That’s sophomoric

The Magazine Women Believe In was a spoof of style of 1950s publications. I painted it back in the day; I wouldn’t paint it today because my feminist thinking has matured. So has my painting style.
As a young person, my brain was fizzing over with half-cocked ideas. Some of my projects were musical—like writing a rock opera with my chum Michele, or writing and recording a cowpunk album with my husband. Some were literary. Most were visual. But some were just larks, like going on the Maid of the Mist in my bikini or going skiing in grease-stained Carhartt overalls—what today we might dignify with the label ‘performance art,’ if we could find funding for it.
I grew up in a time and a town which was too conservative for performance art, and my parents tended to cast a jaundiced eye on my antics. So I burrowed into the art form I knew best—drawing and painting—and gradually left the more conceptual stuff behind. I don’t think I’m any less creative at this advanced age, but my creativity is more yoked to what I do best.
Submission was painted during the first phase of the Iraq War and addresses the still-thorny issue of whether oppression or libertine impulses are more stifling for women. It’s one of the paintings that got my RIT show closed down.
Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity by economist David Galenson looks at the schism between the creativity of youth and that of maturity. Galenson says that some of us work by trial and error, and arrive at our major contributions incrementally, usually in old age. In contrast, there are conceptual innovators who make sudden breakthroughs by formulating new ideas at an early age. Galenson puts Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Cézanne in the “old master” category, and Vermeer, van Gogh, and Picasso in the “young Turk” category.
Would I have painted The Beggar of St. Paul today, with its cynical depiction of Starving Africa as part of the money cycle? Probably not. I’m weary of hectoring people.
I think he has the division in thinking right, but not the outcome. We are all more daring thinkers when young, and more methodical workers when old. The difference is in when we’re discovered and what the society in which we live values. Today we live in a society which values audacity above craftsmanship, which tends to highlight the conceptual over the incremental.

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The first artists called by name

Creatures on the shrine doors in the Egyptian pharoah Tutankhamun’s tomb. Since they’re more-or-less contemporary with the Bible narrative, they probably provide a good idea of what the cherubim over the Mercy Seat were intended to look like.
I read four chapters of the Bible every day, and when I get to the end I just flip back and start again at the beginning. (This is hardly brilliant for exegesis, but it works for me.) Right now I’m at the end of Exodus, reading the story of the building of the Tabernacle.
Bezalel was named the chief artisan of the Tabernacle by God himself. Not only was Bezalel a skilled engraver in his own right, he was versatile enough to be put in charge of artisans and apprentices in all the other crafts. He had an assistant, Aholiab, who was described as a master of carpentry, weaving, and embroidery—a strange combination to modern readers.

According to Exodus, Bezalel was called by God to direct the construction of the Tent of Meeting and its sacred furniture, and to prepare the priests’ garments and the oil and incense required for the service. That’s a pretty wide remit; it’s probably similar to running a major design house today.
Moses and Joshua In the Tabernacle, by James Tissot, c. 1896. Even the best painters seem to go haywire trying to interpret the instructions in Exodus. It’s hard to see where Tissot got anything right.
The Bible is clear that both his remit and his talent came from God:  “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft.” (Ex. 31:3). The “divine spirit” mentioned is the Elohim Ruah, or the breath of God Himself.
This representation of the Ark of the Covenant was sculpted in the fourth century AD. From a synagogue in Capernaum.
There is great disagreement on the age of the Torah, but it’s clear that Moses was an historical figure and that Exodus records the origins of the Jews as a people. (How literally is a question for the reader to decide on his own.) That means that early in human history, an artist was elevated for his skill and his value to his civilization. I’m all for math, science and engineering, but next time you’re thinking of discouraging a kid from pursuing a career in the arts, remember that some of us are called to be artists, and our contribution hasn’t been negligible.
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What does style mean?

A Pool With A View, by Bruce Bundock, is an example of the artist’s worldview.

The women I lived with last week are all at the top of their game, but paint in a variety of styles. Tarryl Gabel paints meticulously detailed, ethereal landscapes. Crista Pisano’s are minute but less about detail and more about form. Mira Fink is a high-chroma pattern-maker, a lot like me but in watercolor. Kari Ganoung Ruiz paints in the subdued palette of her native Finger Lakes. The two pastel painters were as different as chalk and cheese: Marlene Wiedenbaum is a romantic, while Laura Bianco works in bold, fast strokes.

Baroque Arch, Rome, is an example of Brad Marshall’s meticulous drafting.
What do those differences mean? Do they reflect something about the personality? I doubt it. Brad Marshall (whose show Italia is opening at the Fischbach Gallery on September 12) is a far more methodical and controlled painter than me. He’s more of a risk-taker in his 9-to-5 life—hanging from scaffolding on the side of tall buildings—but there are no glaring differences between our values, our lifestyles, the cars we drive, or our homes.
Certainly the content of a painter’s work reflects his worldview. Consider, for example, Bruce Bundock’s Faces of Vassar: An Appreciation, which opened last February. I love his work because Bruce is less interested in the grand than he is in the everyday.
Millbrook Hill, a pastel by Marlene Wiedenbaum, is wonderfully romantic.
I had a conversation last week with a successful, professional painter lamenting her lack of formal art education. Many formal art programs teach very little about actual painting and most artists do most of their learning on their own, after the classes and workshops end. Since she paints beautifully and her style is fully realized, there is little she can gain from a teacher now, and much she could muddy up.
Whereas Autumn Glow, a pastel by Laura Bianco, is absolutely graphical.
I don’t think style comes from the personality, but I do think it comes from the soul. The goal in painting is to get rid of the stuff that stands between us and our true self. Personal style is what’s left when we have tried our hardest to tell an accurate story with our brushes. It’s an artifact of imperfection. True personal style can’t be taught or learned. It comes from within. That’s why teachers who try to create copies of themselves among their students inevitably fail to foster greatness.

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It’s a wrap

Weather Moving In At Barnum Bog, 12X9, oil on canvasboard.
I’m home, finally, after a very tiring five and a half weeks on the road. Much of the time, I was working so many hours that blogging was an afterthought. That is why I posted only a few of the paintings I did last week. Today I thought I’d share the rest from Saranac Lake with you.
Whiteface Makes Its Own Weather, 16X12, oil on canvasboard.
I painted nine works in three days. (Three of which I’ve already posted.) That’s unusually prolific for me, and I blame it in part on my housemates, who worked so diligently that I constantly felt like a piker.

The Au Sable River at Jay, 12X9, oil on canvasboard.
Not only was I prolific, however, but I felt that I was painting very well. I’ve been in a style shift over the last year, and this work reflects where I’m going more than where I’ve been. To me, that’s important, because in some ways the Adirondacks are closely tied to my past, so that I’m able to paint them without intimations of the past is a healthy sign for future progress.

Whiteface and Marsh, 16X12, oil on canvasboard.
If I am ever complacent in my painting, just take me out and shoot me. Painting is exploration. It should always be a challenge, a personal battle, a jousting match.
Town Hall, Saranac Lake, 10X8, oil on canvasboard.
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Special Trout Fishing Area, 12X9, oil on canvasboard.

The night before exams

Sunset over Saranac Lake, by little ol’ me.

This week I’ve lived with a group of women painters in a house overlooking Lake Flower in Saranac Lake. I’ve known two of them for a long time, but the rest were strangers to me before the week began. We are strangers no more; there’s intimacy in living in an all-girls’ dorm, which is probably lost in a world which no longer segregates college students by gender.

Crista Pisano touching up her work the night before the show.
Not that we were living in the others’ pockets: we crept off silently in the early morning to paint where and when we wanted, meeting up for dinner. Occasionally we painted together, but most of the time we went our own ways.

My roomies, from left: Mira Fink, Crista Pisano, me, Marlene Wiedenbaum, Laura Bianco, Kari Ganoung Ruiz, Tarryl Gabel.
The sun wasn’t in evidence much last week, so when it made its appearance on Saturday we all made the most of it. When it finally dropped, we reluctantly set down our brushes and went back inside for the serious work of framing, signing  and titling work. This included a group critique session, targeted toward culling the work for jurying. Crista Pisano offered a great insight: work for a jury ought to be consistent, so we worked to make our groupings-of-three coherent small shows in their own right.

I painted with other pals as well. Here with Sandra Hildreth, left, and Carol Thiel, right.
Inevitably, someone made the suggestion that a work would look better in a different frame. The business of swapping framing materials began. It was like being in school again, except that we were swapping art supplies rather than makeup.

Among my favorite places to paint was the bog at Paul Smiths College Visitor Interpretive Center, where Pitcher Plants were much in evidence.

