Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Some of My Favorite Art Quotes

Florence Fuller, "Inseparables"

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved collecting things: books, shells, rocks, you name it. Another category I collect is quotes.  Here's a small sampling of some that refer to the making of art:

"The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him." – Caspar David Friedrich

"Practice what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know." -- Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

"A sketch has charm because of its truth – not because it is unfinished." -- Charles Hawthorne

"If people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all."
Michelangelo Buonarroti
"A poem is an invisible painting, a painting is a visible poem." -- Guo Xi

"To say that a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men, is the same as saying of some kind of food that it is very good but that most people can't eat it." -- Leo Tolstoy

"The painter who has no doubts will achieve little." -- Leonardo da Vinci

"What is a painting? It's a small piece of nature, filtered through the artist's temperament.  If not, it's just an empty void. " -- Isaac Levitan
"Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working" -- Pablo Picasso

"A painting in a museum hears more ridiculous opinions than anything else in the world."
-- Edmond de Goncourt 

 "I paint flowers so they will not die." -- Frida Kahlo 

"What they call talent is nothing but the capacity for doing continuous work in the right way." -- Winslow Homer 

"An artist cannot talk about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture." -- Jean Cocteau

"I don't see why we ever think of what others think of what we do – no matter who they are. Isn't it enough just to express yourself?" --Georgia O'Keeffe 

"It takes two to paint. One to paint, the other to stand by with an axe to kill him before he spoils it. -- William Merritt Chase 

"I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it." -- Vincent van Gogh

 "One's art goes as far and as deep as one's love goes." -- Andrew Wyeth


What about you?  Do you have any favorite art quotes?  Feel free to share...

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Return of the Grackles...and Poetry

 "The Rooks Have Returned" Alexei Savrasov, 1870.

It's been such an eventful month (I have a newborn niece! Crazy, late spring storms! Lots of paintings got made!) that I forgot to put up this post I made a few weeks ago.  

As some of you are aware, there was a rough period in my 20s when I didn't make much art due to insecurity, both financial and emotional. Yes, I did sketch and illustrate my own journals, but it took several years before I felt brave enough to start sharing my work again.  Interestingly, I wrote a lot during this time, perhaps as an alternate creative outlet.  I worked on a couple unfinished novels, wrote short stories, plays, and penned many, many poems.

To me, words are like paints: when placed together in certain patterns they form fantastic, vivid pictures in my mind. Admittedly not all artists are like this; it's perceived more of a "left-brained" (i.e. verbal) function instead of "right-brained" (visual) one, which is why I suspect so many of us loathe writing about our work. "One's art should just speak for itself!" is a flustered refrain.  And yes, I feel this way about certain kinds of writing; notably overly abstract, hoity-toity artist's statements; but give me a rainy day and a pad of fresh paper and I'll happily scrawl out my daydreams in longhand almost as readily as I would sketch them.

So as an experiment, I thought I'd start to put up a few snatches of verse on the blog, accompanied by drawings, photos, and so on.  Today's poem, written on the back of an envelope, goes as thus:

Grackles in Spring

Inked-up cousin of the soot winged crow,
call as sonorous as a rust-shut gate;
they arrive in April
and wait.
Expectant, gold-fierce eyes,
feathers briefly throwing
flashes of peacock hue;
they walk, beaks held high
as if to say,
We know you did not miss us
nor our parsimonious, pilfering ways.
But we still came
(we always do)
in darkling droves
beside the moon;
and here, in your yard,
your patch of seedy Paradise,
we shall certainly stay
an Eternity.

Laura G. Young
April 6th 2016

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Spring (Painting) Fever

Horsetooth Reservoir
Painting out-of-doors in springtime has many challenges: wild temperature swings, snow, rain, mud and wind.  We've gone from 70F/21C and sunny to below freezing with two feet of snow and back to 70s again in under two weeks! That being said, all the "weather drama" can make for some lovely scenes.  Even if three quarters of my paintings don't turn out presentable, the ones that do turn out make it all worthwhile.

Here are a few more pics from my latest efforts:

On the Cache La Poudre River.  Note how quickly the snow was melting.

Last of the snow in Lory State Park 

 No more snow, but LOTS of mud.  (Lory State Park)

Trying to pose and not have your easel blow away can be difficult!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Treasure in the Bargain Bin

Me and Mawmaw and little brother

When I was a girl, my paternal grandma used to take me along on trips to thrift stores, antique malls or "junk shops" as she called them. As someone who experienced the Great Depression and the rationing of World War II, she was the consummate deal finder. You name it, she'd find it at half the price -- or less.  When we went shopping, it wasn't so much of a retail experience as it was an expedition of Indiana Jonesesque proportions because you never knew what special treasure she'd unearth: containers to keep things in, silver spoons, perfectly serviceable shoes....she especially was fond of porcelain bird figurines and music boxes.  I still have an antique German brass plaque depicting Albrecht Durer's Betende Hände that we found buried in the corner of a dimly-lit shop one summer afternoon; I remember how her eyes sparkled when she held it up to the window.

