A Song of Hyacinths

March 15th, 2018

I was reminded recently of a poem, “Hyacinths,” various versions of which I have seen credited to John Greenleaf Whittier and to Sadi.  I favor one of the variations from the latter:


“If of thy earthly goods thou art bereft,

And from their meager store

Two loaves alone to thee are left,

Sell one, and with the dole

Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”


The specific version of the poem seems immaterial when we consider the theme—that even in difficult times, when our spirits are low, it is more important to maintain our hope and positive outlook than to stress out over our circumstances.  Hyacinths are spring-time bloomers, representing renewal and hope.  The point is that we should seek out beauty even in the midst of loss, and cling to hope even in the worst of times.

“Blue Hyacinths”  by Charlotte Mertz (10”x8” watercolor, 180208w)

“Blue Hyacinths” by Charlotte Mertz (10”x8” watercolor, 180208w)

Such beauty may be found in a flower, the sparkle of sunlight on water, or a favorite scent.  It may be heard in a bird’s song, the purr of a cat, or in an encouraging voice.  We can find comfort in memories, or find hope in dreams for the future.  Just as a hyacinth’s scent fills our nostrils and our lungs, the sense of hope refills us with energy to face whatever challenges we have to overcome.

In the painting of “Blue Hyacinths,” above, I used a “negative” technique, painting around some of the petals to bring out their shape.  Because sometimes we appreciate the little things more because of the darkness surrounding them.

What hyacinths are feeding your soul today?



Characteristics of Place

March 1st, 2018

The transition from winter to summer seemed very sudden for us in Florida this year.  One of the few natural clues in the past few weeks that we were experiencing “spring” was the dramatic fall of leaves from the live oaks after daytime temperatures rose suddenly from the 50s and 60s(F) into the mid-to-upper-80s within a week.

Unlike most deciduous trees, live oaks cling to their leaves through the fall and winter, releasing the small, drying leaves only as the new growth of spring leaves begins.  So, in conjunction with our winter temperatures largely mimicking summer temperatures in more northern regions, (and aside from the fact that we don’t get much of a cold reprieve for more than about a week, ever) sometimes it feels as though our seasons are a bit backward on the Florida peninsula.

Hanging Moss in Oak Park, by Charlotte Mertz (8"x10" oil, #180207-o)

Hanging Moss in Oak Park, by Charlotte Mertz (8″x10″ oil, #180207-o)

It was a good reminder to teach my students to watch for the unique characteristics of not only the specific vegetation in the locales in which we paint, but other identifiable aspects typical of the region.  These may include rock and soil color and configurations, species of trees and shrubs in the area, wildlife native to the region, and architecture designed either to address climatic conditions or to incorporate notable regional cultural influences.

These regional differences are one of the reasons we travel – to recognize and experience both environmental and cultural differences from other areas we’ve known.  I believe, too, that it is one of the reasons plein air painting has become so popular in recent years.  Not only are the physical characteristics of a specific region different from those in other places, but the prevailing atmospheric conditions can be recognized, as well.  Artists often refer to it as “the quality of light.”

Atmosphere is influenced by a number of different factors.  These factors include level of humidity; active precipitation; prevailing winds; air pollution; mist, fog, or salt spray; type and depth of cloud coverage; the colors reflected from the earth’s surface onto the underside of clouds; and even altitude relative to sea level, which can affect the density of the air itself and the light’s refraction among any airborne particles.

As I write this blog, the air is heavy, dense with humidity.  Colors are less saturated, values are condensed into narrower bands of lights and darks than usual.  On days like this my grandmother would comment that the distant side of the lake on which she lived appeared particularly far away, whereas on clear, cloudless days she might say the far shore appeared especially close.  It is this kind of difference that, as an artist, I try to be aware of, to establish in my work a sense of the atmospheric conditions in a specific place.  It’s a lesson I mean to extend to my students.


Sidetracked by the Muse

February 15th, 2018

As I look ahead to adventures planned for this coming year, I have also been looking back at our travels from 2017.  A camera gives me an opportunity to “relive” travel experiences, recalling the imagery of specific moments.  But painting from those images also allows me to recall the atmosphere and the specific elements that attracted my attention, that drew me to capture at least the visual scene in the photograph.  Through painting, I can more freely interpret that scene, drawing out from the overabundance of visual information only those key elements that mattered to me and minimizing the extraneous detail that might detract from it.

So, despite my recently-stated intent to narrow down my focus for now to figurative work, when I felt inspired to work on a specific project that did not conform, I found myself following the muse.

I had photographed a prickly pear cactus as a memory from my youth, when I had spent several years at various locales in the American Southwest. The plant has a rhythm in the linking of its lobes, a characteristic texture of its surface—with obvious spikes … and less obvious ones that (as I  learned early) can prove quite as troublesome if you brush too close…, as well as delicate, tissue-like blossoms that spring out in glorious color in the midst of the dusty, sun-baked surroundings.

