Thursday, December 15, 2011

grand scale, small scale

   "Mum, check this out." I leaned over and peered at her laptop screen which displayed a view of earth from the Voyager spacecraft as it was exiting our solar system - the well known photograph, unknown by me until this moment, entitled "Pale Blue Dot." It shows earth as a tiny, partial pixel against the vastness of space - a dust mote floating in a beam of sunlight - and of course, Dr. Seuss's brilliant Horton Hears a Who comes to mind. An image pops into my head of the dust specks floating above me in the morning sunlight as I lay quiet in that moment before volition, and I imagine listening for the tiny voices... "We are HERE! We are HERE!"
   For me, it brings into focus the reality of the simultaneous co-existence of enormity and insignificance - we are both/and, not one or the other. Each life, each pebble dropped into the wave function of earthly existence, is the most important - the only thing that matters, AND it is completely insignificant in the hugeness of "reality". It's like a camera zooming way in and way out really fast, so that you see the detail immediately juxtaposed with the wide angle. Like Schrodinger's cat - which is both dead and alive at the same time until you open the box to check, we are the center of the universe, AND a dust mote. There's a great moment in the movie Kingdom of Heaven, where the crusader Balian asks Muslim commander Saladin what Jerusalem is worth. He answers, "Nothing," and with a gesture of dismissal, strides away. A moment later he turns, grips his hands into fists and breathes, "Everything." He didn't change his mind, he simply grasps that both are true. It is also like the baby in the manger - on that night, in that place, his birth was absolutely insignificant, AND the pin-sharp focal point around which so much human history has whirled. Every child born is just one of billions, another squalling babe, AND the aggregate of events upon which the future will turn. This duality is built into the fabric of the universe - and when people start to grasp it, like my college friend who called to recount that while stuck in traffic she became suddenly aware of the utter, underwhelming ant-like existence she leads, we call it an existential crisis. Some can't balance these two realities. Coming back to the pale blue dot, I think that without this reality there is no balance - without awareness of the smallness of ourselves, humans tend to get carried away with self importance. Here's what Mr. Sagan had to say...
   "There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world." 
   If this photograph was to be displayed on every classroom wall to be pondered daily by young minds, would it bring the world's future generations together? would it cause an end to individual striving? Would it cause a new philosophy of life to be widely adopted on our little dust mote? Would it be just another NASA image that's world-view shattering and yet has no effect on our daily lives? 
   The sun is rising, glowing pink under the blue cloud cover. Two fellow earthlings (deer) just passed by outside my window on their way to whatever important events fill their day, as unaware of my importance in the grander scheme as I am of theirs. I think, however, that we each do have an inkling of the insignificance of ourselves, as they stroll through the snowy field under a gray sky and I sit here on my couch watching them, protected by a wooden structure, connected to a mountainous landmass, spinning on a rocky planet around a middle aged star on the edge of the galaxy.... preparing for an annual human ritual of rebirth we call Christmas Eve. 
   "Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam." - Carl Sagan
 "We are HERE!"

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"you can't worry if you're singing."

