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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.

Sunday, February 27, 2011
  new work

No matter how many times I struggle through frustrating, slow times in the studio followed by productive, exciting times (and no matter how many times I write about that cycle on this blog) I am always grateful for the breakthrough, and rather amazed at its appearance. Although from experience I know it that it will always happen, in its own way, on its own schedule, it is always a relief. (A bit like spring here in the frozen north, I guess!)

From December through early February, I struggled with five (later consolidated to four) 30"x30" pieces, painting and repainting them, advancing a bit on some days and on others starting over (pleased at least to have an interesting base of color and texture from all the going-over and wiping out!) My goal was to have two paintings of this size to send to my agent in Ireland (I wanted to offer him choices.) I also intended to put my best foot forward and to have the work sent off in a timely way.

During those months, I worked with determination, but not a lot of joy. Of course there were some good days, but overall this time (which will be familiar to my artist readers) had a nose-to-the-grindstone quality that is not my favorite working mood. Still, I was dedicated to finishing the work and I stuck it out, with results in the end that were very pleasing to me. I have since sent two of these paintings to Ireland and a third, shown below, is promised to my new gallery in Toronto...Blue Cliff. (Blue Cliff appears in my January 16th blog post photo, third from the left...and I thought when I wrote that post that it was nearly done!)

Once the paintings were finished and dealt with, near the end of February, that particular logjam broke, and the time since has been very productive, with several new directions emerging. This is typical of the pattern I've observed over time: the aftermath of a blocked or slow time is usually super-charged with good work and ideas, a reward for sticking it out through the difficult times. The mental picture of backed-up water finally breaking through some obstruction of its flow seems apt.

What led to this this particular obstruction was a bit of a mystery to me...the project of completing these four paintings was not much different from preparing for a show or completing a commission, which I have done many times without undue stress. But I realize in retrospect that I put limitations on myself that actually worked against me. Instead of including the four as part of the body of work in progress, I shut down everything else to focus on them exclusively, reasoning that this was the most efficient way to get them finished. But, my normal process, which has developed over the years to suit my particular personality and artistic character, is to move freely between numerous paintings, and to keep the arrangement of panels and resulting sizes in flux. So, I learned something: when I need "X" number of paintings in "X" size, actually the most efficient approach for me is to integrate those panels into all the rest of my ongoing work, giving them their share of attention but not my exclusive focus.

I have to smile at this realization--I like to think I am aware of my process and what works for me, yet obviously I can still give in to a "logical" part of my brain that thinks it knows best! Once again I humbly bow to that wise phrase that stands the test every time... "Trust the Process." In this case, recognizing and respecting my intuition about how to approach this project would have saved me some grief.

Of course there were probably other, more elusive reasons behind the bit of creative block I was feeling...new directions incubating, experiences being integrated. Accepting a slow-down gracefully when such mental shifts are underway is also part of trusting the process.

One result of my new-found energy in the studio is a series of as yet untitled 12"x12" paintings (one is shown at the beginning of this post) in which gestural solvent lines are prominent.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
  form and content

"Art, Sternfeld believes, is at its best when there is a unity of form and content--'When you have unity, I think, it squares the reach and power of the work'..."
(From a Smithsonian Magazine article about the photographer Joel Sternfield's photos of consumers in Dubai shopping malls, taken with the iconic consumer good, an iPhone.)

The need for form and content to be equally strong and to work together is a concept I took note of as an undergrad, though I had only a superficial knowledge of it at the time. Simple on the surface, the idea becomes complex and subtle with deeper understanding. It encompasses everything about what an artist has to say and how it is said...an ever-changing consideration, a guide, a challenge, a way to evaluate your own work and other's.

Form--the materials and techniques used, and how the elements of art and design principles are employed--is pretty straightforward. When students are asked to address Form and Content in evaluating a work of art, they seem relieved that Form can be neatly described. Content, which is idea-based, is harder to pin down--the artist's intentions for the work, the choice of subject matter, if any...the ideas and motivation and influences behind the work, how the work comes across, the viewer's response. These answers lead to more challenging questions: does the Form the artist has used support the Content, or is it moving more clearly in another direction? Does the Content lead logically to the Form, or would the artist's intentions be better expressed in a different way? Are Form and Content each strong, and working together?

