Friday, March 28, 2014

Random Things

"Life is painful. It has thorns, like the stem of a rose. Culture and art are the roses that bloom on the stem. The flower is yourself, your humanity. Art is the liberation of the humanity inside yourself."
                                                                                                                                  - Daisaku Ikeda

Finished or not finished? That is the question!

A friend recently complained that my blog posts have become rather sporadic. She's got a point, for sure. I've been painting a lot, but I don't seem to end up with anything interesting to share.

Work on the flamingo painting continues sporadically as well. I can't decide if it's done or not. I hope to enter it into a show in May, so getting it finished sometime in the near future would be a good thing. I don't want to end up overworking it. Somebody please make me put the paintbrush down!

Speaking of paintbrushes, you may remember my bout with tendonitis last year. I'm doing fine now, but if I hold my paintbrush or pencil too tightly for too long, I get little warning signs in my wrist. I noticed that the thicker the handle of the paintbrush, the less I have this problem, so I wrapped the handles of my smaller brushes and my pencils with sports tape to build up the grip area and it seems to help. I got the idea from the artist Andrew Denman. He has a series of videos on YouTube documenting his impressive work on a special commission. I noticed in one of the videos that his paintbrush handles were wrapped. I thought it was a great idea. Even if you don't already have wrist issues, it's probably a good move to wrap your paintbrush handles if you paint a lot to prevent repetitive motion problems in the future.

The birds are starting to return to our area from their winter vacation, so hopefully I'll have more frequent and interesting posts soon. Thanks for hanging in there with me.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

New WIP - Eastern Kingbird

"The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky,
from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider's web."
                                                                                                                ~ Pablo Picasso

5"x7" work in progress of an Eastern kingbird.

Started a new little painting this weekend. I'm a big fan of limited palettes, and the blues, grays and whites of this scene really appeal to me, especially after all the bright colors in the flamingo painting I'm (still) working on. 

Detail showing sun on feet and barbed wire.

This piece is also turning out to be a great exercise in values and temperature. Of course I don't use any pure white (even though the camera makes it look like I did). Titanium white mixed with a little yellow ochre and/or cadmium yellow light gives a nice sunlit effect for my brightest, warmest whites. Ultramarine blue, burnt umber and Payne's gray make a great dark, without resorting to pure black (I don't even own a tube of black paint). Then the mid-tones are all sorts of purpley-grays and brownish-grays - mostly warm in temperature because of all the reflected light. You can see some of the purplish tones in the detail shot of the bird's underbelly.

My next task will be to get the values right on the clouds and the sky. I've never painted a piece where the sky was so dominant. In my mind, I see the sky as going on forever. I hope I can somehow capture that feeling in paint, without competing with the bird. I wanted to wait to hone the sky until I had the bird's values pretty well set.

I might be cheerfully babbling on about color and value, but my old companion Self-doubt has been keeping me company a lot lately. I was on such a roll before the holidays, and then what with travel and family and festivities, I ended up not painting for about a month. Ever since I got back into the studio in mid-January, I've been struggling. It's as if I took years off, rather than just 30 days.

Then we had Chinese take-out the other night and this appeared in my fortune cookie:

 Does this mean there's hope for me yet?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Living Gem

"What is magic? In the deepest sense, magic is an experience. It's the experience of finding oneself alive within a world that is itself alive. It is the experience of contact and communication between oneself and something that is profoundly different from oneself: a swallow, a frog, a spider weaving its web..."
                                                                                                                        - David Abram

A tiny masterpiece of color and aerodynamics that eats mosquitoes! Can it get any better than that?

I can't say it much better than the David Abram quote above, but I often think about how much richer people's lives might be if they noticed things like the sun hitting the iridescent feathers on a violet-green swallow. There's magic all around us, if only we'd look.

My model was a photogenic violet-green swallow we chanced upon one day at Lake Como in the Bitterroot National Forest, when we still lived in Montana. (Yes, I miss Montana.)

Study of a violet-green swallow (6" x 6" acrylic on canvas board).

