Taking it slow

I’m sure everyone has a “worst day at work EVER” story, but I think mine can rival the best of them. I won’t get into the technical details, but due to a perfect storm of miscommunications I ended up DELETING the high-traffic website of a prominent organization. Luckily, there were server backups, and it was only eight hours of information that was permanently lost and not years, but the client was NOT HAPPY and is billing us for time they spent checking everything over; moreover, they’ll have their eyes closely on me for the remainder of the project. Ugh, the shame.

So it’s been a bit of a refuge for me to sit down and think about nothing but whether the shadow on my orange is convincing in this latest still life:

As I talked about a bit in my last post, I’m still trying to find my style… and clearly I’m looking everywhere! While I admire the Old Masters — and LOVE their color palette — I respond most viscerally to work that looks more, well, visceral — loose, raw, and emotional, even if the subject is only sliced oranges.

Unfortunately, when I try to paint alla prima in a loose, bold style, I end up with a sticky mess — it doesn’t look free and raw, it looks unfinished and incompetent. Meanwhile, the more careful work we’ve been completing in class — where we labor over each painting for weeks — ends up looking better to me. Heart-singingly better? No. But slightly less amateur.

So after setting up this still life, I painted only until I began to feel tired — no longer. Then, the next day, I fixed a bit of what I’d done and painted a bit further. And etc., and etc. And although the work looks a bit…labored… I felt loose and free because I wasn’t under the gun to stick with the dang Daily Painting credo. Now I just need to find a way to make my painting more expressive and less “tight” while actually taking it slow.

I’m also still trying to figure out what to do about light. Every morning — if I don’t close myself into my new curtained cave — there’s a moment when the sun first crests over my third-storey sills and for just five minutes or so makes the most perfect pool on my still life. When that happened, my days-old orange slices would suddenly look fresh and juicy, there would be gorgeous swaths of bright fresh sunlight mottling the sheet, and I’d rush to get my camera, only to find that it sucked the life right out of what I was seeing. I’d attempted to produce the same effect artificially — using several carefully positioned daylight bulbs — but everything I’ve tried has fallen far short. I guess I’ll just need to someday learn to paint in hyperdrive (or look over the shoulder of Thomas Kinkade). But for now, I’m taking it slow!

Things I did well:
I like the pinkish shadows that the orange was creating. I also like the two sliced oranges. They look a bit dried out, but in truth they were mummified by the time I finished.

Things I could do better:
The composition is still a bit staid. This is the part I thought would come naturally to me!
It looks as if the butterfly should be creating a harder shadow. I believe that’s a fault of the composition — the butterfly was actually pinned too far above .
The texture on the orange isn’t convincing — it looks like the side of my nose. I’m still not sure how a convincing orange texture is attained!

Street scenes in San Antonio

For spring break from my daughter’s school, the three of us joined our friends Dave and Sinee on a trip down to San Antonio, Texas, where Pete and I used to live before having Olive. Neither of us had been back for fifteen years, and Dave and his daughter never at all, so we were all essentially tourists, and did all the touristy things I never managed to do in my five years as a resident: boat shuttles on the riverwalk, SeaWorld, the Alamo.

Except for my classwork, I’d been painting exclusively still lifes, and I was excited to use the opportunity of outside time in a colorful city to take some photos to paint from. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a fan of Carole Marine, especially her street scenes, and I wanted to see what I could do with similar subject matter.

Once I got over my initial self-consciousness of feeling SO touristy (taking photos from a tour boat on the Riverwalk? Could I be any more cliched?) I did take some interesting pictures, though most wouldn’t work for my purposes:

Unfortunately, I rarely take photos, and I wasn’t aware that when I zoomed in to get a good simple image with my iPhone 6, I’d end up with something like this:

This one painted itself! Nothing left to do!

When we got back from our trip, I printed out a few of the more simple ones to try (I’ve since realized I didn’t need to have a hard copy — I could just have them open on my laptop. So much easier!). First, though, I bought Carole Marine’s ArtByte tutorial on painting people. The tutorial was so simple to follow, and –like Bob Ross before her — she made it look incredibly attainable.

