Taking chances

Winter Lambing, 48X36, oil on canvas, by little ol’ me.
Critiquing a painting this week, I focused on the concrete: there isn’t any texture in the background, the yellows are too cool, the vase is too busy. A few hours later, my student looked at my Winter Lambing and said, “I’m playing it too safe, aren’t I?”

This is taking a chance: obliterating the structure of a painting and starting again.
When I started my painting of the Aurora Borealis, I’d wanted the full gamut of color in those crazy lights. However, for some reason, we usually see green ones, so I went with the green phase.
Not finished, but an improvement on the prior iteration, I think.
Last week, Britain was lit up by an amazing display of Northern Lights. Considering that a gift, I immediately decided to restructure my painting. That involved redoing an already-realized underpainting, but a good rule of painting is, “If you could paint it once, you can paint it again.”
Wet brush in the left hand, soft dry brush in the right hand.
The Northern Lights are, by and large, soft, ethereal, and edge-free. I’m painting them two-fisted: one hand holds a wet brush with a soft slurry of color; the other has a dry brush with which I blend the edges.  This is time-consuming, but I hope it will be realistic when I’m finished. No paint can match the colors of the Northern Lights, so the problem will be making them work with the colors I have. 
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! 

Really big art

Bronze Colossus of Constantine, 4th century Roman. Not the one you expected, was it?
Having finished the first of my seven large (48X36) paintings for my upcoming show at Roberts Wesleyan, I’ve been thinking about why people are motivated to make really big art.
Roman emperors erected colossi of themselves to publicly declare their omnipotence. Nero had a bronze one that stood a staggering 30 meters tall. Rather than just trash it, his thrifty successors modified it into a statue of the sun god Sol Invictus. It was eventually moved to the Flavian amphitheater we now refer to as the Colosseum. The thing stood around until the 4th century AD before being melted down.
The most familiar colossi to the modern viewer is the great marble Colossus of Constantine. After Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, he decided to complete the Basilica begun by Maxentius, crowning it with this enormous statue of himself.  All we have left are the hands and face, since the bronze body was also eventually pillaged and melted.
Colossi of Memnon, 14th century BCE, Egyptian
The oldest colossi remaining those made by ancient Egyptians, including the almost completely eroded Sphinx and the Colossi of Memnon. These twin statues depict a seated Amenhotep III , his hands resting on his knees and his gaze facing east towards the river. The smaller figures carved in the front throne are his wife, Tiy, and his mother, Mutemwiya. These figures were meant to guard Amenhotep’s mortuary temple. In its day, this was the largest and grandest temple in Egypt.
The taller of the two Buddhas of Bamiyan, 554 AD, before its destruction by the Taliban.
Gandara art is the syncretic art that happened with the meshing of Greek and central Asian cultures from the time of Alexander the Great until the 7th century AD. Among the art produced in this fusion were the colossal Buddha sculptures carved into hillsides and caves, including the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were dynamited by the Taliban in 2001.
This statue of Vladimir Lenin in Dubna stands 25 meters high. It was completed in 1937.
The former Soviet Union loved colossi, erecting enormous statues of Lenin and Stalin for the same propaganda reasons as employed by the Roman emperors two millennia earlier. And we Americans have our Statue of Liberty and the heads carved at Mt. Rushmore.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops

What work are we doing here?

Getting there. It should be done tomorrow, I swear.
I’ve been dogged by illness this whole winter, but by the grace of God something is coming together for my upcoming show at the Davison Gallery at Roberts Wesleyan. I promised the gallery director a postcard image this week, and a postcard image she shall have.
I wish I’d named this show “Blood,” because that’s been the prevailing motif. Blood of the Lamb, hemorrhaging, red underpainting—it’s all been a bloody mess. Cancer has owned my body since November. I’m finally feeling better, but when my doctors demand my presence (which is often) I drop my brush and go. That happened again yesterday.
I am, generally, a pretty neat painter. But when I get close to a deadline, that all falls apart.
If you aren’t in the doctor grind, you don’t realize that every half-hour visit uses up hours of the patient’s time. A pedicure and good hair are talismans against loss of dignity, so they must be attended to before you can go.
“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” is erroneously attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who preferred wine. So do I, especially after a long day.
Home by noon, I was in my studio by 1 PM. At 3 PM, a friend stopped by. This friend has tended me through the winter, bringing me dinner, talking me out of my hole, cheering on my work. Yesterday she needed to talk, so I needed to listen. This is the work to which God truly calls us.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! 

