Branchflower's Blog About Art and Websites

Why Do YOU Paint--and How Do You Explain It?

In the prior post, Why I Paint, I discussed some of my environmental concerns and how they affect my landscape paintings.  Because the environment is such a controversial topic, I rarely address it verbally in relation to art.  I neither want to offend nor argue.  Above all, I want to protect my privacy.

 

How do you deal with controversies in your art?  Do you hold back?  Do you expose all of your motivations?  Do women withhold more information than men when talking about their art?  Is it a generational thing?  Do today’s young artists speak more freely than did artists 50 years ago?

 

The internet has given us uncensored freedom to write.  No one can interrupt us or throw rotten tomatoes.  We can delete critical comments like they never existed or we can take our time developing a well-thought out rebuttal.  Either way, we can defuse controversy on our websites.  It is a little more difficult in person.

 

Maybe you size up your audience (whether one person or many) before deciding how much of yourself to reveal.  Conversation is easy enough when people agree, but how do you handle a confrontational visitor at your gallery opening who has just listened to your talk and vehemently disagrees with you--loudly?

 

Most artists have a fairly set patter that has served for many years.  It reveals enough to make the collector feel included.  But in the last few years I’ve questioned whether I’ve been lying by omission to my collector base:  I haven’t given them the deeper reasons.   

 

My dialogue with the painting is critical during the creation of the work.  When the painting is no longer in my home, the dialogue is finished.  The dialogue the collector has with the painting is equally important.  And if collectors take paintings home only to find that all they can think about when they look at the painting are the things I said—then I have gone too far.  How far can honesty go before the artist’s truths dominate the conversation a collector might wish to have with the painting?

 

How much thought have you really given to why you paint?  How do you explain such personal motivations to a stranger?  For decades, statements like painting is the language in which I am most proficient, or oil painting is all I wanted to do was all I was willing to give.  No one can dispute those two statements.  I’m not brave.  I don’t know how much privacy to let go of.   How much do other artists reveal about their deepest motivations, and their political and social concerns that influence their artwork?  

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Why I Paint

It is difficult to write about my paintings.  The expression I put into them is personal, and represents my feelings about the environment and our use of it, as well as a certain spirituality.  It is not relevant whether or not I belong to a church, am agnostic or atheist:  I cherish this beautiful earth.

 

I have long felt my paintings are an effort to ease away the abuse that we heap on the earth with our constant scraping, gouging, polluting and endless taking.  I am part of the problem with my requirements for hot water, bright lighting, abundant food and a reliance on the petroleum industry for transportation, heating and many of the fabrics and furnishings in my home.

 

No one should be surprised that California and parts of eastern Oregon are experiencing devastating water shortages.  When you mine groundwater (pump it faster than it can be replenished) you will eventually run out.  Rainfall will never replenish California’s deep aquifers.  Only deep snow pack in the Sierras Nevada range will.  The snow has to be deep enough and the temperatures low enough to make that snow last most of the year—all year in the highest elevations.  Snow pack has been diminishing for decades.  The current drought is horrible, but Californians could have gotten through it unscathed had they not been using water for the last 75 years like it had no end.

 

I look for ways to leave a smaller carbon footprint.  I’ve even questioned my selection of materials used in painting.  But when people tell me what they experience when they look at my paintings, I resist compromising them in any way.  If my paintings move people to cherish (and take better care of) our unique planet, then I have not painted in vain.

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My Landscape Palette

Have a sweet Thanksgiving day!

 

Whether you are a plein air or studio painter, you need to select and stay with colors and brands that work easily for you.  Colors by the same name vary from one manufacturer to the next, making it hard for you to learn how to mix your colors predictably.

 

Lay out a complete palette each time you paint.  Even if you don’t think you will need a color, put out a little dab.  You may need it for tinting or toning, and if it is not there your color mixes will suffer.

 

Lay out your palette in the same order every time.  This keeps you from dipping into alizarin crimson when you really wanted burnt umber.  There are many good layouts—pick what makes sense to you.

