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Kimberly S. Reed-Deemer
New Mexico artist in oils, watercolor, gouache, charcoal, pastel, and ink
Unvarnished | an artist's blog
February 15, 2011 continued.  Sentimentality in art: BLEH!  I call my blog ‘unvarnished’ because on occasion I feel the need to honestly and frankly discuss critical but touchy issues in art that are just cryin’ out for attention (hey, what have I got to lose?!)  Such is the case with the epidemic of sentimentality afflicting a lot of current representational art, which if left unchecked could cripple representational art’s tentative renaissance (if there really is one) over the long term.
   Well...what is meant by ‘sentimentality?’  Granted, it’s hard to define what makes art sentimental, but as they say, I know art thus afflicted when I see it!  It would be easier to describe the problem if I could link to some of the numerous, blatant examples.  The point, however, is not to single out individual artists--which would be needlessly mean-spirited--but to raise awareness and provoke thought in general.  The best discussion I’ve encountered is the following excerpt from Saddleback College’s Professor of Art Vito-Leonard Scarola’s Juror Statement:

“Subject matter is often times an important or main part of the
content of a painting…From my standpoint if too much emphasis
is placed on subject matter alone, or one uses emotionally charged
images only for the shock value or attention, or emphasis is placed
on over sentimentality or beauty, or any other emotive or intellectual
devises that draw attention to themselves, this will prevent one
from seeing the true nature of the creative process and ultimately
falls short from a qualitative standpoint.”

Emotionally charged imagesEmotive devises that draw attention to themselves.  We’re getting very close here to the core of the problem.  If it’s too sappy-gooey, too theatrically histrionic, too self-conscious, too staged and contrived, it’s TOO SENTIMENTAL.  The antidote to sentimentality in art isn’t a cold lack of emotion, total detachment, it's honesty; honest feeling derived from genuine human experience.  Rembrandt, for example, depicted the full range of human emotion, everything from quiet reflection to chaotic action and drama, yet never succumbed to sentimentality.
   Regardless of how technically well executed it may be, representational artwork marred by sentimentality is not getting called out on the carpet when it should be by those who ought to know better, and I suspect it’s getting a blind pass for several reasons:

1) The representational art gatekeepers, including some established
    artists, surprisingly may not understand why sentimentality is undesirable in art.
    If this is the case, it’s very troubling indeed.


2) Representational art gatekeepers may be fully aware that sentimentality is a
    serious flaw in art, but avid and moneyed collectors are not being adequately
    advised regarding the lack of long term artistic significance of work plagued by
    cloying sentimentality.  In short, it sells to the uninformed, and why mess with a
    profitable thing, right?  If this is the case, it is clearly a problem, but the up side
    is that collectors can be educated about art, aesthetic consciousness can be
    raised, so ultimately it's a little less troubling.

3) The influence that Hollywood and television have had on aesthetics in the arts.
    Too many potentially good productions inevitably sell out in the end by pushing
    the easy, one-dimensional emotional buttons, and this may have had some
    impact on the other visual arts over time.

and finally,

4) Part of it may very well be attributable to insecurity or uncertainty over the role of
    representational art in terms of future art historical significance, and nostalgia
    for an imagined glorious past; an understandable but misguided desire on the
    part of advocates of representational art to restore to representational art a
    perceived former grandeur and gravitas that fell out of favor with the inception of
    Modernist art.  

Well, that's the gist of it, for better or worse.  Difficult things to approach, but when all is said and done, it makes for a more interesting and meaningful blog to talk about things in art that really matter.  I’ll add to this topic as I review other writings about this issue later this evening…
February 15, 2011.  'Fiesta Hats' completed.  This painting was an experiment in using dark paint to lay out the initial drawing, and in some areas the dark brush lines are still quite evident, such as in the contour lines of the middle figure's hat.  I also loosely toned large expanses of the canvas with a lavender blue at the start, which is something I hadn't tried before. 
   The figures are united as a group not only by their close position and their fiesta attire, but by the streak of dappled sunlight that falls across their shoulders.  The big lesson in this painting involved handling a range of light and shadow without overdoing either extreme.  I spent a lot of time stepping back and looking hard at the transition between the sun streaked and spotted areas and the cooler shadows. 
   There were so many 'land mines' in this composition where I could have over drawn and overpainted the facial features, got too carried away with the bright colors, and lost the variation in edges, emphasis and focus.  Equally challenging was conveying naturalism in the postures.  The girl on the left has an air of an alertness, a little tension, which contrasts with the more markedly relaxed attitude of the older girl in the middle.  To sum it up, there was a lot of juggling to be done in this painting, and as always, I learned a lot from the process. 
February 12, 2011.  Yes, I know...I said I was going to start a new page soon, but the weather and other difficulties threw a monkey wrench into my schedule.  I have just a little more to do on this painting, so I guess I'll start the new page right after this painting is done.  I'm finishing up on the middle girl's face, which wants to command a little more attention than I had originally planned so I guess I'll just go with it.  I want to do a bit more finishing on the ears of both girls, and a little more work on the middle girl's features, within reason.  Her left eye (the side in shadow) is a tad squirrelly looking, so I need to deal with that.  The final task will be to assess overall cohesiveness, organization and balance by taking the whole thing in from a distance to see if there are any areas that need some adjustments, whether in the figures or the background tones.   
February 8, 2011.  Takin' the plunge.  I took a deep breath and started work on the remaining faces.  Again, values and color need to be well thought out, as the secondary figures are in shadow, but even so, it can't be too oppressively dark.  The middle girl is coming along well.  I am always pleased when there is a definite cohesiveness emerging in the features at this early stage, signally that I've got the fundamental structure of the head well established.  I used an old 1/4" (7 mm) filbert that's a little on the dog-eared side to lay in the broad facial features, keeping me from getting distracted by detail at this point.  The brush probably needs to be replaced, but it's got the right amount of spring, and the wear on it actually makes it good for some things where I want a little blurring.  I keep trimming the frays off, hoping not to have to throw out a versatile, favorite brush. 
   I'm going to try and start a fresh blog page soon because this one is getting too long.  I'll archive what I've got below.  Some people archive by the month, but I hate to break up a particular topic, such as the painting I'm working on now, when it crosses over from the end of one month into the  beginning of the next.  At any rate, I'll be taking care of the new page soon.
February 7, 2011.  Secondary figures and background.  The primary figure is just about done.  I had to lower the rear edge of her hat brim because something was throwing her orientation off, making her look at times as if she was facing forward rather than being viewed from the rear.  Lowering the brim slightly, and a few other tweaks, seemed to stabilize her.  Finally, I added her earring and a trace of soft green at the edges of the flowers in her hat, which may yet need to be lowered in value just a pinch.  
   I moved on to the background and secondary figures, adding some darker values and some color changes in the blue areas here and there.  The white blouses looked a bit cold and flat and needed some warmth in the highlights, so I mixed white with a touch of Naples yellow and a hint of flesh color and went back into the brightly lit areas of the blouses with the warmer white. 
   The next main task is to begin work on the face of the girl in the middle without going into so much focus and detail that she pulls too much attention off the primary figure.  Gotta think about this carefully.
   I shot this photo after 12 noon when the light is much more direct coming through my studio windows, so I'm getting a lot of flecks of glare on the canvas weave that I don't usually get in these photos.  
February 4, 2011.  Cold studio!  Like most of the U.S., we've been experiencing a prolonged surge of snow and brutally frigid temperatures for the past few days, and all the hardships that brings to just managing the chores of daily life, not to mention working conditions in my studio.  I can get the temperature in my studio up to a functional level if I keep a constant, robust fire going in the fireplace.
   I've been detailing the hats, the blouses, and making some adjustments here and there on the gesture and posture of the primary figure.  I had to raise the neckline of her blouse and straighten the torso.  The torsion in her upper body is a difficult posture to describe convincingly, so extra care is required.  Her head and neck are at just about maximum rotation to the left--a position that can't be held for very long--so the depiction has to give the impression of a fleeting, momentary turn of the head in response to something off to the left, out of the frame.  I've got some tweaking to do before I'm satisfied that I've nailed it. 
February 2, 2011.  Skin tones, skin tones, skin tones.  The challenge to this particular composition is in the variation on shadow and light all throughout the painting, and how this affects the flesh tones.  A small bit of the arm is in bright sunlight, other areas are in greater shadow, and the rest ranges somewhere in the middle.  I don't want to inadvertently exaggerate the extremes of either light or color and value. 
   The face of the primary figure is in shadow, but that shadow transitions from deepest under the brim of the hat to relative brightness around her chin and shoulders.  In other words, it's a complex area and it is important to calibrate the light, color and values carefully on her face.  The other figures won't be developed as much as this one, although they'll still need some attention.  Once I get the primary figure where it needs to be in terms of light, color and value I can then adjust the other two figures.   
February 1, 2011.  That's some hat.  I began work on the hats last night, first laying in the local straw yellow color of the brims, and then working on reflected light and shadows.  These hats are piled high with colorful artificial flowers.  I recalled from a previous charcoal and pastel drawing I did a couple years ago of this same group that the less I actually fussed with the flowers, the better.  In that drawing there were three of these hats with flowers, and by the time I got to the third hat I had figured out not to overdraw the flowers, to handle them with an easier, lighter, more suggestive touch. 
   I likely will not add a whole lot more to the flowers below.  The greatest development in the flowers is clustered right above her profile, which is where the focus should be.  For comparison, below this photo is the charcoal and pastel drawing of this subject that I did two years ago. 
January 31, 2011.  Show room nearly done.  The spotlights are in, and we still have to tile between the glass block windows, finish a little bit of trim around the blocks, install some narrow, cosmetic-only (i.e., non-structural) ceiling 'beams,' paint the door, and install the picture hanging system.  (OK, so there's still a lot to be done, but it's essentially finished).  We did it all ourselves and $aved a bundle : )  : )  : )   I can't wait to make the 'big transition' into the showroom and start rearranging my cramped studio...
January 31, 2011.  Blocking flesh tones.  After being satisfied that the drawing was correct, I started blocking in some of the higher chroma flesh tones.  I was a little unsure how the lavender would fare showing through some areas of the skin, but to my surprise it seems to work just fine.  Right now the flesh looks a little strident with just the bright peachy color against the lavender, but there will be much greater development involving more varied and subdued skin tones, ranging from pale, highlighted areas to more deeply shadowed regions. 
January 30, 2011.  A drawing or a painting?  I was looking at my Degas books for insight (yet again) and was reminded of an unusual and characteristic thing about his paintings and drawings: visible black contour lines.  It looks as if he consistently drew or painted his initial layout in either charcoal or black paint.  He then modeled figures and blocked in color and values to build up the forms, etc., but these basic structual or contour lines were always prominent, and in some instances it appears he even went back into areas where the lines had been obliterated or muffled and restated the fundamental black lines of the figure or object.  And then left them to be seen.  The overall effect is that it is hard to claim that his paintings were strictly paintings because the drawing is so dominant. 
   I started a new multiple figure oil painting and decided to try a few new things.  I toned much of the canvas with a lavender blue, leaving patches of bare white canvas in areas which will be within streaks of bright sunlight.  Then I began drawing in the figures with medium brown paint, which is different from my usual approach using a layout or initial sketching color that is anything but brown or black.  I have to say I was a little hesitant to use such a dark color, so I lightened the brown with a smidge of white, but eventually I saw that I really needed to go darker so I mixed Payne's gray with the umber--without any white-- and went back into it.  Because the lavender is still wet, the dark lines tend to mix with the lavender and lighten as I draw (painting wet into wet), so my lines are still not as dark as they could be.  I suppose in order to get really dark lines I'd have to wait until the lavender dries and then do my drawing with the dark paint.  I've been focusing on getting the basic drawing correct before I do anything more to it. 
   This is the fun but kind of jittery stage because of the raw roughness to all of it.  But that's a good thing; rough and raw is just fine at this point.  A rough painting can be developed further, but it's very hard, almost impossible, to backpedal an overworked painting back to freshness.  
   The figure of the younger girl on the left is obviously the focal figure, and most of my attention will be devoted to her...and her totally bodacious hat.    
January 29, 2011.  My second oil portrait done!  It's not often that paintings or drawings turn out as we might initially imagine them, they sometimes have a will of their own and take a turn in a different direction, but I have to say that in this case the portrait of my sister does come very close to what I was after in my mind's eye.  The primary objectives were to convey her personality even though much of the usual visual information of her face was obscured, and to paint the portrait in a manner that was decisive and fluid.   

