M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Painting From Photographs

I normally work from plein air sketches or my imagination, but the scene I photographed in Costa Rica was just too beautiful to pass up. I changed the foreground to make it more interesting and to introduce lines to direct viewers' attention around the composition, and I got rid of the overhanging branches since they suggested something beyond the canvas that wasn't resolved. While painting, I spent quite a bit of time trying to add variety to the otherwise monochromatic palette of greens, mixing various combinations of warm (ultramarine blue + cadmium yellow) and cool greens (Winsor blue + cadmium lemon); and I glazed mixtures of Galkyd medium and transparent colors (transparent red oxide, Indian yellow, Winsor blue). Now I'll spray it with retouch varnish to unify the surface with a gloss.
The painting is 18" x 24", oil on canvas. I'm going to put it on a shelf in my office so I can imagine being back in the tropical environment when I'm stuck in cold, wet, chaotic New York City.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Paradox and Equilibrium

"Hercules Protecting the Balance Between Pleasure and Virtue," by David Ligare, 1993, oil, 60 x 56. Private collection, Santa Barbara, California.

"Still Life With Apples (Aparchai)," by David Ligare, 2008, oil, 20 x 24. Courtesy Hirschl & Adler Modern Galleries, New York, New York.

As bad as the art business has been in the past 18 months, there are some benefits to galleries closing, downsizing, or changing direction. For example, with the closing of Hackett-Friedman Gallery in San Francisco, several important artists have been picked up by New York galleries, including my friend David Ligare. I've admired David's classically inspired still lifes and figure paintings for more than 25 years, and I had the chance to visit his mountain-top studio in California a few years ago. I'm delighted that with the demise of his San Francisco gallery he will moving work to New York where it will be exhibited at Hirschl & Adler Modern.

What I find particularly interesting about David's paintings is that he finds ways of updating themes from the history of art that have particular relevance for modern times. For example, a number of his paintings deal with the themes of balance and paradox, or the need to establish a harmonic relationship between seemingly contradictory human tendencies. He often uses classically draped figures in the landscape to explore the forces of passion and reason -- the Apollonian and Dianysian traits most people have -- as well as the theme of life and death. As David has said, "the balance of opposites is the essence of Classicism," and the issues have interested painters for centuries. In David's case, he uses a stark, photographic light and the California landscape to certify that the themes are exceedingly relevant to the 21st century.

Another theme David pursues in his still life paintings is the celebration of nature. Several years ago he came across something called "aparchai," or wall decorations in the ruins of Pompeian homes that celebrated the annual harvest. In some cases, the frescoes showed folding screens that could be opened when residents celebrated the new harvest and praised the gods for delivering it to them. David did several paintings with folding screens added to their frames, and he also painted a variation of an aparchai using the three-sided platform on which he has been painting still lifes for decades. The suggestion is that the still lifes are forms of celebraton and worship.

If you don't already know David's work you might want to check out his website (http://www.davidligare.com/) or his gallery's (http://www.hirschlandadler.com/).

Monday, December 21, 2009

Your First Art Exhibition

My drawing is the one in the middle of the 1955 newspaper magazine article.

The photograph in the middle was staged after the newspaper decided to publish my drawing.

[This blog was first published on the American Artist website (http://www.artistdaily.com/) on June 29, 2009, but my mother recently sent me the newspaper article referred to in the blog so I though I would re-post it with those two pages].
If you are like most artists, you have a clear recollection of how you felt when one of your drawings or paintings was first put on display on a school bulletin board, in an art-school exhibition, or in a commercial gallery. All of a sudden, the artwork you didn't think much about became the focus of attention among your fellow students, family members, neighbors, teachers, and friends. And if you saved that early work of art, it has taken on even greater significance in the passing years. In fact, the importance accorded that first publicly displayed picture may have contributed to your becoming an artist today.
My first public recognition as an artist came when I was in second grade at Bienville Elementary School, in New Orleans. My crayon drawing of the classroom with my best friends standing at the blackboard and the clock accouncing the 3p.m. end of the school day was reproduced in the February 27, 1955 edition of The Times-Picayune newspaper in the Dixie Roto magazine section, along with a phtoograph of the actual classroom and selected students. That's the day all my friends and relatives decided I was an artist.
Your experience may have been more nerve racking than mine. After all, most young people are very nervous during their first public speech or exhibition, and many adults hate attending the opening of their art shows. Nevertheless, the recognition can be extremely encouraging to artists of any age because it allows them to see how others respond to their intensely personal, private activities in the studio.
I'd be interested to know if you also have clear recollections of that first public display of your artwork and the bundle of emotions that came with the experience.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Telling Stories in Paintings

