Thursday, November 21, 2013

Another Weekend in Putney

This past weekend, I was given another wonderful learning opportunity, as well as a chance to fellowship with like-minded people who are passionate about painting. I got to go back to Putney, VT, to paint once more with the Putney Painters... and this time, on Saturday, Richard Schmid was there!

Richard was as warm, kind, funny, clever, and generous as I imagined he would be. After reading "Alla Prima," I already felt as though I knew him, because he writes in the same manner as he speaks: eloquently, succinctly, and always with a great sense of humor. He and Nancy make the most wonderful pair. As if it weren't enough that they are world-class painters, in a category of their own - they are among the most gracious and loving people I have ever met. While they have every right to be snobby and stand-offish, they are the complete opposite. And... they surround themselves with equally good company; the Putney Painters are a wonderful group of artists who truly care about each other, and passionately pursue excellence in their art. Egos are left at the door, and everyone who enters the Village Arts barn does so with a certain openness. All are there to learn, even Richard himself.

Photo by Rosemary Ladd
That being said, we had the perfect painting environment. We also had the perfect model; 11-year-old Grace, Carol Arnold's daughter, modelled for us once more, like a true pro (I think she did a better job than some of the grown-ups I've worked with...).

Since I was the guest, I got to set up my easel right behind Richard and watch him work, while I painted. I was tempted to hover right over his shoulder and watch the whole time, but I decided to paint anyway. I didn't think I would be intimidated by having him in the same room as me, but I was... just a little. :-)

Richard's whimsical start. I was surprised that he started with a gesture drawing,
as I had never seen that in any of his books or elsewhere.
Obviously, a master painter can start any way he pleases.

Richard's progress farther along: such mastery of separating light
and shadow, keeping things simple, designing with brush strokes,
and expressing his delight over the capabilities of paint!

During breaks, we would ask questions and both Richard and Nancy were gracious enough to share their knowledge with us.

Stephanie Birdsall was also visiting from Tucson. Here we are
listening to Richard's words of wisdom. :-) Photo by Carol Arnold.

Lori Woodward, Stephanie Birdsall, and Rosemary Ladd, with Richard

Nancy's incredible painting. Perfect whites, perfect design, even perfect little freckles!
When Richard walked by it, he said, "Nancy's work lately has been transcendent."

Nancy pointing out some things for me to work on. :-) Photo by Carol Arnold

The lighting that day was particularly challenging. It was set up slightly below the model, casting light on her chin, under her nose and eye sockets, etc. - where one might usually expect to find shadows. We had to rely instead on appropriate color temperature and subtle value changes to express the form. Richard set everything up himself, including the lighting, the pose, and the costume. He also made sure to play a wide variety of classical music to inspire us throughout the day as we worked. I must say, I was a big fan of his taste in music. :-)

I was given a few helpful pointers by both Richard and Nancy throughout the day, mostly pertaining to color temperature and appropriately soft edges. I always knew that the most intense color can be found at the separation of the light and shadow (i.e., at the bridge of the nose), but I never really knew why, at least from a scientific standpoint. Richard explained that it's because of the way the light passes through the form. He compared it to what happens when you hold your hand over a flash light: all of your finders glow red. Skin is translucent (as opposed to transparent), and light, even as it passes through a thicker structure such as a nose or a chin, still causes that effect to a greater or lesser extent.

At lunch, we talked about how to solve some of the problems we were dealing with in our paintings, but things continually got off on a tangent (as Lori Woodward warned me of this, ha!). Richard liked to ruffle feathers, bringing up politics and religion whenever he got a chance. Our lunch conversation ranged from everything from the mayor of Toronto to the origination of Barbie Dolls (?). We also got to Skype with Kathy Anderson and Daniel Keys, who were giving a demo at the Greenhouse Gallery. Their audience was thrilled to hear from Richard and Nancy!

I have to thank Nancy Guzik for taking these photos... otherwise I would not have gotten a picture with Richard. I'm not sure what he was telling me in the photo below... but it must have been amusing!

At the end of the day, there were many beautiful paintings and drawings around the room, all by talented and hard-working artists. When Richard at last came up to mine, he said with all sincerity, "This is gorgeous!" I was stunned, and replied, "I think my heart just stopped, hearing that from you!" "Well," he said, "then let me find something to criticize." He pointed out an edge at the hairline for me to fix, and I actually felt better after that. Back to reality! Give me something to work on and I'll come down off of cloud nine. :-)

With the beautiful model and my painting of her!
"Grace," 16x12", oil on Raymar panel. Finished after
tweaking in my studio.
The next day (Sunday), we painted at the barn again, but this time without Richard. As you can see from the picture below (courtesy of Carol Arnold), frolicking and merriment ensued...

