Archive for February, 2009

Recent painting

February 18, 2009


As I shift from oil painting to acrylics because I no longer tolerate the solvents well,  and because I can use the acrylics without smelling up my house, I find I’m back in that learning curve trying to become familiar with a new medium.

I struggled with three paintings in the Construction Series and then abandonned that for the time being to work on some small paintings that would allow me to familiarize myself with the medium a bit better. I have a number of blank canvases in the 8 x 10 inch format that are just waiting for their white nakedness to be covered with colour. I’m struggling with this, but making slow progress.

I’m also battling that syndrome where I want things to look like what they are  – a desire to paint representationally – when I also desire to bring some feeling and emotion into the images. Or perhaps I don’t really know what I want, and I’m groping for a new way of doing things – something that fits the medium and fits my need to explore the imagery rather than photgraphically and slavishly reproduce it.

On my first one, I was just trying to mix colours that would work with the image that I had.  On the second one, I was looking to find basic shapes and more the rhythm of the piece, but I slipped into old habits and by the time I was finished, it looked like an identical twin to the first. Only a mother could see the differences.

Here then are two paintings of the gate to Westacres in snow.  I’m working from a photograph, since this is just an exercise for me.

In the second one, I actually got to a lovely stage of abstraction, but as I picked at the painting with my brush, I lost all that lovely hazy groundwork that I liked, in itself.  For the third painting which I haven’t quite finished, I got back to that abstraction stage and have not spoiled it with further definition…..yet.




On this last image, I would like to get a fourth tone in  to represent the hills and I may tackle that tomorrow.

What I like about this last version is the simplification of forms, the ghostliness of it, as if viewed through fog; but I miss the feeling of snow in this one, as if the tree is in bloom rather than covered in frost and snow.

Partly that is due to the underpainting of yellow ochre. I’ve used that ochre underpainting in all three canvases. In the first two, it gives a warm glow coming up from underneath the other colours.  It also serves another purpose. There is nothing more annoying than when little flecks of canvas white show where a colour has gone on in a dry brush manner. I always start with a ground colour in oil or acrylic painting.

If  you do this in watercolour, a transparent medium,  you must do it in a much more controlled manner because the medium depends on the white of the paper to bring highlights to the imagery and if they are gone, you can’t get them back.

This is not so with an opaque medium where you build up layers on top of the underpainting. If you don’t like something you have painted, you can simply put another layer of paint over it and Poof! it is gone.

When I get stuck on a painting like this, I go back to the source and ask myself these questions. “What was it that attracted you to this image?”
“What are you trying to convey?” “What is it about this image that makes it important enough for you to spend your time trying to capture that image in paint.”

So what was my answer to these?
I liked the composition, the curve of the driveway in, so the rhythm of the forms was important. I liked the contrast of the brilliant blue sky against the white of the frost covered tree branches. I liked the contrast of the cold branches and the warmth the sunshine brought to it.

In the first two, besides contrasting the blue with the white frost, I’m trying to convey the featheriness of the branches, the way the sky pops through the interstices of the branches.

In the third, I was looking for basic shapes that emphasized the frosty canopy of branches and the shapes that establish the curve of the  road while maintaining a balanced composition.

In the second, I was hoping to simplify the shapes but that didn’t happen. IN the second, I was also going to  try out glazing using an acrylic medium, but that didn’t work. I found that the colours mixed with the medium became so thin that they didn’t operate like they can do in oils, hence the reversion to method number one and the resulting twin image.

I also find that the colours dry so quickly that they wont draw into a recently laid down colour, so that mixing right on the canvas is not easy.  These are all things to be worked out. I haven’t tried a retardant, but I have some. That will have to be for another day.

It’s late amigos, I’m going to turn in.

Art and the fashion of Art

February 6, 2009


Last night Bristol Life Drawing left me a reply to a comment I made some time ago, which restarted a discussion that continued on. I really recommend the Bristol Life Drawing blog, especially as I really like figure drawing. I like the bloggist’s commentary. So have a look if you like.

Specifically, this post was the trigger for discussion and I’m repeating my reply here, because I find the subject interesting, and you might too – and you might otherwise not find it if your are unfamiliar with Bristol Drawing. If you want to get the discussion from the very beginning, look up this post and the ensuing comments.

Modernist still-life? I’ve rescued a few of them from the Salvation Army and other thrift stores lately, along with some other out of fashion originals.

