Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

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.


Another Route to Explore

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

This past month my route of explorations took a more literal turn.  I was seeking out not new civilizations, but new landscapes, different qualities of light, and a variety of textural features.

Besides my usual goal of taking a bevy of photographs for future reference, my intention this time was to keep a travel journal of quick sketches to record some of the interesting physical features that caught my eye.  I knew that being on the guided tour we had lined up would preclude my claiming long stretches of time in which to paint at leisure.  But it would also challenge me to achieve accuracy and key visual impressions in a minimized time-frame—always a good exercise for an artist to undertake.

Would I also be able to capture, or at least suggest, some of my emotional impressions as well?  How well would the journal recall the story of our experiences?  I could only make the attempt and ascertain the answers after the fact.  So rather than taking a lot of equipment, I packed up a minimal art kit that could be stowed in a small shoulder bag or pieces of which could be tucked into pockets for opportune moments.  …

Despite all my good intentions, I discovered very quickly that it was unrealistic to expect to accomplish much more than very quick sketches, and even less realistic to take time to actually paint productively.

170505w  Sunset Lit Sedona

170505w Sunset Lit Sedona

I did manage to get a few sketches done while we were on our own, such as the sunset-lit Sedona mesa, above.  Once we joined the time-intensive Road Scholar tour, however, I found extremely few opportunities even for the briefest of sketches.  I tried some very quick pencil sketches during our hikes but then had to run to catch up with the rest of the herd. Nor did working on the tour bus work very well, as my hand bounced too much, and I feared dumping either water or paint on my traveling companions.  Ah well, I did give it the old college try.

Ultimately, I focused instead on shooting literally thousands of reference photos and maintaining a written journal, which included (among other things) color notes and conceptual ideas relating to the area and the culture of its inhabitants.

Despite the deterrents to painting on location, I was still able to closely observe the terrain, landforms, and their indicative color relationships, understand better their development and subsequent erosion patterns, and couple that with information about local flora and fauna and with an enhanced appreciation of the people who have not only struggled and survived but manage to thrive in that difficult environment. I trust that this added insight will benefit my work in the long run, leading it toward a greater level of maturity and expression.

Depicting the Experience

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

Travel often takes me away from the studio for days or even weeks at a time.  These excursions are fun, informative, and usually provide me with sufficient photographic reference material to work from for quite some time to come.  But it also interferes with the continuity of both my production and my ongoing studies.  The question about how to make the most productive use of my time is always in the back of my mind.  If I focus on art, it usually takes time and attention away from the people my husband and I may be visiting or limits the range of what we spend time seeing in a new environment.

So I usually find it necessary to compromise, taking quick shots with my camera, trying to quickly commit to memory the color relationships, characteristic lines or rhythms, and details that attract me to the scenes I shoot, and then moving on to actually experience and enjoy the situation or event.

Recording a photographic or painted image as an isolated scene is usually not sufficient to endow the image with much meaning.  It is enriched by the experience surrounding the image so that when I begin to draw or paint the scene a viewer can sense more than the scene alone can express.  What is the physical and emotional atmosphere?  How does it affect my feelings toward it or experience of it?  What do I want to share with others about my response to what is happening? To make the most of my time, I need to be able to imbue my work with a sense of the overall experience, even as a journalist expresses through an anecdote a microcosmic expression of a larger story.

This spring, I took a long cruise that limited my access to all but very simple equipment – mostly pens, pencils, and a little watercolor travel kit.  One of the great pleasures I found during our days at sea was the opportunity to meet an informal group of creative women who were working on various types of textile work.  It was a relaxed group who all managed to accomplish quite a lot in our limited time together.  We met almost daily to chat, pursue our various arts or crafts, and share designs and ideas; and we quickly developed a lovely rapport.

Meanwhile, I took advantage of the rare vacation opportunity to indulge my own art. So I focused on sketching and quick watercolor studies of members of the group.  In the following sketch I tried to capture the sense of comfortable camaraderie we shared while pursuing our work.

160443w Knitting & Nattering

160443w Knitting & Nattering

The ladies graciously served as unselfconscious models for me, and I hope I was able to leave them with unique, personalized mementos of our time together.

Moving right along…

Monday, June 15th, 2015

I love to travel. And I love to paint. But it’s difficult to take time out to paint while I’m traveling, especially when my husband wants to see and do as much as possible without twiddling his thumbs while I spend a lot of time enjoying a single site.

