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.
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
Snapshots of three postcard-size collages I submitted to this year’s Art 4 Shelter benefit. The event is an opportunity for art-lovers to snap up original artwork from emerging and established artists, with proceeds going towards housing and advocacy efforts for people experiencing homelessness. Excited to participate in this dynamic event! This year I’m focusing on work that relates to environmental justice – this was a great way to start off on the right foot! For these pieces, I thought about the global environment as life’s universal “shelter,” and how we must do what we can to protect it or suffer the consequences.
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.
Some fun facts about Denali: the mountain is the highest peak in North America; the name “Denali” was given by the Koyukon people, who have lived around the mountain for centuries (the name was recently changed to “Denali” from “Mount McKinley” in 2015). Thanks Wikipedia!
I recently finished this small painting of Denali for a client. This was a fun, short little exercise in landscape, a subject area I don’t generally work in. This year, I’ve finished two paintings featuring mountains and lakes, so I’ve definitely gotten my feet a little wetter. I find that I actually enjoy painting landscapes, which is not surprising given my preoccupation with the abstract shapes and repetitive yet spontaneous patterns of the natural world. “Denali” also allowed for a little more formal practice on creating depth, something I’ve been working on throughout the year. I managed to pump out this painting over two sessions, which says to me my process for paid projects is becoming more efficient. This definitely helps build my confidence as I look forward to more commissions in 2018.
Here is a painting of my cousin’s little girl wading into Holland Lake, a favorite swimming spot nearby our family’s cabin in northwestern Montana. The Swan Valley and locales along highway 83, located between the Swan and Mission Mountain ranges, hold special significance for our family. Many generations of kids have swam in Holland Lake or hiked to its falls, collected its thimble berries and careened at high speed on a giant inflatable crocodile over its mini whitecaps. I was excited to take up this project because the composition marries majestic landscape with figure work, and works easily with all the expressive brushwork I love to do.
I started this piece with a simple grid to transpose the image basics, then filled in everything with a rich pink underpainting that manages to shine through even the final layers of paint. The Swan Mountains are known for summer forest fires, and the smoky haze can bend the evening sun in such a way that the horizon flushes the same deep pink of a cutthroat trout, washing everything in this dramatic rose tone. I wanted to channel that fluorescence in a subtle way without the final piece appearing too dream-like. Find process pics here: https://www.instagram.com/atelierzjt/
The most vexing part of this work was the sky and clouds – it was difficult to make them “fit” with the rest of the painting. Clouds in most reference photos are not exactly aesthetically pleasing. I could benefit from doing some plein aire cloud studies to get a knack for this. As usually happens with my paintings, there were several points where I wanted to stop and leave the surface alone because I saw a particular vibration or movement that I did not want to overwork or blunt. My sense for when this occurs is getting keener because I am beginning to understand what exactly is exciting for me in this media. For work like this, the key is finding the intriguing balance between stylization and realism, tension between abstraction and representation.
Returned from the mountains I recognize something
Unlocked inside me. Deep in my core
As if my parts and the gears of my mind have aligned. And
Yes now the universe eddies up through my vacant gates:
Eyes, ears, mouth, nose, skin, ventricles, foramina, lodgepole spine. And
All corporeal channels.
With a satisfying click and thud, the river key turned. And
I am centered, weighted and primed.
I realize this at the gymnasium today
Sprinting uncharacteristically through my 1.25 mile run.
Legs not tiring, spring-like, reed-paddled. Yes
I run like a river unleashed
Around banks, parallel fish, and the rocks
Something unlocks inside me. And
When it is over my un-dammed watersheds eject
A river of brine brewed thick in my season of trouble
Soaks my shirt and shorts, my socks
Free flowing now to the unknowable air, drying salt flats on my cheeks.
And yes, I ran like a river
Ran for who I am, was and will be
Ran for the ones before and the ones that are now. And
Mostly, I ran for the land.
My latest project, a portrait of my second cousin Anna’s pooch Schatzie, is now finalized! This was an incredibly fun piece to work on, both for the larger size, the opportunity to play with color, and the detailed brushwork that such a close-up demands. In this portrait, I continued to tease out color nuances and “transitional” hues between distinct color stations, as well as creating a sense of depth, an overall goal in my painterly development. Throughout this process I also dove deep into the rich complexity of the color blue. Particularly, I worked with ultramarine blue – a sober, stoic blue who does not want to be green or violet, and would much rather fade to gray than roll with change – and primary cyan, an energetic, electric blue that readily mutates but has a naive quality that is somewhat related to finger paint. As I worked through the phases of this portrait, the intriguing synergy (yes, synergy!) between these blues became the primary focus.
Overall, the pet portrait projects have blasted off. So far this year I have had four commissions, and there are a handful in the pipeline, including portraits of two-legged (read: human) subjects. Through these portrait commissions I have begun to carve out a unique style, deepen my understanding of color theory, practice classic techniques such as layering and glazing, and also develop my business sense as an artist – something I certainly did not learn in art school. They also help me escape from puzzling over my recent abstract work when I get in a rut.
In other news, tonight is the opening for Norseman Distillery’s first juried exhibition. My older painting “Tuberculosis” will be featured alongside the work of 34 other artists selected for the show. If you can make it, I would love to see you there! Make sure to follow this blog for updates on upcoming shows, or simply if you are interested in the cracked insights of a 30-something-artist-geek-nurse-by-day/eve/night-animal-lover-freak-of-nature ;)
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.
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.
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.
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 →
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.
Lone Pine Mountain Devils – small, elusive amalgams of quadruple-winged bat, squirrel, and lizard – roost in the shade of a tall sequoia. In the latest additions to my cryptozoology illustrations (above and the Ozark Howler), I used toner gray Copic markers to add painterly layers of depth and reduce the work of endless cross-hatching.
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!
Chupacabra. Micro pigment ink on drawing paper. 5″ x 7″
Behold the dreaded Chupacabra, blood sucker of Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Best encountered at night, the Chupacabra should not be confused with manged canines or raccoons. Enthusiasts may observe the characteristic trio of puncture marks on victimized animals, the carcasses completely drained of blood.
The Thunderbird is an enormous avian cryptid resembling a vulture, sometimes depicted with reptilian or Pteranodon-like features. Reports of Thunderbird sightings and encounters extend back centuries. In the ancient world, giant mythological birds were referred to as Rocs. This cryptid’s name draws from American Indian legends of a large spirit bird (Lakota: Wakį́nyąn) associated with thunder, lightning, and the cardinal direction West.
“Martini” is a commission for a colleague in need of a Christmas gift for her mother! This pup is a member of the Papillon breed – the name is French for “butterfly,” referencing the breed’s distinctive outstretched ears and stringy hairs that trail below. Continue reading →
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 →