Saturday, March 31, 2012

"Spring Woodland" (oil on linen; 14" x 11") sold


Reference photo for "Spring Woodland"

Uncommonly pretty "common silverbell" bush

Double-flowered bloodroot

Woodland poppy

Virginia bluebell

Jacob's ladder



Dwarf larkspur


Lately I have been haunting Green Spring Gardens Park in Alexandria, VA.  I was afraid in particular that, if I were idle, I would miss the dazzling explosion of spring wildflowers along the Virginia native plant trail, as spring was zipping us by stunningly fast.  Early spring flowers that should be still with us are all gone; azaleas and lilacs are already blooming.  For two weeks, I went to the garden park every other day; I was "casing the joint," so to speak.  I was there on Tuesday afternoon.  Woodland poppies and Virginia bluebells were finally blooming in plenty.  But the sun was on the wrong side.

So I went back on Thursday morning.  It was a partly sunny, partly cloudy day--not an ideal condition for photography.  Fortune, however, favors the persistent and determined.  As I entered the wooded trail, the sun came out to stay.  Wow!  I saw several plants which I have never seen.  The park authorities have been busy and kind with labels, but they couldn't possibly tag all the clumps of ground-hugging wildflowers.  Alas, some lovely flowers will remain nameless for me.

A couple of years ago, I had painted woodland poppies--"Woodland poppies in Spring Woods."  I wanted to paint them again, hopefully better this time.  "Spring Woodland," however, turned out to be a different sort of painting.  The cheerful, bright yellow, woodland poppies are there, of course.  But they are just one of the many flowers that populate this airy, light-filled, enchanting, spring woodland.  In the distance, one notices the pink redbud in bloom.  In the middle ground, the dainty white bells of the common silverbell arc gracefully above the carpet of yellow poppies.  In the reference photo, I noticed other tiny flowers on the ground as well, which I decided to edit out.  I think I captured in the new painting the atmosphere of springtime in the woods.  What do you say?

"Woodland Poppies in Spring Woods" (oil, 20" x 16")

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Apple Tree Blooming" (oil on linen; 12" x 12") sold


Reference photo

I love apple blossoms.  The flowers are pale pink and much bigger than cherry blossoms.  What is unique about them is their deep pink buds, which make an apple tree in bloom a lot more colorful than flowering cherry or pear trees.  Last Wednesday,while driving to run errands, I saw several apple trees blooming in a neighborhood about five minutes from my house.  On the following afternoon, I went back to take some pictures.  As I was about to spend the next three days in a painting workshop, I had no time to waste.  Spring was zipping by fast.

It was already an early rush hour; seemingly quiet streets turned into a heavily-trafficked thoroughfare.  I was a little nervous about taking photos of other people's houses in the first place.  I wasn't interested in their houses, of course, just their apple trees.  But if someone inside happened to see me, they would not have known.  You have to be careful these days, you know.  This particular neighborhood didn't have sidewalks either.  The sun was in the wrong angle too.  I took a few shots and got out of there as quickly as possible.

I liked the above picture the best, although it was backlit and cluttered.  The tiny blue vinca flowers ringing the tree, however, were absolutely perfect.  In my painting, no one would guess where I found this lovely apple tree.  A park?  A quiet corner in my backyard?  Photoshop is not the only way to change reality!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Springtime at Manor House" (oil on linen; 14" x 11") sold


Reference photo

The house in the painting could be any colonial-style house common in northern Virginia.  But it is not.  It is the Manor House at Green Spring Gardens Park in Alexandria, VA.  The entire park grounds used to belong to a plantation owner long time ago, and you know what that means in the antebellum South.  It is now owned and maintained by the Fairfax Country Park Authorities; much of gardening work is done by volunteers.  A nice change, don't you think?  The Manor House is open to the public a few days a week for teas, gift shopping, and art shows. As a matter of fact, I have had a couple of solo shows in the building in the past.  Naturally, I am quite fond of the place.

