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Friday, June 28, 2019

Why I Paint: Understanding the World

Shady Pond
9x12 Oil

In a previous post, I wrote that painting is the way I "digest the world."  To clarify, painting helps me observe and also sometimes understand the physical world.  There's more than a little bit of the scientist in me, and through painting I may learn something about botany, ornithology, geology, meteorology and a few other -ologies.  For example, while painting a spruce along the edge of a bog, I may note that one branch goes off in an odd direction, and so I deduce it's because it had to grow around another branch that is now missing.  This and other observations provide clues to the tree's life story.

But interestingly, the things I observe and learn about may not be the things I paint.

Painting is a holistic enterprise, so while making my study of a spruce, I am also paying peripheral attention to everything else.  I follow the buzz of an insect, and I find it drowning in the "pitcher" of a pitcher plant.  A chickadee sings in my spruce—will it miss this one insect?  No, because I spy wrigglers—mosquito larvae—in the red, tannin-rich water of the bog, and soon there will be plenty of mosquitoes for it to harvest.  And in fact, a rainbow-colored sundog, pinned to a ceiling of high, wispy clouds, foretells of rain and even more mosquitoes.

Painting also helps me understand the metaphysical world.  More about that later.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Finding Your Way as a Painter

This sketch by John Singer Sargent shows things as they are, although I suspect he removed a twig or two.
Forest, Ramsau, Germany. 1871.
National Gallery of Art

Lots of us start out painting by just trying to make something look like what it is.  You try to sharpen and then hone to a fine edge the skills necessary for representational painting.  After awhile, you reach the point of successfully capturing the exact portrait of a particular tree, right down to every twig, and that's certainly an accomplishment.  After awhile longer, though, you realize that not every twig is important, and you start to leave out some.  Suddenly, even though the portrait is no longer exact, somehow it "feels" more like the tree than the exact copy.  This is a great accomplishment.

Cezanne here arrives at a sense of "treeness" without being totally factual.
Montagne Sainte-Victoire et viaduc du côté de Valcros. 1897-1900.
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
Piet Mondrian takes the idea of "treeness" a bit farther.
Grey Tree. 1911.
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.

More time passes, more practice is put in, and you start to push color.  Maybe you increase the temperature contrast between warm, sunny clumps of foliage and the cool, shadowy undersides. Maybe you even make the color a bit richer to further enhance the sunny effect.  Once more, the sketch begins to feel even more like the tree.  Although you have departed from the facts that make up the tree, you have arrived at the truth of the tree.

This is a greater accomplishment yet.  You finally have learned to outpaint nature when it comes to trees.

But after many years of feeling highly satisfied by a long run of painting trees successfully, you become aware of an uncomfortable hollowness.  It dawns on you that you are making sketches and not pictures.  Shouldn't there be something more than just painting the truth?

Frederic Edwin Church, in this painting, uplifts and inspires us.  The trees are integrated into the whole.
El Rio de Luz. 1877.
National Gallery of Art.
In this one, Winslow Homer makes the tree an important part of a story.
Sharpshooter. 1863.
Portland Museum of Art.

Some might say painting the truth is sufficient.  Others might say that a painting should also inspire and uplift.  More than a few might say that a painting should also tell a story.

But which is path is the right one?  I don't have an answer for that, and most likely, the answer varies from artist to artist.  I have to find my own way and you, yours.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Why I Paint: Instant Feedback

"Rolling Fog"
7x9 Oil
Available Here

Once upon a time, I wanted to write novels.  And I did write a few, one of which I finally ended up self-publishing.  But I found that I had a problem with the novel-writing process—feedback on chapters given to friends for review took a long time coming.  This slowed down the writing, which, for a novel, was already considerably slow.  I was raised on a diet rich in impatience.

Craving faster feedback, I turned to short stories. They were quicker to write, but feedback didn't come any faster.  And the time it took for a story submitted to a magazine either to be rejected or accepted was, well, daunting.  I tried poetry, too, short little things.*

It occured to me that the problem with writing is that it is linear.  Letters are strung into words; words, into sentences; sentences into chapters; chapters into the proverbial weighty tome.  (Or "tomb," if all that work doesn't pay off.)  My reader had to follow this miles-long, tangled string I had reeled out in the labyrinth of my writing.   Was there any quicker way to get feedback?

