I recently picked up Unthinkable by Helen Thomson at the local library. It is a book about unique brains. Each chapter explores the story of a patient whose brain is notably different than the “norm” for various reasons. My favorite Chapter, “Seeing Auras”, is about a gentleman who sees colors with people not in a psychic reading sort of way, but as an add on to things like body language, emotion cues, etc.
Thomson goes on to discuss a brief overview of synesthesia. Synesthesia is defined by Merriam Webster as: “a subjective sensation or image of a sense (as of color) other than the one (as of sound) being stimulated”. A synesthete can hear color or see colors with music. There is an overlap in sensory experience. Thomson explains that these sensory pathways in our brain already run close together, and it is believed that synesthesia is a result of “pathways of communication between sensory regions that don’t normally exist”. (Thomson, 80).
Thomson then suggests that we may all have aspects of synesthesia and can strengthen or build these crossovers with use. Now to get to why I am writing about this on my blog: I think artists inherently build unique ways of seeing the world through the act of making art. A plein air painter will begin to notice colors in light that a non painter might not. A sculptor my feel the sensation of certain sounds or smells in the molding of clay or bending of metal. From personal experience, I know that I see shapes and colors in places I once did not. And many of my students have expressed similar sentiments.
Simply put, the practice of art is not just about developing the skills of mixing greens, using the right marks, or understanding perspective. The repetition and practice of art regularly is literally rewiring your brain and changing way you experience the world. This cannot be learned. You must grow it by making art regularly like building a muscle. Artists of all experience levels benefit from challenging themselves and being uncomfortable. It is only when we step out of our comfort zone that we create new connections, break mindless habits, and add complexity to our senses.
I have been teaching art for over a decade. Most of my classes are designed by me and are geared to embrace a range of experience levels. Being an artist takes WORK. But it is never too late to start. I believe one should start in a way that will be less intimidating. Don’t spend thousands on supplies and then be afraid to “waste them” on “bad paintings”. The hardest part of making art is not to learn the tools or techniques. The hardest part is breaking old habits and being fearless in trying new approaches.
As a teacher, my goal is to help the individual on their unique journey while providing general goals and lessons for everyone in the class to learn from and respond to. I hope you will consider taking a class with me at some point. I offer classes in painting (acrylic), abstraction, pastel, mixed media, landscape, drawing, and more. Click on the classes link above to see what’s coming! Feel free to contact me with any questions . I hope to make art with you soon.
Making time seemed like the perfect title for a blog post, considering that it has been almost a year since my last one. If you know me personally you know I have two little boys at home now. My studio productivity and class schedule are not what they once were. Sometimes, life gets in the way of art making. But now as I get more comfortable with finding a balance in my role as a mother, I am slowly making my way back. That being said, the days I have time to paint are not always the days when I am mentally able to. One thing that has helped recently is starting a new sketchbook. In all honesty I hadn’t kept a sketchbook for years and now I find it so therapeutic. I can have it with me anywhere and get a few moments of creative time in here and there. I can even use my kids’ watercolors while having arts and crafts time at the kitchen table. Every little bit helps keep me engaged. So when I am able to make it to my studio I don’t feel as disconnected from my work.
This image is from last Tuesday’s abstract painting class at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. The image on the left was the quick expressive first layer. I was reacting to the colors and shapes from a random magazine ad. The image on the right is the second layer which incorporates different techniques such as masking, rollers, and dripping. I found the result particularly interesting because I like the first painting and then I “messed it up” for the sake of demonstrating techniques. However, I also found this to be a good opportunity to talk about the ugly stages in painting. Often there are moments when you will like a painting and moments when you will hate it. Of course the goal is to come out on the side of like. Yet, the more I look at the painting I ended up with the more I like it anyways!
I recently taught a class, “Painting by Process” at the Cedarburg Cultural Center. The purpose of the class was to take students step by step through planning and execution. Often my students ask me in such classes, “Do you really work this way?” The truth is no, but I should. The class involves composition studies and value studies on the first day. The second day we do a study focusing on color. The last two sessions are spent executing a larger final painting. Each day also involves journaling with prompt questions. While this is not the only way to work- it is a beneficial one. Not all people are planners. I know I am not (at least when it comes to painting). Many painters are spontaneous and in the moment and I think that is important too. But at least once and a while it is important to slow down and plan. Even if it does not result in a masterpiece. The process will force you to think more critically about your art and that habit will carry over even when not intentionally utilized.