I visit an elderly gentleman, friend of my mothers, in his late nineties who collected art in the period of 1930 to 1970 and collected some good brand names, so as to speak, of the modernist genre – nationally, if not internationally, icons that are largely unrecognized now by other than a few cognoscenti, those in the know.
Some of these paintings really no longer appeal to the current taste. They look childlike and brutally inept. Those modernists, though, opened the door for following generations to allow exploration and creativity, to encourage insolite and eccentric vision. It was a good thing. It engendered a whole lot of positive creativity.

Do you remember all those “chocolate box” and “Pompier” works of art that we were taught to abhor in Art School?

For those who may be following along who are not familiar with these Schools of Art, they were most popular in the 19th Century. The first, in general, had sweet subjects of little girls in pinafores, garden scenes with cottages, mothers with their babies or little children, little boys catching toads or newts. You get the picture – sweet, redolent of happy homes, wild English gardens, play at the seashore – nothing controversial and nothing deeply philosophical nor symbolic.

The second, from the same period of art fashion, was a hugely bombastic, emotively dramatic, often glorifying soldiers and war, and was steeped in allegorical imagery. It was favoured by the French Academy of Art. It was sneeringly called  “L’art Pompier” or translated, “Fireman’s Art”. Wikipedia has a good explanation of L’Art pompier, if you want to know more.

I was interested to see, relatively recently, that some renewed interest in these Schools of Art had once again become a lucrative trade on the auction market.  I mention these two schools of art because, without a strong grounding in anatomy, neither one of them would have been remotely interesting.

As a curious aside, I wonder how a comic book artist or caricaturist would handle a take-off on Bougereau’s “The remorse of Orestes” (which is the illustration for the Wikipedia reference I made up above). I can’t imagine it working at all! And yet, just look at that painting! If I had one tenth of the ability to draw those luscious nudes with so much movement, tension and emotion, I could die and go to heaven.

After all these years of painting and drawing, I still only get the best that I can do, but it’s rarely what I see or what I want to do.

So why did I mention all this?

What’s fashionable in art comes and goes. There’s always an “Academy” of thought that imposes its self-made criteria on the peons without influence telling them how they should think, do and produce. Art is influenced by our times and progress, whether that’s the right word for it or not, is characterized by rebellion against what has become normalized through time.

Even the Impressionists have fallen into a slump, if you are an upcoming student of the arts. Yes, they may be making millions at auction, but if you produce them in your art school these days, you are mocked to Perdition.

Installation art is in. I mention it because I remember going through some European countries – mostly France, Germany and England – in my first sabbatical year, going through museum after museum and steeping myself in Northern European Art History. I was awed, quite simply.

I based myself in Rheims where I attended Art School. It was still operating on the classical method of teaching drawing and painting, with Classical plaster statuary, figure drawing and perspective classes that have since been tossed out the window in Art Education, even in Rheims.

I struggled to get a good figure drawing. Despite my degree that allowed me to teach children what art was, I couldn’t draw. It was a year before I could do a decent figure and then, only sporadically.

When I saw Dominque Ingres’ beautiful nudes, they were to die for! – his ability to draw a hand as if it were alive! his beautiful transitions, his ability to express the roundness of his models, the softness of the skin, the absolute draughtsman-like ability to get proportion right. Well, that’s why we consider him a master of his art, n’est pas?

Quite rightly, for me, I fell in love with figure drawings (and paintings) and have wanted to succeed with them ever since; and because I never have, to the best of intentions, I have to keep on going back to it to get the next one right. As a result, I’ve got a basement full of three-quarters-good pastel drawings that will never be seen! I am spared the thought that my mother (unlike Whistler’s) will burn them all when I die, because she has predeceased me; but I shall nevertheless regret some fool executor trashing the bunch of them because they are out of fashion or because they are deemed by that person to be untoward, unChristian or somehow lewd.

I’m out of step with my times. I should be out there creating spare pile-of-rock installations in warehouse sized rooms; or decorating the landscape with a trail of a thousand white umbrellas.

One thing I am mightily thankful though, is that in my era, creativity has become accessible to the masses; and the revolt against the Academic strictures (both then and now) of What is Art have been successful in giving each of us permission to take the avenue that we desire to pursue in expressing ourselves, whether it be through traditional landscape, still life or portrait, or through more experimental modes of expressionism, impressionism, conceptualism, minimalism or any of the other ism you can think of.

The door is wide open. Hooray!

And if the figure is a hard-sell these days, I perceive that all art is a hard-sell. The dollars or Euros or pounds are not the purpose of it. Creativity is. So sell or no sell, I’m very happy to be painting and creating as best I can, because it enriches me and sometimes enriches others when they see it, and because it’s such a positive and satisfying activity to be involved in.

Two new paintings

February 5, 2009


Garden rock, acrylic on canvas 8 x 10 (copyright)

A new box of canvases arrived today – twenty more sixteen by twenty inch ones. I have a plan. Now I have to go to it.