Yes, I discovered, in painting.  A painting isn't made up of one string but of many layers of strings, all interwoven, all visible.  Because you can see all of it in a single moment of study, it provokes an immediate response—sometimes visceral and dramatic, othertimes cautious and tentative, but there's always something.  This initial response is often followed by a more considered one; a painting can contain a world of complexity in that two-dimensional surface, a complexity as involved as any novel's plot, a complexity that requires time and effort to understand.  But it is that initial response, that quick kick, that the painter wants and gets.

And that's one reason why I'm a painter.

But these days, as I age, the quick reponse is losing its savor.  I'm more sure of myself and don't crave—or even really need—the instant response.  What's more, I'm now chewing my food more slowly and with more thought.  Painting has become a more-considered effort, not so much a sandwich slapped together but a fine meal with many courses.  And I in the drawer I do have a couple of half-written novels.  I've a mind to start thinking about them again.

But in the meantime, I will keep on painting—right now, it's the way I digest the world.

*Curious about what I've published?  Besides poetry here and there, I've had science fiction and fantasy published in small magazines.  My claim to fame is a story, "The Stone Wives," that Marion Zimmer Bradley took for the last volume of an anthology series that she personally edited before her death, Sword & Sorceress XVIII.  I've also self-published my novel, Dream Sector, under my pen name, Mac Braxton, which you can get from Amazon.  Here's the cover:

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Is Anyone Listening?

"Rising Tide"
9x12 Oil
Available Here

"Too warm—cooler!"
"Too blue—greener!"
"Not dark enough—lighter!"

The casual passerby might hear me mutter phrases like these as I paint.   Talking to myself might be a sign of dementia, but not in this case.   It's a habit of constant narration that I've developed as a teacher; students find it useful because it gives them my thought process behind the painting.  But I find it useful when I paint alone, too.  It's all part of what I call "mindful painting," which I discussed in an earlier post.  Analyzing my choices out loud keeps me focussed on the task at hand.  Each statement serves as an evaluation of the brush stroke I just laid down, keeping me on track.

The muttering also seems to serve another purpose—curious folks keep their distance.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Should You Donate Art to an Auction?

Where I have my summer studio, paintings of lighthouses are popular auction items.  Here's one that is not going to an auction.  But, you can buy it at a reasonable price!  Here are details.

I've been asked to participate in many local art auctions over the years.  At first, I felt honored to be asked and also glad I could help.  Usually, the groups sponsoring these auctions tout a good cause for which I have an affinity, such as historic preservation or the preservation of wildlands.  But I eventually stopped participating.  Why?  Because they always wanted to put a very low starting bid on the work—one that was much lower than I could sell the art for outside the auction.

And almost always the art sold for much less than retail.

In my mind, this approach cuts two ways.  First, it devalues my work.  Second, the sponsoring group realizes much less.  The group would make more money if it started the bidding at or near the retail price.

Of course, in some places, there is no real art market, and art just doesn't sell for much, auction or not.  In these cases, fine art should not be included in the auction.  Instead, less expensive items should be offered.  On the other hand, in an area where there is a real art market, an auction that sells items for below market isn't doing anyone any favors—especially if the auction is a fundraiser for a worthy cause.

Have you been asked to donate your work to an auction?  Let me know of your experience.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Hey, It's Exposure

"Acadian Prince" 18x24 oil/canvas

Do I really want this $2800 painting hung over the buffet and subject to splashes of gravy?

"We'd love to hang your art in our restaurant."
"We'd love to hang your art in our corporate office."
"We'd love to hang your art in our hospital lobby."

Usually, these statements are followed by another:  "Of course, we can't pay you, but you'll get plenty of exposure."

What's the value of exposure?  Certainly, someone may see your artwork in one of these venues, but quite often, purchasing art is the last thing on that person's mind.  Seated in a restaurant, I'm more interested in the menu and my fellow guests.  If  I'm a worker in a corporate office, I'm usually looking at my computer screen or headed to the coffee machine.  If I'm waiting to see a doctor, I am focused on what ails me.  In each of these situations, I may see the decor and may even enjoy it, but I'm probably not buying it.