“Prickly Pear” by Charlotte Mertz (8” x 8” watercolor on Arches hp paper, #180201w)

Using watercolor pencil, I sketched in the plant against a background of dried desert grasses.  A subsequent water wash couldn’t bring out the play of color the subject demanded, so I treated it as an underwash, following it up with multiple glazes of QoR watercolor to provide greater depth of color and contrast.

Prickly Pear is not a plant I want in my Florida garden, nor as a potted specimen on my Wisconsin deck.  But in the vast expanse of the desert lands of the Great Southwest, I found it an enchanting and rather nostalgic sight.

Limiting Options to Raise Productivity

February 1st, 2018

Last time I wrote about combatting burnout by trying something new.  I love having many different media available to work with, and developing the confidence to use each one comfortably.  Each medium has its strengths as well as its drawbacks.  So it would seem counterintuitive to regularly limit my options in using them.

But the truth is that I have a tendency to spread myself too thin.  We used to call that being a Jack of All Trades, which, of course, can easily preclude becoming a master of any.  With too many options at my disposal, I find I actually accomplish less overall than when I concentrate on a single medium.

The first quarter of this year, I am teaching watercolor classes.  So during this period I’ve decided that the focus of my own work should also be on watercolor to explore a variety of techniques to broaden the repertoire of my skills.  When I attempt a variety of techniques in, say, oils and pastels, at the same time, can I gain enough practical experience in the multiple media to benefit me much in any of them in the long run?  Probably not as rapidly as if I focus on developing skills in one medium at a time.

Similarly, if I divide my practice time among landscapes, portraiture, and still life, my visual attention will be scattered.  Whereas, if I focus on landscapes alone, I can attune my eyes to notice perspective, value and saturation changes, atmospheric effects, shape differentiation, and so on.  If I focus on figurative work, I am more inclined to notice how the angles, planes, and variations from “the norm” reveal the identity and attitude of an individual, as well as consciously observing the hue and temperature changes in various skin tones.

Although I may select more than one subject to use as examples for my students, my own practice and production should reflect the focus of whichever studies (both subject matter and medium) that I’ve selected to concentrate on, for my own benefit, at any given time.  In this way my attention isn’t so scattered, and I’m less likely to become sidetracked into less productive directions.

Procrastination and Burnout

January 15th, 2018

Procrastination and Burnout would seem to be at opposite ends of a productivity spectrum, but I’m coming to believe they’re not actually all that far apart.

Inspiration or Burnout?

“Inspiration or Burnout?”

Procrastination – the action of delaying or postponing something.    Procrastination, which is often manifest by replacing one task with another, often unrelated,  activity, is often triggered by fears—of either failure or success, of embarrassment or unwelcome recognition—or by indecisiveness or lack of motivation.  Or perhaps we’ve been sidetracked by demands in other areas of our lives and are finding it difficult to get back into the swing of those things we need (or even want) to return to.

Burnout – physical, mental, or emotional collapse caused by overwork or stress.    Burnout is caused by applying effort without incorporating sufficient downtime.  The phenomenon of burnout can also be brought on by fears—of failure, loss of motivation or opportunity—or by insecurity or losing perspective on our physical, mental, and emotional needs in relation to our efforts.

Both cause a slowdown in our level of productivity.

We all need time occasionally to regroup, evaluate the direction and effectiveness of our efforts, and consider alternative means of accomplishing our goals.  Some of us may need encouragement to overcome indecisiveness or insecurity; others may need help in finding direction or motivation.  Some may need a mentor or encourager to help us overcome various fears that deter us from accomplishing our goals … or to remind us to pay attention to other areas of our lives that may have been neglected.

If our lives are out of balance, as mine often gets over summer travel time or winter holidays, we sometimes swing from procrastination in some areas to over-compensation, which can lead to burnout, either in the same area or in other areas of our lives.

Scheduling can help in overcoming procrastination.  I sometimes set myself imaginary deadlines to complete certain goals.  That technique usually works pretty well, so long as I don’t allow those “deadlines” to float, which defeats the purpose of providing motivation to accomplish those tasks without further delay.

Though habits and schedules can help us use our time efficiently, they can also dig us into ruts that leave little room for variation or innovation, both of which are necessary for creativity.  It’s like following the same set of recipes every day:  Without variations, those favorite and nourishing meals eventually become boring, and we may be unaware of shortchanging ourselves of other important nutrients.

So to combat stagnation or creative burnout in our artistic endeavors, sometimes we artists need to change it up, try a different medium or tool, select a different kind of subject, view a scene from an unusual perspective, limit our palette or change to colors we rarely use.  We may need to experiment with a different size or format.  Or it may be time to put down our own materials and go to an exhibit of other artists’ work to gain perspective and inspiration for our own.

How do you combat your own tendencies toward procrastination or creative burnout?  I welcome your suggestions and feedback.