   It's 6 a.m.  I peer out the front door as I come down the stairs ... it's still full dark outside but I can see the new snow covering the step in the glow of Christmas lights from the other side of the house.  In the half-light of the window candles, I putter over the tea pot, and spooning the tea into the ball I notice it feels overly cold... colder than the 64 degrees I've been keeping my heater at this year to save some money. ($4.25 a gallon - sheesh!) When I glance at the heater the little yellow lights says 52, which means the power must have flicked last night. I peer out the big front window through the not-yet-sunrise darkness and see the huge spruces across the street, visible against the dark sky because of their newly snow-covered branches, swinging and tossing in an obviously mighty wind. the heater, fill the kettle, burner on high... I pull both throws around me and settle on the couch to watch the growing light illuminate our newly winterized world as the house slowly re-warms. I feel a small pang of guilt for our bird - parakeets ARE tropical.  Poor creature, what was I thinking?  
Blanketed - watercolor - 3" x 3"
   Snow removes the color from the landscape and replaces it with values, such that what was just yesterday a big blob of variegated green (those stately trees across the street) is now an intricate study in black and white with every every branch and twig limned by its perfectly sculpted cloak - 5" of heavy, wet loveliness. The colors of full summer are lovely, but the values of the winter landscape are truly, deeply beautiful. 
   Last night during the holiday concert, (we wouldn't have a "holiday" concert without Christmas, but we call it a holiday concert...) which was amazingly well attended (thank you supportive community!) one of the last pieces we sang was a counterpoint melody to Silent Night, and our director arranged it so that throughout four verses, first the counterpoint was introduced by itself by the men, second the women sang it as the men ooo-ed Silent night quietly underneath, third the men sang Silent Night against the women, and for the last time through, the entire chorus sang only the counterpoint and the audience sang Silent Night, led by Sue, our director. Well, when it was the audience's turn, they heartily started singing full voice, and all the beautiful voices around me on the risers filled with the counterpoint and I could just hear this amazing swelling of the entire building with perfect harmony and it was so overwhelmingly beautiful I started to choke up. Since any kind of decent singing effectively ends when choked up, I blinked back tears and looked down at my music. I struggled between trying to tamp down that feeling of all consuming joy and amazement, or to just enjoy the now - and feel it wash over me... but I wanted to sing too, to be a part of it, not a spectator. So I looked up at the big window at the back of the balcony, the one with four individual lights giving it a cruciform shape, and out into the deep blue of the night sky beyond the walls and started to mouth the words, focusing away from the emotion just enough to say the correct words with my croaky, choked up voice, but also listening outside of my self, so I could hear all the voices and our one big voice of sound of joy. Humans do amazing things.  Kind of like the crickets in spring. I bet some of them get choked up too.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

all colors are in all things

More thoughts about how we are of, not just in, our surroundings...
     Some of my favorite paintings - the ones where I feel I really got it - are the ones where I've kept my focus clear: I am painting sunlight. I'm not painting hair or skin or water or fabric or rocks or hillsides, I'm painting sunlight. I'm painting the stuff that bounces off all those objects and reaches our eyes. When I manage to keep this purpose clear in my mind, my entire composition and the way I approach the image is more unified. 
     In the image, "Mermaid", I started with one cool color flowing through all the shadow areas in the entire painting, and then a single warm tone flowing over all the sunlit areas... and this process works whether the form I'm depicting is water, a figure, a dock, trees, a house - I let the shadow tone flow over all the forms equally, such that the shadows are all connected in the first layer - one big unbroken shadow form. This helps in composition and checking proportions but also illustrates in a concrete manner my constant awareness of how we (or any object) are connected to our surroundings. We are connected via chemistry in the physical realm - we are constantly sharing macro and micro parts of ourselves... esters bring our scent on the wind, we breathe in the air and everything in it, macro particles are constantly floating off and trailing behind us, we are taking in sunlight and giving off heat, there are so many ways that everything, every object or figure, pulsates with everything around it... and this same effect is happening to every surface everywhere. We are also connected to our surroundings via color and light in the visual realm - the set of colors we see in a given moment, a given scene, is completely dependent on earthly conditions: sunlight, clouds, water vapor in the air, land elements and objects absorbing/reflecting light, and how each of these surfaces (sets of molecules) reflect the light streaming from the sun into our eyes. 
Mermaid, watercolor, 5" x 5" 
     Because sunlight is the source of all vision, all color, my thinking is that all colors are in all things. Light is (photons are) bouncing everywhere reflecting, radiating, scintillating - there would be no visual experience without this effect - such that the water behind the girl reflects the sky and the sun, the sun shines down on the girl's hair and shoulders and the water reflects back onto her suit, the shadows in her hair are the same blue as the water... the sunlight flows like water from figure to background, uniting and shimmering over all surfaces. 
     This same thought process can be used for any image, whether it's a dark foggy scene, or an evening scene (the moon still reflects the sunlight) and even for interiors - you can always view a set of image elements as the light they are reflecting, rather than as objects with certain colors. I think it keeps the artist focused on the underlying visual reality and not about pre-conceived particulars, like "what color is a tree?" ... all colors, of course.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

more of 'why...'

