Friday, August 26, 2011

A Work in Progress: Planning the Perfect Studio

Well, that title is probably a little grandiose, as a plan is never perfect nor is a studio. These things are always "works in progress!" 

I am settling into my new studio home, bit by bit. Boxes abound still, and the packing peanuts are, I do believe, actually breeding! But we have a plan, and we are putting it into effect.

Here's the idea: as in my other house, the largest room in the house is the studio. This is generally a room which builders like to call the living room. I like using the living room as a studio, not just because it's big but because it represents one of my personal gripes: builders designing houses that don't work. As in, every house has a living room, but does anyone do anything with said room but put their best furniture in it, vacuum it once in a while, and entertain ... or LIVE ... somewhere else? 

As a studio, this wonderful cathedral-ceiling room will get some real -- daily! -- use. And my easels will not be forgotten in a corner somewhere in a back bedroom, basement... or worse, closet or hall. I've seen artists try to force their creativity into tiny cramped spaces which just make me sad. 

The second largest room is the office. In this case, it's the room the builder called the master bedroom. (Do you see a pattern here?) Believe it or not, my husband actually suggested we use these two rooms for these purposes. I love this guy! How could I be so lucky? 

The office has our two computers, two computer chairs, file space, shelves, an easy chair, a couch and a treadmill. Here is where we watch movies, exercise, veg AND do administrative work. Some modern builders are actually incorporating such a room into their designs, and calling it a Media Room. 

Where, you ask, do we sleep? In the other bedrooms, of course!

The third essential room for a studio is a workroom with a dedicated work table for stretching canvasses and framing art. In this case we are using the garage, which my ever-awesome husband stayed up all night to transform into the most wonderful combination garage/workroom imaginable. 

He's asleep now. In the other bedroom. 

All kidding aside, here are the essentials for these three spaces:

The painting studio has a large wall for the nine-foot long landscape easel. The room has a 5x6-foot window with adjustable blinds, and a chest for still life arrangements diagonal to the window. The free-standing easel is positioned in front of it. There are two tabourets on wheels, an oriental carpet and a Gel-Pro chef's mat on a hardwood floor. On order is a set of stereo cabinets, again with castors, which will store sound components, media and oil sketches. Already we have a good set of speakers and sub woofer. Across from the sound system we have two easy chairs and a set of reading lamps, along with a large hinge-topped storage table low enough to sit on.

The office is equipped with cell phones, land lines, internet, printers, laptop, recharging station and a wireless network. There was a time when I had hoped an artist could do without all that. I have grown up. 

The workroom has the aforementioned dedicated table at one end, and a 12 foot long work counter along one wall. The counter is fitted with undercounter drawers and open cabinets above. Several pegboards will house lots of tools.  This room also houses the car, which is equipped with a plein air easel, Mighty Mite field brush cleaner, panel caddies and rags. Also, and this is important -- sealable metal cans for the used rags. 

The above are what I have found are the essentials for my work. I have, one way or another, found space for these elements wherever I have worked. This is the first time I have been able to pull it all together with enough resources and the experience to know just exactly what it is I really do need, and to do it right. 

You'll notice that I'm bragging here (wow, guys, lookit what I have!) ... but in all honesty I am also trying to share with you the results of years of experimenting and making do. Aside from the long wall easel, I really do think all the elements listed above are necessary in some form -- including a good sound system even if it's a good set of earbuds. Don't compromise. Set up a good studio. Your art will thank you!

Oh... once we get rid of the boxes, I'll post some pics :)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Returning Landscape

Everyone knows we've been slogging through a recession for a while. Art sales are down, along with every other kind of sale, and just about everyone has been tightening thier belt. Which, of course, explains why art sales are down, but I won't dwell on that particular circle!

In Nashville, on my way to the art supply store, I drive by a
container yard. A couple of years ago that yard had a few of the boxcar-size steel boxes sitting around in it. Now they're stacked four or five high. Inventory is piling up everywhere. Real estate sales are not rebounding, due to the changes in banking. Rentals are up, due to the people who have lost their homes.

Pretty bleak...for most people.

But we're not most people. We're artists, and although we need the cash to flow just like everybody else does, we have this other odd need: the need for beauty. And beauty is abounding.

My new studio home is situated on the edge of a town which grew monstrously during the last decade. I remember one day driving through an area of new construction, and watching with horror as the bulldozers laid bare acres of blood-red clay, stripping away the topsoil like flesh from a fresh kill. Paving paradise.

Last week I took a walk through another area of development just outside of town. Someone had put some thought into this one. They had laid out roads and sidewalks, nice little street lamps and
signposts. Some of the big trees had been left standing in pleasant clumps. Pretty little gardens graced the street corners. This was going to be a really nice neighborhood.

But no one came to live here. No houses were ever built.

The graded clay has collected a little drift of black soil here and there. Grasses have taken hold, their untamed swaying brilliant green flowing like waves across the housing lots, spreading in pools of green over the asphalt. Thistles follow, reaching high thier dramatic globes of purple. 

