The length and the breadth and the sweep …

December 15th, 2018

Totally aside from the primary destinations of our travels, I enjoy seeing the unfamiliar countryside we pass between our stops.  Whether driving through open farmland, mountain ranges, forests, winding roads along tumbling rivers, or views entirely different, while my traveling companions may read or nap, I try to keep my eyes open to appreciate “the length and the breadth and the sweep” of the changing views.

I had been intrigued by the irregularity of the coastline, the network of meandering waterways, and the grasslands that separated them when we had flown over the Georgia coast last year.  In November this year, my husband and I had the opportunity to take a coach excursion through some of that area, particularly those low-lying tidal plains south of Savannah.

"Marshes of Glynn" by Charlotte Mertz  (9"x12" oil, #181103-o)

“Marshes of Glynn” by Charlotte Mertz
(9″x12″ oil, #181103-o)

The sky was overcast, and a persistent drizzle flecked the bus windows, but I found the lovely gray arch of the distant Lanier Bridge (named for the Sidney Lanier, author of the poem,“The Marshes of Glynn,” which lyrically depicted the wetlands) just as appealing as the autumnal colors in the marsh itself.

Although I could not disembark at the time to paint the scenery, and photos shot from the bus window were blurred with rain, I was later able to undertake a studio painting to depict my impression of the scene as we passed.

Sometimes paint can be a better recorder of memories than a camera.  It may not be as literally accurate, but it can be much more evocative of mood than a quickly snatched snapshot. And, when painted from memory or even poorly executed artist-created reference images, the painting process itself transports the artist back to the pleasures of the original experience.

 

Keeping things in perspective

December 1st, 2018

I celebrated my 70th birthday last week.  Shocking, right?

When I was a child, 70 seemed ancient–one foot in the grave.  But now I don’t feel that way at all!  It’s all a matter of perspective, how we see ourselves.  So I decided it was a good time to do a “Selfie at Seventy,” taking a realistic look at where I am now.

"Selfie at Seventy" by Charlotte Mertz (10"x8" oil, #181104-o)

“Selfie at Seventy” by Charlotte Mertz (10″x8″ oil, #181104-o)

It’s true that after something like 20 years of “enhancing” my hair color, I’ve finally allowed it to go natural, … only to discover that it’s a very distinguished looking color all on its own, with a lovely white streak over my right eye.  We can be so concerned with what we’re “losing” that we miss the beauties that are happening now.

Birthday cards might razz me about presumed age-related issues, … but they seem irrelevant when I feel much younger than my chronological age would suggest.  It’s true that I prefer not to jog, as I once did; but orthotic inserts in my shoes still allow me to walk quickly and comfortably.  I can’t see as well as I once could; but trifocals can do wonders to clarify my vision.  My memory might not be as sharp as it once was; but there’s a whole lot more stored in it now than there used to be.

I look at my mother, still living largely independently at almost 98 (though she doesn’t cook for herself anymore), staying in touch with distant family by letters and email, and I realize that, rather than figuratively throwing in the towel at a mere 70, I could very well still have a good 30 productive years or more ahead of me, too!  As much as I learned and experienced and accomplished in any of my preceding 30 years, just as much could still lie ahead.  How exciting!  How challenging!  How much there is to still be accomplished if I don’t give up on myself yet.

I’m not old.  Goodness!  I’m just getting started!  I think I’ll take a class.  How about you?

An epic failure revisited

November 15th, 2018

In my previous blog I referred to learning from our unsuccessful efforts.  Obviously, I had gone through the process of doing exactly that. You may be asking to what painting I was referring in my previous blog, regarding learning from flubs.

I hate to admit it, but I had jumped into too large-sized a painting when I undertook to paint “Dawning Light,” at 30”x40” after having ignored any canvases larger than 8”x10” for several years.  Though I had fun painting it and learned a lot in the process, the final result deserves the sorry status of “starving artist” work.  It was definitely not one of my better efforts, and certainly not one I should have signed off on.

So what exactly went wrong? … Aside from a weak compositional design, multiple focal areas, lack of dominant value, and trite color harmony?  Well, not too much, I suppose, … after I addressed some problems with perspective, brushwork, edges, optical color mixing, halation, and a few other issues.  (A more specific  critique of the painting appeared in my November newsletter, “Around and About.”)

Lessons learned include a reminder to preplan the notan structure, color harmony, and overall composition carefully before beginning (and not changing my mind in mid-project).  It also served as a reminder of the value of optical color mixing, use of halation, practice in creating a sense of iridescence, observing the behavior of bounced light, the importance of observation of such natural phenomena as skies and ocean waves, being generous with paint, maintaining discrete values on my palette, … and being content to take smaller steps to get where I want to go.

