Archive for the ‘My way of seeing things’ Category

Keeping things in perspective

Saturday, 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?

Every effort—a learning opportunity

Thursday, 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.

Seeking safe haven

Saturday, September 15th, 2018

What do you do when it’s neither practical nor safe to paint en plein air?  On a lake, for instance, lightning will be drawn to anything that stands above the water’s surface … such as sailboat masts or even people in low-lying kayaks or canoes.  You don’t want to be on the water during a thunderstorm!

It seems we’ve gotten more than our fair share of rain and heat this summer, wherever we’ve traveled.  So I haven’t been able to get outside to paint quite as much as I’d been hoping to. But even when I have to work from photos, I find that the desire to paint outdoors attunes my eyes to notice (and remember!) features that I might not be so conscious of otherwise.

I find myself paying attention to such things as hard and soft edges created by changing density in the atmosphere, and color variations that indicate changes in plane.  And the very process of figuring out how to most effectively approach a painting to recreate these edge effects is always a valuable exercise. Even the selection of colors, choice of how to blend or overlay hues to achieve appropriate values and saturation levels, deciding how and where to reserve whites, and how to suggest motion are valuable studies, whether accomplished en plein air or in a makeshift studio space.

"Scudding for Home" by Charlotte Mertz  (5"x10" watercolor, #180902w)

“Scudding for Home” by Charlotte Mertz
(5″x10″ watercolor, #180902w)

For “Scudding for Home,” above, (5”x10” watercolor, #180902) I drew information from several related photographs, as well as the memory of the experience of being in a nearby boat (with a camera but without my painting gear) … and my own desperation to beat the storm to shore.

So no, it wasn’t painted en plein air.  But to my way of thinking, the veracity of a painting is in the feeling as much as in the literal depiction of the scene.  So I’m happy with the resulting painting, which remains faithful to both the site and the circumstances, even though I couldn’t execute it on location.

En Plein Air — Pros and Cons

Friday, June 1st, 2018

I’ve been focusing on plein air the second quarter of this year.  But I know that plein air painting is not for everyone; nor is it the best option for all situations.   So, in case some of my readers are thinking about trying it, in this article I thought it might be good to enumerate some of the pros and cons of painting outdoors, as compared with working in a studio setting.

Whereas it’s lovely to work outdoors in beautiful, sunny weather (PRO), it’s safe to say that none of us live in an area that is comfortable all the time.  At one time or another, we all face uncomfortable environmental factors, which can feel exaggerated when we’re painting outdoors (CON).  Heat, cold, wind, precipitation, blowing dust or sand, dripping trees, and a variety of insect life can easily put a lid on an otherwise pleasurable outing or threaten the integrity of our work.  In cold weather, paint stiffens, water freezes, and our fingers, toes, and ears go numb.  In warmer weather, we may more likely be affected by sudden showers, wind gusts that can topple an easel, and insects that bombard us and become embedded in our work.  Yet, where else but outdoors do we have the opportunity to observe so closely or so directly the colors of our immediate environment under natural lighting conditions (PRO)?

Whereas a studio can provide both controlled climatic conditions, as well as controllable lighting conditions, the sun is a continuously moving light source, and scudding clouds can exacerbate the problem of rapidly changing shadow patterns (CON).  So wise painters discipline themselves (PRO) to preplan and follow compositional studies carefully to avoid “chasing the light” as the light-and-shadow patterns shift.

And although studio work, based on previously painted studies or photographs, can provide a broad choice of preselected views from a wide range of locations, working on site, en plein air, gives us flexibility to choose specific views, from an almost unlimited variety of angles, and both size and dimensions of the compositional field within the available locale (PRO).  We are also unconsciously more inclined to integrate non-visual sensual impressions from our environment into our work (PRO).  And although we cannot control the immediate climatic or lighting conditions within our locale (CON), painting on location does provide incentive to explore the same scene in a variety of lighting and atmospheric conditions (PRO) without limiting ourselves to some expected, idealized view.

Breaking away from studio reference photos also frees us to view an area in ways we haven’t previously considered and to interpret it “with new eyes”.  It gives us incentive to seek beauty even in the seemingly mundane or in elements of life that others might even consider ugly.  It stretches us spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually, and opens our hearts to quite literally see the world differently (PRO).

Working outdoors usually tends to limit our actual painting time (CON).  Both transporting and protecting our equipment and materials both enroute to the painting site and for our return takes time from our actual painting activity.  But, although we may feel pressured to work too quickly to produce our best work (CON), it does motivate us to work efficiently, from selecting our materials to transport, through preplanning our compositions, to executing the painting itself (PRO).

Passersby can further limit our time by stopping to talk with us and by offering “critiques” (sought or not) of the work in progress (CON).  But these same interruptions provide visibility and an opportunity to both gauge the public’s response to our work and to engage them in it to better understand it and appreciate our painting process (PRO).  It may even occasionally result in a sale (PRO).

And as well as engaging with the public, working en plein air, which is often done in a group with other painters, gives us the opportunity to exchange ideas with other like-minded artists, to share ideas, information, seek out knowledgeable feedback, and to build lasting friendships (PRO).

All artists should weigh these pros and cons to decide whether the plein-air option would be right for them.  If nothing else, it’s a refreshing excuse to get out into the world.

Intuition and Preplanning

Sunday, 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