And now, acres of Queen Anne's Lace drift over the land, gracing the earth, healing it and blessing it. To the artist, this is a miracle, a reprieve. The artist stands at the easel alone in the midst of the singing wind, the rustle of wildflowers, the call of a red-tailed hawk which has returned to the landscape... 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Creativity and Learning

Educational theory has held that creativity cannot be taught; that any attempts to educate an artist tend, instead, to stifle that creativity.

In my experience as an art student and also as a teacher of art, I've seen many reasons to dispute this. I have seen that raw, natural creativity only takes a student through stages that use knowledge he already has.

For instance, when a child makes something out of sticks and mud, he is able to exercise the fullest creativity he has at that stage because he has already learned something about sticks and mud.  When he decides he would rather his creation not be swept away in a rainstorm, he will need to learn how to use something more substantial -- concrete, for instance -- and for that he will need to learn about concrete. 

A visual artist often starts out with an idea of what he would like to do, and it's usually grounded in something he's seen before. If he's seen abstract painting he likes, chances are he'll try that. If he has enjoyed realistic paintings or photos, he may try to paint something recognizable.

This artist could go through years or decades experimenting and basically re-inventing the wheel if someone is not willing to mentor him or teach him about some of the basic principles of painting: color temperature, for instance. 

Here is an example of two paintings which were done by a young student in one of my classes. She started out as a beginner, using acrylics, and painting from life. A beginning painter will tend to try to draw an object and then paint it in. He or she will try to "stay in the lines" and therefore will wind up with a white edge around the shapes in the painting. Another thing a beginner will try to do is make a smooth layer of color, fighting the paint's natural tendency toward texture. 

My student was frustrated by her struggles and she asked for my advice. After only five lessons, she understood how to layer color, how to make decisions about transparent rather than opaque color, how to use brushwork to express her subject, and many other concepts. Right now she is learning processes and techniques. When it comes time for her to express her ideas outside of the class, she will have the tools to make it possible.

I'm really so proud of her! She has come a long way. Here are the before and after:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Soul of a Painting

The Chestnut Group (Plein Air Painters for the Land) is working on paintings of plantations and battlefields just now, in preparation for a fundraiser for these historic monuments. Yesterday was a perfect day to paint, and I took a trip to Franklin to paint at Carnton Plantation.

This plantation has an especially beautiful garden, with a row of handmade trellisses and arbors covered in grapevines. It also has a formal area of plantings "on axis" to the garden gate and the huge double antebellum porch on the mansion. As I stood in the center of the garden, I was captivated by a row of pear trees espaliered onto arches over the path.

One of the arches perfectly framed the garden gate, leading up to the house which reared its impressive bulk behind the delicate plantings. Nice contrast of bulk and delicacy, light and shadow; frames within frames, and all in all a very promising composition.

After setting  up my easel and doing the preliminary value study, I snapped a shot of the scene just in case I needed reference for details later. I usually don't wind up using my reference photos, but it seems to be a good idea to do diligence.

This particular mansion has an especially bloody history. The family who lived there was caught in a horrific battle. Hundreds of wounded soldiers were brought into the house. The floors were soaked with blood. The family buried 1500 dead.

As I painted, I kept reflecting on that history. The very ground cried out to me. The great house and the delicate plantings took on a melancholy air which was not dispelled by the gentle May sunshine. The painting itself turned out to be moody, even a little stormy. 

When I got back to the studio, I took a look at my reference snapshot. In the photo, I see only a pretty garden and house. In other words, the film failed to capture the ghosts. 

This is why it is so very important for us as artists to go through the rigors of our work, and to paint from life. When painting from life, our hearts and souls go into the picture. We can't help but tell the story of what went on beneath the surface. Here are the two images; see for yourself:

Monday, May 16, 2011

Artist Self Promotion

This morning I served on a panel, along with Meg Nordmann of NashvilleArts Magazine, Beth Inglish of Binglish Art, and Cathleen Windham of the Chestnut Group. My contribution mostly had to do with how to make ourselves do the necessary self promotion! Here is what I said:  

The biggest problem I have had with self promotion (and I think this is true for many artists) is my own reticence. I'm a private person, my art is close to my heart, and I'm not inclined to blow my own horn.
Yet how can anyone know about our beautiful art if we don't tell them?

For years, I used to go about my painting and then work myself up to a big, heart-racing, adrenaline-filled promotional effort like putting a stamp on the application to a juried show. A few weeks later the rejection notice would arrive, I would be despondent, and it would be a LONG time before I could work up the courage to do that again!

I've concluded that the best way for me to deal with self-promotion is to think of it as just another chore, like mowing the lawn or cleaning the toilet, and put self-promotional chores on the calendar so they will get done regularly. 

Once every quarter, I send out my workshop information, since I teach on a quarterly basis.  That gets sent to my snail mail and email lists, and published online on my website and Facebook. Plaza also sends it out to their mailing list. My own mailing list started with six people. Every time anyone expresses interest in my workshops, I add their name.