 

I have used the same selection of colors for decades, deleting or adding just a couple, and upgrading to professional grade oil paint when I could afford it.   This is my landscape palette, arranged warm to cool, from left to right:

  • Titanium white (Old Holland), opaque and permanent, a nice dense white.
  • Alizarin crimson lake extra (Old Holland), transparent deep violet red, this is actually Quinacridone, a permanent alternative to the old fugitive alizarin crimson.
  • Cadmium red light (Old Holland) opaque, dense red with a hint of orange.
  • Cadmium barium orange (Grumbacher P-T), opaque, simply a very pleasant orange.  Grumbacher paints have a lot more oil and carrier in them, rendering them less intense than Old Holland.
  • Cadmium barium yellow pale (Grumbacher P-T) opaque.  Sometimes I buy Old Holland lemon yellow instead, but lately I have preferred the weaker Grumbacher because of developing cataracts.
  • Yellow ochre light (Old Holland) opaque, an ugly color but invaluable as a mixer!
  • Burnt umber (Old Holland) transparent, warm brown, very dark.
  • Viridian green deep (Old Holland) transparent, cool deep green.  This is the only green on my palette, and is useful in skies as well as in the landscape.
  • Ultramarine blue (Old Holland) transparent, deep dark blue with a hint of violet.  Usually my only blue.

Additional tubes I rarely use:

  • Naples yellow (Old Holland) is on my palette only if I am painting bleached summer grass.  For years I got along fine without it, but again—the eye problem seems to create perception problems with yellows and purples (complimentary colors, which I find interesting.)
  • Cadmium barium yellow medium (Grumbacher P-T) opaque, nice for wildflowers and mixing some greens.
  • Ivory black (Old Holland) is available, but rarely used.  It makes nice greens, and in some situations works well to reduce a hue.  If over-used it can make a painting look ashy.

Learn which pigments are permanent.  Some manufacturers post the pigment’s permanence on their website.

 

Anything with “Hue” in the name is an inferior substitute for the real thing.  Better to have a very limited palette of high quality paint than a lot of tubes of trash.

 

Professional grades of artist oil colors are far superior to student grades.  They contain more pigment in proportion to the oil, and are more finely ground.  Even if you cannot afford the more expensive cadmiums, you will probably be able to afford the umbers, siennas and ochres which cost very little more in the professional grades.  Think of it as “student grade paint is to professional grade paint as margerine is to butter.”

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Get Rid of Your Dud Posts

I had this great idea about describing each color on my palette in detail.  One post per color.  The first post in this series (yes! a series) was on Viridian Green.  In two weeks ONE person read it.

 

Clearly, this idea was a dud.  What happens when readers come across a useless blog post?  They leave your website.

 

Lesson learned:  Delete that bad post now (I did.)

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How Does an Artist "See?"

When I was assisting one of my painting students recently, she asked, "How do you see all this stuff?"  She came to drawing and painting late in life from a literary career, and has not studied art formally.  She has very good color and design sense, but little confidence when applying paint to canvas.  Frankly, I am stumped as to how to answer her question:  No one taught me how to see as an artist, nor did I take any classes or read any books about the unique methods artists use to see their world.  Did I miss something critical in my education?

 

I gave my student what I thought was a simple assignment:  She was to study an egg, and since her comfort zone is in writing, she was to write in detail about her observations.  Her next question was, “What am I supposed to look for?”  My answer, “Light and shadow patterns, and all the subtleties therein.  Texture, shape and symbolism—they are all fair game.”

 

That she was still flummoxed sent me on a search for an explanation about how artists see.  The results of that search were spectacularly disappointing.  Most articles crow that “Yes, indeed, artists do see differently than the rest of the population.” But they do not say why or how.

 

Other articles offer the results of brain scans that reveal differences between the brains of artists and non-artists when given creative tasks.  But that doesn’t really help my student.

 

Another scientific study tracked eye movements of artists and non-artists when they looked at an ordinary photograph with a person in it.  Non-artists looked mainly at the person in the photo.  Artists’ eyes tracked all over the photo, to every corner and edge, in addition to the figure.  This may provide a clue to my student she needs to look for relationships within the entire space—not just at the egg.

 

One day I entered my dining room and noticed the negative space created by the chair and table legs and cross-supports against our plain carpet.  My brain was seeing patterns, not a table and chairs.   This is how I often see my world, and the concept surprised me—when did this change occur in how I define objects and space?  This question I can answer:  It was a couple decades ago when I made a study of N.C. Wyeth’s use of negative space, and discovered that "empty shapes" could be as interesting as objects.  I remember the excitement when negative space first “jumped” off the page!  This is not to suggest that I always see the world in terms of negative space—I see mostly in terms of color, shape and value patterns.

 

Assuming these observations are valid, there is no quick and easy way to see like an artist.  Artist’s vision is not a unique study:  It develops from the persistent study of color, form, composition, values and expression that we see and experience in our daily lives.  I never would have given it any thought had my inquisitive student not asked.