Our inheritance

My great-grandfather’s landscape design portfolio, done in his late teens.

On Friday I learned that I have a genetic mutation. My doctor gave me an assignment: to flesh out my vague family history with real names, dates, and medical diagnoses—in short, to create a pedigree for myself.

Each of us carries two separate copies of our genes. In my case, one copy started off broken. I most likely inherited it from an ancestor, and I’ve got a 50-50 chance of having passed it along to my kids. The goal is to identify relatives with similar cancers so geneticists can trace a pattern.
Fine, except I have always resisted genealogy. As with bouillabaisse, there are no guarantees about what might come up on the spoon.
My husband had the notion that my great-grandmother’s Bible was in a box on the third floor and kindly went up to fetch it. When he came back, he also carried down a folio of drawings that were in the same box.
Decades later, he scrawled a draft of a job application on the back of one of his drawings.
I may not recognize my relatives but I recognized it—a student portfolio of landscape sketches. They could have been drawn by my father in 1942, or by me in 1979, but instead they were done by my paternal great-grandfather in 1862-63.
I’ve been known to do a bit of landscape design myself, here at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester.
I was looking for one trait but found another, shared among three people with vastly different experiences and training. “How could something like that be carried through a protein?” my skeptical husband asked.  It probably can’t, but nevertheless it was strung along two centuries of family. It’s a lovely mystery.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Psychology as art

When I was a teenager, my father would occasionally give young men who came visiting a psychological profile called the House-Tree-Person (HTP). This was slightly less weird than it seemed, since Dad was both a psychologist and an artist.
The results were usually quite prescient. He pointed out the priapism in one guy’s drawings; frustrated sexual desire indeed ended up being his driving force. To my father’s dismay, one young man deftly sidestepped the test; I’ve been married to him for decades and he still can’t be railroaded.
The HTP is a projective test designed to gauge personality, mental development and brain damage. The administrator simply tells the subject to draw a house, a tree, and a person, and then leaves him or her to it. The administrator may or may not ask questions about the drawings when they’re done, although if he knows what he’s doing, the pictures should speak for themselves.
As initially designed by John Buck in 1948, the HTP was meant to be subjective. However, psychology desperately wanted to reinvent itself as a science rather than an art, so it was reformulated by Zoltán Vass to be somewhat more quantitative.
Some things the HTP measures—such as whether the subject sees differentiated human appendages branching off from the right spots—are in fact straightforward measures of psychological development.  But in terms of more subtle questions, the test is only as good as the insights of the practitioner.
Whether there are skilled practitioners out there who can read the HTP today, it’s certainly true that art reveals things about its creators that the creators never intended. That it does so for a 4-year-old child as certainly as it did for a master painter is an indication of just how universal art is

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops

Even great painters have bad days

The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot
This morning I came across Tissot’s The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies, above. Tissot was a fine painter, but one has to wonder what he was thinking to portray Rahab as a man in drag, with a 5 o’clock shadow. (For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Rahab was the original ‘hooker with a heart of gold.’ Joshua sent two spies into Jericho, and Rahab hid them on her roof, in exchange for which her family was spared during the sack of the city.)
Seascape, Calm Weather, 1864-65, Édouard Manet
I’m pretty uncomfortable on the days I share my ‘fails’ with you, but it helps to remember that even great artists have bad days. Consider Édouard Manet, who surely must rank as one of the most incisive painters who ever lived. He was capable of wonderfully complex compositions articulating wonderfully complex commentaries. Yet his seascapes range from mediocre to terrible; still, he painted a lot of them.
Sunset at Montmajour, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh’s Sunset at Montmajour was misattributed for a long time, although it was once owned by Theo Van Gogh. Art historians simply didn’t believe he could have painted something that pretty, that bland. It has taken modern paint analysis to prove that the pigments came from the master’s palette.
I think I’ve mentioned before: there is no secret gnosis to painting. There is only hard work.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops