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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.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A few years ago a man came up to me at an opening of a solo show of my work and said without preamble, "well, someone has certainly been influenced by someone else!" I looked at him blankly, no clue what he was talking about. He went on to say that my work was so obviously derivative of--well of course, I knew, why didn't I just admit it?

Really I was speechless. Not only did I not know what he was talking about, but usually people are so polite at openings! He persisted in an aggressive manner with this stuff (while I looked anxiously around hoping someone would rescue me from this boor--I am not good at dealing with rudeness.) Finally he gave up--realizing that either I honestly did not know what he was talking about, or that I wasn't going to come clean--and said with a sneer, "Rothko, of course." (With just a touch less self-control, he'd probably have added, "you idiot.")

Rothko? OK, yes, he is in the mix, along with about two hundred other artists and photographers and even a sculptor or two. Some are known to the art world, some not at all. Like a lot of artists I soak up visual ideas like a sponge, but when it's all wrung out in a painting, I have to believe the result is unique. I am constantly pushing to find that core of expression that is most true and meaningful inside.

Looking at the work of others, I sometimes find clues and signposts that point the way on my own journey. I also see roads I don't want to go down, and this is especially enlightening with the work of someone who at the same time offers much that is positive. For me, Rothko's work is in that category. As much as I admire his minimalist color fields, I find when viewing the work in person it looks a bit too thin and flat. A criticism then can become a positive direction--for me, towards color fields with intricate texture. The texture, the linear scratches, the subtle color shifts, the geometric contrasts--all these aspects of my work have come from other realms of thought, other paths explored.

So, after a little back and forth in my own head, I didn't take this mannerless man too seriously, and he's just become an anecdote about weird things that happen at openings. I also know that some people have a need to pigeonhole everybody's art into categories that they themselves recognize, such as "follower of Rothko." It is disturbing when other people want to put you in a box like that, but a good idea not to take it personally.

Underlying his criticism, though, is the idea that derivative work lacks authenticity, and I think this is true. (I would call something derivative if the artist has clearly "copied" the work of another artist, rather than using it as one ingredient in a unique soup of ideas, reactions and connections.)

In searching for unique expression, plenty of artists (dare I say most?) have veered closely at times to another person's work--and then back again onto a more personal track, taking along a few key ideas. It can also work the other way, with hints of one's own ideas suddenly popping up in the work of someone else--and it's not clear whether to feel pleased or uneasy and territorial. ("Pleased" works pretty well, I think.) For everyone, Rothko included (!) working through and integrating myriad influences is vital to the creative process, and the end result is work with complexity and personal meaning.

The painting above, Casa (36"x36" oil and wax on panel) is part of my current exhibit at Circa Gallery in Minneapolis, which will be on view through March 13.
Monday, February 22, 2010
  hot wax/cold wax part 2

"Painting with wax" and "encaustic" are synonymous to many people, but in fact the term encaustic applies specifically to pigment combined with melted beeswax (damar resin or other additives may also be part of the wax mixture.) While encaustic (hot wax) painting has become quite popular and well recognized of late, the process of using wax at room temperature (or cold wax) remains rather obscure. (I'm trying to do my part to explain and educate...) Cold wax medium--what I use in my work--is a pasty substance made of beeswax, resins, oils and mineral spirits, that is mixed with oil paint and applied directly to a support, without any fusing or heat applied. (For health and safety reasons, heating cold wax is not advised.)

I've become interested in learning more about hot wax though, and this past Saturday I had the opportunity to spend a day in the Minneapolis studio of Jeff Hirst exploring the encaustic process. The small painting above is my favorite one from the day. It was a really fun and fascinating day, and I came away with much more appreciation for what is involved in this process.

Before I dive into what I see as the distinctions between hot and cold wax, please note that I have spent all of about five hours painting with hot wax--so I'm not exactly a voice of experience. That said, a few observations about the special qualities of each:

The encaustic process seems to me unique in its physicality and tactile qualities. The wax, which is built up in layers, attains a depth that is not just visual--there is a thickness to the cooled layers that can readily be carved and scratched, even molded. When looking at an encaustic painting, it is often possible to distinguish the various layers because of the transparency of the wax and its thickness separating one layer from another.