Starting with 'why' is sometimes a roundabout trip. For instance, 'why' did I spend all of yesterday hunched over my drafting table alternately squinting at the surface of my paper and a few scattered reference photographs - agonizingly balancing color and value and delineating wisps of hair and tiny facial features? Well, so I can eat next month, of course! But also because I said yes to a customer who's kept in touch with me for years after she had a portrait done of her son at three years old, she now has two other children and wanted another portrait. And also because regardless of how much time it takes to get that darker stroke in exactly the right place to make that half smile look just like the way he smiles, I can do it: I can get the likeness. AND getting it is very satisfying. I have only maybe two more hours of work on that triple portrait to have it completely finished - just the final tweaking of darks in the hair, and one more well placed stroke to get the third figure's mouth just right, finalizing the foreground texture in the sand and the figures' reflections/shadows. Then, even though I still have another commission to start, I'm taking a break and painting what I want for a week. 

A portrait of my daughter - we are of the landscape, not just in it.
Why the blond wisps in the wind? There's something so fragile about it. AND it happens to everyone (having the wind pulling on your hair) and yet who stops to notice the beauty of that event? (which can be perceived as an annoyance - everyone reacts by tugging that wayward strand back behind your ear). The way the wind reacts with wisps of hair, the way the colors of the surroundings filter through the strands... it's worthy of being rendered. (i.e. = it's beautiful.) It also illustrates the concept that we are IN the landscape - the wind reaching and pulling the hair away from the body physically connects us to it. We are not a solid body that just moves through the air, we are of the air. It fills us, we share ourselves with it... it's part of us, we are part of it, and my visual representation of that is the wisps of hair being tugged and tossed by the wind.

Monday, November 7, 2011

big thoughts, little thoughts

So in trying to become evening-ly inspired to write about work, life, inner space, beauty - I find that the competing thoughts of big ideas: the why of my day - and the small things: what I managed to accomplish - are not compatible and keep me from getting started. I guess I was thinking that what and how I paint or accomplish an image would be more interesting than musing about a metaphysical quantum leap (or sidestep, as is often the case). However, it's the metaphysical that I want to share/investigate at the end of my day... thus the quandary.

A dear friend recently shared an inspirational talk with me which focused on "starting with WHY," ... and how always keeping that thought/question in the forefront will give greater meaning to every single thing we do. Soooo. WHY do I paint? here goes...

I can. - I've always been a natural at achieving a likeness/reality - I remember in 1st grade my teacher making a big deal about a paper cut-out project of our pet - in this case, our black lab Fury - and just using scissors I competently shaped his head, paws, body confirmation, the way his ears fell and his collar... I remember thinking I had really captured him, but was mortified by the fuss my teacher made about it and so wrecked it on purpose by making a cartoon out of it: I roughly drew in spikes on his collar and oversized dragon-like claws on his paws - before she could show it to my parents. In middle school I used to earn a quarter at lunch doing pencil portraits of my friends - or drawing horses for the many girls (of that age) that wanted my drawings of stallions rearing or mane blowing in the wind with big warm eyes peeking through, looking into your soul. Everyone is good at something... I can draw. 

It feeds me. I remember one summer day, I was probably 12, Mom told me to draw from what I saw outside (instead of making up more horse pictures) and when she could tell I didn't know how to start, she told me to just start with a small piece of something - like the half-moon window in the peak of the old barn and the broken chimney above it. It was the first serious drawing I did and I'll never forget how I felt looking at my results and the excitement of achieving three-dimensionality on a page. I still feel that excitement: I get a rush when I've captured space on a page; created depth, atmosphere; when I've managed to grasp what it really looked like, what it smelt like; when the figure looks natural and part of the world - it hits some pleasure center for me. Maybe this is bad, but the images that I know I've nailed... i.e. they came out actually looking like I imagined them when I started... I can keep looking at them over and over - because they draw me in every time I see them, pulling me back to that place, that moment I was trying to capture and share, and I can experience it anew.