I finished this portrait of that swallow back in November, but didn't post it then as I wanted it to be a surprise Christmas present for dear friends.

What magic have you experienced lately?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Old Drawings and Etchings

"Humans who spend time in the wilderness, alone, without man-made mechanical noise around them, often discover that their brain begins to recover its ability to discern things."
                                                                                                                       - Robert Anderson

From original illustrations by Mrs. J.C. Melliss for her husband's book
on the natural history of the island of St. Helena, 1875. Courtesy of the British Library.

The British Library recently announced that they have added over a million images to their Flickr Photostream from their collection of 17th, 18th, and 19th century books. Many of these images are of natural history subjects and are exquisitely drawn. I don't have the patience that these artists had, nor their technical and fine observational skills, but I could spends countless hours looking at their work. If you are an old drawings and etchings enthusiast, you might enjoy checking this new resource out.

From original illustrations by Mrs. J.C. Melliss for her husband's book
on the natural history of the island of St. Helena, 1875. Courtesy of the British Library.

The other thing about this work that intrigues me is what went into their creation. These artists went on expeditions for months or even years to paint and research. Often the final work was done back home from collected specimens, as well as meticulous notes and field sketches, but many of them were painted in situ under challenging circumstances that we modern artists probably can't fully imagine.

Illustration from 1855 of New Zealand moths.
No artist listed. Courtesy of the British Library.

All of the images are downloadable from the British Library's site and free for anyone to use, so think of the creative possibilities!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Work on the Flamingo Continues

"As my artist's statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and therefore full of deep significance."
                                                                                                               - Calvin and Hobbes

I couldn't resist the above quote. Too bad I didn't find it until after my post about artist statements.

Meanwhile, work on the flamingo painting continues. The piece seemed flat and lifeless, so I applied paint using a palette knife and then multiple layers of drips and glazes to give the background some depth. I also started to add more texture to the flamingo's neck feathers so the bird wouldn't appear pasted on.

Flamingo with background texture.
(To the left you can see some objects for a still life set-up I've also been working on.)

Close up of background texture

I think I'm liking it better now, but I'm still on the fence. We're in for a snowy weekend, giving me plenty of time to ponder it more.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Musings On Artist Statements

"Too much self-analysis lets the air out of your creative balloon."
                                                                                - Edward Betts

My initial quick watercolor sketch to get my ideas down.

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately. About life. About art. About my life and my art in particular. I'm working on completely revamping my website, because what's the point of having a website if you're embarrassed to show it to people. Part of that revamping is considering whether I need the dreaded Artist Statement or not. In its essence, an Artist Statement is designed to give people insight into you as the artist and/or to your work. They are often required by galleries, museums and with grant applications, but many artists use them as a general marketing tool as well. I've read some wonderful articles and advice on the subject, but still haven't settled on what to write for myself, if anything. Here are some thoughts I jotted down when I was brainstorming ideas:

"I don’t paint things for any reason other than they inspire me to paint them; sometimes it’s the way the light strikes an object, sometimes it’s just a favorite type of bird. There’s no deeper meaning or hidden symbolism in my work. I simply enjoy the challenge of seeing if I can paint something. There’s an amazing feeling in finding the right colors or the right technique to paint a likeness. Even if the rest of a piece is a disaster, getting some aspect of a painting right is immensely satisfying to me."

Although this all rings true to me, I feel like I ought to be saying something a bit more profound. But how?

First strokes of paint on the canvas. Love where this is going.

Take a look at this new piece I'm working on, for example. Why am I painting it? Because a particular photograph of a flamingo that I took at the Philadelphia Zoo decades ago keeps inspiring me to paint it. I've already done this bird in pen & ink, and watercolor, and now I want to paint it in acrylic. This time I want to play with mood and lighting; see if I can add a bit of mystery to my work. Does the subject have any significant meaning to me? No. Am I incorporating any symbolism into the piece? No. It's just me fooling around with a reference photo that appeals to me.

Next layer - body still fresh and full of movement. Hmm, head is losing that wonderful spontaneity and light.