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The Up-Side of Blog Burnout

Two months ago I began reworking my website in an effort to improve readership, content and SEO.  After a year and a half of neglect it had pretty much fallen off everyone’s radar screen.  My initial focus was on the home page because that is where most visitors land.  Next, I revived the blog because text is important to search engines.  Some trends are already apparent.

 

Results of Home Page Redesign

I like understatement.  So for years my home page was as spare as I could get it.  Two months ago I switched to a template that added a list of recent blog posts, upcoming events and an invitation to join my email list.  Suddenly, the home page bounce rate took a notable dive and average time per visit jumped.  Think of it like a friend knocking on your door:  You invite your friend in and say, “Come into the kitchen, I’ve just baked cookies.”  Offer your guest something to enjoy (cookies, or an interesting blog post, or great images) and you will have a happy guest.  Your home page equates to the front door of your home.

 

For those readers who avoid their web statistics, “bounce rate” refers to people who land on a web page (in this case, the home page) and immediately leave the website.  Offering visitors links to internal pages resulted in them reading the blog, perusing the paintings, and generally roaming around the entire website.  The home page revision was successful.

 

Blog Trends, Observations and Questions

First, the trends:  A month ago I began posting weekly.   One post was very popular:  Picked up by BrushBuzz, one of those coveted links for artists, it netted many readers who went on to read my other posts and pages.  Again, the stats for these new posts are trending up and down in all the right places:  More pages are being visited by more people.  In particular, the percentage has increased of new visitors vs returning visitors.  You need both, but remember that new visitors become returning visitors, and if you fail to capture new ones your readership will shrink.

 

Now my observations and questions:  Some posts will be much more popular than others, and some buzz words will always get noticed and read:  “Blog Burnout” is currently a hot topic.  Resolving it is not (my posts on how to revive a blog didn’t get much attention.)  Do bloggers want to wallow in their misery a while longer before attending to the problems?   Are they simply tired of writing?  Or has promoting the blog become a time and energy drain?

 

Maybe those are the wrong questions.  What if the article titles or content were weak?  “Blog Burnout” was a series of 3 posts:  The first dealt with the situation, mine as well as the general blogging public; the second, with the soft issues of posting; and the third, with specific tasks that should improve the success of my blog and yours.  Each post had a different title.  Maybe those titles should have been the same with Part 1, 2 or 3 added, or some such variation.  It’s not too late—I could edit the titles for posterity.

 

Another observation:  My post reviewing the movie, “Tim’s Vermeer,” did not net very many readers.  However, 2/3 of those readers visited several other parts of my website—a good percentage.  I’m inclined to think, despite the fairly low readership, that movie and book reviews are worthy topics.

 

Mondays are widely regarded as one of the best days to post to a blog.  Yet my blog appears to gather more readers on Saturdays than on Mondays.  It may be worth while to experiment with Saturday postings.  The point here is if you are investing your time on a blog, manipulate its release to reach the most readers.

 

Is it just about gaining readers?  No.  If the content is not valuable, readers won’t return, and I’ve wasted their time and mine.  If they do find my blog informative, they will return.  “Informative” content has to be the purpose.  Benefits will follow.

 

I am an artist.  I am not a professional blogger.  So it is crushing when I write about painting only to have it totally ignored, as was a recent post.  What happened?  Was the article lame?  Do people just want to read about blog burnout?  To find out, I will have to explore the craft of oil painting more often and more deeply.  Eventually, the web stats will reveal the answers.

 

The up-side of blog burnout is going through a process of rediscovery, and writing and sharing thoughts about art and creativity with a fresh voice and renewed commitment. 

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Light and Atmosphere in Your Painting

Whether you are working with a still life set-up or plein air painting, think of light and atmosphere as closely related entities.  Their tone will influence your entire painting.  One way of unifying atmosphere is by toning your canvas—staining it, for example, with alizarin crimson for a rosy light, or yellow ochre for golden light, and leaving bits of that stain showing through the painting.

 

Another method is to use the atmospheric hue throughout the painting, with more in the background and less in the foreground.

 

A key element in creating atmosphere and unity is moving color around.  Bent grasses reflect sky colors.  Foreground shadows echo the color of distant mountains.  There will be a slight change in hue from bottom to top as you paint a 50’ tree.

 

This is “aerial perspective.”  However, I find that term cold and unimaginative.  I think in terms of light and atmosphere as I paint.

