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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tales of the Tottot



John A. Ruthven and me at SKB

Hi all! Sorry about my extended online hiatus; I was at the Susan K. Black workshop in Wyoming for a week, then on my return was inspired to paint like a madwoman for a week...and then (perhaps due to lack of sleep and the cold, wet weather) I came down with the flu and was down for the count. I think it was my body's way of saying, "HEY! SLOW DOWN!"...and so I did just that.  But now I've got so much to catch up on, in both in the studio and the house, that it's kinda daunting.

The workshop was outstanding; the expertise was top-notch, of course, (John A. Ruthven! James Gurney! Morten E. Solberg! John Seerey-Lester!) but the support and camaraderie is what really made it special.  Just as there are many sub-species of writers i.e., poets, journalists, novelists, screenwriters, etc., there are many sub-species of visual artists, as well; and while one can find a writer or artist in just about every town, it can be difficult to find someone who fits within your "tribe", as it were.  My work doesn't find much of a niche in the Modern/Conceptual/Urban art ecosystem, so it was a joy to be amongst those who get my penchant for researching Victorian watercolors or sketching stuffed birds in museums.

Speaking of birds, here's a few photos of how I put my latest oil painting together.  It's a Ptilinopus roseicapilla or Mariana fruit dove, also known as the tottot.  They used to live all over the island of Guam in the Pacific, but are now quite rare and only found in the Northern Mariana Islands. We happen to have one at the Denver Zoo.  He's so very lovely with his bright eyes and exotic colors. 

The underpainting, done in burnt umber on gessoed hardboard panel.


Eye detail. I can't continue on until I get this right.


Defining the beak and starting the body. 

 Making adjustments to the bird before starting on the background.

I use a bathroom mirror to check lopsidedness and sometimes use the bright lighting for photographing my work.

Sometimes it helps to put a frame on your work to see how it's turning out. 

The final painting.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Susan K. Black Foundation and Other Shows

"Tarnished Gold" 4.5 x 4.5 inches, framed watercolor on 140lb cold press paper.

One thing about painting outside all year is that you really notice when the earth is tilting away from the sun. Even before the leaves begin to turn, the light seems more angled, the sky a different depth of blue.  A cool weather front has brought rain to the Front Range, so I'm inside the studio, trying to bring order out of creative chaos.

I've got my work in two shows this month, and a two more coming up.  "Dreams of Crane" and "Morning's Glory" are over at the Lincoln Gallery in Loveland, Colorado, and "Code Blue" and "Tarnished Gold" are in the Artist's Association of Northern Colorado's gallery on Oak St. in Old Town, Fort Collins.

My latest is a piece I recently did for the Susan K. Black Foundation workshop and miniature show up in Dubois (pronounced "DOO-boys") Wyoming.   It's a real honor to be included alongside some of the most talented nature and wildlife artists in the country.  Hopefully some of their knowledge will rub off! I've included the schedule below, for those who might be in the Yellowstone area next week:

Susan Kathleen Black Foundation
                                                   Headwaters Arts & Conference Center
                                                          20 Stalnaker, Dubois, WY

Thursday, September 18th, 2014


Instructor Quick Draw 9:30 a.m., Ballroom

Featuring James Gurney, John A. Ruthven, Mort Solberg, Matthew Hillier, Greg Beecham, Jeanne Mackenzie, Mark Kelso, Guy Combes, Christine Knapp, John & Suzie Seerey-Lester,  Lee Cable, Andrew Denman, Nancy Foureman, Janene Grende, Heiner Hertling, John Hulsey, Wanda Mumm, John Phelps, David Rankin & Connie Spurgeon

Silent Auction 5-8pm
Quick Draws, Original Artwork, Africa photo safaris and much more open for bidding.

Miniature Art Show open to the public Sep 15-19, 2014
Vote for People’s Choice – win a prize!

"One-hundred seventy-five career artists and art industry professionals will attend from around the country.  The SKB Foundation has assembled some of the nation's top nature artists.  (landscape/scenic, floral, western, figurative, still-life, domestic and wild animals) whose work you may bid on.