What did I learn from the process? 

1) Placement: in the rush of energy to start a new painting, I need to slow down a bit and make sure I've fully considered the total placement of the image on the canvas.  The fact that I didn't place the subject exactly where I would have liked didn't ruin the painting, but it did mean that I had to work a little harder than I otherwise might have to balance the elements compositionally using the background toning, emphasis of line, and values. 

2) Flesh tones: I experienced some strange and unexpected color shifting in the flesh tones, and I wonder if I need to tone the canvas more before I do my preliminary monochrome layout.  That might provide a more uniform undertone to the flesh areas, and then I can vary the skin tones as needed.  I've been doing my initial layout on a mostly white ground, and I think I'm going to give the next one more of a colored ground instead of the white.

3) It's very difficult to paint on an easel that isn't stable!  I bought an aluminum floor easel so that I could use much bigger canvases like the one I used for my sister's portrait, but in spite of the manufacturer's claims to the contrary, there was a definite bounce to it that made it harder to use.  The wooden table easel my husband made for me is as solid as a rock, and eventually he'll make me a wooden floor easel, but for now I have to deal with the flapping easel if I want to paint large canvases.  
Now I have to email this image to my sister...
'Lisa With A Fan' 
22" x 28"  oil on canvas
January 27, 2011.  I can see the finish line...Most of the major tasks of this portrait are completed, but there are a few secondary issues to deal with before I can determine that this painting is done.  The hair needs just a few darker values and some brighter highlights in select areas.  Her forehead looks a bit flat and needs some subtle modeling, and the hairline also needs a little softening. 
   The hand is just about where it should be, but I've got to make the small sliver of upholstered arm rest under her arm a little more distinct in color and value.  I diddled with it last night, but the color is too similar to hue and value to the background as it is right now.  And finally, her cheek is still not quite the correct color and values.  It may not appear so in this photo, but the skin of the cheek is just a touch on the gray side, and I need to be able to work on it when I have no other big projects going and I can really focus. 
   I painted the walls of our soon-to-be art showroom yesterday with paint into which I added some very coarse texturing particles.  This made the wall paint VERY hard to roll out, and it took me 3 hours to paint 2 relatively small walls!  I like the appearance that the texture gives, but it's a bear to apply.  Today I paint the ceiling of the showroom, but I've decided not to use the texture, just paint it with regular, untextured paint.  All this means that the last remaining work on my sister's portrait may go a little slower that usual, but I do expect it to be done by the end of this coming weekend.  Stay tuned...
January 26, 2011.  Going against type.  I already blogged about the primary motivation behind the oil portrait of my sister in oriental motif, but I also have to admit to a desire to redefine the increasingly common ‘young babe in Asian get-up’ type painting. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were very taken with oriental art and tried to incorporate some kind of Asian influence into their work, superficially at first by using props and costumes, and later by actually adopting Japanese artistic conventions of design, composition and color/value treatment. Probably the most notable 19th century artist who delved into Asian influences was Whistler, but there are others, such as Mary Cassatt and even Van Gogh.
   I now often see contemporary representational artists similarly incorporating Asian props and costumes into their figurative work. The typical depiction is a young woman in (nothing but) a kimono or Chinese robe, and sometimes the figure holds a fan or an oriental ceramic vessel. The artist customarily treats the figure as a rather distant, emotionally neutral object of beauty, much like a piece of oriental porcelain, or an exotic floral arrangement. The figures are always attractive young women, and often there’s a bit of tasteful ‘cheesecake’ to the whole concept.
   My portrait of my sister is my redefinition of the type. She’s a beautiful person, both in appearance and in character, but I’m not presenting her as a distant courtesan or concubine. The format brings her right up close to the picture plane, and she gazes straight out at the viewer with directness and amusement rather than demurely looking away.  Just because a subject has been done by many artists over time doesn't mean one can't approach it with a new twist.  It can be fun to take a commonly done subject and reinvent it in some way.
January 25, 2011.  Short & sweet: these eyes.  I'm priming and painting the showroom, which is getting really close to being done, but I wanted to post the progress on my sister's face, particularly the eyes, which are so crucial to the emotional state in this painting.  I'm also working on the skin tone of the face, which isn't quite where I want it at this point, but the overall form is getting there.  The corner of her mouth is just barely showing, but it's critical to get it placed correctly, and for it and the smile crease in the cheek to have just the right quality without being too emphatic. 
January 23, 2011.  Morphing, sculpting, shaping.  Over the past two days I've been working to get the hand, wrist and arm right, and I started defining the head, trying to solidify the overall shape and contours.  She's tilting her head slightly to one side, and the outer contours of the skull have to be in sync with the slight tilt to her features.  I really want to maintain that tilt, so I'm taking extra time getting it all coordinated before getting too far into the facial features.  It's getting there, but I'm not yet satisfied.  The hand is getting close to where I want it, and with a little more work should be there soon.
    As I've found to be the case with all portraits, in addition to the big masses, it's the little details of the face and body that make all the difference, such as the slight tilt to the head, the precision of the arch of the brows, the slight hint of a smile in the eyes and cheek, and even the subtle character of the grasp in the hand and the posture of the arm.  'Close enough' isn't good enough--it's got to be spot on.  Because I know my sister's face so well, I'm even more hyper-sensitive to miscalculations and distortions in the form and features.  
January 22, 2011. Gimme a hand?  Most art students take some life drawing whereby the student becomes familiar with depicting human form by drawing models via direct observation.  Some students take this study further by enrolling in an anatomy course to learn the human skeleton and muscles.  My training, however was unusual in that I also spent several years working in scientific illustration as I worked on my master's degree in physical anthropology.  As a student of anthropology, I became more familiar with the human skeleton, especially the primate hand, than I ever imagined was possible when I was an art student drawing the model.  Hands in particular have a reputation for being difficult for artists to draw and paint convincingly, and in those instances when I have hands to depict I tend to spend a great deal of time on them.  After what I've been through in my training, if I can't do hands well I simply have no excuses!
   My anthropology human osteology course began with the histology of bone, followed by bone and cartilage formation processes.  We learned the bones of the skeleton, including memorization of hundreds of minute bone features.  Our lab practicals included a 'black box' exercise in which human bones, non-bone objects, and animal bones were placed together in a closed box.  Through an opening in the box, we were to expected to identify by touch alone what the items inside the box were--no peeking.  The final weeks of the course involved a survey of human bone pathologies, followed by techniques for estimating age, sex and probable ethnicity of human skeletal remains, as well as formulas for estimating total body stature using measurements from individual long bones.  This course was followed by two more specialized osteology classes: non-human primate anatomy, and bioarchaeology.
   But wait, it didn't end there--my graduate research involved even more study of bones.  For my thesis work, I gathered metric data from the finger bones of a wide range of primates, a project which utilized the osteology collections at 3 natural history museums in the country.  In order to maintain some consistency in methodology across my study, I took measurements from right hand bones only, which necessitated sorting commingled primate hand bones into their left and right sides before I could even begin to take the measurements I needed (I quickly learned that even if the specimen  in the box appears to be sorted, yep, it's been scrambled!).  By the end of my data collection, I had taken approximately 10,000 finger bone measurements from species of multiple primate genera.  It may sound like an excruciatingly dry task, but it was during this kind of intensive data collection that I was able to appreciate the fascinating individual variation present in primate skeletal form, including humans. 
   Between my scientific illustration and my anthropology training I became extremely familiar with skeletal anatomy, and it has influenced both my figurative and still life work.  Of course, it's not necessary for art students to delve into skeletal anatomy to this degree, but that's how my circumstances happened to evolve, and it was an incredibly engaging odyssey.  Now, back to painting my sister's hand...

