Investigating Artistic Impetus

July 15th, 2017

Last time I wrote about my interest in trying to figure out what compels me to paint and what drives me as an artist.  Is it merely the sensual stimulation and enjoyment I gain from manipulating the brush and color?  Or could it be some egotistical need to compete with and attempt to enhance nature’s glory?  Or am I driven by a desire to share with others my perceptions of those subjects that interest me?  Or is it a combination of things that impels me toward some greater, overriding purpose?

I have practiced art from the time I was quite young.  Whether the drawings were any good, and whether my color choices had any basis in reality, or were simply a response to what I thought they should be, was largely immaterial.  The point was that I was interested in trying to depict subjects that appealed to me.  It was a way of investigating and trying to more fully understand and appreciate the world around me.

As I got a little older, I tended to stay quiet, with “eyes and ears open and mouth shut,” as my Dad used to put it.  I watched people.  I looked at the lines of their bodies as they moved around, the way their facial features were shaped, and how the texture of their skin reflected light in different ways at different ages.  (It may be just as well that my classmates had no clue about what I was thinking; it definitely could have been misinterpreted!)

In a way, I suppose that’s what I’m still doing—studying, trying to understand and appreciate subjects that interest me.  And such intangible qualities as light, color, line, and pattern are at least as important subjects in my work today as the physical subjects that act as vehicles for exploring them.

"Illumination"

“Illumination”

A-ha!  So that‘s it!  (Have you ever experienced a revelatory “a-ha” moment yourself?  Exciting, isn’t it!)

Now that I recognize what my subject matter really is, I look forward to growing in that knowledge.  I trust it will free me to explore it further, becoming less concerned with objects as subjects and more concerned with those revealing qualities that drew my attention to those objects.

Stick around and let’s see where it leads!

So … Where are we now?

July 1st, 2017

As a (very) late bloomer, I have discovered how important it is to not only plan my progress toward pre-identified goals, but to periodically evaluate how satisfactorily I’m actually making progress.  This year I set out to work on my watercolor skills, to explore and identify my “style,” and to discover who I am—what my role is—as an artist.

“In Daddy’s Hands” by Charlotte Mertz (5″ x 5,” graphite pencil, #170605p)

The first goal—learning, developing, and polishing skills—is an ongoing process that will never be complete, as long as I can lift a brush and continue to challenge myself.  With conscious effort put toward improving my understanding and development of specific skills, I hope that they have been improving this year, with my work more consistently displaying higher quality.  But I wonder if my focus on one area has allowed me to become lax in others. A periodic flop warns me that I’m not infallible and there is still plenty of room for improvement.

I have also come to recognize characteristics of my personal style and what elements of others’ art particularly influence my own work, which increases my confidence that, in general, I’m on the right track.

The third goal, discovering my role as an artist, has been more elusive.  So that is another realm that I hope to explore more rigorously in the coming months.  Certainly I think of myself as a teacher and encourager of others.  But what is the underlying drive and purpose of my own artwork?  I have long recognized that the concept for each piece and my inspiration to paint go hand in hand. But less clear has been what might be the consistent, overriding similarity in purpose that compels me to paint anything.  This is a question to which I’ve gradually been finding answers.  More about that next time.

Materials Evaluation Time!

June 15th, 2017

As I take a brief vacation break to do something different, I’m considering a short-term shift from watercolors back to oils for a few weeks.  The changed requirements for and approaches to preplanning, brushwork, edges, color blending, and so on, may help by refreshing my perspective on watercolor when I return to it, and perhaps to help me return to the style-seeking mode I mapped out for myself in April.

"Limited Palette" (#170303w)

“Limited Palette” (#170303w)

An article comparing some of the top brands of oil paint, published on www.Wonderstreet.com* this past spring, reminded me to review my own oil paints and other materials to verify that they really suit my current needs.  Certainly there are always new colors to try and evaluate, but this kind of comparative article helps to narrow down the optimal choices of paint manufacturers.

In general, I’ve been very pleased with my choice of M.Graham’s walnut-oil based line because they can be used without solvents.  Even for cleanup, I use just walnut oil and Murphy’s Oil Soap, which means I don’t have to worry about the odor, health effects, or disposal of turps or other petroleum-based products.

I also occasionally use water-soluble oils (which the Wonderstreet article did not include).  But frankly, they don’t have the same smooth “feel” and are no easier to clean up with soap and water than the M.Graham paints.

But my needs and preferences aren’t the same as everyone else’s, so I appreciate it when comparative evaluations like the Wonderstreet article appear as a reference that allows artists to make informed selections based on their individual needs.  Here are some of the comparative references I’ve found most helpful, to date:

For oils:  http://wonderstreet.com/blog/how-to-choose-a-brand-of-oil-paint (Comparisons of major manufacturers’ oil paints, with pros and cons cited by working artists)

For acrylics:  http://wonderstreet.com/blog/choosing-the-acrylic-paint-thats-best-for-you (Comparisons of major manufacturers’ acrylic paints, with pros and cons cited by working artists)

For watercolor:  Hilary Page’s Guide to Watercolor Paints (an extremely comprehensive coverage of most manufacturers’ colors and the characteristics of individual pigments as of 1996, with a more limited free update printout as of 2009 available).  Unfortunately, the original book is no longer available except through resale.

