Monday, January 30, 2012

The Importance of Anatomy

I want to talk about anatomy today and why it’s necessary to study it a bit if you ever hope to paint recognizable people on a regular basis. In the past, anatomy was taught at all the great art schools. It was only with the advent  of newer and more modern painting methods that techniques that had developed over centuries and had been passed down from artist to artist via apprenticeships disappeared. 

As an artist who has always been intrigued by the human form, I have studied anatomy, both on my own and by auditing life drawing courses at local universities. Life drawing, both short pose and long pose, is THE best way to develop skill in rendering the human form. You can copy all the Victoria’s Secret catalog models you want but you still won’t really “get” how the human form turns and moves in space if you don’t invest some time in the study of anatomy and how it relates to ‘real people’.
What is the best way to do this? Find a life drawing or painting group in your area and attend as often as you can. You say there aren’t any? Star one yourself.  I paint with a portrait group in Toledo on Saturday mornings whenever I can make it. The group meets in an old school cafeteria and it costs just $5 for a two hour session. We pay the model $30 for the session and we have the same model for four weeks. That’s a bit too long for most of us, who would prefer to have the same model for two weeks because we’re usually done by then. But everyone works at a different rate so I suppose we have to be flexible. My painting speed has increased greatly since I started painting with this group five years ago. I live about 45 minutes away so I can’t attend every week, which means I ALWAYS try to get my painting done in one session and I am usually close enough to finish it at home using a photographic reference.

A little painting I did of the group a couple years ago.

Teri Bersee runs a small rural art school 30 miles from my home. It’s called Bountiful Arts. Teri sponsors a life drawing session once a month and I attended this group last week because she promised we would  have a female nude model for three 2 hour sessions over a period of three months. I hadn’t been to any unclothed model sessions in awhile so I made a point of showing up to this one. I brought along my easel and paints because I knew I could finish an 11” x 14” piece in two hours. Our model was great and I was happy with my little painting.

I think painting or drawing from the nude is always time well spent. Nowhere else can an artist learn so much about human anatomy than from close observation of the muscles, forms, light and shadow of the nude subject. You might be thinking to yourself, "Fine, she's lucky, she lives in an artsy community and she has all these opportunities to work from life." Nah, that's just an excuse. A determined will does find the way. You make your own opportunities. Network and get to know the artists in your area. I live in a city with less than 8,000 people and I have to drive 30 minutes to shop at a mall. It may not be convenient, but if you're serious about improving the quality of your art you will find a group that encourages you and you WILL achieve your goals quicker.

Here's my painting from last week: 11" x 14", oil on linen

Friday, January 27, 2012

Music and Art: A Great Relationship

I like to listen to music when I paint and I think the tone of the music I’m listening to has an effect n the painting I’m working on. When I attend a group painting session I try to listen to fast, upbeat music. I particularly favor Third Day, Pink Floyd and Journey. The pace of the music seems to speed up my own painting and I am almost always able to complete the piece in two hours or so. Because the model only poses for a couple hours this works out great for me.

If I’m involved in a more complicated piece that requires thinking and planning I tend to listen to music that is calming and less likely to reach a fever pitch: usually classical piano concertos. The music stays in the background and my thoughts stay focused on what I’m painting. 

When I’m working on still life I can listen to pretty much anything because this is the easiest type of painting. The subject is in front of you, the composition has been worked out by the arrangement of objects and I have the freedom to just paint and interpret on the fly. It’s one of the more enjoyable things to paint for me and I love to listen to singers like Adele and Carrie Underwood when I do these pieces.  The rising crescendos and surprising turns in these ladies’ voices really help me think of ways to make my painting more interesting. Music is similar to painting in many ways. If the song is a lullaby with no tonal differences and a very calming melody it puts us to sleep. If a painting has all soft edges and little value changes it presents us with a calming vision. That’s not all bad and some paintings are intentionally done in this manner.
But I don’t paint that way. I like to have variety in strokes, in color, and in flow. I find excitement in texture and randomness. I enjoy the way a turquoise note plays against a backdrop of orange. Even the words we use for painting can be interchanged with those used in music. Notes and harmony are just two examples I can think of at the moment but I’m sure there are more.

Working with photos is a challenge but also fun if you approach it the right way. I think you need to work from life for at least five years before you can trust and interpret accurately what you see in photos but after that you probably have learned enough to enjoy it. Photographs can’t accurately create what we see with the eye because they sacrifice the values in the darkness in order to include those in the light—or vice versa. The human eye can see many more gradations, although that doesn’t mean we WANT to. Sometimes the simplest painting has two or three values and it is a winner.