Burton Silverman near two self-portraits

Silverman's New York Studio and several paintings in progress
I visited Burton Silverman's studio (http://www.burtonsilverman.com/) to interview him for an article in the spring, 2010 issue of Workshop magazine (http://www.artistdaily.com/), and we talked about the workshop he recently taught at the Art Students League of New York (http://www.theartstudentsleague.org/), his career as a teacher and artist, and the potential of representational artwork to tell meaningful stories. As you probably know, Burt used to do portrait drawings for The New Yorker magazine, paintings for the cover of Time, and lots of other editorial illustrations; and he has been one of the top portrait painters and gallery artists for the past 50+ years.
While talking about his illustrations and a collection of drawings he did of civil rights workers in the 1950's, Burt pointed out that while illustrations are often dismissed by critics as being slick, obvious, or shallow, they do have the power to express significant ideas. "Until the late 19th century, almost all art told stories from the Bible, history, mythology, or politics," he explained. "Even the great portraits by Velasquez, Rembrandt, and Sargent told stories about the times in which the person lived. For centuries it was acknowledged that artists could create powerful 'illustrations' that were also great works of art."
Burt pulled paintings out of the bins in his studio to show some of the themes that have interested him in recent years, including portraits of laborers, paintings of nudes posing in his studio, studies of clothed models, and commissioned portraits. He explained that the laborers appealed to him because they were confident, proud individuals; or because they gave him an opportunity to paint figures in the landscape. He pointed to one oil painting of a young man wearing a scarf on his head and a backpack over his shoulders, and another of a shirtless cement mixer. There was a commissioned portrait of a lawyer on his easel, and he pointed out that the man's posture said a great deal about his personality. "I don't get commissions from people who want to look as though they lived in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century," he explained. "When they see samples of my portraits they know I am interested in showing who they are, not what they might have looked like 100 years ago."
The conversation with Burt reminded me of the paintings I saw the day before when I toured an exhibition a The Metropolitan Museum of Art (http://www.metmuseum.org/) titled "American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life (1764-1915). The 100 paintings are view until January 24, 2010 and travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from February 28-May 23, 2010. The museum describes the exhibition as one that "examines stories based on familiar experience and the means by which painters told their stories through their choices of settings, players, action, and various narrative devices. The artists' responses to foreign prototypes, travel and training, changing exhibition venues, and audience expectations are examined, as are their evolving styles and standards of storytelling in relation to the themes of childhood, marriage, the family, and the community; the production and reinforcement of citizenship; attitudes towards race; the frontier as reality and myth; and the process and meaning of art making. " There is a catalog for the exhibition.
Those of us who, like Burt Silverman, are challenged to tell stories through our art may find this exhibition and the article in Workshop to be of interest.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Christmas Angels

My brother, Chuck, and I looking at the angels Christmas morning, 1955

One of the seven 1954 Christmas angels in Rockefeller Center in New York City
near the angels and tree

Still life painters often say they are most inspired when focused on objects of personal significance -- family heirlooms or photographs, saved toys, favorite foods, or flowers from their garden -- because of the emotional connections and the opportunity to tell a story that unified the painting composition. I thought about that as I brought Christmas decorations out of the boxes they have lived in for 55 years. Those tree ornaments and mantel decorations really do hold a lot of memories that could guide me through a painting.

Many of those decorative objects conjure up pleasant memories of the children who painted them, the relatives who crafted them, and the friends who gifted them. But they also remind me of the loved ones who are no longer around to celebrate the holidays.

One particular set of seven painted balsa wood angls holds special significance at Christmas. They were made for me in 1954 by a family friend, Ed Buwe, from a pattern published in Good Housekeeping magazine. Ed was one of the people who encouraged me to become an artist. Actually he wanted me to study architecture and specialize in illustrating building designs, but the fact that he saw promise in my childhood drawings and paintings was enormously encouraging to me.

