Archive for the ‘My way of seeing things’ Category

“But why?”

Sunday, 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

Thursday, 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?

 

 

Characteristics of Place

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

The transition from winter to summer seemed very sudden for us in Florida this year.  One of the few natural clues in the past few weeks that we were experiencing “spring” was the dramatic fall of leaves from the live oaks after daytime temperatures rose suddenly from the 50s and 60s(F) into the mid-to-upper-80s within a week.

Unlike most deciduous trees, live oaks cling to their leaves through the fall and winter, releasing the small, drying leaves only as the new growth of spring leaves begins.  So, in conjunction with our winter temperatures largely mimicking summer temperatures in more northern regions, (and aside from the fact that we don’t get much of a cold reprieve for more than about a week, ever) sometimes it feels as though our seasons are a bit backward on the Florida peninsula.

Hanging Moss in Oak Park, by Charlotte Mertz (8"x10" oil, #180207-o)

Hanging Moss in Oak Park, by Charlotte Mertz (8″x10″ oil, #180207-o)

It was a good reminder to teach my students to watch for the unique characteristics of not only the specific vegetation in the locales in which we paint, but other identifiable aspects typical of the region.  These may include rock and soil color and configurations, species of trees and shrubs in the area, wildlife native to the region, and architecture designed either to address climatic conditions or to incorporate notable regional cultural influences.

These regional differences are one of the reasons we travel – to recognize and experience both environmental and cultural differences from other areas we’ve known.  I believe, too, that it is one of the reasons plein air painting has become so popular in recent years.  Not only are the physical characteristics of a specific region different from those in other places, but the prevailing atmospheric conditions can be recognized, as well.  Artists often refer to it as “the quality of light.”

Atmosphere is influenced by a number of different factors.  These factors include level of humidity; active precipitation; prevailing winds; air pollution; mist, fog, or salt spray; type and depth of cloud coverage; the colors reflected from the earth’s surface onto the underside of clouds; and even altitude relative to sea level, which can affect the density of the air itself and the light’s refraction among any airborne particles.

As I write this blog, the air is heavy, dense with humidity.  Colors are less saturated, values are condensed into narrower bands of lights and darks than usual.  On days like this my grandmother would comment that the distant side of the lake on which she lived appeared particularly far away, whereas on clear, cloudless days she might say the far shore appeared especially close.  It is this kind of difference that, as an artist, I try to be aware of, to establish in my work a sense of the atmospheric conditions in a specific place.  It’s a lesson I mean to extend to my students.

 

Procrastination and Burnout

Monday, January 15th, 2018

Procrastination and Burnout would seem to be at opposite ends of a productivity spectrum, but I’m coming to believe they’re not actually all that far apart.

Inspiration or Burnout?

“Inspiration or Burnout?”

Procrastination – the action of delaying or postponing something.    Procrastination, which is often manifest by replacing one task with another, often unrelated,  activity, is often triggered by fears—of either failure or success, of embarrassment or unwelcome recognition—or by indecisiveness or lack of motivation.  Or perhaps we’ve been sidetracked by demands in other areas of our lives and are finding it difficult to get back into the swing of those things we need (or even want) to return to.

Burnout – physical, mental, or emotional collapse caused by overwork or stress.    Burnout is caused by applying effort without incorporating sufficient downtime.  The phenomenon of burnout can also be brought on by fears—of failure, loss of motivation or opportunity—or by insecurity or losing perspective on our physical, mental, and emotional needs in relation to our efforts.

Both cause a slowdown in our level of productivity.

We all need time occasionally to regroup, evaluate the direction and effectiveness of our efforts, and consider alternative means of accomplishing our goals.  Some of us may need encouragement to overcome indecisiveness or insecurity; others may need help in finding direction or motivation.  Some may need a mentor or encourager to help us overcome various fears that deter us from accomplishing our goals … or to remind us to pay attention to other areas of our lives that may have been neglected.

If our lives are out of balance, as mine often gets over summer travel time or winter holidays, we sometimes swing from procrastination in some areas to over-compensation, which can lead to burnout, either in the same area or in other areas of our lives.

Scheduling can help in overcoming procrastination.  I sometimes set myself imaginary deadlines to complete certain goals.  That technique usually works pretty well, so long as I don’t allow those “deadlines” to float, which defeats the purpose of providing motivation to accomplish those tasks without further delay.

Though habits and schedules can help us use our time efficiently, they can also dig us into ruts that leave little room for variation or innovation, both of which are necessary for creativity.  It’s like following the same set of recipes every day:  Without variations, those favorite and nourishing meals eventually become boring, and we may be unaware of shortchanging ourselves of other important nutrients.

So to combat stagnation or creative burnout in our artistic endeavors, sometimes we artists need to change it up, try a different medium or tool, select a different kind of subject, view a scene from an unusual perspective, limit our palette or change to colors we rarely use.  We may need to experiment with a different size or format.  Or it may be time to put down our own materials and go to an exhibit of other artists’ work to gain perspective and inspiration for our own.

How do you combat your own tendencies toward procrastination or creative burnout?  I welcome your suggestions and feedback.

