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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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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Movie Review: Tim's Vermeer

Produced and directed by Penn and Teller, this film takes a fascinating look at how technology might have been applied by Vermeer.  Tim Jenison, a Texas inventor curious about how Vermeer achieved such precision in his paintings, recreates Vermeer's studio, complete with furnishings and models. Using a camera obscura in conjunction with a small mirror, Tim who is not an artist, is able to recreate "The Music Lesson" with astonishing accuracy.  This documentary about art making held my interest all the way through.  Whichever side of the technology-in-art debate you support, Tim's Vermeer will provoke thought.  Top marks from me.

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Oil Painting Demo--my approach to painting


Spring Storm

Click on the DEMO tab to learn how I paint in this step-by-step illustrated demo of Spring Storm.  In this start-to-finish demo I will tell you what materials I am using and what I am thinking about at each stage of the painting.  Brushwork, color theory, botany--it's all covered.

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Useful Equipment for Plein Air Painting


My first foray into plein air painting involved a Jullian French easel.  Once it is set up, a French easel makes painting a true pleasure.  However, it is heavy, and it does not protect wet oil paintings.  When pochade boxes first began making waves, I bought one.  It made plein air painting much easier.

 

An 8x10” pochade box holds quite a bit of stuff.  A homemade adapter for smaller panels increases its versatility.  It is light-weight, compact, and best of all—it fully protects 2-4 wet oil paintings, depending on the thickness of the panels.  My box is a prototype made by California artist John Budicin (the box is a work of art!)  Guerrilla makes very well-rated pochade boxes, with the 8x10” running around $100 at www.aswexpress.com

 

ArtComber, a canvas cart, further contributed to making plein air painting easy.  It is capacious enough to hold everything I need when painting out—including a hefty tripod for the pochade box.  Water container, lunch, extra jacket, 12x16” palette keeper—it all goes in.  If that is not enough to recommend it, it comes with a fold-down chair which can also serve as a low table.  The ArtComber handles smooth to moderate terrain, such as uneven dirt paths and packed sand.  It would probably bog down in loose beach sand, and you would not want to drag it up the face of a bluff, but in my normal painting environs it works perfectly.  ArtCombers are about $60 at www.aswexpress.com

 

I don’t buy many art gadgets.  But these two items have really made plein air painting more accessible for me. 

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Encouragement for World-Weary Artists


Birdwatchers, Tualitin NWR

"If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call 'failure' is not the falling down, but the staying down. "

~ Mary Pickford

When I write for my blog and newsletter, I begin with a rough draft, or sometimes an outline, and gradually polish it up.  Often, what I publish bears little resemblance to the original draft.  So it is with this would-be tome on encouragement.  I wrote one good line in the original: There is nothing more encouraging than seeing growth in your work.

With that brilliant, if narcissistic, observation out of the way, I really want to write about the encouragement you give to others, and others give to you.  I’ve never seen it more needed or so badly neglected. Whatever your work is or isn’t, an encouraging environment fosters faith, ideas and fortitude to deal with this unrelentingly awful economic condition that is not going to improve any time soon.

Encouragement must be, above all, honestly and thoughtfully given to yourself and to others.  To send a loved one out the door encouraging them to land that great job today sets them up for a very hard fall.  Better to embrace a larger goal of placing and renewing applications day after day as part of a long-term plan.  It’s no different with selling paintings:  Encourage your artist self (and other artists) to make contacts, develop a currently affordable line, perhaps even functional art, and most of all, to keep growing your skills and ability to interpret life.  The other end of encouragement is praise:  Praise those things done well.

Be open to alternatives.  Paths to goals (or survival) are never straight or predictable.  For me, small goals are important in and of themselves because big goals change, and I’m very glad of it.  The journey is most important because I often land somewhere other than where I planned.  My favorite question is, “If I can have it any way I want, how would it be?”  This question allows me to think without restrictions.  Apply the question to non-material concepts such as reducing financial stress or generating more excitement in art-making.  Make it a game, getting everyone involved.  Don’t hurry the answers.  It takes time to get to your deeper values.

Talk about the value of encouragement with your family and your art associates.  Think about people in your deep past who encouraged you, and what that meant to you.  Ask for encouragement if it is not forthcoming when you need it.  Give it voluntarily as honestly and frequently as you can.

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Debating with Obstacles


Cattle at Dawn

Artists have faced their share of obstacles since the latter half of 2007.  At this point the details of those obstacles don’t matter.  What does is how your work is developing as a result of the challenge.

