Playing in the Mud

To watercolorists, “Mud” is a really bad 3-letter “M” word and something to be avoided in paintings at any cost. I used to find myself dabbling in the mud sometimes as I painted.  “Mud” is what happens when we mix too many pigments, the wrong types of pigments, or scrub and rub the pigments into the paper rather than allowing them to flow gently into place on the surface.  Mixing and applying two slightly opaque pigments can make a painting look as if I bungeed it to the back bumper of my car for a road trip to Niagra Falls during a rainy season. Simply allowing the colors in a palette to become adulterated and too mixed together can make muddy paintings inevitable.

Like most artists, I sometimes need to adjust a value or a color as a painting progresses.  At that point every artist needs to remember that the freshest wash is usually the first one. It would be great if all of us could paint a watercolor in one or two steps, and never sully or dull that with added layers. While there are a few very successful watercolor artists whose trademark style involves as many as 100 or more layers of very diluted watercolor, that is an exception. For all but those few, adding layer after layer, adjustment upon adjustment can easily result in ever more mud – areas that appear to be dull, dead zones or black holes in outer space.

Having grown up in a rural setting, I have long been acquainted with mud , one puddle in particular. My two younger brothers and I used to don rubber boots (well, most of the time!) and slosh in a puddle that often appeared at a bend in our graveled lane. We had no particular “game” and no “rules” to playing in this puddle. We were just kids sloshing around, having fun - bonding to shore up against our next serious sibling fight. Mud puddles work well for that.

When they were still small, my brothers would sometimes pull their red wagon into the middle of that puddle, climb in, and hold sticks with strings dangling into the muddy water. They were “fishing” in a puddle they knew had no fish and they made an adorable photo snapped in secret from the porch.

An unmarried aunt of mine often came to stay a few days for a visit. She was a wonderful person, but for the series of young hired men who stayed with us, she was an absolute magnet for teasing.  As an adult I realize the temptation to tease her rose in direct proportion to the decibels of her protests and laughing shrieks. Not to worry! My aunt was not scarred for life, and she clearly enjoyed the attention of a nice young man now and then.

My brothers’ fishing hole played a role in one of the noisiest pranks played on my aunt. Usually our household went outdoors to eat watermelon where we kids wouldn’t mess up the kitchen with spilled juice and seeds. The hired man, with a glint in his eye, would threaten to pick up my aunt and dip her backside into that puddle, and the ensuing chase and shrieking would begin! Even our dog Shep began to bark with the excitement. The man would eventually catch my aunt and carry her “across-the-threshold” style toward that puddle, and then slowly stoop so her posterior was ever close to the surface of that puddle.  It was all a game, of course, and everyone including my aunt knew it. In fact, she never actually got her butt wet.

Once, while packing to attend a watercolor workshop with a master, I realized my palette was in dreadful shape. It would have been embarrassing to lift the lid on my palette and have the instructor see all that mud, hardly able to tell one color from another! So on the eve of my departure I brought out the package of Q-tips and a box of tissues and worked into the wee hours to clean the surface of every single blob of watercolor pigment and the larger mixing area in the center.

The next day I drug myself to the opening day of the workshop with gritty eyes and a serious need for more sleep, but confident that my palette would no longer be a muddy embarrassment. My eyes widened, though, when the instructor opened her own palette. MUD! Her palette looked far worse than mine had before I cleaned it. I’ve always marveled since at how she created beautiful paintings with jewel colors and lovely, clear neutrals from that palette – with no trace of mud.

Over time I’ve learned more about the nature of individual pigments and which don’t work well together in mixtures. I can now see the difference between an interesting neutral and a thick wash that has no life, and know how to accomplish the first and avoid the latter. A messy, well-used palette is no longer worrisome or cause for embarrassment. I do confess that I feel the need to give it cursory swipe with a clean paper towel more often than I used to in order to avoid “mud.”

So, happily, I now pretty much know how to avoid the bad 3-letter “M” word in my paintings. If I want to play in the mud I’ll have to get out my rubber boots. Or maybe try my luck at fishing with a string on a stick.


On Becoming a "BAG LADY" 

It is lucky I wake up alert every morning since I’ve never learned to appreciate coffee.  Most people I know love the smell of brewing coffee and thrill at the hiss and smell when opening a new can of grounds. Not me. Uh-uh! I dislike both the taste and smell of coffee.  Even foods such as mocha ice cream, fancy whipped coffee drinks, and candies with trace amounts of coffee are on my “Thanks but no thanks…..” list. Ditto with espresso scented candles. The only food I like that includes a very small amount of brewed coffee is chocolate cake.

