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   Welcome to my blog! I'll be posting thoughts about art, photos, happenings, and other things that strike me--and hopefully my readers--as interesting. And please visit my website by clicking the link to the right--thanks!

   Also please check out my second blog, The Painting Archives to see older (pre-2004) paintings for sale.

Saturday, April 12, 2014
  beyond intro
(painting by Michael Roberson, Los Angeles,CA)

I'm back from teaching two 5 day workshops on beautiful Vancouver Island, BC, hosted by Vancouver Island Workshops. The first was an introductory level class in Nanaimo and the second, a Level 2 class in Victoria. Teaching these two sessions back led me to think about how different they are to teach and to experience as a participant. Because I'm so often asked "what happens in a Level Two workshop?" this post is to clarify and explain the progression of ideas from one class to the next.

My Introductory Level classes are focused mainly on basic techniques, "the toolbox," as one of my students dubbed it. There is a LOT of information to absorb. Besides giving demos and plenty of individual assistance, I also make presentations about abstraction and process-oriented painting. These lay some groundwork for the focus of the more advanced classes.

In a Level Two workshop, I expect the artists who come to not only know most basic techniques of cold wax and oils (as learned in the Intro level) but also to have practiced them for at least 4-6 months on their own. Although I'm happy to provide quick reviews, and run through any new ideas or tools that I've been working with, the emphasis in this class is not on technique, which is a given. Instead we take on the big questions of form and content. In terms of the medium and process, we deal with the possibilities for expression that lie in the techniques, issues of scale, considerations for substrate and other choices of materials, and quick painting exercises designed to strengthen basic skills in composition, use of shape, color and value distribution. Below, a value study in powdered charcoal and cold wax medium by Eva MacLowry, Portland, OR:

As for content, I encourage each person to dig into the meaning of their work and what they wish to express--to connect with and clarify their inner voice. The longer the workshop, the deeper we can go. For example, Level Two workshops may include self-critique skills and small group discussions. I always schedule an extended one-on-one with each person in a review of his or her work as a whole (not only what is done in class), offering feedback and direction on an individual level. Below, participants in the Victoria class paired up to discuss each other's work with guideline/questions provided in a handout:

I also work on my own panels in class, and try to bring at least a few to completion. While I can (and sometimes do) talk all day about working spontaneously and covering over ruthlessly--it seems that showing, rather than explaining, is most effective in getting across this approach. (You can read more about this here in an earlier post.)

I often receive requests from advanced artists asking to skip the Intro level workshop and go right into a Level 2 class. But from the description above, I hope it's clear that even advanced artists need the basic toolbox of techniques and these are offered only at the first level.

For a taste of the experience of a Level Two workshop, here are a few testimonials from artists in my class in Victoria, BC:

This 5 day intensive was just what I needed to energize myself and my painting. The quick exercises that were interspersed throughout the week were a revelation and I realize now that I am/was inhibiting myself and not trusting my artistic self. It feels great to have freedom of expression again and I look forward to returning to my studio with a renewed creative spirit.
--Janet C. Hickok, Anchorage, AK
(Janet's quick series based on spontaneous drawings, below.)

I came to class with challenges and (Rebecca) was able to help me identify solutions immediately....—Aryana Londir, New River, AZ

There is always something one can learn or relearn about the materials and the fundamentals of art and abstraction and Rebecca does that so very well. Having time for some exercises was both fun and useful-and of course being able to watch her paint for a long time is treat.--Eva MacLowry, Porland, OR.

Rebecca helped me excavate genuine elements of who I am through creative exercises and then gave me tools to express my individuality in my work. Learning was playful and opened a door to the rich language of experience. --Kathleen Schildmeyer, Lake Oswego, OR
(Kathleen's series on paper, below.)