In 2008 I ceased painting anything larger than 8x10”.  It was a relief.  That relief made me realize I should allow myself to be, formally and without guilt, a painter of small works.  Exclusively.  Permission to do what one does best and loves most is a gift.

Galleries and collectors like the flat, glarey plein air frames, so that was how I framed.  I never liked them.  They looked harsh.  A couple months ago I revolted, buying French Baroque frames for the 5x7” paintings.  The result is a luxurious pairing of my soft traditional style with an ornate frame.

Moving from an expansive home and studio on a sprawling half acre to a compact apartment with no garage meant I could no longer cut and prepare my own panels.  I am now experimenting with different commercially made surfaces that require changing the way I paint.  I needed that change more than I realized.

I am reintroducing an old favorite color, Naples Yellow, that I abandoned twenty years ago because I could mix variations of it from other colors.  With early-stage cataracts disrupting my color perception, I’ve just returned Naples to my palette.  Reducing the use of Cadmium Yellow by reintroducing Naples should help keep my colors in the desired muted range. 

Three years ago I considered never painting again.  I’m really glad I plodded on.  From every compromise I rediscovered value and quality.  From every self-help book and class I actually did gain some insight into why I should continue as an artist.  It takes time, sometimes lots of it, for those benefits to be realized.

Obstacles have to be dealt with realistically:  If you need income and art is not providing it, get a paying job.  But find a way to keep your hand and mind in art, even if it only means teaching art to your children who are probably not getting it in school.  The point is, whether your art world is contracting or expanding, your creative brain is learning from the experience.

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DVD Review: "Three Landscape Studies" by Scott Christensen


««««« Scott Christensen’s DVD, “Three Landscape Studies,” is for anyone interested in plein air painting, using plein air sketches to work up a studio painting, and painting with a limited palette of 3 primary colors.  He explains his process in a way that is interesting and easy to understand. The filming is also excellent, frequently using a split screen so the viewer can observe Scott selecting and mixing paint as well as watch his painting technique. 

Scott uses three primaries, red, lemon yellow, ultramarine blue, titanium white and black. The harmonious range he achieves from these few colors is extensive. He uses color tonally with subdued results, and explains how to maximize the punch of an accent color in a tonal painting.

Years ago I experimented with three primaries and detested the results. After watching “Three Landscape Studies” I selected three primaries from my paint collection (only the red differed from Scott’s palette), and made some puddle color charts, labeling each addition of color. The results surprised me with their delicacy and range of color.

Four years ago I began having difficulty mixing color from my old familiar palette. I changed the bulbs in my studio lights and got a new pair of glasses, but nothing helped. My world was beginning to look depressingly dingy. I was diagnosed with cataracts. Cataracts are famous for making vision fuzzy, but their worst characteristic for a colorist is that they are yellow to brown. The ophthalmologist warned that color perception would be affected. It was. This may sound familiar to baby-boomer painters.

Scott’s “primaries only” palette may compensate for damaged color perception by limiting the potential for unbalanced hues. I am setting myself a challenge to do more puddle charts and to paint only with this trio of colors for the next few months. I’ll post the resulting paintings and my thoughts about the learning curve.

Although not new, “Three Landscape Studies” is worth viewing. I rented it from www.SmartFlix.com for $10, a handy way to view a DVD before deciding to add it to your permanent library.  Visit Scott Christensen’s paintings at www.christensenstudio.com

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Critique: Inadvertent Symbolism

Symbolism can dramatically enrich your work if you know how to use it. It can also invade your work unconsciously, sometimes contributing to the painting, or sometimes undermining it. As you critique your paintings in progress, include a search for inappropriate use of symbols.

For example, I had only been painting a couple years, and was working on a large landscape in a workshop. As the painting developed, so did a prominent pubic shape right in the middle of the subject mountain. I was so embarrassed I didn’t want to be seen painting anywhere near that shape! But it had to be altered without damaging the believable contours of the mountain, the quicker the better. It was a self-taught lesson I never forgot.

Other shapes and relationships have caused me trouble from time to time: Utility poles that look like crosses, boulders that look like Volkswagens (maybe I wanted one in my youth.) And barriers: Barriers frequently impose themselves in my paintings, forcing me to break them for the viewer and for myself. Occasionally I leave barriers in place when they work for the painting.

Symbols came to humans before language. They developed in various forms: Religious, cultural and personal. A few are universal, such as the circle. Some become tainted by history, such as the swastika, an ancient widespread symbol of the whirlwind and the four cardinal directions.