Of Prudence and Preference

Friday, December 15th, 2017

In this month that too often turns into Frenetic-Shopping Season, it’s important to trust our own taste and judgment about what to choose.  We can be unconsciously and unduly influenced by the hype of advertising and salespeople, especially when shopping for merchandise with which we may feel insufficiently knowledgeable, such as artwork.

Art is one area in which uninformed buyers can easily be duped into “investing” in works of little intrinsic value or merit.  But how can you protect yourself?

While traveling earlier this month, I was reminded of how easily an uninformed shopper can be misled.  At a so-called “plein-air” gallery, the displayed paintings were, to my eye, obviously painted from photographic reference material rather than ala prima style, en plein air.

What’s the difference, and why does it matter, you may ask.   These are valid questions.  “En plein air” is the French term for painting outdoors, on location.  It involves contending with the natural elements:  heat, cold, humidity, rain, snow, wind, insects and other wildlife, and all their associated discomforts and inconveniences.  It also means that the light is continuously changing as the sun moves and alters the position of shadows.  So plein air work is often done comparatively quickly, without the refinements an artist is more likely to take time for in the studio.  Animals, human figures, and details are more often suggested with quick, minimal, but carefully considered brush strokes than with fine detailing and highly rendered brushwork.  So the overall appearance often tends to be rougher and more “painterly” than studio work.  But the immediacy of the ala-prima (all-in-one-go) approach also imbues it with a sense of liveliness and personality that is difficult to reproduce in the studio.

Whether or not it’s actually worked en plein air makes no difference to its intrinsic value; but some collectors prefer the smaller sizes and spur-of-the-moment quality that typifies plein air work.  If you like the painting, it shouldn’t matter in what manner or under what conditions it was painted, but don’t be misled by an inaccurate representation of the work.

Another gallery I visited sold beautifully executed watercolor images but didn’t openly specify that the merchandise were prints rather than original watercolors.  Typically, prints are priced considerably lower than original watercolors because any number of copies may be made from a single original image, and can be made in a variety of sizes.  This means that the same image may be sold to a number of different buyers for a variety of purposes.  For the artist, the sheer quantity of sales can make up for the lower price of the prints.  But the inks used may not precisely match the original colors and are often subject to more rapid fading than most professional-quality watercolor pigments would be.  And the buyer does not have the exclusivity of owning the original painting, which is what most fine-art collectors prefer.  If you see multiple copies of the same image, or notice it in more than one size, or if the price seems unusually low, you can be pretty sure that you’re looking at prints rather than originals.  And that’s fine if you don’t feel strongly about owning an original.  But you should be aware of the differences before you decide to buy.

Prints of oil paintings, of course, usually lack the impasto texture typical of oils.  Even these, though, may be reproduced on canvas and may be “enhanced” in key areas with an impasto gel to simulate the surface textures and brushwork of the original painting.  Look for inconsistent surface textures and for textures that do not align with the direction of the underlying brushwork, as shown below.  These prints have their place, but if you buy one, let it be a conscious, informed decision rather than a misguided mistake.

Inconsistent surface textures indicating gel enhancement over a print of an oil painting.

Inconsistent surface textures indicating gel enhancement over a print on canvas.

“Limited edition” prints usually show a number, such as 83/250, in a lower corner of the trim edge.  This means that it is print #83 out of a limited print run of only 250 total prints, after which no more would be made (traditionally, the metal plate used would be destroyed).  This designation used to be more important than it is now because it was used to indicate how comparatively crisp the manually pulled print was likely to be when taken from a metal plate.  This plate would wear down a bit with each print taken from it, gradually losing its crispness and clarity.  So the lower the first number, the higher the quality was likely to be.  This is still a valid designation for etchings and some other art forms, such as wood-block prints. But most reproductions of paintings today are not manually pulled from this kind of plate but are more often gicleés (sprayed ink) or other computer-type printouts, which make the size of print runs and the relative position within the run virtually meaningless.

So, especially if you lack confidence when shopping for artwork, whenever you choose art, don’t think in terms of its financial investment value (which is always a high risk, whatever salespeople might try to tell you about the demand for some high-profile artist’s work), but base your selection instead on what moves you and art that you truly like.

If you can, try to learn the motivation and story behind any specific artwork you are interested in purchasing.  Learn about the artist and what influences might be reflected in the work.  These stories will help you connect with it on an even deeper level than what originally drew you to the work, and will enhance your appreciation of it in the future.  It will also provide you additional information to share with people who admire it in your home or place of business.

In short, there’s no need to be afraid to shop for artwork.  It’s available to suit a broad range of tastes and in a wide range of prices.  Let any thought of “investment” be purely in your pleasure in the artwork, not in some “potential” (but unlikely) increase in monetary value.  So find what you like, and what suits your needs.  Whatever your budget and targeted price range, be discerning when it comes to quality to know what you’re getting.  As my grandmother used to say, “Trust your own good judgment.”

I hope you find exactly what you’re looking for, both in this joyous, if somewhat frenetic holiday season, and throughout 2018.

Please feel free to contact me if you’re interested in learning more about any of my work.  My paintings are currently all originals, not prints or gicleés.  I am always happy to divulge the stories behind my work when requested.