While my motivation for creating art is pretty basic and straightforward, I certainly don't want to go the other way and make up things that are not there and have my Statement end up sounding pretentious, like so many of them do. I'm also making a conscious decision to avoid the whole overused "I've been making art ever since I was a little kid" statement this time because, let's face it, most people made lots of art as little kids whether they ended up being artists as adults or not. The phrase seems almost de rigueur, but it doesn't add anything unique or insightful to the Statement and I'm not proud of the fact that I've used that phrase in the past in other art-related writing.

Oh dear, the head is starting to look way too smooth.

I know that nearly all artists who write an Artist Statement find it a frustrating and bewildering process. If you've tackled or tried to tackle this task, what was your experience?

When you've read an artist's Artist Statement, either on their website or at a exhibit or gallery, have you found it helpful? Did it actually give you more insight into the artist or their work, as it is meant to do? Let me know what you think in the comments section.

Interesting articles on the subject:
Art Biz Blog
The Abundant Artist 

One art critic's viewpoint:
Huffington Post

Another artist who writes about this subject rather more skillfully than I:
The Art of Making

and just for fun:
The Instant Artist Statement Generator

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Clark's Nutcracker Drawing

"Drawing is a frame of mind, a loving embrace if you will." 
                                                                      - Susan Avishai

I haven't posted many drawings lately. Too busy painting! But I do love to sketch and draw. One day in September, a very accommodating Clark's nutcracker posed for me and I took a series of reference photos which I then sketched and drew from. (It was too high up in the tree to be able to draw from life. Plus it moved around too fast.) 

Clark's nutcracker working the camera. Yeah Baby!
Nutcrackers are in the jay family and have the personality to match. They love to feast on pine cone seeds and are primarily found in pine forests and high elevations in and around western North America.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Penguins Finished

"Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow..."
                                                                                                           - Kurt Vonnegut

The point at which we left off on the last post.

When last I left you, the penguins were taking shape and the boulders were starting to look more like the boulders in South Africa, but the clock was still ticking away. The worst thing was the more and more I looked at the piece, the more that the lone penguin with his (her?) back turned was bothering me. Hmm.

The joy of acrylics - you can paint over what you don't like!

I decided to eliminate the lone penguin. Luckily it made a very interesting shadow in the rock instead. I continued to develop the boulders and remaining penguins. 

Spot the lone penguin now.

After nearly three days straight in the studio, I was feeling like I might just finish this painting in time to enter it in the show. I put it aside and went frame shopping. Our one and only local arts & crafts store just happened to have a bunch of wooden frames on clearance and I found the perfect one. But you'll have to wait until the painting is done to see it.

Done, right? Wrong!

At this point I was convinced the painting was complete. I loved the rock textures I had created and I felt the penguins looked good enough to pass inspection by an ornithologist. I framed the painting and entered it in the show on time and sat back and waited for the judges to do their thing. Turns out I didn't even merit an honorable mention.

After the show, I shared the painting with a couple of artist friends of mine with much more success under their belts than I. I knew I could trust them for an honest critique. What could I have done to improve the painting? Every single one of them said, "Darken the area behind to penguins."

I took the painting back into the studio and as I was clearing off my desk to get back to work on it, I found my original colored pencil value study. It had the area behind the penguins darkened.

The final FINAL painting.

I don't know if I had stayed true to my original value study if I would've won any prizes at the show, but certainly I would've entered a much stronger piece.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Tulips and Creativity

"There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted."
 - Henri Matisse         

My models

I've been having fun finding quotes for my posts since I started adding them a while back. This particular one really spoke to me. I find that once I've completed a painting or drawing I end up thinking what's so special about that? There's nothing unique about it. I haven't created anything new. It looks like hundreds of other paintings or drawings of that subject. There are people that would argue it is unique because each person is different therefore each drawing must reflect that difference. I can see that to a point, but my yearning is to create something that isn't subtle in its uniqueness. It'd be nice to create things that make people stop for a minute and really look at the piece instead of just thinking, "Oh another ________."

Mood lighting for my models. I like the effect.