January 21, 2011.  Defining the hand.  As I began to define the hand last night I discovered that the fingers and palm were too broad and husky, so in order to address this I had to adjust the length of the hand and also raise the wrist, which then raises the level at which the lower arm is resting a bit.  I'll have to determine the final thickness of the wrist and length of the lower arm before the hand and arm are truly finished.  I also began to position the eyebrows, but didn't go into the face any more than that during last night's session. 
   I made a miscalculation at the start of this painting; I should have positioned her slightly further to the left of center.  It's not a major issue, but I would like to have had more of the arm holding the fan included in the composition, and a little less negative space on the left side of the painting.  There is no one 'right' solution to any given painting, only that some solutions can be better than others.  At any rate, the eventual success or failure of this particular painting depends on many factors, so I'm not terribly concerned.  I'll give the hand/wrist/arm a bit more attention this evening, and perhaps even start real work on the face. 
January 20, 2011.  Edges, or 'WWDD?' ('What Would Degas Do?').  I read a lot about the importance of 'edges' these days, but it's an old, familiar subject to me.  When I was in high school I discovered the work of Mary Cassatt and her contemporary Edgar Degas, who were, in my opinion, a couple of the true masters of the 'lost and found' edge.  Of equal importance, they were also masters of selective focus, in which the focal areas of a painting or drawing were given the greatest development or finish, while the peripheral or secondary areas of the composition were summarily executed, often almost to the point of abstraction.  Yes, we have some contemporary representational artists who are skillful in edge treatment, inspiring battalions of emulators enthusiastically flicking edges left and right with great conviction, but I would urge artists who really want to learn about edges to look at the work of Cassatt and Degas, as well as the extraordinary paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec.  They are, in my opinion, a few of the great masters of edge and line treatment.  Contours and focus were always treated in a manner that was an honest, immediate response to the specific needs of the subject and situation at hand, and thus there is infinite variety and subtlety in line and edge handling in their work, which never strayed into the dangerous territory of a compulsive technical affectation or gimmick.  Degas' 'Jeantaud, Linet and Laine' perfectly exemplifies these qualities of edge, line and selective focus. 
   I think I resolved the arm/shoulder line to my satisfaction, and completed the bird on the fan.  The red blossoms on the fan have yellow centers, so I'll do those tonight, too, but I can't finish the teal blue edge of the fan until after the face and hair are done.  We took the day off yesterday to visit some Canyon Road galleries in Santa Fe, but this evening I'll be tackling the arm and hand holding the fan. 
January 18, 2011.  Shirt detailing.  Again, like the fan, I don't want to overpaint the embroidery on the shirt.  The line across the shoulders, from the subject's left elbow to the the right shoulder/arm contour, is an important line, as it has a role in carrying or supporting the attitude of the subject.  I'm still not quite satisfied with the overall sweep and turn of the entire contour, so I'll be giving it all a little bit more time.  To me, this is the kind of attention to detail that can take a good portrait to the level of a great portrait, and I do try to literally step back from a given painting and really take a hard look at the big lines and movement.  I'll have to adjust highlights and shadows in the folds of the sleeve, as well as perhaps strengthen or de-emphasize some contour lines in order to get the correct sweep and turn that I'm after.  It's close, but not quite there yet.  The sleeve of her left arm was too short, so I had to extend the hem some. 
January 17, 2011.  Detailing the fan.  The fan is an important element in the composition, in that the silk fabric is thin enough to allow diffuse colors of the sitter's face, hair and shirt to filter through to some extent.  Thus I have to be careful to render its slightly transparent yet still opaque appearance correctly.  I worked on the overall color and values of the silk, and then began detailing the Chinese painting on the fan, taking care not to fuss and overpaint the details.  I'll have to let this much dry a bit so that I don't obliterate some nice passages with additional work.  It doesn't need much more, but I'd like to develop the bird a bit further and recheck work on the transparency of the silk to add minor adjustments if needed. 
January 17, 2011.  What a good sport!  We currently live hundreds of miles apart, but when I was a younger artist my sister served as a wonderful model for many of my drawings and paintings.  She's a natural, whether I caught her unawares or asked her to consciously pose for some concept I dreamed up.  We're 17 months apart in age and of all my siblings, she was around and always willing. 
   When I was 25 I saw an exhibit of Winslow Homer's croquet paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, which sparked a brief Homer 'croquet' episode.  I came up with the idea of recruiting my sister and her former husband to pose for me playing croquet in what I imagined to be genteel, summery, updated but Homer-ish garb.  Because we each lived in apartments that had no real yards to speak of, we had to drive in search of an expanse of lawn to set up a few wickets to stage the mock  'croquet game.'  We ended up in an unincorporated area outside of town, a mosaic of country estates with huge lawns and rolling woodlands called 'Bull Valley.'  While we couldn't use the actual country club lawn there, we found a private residence with an expanse of manicured lawn and piled out of the car.  We stuck a few wickets in the grass, my sister and her ex-husband did their best imitation of Homer's croquet players, and I quickly shot a roll of film.  We grabbed the mallets, balls and wickets, hopped back in the car and tore off.  I can only imagine the homeowners looking out the front picture window wondering who those people were playing croquet in their front yard-??? 
   My second oil portrait is a new version of a charcoal and pastel portrait I did of my sister in 1987.  I had seen a reproduction of Bartolome Estaban Murillo's 1670 oil painting 'A Girl and Her Duenna,' which depicts a teen-aged girl leaning on the sill of a window with her chin resting on one hand, and positioned slightly behind, her middle-aged governess/chaperone halfway hidden behind the shutter.  The governess is wearing a long scarf on her head, and partly covers her smiling face behind the end of the scarf.  Murillo brilliantly conveys the nanny's amusement through the eyes, cheeks, and forehead. 
   After seeing Murillo's painting, I was intrigued by the idea of doing a portrait where I was similarly restricted in how much of the face was needed to express the sitter's psychological state.  I came up with the idea of having my sister pose with a fan.  I had a painted silk, oriental fan, she had an oriental brocade shirt with embroidery, and the result was the charcoal and pastel drawing that I eventually exhibited in the 1987 Gallery Ten regional juried show in Rockford, Illinois.  I wish I had a digital image of the original charcoal version, but that was well before digital cameras and the drawing left my hands shortly after I completed it.   
   I began laying in this new oil version of that 1987 drawing Friday.  Yesterday I started blocking in some of the flesh tones, and began some of the background.  The color palette I used in the charcoal version was fairly bold and strong, and while the colors of the fan and the embroidery of the shirt will still be bright, the overall color harmony in this oil version will probably be softer than the original charcoal and pastel.  The key to this painting will be how well I can express the emotional and mental state of the sitter, even as the face is partially filtered by the fan.    
below: results of the first session
January 15, 2011.  'Bailarina en Reposo' done!  Being my first oil portrait, I was a bit unsure at first, but manageable, daily work sessions, reliance on drawing instincts and simplification kept me out of trouble.  I really can't wait to start another oil portrait, but I've been invited to exhibit in the annual Northern New Mexico Devotional Arts Exhibit at the Ray Drew Gallery at Highlands University, and I need to have a couple new pieces completed for that soon.
   My husband and I went to do some errands in Albuquerque yesterday, and after lunch we visited the art museum there.  Unfortunately one of the museum's galleries was closed for exhibit construction--we have an uncanny temdency to visit museums in New Mexico on the days when exhibit halls are closed like this--but we were still able to see other temporary exhibits and some works from their permanent collections.  Since moving to New Mexico I have become a huge fan of New Mexico's regional art colonies, which originated in Taos and Santa Fe at the end of the 19th century.  I picked up a wonderful book on one of the founders of the Taos Society of Artists, Ernest L. Blumenschein.  I'd seen his work in reproductions before, but when I turned the corner and was confronted face to face with his 'Star Road and White Sun,' a double portrait of sorts measuring at least 3' high by 4' wide, I was just about knocked off my feet.  Talk about being "mugged by art," as Columbia University art historian Simon Schama refers to this sort of sudden and sideblinding experience with great works art. 
   Blumenschein dealt with a wide variety of subject matter in his art, but I find his portraits and figures most compelling.  I would urge anyone unfamiliar with New Mexico's historical art colonies to take a look.  Most people immediately think Georgia O'Keeffe when they think of New Mexico art, and rightly so, but there were so many really exciting artists working in this area from the late 1800's onward.  Until I moved here I just had no idea.  I'm still discovering new artists from that period, and we've been living here almost 7 years.   
'Bailarina en Reposo'
20" x 16"
oil on gallery wrap canvas
January 11, 2011.  Getting close!  An artist once remarked to me after seeing a portrait I'd done that "I can see her thinking!"  I could not have summarized what I was after better than that.  The ultimate goal, whether I reach it or not in any given portrait, is to be not just a painter of accurate likenesses, or to master a checklist of technical characteristics, but to peer a bit behind the outward posturing of an individual to get at that inner self. 
   A subject's emotional and mental state is expressed in many ways, from the slight furrow or raising of a brow, the narrowing squint of an eye, to the barely perceptible turn at the corner of the mouth or set of the jaw, to the focus or clarity of the eyes, as well as carrying through the posture and attitude of the entire body.  I won't be satisified that this current portrait is finished unless I think I've been able to access some of that psychology.  It's not quite fully 'there' yet, but I'm getting closer and closer each day.  When I'm working on portraits I consult my reference books on the portraiture of Rembrandt and Velazquez, who were probably the best "psychologist[s] of the human condition," as Columbia University art historian Simon Schama puts it so well.  William Adolphe Bouguereau just doesn't reach me, and in spite of his technical dazzle, in my opinion he never plumbed the depths of honest human experience the way Rembrandt and Velazquez did.   
   Last night I lowered some of the values in the shadowed skin tones of the arms, and did some continuing work on various areas of the face.
January 10, 2011.  Developing the features.  I took my own advice over the weekend and made a conscious effort to stop intellectualizing the process and just paint by feeling and instinct, which served me well in the past.  I've been doing portraits in charcoal and graphite for years, and while I still have a lot to learn when it comes to other types of subjects, I do feel portraits are my oldest and strongest area.  I did my first serious portrait when I was about 23 and still in college, a charcoal portrait of my sister.  I simply followed my instincts:
    Yesterday I worked on refining the skin tones of the dancer, mostly in terms of the middle values, and then began to develop the features.  I'll be addressing more of the highlighted and shadowed areas of the face this week, and I'll also continue work on the features. 
   I've found that a portrait passes through a critical mid-stage where the features either fall into their rightful places or they don't, and while other areas of the portrait may be well done, if the core of the portrait doesn't hang together those other successful passages don't matter.  If it doesn't come together it is because of some earlier, inherent miscalculation that probably can't be addressed without a radical reworking of the fundamental structure of the head.  It is through experience that one learns to check early for these initial structural considerations so they don't lead to problems down the road.  I'm at a point with this portrait where I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I can relax because I know I've jumped the really critical hurdles. 
January 8, 2011.  Think less. When I was a much younger artist there was no internet, no art blogs, no art web sites or discussion boards.  What I knew of art I got from art history and studio courses, studying lots of art books on my own, seeing some art in person, occasionally talking to a few other artists I knew, and most critically, from just doing.  Compared to what is presently available for artists it might seem as if artists working back then were fairly isolated.  We are now blessed by an embarrassment of art resource riches, right?
   As I was continuing work on the oil portrait of the dancer today, I vacillated over how to execute some brushwork in the background, and thought wryly about how nonchalantly I would have handled the same passages back when I was younger and working in much greater isolation.  I realized with some irony that in my isolation years ago I was actually much more naturally intrepid.  I didn’t think so much.  I just drew and painted in relative oblivion to much of what was occurring elsewhere, and in many ways that was kind of liberating.  I wasn't as conscious of the judgment of 'peers,' whoever they might be (?), I wasn’t always going over a mental checklist of critical qualities ("edges! drawing! brushwork! composition! color!" etc., etc.) that representational artwork is judged by, or fretting about the stylistic and technical trends and affectations sweeping through current representational art.  All that sort of thing was pretty much off my radar.  And I certainly don't recall clutching up out of fear and uncertainty regarding the outcome or success of some spontaneous impulse I might have.  I just plunged in, and whatever happened happened.  Access to so much art information these days is a wondrous thing, but I realize I have to consider the possibility that too much may have somewhat of a clutch effect on me.  Sometimes we have to put a little distance between our brains and the glut of images and information beckoning us--or bludgeoning us.
   As for the portrait, I added some lower values in the dress, developed more of the ribbons on the sleeves, described the earrings, did some further toning of the background, and began work on the face.  I'll be working more this evening on the face, and whatever happens...it's all good.   
January 7,2011.  Skin tones.  I spent some time yesterday afternoon working on the hair ornament, which has some complexities but I don't want to overpaint it.  This ornament with its flowers is essentially a mini still life and I'm trying to use a few brushstrokes as possible in order to describe the elements.  There is obviously some black in it, but I have to decide how dark it really needs to be, and that may have to be determined after I have some darker values going in other parts of the painting.  I used mostly a thinner glaze of Payne's gray over the red underpainting, and a few touches of actual black here and there. 
   Last night I took a deep breath, mixed up a flesh tone and began work on the arms and face.  I didn't expect to get a lot done, but focused on glazing over the red underpainting without entirely obliterating it.  When I felt I'd done enough on the skin tones for one session, I worked on a few of the hot pink ribbons on her shoulders and sleeves. 
below: the previous night's work beginning to tone the background, and detailing the hair ornament & dress
January 6, 2011.  Blocking in some color.  Being that this is the first oil portrait I've ever done, I'm dealing with it in manageable portions to begin with.  I began blocking in the color in the hair ornament last night, a fun--and thus less intimidating--area to handle.  The white and yellow blossoms may be a bit too high, but I can cut in and make them more compact when I introduce some background toning.  As to be expected, the face will be the main challenge, so I'm thinking about it a bit before I go any further there.  I drew this dancer in full figure in charcoal with some touches of pastel a couple years ago, but I've been thinking of doing a cropped down portrait exactly like this ever since.  The main concepts I'm keeping in mind are the sunlight, her casual, unselfconscious posture and expression, and the riot of color in her outfit.
January 5, 2011.  And now for something entirely different.  I'm taking a break from the still lifes to try something completely new for me: an oil portrait.  I've done many portraits over the years and paid a lot of bills with commissioned portraiture, but my portrait work up until now had been done in charcoal, graphite and watercolor.  When I started oil painting in August, portraits were deep in the back of my mind but I knew I had a lot of work to do before I could even think about attempting any.  I started oil painting with a couple small landscapes and then seized upon still life as a good, tried and true method of learning how to handle oil painting.  In the process, however, I discovered that still life painting in and of itself is a really interesting form, thus I've been delving deeper into still life painting without constraint.  I guess I'm feeling a little more intrepid, and decided that maybe it was time to get my feet wet with oil portraiture.
   Regional dance forms have been the subject of a lot of my work here in New Mexico, and especially the form called Baile Folklorico.  My dance compositions have typically involved a lot of movement, but this time I'm choosing a dancer at rest.  I love the elaborate assemblage in her hair, and her slightly skeptical or guarded expression.  I use photographic references in a lot of my work, particularly for subjects involving motion or when I'm interested in people unselfconsciously engaged in the activities of real life. 
   The main thing I'm going to say about the use of photography by artists is that a skilled and judicious artist can use photography wisely and paint equally well from either direct observation or from photographic references.  Painting or drawing from life or plein air is no guarantee of a successful work of art.  It's in the brain of the artist more than the method or mode, but there are a lot of people making a lot of money convincing artists otherwise (see my blog entry from November 18, 2010--it's another manifestation of that 'piece of the pie' thing.).  There are different objectives and satisfactions to be gained from working in either mode (i.e., if an artist wants to depict something other than deliberately posed models in a studio, plaster casts/statuary, and still lifes then you need to be able to access other subjects), and that's the main reason why artists should consider working in both ways if they want to.  OK, I'll get off my soapbox now.   
January 4, 2011.  Calabazilla done!  The wild gourd I depicted in this still life is called a calabazilla, or buffalo gourd, and it grows everywhere around here, even in the alley outside my studio windows.  During the summer the vines are covered in large, wing shaped green leaves that look like grounded flocks of birds, and the trumpet shaped flowers are an apricot color.  Sitting on a table in my studio is a very long section of the vine with about a half dozen gourds still attached that I scavenged from the side of the road back in October.  I'm not sure where or how to store it, but the cats have discovered the gourds so I'll have to put it somewhere soon.  One of the cats also discovered the gourd and feathers I used in this still life, because I noticed it had been subject to a little 'rearranging' over the weekend.   
   As I noted several times below, I tinkered with the green fabric for a couple days, not really knowing what it was that I was unsatisfied with until I inadvertently made an adjustment to the shadows of the fuschia fabric in the area under the dried leaves of the gourd.  Suddenly it all came together.  While the green areas certainly needed the adjustments I made, it wasn't really the green that was causing the lingering problem--the source was elsewhere, in the fuschia shadows.  So the take away lesson for me is that if I'm having a problem with what seems to be a specific region of the painting, consider examining the composition as a whole for the cause. 
   Getting good quality, official photos of artwork is an ongoing struggle for me, and this task is even more difficult with oil paintings, I've found.  Specks of glare and color and value wash-out plague my efforts to get accurate photos, so today I'm trying a new tactic.  I set up two light sources, one on the left and the other on the right, and angled them toward the painting.  This seems to help cancel out a lot of the glare, so I'll be experimenting throughout the day trying to get the optimum angles and height.  The photo below is fairly good in most respects, except there is an oblique streak of shadow from the window crossing up the lower left quadrant of the painting. 
January 3, 2011.  Close to the finish line...I've been working at gradually removing the scrubby 'murk' in areas of the green fabric, and also making various adjustments to the red leaf.  I think one more evening on this ought to address any remaining issues.  Because of its shifting and changing appearance, the toughest area of this painting has been the shadowing in the green material along the fuschia fabric on the left of the painting.  In reality there are some very dark areas in that shadow, but if painted as dark as they are they created a problematic abyss--a black hole-- in the composition that was much more apparent in person than in these photos.  
January 2, 2011.  Showroom floor installed!  In November my husband and I started renovating an old stone building on our property into a showroom for our artwork.  We've reached the point where we can begin to see the light at the far end of the tunnel, after weeks and weeks of work.  First we installed glass block panels, and then framed off the space.  We drywalled and insulated, installed a small woodstove and chimney, and this week the pine flooring went in.  There is still a lot of finish work to be done before we're through, but it's beginning to look like a real space now.  The walls and ceiling have to be painted, tile will be applied to the wall between the glass blocks, lighting has to be installed, and the floor has to be polyurethaned, but the really tough stuff is behind us.  From old Sanborn insurance maps we've been able to determine that this stone structure was built around 1913. 
January 1, 2011.  Fabrics and fireworks.  New Year's Eve is a pretty quiet event around our household, at least until midnight when the rest of the town reverberates with the sound of fireworks.  I worked on the drapery as well as the objects in the lower left quadrant as the new year rang in.  The green drapery is unexpectedly proving to be the trickiest part of this painting, and I'm still not satisfied with the overall unity, so I will continue to work out the issues until I GET IT RIGHT! 
December 31, 2010.  Deepening some values.  The shadows in the green fabric are proving to be a little slippery to evaluate, as they appear to shift some from cool to warm, and lighter to darker.  I started them with a low value of the local green and then some blue, and now I'm going to them with some thio violet.  While they're gradually getting there, I'm still not satisfied with either the final colors in these shadows or the values, so I'll revisit them this evening.  The bicolored feather and the small red leaf are patiently waiting for some more attention, but I really want to get the green fabric where it needs to be first.   
December 31, 2010.  Betwixt & between: a post-modern love child. In 2008 I went to a small, outdoor art fair organized by an artist friend. Among the wide range of artwork offered to visitors, I came upon an artist's booth hung with very classically rendered portraits, figures and still life paintings. I eagerly chatted with the artist and discovered she had been receiving instruction at an atelier in a nearby city. Her work was lovely, and I questioned her about her training. It was from this artist that I first learned about the Art Renewal Center, and its efforts to promote representational artwork. Being a representational artist myself, with a lot of traditional training in my own background, I was heartened to hear that there seemed to be a resurgence of representational artwork in the country, and perhaps internationally. I went home to my computer to learn more about this Art Renewal Center and this apparent incipient renaissance in representational art.
   Oh, my.

