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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.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017
I've been at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo, Ireland for just a month now. It's a place I love, and my stay this year has been made special by the exhibit of my work, Still/Moving, currently showing in the gallery. I'm copying my statement for the exhibit below, along with some photos of the work in the exhibit:

In Quiet Light. triptych oil/cold wax on panel, 24x20" each panel

Bay #1, #2, monotype with pigment stick, each image 14"x11"

I've been coming to Ballinglen Arts Foundation each year since 2013, pulled back each time by the dramatic coastline, the intricate colors and textures of the bog and the hedgerows, and by the ancient ruins and archaeological sites. The title of my show refers to these aspects of the landscape, as well as to my own feelings for this beautiful place which grow stronger upon each return. 

There is work in the exhibit spanning the time from my residency of a year ago to several pieces done since I arrived back this year in mid September. I’ve  included paintings in oil/cold wax, acrylic and mixed media, and prints (monotype, drypoint and chine colle.) This variety reflects what what I experience being an artist in residence here—it is a special time outside of ordinary life that offers a sense of freedom and exploration, both inside the studio and out.

Coastal #1 and #2, 24"x20" each, oil/cold wax on panel

Abandoned #1, #2, 14"x11" oil/cold wax on paper

My work is created intuitively—calling upon memory, emotion, and the visual impact of the surroundings here. I also respond to what my materials suggest to me as I go. This means working with a balance of spontaneity and control. That is, I allow the work to develop freely, yet at the same time I bring thought and consideration to the process. There is a rhythm to this that has taken many years to discover. 

Still/Moving #1, 12"x12" oil/cold wax on paper

Moving Water #1, 28"x39" acrylic on paper

Over the past five years my experiences in Mayo have had a strong impact on my work as a whole, including the ideas I carry back home and develop further. I’ve found new directions in shape, contrast, texture and line, and a powerful source of personal meaning and memory that is at the core of the work. —-Rebecca Crowell; Ballycastle, County Mayo, Ireland, 2017

The exhibit will be hanging through October 23. 
Friday, September 08, 2017
Last week I spent three days making prints in the Chicago studio of Jeff Hirst, refreshing my knowledge of monotype and learning about carborundum printing and chine collé . The idea of doing this took root in June when Jeff and I were on the summer faculty during the same week at Cullowhee Mountain Arts in North Carolina. I dropped in on his classroom several times that week, and saw enough interesting work going on to know that I wanted to learn from him myself. 

I love printmaking and have had an etching press in my studio for several years--once in a while I've made some monotypes, and I've also experimented with carborundum (a metal grit used to create textured printing plates.)  But I spend most of my studio time focused on painting in order to keep up with gallery demands and deadlines. So it was really a special treat to go to Chicago and work exclusively on prints, under Jeff's very capable direction. (On the side I also enjoyed a little of what Chicago has to offer such as great restaurants and the Art Institute.  But mostly I was in the studio and learning as much as I could.) 

some of my prints from last week

drypoint and chine colle

One technique that intrigued me in Jeff's Cullowhee studio was a simple one-- drypoint etching on plexiglass plates. Plexi is very easy to scratch into with a sharp tool, or more randomly with sandpaper or anything abrasive; the plexiglass plate can then be inked and run through the press. Because of the kind of sketchy lines I've been developing in my painting, this was a natural fit for me. In Chicago I experimented with these lines in combination with monotype and --chine collé  a method of adhering thin papers such as rice paper to the print surface. 

monotype and drypoint

carborundum print
I was also drawn to carborundum printing because of the rich darks it can produce, and the physical texture it embosses on the print. I discovered a number of things I'd been doing in my wn studio that--while not exactly "wrong"--were standing in the way of the effects I wanted. For example, I'd been using cardboard to make my plates, which compresses during printing, and I had not been shellacking them--a step that seals in the carborundum, makes it easier to clean and keeps the plate from deteriorating. I thought of people who come to my workshops and tell me they've been experimenting with cold wax on their own but can't seem to get good results. There is definitely something to be said for learning from a person with experience. Jeff was a great teacher--leaving me alone to explore but stepping in when I needed advice or to lend a hand with the actual printing process, which is often easier with an extra pair of hands. 

