Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Conference Insider" for the Portrait Society of America

As promised, here is the article I've been working on for the Portrait Society. I think it's worth sharing beyond the audience of the PSOA. :-)

When I was asked to write an edition of the Portrait Society's Conference Insider, I had to think for a moment about what I have to offer as a member of this year's faculty. I could discuss my working methods, studio habits, or some other aspect of art making, but I realized that sometimes the best I can do is simply provide an affirmative nod to my fellow artists that yes-you got this. All technique, creative processes, and art knowledge aside (I know you're working hard on those already!), we artists are really heart-centric creatures who find ourselves needing encouragement on a regular basis.
On Saturday, April 22 at the conference, from 7:30-8:30 a.m., I will be part of a panel hosted by the Cecilia Beaux Forum in which we discuss "establishing and managing a successful art career," and I hope you will join us as we talk in depth about our experiences. For those of you who decide to sleep in instead, I offer here some thoughts about my own personal journey, and I hope it is of some benefit to you.
A couple of days before writing this, I presented a question to the Facebook universe asking, "What does success look like to you?" The hundreds of answers that rolled in were diverse and insightful.
"With success comes responsibility: teaching, passing on what we've been given."
"Feeling true happiness and satisfaction to the depth of your soul. The source and tactical steps differ for each individual, where many of the basic needs are common to all, while higher-level needs become increasingly individualized."
"True, honest effort."
"Freedom to live life on your terms, not to be confused with accumulating wealth."
"Setting goals, reaching them and setting new ones."
"Having work that is creative, satisfying, and contributes to society."
"Doing what feeds your soul."
"The idea of success is not only different for every person, but every person has different concepts of success in different aspects of their life. There's career success, personal life success, and even success or failure with a particular piece you're working on! Additionally, life has shown me that what I believe is success or failure in a situation may end up not being the case at all!"
Girl with Dreadlocks (3-hr alla prima)
12x10", oil on linen panel 
The answers went on and on (thank you to everyone who responded!). My conclusion was that success is an attitude or mindset, not something quantifiable. Success should not be your driving force. It can easily consume you, to a point where the integrity of your life and work are compromised. It can also give a false sense of security and become an idol. And, if you are too busy comparing yourself to the successes of others, you risk losing your authenticity, and your idea of success will become distorted. Success to me is finding a healthy balance between pursuing and achieving my goals, and being at peace with myself and others. It means honoring my Creator by pursuing excellence (not necessarily perfection) in all aspects of life.
For me it was never a question whether or not I would succeed, it was just a matter of how hard I was willing to work in order to get there, and I found my version of "success" by setting goals. One of my goals as a kid was to someday paint presidential portraits (I've since changed my mind about that)...  Another goal I had, which was recently realized, was to paint in the Face-Off at the Portrait Society and be considered a peer by the artists I've always looked up to.
Crystal Standing (3-hr Alla Prima)
16x8", oil on linen panel
Given that I grew up in a very small town in rural Wisconsin amidst a culture of hunting and gathering, with parents who supported me but couldn't afford to send me to a fancy art school, well... the odds weren't exactly in my favor.  I was self taught until college, at which point I took on seasonal jobs to pay for school and worked hard to earn scholarships. I graduated from Hillsdale College in 2007, held a "normal" job for about a year, got married, and moved to Texas in 2008 for my husband's job in engineering. His income was steady enough that I was able to simply paint, and not worry about finding full or part-time work. This came with the caveat, of course, that I would not waste any time. I still remember the first day my husband left for work at his new job, and I sat alone with my little French easel in the giant, empty space that was supposed to be my studio. A few of my college paintings sat up against the walls, but otherwise, I had nothing to show for my claim of being a "serious artist." I began to paint anyway. I painted every single day. I started off with still lifes, and on days that weren't outrageously hot I would venture outdoors for plein air. I took commissions whenever possible, even the difficult ones, and used the funds to purchase more supplies (and better quality ones, too!).  I found a life portrait group to attend every week. I began making friends with other artists, and attending workshops and events, such as the Portrait Society, in order to continue educating myself. I found that these 3-4 day events, several times a year, were exactly what I needed to propel forward. I would come home from each event, my head bursting with newfound knowledge, and the things I learned kept me busy for months at a time. It was a period of great challenges and self discovery. 
Enchanted Blossoms, 20 x 20", oil on linen
I was 23. Nearly ten years later, I have come to realize that "challenges" and "self discovery" are things I'll be faced with for the rest of my life, and that's okay.
In 2014, I had a baby girl, Cecelia (named after the great Cecilia Beaux, of course!). Having a child obviously throws a wrench into things. Many women artists choose not to have children because they don't believe it's compatible with their art. At its worst, motherhood causes you to question everything you're doing, while at its best it elevates your work to heights you never imagined possible. I learned to embrace both extremes for what they could do to help me grow, but I also chose not to dwell too long at the bottom. I will be the first to tell you that motherhood made me a better artist.