It also seems that the physical properties of the wax encourage a rather bold and graphic quality in the artist's expression, although that isn't always the case--there is as much range in the styles of encaustic painters as with any other medium. Still as a beginner I found it easiest to make bold marks, drips and swaths of color, and I notice these too in the work of many accomplished encaustic artists.

Controlling heat is a big part of the encaustic process--from the way the way the torch is applied to the surface of the painting when fusing layers of wax, to monitoring the temperature of the molten wax and pigment, to melting wax and varnish to make the wax medium. I'm sure all of this becomes second nature with experience (I had to keep reminding myself to go through the fusing routine after each layer I put down.) In terms of visual expression, I can see that with practice, there would be many subtle ways to alter the outcome of the fusing process by how the heat was applied.

A few words then about using cold wax, and how the two processes can be contrasted. The most obvious perhaps is in the set-up needed--the studio requirements for cold wax paintings are the same as for other types of oil painting-no special equipment needed, just some basic ventilation. On the other hand, while I was expecting the encaustic process to require a complicated set-up, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that you can do a lot with a few old electric frying pans and a small torch. However--proper ventilation is very important for encaustics, and research to know what was needed for a particular space is important.

Another big difference is the "feel" of the paint and the process. Because cold wax medium is added to tube paint--giving it a smooth, spreadable consistency--it feels pretty much like traditional painting. With the encaustic process, the colors harden as soon as the wax cools a bit--there is not much time at all to move the color around. but oils mixed with cold wax stay fluid long enough to allow for subtle manipulation of color and shading while wet. (The cold wax does speed up overall drying time though, as compared to other oil mediums.)

While both hot wax an cold wax painters tend to build up their work in layers, the layers of a cold wax painting tend to be much thinner. At the same time, the ratio of cold wax medium to paint can be quite high without diluting the color, so rich color fields can be achieved. Because the wax layers are thin and closer together, one has less sense of actual depth, although illusionistic depth is definitely possible.

Also because the surface of a cold wax painting is not very deep, it is harder to achieve bold or dramatic carving and etching of lines--however, more delicate scratchings and linear work are easy. (Since I'm used to cold wax, I found the relatively thick surface of the encaustic painting to be resistant to fine lines--I kept carving up more than I wanted to. But again, experience would make a difference, I'm sure.) Cold wax also lends itself to reductive processes such as making lines and shapes by dissolving through top layers with solvent. I asked Jeff if there was an equivalent process in encaustic, and he mentioned something to do with wax medium, making a shape that would come through during the fusing process (if I have that right.)

In the end hot wax and cold wax seem to have more in common than in differences...these are both highly "forgiving" approaches in which changes can be made very quickly and intuitively. In both cases the wax leads to translucent layers, rich textures, and subtle, sometimes brilliant colors. In each, the possibilities for experimentation seem wide open and the potential for addiction quite strong! It's also worth noting that there are ways to combine the two approaches...in Jeff's workshop, I played around with adding encaustic layers over a thoroughly dry cold wax base, and also with cold wax over an encaustic base--both produced interesting results.
Friday, February 19, 2010
  studio view

This is a shot of paintings in progress in my studio this week...my colors are brightening and lightening. I've been drawn towards light greens and blues and light reds, sometimes even pink. No doubt I'm responding to the dragging on of winter, though my color choices are not so conscious.

Instead I would say that color is one of my most intuitive choices in the studio--the other is my use of lines, scratches and other gestural marks. Odd to realize that lately I've been pushing both of these elements into new directions with a degree of intent and awareness that seems new. I want more varied color, and more flat-out wild and uninhibited scratching and drawing on the surfaces of my work, and it seems that simply by wanting these things they are starting to happen.