Once a month I enter a juried exhibit (receiving the rejection slips happens about once a month too!)

Once a month I spend some time researching advertising venues and
working with those costs.

Once a month I send out something to a magazine for free submission.

Once a month I feature the work of one of my students on Facebook.

Several times a week I post something on Facebook or my blog.

My gallery relationships are like friendships. These are people I keep up with casually, calling on the phone, sending an email or dropping by. When I have new work, I send an email to the out of town galleries, or I bring it in to Richland. Sometimes I will have a nice bound printed book made up to send to my out of town galleries so they have something to show their clients. 

I'm about to expand to some more galleries, now that the recession is easing up. To do this, I will first research galleries which carry work that may be complemented by what I do, but not quite like what I do.Then I'll send some samples, either in a printed book or by email. To find new galleries will take the same kind of persistence that the other promotion takes, as most galleries will tell me they are “not taking on new artists just now.”

Self promotion can be difficult for us sensetive artist types, and to grit my teeth, close my eyes and just make it a regular chore seems to work for me better than anything else I've tried. Hope this helps!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Adding a Figure to a Landscape

I don't know about you, but we're well into springtime here in Tennessee. As a matter of fact, we've spent the last several weeks painting outdoors. If you watch the news, you may think all we get is tornadoes but there have been a lot of stellar painting days in between! (Actually I have in fact painted tornadoes -- twice! Now that takes some quick painting)

Anyway, there is a beautiful botanic garden near here named Cheekwood. I painted there last week, and got a picture of a pretty terrace garden accented by a clump of cedar and holly. White dogwoods lent their ethereal sprays of blooms to the lovely scene. Here is what I painted:

Okay. So... pretty picture, strong focal point, but....BORING. How can I liven this up? Standing in my studio, I cast my mind back to that day while I was at Cheekwood. Part of the experience was the pleasant weather and the view. But there was another aspect to the day. Behind me several mothers and children were playing on the lawn. Thier voices and laughter added to the experience.

What if I put a child in the scene? I toyed with ideas of pretty little girls posing on benches, of cotton-dress-clad mothers carrying babies, and all those ideas seemed ... well, boring.

How about a little boy? How about a little boy just about to get into some trouble? This begins to sound like fun. So I got out my Sharpie marker and some printer paper, and started scribbling ideas. The way to do this is to do several little scribbles, starting with the gesture. The gesture is a line which gives the general idea of how the figure will be posed. As I scribbled several gestures, trying to get the feel of a calamity about to happen, I gradually developed an image in my mind of a little boy climbing up onto the wall and reaching for one of the trellises. 

Now that the idea is firmly established in my mind, and I don't have any conflicting images to confuse me, I can establish the lights and darks on my sketch and then on the painting. To transfer the sketch to the painting, I started by putting in the boy's shadow on the ledge, then I put the darks onto the boy. Next step was to add the lights on the boy. Last, I put in the reflected light into the dark areas. Here is the result:

The little boy does not immediately draw our eye away from the focal point; the first thing we see continues to be the contrast between the large upright tree mass and the white horizontal dogwood mass. But as we look at the picture, we notice a story about to develop over on the side. This is called a "secondary center of interest" and it can add a lot to a painting. The picture at this point may be described as about "a little boy about to pull over a trellis" but the primary focal point is still the trees near the center of the composition.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Honky Tonk Friday

It's time to prepare for a fall workshop, and this one will be about Music City. Rachel, my event manager, packed me off to Lower Broadway to paint my impressions of that exciting part of town.

After haggling with a couple of parking attendants, I found a deserted lot and abandoned my car. My painting gear fits into an REI wheelie-backpack, and off I marched pulling everything I needed in my wake. By the way, everything I needed was this: my French half-box easel, my full selection of colors, a small bottle of Liquin and a tiny metal container of Gamsol; brushes and painting knives; rags and baby wipes; a small sketchbook and pens; water, chocolate and sandwiches. In the trunk of the car I keep a Silicoil bottle with baby oil in it to preserve the brushes at the end of the day. 

Ah, what shall I paint first? The Schermerhorn Symphony Center would be wonderful, with its classical architecture and outsize fountain ... modern Nashville as a backdrop. The Music City Star train station beside the river would be fun to paint. Maybe some of  Nashville's favorite landmarks like the Ryman, home of the Grand Ole Opry... or the Country Music Hall of Fame.

But my attention was held, that day, by the street itself: Lower Broadway, lively with musicians and tourists, families and loners, hopes, dreams and especially song. I unfolded my easel right there in the middle of the sidewalk while beside me a truck driver unloaded kegs of beer.

The next couple of hours were magic. Plastic Elvis teetered on his plastic stand, balloons flying in the breeze. People walked and talked and gawked. The sun drifted lower in the sky, making the whole place sparkle. For the composition, I stuck someone in a cowboy hat into the foreground, and put in the parking meters marching up the right hand side.

"Is that painting for sale? My wife would like to buy it." Tempting, but this painting is not for sale. It has another purpose.  