 ... and also a lot of excellent, focused work!

I did this oil sketch of Grace (below) within the first hour and a half or so. When Nancy saw it, she told me I should stop there. Everything I needed to say had been said. It was an excellent exercise in restraint, which is something I could definitely apply to more of my work.

Interestingly, the sketch garnered some criticism--or perhaps concern--when I posted it later on Facebook. Some people said it didn't look like "an Anna Rose Bain," but more like a Schmid. The concern was that I was going to become another Schmid copyist and not have a voice of my own. I suppose many young artists deal with this problem when they choose to study with someone, especially for a longer period of time. I replied to the comments by saying that whenever I am in a learning situation, I try my best to do as the teacher would do. My goal is to learn as much as I can from them, and if my painting ends up looking like theirs while I am with them, that's okay. That doesn't mean I'm going to start cranking out carbon copies of the teacher's work! I don't intend to change my style. When I go back to my studio, I take what I learned and fuse it with my already established working methods in the hope that they will be that much better. My paintings still come out looking like my own. I will never be a "little Schmid," or a "little Sargent," or anything else. I have always hummed to my own tune, and that won't change... but I will NEVER stop learning! :-)

It was a wonderful weekend and I learned sooooo much! Here are some things I discovered I need to work on:

1) Broken color. Okay, I'll admit it... I've always been scared of this technique, made famous by the beloved Impressionists. The idea is that you use complementary colors side-by-side in order to create the illusion of blending when viewed from a distance. When done well, broken color can make a painting SING. It's time I embraced the challenge.

2) Color temperature relationships. I understand them, in theory, and have gotten pretty good at explaining them to my students. But I could always use more practice seeing and painting them better. That just takes a lot of time and practice.

3) Design. Composition is a bear. Sometimes I think it comes naturally to me, but most of the time, I have to make a deliberate effort  to place the shapes in my painting just so. This is an element of art that I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to master.

How fortunate we artists are! The learning never ends, and the joy of new discoveries keeps us going, despite whatever shortcomings or flaws we may have. If only that joy could transcend into every aspect of our lives... how much richer this journey would become. :-)


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Oh Baby...

I'm a little ashamed at how infrequent my blog posts have been lately. I have a very good reason for being absent, though...


That's right, Baby Bain is due mid-May, 2014.

Here is my cheesy announcement that I posted on Facebook:

Thankfully, I haven't bowed down to the ceramic throne yet - not once! But, I have been subject to extreme fatigue, resulting in daily 1-2 hour naps and general laziness. Ironically, I've felt an urge to do lots of home cooking, cleaning, looking at baby slings on Pinterest, and darning socks (okay, not really!). Seriously, though, what is happening to me?!

The painting hasn't really stopped, but I have been forced to slow down a little. Yet God is good. He knows I have lots to do before I can officially close this pre-motherhood chapter of my life. Instead of being sick, I've been healthy, successfully able to teach my twice-weekly painting classes at my studio (albeit with a nap after each one), and most importantly, I've been able to travel! During the worst of my "tired phase" at the beginning of October, Steve and I took a ten-day trip to New England, visiting artist friend Craig Pursley in New Hampshire, enjoying the state and national parks in NH and Maine (shh... don't tell - we snuck into Acadia National Park, which was closed due to the government shutdown), and exploring the Freedom Trail in Boston, all while eating lots of seafood and maybe even getting in a painting or two. I needed a nap every single day, so sometimes it felt like I was spending more time in bed than out exploring, but we still had a very enjoyable trip, and Steve was as sweet and doting as could be. :-)

Above: Hiking at Acadia National Park (those gorgeous red bushes are wild blueberries)
Below: Seeing Sargent at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston

(Don't even think about looking for a baby belly yet! You won't see it! In a couple of weeks... maybe)

Then on the weekend of October 19th, I had the wonderful privilege of flying out to Vermont and painting with the renowned Putney Painters, mentored by Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik (who are only my art HEROES! No big deal). Sadly, Richard was under the weather that weekend, so he was unable to join us, but that just means I'll have to go back (and I'm going to, THIS WEEKEND!). See my last post to read about my experience. I'm sure I'll post again soon on Vermont trip #2.