Composition and format, on the other hand, tend to be for me the result of conscious questions about what will provide balance, and where visual weight or emphasis is needed. Even though my compositions evolve with the painting (they are not pre-planned) in their final state they are more like puzzles solved than spontaneous magic. Yet, in the same way I've been pushing color and mark-making in a more conscious direction, I have been looking for more spontaneity in my compositions. Lately I've been dividing the picture plane in some looser and fuzzier ways, making visual breaks where they seem to fit, rather than always using separate panels to provide a contrasting grid.

I love the way that the creative process has an integrity and purpose that provide a true course, even as things become complex and even contradictory. Trusting in this process allows the dance between intuition/spontaneity and critical thinking to go on...becoming always more intricate and intriguing.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
  hot wax/cold wax

This past fall, I met painter and workshop instructor Jeff Hirst, first through Facebook, and then in person at his studio in Minneapolis. I enjoyed seeing his richly patterned and expressive encaustic paintings, using techniques involving molten, pigmented wax. It was also interesting to see the set-up needed in the studio for this process. I've visited several other encaustic studios in the past few years, including those of Kathleen Waterloo (in Chicago) and Ally Richter (in the Bay Area) and in each case, their beautiful pigmented waxes and well-used, heated palettes were intriguing. I find my interest in the encaustic process growing through exposure to these artists and more, and the work they produce with its seductive surfaces and rich layering of color.

The workshops that I teach are about how to use cold wax medium, where no heating of the wax takes place. But I've always had quite a few participants whose primary methods involve hot wax. Artists who are drawn to working with wax tend to be interested in both encaustic and cold wax techniques (as one put it, "wax is wax.") Some are interested in combining the two approaches, others in learning a new way to use wax; others lack proper ventilation in their studios for dealing with the fumes of hot wax.

I haven't had much experience with encaustic painting, myself. Back in grad school, I fused a wax-medium painting or two-and managed to set one of them on fire. A few years later, I took an encaustic monoprint workshop, but the process didn't seem to fit with my work at the time, and I did not pursue it. And last spring, encaustic painter Kathryn Bevier kindly let me play around with her materials when I was in Rochester, NY to teach a workshop (I produced some lovely mud.)

The time has come for me to learn more about this sister process to cold wax. The day that I visited with Jeff Hirst, we decided to exchange workshops...and yesterday he came to mine (that's him in the photo in my studio, above.) This coming Saturday I'll attend his in Minneapolis. I'm interested in how the processes are alike and how they are different, how they may be combined (and also, if given a day of instruction I will be able to do anything other than make a mess....stay tuned!)

Hot wax has also been on my mind because encaustic painter Shawna Moore and I are beginning to organize a combined workshop in Santa Fe in October--a one day introduction to each process.

(By the way, besides Jeff, three other artists came yesterday to my workshop here--including Ginny Hertzog, who experimented with a very interesting collage approach that is related to her work with the same imagery in water media.)
Monday, February 08, 2010
  news and updates
Although all the art biz experts recommend sending out periodic newsletters, I've never managed to get that going, on top of everything else (frankly for me it seems like overkill--with this blog, two Facebook pages, website, and emails. I can hear the cries of "enough already!!") However, at this particular moment there seem to be enough loose ends and news updates to warrant a post that is in essence a newsletter.

First, my opening at Circa Gallery this past Saturday, Feb. 5th, was a wonderful night, and I was very pleased with the installation and pairing with porcelain artist Maren Kloppmann. The gallery is a spare, elegant space that invites contemplation of the similarities and contrasts of our work as seen together, and the way each enhances the other.

My 2010 schedule for Oil and Wax Workshops has filled, including an invitation to teach a private class in a villa on the Canary Islands (!) in November. More about that another time...for now here is an update of recent developments, plans and information:

I have been rethinking the workshops that I offer in my own studio--and have decided to shift from one-day introductory classes to 2 and 3 day classes like I teach elsewhere. My original idea for the one-day workshops was that they would attract local artists--but as it has turned out, most of my recent participants have been traveling some distance to come. Given this situation, longer workshops seem more worthwhile for everyone. I am tentatively planning the first of these for July 10-11. This is a chance for anyone interested in my workshops to work in a small group--my studio only has room for four participants. I also have more resources to offer in my own space, books and tools that I don't transport when I travel to teach.

