Thursday, August 30, 2012

"Autumn Walk along the C & O Canal" (oil on linen; 8" x 10") sold



The scene captured in the painting

In the last  entry, I talked about my harrowing painting experience at Chaco Canyon two years ago.  Here is another such story.  The tranquil scene above is the C & O Canal at Fletcher's Boathouse.  In the fall of 2009, I started taking Sara Linda Poly's  plein-air painting class.  I was absolutely enthralled with the idea of painting outside, but my skill level didn't quite match my enthusiasm as you can see in the original state of "Autumn Walk along the C & O Canal."  But there was another reason for my lackluster performance.

Having covered some popular sites in Alexandria, VA, Sara decided to take us across the Potomac River.  Unless you commute to Washington, DC or Maryland by car, many northern Virginians do not venture out in that direction and some of us get panic-stricken if we have to drive there.  It's like a foreign country to us.  I had never been to the historic Fletcher's Boathouse.  After crossing the river by Chain Bridge, I managed to take a wrong turn and ended up near Georgetown University.  That's when I got a flat tire!  I was rescued by a kind AAA guy, but by that time it was almost noon.  I seriously considered going home.

Not being someone who gives up easily, I changed my mind and eventually found my way to the spot, where Sara's class had been painting for two hours.  Did I say that it was one of those glorious autumn days we often get in the Washington metropolitan area?  There wasn't a breeze to disturb the reflections in the water.  I was glad to join the class.  But I was tired from my adventure; besides, I only had a couple of hours left to whip out a painting.

The painting had been hanging in my garage ever since that eventful day.  Yes, in my garage!  As you know, I have been reworking old paintings for the past few weeks and I am now near the bottom of the pile.  So I took the painting out of the frame, printed out the photo, and went to town.  I am rather pleased with the new and improved painting.

I don't know what the moral of the story is.  You really need a AAA membership?  Bad things do not always happen in threes?  The C & O Canal is a fabulous place to paint?  Never give up, never surrender?

Monday, August 27, 2012

"Chaco Canyon Memories" (oil on linen; 8" x 10")

click here to buy


The view

Have you ever been to Chaco Canyon?  It is one of my favorite national parks ever.  If you are planning a vacation in the Southwest, it should be at the top of your list of places to visit.  My husband and I had been to Chaco Culture National Historical Park back in 1993 and we wanted to show our daughter this awesome place.

Two years ago, on a typical, hot, summer day in New Mexico, we were back at this amazing monument to a native American civilization.  It was as impressive as I remembered.  While my husband and daughter were checking out some archaeological sites, I set up my easel at Una Vita, apparently over an ant hole. Huge black ants soon crawled all over my feet, my art gear--just everywhere. I got stung.

Ouch, so I moved. Perhaps, I had offended the spirits of the Ancestral Puebloans. The evil ants followed me, swarming all around, biting, hurting. I even got bitten on my neck! At this point, you may be wondering why I didn't spray myself with a bug spray. I did, and it didn't do much good.

Clouds kept moving.  Since I didn't have the wisdom to plan out the value scheme at the outset, I had to chase the clouds, changing values every five minutes in between scratching the itchy spots and crushing as many ants as I could.  Did I mention the heat?  The sun was beating down on me.  Although I was partially shaded by my umbrella, my right side was exposed to the sun and was burning.  A painting session turned into an extreme sport. Ah! Perils of plein-air painting.

"Chaco Canyon Memories" had been hanging in the foyer of my house since then, always evoking the unforgettable memories.  But something bothered me.  Last week I took it down, looked at it for a long time, and finally figured out the problem.  The middle ground in the shadow may have been there at some point while I was painting, as you can tell from the scudding clouds in the sky.  But it didn't make sense to the viewer.  The dark middle ground had also the unintentional side effect of throwing the formation in the background into prominence. 

