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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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Vision Loss and Artists

We live in an aging society, and whether you are a producing artist or an art instructor, dealing with vision loss will be an increasing challenge.

Cataracts – George Inness and Claude Monet are just two examples of painters who recognized what was happening to their vision and adjusted their colors accordingly.  Cataracts are a thickening of the lens, often grayish-yellow.  They make the whole world look dirty.   Fine detail is obscured.   Worse, color mixing becomes very hard to control.  The artist mixes a nice gray only to hear someone comment on “that purple.”  Pleasing yellows mixed one day look harsh and acidic the next day.

To maintain control over their paintings, Inness and Monet employed similar strategies by reducing color saturation and contrast.  Yellows were toned way down, and purples were generally avoided.  Both artists increased their use of browns and neutral hues.  Value became more important to both.  Understanding how master artists responded to vision impairment can help the rest of us adjust, whether we paint, teach or do both.

Macular Degeneration  -- My newest drawing student is legally blind.  This delightful retired physician has no central vision.  None.  Only peripheral vision remains, and that shrinks as the macula continues to degenerate.  Georgia O’Keeffe and Wolf Kahn continued to paint as macular degeneration advanced.  Kahn insists it made him a better painter.  He opted for larger canvases, less detail and more glowing color.

My student has just picked up art, something he enjoyed as a kid.  We chose charcoal for the first session, and a limited number of dry pastels for the second session.  Working in color was more rewarding for him.  He thoroughly enjoyed the intense color of heavily applied pastels, and using a Wolf Kahn image as reference, was able to detect hue changes (layering) he needed to make.  He really got into it when he discovered that dry pastels could be smudged!

Each eye disease has different implications for artists.  Understanding some basics about eye disease will help artists and instructors devise successful work-arounds.   The alternative, letting creativity die, is unacceptable.

To do research on your own, use your favorite search engine with terms like “cataracts artist” and “macular+degeneration artist”, or whatever eye disease is at issue.  The Artist’s Eyes: Vision and the History of Art,  by Marmor and Ravin might be useful and is readily available.  Much harder to find, unfortunately, is Art and Ophthalmology, by Philippe Anthony.

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