Alley Patrol

This bitter cold day with residual ice and snow reminds me of a day about a year ago when I was preparing to teach a watercolor workshop.  Two teaching goals ever at the top of my list are to find unique subject matter and methods that are interesting to students of either gender and the teacher.

I personally enjoy painting doors, and I had never assigned that subject in any of my previous workshops. Painting very old doors with colorful peeling paint that showed through another layer of a different color of peeling paint sounded fun and instructive.

Artistically anticipating the changing seasons and holidays is not my forte.  For instance, I get excited about painting poinsettias during the Christmas season, and the resulting paintings are invariably ready to hang for Valentine’s Day.  Paintings that include patriotic themes or flags are ready to frame about August 15. I paint spring in summer, Christmas after the New Year, Fall in Winter. But No one is interested in Easter themes for Mother’s Day. Should I say I am very early or a bit behind?

At least last year I realized that the first assignment to paint a weathered door could be repeated as a second assignment by adding snow flurries, a few icicles hanging from the door handle, or snow that fell softly into a small pile on top of an as yet unused door handle or collected on the top edge of a raised door panel. And for once, what I had in mind was perfectly “in season.” Like today, it was cold, with ice and snow on the ground. My photographs didn’t show flurries, icicles, or collected snow, but we could invent those details for the subsequent assignment.

Even though it was really cold, the need for reference photos for my students sent me outdoors with my camera to hunt for old doors that had unusual handles, broken screens or windows, layers of peeling paint, cracked walls, rust, and maybe even graffiti.  I hoped to take enough door photos so each student could choose a different reference photograph.   I soon realized the best doors for my purpose were back doors of the old buildings downtown.

If anyone saw me that afternoon, driving slowly down the alleys, parking at odd angles, sometimes stopping to take a photo from my open car window in an effort to stay close to the car heater, I would surely have been suspect. At least I wasn’t wearing a mask. Luckily no one called the police, thinking I was planning a robbery.

The image I’m sharing today was the demonstration painting I did in the first class to show students some techniques to effect a weathered door.  Finding a pleasing abstracted design of a portion of my own reference photo, I chose to paint only part of a door. It had the advantage of having several weathered textures - a broken stucco wall with underlying bricks exposed, a rusty screen, weathered wood, and rusty metal screws and nails.

My students enjoyed painting old doors. They did a great job, and I was proud that each put something of themselves into their paintings rather than replicating the reference photo.


Listening to My Painting

When I first heard an instructor say, "Listen to your painting" I really didn't get it. I thought about that directive many times, but still didn't understand. While I waited for the message, I found myself whistling the them from "The Twilight Zone" between my teeth. It took a long time for me to be able to hear what my paintings were saying to me because I was trying to be too literal in my interpretation.

At long last I understood. I simply needed a lot more experience to understand the language of artistic creation. What a painting "says" is not audible, but rather intuitive. The message doesn't come from a specific compositional rule, technique, or painting formula, but rather the sum total of all the artist has learned. Once you understand the language, the message is usally quite clear. Without conscious effort I have a strong feeling that a certain area of a painting needs more texture, that line needs to curve, the next shape needs to be round, an edge needs to be soft.

In my last blog I wrote about using the computer to sketch or paint over a photograph of the first step of a painting, and shared one of several sketches. But when I went back to work on the actual painting, intuition took over. The painting took on a life of it's own. I used my computer generated plan only as a suggestion, allowing myself to pay attention to what the painting needed to be interesting and exciting.

Today I'm sharing an image of the finished painting. It is quite like my sketch, but it is also somewhat different, and happily so. I think what I painted intuitively is visually more exciting.

"Flowers in a Red Striped Vase" is the second in what I intend to be a series of four abstracted floral paintings, each having some element with red stripes. I've added this image and the first in the series, "Flowers on a Red Striped Cloth" to the gallery of paintings on this website.

So if you see me with one ear cocked toward mypainting, feel free to whistle a few bars of the theme from "The Twilight Zone." I won't even hear you, because I"ll be listening to my painting.



Painting with a Mouse

No, this does not involve Mickey or Minnie. Nor have I discovered a mouse nibbling my watercolor paper in my studio. Rather, it is a computer mouse.