The silent auction representing work and other donations by the artists and instructors will be available to bid on Thursday, September 18, 5-8 p.m.  100% of the auction proceeds go to benefit the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation’s art education programs.  Join us for this important cultural event."

More info can be found on their website at http://www.susankblackfoundation.org


And here's a sneak peek at the painting that'll be in the miniature show amongst all that amazing art.  It's a pair of young rufous hummingbirds waiting for their momma, painted life-sized against a 9 x 12 background to give a sense of how little and vulnerable they are.  I've decided to call it, "Sibling Reverie".

"Sibling Reverie"
(zoomed-in detail)

I don't know what got into me when I set out to make this piece.  I somehow reckoned I'd paint it using only transparent watercolors, on rough cold press paper with a teensy-weensy No. 0 synthetic brush. Madness, I know. Blame insomnia, or the supermoon.  But I really wanted to see if I could do it.  Now I know that it's possible...but it took roughly 26 hours and my neck and back are yelling at me for it. As someone once said, "Artists must suffer for their art. That's why it's called painting."

Masking tape and paper to keep the working surface from getting dirty

A tape measure for a sense of scale. (About 4.5 cm for my metric-loving friends)


Ooof.

From now on I think I'll stick to painting cassowaries, albatrosses, or ostriches....




Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Making Progress

Red Barn, 2012-2014

For the last three years, my friend Christine and I have painted the old red barn on Highway 287.  It's been very instructive to compare our newest paintings to the older ones, to see how we're coming along in terms of making progress.

The first couple of times I painted this scene, in 2012 and 2013, I used oils and a smaller format. In the latest rendition (on the right), I've switched to watercolors.  A bit of a difference, yes? Even though I saw much better compositional opportunities, I had to go with the same view for comparison's sake; adding in the surrounding foliage to make it a little less static. So there's some improvement there. I like to think I paid more attention to my values and perspective. It's also interesting to note the 2014 version was done under trickier weather circumstances that the previous versions: partly cloudy, where the sun alternates from light to dim, bright to shade, over and over like someone's playing with a switch.

But no matter; it was a fun time.  We even had several more friends show up. I think there were ten of us in all! Here's a little movie of us doing our thing on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLYCJm6TZyw&index=1&list=PLw7lGmDSVXx3w4ZSzI4hTwzQTtKN-Ef0Q

There's been some talk going around that the barn might be dismantled or removed, but I hope it's just a rumor.  It'd be great fun to keep painting it, year after year, honing our skills until we get it just right.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Plein Air Gear (Watercolor Edition)



Some painters are known for their minimalist, light-weight gear. I am not one of those painters. Nope. Like a Victorian explorer on an expedition, I drag into the field pretty much everything I like to use, which happens to be a LOT.  And unlike a Victorian explorer, I don't relegate it to a porter but carry it all myself; I really don't mind the added weight.  If I did, I'm sure I'd find a way to pare it down.  Yes, there are days I only use one brush, but I like having five more options available, should I feel that's what the scene needs.

Here's a comprehensive list of what I've been lugging around lately:
 