I always prefer painting form life but this isn’t always possible so I tend to fall back on my supply of photographs.   I never try to create a physical copy of a photo when I paint. There would not be much point to it…we already have the photograph! Instead I use the photo as starting point and think about what kind of painting I can make. Sometimes this process requires years. I had the photograph I used for this painting stored in my computer files for over a year, in my “REFERENCES” folder. I took the photo in 2010 when I met a beautiful 50ish belly dancer who was willing to pose for a photo shoot. I met her though a mutual friend when we stayed at her home because we had a paint out to attend in the area. She turned out to be a very neat lady who is a physician by day and an accomplished belly dancer in the evenings. Who would have thought?

For this painting I decided to do a few studies. This is an 11” x 14” oil painting that I did to work out the colors for a larger piece. She tried on two costumes for us so I may do another small study to see if that costume works better. Or I may include two dancers! I don’t know—this is the process I go through as I create something. I like to leave my options open.

Now I will critique my painting-- just one more thing a solitary artist working in her own studio needs to become proficient at. The painting has areas of rest and unrest. It has notes of bright color and notes of quiet. There is texture and there is smoothness. The study is a finished painting in its own right but it will (hopefully lead to a larger, even more interesting piece.) There are many things I like about it-- the "S" curve of the dancer's pose, which I intentionally emphasized, the vibrant colors and especially the teal (my favorite color). The palette knife squigglies. :)  Other areas need more work if they are to translate well into a larger piece, but overall the painting does a nice job of creating a mysterious mood for the dancer and we wonder how that tiny little woman can possibly hold that big sword so easily. (She actually did!)

Sword Play
11 x 14" oil on linen

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Palette Knife Paintings, Impressionism and Broken Color

I like to use my palette knives when I paint. They really load the paint on and encourage you to be bold! Sometimes if I have an interesting photo I will hone my palette knife skills by trying to do the entire painting with a knife. I don't usually try it with paintings of people but I did today. Using the palette knife causes you to use a lot more paint than you normally would but you also end up with cleaner, purer color and many times, a more interesting painting because the textures and the colors mix optically. It can be a joy to view! Think of Monet and the lily pads he loved to paint. They were not just green, they were fantastic mixtures of yellow and violet and orange and somehow we see them as brilliant and fascinating shades of green.

Art should engage and sometimes you need to step out of your comfort zone for that to happen. We know that is true of life, so why not art? If you ate the same food every day you would eventually tire of it and grow to hate it, even if that food was chocolate. :)  If you go to church every Sunday and the preacher preaches the exact same text and message without varying one sentence you would quickly find another church. The creamy sauce of a perfectly seasoned Chicken Alfredo is delicious, but so is the crisp sweetness of a ripe grape. Different is GOOD and variety is good too, whether it comes in the scriptures we read, the food we eat or the art we make. Creating textures and colors where you might not expect to find them can definitely add interest and excitement to your art, while opening your own eyes to new ways of creating. I enjoyed the entire process of creating this piece so it's likely I will do another, and possibly even a series.

Many thanks to an artist friend, Tim Taylor, for allowing me to use his photo of Maria.

Maria 11" x 14" oil on canvas

 And a few details

Monday, January 23, 2012

Cleaned Up and Previewed in a Frame

Today I spent an hour or so cleaning up the painting of the wine and vegetables. Sometimes things are not apparent until you view them on a screen or from further away. I have renamed the painting Don Bosco with Vegetables because the focal point is really the wine bottle and the glass. The vegetables  are incidental. I darkened the bottle, made the highlight a bit brighter, ran some cooler color over the background to push it even further into the background. Then I corrected a few shapes that were off: the roma tomato on the left, and then the pepper shapes needed more definition. Finally I tried a frame out in Photoshop and it looks good.

I have painted this kind of thing a lot but it never gets old because you can always arrange the players into new positions. The vegetables will always vary, the size will change, the light will be different. Painting still life FROM LIFE- and I need to emphasize, is endlessly fascinating. It would bore me to tears if I had to take a picture of the set up and paint from that reference. I would literally feel blinded. Still life painting for me is all about the reflections and the relationships of the shapes. If I need to move an object or tweak a color to make it more interesting I do it. I'm afraid that if I had a photograph in front of me and I was trying to replicate it, I woudl be just another human copy machine. Remember, painting (to me), is all about what the artist brings to the equation. Why do we value a painting more than a photograph (unless the photograph was taken by Ansel Adams?) I believe it's because the painting is a series of "marks" that are very real and personal and hand-made, for lack of a better word.

