Kids, pets, and beautiful things

August 1st, 2020

When yet another long-anticipated trip was cancelled this summer, a number of my art colleagues and I went virtual with an event called Plein Air Live—something of an oxymoron, since many of the presentations were to be broadcast “live” but online. Yet it was a surprisingly good alternative to painting on location in the open air as we shared information about plein air painting in a variety of different media.

Instead of gathering in person to share our love of art and to bolster our painting skills by encouraging one another, we gathered online, from around the world, through the blessing of technology.

This event, conceived and pulled together by Streamline Publishing, was a wonderful substitute for cancelled conferences and similar long-distance painting excursions. It clearly illustrated that, whatever our backgrounds, wherever we’re from, human interests are similar around the world.

As one of my followers said, when asked what kinds of images appealed to her, “Kids, pets, and beautiful things.” We all similarly seem to want a sense of family, of belonging, of emotional support, and aesthetic appreciation.

"The Shepherd" by Charlotte Mertz (10"x14" watercolor #070603w)

“The Shepherd” by Charlotte Mertz (10″x14″ watercolor #070603w)

So “Beautiful Things” is the theme for my Facebook posts for August.  You may even spot a few kids and critters along the way.

I encourage you to reply to my posts with your own images of kids, pets, and beautiful things (you don’t have to stick to my theme!) and tell us something about them. They may be photos or your own artwork. Or simply comment about what these images say to you. The more you add, the more others will be able to enjoy! So please be generous. We all love beautiful things! And you may wind up providing the theme idea for an upcoming month.

Impressionist, Tonalist or…?

July 15th, 2020

‘Most everyone’s probably heard of Impressionistic painting.  You know: Monet, Renoir, Seurat,…  In their efforts to create the impression of vibrant light and atmosphere around their subjects, these artists focused on ways to manipulate their colors to create a sense of energy and light in the viewer’s mind.  They were noted for experimenting with various ways to blend hues optically by placing often contrasting or startling combinations of color adjacent to one another directly on the canvas, rather than mixing them entirely on the palette.

But we don’t hear as much about Tonalism, which emphasized control of values—lights, darks, and a range of grayed colors.  The Tonalists tried to maintain subtlety in their chromatic blends to suggest a mood instead of depending on bright colors to create excitement and a sense of atmosphere or story.

Tonalists were generally more concerned about establishing mood, evoking the viewer’s more ethereal emotions, than in depicting specific subjects and details. “Facts” are limited. Details may disappear in soft edges and deep shadows. Suggestion often displaces detail. The viewer’s imagination is free to fill in the blanks regarding the specifics of time, place, and narrative.

I thought my work might be fitting more into the Tonalist camp, so decided to consciously try out a “classic” Tonalist methodology, applying cooler, transparent oils (the favored medium of the great Tonalist masters) over a thin, warm underpainting.

But my efforts were an utter flop. I wiped off my canvas and returned to watercolor for my next painting.  It displayed more Tonalist characteristics, without my even trying, than the previous, conscious effort had.

"Twilight Flight," by Charlotte Mertz (8"x10" watercolor, #200703w)

“Twilight Flight,” by Charlotte Mertz
(8″x10″ watercolor, #200703w)

Frankly, I don’t really care, though, about what stylistic genre my work fits into. It is what it is, continually modified to suit the purposes and characteristics of each individual composition.

The point is to not worry about where my work fits into the stylistic continuum, but to focus on technique to create a painting that says what I want it to express, in a way that fits well with my working methods.  The composition should flow naturally without feeling or appearing forced.

Trying new techniques is always somewhat uncomfortable, since we’re pushing the envelope of our experience and confidence. But experimenting with technique is how we develop strategies to overcome artistic challenges. And every creative artwork, by its very definition, presents its own challenges and “problems” to solve. So every new piece is a bit (or a lot) intimidating to undertake.

The way each artist decides to address those issues, however, is what ultimately determines and establishes his or her unique painting style.  That individual style might or might not fall somewhere on the continuum within some acknowledged stylistic category or genre.  Who knows? Like Monet’s “Impression Sunrise,” its variances from the “norm” might be panned by critics yet prove to be trendsetting, leading the way into an entirely new mode of artistic expression.


July 1st, 2020

The question often arises, “How can I develop an artistic style?”  Perhaps the most difficult answer for a young artist to hear is that it develops on its own. Over time. With lots and lots of practice.  (Sorry, kids, but it doesn’t pay to fake it.)

