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.
ireland on my mind
As the recent painting (Mayo Bog, 40"x30" oil and mixed media on panel) above shows, even months after my return from the boglands of County Mayo in Ireland, I am thinking of the colors and forms of their rich tapestries. I will be returning to Mayo and the Ballinglen Arts Foundation
in mid-October for another residency, and to conduct two workshops (there are still some openings in the advanced class in November, if anyone is interested please email
With this post though, I am hoping to re-direct my readers to a newly published post on the co-blog that I write with my friend and colleague Janice Mason Steeves
, in which we describe a different area and artist's residency in Ireland, the Cill Rialaig Project in County Kerry. Here is the link
to that post--enjoy!
what pulls us in
In most forms of art, we rely on some sense of drama and emotion to pull us in--in reading a novel or watching a film, we expect the narrative to contain a central dilemma for the characters. Listening to a symphony, we follow the arc of the music through various contrasting but related movements. With poetry or song we often contemplate some aspect of the human experience via analogy and metaphor, creating thought- or emotion-provoking images.
A few days ago, caught up in a novel on CD on a very long car trip, I started to think about how this dynamic applies in visual art, especially in non-representational painting. How is the viewer drawn in when there is no imagery to create a narrative or set up a dramatic or otherwise evocative situation? What gives an abstract painting (even one that is quiet or minimalist) strength, character, emotion? Why do some abstract paintings seem to compel people to look and look--while others are passed over?
Obviously, this is very subjective territory. What I stare at for an hour, you may dismiss in two seconds. What one juror picks as Best of Show, another sends to the reject pile. Different strokes for different folks, even among paintings generally well-regarded.
Nevertheless, I believe that there is a merging of form and content in really good abstract painting that sets it apart in terms of clarity, strength and communication of feeling. Technical skill along with command of the formal elements of art (value, color, line, shape and composition) create visual tension and contrast. Meaningful content is the other component, with roots in intellect, memory, and emotion--both intuitively and consciously accessed.
In bringing all of this together, the artist convinces the viewer of an alternate reality worth examining. In the words of the famous abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Abstract art places a new world, which on the surface has nothing to do with "reality", next to the "real" world.
This, then is what seems to be the engaging dynamic for the viewer--a glimpse into another way of seeing, imagining or thinking. The drama or tension that draws in the viewer arises from the contrast between this unique vision and our everyday ways of seeing and interacting with what is around us. What an enormous, lifelong challenge the abstract painter has in distilling and communicating an inner world in a way that allows others to enter in.
adventures with terraskin
As readers of my blog know, I have been doing quite a few small works on paper lately and enjoying this quicker, more spontaneous approach alongside my more developed painting. And because my own interests often find their way into my workshops, I've been sharing some of these ideas with the artists I work with in my classes. Recently I wrote a blog post for the makers of TerraSkin
, an intriguing paper made of stone, manufactured in Canada, about a technique I developed using their product with powdered charcoal and cold wax medium. To read the blog post, which includes step-by-step directions, click here
. The post also includes a list of US distributors of the paper. I have been using the 16pt weight but it also comes in a lighter weight, sketchbook sized variety.
This is the charcoal and cold wax demo paintings that I did for that workshop:
I've also been using Terraskin for monotypes because I enjoy the way its smooth but absorbent surface holds every line and detail, and there is no need for soaking prior to printing. Although the prints tend to curl when just off the press, they quickly flatten out if placed under a book or other weight. Here is a recent example (6"x4" etching ink on Terraskin.)
TerraSkin also works well for straightforward painting with oils and cold wax medium. Again, it lends itself to crisp detail and fine edges, as well as resist and solvent techniques. Below, a small painting I did while on residency in Ireland last fall--my first encounter with TerraSkin.
Here's a bit more background about Terraskin, as found on their website
**TerraSkin is a combination of mineral powder (>75%) and a small quantity (<25%) of non-toxic resin combined to create an environmentally friendly paper.
**The production of TerraSkin requires no water, so the TerraSkin papermaking process incurs no water pollutants.
**Used TerraSkin paper will start to degrade under the proper environmental conditions of high heat, moisture and UV light.
**Most importantly, in producing TerraSkin, the harvesting of trees is unnecessary, thereby safeguarding the natural environment’s beauty and biodiversity for all living beings.
**TerraSkin also has beautiful printing capabilities and a unique texture and feel. Because the paper is fiberless, it does not absorb ink like regular paper and also uses less ink than regular paper. Images stay much crisper and cleaner because the ink doesn’t bleed.
**TerraSkin is water – resistant and inherently strong and durable.
In my last post
I wrote about shape and its importance in my recent work. But the painting above (36"x48", as yet untitled, oil and mixed media) which I just finished, is about the least shape-ly one I have done in a while! It's atmospheric, shimmery, undefined, with the emphasis on layers of subtle color. It might seem a strange follow up to what I was excited about just a few weeks ago.
But like a lot of artists I almost always have more than one direction evident in my work at any one time. Working back and forth between a paintings that is unfocused and ethereal and one with bold dark shapes, I find my awareness heightened--so that I make the surface colors and textures in the "shape" paintings more subtle, and in the more atmospheric paintings I see soft color/shapes emerging.
