Month: March 2016

A Witness to a Painting

“So, you see why I like the history of art. It’s the study of how to observe life with complete attention. It’s the history of love.”

 Aidan Chambers

The man looks forward, gaze directed toward the viewer, his torso balanced between profile and three-quarters. He appears, at this point, just past middle-age. There is no indication of location, of place, of what he is seated upon, stool or chair. Except for his hands and face, the predominant color scheme throughout is burnt umber, dark and earthy green, lighter in the upper left corner, shading into darker hues, almost black in the lower right corner.

For students enrolled in my academic classes, this is the point in the semester when their written assignment comes due. It’s a fairly straight forward task: visit a museum, select a piece of artwork, and write an essay that describes the work. No research or analysis, only writing objectively about what they see in front of them.

The figure takes up most of the space, a reversed “L” shape, slightly off-center to the right, his hands clasped in his lap. A soft large beret, perhaps wool, pillows his head, with a beaded circle of gold between the narrow brim and the top of the cap. Softly curling grey hair peeks out below the cap, shorter in the front of the ears, and collar length behind.

I tell them to imagine they are talking on the phone to someone who doesn’t have access to internet or an art encyclopedia. The only way that person can “see” the artwork is by their description. Some of them begin to feel challenged and fall back on “research” instead, their favorite source: Wikipedia.

His coat collar is upturned, covering most of the jaw line on the right side of his face, chin nestled between the u-shape lapels. A shawl is just visible on the left side of the collar. The pattern indistinct and colors muted, it emerges on a diagonal from the right shoulder, just past the bent arm, its progress arrested at the hands, hands which are painted with soft broad strokes and bordered by the sienna tinged furred cuffs of the brown coat. 

To really look at a painting or a still life, or even the face of the beloved, requires attention and concentration. Trying to describe without metaphor or simile is not easy; to analyze objectively and not emotionally takes practice. Doing so makes you a witness to the painting itself. As Joe Friday use to advise–just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.

Softly lit from above, with slight shadows cast from the cap, brow and nose, a great luminosity emanates from the face. Thick impasto brush strokes define deep-set eyes (green? brown?) and a bulbous nose; the small narrow mouth is surrounded by a mustard-grey sparse mustache and goatee. The paint sculpts deep furrows between the brows and lines in the forehead, grooves from the side of the nose to the lips form soft folds on the cheeks. Warm ochres and reds, carmine and vermillion, are the dominant colors, in places a peachy hue. Grey, mauve, and hints of green, are seen in the shadows and flecks of highlights, almost pure white, are on the tip of the nose, left cheek and top of the forehead under the cap.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669 ), Self-Portrait, 1659, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 – 1669 ), Self-Portrait, 1659, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

The next time you visit a museum or gallery exhibit, find a piece of artwork that engages you and give this exercise a try. Not visiting a museum? Try it with the work from an artist friend, or even your own. You may be surprised at your observation abilities and your skills as a witness.

In the plain background, just left of the man’s cheek, easily overlooked because of size and subtlety of color, is the name Rembrandt and the date, 1659.

And here’s the artist himself, in a self-portrait from 1659. How did I do with my eye-witness account?



This Week in the Studio

Spent most of the studio hours working on my next piece, finishing up the underpainting for the five small rondos. Wondering, might I need just one more rondo??

Have you guessed who is the influence behind this work? Not telling yet!

Fibonacci in progress

A Table of One’s Own

“A woman must have money and a room of her own. . .” 
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Cutting the Heart AsunderFirst published in October 1929, Virginia Woolf’s extended essay, A Room of One’s Own, has served as a feminist rallying cry and a raised banner for what artists need in order to accomplish their calling. For Virginia understood that in order to produce creative works, one must have the means and the space to do so. Her ideas still resonate with me; although at one time there was little money or room. What could I do?

When my longing to be an artist was crying out not to be a downy dream but manifested in reality, I was a mother with young children. I worked part-time, contributing much needed income for household expenses; there was not a lot left for extras. Our 1930 era home, though comfortable in size, did not have a finished basement, nor a spare bedroom, and had a living room, but not an extra family room. My interest at the time was in the book arts, and occasionally I would garner a commission, be in an exhibit, or sell small work. Any creative endeavors on my part were carried out on the dining room table, in the midst of family activities, in snatches of precious moments.

That table was the settings for meals, the kids’ homework, crayons and puzzles, toys and books, and that same table had to be cleared after every activity and be made ready for its next use, including my current art project. At least half my creative time was spent setting and cleaning up, and I often felt cheated and frustrated.

What to do? My first step was to get a folding table and I left my “stuff” out at all times, easily at hand. When I had a bit of time, when the kids were occupied or asleep, I could get right back at my work. The second thing I did was to break down every project into steps that could be accomplished in small segments of time, anywhere from 10-30 minutes. Third, the table was off-limits to small and big hands alike! In such a matter, on my little studio table, I was able, bit by bit, to produce artwork.

In time, I cleared everything out of the 5 x 5 foot breakfast nook, claiming it as my own. Eventually, as a Wayne State University grad student, I got my first “real” studio space. When the kids got older, and money less tight, and we converted some unused space into a home studio. Finally, I outgrew the “Happy Place” and with money earned from teaching, and by sharing the rent with another artist, I took on my first public studio.

