Dans La Campagne

Dans La Campagne. Acrylic on canvas. 30" x 40"
Dans La Campagne. Acrylic on canvas. 30″ x 40″

C’est fini! This picturesque scene developed as a commission piece for a family member who requested a French countryside/cottage image for her dining room. This assignment led me to review one of my favorite landscape painters, Gustave Courbet. Courbet liked to present himself as a “man of the countryside,” and generated a plethora of dramatic natural scenes depicting rolling hills, cliffsides, trees, animals, little towns and people of the era recreating within it. What I admire about Courbet’s work is the stark contrasts, the bold use of color, and the painterly technique/style imbued in his work. Courbet often used thick impasto mark-making, palette knives and even transferred texture using rags to create heightened detail and depth in his subjects.

As I began this piece with a deep burnt umber underpainting, and developed up the layers, I referenced dozens of Courbet landscape paintings to inform my composition and decision-making. I tried to emulate some of Courbet’s techniques, to great or little extent, especially the use of texturing with the knife. What was challenging with this piece was not having one single photo reference for the composition. Instead, I had to mentally stitch together several photo references (cottage, cow, landscape, rooster, tree, etc.) and make it all work with regard to perspective.

Me voilà!

Self-Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18" x 24"
Self-Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18″ x 24″

I haven’t posted much in the last few months as we have been completely consumed with the process of purchasing a home. That does not mean that I have not also been busy with painting! Over the next few days I’ll post a few of my recent painting milestones.

Our February trip to Oaxaca, Mexico inspired this self-portrait. The open-air courtyards familiar to Spanish colonial architecture were the perfect place to capture dramatic lighting. Many of the plants and cacti in our courtyard were wild and unruly, giving the haphazard space an “ugly-beautiful” feel, splashes of color surrounding us. From a technique perspective, I tried hard to paint in all the lights and darks, creating deep contrast, before I began working with color. Process pics below to see how the layers developed. Soon, the counterpart portrait of my devoted traveling partner will surface, but it’s still lingering in my imagination for now :)

Formation v. Migration. “What is it?”

Formation v. Migration. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 24"
Formation v. Migraation. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Finally turned a corner on this abstract piece yesterday. I’m feeling more comfortable with abstraction and developing confidence with unique ways of working. A common response to abstract art from my circles: “What is it?” Rather than stumble through a rote interpretation of what’s going on here, I thought I would post my working notes below:

Traction in Abstraction. Painting Abstract Aerial Lake. The Shape of Life. Geology. Depth study. Geese flying, goose guide. Bold, vibrant color.

Difficulty > (what am I doing? non-representational, no reference > endless options) (What do I do next? > endless options, breakthroughs, leave and come back > allow brain to breathe) (Where does my mind go? > [Solve creative “problem” > aesthetic “problem”] How to balance > How to disrupt?)

Geese in flight or chromosomes bending in suspension OR analogous geometric/genetic experiences in biology
Pure abstraction? Figuration with goose? Content – why pure abstraction? Abstract totem, invokes what I cannot avoid saying.
Land matters. Depth matters. space matters. Sub-paintings in space > figural totem, geese flying, Icarus, chromosomes, experimental spaces

Ending the Year with a Splash

Lepomis gibbosus (Pumpkinseed Sunfish). Acrylic and ink on canvas. 12" x 16"
Lepomis gibbosus (Pumpkinseed Sunfish). Acrylic and ink on canvas. 12″ x 16″

I’m closing out 2017 with this playful painting of Lepomis gibbosus, the Pumpkinseed sunfish. Also known as pond perch, common sunfish, punky, sunny, or kivver, these freshwater fish of the Centrarchidae family can be found in many of Minnesota’s lakes and streams. A coworker of mine has a fishy theme going in her baby’s crib room and asked for a fun, fishy piece to go with it. I decided to channel the Pumpkinseed’s likeness for its playful colors and goofy, chunky shape. Fun fact: the Pumpkinseed uses uniquely adapted teeth to feast fancily on escargot!