   I am a representational artist, I always have been, and I likely always will be. In short, I love representational work--good representational work, that is. But I also love good non-objective art. In a bifurcated art world where one apparently must declare allegiance to one aesthetic camp or the other for both practical and political reasons, I find that I reside in a kind of limbo land. An artistic Siberia. Not anachronistic (or politically conservative) enough to join ideologically with the fervent disciples of the Art Renewal Center, but not really identifying with the agnostic totality of 21st century non-objective art, either. Is there anyone else wandering around this artistic no man's land with the same conflicted thoughts?
   Well, I propose an alternative. When 20th century biologists
wanted to incorporate new discoveries about genetics and molecular biology into Darwin's essentially sound landmark 1859 publication on evolutionary theory, the resulting set of updated evolutionary theories was dubbed 'The Modern Synthesis.' I propose those of us who want to sustain the craftsmanship of representational art, yet who want to broaden the "measure of artistic significance" to include both objective and non-objective art, who acknowledge that while we can learn from those in the past we are nevertheless creatures of the present, who won't deny that the past century of art history happened--or more importantly, won't deny that something about it all mattered--call ourselves the 'Post-modern Synthesis.'
   But what exactly is Post-modernism? "The simultaneous presence of diverse traditions in a single work is indicative of what we have come to call post-modernism." Ah--sounds exactly like Synthesis to me! I can go along with that.

