Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Secret, Unknown Visual Language

Apartments Acrylic on paper, 30"x22"

This painting is based on an exercise set I did that reminded me of apartments in a building. I've had a devil of a time getting a good photo of it because it's on paper and not really very flat, and the acrylic is fairly reflective so it's hard not to get bright spots. Anyway, I've got it entered in the North Clackamas Arts Guild show in Milwaukie, OR on Oct. 10-12, if you're in the neighborhood and happen to drop by.

On Robert Genn's art discussion website, http://clicks.robertgenn.com/, a couple of subjects keep coming up that I really want to say more about, one is abstraction vs. realism. As far as abstraction vs. realism, I don't care as long as the painting is interesting to me. If it's realistic, it's not enough for it to be photo-realistic, no matter how technically perfect it is. I am really awed by the skill it takes to create that effect, but the colors, content, composition and what feelings it evokes in me are what make me want to look at it. I think I need paintings to leave room for my imagination for me to like them. When I do an objective painting, the better it turns out and the more realistic it looks, the less interested I am in it when it's done. Some part of my mind screams "BO-RING!" and I have to go look at something else.

On the other hand, I can look at two abstracts done by the same artist, in the same style, alike in many ways, and one of them will speak to me, attract me—and the other will not. One will feel like I know it intimately, and the other will have no meaning or interest for me all.

This phenomenon is something I've noticed time and again, and I've spent a lot of time wondering why it happens. But it is one of the reasons that I am intrigued with abstract art. When you take away recognizeable content, you can still be left with a painting that has emotional impact. I have developed this idea that the forms and colors of a painting actually stimulate various different areas of the brain when you look at it. It also happens that when memories are stored, they appear to be broken up into pieces and stored in different areas of the brain (at least if I understand the shows I watch on the Science Channel). So I'm thinking, if a painting happens to impact the same set of areas in the brain as where you have an important memory stored, maybe you get a mimic effect—without actually stimulating the memory, it evokes a phantom emotional response. Okay, it's a stretch, but it's one hypothesis.

The only other reason I can think of is that there is some mysterious capacity for non-verbal communication that is built into our mind and brains that we have not discovered yet and sometimes, without knowing they did it, an artist actually says something in that secret, unknown visual language. On one hand, that sounds fantastic and imaginary, but how different is that from the way that instrumental music can convey feelings and emotions?

The Sun-Drenched Afternoon Oil on canvas 24"x48"

I have this painting that was one of my first abstracts after I started painting seriously. It evolved from a really terrible painting that was part cheesy Kandinsky and part—well, I really don't know where it came from. But in repainting it, the new part of the painting built on that disaster and turned it into something completely different—and I love it. I named it The Sun-Drenched Afternoon because whenever I looked at it made me feel like I was driving through a sun-baked California valley with clear blue skies above, good music playing and no time pressure to do anything or be anywhere. It's been hanging on my wall for three years now, over my left shoulder right now, and it's like a member of my family. My art teacher at the time really liked it, but few others do, so it'll probably never sell. After living with it for so long, it's acquired its own personality, each shade of yellow and each little rectangle says something to me. I wish I "knew" what it's saying, but it doesn't communicate to me verbally, and I haven't figured out how to describe or convey that. It just feels good.

The funny part about this painting for me was that if I hadn't painted the crappy disaster first, I wouldn't have this painting that I really love now. Go figure.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Plein hot air

I went out and did some plein air this afternoon, in the beautiful garden at Wild Ginger Farm. It's the first time I've tried plein air in two years, and it was nice to be out. I took my clip-on umbrella and I'm really glad I did, as it was close to 90 degrees. I took oil pastels to have as little gear as possible (there is a puppy on the grounds), and at times it seemed like they were melting on the paper.

I really want to go back and try taking some acrylics. Maybe with my french easel I can keep the paints and the puppy separate. I'm happy that I was able to finish in the three hours I was there, and I'm glad I tried the things I did—the colors of the purple cotinus (smoke bush) on the right, and my attempt on the texture of the blue-green pine branches. Of course it's not a very good painting, but I was relatively successful getting the colors. I hope I might do better a second time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Quick-paint setup

I wanted to share the work setup I use in my studio for my warm-ups and acrylics on paper, with a sheet of 5x7 composition studies I'm working on. This is as close as I can easily come to Robert Burridge's setup. The purple barn bucket is my water container—I have the level low enough so it doesn't splash too much, but I can get a good hour's continuous painting in before I need a change. The masonite-looking board on the right below the paint jars is the 1/2" piece of masonite I bought to cover the jars so I don't have to mess with the lids every session. It's worth it to have all the jars be the same size so you can do this. The board I have is 14x18" and it more than covers the 19 jars I currently use. The paints are mostly the heavy body colors thinned with Golden flow release to a "soft" consistency, thicker than the fluid colors. I've tried the fluid colors and they're not thick enough for me. There's a lot of transparency in almost all the colors, so I use gesso to create a white spot if I need to put in light over a previously dark area.