150208m Shelling

So, although my watercolor kit is compact and quick to set up and use, I tend to rush my travel paintings and often don’t get as good a result as I’d prefer to. My usual watercolor style involves use of a wet-on-dry technique to produce the sharp edges in my focal area. This allows me to focus my work on the area of greatest interest immediately. Peripheral areas are often applied wet on wet.

Unfortunately, wet areas applied late in the process take the longest time to dry, so I must wait for them to dry before I can add any final details … and even longer before packing up my materials and getting ready to move on.

A friend suggested that I try using pen and wash. At the time I wasn’t confident enough in my drawing abilities to use a pen in lieu of my erasable pencil for any initial sketches. But as I’ve gained confidence, I find that with minimal pen marks I can delineate the necessary fine details in my subject and apply quick washes to provide suggestions of color. It also leads me to leave more of the paper unpainted, which lends sparkle and a sense of immediacy to the work.

So my travel sketches seem to be evolving, as you can see in “Shelling” (#150208m, above). And you may be seeing more of the pen-and-wash variety in the future.

Museums … with Little Ones

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

You might suppose that taking children to an art museum would be very different from making it an adults’ outing. And to an extent you would be right. But in another sense, it needn’t be so very different at all. I recently accompanied my daughter and her children, ages 3 and 5, to the St. Louis Art Museum. Although it’s not nearly as expansive or renowned as the Louvre, which I visited in my last blog, its excellent collection is closer to home, less crowded, and much more manageable on a short visit.

Our primary goal was to show the children what an art museum was all about. Our secondary goal was two-fold—to begin exposing the children to great art and to nourish our more informed adult tastes with food for our own artistic creativity and growth.

First on the agenda was to review rules of museum etiquette with the children—soft voices, no running, stay behind the barriers, look but don’t touch, and stay with the grownups. “This is gonna be such fun!” my three-year-old granddaughter declared happily as we entered the large entry hall. When her older brother said he wanted to see a dinosaur painting we tried to explain that, though some of the paintings were very old, he probably wouldn’t see any depicting dinosaurs. At that he became interested in seeing some of those “very old” paintings.

140914w Learning to Observe

Our approach was to get an overview of most of the museum’s major collections and (for future reference) to see what appealed to the children. We knew we couldn’t cover it all before the children became tired or hungry and would no longer enjoy the visit, so we began by walking through the halls of European realistic work, which we felt would seem familiar and therefore most comfortable to the children.

My five-year-old grandson had picked up a booklet at the information desk and began looking for the art illustrated in its suggested children’s treasure hunt. He happily accompanied us through rooms of neo-classicism, impressionism, and post-impressionism, and eventually pointed out an abstract painting that matched one in his booklet. It was by an artist his mother particularly favored, so she took the opportunity to discuss it a bit. Then he was anxious to find some of the “really old” art, so he led the way downstairs to find the Egyptian collections.

Meanwhile, the children felt free to express their emotional responses to the works we passed, whether something was of particular interest or whether sculptures seemed “scary” or aboriginal masks looked “weird.” Such comments gave us the opportunity to tell the children about the backgrounds or purpose for those pieces, simultaneously affirming their feelings about the art and gently exposing them to unfamiliar cultures.

We let the children’s interests guide us. Grandson discovered a room of arms and armor, admiring various types of swords, daggers, and guns on display. His sister enjoyed the ceramics displays, with their colorful glazes and painted bowls. In the Egyptian room, he was curious about the painted mummy cases and what might be inside; while she was intrigued by sculptures of a black cat and an aqua-glazed hippopotamus. Together they mused about the variety of chair designs on display and discussed with us whether a honeycomb paper chair would be strong enough to hold someone’s weight. Meanwhile, Grandson continued to identify and check off illustrations in his treasure hunt booklet.

The kids took turns pressing elevator buttons to take us to an upper floor that housed collections of work by American artists. The children were well behaved, and showed interest in the native American beadwork and textiles, but after an hour and a half both children were getting restless as they neared the end of their attention span. So we moved them quickly through the galleries to complete our overview of that area. When one correctly pointed out that “We’ve already seen this room,” we knew it was a good time to wrap up our visit and find them some lunch.

So although the approach with children along might have been different from usual, the principles of perusal were the same: We found key pieces of interest to focus on; we focused on them briefly and then moved on to something of fresh interest; and when someone became restless, we changed gears and eventually called it a day with plans to return another time.

The old show biz motto holds just as true with art museums: “Leave them wanting more!”