Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Whatever it Takes

My 6.3-ounce art kit.

When ever we travel away from the things of man*, I take the means to make art. That’s because I love to paint outdoors. It combines the two things I love most: painting and Outside.

In preparing for our trips, sometimes I get a little carried away and my art bag weighs more than my clothing bag. I like to be well prepared for whatever art emergency that might occur (oh no, where’s my Holbein Manganese Blue!).

Well, now I’m up against a serious challenge. We’re planning a 4-day backpack trip and I want to bring art stuff—and I can’t just toss a big ole bag into the back seat of the car this time. 

Over the weekend, we began to set out our gear, clothing, and food. Then, we started weighing everything—and I mean everything—from shirts to saline bottles—trying to figure out the lightest combination of essentials. I’m down to four items of clothing beyond what I'm wearing when we leave plus a jacket and a spare pair of socks. My entire beauty kit (and I use that term loosely) fits in a small baggy and weighs less than a pound.

We started out with 8 1/2 pounds of food—and that was after I had already eliminated the gourmet desserts I had visions of dazzling our camping comrades with. After further scrutiny, we took out a few more items and counted out the crackers into exact servings. I doubt I'll starve to death, although it seems to be a constant fear for me.

One luxury, I'm taking a little bourbon with me. There is nothing like a little whiskey by the campfire to warm you on a cool night. It’s something that goes way back with me—to my Yosemite days—when one magical summer night I sat around a campfire with a few cute cowboys and shared a flask of Jack Daniels—a dewy memory of comfortable companionship.

Clint just rolls his eyes at me and declares “the booze” WILL NOT be considered in the divided weight of our shared gear. “That’s all yours to carry,” he harrumphed at me. I told him that if we needed to liquor him up and give him a belt to bite on while we dug out a bullet (or a festerin’ mesquite thorn), he’d sure be glad I was carrying that whiskey. I got another eye roll.

After weighing and lessening quantities, and re-weighing and deciding what to do without, my pack is down to about 37 pounds—sans art tools. How do I squeeze in any art gear at this point without adding too much weight?

After some thought, I figured it out. I have a mini-pan of watercolors with a retractable brush. I found a small spiral-bound sketchpad and tore out all but a dozen sheets. I cut down some watercolor paper so it would fit inside the pad. My clever MacGyver husband replaced the spiral wire with a couple of plastic tie wraps (second to duct tape, undeniably the most valuable fix-it item in the world). My art kit weighs a mere 6.3 ounces.

Now, how do I offset that weight? Not with bourbon, that’s for sure. I tried to convince Clint that I don't need to carry my headlamp, but he wouldn't budge on that one. He's probably thinking I'll need that light if I have to perform surgery on him with my Swiss Army knife after dark. Maybe I can sneak something into his pack when he’s not looking…

Stay tuned.

* From "Joe vs. the Volcano" (one of our favorite movies)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Look Back

Steps and Cliffs
16" X 20"
Acrylic on Canvas

A year ago this week I accomplished something that I never in my wildest dreams thought I could—or would—ever do. This week marks the one-year anniversary of when my husband and I, and our dear friends Bob and Peter hiked to the top of Mt. Whitney.

For those of you that don’t know me well, I am not lean and athletic. I’m about as willowy as the dancing hippos in Fantasia. Growing up, I was the last one chosen for any sport. If there was a ball involved, it usually hit me in the face. I was the one they put in the way-out outfield. So for me, this was a huge accomplishment.

A large part of my success is owed to the love and support of my hubby and friends who encouraged me the entire way up the hill. It was an emotional and cathartic trip. So please indulge me this moment of remembrance (then I promise to move on).

Over the past year, I’ve shared the enormity of this challenge with you through many stories and paintings. I’ve described the trail and the rocky terrain and if I were to distill the trail down into a word or three, it would be rocks, steps, and cliffs.

I thought I was fully prepared for the trail. I read every account and looked at every photo I could lay my hands on. Clint had even made a chart that broke the trail into sections, providing the distance, elevation gain, and average grade for each section. It was part of his “how to eat an elephant” strategy (one bite at a time) to get me up the mountain. Laminated and hung off my backpack, this chart was my road map. I knew what to expect and mentally prepared myself for each section (10% grade for 2.25 miles—a cinch!).

However, that road map didn't tell me anything about the nature of the trail, whether it was smooth, rocky, or full of steps. That's what left me slack-jawed in surprise—the number of steps. I don't mean how many times I put one foot in front of the other. I mean stair steps—that ranged from six to a honking eighteen inches tall—cut into the rock in places, naturally occurring in others. I expected steep—but not all those damn steps.

 Steps and Cliffs
9" X 12"

By the time we arrived at Trail Camp, six miles into our journey, I'd climbed enough steps to last me the rest of my life. I had to take three breaths and then heave-ho to get up many of them. I was carrying a 33-lb. pack and with my extremely short legs, some of those steps were above my knees in height. Somehow, I made it.

