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!