Finding one's place in this expansive world of creative talent is not easy, especially as the work just keeps getting better and better. So I keep coming back to painting what I know: the world around me, the people I love-and realizing that maybe it's not popular or trendy right now but it's honest. I have learned to embrace my own unique story in all its beauty and ugliness and its moments of pain and bliss.
So... any advice I have on getting established in one's art career, I offer from my own personal experience. It may or may not work for you, but it's something to consider. Here is a basic and ever-growing checklist of things that have helped me become a modestly successful artist (by the definition I've outlined above). 
  1. Banish fear.  If I could change anything about my path as an artist, it would be to have seized more opportunities... to be less shy when approaching and meeting other artists, to ask more questions, and to stop being so darn afraid! Don't allow fear to control your decision making, or worse... cause you NOT to make a decision. The greatest misfortune of all is to look back on your work and wonder what might have happened if you had seized the day instead of holding back out of fear. Fear causes us to miss opportunities.
  2. Stop worrying about what people think. I'm still working on this one!
  3. Spend as much time at the easel as you can, even if you don't feel like it.
  4. Have a critical eye for your work. If something bothers you, don't let it slide. Does it have impact? (Visual or emotional or preferably both?) How does it read from across the room?
  5. Don't be afraid to take on commissions. Many times we're scared to put ourselves out there, but commissions are the perfect opportunity to get paid to learn. Obviously they can be extremely challenging, but they are invaluable for adding to your technical and creative repertoire. Every commission that I've taken-or actually, every painting that I've done-whether bad or good, has led up to where I am today. For example, I never anticipated that I would become a mom, but previously to that I painted many children, and they were great practice for the work I do now.
  6. Get rid of the extras. I had to learn to let go of a lot of things that were sucking up my painting time, including TV, extraneous commitments, and even some toxic relationships that were holding me back.
  7. Have a strong support system/network. Much of our success depends on the support and belief of others: parents, mentors, friends, spouses, children, peers, etc.
  8. Take care of yourself. Eat right, exercise. Strengthen your mind and heart through Scripture reading, meditation, etc. Spend quality time with your loved ones.
  9. Paint or draw from life as often as possible. We may not be professional athletes, but if we want to be professional ARTISTS we have got to be at the top of our game, and life drawing is essentially the practice of artistic calisthenics.
  10. Don't spend all of your energy on things that will help you make money. If your primary focus is on the quality of your work, money will follow eventually.
  11. Become comfortable with promoting yourself and your work. In this day and age, no one is going to do that for you.
Anna and her daughter, Cecelia, in Anna's studio in Westminster, Colorado

One more thing: the "appearance" of success is very different from real success, and also very dangerous. It's easy to see all the perfectly curated posts on social media and find yourself wondering, "Why doesn't my life and art look that good?"  I can guarantee that every single one of those artists has bad painting days, moments of self doubt, and days where they don't paint at all. Don't worry about it. At the end of the day, it is always about the work.  Pick up your brush and keep giving it your all, and you will reap the hard-earned benefits of a life defined by the pursuit of excellence. 


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Goals for 2017 (like, ones I can actually accomplish!)

Happy New Year! 2017 is well under way, and it already looks promising. There's something about New Year's that gives me a renewed sense of optimism. Perhaps with the stress of the holidays, it's just nice to get back into a routine and have some moments of stillness to clear my mind and think about the year ahead.

