Friday, December 19, 2008

It will be a white holiday...

Well, I have a couple of new paintings I wanted to post, but the light has been too poor to take decent pics today (I always use natural light). Today, instead, I decided to post a few photos of what it looks like here.

Right now we are getting yet another snowstorm, expected to go on through the weekend. It is beautiful out there, and though it means that yet again the townplow will block me in, this time I am ready. Yesterday I did marathon shopping-- groceries to last well into the new year, plus everything for our traditional Christmas Eve dinner.

So no need to go out, except to the barn for firewood. That's the way I like it. Maybe tomorrow I will hike to the Nature Preserve and go snowshoeing. Take my sketchbook and maybe some pastels.

I took the first photo last year on a bright day, but otherwise this is pretty much what the front of my barn looks like right now. Except that last year I didn't have a woodstove, so there isn't a path crunched through from the house to the barn.

A peek out my dining room window at the 20 foot tall lilac bush that all but obscures the view (of a neighbor's house) during the summer. In this photo, most of the branches are outlined with snow, creating a second layer of lace on the other side of the lace curtain: double tracery. I love the almost ethereal look it gives.

In my living room. I have the drapes and blinds drawn to help keep the heat in: it is dang cold out there! I had the woodstove put in early this fall, and it is wonderful to sit in front of it on days like this. Mona the Magnificent is in her personal spot behind the stove. She has abandoned my lap as the preferred source of heat.

I have a loaf of bread baking. Fresh bread with soup for supper, on a snowy evening, in front of a woodfire. Mmmmm. What could be more perfect?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Summer Squall

oil on linen panel
12x9 in (30x23 cm)

I've been oil painting for at least several hours almost every day recently, experimenting with color mixing on and off the canvas, brushwork, and learning learning learning. A lot of what I paint gets wiped off, and then I try something else. Others get set aside, perhaps to work on later. I'm not sure I've painted anything I feel like framing yet: a lot feels like exercises. But some appeal to me.

A lot of the time I just choose a color scheme and then think in terms of how to compose those colors, and how to use my brushes for different effects. That's how basic I am right now. I like to paint real things as abstraction shapes, with just enough to suggest what they are, so when the design triggers a memory, I let it happen.

That is what happened here. As I merged the yellow and blues, I began to re-experience a remarkable afternoon I once spent on Puget Sound in my kayak. When I dropped my kayak in the water, the day was calm and sunny with a light breeze. I paddled out to the end of the inlet, and began crossing the channel toward Squaxin Island. Abruptly the breeze turned into a sharp wind from my back, the sky turned black, and the water turned into a heavy chop. Water was sheeting off my paddles-- never a good sign.

And suddenly I found myself caught in 12 foot swells. I needed to turn so that I was headed into the wind-- otherwise I was in danger of being swamped by the wind and the deepening swells, which were just starting to break at the crests. There was another danger too: as the swells lifted me, I could see the rocky shore of the island not far ahead, and could see the water breaking over them. I needed to turn NOW!

As the next swell rose behind me, I had my paddle up and ready, hoping to time a deep starboard thrust so that my kayak would turn at the crest, and I would slide down the back of the swell bow first. If I failed, I could be caught sideways as the swell went down, which would almost certainly swamp me. Though I wore a drysuit and flotation device, there would be no way to upright my boat in that water, and I would have to do an underwater exit. If I lost the kayak, I'd be at the water's mercy.

Geez, that sounds melodramatic now, but the fact is that people die every year on Puget Sound in less extreme conditions. Let it be known that this squall came out of the blue: no one expected it. I would not normally have ever gone out if there were even the suggestion of something like this.

Somehow I managed to make that turn, a perfect 180 degree swivel as the crest lifted my boat so that only the midsection was on the water. If I'd been an onlooker, it would have been a thing of beauty. As I was not an onlooker, it was simply a big release of fear.

With the boat facing into the wind, all I could think was "Keep paddling. Paddle as hard as you can." I was so focused I have only dim memories of the sound of the wind. I was barely holding position: as I rose to each crest, I could see a small point on the island just in my peripheral vision, in the same place on my right. There was a fishing boat tossing at anchor in the lee of the tiny cove it formed. The sight of that boat somehow reassured me: I just hoped the pilot was aware of me, too, in case I capsized.

Then suddenly I was making headway. The wind abated, the swells turned first into a heavy chop, and then back into a light chop. I kept paddling until I reached the middle of the channel, where the water was beginning to return to the smoothness it had had, and the grey of the sky lightened. Then I turned to see what in the world I had just been through.