(What?  You don’t really think I’d post an image of such a disaster here, do you?)

But it wasn’t a total loss.  It was a wake-up call to review early lessons and continue striving to reach a consistently higher standard.  And that’s never a bad thing.

Every effort—a learning opportunity

November 1st, 2018

Does an artist always need to practice?  Absolutely!  The old adage “Use it or lose it,” applies here just as much as in any other realm.  Conscious and deliberate practice sessions are often undertaken to develop or strengthen a specific skill.  But every painting I undertake … or even consider and reject before ever setting brush to palette … gives me additional practice in skills that continually need honing.

Whether to paint, or not, is a continual question:  Is this subject worthy of the time and effort needed?  Is the concept interesting or evocative?  What makes me want to paint it?  Can the subject or scene be treated in an interesting enough manner to create an appealing composition?  When the answer is no, I keep looking.  When it is yes, it poses further questions:

How varied is the value range, and can it be adjusted or simplified to create a stronger statement?  How should I handle the color harmony?  Does the subject lend itself to a limited palette or beg for a broader spectrum of hues?  What is the chromatic range?  Will it translate well into paint?  If not, how can the scene be modified to improve its effectiveness?

What structural design will best serve the subject to effectively express the concept?

All of these questions and many more need to be dealt with before painting should actually begin.  And the act of simply going through the exercise of seeking the answers (either consciously or subconsciously) sharpens my artistic eye and multiplies the creative possibilities.

Finding alternatives to the obvious answers helps keep my work fresh.  Why allow it to bog down by approaching the same types of subjects in the same-ol’-same-ol’ ways?  It’s good to play with fresh approaches to see what might evolve.

No matter how hard we may try, not every painting is going to succeed.  But that doesn’t mean that the effort is wasted.  Every painting, whether successful or not, serves a purpose.  It is another step along an endless learning curve.  It may reinforce previous successes or call attention to a need for stricter attention to some technical skill; it sharpens my perception and hones my technique.  And it broadens my experience, which in turn nurtures my creativity.

Oh yes, it’s wonderful to find encouragement in achieving a difficult effect.  But it’s also a welcome challenge to recognize the need for developing a different approach to a seemingly insurmountable problem.  That simply serves as a goad to keep me trying.  And that, in itself, is valuable.

We rarely underestimate the satisfaction of a success.  But neither should we underestimate the positive potential of a failure!  We should always ask what we can learn from it.

Culling, culling, gone!

October 15th, 2018

The time is approaching to tackle one job that’s never much fun: (Have you guessed it?)  Identifying and ridding my studio of all those paintings that “didn’t quite make it.”

It isn’t easy. And it’s certainly not fun to recognize (and admit) that not everything is saleable … or should even be kept. Some pieces that seem to have made the grade a year or two ago, upon later consideration may not live up to current standards. So it’s time to do some aggressive culling.

When too many recent paintings are culled, it’s a warning signal to me that I may be getting careless and not giving it my best effort.

I tend to hold onto paintings for which I feel a personal sentiment–usually of family members or those with special personal significance to me–despite any compositional weaknesses.  But those don’t remain available for public consumption.

Yet the temptation is to try to salvage some of those other “almost” efforts, as well. Though it is occasionally possible to correct or overcome a weakness, it’s usually better to face facts and to put on my Critical Teacher cap.

At the top of the agenda is identifying specific weaknesses and acknowledging yet another lesson from The School of Oops: Were the colors poorly chosen, or wimpy, or overstated? Was the value pattern weak or too busy? Could the compositional design have been stronger? Was the perspective a little off? (If you’re looking for an example of how I critique, you may want to sign up for my monthly newsletter “Around and About,” in which I always include a painting critique—what works, what doesn’t, and how it might be improved.)

It’s worth spending time on an in-depth critique to figure out not only what did work well but exactly what went wrong with each one and why it didn’t make the grade. Only then can I consider modifications. If a piece is going to be culled anyway, I might as well play with it, experiment, and try retouching it to learn what I can from it. Yes, it’s gratifying to be able to salvage a cull or two.  But they’re the exception, and the rest must be dispensed with.

The culling process also brings to my attention that, while I may have succeeded in my primary focus goal (this year it’s been on small, plein air watercolors), I may have neglected other areas. (This year, for instance, I’ve done fewer figurative pieces, larger-sized paintings, and oils.) These are areas I will need to consider giving more attention to in the coming year.

Another benefit (and greater comfort) as I face another session of culling is recognizing once again that although not all my work may live up to my highest standards, it’s because those standards are continuing to rise that they become more difficult to meet.

No matter how good our work may get, the artist’s challenge is always before us:  to observe more closely, to stretch our skills, and to strengthen our work overall. So … onward! Are you with me?