Friday, March 11, 2011

Contemplative Painting

Earlier this week, I wrote about artistic license. When we paint with artistic license, we reinterpret our subject and analyze it as a combination of lines, masses, patterns etc. Then we freely use those elements as we see fit for our composition.

Another way to paint is almost the reverse. I'll call it "contemplative painting" because it's best done with a sense of mindfulness and peace.  This little study is one example:

In Contemplative Painting, the artist does edit and select, but the main purpose is to look more and more deeply into the subject. As the artist loses track of time he begins to see the flow of light over and around the subject; the way light bounces back into the objects and reflects off the surroundings. Painting this way, you will become wonderfully aware of the miracle of seeing. 

This is best done with still life painting, because you won't be rushed. When painting outside, you will always have fleeting effects to capture -- it's delightful but it's a different way to paint. When you are painting from reference, whether photo or sketch, you are back to re-interpreting what you see. And portrait painting involves the interaction with another person... or, again, a photo.

Even within the discipline of representational art, we find as many approaches as there are artists. Isn't it great to be creative? 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Artistic License

Sometimes I'm a slow learner. I know artistic license has to do with moving things around and leaving things out. I know we can't paint every leaf and twig, so we only paint something that serves to remind us of what leaves and twigs look like. Also, maybe our landscape is marred by litter. Well, we don't have to paint the litter just because it's there!

For a while, I felt kind of like I was lying when I left out things like litter. It was as if I was showing a place as more beautiful than it really is. 

It took me years to realize that all these details -- twigs, litter, etc. -- are really nothing more than elements of design. A tree, for instance, can be a mass or it can be a collection of lines. The leaves can be a mass or perhaps a pattern.  The litter itself can serve as a pattern in my composition. 

This cottage is inhabited by people who like plaster lawn ornaments. I am not a plaster lawn ornament person, so my first inclination was to leave them out. But as the composition developed, it became clear that it needed more than just the house and tree. This is a loosely-rendered painting, so that gave me the freedom to include spots of dark or light where I needed them (inspired by the lawn ornaments)... and the viewer can decide what they represent.

I used another bit of artistic license in the foreground. In reality, this was entirely asphalt. There is nothing wrong with that -- many Impressionist painters have used wet asphalt to great advantage. The problem with the asphalt in this case is that it covered about a third of the picture with a large, blank, flat shape.

This composition needed a dramatic sweep upward to the tree, so I just put that in. Who cares what it is... you can decide. 

Monday, February 28, 2011

Taxes and Floods

Oh man what a day. 

A lot of artists seem like flakes, and lots of "left-brain, right-brain" jokes are made about us. The fact is, a fair number of artists actually do have a brain glitch called Discalculia. Yours truly is one of those lucky people.

Discalculia is caused by a few missing brain cells -- the ones that handle little things like numbers, places and, for some reason, names. This causes us artist types to show up at the wrong time at the wrong place to meet with the wrong person. Works havoc with job interviews, let me tell you!

Birthdays get missed, bank accounts get overdrawn ... and the IRS -- well let's just say I let my accountant handle the IRS!

The day we finished the Cummins Falls project, I set aside whatever time it would take to get my tax information to my accountant. The other accountant in my life -- my most awesome fiance -- had me set up with Quicken but that does not a foolproof tax experience make. Therefor I was still fiddling with it today, long after we had finished the Cummins show.

Whilst perched in front of my monitor on a rainy day, I became aware of a chill in the air. Being the modern American that I am, I simply bumped up the thermostat.

Chill stayed in the air.

Thermostat .... non responsive.


My house is over 100 years old, and the basement door is outside. So it was with no small degree of trepidation that I donned my rain gear and wrestled the cellar door (a bulkhead with no hinges) off the entrance. 

I gazed into the descending darkness.  Spiderwebs crisscrossed the maw of the ancient basement. I saw black, shiny, round spiders and many egg cases. Time for the broom.

After whisking away the webs, I braved the slippery stone steps... and met water. Oh no. The sump pump had failed. My basement -- and furnace -- were flooded. 

My neighbor is a wonderful man who was home with a cold. He lent me a submersible pump and some electric heaters. The gas company man came and told me the gas company won't do anything because of "liability issues." (I bit my tongue and continue to bite it.)

So... as I write, the pump is pumping, the electric heater is heating, and my tax accountant has my Quicken file in his inbox. 

Are we having fun yet? 

Friday, February 25, 2011

After the Show

We've hiked, we've climbed, we've endured sleet and snow. We've worked far into the night putting frames on our paintings, photographing them, cataloging them and pricing them. We've written about them, advertised them and promoted them. We've moved mountains, not to mention furniture, to display them.

Our Cummins Falls exhibit hit the ground running last night. In the face of thunderstorms and tornadoes, the artists and the patrons made their way to the exhibit hall where they ate, drank, visited and looked at the art.

Everyone was enthusiastic about Cummins Falls and a few people even bought paintings! This show did not bring in as much money as some of our others. We can speculate why, but the factors are usually beyond my comprehension. 