As I sit here typing, my studio is a mess but it's messy with purpose. To my left is a still life setup that happened "accidentally" on my taberet. A wooden mannequin, which acted for years as nothing more than a useless studio prop, has now become the whimsical subject of my next still life experiment, along with all the paints, solvent jars, and miscellaneous items that happened to be sitting there when the idea came to me. Paint tubes lie scattered on every available flat surface near my easel for easy access. To the right are several large cardboard boxes; having recently housed some brand new frames, they will soon to be repurposed for shipping art to upcoming shows. Freshly sized and primed canvases of various sizes lean up against the studio walls to dry, while others, now fully cured, await their turn for one of my many upcoming painting projects. I like to think that my studio is a place of constant change and motion - just as one project is wrapping up, another is beginning. For me it is a place of great comfort but also great challenges - where the hard work takes place!

As I reviewed my art-related goals for last year, I realized that some of them were ridiculous. I should never have made them "goals," because they were simply beyond my control. Some things, like winning competitions or landing big commissions, are the result of someone else's judgment or control. Other things happen because you end up being at the right place at the right time. So... this year I'm going to try to get better at "going with the flow", working at things that are within my power to change, and leaving the rest to God.

Here are a couple goals that are definitely attainable:

- Paint outdoors more often (I've already gone out once this year - yay! See below).

- Finish what I start. I am a chronic non-finisher. Just visit my studio some time and you'll see how many studies and abandoned works there are collecting dust on the shelves.

- Teach more, and mentor someone. I'm really looking forward to this. I'll be working one-on-one with a mentee that I've been paired with through the Portrait Society's Cecilia Beaux Forum. Additionally, I've got a workshop scheduled for Feb. 17-19 in Georgetown, TX, and will hopefully be adding more workshops to the roster as the year progresses.

- Make art that is meaningful. If I don't believe in what I'm doing, it will not resonate with the viewers. I have to be completely "into" what I'm doing. If not, I should stop wasting my time and move on to something better.

Up until this point, I've been so success-driven that I've lost sight of the things that make life enjoyable. I'm going to focus less on material success and spend more time living in the moment and living with complete intention. That might mean intentionally saying no to certain things, while giving the things I say "yes" to, 100%. Speaking of success... you can read my thoughts on that in my next upcoming blog post. ;-) Stay tuned.

Above: my last 3-hour life study of 2016.  I tried to go out with a bang. ;-)

Above: 8x8 plein air study, oil on panel

I am already meeting my goal of painting outdoors! Last weekend I went out while the snow was still fresh and painted at a nearby park. Here in Denver, you have to get out there right away after a blizzard, because it will be completely melted within a few days. Still... it was pretty cold (about 30 degrees). I wore toe warmers in my boots and attached sticky hand warmers to my sleeves at my wrists. That seemed to work pretty well.

Oh, and one last goal for 2017. I will try to post more often on this blog! :-)

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Let the Dead Paintings Die

There is great power in the spoken word. As a lover of words - especially beautiful words - I've always known this. But the older I get, the more I realize what a responsibility we have towards what we say or don't say. Words have power to break resolve, crush hopes, or batter one's spirit. They also have the ability to encourage, motivate, and embolden.

Over the years I've been on the receiving end of some wise advice, and several of those conversations will always stand out to me as having changed my life in some way. While I won't burden you with every single life lesson I've learned, I will tell you about one recent conversation that helped tear down a huge mental block I was facing in my art (I've written about some of these mental blocks, or "fences," in this blog post).

It was nearly two months ago. I was one of the hundreds of guests (mostly artists) crowding into Gallery 1261 for the opening reception of Richard Schmid's retrospective show. This show in and of itself should (and will) be the topic of a separate blog post, but to give you an idea of the context, the place was packed and I had to speak at the top of my lungs to be heard by anyone standing more than twelve inches away from me. In this space, I crossed paths with the indomitable Rose Frantzen, one of my all-time favorite artists and someone I greatly admire. We were practically yelling in each other's faces to be heard above the chaos, and yet out of this noise came such wisdom from Rose, I find myself thinking about it still.

I don't remember how it came up, but I was telling her about a commission I had been working on for the past five months and how much of a struggle it was. I had repainted the face four or five times, and each time it only seemed to get worse, not better. Rose, in her unsympathetic but not unkind way, said, "Start over. Let the dead paintings die." She then proceeded to tell me about a commission that she had done from an old black and white photograph. She spent over a hundred hours on this painting, laboring to get every detail exactly perfect. Then, she started a second one and completed it in just six hours. It was different from the first, but no less perfect. She presented the clients with both paintings, not telling them which one she had spent more time on. The clients chose the six-hour painting. Later, they called her and said they also wanted to buy the other one.

