Monday, October 31, 2011

Across the Aegean

Yesterday I commented that back in 1998 I painted a still life that included two art books that my painting instructor owned, and I wrote about Venice Sketchbook.  The other title, which I eventually bought for myself, was Across the Aegean: Am Artist's Journey from Athens to Istanbul.  This latter title also is a series of travel sketches done in watercolor, with some personal reflections about the places the writer/artist visited.  While I had visited Athens in 2003, until this month I had never visited Turkey, so much of the book didn't mean a whole lot to me until now.  Marlene McLoughlin's sketches in pen and paint are smaller than Hank Scarrey's, more personal in their subject matter, and more pastel in their use of color. 

McLoughlin's sketches are often of her impressions of sunsets, hillsides, farm animals, and sun washed buildings and architectural details.  She doesn't include people very often.  But because I remembered her sketches I found myself looking at little things, food carts, pigeons, chairs, and olive leaves.  Here are a few of my photos that I think might have caught the eye of the author of this charming travel sketchbook.

This little potted orange tree sat near the entrance to a Greek winery on the  Peloponnese peninsula. I failed to get a good picture of the peacocks that wandered under the trees there.

These donkeys are for hire to carry tourists 800 feet up a twisting and steep path from the dock to the village of Thira, on Santorini.

The waters at the Strait of Bosphorus are filled with traffic.  Here you can see a tugboat and a water taxi.  In the background is the Bosphorus Bridge, over 4,000 feet long, linking Europe and Asia. At night it it lit with red and white lights, creating a dramatic zigzag in the dark.

The spires of Hagia Sophia make the skyline dramatic in Istanbul.  To the left in the trees is Topkapi palace, and to the right, cut out of the photo is the Blue Mosque.  There was a sort of haze over the city both days we were there, and I suspect it is smog from the heavy car and bus traffic.

These are windows from the harem at Topkapi palace.  The place was beautiful, ornately decorated with frescoes, tiles, calligraphy, and stained glass like you see here.

While we didn't get to see the ruins or sculptures at Athens because of dock and transportation workers strikes, we did see the wonderful ruins at Ephesus.  The library and terrace houses were particularly impressive to me.

I find myself very much attracted to cypress trees that are found all over the Mediterranean, in Italy, Greece, and here at Ephesus.

While McLaughlin includes watercolor sketches of dogs, of which we saw plenty, but she doesn't include any cats.  Because my husband and I have a spoiled pet cat, and missed her the two weeks we were gone, I found myself noticing the many cats that roam all over Greece and Turkey, almost of of whom were friendly, vocal, and very much at their ease. This one rested outside the museum of antiquities removed from the Ephesus site.

I still have not sat down to do any painting, and am finding it hard to leave my photos quite yet.  Soon, I hope, I can get back into a regular schedule here at home.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Considering Venice

I have been to Venice three times.  In 1972 I traveled by train with my high school girl friend Rosemary, and we visited Venice for four hours on a hot July afternoon.  I was not impressed.  The crowds were horrible, and the water filled with floating garbage.  I have no pictures.

Last year we visited by bus in chilly March with a group from UW Whitewater, and we found scant crowds, and it was cold.  But the beauty of the city disarmed me, the bridges, water, elegant facades, even the ladies dripping in furs who commanded the street in front of the Venice opera house, all took my breath away.  I still dream of a little restaurant in a back street where we paid inordinate sums of cash and were fed the best fresh seafood of my life. I took scads of photos and was beginning to fall in love.

Then we took a Mediterranean cruise this month, flying into Marco Polo airport and then boarding a huge Holland America ship.  It began and ended in Venice, and the city captured my heart forever.

Backing up a bit, specifically to 1998.  I had lost my best friend, a fine artist and teacher, to cancer, and had decided to start painting again.  It was clear to me that a long life was not a sure thing, and that there was no point in waiting until I retired to restart my art.  So I took a summer watercolor class with Amy Arntson, a fine painter, at Whitewater.  The big final class project was a still life, and I used one that included two art books in the painting, both of which belonged to the instructor.  One was Venice Sketchbook, by Huck Scarrey.  Two years ago I bought a copy of this slim volume of watercolor and pen and ink sketches for myself, and I revisited it before our trip to Venice this month.

Scarrey has clearly lived in Venice, seen its tourist attractions, but also its back streets and islands.  He has been there all times of year, all weather.  I love his sketches, the quick and the complete, and reading the book before we arrived helped me decide what to look for, and reading it afterward reminds me of what I've already seen myself, and makes me want to return to see more.