I am confident that the adventures and photographs which our artists have shared will be published. I am certain that this effort has brought the Chestnut Painters into a new realm of extreme plein-air painters, and that our reputation will precede us as serious artists. 

Congratulations, all of you, on a fabulous job! Your art, your efforts, your volunteerism and your professionalism absolutely shine. I am proud to be a Chestnut. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

In the Studio

Do outdoor painters do the entire body of their landscape work outside?  Sometimes. I know of artists who paint large-scale paintings completely outdoors, using paint tubes loaded into caulking guns. 

But sometimes an artist will go into the studio to finish a painting begun outdoors, sometimes to make an enlargement of an outdoor painting, and sometimes to make a new painting entirely from sketches and photos taken on location. 

I like to do a number of oil sketches outside, and draw from those plus my memory -- and sometimes a black-and-white photo -- to do a larger painting. The larger painting is not usually a straight blowup of the small sketch. Usually I'm experimenting with techniques and colors to more fully express my experience while I was in nature.

While painting on location at Cummins Falls, I was impressed by two things: one was the depth of the gorge (as you may have noticed in my post Fun With Gravity) and the other was the beautiful color of the water. It was the kind of blue-green I have only seen at Glacier Park and Switzerland. I wanted to do a larger painting which would downplay the whiteness of the foaming water, and incorporate that beautiful turquoise color throughout. I also wanted to emphasize the plunging perspectives of this gorge.

In order to do that, I made some pencil sketches from memory. Then I matched the color of the water which I had used for the on-location sketches. Third, I made a black-and-white print to help me with specifics of the geology. You can see in this photo how I had those references set up on my wall easel.

Creating the painting was that kind of creative process which involves lots of decisions and adjustments. The basic method was the same as that which I showed you in "Oil Sketches." I roughed in the composition in brown, and glazed the blue into the pool directly on the white canvas. The waterfall is violet, followed by successively paler tints of blue, with white placed on the highlights at the end.

The trees on the left side required some experimentation, as I wanted to keep them unfocused but believable.

The Chestnut Group of painters have been at Cummins Falls for a number of days now. Tomorrow is our last day. Many of us have gone into the framing stage of this project. The exhibit is next week -- we have been working hard, and I hope we sell ALL of these beautiful paintings! You can see some of them at this facebook page:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Oil Sketches

A long time ago (and far, far away) some artists decided they wanted to make sketches in color rather than in pencil. They used their paints for this, but they were just taking quick notes -- called color notes -- and the paintings were not intended to be finished works of art.

A funny thing happened: these oil color sketches glowed with a fresh vitality which was often missing in the finished art. Buyers started asking for the sketches, and a new art form was born.

The picture of the waterfall that I showed you last week is one such sketch. You haven't heard from me for a while because I've been doing more sketches of the waterfall, as well as a large finished painting of the same falls. This was a deadline matter!

But now I"m back. Yesterday my fiance gave me a dozen roses for Valentine's day, and my gift to him is an oil sketch of those roses. To see a slideshow of the oil sketch process, go to my Facebook page at Gayle Levee.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Week of Waterfalls

The adventure at Cummins Falls continues as we brave an Appalachian winter to capture it in paint.

The sleet, snow, rain, rocks and heights are the least of our challenges. More exciting are the muddy roads and the instructions for getting onto the property, which read about like this: "stand facing the tree across the road from the gate and look over your left shoulder at the sixth post." I hope the people who went up there yesterday could figure that out because it's beyond me!

I spent yesterday in my snug studio enlarging one of my sketches. The large painting is not ready to post yet, but here is the sketch:

Today and tomorrow were about teaching, one of my great joys. Being with my students is like painting twelve different works because each student has different problems to solve! Friday it's back to painting...

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fun With Gravity

Cummins Falls, a gem in need of protection, drops precipitously into a gorge which left me breathless. Our guide to the falls led me on a quick walk to see some painting spots; I followed her as closely as I dared, (twentysomething mountain goat that she is) my attention divided between my footing and the astounding views of falling water. 

We came out of the woods onto a wide ledge of rock -- I had been expecting to be somewhere near the bottom of the falls -- but we stood on a lip at the top of the cascade, swaying above a void seventy-five feet deep. Then I made the mistake of looking... not down, but up at the route we had taken. How had we done that? How would I ever get back??

Vertigo gripping my knees, I took out my camera and made excuses about photography while frantically scanning for an alternate route. Happy ending: I did make it back up to the top of the canyon, and lost my vertigo in the euphoria of painting such beauty.

Painting outdoors is so different from studio painting -- invigorating and challenging, it forces the artist to make quick decisions and hope for the best. Even more of a challenge is water... and falling water tops the list! This was fun. I'll do it again!

If you're interested in Cummins Falls, here is their website:

Friday, February 4, 2011

Tight and Loose

If you're not an artist, the title of this post might make you think of such things as tightwads, loose women (or bowels), tighty whiteys... ack, get me away from Urban Dictionary before it's too late! 

