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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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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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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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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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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The Problem with Plein Air Painting is...


Last summer a friend and I scheduled a painting day in Portland’s park blocks.  We chose a great location with red bistro umbrellas in the middle-ground and plenty of diners and strollers.  The park was in deep shade, light was somewhat greenish as it filtered through thick leaves, and the red umbrellas were mostly in shade.  Heavily tinted bistro windows appeared stark black.  I painted what I saw and was predictably disappointed in the dark result.  This is the problem I have with plein air painting:  Local color does not always match mood, and mood is the driving force in my paintings.

 

When Portland Art Museum Rental/Sales Gallery invited a baker’s dozen of its artists to a paint-out in the same park, I approached it in a wholly different way.  I preselected a site, photographed it, did multiple pencil sketches, and studied the values.  The monument of Teddy Roosevelt, which I wanted to feature, was lost in background foliage of the same value.  Altering the surrounding foliage to a cheerful light value created the center of interest I wanted.  The artist in my painting was actually facing me, but turning her toward the monument created a link between her and the monument.  Had I painted her the way I saw her, she would have been the subject of the painting, and Roosevelt, superfluous competition.

 

I wanted to portray a cheerful, busy day in the park.  And while that was exactly what the day provided, it was not what local color and real values provided.

 

Such high-key oil sketches as these are abnormal for me:  I am a landscape painter enamored with shadows and low-contrast.  Entirely out of my comfort zone with urban/people painting, I find it necessary to dig deep into the principals that govern my meditative landscape paintings:  Composition, color, value—and most of all, mood—pushing one reality to create another.

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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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The Compact Art Studio, Part 2


Behind-the-door drying rack

In my last blog I wrote about the choice of easel and furniture in a small art studio.  Today is about “the drying rack”, which serves several purposes.  In many ways it is the nerve center of my studio, and it really helps me stay organized.  In this studio the shelves are on the wall behind the door.  In a prior studio (when I was young and willing to climb ladders) I had one long shelf near the ceiling.  Behind the door is much more accessible.

What the shelves do:

  • They keep the oil paintings fully visible/accessible, making it easier to determine needed adjustments
  • They offer a clean and safe place for paintings to dry
  • They provide a sorting area for paintings that need to be photographed, varnished, or selected for exhibit.
  • It is handy storage space  for unframed paintings.

Location:

Behind the door on that otherwise wasted expanse of wall with 4” of available depth.

Materials:

  • 4” brackets (not available in any of the big-box hardware stores.  I found these online at www.cabinetparts.com     4” brackets are a little pricey, but they allow the shelves to be adjustable.
  • Two 6’ standards from Lowes or Home Depot.  Brackets and standards are usually interchangeable between brands, so buying standards from Lowes or Home Depot saved a lot of money.
  • A doorstop in the door hinge guarantees the door cannot bash the shelves and paintings.
  • 1x4”x5’ oak was used for the shelves.  Oak is expensive, but it does not warp like pine does.
  • ½ x1” cheap trim was glued and tacked to the front of each shelf to keep things from sliding off.

Prior to installing these shelves, I stored my small paintings in little plastic letter organizers from Office Depot.  It worked well as an extremely compact drying/storage device, but I could never see the paintings.

I cannot concentrate in a cluttered environment.  However, I know many artists who would go nuts unless they could have all their artsy stuff scattered about, exuding creative energy.  How you design your compact studio has to be determined by how you work best.  Google “art studio design” and you will find sites that offer many more ideas.

Next week:  Frame storage in the closet.

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The Compact Efficient Art Studio


Easel with small footprint, mobile "taborets", steel compact bookcases.

 We live in an era of downsizing and doubling-up.  For many, studio space is getting squeezed.   My next three blog entries will show you how I’ve dealt with creating an efficient painting studio out of a fraction of the space I used to enjoy.

I am fortunate.  I have a whole room (a smallish second bedroom sans bed) for office, sewing, and art.  Multi-purposing an art studio provides many distractions from creativity.  The trick is to make it efficient enough to move from one activity to another with little hassle.

One side of the room contains a high-boy dresser, a large L-shaped secretary’s desk and the fold-out sewing machine cabinet.  You don’t need to see photos of those.  It is the studio side you want to see.

Cornerstone of the studio wall is the Maybef Lyre easel, a sturdy beechwood tripod that has a small footprint.   I wrote an article in my enewsletter, The Palette Keeper, about the easels in my life—you might enjoy itThe easel is flanked by three microwave stands on wheels, which can easily be reconfigured for framing projects.  These “taborets” hold a tremendous amount of painting paraphernalia plus a paper cutter and a box of mini-frames.  They roll easiest on hard floors or low-pile carpeting with no padding.  The Persian rug is very thick wool and provides cushion while standing at the easel.

Beautiful oak bookcases had to be replaced with something more space efficient.  We had two vintage 1970’s olive green steel bookcases in a storage room that fit the bill.  You can’t get more compact and sturdy—or ugly.  We shortened one of them.  Together, they contain my much reduced library, as well as framing materials and a compact HEPA filter.

The ceilings are 9’ high.  A tall person could make good use of high wall space with cabinets and shelves, but I am short and have retired from climbing ladders and step-stools.

A four-tube flourescent fixture in the center of the ceiling lights the entire room.  No auxiliary lamps are needed, saving lots of surface space.

This is not the perfect art studio.  Working in a compact setting requires a certain amount of self-discipline:  You must keep art supplies limited to those you actually use.   I finally had to admit to a downside:  By defining myself exclusively as a painter of small works my brushwork and compositions become continually tighter.  I need the expressive space of larger panels, once in a while, to maintain looser brushwork in the small paintings.  I'll find a way to accomodate the occassional larger paintings and frames, but it does introduce a complication into my tidy studio plan.  In designing your studio space, allow yourself to change and improve it as you discover ways in which it constricts you.

Next week:  The coup de grace:  A drying, sorting and storage rack for oil paintings!

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Marketing and Imagination


"Golden Meadow" 8x10" oil on panel

There is a little magazine called Entrepreneur that I enjoy digging into every few issues.  Entrepreneur is not about art, but it is very much about creativity needed to make a business thrive.  Artists are by nature entrepreneurs, so why not just read an art magazine or book in which art marketing stuff has already been digested and regurgitated for you?  Because you just might miss a creative opportunity.

When I read Entrepreneur’s articles I don’t think like an oil painter trying to sell some paintings online.  I am open to random ideas, and while those ideas usually relate to art, it is less likely they would occur to me had I been reading an art marketing resource.  For example, because donuts were so successful, someone developed a franchise around cupcakes.  Surely one could do the same around a new type of art business.  That kept my imagination busy until my husband quashed it with, “Sounds like a non-profit organization.”  Ah well, only an hour had been spent on development, and none on research.  I’ll leave it to a young entrepreneur to develop Art IzUs.

Ann Handley's article, “The Customer Capture Contraption” (Entrepreneur, September 2011) didn’t really offer new ideas about blogging, but it put a different spin on old ones.  Handley is CCO of www.marketingprofs.com where you can find an abundance of free articles about marketing in general.

Few successful business people are insular.  They seek ideas from a wide base and can afford ongoing professional advice .  In contrast, artists tend to be insular and few of us can afford a staff of professionals.  There are many good art marketing books and articles available, and you should read them.  You should also reach beyond them to the broader world of marketing ideas for inspiration outside the art box.

Read some of Entrepreneur’s articles online at www.entrepreneur.com

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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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