Years later I sometimes find myself in a similar pattern, more out of nostalgia than necessity, trawling local shops for rare or interesting items (ostensibly for still life paintings). Yet after a couple of decades of collecting I've learned to be more selective and purposeful in what I bring home, so I don't one day end up buried by objects or become a subject for a clean-up reality show.  However I still retain a major weakness: books. 

Between my husband and myself, we have at least 1000 books and countless more lurking in boxes. The paperbacks are shelved two layers deep because we've quite frankly run out of room. Thankfully there are only three used bookstores left in town, and I tend to avoid them like a conscientious dieter avoids certain aisles of the grocery store.  


The other day I somehow found myself scanning the bargain book section of Barnes & Noble.  You know, where you find titles like, Learn Dominoes! sitting next to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens and the latest selection of coloring books for adults.  And lo and behold there was a book that (in my estimation) was an actual bargain.

Be still my beating heart

It was the very big, very heavy, very lavishly illustrated Drawn from Paradise, a gorgeous work about the birds of paradise co-authored by none other than famed BBC documentarian Sir David Attenborough. Usually listed at $45 it was stickered at a mere $12(!)  Suspicious,  I asked the clerk why such a well-written and researched book would be doing next to The Big Book of Sudoku Puzzles, and they just shrugged and said occasionally books were overstocked in warehouses and therefore shipped back as bargain books. 

The book is a stunner.  251 pages plus an index, it covers a wide range of people who were involved with the discovery and recording and ultimate demise of some of the most glorious yet enigmatic birds in the world: the birds of paradise. Nine chapters are divided up by the various birds of paradise families. The tenth covers their mysterious dancing behavior and the eleventh reports on curious hybrid cases. There's also (very useful) an appendix of men and women historically associated with the discovery and artistic representation of these birds.

After flipping through the pages that included vivid paintings by Raymond Ching and W.T. Cooper,  I was hooked; and, after an exceptionally brief inner-struggle, I got out my wallet.  And as I toted the weighty tome back to the car, I couldn't help but feel that somehow my inherited Mawmaw genes were quite pleased with themselves.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Tool Review: Tombow MONO Zero 2.3mm Refillable Eraser

Not so much for mistakes but has many artistic uses

There are more art products coming out these days than you can shake a paintbrush at.  Some are good, but many are gimmicks.  However every now and then something comes along that's really useful.  The MONO Zero eraser pen, in my opinion, is just that.

Made in Japan by the Tombow company, this gadget's appeal isn't for erasing large sections, but for erasing to create super-fine highlight marks that are otherwise difficult to make.  I especially like using it for sections of feathers, whiskers, fur, hair...anything that otherwise required me to laboriously work around to save the white of the paper.  Eye reflections are especially easier now. 

The eraser segment itself is only 2.3 mm across and akin to a white vinyl eraser.  It's very gentle on most papers, as long as you keep an eye on the holding mechanism's metallic nib. When the eraser wears down, you need to click the top end to replenish it or else the bare nib can make a sharp little furrow in your work -- after which you'll pay more attention. Although it looks like the barrel itself is made from metal, that part is actually plastic, which I believe cuts down the cost.  It comes with one eraser segment which can last a VERY long time. I bought refills in case I needed them, but it's been nearly six months of constant use and I'm only now getting down to the end of the first one.

If you work with in graphite with fine detail, I think this is an excellent tool to have.

If you work in ink with blubbery generalization, I think you might be better off with something else.

So far, I've only been able to find these erasers at the Schissler Academy of Fine Arts in downtown Loveland, Colorado.  I'm going to check the Jerry's Artarama shop in Fort Collins and a few other places and report back. * Online they are currently found on Amazon and and cost anywhere from approximately four to ten dollars, depending on shipping and handling.

* Yes, the local Jerry's does indeed carry them but are currently on backorder.  I also have been helpfully informed that you can also get them directly from the company at

Friday, February 26, 2016

Boning Up

 Common grackle skull, side view, drawn 2.5x size.

I've decided that 2016 is going to be The Year Where I Worked to Become a Better Artist. Not to say that I haven't worked hard before, but now I'm going to work smart.  As in, go humbly back to the basics, especially in regards to color, composition, form, and anatomy.

