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February 2012

Pushing Your Art to the Next Level

An artist's "toolbox" is not just filled with the equipment he uses, but the experiences, ideas, passions, and stories that he wants to tell.  Sometimes, though, the stories are bigger than the skills, or the ideas applied to the wrong materials.  When this happens - at least in my own experience - frustration takes hold and I wonder if I will ever grow beyond the obstacles I see in front of me.

But - over the past few months I've been able to identify certain strategies that are more successful than others in pushing my art out of frustration mode into real growth:

 

1.  Change either the painting support, format, or size - or all of the above

 

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North or West?, version II, 18" x 36"

The first version of this painting was on mounted linen in a 12 x 18 inch size.  I was excited about the direction that North or West (first version) and the other "old road" paintings were going, but I wasn't sure how to develop my ideas.  I decided to switch to gessoed panels and completely change my painting style.

Working on panel successfully - for me - requires different painting skills, brushwork and innovation.  I needed to move from direct alla prima painting to an approach based upon drawing and layers of glazing and scumbling, building up the surface over a longer period of time. (This painting evolved over a two week period.)  While I was initially uneasy as to whether or not I could successfully pull off a painting of this size, I took the chance and gained not only a new skill set and confidence, but creative momentum.

 

2.  Explore unconventional subject matter

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That Summer When We Walked the Field, 12" x 36"

 

This is another painting on panel, actually completed before North or West

You can see the influence from Robert Bateman and Andrew Wyeth in this painting.  The subject matter - the edge of an irrigation canal - goes back to my early years in Oregon, and I was drawn to the emotional simplicity of the idea - which is what I find most comforting in Wyeth's work. Through the process of painting I realized I was never going to be one of those artists that could paint every blade of grass, so I needed to devise ways of accomplishing a visual reality in my own style.

I worked with scumbling colors and using a rag to rub "in and out" - a method of subtle blending in the under-painting to create form, and followed with a series of glazes, brushwork, more glazes and scumbling. Since the panel surface accepts paint differently than linen or canvas, it can take time to understand your brushwork.  But the insights let you work successfully through challenges and develop  confidence in your ability to manipulate both your paint and your surface. 

 

3  Repaint it, or over-paint it - just don't settle if it's not right

We all create work that doesn't meet our standards - some are "learning experiences" and some present the opportunity to really learn about what you are doing, even if you regret the outcome.

Lodgepole Pines is a painting I originally created in 2009.  While I liked the composition and the sense of the color temperature and light, I was really disappointed in my ability to control the brush and some of the painting mixtures.  After a disastrous attempt to "fix" a painting that I rather liked (one of the yellow cattle guard paintings from a previous post) by over-painting and totally destroying it, I decided to repaint Lodgepole Pines.

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Lodgepole Pines, 12 x 16, originally created in 2009

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 Lodgepole Pines, 12 x 16 Repainted 2012

The success of the second version of Lodgepole Pines comes from several factors:

  • I used one of the beautiful linen surfaces from Signature Canvas instead of a commercial canvas with a poor surface that would not allow for subtle brush marks and sensitivity
  • I had the first version to study and identify the successful and not-so-successful areas of execution
  • I had a better skill set in both my understanding of brushwork and paint manipulation, as well as how to create proper color temperature and surface interest. 

And the failure of my attempt to fix the yellow cattle guard painting came from these factors:

  • not taking the time to understand what was wrong with the painting
  • deciding that a "few dabs" of color would fix it, when in fact the visual issue I was trying to correct had to do with edges and needed to be corrected by painting wet-in-wet - in other words, a new painting
  • not realizing until I was well into the mess that once I began changing things I couldn't stop with one change - everything effects everything else, basic painting 101 which I ignored until it was too late

 

 Sometimes we take a chance and the outcome is positive.  It allows for growth, improvement and confidence.  Other times, we take a chance and are unhappy with the results - but before you give in to frustration, realize this:

In every painting there is something to be gained, even if you decide you made a dumb decision.  And no painting is so precious that it cannot be recreated. 

Newer, and better. 

 

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The Tree of Shoes

There is a tree of shoes near where I live.  At one time it was a cottonwood, but now is it something different, there by the side of the highway, bearing shoes instead of leaves. 

It started simply, no doubt through the random act of a brother irritated with his sister, for the first pair of shoes were pink sneakers tied together and dangling from a high branch.  After that, other shoes followed, slowly at first, then more, high-tops, running shoes, large and small, some painted fluorescent orange, tied by the laces like bolos or fetishes, a tree of shoes.  Some might wonder why people would waste perfectly good shoes in such a way, that certainly they have better things to do.  Others – so busy with their own lives – don’t even notice that the tree which once shaded the corner of the pasture now has no leaves, only shoes.  Perhaps there were too many leaves in the world, so why notice when there are less?

Nobody really knows why people began leaving shoes in the tree, but the owners of the property are leaving the shoes there.  One could argue that the only reason for that is because the highway is now too close to the tree to allow for safe removal of shoes.  Or that the owners aren’t even there anymore, only the renters, who probably don’t even notice the tree. 

One could also argue that sometimes, perfectly reasonable people decide that there is something greater in the idea of a tree of shoes, something that isn’t naïve, or foolish - given the prospects of financial success -  or that there are sometimes wonderful shoes and sometimes not so wonderful shoes hanging from the branches. 

Sure, there are people who throw their shoes into the tree and expect some reward in return, then become discouraged when there is none.  There are people who will look at all those shoes and think “ there are simply too many shoes in the world.” 

But there will be others who will leave their shoes in the tree because of that idea, the greater than the parts thing, the sense of belonging to a group of people who understand the sometimes quixotic notion that by adding to the branches of the tree of shoes they are joining in an endless conversation.

There is a tree of shoes near where I live.   

 

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 "It's a path for life as well as art." JS, USA

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Beyond Landscape and Meaning

There are a lot of reasons why people paint landscapes.  Just as there are plenty of reasons why the consumer likes them.  Easy to read.  Not likely to offend anyone, and pretty hard to get a political statement out of a painting of a tree. In fact, for the unofficial un-offending aspect there are landscapes just a step or two above that old standby beige paint.  Not that I have anything against beige paint.

So if you are a landscape painter, why do you care?  Why do you choose to paint mountains instead of figures, or still life or even abstract, which many artists claim has it's roots in the landscape but is so far removed it's hard to really tell? 

For that matter, why do you care what you paint, no matter what you choose to paint?

Because it isn't so much a question of what you care about, but whether or not you know why you care about it.  Not that caring will improve your work.  But not caring will most likely show up as beige paint.

 

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That Summer When We Walked the Field, oil, 12 x 36 © 2012

 

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