As soon as I brought back the sunshine to the troublesome spot, the background receded, blending into the land itself.  After more textures were added to the foreground sage brush, I was finally satisfied with the painting.  Now I can fully enjoy the memories of my family vacation to the Southwest.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Lavender Patch by the Barn" (oil on linen; 9" x 12")

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The scene that inspired the painting

"Lavender Patch by the Barn" was one of the paintings done during the workshop with Bobbi Pratte at Willow Pond Farm in Fairfield, PA in June.  I painted the lovely scene in the shade of a big tree. As the painting progressed, the sun moved, enveloping the purple lavenders in the back in shadow and highlighting those in front. Perfect!

The teacher and several of the workshop participants loved the painting very much, so I figured it must be good and I should like it too.  But deep inside, something bothered me.  I will tell you all about my doubts and how I worked things out of system. 

Bobbi was thrilled to see me working so hard while everybody was taking a well-earned break after lunch on the first day of the workshop.  She was particularly happy with my choice of the painting subject.  She would have painted it herself if she had not been so busy taking care of students.  She gave me several good suggestions, one of which was "don't paint the white wall of the barn too high-keyed" because it would come forward.  She told me to paint it grayed blue.  So did I dutifully. 

But that dingy blue wall in the back kept nagging me ever since.  To me, it was a depressing color in a happy, sunny painting.  It just didn't belong there.  The white wall, although in shadow, had a lot of light bounced back from everywhere.  Thus, while keeping the value low enough, I brought light back to the wall.  The painting finally began to sing.  I made a slew of adjustments, but the most important change was the afore-mentioned barn wall.

The whole business made me wonder.  What is the right thing?  Do I always act upon what the teacher says?  Or do I trust my own judgment and do my own thing?  For last two months, I have been taking a break from classes, workshops, and even paint-outs with friends.  In other words, I have been doing "my own thing," figuring things out on my own, and allowing my own voice to sing my own song.  I see big changes in my work and I like my new style.  I will go back to the classroom in the fall, but I don't think I will always follow the teacher's advice.  I will continue to do my own thing.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Spring Beauty" (oil on linen; 8" x 6") sold; "Yellow Daffodils" (oil on linen; 8" x 6") sold



Reference photo for "Spring Beauty"

"Yellow Daffodils"


One of the trickiest things in painting, I find, is the treatment of the "background."  What do I with the environment the subject is sitting in?  For instance, if I had painted "Spring Beatuy" exactly as I saw in the reference photo, the result would have been a chaos.  When I painted this small gem last spring, I thought I did the right thing by making the "background" blue green--the complementary color of the peach iris.  For "Yellow Daffodils," I sublimated the busy, green, spring growth around the daffodils into a soft, grayed green backdrop.

Looking at both paintings with an objective eye, I realized that something had to be done about their backgrounds to make the flowers pop.  I changed the overall background colors to purples, then introduced warm colors into the darks, echoing the warmth of the sun and flowers.  Yes, I worked on the flowers themselves and spiky leaves of the irises and daffodils too, but they were minor adjustments. 

The difference between the original and improved states in both paintings is remarkable.  Their message has become clearer--the joy of spring.  The flowers look far more vibrant.  Despite the small format of the paintings, they carry themselves as if they are much bigger.  I learned another lesson in painting: the imporance of the background!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Washington Monuments on Autumn Day" (oil on linen; 8" x 13") sold



Early this summer, I went to the National Gallery of Arts with a couple of friends.  We were in the French Impressionism section, visiting with each other and admiring the artwork--multi-tasking at its best!  That's when I saw Claude Monet's "The Bridge at Argenteuil."  I stopped talking.  My friends also stopped to see what was happening.  I knew I was being rude, but I couldn't tear myself away from the painting.  They kindly left me alone for a few minutes.  I was in awe, in heaven.