The decorations also remind me of a former co-worker who would check herself into a mental hospital over the Christmas holidays because she couldn't cope with the sadness of not having a family to surround her. During the holidays I am very thankful to have close friends and family with me, along with the objects that remind me of people who have enriched my life. I hope you do as well.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Art Competitions I'll Be Judging

I've agreed to judge four national art competitions in 2010, and I thought I would spread the word to my friends who might be interested in competing for some significant prize money and recognition.

1. Pleiades Gallery 28th Annual Juried Exhibition (http://www.pleiadesgallery.com/). This venerable New York City co-op gallery has asked me to select the work their annual competition. It is open to all media, entrants must submit CD's only (JPEGS), no 2-D work can measure larger than 60" x 48", and the entries must be postmarked by May 22, 2010. The exhibition in the Chelsea gallery will be from July 15-August 7, 2010.

2. National Oil & Acrylic Painters' Society (http://www.noaps.com/). June Wayne once presented an exhibition in New York that opened during a snow storm, and very few people attended the reception. However lots of people called June and wrote her letters saying they loved the print reproduced on the invitation and would make an effort to see the show before it closed. June's comment to me was "next time I will send out invitations and I won't bother hanging the show. No one saw the New York show, but everyone had a favorable response." I thought of that comment on the two previous occasions when I traveled to the Ella Carothers Dunnegan Gallery in Bolivar, Missouri to judge the annual NOAPS show. The large, attractive gallery is in the middle of nowhere and very few people actually get to see the first installation of the NOAPS exhibition, but the show gets lots of publicity and travels, and all the winning pictures are seen on the organization's website. As June Wayne might say, publicity is sometimes the most significant result of an exhibition. The prospectus is not ready right now, but the exhibition will open in September so I assume entries will be do in mid-July.

3. PleinAir Easton (http://www.pleinaireaston.com/). This annual competition brings together plein air painters from around the country, although the majority of the participants are active in the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area. There is a significant amount of prize money, and while I will be selecting the artists for the 2010 event, museum director Jan Stern will be awarding the prizes. The prospectus should now be available for the event that takes place from July 18 to 23rd (with the exhibition remaining on view until the 25th when the winners will be invited to a special paint-out and brunch.

4. Blossom II -- Art of Flowers (www.blossomartcompetition.com) is sponsored by the Susan K. Black Foundation and opens in the spring of 2011 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The Best of Show prize is $25,000, and additional prizes totalling $40,000 will be awarded. When I served on the jury of awards several years ago, I was surprised that there weren't more outstanding paintings entered in the contest. Considering the amount of prize money and the fact that the show will travel, I think every talented artist who paints flowers should enter. Entries must be postmarked by September, 2010.

Good Luck!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Landscapes as Metaphors for Our Lives

"The Carry," by Andrew Wyeth, 2003, egg tempera. Private collection.

"Road Cut," by Andrew Wyeth, 1940, egg tempera, 15 1/8 x 34 1/2. Collection the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine.

"Palladian Villa in Tuscany," by M. Stephen Doherty, 2002, oil, 11 x 14.

My wife and I attended a concert by Michael Feinstein and David Hyde Pierce Saturday evening, and during one of Pierce's solo performances he sang "Your Face on My Pillow," a love song that John Kander wrote for his partner. The lyrics describe Kander's joy in waking up next to the person he loves, and it uses landscape images as metaphors for both the struggles and comforts of a daily life. At one point the song refers to the storms of the day being chased away by the proximity of his partner, and that particular image resonated with both my average workday and my landscape paintings.
The more I thought about Kander using sunlight, storms, and calm skies to identify his feelings, the more I considered that we artists use landscape forms as representations of our thoughts and feelings. For example, in his book Andrew Wyeth. Autobiography (Bullfinch Press, 1995), Mr. Wyeth mentions that one of his early egg tempera paintings captured both his personality and his ambitions for himself and his fiance, Betsey; and the wall text describing his 2003 painting The Carry (in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's 2006 exhibition, Memory & Magic), Mr. Wyeth explains that he invented this landscape scene to represent the turbulence of the 1980's when his drawings and paintings of Helga Testorf became the subject of so much gossip and controversy. He once told me that was an extremely difficult period of time for him, and we an actually read his feelings in the details of The Carry.
My painting of a Tuscan hillside is partially based on scene I observed, and partially on feelings I have about the classical order and symmetry of 18th century buildings by Palladio. To me, his buildings embody the peace, order, and discipline I would like to have in my life; and placing one of them in a real Italian landscape seemed to convey that desire.
I wonder if you ever see the elements in you landscape paintings as metaphor for the things you feel, want, or consider. Do you paint the "storms" of your life, or do you imagine a better world? I'd be interested in knowing that.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Watercolor Painting As a Live Performance

