Tuesday, May 31, 2011

layers of knowledge

Today’s class consisted of two three-hour sessions, one morning and one afternoon.  With the basics under their belts, it was time to add some nuances.  I introduced the use of metallic pigments (both powder and paint) in the morning, which were greeted enthusiastically. In the afternoon, we raided the yard outside the studio for dirt that we sifted through cheesecloth (Sedona sits on iron-rich red sandstone), and leaves, juniper needles, and grasses.  The dirt became pigment and the plant samples, stamps. The students were a little doubtful at first, but plunged in and experimented.  Overall, it was a looser day, but it seemed appropriate, and some very creative work was accomplished.

One student, Keely, had applied plenty of paint, powdered pigment, and paint stick to her largest panel, and she set it outside to dry.  It was a warm desert day, and the panel quickly absorbed a lot of heat, both from the sandstone patio on which it lay and from the direct sunlight.  The wax melted.  This created some interesting effects, as pigments merged and lines blurred.  Then the student decided to brayer over it to create a new surface for working.  Because the lowest layers were melted as well as the top (but not the middle), the brayer lifted off paint in some places and not others, and to varying depths depending on the consistency of the inner layers.  The end result was a fascinating surface of texture and revealed color, some places melted and others not. The photo above shows the effect, as best a photo can. A couple of us replicated the effect on panels of our own, always to interesting results. It is not something that could happen without available hot surfaces and hot light, but it suggests some interesting possibilities.

I had brought with me from home a large unfinished piece that I have been stuck on for a while, as an example of an in-process painting as well as the use of analogous colors.  This afternoon, with all my classroom panels wet, and inspired by the leaves and grasses we gathered, I applied more paint in several places and added some grass marks, and broke the logjam that has been keeping me from finishing the painting.  I’ll do a little more at home, but it was very satisfying to move forward with it.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

more classroom notes

Today’s class introduced abstract markmaking. I demo’d the creation of a design from my initial “n”, and the students divided a small piece of poster board into four squares, wrote their initials in one square, and created a mark from each of the three letters in the other spaces.  It was a good and quick way to get them actively exploring making marks.

I also did something new for me, as a demo or otherwise. I had woken up early this morning from a nightmare, and in probing the dream I had realized that the nightmarish message was FEAR.  So I took each of the four letters, in printed upper case (rather than, for example, cursive lower case), and created a very angular design out of them.  I used it in class as another example of bringing daily life into the painting process in an abstract way.  We also doodled for a couple of minutes.

The demos, of course, were also about the materials and methods for drawing on both wet and dry panels, the texture that the various m&m’s provide, the effects when lower layers are revealed, etc.  It was the longest demo/lecture yet, even though I sped through it.  The little drawing exercise helped break it up.  It went well, and among the students, someone picked up on and used virtually everything I introduced, so I was happy with the wide variety of ideas that I had presented.  We have one two-session day left, and then a final three-hour session that will be evaluation, discussion, and wrap-up.  So I felt that it was important to get as much information into their hands as possible.
As for my own paintings, I used two of them for demos of m&m’s, pretty much ruining any cohesion of design in the process, but I just carried on with them anyway, when we got into work mode, if for no other reason than to stand behind my assertion that there being no such thing as a mistake.  I had little time to think about and work on the other two panels.  Besides, my main takeaway from today in terms of my own work was the FEAR exercise.  I can see embedding words into my paintings as I move along – it is a very rich concept to me.  Embed PEACE into a painting.  No one else will know it’s there, but I will.  The idea has possibilities.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

in the classroom

My mini-course continues. Some second-day dynamics kicked in this morning. One young woman who handled the flat color application with panache yesterday got bogged down when she had to add texture; it took her most of the morning to figure how to use it to good effect.  Another student who was close to being bored with the color application lit up as she moved into texture.  We also moved into the layers when hues were switched (warm to cool, light to dark, etc.) and everyone could begin to see for themselves some of the effects that I had been describing. In addition to introducing texturing techniques, I presented some of the basic design concepts (for example, what I know as the rule of thirds, and the Golden Mean), the idea of a focal point and leading the eye of the viewer. I encouraged the students to begin to think about where they are heading with what until now have been experiments in handling the materials.  Everyone seemed to go away happy.