Beyond fish, 2017 has been a smashing year of art progress for me. Reviewing the last twelve months in my art journal reveals so many successes. So much having happened, I felt the need to reflect on the year in a blog post to capture all my thoughts in one place. In my formal art practice, I have achieved my goal of working with higher contrast, more risk-taking and experimentation with color, and creating the illusion of depth more effectively than ever before. I explored ways of working that I was not entirely comfortable with (cubism, landscape, realism), challenging myself and interrogating my own assumptions along the way. I showed new and old work in three different exhibitions. Additionally, I crushed my previous records for commission earnings, having finished ten distinctly unique pieces of increasing size and complexity. Lastly, and most valuably, I became a member at Vine Arts Center, and joined a committed and dynamic collective of artists working to bring art to the Twin Cities community in a variety of fashions. This has allowed me to more fully submerge myself in art dialog and discourse, an energizing and renewing process. A big factor contributing to this progress is at long last I have the right work-life balance required to generate new art and keep up with marketing it. Thanks, nursing school! Finally having a dedicated studio space is also a mega factor in the equation, not to be overlooked. Most importantly, there are people around me who support my art, come to my shows, ask good questions about my process, and get excited about what I’m making next. Art is a conversation – I am deeply appreciative of everyone willing to have that conversation with me.

Alongside these successes, there were a few goals I did not meet. I had good intentions to participate in community art events and collaborate through shared projects. I ran out of time! Moving into 2018, I hope to ratchet up my arts involvement by participating more in community art events. I also may have worked too heavily on commissions and not pursued my own creative projects fully enough. With many ideas floating around in my head, I’ll be sure to find a way to get more of them onto the page, paper, board, canvas, or what have you in 2018. Another goal I have for 2018 is to find a way for my art to add value or perspective to the conversations happening all around us in our social institutions, our media, or political theatre, our environment and universe at large. With all this in mind, I must remember to stay humble, to focus on the core of what energizes me about art, and to keep talking about art with anyone and everyone.

Oh, and one more non-art-related resolution: to get out there and eat all the escargot I possibly can, preferably with some uniquely adapted teeth.

Vessel Work or “Paint, Do What You Will!”

Vessel Work. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 36"
Vessel Work. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 36″

A still-life of prismatic containers divides cold winter light into rainbow jets of color, filling my studio space with a brilliant playfulness that leaps away from November’s funeral pall. My assignment was to rework an old watercolor sketch based on a dream about water basins. It became a meditation on the warmth, love and trust inherent in my art practice.

In October I began volunteering at Vine Arts Center, a local community-run gallery in my neighborhood. During one of our exhibition discussions, another artist discussed his view of people in the world as “vessels,” each in a varying state of being filled, empty, or something in between. Vessels can be reservoirs for anything we can imagine inside them. They can be a potential space or a void. They can be man-made or naturally occurring. Vessels can be filled with physical matter or the intangible. Vessels can be broken or leaky. They hold valuables or transport. Vessels can protect. In short, vessels do a lot of work. I frequently find myself pondering this metaphor as it relates to art and the human condition – I have been curious about how to incorporate it in my work.

With this commission, I decided to start with a simple composition of arranged “vessels,” the various containers, plastic jugs, mason jars and empty fruit cups repurposed for paint that litter my studio. I “filled” or imbued the skeleton drawing of the piece with the “core” of my own formal artistic sensibilities: expressive color and brushstroke patterns, heavy contrasts between muted, cold tones and vibrant, living hues, struggle between linearity and ambiguity, representation and abstraction. Throughout the process, I paused to examine my thoughts and actions, took notes, looked inside to acknowledge the intuition that guided my hands, something I have rarely done on purpose. In this way, Vessel Work feels like a deliberate meditation on the spiritual, inner aspect of art creation and what it means to me personally.

Warmth and radiation of light are treated with paramount importance. The elements in the working space are tied together and interconnected by their participation in light, their energetic vibrations in the field. The work is related to love – making a painting about (simply) what I love to do is freeing and spontaneous without constraints of any kind. And yet there must be constraints, that tension between rule and misrule, which mystifies and generates beauty. And through this sensibility comes trust. Trust that the work will become what it will – I am reminded of Schmendrick the Magician from “The Last Unicorn,” yelling “Magic, do what you will!” as he grasps at the reigns of a force he can’t control. I cling to trust that in the end, the painting and the artist (and yes, the client) will be satisfied if I play to my strengths, challenge my skills accordingly, and take risks in the creation of the illusion. Trust that in painting no act is final, and the painter therefore has relatively less control than it would seem.

Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio)

Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio). Mixed media. 12" x 16"
Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio). Mixed media. 12″ x 16″

“Coagulation Studies” is an ongoing series of abstract work utilizing old paint and automatic ways of working. Salvage and collage of old materials such as paint chips, solidified or “coagulated” media, and remnants of product labels addresses the concept of time by juxtaposing media at different stages of transformation or life cycle. Formal aesthetic decision-making is minimized by using archetypal, automatic compositions and a palette limited to the leftover paint from other projects. Additional themes explored in “Coagulation Studies” include the nature of various media, physiological processes and shapes, interconnectedness and complexity, and creative systems.

Figure Study: Spacing, Tracing, Placing, Human Face-ing

Figure & interior study. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 18" x 24"
Figure & interior study. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Returning to figure work with this study of a certain live model in my partially re-packed apartment a few weeks prior to moving. It is beyond exciting to come back to the classic and familiar gestural sketch of art school, and then combine that sensibility with my slow but eager, semi-abstract exploration of figure in relation to space and place. I’m trying hard to transmit how the sunlight filtered by the tree outside my window washes into and fills up my living room, now rendered a “transitional” space as recognizable domestic shapes are packed up and stacked in boxes and piles to the right. Transition or “interval” is central to my exploration of the time inherent in painting. This piece reminds me of an older figure study, but my risk-taking with color has certainly evolved. A time of change is ripe fruit to crack open, let the creative juice flow.

Night Shifts and the Amazing Technicolor Yellow Lab

Stewie. Acrylic on canvas. 11" x 14"
Stewie. Acrylic on canvas. 11″ x 14″

Working on this pet portrait commission in the hours between three consecutive night shifts! A vibrant underpainting and loose, expressionist style is giving me ample room to explore simple depth and intermediate tones. I’m trying to mix color quickly and intuitively to avoid the traps of overthinking. The result is so far quite beautiful and reminds me of Van Gogh or Paul Gauguin palettes.

Traction in Abstraction and the Budding Shape of Life

Flying Shapes (working title). Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 24"
Flying Shapes (working title). Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Making abstract art is difficult. Trained mostly as a representational painter, I have always found navigating the ambiguity of abstraction a murky, sometimes arbitrary task. However, that foggy negotiable space is crucial to what I admire in painting, and factors into the creative process I’m developing. I’m often seeking a particular balance between real and unreal, objective and subjective, visual equivalents of prose and poetry. Thus these days I have committed myself to explore terra incognita and foray into non-representational pursuits when I’m not painting a cute doggie.

Why is abstract painting so challenging? [Start stream of consciousness on the subject of abstraction.] Without a reference, there are endless options, and I’m repeatedly puzzling over the questions: what am I doing? Why am I doing that? How does this relate to the concept I am trying to convey? Should I even be thinking about this so hard? What is life? What the f*ck? Mostly, I end up sort of making progress on a general concept, and then find myself working through several aesthetic “problems” that I try to address using my creative process. The biggest question here is “what do I do next?” When I’ve hit a rut and I’m thoroughly in the weeds, I’m usually trying to find an interesting way to create visual balance or break through that particular point in the painting’s creation. The tricky thing is finding a solution that makes sense with the original concept and so forth, which may in turn create another aesthetic “problem” to be solved. The second tricky thing is going through these cycles in a way that is not something trite or [insert distasteful word here]. Maybe I’m not sure how to describe what I’m specifically avoiding. Probably kitsch. There are more unmentioned tricky things.

As you can see, I still have not fully jumped off the cliff. The “abstraction” above involves some very recognizable shapes: craggy peaks, a glacial lake from high above, water reflecting the sky, some distant road networks. The chevron-esque shapes invoke migrating birds, hang gliders, proteins folding into themselves, or chromosomes. This unfinished piece is somewhat related to a concept I have been working on called the “shape of life,” or critical, redundant shapes and patterns in nature that iterate at microscopic and macroscopic levels and carry meaning. More to come on this at a later time.