Plein Air Pro duffel bag
Plein Air Pro "Advanced Series" watercolor easel with shelf
Sunpack 6601 UT tripod
Jansport backback (Used it for over 15 years. Does that make it vintage?)
Hat
Apron
Recycled water bottles (3)
Alvin Heritage Paint Palette
Extra paint tubes
Martin/F.Weber Co. Just Stow-it brush holder containing...
-- Winsor Newton 7/8 Mop brush
-- Master's Touch No 10 round
-- Master's Touch No 3 round
-- Robert Simmons Sapphire No 14 round (My workhorse brush)
-- Robert Simmons Sapphire No 6 round
-- Robert Simmons Sapphire No 10 flat
-- Robert Simmons Sapphire Liner
-- Creative Mark No 6 scrubber
-- Creative Mark No 2 scrubber
-- Creative Mark T-26 palette knife
-- Old toothbrush
-- Clear wax crayon
-- Piece of sponge
Global Art pencil case containing...
-- 4B Derwent sketching pencils (3)
-- Bic .7mm Matic grip mechanical pencil
-- Blending stump
-- General's kneaded eraser
-- Aluminum pencil sharpener
5 x 7 Moleskine sketch journal
Business cards
Annual pass to Rocky Mountain National Park
Arches 140 lb cold press watercolor paper blocks (usually carry at least two in varying sizes)
Recycled carryout container with lid  (for holding water)
Spray bottle
Paper towels and/or travel tissue packets
Masking tape
*Flexible sports field cones
D5200 Nikon camera
Extra camera battery and lens cloth
Cell phone
First aid kit
Lip balm
Fox40 whistle and button compass on lanyard
Black Diamond Headlamp and backup flashlight
Bug spray
Hand sanitizer
Pocketknife
Bandana
Lighter
Pancho
Small bag and laundry pins for trash
Ziploc bags
*Cooler with ice packs
Lunch/Snacks
Beverage

*Usually left in the car


I have a slightly different configuration for cold weather, and for prolonged hikes, but overall this is what I normally use.  If you're just starting out, I hope this list might give you a place to start. If you've been at it awhile, feel free to add a comment below about what YOU choose to take (or not take) whilst painting in the great outdoors.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

How I Spent My Summer Vacation


When I was out shopping today, there were a ton of parents and children gearing up for the upcoming school year.  Instead of September, classes now start mid-August.  It just doesn't seem right, that kids should have to try to concentrate on the three "R"s when the weather is so warm and glorious.


As for me: I've been super busy, working on a couple of illustration projects and going out plein air painting with friends as often as possible.  We've traipsed all over the Boulder area for the PAAC Plein Air Marathon, and are continuing our adventures for the Colorado Plein Air Competition that's taking place all over the entire state.

Here are a few photos.  Some I've already posted to Twitter or Facebook, but there are a few new ones, as well.  I'll try to add even more as time allows.

 Me and my painting buddy, Skeeter.


It was sunny when I started...


Traffic cones are useful to have if you're in an area near vehicles or lots of people.


Why Skeeter stays in his travel cage while I am painting.
 

Sunset paint-out at the Holiday Twin drive-in movie theater.




Tuesday, May 06, 2014

New at the Gallery


New Drawing: "A Dee Dee Dee". Charcoal and chalk on gray-toned paper.

There are six new pieces available for purchase at the Lincoln Gallery this month, including the first four in the "Bird to Be" egg series and framed drawings of a grackle and black-capped chickadee.  I'm sad to report that my chickadee model has not been sighted for several months now; I hope he just moved on to better territory instead of becoming a convenient cat snack.


Number 3: A bald eagle egg. I haven't seen as many bald eagles as I have in years past.  Several pairs make their home just up the road from us, but what with all the recent urban development (Three large fields are being bulldozed even as I type) I wouldn't blame them for moving elsewhere. These majestic birds were on my mind as I painted this piece.  Did you know that, although bald eagle eggs are generally plain white overall, they can sometimes take on a stained, mottled appearance from damp pine needles? No one knows why eagles use pine needles to line their nests, but some theorize that it might serve as camoflage, or as an anti-bacterial, or to help keep pests away.  It's interesting to note that the largest recorded nest in the world was built in Florida by bald eagles over several decades: 9'6" (2.9 m) wide and 20 ft (6m) deep. When it was entered into the Guinness book of world records in 1963 it was estimated to weigh a staggering 4,409 lbs (2 tonnes)!




Number 4: An osprey egg. There used to be a pair of ospreys that would sometimes hang out over by the wetland crossing on Timberline Road.  I haven't seen them for a while, either. They might've been from the 1990's Colorado Department of Wildlife "Operation Osprey" Program to re-introduce them to our area. Several clutches of nearly-fledges chicks were transferred from Idaho, and reportedly a few survived to breed.  Osprey eggs are beautiful: a light buffy-peach color, with warm brown speckles. I've never seen one in the wild, but there are several "nest-cam" websites where you can watch osprey parents raise their chicks in real time.  Here's one that's operational right now: http://www.chesapeakeconservancy.org/Osprey-Cam

Speaking of nests, I have to clean mine up sometime today.  After fighting off a cold and then a pulled shoulder, the studio has gotten to be quite the mess! Maybe a few pine needles might help...