I have a poor reproduction of the painting at home.  It absolutely has nothing of the glowing quality of the original.  I fell in love with Monsieur Monet for the first time in my life.  When he painted the scene by the river near the bridge en plein air, things may or may not have been exactly as what he portrayed in "The Bridge at Argenteuil"--the fluffy clouds floating by, the sail boat with a white triangular sail conveniently breaking up the horizon line, and especially the shimmering reflections in the water.  Will I ever be able to paint like him someday?

Which brings us to "Monuments on Autumn Day."  Gravelly Point along George Washington Parkway is located right next to the National Airport.  A great view of the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial is why several of my friends and I were there two years ago.  What you can't tell from the painting, however, is that my nerves were totally shot during the paint-out thanks to the constant noise from the huge jumbo jets coming down to land at the airport!  My stress level was, therefore, higher than usual, which might account for the general drabness of the painting in its original state.  I am quite sure that Monet never had to deal with the jet noise!

The colors of the polluted Potomac river can only be described as dirty-looking.  Peope fish there, but I sincerely hope they don't eat a large quantity of their catch.  I figured that there is no reason why I should stick with the "real" colors.  When I quit my teaching job to become a full-time artist, I assume I was issued the artistic license!  Invoking Monet, I did my best to make "Monuments on Autumn Day" shimmer.  Do you think I measure up to the master?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

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



"Yellow Tulip Planter" (after; oil, 12" x 9")
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It's been several months since I painted "Apple Tree Blooming" and "Yellow Tulip Planter" last spring.  At that time, I thought they were pretty darn good.  Last week I looked at them; they didn't look that great anymore!  My critical attitude toward some of my old paintings, I hope, doesn't mean that I am turning into one of those sour, unhappy people who are never satisfied with their lives.  It's just that I am growing as an artist and can critique my own work impartially and constructively.

Anyhow I worked on both paintings to see what I can come up with, the second time around.  Can you see what I did?  For one thing, I got rid of the half of a tulip on the far left in "Yellow Tulip Planter."  I don't know what I was thinking back in April!  Many an artist has made the same mistake of painting everything in front of her, in this case, in the photo. 

Lately I started a new habit of bringing a work in progress to the bathroom to look at it in the mirror.  It really helps me to take an objective look at it and I discover lots of awkward things this way--a horizon that doesn't quite match up, a vase with a wrong ellipse, etc.  And that is how I realized that the flower had to go.

Over all, I think I strengthened the composition in both paintings.  In "Apple Tree Blooming," there is also a stronger sense of light bouncing around.  Don't the two spring flower paintings make you feel happy?

Monday, August 13, 2012

"Autumn C & O Canal" (oil on linen; 12" x 12") sold



The scene captured in the painting

Speaking of bringing life back to an old painting, please have a look at what I did to "Autumn C & O Canal".  I painted it at the end of last October along the C & O Canal at a place called Wide Water, just north of Washington, DC.  It was a chilly day, so my fingers and feet got numb within an hour into the painting.  But the light could not have been better.

Then why does the untouched plein-air painting look wish washy?  This is what happened.  When I started the painting, the sun shined on us brightly (there were about ten of us that day), as you can see in the above photo.  The shadows on the embankment were strong, the reflections of the fall foliage in the murky canal water were absolutely breath-taking.

Then the sun started playing peekaboo with us; clouds rolled in; it became completely overcast by the mid-afternoon.  In other words, the painting was a victim of the typical hazard in plein-air painting.  I got confused, couldn't recall exactly the brilliant, bouncing colors that used to be there.

Using the photo as a guide, I brought back the light to "Autumn C & O Canal."  I may have exaggerated colors a bit, but I like the improved state a lot.  What do you say?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

"Autumn Central Park" (oil on linen; 8" x 12") sold



Reference photo

The other day, my teenage daughter opened a "wise" fortune cookie that said "a failure is an opportunity in disguise."  She asked me if it was deep enough for me.  Ha!  I don't put much stock in fortune cookies, unlike some people who go out to buy a lottery ticket on account of a particularly lucky fortune after a Chinese meal. 