What is it about printmaking (especially the methods I worked with at Jeff's) that appeals to me so strongly? I began my college years as a printmaker but switched to painting when printmaking began to seem too indirect, too fussy, too neat. Yet I now find pleasure in all of these characteristics. Though it may lack the immediacy of painting, a printed image always holds surprises--it is transformed in unexpected ways as it travels from plate to paper. Once the plate is prepared, there is a sense of giving it over to fate, and in the best cases, a feeling that magic has occurred when the results are uncovered. 

pulling a print

I also find the "fussy" aspects of printmaking that once annoyed me strangely appealing now.There are tasks to perform "just so"--tearing paper, soaking and blotting, mixing and applying the ink, wiping it back, registering the plate, gently dropping the printer felts over the plate and paper, and delicate handling of the wet print as it is carried to a place to dry. In all of this, there is a ritualistic pleasure and a pleasing rhythm. 

monotype, drypoint and chine colle

I admit that one thing hasn't changed since college--I'm still challenged by the need to be neat and clean in the print studio (Jeff made several references to Pigpen in regards to my inking table) and frustrated by the sticky, hard to clean up inks.  My fingerprints kept showing up on the edges of clean paper, and at the end of the day the pile of dirty tools, tarlatans, rags and plates was daunting.  

But I admire a certain neatness to the process as a whole--an image is produced; it works or it doesn't. While there is some leeway for touching up and manipulating the final result, it is completely unlike my particular painting process, which goes on for days with endless iterations as I find my way to the finished image. In printmaking there is little room for second-guessing once the plate is run through the press. If there was a problem, Jeff and I would talk briefly about what might be done differently the next time, and then we moved on. Though I was exhausted at the end of each afternoon, overall I felt a sense of lightness, that nothing was really crucial--in all the best ways it was play, exploration, pure enjoyment. 

Friday, August 11, 2017
  traveling thoughts
I've been away from home for over two weeks now, traveling first in Croatia and Italy with my husband, Don, and now settled at Cascina Rodiani in Drezzo (in northern Italy near Como) for teaching two 6-day workshops. The first class is over and new students are arriving today. As someone who craves solitude, I have welcomed this small break. But I'm very grateful for all that has happened on this adventure so far, and for the many interesting interactions with people of various cultures and backgrounds. 

My thoughts about the effects of travel continue...in my last post I talked about recent changes in my work, and that I've become less interested in interpreting specific locations and more in a wider conceptual expression. But because life and art never seem to move in a predictable, linear way, in Drezzo I once again feeling the effects of specific location. It makes sense, with so many visual impressions from travel and new experiences. Now is a time to gather up ideas that may eventually fit in with the larger direction in my work. 

On this trip II've been soaking up color --the brightly painted houses in small villages, piles of fruits and vegetables in the market, beautifully arranged plates of food at nearly every meal, and rich patinas like on the old wine barrel below. 

I also love the quieter palette of white buildings with red tile roofs, the subtle green of the olive trees, the pale nuances of marble. During our time in Florence with my friend Allison B. Cooke and her husband, I took dozens of closeup photos of old walls and fragments of frescoes seen in the churches of San Marco and Santa Maria Novella;  there is a particular feeling in these ancient, worn surfaces of pale greens, gold, blues and pinks that strikes a deep chord.

So, in Italy, color has been on my mind in the works on paper I've done as class demos and on the side. It's an interest that has been brewing in certain works back at home, and I feel I am picking up some new visual ideas to carry back with me.

14"x11" oil/cold wax on paper....

Saturday, July 08, 2017
  an evolving idea

untitled as yet; 42"x36" oil/mixed media on panel

A change has been underway in my work over the past year --a move toward more defined shape, and higher contrast, and more developed use of line. These changes in the form of my imagery have been coupled with a shift in what the work means to me--its content. 