I am an artist who likes to start a painting with color and texture in mind, rather than a specific subject, and then take advantage of interesting, even exciting things that happen on the paper that I could not possibly have planned. Sometimes I love the first step, but am undecided about how to develop it into a viable painting.

I’ve found an enjoyable, risk-free way to find my way out of that corner I’ve painted myself into.  I power up my computer. While it is groaning and buzzing (the  equivalent of early morning yawns and stretches) I take a digital photograph of the first step of my painting. And after transferring the photograph to the computer, I can paint and draw on it endlessly with the mouse.

Should the background be olive green or red orange? Would it be better to make it transparent or opaque? And solid, even  color or textured? Maybe spray paint.

Hmmm. I love the color and texture on the left side. I’m going to “clone” that in the upper right hand corner. No no no! That is not good, so I “undo” to back up as needed.

If I am really stumped about what direction to take a painting, I send my photograph of the first step to 3 artist friends. If they aren’t too busy they will usually email advice within hours, sometimes making their own suggestions in the form of a computer sketch on my photo to email back to me.  

Once I have a version I like, I save it in an onscreen file. But if I have other ideas to try, I start over. This process is really enjoyable, and I sometimes generate 4-5 versions of the same painting before choosing one. I suppose it is that creative right brain business, but by this time I can hardly wait to work on the actual painting!

Finally I choose my favorite version and print out a 4x6 inch photo reference to use as a guide. Plans are only that, and I often make changes as I continue to develop my image.  And if I am uncertain at any point, I can always take another photo and harness that mouse to help me.

One of the things I’m currently working on is a series of at least 4 paintings, each of which will have brighter than usual colors, dominance of a spotted texture, and stripes. I intend for this small series to be abstracted florals. But if I find that one or more of the starts could better be developed into a landscape, or a group of people at a party, I won’t hesitate to go that direction and simply not include it as part of this series.

In this blog I’m sharing an altered photograph of my first painting step for a new piece of work.  And now that I have my computer-altered sketch for how to proceed, my motor is revving.  I’m itching to apply paint to what will likely be the second painting in my series of four. The first, an orange floral, will appear in the work shown on this website as soon as I think of a title. I sometimes send a photo of a finished painting to friends, asking for suggestions for a title. Any takers to help me title the first in this series? I’m too busy painting the second.

Oh….please don’t send any mouse traps. It’s fall, and I’ve already set my supply of traps in case any real, unwelcome mice are looking for warm winter lodging.


Enough Pocket Change to lose your pants

Earlier I wrote about large ice cream cone sculptures that will be a public art project to identify our town as the “Ice Cream Capital of the World. ” About 30 sculptures will be installed permanently on the sidewalk near each sponsoring business. My sponsor was a local bank, and their 3-person “Ice Cream Cone Review Committee”and I agreed on a money theme.

One day a pickup pulling a flat trailer with ten white ice cream cones bolted to it drove up to my curb. One ice cream cone was removed and hefted into my garage. The cone was not really heavy, but it was very awkward, and top heavy. I was able to give it a bear hug and move it myself if I didn't care to see where I was going. I first put bricks on the base to keep it from tipping over, and eventually mounted the cone on a wood platform with casters.

The plan was to have the dip of ice cream made up of various coins. It was clear that the coins would need to be enlarged by at least 300-400% in order to finish it in my lifetime. By the time I realized I should have enlarged them more than I did, I was committed. I was too far to start over.

It took a number of weeks to paint the cone in my garage during the worst heat and humidity of the summer. I could steel myself to paint in out in the heat one day, but couldn’t face going out again the next day.

A benefit of painting in my garage with the doors open was that neighbors would stop by to visit, and check my progress - especially in the evening when I needed the lights on.

I had no concept of how long it would take to paint enough detailed coins to cover the dip of ice cream. How many times would I need to letter “United States of America,” or “E Pluribus Unum?” Out of curiosity I measured the dip from one side over the top to the other, and found it was 59 inches. It was a bit disheartening to realize how long it took to paint a single line of coins to span that distance!