I bought this bunch of tulips simply to bring a little cheer into our house. I put them in a vase and placed them on a table where their color compliments our living room decor and I can easily see them. The more I looked at them and admired them the more I wanted to draw them.

Tulip sketch

And so I settle down to draw tulips and this is all I come up with. Special? No. Unique? I think not. It's just a random sketch of a tulip. It is not particularly insightful or creative. It makes me restless and frustrated just looking at it. Why is it so hard for me to think outside the box as it were? These tulips are beautiful and I love their shape and velvety petals. I've been feasting my eyes on them ever since I bought them. So why doesn't my experience with the tulips, my feelings about the tulips come across in the drawing? Probably because, as Mr. Matisse would say, I first have to forget every other tulip that was ever painted.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Penguins - WIP

"Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision
and its ultimate expression."
                                                                               - Isaac Bashevis Singer

My lovely models from the Pittsburgh Aviary

This new project was a little daring; I had a week to complete a painting (a good painting), from start to finish, for a show. I'd already finished and tossed a completely different painting that refused to cooperate and now I had to come up with a better idea in a lot less time. I was scrolling through my archive of reference photos and this group of African penguins caught my eye. There was something appealing about their comical, somewhat confused postures and I really enjoy working in a limited palette. Nothing else was inspiring me so I decided to go ahead with this idea.

Detail from value study in colored pencil.

I did a value study first, but as you'll see later I didn't stick to it faithfully and ran into some problems because of it.

I decided to alter the penguin group a bit. In the photo, they are too evenly spaced apart so I clumped three of them together and then turned the fourth penguin away to create a bit of a story ("Do you know where Joe's going?", "No, do you?", "No, I don't know. Do you know?", No I don't.").

Laying in the basic placement and values

One of the challenges I ran into with this painting was that African penguin habitat looks a lot different than what my reference photo showed. I've never been to South Africa where these penguins (sometimes called jackass penguins) are found, but a quick survey of Google Images showed scenes of warm-colored, rounded boulders and strong sunlight. My photos were of pale, angular rocks and diffuse lighting. This is what I get for arbitrarily choosing a subject at the last minute. But it really wasn't that big of a problem - layer by layer I started to round off the rocks and warm up my colors.

Adding more detail, layer after thin layer.

Painting the rocks became downright fun. I would dribble watered-down acrylic on the canvas and then tilt the board in one direction and then another to allow the paint to make random designs, giving the effect of texture and varying color in the rocks. I started thinking about how perhaps I should start a whole series of rock-based paintings and I began to dream of visiting the Canyonlands in Utah. So many rocks I could paint... But the calendar was keeping me from daydreaming too much, and I still had to find a nice (and affordable) frame!

Thursday, July 25, 2013


 "The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever."
                                                                                               - Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Haystack Rock on the Pacific Ocean in Oregon

A few years ago we spent a week on the northern Oregon Coast with dear friends of ours. It was their first trip to Oregon and we had so much fun exploring with them. We had to head home a few days before they left, so they went to Cannon Beach and the tidepools around Haystack Rock (which I've posted about many times.) on their own. We got a very enthusiastic email from them that evening - they had seen nudibranch in the tidepools! After that, Paul and I made a point of scouring the tidepools for nudibranch every time we went back to Haystack Rock. It's been 4 years since then and we had yet to see any - until this year! As with many things, once you see one, suddenly you see lots of them.

Three opalescent nudibranch in a tidepool. 
I would guess that these particular nudibranch were an inch, maybe an inch and a half long.

Why am I so enthusiastic about nudibranch (pronounced "new-deh-brangk")? I think a lifetime of nature shows imprinted their beauty and mystique on me. So much of the ocean is hidden from us, which makes the opportunity to see one of these creatures in a tidepool incredibly exciting to me. (For the record, I also desperately want to see a whale shark because of those nature shows. That's going to take a little more effort.)

According to National Geographic, more than 3,000 species of nudibranch are known to science. You can see a photo gallery of some of them on their website. Nudibranch are basically shell-less snails and come in a variety of beautiful colors and shapes. They are carnivorous, hermaphrodite (having both male and female sex organs) and typically have a lifespan of less than a year.