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hatching a Plan for a Spring Series

 
Tulips in my garden

Even though mountain winds are sandblasting northern Colorado this week, spring is slowly making an inroad. Grass is coming up. Crocuses, tulips, daffodils and dandelions are venturing to bloom, and certain bird species are building nests. One thing I like to do to help them is put out a bag of unprocessed cotton fluff so they can peck some out and use it as a soft liner. If it's been especially dry out, I'll also place a pan of pre-mixed mud for the robins. They seem to appreciate it.

 (Technically, goldfinches don't build their nests until late summer. But sometimes they forage for a stray cotton seed.)


Mrs. Robin, picking up some mud in her beak. She gets it all over her tummy, as well.


After nests are built, egg-laying will begin. Eggs are amazing objects, when you really stop and think about them. Unlike mammals, which have to carry their young to term, a mother bird can drop off her eggs as soon as they're fertilized. Everything that a chick needs is in that little self-sufficient compartment -- aside from some warmth and a gentle turning every now and then. So while I've been at work on a few larger paintings these last few weeks, I've also been inspired to create a series of watercolor egg paintings, done in a sort of homage to the ornithological book plates of the Victorian era. They're all done to scale, using books and museum specimens as reference. 




Number One in the series is a house sparrow's egg. I did this one first as it's the most common and widely spread bird on the planet, and perhaps the least appreciated. House sparrows will typically lay 4 to 6 eggs in a clutch, and raise around 2 to 3 broods a year. Their speckled eggs can vary in color, from nearly white to robin's egg blue.



Number Two depicts something familiar, with a twist. Chickens are (perhaps not surprisingly) the most numerous bird in existence, now outnumbering us humans at least 3 to 1. That said, they don't all lay the typical white grade "A" eggs that you might come across in the supermarket. Some, like the Araucana, lay small greenish-blue eggs, while others lay buff, speckled or even a rich chocolate brown. As far as I can make out, these varieties can also taste better overall, as they're specialty breeds coming fresh off a small farm or neighbor's backyard.


Adventures in live chicken painting.


I have a few more ideas about this series.  Come back next Tuesday to find out what they are... :)







Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On Being A Colorblind Artist, Part 4: How I Paint



“So how can you paint, if you don't see color?”


There's a lot of misconceptions about being colorblind, and I mean a LOT. Like, I must only see in black and white, or that I'm unable to see any red or green. It turns out that there are many forms and degrees of colorblindness, just as there are many forms and degrees of, say, nearsightedness -- i.e., some people can get by with only glasses, whereas others need a cane to get around. I'm somewhere in the middle. I can see color, but it's waaaay less saturated, to the point where thousands of shades can look exactly the same. It turns out that the term “colorblind” is a misnomer for 99% with the condition, as the vast majority still see some parts of the spectrum – just not with the acuity of normal-sighted people. I've tried explaining that I have CVD (Color Vision Deficiency), which is the term eye specialists use, but this has yet to catch on with the general public; it takes just as long (if not longer) to explain CVD than if I'd simply said, “I'm colorblind.” Because most people know someone who has difficulty with color. Usually a relative, usually a guy; there's a one in ten chance that an American male will be colorblind. And unless he has aspirations to become a military pilot or police officer, he might not even notice it, aside from the fact that he hates shopping for clothing or has trouble reading maps. Because the thing is, you really don't need to see in perfect color to enjoy most activities. Excepting of course a passion to fly fighter jets, identify suspects, diffuse bombs...or mix paints. Fortunately, no one's life is jeopardized by a bad painting (at least, not to my knowledge) so while I could get away with poorly made works, I continually strive for excellence.


Results from an online hue discrimination test that's roughly like the real thing. A score of zero means perfect color vision.  http://www.xrite.com/online-color-test-challenge  (Click on the link and try it out.)