Oreo the Prismatic Poochon

Oreo. Acrylic on canvas. 8" x 10"

Today I am wrapping up this colorful portrait of Oreo, my coworker’s adorable bichon poodle (Poochon?) I began this piece with a standard grid and built into a loose, colorful underpainting. From there, I made small adjustments until the colors were just right to match my colleague’s home decor, jumping off the canvas in high contrast sage, rust red, sunny yellow, and umber-stained cerulean. As I have done in previous work, I developed a color palette using Adobe’s Kuler tool with input from my client, then worked within those tones as I layered using the “heavy over lean” technique.

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Beagle Beneath Blanket

Beagle Beneath Blanket. Acrylic on canvas. 8" x 10"
Beagle Beneath Blanket. Acrylic on canvas. 8″ x 10″

I received this portrait commission a few days ago, and had fun with the composition and colors! The most challenging aspect was converting the neutral gray tone of the uppermost comforter into more visually appealing hues. The lines and shapes of the drapery challenged me to concentrate on the drawing through all stages of the piece. While putting on the final layers of paint, I actively worked against my instinct to preserve thick, dark, illustrative lines around everything. This tendency is evident in many of my other paintings, and I believe it originates from my “comfort zone” of line drawings. Other considerations: working on creating the illusion of space and depth, as much as a zoomed puppy close-up will allow. See the underpainting below.

Beagle Beneath Blanket Underpainting
Beagle Beneath Blanket Underpainting

Ursus arctos horibilis

Ursus arctos horibilis. Acrylic on canvas. 9" x 12"
Ursus arctos horibilis. Acrylic on canvas. 9″ x 12″

Growing up, we spent two weeks every summer hiking in the Southern tip of grizzly country, the Mission and Swan mountain ranges of Northwestern Montana. Crashing through the mountainside bramble towards the high glacier lakes, we watched for the bear signs: slobber on the huckleberry bush, foul-smelling scat full of indigestible berry husks. We wore jingling bells to reduce the chance we might surprise a foraging bear, carried one loaded magnum in case the worst transpired. At the cabin, we devised an elaborate “bear escape” plan, should our homestead become the target of a hungry ursine burglar. Pervasive in our Montana stories, the grizzly bear was (and still is) a powerful and ominous force in the back of our minds. Luckily, we have not yet initiated the bear escape plan, nor required the loaded magnum on the trail! Continue reading

Dynamo I: Nine Blackbirds

Dynamo I: Nine Blackbirds. Acrylic, charcoal, ink on canvas. 40" x 40"
Dynamo I: Nine Blackbirds. Acrylic, charcoal, ink on canvas. 40″ x 40″

I finally “finished” this painting after tabling it 2+ years ago. Sometimes, it takes a long time of living with artwork on your walls, glancing at it every day, before it becomes clear what to do with it next. Now I’m looking back at what I wrote about the work in 2014:

Why “dynamo?” Strictly speaking, “dynamo” indicates a generator of some sort, which converts electrical energy to mechanical energy. I once came across this word in a short story, used to describe a dark forest ravine. I never got away from the imagery of the ravine filled with the energy of frog croaks, insect whirrrs, leaves rustling, water flowing etc. Earth/Nature as limitless battery, endless potential for conversion, transformation and sadly, exploitation … It’s fascinating to observe the world this way and to recreate the exchange of energy in the act of painting, which is itself a form of exchange and re-genesis.

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One “Red-Head-Little-Mermaid-Girl” or Another Maternity Study

Kirstin. Acrylic on canvas. 8" x 10"
Kirstin. Acrylic on canvas. 8″ x 10″

A mini portrait of my cousin Kirstin, preparing for her first baby, who will arrive in the next few weeks. I first met toddler-Kirstin at a wedding – she was a curly-haired fireball in a white skirt, and we tore it up. Growing up, Kirstin and I sketched gargoyles, invented games with old tools in the garage, pretended to be mer-children, strung wild daisy-chains, plucked handfuls of Indian paintbrush bouquets for Grandma, terrorized our little sisters, hiked in the mountains, and choreographed dances to Disney movies, Ace of Base. The hard, inevitable facts of growing up make these kid memories sweeter. In reflection, these scenes seem to be from a different place – an alternate reality bordered by long hours, long summers, recesses, a cabin in a valley, and family gatherings with Kirstin’s mom’s fabulous cheesy potatoes. Despite the oft-bleak adversity of adult life, not all is lost – when we catch up today, we revert to our goofy childhood selves. Thankfully, we can remember. Mostly, we laugh!

