Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Whiff of Reality

As noted in “Issues with Shape,” an earlier post, teachers have said that I define or articulate too much, I am too descriptive, I leave no mystery. They urge me to try to define as little as possible. One would think I could do this, given that I was a psychologist and perfectly familiar with Gestalt theory. This theory posits that we are hard-wired to perceive certain shapes and that we will “see” them even if they are not there. For example, what is this?

                                                      *          *
Most people have no trouble seeing this as a triangle, when it fact, it is just three asterisks. We innately try to see shapes, and WE complete the gestalt of the triangle without it being actually completed or articulated. We only need a hint to guess what something is.
I keep trying to paint interesting, nonobjective shapes with soft edges, and then I try to define the subject with as little description as possible, just “a whiff of reality” as Christopher Schink told me. I had some success with “Flamenco!” seen below in the January 18 post.  You can see lost edges throughout this painting, and only the head, arm, hand, hip, and waist are defined. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Art Is Important

A major lesson I take from my art teachers is not something they actually teach, but rather their attitude towards art. They study it, they take it seriously, they create it day after day. They care deeply about art. As a painter full of self doubts, struggling with not feeling entitled to paint, plagued with guilt about people I am neglecting and resources I am spending on painting, my teachers’ belief in the importance and meaningfulness of art is a constant inspiration. 
Philosophers have pointed out that art can serve as “religion for atheists” by creating a shared meaning and world view. This idea inspires me, too, as does something that Frank Webb wrote, “Through your painting, human life is intensified and handed on to others.” 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Intuitive versus Planned Painting

There are two schools of thought on creating watercolors. One is the spontaneous or intuitive approach, called the “pour and pray” method by some people who disagree with it. The second is the planned approach, in which artists choose to impose their form, interpretation, perception on the subject. There are respected artists from both approaches.
Fran Larsen argues that with intuitive painting one is letting the paint do the work and thus the artist is not learning anything. Artists make choices, and with spontaneous painting, artists let the paint make the choices. Valid point.
Lawrence Goldsmith in “Watercolor Bold and Free” wrote: Watercolor owes its success to the artist’s ability to improvise. ...The artist who can grasp a situation and make profit out of it has a prize talent. ...Beyond that (a general plan and color scheme), you are wise to leave things to chance and to rely on your resourcefulness. (p.133)  Another valid point.
John Singer Sargent even likened painting in watercolor to “an emergency.”
I have to say that I greatly enjoy the “pour and pray” method. I like being free and spontaneous, and then making something out of it. Might be part of my rescue fantasies. After all, even with spontaneous painting, artists choose what to keep and what to cover up. But I think my paintings turn out better with planning and thoughtfulness. So what to do? I tend to let the underpainting be intuitive, and then impose a planned order on it. I also experiment with planned, wet-into-wet underpaintings that look free and intuitive. 
Here are two “pour and pray” paintings. I literally poured paint on in semi-wild abandon and then “found” my subject in the result.  I then put in some defining lines and shapes to bring out the subject. Most of the paintings on this blog were planned, so you can see which you like better.


Dancing in My Red Dress

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lost Edges

Most art teachers stress the importance of lost and soft edges in paintings to allow the viewer’s eye to travel through the painting. My natural tendency is to make hard edges, so it was good to learn that one can have lost hard edges by having some shapes around the subject that are similar in color and value to the subject. However, soft edges are encouraged.
Christopher Schink uses an elephant ear sponge to soften edges. I just got a brand new elephant ear sponge, so I got out some newer, not-so-good paintings to experiment on. (I had no old ones, due to my habit of throwing them out -- see below.) I smudged away, and I think I greatly improved the paintings. But I couldn’t stand it and put some edges back. Still, it was great fun to play this way, taking away, putting back. Here are the comparisons, all hard edges first, smudged edges second. Note that smudging the edges spread paint around and changed the colors.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Throwing Paintings Away

After we’ve been painting a few years, most of us have stacks of paintings under our beds, in closets, stashed here and there. As you may know, I am strongly in favor of neatness and lack of clutter, so I tend to throw old paintings away. Some artists, especially people who do collage, argue that you should never throw anything away, that it might come in useful later. Besides the fact that I resist saving stuff, I don’t have a studio and work in the “family room,” so space is shared and at a premium. 
Some artists, such as Barbara Nechis and Christopher Schink, argue that it is good to throw away old, not so good paintings. We could keel over at any time, and if we leave a lot of not so good paintings behind, well, that is not to be desired. Out with the old and in with the new. Toph tells a funny story about putting some of his old paintings in the trash and watching as his gardener took them out, looked at them, shook his head, and put them back.
I have to admit that there are times I wish I had an old painting back, because I’ve learned something new and want to try it on it. Here’s an example of an old painting that was headed to the trash can, when I decided to experiment further on it. It started as trying out a grid with an architectural subject, but it seemed boring, so I stamped on it, added line, used watercolor pencil, and generally made it overly busy. Also, it has all hard edges.