I may also start to offer follow up classes in my studio for people who have already had the first 2 or 3 day session. I'm still brainstorming this idea but I'd love to get feedback or hear from anyone who might be interested.

My other workshops scheduled for 2010, with notes about enrollment, are as follows:

March 6-7 at Whispering Woodlands in Verona, Wisconsin. This class has a few spaces left but is filling quickly and is definitely a "go."

April 16-18
, in Longmont Colorado at KC Willis Studio Retreats. There are still a number of open spots in this workshop, so anyone in the western part of the country who has wanted to take a workshop, please check this one out. This is a 3-day class, so we will be able to go into depth with plenty of work time.

I have two classes scheduled in the Carolinas: June 18-20 at the West Main Artist Co-op in Spartanburg, SC, and June 26-27 at Conn-Artist Studios in Hendersonville, NC. These back to back 3 and 2-day studios offer options for length and location. Registration details are in the works and information will be added to my website when it is in place. Please email me at crowellart@yahoo.com if you would like to be informed of details when they are available.

In August, I will teach at Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, WI (Aug. 20-22.) Shake Rag Alley is a charming, historic cluster of 19th c. mining cabins, now a cultural center offering a variety of classes and workshops. Specific information about my workshop is not yet posted on their website, but inquiries or requests to be on the mailing list may be made by emailing info@shakeragalley.com.

My last confirmed workshop for 2010 will be at Peninsula School of Art in beautiful Door County, Wisconsin, October 18-20. The workshop description and registration information is available on the school's website. I taught at PAS last October and it was wonderful--a fantastic facility that attracts students from a wide area of the midwest and beyond.

In the planning stages (and quite tentative at this point) is a 2-day workshop in Santa Fe in early October in collaboration with encaustic artist Shawna Moore. She and I will be exhibiting together at Darnell Fine Art on Canyon Road, and are hoping to put together a Hot Wax/Cold Wax workshop. Any suggestions for a venue, or other ideas and input would be appreciated.

Thanks to everyone who has emailed and expressed interest in my classes--the level of excitement for learning to use cold wax with oils is wonderful. If you are interested in learning a bit about the cold wax techniques I use, and interacting with others who are using it, please consider joining the online community I started for this purpose. Updates about workshops are posted there as well as on my website.
Wednesday, February 03, 2010
  transition week

The studio was totally cleared out last week, after shipping and delivering my work to my two current shows. "Cleared out" does not mean "cleaned up" though--the first time I walked in after getting all the work on its way I was amazed at the chaos I'd left behind--tools, wires cardboard and wrapping supplies everywhere.

I put things back in order, which was satisfying, and then got ready to paint. I had some new ideas, and new paints and panels--everything I needed, all set. Yet something was not right. My inspiration fizzled away, and I felt nothing but dull, bored, and blocked. I persisted anyway in putting down some paint, then worked and re-worked and overworked, then wiped it all out and left the studio. And that is the pretty much the story of the past week, with some variations.

Happily, though, a few things have started to emerge yesterday and today that are less dismal, and show some promise and fresh direction. And I also realized that the problem was not just the common experience of feeling let-down after launching a body of work, the casting about for a new start.

The problem was that my studio was just suddenly too quiet. I missed the art party that had been going on there for weeks, when I'd had thirty paintings crammed into the space--all of them either finished or nearly done, and all of them talking to each other--speculating on outcomes, asking questions, making connections. Their energy carried me through the day, and kept me moving, looking and thinking.

It's so abrupt, quite disorienting, to have them all gone. No wonder I've felt a lack of steam. Today, though, I noticed a positive shift when I came in the studio door--several paintings leaning on the wall had come far enough along to start giving off a few sparks. Now is the time for energy to start building again, slowly, day by day.

(The painting above, Hidden, 42"x48," oil and wax on panel, is part of my current show at Circa Gallery. The opening reception is this Saturday from 6-9 pm.)


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       Rebecca Crowell