I have real difficulty in drawing and sketching en plein air, especially when time is short, and there are other people's schedules to consider.  But I take my camera with me everywhere, and I was interested to see that my photos conform to Scarrey's divisions in his book. Perhaps I can use my personal photos to create a sketchbook of my own, although created at home and after the fact.

Here are some of Scarrey's chapter headings, and my photos that fit each category.

CANALS: Canals are the streets for vehicles (boats) in Venice, and the Grand Canal is the main street.  The canals are busy with all manner of boats - water taxis, vaporettos, fishing boats, cruise ships, all use the canals.  But the areas where people walk are free of traditional vehicles, which contributes to a sort of quiet that I like very much.

BRIDGES: There are hundreds, including the famous Bridge of Sighs, which is still swaddled in plastic for renovation.  This photo is of the famous Rialto Bridge.

FACADES: The old buildings of Venice are build in the water, not just next to it, a fact that always amazes me. The warm Mediterranean colors, the Moorish windows, the extravagant chimney pots, all are worth considering.

SAINT MARK'S SQUARE:  This is what everyone comes to see, the Basilica di San Marco, with it's fantastic pillars and domes, tiles and mosaics.  It is the heart of Venice, and these days while there are still legions of pigeons, there are even more people.  Still, I catch my breath a little every time I see it and the famous bell tower across the plaza. I took this photo through the glass of the observation lounge of the Niew Amsterdam, our cruise ship.  It gave me a very different perspective than I had from standing at ground level.

MASKS:  When we visited in March last year it was just after carnival, and I found myself taking photo after photo of masks in shop windows.  This time I didn't as much, so the photograph is from last year's trip. I sometimes dream about having a gorgeous mask, and a heavy hooded cloak to wear to Halloween events in chilly Wisconsin. Not this year, though.

ISLANDS: As we flew into Marco Polo airport this year I could see that Venice has many many islands, many connected by canals.  But there are large islands that can only be reached by boat.  Last year we visited two of them, Murano, where famous glass factories still operate, and Burano, a fishing village that also is the home of world-famous lace makers. I love Burano best for the brightly colored houses, many with laundry hanging out the windows to dry.

Scarrey also has other chapters about the seasons in Venice, and of the many docks and boats of the area, though I don't have many pictures that correspond to those areas.  I know that nearly everyone who paints eventually paints scenes like these I've posted here, because they are beautiful.  I will paint them as well, though probably for my private sketchbooks, more as a way of reliving the experience than with any though of offering the results for anything public.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

High Horizontal

5x7 inches, torn and cut altered papers

This week I am relearning what I knew for years.  One of the best ways to understand something is to explain it for someone else.

I am part of a small group of artists who meet at a local senior center (that sounds bad, but isn't), who meet once a week for a couple hours to make art and talk together.  Most paint or draw, though one other woman has been experimenting with collage work.  Officially it is called Open Art Studio, but I have come to think of it as Art Play Date.

Anyway, I agreed to demonstrate how I have been using altered papers in collage work.  I plan to demonstrate how to create the papers with CitraSolv and National Geographic magazine photographs.  It occurred to me that making the papers doesn't really give people much of a start unless I also demonstrate some examples of how I have used the papers.   Which led me to the idea that I should make a small series of abstracts with just the altered papers, perhaps also demonstrate some sample compositions.  That's why I made this one.  I used cut and torn papers horizontally toward the top of the image, perhaps suggesting some sort of landscape - or not.  My dear husband says the squares destroy the suggestion of landscape, though I disagree. I plan to make another with horizontal elements toward the bottom of the paper as well, and one with vertical elements, radial composition, and so on.

I like this little abstract as it is, but I find myself constantly wondering, "What if?"  What if I use a spray adhesive instead of a glue stick or gel medium?  What if I varnished the piece with an acrylic top coat?  What if I stenciled something over the image, or added some texture, like corrugated cardboard? How about sprayed on webbing or a bit of gold leaf?  What if I tried duplicating the colors, textures in paint in a much larger format?

Probably the only way to learn the answers is to make a series of similar pieces and try out the ideas, which multiply like wire hangers in a dark closet once I get going.  But for now, I think I had better just make the demonstration pieces and let my fellow art playmates come up with some ideas of their own.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Found Art Mask; Why I Carry a Camera

I try to carry my camera most days, because I never know when I fill find something wonderful.  My husband doesn't take pictures, doesn't think a person can really see the world through the lens of a camera, but he knows he cannot change my long-held habits, so has stopped trying. Honestly, I have never regretted lugging along a camera, but I have regretted leaving it behind.  Once, on a trip to London, it was the last day and I was tired and we were just going to McDonalds for some breakfast.  It turned out it was the opening of Parliament, and the Queen rode by in the back of her limo, and I had no camera. 