"Red Chopsticks," by Charlotte Mertz  (8"x10" watercolor, #140208w)

“Red Chopsticks,” by Charlotte Mertz
(8″x10″ watercolor, #140208w)

The truth is that it has to do with the palette choices an artist typically makes, how we adjust colors, the way we handle our brushwork, the subjects we choose and the concepts that move us, the degree to which we include detail or suggestion, how realistic or abstract our compositions tend to be, how we handle edges and transitions, how we design our compositions, ….

These choices are made based on our understanding and experience at any given point in our artistic development. In the beginning we may rely entirely on the guidance of a teacher or our own creative instincts. The more experience we gain, the more readily we can base our choices on our own discoveries and preferences.

These kinds of choices are all among the many factors that contribute to what others come to recognize as our personal artistic style. We are less likely to recognize it as a “style” ourselves because it feels so natural to us. It seems too easy!

In fact, these style choices are usually not made through conscious decisions but by what feels good, comfortable, or natural to us and the way we handle our medium(s).

And yes, those behaviors and choices (whether conscious or unconscious) can and should change over time, as we learn, as our work matures, and as we gain confidence in the process.

We’re doing well when we begin to recognize similarities in our paintings, because these are clues about our developing personal style.

Yet we should never feel we can’t change things up just because it’s a common thread at the moment. Experimentation with variations of those commonalities is how our work continues to develop and mature.

Saved for a rainy day

June 15th, 2020

The idea of “saving for a rainy day” has become something of a joke because we often don’t recognize when the “rainy day” arrives, so we hesitate to touch what we’ve saved, even then.

"This Too Shall Pass," by Charlotte Mertz (11"x15" watercolor, #200404w)

“This Too Shall Pass,” by Charlotte Mertz (11″x15″ watercolor, #200404w)

What I’ve “saved for a rainy day” is photographs, reference material to use when I might no longer be able to travel as freely as when I was young.

Well guess what. That rainy day is here! The time has come when most of us have found ourselves looking at the same scenery day after day.  For many, our world shrank down to our immediate environs. Travel has been limited, and the comfort of human interaction has been discouraged.

But I still have those photographs, as well as images sent by others, and the personal memories of a lifetime to broaden my view, to remind me that there are other things, other places, other people in this world beyond our immediate surroundings and concerns. They carry me outside the present insular world of limited space into the universality of human experience.

It’s been euphemistically raining cats and dogs for months now. Buckets; a deluge, a gully-washer. Longer even than the 40 days and 40 nights of Noah’s proverbial (and likewise unprecedented) voyage. It’s a prime time to sift through my savings of photographs and a lifetime of experiences and remember that everyone everywhere has been affected. Although a clearer sky may be on my horizon, others may still be feeling the brunt of the storm.

Can I use my art to provide an emotional stabilizer to lift spirits and remind us all that “this too shall pass”? I have to try.  What can I do to uplift others? Paint, teach, encourage,…?

Is it enough? Maybe not, but it’s a start. It’s something. And it may mean more to someone else than I realize at the time. Even though it doesn’t feel to me like enough, it may mean everything to them.  So I paint.  And teach.  And offer encouragement when I can.


A breath of plein air

June 1st, 2020

A few weeks ago, for the first time in several months, I met with some friends for a plein air outing. We gathered in the combined shade of a private park filled with live oaks and shared our news and goals for current artistic endeavors.  One friend worked with colored and watercolor pencils, another with graphite, and a third focused on color-matching exercises, while I did a watercolor sketch of one of the scenic views before us.

"Oak Park Pond," by Charlotte Mertz (5"x7" watercolor, #200506w)

“Oak Park Pond,” by Charlotte Mertz
(5″x7″ watercolor, #200506w)

Despite maintaining acceptable social distances from one another, it was a welcome change from the creative isolation we had all been feeling.

On our second outing, for the first time in many months, I played with water-miscible oils to brush up in that area. (I find I have a lot of brushing up to do in that realm, having fallen quite out of practice since agreeing not to use oils in my home studio. My husband’s extreme sensitivity to solvents means that I need to use oils en plein air or not at all; until recently it’s been not at all. But I’m hoping that that, by using the water-miscible oils, that can change this summer.)

Therefore, for several reasons, our plein air group members all look forward to continuing to meet on a regular basis.  

I hope you have all been able to start enjoying some opportunities for getting out and sharing some real togetherness, too, since shelter-in-place restrictions have started to loosen up.

What new undertakings have you been exploring while sheltering in place?  What are you looking forward to doing (or have started doing) again, that you haven’t been able to do for a while?  I’d love to hear from you.