Archive for the ‘The School of Oops’ Category

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.

Culling, culling, gone!

Monday, 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?

An air plein trip-up to remember

Saturday, September 1st, 2018

One logistical issue I hadn’t considered when taking a plein air trip was brought to my attention quite suddenly this summer.  Although I had gone light, with only a small shoulder bag painting kit and a folding stool in lieu of an easel, on the return trip I decided to tuck my art gear and the small watercolor paintings I’d completed into my suitcase and keep my backpack available for comfort items I’d need while flying back home.  After a six-hour flight delay (plus the two extra hours I’d allowed before flight time) and missing my original connecting flight, I managed to get standby space on a later connecting flight home.  But my suitcase didn’t.

Fortunately, I had both more art supplies and clothing at my destination.  But I didn’t have the new paintings I wanted to blog about.  Nor had I yet made a photographic record of all of them.  The suitcase did not appear on any of the next several flights, so I began to worry that they might have been “permanently lost” or routed back to my other address rather than to the location where I would be for the next several weeks … and where I would need everything else in the bag as well as the art!

I should have learned my lesson the only other time I’d been separated from my luggage, which, that time, had held my wedding dress.  Apparently a panicky bride carries more weight than an artist at the end of a long day of multiple airline snafus.  The wedding gown had been delivered by taxi the following day.  This time, the suitcase with my paintings, art supplies, and clothing did eventually arrive, but not nearly as promptly.

Lesson learned:  Find a way to keep the critical stuff with you!

En Plein Air — Washington D.C.

Tuesday, 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.

Limiting Options to Raise Productivity

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Last time I wrote about combatting burnout by trying something new.  I love having many different media available to work with, and developing the confidence to use each one comfortably.  Each medium has its strengths as well as its drawbacks.  So it would seem counterintuitive to regularly limit my options in using them.

But the truth is that I have a tendency to spread myself too thin.  We used to call that being a Jack of All Trades, which, of course, can easily preclude becoming a master of any.  With too many options at my disposal, I find I actually accomplish less overall than when I concentrate on a single medium.

The first quarter of this year, I am teaching watercolor classes.  So during this period I’ve decided that the focus of my own work should also be on watercolor to explore a variety of techniques to broaden the repertoire of my skills.  When I attempt a variety of techniques in, say, oils and pastels, at the same time, can I gain enough practical experience in the multiple media to benefit me much in any of them in the long run?  Probably not as rapidly as if I focus on developing skills in one medium at a time.

Similarly, if I divide my practice time among landscapes, portraiture, and still life, my visual attention will be scattered.  Whereas, if I focus on landscapes alone, I can attune my eyes to notice perspective, value and saturation changes, atmospheric effects, shape differentiation, and so on.  If I focus on figurative work, I am more inclined to notice how the angles, planes, and variations from “the norm” reveal the identity and attitude of an individual, as well as consciously observing the hue and temperature changes in various skin tones.

Although I may select more than one subject to use as examples for my students, my own practice and production should reflect the focus of whichever studies (both subject matter and medium) that I’ve selected to concentrate on, for my own benefit, at any given time.  In this way my attention isn’t so scattered, and I’m less likely to become sidetracked into less productive directions.