Lest anyone's eyes glaze over with this academic approach, let me say that working with F and C (my abbreviation for the rest of this post!) is often a highly intuitive process...an idea or direction arising from materials used, or exploration of a new technique. In other words, C does not necessarily lead the way. In a lot of process-driven work, done in a loose and experimental mood, C develops in tandem with F. If an artist begins with F (materials and techniques) the challenge is to develop intention and a unique vision along with mastery of the medium.

An initial F-C convergence tends to be energizing, exciting and promising. But where to take it, how to sustain it, how to develop it and give it the depth of personal meaning? Again, progress may be more intuitive than thought out, but I do credit some conscious attention to F and C with deeper understanding and development in my own work.

These are useful concepts when looking at other people's work too. So often, a strong work stands as a good example of unity of F and C, while weakness comes down to a poor pairing of the two. For example, if you wanted to express the power and energy of a rushing river, would you meticulously render the image from a photo? The result would probably come across as still and frozen in time, rather than energetic. On the other hand, that approach would make perfect sense if you were more interested in the abstract pattern of reflections on the water, captured in a split second. Or if your intention was to play with the viewer's expectations in regards to alignment of F and C (a huge post-modern trend.) In each case, how does the F make the C understood to the viewer? And what has been revealed to the artist during the painting process if F has led the way? These questions open up a rich source of critical thinking in regards to any work of art.

In my work, the medium and techniques I use lend themselves to rich, textured and nuanced surfaces, and these are in fact where I find inspiration in nature, and in the worn and weathered human environment. I like the way that the paintings are built up in layers and then eroded mimics the same processes in nature. So, overall I am pleased with the interaction of F and C in my work, while attempting to be alert for shifts in either that are less than successful.

The painting above, Markings, is one of several large panels I've been working on lately. (It is 54"x36'.)
Sunday, February 13, 2011
  2011 workshop updates

In the past few months I've been publicizing my 2011 Oil and Wax Workshops, updating the information on my website, sending online newsletters and posting on Facebook and the Oil and Wax website. The artists who are helping me to organize classes in several locations have also been wonderful at getting the word out. The response has been great--some classes are now full and others nearly so. It seems a good time to update those of you who may be interested as to where there are still openings, and also to fill you in on new offerings this year, and a little background about the various classes and locations.

First, an update on my Studio Workshops, which are held at my home in Osseo, Wisconsin: I have two on the calendar this spring, and both are filled. But if you were hoping to come to one of these studio classes this year, please note that I may add another session later in the year. Also, I'm planning to clear out more room in my studio work area, and when this is accomplished I'll have room for up to 6 students instead of the current 4. If you would like to be on a waiting list (in the event that I get this done in time for the May class) please let me know. This will be a busy spring and re-organizing will be a major project, but I will try to accommodate you.

April Workshops in the Carolinas: I am teaching a Level Two class in Asheville, NC at River's Edge Studio, April 8-10. The Level Two class is a new class this year, and limited to those who have already had my regular, introductory class in the past, or one taught by Cindy Taylor Walton or by Janice Mason Steeves. Both of these excellent artists have taken my class in the past, worked intensively with cold wax and now teach their own workshops in cold wax medium. Taking the knowledge of techniques, tools and materials to a more advanced level should make for an exciting and rewarding three days. I'm also looking forward to my first visit to Asheville, a city widely recognized for its vibrant art scene.

The other workshop in the Carolinas (a regular intro class, open to all) will be held April 15-17 in Beaufort, SC. There are two spots still open for this class, which I scheduled at the urging of my former junior high art teacher, a wonderful woman who influenced my career choice and who moved to Beaufort after retirement. She'll be taking the workshop...isn't that a sweet circle? Beaufort is a nice coastal town... and after the winter we've had in Wisconsin, I'm really looking forward to seeing spring in both of these Carolina locations.