If that sounds enticing and you've taken an Intro level workshop (mine or from another artist) please note that I have openings in two of my upcoming Level Two workshops: at Cullowhee Mountain Arts in June and at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ballycastle, Co. Mayo Ireland in November (please email me for information on that one...crowellart@yahoo.com)

By the way, I also offer a third level of instruction, Master Level classes, for those who have completed the first two levels and wish to continue working with me and with other artists experienced in using cold wax. There are openings in these classes in May at Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, WI and in September at Lake Logan Retreat Center (through Cullowhee Mountain Arts) near Asheville. Please email me for more info on those if you are interested.

Below, monocromatic color study by Aryana Londir:
Monday, March 31, 2014
  sense of place

An interesting idea came out of a conversation I had a while back with painter Mark Russell, about describing work that is abstracted from the landscape. He commented that he found it better to say that his work was about “place” rather than “landscape.” I liked that…there are so many preconceived ideas that come into play with the word landscape—while place is open-ended, and can more easily encompass personal and emotional responses.

Mark said in a recent email discussion about this, "Being involved and immersed in a place brings inspiration and meaning more than inspiration from a pretty scene and trying to copy that scene for the sake of a beautiful painting."

I would describe much of my own work as being about the memory and emotion of place. And there seem to be only certain kinds of places that move me, no matter how scenic by most measures. Yesterday I walked in Butchart Gardens in Victoria, BC, surrounded by vibrant spring colors, dense textures of foliage and flowers, and a vast variety of plant forms. It was all astonishingly gorgeous, and I took lots of photos, yet I knew that what I was seeing was unlikely to lead to any paintings. My emotions were peaceful, and pleasant, and my eyes delighted…but I don’t expect the experience to influence my work. Too tame, somehow…and too green and lush. Which is fine—it was relaxing to just wander and appreciate, without seeing paintings everywhere.

On the other hand, the pock-marked sandstone, gray sea, the rough bark of the cedar trees and the weathered driftwood that I have been looking at for the past week of my stay in British Columbia have made the kind of impression that is quite likely to find its way into my painting. I am drawn to places that are subtle in color, and untamed in feeling and mysterious in depth, like the dense forests here.

I’m talking to my students this week about knowing what moves them, what attracts them, as a path to personal voice. The more I travel and stay in different places, the more I understand this for myself. The subtleties of place that work on my memory and feelings.

Friday, March 14, 2014
  new blog

I'm joining my friend and colleague Janice Mason Steeves to announce a new site dedicated to the co-blogs that we write, and in the past have published on our separate sites. Our new blog will feature our conversations about a wide variety of topics, ideas and concerns of visual artists. As an introduction, we're starting off with two posts about artist residencies we have attended together in Ireland, beginning with one at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in 2011.

We'll both continue regular postings on our individual blogs, but we enjoy bouncing ideas around between the two of us and hope you will join us in following our new venture. We also welcome your comments and ideas for future Conversations on Art. Thanks for checking out the new site! PS--look for the box to submit your email if you'd like to be a regular follower.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I have been a little obsessed with making monotypes since my time at Ballinglen Arts Foundation this past October/November. Taking advantage of the beautiful print studio there and a few tips from a fellow artist in residence, I rediscovered the process I had first learned in college. (If you're not familiar with the term, a monotype is a single print on paper, made from an ink or painted image on a plate--usually made of plexiglas these days.)

Back home in my own studio, I dug out the small table top etching press I bought second-hand years ago that had spent most of its years with me stored under one of my tables, bought a few colors of ink, cleaned up a plastic tray for soaking paper, and made space for a printing area in my studio. The approach I use is quick and spontaneous, one pass through the press, and my set up is very basic and easy to work with--which means that I can make a few monotypes whenever the urge hits (and it seems hit to rather often.)

So far, my prints are small--my press bed is only 12" wide, and my prints about 6"x4"--and although I'm sure I'll be buying more ink, for now my palette is limited. (I add a bit of oil color or go back into the prints with my chalk pastels if I want more color.) I find that I enjoy the various ways that the ink can be manipulated within these parameters, and on this intimate scale.

