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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.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013
  bringing ireland home

Recently I photographed all of the paintings that I did during my residency at the Cill Rialaig project in Co. Kerry, Ireland in October/November of 2012. You can view the whole album on my facebook page.

I loved looking closely again at these paintings (water-based mixed media on paper, for the most part) with a bit of time and distance now from the source of their inspiration. They evoke for me the rough textures and atmosphere of the West coast of Ireland where I spent those three memorable weeks, and for this reason are close to my heart. But I'm also interested in them in more formal terms. Though the original paintings are emotional responses to landscape, in doing these paintings I developed some ideas of composition, color and surface that are now part of my visual vocabulary. Going into a residency it's impossible to know what will emerge in the work, and what will carry forward into new bodies of work that follow, so the journey continues in unexpected ways once you're home.

My work in Ireland was mostly done with acrylic paints, acrylic mediums, drawing materials and water color. I worked with these materials quickly, averaging about a painting a day (though, as at home, I had more than one going at a time. ) The paintings have a spontaneity, and roughness that please me, and the quick drying time and use of pencils and pastels also created an emphasis on edge and line. A distinctive feature of these paintings is the defined border on each sheet of paper-- it was necessary to tape my paper to a board in the Cill Rialaig studio (I was working on an easel.) While I sometimes kept the border white, I usually removed the tape off and on during the process (as I switched paintings on my board) and would often paint a layer of color clear to the edge as I set the work aside. So most of the borders show evidence of underlying layers of paint, and create contrast in color and value. It is interesting that in these paintings, the border "works" because it was a necessary and integral part of the process, and that this is not an aspect of the Ireland work that carried over to my work at home. I've tried a few times to recreate the effect of a precise border in an oil and cold wax painting on panel, but taken out of the context of the process, the idea seemed forced and awkward.

As I worked on my paintings in Ireland, the borders I was creating seemed to pull my attention to edges in general. I began to play around with uneven and jagged layering along the perimeters of the work, as in this painting, CR #9 (14"x11".) I like the tension created between the taped edge and the more evolved edge.

This more general interest in edge translates well to oil and cold wax, and has become an ongoing interest since coming home, as seen in this recent 12"x12" (untitled as yet) painting. I have been adding sand and other materials and digging in with palette knives to make the edges textural and rough.

Another aspect of many of my Ireland paintings is the contrast of atmospheric color fields with linear elements, often criss-crossing the picture plane, as in the examples below, CR #5 (14"x11") and Green Trails (16"x12.") In an unfamiliar landscape I find myself noticing certain distinctive features over and over, and these find their way into my work. In County Kerry, around Cill Rialaig my eyes were drawn to the low stone walls separating the farm fields, which created linear patterns on the fields of late-autumn colors. While lines have been important in my work for years, this sight led to an emphasis on horizontal lines creating loose grids. I also found myself noticing lines in many of the stones of the area--strong simple lines crossing beach stones, complex lines in the standing stones of ancient sites, and the patterns of stone fences along the road sides.

Line played off against a subtle color field is something I am continuing to explore in my current studio work. The small painting below, Mapping (12"x12" oil and mixed media on panel) shows both interesting edges and subtle lines incised into the paint, and there are many more related paintings in progress. I'm moving now into work for my exhibit at the Pratt Museum in Homer, AK in August, which have a very different focus from my Ireland paintings. Yet I can already see that some of the visual vocabulary from my residency will translate well into this new body of work--these kind of transformations are an intriguing sign of the creative process at work.

Thursday, January 17, 2013
  the art of critique; a conversation

My friend Janice Mason Steeves and I have decided to explore the idea of co-blogging: a back and forth conversation about a chosen topic that we conduct via email, and then publish on both blogs. This idea grew out of the habit that Jan and I have of sending each other long, frequent emails, which we do mainly because we are good friends with much in common. But in bouncing ideas back and forth, we've also had some enriching and stimulating discussions about our painting processes, teaching, art business and the ups and downs of our art lives.