While I have long tied my imagery to specific places in which I have spent time such Ireland, Sweden, New Mexico and New Zealand, I find myself increasingly involved in ideas that are less referential. Although my specific experiences in these places remain very important, underlying my current work is something more universal and spiritual than geographic. I feel like I am finding my way into a bigger idea--an expression of the rightness and order of the natural world, encompassing some of its intriguing dichotomies--fragility and power, movement and stillness, peace and violence, present moment and timelessness. 

In earlier posts I've written about moments of strong emotional connection in various wild, rugged places on my travels, and that these moments take hold as memories that feed my work. In the past few years with all the travel I have done, these memories have piled one upon another. I wonder if it is the accumulation of so many of these memories that have pushed me into the current changes in my work, That maybe what I am doing is attempting an integration of these experiences, drawing on what unites them. (A simplified overview; the shift has taken many months with various influences, processes, observations and intentions in play--perhaps material for a future post.)

untitled as yet; 60"x36" oil and mixed media on panel

In the painting above, I recognize the source of the strong shapes as the dramatic coastal areas of Ireland and New Zealand, where I have spent time in the past year, but I feel that I've pushed these shapes in a more iconic and symbolic direction. Though the painting is certainly related to past work, I am thinking about it in a different way, and perhaps that is the real key to making changes. In my work overall, I'm experiencing a welcome release from identifying my work with specific place memories, which was usually the case in the  past. 

In some of my new paintings, color plays a strong role in the form of bright glazes over dark underlying areas. Again I am feeling a freedom in using color for pure visual and emotional impact, apart from any direct reference to my memories, yet evocative of nature's contrasts. 

untitled as yet: 16"x16" oil/mixed media on panel

None of the paintings in this post have titles...which shows that I am still in a little uncertain about how I want to describe them. The past months have been a time of transition; the piece below took many weeks to resolve and was the first in which I felt I'd found a place to land for a while. A struggle yes, but invigorating. The journey is young and I'm excited by the possibilities opening up. 

untitled as yet: 42"x36" oil/mixed media on panel

Friday, June 09, 2017
  learning by doing
"We learn best by doing." I've been thinking about this very basic and essential principle lately as I gear up for my upcoming cold wax workshop at Cullowhee Mountain Arts later this month, and several more to follow in Italy and Ireland. While its application for students is obvious, the idea also applies to those teaching them. I've spent the last seven years as a workshop instructor, teaching nearly 100 cold wax classes and around 800 students. Although the basics of teaching are second nature by now, I'm still learning by doing--always tweaking the content of my classes, seeing ways to improve, making new power points, revising handouts. The basis for making changes is that something isn't working as well as it could--I never feel that things are all nailed down and perfect. Writing the cold wax book with Jerry McLaughlin (Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations, Squeegee Press 2017)  was another huge exercise in learning by doing, as will be the upcoming video to be released next year. Such projects are daunting at first, yet fueled by vision and motivation they unfold.  

photo by Phyllis Lasche

My friend Phyllis likes to remind me of a time in 2010 when someone in a class she was taking asked me how long I'd been teaching workshops. When I answered that it was my second time, people gasped. I'm not sure if they were impressed or horrified!  I'm not advocating going into teaching without a solid grasp of the material, but we all do have to start someplace. 

In the beginning of learning a new thing, we never fully grasp the enormity of what we are taking on, which is helpful in protecting us from wanting to give up before we even begin. There will always be frustrations, impatience, and inner struggles. But from a perspective of having mastered something, we can look back and see that all of that was part of the process. It could not have been rushed. Learning by doing has a way of unfolding at the right pace--we try things, decide what works, and begin to build our solid base. 

For students, understanding that the process of learning by doing is long and often frustrating is crucial. But it seems to be one of the most difficult ideas to accept. Many people struggle with an inner need to come up with successful work in an introductory class in just the short time that a workshop lasts. Three or four days into class, they expect they will conquer the material and make it work. Sometimes frustration sets in almost immediately. Yet how can it not take time to take in all of the new techniques, ideas and approaches that are being taught? I sometimes picture the air in the workshop studio filled with the negative self-talk of people not meeting their own unrealistic expectations. Even in more advanced classes, expectations can run high. There is still a lot of new input and stimulation--otherwise, why take the class? It all takes time to process. 