I took the picture a couple of weeks ago, when daffodils just started blooming.  Right above the yellow daffodils you can see a big clump of Lenten roses, which I edited out in my painting.  Beyond the house the saucer magnolias are at their peak.  It is such a happy picture that I just had to paint it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

"Southern Gentleman" (oil on linen; 14" x 11") sold

"Southern Gentleman"

Rob's first day demo, grisaille

Rob's palette

Rob adding "finishing touches" to his demo of the Civil War private

Detail from "Wayne as a Civil War Private"

Last weekend I took a workshop with Robert Liberace at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA. I signed up for the workshop--"The Painterly Sketch: Advanced Alla-Prima Portrait"--last September, because this popular teacher's workshops fill up fast.  His regular classes on Fridays at the Art League School are so hard to get into that one has to camp outside of the school building on the first day of registration each term. 

Alla prima, or "premier coup," is a way of painting that involves the direct application of color without an elaborate underpainting.  Great painters such as Frans Hals and John Singer Sargent, or the contemporary master Richard Schmid, are often linked to this direct, daredevil approach to painting.  The promise of learning to paint like Sargent, my hero, in three days was irresistible; I have been waiting for this workshop with eagerness for months.  In particular, the workshop with Stephen Early in January was so exhausting and, I must say, tedious, that I was looking for a different approach more suitable to my temperament. 

My head is still spinning with what I have seen and done for the past three days in Rob's workshop.  This is how it went.

On Friday, Rob did a quick demo of a model dressed as a Civil War private.  He started with a grisaille in burnt umber on a mid-gray toned canvas.  It perhaps took about one sitting session of 20 minutes or so.  With a relatively limited, modern palette of burnt umber, cadmium yellow light, cadmium orange, cadmium scarlet, permanent rose, alizarin crimson, manganese violet, diozaxine violet, phthalocyanine blue, cobalt turquoise, viridian, phthalo green, and two whites (titanium and lead),  he proceeded to "finish" the demo within an hour. 

Get in and get out.  That is the motto in alla prima painting.  It is assumed that you are an advanced figure painter with a deep understanding of anatomy and a proficiency in color handling and drawing.  Not a method appropriate to anybody else.  Below is my first foolhardy attempt, which took about two hours.  Yes, just that much amount of time is what I had and will have on each painting for the rest of the workshop.  Rob's critique was kind, but blunt: dark shadows in the head were not dark enough with the result of a chalky-looking painting.

"Steve as a Civil War Major" (18" x 14")

Rob's grisaille demo on the second day

Finished grisaille demo of a Revolutionary-era sailor (the "C" on the right is a cartoonish way of drawing a nose wing to be avoided at all costs)

My grisaille warm-up exercise on the second day

There was a good reason for my wimpy shadows.  Because I didn't have burnt umber on my palette (I acquired it for the last two days), I unsuccessfully tried to do a grisaille with burnt sienna and ultramarine blue.  I pretty much skipped the crucial step of grisaille--painting executed entirely in monochrome or near- monochrome, usually in shades of gray.  Apparently I wasn't the only negligent student.  So Rob started Saturday's class with a grisaille demo and made us do a twenty-minute warm-up exercise in grisaille, which we wiped off at the end of the session. 

I was concerned about the burnt umber underpainting turning the shadows too brown in the final painting.  So, on the third day, I asked the teacher whether this bothered him.  My question was met with his response that brown was not a bad color for shadows.  He even added that, if he had had his own school, he would have made a burnt-umber grisaille mandatory!  That is how strongly he felt about the grisaille.  During the process, the painter becomes acquainted with the features of the model and lays down the solid foundation for the later stages of the painting.

The second day color demo: "Steve as Revolutionary-era Sailor"

"Dominique in Turquoise Dress" (18" x 14")

Now it was our turn to paint.  I was, however, torn between the desire to watch Rob do a color demo of the model in a Revolutionary-era sailor's costume and the urge to get my own painting done.  The former won out as always.  I was there to observe a star in today's figure painting in action.  Whether I came home with a masterpiece at the end of the day was neither possible nor important.  As a result, I suffered much from a rushed feeling, which I wasn't supposed to, but couldn't help. 

The practitioners of alla-prima painting work slowly and deliberately.  Their brushstrokes may appear bravura, but they were not painted in a slapdash manner.  Rob did not smear paints here and there just to cover canvas as quickly as possible.  No, he painted methodically with knowledge and conviction.  Unfortunately, I didn't because I lacked either.