Okay. Back to painting. The words tight and loose in painting have to do with a sense that the artist painted with ease, and not with difficulty. A tight painting can look overworked. "Loose" is generally a compliment.

Beginners tend to work "tight" as they struggle. They will work over a passage of the painting until it loses any vitality it ever had. Often this happens because the artist did not have a good grasp on one of the basics: drawing, color, form or brushwork.

But I've seen artists work too hard at being "loose" and their paintings wind up going all the way to "inaccurate." How successful is a "nice, loose" brush stroke that looks like a light spot where there should be shadow? 

As I work to bring my painting to a higher level of excellence, I need to make sure my viewers don't read it as "tight." I'm making sure the edges stay dynamic -- lost, soft and hard -- and I'm making sure the brushwork is expressive. Take a look at the finished leaf at the center, and the unfinished leaves in the upper left:

What is very important to me about these leaves is their tattered bulk. I emphasized that torn look in the leaf at the right. I also made sure the edge between that leaf and the vase was completely lost. I really want the leaf/vase shape to look like one large form with holes in it. The brushwork within the leaf shape serves the purpose of defining the veins in the leaf, but it still looks like brushwork.

My goal is to strengthen my original compositional idea (holes) and my further emotional theme (winter and summer). My goal is not to make the leaves look more real or more detailed. I think if I had lost my original ideas and gotten bogged down in realism or detail, I could have slid into the dreaded morass of "tight."

Oh... if you have been enjoying my blog, do go ahead and subscribe to it! I'd like to know you. -- gayle

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Foreground and Depth

Part of the fun of representational painting is the illusion of depth. The red onion and the pitcher are in front of the shelf with the bright fruit and the vase, and I wanted to really show that. How to make that happen? Part of it is the linear perspective. Part of it is overlapping the pitcher over the shelf and onion.

Another part is the atmospheric perspective. Atmospheric perspective is the visual feel of "air" between the viewer and an object. The air can make colors cooler, grayer, and it can reduce contrast.

This time I wanted the fruit to be warm and bright, and the background to also be a warm color... that left me with contrast as the only way to show atmospheric perspective. To make that happen, I saved my real darks and lights for the pitcher and onion in the foreground.

So far, I've developed depth, light and form. Next will come surface decoration and highlights. Note that the surface decoration and details will come last!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Drawing Through

Here I go again, ruining a perfectly nice painting with all sorts of sloppy drawing. When you look at the photo , take care to note that I painted the background and the cloth OVER my previous painting of the pitcher and onion. Then I re-drew the contour of the pitcher and the onion.

This does look so very messy, and it is hard to make myself do it. But again, just as in the vase I did the other day, this bit of painting the background into a shape, and then drawing the shape back over, is my way of keeping the edges dynamic, the drawing accurate, the paint quality expressive and the illusion of depth.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dynamic Edges

Whenever I used to hear about Dynamic Edges, I got an image of some sort of superhero battling a razor blade. "Watch your edges." "Be careful of your edges." Those sorts of admonitions meant nothing to me, and I was too embarrassed to ask what an edge was.

Just in case you, too, are clueless and embarrassed, here's what an edge is: it's the place in the painting where one color leaves off and another begins. When we learned to color in a coloring book, we were told to stay in the lines, and from that point on we thought perfection meant having a nice, clean edge. We could cut clean edges when we painted the trim around our windows. We could really stay in the lines when we drew our design and painted it in on our canvas.

But... Dynamic edges? Well here's the thing: real life doesn't have sharp edges. Nearly everything you paint will have some sort of gradual transition from one color to the next. A lemon on a red cloth will be just ever so slightly blurry -- a little bit out of focus. This is called a soft edge. An apple on a red cloth may even just plain blend into the cloth. This is called a lost edge.

In your painting, you want to have a variety of edges: some hard, some soft, some lost. When you have that kind of variety, you have achieved the great goal of Dynamic Edges.  This is the way our brain processes light impulses, so if you paint with this in mind your paintings will be more believable.

As I developed my focal point, I made sure to vary the edges. You will see some obviously soft edges along the vase, and some obviously hard ones in the fruit. But observe more carefully and you'll find that each piece of fruit has some hard, some soft and some lost edges. Take a look:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Oh No, What Have I Done??

After two days of teaching, I'm ready to get back to the easel! Last session was fun: I had solved my problems of composition and theme, and quickly got the basic idea onto the canvas.

Now it's time for the weird part: the "structured drawing" and "painting through."

Both of them look like I've ruined my painting! It's almost mortifying to even post this picture at this stage. Lots of artists, in fact, skip this stage. Some people don't even know about it, but even when you DO know about this step, it's really hard to make yourself do it.

You can see in the picture that I have painted some of the background color back OVER the vase and fruit, and furthermore I have drawn lines on the vase and even drawn some of those lines over the fruit. This is not because  I can't control my brush and accidentally got paint all over the vase and the fruit. This counter-intuitive mess is crucial to achieve the illusion of light, depth and form that I want to get in the painting. You see, to make the vase look like it's curving back into the background, I need to put background color into the edges of the vase. And in order to get the shape of the vase to look three-dimensional, I need to "draw through" the fruit.