I normally paint with oils mixed with Galkyd fast-drying medium, so I assume I can make radical changes in the composition of shapes, values, and colors as I formulate the intended outcome of my pictures. But I had to exercise more thought, control, and restraint when I painted scenes of Costa Rica in watercolor during a recent vacation with my family.
It occured to me that one might compare the difference between painting with watercolors and oils as the difference between a live stage performance and a filmed presentation. With watercolor, every gesture is observed and judged by the audience of viewers as if they were watching the painting take shape; whereas with oil the performance is carefully edited so that only the best strokes are seeen. That is, each stroke of watercolor paint brushed across a sheet of paper affects the surface in a way that is permanent; so an artist has to plan the mixtures of pigments and the sequence of application in such a way that a carefully considered result is achieved. Adjustments can be made, and lots of teachers explain how to "salvage" a painting that is either timidly executed of overworked, but the best results are almost always the result of deliberate, planned, and economical actions.
After working on three paintings of the Costa Rican landscape that lacked this kind of sponteneity,freshness, and clarity, I achieved some level of success while sitting on the white sand beach in Manuel Antonio, a growing tourist city along the Pacific Ocean. I drew the key elements of the scene on a 9" x 12" block of Arches watercolor paper using a Sakura Koi Watercolor Brush, a plastic pen that holds and releases watercolor paint like a felt-tipped pen. I filled the pen with a mixture of transparent, non-staining pigments (rose madder genuine, cobalt blue, and aureolin) so the drawn lines with disappear as I brushed stronger colors over them. I started by painting the sky area, applied a dark base color to the rock formations, and gradually refined each area of the picture over a period of 90 minutes.
The finished painting isn't anything I want to brag about, but it does capture my experience of relaxing in the warm, humid atmosphere of the tropical environment. It didn't impress the white-faced monkeys and racoons that were trying to steal food from people on the beach, but it satisfied me. I took some reference photographs so that eventually I can develop a larger and more considered studio painting.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Line Between Representation & Abstraction

"Horizon Winds," by Jane Wilson, 2008, oil, 30 x 36.

"Hurricane Silence," by Jane Wilson, 2008, oil, 60 x 60.

"Storm Passing," by Jane Wilson, 2009, oil, 12 x 12.
I've spent 30 years editing magazines about representational art, and my own work is decidedly realistic, so it's not too surprising that I have trouble relating to purely abstract pictures. I agree with Jack Beal that such works are often just PART not ART in that they offer some of the elements of picture making, but not all. That is, there is color, form, space, etc., but it is art about art and not about the totality of life. That may be sufficient for others, and it may even be better for some, but to me it just isn't enough.
The division between abstraction and representation becomes more complicated when I consider work by someone like Jane Wilson, an artist who paints landscapes who has had a distinguished career as a professor, arts administrator, and painter. A collection of her recent oil paintings is currently on view at DC Moore Gallery in New York (www.dcmooregallery.com), and there is a 56-page catalog for the show that includes an essay by Stephen Westfall. Wilson taught at Columbia University, Parsons School of Design, and Cooper Union; she was president of the National Academy Museum from 1992-1994; she is a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters; and her paintings are included in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
In Westfall's catalog essay, he suggests that Wilson and many other artists of her generation dealt with a "tension between abstraction and representation." He goes on to say "nearly all her peers who were to ultimately comedown on the side of representation, and particularly landscape, went through an intense engagement with post-Cubist abstraction ... or Abstract Expressionism." He then identifies influences going as far back as Turner and as recent as Rothko to explain why Wilson and her peers developed a style of represtentation that has strong roots in pure abstraction or in the abstraction of observable forms. They subscribe to the idea that a picture has its own integrity apart from its ability to represent the illusion of reality.
I've considered the arguments for why painters like Wilson repeat the same formats over and over again, and why there is only the briefest reference to nature in those repetitive pictures. No matter what explanation I consider, I still wind up feeling that the artists have offered an unsatisfying response to the subject. For me, the art is too much about the painter and too little about the world around me.
This conflict struck home as I was riding the commuter train home from New York last evening. I looked out the window every few minutes and the light of dusk was performing a spectacular opera with more drama than could ever be brought to a stage. As the sun set behind the cliffs of the Palisades and reflected on the calm Hudson River, the sky turned from subtle gradations of blues to a wild display of orange and purple clouds, dark violet land forms, yellow and gold bands along the horizon, and sparkling orange highlights on the water. When I looked down at the reproductions of Jane Wilson's landscape paintings in the DC Moore catalog, I wondered why she would be satisfied with such minimal, arbitrary responses to the spectacle of nature.
The other publications in my briefcase were copies of Darren R. Rousar's (www.christianchurchart.com) two paperback books: Cast Drawing. Using the Sight-Size Approach, and Cast Painting. Using the Sight-Size Approach (Velatura Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.sightsize.com). As I read through the instructions aimed at teaching artists to skillfully respond to what they observe rather than what they interpret, I thought that artists who follow his instruction would likely paint sunsets with greater understanding, skill, AND interpretation that Jane Wilson.
I don't really mean to dismiss Wilson or the other atists who want to make connections to a long tradition that extends from Turner, Bonnard, and Rothko to the present. All I want to suggest is that for me, there is more to be said about nature than the act of making paintings.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Curt Walters and the Road to Success