Of course, there are always some good paintings that emerge in the group by the end of the class. But even if things do fall into place for an artist on a painting or two, it does not mean that true understanding has happened. It can actually be harder for the artist when there is success in class--the illusion of a level of mastery can lead to huge frustration once the workshop is over. I've known students whose path forward was made very hard by a painting that was admired in class. They want to immediately do more like it, while not really understanding how it came about in the first place. Instead, it's best to view any successful painting (at any stage of the journey, really!) as a portal to ideas that will be revealed over time. The solid understanding of a medium and approach, the development of personal voice, the knowledge of true intentions--all of this can take years to develop, and it's a slow, sometimes arduous process of learning by doing.  

A workshop is a time to simply take in as much as possible, to play (in the best sense of the word) and to stay in the moment. Even when good results do happen, the paintings done in workshops are best thought of as experimental...as note-taking...as explorations. When students say thing like "I used the wrong colors" or "I shouldn't have worked on this while it was still wet" what they are really describing are not failures, but the process of learning by doing. Every time something doesn't work as we want it to is a small step to understanding what does work. Saying "I'm not sure what to do next--I'm afraid of messing up" is the biggest obstacle to learning and growth. My advice is always to go ahead and try something different, and see what happens. (In fact, Jerry and say this so often when teaching that it has become the tagline for our business. "Squeegee Press...see what happens.")

Wednesday, May 10, 2017
  the influence of place
A few days ago I asked my Facebook friends to suggest topics for me to blog about, and I had enough responses to feed my thoughts here for quite some time. Suggestions ranged over many topics, but quite a few focused on the various places where I've traveled, taught and lived, and how the influence of these locations comes through. Artist Jeff Erickson hit exactly on a current question of mine:
With all of the travelling you have done recently, and painting at both homes, while soaking in the visual landscapes, how do you approach working on a body of work influenced by only one place. You must have visual information overload right now!!
I need to put this question aside for a while,because I'm still working it out. For now I will just say that these days, I'm interested in the unifying and universal aspects of the places I love, rather than seeing my time in them as distinctly different experiences. But I do have general thoughts about the influence of place on my work, ideas that have evolved over many years of artist residencies and other travel to the kind of rugged, wild landscapes that I most respond to. 

A black sand beach, New Zealand

Cathy Byrne asked how I translate visual inspiration to my work. For me the visual is only one source--my process also involves emotion, thought, and memory. Looking back, I can see that over time, I've gone from a fairly literal and conscious depiction of landscape to working fluidly with what stays with me as an essence--a sort of distilling process. I also work in response to my painting materials and methods so I'm not focused on the end result but more on seeing what evolves.

Black Beach #1, 10"x10" 2017, oil/cold wax and pigments on panel 

Back in 2008, as the result of a 3-week residency in Spain, I realized that tapping into intuition, emotion and memory were the keys to letting an experience come through me and into my work. I began to let go of the idea that I "should" depict certain characteristic or scenic aspects of a place, and to allow myself to be caught up in anything that spoke to me. There are usually just a few moments in a place that truly feed my ongoing work, and they may be quite ordinary on the surface. I don't know which memories will be significant until I am gone--it's kind of a mysterious process, but it's one that I trust to provide an essence of the experience as a whole. Of course, I also come away with lots of memories that surround and support the core few, and bring variation and depth to the work. But the core memories tap into something deeper--a sense of longing or an emotional connection to a place.  

Nancy Natale wondered what I take to my residencies in Ireland and whether I make small pieces that I use as the basis for larger ones when I get home. 

small work on paper from residency in Ballycastle, Ireland, ink and gouache

I'm lucky at Ballinglen, because the staff there lets me store some supplies there from year to year, so I always have plenty to work with. But in other situations, I do struggle and have never been good at packing lightly. Over time, I'm gradually learning that once I'm away from home, I work with what I have and rarely miss what I've left behind. Yes, scale is generally small--limited to what will fir into my suitcase. As for the role of this smaller work, it is most importantly an aspect of exploring a place, and not necessarily a step leading to larger work.  