A great cup of tea, however, is …..well….my cup of tea! I’m not usually very excited about flavored teas, preferring black tea and green tea or very lightly flavored tea.  Certainly not all brands of tea are created equal, and I am really fussy. Some herbal teas smell and taste like weeds that give people hayfever. I wonder if anyone actually buys Bubble Gum flavored tea. But it is fair to say I drink a lot of tea.

When my mom retired I joined her on a celebratory tour of Iceland. In one of the gift shops on our itinerary I happened across handmade greeting cards by an Icelandic artist that piqued my imagination. In fact, I’ve since marveled that there was no clap of thunder or the sound of a large gong at that moment. The artist drew simple, small Icelandic scenes and objects on used tea bags (sans tea leaves), colored them, and mounted them on card stock. The thousands and thousands of tea bags I had discarded in my life flashed before my eyes. What a waste! And since that day I have been a “bag lady.”

Once back stateside I saved every tea bag I used, setting them aside to dry. I even wrapped the string and paper tab around the bag to come in contact with the wet tea leaves and become stained. My mom and her friends started keeping their own used tea bags for me. I would arrive home and find small plastic bags of used tea bags tucked between my storm and entry door, or in my mailbox. There are different styles of tea bags – round, family size, flow- through. The “crimped” edges where the tea bag was closed can be in different patterns.

On an evening there is something irresistible on TV, I often bring my large collection of used tea bags and a lined trash can to my comfortable chair. I tear and empty the dried tea bags while I watch a movie or documentary, finger press them, stack and organize them, and press them flat in small boxes for storage. My husband once caught me ironing the tea bags, and commented that he thought the scruffy, wrinkled version had more appeal in my greeting cards. He was right, and I didn’t really care to iron tea bags anyway.


How I wish I had kept track of how many tea bag cards I have made since that fateful day in Iceland.  I am certain that number is in the thousands by now. I considered having some of the best designs photographed and printed as cards. My husband thought that just wouldn’t be as appealing as individually designed cards with the 3-D effect of an actual tea bag on them. I agreed.

Well….it's time to make some “Bag Lady Cards” today. Oh, just in case you had any thought of sending me your used tea bags, save yourself the cost of postage – I’m well supplied. I'm off to make a cup of tea.



Getting the Show on the Road

Regular readers of my blogs may wonder if I’ve been turning the cold shoulder, but you can blame my “silence” on that mysterious “Right Brain” thing we artists are always talking about.

You: “Did you hear what I said?”

 Me: “Uh…what? Hmmm, sorry, no….I was in my right brain.”

Earlier this spring two artist friends and I agreed to hang a show at Arts on Grand in Spencer, Iowa.  It is a wonderful storefront gallery that can hold many paintings. Our show was to open August 17th, and each artist agreed to provide 15 – 20 paintings to display.

Hanging a show of 45 - 60 paintings is big deal! Since artists expect to hang their newest and best paintings, that likely requires spending extra time creating new work! Even if an artist has paintings on hand, they are probably not all matted and framed and ready to hang. My friends Liz Fluehr, Omaha  and Karen Young, Waukee and I worked several months to be ready for this show.

Creating new work is paramount, but not the only aspect of hanging a show.

We brainstormed to choose the title “Paint on our Shoes” for our show. It seemed unassuming, and, well....since watercolor is liquid and rather sloppy, it was TRUE of each of us.

We spent time taking high resolution photographs of our paintings and ourselves, and chose which we would submit for publicity. We fine-honed our artist statements and a short bit about ourselves to include in layouts for 3-fold brochures. What we wrote could also be used in news articles about the upcoming show. Another day each artist answered about 10 questions in an email “interview” for a newspaper article. Even with the expert help of the gallery staff and newpaper reporters, publicity necessarily takes a big chunk of time.

Composing mailing lists was another important task for each of us. Our lists were long because we chose to mail postcards even to people we knew would not be able to attend the opening reception. It is important to let everyone know we are active, producing artists.

We underestimated how many postcards we would need and ordered another run printed. There was a stressful learning curve regarding postal regulations before these cards were ready to be dropped in the mail. There was some question about whether our cards would reach their intended destinations, but happily, many recipients told us they received our beautiful postcards.

It seemed I visited the local frame shop almost daily. My mom, who no longer drives, often rides with me as we both run errands. One day she asked, “Don’t we have to stop at the frame shop today?!”

Finally it was the day to transport our work to the gallery.

We met at the gallery to unload our paintings and simply lean all the work against the gallery walls. It was apparent that we had too many paintings. We chose to remove enough so our display would not be crowded. Having too much work on hand was advantage, though. We put the extra painting in storage at the gallery. That allowed buyers the luxury of taking a painting with them immediately, when they must normally wait until the end of the show to collect their purchase. 