Tomorrow I'll post a picture of the result. It'll look good.  Trust me, I'm a ... an artist. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It's Five o'clock Somewhere

The light this morning is soft and cool. It strikes an assortment of large leaves I had collected last fall. I pick one of them up; it's perforated. The holes are the same size as those in the ceramic.

These are not tropical leaves. These are large, exotic-looking but deciduous. They have dried into tattered, windblown, dramatic shapes.

Hm. Fixing them into the vase, placing a collection of luscious tropical fruit at the focal point, I muse about the contrast in colors and shapes and a theme begins to emerge. God's creation is larger than just the season of one country. Winter and summer are going on all at once in this world. 

Experience is greater than that of one person. As one mourns, another rejoices. 

Once I've solved the problems of composition and theme, the first rough lay-in of paint takes only a few hours.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Birthing Pains

I got to my studio today to find that a fire had broken out in Glen Leven, the historic mansion where my plein-air painting group had planned to meet this weekend. The living quarters in the back of the house were damaged, but the rest of the place will be all right. Thank Heaven for that! The news stations made it sound like the place had burned to the ground. Grr!!

Much of my work time was distracted by that, but the main reason I didn't get any painting done today (and I didn't, and here is the excuse) was that none of the florists in town are carrying Monstera leaves this week! In fact, they really aren't carrying tropical greens or flowers at all. They're involved in forcing branches just now. How can I be so totally out of step? Honestly.

So here are some creative possibilities: forget my perforated-leaf and perforated-vase theme; forget my tropical theme; paint this picture when the leaves come in, and paint something else for now; go to the botanic garden and do drawings of tropical leaves and use those. Why not just use photos of tropical leaves? Because I need to have a mental understanding of how light falls on the structure of the leaves. Once I get that, I could refer back to photos. But for the painting to look real, I must actually study the real leaves.

Which of these options will I choose? I don't even know just now. In the morning, with the light on my vases again, I will have a better feel for it. You know... we do try to be businesslike and professional, but sometimes we artists just need to feel the light.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Stretching Canvas to Music

Music and art seem to go together pretty well... as long as you've chosen the right music. I tend to get so wrapped up in whatever the musicians are doing, that my own project can take a left turn. This can work to my benefit if I'm painting a bright abstract and listening to Metallica. 

I'm currently listening to a Pandora station which features artists like Hans Zimmer (Dark Knight and Sherlock Holmes) and Apocalyptica. VERY intense! So, I'm stretching a canvas today. Just mindless work, right? Should be able to listen to whatever I like. 

Until, half an hour later, I find the staples have gotten away from me and are marching across the stretcher bar in close formation, the canvas is so tight it's pulling the bars together, and the Joker has outwitted Batman AGAIN.

Sometimes silence is, indeed, golden. .

Friday, January 21, 2011

Where do Babies Come From?

Ok yeah I know where babies come from. But where do baby ideas come from? I've decided to document the inception and development of an idea, starting with something I really want to paint.

I have these wonderful vases and pitcher -- that's a closeup of one of them over there on the right -- and I want to paint them.. So here I am trying to come up with an idea that will do them justice. 

See the little holes in the vase? Those got me to thinking about tropical leaves. (the fact that we are having yet another snowstorm also has me thinking about tropical leaves, but that's another story) The kind of leaves I am thinking of are those big ones with the holes in them, just like the vase.

Ransacking Google Images, I found the leaf: it's called Monstera. Wow, that could get my imagination going a whole different direction! So, holes in the vase, holes in the leaf, tropical dreaming....monsters... not sure where this will go, but you'll know when I do!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Waterfalls in February!

As if snow isn't enough to paint, now we crazy plein-air painters have decided to tackle a waterfall in February.

Seems we have access to this wonderful waterfall, but the nearest views are a bit of a hike from the parking area. And if you REALLY want to see something spectacular, pack your painting gear down a cliffside trail to the bottom of the fall. Oh, and part of the trail does involve wading through the river. I've heard the term "extreme plein-air painting" tossed around!

However, the people who are making this possible for us will provide a fire and hot beverages. Now that sounds like it could work! Wonder if I could set up a campfire coffee still life there?

On the still life note: I have a new one planned. This will incorporate one, two or three fabulous large Majolica pieces which have come into my possession. As long as I can keep from breaking them, I hope to do a large painting and document it here. Should be nice; I'm excited! Plus I'll be warm and dry...and the refrigerator is in the next room. Ah, yes.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Painting Outside in Snow

Ah, beautiful snowy winter paintings! So tempting to capture that fluffy wonderland... until the artist contemplates frostbite. What can we do -- snap a photo and hope for the best? Wonder why everything that looked so magical outside winds up looking gray and black in the photo? Shrug and copy that anyway and wind up with a gray and black painting, no magic at all?