Here’s my attempt:

I’m pretty sure that where I went wrong here was in attempting to do too much in a very small space. This was only a 6″x6″ canvas, which makes the guy, and all those little chairs less than an inch high. Looking at Carole Marine’s street scene paintings again, it does look as if she limits herself to a smaller number of larger-sized people when she’s painting her small canvasses, because this kind of expressive painting just looks messy at a small size.

I also found that at this small size alla prima was really limiting. In fact, I’ve been thinking that my attempts at Daily Painting — completing a work in a small period of time, hopefully fairly regularly (though not daily) — are hurting rather than helping. When attempting to paint the details of the chairs, they were so tiny and the paint was still so wet, that it was nearly impossible to neaten it up and make my colors work the way I wanted. It would’ve made more sense to put this down for a few days and come back to it when it had dried enough to finesse it, but I felt pressured by the Daily Painting credo. I’m also wondering if attempting to paint expressively is right for me right now — I think I need to focus on trying to learn the rules before I break them!

Some rethinking to do…

Back to school!

During the time when I was kept from the gym by my splinter (now healed), and kept from my studio by Jim’s admonitions on my light situation (now fixed), I was also kept from class by… well, there wasn’t any class. It was spring break (now over).

Since the assumption at The Art Academy seems to be that once you’re there, you never leave (there are people there who have been working on the same painting for years, apparently), there was no rushing to finish up the marble horse head paintings we were working on before we left before break; they were there waiting for us when we got in.

It was weird to go back to grey after my forays into color, but much much easier. I realized that I’ve been a bit lazy when it comes to color mixing at home — often I just mix something I think is in the ballpark and then go back and tweak it after the fact (that’s the beauty of oil painting — it’s incredibly forgiving). So I have been asking myself whether painting with color on my own is even a good idea — am I just teaching myself bad habits? I continue with it, though, because it’s fun, and ultimately, even if truly imperfect, I like the results much better — who wants to keep a grey painting? The last thing I want is to start feeling bored and uninspired — I figure, anything that keeps me painting on a regular basis has got to be for the best.

For this painting, we did what Jim called a “lay in”: We spent a couple of sessions painting the horse in a simplified form — blocking in the outline, background and some of the shading — and then our reference images were switched for others that had a lot more detail and we spent a couple more sessions painting those as well. The biggest issue I found was that in between session one or two of the detail work, I was given a different reference image (a common issue — I think they’re just handed out randomly in each class, and they’re all a bit different) and all the details were in different places than they were when I started them. This threw me for a loop, but Jim insisted that it really didn’t matter — ultimately, the exercise was just to practice recognizing and reproducing subtle values, as well as the process of first blocking in a simpler shape and then coming back to it for detail.

To me this felt like a big leap ahead from the box paintings we did for our last project, but completely manageable. Of course, I’ve obviously been painting on my own, but even if I hadn’t it would’ve still felt like the logical next step after shading and blurring. My nerdy self is still very excited by just how systematic this program seems to be. Looking forward to the next project!

…And one step back.

It’s funny how I can mention the same thing week after week — “I did a good job with my values,” “We’re waiting on color so we can work on our values,”– and still manage to miss the mark. I’d been admiring the work on Etsy of this amazing Ukrainian pet portrait artist, and wanted to see if I could create a background like his — loose, unstudied, the perfect complement to the (also perfect) subject. Turns out…I couldn’t.

My original thought was that the green bug would be the focal point and the butterfly and blue beetle would be a similar color to the background and therefore less prominent (I’d read that the area with the most contrast draws the eye the most and should therefore be your focal point). And it is true that parts of the butterfly and blue beetle are fairly subdued next to the dark background — their values are fairly similar. But instead of doing what I should’ve done — simplifying and darkening the background beneath the green beetle so that the contrast is greater, perhaps increasing its size — I plopped a very small beetle on top of a busy area of varying values. Perhaps, if you squint, you still notice it first because of the contrast between the bright yellow and the very dark green beside it, but it’s a close toss-up with the butterfly wing (which has the advantage, of course, of being much larger), and that, in my opinion, makes for a pretty unfocused painting.