I tried to choose coins that had something to do with our state and region, such as an Iowa Quarter. I next added quarters for all the states that border Iowa  – and painted Nebraska’s Chimney Rock, the St. Louis Arch, a loon in a Minnesota lake, the head of a Wisconsin Jersey milk cow and a fat round of cheese, and the four faces on Mount Rushmore. I painted some of those things several times.

Painting the same coins repeatedly was really monotonous, so I was excited to discover an array of coins about the Corps of Discovery which came through this area. Those naturally led to including the Sacajawea gold dollar. Lewis and Clark met the native Sioux Indians in this area, so adding the Indian head and buffalo nickels seemed appropriate.

The many different portraits of Thomas Jefferson that appear on nickels surprised me, and relieved the boredom of painting the same things over and over.

Most of the pennies in my small jar were wheat pennies with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the other side. I wanted more copper color on the dip of ice cream, but just thinking of painting that same penny again and again made my eyes start to cross. A friend told me there were four “new” pennies which I found on the internet, happy for some variety.

Soon I chose to incorporate more half dollars and silver dollars because they were larger, and filled up space faster. My friend Michael observed that I might have thrown myself “under the bus” by painting the elaborate details of so many coins. Smart man. He had a point.

I painted multiple portraits of JFK, Ben Franklin, and George Washington, and Roosevelt. The Liberty Bell, two different images of eagles, and the Statue of Liberty are all represented.

I considered creating a coin with another president – the bank president. But there have been several different bank presidents since I’ve lived here. Since I will always be the artist, I painted a self-portrait on a coin. One morning, anxious to show off my own coin, I suggested that my gym partner step in to see progress. She said, “I didn’t know there was a Harry Potter coin!” Hmmmm…..I do have spiked hair and dark rimmed reading glasses, but I don’t think I look like Harry. Maybe 7AM is a challenge for her.

I searched for still more different coins to paint and found a Susan B. Anthony silver dollar and a commemorative Boy Scout coin that was never in circulation. 

Near the end I found another Corps of Discovery coin with the words “Ocean in View! O! The joy!”  I was still in my sweltering garage rather than in view of the Pacific Ocean, but my sentiment was nearly the same as I added the last few brush strokes to the sculpture, “End in Sight! O! The Joy!”

The next day I made the call to have someone move the ice cream cone to a local industry where it will be clear-coated in preparation for installation. But I started wondering, “Just how many detailed coins did I paint on this project?” That evening I took an array of colored Post-It notes to my garage and started applying 10 yellow, 10 blue, 10 pink, 10 violet, 10 yellow with a dot, 10 blue with a dot, and so on. By the time I had marked every coin with a sticky piece of paper, I had counted 133 coins. If you had a real coin in your pocket for each of those I painted on the dip of ice cream, I think your pants would drop! Before that happens I suggest you start a savings account at the bank.

“First National Bank Saver? You’ll love this flavor!”


And the Beat Goes On.......

Zip! The deadline for painting that guitar for the Lakes Art Center slipped right by me. My first hint was when Danielle, the Visual Arts Director, emailed to ask how my project was going. The deadline had been the week before. She assured me I wouldn’t be fired, so I accelerated production. My first inclination had been to paint the historic “Legend” roller coaster realistically, but it didn’t have enough character. Even though this wood coaster is not as high and…well…as alarming as newer  versions of roller coasters, it is still a snappy ride! So I changed my concept to something equally snappy.  My version is interpretive, but still easily recognizable as the popular amusement park ride rumbling on the track at the edge of the lake. The first step in this project was to sand the front surface of the guitar body. Painting the extemely smooth plastic pick guard was optional, but it covered a lot of the guitar surface, and I needed the space to adequately depict the roller coaster . I dutifully sanded the pick guard for at least an hour before I stood to take a break and make a cup of tea. When I returned to my work I noticed something peeling along one edge. When I used a tweezers to lift whatever it was from the surface,  I found that the entire pick guard was still covered with a perfect protective cover of plastic. Perfect except that I had sanded it! So I removed the plastic and was back at the starting  gate.  Coming up with a concept can sometimes be a stumbling block, as it was for this guitar. But once I had an idea that was appealing to me, I quickly passed the "Point of No Return "and the painting just rumbled along.