Because this is a new idea for both of us, we are interested to see how our readers respond, and this will help us decide whether to continue co-blogging now and then. Please feel free to comment!

We decide to begin with the topic of Critique, a subject we've both delved into in the past in our individual writing and teaching. In addition, Jan is scheduled to teach a 5-day class in June at Cullowhee Mountain Arts in North Carolina called Visual Language and the Art of Critique, so the topic is timely.

J: Critique is so important to the development of an artist, and I wish that I'd had a workshop like the one I'm giving in June available to me earlier on in my art career. But do you think a person would perhaps be intimidated to take a course that is about Critique?

R: Maybe--critique does have a fairly scary reputation! But it might help to demystify the word a bit. Basically critique is just a conversation about a work of art, your own or someone else's, right? Focused and perhaps intense, but not something that has to be judgmental or harsh.

J: The word critique carries quite a lot of baggage and can seem to be only focused on the negative. I'm thinking of it as learning a visual language, learning a way of looking rather than in a critical sense.

R. Can you say more about that?

J: Sure, what I mean is that in verbal communication, we choose which words to use and how to put them together to best communicate our thoughts and ideas. We learn this at an early age, how to write a paragraph, how to write an essay. We don't throw words and punctuation on a page and expect them to communicate. Should we do the same with images? Seems to me that we don't learn how to analyze visual communication in the same way. I'm interested in how we make marks, how we structure a work of art.

R: That's a great analogy to written communication. It brings to mind another aspect of writing that carries over into visual communication--editing. I seem to talk about that a lot in my workshops. What is the main idea, and what supports it, and what is just excess, unrelated? I think this analogy to written language is also useful in countering the idea some people have that abstraction is only random mark-making without intent or structure. We need to use visual language in a conscious way--at least at the point when we step back and evaluate our own work-- if we hope to communicate our intentions.

J: It's difficult to get any opinions on our work after we leave art school. And if we didn't go to art school, there are few places to learn this. How have you learned to assess your own work?

R: In my college classes, especially in grad school, critique really WAS pretty negative, sometimes... so I started critiquing myself ahead of time to try and prevent whatever negative response might be coming. I would try to imagine what various instructors or other students might find to pick on, without understanding my own intentions or what I wanted in the work. Not a very good strategy but I bet it's a pretty common way to get through art school!

Once I got away from college, it took a few years for me to lose the negative voices in my head and to focus on my own path. Gradually I started to develop my own criteria for what I want in my work, and at some point I made a list, which I keep posted in my studio, of things I aim for(for example: complexity, authenticity, presence, tension.) I can refer to it when I am stuck or assessing if something is done and ask myself if the painting reflects these criteria or not. How about you?

J. Before I taught myself the elements and principles of design, which I never learned in art school, I always judged my work in the old gut reaction way. After we've been painting for a while, we get better at this: simply sensing what is working or what is not working in a painting. The gut reaction method is this: put the painting up on the wall, in an area you will pass by quite often. After a period of time-a day, a week-f you still like looking at the painting, you know that it's working and that it's finished. If you don't feel that way, you know that there's something else to do and most often you'll know exactly the area that needs the work. Sometimes the entire painting needs the work! Ha! Another way I've judged my work is to put it away for a few weeks or months and look at it with new eyes when I pull it out again. This is usually a pretty good method, but sometimes we just don't have that time. I haven't had a list of requirements for my work. I think that's so interesting that you have that. I have always based my assessment on the feeling of the work, and really, I still do. Even when I can more easily deconstruct my work now, in the end, it's still the gut reaction that is most important to me. Do those criteria ever change for you? Are some more important than others?

R: I don't refer to my list all the time (I do a lot of gut-level reacting too) but when I do, sometimes it opens my eyes in a new way. Although I have added and reworded some things, the list doesn't seem to change much over time--although the way I express the criteria does, as my work evolves. (That's one of the things on the list actually--that I see growth or new insight in the work.)