So how do I do it?

First and foremost, I have to know my pigments inside and out. Since I can't rely 100% on my vision to provide accurate feedback, I have to research what it is that I'm actually putting onto canvas or paper. I can't just eyeball it.

When I was first starting out, I'd amassed at least a hundred tubes of paint from all the different art books I'd read and classes I'd taken. The mixing possibilities were endless...to the point where I was paralyzed. How on earth was I to start? If I'd taken the time to make every mix mathematically possible, it would've taken the rest of my life. So I buckled down and decided to choose those that met my requirements. They had to be distinguishable, not fade, be commonly available and -- most importantly -- be harmonious with one another. Because as most aspiring painters soon learn, not every blue and every red combine to make a decent purple. In fact, some blues and reds don't make purple at all! It turns out that paint pigments are made up of tiny particles that can react with one another in ways that the standard color theory wheel completely and utterly fails to predict.

E.g. A color wheel indicated viridian green would go well with the reds on this house. Ha.


So I experimented until I came up with a system that works for me. It's still evolving, but here's my current palette:

Arylide Yellow FGL (PY97) by Da Vinci
New Gamboge (PY 153)*
Quinacridone Gold (PR206, PV19, PY150)
Winsor/Pyrole Red (PR 254)
Perylene Maroon (PR179)
Permanent Rose (PV 19)
Cobalt Violet (PV14) by MameriBlu
Winsor/Dioxazine Violet (PV 23)
French Ultramarine (PB29)
Cobalt Blue (PB28)
Cerulean Blue (PB35)
Perylene Green (PBk31)
Permanent Sap Green (PG 36, PY 110)
Hooker's Green (PG 36, PO 49)
Davy's Gray (PG17, PBk6, PBk19)
English Light Red (PR101, PY43) by Grumbacher
Raw Sienna (PY42, PR101)
Burnt Sienna (PR101)
Burnt Umber (PBr7, PR101, PY42)
Paynes' Gray (PB 15, Pbk 6, PV19)

(*All are Winsor Newton brand Artist's series, unless otherwise noted)


A well-labeled palette is a useful palette


It's a tad unconventional, as I need more than a few convenience colors compared to some. Instead of mixing a handful of primary colors, I “cheat” by using my spectrum of carefully chosen pigments as a base, adding a bit of their opposites to tone them down, or a bit of their neighbors to spice them up.

When my husband's home, or when I'm out painting with artist friends, I'll sometimes ask for their thoughts on a piece as it's developing. However I don't always have this option so I usually consult MacAvoy's wheel, especially in the planning stage:

A colorless color wheel. (Via http://bit.ly/1f1j5wE)


I've almost memorized it by now, but sometimes it's good to have a look just in case.

Another sneaky thing I'll do is I'll look at my notes from past workshops and apply another artist's color mix into a pool of my “convenience” paints, if my scene is being painted under similar conditions. That way, I can almost be sure that it'll turn out okay.

Putting it all together

Finally, I take advantage of technology to ensure nothing's out of whack. I'll use the Firefox extension from colorblinds.org, or scan in my paintings and tinker with saturation and other filters on my laptop. Recently I've come across a brilliant little app called, “DanKam".  It doesn't help me miraculously see color like a regular person, but it DOES help me detect subtle shades that I've never been able to distinguish before, by swapping them for ones I can see, in real time, via the video screen. It's amazing! Seriously the best $2.99 I've ever spent.

DanKam app: hooray, technology.  (Link: http://bit.ly/1f3038J)


So there you have it. Despite my struggles, I'm finally doing what I've always felt I was supposed to do.  There's a lot more that I could write about regarding my day-to-day experiences with colorblindness, like how it affects my judgement of other's art or how I find beauty in “drab” subjects, but that might be for a future series. This time around I've tried to focus on my development as a painter; hopefully it's been somewhat insightful. If you have any questions, or are a colorblind artist yourself needing additional resources, feel free to ask in the comments below or email me at lauragyoung@gmail.com. I'd love to hear from you. :)



Monday, April 14, 2014

On Being a Colorblind Artist, Part 3: Adulthood



For the next ten years, I did not paint.