December 30, 2010.  More work on the gourd and parrot feathers still life.  I've been working a lot on the fuschia and green fabrics the past two nights (I worked on the green material when I had a mini migraine, which was probably not such a good idea--such is life).  I think the fuschia is almost where it needs to be, but the green will need more attention because it was too yellow and I had to gray it out.  There are numerous shadowed areas in the green that need deepening, particularly on the left side, and the objects in the lower left quadrant need a little more development.  I'm pleased with the gourd, pink drapery, and feathers so far (this photo doesn't really do them full justice), and now the task is to get the green material up to that level.  These are satiny type materials and while they do have distinct highlights and crisp edges, I don't want to detract from the focal objects.  Thus I had to be judicious in my treatment of the pink material, and will have to be so with the green.   
December 29, 2010.  Artist web sites: a ‘Can Do’ attitude.  When I returned to art in 2008 after 13 years of working in scientific illustration and acquiring my master’s in physical anthropology, how the art work had changed. The internet was responsible for revolutionizing our lives, and the world of art was no exception. I spent about a year examining artist web sites, hoping eventually that I’d have my own. I had a lot of work ahead of me first, however, and I put the notion on the back burner.
   Three years and a lot of sweat later, I decided it was time. I was unaware that there were web site creation services for artists, so when I received word from the economic development office in my county that they were partnering with the local community college to offer a web site design workshop to the general public, I jumped at the chance. The fee for the workshop was minimal ($20), and we were able to purchase the web design software through the college, again at an affordable price. I ordered my software and I was in business.
   I had my site map all planned on paper—the most critical step--and my husband and I sat down to tackle the software. It was a bit rocky at first, but we persevered, and eventually my web site pages began to take shape. I was interested in a straightforward site that was easy to navigate. I was able to achieve just that. On the downside, there are still some features I haven’t yet mastered, such as an interactive function on this blog, and I still have some finishing details left to do, but overall I am not at all sorry I built this web site myself.
   My husband and I are, by nature, ‘do-it-yourselfers,’ and have been able to do many things around our property and in our home that we couldn’t afford to hire out, including our current project, rehabbing an old stone structure on our property into our art showroom. We bought an old, New Mexico vernacular Victorian house that was in essentially sound shape for $65,000., and over the past 6 years have brought much of it back to life through our own determination, careful planning and steady work. I am not the least bit sorry we didn’t hire out the renovation work.
   Perhaps if I’d known that there were art web site services available I might have gone with one of them rather than creating one myself, and who knows, in the future I may find that maintaining my web site will be easier and less time consuming if I switch to one of them. But one valuable thing I’ve gained from my decision to make my own web site is a sense of confidence that I can master something if I put my mind to it. Moreover, handling this myself means that as an artist I am giving away one less ‘piece of the pie’ to someone else.
December 28, 2010.  Guest blogging.  I was graciously invited to guest blog for Chicago based art critic and writer Brian Sherwin on the topic of art museum exhibit content, and my finished piece on the subject can be read here.  Even though I may occasionally come to somewhat different conclusions regarding the various issues Brian blogs about, I really appreciate the thought provoking material and lively discussion Brian provides to his readers. 
December 27, 2010.  Grappling with the gourd.  I worked some on defining the gourd, stem and leaf.  The green striations on the gourd were a bit trickier than I had anticipated in that I had to be careful not to overstate them.  We've been sanding drywall mud on the showroom during the day, so while I still paint every night the pace is a little slower, and probably will be for the next week or two.  We'll be ready to install and then put the finish on the flooring by the end of the week, and that's another pretty exhausting job.  We're anxious to get the showroom done, however, so we can transfer our finished art work there and I can rearrange my presently very crowded studio.  I'd like to be able to use my large floor easel for some sizable paintings soon, but that's just not possible until I deal with the cramped quarters, and having the showroom will help considerably in that respect. 
December 25, 2010.  Turning convention up-side-down.  The beige stem and dried leaves of the gourd introduce some neutral accents into the composition, which deliberately reverses the usual proportions between areas of high to low chroma.  Typically areas of high chroma would occur in much smaller proportion, but here they make up much of the composition.  The neutral details provide an interesting contrast to these intense colors.  These neutral details will be developed just a little bit more, but they don't need a whole lot of fuss.
December 25, 2010.  Don't drive angry.  Good advice when you're behind the wheel of a car, but I'm going to suggest that when you're in front of a canvas, a little 'fire in the belly' is an unexpectedly useful thing.  I've worked while in many different moods, ranging from refreshed and tranquil to fatigued and agitated, and I discovered something interesting.  I paint better when I've become slightly frustrated with a passage that isn't quite working and I get a little mad at myself.  I take a break, give myself a little kick in the rear and get back to the easel to DO IT RIGHT!  I know what I have to do, so no excuses, JUST GET BACK IN THERE AND DO IT.  Whatever the mental block is, it's channeled from frustration into physical arm and hand motion, resulting in bolder, more decisive painting and better results.  Timidity, hesitation, confusion, and indecisiveness are an artist's worst enemies.  The trick is to access that boldness, that decisiveness without having to go through the frustration routine in order to get there.
December 24, 2010.  Attention to focal objects.  I worked some on defining the focal objects last night.  I work in bouts of wet into wet, followed by drying time, and subsequent bouts of wet into wet.  It typically takes me about a week to finish a larger painting.  My schedule and lifestyle don't allow for alla prima painting, and I've found that I can work with a combination of techniques.  I'm also working on this particular painting at night using studio lighting, although most of my still lifes involved natural lighting in combination with some studio lighting.  I'm building up the form and colors of the gourd in this still life in layers.  Modeling wet into wet would obliterate some under layers of color and modeling that I want to retain, so drying time is critical to this painting. 
December 24, 2010.  Devotional art in New Mexico.  Is there a bias in the mainstream art world against, among several issues, contemporary images and exhibits with religious content, particularly at publicly funded museums?  I don't pretend to know what is occurring all across the country, but here in New Mexico we may be a place unto our own in that there is no lack of religious art, whether antique images and relics, or contemporary pieces ranging from sculpture to painting, drawing, prints, etc.  The Southwest is a place where numerous cultures and perspectives meet, some might say collide, and diverse images with spiritual content are everywhere.  And I mean everywhere.  For example, the Spanish Colonial devotional arts santero tradition did not begin as 'art' in the modern sense, but over time it has crossed boundaries so that now it generates both traditional devotional imagery and a class of 'art' objects embedded within the Southwestern art market.  In addition to churches and chapels, these devotional images can be found in people's homes, in public and private rural settings, in urban public spaces, in commercial and public galleries, in shops, in public markets, and in our regional history and art museums (my husband and I just saw the 'Threads of Devotion' exhibit, featuring hand-made clothing and acoutrements made for the oldest statue of the Virgin Mary (La Conquistadora) in the U.S., at Santa Fe's Spanish Colonial Arts museum).  The same can be said for Native American spiritual imagery, to some more limited extent, but the limits in this case do not come from the museum establishment, as Native Americans themselves have increasingly asserted their preferences for the contexts in which their imagery may be collected and viewed.  The art gallery of the state university located in my city mounts a very popular devotional art exhibit every spring, and last year was the first year I participated.  Being a public university, it is indeed funded by tax dollars.  My local Arts Council, which is in part publicly funded, offers month long exhibit space to artists, and I recently viewed a small group show that included the Christian-themed work of a local artist.  In New Mexico, I am just not seeing a dearth of religious imagery in any context.  I would also assume that there are many contemporary spiritual or religious art images and objects with less overt content which are not immediately recognized as such because they don't contain literal references to their religious content, much in the way that the color field work of Mark Rothko doesn't contain literal references to religious concepts and imagery--or any imagery for that matter--but is a deeply compelling spiritual experience for many viewers, nonetheless. 
   One of the things my husband and I love about living in New Mexico is that people here are generally pretty accepting of diversity, and this tolerance is expressed in countless ways, including the arts. 
December 23, 2010.  Chroma gone wild!  I had an attack of chroma that just came out of nowhere and took over my studio.  I've been deliberately working in a high color and value key, using color in a more judicious manner, with the highly saturated colors placed in small, targeted areas of the compositions.  I recently bought some fabric swatches, mostly in pale colors, to use as backdrops in my still lifes, and came across a remnant of HOT PINK taffeta and bought it on impulse as well.  I was thinking about setting up a new still life and decided to try out the pink taffeta, along with blue and yellow parrot feathers from the last still life, and a wild yellow gourd with green stripes that I picked up on the side of the road that I've been saving to paint.  It all sounds pretty gruesome as I write it, but against a subtle, light grayish-green backdrop it just POPS!  I started laying it all in last night, with some beginning work on the local colors of the objects today.  This is definitely way out of my comfort zone in terms of chroma, but I'm having great fun with it.  There's a lot of what is referred to as 'visual vibration' going on, I know, but I employed repetition of shapes and colors to bring a little bit of organization or discipline to the riot.  Simple, repetitive shapes, broad zones of jazzy color, and sweeping, elegant lines are the key concepts I'm aiming for here, all with the goal of making these dynamic but unorthodox chroma choices work.  I only wish I'd chosen a larger canvas for it, but if it's successful I can revisit it in a larger size in the future. 
December 20, 2010.  Parrot feathers done!...I think.  I'll have to sit with it for a day or so and see if anything jumps out at me.  I adjusted the hue of the blue fabric to be a bit more periwinkle because it took too much of a turn into blue-green, particularly in the shadow under the top feather.  I also ended up developing more of it than I had thought I would at the start, but sometimes these things go in a direction and seem to want to proceed that way.  Seeing a photo of the painting on the computer sometimes assists in detecting aspects of composition and values that I miss when looking at it so long in person, although I don't rely on a photo to evaluate color, since casual photos taken indoors like the ones I take of these paintings in progress are often inconsistent in color.  All in all, the fast changing light conditions of winter are harder to deal with than I was aware of, and because of this I found that as I progressed with more of the painting as a whole, I was making a lot of minor adjustments to areas that I thought were settled.
December 15, 2010.  Disasters, flu and painting.  I missed about 3 consecutive days of painting owing to preparations for the small works opening, and then a brief bout of intestinal flu, but I managed a little work on the parrot feather still life that I have in progress, painting a couple hours yesterday and some today--until we were called upon this afternoon, as volunteers with a disaster relief organization, to prepare refreshments for firefighters battling a wild fire blaze in our area.  The potential for fires, both human related and natural, increase this time of year with the use of fuel burning and electrical heating methods, high winds, real Christmas trees, and various other risk factors.  We've dealt with two fire situations in the past two weeks, and wherever you reside, I urge great caution regarding the risks for fires.  Be careful and be safe! 
     I've been working on the background drapery, trying to retain some of the original gesture of my initial layout, but developing the flow and lines of the fabric.  I did some additional work on the feathers, but they'll likely need some recalibrating as the drapery takes shape.  The blue fabric still needs a lot of targeted work. 
December 15, 2010.  Art history on PBS.  My area's PBS station is showing 'Paris: the Luminous Years'  this evening, and even though I'm a representational artist, I'll be watching because I think there's something to be gained from exposure to great art of all time periods, cultures and styles.  If you think so too, you may find it airing soon on your local PBS station.       
December 14, 2010. So what’s wrong with ‘pretty?’  On my still life page I write, “The objects I use can be and often are 'beautiful' in their way, but superficial, decorative 'prettiness' is increasingly not my goal.”  So what do I have against pretty?  Well…nothing.  There are some very pretty images out there, and like many people, I do respond to them.  That’s fine.  What I also respond to, but at a much deeper and more compelling level, however, is beauty.  Power.  Honesty.  A little pretty isn’t a bad thing.  It’s a lot like sugar.  In moderation it provides some very appealing flavor and comfort, a quick lift, and that’s of value.  We need some sugar to survive.  But a diet continually high in sugar is definitely not a desirable thing.  It can be addictive, swamping out our appreciation of the full spectrum of flavors, and with my art as with sugar, I felt the need to wean myself off of a tendency toward too much pretty.  I need to get some balance.  This realization hit me when I saw a reproduction of Manet's quiet but powerful still life, 'Asparagus' (1880).  It's a painting of a single stalk of white asparagus hanging partly off the edge of a table.  It's just the minimum required to still be considered a still life, but Manet draws you into the subtle colors and form of that one stalk of asparagus in a way that painters of other more elaborate and showy still life compositions fail to do. 
     I see beauty, honesty and power as something more essential, more fundamental than pretty, something a bit different, more profoundly nourishing.  Sometimes very close, but still qualitatively different.  To illustrate the distinction, consider two paintings by two different masters.  The first painting is 'Two Sisters (On The Terrace)' by Renoir.  It's a very pretty painting.  I liked it so much as a high school student when I first saw it at Chicago's Art Institute that I bought a poster of it.  I still really like it.  The second painting is 'Hendrickje Bathing in a Stream,' by Rembrandt.  Pretty doesn't really apply--it's just somewhere out there light years beyond pretty.  It's got it all: beauty, honesty and power.  The pretty habit is certainly tenacious, and I can’t go cold turkey, but I’m making an effort to ease off the pretty factor by manageable increments.  Will beauty, honesty and power follow?  Time will tell.