Curt Walters painting during the Grand Canyon Celebration of the Arts 2009 (www.grandcanyon.org). An article on his recent wokshop and the Grand Cayon event are included in the winter 2009 issue of Workshop magazine (www.artistdaily.com).

By all measures, my friend Curt Walters (www.curtwalters.com) is one of the most successful artists in the country, certainly among artists in the Western United States. He has won almost every major award given in juried competitions, including the Prix de West (organized by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City), and he was recently the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. But none of this happened overnight, and in fact Curt was rejected for 20 years in a row when he was first considered for the Prix de West exhibition.

I mentioned this because all of us can learn something from Curt's hard work, determination, and resilience. He could have given up on his dreams years ago, and no one would have blammed him considering his success was being thwarted by some very influential artists. But Curt believed in himself, trusted the opinions of people who recognized his talents, and continued to improve his paintings until he was finally called the "greatest living Grand Canyon artist" by Art of the West magazine. He works just as hard today as he did when I first met him 30 years ago and featured his paintings in the June, 1980 issue of American Artist; and he continues to share his knowledge and enthusiasm as he did in the cover story of the April, 1998 issue of the magazine.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Drawing on Toned Paper

Jamie Wyeth drawings from the book "Capturing Nureyev," published in 2002 by the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine.
I sat next to John Dowd (www.williamscottgallery.com) at a recent session of the drawing group we are part of, and he did some wonderful studies of the models on craft paper using a black and white wax-based pencils. I thought it was a shame for him to create such powerful drawings on a non-archival paper, and I mentioned that Jamie Wyeth started out using the same kind of high-acid paper but switched to using archival papers. When I got home I did a little research and sent John an e-mail with photographs of Jamie's drawings and a reference to two papermaking companies that have both standard and custom-made papers with the same deep, warm tone as the craft paper. One is the New York company Dieu Donne Papermill (www.dieudonne.org), and the other is Twinrocker Handmade Paper (www.twinrocker.com) in Indiana. Legion Paper (www.legionpaper.com) makes Stonehenge, a wonderful cream colored paper available through retail and online art-supply companies, and it is great for both wet and dry media. Unfortunately, it doesn't have quite as depth of tone that attracted John and Jamie to craft paper. There are lots of colored papers available for charcoal and pastel, but they tend to have a rough texture that makes it difficult to get really smooth lines and shade patterns.
Jamie began doing drawings and paintings of Nureyev in 1977 and completed about 35 portraits before the dancer died in January, 1993. He reworked several early studies after Nureyev did, and he and included almost all the drawings and paintings in the traveling show documented by the book. Jamie once told me that the idea of working on a tan surface and highlighting Nureyev's body with white gouache occured to him because Nureyev was always wearing makeup, usually a stark white body color that accentuated his muscles and created a glow around him. "He was always performing. But it was one thing to see him in costume on stage wearing such heavy makeup, and another thing to see him walking down the streets of New York with the same theatrical presence. He looked like a ghost or some kind of bizarre creature, and I was fascinated enough by his appearance to draw and paint him that way," Jamie told me.