Another opalescent nudibranch.
Looking south from Ecola State Park to Haystack Rock in the distance.

The nudibranch species we saw at Haystack Rock this year is the opalescent nudibranch. They feed on the sea anemones that cover the tidepools around Haystack Rock. However, there are 6 species of nudibranch commonly found in the tidepools around Haystack Rock, which means we still have 5 more types to search for the next time we get a chance to go back.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Round 'Em Up!

"Drawing makes you see things clearer, and clearer and clearer still, until your eyes ache."
                                                                                                                      - David Hockney

Male broad-tailed hummingbird glistens in the morning sun.

You may be familiar with the idea of a cattle roundup, but a hummingbird roundup might be a more unusual concept. Every spring a hearty group of volunteers captures and bands migrating hummers at a ranch tucked away in the mountains. For one day, they invite the public to come and observe, ask questions, and maybe even hold a hummingbird.

The beautiful setting for the Roundup

I have never seen so many hummingbirds buzzing about in one place. Four species are found in this one area; broad-tailed, black-chinned, rufous and calliope. In a typical roundup, the volunteers examine an average of 600 hummers.

Feeders are placed inside of cages to capture the hummers.

Trained volunteers measure and weight these tiny birds. 

If a hummer doesn't already have a leg band, they are given one.

After their physicals the hummers are marked with a spot of temporary paint so they aren't captured again,
then they are released. It often takes them a moment to get their bearings before zipping off.
A sketch from my notebook. 

By using binoculars and patience, I was able to sketch the activity at a hummingbird feeder. The hummers are so quick that I couldn't draw individuals. Each time a different hummer would visit the feeder in the same position as a previous one, I could add a little more to my drawing. I still have the  wrist brace, but despite it being cumbersome I didn't want to miss this opportunity to observe and sketch on this amazing day.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

"Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure
as long as life lasts."
                                                                                                                     - Rachel Carson

Male yellow-headed blackbirds gorging themselves on insects.

We just had one of the best birding days EVER. The kind where you feel exhausted at the end of the day because of the sheer number of birds observed. Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on the Great Salt Lake is an important fueling stop for migratory birds, many of which have traveled from South America and are still headed further north, some as far as the Arctic. Phalarope, white-faced ibis, avocet, coot, great blue heron, great egret, cattle egret, stilt, white pelican, grebe, ducks, swallows, raptors, curlew, whimbrel, western kingbird; our senses were on overload.

One of the most amazing things we saw were flocks of male yellow-headed blackbirds in a feeding frenzy. I'm not that knowledgeable about the types of midge-like insects that live in marshes but whatever they were, there were millions of them. From a distance, the swarms rising up into the sky looked like dark smoke. Everywhere we looked, there were yellow-headed blackbirds on the ground eating these insects. We'd never seen so many of these beautiful birds all in one place.

Swallows collecting mud for their nests.

Clark's grebe enjoying a morning swim.

An avocet taking a well-deserved break after its long journey.

Unfortunately my artistic endeavors have hit a bit of a snag. I've got tendonitis in my right wrist (in three places!) and have to wear a brace for a month. I still manage to sketch and paint a little but my hand cramps up pretty quick. Hopefully as I get used to the brace that will improve.

Brace or no brace, there are important things that must be attended to.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Another Landscape Attempt, Part III

"Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time."
                                                                                                                - Thomas Edison

Still not finished, despite the frame.

And so I keep trying. This painting is so, so close but those grasses in the lower left corner are driving me nuts. They feel unnatural, contrived. I may end up painting most of them out. The color of the water appears unnatural as well, but the other day I was driving along and noticed a similar scene and the water was indeed that color. I may still tweak it, though. I'm also undecided on what I think of the mountain reflected in the water.

It may sound like I'm being critical and have a lot of doubts about this piece but I really am pleasantly surprised at how it is turning out. It would just be wonderful if I could resolve the trouble spots and have a "keeper" landscape painting in the end. I found the perfect frame for it, after all.