Part of painting outside in the snow is just plain courage. I've never tried it! But the Chestnut Group of plein-air painters has been out in it this week, and they have lots of suggestions for keeping warm. (Check out their facebook page, by the way -- some beautiful work!)

Anyhow, one big problem is keeping your hands warm and yet being able to manipulate the brush. Some people use fingerless gloves, but that results in very cold fingertips. One idea is the type of mitten that folds back when you need your fingertips and folds over when you want to warm them. A couple of our members use knitted mittens and just poke the brush through the fabric. 

In the Great White North,  at least one artist I know nukes a couple of potatoes and puts them in her pockets. That way she can warm her hands whenever she wants. Plus ... there's dinner!

Once you figure out how to keep your hands warm, the next big consideration is your feet. I've heard various things from various people but I really really recommend Sorrell felt-lined boots. These boots kept me warm and dry at high altitude in Wyoming and Colorado. They'll last a lifetime. 

Other than that, your usual layers, earmuffs and hats... hot drinks, water....

I think I'll paint a still life!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Artists Working to Save the Landscape

The landscape that we love to paint is disappearing at a rate I can't even quantify. For that reason, recessions are bittersweet for me: painting sales have slowed... but so have the bulldozers!

Today two of us met with someone who is trying to protect a beautiful, and truly special,  piece of property. We hope to work in concert with her organization in a fundraiser to buy the land. Would there were more people with that kind of vision! Wish us well. 

Meanwhile, the winter weather continues to plague everyone who is trying to get anything done -- and it lures those of us who want to go outside and paint it! 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Preparations for a Show

I had known about the upcoming show for over a month; what I didn't find out until less than a week ago is that this exhibit is to be a three-person show in a large room! I needed to come up with six significant works of art in ten days! Panic!

After a call to my local gallery and a perusal of the work here in the studio, I have scrounged up six paintings. One of them needs a frame, so my plan was to take it to the framer today. Well, the weather had other ideas: snow and ice storms throughout the South.

Hey, that didn't stop me. My most awesome fiance made some phone calls of his own, did some research, and together we decided that I could brave the road from my studio to the framer. Save! Now the plan is to pick up the frame tomorrow, collect the other paintings from the gallery, put together a price list and deliver the lot to the exhibit by Wednesday. (that is in between meetings and getting ready for Thursday's classes. Who said artists are bums?)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Artist and Time Management

Today was all about my calendar. Wow, can I get messed up when it comes to times and dates! I'll be serving as President for the Chestnut Group ( and have been worried about getting the meetings  wrong. When standing in front of the easel, or even thinking about standing in front of the easel, time gets away from me pretty fast!

So my most awesome fiance sent me the link to a downloadable calendar called "efficient calendar" -- made in China, it will get all users onto a "happy joyful road." Well so far it's working. It has views for the month, week, and day. I can enter events and tasks, and see the blocks of time thus allocated in color. Those color-coded blocks of time are VERY useful to me. I've caught mistakes in entering data just by the way the color blocks line up on the days and weeks. 

Today the calendar more than paid for itself. This is where time management is the word:  

I have to get six paintings delivered to an exhibit by Friday. Teaching on Thursday, a meeting here and there, and the rest of the week is free -- right? Wrong! Once I blocked in the times for the meetings, preparation for the classes, framing and documenting the paintings -- my week is full! I had written all these tasks down but seeing it in the color blocks really made this clear. 

This should help me to avoid getting over extended, and it will also help me to keep my painting time sacred. When I block that in, I will be less inclined to let anything distract me... but since the other tasks are also blocked in I will (hopefully) not forget them. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Business Side of Art

This, the first post on my new blog, will hardly cover all aspects of the business of art, but it's a start. The beginning of the year is a good time to put attention into business, and I'll share with you my experiences as I go.

When I started my business, I went to the Small Business Bureau and they gave an Excel template to me which works as a forecaster of income and outgo. I save a new copy of it each year, and enter the entire year's anticipated expenses based on what went on the year before.

Then I enter the entire year's goal for income. Yes an artist cannot know how many paintings will sell in a given year, but that is no different from any other business. The point is to set a goal at the beginning of the year, and to adjust these figures as the year progresses. My income is from painting sales, workshops, and a recording contract. Last year the painting sales and workshops were both down, but the recording contract carried me. 

This year, if this first semester is any indication, the workshops will be filled at pre-recession levels. So, when I make my estimates, I will use this first semester as my goal figure. I'll put in a slightly higher goal for art sales, again using this first semester as an indication of the possible loosening of purse strings in the art world.

The other side of this picture is the Outgo figure. I am extremely conservative with my Outgo. Just in case the goals are not met, or just in case a crisis occurs, I keep a year's expenses in a savings account. This comes in handy when your car dies, as mine did this week. I had to replace my car -- two years into the recession -- and the money was there for a new car. 

This is where Dave Ramsey has been a lifesaver. If you don't know about him yet, go here:   He has tools to help people avoid debt or get out of debt, and to help get started saving. Terribly important, especially for a freelance artist, to stay away from interest payments. You will have the freedom to make art without worrying about the wolf at your door!