 

How you interpret what you see is a personal thing.  Southern California, being a warm climate, is often painted in warm light.  However, I always saw it as cool and silvery.  I felt vindicated when reading that some early southern California Impressionists also noted that silvery light.  It may be caused by fine dust and sea-salt particles adrift on dry breezes.  It does not exist in Oregon, which has an entirely different character to light.  Know your light.

 

Landscape or still life, the color of light and atmosphere will impact your handling of aerial perspective.  When you visit an art museum, take a small notebook with you.  In it, make notes of how other artists use color to create atmosphere.

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5 Steps Will Increase Your Blog's Readership

If you’ve been having difficulty writing for your blog, you have a lot of company.  I want to rebuild interest in my neglected website and blog.  To help me stick to this goal I wrote 3 posts telling readers what happened to my website after months of not blogging, and why and how I will mend my ways.  If you are in the doldrums over your blog, I hope this has been of some help.

 

This is my distilled 5-step outline.  There is an infinite array of articles online that will help you become a better blogger—just search “write irresistible blog headline” or “how to write a good blog” and see for yourself.  Just remember to pace yourself so you can maintain writing without it becoming a slog.

 

1.  Write an irresistible headline

You have two big opportunities to capture or lose readers:  Your headline is the first.  Don’t be cute or obscure.  The headline should:

  • Be a concise and intriguing summary of the article,
  • Include keywords that help search engines know what to do with your article,
  • Take advantage of human behavior.  For example, numbered and listed headlines are the most read.  They can be overdone, so don’t use them all the time.

 

2.  Entice with a captivating first paragraph

The opening paragraph is your second opportunity to lock in or lose readers.  According to Copyblogger, only 20% of people will keep reading after the opening.  To retain reader interest:

  • State the problem and promise the solution(s),
  • Tell a story, if applicable to your post, but include the reader with “you” and “your” words,
  • Include keywords,
  • Include an image:  People like visuals.

 

3.  Give Valuable easy-to-read content

This can be your own insights or that of others (with credit).

  • Write with clarity and focus,
  • Pay attention to your stats to find your reader’s favorite posts.  Expand on these.
  • Notice what leading art bloggers are writing about, and give the topic a different twist,
  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short and easy to read,
  • Use your spell- and grammar checker, and proof read for things they don’t catch.

 

4.  End with an actionable invitation

  • To sign-up for your emails,
  • To share your blog with friends,
  • To leave a comment,
  • To purchase something.

 

5.  Promote your blog

  • On your website’s home page,
  • On your print material,
  • In your newsletter and/or your Holiday letter,
  • On social media, if you are into that,
  • To your friends and other artists,
  • By linking your blog posts to each other if they are related subjects.

 

I have a fair amount of work to do to live up to this list.  Professional bloggers claim it takes 3-6 months to restore search engine’s faith in a neglected blog, so keep in touch—I’ll let everyone know in a few months how weekly blogging has affected my website in searches.  If you are trying to restore a dusty blog, leave a comment on how this has helped you:  I need the encouragement, and you need the back-link.

 

Thanks to a request by a reader, my next posts will be about color—how I achieve harmony and effects.

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Blog Burnout and A Recovery Plan

 

Previously, I wrote “How Blog Burnout Damages Your Website—and How to Recover”The Big Oak

 

After neglecting my website and blog for a year and a half I found that search engines had dropped my rank so low that only my home page popped up on a search for “Yvonne Branchflower artist”.  It will require a plan and serious dedication to revive my website.

 

Blogger burnout is a hot topic right now, and there are many articles online that address why it is happening.  After all my reading I’m going to suggest that blogging and social media have become such an all-consuming obligation that all the pleasure and creativity have been sucked out of writing.  This post will deal with the soft issues of writing--those things that will stimulate me (and hopefully you) to write.  The next post will address how I will write a blog that will inform and entertain my readers and me.  If I do this well, it will help you as a writer, too.

 

Embrace the freedom:

Think about this:  A blog is your opportunity to self-publish your thoughts about art to a world-wide audience.  You have complete freedom to express yourself with virtually no censorship.  This is absolutely extraordinary!  When, in the history of humankind has this opportunity existed?

 

Love your subjects:

Focus your blog on what most interests you.  Some artists feature their most recent paintings with a brief story.  I'd rather write an article.  And I like to teach.  Teaching is in my blood as much as painting.  This understanding makes it easier for me to accept all the writing will probably never directly result in a sale.  However, writing about subjects deeply interesting to me will result in better articles for you to read.