Once we had limited the number of pieces we would hang, we started changing the order of the paintings to make the display cohesive, with a visual “flow” – an orange painting followed by an orange and brown painting, followed by an orange and turquoise painting, followed by a turquoise painting with a bit of green… and so on. It took over two hours to finish this process.

The following morning we met to actually hang the paintings. A laser level, a gizmo that projects a level red line on the wall, was a great help! One of us would hoist up a painting and hold it in place relative to the projected red line.  Another of us would use a push pin to mark the middle just above the top of the frame. The painting was then lowered to the floor so we could measure the distance from the top of the frame down to the wire. We measured that distance below the push pin, drove a nail or two at that point, and then hung the painting. We repeated that process for 54 paintings! By the time we finished we had little time to have a late lunch, freshen up, and change clothes before the opening reception started at 5PM.

Each artist prepared and contributed 40 greeting cards to tie 3-card gift packs to present as parting gifts for up to 40 guests at the reception. My mom and aunt bundled the cards tied a ribbon on each bundle while we hung the show.

Our reception was well attended. In fact, it was a nice crowd! The hors doerve table was soon out of crackers and wine. A gallery staff person made a quick trip to get more of each, and the party continued.

Each artist was called on for a short speech to the assembled group. Even though we thought about it in advance, we chose to keep the presentations short, informal, and “simply speak” rather than speak from notes.

Karen, Liz, and I had so much fun preparing for this show.! We shared images of our paintings by email in advance. But each of us were astounded at the impact of seeing the actual work in person once the show was in place. A small image on the computer in no way does justice to a large painting.

If anyone is in the Spencer area we would be pleased to have you visit our display at Arts on Grand at 408 Grand Avenue in Spencer where our show will remain on display through September 25.

Stay tuned! We three artists started planning our next show the day after our opening reception.


The Tiger that became a Zebra



My last blog dealt with my attempt – well OK – my struggle - to make major changes on a painting that no longer represents the way I paint today. And since I wrote that I would share the results, I am including an image of the finished painting now that the alterations have been completed. Changing the background color to a complement of the orange leaves and adding considerable texture makes this feel like a completely new painting. Instead of the usual presentation of mounting the painting in a mat behind glass in a frame, I am planning to permanently mount this painting on a 2” deep wood support without glass for a more contemporary feeling. “Fall Finery” has become “Tattered Veils of Fall”and it will be exciting to hang this in an upcoming show. But I will be painting some new compositions before I fight the next tiger.


Changing a Tiger's Stripes

There are several paintings in my storage space that over time gravitated to the very back and stayed there.  In the past I showed these paintings at one show, then another, and eventually they were consigned to storage. Viewers made favorable comments about each, such as, “I really like this painting!” But no one said, “I just LOVE this painting - it speaks to me, and I must have it!”  There was just no emotional response that changed a viewer into a buyer.


When I re-evaluated these pieces recently, it was not easy to say just what it was about each that made them a bit too comfortable. But the one thing that was patently clear to me was that the general style of each no longer fit in with the way I paint today. My entire approach to paintings has evolved over time into something more interpretive, filled with bold pattern and color and altered shapes.


Once I had a small painting of a row of mailboxes I was proud of and expected that it would soon be snatched up. It languished in my displays at several shows, until I set it aside. Eventually I removed it from the frame, added a couple dabs of yellow-green and one or two of red-violet, and cut a new mat. I made a wry face, shrugged one shoulder, and put it back in the frame. I had made so few small changes I questioned whether to have it take up space at the next show, but did choose to display it. Often shoppers browse empty handed first, then choose to buy later. On that day I could have sold that painting with two more dabs each of green and violet no fewer than 6 times!


With that in mind, I brought out the fine, but staid paintings from the back of my storage. I decided to grab these tigers by the tail and try to change their stripes. Would it even be possible to change a safe, tight painting with hard edges and smooth washes into something bolder with texture, freedom, and surprises? It is more difficult than I expected! Somewhere I’ve read that the first stroke of a new painting should define the nature of all that follow. This self-assignment reminded me of that, and I begin to see the wisdom in its message. Whatever I tried seemed very lonely and out of place. I had to change a majority of the tiger's stripes before it became a zebra. 


I’m including the image of the earlier version of the painting that I am currently trying to transform. It requires more than a dab or two of additional color! But if it comes to a successful end, I will share the new version after I’ve made my wry face, shrugged one shoulder, and put the painting back in the frame. For now I’m keeping a firm grip on this tiger’s tail.



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