I have seen a few artists who will slavishly copy a photograph of a piece of fruit and render a painting that is so photo-realistic it might actually BE the photograph. I am puzzled about why they do this. Is it a matter of challenging themselves to see if they actually can? Where is the drama? Where is the sheer fun factor of "interpreting" and bringing a little imagination into the piece?

I probably wouldn't have had to put so much time into reworking this piece if I hadn't been distracted by the show my husband was watching. I think it's a good lesson about what can happen if you let yourself settle for the mundane. Never be afraid to go back and try to improve a piece. You may surprise yourself. I have become a master re-worker, not because I have so many bad paintings, but because I am continually asking myself "what if?"

So this is the new and improved "Don Bosco with Vegetables"

You can see it in person from January 30-May 30, 2012 at SamB's Restaurant in Bowling Green, Ohio, along with nine more of my paintings. The Prizm Creative Community sponsors a spot show in this location and I currently have eight pieces there, which will be removed to make way for the new ones.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Using Half of Your Brain

OK, maybe I was using more than half, but I think I was pretty much on automatic pilot. I painted this one last night while I half watched a movie my husband had on, so I was really using the "intuitive" side of my brain. The one that runs on auto-pilot.

I love painting peppers and tomatoes but you have to be quick because they don't last long under the spotlight. When I photographed it this morning I was surprised to find it wasn't awful. I may try to go in and clean up the type and make it readable after it dries. And one of the roma tomatoes is lopsided-- that will need to be fixed too.

14" x 18" oil on canvas


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rework gets more interesting

If you're like me you have a lot of paintings hanging around that are just, for lack of better words, "no good". You can't sell them. You've tried. You don't want them hanging on your wall. You live in the city and bonfires are illegal. So you recycle the canvas. That doesn't mean you throw it into the trash. No- you sand it lightly (outside) to get rid of the gloss, rub a bit of OMS onto it, then turn it upside down and begin a new painting. The cracks and ridges become part of the new piece and may or may not add some textural interest. It's always a gamble but it's also fun to get out the palette knife and play with your paint. There is less concern about maintaining the integrity of your design--WHAT DESIGN??? And you have a lot of freedom because you're not tied into a tight concept. I like to use one or two photos as "the concept". Here the concept was sous chef and the red brick wall in the original painting becomes the backdrop for the hot cooktop.

One advantage to creating a painting over another painting, and there are many, is that the darks are richer and deeper immediately. Layering oil paint creates interesting color and when you layer cools over warms and vice versa (at random) you can create colors that surprise and delight the viewer. The tactic would not work at all on a "fresh" painting. It's a technique that works best on an uneven and colored ground. And that's exactly what an existing painting is.

Here is the original painting- upside down-- and the final version of "Chef Jeff, the Sous Chef"

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Coupon for Utrecht

I had to pass this along.... it is good for any item not on sale plus free shipping if you order over $75 at Utrecht. They have some good prices and their quality is good too. I found it on the very first page of my American Artist magazine!


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Continuing Along the Same Theme

This poor girl has been waiting for a nose job for almost a year. It was time to fix her. I started the piece at a class at the Scottsdale Artists School last year but we only had three hours to work on her and at 16" x 20" this is a life size painting. This girl has some head of hair!

The cold weather forces me to stay inside anyway so I don't mind trying to finish these pieces. I have a few other plein air pieces that I did in Arizona last year that are on the schedule to be "fixed or pitched". What should my new motto for this year be? Mediocre: another version of Yellow Ochre. You would have to be a painter to get that one, but I'll explain. Yellow ochre is a bland yellow that resembles baby poo. It's not pretty, Although it is useful. I just wanted a catchy slogan that rhymes. ;)

A few of the things I changed on Julie, using a bit of artistic license:

  1.  Her gaze-- it was directed forward and for  my purposes I wanted her to appear to be looking at us (the people viewing the painting.) 
  2. I added an earring. It was so tempting because that sliver of hair hanging down to her cheekbone deserved to have an echo. Red seemed to be the natural choice.
  3. Her nose. I don't give everyone I paint a nose job but if it detracts from the woman's face and I don't have to have a likeness I just go for it. She still has a strong face but I have made some alterations for the sake of art.
  4. I changed her expression from boredom to almost a kind of wariness. Whatever... she is done and I can move on to the next "Rework". It's really kind of fun because I get to play plastic surgeon without using the knife.

