Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Maybe I'll Stay Home and Paint

It's the afternoon of New Year's Eve and there is an icy snow that's been falling since 9 a.m. I just finished up an assignment for work and am thinking about going outside to shovel, but the wind chill temperature is 11 degrees, so I'm procrastinating. Even Kodos, the stray, un-neutered cat with an urge to roam, is refusing to go outside.

The city plow has been down my street once already, but there's still a lot more snow and sand than pavement, so my car is effectively grounded. I could always walk to downtown for NYE celebrations tonight, but the wind chill is supposed to drop the temperature down to -10. BRRR!!!

Oh well. It's not how the year ends that matters, it's how the next year starts. And if it starts with painting progress, I'll be happy!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

First Steps

I used to post progress photos of my paintings on MySpace, and I thought it was kind of fun, so I'm going to start doing that here now.

I start my paintings by drawing a one-inch grid on the canvas and printing out the original photograph with a grid overlay, then I use the grids to guide my drawing of the composition. I try to get the relative proportions of canvas and photograph to match up as closely as possible, but sometimes I've had to "invent" the drawing along one edge of the canvas.

I drew this canvas way back at the beginning of 2006, along with the other canvases that I've been working on since then. I like having several prepared in advance. I have since realized that it's best to use a very light pencil, especially with the grid lines, otherwise I have to go back over them with an eraser. I paint in very thin layers, and the pencil can show through if it isn't faint enough. On this canvas, some of the contour lines were penciled in much too darkly, but I'm interested in emphasizing contours in the final painting, so it should work out okay.

The second step is to use a very thin wash of raw umber to block out areas of light and dark and some shapes. I do this very loosely and quickly, not laboring over it at all, doing just enough to help guide me when I apply the color. I started doing this in November 2007, and it's been very useful.

The next step (where I am now) is to work with the original photo on the computer screen and make decisions about color, emphasis and brushwork. In other words: planning ahead! I find it helpful to keep the easel in my living room, next to the staircase, where I have to walk past it every day. It gives me a regular opportunity to think about what I'm going to do next. All of my studio art teachers, at some point in my lessons, urged me to think less and paint more, but that's just not my style.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


The question of how I got here came up yesterday, so I figure I might as well blog about it.

I took studio art classes in high school (mostly with M.G. Martin and Nancy Lasar) and college, but my college classes (at Smith) were ultimately very disappointing, since I wanted to learn technique and they didn't teach that. I have a couple of oil paintings that I did in college, and they're terrible. Back then, I was fairly proficient with watercolors, but I had no idea how to work with oils. I stopped doing art in grad school, since I didn't have the time. I went 12 years without doing anything more than doodling, with the exception of a very small canvas I painted for a museum fundraiser event towards the end of those twelve years. That little canvas re-ignited my passion for painting, and it made me realize that a decade of curating and teaching art had taught me a lot about being an artist. As it has been said for centuries, if you want to learn to be an artist, study the works of artists.

In 2006, I felt ready to start painting. I had chosen a thematic subject: scenes of life in Waterbury, highlighting what a beautiful and enjoyable city it can be. I was partly inspired by the work of Peter Poskas, whose paintings of Waterbury are masterful but bleak and devoid of life. I wanted to show the city as I see it and experience it. I have studied a lot of cityscapes by other artists around the world and have noticed that in the past century, the tendency is to show cities as bleak and gritty. I see the city as beautiful and vibrant.

I had begun taking photographs of Waterbury in 2005. I sifted through them and found ten that I thought would make good oil paintings. I prepared the canvases, laying down the initial drawings, then began the first painting, of Ahab performing at the John Bale bookstore. It was incredibly challenging, but very satisfying. My skills had improved so much in 12 years, even without having painted!

The next painting I started was a view of Meadow Street. Frustration set in. I couldn't get the paint to do what I wanted. The colors were flat and bleak. The buildings were ugly. The trees were generic and oddly horizontal. The cars looked like little pink pigs. I decided that I did not yet have the skills I needed for this particular painting, so I decided to set it aside and work on something that would be a better next step after John Bale: Frankies! This composition, like the John Bale painting, had people and only a little bit of cars and architecture.

I did one other thing that proved vital to my progress: I bought a slender little book called Painting in Oil by William Palluth. I adopted two techniques from that book which have been a great help: creating a sepia-tone underpainting using a raw umber wash (just like watercolors, putting me back in familiar territory!) and using Copal Medium instead of Linseed oil. Copal was the missing ingredient I needed, allowing the paint to flow and glow the way I wanted.

During the course of working on the Frankies painting, I also discovered that sable and synthetic brushes work best for me. While working on the painting of East Main Street, I began to realize that I needed smaller brushes. This September, I bought the smallest brushes I could find at a store in NYC, and they still weren't small enough for certain components of the Shakesperience painting. I've had to hunt down miniature brushes.

So far I have yet to complete a painting with which I am wholly satisfied, but every painting has areas that I think are great, and I can see visible improvement with every painting. I'm noticing that I am usually happiest when I paint. It's relaxing and satisfying and mentally engaging. If I'm too busy with other things and don't have time to even think about painting, I start to crave it. My progress so far has been slow, but I seem to be getting faster and am finding more time for my art. There are four of the original ten canvases left to work on, and I feel optimistic that they'll be done by spring. I've started thinking about the next batch to prepare.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shakesperience in Library Park

I finally had a free weekend to finish this painting. Shakesperience Productions during their first summer performance in Library Park--A Midsummer Night's Dream, way back in July of 2005. I was there with my sister and her baby, who was all of three months old, making her the youngest audience member. They're not in the painting, since they were sitting next to me.

As always, it looks much better in real life (the winter sun doesn't seem to be as good for photographing paintings on my porch as the summer sun), and there are areas that I think look fantastic, and areas that I am not pleased with (but it's time to move on to a new painting).

I made a lot of modifications to the original photograph, removing a number of items that were too distracting or that muddied the composition, and relocating the girl sitting the on the ground so that she was no longer in the center blocking the view. I also changed the color of her shirt from a toxic Irish green to a tan color that harmonized better with the rest of the painting.

The most important element in executing this painting were the brushes. I've been using smaller and smaller brushes. It's the only way to get fine details like fingers and for creating areas of mottled color. I managed to break one of my favorite brushes on Saturday. I was cleaning up and had just finished washing the brushes, then shook them to dry faster and smashed the one brush against the counter, breaking off the brush end. I was SO dismayed! I strapped the brush back onto the stick with a rubber band, so it's still usable, but if I press in the wrong direction, it wobbles.

Next up: a large painting of the Lux Clock on the Green!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Photo Reproductions

The horrible quality of the image I posted last time has been bothering me, so I reshot the image on my front porch. Natural light is great. The image doesn't need any adjustment in Photoshop to be accurate in terms of color, unlike the image I shot using indoor lighting, which doesn't look right even after I adjusted it. Here's the side-by-side comparison:

It still doesn't look as good as it does in real life, but then, that's why you have to see art in real life, not just in pictures.

As the artist, I find it interesting to look at a detail photograph of the painting I'm working on. I'm seeing it differently, so I'm thinking about it differently.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

And It's STILL Not Done Yet!

A month ago, I thought I would certainly be finished with this painting by now. It's maddening. If I could stay home painting instead of having to work, I'd get so much more done and be so much happier! Someday...

Here's a detail of the painting I'm working on. The color is all wrong in the photograph, since I took it using the living room lamps for lighting, instead of daylight, which leaves the photo looking muddy, but you get the idea of how it's coming along. The girl in the foreground has a purse that still needs to be painted.