Thursday, August 19, 2010

It's a Painting, Not a Photograph

Hull of a Lineup, 30x40

This post is about thinking outside the box. Many times I talk about editing your scene by repositioning a mountain peak, trimming a tree, or redirecting a stream. Those are all things we do for good composition. After all, it's not that God put that tree in the wrong place; it's that we are standing in the wrong place for the best composition. But do you ever completely rearrange the values to make your scene say something more than is presented?

If you have ever studied John F. Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting (and I hope you have), he teaches the 4 planes/values of the landscape. Beginning with the top of your canvas/scene and moving downward, they are 1. Source of light (sky) lightest; 2. Slanting planes (mountains) next to darkest; 3) Upright Plane (trees) darkest; and 4) Flat Plan (ground) next to lightest. Please refer to his popular diagrams and read the full explanation if you have not. Mr. Carlson's book is one of my very favorites, and every time I read it I learn even more than the time before. These photographs are prime examples of how these principles can be applied.

However, these rules are meant to be learned so that as we observe when they work perfectly, we can also observe when to take liberties for, what I like to call our "visual statement." (I'll post more on making visual statements another time.) Looking at these two images, gives us some ideas on how other value plans readily present themselves in nature:

But I'm not just talking about specific times of day or weather conditions that suggest different plane/values. So let's take this a step further. What if we take our existing scene, with its ordinary value plan, and "think outside the box" to make a totally different visual statement? I have adjusted the photo of the boats above to demonstrate.

Starting at the top left you see the original image; next to it that image turned grayscale. On the next row I have adjusted the sky to make the boats more prominent; next to that I have adjusted the sky to give more weight to the lower portion of the piece. What do these options mean to you if you were going to paint this? What visual statement would each plan suggest in its final stage?

Of course, on site, I do all of this using small thumbnail sketches rather than a computer. I will make half a dozen pencil sketches sometimes cropping the scene, removing elements around or changing their size, and adjusting values, until I get just what I want to say. This is tricky, however, if you do not understand Mr. Carlson's suggestion for "seeing simply" and why these fundamentals work in the first place, or if you do not know what you want to say. Please hear this... I am not suggesting you start jumping all over the place without full comprehension of what he means. No more than I am suggesting changing the size of the elements without understanding perspective in drawing. In the end, all of this planning helps me enjoy the actual painting process more. My decisions have been made allowing me to paint without fear!

By the way, I chose one of the adjustments above for the painting at the top of this post. See if you can identify which one. Clue. I really wanted the painting to be about the boats.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What is an Artist?

Roman Sunset, 22x28

Most of you know that I am a professional, full-time, working artist who uses oil as my primary medium. That's a long title to put on a business card. I remember the first time I got up the guts to actually call myself an artist. It felt so strange. I had been a graphic artist for years, but just "artist" with no other explanation seemed arrogant. Did I need to say, "visual artist," "professional artist," "working artist," or maybe skip that word altogether and say "painter?" After all, everyone calls themselves artists these days. Sculptors, decorative artists, potters, glassblowers, jewelry makers, anything with aesthetic value, certainly have that right. Musicians and entertainers all over Nashville claim to be artists. Additionally, does it matter whether you make art as a hobbyist, an amateur, or a professional? So many of us spend time apologizing for being an artist in the first place. Do we also need to explain to what extent we make our livings at it?

As an artist, sometimes I am called upon to play other, less comfortable, roles as well. At an art reception, I must also be a "people" person and chat merrily about my work without ever once allowing my expression to read "buy my art." At public demonstrations I am an entertainer, juggling paint and brush and talking and answering questions and teaching and everything all at once. (By the way, I actually enjoy this for some sick reason.) When I used to do fundraiser "booth-style" shows, I always felt like a clown. (That dawned on me once as I actually caught myself humming "Send in the Clowns" as I was setting up a display. Maybe what I needed to make those work for me was someone standing just outside my booth announcing, "Step right up. See the bearded lady who paints lovely little pictures.") During plein air festival Quick Draw (those timed events where you start, finish, and frame in a specified time period), they sound the start horn and I swear, I hear, "And they're off." What has this to do with being an artist or making art? I don't enjoy making a spectacle of myself. If I did, I would have continued chasing a music career. As a friend once said about our work, "This is not a team sport."

Nevertheless, I still make art solely because I have a passion for it. Yes, it is the only way I make my living; but that is not my point. It is why I am living. God gave me a gift and I am to be a good steward of it, learning and growing and sharing every day, for as long as I am allowed on this earth. So, I suppose, if anyone feels the same about what he or she does every day, they have the right to be called an artist. It is the passion (and burden) of the gift, the living for it, that makes it so.

Suggested Reading for this post:

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Putting on the Show: Paintings from Life

WOW! It's almost time to get the big show delivered. It made me want to share a little of the process of gathering an inventory of nearly 60 works for display with you. In case I haven't already bugged you about it (via email or snail mail or both), it is an exhibit that will open on August 22nd at the Marnie Sheridan Gallery at Harpeth Hall. I hope you will come if you can.

Needless to say, when the gallery director called and asked me to do the exhibit, I felt so incredibly lucky to have been asked. They only have 4 exhibits a year, and many times they include more than one artist. To have been given this opportunity to have a solo exhibition is very exciting. I have been familiar with the space for years, and have attended many shows there. There are really large walls, giving an artist a great opportunity to paint any size work!

Many of you probably participate in group exhibits (in our area they are lovingly labeled "School Shows") where you gather your 40-60 pieces together and take them to a venue for a weekend sale/fundraiser type of thing. If so, you already know how much work it can be just to get that much inventory together. (I did a few of those show myself a few years ago. I have great friends who are great artists who do them regularly and enjoy doing so.) The main difference in inventory preparation for this space is, indeed, just that... the space! It's really large, and I have had taken great pleasure in being able to paint any size I really felt appropriate for a particular piece. Therefore, the works available range in size from 3 inches to 4 feet.