Julie 20" x 16" oil on linen

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Rework is a dreaded word in a factory but not in the art studio.
Definition: rework [riːˈwɜːk] vb (tr)

1. to use again in altered form the theme has been reworked in countless well-known poems
2. to rewrite or revise
3. to reprocess for use again
I worked for a large commercial printer years ago and we were all unhappy when we heard the word "rework". Usually something was printed that was not the right color or it  had been put together wrong. For whatever reason we had to rush through the process of re-printing the job and fixing the mistake to save our reputation. Not fun....

However, in my art studio I like to think of rework as the opportunity to make something better. I have a lot of paintings that just never made it into a frame because they were not ready for prime time.  Or maybe the paintings looked good to me when I finished them a couple years ago but now that my standards are a little higher I see things that could be improved. For whatever reason, I see the painting and I want to throw some more paint onto it. Sometimes I'll change the design and strengthen a focal point. Often it's a matter of creating some atmosphere by pushing the background farther into the background. If I can't bring the painting to a point where I am willing to sign my name to it I will throw it away. Some artists will use the canvas in a collage of leftover rejects but I have tried this and I don't recommend it for reasons I won't go into right now.
This is Nicole, a portrait I painted a couple years ago and one I was never quite happy with. She was fifteen years old at the time. I made a few adjustments over the weekend: a wardrobe change, a background change and a nose job. Now I'm happy with the painting. It may not be the same Nicole who modeled for me but it is a version I like better, one with a message of youth and innocence. The original red background was not a good choice for this theme but when you paint in a group as I do other artists' preferences can sometimes override your own.I had thought the red background too overpowering for this young girl, who seemed to project wholesomeness and good will. The beauty of oil paint is that you can make it what you want anyway.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Some pears are better than others and then some foods are not good for you at all

We like the Anjou pears because they are versatile and ripen faster. I like to paint them because they are cute and compact. This 6" x 8" painting was done in an hour with a palette knife and the paint that was left on my palette after painting the one below it. So these two foods are kind of like "good" and "evil". Pears are healthy and green, hot dogs are red and artery clogging. Whatever... when you want to paint something food is always available and it comes in a multitude of colors, shapes and sizes. It is not about the subject to me; it is about the arrangement of shapes on the picture plane. Is it interesting or is it too static to be a good painting? I don't always know the answer until the painting is finished. And sometimes not even then...

I had a guy from the Russian Federation email me today asking why I didn't ship to their country. Basically he was saying that I should-- I lost a sale because I didn't. So I have amended my shipping exclusions at eBay Etsy and Bonanza. International sales are good and I needed to be reminded that we Americans are not the only consumers in the world. Two of my most recent sales were to Japanese collectors. It's a global economy!

What effect will the decline of the Euro have on American sales to foreign countries? I would think if the dollar is worth more our goods would become more expensive to people who use other currencies. THAT might not be a good thing.


Friday, January 06, 2012

New Year's Resolutions....Less Travel, More Planning

My New Year's Resolution is to spend less time on the computer and more time working on improving my painting. Expect to see a few larger and more challenging pieces on the blog this year as I change my focus from 'learning' mode to 'creative' mode. I still plan to teach a few workshops but not as many as last year. I am cutting down the travel time as well. I love to travel but it requires energy and planning. I'm going to expend that energy making better paintings.

Last year I painted 160 pieces-- yes I actually counted them, thanks to the wonderful Windows 7 viewing sorter that allows you to sort by day. I cataloged them and recorded sales etc for tax purposes. I am so organized this year. (That was last year's resolution and it has worked a bit-- at least to the point where I now know what I have and where it is hanging.) I sold just over 30% of these pieces. Many of them were small paintings - under 9" x12" and quite a few were plein air pieces. Print sales were up this year and as usual the sports prints sell the best.

I will continue to work on my organization skills so that I am not just distracted into painting a few pretty things just because I can and because I know people will buy them. I am striving to become more intentional this year. I was pleased to find out last week that I have been selected to have a joint show at the Parkwood Gallery in Toledo in August. This is exciting for me and a wonderful opportunity to have people beyond the internet see my paintings.

My first painting of the year was inspired by my cold fingers. I can't wait for Spring when I can get back outside and paint. I had a picture of a planter I took last year and I decided it was time to paint some flowers. I love painting flowers and I haven't done many lately so it was time. My new challenge for myself  was to paint larger so this painting is 16" x 20" and it really is a colorful show-stopper. I have to admit it would not have the impact it has at this size if it were 8" x 10".

"Spring Blooms" $600 oil on canvas, unframed