When I'm on a residency, I consider being out in the landscape as important as the time in my studio. So that means going out to walk alone, explore, take photos (which I use as a way of focusing, not as literal reference), draw, or just to sit quietly someplace. At times I feel a very strong connection to what is around me. There is a sense of play to it all..,my inner 10-year old is very happy to be out wandering around, climbing over gates, picking up stones, looking at clouds. 

In the residency studio I often do some quick, small works on paper, using various media after returning from a walk. I feel a similar sense of play as I do when I'm out exploring. I also spend plenty of time on developed work, usually on paper or multimedia artboard.  Although the more developed work has more layers and detail, I try to maintain the same open and intuitive attitude as I do with quicker work. My studio time on a residency is when I process and think, absorb my surroundings like a sponge, and then squeeze a good deal of it back out on paper or panel. 

n A Quiet Light, each 24x20", painted at Ballinglen Arts Foundation, Ballycastle, CO Mayo, Ireland 2017

When I come home again, I don't usually reference the work I've done while away, or my photos, or anything else. I just aim for a clear mind and see what the residual effects of my experiences have to tell me. But of course, everything I've done is part of the process as a whole, and certain aspects of the smaller works definitely come through. Also, a few times, I have deliberately worked on a large scale based on ideas that came out in some pivotal smaller work.  

Fissures #3, 48x36", painted with memories of Irish stones..and stones everywhere

And finally, a question from Kai Harper Leah: "What is it like painting in NM vs. the other places you have been teaching lately?"

Since I am now living half of each year in New Mexico, I can see that my process is a bit different. I'm surrounded by the landscape for long stretches, rather than accessing it through memory. That distillation process is not much in play. I noticed that this spring I was more involved with memories of New Zealand, where I spent the month of February, than with what I was seeing around me.  I wonder if in the end, the glorious NM landscape-- as much as I love it-- will have less impact than those places I visit more briefly. On the other hand, the more time I spend there, the more nuances of color, texture and shape I see. Maybe in the end the influence of New Mexico will be a subtle one. Or maybe it will come through more strongly during my summers in Wisconsin. An open question, so far!

Near Dixon, NM

Thanks again to my Facebook friends for these thought-provoking questions and comments. I will be taking on a few others in future posts, and welcome the thoughts of other readers, as well.  

Monday, March 27, 2017
  the book
A week ago, it finally arrived--my copy of Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations, co-authored by myself and Jerry McLaughlin. I've been waiting to hold this book in my hands for over two years, since the day Jerry convinced me to undertake the project and it began to take form in our shared vision. I tore off the packaging, stared at the cover, felt the book's weight and heft, and began flipping through. It was beautiful and--at long last--an actual book. I felt a rush of emotion and an urge to celebrate, but I was by myself on an otherwise ordinary Monday afternoon. A couple of happy/excited/relieved texts with Jerry sufficed, and I settled down for a more thorough look. 

The pages seemed at once familiar and strange. Countless viewings on the computer screen, days of writing and editing, meetings with Jerry to go over photos and layout decisions, and line-by-line proofreading had pretty much seared most of them into my memory. Yet seeing the actual printed pages brought the whole project from an idea into a new and unfamiliar reality. After living for so long only as computer files, the book now had a physical presence, a substance. For the first time, I could imagine encountering it in a fresh way, as someone else would...picking it up in a store or a friend's studio, or opening the package that had arrived in the mail. If I were seeing it for the first time, I believe I'd be impressed. 

Knowing everything that goes into a book like this is a burden and privilege reserved for its authors. In our case, my own share of the work was considerably less than Jerry's, who not only instigated the project but was its prime mover all along. While we consulted often about various aspects of the book, he took on the heaviest load of overall design, layout, curating, communicating with all the artists in the book, and a myriad of other publishing and distribution details. Fortunately, we also received invaluable help throughout the process from our editor (Kristy Conlin) and our graphic designer (Haroula Kontorousi.)  And we remain ever grateful for the ongoing support of our families and friends, and of the cold wax community at large. 