IMG_2110Now in my current location, The Office, I look around and think how far I’ve come from the folding table in the corner of the dining room. These days, I’ve come to the conclusion that what I really need is a warehouse to call my own! Haven’t convinced my husband of that. At least not yet.

This Week in the Studio


I’ve been working on a concept that I’ve carried around in my head for some time, a mixed media piece, oil on board and canvas, it will measure 12″ by 48″. There will be 5 small rondos mounted on the longer board. The two pictured paintings here are in the underpainting stage. Can you guess my influence?

The Sometimes Long and Winding Road

“Art results when there is nothing that can be added, but when there is nothing that can be taken away.”

James O. Collins

“Professor MacDonald, how long will this painting take me to do?” Now and then one of my students will ask the “how long” question. I know they are hoping that the answer is going to be “oh, not too long at all!” Instead I tell them about the time, when I was in school for my formal art training, I worked on a drawing assignment that took 16 whole hours to finish. Man, oh man, did I think I was something! Little did I know that was nothing compared to the amount of time I would spend on later work.

Time TravelerThat was especially true when I was working in colored pencil, a medium that practically lays down and rolls over for the obsessive artist. I once calculated that I could tear through a colored pencil work at the speedy rate of one inch an hour! Work like Time Traveler, seen here, might take several months to a year to complete, with the finished size measured in inches rather than feet.

In fact the slow methodology of colored pencil made me feel that I Promise: American Skyscapecouldn’t get my ideas out fast enough and I eventually turned to painting. If I thought I could just hurdle some paint on the canvas and call it a winner, I soon learned otherwise. Most of my paintings still take several months to complete, only now I obsess on a larger scale. Sometimes, there are those magical paintings that take just a day or two, such as Promise, seen here, a 3′ x 4′ landscape of a Texas field. But then, to keep me humble, I’ll go ahead and do something like Bone Breakers, a piece I wrote about in an earlier blog. This painting wonder, 2′ x 3′ in size, took about six months or so to complete. Bone Breakers

And what have I learned from all of this? That the creative process, like household renovations, always takes more time than the optimistic artist thinks they will. That the final size of the work really doesn’t matter; small paintings can take just as long as larger ones. That you can’t go against your fabric and if you work slow, then slow is how it is going to go. And of course the most obvious lesson of all, the one I give to my curious student, is that it takes exactly as long as it takes. As artists we work until arriving at that point when neither adding more, nor presenting less, makes a better picture. Sometimes that process is measured in minutes and hours, sometimes in months and years; but we get there in the end, we surely do!

This week in the studio

Continuing to work on a new piece, and hope that by the end of next week I will have something of interest to share. Until then, keeping it a little bit under wraps.

As far as the self-portraits go, I finally figured out why the black paint wasn’t drying. It seems that the masking tape I used to block out the grid actually left behind a gummy residue that when combined with the paint resulted in a non-drying medium. I had to carefully scrape away the grid and am at the repainting stage. In my perfect world I may be almost finished by the end of next week.

Oh seriously, who am I kidding. It will take as long as it takes. In any case, pictures next week!





Watch the Birdy!

“Beep, beep.”

The Roadrunner

When I was pulling together the Mixed Media Gallery, I was surprised by the number of times, and the diverse ways, that I have used a particular subject matter. Among the many instances is this mono print, and a three-in-one colored pencil drawing:

The Prophet Cometh IBeing-NonBeing

Plus, there is this gallery installation, and then this guy shows up in a mixed media piece, and here’s a fellow incised in stone.

                      Memory, Thought and Desire Minnin, Munin, Hugin Edgar, of CourseSometimes He Dreams (Detail)

Oh, there’s more, lots more. All I can say is, great balls of feathers, I think I’m going to the birds! While I haven’t deliberately set out to be a bird illustrator, (that I will leave to those who follow in the wingspan of John James Audubon), it appears that I have come down with an avian attachment of sorts.

Artists commonly produce multiple works of the same subject matter. Think of  the magnificent Georgia O’Keeffe, repeatedly using flowers and bones as subject matter, playing with composition, color and scale, series nested within series. Still, why do artists perseverate on a theme when there’s an infinite number of subjects to tackle, notching each completed image as a tick on a bucket list?

Sometimes the subject is one that resonates on a symbolic level with the artist. So the moon becomes a stand-in for the Feminine Divine and the painter explores several versions of what that might mean. For another, form has a strong pull on the artist’s sensibilities, therefore she completes several drawings on the mutable of clouds to fulfill that urge. Or it can be something more indefinable, such as the quickening “oh my” when encountering the beauty seen in the structure of trees, and there is hunger to capture that time and again.

Keeping that one constant, the repeated image, allows freedom to explore, and the subject, like a music motif, dances, changes, circles back around, spins off into new directions. And so I’ll keep flying with birds, symbols of strength and delicacy, seeing where they take me as I venture into new places in 2016.

Meanwhile, this week in the studio:

Red!I felt very productive as I finished preparing cradled boards for upcoming projects, going so far as to actually apply a cadmium red ground on them. Oh, joy! Oh, red!

As for the self-portraits, they continue to vex as the painted grids remain wet, preventing cleaning up the interior of each rectangle. Perhaps it’s a combination of Mars black with too much oil medium and the cool studio air temps. I’ve decided to set them aside and let time take care of the curing process. But the hats are done! Huzzah for small victories!