While I’m glad that I don’t have even more detail in the background, I’m no Ukrainian Etsy artist. It would’ve been helpful to have a horizon, or some depth of field, and certainly the line of the driftwood should’ve been softened to integrate better with the background. As it is, it looks more like a collage than a painted-from-life still life.

In general, though, the entire thing is just way too complex for such a small (6×6) painting.

What?! Way too complex? Who are you, Jennifer Caritas!

(As an aside, if anyone’s curious about my subject matter, I used to make these fancy insect displays, and still have tons of insect inventory. Look for more bugs in future paintings!)

What I did well:
Individual elements are okay — I actually quite like the blue beetle.
I attempted some brushwork of varying directions and colors — a first for me. A for effort!

What I could’ve done better:
Too much going on!
Too much similarity in values — need a more obvious focal point
Better integration with background

Still life with veggies: I’m a complicated gal!

One thing I always tend to do when taking up a new endeavor is to rush in and take on the most complicated challenge I think I might possibly be able to handle, skipping over those baby steps that really build a solid foundation. With painting, it’s not just the challenge though: I worry that if I were to, say, paint apples, my painting would be one of five billion other apple paintings with nothing to really separate it. Logically I know, of course, that focusing on more simple subject matter is a way to develop a style (as a hack — I mean, a novice — I haven’t yet found my style), and that I’ve seen apple paintings that have taken my breath away. This tussle between my logical self and my…self-self (for lack of a better word) is on display in my latest still life: Veggies.

My logical self led the way: I was going to skip the shells and driftwood this time and find something from my fridge to paint. But me being me, I once again got over-complicated (in my defense, though, I’d eaten the other half of my still life the night before).

My proportions seem pretty far off here — the purple cabbage looks more like a purple Brussels sprout (though would a Brussels sprout leave a big purple mark on my husband’s pink shirt?) — and both veggies look a bit cut-and-pasted. Part of that, I think, is because the cabbage is actually half-eaten as well (it’s missing its entire back half), so it’s not casting the shadows one would expect of a spherical object. The pepper, though, also has that effect and I have no excuse for that (I…suck?). I suppose I’m at the stage with this whole painting thing where I can see my flaws but can’t quite identify why they’re happening or how to put a stop to them. It’s a frustrating place to be, but I know, logically, that it’s one step further than not being able to see my flaws at all (I’ve evolved from the Trumpian stage, happily).

Things I did well:
Decent composition — objects aren’t simply plopped in the center any longer — and decent values/contrast
I like the brushwork on the top part of my cabbage — it says a lot with just a few brushstrokes

Things I could do better:
Proportions
Better integration into background

Moving forward? My first still life with controlled light

Once I’d finally gotten my light situation under control, I was ready to see if it actually made a difference in my painting ability. Maybe I actually had a hidden genius inside of me, ready to pop out when the conditions were right!

Jim had sent me a link for building a shadow box, and although that particular one seemed like a bit more effort and money than I wanted to spend, I did find an easy tutorial online that involved simply cutting panels out of the top and side of a cardboard box and covering them with tissue paper. Easy, cheap, works. I’d never quite understood the reason for an actual shadowbox — couldn’t I just put things on the table if I was painting with a tabletop easel? — but I’ve read in several places that it was helpful for controlling ambient light and generating interesting shadows, so I decided to give it a go.

This is, admittedly, an odd composition. It looked much better to me before I put it into the shadowbox — after that, with the shadows that were generated from the harsher light, it started to look a bit…random. The backdrop beneath and behind the objects was a piece of patterned paper — I ignored the pattern when it curved behind because I worried about the amount of noise in such a small painting (it’s 6×6), but it still looks unnatural to have the driftwood stick poking into the back of the box.

Aside from this, though, I actually like this painting. My values look good, and my brushwork doesn’t look fussy like it did in my last painting (stones). I’m not sure I got the light quite right — I was having trouble making sense of this complexity of this crinkled old leaf and winged it — but I’m not sure it’s noticeable to the untrained eye (at least it’s not to my untrained eye). Overall, I think, a step forward!