Although my own workload during the past two years has been comparatively light, it still felt to me at times overwhelming, cumbersome, and nerve-wracking. The writing itself was generally an interesting and creative process, but there was so much more involved. For example, the text we started out with was usually too long or not well enough organized, and needed to be followed by re-writing, editing and of course, proofreading. We had to work out proper chapter titles, chapter intros, headings and subheadings, the placement of artwork, where and how to insert the special focus sections, the content of various charts and lists, the final wording and design of the covers (generously provided by Stephanie Dalton) and flaps. We spent two twelve hour days just working on the photos that illustrate the sections on techniques--planning images that would best show the process, setting up the shots, and finally, taking the photos. Once Jerry had configured the layout of each chapter, we'd usually have further revisions in order to make everything flow correctly or fit into the space, or the number of pages available. In the final months before sending to the printer, we did a lot of fine-tuning and proofreading, It was a challenge then to balance perfectionism and moving the project along, but it was important to focus on the very best result possible.

Throughout the process we worked mostly in our separate locations, with a constant flow of emails and PDFs back and forth. A few times, we met at my place in Wisconsin or at Jerry's in California. Near the end when we were ready for a line-by-line proofreading of the entire manuscript, Jerry traveled to Ballycastle, Ireland where I was on residency. These meetings, few and far between, were always times of intensive work. Once, in Oakland, we worked almost continuously on Chapter 6 from 8am until 1am the following morning. The photo below of Jerry and myself in Ireland was taken on one of only two short breaks over three days. I guess we couldn't believe we were free for an hour!

The ongoing demands of the process often meant working late into evenings in order to also make time for painting, and dealing with art and workshop business. (Amazingly, Jerry did his part while maintaining his medical practice as well as painting and teaching.) 

But in spite of the off and on frustrations, I never regretted becoming involved in the project. All along, I had the strong sense that this was an important undertaking. And I have highly valued my collaboration with Jerry, which continues to be enriching and dynamic. 

Once he asked me what the book meant to me. It took me a moment to answer, to step back and gain a little perspective. But the answer was clear. Although I have been teaching and writing my blog for years, and making a few notes in sketchbooks, I'd never before tried to pull together the various threads of 40 years of experience and weave them into one coherent form. In doing so, this book became for me a kind of closure. I'm very gratified to have so much of what I've learned, taught, written and thought about over the years complied in one place and organized in such a way that others can learn from it. 

Notes from 2007... I had started getting questions from other artists about cold wax and had the idea that I should record something about the techniques I'd been working out in my studio. This was written about six years after I first started using cold wax, and a few years before I started teaching workshops.)

Of course, our new book is much more just my own contributions, and Jerry's--it ranges into the words and work of the many other artists who participated. I love the depth that this brings to the overall content, and I've learned from the other artists. My own use of cold wax medium has always been fairly straight forward--mixing it with paint, and sometimes adding sand, pigments or powders. But seeing the wide range of approaches by artists in the book has had an effect on me. In terms of technique, I'm now more involved in using washes, pours, and pigment sticks. In recent paintings, I've also been exploring a slightly collage-like attitude--not literal collage, but the idea of sectioning parts of the painting with underlying geometry into areas of different but related passages. Certain collage and experimental artists featured in the book intrigued me and I think had some subtle influence.  

Coromandel 20"x16" oil/cold wax/pigment on panel. 

Now, as I leaf again through the book, I wonder what lies ahead in the coming months. As partners at Squeegee Press, Jerry and I are already planning new projects and events. Marketing and wider distribution challenges await us--we'd love to see our book embraced by workshop instructors, public libraries, and the academic community. The support from the community of cold wax artists has been strong from the beginning and continues to grow. 

In the immediate future, the books will be available on Shopify in mid-May, and if you like, you can PRE-ORDER your copy now using this link. If you ordered a copy during our crowd-funding campaign last summer, your book will be on its way as soon after they arrive as we can make it happen (the predicted date of the shipment arrival is April 7th, but that is by boat from China, so I suppose it is not absolute.) I'll be in the Bay Area the week they arrive to help with signing, and I'm sure Jerry and I will do a little celebrating too! We hope that if you choose to own our book, it will a valued resource and a delight for years to come. 


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       Rebecca Crowell