The third day color demo of a hand (the upside-down "U" on the left bottom is a way of drawing a curve to be avoided at all times; instead use a series of straight lines)

The third day demo of a more controlled alla-prima portrait, grisaille

Finished demo: "Dominique"

On Sunday, the last day of the workshop, Rob did a hand demo in the morning and a more controlled alla-prima portrait demo in the afternoon.  So I again had about two hours left for my own painting of "Southern Gentleman."  I did get wiser, though.  I brought a smaller (14 x 11" instead of 18 x 14"), better (double-oil-primed linen instead of cotton) surface to work on. 

The wing of the model's nose turned out a wee bit too big.  Rob recommended some surgery.  The streaky hair was also problematic.  Overall, however, Rob was impressed with my final effort; so was I.  He liked the way I handled the forehead of the model and his costume. He said something about "sophisticated"!  I was in heaven.  I am hooked to alla-prima figure painting.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

"Glorious Irises" (oil on canvas; 24" x 18") sold

"Glorious Irises"

"Purple Irises" (oil, 12" x 9")

"Purple Glory" (watercolor, 20" x 14")

Yup, you are right.  All three paintings above are based on the same photo reference.  I am guilty of copying myself.  "Purple Glory" came first, painted many years ago when I was a watercolorist.  It got an award, then got sold in another show.  Last year, I did a smaller version in oil--"Purple Irises"--and sold it on eBay.  A client of mine who saw it on my website wanted it blown up.  So I painted "Glorious Irises" for him.  What can I say?  Some compositions are so darn great that they deserve to be revisited several times.

Whenever I look at the image of "Purple Glory," I feel a pang and regret that I don't paint watercolors any more.  But the regret doesn't last long.  These days I find watercolors tedious.  One has to draw the composition very carefully with a pencil in fear of marring the paper. When glazing, one has to wait each time for the previous layer to dry completely.  Most importantly, one has to preserve the lights with absolute determination. 

When a watercolor painting works, it glows.  When it goes awry, there is not much one can do.  The medium tends to collect fanatical devotees who look at other mediums with a thinly-disguised contempt, because only the most disciplined artists can stick to it.  I have such friends.  (I hope they are not reading this blog entry; I still like them despite their stubbornness.)  I also have friends who had hit the wall and wandered to find other, I dare say, more fun, mediums. 

Despite what many people believe, oil paints can be transparent as well as opaque.  (Watercolors can be opaque too, but only up to a point.)  To me, the fun of painting in oil lies in playing with this dual characteristics of the oil medium, plus its tactile quality.  In "Glorious Irises," I didn't leave the dark background transparent, because I thought it might not stand up to the strong, sculptural presence of the back-lit irises.  Ordinarily, I play transparent areas against opaque ones, lathering thick globs of paints on highlights, highly-textured petals, and so on.  Oh, the glory of oil painting!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Pink Trumpet Daffodils" (oil on linen; 12" x 9") sold


Reference photo

The same kind of daffodils growing in my garden

Aren't these daffodils with pink trumpets lovely?   The reference picture was taken at Green Spring Gardens Park last Thursday, because I liked the composition, not because I didn't have them at home.  Indeed, they are blooming in my front and back yards in several different spots.  The composition, not the subject matter, is everything in a painting, my friends.

Do you know what?  I am onto something.  Without realizing, I have started a new series of garden flowers, painted from photographs.  Last year, in my enthusiasm for plein-air painting, I painted irises, peonies, roses, etc. on location with mixed results.  But I learned that, as long as I know how to compensate for the shortcomings of photography, it is so much easier to paint flowers from photos. 

These small paintings, requiring careful drawing, take hours to finish.  They are essentially still lifes, or portraits of flowers, under natural light.  However, I no longer have to worry about the moving sun, bugs, winds, heat, and an uninvited audience.  If I get tired, I can take a break or finish the painting the following day.

What the launch of the new series means is that I will never run out of painting subjects for months!  Furthermore, I get to go out to gardens and parks on a beautiful day.  I may bring my painting gear and paint landscapes en plein air.  But I won't be sweating over one or two flowers; instead, I will saunter to take pictures of flowers of different species.  Spring is already here in northern Virginia.  Cherries at the Tidal Basin are in full bloom, one week ahead of the original official forecast.  I'd better grab my camera and go over to a park.