There's so much to absorb. If only I had a time machine! Then I could have all the years I wanted to improve, and explore history to learn even more.  Packing my time-traveler bag with plague-resistant antibiotics and a few cases of deodorant, I could study under a Renaissance master...or attend an academic atelier in 19th century France...or even enroll at the Rhode Island School of Design before a BFA cost $260,000...

But seeing that I don't have a time machine (yet), I've attached myself to painter Jay Moore, instead.

I'm already seven weeks into his six month mentorship course, and am very impressed with what I've learned so far.   Jay's methodology is to teach not so much technique, per se, but principles that often get overlooked when forming a painting -- or an art career.  His motto is: "Go slow to go fast", meaning if you are careful to build up solid foundational skills, the mastery that you seek will quickly fall into place as a result.

Common grackle skull, top and bottom view, drawn 2.5x size.

 It's a TON of work, about 30-40+ hours of assignments a week(!) so I'm holding off most commissions and illustration jobs until July.  That being said, I'll be accepting a few small projects for the second half of the year in addition to working on another book, so please contact me in advance if you have something in mind and I can see what we can put together. 

While drawing and painting like a madwoman, I've been schooling myself even further on birds.  Once again: so much to learn. In addition to reading library books from CSU, there are quite a few really good ornithology talks and lectures to be found on YouTube. However the audio quality of these recorded talks is usually horrible, so I find myself threading them through a free trial of SoundSoap, which I highly recommend if you want an easy-to-use application to clean up bad sound on a podcast or video that you desperately want to watch, but just can't due to the buzzing, humming, or other background hubbub drowning out the info you want to hear.  

So if you use SoundSoap or a similar app, or you simply don't mind sketchy sounding video, you can check out my birding listening list on YouTube:   I'll be adding more videos as I come across them. 

Regarding the grackle skull: I found it in our backyard after all the snow melted.  It was really amazing to draw from life, and I think I have a much better feeling for how that part of a grackle is put together.  As I held it, I was impressed by how delicate and yet strong it was at the same time.  Most grackle skull photos I've come across are missing the lower jaw bones, and nothing beats having the actual object right in front of you so you can explore its features from any angle you want.  I wish the Denver Museum of Natural History* was close by, so I could draw things like this on a more regular basis.  If you know of any good bird collections in Fort Collins that are accessible to the public, please let me know!  Even if it's not as extensive as the one in Denver, it'd be a great help.  Thanks!

*They changed the name to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science fifteen years ago for marketing reasons.  I grew up with it being the Denver Museum of Natural History and am resistant to change.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Kiwis are Amazing. And Weird.

(Okarito Brown Kiwi, Apteryx rowi)
12 x 16 inches, painted to reflect actual size
Oils on board

Kiwis are amazing. And weird. 

Kiwi birds, that is.   If you look up “kiwi” online, you're more likely to get listings for a fruit of the same name, or else New Zealanders themselves.  And while the latter are amazing and weird as well, I'm going to prattle on a bit about the birds

First of all, despite their being birds, they can't fly.   At all.  They wouldn't even be able to glide if you forcibly chucked one from Auckland's Sky Tower.  Their wings are practically non-existent nubs, far less useful than what a penguin has.  (Because hey, at least penguin wings work underwater, right?)  Fascinatingly, these nub wings also sport a wicked-looking but harmless claw at their tip.  Bonus fact: kiwis don't have breastbones or kneecaps.

Kiwis are, in some ways, more critter-like than bird-like.   Some even call them “honorary mammals”.  Their shaggy feathers are furry and brown, and some are stiff and function as whiskers.   They don't nest in trees but dig out burrows in the ground.  Their bones aren't hollow like other birds but filled with heavy marrow.  Female kiwis have two ovaries instead of the usual one that most birds have.  Even their cooler base body temperature (100F/38C) is closer to mammals than their hot-blooded relatives.

Like owls and teenagers, they are creatures of the night and are rarely seen in daytime.  But unlike owls and teens, their eyesight isn't all that great so they make up for this be having superhero levels of hearing and smelling.  In fact, the kiwi's nostrils are located all the way at the utmost tip of their beaks, so they can keep their nose to the ground like a bloodhound while probing around for food. 

Kiwis reportedly mate for life and can live upwards of 60 years.  A female kiwi usually only lays one egg per clutch, probably because it takes up so much space in her body:

 That can't be comfortable. 

While in New Zealand, Chad and I were fortunate enough to see all five unique species of kiwi.  

"There are FIVE?" You ask.  