Things I did well:
Brushstrokes are fairly loose and unfussy
Good contrast and values

Things I could’ve done better:
Weird composition without a meaningful focal point
Intersection of driftwood stick and driftwood chunk is odd — is it floating? Is it resting?
Bug could be brighter — in real life it’s almost metallic-looking (I wasn’t quite sure how to make that happen. Glazing?)

Sacrifices

Soon after I’d finished my trying-way-too-hard still life of stones, vase, and bowl, a couple of things happened that threw me out of my routine and kept me away from painting for awhile. The first (non-painting-related) was that I got a splinter. Since I realize that sounds pretty silly, let me say that I went through childbirth without drugs and I still think this experience might’ve been more painful. It was the kind of splinter that the doctor asks if you’d like to keep as evidence, and it was right in the meaty part of my foot. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t walking for while, let alone going to the gym (which had become, over the last 6 months, a valued part of my morning routine). It wasn’t long before I began to feel flabby, driftless, and depressed. Ugh.

The other painting-related thing that coincided was that I showed Jim the three latest paintings I’d done on my own: shell, bug, and stones. While I didn’t expect gushing (though a little part of me hoped for it!), I also didn’t expect…crickets. He looked at them silently a long time. Finally he asked, “What’s the light situation in the room where you paint?” I told him that light had been an issue for me — since I was trying to fit in an hour or so of painting every morning in between gym and work, I’d start when it was dark out, and then, when possible, do a bit more in the afternoon when it was light. Often that meant that I was seeing a very different view with each session: different details were apparent, and the differing shadows often dramatically affected the shapes and positions of the objects I was painting (which, in retrospect, was probably the reason for the warped wooden bowl in my last painting). I knew, of course, that this wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t realize it was a big deal — I’d been compensating (to some degree) by doing the shadow part of my drawing right before I started painting, so at least my shadows would be marked correctly. But to Jim, it was a non-starter.

“You’ve got to get your light situation under control,” he told me. “Don’t bother painting until you’ve fixed it.” Then, for the next ten minutes, he sketched out with me the position of all of my windows and gave me ideas for covering each. (My paintings must’ve really been bad, because he also sent me an email the next morning telling me “Don’t paint! You’ll never create a good painting until you have the right light!”)

As I’ve mentioned before, I paint in an alcove off of my living room — a very public area. To my mind, it’s a beautiful room — I was so proud of my decorating job that last year I emailed Clever, Architectural Digest’s blog for poor people, to ask them to feature it in their home tour (I’m sure they’ll get back soon).

Hello, Gorgeous!

It’s bad enough that now that area is filled with crap — tabletop easels, lights, etc. (in fact, it’s making me sad looking at this “before” picture!) — the idea of modifying it to reduce the light (the very reason we bought the place!) was, well, not going to happen. But Jim seemed to understand my concerns and talked me through some fixes that could be removed when I wasn’t painting — a shower curtain, for example, that could be hung over the larger opening.

In the end, I invested in a system through RoomDividersNow that adds a track along the ceiling in about half the room, and a floor to ceiling room-dividing blackout curtain. That way I can simply drag the curtain to cover all three openings when I’m creating a still-life, and make it like midnight in there so I have complete control of my light. Then, I can tie back the curtain out of sight when I want everything pretty again (of course, I’d also need to pick up my shit).

This whole situation has gotten me thinking about sacrifices. I’d like to be good at painting, because it’s something I enjoy. There’s no real payoff for me in the future — I’m not, say, sacrificing the money and time to go to business school because I anticipate getting that back in the end. Other people understand that kind of sacrifice. But it’s difficult to justify — especially to myself — time and money spent trying to improve at something that’s simply for myself alone. And, unfortunately, so many of these sacrifices seem to come at the beginning of the learning process, when you can’t even tell yourself (and others) that you’re talented and somehow owe it to the world to nurture your gift. At this point, I’m a hack, and I might always be a hack, so why am I pouring money into art supplies, classes, ridiculously expensive room divider ceiling tracks? Why am I uglifying a room that’s always given me pleasure and pride? Why is my husband spending time with our daughter while I’m in my little curtained-off room? Does any of this make sense?

I don’t know the answer.