I am frequently asked about brushes. When I am teaching brushes are a fundamental component of painting but I use them in my studio rarely. I think many artists, especially those just beginning their painting journey, think that there is a perfect brush for every task. I tend to think that you can make most brushes do what you need (with a few exceptions). So I tend to not spend much time worrying about what number or hair type I have. Of course softer brushes are better for thin applications and blending, and stiff brushes are better for thick paint and texture. Big brushes are better for washes and small ones are better for detail. But I can get a filbert and a round to make pretty much the same marks, and a flat brush makes great lines. So there is a lot of overlap. You don’t need dozens of brushes. But maybe that’s just me. I work mostly with knives anyway. When I do use a brush, my all purpose favorite is a medium soft synthetic flat. Here are a few examples of my most used brushes (when I use brushes at all).
These are a few of the many mini paintings I have been working on over the past few months. I love the quick changes of color I can make on a smallscale. Usually I keep a stack of small panels next to my easel. When I have leftover paint on my palette from another painting I am working on, I apply some of it to one of my small panels. As these colors build up I start making more thoughtful decisions about which panels need which colors. It is not long before an idea of final touches emerges. Many of the mini paintings become color models for larger works. However I do not think of them as merely studies. I enjoy them as small works for themselves.
I am going to admit, recently I do not draw as much as I should. My paintings focus on color and texture, something that drawing doesn’t give me much room to explore. Yet the value in changing media occasionally is priceless. I teach drawing regularly and teaching gives me an opportunity to revisit drawing. Drawing often focuses on value, line, or mark. This is a charcoal drawing I did as a demo for a recent class. I had fun using the weight and direction of the mark to describe different materials and depths. It is important to remember that art making is about the journey, not the destination. The lessons learned from any and every drawing will ultimately effect the next artwork.
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…
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?
It has been a great week for feedback! Last Saturday I participated in a critique session at the Frank Juarez Gallerywith artist and instructor Michael Davidson. Then, just this past Tuesday I had an opportunity through MARNto have my work reviewed by Milwaukee Art Museum Director, Dan Keegan. At both of these critiques I also received feedback from fellow artists. My brain is now brimming and bubbling with thoughts about my work! I have jumped in quickly and am currently making work that in a sense responds to the feedback, criticism, ideas I received.
I am reminded of how hard it can often be for an artist to hear criticism. There were times during my college experience that I was brought to tears because others criticized my work. Now in the professional world I find that I am less emotionally effected by criticism. Don’t get me wrong, it effects me deeply intellectually. Yet I am not crushed by the success or failure of a single painting or even a body of work. Embracing the process and realizing that we are all in the same boat softens the blows when they come and makes me more receptive to the ideas they generate. Receiving feedback and criticism happens so seldom after college. An artist must seek out these experiences and soak them up. It is an invaluable tool to making better art and growing as an artist. I am grateful to live in a place where I have access to these opportunities!
Photo courtesy of Frank Juarez, Frank Juarez Gallery
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
I love the texture of paint. Thick creamy plains of color piled on top of each other…
There are two kinds of texture in painting- actual texture and visual texture. Actual texture (or physical texture) refers to the texture you can touch and feel on the surface of the painting. Visual texture is when something is painted to look like a texture but does not necessarily feel like the texture. I am interested in texture because it plays a big role in how we experience the natural world. Contrasts in color and texture on the surface of a painting will distinguish plains and edges. My work strives to explore the way both physical and visual texture become a perceived space in landscape.
I have been on a break from painting the last few weeks. Classes, festivals, and a few new commissions have kept me very busy. However I know I will be delving into studio work again soon and I cannot wait!
Lately I have been doing my landscapes in acrylic, still using the knife. The transition to acrylic began with a request from some of my students. I also like the slightly more posterized look of acrylics for some of my concepts. Knife painting in acrylic has to be done very differently than knife painting in oil. In oil I can play with the surface for as long as I like. I can put down paint, move it around, mix other things into it, pick it up again, put it back down, etc. until I am satisfied. Acrylics however dry much too quickly for this, forcing me to make a decision and stick with it or pile on top of it. also, as the acrylic dries it’s consistency changes under the knife which creates some textures that are different from oil.
I like to change it up a bit- trying to do something different with the media forces me to keep questioning what I do and why. Its part of being an artist to seek out new ways of challenging one’s craft. It’s a life long process.