It was three days of extreme focus: getting up (and then down) those steps and calculating every foot placement to stay balanced and in control. I was so intensely alert, that in my dreams I was still hiking. I couldn't stop. The second night, after we summited Whitney, when I was drifting off I dreamed I misjudged a step and stumbled—jerking myself awake, my heart pounding, my mouth like paste.

And so, not long after the trip, I had to draw and paint that unforgettable memory of steps. Steps ascending a trail hung on the edge of the world.

I worked quickly and completely from memory.

I wasn’t sure about putting these pieces up on the blog because, well, who wants to buy something like this? When we trotted out the pieces to decide on which of them to frame, I put these in the “No” pile. Who would want them? They are kind of Mordor-ish, disturbing, alien.

I thought about painting over the canvas. Why not re-use it? But I can't. If I cover it up, it will nullify all the hard work and dogged determination I put into that trip. Failure was not an option for me.

In honor of this anniversary, I wanted to share these pieces with you. They may not be my best work, and are not likely to end up in anyone’s living room, but they truly represent what my art is all about, releasing my feelings onto canvas and paper. Whether that is joy, awe, euphoria, or fear, there it is.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Cirquel in the Sky

Cirquel in the Sky
18" X 24"
Acrylic on Canvas

This is the canvas that was so wonderful to paint on that I fell in love with it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010: I was one big ball of nerves; spaghetti stomach with worms. I was only a day away from the biggest undertaking in my life, hiking to the top of Mt. Whitney.

What if I trip and fall and break something? What if I get sick? What if something happens to one of the guys? My Clint? My imagination played out dozens of horrific scenarios on the theatre screen in my head. There was scary crescendo music like the kind you hear right before something terrible happens (yes, my life has an ongoing soundtrack that only I can hear).

At some point, my brain and body became exhausted from all the worrying. I tilted, like an old pinball machine that's been jiggled just a little too vigorously. My lights went out and the flipper bars went dead. I could no longer snap the ball of worry up for another go round, bouncing, ringing, spinning. It would be what it would be.

The next day, we picked up our permit and WAG bags (that's another story) for the next day’s journey. Then we headed out for a hike up the trail to Little Meysan Lake. The plan was to get out and stretch our legs and lungs, with the goal of climbing to 10,000 feet. It was one last conditioning exercise to expose us to “up” and “elevation” (the great equalizer).

We were all a bit sluggish as we started out on the steep and messy trail. Eroded from heavy use from the quarter-mile hikers, it was difficult to get into any kind of hiking rhythm. The worry ball shot up and bounced around a few times. If I felt like this now, how was I going to feel tomorrow for The Big Hike? I focused on my breathing, keeping it in time with my steps. It didn't take long before I started to feel better. We passed the beat-up section of the trail and moved on into the reward. My breathing evened out, I warmed up, and the steady climb didn't feel so bad. Everyone had loosened up and the joking began...

It was a beautiful day! Puffy clouds dotted a cobalt sky. The light was soft, intensifying the colors of the landscape. A hawk soared above us. A light breeze was blowing. The trail rapidly zigzagged up a steep slope giving us a wonderful view out over what seemed like a bottomless canyon. The near vertical granite wall across the gap was painted with every color of lichen imaginable.

Before long, the view ahead opened up and we could see the distinctive bowl of rock that marked the outer edge of the cirque holding Little Meysan Lake. Of all the cirques we would see in the next few days, this was the most defined and dramatic. Oddly, the clouds seemed to almost echo the roundness, forming a concentric shape inside the bowl.

The clouds continued to build as we climbed. It got grayer and grayer. This didn't dampen our mood nor lessen the beauty of the surroundings. In fact, the colors grew deeper in intensity. Now our vantage point revealed a waterfall tumbling off the edge of the cirque, nearly fluorescent against the black stained granite. Alongside the trail were several large flat rocks. It was the perfect spot to have lunch and enjoy the view.

The breeze kicked up a notch and we suddenly went from hot and sweaty, to cold. Jackets came out along with our lunches, and big, fat, wide-spread raindrops began to fall. It wasn't enough to get us wet, just enough to make it fun.

The consensus was that we would head back down after our break. The temperature had dropped and the clouds were heavy and purple above us. We’d nearly reached the 10,000-foot mark and we had regained our hiking legs and confidence, no need to push our luck and climb higher where we were likely to encounter snow. It was just what we needed to warm us up for the next day's adventure.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Joy of Blank

“Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” 

So true. Although it’s not like that when it comes to making art. A blank sheet on the art table stirs a thrill in me akin to that moment of free fall on a roller coaster. Whether it is a fresh, bouncy canvas or a crisp sheet of watercolor paper, there is something exhilarating about starting a new piece.

That beautiful blank surface urges me on. I think about the brush dragging across the surface, the paint pooling, the smell of sizing as it’s released by water.

The excitement is killing me. But I don’t give in to the temptation. First, I visualize the subject on the surface and consider placement. Do I want to push the focal point to one side or the other? Higher or lower? What is the mood I want to project? Am I feeling soothing green or high-energy orange? How will the surface texture affect my painting?