I love the monotype process for its spontaneity, the element of surprise every time the print is pulled at the end of its run under the rollers, and the rich variety of textural and gestural effects possible. I also find that the tones of the oil-based inks I use have a beautiful emotional resonance for me. All of that is compelling enough to keep me involved, but I'm also more and more intrigued by the effect these small prints are having on my work as a whole. That something small and spontaneous can serve as a point of departure for much larger work in oil and cold wax delights and energizes me, and is something new in my experience.

In the examples below, you can see the way that the colors and shapes from the monotype work have found their way into the larger paintings. Not a direct copy of course--more that the two processes overlap. That the emotional content expressed so spontaneously in the small print carries into a the more developed paintings is intriguing to me.

I'm seeing the value of including monoprinting as a part of my oil/cold wax medium workshops, as a way of generating ideas and experiencing a spontaneous approach. Several students who have come to my studio this winter have enjoyed the process, and this group at my Florida workshop in January became very involved in a simple approach to monotype--pressing one piece of paper to another by hand, as a loosening-up exercise. I'm planning to include some form of monoprinting in most of my upcoming workshops this year.

Thursday, February 13, 2014
  personal voice

It’s often said that artists are like sponges, absorbing visual and conceptual ideas from the world around us, from other artists past and present, from our culture and others (contemporary, historic and pre-historic) and from our own interior landscapes of memories, experiences and emotions.

As sponges absorb, so they also release when squeezed, and the result is a mix of all that has been taken in, then mingled and combined into one unique and individualized substance. This substance is the source of our personal direction, voice, or path. If sufficiently complex, it will be hard to define or explain, or fit into precise categories. Our job as artists is to work with our own blend of influences and references to distill and refine something that is meaningful to us, and that others may appreciate. To do this we not only need ideas and personal direction, but also an understanding of the tools of composition, visual weight, dark/light value, color relationships, form/content issues, line quality and the other basic elements of art.

Abstraction requires every bit as much attention to the visual world and the basic elements of art as representation. If anything, to create abstraction with meaning and depth requires even more “sponginess” on the part of the artist, since it involves more than observing and interpreting the real world, and the field of influences is wide open. The process of distilling, manipulating, combining and ultimately transforming original source material is complex. The results for one artist can be austere minimalism, for another, wild, gestural expression, for another, bits and pieces of the recognizable world, presented in an abstract context. But always, if the work is meaningful to the artist, he or she will have something to say about it and its process. There is evident thought and connection to the work, and a progression of ideas over time—a long-term research project into personal meaning and purpose.

A student said to me recently, “I love rocks. I want to paint surfaces that look like rock.” Well, rocks are a good starting point—but I asked, what about rocks do you love? Their permanence, their strength, their solidness? How could these qualities be expressed? What about bringing opposite concepts into the work for contrast—fragility, movement, a sense of the ephemeral? What is the context for rocks that means the most to you—a cliff, in a building, a cairn, a path, a farm fence, or on the beach? None of these need to be illustrated or explained in the work, but to contemplate them can feed and guide the artist’s vision.

In the workshops I teach, I address issues of personal direction, as do many other teachers and mentors. We know that there is nothing easy or slick about any of this, nor can it be rushed and hurried along (though constant practice does help.) Nor are there recognizable standards for knowing when someone’s artwork is sincere, authentic and personal. This is a very subjective realm. I tend to recognize authentic, individualized work when I see it, but have a harder time pin-pointing what is missing when I do not. Personal voice may be there, but in some timid form, under-expressed in the urge to quickly resolve a painting or the desire to avoid messing things up.

Sometimes I advise my students to let their inner quirkiness show—to bring into their work bits and pieces of whatever it is they find captivating. If we allowed our artwork to be as odd as our random phone conversation doodles, what amazing imagery would be unleashed. I don’t mean that the actual doodles necessarily—but that half-conscious process of drawing things that are specific yet dreamlike.

In high school English class we were taught to be specific in our descriptions and observations, because the things we each pay attention point to our individuality and lead to personal voice. In painting, it is not that the things themselves must be depicted precisely—we’re talking about abstraction here—but to be specific in our intentions, thoughts and connections is important.