It's only been in the last two weeks or so that I've started to feel my energy returning. I'm almost 14 weeks along, so everyone says the worst of the "drugged" feeling is behind me. It doesn't really matter. I am doggedly determined to paint even more than I was before. I've always had a feeling that my time here is short, so I ought to make the most of it... but now, that's really hitting home. Things are going to change FOREVER in a few short months, so I've got to get as much done now as I can. For every painting book I pick up, though, I also have a parenting book. There is so much to learn, and so little time! I can only hope I'll be a great mom, but I don't intend to quit painting. Somehow I will find a balance between creating and being a parent. All I've ever wanted was to be the best artist I could be, and to contribute something of beauty to this world. Well, my most beautiful and worthy contribution is yet to come, and Steve and I couldn't be more thrilled. :-)

Note: I promise not to be one of those parents who posts a hundred pictures of their kid every day... this blog will continue to be about ART. But, I can't guarantee that my child WON'T turn up in a large number of future paintings... ;-)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Master Copy: Richard Schmid

Some experiences are so powerful, they have a way of changing your life in more ways than you can count. For me, being introduced to the work and legacy of Richard Schmid was one of those experiences.

Ten years ago, as a pimple-faced college freshman, I went on a field trip with my college painting professor and some fellow art students, to the Butler Institute of Art in Youngstown, Ohio. The object of our visit: Richard Schmid’s retrospective show and slideshow lecture. I didn’t know anything about Richard or his work, having grown up in rural Wisconsin in a very sheltered home, where our only real exposure to the current art world was watching Bob Ross on PBS (yes, my first paint kit was a Bob Ross set!). But in spite of my naivety, I did know that I felt an irresistible draw to the world of art, and my life would not be complete without it. Still, I had a lot of important choices to make, such as which career to choose (every college student faces this!). I was also torn between art and music, having played classical piano since the age of eight. I was good at it, but drawing and painting were what I really loved.

Seeing Richard’s artwork up close took me to another place. I had never seen anything like it. I always thought that painting meant simply making a pretty picture or copying a photo and impressing your friends with it. But Richard Schmid created figures, still lives, and landscapes that emerged from the canvas and made you want to know more. I wanted to climb into those paintings and feel that grass on my toes, or put those fragrant apple blossoms to my nose, or get to know that intriguing portrait subject on a deeper level. Furthermore, the way he described his wife Nancy, sweetly referring to her as, “My beautiful Nancy,” made me want to meet this woman, also an incredible artist and person. The tenderness with which he spoke, made me realize that both painting itself, and depth of relationship, were the lifeblood of this artist. The world that he shared with me, the viewer, was a world I wanted to be a part of. That’s when I knew that I had found my life’s pursuit, and there was no going back.

Fast forward ten years: I have gotten to know Nancy Guzik, and had the privilege of studying with her at one of her workshops. I’ve taken thousands of mental notes from her and others, and applied them to my work as best I can. I’ve struggled to break bad habits and challenge myself with something new each time I stand at my easel. And I’ve kept Richard’s “Alla Prima” on my nightstand like a Bible.

Last month, I had the incredible privilege of copying a Richard Schmid original. I was very excited to give his suggested techniques a try. Two years ago, or even last year, I would not have been ready for this. But lots of study, trial and error, and hours spent at the easel had finally prepared me for this amazing learning experience and I couldn’t wait to give it a shot.

First of all, I should probably mention why it’s so beneficial to do a master copy. By copying another artist’s work, you get a sense of the way they looked at their subject and translated it to colors and brushstrokes. You see ways that they solved problems differently, and quite often, BETTER, than the way you might have done it. It’s like following in someone’s footsteps and seeing how they made the journey—what shortcuts they took, or which scenic vistas they stopped at or chose to dwell on (i.e. the focal point!). If you can't copy from an original, the next-best-thing is to find some high-resolution images online and work from your computer screen. This will ensure more accurate color, as well as the ability to zoom in on some of the finer details. Some good resources for high-res images include the Art Renewal Center, and Flickr. There is also a great iPad app called Art Authority.    

Anyway, Nancy said Richard had picked out this painting specifically for me. As soon as I saw it, it took my breath away. The subject of this 24x18” portrait is an elderly priest, wearing his vestments and making eye contact with the viewer. His gaze is quite engaging, and shows both depth of character and the seasoned wisdom that comes with age. He has a strong, angular nose, juxtaposed by soft white hair and eyebrows. Technically speaking, the portrait is perfectly placed and well-balanced. I immediately noticed a wonderful harmony of color, especially evident by the “triad” of lime green, found at two points on the vestments, and at one point next to the left eye. There is a single palette knife stroke in the portrait, located along his neckline at the brightest area of the collar (I discovered later, as I was working on it, that it was NOT pure white, but was actually a mix of white and touch of lemon). The seemingly spur-of-the-moment brush strokes at the bottom of the portrait are in fact quite deliberate, working to lead the eye around the painting and provide balance to that magnificent head.

