Refresher Course with the "Flying Nun"

Earlier today I felt strong, able to make hard but good decisions without dawdling. When that happens I need to clean drawers or maybe a closet! So I chose to cull old magazines. It didn’t take long for me to get bogged down re-reading articles. Now, several hours later, not one magazine has yet hit the recycling bin. I certainly get my money’s worth out of a subscription!

I belatedly read an article on how to get the most out of a workshop. I say “belatedly” because I read it only today, and I took the class last summer. But the article reminded me of what a great workshop it was – a class with Pat Dews in Santa Fe, NM. When my friend Karen suggested we take the class together, I jumped at the chance. Spaces in workshops with a well-known teacher fill fast, so it took me only 15 minutes to first register by phone and then boast to my friend Liz by email that I had reserved a space in the class. She decided to go as well, and registered soon after me.

It wasn’t necessary for any of us to look up Pat Dews’ website or information about her because we have long admired her work and recognized her name. I even knew what she looked like because I already had her instructional DVD and one of her books. Even before we arrived in Santa Fe, the registrar had dubbed my friends and me “The Midwest Contingent.”  

The magazine article said, “Consider maximum class size.” Having too many students in class reduces the amount of attention an instructor can give each student. And it seems that every workshop has a “needy” student or two who actually need extra time and attention or who simply choose to monopolize the instructor. The workshop in Santa Fe was to have what I felt was a reasonable limit of 15 students.

I was once in a workshop with about 30 students. No exaggeration. In that crowd there was no hope of getting individual attention anytime soon, so I just dove in. It was at least 1 hour before the instructor approached my painting station. He didn’t break stride, and said only one word as he glanced at my work in progress – “Wow!” I was disgusted. I told the person across the table from me that I didn’t know if he meant “Wow, that is so horrible I have nothing to say about it,” “Wow, that is lovely, keep it up!” or “Wow you have a wide behind!”

The magazine article additionally listed other important considerations when choosing a workshop - skill level required, techniques, materials and supplies, teacher expertise, and a clear description of what will be covered in class.

I felt as if I had enough creative experience to be ready for what would be expected in Pat’s class. I was curious to see how Pat achieves such wonderful textures and pulls them together into cohesive abstract work. Often I quit painting for 2-3 weeks before a workshop that I expect will challenge me. It is too easy to revert to old habits even while trying to learn something new!

Pat is a terrific painter and a colorful character. Where she had to stand to paint demos under a suspended overhead mirror was directly under an air conditioning duct. She declared it too frigid, and promptly tore off a couple sheets of paper towels, plopped them on top of her head, and held them in place with a summer visor. She reminded me of Sally Field in "The Flying Nun." With glittering eyes the “Midwest Contingent” traded amused glances and each of us promptly raised our cameras to snap a few pictures. Pat thought nothing of her unusual headgear and wore it in class for the entire week.

When Pat starts a painting things happen fast, and she necessarily focuses solely on what is happening on her watercolor paper. Never mind that two bottles of ink have tipped and are spilling, that her ruler is lost beneath her painting, that several pencils and brushes have rolled off the edges of the table and onto the floor. Often she starts several paintings, one after the other, and sets each in succession under her table or on the floor to her left and right. It seemed that she surely must be walking on them, but I never saw any footprints in her work.

For this class, there was a considerable list of supplies we would need. We ordered what we needed early to be able to try products that were new to us in advance.  We set up a closed webpage where we each posted a number of photos of our texturing experiments long before we left home. Since transporting all of these supplies was going to be difficult, some of us chose to ship part of our art supplies in advance. Once the class was finished, we shipped them back home.

Near the end of the workshop I asked Pat if a couple of us could have our picture taken with her. It was amusing that this woman who thought nothing of wearing a cone of paper towels on her head for five days fussed that her lipstick had worn off for the picture. 

Even after I returned home, the workshop continued playing in my mind. I re-read and clarified the notes I had made in every lecture and demo. Another day I reviewed the many photos I took of work in progress in class, and titled them to coincide with my notes. Doing all of this gave me new ideas of how to apply what I learned to make it my own. While it was all still fresh in my mind I painted samples of things that were hard to explain in written notes.

I benefited greatly from the workshop, and have been using what I learned in every almost every painting since. But not everyone in the workshop embraced what Pat had to offer. The concepts were challenging for artists who aren’t comfortable painting abstractly or who find it unnerving to start painting without a value study and a clear plan of action.

While some students learn more, some less, everyone learns something. And what fun to commiserate with other artists, devote almost every waking hour to creating and discussing art, and to rub elbows with one of the “greats.”