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Rising Figure (Madone noire)

Rising Figure (Madone noire). Acrylic & charcoal on canvas. 48" x 52"
Rising Figure (Madone noire). Acrylic & charcoal on canvas. 48″ x 52″

A shadowed, awakening figure rises, recoiling from an intruding “cloud” of morning light. Like smoke or vapor, an effulgence diffuses in through her open window. Her exterior and interior surroundings take shape in response to obliterating illumination – only enough to deepen the mystery of her tiny bedroom and den, which probably yes definitely has hardwood floors and some random, empty (spooky) tables.

This tableau is a large-format piece from 2008, my last year of art school. Scribbles about the progress of this work (eye-opening to look back on now) include thoughts about form and figure construction, the nature of light, and how to technically depict certain “fantastic” qualities of light.

Returns

Base painting for Returns
Base painting for Returns

Another semester of nursing school is slowing down, which means I’m finding oodles of time to catch up on my oft-neglected creative projects! I’m celebrating my return to art with some abstract work in this playful piece.

This is a re-worked old abstract piece that I got sick of (see left), looking at it for a few years hanging in my bathroom. The colors were too muted, the paint accumulation too thin. In the end, I let remnants of the old piece peek through the new one.

Fjellhytte (Mountain Home) Still Life

Fjellhytte Patio Progress
Fjellhytte Patio Progress

Emerging darkly from the petrified air, a wooden plaque carved onto Smokey The Bear warned fire danger was “extremely dry, extremely high.” No campfires, no grills, no cigarettes, no huckleberries under the desiccating pines of Northwestern Montana. Grandma had texted (expertly, with many emojii) “we can’t see our mountains!” The drive up highway 83 this year, approaching our mountain refuge, was brimming with smoke. Flowing downwind from blazes in Idaho and Washington, the roil blotted out Montana’s Big Sky, tainted the Sun and Moon with toxic orange, and sent Glacier Park road-to-the-sunners scrambling back to the drawing board, travel guides and gas station free attraction brochure stands. Continue reading

“Percy” in Primaries

Percy. Acrylic on canvas. 8" x 10"
Percy. Acrylic on canvas. 8″ x 10″
My grueling Summer semester is almost over, meaning I can soon dust off my easel and re-connect with my other journey of art! Here’s Percy, the family pet of my friend Emily’s brother. I had lots of fun with texture and color on this one… I’m getting pumped to paint more animals in the very near future!

A Sense of Place

In-progress Portrait. Acrylic on canvas. 11 x 14

Truth: it is hard to find time for painting in the crush of full time work and full time school. Fortunately, another truth exists: the harder it is to find time to paint, the more I want to do it, and I fantasize about long hours with my easel, surfaces, brushes… Knowing my capacity for hedonism, I shouldn’t worry about losing my craft. But starting this piece, I was more than a little wobbly getting back to the process. For now, this is just an under painting, and I’ll be working on layering in richer color, more exacting line work, a truer depiction of my friend in the foreground. The stiff, scary Chucky Doll face I unintentionally rendered will need to be worked over. The distinctive bridges in the background create movement and ground the portrait in Minneapolis and the Mississippi. Continue reading

River Dogs

River Dogs. Acrylic on canvas. 14" x 11"
River Dogs. Acrylic on canvas. 14″ x 11″

My parents have always raised Golden Retrievers as family pets, pretty much becoming third and fourth children. In our family, they are hunters, rough-housers, mattress hogs, spoiled brats, and friends.

Painting from a photograph on this one, but trying to keep it as lively as possible with light, natural color quality and vibrating brushwork. I started with a pastel lavender under-painting and I’m slowly building up the other colors around it. Water is always challenging, but a great exercise in color and motion.