Nevertheless, the incident got me thinking.  Hm.  I pulled out a "failed" painting to give it another shot.  It was sold on eBay last fall, but alas, the buyer failed to pay up.  So it wasn't my painting but the eBayer that failed.  All the same, I knew right away what to do. 

"Autumn Central Park" was based on a photo I took two years ago when my then college department took a bus-load of students on an educational tour to New York City.  It was mid-November, but we had an unbelievably mild, gorgeous weather!  We walked through Central Park, our destination being the Metropolitan Museum of Arts to see its world-famous Egyptian collection.

I am glad that I still had the painting in my possession so that I got another chance to work on it.  It had a good bone structure, so to speak, but my original execution somehow lacked conviction, especially in the foreground shadows.  The fortune cookie was right, don't you agree?  A failure, indeed, is an opportunity in disguise!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"Lavender Fields on a Summer Afternoon" (oil on linen; 8" x 10") sold

"Lavender Fields on a Summer Afternoon" (after)
"Lavender Fields on a Summer Afternoon" (before)

The scenery captured in "Lavender Fields on a Summer Afternoon"

"Fair Lavender Fields" (oil, 11" x 14"; after)

"Fair Lavender Fields" (before)

The scenery for "Fair Lavender Fields"

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you may remember my experience during the lavender workshop with Bobbi Pratte in June.  Well, it's been a month and a half since the unforgettable workshop and I have completely recovered from painting six paintings in two days!  I felt up to revisiting these paintings to see what I could do to make them sing.

Although nothing beats the freshness of alla-prima paintings done on location, the truth is that they are not always the best work an artist is capable of.  There is so much pressure--heat, bugs, fatigue, limited time, etc.--that if you capture the essence of the scene, you should give yourself a pat on the shoulder and do a little victory dance. 

I uploaded the photos of the sceneries I captured in the paintings above to show you how I edited things while painting on site.  I didn't just slavishly copy what was in front of me, did I?  So much thinking goes on while painting that one feels exhausted just for the brain exercise!

Now, back in my air-conditioned studio, no longer sweating like a pig and about to pass out of heat exhaustion, and instead in full control of my faculties, I could clearly see what was working and what could be improved.  I didn't change much of the composition in either painting.  But colors are richer and there are lots and lots of texture!  Both paintings now sing LAVENDER, don't they?

By the way, painting lavender fields of Pennsylvania got me thinking.  Why not go to Provence and paint acres and acres of lavender fields?  Why not?  Or, as the French say, pourquoi pas?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"Under a Willow Tree" (oil on linen; 8" x 10") sold

"Under a Willow Tree"

"Morning Garden" (oil, 8" x 10")

"Summer Garden" (the improved version; oil, 10" x 10")

"Capitol Hill in Summertime" (oil, 15" x 8")

"Capitol View from the US Botanic Garden" (oil, 15" x 8")

Paintings are like your children.  You nurture them; you pour your heart out; you even lose sleep over them.  Once you do all you can, you wish them well.  You want them to shine--get into juried shows, receive awards of excellence, and admired by the public.  Whether you keep them in your private collection or sell them to collectors, you want them to be loved.

Alas, paintings do not always turn out well.  Unlike children, however, there are things you can do to improve paintings.  After they sit around in my studio for a while, I seem to gain certain detachment.  I can see things that I didn't see before.  Composition can be tweaked; drawing can be corrected; values can be strengthened; colors can be made richer.  Or, they may be retired so that I can get on with my life. 

In this positive spirit, I am working on a series of old paintings to see if I can make them better. Why not?  After all, all paintings are just a playing ground to grow as an artist, aren't they?  Paints and canvas may be transformed into an exquisite work of beauty that transcends everyday experience.  If it doesn't, well, no harm was done.  Nobody died in the process.  Ha!