Yes, five: Apteryx haasti, A. owenii, A. australis, A. mantelli, and A. rowi.  I've only listed the scientific names because the common names can get confusing, as you will see.  Each one is under threat because as I previously mentioned, they cannot fly and stoats, dogs, cats and other kiwi-munching animals introduced by humans have put a severe dent in their population.

The rarest of the rare is Apteryx rowi.  Also known as the Okarito kiwi or Okarito Brown or Rowi kiwi or Rowi or simply, Bob.*   Distinguished by their softer, grayer feathers and occasional patches of white, there currently are just 450 or so left in the world.  Let me say that again: only 450 left in the world.  Most are found in the Ōkarito forest on the mist-laden western coast of South Island. There is a heroic effort to boost their numbers though a conservation effort dubbed, “Operation Nest-Egg” where kiwi chicks are hatched and raised in fenced enclosures – sort of like grassy play-pens – until they're large enough to defend themselves in protected parks or predator-free islands. (Approximately 95% of kiwis don't survive to adulthood).  The day we visited the West Coast Wildlife Centre near Franz Josef Glacier, we were treated to an extraordinary sight: a rowi was hatching!  The egg was pale, large, and labelled in pencil with a catalog number; and we could hear the plaintive, wheedling calls of the chick as it tried to break out of the shell.  A couple hours later it succeeded.  A birth of any creature is a miracle, but there was something special knowing that there was just one more of these odd, rare birds in existence. 

A finicky kiwi chick being fed at Pukaha Mt. Bruce Wildlife Center 

Despite last month's crazy schedule, I managed to finish the painting that appears at the top of this blog post. I'd been working on it on-and-off over the past year; but like a young kiwi chick, it very nearly didn't make it. The original plan was to paint it with a simple background as seen in the finished piece; but then I got maniacally ambitious and began laying in a rain forest with trees and twisting vines and primordial ferns...and the result was a mess. The main problem, as I found out, is that I didn't have any proper reference sketches or photographs to work from, and trying to use simply my imagination to “cook things up” (as wildlife painter Robert Bateman would say) and so the whole thing became a botanical nightmare. So after being saved from the trash and spending a few months in storage I decided to salvage it; carefully cutting the canvas down to size, then mounted it on hardboard with archival gel medium. After the medium had dried for a week, I then proceeded to paint out the distracting background with layers of neutral tones. After THAT had dried for a few more weeks, I decided to have a go at hand-lettering with a brush and – hooray!  The painting was done. 


I'm hoping that, as time goes by, I'll be able to look back on this piece I created in 2015 and say,It's hard to believe, but there was a time when we thought the rowi was nearly extinct – and now look! You can't walk anywhere in New Zealand without tripping over one in the dark.

Seriously they totally blend in.

* (Just joking. It's actually Robert. *grin* I told you the common names were complicated.)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

You're Invited! Yes, You!

You're invited! Yes, you! 
It's that time of year again: "Chasing Light" is now in its third year, and we have more amazingly talented artists than ever before. You know all those landscape paintings I post on social media? Well, I've picked the best of the best and they'll be in this show -- along with several of my bird-related works -- available for viewing AND purchasing. 

This upcoming week we'll be setting up the gallery in the historic Carnegie Building (behind the main library in Old Town, Fort Collins) The opening itself will be on Friday, December 4th, which coincides with the First Friday art walk, so there'll be lots to see and enjoy.  If you can't make it then, no worries! Then the show will continue to be on display until Sunday, December 13th.

Hope to see you there.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Little Hike on the Soapstone Prairie

Soapstone Prairie
Last week my friend Christine found out that Fort Collins' Natural Areas Program was hosting a free guided art tour up at Soapstone Prairie, home of the famed Lindenmeier archaeological site. Subsequently she, myself, and fellow painter-in-arms Ken Knox took the hour's drive north to explore.

This year's rain had made the semi-arid desert lush with life. Pronghorn antelope lounged about and our trek was accompanied by flashes of black and white lark bunting wings.  We all remarked to one another that we hadn't seen this many wildflowers in years.

 Prickly Pear


 Even the locoweed was pretty

We were met in the parking lot by Gary Raham, who conducted the tour. Gary is a gifted science writer, designer and paleo-illustrator whose passion for the area's history was contagious. He began by showing us a yardstick with cultural periods painted on it: thousands of years of silent pre-history, with only the last 500 years of recorded human existence at the very tip. Or was the pre-history so silent? The ancient peoples who occupied the area might not have left written documentation, but they DID leave a lot of intricate tools that speak volumes to those who can decode their message. Gary explained the significance of the discovery of a projectile point stuck in a giant extinct bison's vertabrae; hitherto scientists thought that people hadn't migrated to the Americas before 10,000 years ago. With the new evidence jutting out at them, they had to reconsider the timeline.