 

Write for your audience:

Understanding Your Blog Audience and What You Want From Them elaborates on the significance of your readers.   Accept that readers want different things from different writers.  This series of 3 or 4 posts is about my failure to keep my website and blog updated.  However, it is a cautionary tale from which you can benefit: You are observing my process of rethinking and rebuilding my web presence.

 

How often will you post?

Be realistic.  I used to post less than once a month at best.  I will aim for once a week and forgive myself for all the times I miss.  I suspect you could post less often and be ok.  Most professional bloggers say you should blog daily.  Not gonna happen.  I want to enjoy this.  Besides, rumor has it that SEO has far less value than it used to have.  And sometimes I simply want to be a hermit.

 

How long should a post be?

Professional bloggers say an article should be between 300-600 words, and not more than 1,000.  This is counter to what I remember from just a few years ago when (I thought) the recommendations were 150 words because people had no time and were just skimming.  I like the trend toward meatier articles.  Avoid padding. 

 

Will you use social media?

It is unanimous that social media users get more optimization-boosting links than non-users.  I’m a committed non-user of social media.  That is my choice, my loss, and I live with it very happily.  Yes, it is disappointing to have my site’s optimization penalized, but I would rather spend my time socializing with the 250+ residents of my senior community, making sure they have an interesting and challenging collection of art activities in our art studio.  Keep to your values.

 

How long will it take to recover decent optimization of a neglected website and blog?

The pros say 3-6 months.  Now before you get all testy, remember that you are committed to writing for the pleasure of sharing your knowledge and your work.  People will find you, but it takes search engines a while to accept that you are a regular writer worthy of moving to the first three pages of search results where you will be found by even more people.

 

What if you hate to write?

I suppose there is one last bit of advice that no one writes about:  If you hate writing, don’t write a wordy blog.  Tight writing can make compelling reading.

 

Next week:  The nitty-gritty of writing a blog that people will read and search engines will glom onto.

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How Blog Burnout Damages Your Website--and How to Recover (Part 1)

It’s one thing to write content that people want to read.  It’s entirely different to get them to read it.  I didn’t think a sufficient number of people were reading my e-newsletter and blog to merit the time I put into them.  Discouraged and burned out, I stopped publishing them. 

 

Cool.  With more time on my hands I could do other things.  But gradually my web stats declined.  Fewer new people visited my website.  When it became apparent that my Search Engine Optimization had declined to the point of invisibility, I became very uneasy.

 

There are so many worthy bloggers addressing subjects of interest to artists.  At the foundation of why I quit writing was the question, “What can I possibly contribute to the art blogosphere that isn’t already being written?”  Content should give the reader something worthwhile.  It should make the reader want more insights from that particular writer.  I did not think I could provide anything new.

 

Reviewing the popularity of my old posts showed that some have staying power over the years, while others do not.  Knowing which topics stand the test of time offers ideas for new or expanded posts.  It is, at least, a starting place.

 

Some time ago I bookmarked copyblogger.com.  Two articles are especially relevant to my current malaise:  No Blog Traffic? Here’s a Simple Strategy to Seduce Readers and Win Clients  made me think about who my readers are and what they want.  After all, I am writing for them, not for myself.  The author, Henneke Duistermaat, suggests identifying your single most dedicated fan who can be one person, a composite of several people, or entirely fictitious.  Write for your one most dedicated fan.  Henneke presents a series of questions to help you identify what your special reader wants. Click on the article--it is worth your time to read it.

 

 The second article, 50 Can’t-Fail Techniques for Finding Great Blog Topics is especially valuable to one who has tired of blogging.  This is not a ready-made list of topics.  Carol Tice presents a series of techniques for finding interesting topics.  Number 23 is “Talk about your mistakes” which is why I am writing this article.  Neither of these articles was written for artists:  Copyblogger is business oriented.  It is applicable because your website is a business representation of you, the artist.  They have tons of free articles and e-books that can regenerate your interest in writing about your art.

 

Judging by the number of abandoned blogs I see on artist's websites, burnout and loss of direction are common.  Blogging exposes your website to search engines, elevates your level of expertise to people looking at your work, and helps you to define your theories about art.  Learning how to write an interesting blog, headline or e-newsletter will make a difference in how you are perceived by other artists, collectors and galleries.

 

To put things right, I will resume blogging.  It will not be as often as is recommended.   To compensate, I will aim for content that will have a positive impact on readers.  I will try to not be disappointed if not many people read it.  Among them will surely be my most dedicated fan—the one for whom I write.

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