I was blown away by Rose's story and realized that this woman does not let fear get to her. I think I'm confident but then after one conversation with someone like Rose, I realize I still have much to learn!

After that, I went home to my studio, and, with some dread, sent the clients an email explaining that I needed to start over and would need some more time. To my surprise and relief, they were very understanding and said they appreciated that I was working so hard to get it right!

I went back to the pose and setting that I had intuitively felt worked the best (but not the one they chose, originally), and started a brand new painting. These paintings were not small, or simple. The portrait was to be 40x30 inches, with an elaborate garden setting and bright sunlight bouncing all around. But I started the new portrait with fresh vigor and felt so much freer to make a great painting, not just a painting of what I thought the clients would want.

I was nearing the finish line when I decided I ought to start a third portrait. The clients were apprehensive about their daughter's stoic expression, which didn't really fit her personality. So I went back to the smile that they were drawn to originally, and started another painting in order to give the clients more options. The lighting was very different in this one, as was the expression, so the two paintings almost had nothing in common except for the subject.

Eventually I presented both paintings to the clients. They sat and deliberated, weighing the pros and cons of each one. We all agreed that I could have painted a hundred paintings of this sweet little girl and they still wouldn't capture every facet of who she is! But a painting tells so much more of a story than a photo does. It captures something deeper, something that grows on you every time you look at it.

Finally, the clients decided they wanted to buy both.

Grit and hard work do pay off, but not unless you have the confidence to carry through. Thank you, Rose, for the words of wisdom and for challenging me to let go of the long hours and miles of canvas in order to make my best work. Now I can deliver my finished portraits in full confidence that I did the absolute best I could do - without regrets. My clients and I are both the better for it!

I hope this post encourages you in some way to keep going. If you've been struggling with a project and it just isn't working, start over! Know that those hours were not in vain, because each time you start fresh, you'll have that wealth of experience from your previous painting to help you make more informed decisions along the way. Happy painting!

Commissioned portrait version #1 - Ended up here (above)

Commissioned portrait #2, 40x30", oil on linen

Commissioned portrait #3, 32x24", oil on linen


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Print or Original?

We all want to own original art, but sometimes prints are more affordable, and perhaps more readily available if the original has already sold. However, nothing compares to original art. Here is a testimonial from someone who bought prints of my work and was very happy with them, but when she got an original, she was compelled to write about the difference. 

"Print or original?

To those reading, I am an artist so I appreciate originals and the creation thereof.  I am also the mother of four children, who will one day soon need braces, and cars, and college tuition.  A couple years ago my daughters modeled for Anna in their ballet attire.  It was a fun for them to have that experience.  I work primarily outdoors en plein air, so a portrait studio was something entirely new!  My girls had a million questions, which Anna answered patiently, and thus becoming an outstanding role model for my girls.  The resulting paintings were so beautiful.  I was delighted to buy giclee prints.  The thought of the originals stayed in the back of my mind, but conflicted with the reality of the cost of raising my children!  The prints were outstanding!  They were... Perfect.  How could the original be that much better?  Now the proud owner of one of those originals, I will happily say, the original is somehow exponentially more beautiful.  It is luminous and brilliant in a way the perfect print was not."

- Juliana Crownover (Sunnyvale, TX)

"Sharing Secrets" (2014) - 20x16 - oil on mounted linen - Private Collection

                                         "Lydia and Tinker Bear" (2014) - 36x24 - oil on linen - Private Collection

                                                    "Innocence" (2014) - 28x12 - oil on linen - Private Collection

Friday, November 11, 2016

On Interruptions and Motion

Recently I began a new series exploring dance and the illusion of motion in my paintings, thanks to a fantastic new model who was willing to collaborate with me. I have been thinking about the word "interruption," and how irksome it can be both in real life and in a work of art. An interruption during a painting session - whether it be from a phone call, a salesperson ringing the doorbell, or a fussy toddler waking from her nap -- often takes what might have been a great moment of inspiration and turns it on its head. You might lose your train of thought entirely and feel creatively derailed. Likewise, a work of art itself can feel like it has been "interrupted." A painting should naturally flow and lead the viewer's eye from one place to another without sending the viewer out of the composition. Visual interruptions are abrupt, large or small elements that don't really belong. This could either be because they are the wrong shape, value, or proportion. Or they could be lines, edges, or diagonals which are too harsh and lead your eye out of the picture. A master artist excels at leading your eye through his or her painting without ever causing you to "leave". The visual elements are composed in such a way that the viewer's attention is held captive, and therefore, it is a successful work of art.