Our house made a strong showing: Crista Pisano took Best in Show (for the second time in three years) and Tarryl Gabel took the Saranac Lake Cover Art Award.

And then this morning we demonstrated that seven women can clean a house in no time flat.

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Me and my big mouth

Front Porch View, 5X7, oil on canvasboard.
The residents of the asylum all got up at 6 AM yesterday to paint our 5X7 donation paintings. Four of us painted from the same location—our porch, because it was raining. My painting was finished and handed in by 8 AM. Sadly, that was the high point of my day.
Marlene Wiedenbaum painting from the front porch.
I’ve said before that rain is the great equalizer; it falls on the just and the unjust alike. That was true yesterday, and it slowed us all down. I abandoned my painting of Main Street after 2 hours, intending to return to it after lunch. Instead, I went out to paint Whiteface Mountain—a scene I said was idiot proof. Whoops. As soon as I had my painting composed and blocked in, a cloud rolled down the mountain, obscuring it.
Unfinished painting of Whiteface Mountain. I’ll finish the mountain when it stops having a hissy fit and hiding behind the clouds.
Not only did it bring rain, it also brought No-See-Ums out. And three visitors, one of whom spent almost an hour with us asking questions about what we were doing.
Whiteface hiding behind its clouds.
There was no finishing this composition without the top of Whiteface showing, since all the weight would then fall to the bottom of the page. Still, both are salvageable. I’ll finish them tomorrow.
Painting along Route 86 (photo courtesy of Laura Bianco).

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Buckling down to do some work

Mountain Farm in Evening, 8X6, oil on canvas
Yesterday, I spent several hours hiking at the 3,000-acre Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC). We’re expected to paint there tomorrow, and I’ve never been there. Toting up the various trails I followed, I figure I hiked about five miles, which is my normal daily walk at home. Hiking trails, however, are different from paved urban sidewalks, particularly in a mountainous area.
Mira Fink working on her watercolor at the VIC.
There is an iconic view of a rock outcropping in the VIC’s Heron Marsh which is lovely, but it is perhaps too perfect for my taste. Brian McDonnell, VIC facilities manager, warned me that it would be swarming with artists on Friday. A lovely view on the far end of the marsh caught my eye, but it’s a mile and a half from the parking lot. There is a spruce swamp that is simply magical, but I’m not sure how I’ll convert that to something intelligible. I won’t choose now; I think it would be better to let the views percolate in my mind’s eye before committing them to canvas.
Approaching the spruce swamp at the VIC.
I also went back to two sites that I visited on Tuesday, because I wasn’t certain they would make good compositions. I did greyscale drawings to satisfy myself that painting them would work.
A panoramic view of the High Peaks can only work if there’s foreground interest. I’ll tidy up the trees and I think it will work.
At about 5 PM, I went to town to have my boards stamped. From there, Crista Pisano, Laura Bianco and I went to Gabriels, NY to paint farms in the waning evening light. It was the first time I’ve actually flexed my brush hand in a week, and it felt good.
I’m still not convinced about these river rocks at Jay, but painting should be all about taking risks, right?
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Before we even started, Crista plucked a dead dragonfly out of her radiator.
“How long have you been working on that” is a common question asked of all painters. Of course that doesn’t include the time spent on prep, which includes ordering supplies, setting up one’s palette, building frames and equipment, and, above all, reconnoitering painting spaces.
The Flume. Requires some hiking, but there’s great energy, and a log on which to sit.
I know the lower Adirondacks well, but I don’t know the High Peaks as well. Tarryl Gabel and I went for a drive to look at painting sites yesterday. Along the way, we discussed what makes a great composition.
Meadow view of Whiteface. A little too balanced, too static, but it has its good points.
  • Interesting light. For Tarryl, this means a raking light from the side; for me, the definition is a little vaguer, but there are sites that are appropriate for morning and sites that are appropriate for afternoon. (In the Adirondacks, it’s hard to find sites that look great at midday, because the green gets a little harsh.)
  • Naturally occurring compositions—sometimes you have to work at it, and sometimes it’s there automatically. Both have their virtues, but frankly the natural ones are easier.
  • Layers—I’m always looking for this, and in particular on long views in the mountains. I don’t want to make wide panorama paintings; they’re not my thing. So I want foreground, trees, mountains, and clouds (if I can get them).
Roadside view, gives an s-curve to the far distance, but not a lot of layers.
  • “Atmosphere, perspective, depth,” added Tarryl, and I think it’s as good a guide as anything.
  • From an ergonomic standpoint, I want shade and a level surface on which to stand for a long period of time. If I can’t stand on a level surface, I’m going to sit.
  • Some place to pee.
  • For safety’s sake, it makes sense to not choose a spot where you are totally alone.
Waterfall in Jay has energy, layers, and lots of depth.
Perhaps most interesting to me is how the same scenes that set my pulse racing didn’t do as much for Tarryl, and vice-versa. For her, it’s about inviting people in to a restful place; for me it’s about energy and pattern. That’s what’s wonderful about art; no two of us see things the same way.
I love the looming mountains and warm tones in the foreground, but am unsure about making a good composition.
Setting up my palette is all about the greens here—I want enough separation in them to make the paintings work. But there are intimations of fall in the air even now, and the soft maples are starting to go red.
Mixing greens is a priority when everything is green. That’s a matrix of black, ultramarine and Prussian on the vertical, and Hansa yellow, Indian yellow, and yellow ochre on the horizontal. Modulated with a lavender tone, that gives me 18 different greens in a hurry.
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Dépaysement, redux