Graydon Parrish Workshop on Color

Graydon Parrish lecturing on the Munsell color system during a workshop at Grand Central Academy of Art.

"The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy," by Graydon Parrish, 2002, oil, 8' x 18'. Collection the New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut.

"Rose," by Graydon Parrish, 2009, oil, 16 x 12. Private collection.

I recently finished writing one of the most complicated and illuminating articles I've ever developed for Workshop magazine (www.artistdaily.com). In the winter 2009 issue that is just out, I describe a three-week workshop Graydon Parrish taught on the Munsell color system at the Grand Central Academy of Art in New York (www.grandcentralacademy.classicist.org). The system is too complicated to explain here, but suffice it to say Graydon helped a group of serious, dedicated artists gain a better understanding of color hue, value, and chroma. Graydon began studying the system in earnest when he was creating his masterpiece, "The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy," for the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut in observance of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. Here's an excerpt from my article that may help explain the application of the Munsell system:
"When we mix colors using the Munsell system, we first determine the correct value we need, then the hue, and then the chroma," Parrish went on to say. "For example, to mix flesh color for a figure, we would first mix a neutral gray at the appropriate value level and mix the red component, such as alizarine crimson, and white to the same value. We continue adjusting the hue by adding the yellow component (burnt umber, yellow ochre, and titanium white) at the same value since flesh is in the yellow-red range. Using these red and yellow ochre mixtures establishes the correct hue -- an orange or yellow-red -- in Munsell terms. Finally, we adjust the chroma by adding the neutral gray and correcting for any unwanted hue shifts. Usually adding gray will shift the mixture toward yellow, so in that case we would add a bit more of the red mixture and check it again using Munsell as a guide.
"Finally," the artist continued, "we move the chroma of the flesh color up by adding more of the original components (yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, burnt umber, and white), and if it is still too low we choose higher-chroma pigments, such as cadmium red, cadmium yellow, or the modern organics."

Graydon maintains an informative website for artists interested in the Munsell color system: www.rationalpainting.org. He has his own personal website: www.graydonparrish.com.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fall Landscape: Composition & Neutral Colors

Here's a attempt to use neutral colors to emphasize strong sunlight on a fall afternoon, and an effort to compose a landscape painting as my friend Jack Beal would recommend. The location is the lake at Teatown Reservation near my home in Westchester County, New York.
Jack always talks about dynamic compositions -- arrangements that move the viewer's eye around and through a picture, and ones that provide areas of energy and rest. He points out that artists used shapes, patterns, and colors to create that kind of dynamism for most of the history of art, but especially in the 16th century when the great Venetian artists Tiepolo and Tintoretto were creating dramatic paintings of biblical and mythological subjects. In this painting I made a deliberate attempt to bend the pathway from the foreground into the middle ground, and then to use the shoreline in the distance as a continuation of that motion. The tree trunks were likewise painted to emphasize that circular motion around the rectangular panel. The row boat mimics the dominant shapes and provides a place of rest for the viewer's eyes (while also suggesting the beginning of a dormant season).
You can see that in the early stages of the painting I neutralized the colors in the background so that the curving shape of the pathway (painted with bright red iron oxide) immediately became the focal area of the composition, and the space where I would paint the brightly colored leaves would first be a contrasting dull background. I added Galkyd medium to the paint so it would quickly dry and I would have no trouble applying the clean bright colors over those neutral gray shapes.
I finished the plein air sketch in about 2 - 1/2 hours, stopping occasionally to talk to the children walking along the path with their parents. As always happens, passersby assumed I was something of an information service and asked me questions about the course of the pathways, whether friends had recently passed by, and if I knew who owned the canoe. They also told me my painting was "charming," "pretty," "almost as good as what Bob Ross would have painted," "just like the actual scene," "similar to Aunt Minnie's watercolors," and "cool."