A crucial part of finding personal direction is to love and pay respect to the art of others, not just that of contemporaries but art from many cultures and times past. To visit museums, own art books, and take university courses. The more points of reference we have to art history the better. To have specific knowledge and appreciation for various kinds of art in that sponged-up mix of sources and ideas opens many portals. For example, I might notice that a certain color palette of cobalt blue and gold in a painting I’m working on reminds me of the work of the early Italian Renaissance artist Giotto, and I might look in one of the art books in the studio to find a reproduction of his Flight Into Egypt. A few minutes of looking at the color relationships in this painting might give me the idea to add a bit of red or green to my own work. Or, that idea about the colors being similar to Giotto might pass through my mind only fleetingly. But whether the thought passes quickly through, or whether I pull out a reference book to pursue it in more depth, I feel connected to the historic flow of visual ideas. As artists don’t we all owe ourselves that pleasure?

Monday, January 27, 2014
  works on paper
One of the delights of my residency at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ireland in the fall was making small works on paper, including monotypes, drawings and egg tempera paintings. I got so caught up in this that I expanded into an empty studio to have room to lay out all my materials and work.

Although I've worked on paper during other residencies--at the Centre d"Art I Natura in Catalonia in '01 and 08, and in 2012 at Cill Rialaig in County Kerry, Ireland--I can't recall ever enjoying it so much for its own sake (as opposed to seeing it as a necessity because of transport issues.) With the luxury of 6 weeks in the studio at Ballinglen, and plenty of time and freedom to experiment, the expressive possibilities of drawing and monotype on paper opened up to me. (To see an album of some of my works on paper, click here.) I came to love the paper itself for its surface quality, its sensitivity to touch, and the pure beauty of the way it holds line and color. I was also excited by the immediacy of working out ideas, some of which eventually fed into my oil painting ideas after my return to the US (such as in the charcoal drawing below that I did after a walk on the beach.)

I loved making monotypes, either straightforward or altered after printing with colored chalk, and they were also the most influential to me in terms of the paintings I have developed since returning home. Creating these small simple worlds with a few swipes of ink on a squeegee seemed magical. I am continuing this series now in my home studio.

This is one of my altered monotypes, with the addition of pastel and charcoal:

From the first day in the Ballinglen print studio (I later branched out to the other media mentioned) I felt a strong pull toward this work. Beyond the joy of momentary expression, these small pieces seemed to open a clear channel to my deepest ideas and feelings. While at first I questioned their significance--they seemed so quick and easy--I soon realized that quality as a sign of being in the zone of direct expression.

My oil and wax paintings on panel always take a lot of time, layers and layers--they contain a whole history of paint laid down, worked over, refined and edited, and I love that about them. But what happens in the quick drawings and monotypes is spontaneity born of this experience --the language of form, movement, color and contrast that I've been working out for years, reduced to its essence. In the moment of creating the work, there is either an immediate sense of "rightness" to it (despite smears, wrinkles, stray lines or other minor glitches) or it is tossed aside with barely a second thought.

What is it about paper that allows for this quick expression, sureness of gesture, acceptance of imperfection or easy rejection? Is it the tradition of expressive drawing? The lightness of the material itself--its ephemeral nature? Or feeling it is less precious than work on canvas or panel (though expensive printmaking papers can rival the cost of a low end panel)? This elusive liberating vibe, sensed intuitively, is hard to pin down.

I do notice that using different papers elicits different and unique responses; the paper itself plays a role in the work in a way that painting panels for me, do not. I am just beginning to explore the range of beautiful papers available--enjoying the sensuous quality to the way different papers absorb printing ink or allow for the delicate smear of charcoal. There is a constant awareness of the surface as it interacts with the media applied to it.

