En Plein Air — Washington D.C.

May 15th, 2018

Last time I wrote about my first plein air travel experience in Key West.  Another recent trip, this time to Washington D.C., provided additional impetus to try breaking away from working only in my studio.

I knew that the Japanese Cherry trees encircling the Tidal Basin had long since bloomed and lost their blush by the time we arrived in late April, but many other trees and shrubs were in glorious bloom.  Magnolia, dogwood, redbud, other fruit trees, wisteria, azaleas, and of course many spring bulbs provided an entire spectrum of springtime hues.  As I considered the various delicate colors scattered in hazy clusters across the landscape, I continually asked myself how I would mix this hue or that, how I could suggest a similar texture on paper, and how this subject or that should be effectively addressed.  But the paints remained only in my mind.

Springtime in DC

Springtime in DC

Segway and bus tours provided an interesting and informative overview of some of the prime sites in the city but offered limited time to take reference photos, and none for painting enroute.  Metros were efficient in getting us to where we wanted to go, but didn’t inspire me much with their views of their underground network—the station tunnels calling to mind a sterile shuttle bay on the fabled Starship Enterprise.

I did take the opportunity to enjoy the museums on my wish list—the  National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Art (with a special exhibit of portraits by Cezanne), the Freer Gallery, and some of the other Smithsonian collections along the Mall—while my husband breezed through other museums of particular interest to him.  But beyond making a few quick pencil sketches, I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t accomplish much of my own work at all, either indoors or out.

View of 6th Street from the National Gallery of Art West

View of 6th Street from the National Gallery of Art West

Although I prefer to really absorb smaller, focused areas of interest, my husband likes to cover a lot of ground quickly, to see as much as possible in our limited time.  Guided tours, which he favors, don’t slow down to wait for much emotional or artistic contemplation—or sometimes even reference photos.  And they didn’t leave a lot of time for plein air painting until I was too exhausted to tackle it.   The experience taught me that if I truly want to paint, sometimes I will have to aggressively claim that time by foregoing other options or overriding others’ desire for my participation in their preferred activities.

The hectic pace did force me to sketch quickly, concentrating on a focal area with minimal detail, and building around that as time permitted.  I’ve found that simplification is the key to quick sketching, capturing line, gesture, balance, and a suggestion of key impressions.

Smithsonian Castle Skyline

Smithsonian Castle Skyline

So I’m making an effort to quickly visualize my compositions in terms of a limited focal area while eliminating or minimizing all but the critical balancing elements to create something of a vignette or silhouette as I sketch.  It’s a difficult transition to make from my more extended studio paintings, but I find that my early exposure to sumi-e has provided a valuable foundation for this approach.

En Plein Air — Key West

May 1st, 2018

Spring and summer can be lovely times for painting outdoors, to try to capture a genuine feel of the natural world, out in the fresh air and sunshine. I have had a tendency to shun direct sunlight up to now, since my northern European heritage of pale skin and green eyes do not take kindly to the strong sun in my adopted state of Florida.  But I am determined to be more daring through the next several months.

In order to keep me from wimping out, I am committing here and now to blog this summer on at least some of my plein air experiences.  So stay tuned.

After a few local efforts, my plein air adventures seriously kicked off with an overnight trek in April to Key West, which gave me incentive to get out on my own to do some painting on location there.  I loaded up a backpack and set out to canvas the town.  What was I looking for?  A taste of the island’s unique flavor without relying on clichéd scenes.

My husband, a friend, and I headed down on the Key West Express—a 3½ hour catamaran trip from Fort Myers Beach. Arriving shortly after noon, we caught an Old Time Trolley to get a tour and quick overview of the entire island.  We hopped off briefly to drop our overnight gear off at our hotel, and then resumed the tour on a subsequent trolley to make our way back to Mallory Square for dinner and, eventually, the tropical sunset.  Clouds low against the horizon precluded any hope of our catching the fabled green flash, but there was plenty else to interest us.  All afternoon I had made note of particular areas to focus my attention for painting purposes on the following day.

The next morning we split up, the men to find their amusements, and I to seek my own.  While others queued up to take selfies at the Southernmost Point marker (which, ironically, isn’t really the southernmost point of the Continental US at all), I set up my easel to depict one of the lovely old guest houses in the neighborhood.

180411w "Dewey House," 10"x8" watercolor by Charlotte Mertz

“Dewey House” by Charlotte Mertz (10″x8″ watercolor, #180411w)

After lunch, I resumed my quest and decided that the lighthouse, which I had considered painting, offered unsatisfactory views and poor angles for what I wanted to do, so I jettisoned that idea and continued north on Whitehead Street to find a house whose front yard burgeoned with bouganvilla.  It proved a very pleasant subject on which to while away the afternoon.