I'd say the more conceptual criteria on my list are the most important--for example that the work has authenticity, authority, presence. And really, those are gut-level judgments--going back to your comments. Hard to define, I just feel whether they are present. Some of the more specific items on the list, for example that there is contrast or a complex surface, have more to do with the deconstructing and analyzing you refer to. So probably we have close to the same process in this. It is a combination of intuitive, gut level response and more thoughtful analysis when something seems to call for that.

So this leads me to wonder, how does this process play out when it's not self-critique, but instead looking at the work of other artists, or when they look at ours? how does that conversation get going? I presume this is where visual language becomes very important.

J. I think there are certain choices we make in our work that are particular to each of us. I'm interested in teaching how to take apart a painting, just as we learned to take apart a paragraph to understand it when we were in grade school, so that we can see what is going on in the work. What makes a painting work? How do we describe it? By learning a visual language that is easy to understand, we can better understand what we are personally interested in. One big question we all ask, is who am I? What do I like? How does my work differ from yours? That sort of thing. They are difficult questions, but by learning to understand what it is that we are personally interested in, by learning to take apart our paintings (and others'), by talking about our work, putting words on it, we can help each other with those questions. Learning how to understand your own work is crucial to moving forward as an artist. I think my background in Psychology has given me a more personal orientation toward critique, where I see it as learning about ourselves, our choices and preferences, as well as about our painting. They can't really be separated can they?
Monday, January 07, 2013
  year ends, year begins

This past week I sent out my 2013 newsletter/workshop calendar to my mailing list (if you missed it, click here.) After I put all the information together for the newsletter, I realized that the number of days I will be away from home, plus the ones I can expect to be getting ready to travel or recovering from travel (a day or two on each end) are about equal to my time at home. This is both exciting and a bit unsettling in its excess. But I'm not worried much that my studio time will suffer--nine weeks of that time I will be settled into one of two artist residencies, AIR Serenbe in Georgia in March and Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo Ireland in October/November, and I always find residency time to be focused and productive.

Right now is a time between the end of travel and workshops of the old year and preparation for those of the new year. And while I like to set aside the winter months for uninterrupted studio work, this ideal is not necessarily the reality. Launching my new website for cold wax painting and planning for 2013 workshops has required endless computer time over the past month or so, and holidays and family issues have also spread me thin. Still, I've made it to the studio most days, if only for a few hours. The painting above is a recent 30"x30" (untitled) work in mixed media and oil on panel. I have started some work, including the painting above, intended for my upcoming show at the Pratt Museum in Homer Alaska that opens August 2. Titled Beneath the Surface it is an aesthetic response to the mystery and beauty of objects from the past, unearthed during archaeological digs around the Kenai Peninsula. Objects from the museum collection will be displayed alongside my paintings, and my nephew, musician and composer David Crowell has written music to complement the exhibit that will be played in the gallery. My paintings for the exhibit so far are inspired in part by the geography of the area and in part by by the sketches and maps that archaeologists including my brother, Dr, Aron Crowell, have made during excavations in the area. (There are faint contour lines taken from these maps in the piece above.)

This exhibit, my first museum show, has been in the works for some time, and writing its proposal was one of my projects and accomplishments of 2012. The curator at the museum was very helpful and enthusiastic, but I had to overcome my aversion to filling out paperwork and figuring out a budget in order to write the proposal. This ordeal has now evolved into excitement over the exhibit and generating ideas for the work. (While I am in Alaska, I will also teach two workshops--click here for details.)

I look back at 2012 in search of something succinct to say that defines it, sums it up--but a neat description eludes me. Some years provide the satisfaction of a particular goal reached, or a consistent theme that runs throughout, but not this one. It was a scattered year in which many different projects and endeavors pulled at my energy and attention--painting, teaching around the country, website work, an exhibit in April, dealing with galleries, being a business person, planning for my three weeks in Ireland (being there was of course, a highlight of the year!). In this moment at the dawn of 2013, as I'm about to plunge in for another round, this strikes me as a very complex and exhausting way to make a living. Yet like many other artists, I feel incredibly blessed by my career, and would have it no other way. Wishing all my art friends and readers a wonderful and creative 2013!


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       Rebecca Crowell