Another watercolor resource is WonderStreet’s article on watercolor paints, http://wonderstreet.com/blog/which-brand-of-watercolour-should-you-choose, Though the article does not delve into specific pigments or individual paints colors as Page’s book does, the article provides a general overview of what to expect from each product line.  It is a helpful resource when seeking desirable characteristics from a specific manufacturer’s products.  The information, compiled from findings by WonderStreet’s readership of working artists, is up-to-date as of this spring.

*Note:  Wonderstreet is a UK-based platform on which such artists as illustrator Kerry Darlington can showcase their work.

Another Route to Explore

June 1st, 2017

This past month my route of explorations took a more literal turn.  I was seeking out not new civilizations, but new landscapes, different qualities of light, and a variety of textural features.

Besides my usual goal of taking a bevy of photographs for future reference, my intention this time was to keep a travel journal of quick sketches to record some of the interesting physical features that caught my eye.  I knew that being on the guided tour we had lined up would preclude my claiming long stretches of time in which to paint at leisure.  But it would also challenge me to achieve accuracy and key visual impressions in a minimized time-frame—always a good exercise for an artist to undertake.

Would I also be able to capture, or at least suggest, some of my emotional impressions as well?  How well would the journal recall the story of our experiences?  I could only make the attempt and ascertain the answers after the fact.  So rather than taking a lot of equipment, I packed up a minimal art kit that could be stowed in a small shoulder bag or pieces of which could be tucked into pockets for opportune moments.  …

Despite all my good intentions, I discovered very quickly that it was unrealistic to expect to accomplish much more than very quick sketches, and even less realistic to take time to actually paint productively.

170505w  Sunset Lit Sedona

170505w Sunset Lit Sedona

I did manage to get a few sketches done while we were on our own, such as the sunset-lit Sedona mesa, above.  Once we joined the time-intensive Road Scholar tour, however, I found extremely few opportunities even for the briefest of sketches.  I tried some very quick pencil sketches during our hikes but then had to run to catch up with the rest of the herd. Nor did working on the tour bus work very well, as my hand bounced too much, and I feared dumping either water or paint on my traveling companions.  Ah well, I did give it the old college try.

Ultimately, I focused instead on shooting literally thousands of reference photos and maintaining a written journal, which included (among other things) color notes and conceptual ideas relating to the area and the culture of its inhabitants.

Despite the deterrents to painting on location, I was still able to closely observe the terrain, landforms, and their indicative color relationships, understand better their development and subsequent erosion patterns, and couple that with information about local flora and fauna and with an enhanced appreciation of the people who have not only struggled and survived but manage to thrive in that difficult environment. I trust that this added insight will benefit my work in the long run, leading it toward a greater level of maturity and expression.

Preliminary Patterning

May 15th, 2017

Continuing along the road to breaking away further from my usual approach, I decided to try building a composition around loose color applications.  I tried various methods for painting the initial background layers.  In one trial, I spread several very wet colors on a sheet of plastic wrap, allowing the hues to intermingle haphazardly, then laid my watercolor paper upside-down on top of that to transfer the color.  The plastic wrap was carefully removed and set aside, while the paper was allowed to dry.  Needless to say, the stain now on the paper could only suggest an imaginary image, which I was now free to enhance and detail as I chose.

"Garden Ground" (#170401w)

“Garden Ground” (#170401w)

Although others might disagree, I would liken this method of development as more of a craft than fine art. The finished painting brought me little satisfaction, as I felt I had actually put very little of myself into it.  Rather than my having designed the project to satisfy a previously identified concept (which I feel should be the directing force behind fine art), the concept developed over the course of the project, derived from the haphazard distribution of color on the paper (placing the project itself rather than the artist’s concept in the driver’s seat).

Another method I tried relied on pre-planned preliminary patterning.  In this case, the background colors were used to suggest general masses that would be later enhanced with detail and calligraphic marks for suggestion of further detail within limited areas.

"Windowbox" (#170403)

“Windowbox” (#170403)

This last proved more satisfactory, so far as I was concerned, but even so, I felt that the finished work benefitted from cropping down from its original format, an indication that the overall dimensions of the composition had been left largely to chance rather than being integral to the original design plan.

Windowbox (cropped)

Windowbox (cropped)

These experiments helped me investigate and stretch my “toolbox” of approaches beyond my usual methodology.  They also called attention to some weaknesses I could address in subsequent work.  But they did nothing to alter my existing style.

I’ve come to the conclusion that other things play a more important role than specialized application techniques in establishing or identifying individuality of style.

Instead, I think real style is found through recognizing a typical combination of an artist’s color choices and blending methods, brush choices and manner of manipulation, use of notan (light/dark) design, density of paint, amount and treatment of white space, treatment of edges, degree of looseness or control of the paint, and typical cropping choices.  Besides these, painters may also show a marked personal preference for a certain subject matter, locale, point of view (either physical or emotional), perspective, or certain compositional structures.  All of these contribute more to the artist’s inherent style than any imposed technique possibly could.