Although neither painting was entirely satisfactory to me, I learned a lot from the experience.  I also made several pencil sketches and collected innumerable photos to use as reference material back home.

Intuition and Preplanning

April 15th, 2018

While pointing out to my class how certain design principles are exemplified in master paintings, one of my students asked if the artists had actually thought about all of these principles as they planned the paintings.

I assured her that, although an artist will think consciously about certain aspects of a composition, so many of the principles will have become ingrained through experience that the design principles will have become second nature—an extension of the artists intuitive aesthetic sense.

Do we consciously plan the location of the focal point?  Perhaps.  But just as likely is that, we place it because a specific location appeals to our intuitive aesthetic.  It looks right, and feels right to us.  Similarly, a sense of tension and dynamic balance is often initially based on a “gut feel” at least as much as on conscious planning, although taking time to evaluate a painting in progress will often reveal to us how we may consciously improve the effect.

Yes, we consciously select our palette colors, but our experience with having used these colors in the past informs our decision about which specific paints to use with which others.  We have learned which pairings work effectively together to create the effects we want, so we don’t become bogged down in selecting which of our many options we will use from each hue family.

We often hear people say, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”  They are speaking of their intuitive aesthetic—innate but uninformed preferences.

As we learn more about the principles of artistic design, we begin to learn why we find certainly features preferable.  And this, in turn, allows us to incorporate those principles into our work to increase its effectiveness and appeal.

Most of us, especially so-called “self-taught” artists, frequently glean information and ideas from many other artists—both contemporaries and those who have preceded us.  But the chances are that we may miss (or misconstrue) many of the principles that could be helpful to us.  Whether we have a formal art education or have learned from various sources over time, it is in our best interest to continue learning as much as possible in relation to our artistic pursuits.

As we gain both understanding and experience, our intuition gradually gives way to subconscious decision-making based on our experience and informed options.  Yes, we initially make some conscious decisions about the painting’s purpose, materials, size, and palette.  We consciously plan a design and approach.  But once the initial planning stage is complete, it frees us to get into “the zone,” in which we make fewer conscious decisions and allow our subconscious intuition direct most of our remaining choices.

You can find a concise overview of many of the principles of artistic composition, in my ebook Elements of Great Composition: A Quick Reference for Photographers and Other Visual Artists.

Elements of Great Composition

“But why?”

April 1st, 2018

April fools?  In my opinion, fools are those who never bother to ask “Why?”

"Why?"  by Charlotte Mertz (watercolor 5"x7," #180306w)

“Why?” by Charlotte Mertz (watercolor 5″x7,” #180306w)

If you have ever spent much time with a three-year-old, you will probably have heard a chorus of “Why?” questions. Each answer or explanation only invites an additional “Why?” which in turn is followed by another, often so incessantly that an exasperated parent may finally fall back on one of the old standbys, “Because that’s just the way it is,” or “Because I said so!”

St. Paul wrote (I Cor. 13:11) “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”  But one of the things we often do as we leave childhood is to lose our childlike sense of wonder and inquisitiveness, as well. As adults, we may have accepted the say-so of perceived authority figures—parents, teachers, officials, celebrities, and even our peers—to such an extent that we no longer ask them or ourselves, “Why?”

We learn by being inquisitive.  As adults, it is important to understand the how’s and why’s of life.  As artists, we need to revitalize that sense of wonder and curiosity, to more often ask “Why?”

Why, for instance, is it preferable to paint wet into wet in some situations, while at other times wet on dry application might be better?  Why does the paint respond differently to these techniques?  Why does the dry-brush technique work with some brushes but not so well with others, and on some papers but not on others?  Why does watercolor paper behave the way it does?  Why does the paint move on the surface (or soak in) the way it does?  Why do different pigments behave differently from one another?  Why do some lift off the surface of the paper but others do not?

And again, why does an object reflect so many colors that are different from the “local color” most people would use to describe it?  Why aren’t shadows all black?  Why is the color of sunlight different at various times of the day?

Finding the answers to all these “why’s” and many others will help us find satisfactory answers to the dilemmas we face in every painting we undertake.  Knowing the cause of certain behaviors allows us to either avoid them or better depict or utilize them to greater advantage in our work.

Sometimes the best way to answer “Why?” is to seek out the answers through trial and error or simply by closer observation.  Do you take time to play, experiment, test theories, explore possibilities, and simply observe?  If not, why not?  And why not start now?

 

 

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?