December 11, 2010.  Questioning the value of ‘inspiration.’ When I began this blog I decided I was going to do less of the the kind of ‘cheer leader’ motivational topics that one reads in many other art blogs—when there are other art issues that don't get needed attention, why cover a lot of ground that is dealt with elsewhere, and likely done better than I could do?  If I give in and address a motivational topic it's because I think it's really worth addressing.  I was thinking about some of the comments made by established artists Chuck Close and Richard Serra in the Charlie Rose panel discussion I blogged about below (Nov, 24, 2010, 'Hoops & Hurdles).  I’ll roughly paraphrase a comment made by one of the artists regarding ‘inspiration:’ “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just go to work.”  It sounded kind of blunt, but once I got past the initial prickliness of it and allowed myself to think about what they were saying, I began to understand: art is the result of deliberate, disciplined effort conducted on a sustained basis.  It is the product of self-directed labor.  Artists who passively wait for ‘inspiration’ to strike before acting are not in control of their art.  Take control.
December 10, 2010.  Work on focal objects.  With the opening reception for the Tiny Treasures small works invitational to prepare for, I didn't get a lot of painting in today.  During the time I did have, however, I was able to start focusing in on the objects at the center of interest: the parrot feathers.  I can give these kinds of small areas attention when I have to split my time between painting and other tasks and projects.  As with the leaf in 'Agua Frio' below, it is critical to the end success of this composition to get the attitude of the feathers absolutely right.  The color gradations within the feathers are also important, but they really contribute to the overall arc and trajectory of the forms.    
December 9, 2010.  Blocking in, continued.  As can be seen, I'm starting to set the local colors of the objects.  The texture of this gallery wrap canvas is slightly different from the standard canvases I've been using in that the surface is a bit more slippery or oily.  It helps keep things loose at this stage.  Feathers are always fun to paint, and these brightly colored parrot feathers are especially so.  I initially thought I'd be using the peachy pink blossoms from a small variety of potted rose bush I have in my studio, but paired with the sheer blue fabric it all just looked too 'fru-fru.'  My friend brought me the parrot feathers just in time for this painting, and I think they add a little more sophistication to this particular composition than the roses offered.  There will be a time when I find a satisfactory way to paint the roses, but this wasn't it.
December 9, 2010.  Drywall mud and parrot feathers.  My husband and I have been working for several weeks on the showroom, so I took some time today to sand drywall mud, one of my favorite home improvement jobs--NOT!  Once done with that I was able to set up a new still life, this time a horizontal format, gallery wrap canvas.  A friend gave me some blue and yellow parrot feathers, so I wanted to incorporate those into this new composition.  I was able to roughly lay in the shapes before the sun dropped too low in the sky--I'm looking forward to December 21 when the days start to lengthen ever so slightly again.  This canvas looks like a lot of chaos now, but there's a raw energy to this stage that I am really going to try to retain in some way as this one progresses.  
December 8, 2010.  'Agua Frio' finished! 
December 6. 2010.  Shadows continued, again.  I've been working on the reddish or peachy colored shadows throughout the rest of the composition.  I liked this still life when I first started it, but up until today I didn't feel like I had fully 'bonded' with the painting.  Today's work on these colored shadows seals the deal on this one for me.  I may even settle on a name for it, possibly 'Agua Frio.'  There is still much to be done before it's completed, but it's beginning to hang together for me, both emotionally and compositionally.   
December 6, 2010.  Redefining art as language: resolving the (dang) art culture war.  What is art?  It’s a question I’ve tried to answer as an artist in the 21st century.  Every time I thought I had it pinned down I’d come up with some exception to my working definition.  The one attribute that seems to be present in or common to all art, however, is that it is a means of human communication (although the mind-boggling assemblages of male bower birds might convince me to rethink that).  Perhaps the difficulties with art could be resolved if we stopped thinking of it as something apart or independent from language.  Art is language, and as such it should share the characteristics of what we typically think of as language.  Human languages share universal attributes, even as they evolve and diversify over time.  Languages can go extinct if there are no ‘users’ to keep them alive.  With language, people can refer to events of the past, the present and the future, as well as communicate about the imaginary or the abstract.  Humans retain what works in language and invent and repurpose language when needed.  Aren’t these all attributes of art?  Grammars prescribe the rules and usage of language, but real people using language on a daily basis determine living language.  
     With art defined as language, there should be no more, um, conflict between advocates of traditional art forms on the one hand, and modern to post-modern forms of art on the other.  It’s all language, folks, and if it’s being ‘spoken’ then it’s viable and legitimate.  Art as language would allow for and encompass the existence of a diversity of art ‘linguistic families’ and ‘dialects.’  There is a cultural component to human language--we first learn the
language(s) of the culture into which we are born and/or raised at the time we make our first utterances--but we share a universal process of language acquistion, and humans do have the capacity to learn multiple languages.  Likewise, humans have the capacity to engage in multiple expressions or forms of art.  Speak the art language that best communicates what you want to communicate.    
December 5, 2010.  Shadows continued.  More on the 'in-progress' still life from Dec. 1 and Dec. 4:  Today I worked on developing the leaf, and also started to introduce some faintly reddish colored shadows into the lower areas of the still life.  I'll go back into the leaf before I'm done with the painting to give it some added emphasis, as it's important that it has absolutely the right 'attitude.'  Right now it's close, but I don't feel it's quite there.  My studio doesn't have any substantial north windows, so I have to make do with the light coming in from the large panel of windows on the west.  I have noticed, however, that I do get a lot of beautifully colored reflections coming in through those windows all day long.  The obvious source of the blues is the sky, and now that the trees outside the windows have lost all their leaves the blue reflections are cooler than they were during the late summer and early fall.  I've determined that the reddish tones I'm seeing in the folds of the still life fabric are derived in part from light reflecting off of my neighbor's red brick house across the alley.  Light is just bouncing off of everything, and it's kind of intriguing to see how it behaves, during each day, but also as the seasons change and the days become shorter.
December 4, 2010.  Getting the shadows to be great.  Establishing values and setting local colors are important tasks when painting, but even more critical is to be able to really get dynamic middle tones and shadows when modeling objects and figures.  Some beginning artists make the understandable error of thinking that to get shadows, one simply adds black to the local color of the object or area they are describing.  I save black for areas that really call for black or grays derived from black, which means that I am very judicious in my use of black.  Shadows have color, often a lot of color, and I sometimes make colored shadows by mixing colors that are at or around complimentary to each other on the color wheel. 
     In the 'grays' chart color theory assignment to the right, I mixed two roughly complimentary colors (green and a fuschia red) by small increments.  As can be seen, there is a wide range of 'colored' grays between the two pure end samples, with the most neutral grays in roughly the middle of the sequence.  This sequence demonstrates how you can get interesting shadows without ever using literal black. 
     In the still life I'm currently working on--which involves a lot of subtle variation--I am beginning to modify the chroma, values and temperature of the forms with some warmly colored shadows.  The bottom image is the previous day's work involving mostly local color, while the top image is today's work on bringing in the colored shadows.  Additional areas have shadows that are redder, and some that are noticably cooler, so I'll address those shadows next, and eventually glaze over some of it so that most of these colored shadows are somewhat subtler.  (I haven't yet dealt with the leaf, which is still in the very beginning layout stage--that's for another post.) 
December 3, 2010.  Art & coffee.  My husband and I go out for coffee every afternoon because we both work at home and need to take a break and recharge.  If there is a new art exhibit in town we make sure we also stop in and see what other artists in our area are doing, or what New Mexico Highlands University is showing in their main and student galleries.  We feel very fortunate to live near a state university that offers the public the opportunity to see everything from hand-pulled prints, to artwork with a regional history and cultural connection, to work by university faculty and students, as well as regular exhibits by professional artists working in this small city.  One of the more unusual events that the New Mexico Highlands University art department offers to the public is their semiannual 'Iron Tribe' iron pour, a conference bringing together iron sculpture artists from all over the U.S. and the world for a weekend of iron sculpture work and presentations.  If you've never seen iron artists working as a team to prepare metal in a furnace, culminating in the pouring of the molten iron and casting, it's an incredible spectacle.   
     On a more regular basis, however, are the weekly gallery print talks we attend at the university.  There is a vibrant printmaking program at Highlands which draws many talented and energetic students.  The gallery print talks are given by a local collector--a collector in the truest sense of the word--with a lifelong passion for prints and an impressive and comprehensive knowledge of printmaking that he generously shares with students and interested members of the community.  How cool is that?!  We live in a fairly small city, and the nearest major population center is about 80 miles in any direction, so we really appreciate the local art resources like Highlands University.  University art departments are getting hit with a lot of criticism these days, but we've found that ours provides a variety of valuable resources to the community and to artists in particular.  Be sure to fully investigate your local university or college art department before dismissing it as having nothing to offer representational artists. 
December 2, 2010.  In praise of water soluble oils.  Like so many other artists, the main reason I didn't begin oil painting sooner was because I didn't like the prospect of dealing with the solvents associated with oil painting.  When I read that water soluble oil paints were available I began to think about acquiring them and tackling this fascinating medium.  I am so glad that I finally took the plunge, and I can't say enough good things about water soluble oils.  Whoever developed these oils deserves a Nobel Prize for better living through chemistry! 
     Art supplies aren't cheap and water soluble oils are within the price range of other paints, but I've found that the right water soluble oil painting medium extends their usage considerably.  I should mention that my initial experiments with water soluble oils didn't go as smoothly as I had hoped because I misunderstood the importance of the right medium.  I began using water as a medium, which some people claim is possible, but I found water was a complete disaster.  I eventually purchased water soluble stand oil and began using that with hugely more satisfying results.  Water soluble stand oil is about the consistency of honey, it dries slowly, and results in a very glossy surface.  This is great for some things, but I wanted to find a medium that was not so shiny, had greater flow, and dried faster so I turned to water soluble oil painting medium.  This medium is perfect for my purposes; it still has that rich but subtler glisten that I've admired in oil paintings I've seen in galleries and museums, and you can vary the proportion of medium to paint according to your specific requirements.  I use more medium at the start of a painting when I'm loosely laying in the broad areas and setting up the composition.  As the painting progresses I cut down on the proportion of medium so that I can get greater coverage from the pigments and deal with areas of greater detail. 
     There is one practical matter to keep in mind with water soluble oils.  When you clean the brushes you have to be very thorough, as they may appear to be clean but are not.  As with oils, dirty water soluble brushes will harden on you, rendering them useless until the paint is removed.  I have a commercial brush cleaning product for periodic deep cleanings, and on a daily basis I use Wal-mart's house brand soft soap which comes in a large plastic container.
     I strongly urge anyone who has dreamed of oil painting but hasn't done so because of the hazards and messiness of oils to give water soluble oil paints a decent try.  They are worth the venture and will allow you to finally release the dormant oil painter within you. I should say that I am not receiving any compensation from the manufacturers for writing this--it is my completely independent endorsement.
     Below was my very first attempt at a still life using water soluble oils.  I modeled this painting after Manet's 'Oysters' still life.  I call it 'Green Muscles,' and got the idea for using the gorgeous green rimmed muscle shells in a still life as my husband and I were eating at the local Chinese buffet.     
December 2, 2010.  That evil, scary thing called Modernist art.  I've been reading some essays by 20th century art writers because I wanted to understand more about Modernist art of the last century.  I was surpised to read that Modernist philosophy does NOT categorically reject "descriptive painting," but rather, is just a bit more picky about what kind of representational art has true aesthetic significance.  In 'Modern Art & Modernism, A Critical Anthology' (1982), art writer Clive Bell states in his essay 'The Aesthetic Hypothesis:'
          "...Of course many descriptive pictures possess, amongst other qualities, formal
            significance, and are therefore works of art: but more do not.  They interest us;
            they may move us too in a hundred different ways, but they do not move us
By "formal significance" Bell means "...lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms...[that]...stir our aesthetic emotions..." and he believes that "...significant form is the one quality common to all works of visual art."  Those representational works that Bell does reject as true works of art are those where viewers are responding to something other than formal qualities, (i.e., to something other than the combinations of lines and colors).  
Bell elaborates: "Let no one imagine that representation is bad in itself; a realistic form may be as significant, in its place as part of the design, as an abstract.  But if a representative form has value, it is as form, not as representation..."  According to Bell, representation can be a positive or a negative characteristic, but it's not essential  to works of art.  On the other hand, form, color and "a sense of three-dimensional space" are essential. 

