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June 2010

Janey Cutler at 80

Throughout our lives we come upon opportunities - to take a different path, or explore some inviting experience, to step out of our comfort zone.  These choices come along in the constant stream of our daily lives, and as often as we wonder what our lives might have been like "if only" we also know that we can only go in one direction at a time.  Often, that realization brings with it regret - but if you watch Britain's Got Talent and had the opportunity to see Janey Cutler, you might come away with a sense of optimism about what life gives us and when. 

Just a thought.  

You can watch Janey Cutler here.

Adventures in Plein Air

Ever since I heard the story about Childe Hassam loading up his mule and going off into the desert of Eastern Oregon to paint, I've had this idea about plein air painting.  Not the idea of going out with the mule (or the bottle of bourbon the artist was known to take along), but the romance of disappearing into the wilderness and returning with inspiration. It was something I knew one day I was going to do. 

Of course, first I needed to figure out how to set up my new french easel.  There were other things to figure out, too.  Like packing supplies.  Once, I took too many things.  Then I didn't take enough. Did I want a chair or not?  These things - while inconsequential now - seemed important at the time because I had this idea of what plein air painting was supposed to be.  We often gravitate to ways of thinking about something without actually being attentive to what those thoughts are.  Assumptions, which can be neither good nor bad, are part of daily life and get in the way of the things we actually could accomplish.

So my assumption was that if I were fully prepared I would be fully capable of producing a painting, and that all I needed was to feel in control over my environment.

Ironic, isn't it, when the idea behind plein air painting is to teach yourself about the landscape in an environment where you do not have a lot of control. After all, the traditions going back to oil paint in transportable tubes suggest that an accomplished artist can leave his studio and capture the light with a certain amount of flair. And it is like that - sort of.  Now that I've survived a few set-up-take-downs in the wilds of a local state park I feel I can comment about plein air painting with some authority.  Particularly about the greens.  You might want to have a good understanding about mixing greens before you go out. A lot of greens.  In fact, you might need more than raw sienna and ultramarine blue to do justice to all those greens.  Or pick a place that doesn't have so many trees. 

All kidding aside, Scott Christensen has a wonderful "musings" on his website, where he reminds artists of the goals in plein air painting.  I admire Christensen's skill and because of that I take seriously what he has to say, so I have in my library the recommended books by Edgar Payne, Carlson and Hawthorne.  But I needed more than a few excursions before I felt comfortable enough with the equipment, with the unique challenges posed by wind and sun and chipmunks, and with the overwhelming amount of ---well, nature out there -- before I could begin to find my rhythm.  Before I wasn't so fatigued by the learning process that I could feel energized by the challenge. 

Now I'm hooked.  I've gotten past the awkward first date stage.  I'm pretty handy at slinging the backpack and the easel and getting down the muddy riverbank without losing anything, including my cup of coffee. Sure, I've read advice from artists about what not to do but I still do it, partly because I want to find out why something doesn't work. And partly because I'm still so overwhelmed by the experience I forget the advice.  But here are some things I won't forget - like remembering the sunscreen.  And that Wet Ones are essential for cleaning the paint from your fingers.  

DSC05481 copy You see, expectations are never a reflection of reality.  They are either a wish or a fear.  And either I am wishing that I can learn a new skill without risking miserable failure, or I am afraid that in failing I will negate everything I have already learned. But at 62 I've concluded that it doesn't matter what my outcome is, it only matters that I got up, got out, and hiked that distance with my easel and backpack and survived.

I've learned something new about landscape painting through this experience.  Or at least about me outside painting the landscape.  And yes, it has to do with all those greens. 

The first few times I ventured out I was seeing paintings everywhere.  This was so great, the cool morning air, nothing but the sound of birds and an occasional fish jumping out of the water.  Who wouldn't find the idea of the artist painting in the wilderness romantic?  And in my swooning I was forgetting some of the basic lessons of art making.  I wasn't being fully attentive to what I was looking at - I was merely responding.  I wasn't seeing the right value patterns.  Yes, our brains are naturally hardwired to look for patterns, light against dark, and when I'm taking in an entire river bank, with the sky overhead, the willows and spring green grasses overflowing the bank and casting lovely reflections in the water - I'm seeing the big picture patterns.  Or I'm zeroing in on the lacy tracings of the branches in a single bush.  When I try to distill all that into the tiny space of my canvas, I'm overwhelmed by greens - or rather, by the same light plane values.  And I struggle for the entire painting session trying to define value changes that aren't there.  