So "big deal," you say. "You stretched the canvases, painted them, varnished them, and framed them. Lots of people do that all the time. What else did you do in your spare time?" you ask. Well, since I am a self-proclaimed overly organized artist with a bent toward marketing, I organize myself until I'm crazy. Each piece is photographed, and entered into my computer database. The database contains everything there is to know about the painting, including title; size; date; inventory number; when it was varnished; where it is to show (or has already shown); frame cost; shipping costs (when going out of town); subject; where it was painted; an image of the work; any additional notes on the piece; PLUS, once sold, to whom; when; where; for how much; through which source; and what my final net is on the sale. Additionally, this inventory database is connected to my list of contacts database and my list of venues database so that when one change gets made, they all work together for those who love to organize. Out of this miraculous database, I can select works, select a format for printing, and print title cards, labels, CD-trays, inventory sheets, and a half-dozen other things with what ever information I want printed. So, of course, I do all of this and prepare whatever is necessary for the exhibit. In this case, I am doing my own title cards. Having my database up to date makes that easy.

After I have everything on the computer, I need to also update my website with the new works. Since the photos are already made, I upload the image and add the information on size, etc. there too. Sometimes I also share some of the images on facebook or other online galleries with which I am listed.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I choose an image for the postcard (and for this show I design it), update my contacts email and snail mailing lists, and prepare a fresh bio for printing. Next it is time to list the exhibit on my website and in my newsletter and prepare an e-blast on iContact to remind every one about it. Oh, but I forgot to mention that American Art Collector magazine had been asking for the past year when I would be having a solo exhibition because they would like to do an article about it. So I contact them and they send a list of interview questions and want 8 high resolutions images sent via ftp so I do that too.

(I will not go astray here and tell you all of the other events that have taken me away from the studio during this time... you've heard about most of them already and realize how little actual time in the studio I have had).

Now I'm sure I've left out something here, (rest assured there is a list and I will check it WAY more than twice), but the point is that being in this business means you do a whole of of stuff that has nothing whatsoever to do with painting. I'm really sorry to have to break that news to you. It is necessary stuff, however, and in the long run pays off big and makes things easier to keep track of. So if you have not yet set up a database or do not have a way to inventory your work, I am including a link to a free site at that will help you do it. If you do not have a website (one that is easy to maintain with the click of a mouse), send Mark an email and get one started.

Last but not least, I need to remember to invite my blog followers to come to the exhibit, subscribe to my newsletter and e-blast list, and send me your thoughts on processes you find helpful in your art business.

Appropriate books for this post:

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Competitions and Juried Exhibitions from Both Sides of the Coin

Beached Bum, 8x10, plein air

Recently, I had the rather humbling honor of jurying and judging a well-respected, 86-year old, exhibition -- The Hoosier Salon Annual Exhibition in Indianapolis. There were 3 of us on the panel, so I cannot take total credit nor total responsibility for the decisions made. [Whew!] The exhibit opens next week, and I am so proud, if that is the right word, to be a part of such an incredible tradition as this organization.

Toward the end of the jurying process, I began to feel sick at my stomach, thinking about my entries to the American Impressionist Society National Juried Exhibition. I wanted very badly to retrieve my entries and run and hide, knowing with what scrutiny they were being examined. It isn't like there is any better work I could have entered, obviously, or I would have. It is just that I was understanding first hand the other side of the coin. With almost 600 entries (both 2-D and 3-D) for the Hoosier Salon, and only space for 150, the task was amazingly difficult. The works were all so worthy of recognition. I enjoyed them all. The high caliber of work is a testament to this amazing organization. Our last job was to assign approximately 20 awards. Even that was not easy.

After we were finished, we had a chance to meet the Board and tell them some of our process. Naturally, we looked at each work's academic strengths, but we also looked to see if we could recognize "the artist" in each piece. Was there passion, personality, individuality, a sense of enthusiasm? Did my work I submitted to AIS have those things? [More feeling sick and humble.]

As we left, we were each given catalogs from the past few years' exhibits. What I found, looking through those pages, was that the artists who had been accepted in previous years, fell into one of two camps: those whose work submitted for this current exhibit was fresh and new; and those who seemingly submitted basically the exact same thing year after year because it was "safe" and "good." The first group of artists will undoubtedly, if they are not already, be not only great artists, but satisfied artists. The second group may win a few awards, but run a great risk of complacency and burn out.

To everyone who entered, whether or not they made it into the exhibit, I send you congratulations for having the guts to try. I would like to share here my final paragraph written to the Board in conclusion to the process. This comes after listing the academic strengths a good work must have: strong composition, use of design, success of the artist’s intention, weight, shape, line, texture, and finally, in the case of paintings, color, and edges.

"...I would like to add, that no matter how well rendered or full of technique a piece of art is, if it does not have all of these strengths, it cannot be labeled a winner. It is a struggle to most of us to put it all together. But I would say to everyone who entered, and particularly to those who were chosen to exhibit, that the struggle is the reason for the doing. Do not become complacent, or your work will become predictable and mundane. Always continue to push yourself, and find joy in your growth."

Also, thank you to the jurors for this year's AIS. I am extraordinarily grateful to have had a little plein air piece (above) chosen as one of the 100 works in the exhibit. With 1000 entries, no doubt your job was extremely tough!

NOTE: I have had a few more books submitted by readers for inclusion in my list of suggested reading. Here are this week's books of interest:

Zorn in America: A Swedish Impressionist of the Gilded Age
ANDERS ZORN, His Life and Work