As for my own work, being with the class provides stimulation, both from the questions that the students ask and from the discoveries that they make.  Because my panels serve as examples, I’m forced to be both stricter and more creative in what I do, and I may be making more careful and conscious decisions than in my studio at home.   I found myself feeling rather at sea as I worked on my panels by myself, and I realized that I wasn’t sure where I was going with them.  I had been focused more on presenting things to the class than on what I was producing.  In a way, this is good because it is forcing me out of habits.  But I also would like to produce decent pieces by the end of class (could there be some pride at work here?).  I was drawn by a chance brayer mark to create a frame or window effect on one panel, and went on to establish what I’m thinking of as “windows” on each panel, with a thought to design (gasp!), focal point, and, eventually, message.  Thus am I forced to think outside my own envelope.  I am enjoying it.

The photograph above shows some of the students’ work after Day 2.

Friday, May 27, 2011

teaching and learning

This morning was the first day of a short class that I am teaching at my high school in Sedona on – guess what! – oil painting with cold wax medium.  We will meet for 6 three-hour sessions, and my two principal challenges are, first, to combine the mechanics with enough theory to present a balance of action and thought, and, second, to get enough layers down soon enough to build a satisfactory painting or two in such a short time.

I decided to limit the theoretical side of the class to two concepts that are broad enough to challenge the students with previous painting experience, but simple enough that those with no such experience can grasp the basics.  So, we are addressing basic color theory and color field theory, along with some concepts of abstraction and design.  Today we put down base layers of a warm hue and a cool, a light hue and a dark, on each of four “assignment” panels, in order to introduce concepts of hue and value.  Tomorrow will be more of the same, but adding texture techniques and analogous color contrasts.  After the initial layers are down, they will switch to each characteristic’s opposite (light to dark, etc.) in successive layers, and we’ll begin to look at removal techniques.  Along the way, we’ll address abstraction and mark-making.  Each student has two additional panels, which they are free to paint as they choose, but they need to show the use of some of these concepts that we will have covered by the end of the third day, when they start the free-lance panels.

It is a packed schedule, but these teenagers are smart and energetic.   I’m recording this here because the whole experience is teaching me about my own painting, as well.  Being forced to parse out rationale from instinct, to explain the basics of color interaction and abstraction, to have the patience to lay down layers one at a time (I am painting along with the kids), is being a good exercise for me; in a sense I am taking the class at the same time that I am giving it.  I have never approached a cold wax painting as deliberately and consciously as I am doing this week, and the discipline is being good for me.  I have always had the sense that I do not put down enough layers, especially at the lower levels, and while the rules I am setting for these students are admittedly somewhat arbitrary, there is a point to them, and I will be interested to see the results of following them in my own work.

The photo above is of some of the first-day panels; some of the colors are stunning.  What fun it is to watch these young people create!

Monday, May 23, 2011

content as adjective

It is easy enough to label things with adjectives, but how does one turn an adjective into a concrete thing, specifically, a painting?

I'm not posing a rhetorical question, I'm just trying to think through how to say, for example, "huge" in paint.  I know there are ways into this question, I have even heard about them in art and design workshops, articles, and books.  I need to make them my own, in my own way to catalog what colors, designs, and marks portray these adjectives to me.  Some marks will be universal; for example, a horizontal line is generally accepted to suggest rest or calm, a vertical line grandeur or loftiness, a diagonal line movement or tension. (Charlotte Jirousek of Cornell gives a nice introduction to the expressive qualities of line in her online textbook on design.)

Color may, in fact,be harder than marks to use in interpreting adjectives. Or maybe not: Cool colors are certainly calmer than warm.  Red can mean fire or chaos, in some cultures.  But beyond that, I can't really say.  I'll have to experiment, although I would guess that there are established resources that can also help, at least to get started.