 My canvas happened to be a little bit smaller than the original, so I had to shrink the size down overall. This made for an interesting challenge of making sure my painting matched his in proportion and drawing, but not necessarily in size. I also had to squelch my own natural tendency to “shrink” things down. So as I began, I chose a relative size for the head, which ended up being about three-quarters of the original size.

Nancy gave me some pointers on how Richard started, but since every painting is different based on the subject matter, the lighting, and the colors, I still had a lot of guesswork to do. I didn’t mind though – this is my favorite kind of problem-solving (Give me a math question though and I might complain…). 

I began by matching the tone of the canvas as closely as I could. It looked like a light wash of transparent oxide brown, so that’s what I did. Then I jumped into some of the background brushwork on the right hand side. Richard’s strokes look so effortless and spontaneous, but I quickly discovered that they were very difficult to replicate (and not just because I’m a lefty). It seemed to me that he used a very big brush, with mixtures of transparent oxide red, alizarin, and ultramarine blue. I labored over the background for quite some time before moving into the head. 

Left: This one little brushstroke at the top of the portrait gave me a lot of trouble. What took him one sweep of his brush took me a dozen tries, just to get it to have that “curling ribbon” effect. I still have a lot to learn about technique!
The head was blocked in with a middle value “general” skin tone (I think I ended up using white, transparent oxide red, a little yellow ochre, and cad. orange). From there, I chose a slightly darker and warmer tone to block in the eye sockets and shadow shapes.

Below: Here’s a close-up of Richard’s painting. I immediately latched on to an anchor point on the face: a very dark shadow with a hard edge, along the bridge of the nose. By using this point as reference, I could correctly place the rest of the features. I tried my best to match every brush stroke and every value, as well as the volume of paint on each stroke. Eventually the colors started coming a little easier, but the brushwork still required intense concentration.

When it came to brushwork, I was blown away by how intentional Richard was on every stroke. It was evident that he never “zoned out” or lost focus while he worked, or if he did, he made sure to cover it up!  Also, note the variety. There’s even a finger print on the nose, and some subtle lifting of the paint on the forehead and next to the left eye socket (below that wonderful note of blue). I tried to match all of those things exactly.

Above: Nancy was kind of enough to take some photos of me working on my copy. Here it is about an hour in, with some of the background and head blocked in.

As the work continued, I felt that I could read more of more of this man’s character, from the powerful yet sensitive way that Richard had painted him. He seems resolute and yet pleasant; wise, seasoned, and content. If I made any mistakes in my drawing, they immediately changed the overall expression and personality of this portrait. At one point, my rendition made him look suspicious (Nancy pointed out that darkening the white of his eye would make that go away, and she was absolutely right). At another point, he looked sad. It could change with just the slightest drawing or value error. What responsibility! And yet, what a joy to try and figure out how Richard did it!

The painting sings, it's so harmonious. So bold and confident, yet incredibly sensitive.
I could feel Richard's joy as I was painting this and it seeped into me like a prolonged and steady rain during the course of the five hours or so that I worked on it. In working from the live model, Richard must have delighted in every minute of it. That stroke of blue on the jaw line is like a dash of salt that makes the recipe perfect. Some of the edges on the hair and eyebrows are incredibly soft, like the “rear ends of ducks” (I couldn’t help inserting this comparison from “Alla Prima” – it made me giggle). The brushstrokes in the vestments are awe-inspiring in their variety of color, thickness, and length.  
Below are some more progress photos. As I look at the finished copy (last photo), I realize how many places I was off in my drawing and values, but what matters--more than just getting a perfect copy--is that I learned from the experience.

Occasionally I let out a squeal of delight or started jumping up and down from excitement as I accomplished little victories, or discovered something new. It was so appropriate then, when Nancy put me on the phone with Richard, and the following was (in short) his advice to me:
“You could have more fun. Play with your backgrounds, make beautiful designs and shapes. You don't have to tell what it is; it need not be explained. Just make beautiful shapes.
The most powerful tool you have as an artist is your imagination. Bring out your inner child. Use more harmonious colors throughout the subject and the background. Design your paintings.”

I won’t forget this priceless advice, and I intend to apply it to my very next piece. The wheels are already turning and I can’t wait to see how my work starts to transform, now that I’ve received such generous help from Richard and Nancy. What a gift. Thank you, Richard and Nancy, for allowing me to learn from you!  

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