The concept is not a new one to me, but for the last several years, I was so focused on improving my mastery of value and color that sometimes, visual harmony and rhythm weren't considered as carefully as they should have been. In this latest series, I'm trying to be cognizant of the visual path, while exploring more rhythmic freedom of brushwork. It's certainly no coincidence that musical terms can be used so perfectly to describe painting, for the two art forms are very similar. Some notes are slow and melancholy, some are short and staccato - others are soft, others are loud. Then, when you add dancing to the mix, you have the ingredients for even more aesthetic potential!

After reading my last newsletter about these recent dance paintings, someone commented saying, "Wow, you're transforming." I'm glad they noticed. :-) Art should not remain stagnant or in a state of inertia. An artist is constantly changing, experimenting, and pushing themselves to the next level. Hopefully these works are demonstrative of my efforts toward continual growth.

Model: Ashley Holderness of Soul 2 Sole

This last one (below) is of a different model (Kayla Giard of Prestige Dance). I wanted to capture her in the same pose but from different angles. The resulting painting has a clear focal point but it makes you want to turn along with the dancer as she rotates en pointe.


Monday, September 19, 2016

Between Fences and Freedom - New Self Portrait

This summer was one of dramatic highs and lows. It was a summer of scrapping entire projects after hours of time invested, and of learning from my mistakes the hardest way... by having to start over completely (more than once!). It was one of very little productivity and a lot of self doubt and thwarted efforts to paint something of significance. It was one of discovering my own limits and realizing I had imposed those limits on myself. It was a season of learning and growth - the painful kind - with no real breakthroughs except small victories here and there, and a whole lot of realization that sheer willpower and gritting one's teeth doesn't necessarily make your art and life better.

Before I go further... let me clarify something. The struggles mentioned above are not entirely because I'm a mother of a two year old! Cecelia is wonderful and ever the joy and sunshine in my life. But as I reflect back on the last two years and look at where I am now, I can see that I've become a different person, someone who is more self aware, both physically (hello, clean and press! That is one thing I've gotten right... a regular gym routine) and emotionally (learning to set boundaries... more on that later).

My whole life I've been a "yes" person and a people-pleaser. I would constantly strive to keep the peace in all of my relationships, even if it meant giving up my own needs and wants in order to accomplish this. I grew up hearing the golden rule repeated over and over: "Love others as yourself." But somehow I began to believe that meant, "Love others MORE than yourself." I saw it played out in the lives of women I looked up to, who constantly met everyone else's needs before their own... like the mom from "A Christmas Story" who "hadn't had a hot meal for herself in 15 years."

But eventually this kind of life just wears you out and makes you bitter. I think this summer I hit a new kind of tired - one that was very different from the exhausted fog of pregnancy, the sleepless nights with a newborn, or the physical exhaustion from a 10-mile hike.

In short, I realized I couldn't be a great wife and mother (or daughter, sister, friend, etc.), maintain the house, make and sell great art, stay in shape, and juggle everything... by myself.  I needed to break free of my self-imposed chains and allow God and others to work in my life. He did so using a number of invaluable outside sources.

Two of those sources were my dear friends Linda and Laura, who simultaneously recommended I read a book called "Boundaries" by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. This book has changed my life (and is continuing to do so), as I'm learning to build safe boundaries in all applicable areas, including... surprise surprise... my art. I already knew this about myself, that if I had a good painting day, I was elated and on top of the world... but a bad painting day would put me down in the dumps and I'd take everyone I loved down with me.