I digress.

This face, or mask, was a bit of found art on a utility pole outside the old cemetery, established in 1847 after a devastating hurricane, in Key West.  I went looking for wandering chickens, unusual headstone inscriptions (I told you I was sick), and the historical marker for soldiers killed when the battleship Maine was blown up.  We found all those things, plus this I found this image on a utility pole just outside the gates.  I'm not sure what it represents, but I found it to be compelling, and I had my camera with me.

We Wear the Mask

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
       We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
       We wear the mask!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

For Indian Summer

By Grace Paley


What is sometimes called a  
   tongue of flame
or an arm extended burning  
   is only the long
red and orange branch of  
   a green maple
in early September   reaching
   into the greenest field
out of the green woods   at the
   edge of which the birch trees  
appear a little tattered   tired
   of sustaining delicacy
all through the hot summer   re-
   minding everyone (in  
our family) of a Russian
   song   a story
by Chekhov   or my father


What is sometimes called a  
   tongue of flame
or an arm extended   burning
   is only the long
red and orange branch of
   a green maple
in early September   reaching  
   into the greenest field
out of the green woods   at the  
   edge of which the birch trees
appear a little tattered   tired
   of sustaining delicacy
all through the hot summer   re-
   minding everyone (in  
our family) of a Russian
   song   a story by
Chekhov or my father on
   his own lawn   standing  
beside his own wood in
   the United States of  
America   saying (in Russian)
   this birch is a lovely
tree   but among the others
   somehow superficial

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bringing it Home

I've been home a week from  my Robert Burridge workshop, a little miffed that the weather at Lac du Flambeau was so crummy, but happy that Indian Summer has arrived in southern Wisconsin.  

It always takes me a while to process what I've seen at workshops, and the first couple days were mostly spent unpacking and rearranging my studio.  About seven years ago I converted a narrow spare bedroom, large enough for only a twin bed and an easy chair, into my studio.  It's charming in some ways, cozy, paneled with old pine, with sloping ceilings.  It also is rather dark, with only two small dormer windows.  After I took down and stored the bed I brought a florescent shop light up from the basement, added a full spectrum light, and I use what I have.  I have one of those collapsible work tables that people use for church potlucks and rummage sales, and that is where I do my artwork.  Bob Burridge said something that should have been obvious to me for the past years.  If you are right handed, put your paints, pencil sharpener, brushes and so on on the right side of the table.  

Well, duh.  Why couldn't I figure that out?

I decided to reorganize.  A small set of shelves cluttered with miscellaneous supplies, papers, watercolor palettes were moved off the table.  Then I moved the container of pens, pencils, scissors and other tools I use on a daily basis to the right side of the work table.  A small crookneck lamp and electric pencil sharpeners moved to the right as well. I covered the dark brown table with white shelf paper long ago for more reflected light, and I took Burridge's suggestion and covered the space with 4 mil. sheet plastic.  I use this surface as my acrylic palette, and occasionally peel up dried paint for little play pieces like the birds you can see in the first picture.  It allows me to feel like a little kid again in some ways; I don't worry too much about being messy.

5x5 inches, acrylic

I painted the bird, but I copied the idea from Bob Burridge.  He does a demonstration series in his workshops to show a way to use the dried acrylic paint from the plastic sheeting.  He also demonstrates negative painting with these birds.  They're fun, playful, spontaneous, colorful.  He calls his "circus birds" because the colors remind him of circus costumes, and for him that's appropriate.  He once worked in a circus.  I never did. 

Which brings me to a concern I have about attending art workshops.  How does a person learn attitudes and techniques from teachers without losing a little bit of personal style in the process?  Perhaps painting like the last workshop instructor is just a temporary affliction, a way to practice concepts.  I learned a bit about color choices, about use of materials, about working in series with a playful attitude, a good signing pen (Sharpie paint pen).  I know he doesn't care if we do an entire flock of paint blob birds, since everyone necessarily brings a bit of themselves, even to copies.  But I struggle to decide how to apply other people's good ideas about painting to subjects that are close to my own heart and experience.  It drives me a little crazy to recognize when a painter has just worked with a popular teacher by the style of the painting.  Hey, did you just take a workshop with (fill in the blank)? I imagine I'll be painting vases of flowers, drippy trees and "ethereal landscapes" for a while, but I hope that it isn't too long before they look like they belong to me.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Week in Lac du Flambeau