So on my next excursion my intent will be to spend more time looking for subject matter that naturally presents interesting value changes.  And to think about the 4 light planes and how I can use them effectively to interpret what I am seeing.  I've realized that I can't start a painting the way I might start one in the studio, that I will need to find a new way in.  Next time, I'll look for some shade.  And I won't forget my hand mirror because for some reason I can't evaluate a painting's progress without seeing it in reverse and at a distance. 

DSC05486 copy And I promise not to get intimidated when the critics arrive.  Although I think they were more interested in handouts.  Sorry guys, the chipmunks made off with everything.

Working With a Limited Palette

   Whychus Creek copy

    Whychus Creek, 20x24 @2010

(Sorry about the glare specks in the water - the painting it still wet)

I've been painting with a limited palette.  The above painting was done using a variation on the classical palette but taking advantage of the development in fine pigments today.  The specific palette for this painting consists of four transparents: Transparent Red Oxide, Van Dyck Brown, raw sienna, and French Ultramarine, with a touch (only to modify the color of the water) of viridian.  The semi-opaques are natural yellow ochre, gold ochre ( for more pigment load) and cobalt blue.  I use zinc white because it is also considered transparent, less chalky.  And I have recently discovered the beauty of Ultramarine violet, which can lose it's pigment load quickly when mixed, but is perfect for graying down a color. 

Also, Gamblin has a series of premixed grays that are useful in  moderation.  It took me some experimentation before I found how to use these opaque pigments that can suck up the color intensity very quickly and move everything toward the cooler spectrum. 

One of the skills I've come to appreciate - and which they don't have enough time to teach you in a generalized art program - is how to mix color.  I think sooner or later every serious artist wants to - or needs to learn how to mix the colors they need and do it consistently.  I've managed to achieve  color harmony in the past by using pre-mixed, out of the tube paint with only slight modification, but I feel like I've exhausted myself with the effort and the surface quality of the painting feels forced or contrived.  It's almost not worth the battle.

I began to paint small studies with the challenge to find my colors through mixing alone, just to teach myself how to do it.  I did this after reading an article by Andrea J. Smith on Artist's Daily. I'm a great admirer of Andrea's work, and maybe one day when I grow up I will actually be able to visit her Atelier Canova in Italy and study there.  But when we can't always get the information we need from going to a place, we have to find it through every other method available to us.  As I've said before on this blog, an artist never stops learning.

Here is the link to Andrea's Limited Palette article on Artist's Daily.

The Value In Context

I was talking to an artist about his work and asked about a particular piece. He said he didn't want to tell me what to think, that I should find my own story in the painting. As his style is primarily narrative, I understood his reluctance to over-explain the imagery, but I was more curious about the way he found his ideas, what his thinking process was before he settled on a composition.

A lot of artists think talking about their work means telling people what to think. 

The downside of this belief means you bore people to death (this is a painting of my day spent at the mountains) or you don't really talk about your work (I prefer the viewer draw their own conclusions), or you expect someone else to do it for you (Hey, I don't know enough about this artist to tell you!).  None of these strategies are productive.

But there is a good reason for explaining the context for a painting or body of work.  Context sets the stage.  In the theater, we have a printed program explaining which character comes on in what order.  Before we can sit back to enjoy the play we want to know a little about the circumstances.

For example,  Jo-Ann Sanborn paints the environments of Marcos Island and the Florida Everglades. Reading her blog, you understand her passion for the fragile environment.  Knowing this context, the viewer is enriched in his own ability to construct meaning.

 Margret E. Short, from Portland, Oregon, started using context with her Lessons From the Low Countries still life series. Her inspiration came from the 17th century palette of works in Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art exhibit that was touring US museums.  On her blog, she explained the historical pigments, demonstrated how she ground her own paints, and keyed each of her paintings to a specific color palette existing in one of the masterworks.  This series was followed by one similarly inspired by Egyptian art.  Context created the armature, giving her work a deeper meaning for the viewer.

Context does not have to be monumental. It can be a few sentences. Trisha Hassler, another Portland, Oregon based mixed media fiber and metal artist, gives us context on the High Desert Gallery blog with just a few cues and our imagination takes it from there.

Take time to think about the context of your current body of work.   

It might be time well spent when it comes to generating gallery contacts and sales.