Monday, March 19, 2012

"Glorious Magnolia" (oil on canvas; 12" x 16") sold


Reference photo

I didn't know I was such a lover of magnolia.  Having had so much fun painting "Magnolia Season," I decided to do another magnolia painting.  Can you guess when and where I took the above picture?  Yes, it was on the same day and at the same place as the picture for "Magnolia Season."  I walked around to get the best possible shot; it is indeed picture perfect.  Even the sky with streaks of clouds is fitting for a happy mood.  The new painting is more a landscape than a floral painting, taking in the surroundings in which a group of saucer and star magnolia trees are blooming.

While working on "Glorious Magnolia," I realized the reason for my newly-found enthusiasm for magnolia.  Painting magnolia from distance is not much different from painting another favorite flower of mine--cherry blossoms.  As I couldn't possibly paint gazillion cherry florets, I didn't even try to put in thousands of magnolia bud dots.  I also had to make sure that I painted in darks under the puffy clouds of pale pink flowers, suggesting magnolia branches in the shadow and a row of trees behind the stars of the painting.  A happy discovery and a handsome painting.  Life is good.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Magnolia Season" (oil on linen; 10" x 8") sold


Reference photo

As I mentioned the other day, I went to see what's happening at Green Spring Gardens Park on Tuesday afternoon in Alexandria, VA.  It was beautiful, so I went back on Thursday morning.  As spring is unfolding in a fast forward mode this year, I am trying to keep up.  The picture above was taken during my second visit.  I was both excited and nervous at the prospect of painting saucer magnolias.

"Whiff of Spring" (watercolor, 20" x 14")
click here to buy

Why nervous?  Because I haven't painted them before in oil, although, as you can see above, I have tackled these flowers in watercolor in the past.  "Whiff of Spring" is dear to me, not just because it had received an award in a show.  It is subtle, geometric, and reminds me of the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, who obsessively painted bottles all his life.  It was a class exercise with Deborah Ellis, who wanted her students to paint white paintings.

Having said all of that, I must also admit that "Whiff of Spring" has the pretentious, contrived look!  It is the kind of pompous paintings one may see in a museum.  (My apologies to dear Deborah, who is one of my favorite art teachers.)  These days, I would rather paint flowers in a garden, basking in the sun.  Honestly, which do you prefer, "Whiff of Spring" or "Magnolia Season"?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Bleeding Heart Love" (oil on linen; 8" x 10") sold


You don't have to be a bleeding-heart Liberal to love the bleeding heart.  It has attractive mounded foliage with arching stems of delicate, heart-shaped flowers.  Indeed, I consider it, not the rose, the most loving plant.  Its heart is so full of love that it splits up to show its innards!  When she was little, my daughter used to pick a bleeding heart and give it to me as a token of her love.  On top of its lovely form, it thrives in moist shade gardens.  Perfect!

I took the above picture in mid-April last year.  It is not blooming yet, although I am sure it will send me to a floral heaven way before that time this year.  It's been in the 70's everyday; it is even warmer today.  Dwarf sour cherries are blooming in my garden; they didn't yesterday.  I am in the midst of a serious spring fever, painting away spring flowers everyday.  I couldn't wait for bleeding hearts until April.

Dwarf Sour Cherries blooming in my garden

So I printed out the reference photo and happily painted "Bleeding Heart Love."  Quite a bit of drawing though.  You see, love does not come by without hard work.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"Crocuses and Miniature Daffodils" (oil on linen; 8" x 10") sold


Reference photo

Crocuses are one of the first flowers that bloom in a spring garden.  Their yellow, white, and purple flowers shout, "Wake up!  It's spring!"  In some years, these hardy babies will poke through a snow-covered ground.  Not this year, of course.  They naturalize nicely too, multiplying year after year.   Gardeners love them for one more reason.  Deer don't seem to care for them. 

Another spring bulb deer avoid to the gardeners' delight is the daffodil.  Miniature daffodils, my husband informs me, are the ancestors of modern, big, flashy daffodils.  As you can see in the above picture, they are about the same height as and perfect companions for crocuses.