The convenience of having colors ready to use, and in a consistency that's easy to mix either on a palette or on the painting is a big win for me. It seems to get all the prep work out of the way so once you start painting you don't have to stop for anything.

Catching Oopses

Voice of Autumn is an acrylic work I finished the other day. The idea originated a couple of years ago while I was playing in Photoshop with an image of an abstract fountain design I was contemplating and a picture I had taken in a grove of trees. When I composited the two together and applied some filters, the head of a woman appeared! I've wanted to do something with it all this time, and finally decided to see if I could make a painting out of it. This one is on paper, 12"x 20". It's entered in the North Clackamas Arts Guild show Oct. 10-12 in Milwaukie.

The funny thing with this one was that when I first viewed the small photo I'd taken of it, it looked like a woman's head with a giant white blobby hat on top of it. I hadn't seen that at all looking at the painting full-sized, and neither had my painting group. I had to do a little editing of the river form to make it look more like a river and less like a hat blob. That was a good reminder to me of the necessity of checking different views of a painting—from a distance, reversed in a mirror—before it gets released to the public. I've caught many imbalances, distortions and funny shapes looking at mirror images, especially on human figures. For some reason things will read fine in the orientation in which we created them, yet look totally goofy when the image is flipped. I think it's especially important that a viewer can make out the content of a painting even when it appears small or distant. Looking at your painting at different sizes can help you see weaknesses in composition that might be camouflaged by the details. Lately I've taken to looking at my work in very dim light, where I can only see the values. That tells me if I'm getting the dark-light contrasts, and range of values I want from it. And if I like the pattern of darks, the shapes and arrangement, I know I'll like the painting.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Wake up the rocks!

When I'm painting, I feel like painting reveals the keys to the universe. When I'm gardening, I feel like gardening tells me everything I need to know about living. Good teachers, they are.

I was out pulling weeds in my garden this morning, and this came to me:

Make of yourself a garden, where the trees grow strong to shade you from the glares of your critics. Hound the weeds till they respect you, and go back to their homes where they are not weeds, but honored citizens. Wake up the rocks!—make them ring with the sounds of your tools, and sing to the wide earth that you are here, that you claim this space as your own. Plant here your dreams and desires, to nurture and develop them as no one else can. Harvest your flowers and fruits in their season, with all the joy under Heaven, for you have taken a wild, rough thing, and brought it to beauty.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


Here's one of the exercises I did, mostly in an hour. It's a 14x20" watercolor paper sheet from a block, gessoed and painted with thinned acrylics. I had the basic idea of a tall range of violet mountains, with hills and meadows in the foreground. The idea is to work as fast as possible, and develop all the paintings at the same time, and I did all the mountains first, then all the skies, then all the foregrounds, one color at a time. After I got the foregrounds roughed in, I let it dry completely, then came back and tweaked them individually till I felt like stopping.

Funny things happen when you're working quickly on so many things at once. For one thing, it's a lot easier to keep from getting emotionally attached to any one of them, so you're not so afraid to try something you've never done before. In fact, you have to get more inventive, to keep them from all looking alike. And with all that quick action, things happen that you didn't plan, and you start getting comfortable with that. You don't worry about every stroke. You don't worry that no one will like it, or that it's not going to win any ribbons. As long as you keep working quickly, you don't have time to worry about anything. That's how I want to be all the time—painting and not worrying about it.

Friends and the search for knowledge

Always looking, always searching for things and people you can learn from, is one thing you can do to help you grow as an artist. Of course the other thing, the main thing, is to make art. To make more and more and more, because every one teaches you something you didn't know before. I was used to working on one painting at a time, pursuing it continuously from start to finish, when I realized I really wasn't ever going to be productive enough to be able to make a living as an artist. So when I got to a sticky point with a painting where I needed to think about how to go forward, I began starting a second painting, or even a third, so I didn't have to stop painting just because one had to dry, or sort itself out in my mind.

Last month, my friend and painting buddy Jackie McIntyre told me about the website of Robert Burridge, a California painter whose figurative abstracts had really captured her attention. Since becoming looser and more inventive is something I'm constantly working at, I decided to order his 'Loosen Up Painting Series' DVD, a real bargain with 3 different programs for $50. Nothing I ever watched has changed the way I work so much. I set up a table in my studio so I could copy his warm-up technique, and now three or four times a week, if I'm lucky, I find myself working on as many as 9 paintings at once! Of course they're all small—5x7"—but painting this way frees up my mind in a way I've never been able to before. More on this to come!