Some artists develop a code of personal symbols and definitions. How you explain these to your collectors is a personal issue. I align myself with Native Americans who believe that revealing too much too often diminishes the power of the symbol. Other artists believe the story would be lost without explaining the symbolism. Know where you stand.

I’ve deviated a little from my original point. But I guess I wanted to stress that symbols and shapes in your paintings contain incredible power for the people who view your work.  When you find inadvertent symbols and shapes that distract from the meaning of your work, adjust them out of existence.

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What This Juror Looks For

Every once in a while artists will ask what I look for when judging a show. I like that. It gives me a chance to teach artists to consider their work as a whole package. I feel disadvantaged, however, because oils are my specialty and other mediums and art forms are not. As a result, I’m a much harsher judge when it comes to oil painting.

When judging unfamiliar art forms such as weaving, I look for uniformity of weave, unless variation is a contributing factor in the design. In woodworking, I look for fine finish and smooth curves, unless ruggedness is critical to the sculpture. Also in woodworking, I look for how the grain of the wood is incorporated into the planning of the piece. Traditional quilting asks for fine small hand stitching, a plus over machine stitching. In contemporary quilting, I am tolerant of a wider range of stitch types. Watercolor is perhaps toughest for me to judge, and here I simply look for how well the painter supports the subject and mood with the paint.

In oil painting, brushwork and application of paint are important to me. Oil painting by its very nature is luminous, and I want to see that. Oil paint that is watered down with turp or clogged with sand had better have a reason to be so, and that reason must be more obvious than that the artist is cheap.    Required reading for all oil painters should be Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit.

In all work I look at the total presentation—how well the artist’s use of materials supports the underlying concept of the work. Do the color and composition get the message across? Do I recognize copied (or nearly so) work in an original category?  Does the work adhere to the rules of the competition? Generally, I try to give latitude in the choice of frame, but if several works are of equal quality, presentation becomes the determining factor. Sloppy presentation is always a negative, and includes dirty mats and glass, poorly cut mats, paintings that are loose in frames, dusty old Mediterranean frames from the 1970’s. Kitsch is a major turn-off.

I suspend my personal preferences as much as possible. They are not relevant when judging a show. Every time I judge a show I am humbled, and wish I knew more about art. I would like to leave comments on many of the entries as to why they won an award—or why they didn’t. Without that, what is learned?

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Naming the Painting: The Final Frontier

"Enchanted Oaks" 16x24"

Artists refer to all kinds of resources when naming their paintings. The Bible is a favorite with many. Literature, popular and classical music titles and terms are commonly used. Some titles are straightforward in identifying a place or model by name.  However, if an artist paints the same model or theme multiple times—well, you can see the problem: Redhead #14 or Oak Trees #42. 

Some paintings name themselves long before they are completed. “Windswept” was about half done when the word whispered through my brain like wind sweeping across bent grass.  Wind gusted through the oak leaves as I painted them, and wind shredded the clouds. For me, the painting became as much about wind as it was about oak trees and dry summer grass.

When a painting doesn’t name itself I enter the bargaining phase. Questions include, what is this painting about? What mood does it convey? Will the chosen title offend collectors? Is it corny? Is it pompous? (I’ve used some Latin botanical names!) Is the title understandable? Ideally, the title should enhance the viewer’s experience of the painting. It should never get in the way of that experience.

The bargaining phase can enhance the painting’s meaning for the artist. One such landscape was begun when my father was dying, and completed during grieving and release. I had a terrible time discovering its name. It took months. Finally, one day as I just looked at the painting, I remembered Dad taking us to Harbison Canyon and shoveling up bags full of fallen oak leaves from a little ravine. He dug those leaves into his garden, which flourished the following Spring. Was the painting about loss? Or was it about transformation and life?  Was it all of those things?  The title that found the painting was “Enchanted Oaks”. The painting was taken to a higher level because I invested time in understanding its deeper mysteries.

Not all paintings are so lucky. Galleries and collectors love their paintings named, and sometimes minimal effort goes into it. Do you remember a word game you might have played—the game with three columns of really impressive words, and you chose one word from each column to make a phantasmagoric project title?  I’ve threatened to resort to that.

(Reprinted from Yvonne Branchflower's e-newsletter, The Palette Keeper, October 2009.  To subscribe to The Palette Keeper just click on the newsletter link at the top or bottom of this page.  Future topics in the Blog will be different from those in The Palette Keeper.)

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