When I start to twitch then it is time to draw the subject onto the surface. With watercolor paper, you must have a fairy-light touch so you don't spoil the pristine white of the paper. You have to KNOW your subject before you make a mark, for this surface is unforgiving. Get carried away and go too dark with your pencil—or misjudge your position—and it’s all over. You’ve destroyed a beautiful, innocent, expensive piece of virgin paper. (I love paper, by the way. In case you haven’t noticed, I kind of have a paper fetish.)

With canvases, it’s a little less critical with the drawing because acrylic paint covers better. Although it still requires a light touch to avoid muddying the first layers of color with smears of graphite.

Then, the moment I’ve been waiting for arrives. The first layer of paint goes on. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh. There is nothing like that first disturbance, breaking the surface tension and sizing with just the right mix of pigment and water. I lay in transparent color to create the under painting, the texture and light of the white surface beaming through the pigment in these first moments is exhilarating. The best, most exciting thing in the world is if some of these initial layers are left to shine through the final painting. It’s magic.

What is all this gushing about surfaces? I must confess I am in love with a new canvas. I haven’t been this excited about a surface in a while (well, there was that fling with gelatin plates, for which I still long). This new canvas is beautiful and supple and bouncy; perfectly stretched over wood strips that aren't warped or splintery, not a pucker to be found. Most of the canvases I’ve bought in recent years are dry and scratchy like an old cracker—though crackers tend to be more square rather than parallelogram shaped.

On my new love, the paint flows on the surface, the rhythmic texture of the canvas enhances without overpowering. It takes the colors softly, allowing me to build gentle layers of subtlety. It’s heavenly painting on this surface. Pure heaven!

And it’s all because we decided to go back to a place that I wasn't even sure still existed.

Last weekend, in desperation to find good frames, we drove out to a shop where I used to have most of my work framed. I hadn’t been there in 10 years and I can’t believe I ever stopped going there. Aside from the great selection of frames, awesome service, and reasonable prices (can you tell my day job is writing marketing propaganda?), I’d forgotten about the beautiful stretched canvases he makes—excellent, supple, inspiring canvases. 

I can’t even begin to express how the surface stimulated me. Yes, I know that sounds wacky, but working on this surface is so…arousing!

I hope to finish this painting over the weekend. It’s 18" X 24", so it's taking a bit longer. I’m truly enjoying the journey with this delightful canvas.

For those of you wondering about this shop, I want to give them a plug: Leon Picture Framing in Anaheim, California. The owner is a great guy who believes in quality and giving his customers great service. I’m so glad he is still around and doing what he does so well. See Tim and tell him Susan sent you.

I can’t wait to go back and get more canvases. Oh and, while we were there, we picked out a couple frames too. The pieces look great. I can’t wait until you see them!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Before & After

I know that when I post paintings here, odds are you like some better than others. I know there will be paintings that won’t float your boat—and that’s all right—after all, if everyone liked the same paintings, we’d have fistfights at my show. Although there was that one time, when Nancy bought the painting Loretta liked...

I’ve noticed something rather interesting, though. Frequently, paintings that get very little attention when unframed become celebrities after framing. It’s My Fair Lady, only without the accent. The most unassuming piece with bad manners—after framing—comes into its own, exuding elegance, with pinky daintily extended.

Remember “Wild Iris” from a few weeks ago? Although it doesn’t fall into the Eliza Doolittle category, look at how the nicely the frame enhances the piece. The soft sage mat pushes the purples and pinks to be more prominent, yet brings out the warm greens in the background; the dark, rustic frame pumps up the contrast.

Last year, just before I started framing pieces for the show, a friend of ours came over and asked if I had any new paintings to share. I brought out my work and as he looked through the pieces, he was very quiet. He kind of hmmm'ed—and that was it—not even a polite, “oh that’s nice” (what a wonderful little hobby you have, dear). Even the painting I thought he would love was handed back to me without a comment. Now I don’t let that kind of reaction get to me (not too much, anyway), because I know that when I frame a piece, it changes everything.

I’ve even had my sweet, supportive husband hem and haw over a piece and proclaim, “That's not one of my favorites.” I remember getting this response with a particular painting a couple of years ago. I really liked the painting. I believed in that painting. I knew it would shine if it went into the right frame. However, it was close to the show and we were running out of money for mats and frames, so I decided not to frame it. Then, in a lucky moment, I found I had a frame and an extra mat that worked perfectly with the piece. When I showed it to him again, not only did he love it, it became one of his favorite pieces. He didn't even realize it was same painting.

I spend a lot of time choosing mats and frames for pieces. The right framing can completely change the character of a piece. It may bring out one color or another, or emphasize temperature or texture; it can make a painting sing, or make it soft and quiet.

Frames and mats should be chosen to enhance the art, not based on the latest decorating trend. And, although good art doesn't have to match your sofa, there is something to be said about the compatibility of artwork and decor. However, be wary of changing the framing on a to match your furniture or carpet, because you may find it changes what attracted you to the painting in the first place.

When you come to my studio show, think back on some of the pieces you saw here that you might have thought were so-so and let me know if your opinion has changed after framing. I’d love your feedback.