Still life composed by Tarryl for my amusement. My fellow painters here are all down-staters.
A few weeks ago I wrote about dépaysement, the sense of disorientation one has on arriving in a strange place. I have to confess I’m feeling that again. I’m in Saranac Lake, NY, for the Sixth Annual Adirondack Plein Air Festival, and it’s 38° F. this morning. Yes, you read that right. I’m staying with a group of artists led by Tarryl Gabel, who is a veteran of painting up here in August. As I’m writing this, she’s sliding jeans over her leggings, preparing to hie off to Paul Smiths. 

My bedroom is an old-fashioned sleeping porch.
Coming from the Maine coast as I did, I have sleeveless shirts, capris, and sandals with me. “But you’re a northern girl,” Tarryl protested, implying that I should have known better. This is true, but Rochester and Buffalo have warm autumns, courtesy of the Great Lakes, which act as massive heat exchangers. Having said that, 38° F. on an August morning is cold for anywhere in New York State.
Crista cooks like I do, meaning she put herself in charge of snack food.
I’ve known Tarryl for a long time but not that well. She and Crista Pisano and I have done Rye’s Painters on Location together for many years. They’re the only people I expect to know in this temporary artists’ commune.
The essence of the Adirondacks: a porch overlooking the lake.
Our home-away-from-home is a ramshackle turn-of-the-century pile along Flower Lake. The view is lovely and the furniture is vintage. After the solitude of my off-the-grid cabin and the luxury of the Fireside Inn, this is a third kind of living: it has the character of a family camp in the mountains, complete with deferred maintenance. But as I keep saying, “I don’t have to fix it.”
Tarryl’s painting hat. It’s iconic.
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The best laid plans

Double rainbow over the schooner Appledore, returning to Camden Harbor.

I like to lead painters in a convoy to our painting sites, since they are usually places rather than addresses. On Friday, my parade managed to get ahead of me. No problem, I thought, because we are heading for one of Maine’s best-known sites: the Mount Battie Auto Road in Camden Hills State Park. The view from this 800-foot peak is assumed to be the place that inspired Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Renascence, composed when she was a teenager living in Camden, and first recited to guests at the Whitehall Inn.

Marjean and Nancy painting the vista.
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.

Janith’s fifth day of painting ever, and she turned out this very credible painting of the view.
Camden is one of my favorite painting venues in Maine. However, the problem with Camden as a teachingvenue is that the traffic is atrocious. Suffice it to say that with the miracle of modern GPS, I managed to lose everyone, and we started late. No matter, though; the view was wonderful. And nobody fell off the summit of Mount Battie.
Clouds you could eat with a spoon.
Some travelers took off for Pemaquid, some for Portland, and the remainder went down to Camden to have fun. Although the forecast was for it to be clear, a small spit of rain moved in. It didn’t soak us, but it did make an amazing double rainbow over the windjammer fleet at Camden Harbor. “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth,” said God, and who can look at a rainbow without a sense of awe? It was a fitting end to a fantastic week, and a promise of more good things to come.
Nancy loaned me her hiking poles (mine were buried in my trunk) to climb over the rocks from painter to painter. I reciprocated by using them as pointers.

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I love the constant action at Camden Harbor. Here, a class has a sailboat race.