Gary gave us handouts and showed us replicas of the projectile points, needles and beads found in an washed out arroyo in the distance. He described how the area hadn't changed much in the 80-odd years since the Smithsonian sent out an archaological team to investigate the finds. Artist Edwin Cassedy was a part of that team, recording the lay of the land in watercolor sketches, and it was fun to walk in his footsteps as we hiked past a riot of wildflowers: larkspur, Nuttall's sunflowers, mariposa lilies, and prickly pear cactus blooms. While Ken opted to paint in this botanical wonderland with another adventurer, the rest of us pressed on to “see what we could see” at the top of the ridge. We were rewarded with a view that gave us an idea why ancient peoples favored this spot: you could see forever!

We set up shop and began to paint. Well, everyone else got to paint, as it turned out that I'd forgotten my paint palette at home(!) Normally it lives in my backpack, but it had gotten so dirty from the last couple of trips I had taken the time to carefully wash it out...only to leave it behind on the sink counter where I'd left it. Arrrrgh.

Not to be deterred, I took the opportunity to do a slower sketch than usual with the intent to take color notes and paint it from memory when I got back home. And so I did:

 That'll teach me to double-check before heading out. Ha.

As we painted, we got to chat further with our guide as well as another artist who joined us, the lovely Cathy Morrison. She, too, illustrates books and was a great addition to our natural history expedition. The sun was intense, but a steady breeze kept us fairly comfortable. The only setback we had as we worked was that our location was discovered by various biting flies. I couldn't help but wonder if the original Smithsonian team was as harassed as we were! 

I kept expecting Julie Andrews to show up behind us singing, "The hills are alive with the sound of muuusic..."

As we headed back down, our guide stopped in his tracks. Was it a rattlesnake? Nope...a pair of dung beetles, rolling their “treasure” along the trail. Fascinating.

Barrel Cactus

Even though we'd run a little over in the allotted time, Gary was gracious enough to chat with us some more, and to share some iced tea and water he'd brought in a cooler. We had a real hoot, and learned a lot. In fact, we half-joked that from now on we should hire a natural history guide for all our paint-out adventures!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Plain Speaking about “Plein Air”

I have a bumper sticker on my car that says, “Secret Society of Plein Air Painters”.  On more than one occasion I've been asked, “Plein air? What's that?”

The reason I created this sticker is two-fold. First, as a way to identify my painting friends' cars in a crowded parking lot, and second, to subtly point out that the French-derived art term plein air is (in my opinion) a bit pretentious.

Borrowing words from France is a linguistic habit that goes back, a long way back – to when England was invaded by William the Conqueror nearly a thousand years ago. All of a sudden French was considered the superior way to speak. So instead of saying you were going to eat cow or lamb for supper, you'd say you were going to have beef or mutton; and instead of having a drink, you'd have a beverage. A blossom became a flower, and a foul stench became an unpleasant odor

"It wasn't me, your Highness."

Fast forward to today, and we're still doing this. Even though artists have been painting landscapes on location at least since the mid-1800s, I would posit that “plein air” is a term that's being appropriated for modern purposes, mirroring the outdoor painting movement that gained momentum at the turn of the 21st century.  As a new wave of artists rediscovered the joys of painting outside the studio and began forming societies and festivals and competitions, someone, somewhere decided that “Landscape Painting” or “Open-Air Painting” needed a marketing makeover. En plein air fit the bill. The logic must've gone like this: if hors d'oevres and escargot sounds better than "snacks" and "snails", why not rebrand landscape painting, too? Paintings are considered a luxury item, after all, and to use a term easily understood by the common folk would be, how shall we say, déclassé.

Fresh Snail. Mmm-mmm! 

Now, I'm not against having borrowed words, or even the lovely French language – I'm just a tad weary of having to explain what plein air painting means on a regular basis. Outside of art circles, it's just not catching on. Yes, there's a spirited campaign in some quarters to “get the word out” about our love for painting outdoors under the plein air banner, but sometimes I think using unfamiliar words at best confuses people and, at worst, appears elitist.

I am not French. I don't speak French. I don't say I'm a peintre des oiseaux when I'm out painting birds, nor do I say I'm painting à l'intérieur when I'm in the studio. So until plein air becomes as recognizable as, say, restaurant or ballet, I will continue to say, “I paint landscapes on location.”
C'est aussi simple que ça.