Bird on a Wire

Since it was headed for the trash anyway, I decided to try softening some edges, creating some mystery, and making for bigger, more interesting shapes. 

Bird on a Wire Reworked

This is a little better. I like the light shape around the bird and the light shape on lower left. The blue shapes are joined into one better shape. The design is better, but I think it's still going in the trash.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Uncreative Art Work

I paint only because I love to cut mats.
Arthur Alexander

Having spent a good part of the day cutting mats, I thought of this quote. Cutting mats helped me feel organized, but it didn't feel very creative. So then I looked at these quotes, to encourage me to refocus on painting:

Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.
Pablo Picasso

What the painter adds to the canvas are the days of his life. The adventure of living, hurtling toward death.
Jean Paul Sartre

Monday, January 9, 2012

It's ONLY Paper

“It’s only paper.” This simple statement is usually given as encouragement to stop feeling anxious about painting and to experiment, to take some risks with it. For me, it was practically life-changing. As a small child, I was allowed only one piece of paper a day for drawing and coloring. Either we were extremely poor or there was a paper shortage in postwar L.A. Later I was ordered not to major in art, but to do something to earn a living. Somehow a part of me still believes that I am not entitled to make art, that painting is a waste of time and precious resources like paper. “It’s only paper” is a new world view for me.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Issues with Shape

According to several teachers, my “strengths” are color sense, design, and paint application (I always thought that was an odd one -- yes, indeed, when I put it on, the paint sticks to the paper!). My main “problem,” according to these same beloved teachers, is descriptive, uninteresting shapes. They have repeatedly told me the following.

Design takes precedence over accuracy. Artists impose their own feelings and shapes on a subject. Choose shapes and put shapes all over the painting. If shapes are too accurate (descriptive) or too general (“cartoony”), then they’re dull and can be grasped in one look. Exaggerate shapes and make them “yours.” There’s a difference between an accurate shape and an interesting shape. When drawing shapes, look for asymmetries, and if there aren’t any, create some. When painting, ask “What does this piece of paper NEED?” and “How can I make this (always asymmetrical) shape more interesting and more mine?” 
Although I think these lessons are starting to sink in, I still struggle with shapes. I recently made a little painting of birds. The shape of real birds is actually fairly boring and symmetrical, so I try to distort them, but make them still look like birds. In this painting, I think I leaned too far towards accuracy.

In addition, the two big birds are too similar in size. The one on the right is a little better than the one on the left. But the one I really like is the small duck! It is assymetrical, has some unexpected pieces, is made up of lines of unequal lengths, has some neat curves and some sharp angles, and still looks like a duck. The interesting silhouette is filled in with subtle color variation and a bit of texture.

I also liked how I got looser on the left side of the painting. Look at these cool flowers.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Why I Love to Paint

While I am painting, I feel absorbed, happy, and pain free for several hours -- all this for only a $3 piece of paper. That’s less than a Starbuck’s, and besides, paper is a renewable resource. And it’s caffeine and calorie free, too!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Painting What We Love

Many art teachers tell us to paint what we love, what we feel passionate about. Besides my loved ones, here is what I most care about.
When I was young, coordinated, athletic, and dancing, I took all that for granted. Now that BPPV and arthritis pain and stiffness  mean the end of dancing for me, I paint people in motion, especially dancers, and dream of freedom of movement. After much suffering and hard work, I have finally achieved a degree of personal serenity, and I paint romantic landscapes in the hopes of expressing and maintaining that serenity.
In terms of society, I care about the environment and social justice. It is difficult to make a painting that expresses a political viewpoint, and it is nearly impossible to convince people who believe otherwise that protecting the environment and increasing social justice are morally right and actually in their own self-interest. If you can’t change people’s minds, then any political painting is “preaching to the choir.” So far, I have not attempted to paint my feelings and thoughts about the environment or social justice.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

One Good Thing about Painting Is That No One Dies

One of the many things I love about painting is that you can get better at it as you grow old. Even my essential tremor makes for a more interesting line.
I was privileged to watch Milford Zornes at age 98 make a gorgeous painting even though he was nearly blind. Henry Fukuhara was also creating new paintings at an advanced age and nearly blind. As long as you can move an arm and hold a brush, you can still paint.