June in the Quad Cities: I'll be teaching at Bucktown Center for the Arts in Davenport, Iowa, June 2-4. Enrollment is still open, with seven spots vacant at last count. What better way to kick start a summer of painting? The Quad Cities are an excellent central location for anyone desiring an Oil and Wax Workshop in the Midwest, and Davenport itself is an interesting historic city on the Mississippi River.

July in Telluride, Colorado: This workshop, which will be held at the Ah Haa School for the Arts from July 25-28, is an opportunity to experience a longer workshop than I usually teach--four days instead of three. I am excited by the possibilities of more in-depth exploration of the media. Telluride is also one of the most spectacularly beautiful places I have seen in the US, a small, very friendly town surrounded by impressive mountain vistas. If you come, it would be smart to schedule and extra day or two just to hike and enjoy the surroundings. One more reason to choose this workshop: I am represented by Telluride Gallery of Fine Art and chances are good that there will be examples of my work on view there, which will give me a way to talk about the process with finished work on hand.

Late Summer/Fall: the Level Two class scheduled for Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, Wisconsin in August has filled, but a second session has been added for the same location in October (10/21-23.) There are plenty of openings in that class, and again if you have studied with either Janice Mason Steeves, Cindy Taylor Walton or myself, you are welcome to attend.

Registration information for all introductory level classes may be found on my website workshop page. For Level Two Workshops or with any questions at all, please email me at crowellart@yahoo.com. Thanks, and I hope that if you are looking for an Oil and Wax Workshop in 2011, one of these classes will fit your calendar and travel plans.
Sunday, February 06, 2011
  so much stuff

The photo above is a snapshot of a small area of my work space--a portion of what extends over several tables in the part of my studio where I paint. The variety and quantity of supplies I use is always growing, and this has been the case since I moved away from traditional brush painting about seven or eight years ago and started using cold wax medium with my paints. The piles of tools and supplies are an outgrowth of exploring the possibilities and wonderful versatility of cold wax medium. (That my supplies are normally in a state of chaos is an outgrowth of something else, I guess! I do try and organize things now and then, but the order always disintegrates once I start working.)

Besides the cold wax medium and innumerable tubes and jars of oil paint, my supplies include boards and multi-media paper on which to paint, powdered pigments, charcoal and graphite, brayers and palette knives of all sizes, various objects used as squeegees and scrapers, brushes (mostly old and splayed, for more interesting lines), many pointed implements for scratching and gouging the paint surface, high quality odorless solvent (I use Gamsol), a variety of papers (used to impress texture onto the surface, transfer line drawings, and lift off layers of paint), sand, dish scrubbers, whisk brooms, steel wool and cotton rags. There's also a lot of miscellaneous stuff for creating interesting textures--including bits of packing material, corks, yarn, blocks of foam, and stamps I've carved in wood, rubber and sheets of foam.

This list will be at least partially familiar to others exploring cold wax medium, with variations according to personal favorites and, I'm sure, additions I haven't thought of myself. Using cold wax medium with oils allows for a smorgasbord of techniques adapted from printmaking (especially monotype), collage, drawing and traditional oil painting, each requiring some additional supplies and tools. Fortunately many of these supplies are everyday objects, not pricey or specialized.

Although it may sound reasonable for beginners with cold wax to set about acquiring this mountain of stuff, I don't recommend it. It's good to know the possibilities, but having the all the needed supplies on hand may actually be counter-productive and result in being overly focused on technique alone. My own cache of supplies has grown slowly. I think a good approach is to work through a limited number of techniques in some depth before moving on, keeping the focus off technique for its own sake and on one's personal vision, and what is being said in the work.

On the other hand, a few new art toys can be very energizing--I'm definitely not opposed to having fun shopping in the hardware or kitchen supply store, where many of the best tools are found. (The current trend in silicone kitchen gadgets like dough scrapers and rolling pins is a boon for cold wax painters, as some are perfect for spreading, rolling or impressing textures into paint.) Or browsing the art supply store or catalog for some new products to try out, a few here and there that fit the budget.

As with so many things in life, there's a balance to strike--and finding the right tool or supply at the right time can lead to a whole new vision for one's work. After all, that was cold wax for me, a number of years ago--just an interesting new (to me) art supply with which to experiment.


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       Rebecca Crowell