I want to share the beauty. I guess I figure if I encompass so much beauty and space into such a small area, then people will have to take a closer look, and in doing so, will NOTICE it... will take that moment it takes to really see... to breathe it in and BE there. The earth is filled with amazing scenes everywhere I look, the way the light hits the hills, or shimmers on the water, or falls across that rooftop gable. I drive by the same places everyday but instead of becoming immune to the beauty, I get to re-see it each time. I truly believe that artists actually have more color receptors, or process color/detail/space differently than non-visual artists - because (and this type of event has been shared by all the visual artists I know) if you're driving somewhere with a non-artist, and you come up over a hill and you just have to stop the car to take some photos because the colors are breathtaking (or the farm, the trees, the light...), that non-artist person says, "Wha-a-at?" and can't see the big deal. And doesn't see it, even when you point it out. So if I can capture it on paper, and make it so small they have to dig for the other glasses and then they get their noses right up to it... I'm providing them the opportunity to leave themselves behind and be somewhere else - I'm pulling them through the looking glass. It's like I get to grab them by the shoulders, point them in the right direction and make them be still, just for a moment, to help them see... the world is so beautiful.

(more of "why" will be forthcoming...)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

moving ahead slowly

first overworked reflections
final, I think, reflections (maybe too dark?)
   I only had small amounts of time to paint today between other obligations (painting IS the main thing I do but some days you wouldn't know it...) so along with briefly working on the foreground grass texture in my big commission, I moved slightly forward on my Yupo fall studies. I rubbed off and re-painted the foreground reflections in the first one I worked on, and I placed more of the brightest colors in the second one. I think I'm getting the hang of working with the Yupo substrate. It is really hard to give up the 'layers' process and just paint the final colors right away, but it's a great exercise for me. I still have a lot of greens and blues to add, but I like the freshness of far, anyway - hopefully I won't overwork it massively.
The results of the second 10 minutes of work on fall scene #2

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

always learning... staying humble.

My "wrecked" Yupo - I lost the fluidity of the reflections.
   I really messed up that fall scene - bother - the foreground got WAY overworked, and I really thought I had it, too. Hubris, that's what it is when I think I've got everything under control. And then I remind myself that too much control is what wrecks a fresh watercolor. Since it's on Yupo, I think I can just wipe it off and start again on the reflections, but it's too late to do it tonight. I had chorus this evening (we are starting rehearsals for the Christmas concert), and so didn't get in my after dinner work session. So here's the mess that faces me tomorrow...

Detail of tree texture example, this is about 2.5" x 4"
 I had my watercolor technique class this morning - I am really loving teaching. Since the fall colors are still out, I picked a scene that shows the fall trees near the shore, and we worked on filling in the background colors like a sideways-moving wash, letting gold, orange, pale greens and darker greens blend/bleed together with soft edges as we filled the entire "block" of trees. Then, simplifying the whole area into just three tones, we studied the richer colors for texture, and then deep blue shadows to define the tree forms. Here is what I painted as an example of "how to" - you can see that just small sections are done - I just had to get them started with the technique of "pushing paint" and scribbling/scuffing with the brush to delineate the abstract textures and forms of the trees. This study was done VERY quickly (under pressure with them standing around me watching >yikes<) and so it wasn't about the strict tree shapes, but more about the brush technique of being free with the scribbles and textures.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Procrastinating before getting to work on a commission - it is SO easy - there are emails to answer, phone calls to follow up on, I think about my plans for the day, make a fresh cup of tea - when all I really need to do it get downstairs and start working. So I did: I finished the drawing for the new piece and NOW I'm just afraid to take the next step ... I go do some inventory work, change the CD, feed the cats, think about these new frame samples I received in the mail yesterday... just bite the bullet and sit down and PUT PAINT ON PAPER!
   The hardest part is thinking that I'm going to wreck it (after spending two hours on the drawing) but really ... at this point, I have my ways to fix most ANY mistake. AND I find if I take the time to get my mind into the painting - I mean get right into the scene: the colors, the day that it was - step through the looking glass and BE there - I don't make mistakes. (well, sometimes a wet brush goes flying out of my hand or something, but other than that... ) This image is a conglomerate of a beloved scene- from a mother to her daughter who now lives abroad.