Additionally, I was relieved of some "mommy duty" when Steve and I agreed to start sending Cece to a Montessori preschool two days a week. Cece absolutely loves it, and it allows me to have some solid working time. The first few weeks felt like a waste, because I was struggling so much with painting anything "good," as I had completely fallen out of a rhythm, and every time I sat down to paint it felt contrived - like I had forgotten how to do it. But gradually I got my 'groove" back, and I'm starting to hit my stride once more.

During my lowest point this summer, I began a self portrait that encompassed the conflicting emotions I was trying to sort through. Ironically (though it was NOT funny at the time!), I made a grave technical mistake on the portrait and ended up having to scrap the whole thing, even after posting a detail of it on social media and getting a lot of positive feedback. However, some of my closest friends saw what was really going on when they noticed the sadness in the painted likeness.

As my creative energy has returned, I have moved the portrait in a different direction from when I started. It's actually a good thing that the first one didn't turn out. I've taken this painting to a better place - one that looks outward with fresh confidence and drive, instead of within towards a grave vulnerability that teeters on the edge of depression.

"Between Fences and Freedom" - 48x22 inches - oil on linen mounted to board

So I think the narrative is fairly straightforward, and most people (women especially) can take away whatever meaning from it they want. But here are some of the things that I wanted to say in this painting.

1) The corset. A splurge of mine while strolling about at the Colorado Renaissance Faire has now become the item of controversy in this new painting. Does the corset represent a thirty-something woman's attempt to hold on to her youth and sensuality, in spite of the utter lack of glamour in everyday life? Or does it represent the impossible standard that women have been held to for centuries? We have been deprived of oxygen and freedom, but I can't emphasize enough that many of those chains are ones that we have placed upon ourselves! This indeed has been my biggest light bulb moment through all of this. It is up to me whether I choose to be free of that which steals my life and breath. Gal. 5:1

2) The vines. Those tangled brambles share a similar purpose to the corset - they attempt to choke and take away from the fullness of one's life. What are the vines in your life? I know what mine are, one of them being those self-imposed limitations I mentioned earlier.

3) The fence. Boundaries, represented by the fence, can be healthy and good, or they can cause us to become jaded when we allow nothing good to come in or out. In my case, I would often allow people and/or things to knock down my fences and walk all over me... I am slowly learning to have a healthier respect for my property.

4) The flock of geese. Symbolically, geese represent journeys and wanderlust, but also faithfulness and family devotion. In former days I traveled the world and left the house whenever I wanted. I loved being able to come and go as I pleased. Now I don't have that freedom, but I know it's only for a time. Right now I'm embracing the second part of that symbol: family.

I'm stoically preparing myself for mixed reviews of this painting. I have already gotten comments from people saying they'd like it better if I looked "happier" or wore a smile, because that's more "becoming". Anyone who knows me, knows that I love to smile and laugh. But that's not what this painting is about - there is more to me than that.

Upon seeing a detail of the face, before she even saw the rest of the setting, one of my artist friends made an incredibly insightful comment that I thought I'd share with the rest of you. She said, "So often, women are told to be sweet, be gentle, be nice. To 'smile!' To bite our tongues, else be called some unfortunate term. Thank you for capturing the steadfast spirit, pushing against the corset and encroaching vines, not softening to society. There are important messages to share - this painting seems to be toeing the edge of something that society might find uncomfortable ("stern," "mad," "ticked"), but that must be said. Keep going!"

Thank you, Erica... for that comment. I have kept going and now I think this painting is ready for the world to see. I haven't done anything this personal since "The Wait and the Reward." But as I discover more and more who I am as an artist, I am coming to to terms with the fact that, like it or not, my work will always be deeply personal. I just hope the message is worth sharing.


Friday, August 19, 2016

Filming a NEW Instructional DVD: "Creating Vibrant Skin Tones"

During the last weekend of July, I made the trek to Salt Lake City, UT to film a new instructional DVD with Bella Muse Productions. This production company is incredibly professional and they did a wonderful job! I'm looking forward to seeing the final result. You can sign up for their emails on their website to get updates on the DVD's release date.

Meanwhile, here are a few fun pics from filming.

A huge thanks to my beautiful model, Caitlin! She was absolutely wonderful to paint!

I so enjoyed working with Elizabeth Robbins, producer and artist extraordinaire. Here we are in front of her gallery in Ogden, UT.

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