I’m working in acrylics because I can work in an enclosed space without special ventilation to drive off solvents. I need to get familiar with acrylics before I will be able to make them do what I want them to.

Yesterday, I found about six 8 x 10 canvases in the basement that are pristinely white. I decide to do some landscapes with them, just to get familiar with mixing colours, finding out how miscible the paint is and how it draws along with the brush.

This is the rock in Mrs. Stepford’s garden – a single rock sitting in the front yard and graced with a little azalea shrub that will flower in the spring. A sumac grows right beside the rock. It almost looks as if it is coming right out of the rock. In summer when I took a picture of it, the flowers had already dropped and the sunlight coming from the West streamed through the lower branches of the cedar hedge to crown this little plant with glorious light.

I’m trying to work freely, to be painterly, not to fuss with details.  Et, Voila! This is yesterday and today’s offering in acrylic.

I’ve also been working on a watercolour in the  series where I stop and try to identify how I feel.  It’s harder going because it’s not “realistic” so the colours could be anything, really. I have to make them up – and make them work. If I get a colour on that doesn’t work, then either I have to find a way to fix it or abandon the painting.

This one which I call Shark threatens dove,  is in watercolour because the series of paintings I’ve done so far with this theme have all been in this medium. If ever I show them in an exhibition, I will want them to be able to hang together comfortably, so I continue on in the same vein.

As for method – I started with a fairly detailed drawing, then I made one wash for the background, one for the flesh tones, and one for the garment at the lower part of the paintingm, making sure to let each wash dry thoroughly.. These are all light in saturation because it’s easier to paint over them if the colours or the density is not right.

Once the last general wash has dried and there is no risk of one colour bleeding into another and making odd shaped blooms where the two coloursmeet, I coloured in the fish and the dove, then the eye colour.

Here are some of the stages where I’ve stopped to take photos of the progress I’ve not got good light for taking photos, so once again, please excuse the colour quality. These were the best I could get:

shark-threatens-dove-stage-1 shark-threatens-dove-stage-3 shark-threatens-dove-stage-4

Next I fill in detail and pattern.

I strengthened the background colour to make the face come forward. I patterned the garment for a contrast to the broad flat shapes. I didn’t like the blue I chose for the bird and the shark, so in the final, I painted another colour over it and it worked better for me.

It’s meant to be an uncomfortable image. Otto has been causing me grief (verbally) and I don’t want to talk to him. When I do, I get upset – perhaps he does too – I feel constricted in the throat, I feel that my eyes are big but they are quite vacant.  My eyebrows feel aggressive, but please don’t ask me to explain how that is possible.

I feel immensely better if I am able to paint my feelings out into some kind of representative imagery. I can laugh at myself rather than get all ingrown and horrible feeling.

When I began this image, I began it as a pencil crayon drawing with just the minimum of lines sketched on. It’s way more dynamic than what I did a final painting. I’ve started another one to see if I can go back to that freedom of movement, but I don’t feel happy with the results for the moment. I’ll post the second one later if I can succeed in pulling it all together.

As I was painting, I spent long times between applying paint to the paper, considering  whether the colour was strong enough, whether there was a balance, whether I liked the colours I had chosen, whether there was sufficient pattern and if not, what else might I put on. All of that consideration takes time – so this painting has been a week in the making, although the actual painting process could have been done in a day.

I consider that this method of painting where a fine line drawing denotes where everything should go, is akin to a colouring book. Once the drawing is on the paper, it’s just a matter of filling in the shapes with paint. In general, I try to keep with the original drawing and stay within the lines.

With this painting, I ended up finding the cerulean blue a bit to blatant when compared with the rest of the painting, so I ended up covering it up with a different colour wash. I’m much happier with it now (but it’s not perfect).

As a last minute touch, I felt the background needed to be slightly darker and applied a blending wash. While the added colour was effective, unfortunately this paper (Strathmore) was not quite as sturdy as the Arches I usually use, and I ended up with some pooling and those blooms that I try so hard to avoid.

I’m not a purist. When I got that blooming bloom, I had two choices – scrap the painting entirely or correct it somehow. Unable to add more wash without increasing the problem, I chose to use a bit of chalk pastel and a bit of pattern within that section to cover over the problem area. It worked!

Here’s the final version.


Just to assure all you faithful fans out there, I’m a happy person these days. The upset in my life that triggered this image is transitory. I expect this will all blow over in a month. Until then, if it helps, I’ll just amuse myself with these quirky images …

and continue along with the acrylics with a more mundane theme.