Having several approaches going at once also works for me because I see the core ideas they share. In my recent work, both the strong shapes and the softer paintings relate to my time in Ireland and to various aspects of the land there, the soft, textural boglands and the strong shapes of the sea cliffs. As these exist in juxtaposition in the landscape, so do they in my studio. I also have some work going that is quite minimal, mostly white, as in this recent 40"x30" (as yet untitled) painting:
Working in mostly white with emphasis on physical textures has been an ongoing interest for the past five years--it is a longstanding investigation that I keep returning to .These paintings are to me about solitude, quiet, and aging. And so they seem related to almost any other work I am exploring, because these are big, underlying themes that encompass many experiences.
Of course the work of any one artist is connected on some level--all made by the same person at the very least, and very often underlying themes and ideas can be discerned. But how much and what kind of variety to aim for in the studio can also be a challenging issue. As an instructor I work with many artists who are on the path to finding a personal style, and who struggle with (to quote the singer Joni Mitchell) "the crazy you get from too much choice." Especially with process-oriented methods, such as I teach with cold wax medium, the possibilities inherent in the materials and techniques can easily pull an artist in so many directions that there is little to show who the artist is and what characterizes his or her work.
I often tell my students that their art work is their lifetime research project into what is meaningful to them and how that may best be expressed in communication with the viewer. The beginning stage of producing one-off paintings with little connection to one another is important--experimenting, learning to understanding the materials. But to follow the research analogy, this stage tends to be a little like surfing the internet, browsing around with whatever catches your interest. Which is fun, and can lead to new ideas, and be a jumping off point--but it isn't usually great for gaining in-depth understanding. For that, obviously you need to stick to a main idea and make dedicated searches, print out and study certain pages, make notes--and meanwhile, not be too distracted by YouTube videos or Facebook notifications.
To conduct research via your own art work, what helps a lot of people is to focus down, to set parameters, create in series with defined boundaries, and in the beginning take one step at a time. Until the focus begins to come naturally, it may need to be imposed.
But alongside that serious and dedicated research, a little browsing is also a good thing! By that I mean, find ways to play and experiment off to the side--do quick works on paper, make monotypes, take photos, write in stream-of-consciousness style--whatever is stimulating to your art brain and heart. These kind of activities allow your intuition and spontaneity to flourish and are important to sustaining your energy for the deeper and more focused work.
If you are struggling on this path, know that with dedication to studio practice, there will come a time when your core of meaning has grown strong and solid. Explorations can freely sprout in various directions, simultaneously or in succession, and there will always be connecting ideas.
Since my time in Ireland last fall, shapes have entered my recent work--big, shaggy, organic shapes. I relate them to land forms and colors of the part of County Mayo where I stayed for seven weeks, and was impressed by the craggy bog landscape and rugged sea cliffs. The oil painting above is Boglands #1, 36"x36", 2014.
Dominant shapes have not been part of my imagery since the late 80's, and I feel that I'm rediscovering an old idea in a new way. Those earlier earlier shapes tended to be harder edged, less subtle. There was often a triangular or shield-like shape, and were important in my path to where I am now, as some of my first explorations of abstract forms. The painting below, Shield, 30"x 24"
, is from 1987. I saw these shapes as strong yet also fragmented, a reflection of the particular emotional state I was in at the time, beginning my career as an artist and raising young children.
After this time, my work entered a more landscape-inspired phase, and headed back toward representation for a number of years. When I entered fully into abstraction in the early 2000s, my work tended toward color field and geometric divisions rather than distinctive shapes. Multiple panel constructions gave structure to these color fields, or simple divisions were created within the picture plane. Although I included soft shapes and gestural marks in these paintings, I didn't tend to emphasize distinctive shapes within the color fields. Below, a painting from 2011, Fragment
Soft, atmospheric shapes did begin to enter my work about this time, and to gradually develop a unique character. An ongoing series which I call the Veil Series
includes paintings such as the one below from 2012, Veil #6
, 20"x16." I continue to enjoy working with these rather undefined cloudy forms, inspired (as much of my current work is) by time spent in Ireland.
Strong, bold shapes are what's really new and exciting to me. Some are of soft color and edge, showing a pretty clear progression from the Veil
paintings, such as the one at the top of the page, and this one, Mayo #2
and others are dark, bold and massive, painted with memories of the dramatic cliffs of North Mayo and Clare Island. Below, Mayo Coast #5, 2014, 60"x48." The detail shot below the main picture shows that some edges I am working with continue to have a soft quality, while others are stronger. I find myself paying a lot of attention to edges as I work on these, wanting them to have variety, and a quirky, organic sort of energy.
I'm excited about continuing in this direction, and find I have a very keen sense of what is "right" when it comes to these shapes. I spend a lot of time searching out their boundaries, tweaking and shifting. I also find challenge in making dark, dense, solid forms that also contain variety of surface and subtle color shifts.
Bringing shape back into my work has been an evolving process, and as always, I find that change for me comes slowly, in progression, and relates to something in my own experience. I am reminded of this process every time I teach and talk with students who often view abstraction as something to dive into without reference. Connection to feelings, memories and visual impressions of the world are for me the source of ongoing ideas and imagery.
(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...firstname.lastname@example.org)
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:
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
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.