Experience with one type of paper that crosses over from panel-like to paper-like surface illustrates this. Called multimedia artboard, it is a paper impregnated with a resin that allows its use with oils, as well as with other media. The surface has a slight texture but no real "give" to it as with softer papers--it's strong and hard to the touch. I notice that I work with this material differently depending on whether I plan to mount it on panel in the end, which is the case when I travel and paint on it using oil and wax--it is easy to transport, so it's perfect for residency painting. When I come home I adhere the multimedia artboard to a painting panel. Because this is my intention all along, I don't think of these paintings as works on paper; I treat them throughout the process as I do any other oil painting, with layering, scraping, and solvent marks--they are intensively layered and worked (and the surface holds up beautifully to this process.) The substrate does not play a big role interacting with the media, though, since once the first few layers are down the surface is buried. In this case, it is simply convenient to have this light, portable product that I can carry in my suitcase.

But the same multimedia artboard also works with media such as charcoal and water and egg tempera, and I used it in my works on paper at Ballinglen. With these media, I work quickly and spontaneously, and respond to the artboard as paper. It accepts all mixed media well, and the actual surface shows through. The bright white color plays a role in the value distribution of the work. Often I tape the edges so that there is a clean border, which also emphasizes the role of the paper itself in the work. This is one of my egg tempera paintings on multimedia artboard from Ballinglen:

By the way, there are two other papers on the market that I know of that are suitable for oil painting without the necessity of priming. One is Arches Oil Paper. This paper is soft and absorbent, and just slightly off-white. In this case the surface quality of the product influences my response when I work on it in any medium, including oil/wax. I maintain the sense that this is a work on paper, characterized by quickness and spontaneity, so that I use far fewer layers and simpler surfaces than I require in my works on panel. This opens up new possibilities for work in oils that can be more direct than my usual work. Here is one such painting from my time at Ballinglen:

The other paper I know of that can be used without a primer is TerraSkin, made by MitzArt in Canada. Made of a most unusual material--stone!--this product is extremely tough, with a slick surface. I asked the manufacturer if it would be suitable for oil and cold wax, and between the two of us (with some experimentation on my part) we determined that it is. (Yupo--a somewhat similar synthetic surface--is also used by some artists for oil painting, but I have not tried it myself nor determined its suitability.) TerraSkin provides a lovely surface for spontaneous mark making, and again while using it with oils, I find that the painting proceeds quickly and the paper surface plays a role.

Working on paper always leads to questions about presentation and framing. For the most part, I do not frame anything I intend to sell--instead I preserve and protect the work in a loose-leaf portfolio/binder or in inexpensive presentation mats in archival plastic sleeves. I tend to use standard sizes of paper for my somewhat larger works on paper (such as 14"x11") that could be framed in a standard, off the shelf (such as a 20"x16") frame, which makes it potentially easier for the purchaser. In exhibiting works on paper, I have used the method pictured below (the work is on multimedia artboard, from my exhibition this past summer at the Pratt Museum in Homer, AK.) Small rare earth magnets hold the work in place by attaching to drywall screws set into the wall beneath.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014
  coping with the negative: a conversation

This blog is another in the series of co-blogs between myself and Janice Mason Steeves. We are good friends who often discuss issues about art and painting in our private correspondence. In the hopes that sharing some of these thoughts would interest and engage others, the idea of a co-blog was born. To read our first co-blog, which we posted almost exactly a year ago, click here.

Rebecca: You and I have had a few emails back and forth lately about the need to develop a "thick skin" as artists in order to deal with some of the difficult things that come our way. It's funny, I can recall in detail quite a few negative things that have been said or written about my work, but if you asked me to remember even a few of the (far more common) positive remarks, I'd be quite a bit more vague. Recalling negative experiences more easily than positive ones is apparently part of the human condition (see this article.)

Janice: I think the discussion itself is really important! It’s helpful for artists working in any creative field to know that those concerns affect us all no matter our level of skill or experience. When we post our news on social network sites like Facebook and in blog posts, it's generally the positive things that we report, like getting an exhibition, or making a sale, getting an award or an artist residency. We don't often share the darker side of being a painter. That comes with the territory too: the rejections, the criticism, the times when sales are slow, the times you flounder for ideas and feel that you might just throw in the brush! So it's a good question, Rebecca: how do we handle rejection in order to keep going?