Painting Venice

What better place to begin talking about painting than Venice, Italy. It's a location that has interested artists for centuries, and there are probably more drawings, prints, and paintings of the floating city than almost any other place. During the 19th century, James A.M.Whistler and Thomas Moran may have sold more prints and paintings of Venice than the other subjects for which they are well known.
One of most popular buildings to paint in Venice is the Ca D'Oro which happened to be directly across from the hotel where I was staying in early June, 2009. A good friend, Peter Carey, took me there for my first visit, and he napped in the afternoons while I wandered through the alleys and along the Grand Canal with my pochade box, 9" x 12" panels, and oil paints.
A good friend, Sondra Freckelton, observed that I always set challenges for myself when I paint, and in Venice the challenge was to separate the drawing process from the application of local colors. That is, instead of following my usual procedure of blocking in large shapes of color and gradually breaking those down into smaller details, I decided the more appropriate method would be to draw the complicated architectural structures with a warm neutral color (red iron oxide, titanium white, and black) thinned with Galkyd fast-drying medium and then brush the colors over the drawing. That allowed me to resolve the design of the buildings before dealing with the actual colors in the scene.
Since that painting trip, I have been trying to take advantage of the power that neutrals have in bringing emphasis to the colors in a painting. That is, mixing complementary colors (red with green, purple with orange, etc.) or adding blacks and grays to color mixtures to lower the intensity (chroma) while maintaining the relative value. The benefit of this is that when I want to bring attention to an area of strong color, I "neutralize" the areas around that color. It goes back to the idea that when you want to make one thing important, you have to reduce the importance of everything around it.
Portrait painter understand this idea and will often refuse to "correct" a painting in front of a client. When the client asks for the cheeks to be more pronounced, for example, the painter knows to darken the area below the cheek bone. If the client actually saw that happening, he or she would think the artist was correcting the wrong thing. That's why I darked the shapes around the columns of the Ca D'Oro so the pink-white walls would appear brighter.
This is only a rough sketch and I intend to create a larger, more finished painting using my oil sketch and photographs to come up with something that captures the experience of Venice more completely. That should keep me busy through the cold winter months.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why we draw & paint

The question we ask ourselves, that our friends ask us, that our parents puzzle over, and that occurs to us every time we get half-way through a painting is "What the hell am I doing?" Certainly the world doesn't need another piece of artwork, and if it did we could pull out dozens of paintings stacked in the closet. We are convinced no one will ever buy one of our paintings, and if they did express interest we would be reluctant to part with our most personal expressions. We would rather give a drawing to someone who loves it than charge them real dollars, and we look back at our old work thinking (a) we wish we could still paint like that, or (b) we should have stopped before we got worse.

In 30 years of editing American Artist magazine, I've asked artists that question; and the answer I always receive is "I don't have a choice. I have to keep making art whether anyone else understands me, supports me, honors me, or dishes me. This isn't a gym exercise I do to build up my muscles, or a nine-to-five job I put up with so I'll have food on the table. It's my life."

So the answers I get are not really answers to the question I posed. Artists can identify the fact that they have an obsession, a passion, an inner need, a driving ambition, or an insane dependence; but they have trouble saying why they willing engage in an act that is, at worst, a form of self-flagalation and, at best, a form of self-realization.

The most frequent answers are grounded in the artist's earliest experiences. Some fell over in front of a great painting hanging in a museum, and when they got back on their feet they verbalized the ambition of one day being able to paint that kind of picture. Others met an adult artist -- and aunt, a grandmother, a neighbor, or a teacher -- and thought they wanted to enjoy the same happy existence that person must be living.

But what of the people who decided to become artists when they were adults? Some walked away from a grinding profession their mother insisted they undertake because they were sure painting would lead to a greater level of satisfaction. Others didn't have the confidence to take a "real job," and a few just liked the idea of doing something that didn't depend on interacting with other human beings.

HOWEVER, I am glad to say that the vast majority of artists I've met recognized that being able to accurately record one's observations, feelings, and ideas can be the most satisfying experience a person can have. And what's even better, there is the real possibility that what an artist records can be exactly what other people saw, felt, and thought. Whether the art is completely abstract or tightly detailed, it does have the potential to communicate in a very particular and important way.

I plan to use this blog to explore that communication by describing my own drawings and paintings as well as the work of artists I admie. Perhaps we can help each other answer the question about the real reasons we need to create art.