My husband and I just returned home to an extremely welcoming cat last night after a week spent four hours north in Vilas County.  Back in March when I was dreaming about which art workshop I might take this year, I discovered that Dillmans Resort was hosting acrylic painter Robert Burridge at the end of September.  I had taken a watercolor workshop there back in 1997, right after my best friend died of a brain tumor at the age of forty-seven. She had been a good painter and a fine potter, and I decided after her death that I would not wait until I retired to start making my own art.  So, I signed up for a week long class, and went on my own.  While the instructor was compassionate and skillful, the facilities wonderful, I was lonely and overwhelmed by everything I didn't know.  I cried alone in my cabin at night in frustration at my lack of painting skill and grief at the loss of my friend, but knew that some day I wanted to come back.

This time was different. I have more painting skills, know what to pack and what to leave home, know that my best work will come after the workshop, not during it.  This time my husband came along.  I convinced him that the colors would be at their peak, that he could bicycle all day while I was in class, that we could go out on Sand Lake, listen to loons, watch for eagles, and eat out at the "up north" supper clubs at night. And I was excited about learning more about painting with acrylics from Robert Burridge.  I can't remember how I discovered his web site about three years ago, but I had been reading his newsletter, taking notes, and I liked his energy and style.
We rarely had the opportunity to gravel north during peak colors when I was teaching.  Usually we couldn't get away until late October, and by then the leaves had fallen from the trees.   This time the colors were good at the beginning of the week and magnificent by the time we left on Friday.  The area is pretty quiet now that the weather is cooler and children are in school.  Most of the week was cool and there was some rain every day but one, but we could still hear the loons calling in the morning and at dusk, and my husband still rode his bike part of each day.
A couple of times we made coffee early, and went down to one of the piers for some quiet time.
We could hear the loons, and saw them a couple times.  I took this photo when the painting group went out for a pontoon ride on the Sand Lake.
Wednesday was the clearest day, so we made a point of watching the sunset over the lake just outside our lodging.
But of course the point of the week for me was to learn from a painter I admire, to acquire and polish my painting skills, to be energized and inspired, and to have a good time.  That last point is important, and is one reason I chose to spend my time and cash on this particular instructor.  More than once I have regretted setting aside time and money to take a class from a person whose work I did not end up admiring, or whose planned activities were not what I had expected based on the class description.  Once or twice I have taken workshops from instructors who had obvious disdain for the students, who appeared bored themselves, or who spent the entire time painting art that was not so much a demonstration as simply time spent to produce a painting the artist hoped to sell to someone in class.  There needs to be a balance between lecture/observation, and student work time and critique. From what I had read on his website and newsletter over time, from what I had seen on YouTube, and from the recommendations of other art bloggers whose opinions I respect, I thought Burridge's Loosen Up With Aquamedia class would be worth my investment.

In Bob Burridge's August Artsy Fartsy newsletter he has a checklist of things people who teach and mentor young people should strive for in their instruction, and I'm borrowing from that newsletter here, because these are the things that I look for in a teacher for myself.

Discard everything that is unnecessary.
Aim to be simple.
Relax, abandon yourself. Fear nothing.
Compress time. Aim at succeeding, don't waste an instant.
Don't take yourself seriously.
Don't hurry, don't rest.
Use self-humor.
Don't be afraid to be a little foolish.
Have endless patience.
If faced with overwhelming odds, occupy time with something else.
Have endless capacity to improvise.
Bring abstract ideas to concrete form.
Assume that students enjoy learning.
Believe that children (any learners - my word choice) are perfect, and we're just building on their strengths.
Support everything with a visual aid.
Insure no possible way to fail.
A teacher must be upbeat and positive.
If the goal is only to learn facts, then we lose the chance to know that learning is very exciting.

Bob Burridge is certainly an entertainer and self-promoter, but under jokes and a light approach, he has real skill and passion as a painter, and a temperament that allows for and embraces a wide variety of personalities and skill levels in his workshop participants.  He is organized, patient, and comes with many examples of painting approaches and printed handouts for students to take home and read after the class has finished.  

All that, and he plays good music too.

I hope I can internalize some of his philosophy, move ahead with my artwork, and take another class from him in the future.

I would love to hear from other people who take art workshops. Who are some instructors who have made a powerful positive impression on you?  What qualities do you look for in an art teacher for yourself?