Bloomers, Singing Solo, and Sketch books

My mom lives a mere half mile from me. On my short drive to and from her place, I often notice that someone “pegs” their wash on an outdoor clothesline adjacent to the street for all to see. I have no idea whose laundry it is, but I admit that I am somewhat embarrassed for whoever owns those underpants, and feel as if I should look another direction. I’m not a prude, but that just seems so….well, personal! I suppose it OK to show one’s underwear as long as the owner isn’t wearing it. But even in the country, where I grew up, we would hang such personal items between lines on which sheets had been hung.

On the rare occasion I for some reason sing a solo, either by design or more often by accident, I have those same feelings about myself. I’m a a seasonsed performer as a pianist, and pretty good member of a choir, but not a vocal soloist. I feel positively exposed and naked when I sing a solo. It is an unreasonable feeling, but there you have it.

This week the Iowa Watercolor Society Newsletter arrived in the mail with news of the Annual Meeting and Awards Brunch. The suggestion is for members to bring a sketchbook to share, to lay it open on our table for fellow watercolorists to have a look. It seems a bit snoopy to me! They are asking me to hang my undies on the line, sing a solo!

One page of my sketchbook is filled with titles that have no painting as a companion. I was casting about for a title for a painting of purple tulips. Nearly every title includes the word “Magenta.”  Magenta Magnetism, Magenta Magniloquence, Madeira, Magenta Maelstrom, Magenta Malapertness, Mellifluous Magenta to name a few. If the owners of this painting were to see this page, they would surely breathe a sigh of relief that their painting has a far less pretentious title. Besides, it can be embarrassing to have someone ask, “What does that word mean?” unless I myself remember.

Some of my sketchbooks have pages of different colors, with paper that is suitable for pencil, pen, watercolor, or ink pens. Others have only white pages suitable for pencil. The best sketchbooks are those with spiral bindings, so they lie flat. It is too distracting to wrestle with a sketchbook that threatens to snap shut as if it doesn't want me to draw in it. One of my favorite sketchbooks is larger than usual, and has transparent vellum leaves between pages of drawing paper. The idea is to make a line drawing on the drawing paper, then shade to make a vlue plan on the vellum overlay. This book crosses the line though, to finished drawings, rather than sketches. Even though I’ve read that one should never use an eraser in a sketchbook, but some of the pages in mine would benefit from one.

Other pages in my sketchbooks: notes and a diagram to set up my framework and awning for outdoor shows, artsy quotations, notes from workshops, experiments with a new ¼” flat watercolor brush, a barbwire fence and stalks of corn in the fall, colorful Cyclamen blossoms, Judi Bett’s autograph, two pages of pigs, a page of lips and expressive mouths, a Basset hound with sad eyes, a Scottish bagpiper in authentic costume. Some of my earlier sketches are not good, others show promise. I now paint more abstractly, and my sketches come from my imagination. They are all mine, rather like a diary, and somewhat personal.

At the meeting this fall I will like to see other sketchbooks, but I will personally feel shy about having other artists to see my own. It might be good to at least open my sketchbook to a page with a sketch I am proud of, to give a good first impression. Maybe I should open it to the page that includes a fist that is showing a “thumbs up!”

In the meantime, I will be analyzing my sketchbooks, perhaps adding to them more than usual. And as I sketch, I will be singing, "Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do!" and maybe hum a few bars of "I've Got Rhythm" just in case I'm asked to sing as well. But I refuse to show my underwear. 


My Bed-head Library

Reading in bed was not a pleasure shared by my husband Bob when he was alive. But he was good naturedly tolerant about my own reading, and I tried to be considerate by not keeping the light burning until 1AM. My reading time was limited anyway because one arm or the other or even both got tired of holding up the book.

Since Bob passed, I’ve started stashing books and magazines under his pillow to keep my current reading close at hand. The rotating collection sometimes grows out of bounds, though. When there are enough books that the pillow is clearly higher than my own and the bed appears seriously lopsided, I remove a few.

Having fewer books under that pillow is easier on my nervous system as well. A loud BANG woke me one night, and I was alarmed to think I had a prowler. My heart beat considerably faster until I realized it was only one of the heavier books that slid to the floor.

Here is a sampling of what I’ve learned from just a few tomes in my current pillow library…..

Becoming an artist can pretty much be summed up as the process of learning to accept myself, which makes my work personal. And following my own voice makes my work more distinctive.  Art and Fear – Observations on the Perils and Rewards of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

Traveling 2,400 miles in 7-8 months on the Overland Trail to reach the Oregon or California Territories was a picnic in only the most literal sense. It was far more challenging at every level and in more ways than I realized. Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, by Lillian Schlissel.

