When it is Hard to Paint

There are days- many days- when it is hard to paint.  I am very fortunate to have the time to paint, but just because I have the time does not mean I have the focus.  In fact, inspiration is rarely convenient.  I want to paint when I cannot and when I can paint I don’t want to.  (That is probably in part why I am writing this blog right now.)  In any case, it is important to try.  On the days that I just don’t feel like painting- I force myself.  Even if I have to sit in that studio for 4 hours and make absolute garbage, I force myself.  You often hear writer’s say, “just start writing”.  Well it is true for painting as well.  Just start, and eventually your mind will click and the intentions will flow.  I find even just sitting and staring at an unfinished painting long enough will compel me to jump in.  Or, looking at books and browsing the web for some of my favorite artists usually gets the juices flowing.  If you know yourself, you will know what it takes to get going.  So I guess it is time for me to go paint now…

When to Give up on a Painting

This is a painting in flux.

I often tell my students that acrylics are wonderful because they are so easy to paint over.  This is true, but eventually texture build up can become the enemy.  When this happens it can become more and more frustrating to apply paint because the attempt to conceal a previous layer’s texture interferes with the intentions for the painting.  So after layers and layers of paint and hours lost, when do you throw in the towel?  At some point all you can do is ask yourself, “am I really accomplishing anything?”  A few days ago I was in a similar predicament with another painting (it has just been one of those weeks).  I plowed ahead and I am now really happy with the outcome.  After hours of frustrations something clicked and a successful painting emerged.  Today, however, feels different.  I think I am much further away from where I want to be.  So, I have a decision to make.  To throw way or to keep at it?

Mixed Media

I have been working in acrylics this past year and one of my favorite things about acrylic paint is how well it works in mixed media.  This image is a detail of a piece is on my easel right now.  It is acrylic on paper.  I have carved into the wet acrylics with soft pastel and pastel pencil.  I love the incorporation of line in painting, and the layering of media creates diverse textures.  Because acrylic dries much quicker and more stable than oil, it bonds well to other dry media.  I had forgotten how much fun this was- and how much I like the results.  I think there will be more of this in my upcoming work!

Why I Paint

The last few months I have been distracted in my personal life and when life happens it is easy to become detached from the creative process.  I stopped painting for a while and only have eased back into it these past few weeks.  In doing so I am finding a new energy and wanted to reflect on the reasons that I must paint, regardless of what life throws at me.

I paint because it is all I know to do. It compels me to move, to think, and to feel. Painting excites me and energizes me like nothing else. It gives me meaning and purpose. It challenges me to constantly reinvent the universe. Painting instills in me the power of being a creator… and the humility that comes with creation. It is at the same time full of meaning and utterly meaningless.  It is with pleasure that I embrace both these states of being while painting.

Busy Teaching!

My portable studio…

I realize I have been pretty out of touch the past few months.  I have had some shows and events but I haven’t been doing much painting.  My teaching schedule has been completely packed during August and early September.  Now with the completion of a 3 day workshop in Door County I am breathing  sigh of relief.  Don’t get me wrong, I still have some new classes starting soon at the Cedarburg Cultural Center and through Milwaukee Recreation.  However, my schedule will now get much more balanced again. I am looking forward to some new adventures this fall and of course some time to paint!  I have a show open now at the Wilson Center (reception October 4) and  also a new gallery- The Tamarack Gallery –  representing me in Stillwater, MN.

Being a full time artist/teacher is very much a balancing act.  The teaching is important, but I need to allow myself the time and mental energy for painting as well.  I constantly reevaluate the way I spend my time and how to organize my calendar.  I haven’t had a vacation in a while, so I am looking to fit one in the coming months as well.  Overall though I am truly grateful for being able to live this life.  Being an artist isn’t easy, but it’s totally worth it.


A Sense of Place

Most of my paintings are done from photograph.  I am not directly interested in the details of a specific place at a specific time.  The photograph gives me a sense of color and the composition of the photograph gives me a structure.  I work from my own photos.  I take them when I am driving to a class or a show.  I take them while I am on a hike or walking the dog.  Most of the pictures I take are quick shots (sometimes while in motion) taken with my iphone.  I am not a professional photographer.  The photograph simply helps me remember what I saw when I am am back in the studio.  Whether it’s the way light was bouncing off of a line or trees or the angles of rolling fields off in the distance, I am reminded of what I found visually interesting in that scene and that is what I paint from.  I translate that area of interest to color and texture contrasts in paint, letting other areas of the image abstract.  The ultimate goal is to create a visually interesting image that has a vague sense of place but has become something else.  It has become a painting, a unique work in and of itself.

An Interesting Read!

I picked this book up at the library earlier this week.  I just thought it sounded interesting… and it is!  It’s a bit of a “how to” book, but it covers a lot of information about materials and techniques.  The author, Jonathan Stephenson, ties together historical information with painting technique without being dry or academic.  He also really creates a broad perspective on how many different ways there are to paint!  I am having fun with it and might even have to paint along with a few of the demos.

Paint with the Impressionists, Jonathan Stephenson, 1995, Thames & Hudson

My Favorite Knife

Palette knives and painting knives are fundamental to my work.  I started using them 3 or 4 years ago and now use them almost exclusively in my studio work.  The variety of marks that can be made, the ease with which paint can be applied and removed, as well as the feel of application have all made the knife important to me.  This one is my all time favorite.  Many of my paintings are done with this knife alone.   Technically this is a palette knife, it’s purpose is to mix paint on the palette.  Is is sometimes referred to as a “scraper or a “large scraper” because of it’s ability to remove large areas of paint easily.  What I love about it is the shape.  There are actually 5 sides to it of varying length and depending on which side I build up paint on, I can get a huge range of marks.  Also, the flexibility of the large knife is perfect for both hard and soft applications.  I can gently layer wet paint without disturbing the layers underneath or I can scrape all the layers up with one hard stroke.  So, if you are knife shopping on a budget, this is the one I would recommend.

I should mention that all artists are different and like anything you do in life there is not only one way.  Some people hold pencils differently then others, some people play instruments differently then others.  This is the tool I have found feels most like an extension of my arm, wrist, and hand.  It is the tool I can most confidently maneuver to my whim. Do what feels right.

Painting with Confidence

I am teaching a class at the Cedarburg Cultural Center right now on Alla Prima painting.  Alla Prima means, “at first attempt”.  This is a direct style of painting done in one sitting, where paint mixes with wet paint on the canvas.  This style of painting is recognized by a feeling of spontaneity, looseness, and confidence.  This class reminds me that confidence in painting is the hardest part to teach as well as the hardest part to learn.

In class we are doing exercises to help build confidence, but there is no substitute to repetition and practice.  The most seasoned artists likely still struggle with confidence at times.  Confidence (or lack of confidence) will come through in a painting.  The brushstrokes feel either labored or effortless.  The less afraid we are of painting, the better we paint.

I reflected today in my studio about my own work, asking myself which paintings felt more confident and which felt less confident.  Then, I painted.  Early in the painting I fell into a habit of over controlling the paint and meticulously trying to perfect every mark.  When this failed and I began to become frustrated, I took a large knife and smeared out all the paint.  Then I began again, already having decided the painting was a loss I though I might as well play a bit before cleaning up.  Within minutes, something began to happen.  Colors and marks magically fell into place.  It was only after giving up on the painting that I was able to enjoy painting it and paint it with confidence.