As a painter, of course, I have a professional interest.  If the painting looks interesting, I'll walk over to it, examine it more closely and maybe even check the signature and price, if there is a price tag.  (There should be, and with your contact information, if you want to sell it.)

If I'm asked by a business to hang my work for free, I would first ask if they have a decorating budget.  I'd make them a deal if they buy the work.  Failing that, I'd ask if they would be interested in renting the work.  Failing that, I would say "no."

Yes, sometimes hanging your painting for free in such a venue may sell it or entice a buyer to look at your other work.  But I think it's very rare.  I'd love to have you share your experiences in the comments section below.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Some New Small Plein Air Paintings for Sale

Collage of the New Small Paintings

My new summer studio occupies part of the main floor of a three-story barn.  I'll post pictures of it later, once I get it completely set up, but I want to share with you some of the paintings from my last season here on Campobello Island in the Canadian Maritimes.  These are paintings I painted in the last weeks of the summer of 2018 but didn't have a chance to varnish.  I did that yesterday:

I used Gamblin's Gamvar to varnish.  One thin coat does the trick, and it dries quickly.

I'll be posting these paintings individually through Instagram and Facebook, but you can see them (and buy them!) all right now on my web site:  Shipping to the lower 48 in the US is included; paintings are unframed.

By the way, you can sign up to get notifications when I post new small paintings here:

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Thursday, June 6, 2019

Painting Retreat Opening - Lubec, Maine, August 11-16, 2019

"Ebb Tide" 8x10 Pastel
Plein air view of Lubec, Maine

Sometimes it happens.  People cancel out of workshops and retreats.  When someone expresses interest in a workshop or retreat that is filled, I always ask if they'd like to be on the waiting list.  I encourage them to answer "yes."   After all, you never know -- sometimes a health issue crops up, or there's a death in the family, or some other unexpected detour appears.

And it's happened now for my painting retreat for experienced painters in Lubec, Maine, August 11-16.  I do have someone interested in this open spot, and I will know for sure in 24 hours.  But even if she takes the spot, it's possible another will open.  If you have any interest, please contact me.  I will let you know as soon as the opening is confirmed and keep you on the list in case there is another.

Details on the retreat are here (dates are for 2020, but the information is basically the same for this year) on my web site.

I've written about Lubec, Maine, and neighboring Campobello Island, New Brunswick, a great deal over the years.  But if you are new to my blog, let me tell you that you won't find anywhere more special for ocean scenery.  You'll discover bold cliffs, historic fishing villages, boats and lighthouses, and beaches that are mostly empty even at the height of the summer season.  If that doesn't tempt you, perhaps the prospect of FRESH LOBSTSER will!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Plein Air Police

Recently, there was a heated and lengthy discussion on a friend's Facebook page about artists cheating at plein air painting competitions.  It was fascinating to watch the discussion shift and morph.  But the uptake of it was, yes, there have been artists cheating, and the honest painters aren't happy with them.

Cheating? you ask.  What does that mean?

Most plein air painting events have a competition aspect.  That is, artists are not just there to paint beautiful scenery but also to vie for cash prizes and awards.  Usually, the sponsoring organization sets ground rules, such as all paintings submitted for awards must be painted 100% en plein air, outdoors and on-the-spot.  This is to level the playing field so everyone has an even shot at the awards.  It's only fair.  Cheating in a plein air competition is just as bad as doping in althetic competitions.

Cheating, which should yield a better painting, also should yield better sales for that artist.  (Of course, all this depends on the skill level of the artist.)  Other than the prizes and awards, selling is the primary goal for the artists.  It's also the primary goal for the organizers, who usually want to raise money.   One wonders if the organizers shouldn't just look the other way when it comes to cheating.

Let me play devil's advocate for a moment.  To keep the playing field level, perhaps all the painters should be allowed to cheat.  Why not, for an athletic event, let all the athletes inject their steroid of choice?  Maybe it would raise expectations and even sell more tickets.  The result would certainly be a different type of event.

For painters, the result would be a traditional painting competition, in which it doesn't matter if the painting was done outdoors, in the studio, or with one hand tied behind the back  But it wouldn't be a "plein air painting" event and would require a new name.

So, yes, painters participating should abide by whatever rules are set by the sponsor.  Painters who do their best work in the studio should reconsider whether to participate.