I go back to Richard Diebenkorn and his work and the way he abstractly conveyed, for example, space in his Ocean Park series.  And he did use local color, to come extent (I can't see giving up my southwest palette).  He played a lot with division of space on his canvas, another area I should consider.

So it all comes back to design, color, and marks, but I am beginning to see them in a new way and to realize that it is time I tied them to my inner vision of what I want to express, that is, my intention, as embodied by the spiritual/emotional/perceptual qualities of what I perceive.

The image above is of a 6" x 18", approached with not much more intention that working with the unusual size and shape of the surface.

Friday, May 20, 2011

marks and intention

I concluded in a previous post on intention that I have probably been starting with the medium rather than the message since I began working in cold wax.  In addition to experimenting with the cold wax medium and its properties, I have focused on color and design and, most recently, marks.  I've been relying on the process to produce a message, but if asked, I could not have said what that message was.  Although I have thought about cliffs, and have used rather a "southwest" palette, and have pursued the creation of beautiful surfaces, I have struggled with the concept of defining a specific intention.  When I have attempted to do so in the past, I have defined intention in terms of something representational, and despite a sometimes very powerful vision of how to achieve an abstraction of that thing, I have seldom been successful.  This was part of my decision to move away from representational painting altogether, to free myself from trying to portray any "thing".

I have been circling around this dilemma for months. Although I have said the I am not being representational, many of my cold wax pieces do indeed try to represent cliffs: rectangles, verticals, sky at top, &c.  In a way, I am working against myself. I cannot find a happy level in between the completely representational and the completely abstract.  And for some reason I am still uncomfortable with letting go of representation completely.  I think this is because I do not want to paint "emotion", I am not an expressionist.  So, how do I define and pursue an intention in my painting? Now that I have settled on a medium that I love, what do I want to say with it?

My general intention in painting is to create an abstract vision of my impressions and reactions to living where I live.  To refer again to Rebecca Crowell's "Form" and "Content" discussion, my Form is oil paints mixed with cold wax medium applied to flat surfaces.  My Content is sandstone, desert, cliffs, sky.  Perhaps this would be better expressed in adjectives, in order to get away from the representational.  What does that Content say to me, that I want to convey in my work?  Stasis, solidity, serenity (even when storms move through).  Space.  Light.  Layers.

To come back to my current theme of marks: If marks are to reflect my Content, they should express the adjectives above.  My work should be describable by them.  Rebecca said, "If an artist begins with F(orm) ... the challenge is to develop intention and a unique vision along with mastery of the medium."  Sounds like my situation to me.  Perhaps I can find  my way to my abstract voice by using adjectives and interpreting them, staying away from anything remotely representational.  Perhaps the next challenge is to decide what design and what marks portray serenity, space, light.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

marks and meaning

The pen-and-pencil exercise of abstracting the alphabet into marks has led to further thought about marks and their meaning. A mark can be a simple as a short stroke of a pencil, but marks are also combinations of these small units that take on more and more meaning the further they are developed. Marks become symbols, and symbols may be letters that form words that hold meaning, or symbols may be nonverbal shapes with meanings that may be universal or may be culture-specific.  Even marks that convey no such meaning affect the space in which they are made: The first mark on a blank surface immediately affects that surface and how it is perceived and how later marks are made in relation to it.  The energy of a mark, its direction, its placement, its color, its thickness, length, movement -- these all affect the viewer at either a conscious or a subconscious level.

What does a viewer see in the marks of an abstract painting?  If a mark represents (deliberately or not) a cultural symbol, it will convey a certain message.  If it looks like a letter from the viewer's language, other associations will be made.  If it is neither of these, the viewer might react to its visual effect on the overall painting, for example, the extent to which it activates the surface.  Or the mark might evoke an emotional reaction due to its own characteristics.  The sharpness of a zigzag might connote anger, while a wavy line might represent calm.  A classic mark-making exercise is to put down with no forethought one's reaction to "emotion" words such as anger, calm, fury, joy, sad, happy, and so forth.  This is one way to develop a type of "language" of one's own.  Yet how any given viewer will interpret that personal language will depend on his or her own background, culture, education, emotional makeup.