   So once I got at it, it went smoothly - the first "layers" are on and generally everything is looking good. I'm trying to be BOLD, like I tell my students - and just go for the right color right away. This painting is much bigger than I normally work, but some clients just don't get it. They see my small work, love it, and then contact me about a larger painting. >sigh<  So today I got all the basic forms and first colors down, not bad.
   (whenever I type "today" I always type "toady" and then have to backspace and fix it to say "today". I kinda like 'toady' though... some today's are rather toady...)

Friday, October 14, 2011

finished. I finally finished this commission I was working on - and it made me feel accomplished in a technical sense... I mean, I was working on details like the shadows under the fronds of day lilies, and the texture of a split rail fence, the reflections and sparkle on the lake, achieving atmospheric perspective as the water's ripples stretched into the distance, tree texture... all that stuff that makes one of my paintings look "real" (whatever that is)*. It was getting to be 3:00 on a Friday afternoon and I really wanted to be done with this one today so I just kept myself chained to the drafting table (metaphorically) and powered through. I don't like to think about painting that way, but sometimes it just is.  However, it's not like I think this painting is just work... I think it really came together and is a sweet little painting, in spite of the fact that the customer took three years to decide she actually wanted it and then two photo shoots, three compositional options and four months later... TODAY, as of 4:30, I can say I am done with the boat painting. woot! (Well, there's still the framing...)
   Anyway, about feeling technically accomplished (or maybe "able" is the better word)... because I kept working on it for a series of hours, I saw the painting emerge almost entirely today. *The "real" comes through with the 'balancing' that happens after all the details are studied: the final work I do after all the sections are complete when I sit back and squint my eyes to take away the details and decide that, for instance, this green is too pronounced, that area needs to be darker, or that yellow is too intense, these ripples need more definition, etc. I actually slobber over (with a brush, of course) detailed areas with additional layers (some call them glazes but that always sounds like something you do to a piece of pottery, NOT a watercolor) of color or value to make it all work together - such that all my details, although important, don't take over the unified composition. It was kinda cool to see it emerge from its parts into a whole (because this commission had elements from many different photos) and as the values settled in at the end, real-ness was accomplished.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Yupo - start fresh.

   OK, I ordered some new art supplies to jump start my creative process this fall - I'm trying out some YUPO, which is this great new (relatively) completely plasticized (poly-something) "paper" (substrate, really...) that I have seen other artists get some really interesting effects on... it provides a totally different surface for watercolor - pushes one toward more instantaneous work - and I really want to loosen up, although continue in my small format. 
   So when the huge sheets arrived (whee!) I just chopped up the first one into, like, eight pieces (which is still pretty big for me...) which came out to ~ 8 x 10, and marched it right over to the drafting table and grabbed a photo reference and started putting paint on it to see how it worked. It was a mind blower - every brush stroke left a texture (no smooth washes with this stuff) and I found you really can't glaze over: when you put color over another color, it just picks up the bottom layer and re-liquifies it... but this is good, it will make me get the right color right away! and work more directly. I'm always telling my students to "be brave" ... so now I have to. 
   So I messed around with that 8x10 sheet a bit and then decided to chop further - so now each 8x10 has been further chopped to 4 x 5, which is perfect for my work. In two days, I have overworked (completely!) one image (but learned a lot about what I can and can't do with it) and I am relatively content with the second image. I'm planning a series of peak foliage scenes - trying to keep the colors really fresh and maintain a regular brush rhythm. I'm using a #4 Robert Simmons white sable round - best brush in the world, points up like perfection. This image still needs some finishing touches in the foreground - I'm still learning how to make colors flow - but it's not bad for my first go.
   Look around you - take a second to feel the wind on your face.