cruelty begets Republican cruelty, and the innocent suffer along with the guilty. Liberty comes at a terrible price in Revolutionary France. But despite the paradoxes of the time, we are reminded that for every Madame DeFarge or cruel aristocrat, there is a person who embodies love and honor.

Where the Bluebird Sings By The Lemonade Springs - Stegner, Wallace
Wallace Stegner is one of my favorite writers, whether writing fiction or nonfiction. I purchased this book to read on a long train trip home from Seattle to Wisconsin, and it turned out to be perfect for that trip through the high plains. This slim volume is a collection of essays covering a variety of subjects, his life, the geology and ecology of the West, analysis of his own writing and of other writers who wrote in or about the West. His writing is always clear, intelligent and straight forward. The third section "Witnesses" in particular interested me because he discusses writers such as John Steinbeck, Walter Van Tillberg Clark, George Stewart and Norman Maclean.

Wind in the Willows, The - Grahame, Kenneth
How on earth did I miss reading this delightful book as a child? The world of Water Rat, Mole, Badger and Mr. Toad is a charming one, filled with adventure, friendship, fun and foolishness. The writing is inventive and sometimes very funny, and the lessons about friendship and personal responsibility are as true now as they were when the book was first written.