One thing I have noticed lately while painting spring flowers is that flowers in a natural setting look, well, more natural than those in a still-life setup.  A good reason to get out there and dig.  It is hard to be inside painting when it is a glorious spring day outside.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

"Cherry Blossom Festival at Tidal Basin" (oil on linen; 14" x 11") sold

"Cherry Blossom Festival at Tidal Basin"

"Cherry Blossoms Cascading"
click here to buy

I succumbed to the crass commercialism and painted "Cherry Blossom Festival at Tidal Basin" to make some money off tourists who will be pouring to Washington, DC to see the National Cherry Blossom Festival later this month.  Do you know that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the planting of over 3.000 cherry trees, which arrived here as a goodwill gesture from the people of Japan?  The majority of the trees were planted around the Tidal Basin; that is what you see in my painting.

In defence of my commercialism, I want to emphasize that it is not easy to paint cherry blossoms.  They are so flurry, dainty, and pretty that it is easy to end up with the saccharine-sweet pink fest of paint blobs.  Believe me.  I've tried to paint them many times.  "Cascading Cherry Blossoms" was painted last spring with the help of a former teacher of mine, Diane Tesler.  This weeping cherry caught my eye last year during the festival.  Here the subject is not the landscape around the Tidal Basin, but the cascading "waterfall" of pink flowers against the crisp blue sky.

Bobbi Pratte, another teacher, insists that one should never paint cherry blossoms too light.  Bobbi is absolutely right.  Just before "Cherry Blossom Festival," I worked on another painting of the same theme, featuring the Jefferson Memorial.  As much as I hated quitting, I had to give up on it, for it was a vulgar pink thing. 

In "Cherry Blossom Festival at Tidal Basin," with the Washington Monument as the focal point, I made sure that the backlit, overhanging branches with cherry florets were dark and warm enough.  Why warm?  It was an overcast day with cool blues of the sky dominating, although there was sun, so that the shadows were warm-toned.  This is definitely a feminine painting; but I hope it has an artistic merit.  What do you think?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"Pink Tutu Peonies" (oil on linen; 8" x 10") sold


Speaking of peonies, I have another painting of my favorite flowers.  While going through an old shoebox full of photographs (do you remember those days before the digital photography?), I found a picture of pink peonies, which became the inspiration for the aptly-titled (!) "Pink Tutu Peonies."  These fluffy, flirty, and fragrant peonies are from my garden; they always remind me of pink tutus my daughter wore in her ballet recitals as a little girl.

The previous owners of my house were enthusiastic gardeners and had done a terrific job with landscaping the property. Unfortunately, they didn't always pay attention to how much light different plants require for the optimum growth. So we have lilac bushes, a plum tree, and others languishing in shady corners. There isn't much we could do about them, but with small plants like peonies and azaleas, we could transplant them to sunny spots. The pink peony, mostly dead ten years ago, now thrives and brings us much joy every spring.

But where I live, when spring comes, it comes fast and furious. One day, it's a balmy spring; the next day, it's a sultry summer. The only way to extend the enjoyment of these lovely peonies is to paint from them fast before they fade. Sometimes, I don't have the time and, as a backup for rainy days, I take some pictures. Not the same thing, I know. It is still better than nothing with these seasonal flowers.

Monday, March 5, 2012

"Peony Garden" (oil on stretched linen; 12" x 12") sold

"Peony Garden"

"Pink Peonies Bursting" (oil, 11" x 14")

The peony is one of my all-time favorite flowers.  What is there not to like about this gorgeous, fragrant flower?  The only thing I can think of is that peonies droop terribly because of their heavy blooms.  You can try staking the stalks, but there are usually too many flower heads.  You can't get to all of them in time.  One heavy rainfall; alas! they are shamefully dirtied by dragging their pretty faces in the garden bed. 

Last spring I painted a mini series of still lifes from a bouquet of fragrant pink peonies from my garden, as a bud opened and a full blossom faded.  By the time I finished the third painting--"Pink Peonies Bursting," peonies outside were gone.

I painted "Peony Garden" yesterday.  No, they are not blooming yet in northern Virginia.  Everything is early this spring, but not that early.  As I am in full spring mode, impatient to wait for peonies to flower, a photo came in handy.  Do you know what's happening in my garden at the moment?  Daffodils!  Any guess what I may be painting soon?

First daffodils from my garden