Over the island there was a squall cloud, black below, highlighted gold above by the mid-afternoon sun. It was headed north, with an edge of wind-pushed drenching rain that obscured all but the shore I'd just left. Lightening bolts darted from point to point around the edge of the cloud. It was beautiful, but intimidating. I sat, my paddle at ease across my bow, feeling stunned and awed, realizing that I'd just passed through that. And knew how lucky I was, both to have made it, and to have witnessed it.

Then I got a gift. As I turned again and headed toward my inlet, a patch of sunlight broke through just to one side of me. A pod of dahl's porpoises broke through the surface of the water, and danced through it, leaping almost as if they'd choreographed the whole event. I laughed with delight. They circled my kayak, gave another leap in the sun, and went on their way.

By the time I reached the opening to my inlet, the sun lit up everything again. I turned to look at the island one more time, but the squall had passed on, and the water was flat and calm all across the channel. I waved at the fishing boat as it chugged up the channel, but I doubt he could see me.

So that is where this painting took me, or I took this painting as it evoked the memory of that day. The moment that emerged is just when the wind had begun to pick up, with the edge of rain approaching, the chop beginning to form into swells, and that strange yellow light that precedes these kinds of storms.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


oil on linen panel
12x9 in

NOTE: see Feb. 9th posting for revised version of this painting.

For the time being, I have set my pastels aside (for the most part--my love of them won't let me stay too far away). I'd started noodling around seriously with my oil paints, trying to get a feel for them. It felt like a battle. Painting is usually almost a meditation for me, but this was a struggle. Dozens of unfinished or unsatisfying paintings, on heavy watercolor paper, hardboard, even linen. Most of the ones on paper I not-so-cheerfully put in the trash. Most of the board and linen will eventually be repainted in one way or another. But I was baffled about how to deal with my frustration.

I finally decided to just give myself a no guilt break from it. No sketching, no peeking at supplies online, nothing. For weeks, I read book after book, novels, history, biographies-- but no art. I wrote friends, and talked to them on the phone. I got reacquainted with all the shops downtown (but stayed out of the galleries).

In the midst of this, I attended the art show and film event I talked about in my last post. It was a marvelous success. I was so impressed with all the work that the organizer, Linda Marcille ( put into pulling it together. I ended up staying over, tucked into the corner of a suite with several other Lyme folks, talking into the night.

The next morning, with the entire day in front of me, the weather good, I decided to drive across the southern Vermont mountains to the Clark Institute in Williamsburg, MA. A special hanging of paintings from their collection by John Singer Sargeant and Winslow Homer had been held over, and I wanted to see the paintings while they were together.

Layered paint. Colors built up through glazing and blended, scumbled. Color mixed on the canvas. Texture suggested. Up close, the appearance of meaningless brushstrokes. Step back and it all pulled together into a whole. Oooooh. Representation and abstraction both. Not really impressionism, something beyond it. I was entranced. That's why I've been struggling! I need to learn how to do that with oils. It's one of the things I love about pastels. In this case it wasn't a matter of seeing, of visualization, but one of not having the technique I needed to make it work in oils.

When I was studying painting in school (a very long time ago), the rage was color field/hard edges, and a kind of brittle hyper realism that. did. not. appeal. to. me. period. Little instruction available for oils--everything was acrylics, which would not do what I wanted. That's when I shifted to doing 3 dimensional stuff and meandering around writing poetry and essays. I'd never had the chance to learn how mix colors on the canvas, though I understood the technical stuff. Time to put the two together.

Play time. Rules: Subject doesn't matter (paint whatever pops into your head). Don't get overly picky about details. Or fuss about composition. The only thing that matters right now is finding out how pigment bound with oil behaves, and learning to control it so it evokes my subject. Oh, whew. It's fun again. And I'm stepping back even from my failures with a sense of accomplishment, because I am learning something, and I know where I am going now.

The little scene above is several attempts into my exploration, and the first that I'm willing to expose to public view, mundane as the subject is. For the record: I used ultramarine blue, azo yellow, quinacridone red, and titanium white. That's it. And more brushes than I needed probably, but what the heck. I didn't have to keep wiping them, at least. It was done alla prima, and took 4 hours. Oh, yeah, there was the spatula with which I removed sections to repaint....

The subject? My memory of standing atop one of the parallel ridglines of the western mountains, looking across a mist-filled valley between. That mist means there is a lake or a good-sized river in that valley. I know this without even being able to see it. My next painting like this is likely to lean a bit more to the abstract side. One thing at a time.

PS: That lumpy thing at the middle top? That's the edge of the canvas holder that I forgot to move out of the way. Please ignore it. This is the only photo that didn't come out with too-much fresh-paint glare. I'll take another one when it congeals a little more.