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.
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.
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?
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.
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
: 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
: 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?
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
the new year
On a below-zero night at the very beginning of 2014, I look briefly behind and ahead, sharing a bit of my journey as an artist. summing up a few things I observed last year, and considering what lies ahead.
2013 was a very on-the-go year for me, with barely a month at home at any one times between travels. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Alaska, Colorado and finally Ireland, with a few local road trips and a quick jaunt to Ontario on art biz interspersed. Most of the time, I loved these experiences. A few times, I wished I were home instead, and no doubt my family did too! (They are ever supportive and understanding however, which is key to keeping up this pace.)
With all the travel and teaching I did, I experienced some loss of studio time, but still managed to produce work for a my first solo museum exhibit, in Alaska, and lots more. Two extended residencies, at the Serenbe community near Atlanta, and at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo, Ireland, helped make up for any lack of focused studio days. This was my third residency in Ireland and the most satisfying to date.
2013 art sales were decent...I joined a new gallery, Thomas Deans in Atlanta, and kept up with others. I also had my best year yet for making my own sales--during workshops and residencies, via studio visits and through facebook. My deep thanks to all who have collected my work in 2013.
As the year came to a close, a new direction emerged in my work, begun as a series of small monotypes in the print studio at Ballinglen and proceeding from memories of the dramatic sea cliffs of County Mayo...all of this documented in previous blog posts, and continuing with newer work such as the 48"x36" painting below.
After the exhausting travel schedule of 2013, I have scaled back a bit for 2014. I'm still teaching plenty of workshops (click here
for my schedule) but I do have longer stretches at home. I especially look forward to my time in British Columbia in late March and early April, to the new experience of teaching at Lake Logan--a lakeside resort in NC-- and to my return to Ballinglen in the fall.
My 2014 schedule also honors my preference for teaching advanced and master level workshops. It's not that I don't love the introductory classes too--but for me the most excitement is in going beyond basic techniques to the deeper inquiries of what makes a good painting, and how to express personal voice in abstraction. With a number of other artists (many of them my former or on-going students) now teaching, I'm feeling free to focus my own efforts on Level Two and beyond.
The constantly expanding community of artists exploring cold wax medium is a great satisfaction to me, and December of 2013 marked the one year anniversary of the launch of the cold wax painting
website. Meanwhile, its companion site
(a Ning discussion forum) has over 2300 members in its third year since being launched. These days it is a very active site with new members joining, and new discussions and posted paintings popping up daily.
Exhibitions of my work in 2014 include a group exhibit opening this month at Elaine Erickson Gallery in Milwaukee, and a few other opportunities yet to be finalized. I'm excited about pursuing the many painting ideas generated while in Ireland, and exploring monotypes and egg tempera, two media I used at Ballinglen, in my home studio.
For those of you on my mailing list, watch for a newsletter later this month with more info about upcoming projects, exhibits and a new critique service I will be offering. If you haven't joined that list but would like to, click here
for a page to scroll down for the sign-up box.
Back in my college days, an instructor observed that changes in my work seemed to happen in logical steps--things evolved and grew in a way that made clear the connections from one stage to another. I was pleased by that idea, and I've seen it myself over the years since then. Although I don't discount the widespread advice to "leave the comfort zone" in order to grow, I've always felt that this leave-taking need not be abrupt--that it can be just as valid as a shift rather than a leap. There is a lot to be said for allowing growth to happen organically in its own time, branching out from a solid base.
At the same time, various experiences, especially the artist's residencies I've had in the past few years, seem to be catalysts for more obvious changes, sometimes pretty noticeably. No wonder, with the intense focus on work, the stimulation of a new location, different culture, and meeting artists from around the world. One of these big changes happened after my first residency in Catalonia, in 2001, when I finally found the path into abstraction I'd been seeking for years.
For the past few weeks I've been pushed by my memories of my time in Ireland into work that is definitely out of my comfort zone. The paintings above, with their strong contrasts and bold shapes are like nothing I have done in the past. I find them both intensely personal and rather alien...compelling, unsettling.
Yet in a speeded-up way, these too show a logical progression from the works on paper I did in Ireland. From the small monotypes and drawings such as this:
and quick oil and wax paintings like the one below, which I pinned to the wall beside the larger works on panel as references. I am trying to capture the emotion and memories of walking along the wild sea cliffs of Mayo, and perhaps something more I have yet to know.
back in the studio
I've been home from Ireland for just over a week, time enough to unpack and spread my new work around the studio on walls and tables, and to give it some thought now that I am away from its source. Now I can also view it alongside the paintings I was working on back in late September, when I was packing to leave. Contrast, emphasis on shape, and texture are prominent in the new work.
A few days ago I sat with this work and made some notes. On an emotional level I find the strong dark shapes in the monotypes I did very compelling, expressive as they are of the rocky seacoast of Mayo, where at times I found myself close to tears walking along the cliffs, or on the wild beaches--overwhelmed by rugged beauty. Many of my small works, such as the monotype below, came about directly and spontaneously, and caught for me some essence of that experience.
The oil and wax paintings I did are for the most part softer, and more complex and colorful. They bring to mind the blanket bogs that cover miles of the Mayo landscape. The bog may appear barren and rather featureless from a distance, but up close it is a tapestry of color and form, created by the plant life, stones and turf. The soft bog lands and the rocky coast are the two most striking aspects of Mayo, and are often juxtaposed, with the bog extending right up to the edges of the tall cliffs as in the scene below on Clare island.
I love this contrast, this yin/yang of the landscape. Nuance and boldness, quiet sensitivity and drama. This is the emotional and conceptual material I want to explore in my return to my own studio. Several new paintings are underway, and I have dragged my lightweight, toy-like etching press from under a table and dusted it off. After all the fun of making monotypes at Ballinglen, I'm interested in trying some at home-I just need to replace the felt blankets and get some ink that isn't dried to a crisp. This little press hasn't been used in a good 20 years and may not be up to the task--stay tuned!