Marks that do not create actual words present information on a nonverbal level, yet many people seem to react by trying to translate them into words, to name them.  Of course, many people react to abstract art by trying to see representations in it.  The more interesting question, to me, is how all this affects the marks that I put down.  If my paintings are to be nonrepresentational, my marks cannot describe an object. But the point of my rather pedantic approach here reflects my realization that not only do I have a choice about what marks to put down, my choice will affect how others see my paintings. Then the question becomes, what do I want to convey?  Which leads back to the question addressed in a recent post:  What is my intention?  Yikes.

I could just paint for myself and not care how others interpret it.  But I want my art to communicate to others, which means that I must consider both my intention and how my marks convey it.

The image above is a 6" x 12" panel that had been lost to too many layers of paint.  It was one of the first pieces that I picked up on Saturday and dared to mark.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


My "art deco" alphabet from Friday pulls me in whenever I look at it.  The gestures and movements are very natural to me, and in a sense it represents a language of mine.  Looking around my studio, I saw the 12" x 12" panel-in-progress at left, with the large additive gestures already in place (I had applied them with an oil stick some time back).  But as Meg and I spent our last hour together in the studio, I realized that I was still uncomfortable both with making marks by scratching out (in contrast to adding on top), and with being more free-form in mark-making (which I like to call scribbling or doodling).  I always have tended to get too repetitive or take the scribbling too far, ending with a result that I didn't like.

Bolstered by Meg's presence, and already familiar with her expertise in mark-making, I wanted to work on this before she left.  For her part, Meg had laid down enough cold wax layers on a couple of panels to want to try some scratching out, and was happy to demonstrate.  As I watched her, she described her action as controlling the pressure and speed of her tool, but otherwise being free in her marks.

The concept of combining control of the tool with freedom of movement clicked for me.  I think perhaps in the past I've either controlled everything or let everything go.  I worked for a while exploring the dynamics of balancing the two, and was excited to see what happened.  The smaller scratches on the panel above were my first attempt, and I went on to several other panels that have been languishing on the walls.  There is more work to do here, but I feel as though I've had a breakthrough.  Huzzah!

Friday, May 6, 2011


My sister-in-law, Meg, has been visiting from her home on the northern California coast.  Coming from redwood forests and restless ocean, the open horizon and sandstone stasis of our southern Utah country provide a stimulating contrast in environment.  Meg is in a transitional period artwise, after a career of working primarily in glass (see some of her work at Gualala Arts).  The two of us have wanted to try working together for a long time, and this seemed a perfect moment to do so, in the pause between the retreat of winter and the constant activity of summer.

This is our third and final day together in the studio, and we both feel as though we been in an intensive workshop, with the accompanying exhilaration and exhaustion.  In addition to just sharing each other’s artistic energy, we each had some purposes: I wanted to benefit from Meg’s work in drawing, and Meg wanted to open up her boundaries by exploring some cold wax and color work with me.  We spent the afternoons on the latter, of which more later.

In the mornings we have focused on producing mini-sketches and designs based on the English alphabet.  My first alphabet, shown at right, was simply an exercise in remembering mark-making with pencil and paper, using the lower-case alphabet as a source (interestingly, Meg chose to work with upper-case letters...hmm).  My second alphabet, shown above, carried with it the assignment to have each "letter" touch all four sides of its space.  I love the way that each set of five letters became a row.  I also am interested to see how instinctively art-deco-ish this second series turned out to be.  I wonder what the next alphabet will look like?  I have done this type of exercise before, in classes and workshops, but it has always fallen off the radar here at home, where I focus too much on the production of finished paintings and not enough on nurturing my own artistic growth.  It has been rewarding to spend this time with pencil on paper. 

So, in addition to three days of wonderful company and companionship, creativity and exploration outside our comfort zones, I am also left with a resolve to take some time, if not each day, then at least once a week, to do something in the studio other cold wax work.  Meg and I have accepted a homework assignment -- to take one of the other’s letters and work up a larger next iteration, due back to each other in a week -- in an attempt to enhance the transition for each of us once we are back home.