"Representation is not of necessity baneful, and highly realistic forms may be extremely significant." 
December 1, 2010.  Right back in the saddle.  I just finished a new larger sized still life, 'Aeon,' (see below), and I always try to start a new painting as soon as possible after I'm done with the last one.  One of the ways I combat all the various issues that could prevent me from working steadily is to not allow a great deal of 'lag time' in between paintings.  When I'm pleased with results, I like to ride that wave of success seamlessly into the next piece.  Keep working--keep my eyes on the ball.  I started another still life this afternoon, this time 20" x 16," and here is the preliminary layout:

My studio has a bank of west windows, measuring about 4' high and 8' wide, and my current work area is next to these windows.  The trees outside have lost most of their leaves, so now the light coming in through the windows is less diffuse and changes more abruptly than it did during the summer and early fall.  I have to adjust my work tempo in order to account for the changes.
November 28, 2010.  Art FlicksWe all love a good movie or documentary, and I'm trying to build up a collection of art-related DVD's, including both art history programs and documentaries, as well as biographies about artists.  My picks so far include:

'The Power of Art' - Columbia University art historian Simon Schama's top-notch BBC series about great art created under
                tumultuous circumstances, spanning Caravaggio to Rothko.  If you really want to get 'fired up,' this is the one.

'How Art Made The World' - Another BBC survey of the development and impact of art through the ages.  Among the topics
                covered, the narrator, Dr. Nigel Spivey, presents some debatable hypotheses--how the brain is hard-wired toward
                abstraction, and the origins of the first art--that are nonetheless interesting. 

'Frida' - Salma Hayek's visually stunning story of the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and her roller-coaster marriage to
                 muralist Diego Rivera.

'Pollock' - the dramatized story of the troubled 20th century action painter Jackson Pollock which recreates the period and the
                 players very well.

'Goya's Ghosts' - a dramatization of the religiously and politically violent, chaotic times of Spanish great Francisco Goya.
                 The opening of the movie shows some close-ups of Goya's compelling 'Disasters of War' print series, and further
                 into the film there is a fascinating scene depicting Goya and his studio assistants going through the labor-
                 intensive process of making prints. 
'O'Keeffe' (Great Woman Artists series) - A comprehensive biography of Georgia O'Keeffe. 

The following are Albuquerque/Santa Fe station KNME productions that I've seen on local PBS:

'Painting Taos' - the history of the Toas artist colony.
'Landscapes of Enchantment' - a documentary on contemporary New Mexico landscape painters.  

I'm always on the lookout for more, and on my 'wish list' are 'Moulin Rouge,' because Toulouse-Lautrec is truly one of my heroes, and 'The Girl With the Pearl Earring,' an elaboration of the famous painting by Vermeer.    

November 27, 2010.  Is painting dead...or just on life support?  I recently read art writer Brian Sherwin’s interview of a representational artist during which the question arose: “Is painting dead?” The brief exchange Sherwin and the artist had regarding this question left me a bit…unsatisfied.  I have heard the claim that ‘painting is dead,’ but I guess Sherwin and his interviewee took it more literally than I do, and because of that I think they missed an opportunity to discuss some very interesting and complex questions.  Of course there are still painters working today; I am one of them.  What I understand the expression ‘painting is dead’ to mean is that in the course of the development of modern art, those who are currently pushing the boundaries, “expanding the cultural vision,” are not painters; that painting was taken as far as it could go and innovation in art now lies elsewhere.  That’s NOT my personal view, it’s just my understanding of what is meant by those who do claim ‘painting is dead.’  The real issue for contemporary painting then would seem to be:

“Are innovation and “expansion of the cultural vision” a requirement of art?”
“Have these characteristics always been essential to art throughout its history?”
“Are they occurring anywhere in painting now?”

I don’t think we can know if painting is 'alive or dead' unless we are willing to address these questions. 
November 26, 2010.  Reaching still life nirvana!  I love painting still lifes...Was that really me who just wrote that?  I never thought I'd hear that coming from me.  Until about September of this year, the only still lifes I'd ever done were those kind of sad looking set ups we had to do in art classes.  I remember executing dutifully, if not exactly joyfully, a monochromatic watercolor version of a classroom still life in order to learn to see values correctly before advancing to a full color rendering of the same set up.  I remember doing a competent job, but at the time it just didn't reach me.  It was a means to an end, not an end in itself.  Student work.  Fast forward 31 years, and here I am, going to still life town!  What changed?  I now see in still life painting the opportunity to do things I currently don't see too many other still life artists doing.  Pushing the boundaries.  Taking them from the depiction of 'all the usual pretty suspects' into the unexpected.  Where it will go, I don't know, but I'm having a great time. 

I drafted my husband into taking this working shot of me at the easel.  I just finished working on a series of very small still lifes for a small works invitational that will be hung Monday, and being anxious to work a bit larger again, started this canvas this morning.     
Below is the result of the first session or beginning stage of my new still life painting, this time on a vertically oriented canvas. This, to me, is Nirvana!   
UPDATE:  The finished product below, called 'Aeon.'  I found those leaves on one of my walks, and they really are almost white on one side, and a warm brown on the other. 
November 25, 2010.  Color: it's all relative.  Most of us artists are aware that color is a changeable thing.  A color's identity is really dependent upon the context in which it resides.  I began to be dimly conscious of this phenomenon as a teenager when my sister and I would borrow clothes from each other.  I'd be frantic to wear some fabulous new item my sister had bought, a trendy thing that just dazzled on her.  When we finally brokered a deal on the apparel transaction, I'd giddily don the coveted sweater or shirt...and my pleasure would fall a little flat.  Somehow the lighter, softer colors that looked smashing on her washed out on me, and likewise, she got lost against the jewel tones that most flattered my darker hair and skin tones (being headstrong teens, we ignored the obvious reality and borrowed each other's clothes anyway).  Thus I learned that color is a bit less straightforward than one might assume. 
    This awareness of color's fickle nature was fully driven home to me in an intriguing assignment from my circa 1982 color theory class at Northern Illinois University, taught by Gary Fox. The mission: choose a series of colors from a given hue family (in my case, I chose blues).  Place sample squares of these different blues against whatever background color that would serve to push those variable sample squares to the point where they all appeared to be the same color of blue.  Then with paint, mix one single block of the exact blue color that you were able to manipulate those individual samples squares into.  I've got a photo of the assignment that might better help to illustrate the task:   
Bottom row:  my beginning series of different 'blue' sample squares.  As is evident, these blues vary in hue, value and chroma.
Middle row:  the same series of blue sample squares placed on background colors that minipulate their appearance.  They are beginning to look less distinguishable from each other.
Top row:  the resulting uniform shade of blue that all the middle row manipulations created.

