Saturday, December 24, 2011

Painting in the Snow!

Steve and I have been in our home state of Wisconsin for the last couple of days, enjoying the Christmas season with family and friends. We checked up on the local weather before leaving Texas, and there hadn't been any snow on the forecast. In fact, it really looked like it would be a "brown Christmas". I REALLY hoped for at least a little bit of snow... and it turns out, my wish came true sooner than I thought it would! When I woke up on Thursday morning and looked out the window, there it was: a fresh, beautiful dusting of white fluffy stuff covering the trees and fields of my in-laws' surrounding country land. I got outside as soon as I could! Now, I've never painted out in the snow. There was one early-morning painting session in Switzerland that had me a little bit uncomfortable (I think it was about 45 degrees outside), but this time it was 32 and cloudy. I bundled up as best as a Wisconsinite-turned-Texan sissy knows how, and headed outside. I chose a small lone red pine for my setting, with the snowy trail nearby coming towards the viewer in the composition. The clouds made everything a dull chroma, but I tried to pull out as much color as I could see. Also, I followed the recommendations from more experienced plain air painters, who said to use Permalba white or some other white that is a bit more runny, as the paint gets stiffer when it's out in the cold.

My dog, Bella, enjoyed running around in circles and eating snow during my entire painting session (what a joy for her to be back in the country!). I lasted for about an hour before losing feeling in my fingers and toes (even though I wore gloves the whole time). It was still quite exhilarating and I had a lot of fun with it. I hope that next time, though, I'll have some sunshine to bring out more of winter's beautiful palette. So, praying for another snow storm! I'm just getting started!


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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Painting and Drawing from Life, Part II

Once again, it's been WAY too long in between posts! I'm not really sure what happened; November just flew by. I find that I am becoming more and more protective of my studio time -- it really is precious. And, with Christmas less than two weeks away, I am scrambling to get as many hours of painting time in before my husband and I make the drive to Wisconsin to spend the holidays with family. I don't think I'll be able to go nine days straight without painting, so I'll bring my pochade box along just in case the overload of food and fellowship gets to be too much for this hermit. :-)

Now, as promised, I'd like to talk a little bit more about the aesthetic side of working from life.

Excitement and focus of the artist
Some go sky-diving for the adrenaline rush; others ride roller coasters, race cars, snowboard or water ski. Personally, I get the most wonderful rush when painting from life! Whether I am outside in the open air -- or in my studio working from a live model -- there is a pronounced difference in my overall mood when I'm engaging with the real, living, breathing thing rather than working from photos or props. And let's face it, places like this (below) are enough to excite anyone, whether they're painting or not!


What does this have to do with aesthetics? Well, the more excited you are about your subject, the more focus and energy you'll be willing to invest in it, and therefore, you'll start to produce some of your best work. Having been to the Portrait Society of America's annual conference several times now, I can tell you, after having my portfolio critiqued, that the most experienced and successful artists know in an instant whether or not something was painted from life or from photos. Not only do they know for technical reasons (the photographer used flash, the whites are washed out, or the subject has a big toothy grin, etc.), but they can tell because there is something stale and stiff about the image. Working from life brings all of the artist's enthusiasm to the forefront and makes for a more lively, energized painting. This leads me into my next point...                  

Speed and decision-making
When we first start out practicing from life, there is usually some fear and trepidation over the time crunch. Perhaps you are painting en plein air and the lighting will pass in just a moment, or your model can only sit for a couple of hours before she's gone forever, moving to Spain or something (yes, this did happen to me!). That time crunch can be used to your advantage! I do not promote "panic-painting;" rather, I would encourage you to take that wasted time looking at the clock and use it to zero in on the most important elements of your painting. Before you even lay down a mark, you should know (a) what your focal point is, (b) where your lightest lights and darkest darks are, and (c) what your hardest and softest edges will be. Those decisions can be made in an instant if you are willing to think carefully about your intentions from the very beginning. We should have a specific goal for each and every painting we start, rather than mindlessly slashing away at our canvases and then getting angry when we run out of time, with little to show for it! Some of my best life studies were done in less than three hours, such as this one of Salvador (below). My goal was to do an accurate portrait by starting with the core shadow line and working out from there (this was during a Judith Carducci workshop last January). Because I kept my goals simple and my expectations realistic, it ended up working quite well.

"Salvador II" - 10x8 - oil on canvas board

During the decision-making process, the artist also has more control over how they use their brushwork to make a statement. Photos naturally lend themselves to being slavishly copied, but when working from life, you are much more likely to squint down. Squinting is key, as it helps you to simplify the scene before you and break it down to its most basic shapes, values, and edges.

Essence, Energy, and Empathy
Finally, there is something crucial that can only be captured fully when working from life: the essence of a person, place or thing. Some artists are so experienced that they can create posthumous portraits from photos and still capture that person's essence (Michael Shane Neal is a great example), but only because they have put in many hours of practice before a live model. I find that many of my life studies say more about the model's personality than paintings done from photos. I am also acutely aware of the model's physical and emotional presence while I'm working, making me empathize with them even more. I ask the question, "How can I make this portrait special? What is the model's story, as told by artist Anna Rose Bain?" As artists, it is our privilege to convey a person or place based on our own unique experience. Let's really make that experience shine by working from life to the best of our aesthetic and technical abilities!
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