Rebecca: Well, I think we need confidence in ourselves as artists, but that's really too easy an answer. I know that even as an experienced (and generally confident) artist, I am still shaken by some forms of rejection in the art world. And even when I tell myself all the rational reasons why the negative thing doesn't matter, or is just part of the art world game, I can feel hurt. So, while building confidence is important, it’s not the whole answer, and neither are rational statements about how things work in the art world. Yes, residencies and grants go to only a small percentage of applicants, galleries are overwhelmed with submissions, our way of painting will not appeal to everyone, all artists have ebbs and flows of income--we know these things. They may be helpful, and they’re definitely the things friends and family bring up to try and help us feel better. But we can still end up feeling distressed and rejected.

Maybe the first thing is to simply accept that we're going to hurt sometimes--we need to look that right in the face. Sometimes we're going to feel awful, no way around it.

Janice: I think that it's important for artists to discuss this with each other as we're doing here. Knowing that others feel the same and have been through similar situations is important. It doesn't matter your level of proficiency or how many years you have painted. If you're an artist who keeps pushing their boundaries, exploring and growing, you're likely to run into people who liked your old work better, or galleries who don't want you to change. In my own work, I aim to push myself to that edge of discomfort. While it is a very fragile, exposed place, I like to see that vulnerability in my own work and I like to see that in other artist's work too, like in your new series Rebecca. So maybe the answer can be found in courage and persistence.

Rebecca: this makes me think it is not confidence-as-an artist (in the sense of success or experience) that is needed so much as general confidence-as-a-person. Knowing from experience that we can handle all kinds of difficulties in life. This helps us believe that we are strong at the core, even while knowing there will be pain.

It's a good thing to keep in mind because as you say, as artists we put ourselves into potentially negative situations all the time! If we’re going to keep pushing boundaries in our work, we do need to be brave. And yet our skin can't be too thick if we are to remain sensitive and vulnerable.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about embracing your pain tenderly, as if it were a baby. That seems to me to say it is possible to love the pain as part of being human, but it’s not a good idea to grip it tightly and hold onto it forever.

Janice: One thing that is hugely important in an art practice is to try to separate ourselves from our work. We are not our work. Knowing and believing that can take the edge off of negative comments. While it's important that we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into our work and hold nothing back, we are still more than the paintings we create. Life is more than that. Click here to see a cartoon I came across that says this in another way.

Rebecca: Yes, that's great! I think that is really important. It's so easy to take the bad stuff very personally. Yet, even as we create the work there is always the need to separate ourselves, step back and assess, edit and evaluate. I wonder if that is a part of the process that needs to be strong in order to deal with all the difficult stuff we encounter in the art world. Even while we may disagree with someone else's attitudes or beliefs about our work, the ability to be objective allows for other points of view.

Janice: While we know these things in our heads, it's sometimes difficult to remember them. When we encounter rejection, the critical voice that seems to live somewhere inside our heads jumps in and adds more disapproval. Last fall I had just completed work for my current exhibition and I was really pleased with it. I had applied to an artist residency much earlier in the summer, and I learned that day in October, that my application was rejected. Although I had just completed a huge work cycle and produced a series of paintings that I loved, that one email completely threw me off. I couldn't paint at all that day and the critic was very loud in my ear. I got into my car that afternoon and turned on the engine. Instead of music, I heard the voice of a man who was not the regular announcer say, "If you hear a voice in your head that says you cannot paint, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.". Stunned by the synchronicity, I stopped the car to write it down. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

I think actually that it’s important that we continue to have thin and vulnerable skins that enable us to relate in a sensitive way to the world around us. And to allow that there will be all sorts of rejections and hard lessons. The important thing is to keep working, in spite of criticism and rejection or the voice of the inner critic, which can be the harshest of all. What makes an artist is the ability to continue. To show up for work.



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