Is it OK for me to depict famous people in my paintings? As an artist, I might justify painting Tiger Woods, Jay Leno, or Oprah Winfrey as my right to free speech under the First Amendment. But a celebrity might cite laws referred to as their “right of privacy” and “right of publicity.” Art Calendar, the Business Magazine for Visual Artists, February 2010 Issue.

“Too many people are ready to carry the stool when the piano needs to be moved. Ben Franklin”  A quote in the monthly newsletter from Red’s Printing, the local print shop.


Painting Stories and Tall Tales

My artist friend Betty was once part owner of a gallery in a somewhat larger city. She and her partners represented a number of artists and would regularly have openings at their gallery featuring the work of one of their member artists.

I never met this artist, and no longer remember his name, but Betty told me that one man they represented seemed to always draw a festive crowd for his opening. It was fun! Guests loved his art and enjoyed the artist as well. And during his gallery talk, he would tell fascinating stories behind some of his paintings.

Betty once told him, "I never knew the story behind this painting before!" And the artist answered, "Oh people always like a story behind a piece of work, so I make them up. Some are based on real events, but I exaggerate and add to them to make them more interesting." So his tall tales were creative companions to his art, and Betty and I agreed that he wasn't deceiving viewers as much as he as adding to their viewing pleasure.

I've always thought the idea of having a story to accompany each painting was a great idea. But whatever led me to paint one thing or another hardly made a story. So I tend to speak more about technique and the painting process. But since I've read more than once that viewers are more interested in knowing WHY an artist paints what he does than HOW, I spent some time thinking about that. 

So at a recent opening of my own, I gave a gallery talk and chose to speak about the "why" rather than the "how."  What might have seemed mundane and ordinary to me was actually interesting and even amusing to my audience. Without telling tall tales, I was able to put my experience in the context of simple stories that led to each work.  And once my little talk was finished, people eagerly rushed forward to speak with me and ask more questions about various paintings.

But be careful not to believe everything you hear. It's just possible that the more creative the painting, the more creative the story behind it may be.  


Bad Hair Day

Today I realized that some of my watercolor brushes are emulating my hairstyle. While I am perfectly happy with how I wear my hair, it is not OK for paint brushes.

When I had my hair cut shorter and spiked it, my husband was kind, but I suspected he inwardly thought it too extreme. Soon after adopting this style I one day washed my hair and let it air dry. I had not yet spiked it when Bob wanted me to go somewhere with him. I said, "Wait wait! I need to finish my hair!" And after I had spiked it he asked, "Why did you do that! It looked better before."

In the first week or two with my new "do" even my mom asked me several times if I had combed my hair. I could tell she hesitated to bring it up, worried about insulting me, but was likely a little embarrassed for me.

I was patient with them. They just didn't "get it." Bob started to relax about this after he noticed total strangers (over the age of 35) tell me, "I LOVE your hair!"

I store my watercolor brushes tucked into mugs or jars, handles down, bristles up. The collection has grown to need 4-5 containers. Beginning painters tend to scrub the soft bristles endlessly to load the brush with pigment, and then brush brush brush to apply the pigment to the paper. If we start painting with fine brushes, the tips wear off prematurely. So until we learn to handle them better, it is perhaps wise to buy brushes made up of a more durable combination of sythetic and natural hair. Eventully we can graduate to using better brushes.

Why so many brushes? The larger the paper, the larger the brush that is needed. Still, we need a variety of smaller brushes for details and smaller paintings. I find it helpful to mix several different puddles of pigment, leaving a different brush in each so I can pick it up and paint without taking time to mix pigment and rinse a brush at every step. It saves a lot of expensive pigment from washing down the drain.

I use mostly round and flat brushes. But there are also Cat's tongue, filberts, riggers, fan brushes, mops, angled brushes and so on. I bought a filbert, and found I had no use for it. It was a fine brush I simply didn't enjoy. At some point it was consigned to a life of hard labor for use as a scrub brush for cleaning my water containers and palette. It has suffered long, but may soon be promoted to a better position. At a workshop this last summer I saw a filbert used effectively to "scumble" acrylic pigments in a most attractive texture.

One type of soft brushes I favored eventually went out of production. I have been sorry that I can't obtain them anymore. And I had to try various other brushes until I found something I liked as well.

No matter how you care for them, all brushes eventaully wear out. The tip wears off, the hairs splay, some hairs shed and ruin an otherwise pristine wash. Sometimes the metal ferule loosens and jiggles in a most disconcerting way while painting. A painted handle can eventrually craze and the paint flake off, making the handle rough or splintered. .

Since my brushes have started to show their age, it is time to take stock and replace those that have seen better days, even though parting with a worn out brush is like losing an old friend. Perhaps I will simply set them aside for now, then give them new life by using them for reference when painting my own hairstyle should I decide to paint a self portrait. It's a plan! 

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