So it appears from the above color theory exercise that we have quite a bit more power over color that we might realize!
November 24, 2010.  Hoops & hurdles.  I'm a regular viewer of PBS's Charlie Rose, a show featuring interviews of personalities from politics, entertainment, business, sports, science and technology, and the arts.  On a recent segment dealing with The Brain and creativity, Rose hosted a panel of art world figures.  Among those were the established artists Richard Serra and Chuck Close.  Serra is a sculptor and installation artist, and Close is most known for his large portraits.  Discussion turned to Close's evolution as a portrait painter (unexpected subject matter for an artist afflicted with a brain disorder that impairs his ability to recognize faces).  He explained how earlier in his career he forced himself to seek new ways of dealing with portraiture by imposing limits or parameters on his work.  These self-imposed constraints set up problem situations where he had to explore new avenues in order to resolve the problems.  For instance, he set up the task of painting a portrait with less evident brushwork, or limiting the use of colors or of line.  These limitations eventually led him toward the distinctive style for which he is now so well known. 
     When I first heard Close describe this process of artistic evolution by constraint, I thought "What? How can you grow by restricting elements or approaches?"  It seemed so counterintuitive.  Wouldn't an artist grow more by expanding his or her parameters?  By lifting constraints?  But as I thought more about it, it began to make a lot of sense.  I knew from my study of anthropology and human history that people excel at innovation under difficult conditions.  We are really good problem solvers.  There is something within our brains that feeds on challenges. 
     Close's attitude also reminded me of something I'd heard while I was going to school for physical anthropology.  Around 1994 I attended a lecture at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo by the high profile University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno, who is also an artist and a Northern Illinois University alumnus like me.  At some point during the evening I recall Sereno answered a question about why or how he chose to become a paleontologist specializing in dinosaur evolution, an area where he has made many exciting discoveries.  I expected him to say that from childhood onward he had always had a passion for dinosaurs, but instead he said something that has always stuck with me:  he settled upon dinosaur paleontology because it was the specialization within paleontology where there were many interesting, unanswered questions.  An area where he could engage in the most problem-solving.  A theme seems to be emerging.  
     Considering all of this, I began to wonder how I could think about my own work in these terms.  I decided that I'd try imposing a few small limitations upon my work and see what happened.  What if I restricted my colors and values to high key only?  What if I eliminated certain classes of objects from my compositions?  OK; for the time being, I'll paint only natural, found objects against high key backgrounds until I've exhausted the possibilities.  Soon a strange thing happened:  after I had completed a few of my still life 'tasks,' it seemed as if I had turned a light on in my head that I didn't know was there, because I was finding I was flooded with ideas about my still life compositions.  My brain was continuing to work on the problems even when I was engaged in other activities throughout the day.  Even when I wasn't aware that I was thinking about it.  I could try tweaking this particular element in the next painting, or taking this other factor a bit further in this particular direction.  After that, I could push this aspect a bit more.  When I first started painting still lifes I was concerned that I just wouldn't know what to compose.  I didn't know, maybe I just didn't have a feeling for it.  I was familiar with the still life work of various other artists, both of the past and the present, but I wasn't sure I could do anything more than mimic what I'd seen, either consciously or inadvertently.  Some of that is fine, we all see work that we admire, and often assimilate some of what we see into our own work.  But I was concerned that I just wouldn't be able to move beyond it.  Until I heard Chuck Close talk about his process, I had no idea that sometimes hoops and hurdles are the very best way to move forward.
November 21, 2010.  Color blast from the past.  I don't know how I managed to hang on to some of the assignments I did for color theory class circa 1982, but I somehow did.  Maybe I was careful to keep them because it was the best art class I ever had, and was taught by Gary Fox, then teaching in Northern Illinois University's Art Department.  I appreciated his enthusiasm, his respectful attitude toward students, and his knowledge and understanding of the subject.  I don't know what it's like to be a student enrolled in a university art program now, but back then I had some very good instructors.  When I was going to school for art, I first attended a community college art program, then a traditionally oriented art academy, and lastly, a major state university.  I had both good and mediocre teachers at all of them, so at that time it didn't make any difference whether the context favored traditional art instruction, or more modernist art philosophy.  They say hindsight is 20/20 vision, but in retrospect the best art courses I had, in addition to color theory, were the drawing classes I took at all three schools, and the series of art history survey classes I was required to take at Northern Illinois University.         
     I've been working recently in high keyed color and values in my oil still lifes, and I thought I'd post the color theory assignment in which we explored color and value keys.  These assignments were carried out using prefab sheets (I think they were called 'Color-Aid') similar to paint chips you get at the hardware store only much larger.  The various components of the compositions were cut out of these color sheets and glued down to backing sheets of heavy paper.  I suspect that in the present age of computers, these student color sheets are now obsolete. 
(above) High key:  the image on the left is a high major, and the image on the right is a high minor. 
(above) Intermediate key:  the image on the left is an intermediate major, and the image on the right is an intermediate minor.
(above)  Low key:  the image on the left is a low major, and the image on the right is a low minor. *

*According to my instructor's comments about my assignment, the yellow in the low minor should have been replaced with a yellow of a different value, but these images still serve to illustrate the general idea of the visual differences between high, intermediate, and low keys, and their major and minor variations. 

We wrote rationales, or summaries of each assignment and included these summaries with the finished work.  The summary I wrote for this color key assignment reads:
          "I would say that this problem emphasized the influence of value in organizing
           a composition.  The major compositions seem harsher, and the minor compositions
           are more 'tranquil.'  I didn't really concentrate on the actual hue combinations, and
           yet when the hues were arranged they worked--I assume the organization of major
           or minor did that."

The following is critical in understanding the difference between majors and minors:
          Majors- secondary values contrast 4 or more steps away on the value scale from the primary values.
          Minors- secondary values are 3 or less steps away on the value scale from the primary values.
I'll post more of my old color theory assignments in the future.  I hope this helps in understanding color and value keys a bit better. 
'Madrugador,' or 'Early Riser' by Kimberly S. Reed-Deemer.
(oil on masonite)
View of the Santa Fe trail area outside Las Vegas, New Mexico

November 20, 2010.  The *Other* Las Vegas, or "I can see the Santa Fe Trail from my house!" 
Whenever I tell people I live in Las Vegas, they invariably think I'm referring to Nevada.  Las Vegas, New Mexico, however, is actually the original Las Vegas.  It was the last stop on the Santa Fe trail before merchants and travelers arrived in Santa Fe.  Our property is located along what was the Santa Fe trail, although the actual wagon ruts have long since disappeared, at least here in town.  Las Vegas, New Mexico, has a long and colorful history which has been well documented elsewhere, but what I'd like readers to know is that there is a vibrant arts community in Las Vegas, New Mexico.  Painters, sculptors, ceramacists, printmakers, iron workers, traditional Spanish colonial artists, weavers, jewelery artisans, furniture makers, writers, actors, musicians, dancers all call Las Vegas, New Mexico, home.  We live and work in the long shadow of Santa Fe, however, which has developed into one of the largest art markets in the U.S.  Many travelers hit the better known northern New Mexico high spots like Santa Fe or Taos, never knowing that Las Vegas is well worth just another hour's drive from either tourist trap.  There is a wide range of artwork being produced in Las Vegas, and I'm thrilled and proud to be working here.  We're the best kept secret in northern New Mexico.   

November 18, 2010.  Art & Pie.
  I've been toying with the idea of blogging on my art website, but I've been a little hesitant for a few reasons.  There are many specialized blogs out there, as we all know, and I wasn't sure that one more art blog just wouldn't get lost in all the 'noise.'  But the prospect of having a platform where I could write about anything I wanted was indeed tempting.  Think about it: I can write about anything I want....heh-heh, this could be dangerous!...I CAN WRITE ABOUT ANYTHING I WANT?....GULP!
     Where to start?  Would I have anything worthwhile to add to what's already out there?  That will ultimately be up to prospective readers to decide, but I'm giving it a shot and I won't worry about the long term outcome just yet.*** 
      I was wondering what would make for an appropriate first blog entry, and thinking about it as I was trying to go to sleep last night.  As I've become a bit more involved with the mind boggling and at times frustrating art marketing and promotional work necessary to being an artist in the 21st century, I've become increasingly nostalgic for a time when being an artist was somehow simpler than it is today, or at least seemed simpler from where we all sit now.  There's a bewildering network of art marketing professionals and 'gatekeepers' out there nowadays, constantly trying to convince representational artists that if they really want to be serious artists, if they really want great success and notoriety, they really, really need to follow this plan, adopt this program, join this organization, buy these instructional magazines or DVD's, fork over for this workshop with this or that blazing hot 'modern master,' be a part of this or that critical social network, enter this or that benchmark juried competition, get into a prestigious gallery, get recognized by the critical 'collectors' magazines,' and at times I just burn out from the overload!  We're apparently the 'pie,' and everyone has a scheme to get their 'slice' out of us. 

Don't get me wrong; there are sincere, knowledgeable art marketing people working today who do offer valuable advice to artists.  I'm not knocking those people.  I'm not 'anti-marketing,' either.  I wouldn't have a website or be trying to sell my work if I were.  Yet, it's all too easy to get caught up in the increasing frenzy.  Coming from an anthropological perspective, including exposure to economic anthropology,  I know that there is an inescapable economic or commercial dimension to every aspect of human culture, and art is no exception.  Too often, however, we're given what we think we want, but how often do we get what we really need? 
I was grousing about all of this as I was trying to fall asleep.  My background includes graduate training in anthropology, and my overloaded mind drifted back to what I'd studied of the very first artists, those shadowy inhabitants of the Paleolithic.  The artists who had no galleries, no collectors, no marketing advisors, no gatekeepers, and once they secured their next meal, nothing but the problem of where and how to make their art.  The very first art.  Imagine that:  your task is to make the very first art humanity has ever known.  What would you do with it?  Although academics have theorized about the origins of prehistoric art, what these people actually thought and felt about what they were embarking upon, how they conceptualized it, is ultimately unknowable to us.  Nevertheless, I can't help but envy their freedom.  Look at Altamira, or any of the other cave art sites again.  No, I mean really look.  If I can hope to create anything that has even a fraction of the honesty, power and freedom of Paleolithic art, I will be quite satisfied.  Everything else is just pie.

 ***On a practical note, I won't be able to have an interective 'comments' function right now, mainly because I'm not well versed enough in web design at this point to be able to create it, and I have some fairly big projects staring me down for at least the next 6 months.  But I haven't ruled it out for the future. 

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