Even my drawing became sporadic, reduced to the occasional birthday card or half-hearted scribbles on envelopes and Post-it notes.

I threw myself into all sorts of pursuits, some of them creative, some not, but none of them seemed to fit. I traveled widely: Russia, England, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Canada, Uzbekistan. I worked long hours paying off my student loans in coffee shops and bookstores. I tried my hand at writing, film editing and silversmithing. I peddled diamonds and Rolexes. I taught English as a second language. I joined the Peace Corps.

But no matter what I did, something was missing.

In the grander scheme of things, I believe we are all put on this planet for a purpose; and sometimes that purpose isn't clear until we're ready for it. In my case, I had several dark experiences in my past that I had to address first. Yet as I began to battle and overcome these dragons one by one, I found (much to my surprise) that the desire to paint was still there, placed deep in my heart. And not just in line, or form, but in color. Full-on vibrant color.

Of course I could've ignored this unlikely impulse. I could've played it safe and worked in, say, pen and ink. But the thing is, I do see color, just not all of it, and I happen to enjoy it. To restrict myself to just black and white would've been more than a compromise – it would've been an admission of defeat. Whether they admit it or not, most artists create for more than just themselves. They want their efforts to be experienced and shared with others. If I didn't care about mistakes and only painted for myself, my work might be acceptable to me, but it'd be a lesser experience for others.

“Oh, but it would be so interesting to see what you would make!” a lot of well-intentioned people say. “Such-and-such an artist uses wild color schemes and gets away with it.”

What they fail to grasp is this: an artist has to possess an even BETTER sense of color in order to make “wild” color choices harmonize in their work. There has to be an underlying sense of intent. I don't set out to paint trees pink or skies green on purpose. I don't even see them as pink or green. I see them as “brown” and “blue”. Asking a colorblind artist to paint in unnatural colors is like asking a pianist to transpose a concerto on a piano that's missing keys. Sure, it could be done, but it wouldn't be enjoyable. 

  I honestly thought I'd painted the waterlilies green...

So when I felt that I should attempt to paint again, I knew the odds were stacked as high against me as they ever were; yet I'd finally been given the strength to try.

My first challenge was to find some proper instruction. It turns out that, while other colorblind painters certainly do exist, colorblind painters who teach are super rare – and secretive. Just as a dancing instructor or running coach wouldn't openly advertise that they had a limp, a colorblind art instructor wouldn't mention their deficiency, either. So I never found one.

I attended several classes and workshops, but it was a bit crazy-making, both for me and the instructors. At first I thought I could get away with not mentioning my colorblindness, but in the end it always came out. You see, most experienced painters use color by instinct, and that instinct can be difficult to teach to beginners, much less to someone like myself. A typical interaction would go like this:

Instructor: “Okay, so let's just mix up some of this, like so, and....”

Me: “I'm sorry, what were those three colors that you just put together?”

Instructor: “It's not a formula. Your palette doesn't even have to be the same as mine. You just need to get an overall feel for the grass over there.”

Me: (looking up my notes) “Ah, I see now. Ultramarine blue, Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Orange, right?”

Instructor: “Um, yeah. I think that's what I just used. But look, there's a ton of ways you can mix that color. It's not about local color. It constantly changes with the light.”

Me: (Nodding and quickly writing down the pigments, the percentage used, the weather, and the current time of day, etc.) “Of course.”

A failed attempt at a portrait. Fortunately, the model fainted before I could finish it.

If instructors were of limited color help, books were far worse. Each one called for a completely different list of paints, skipped steps, and would often omit the pigment's actual name. Why is this problematic? Because one company's “Hansa Yellow” could be another company's “Transparent Yellow”, “Nickel Azo”, “Arylide Yellow or “Lemon Yellow”. So the actual paint the author used was unknown to me. Was it green-yellow? Orange-yellow? And what does that even mean? According to my eyes, many yellows look identical. Same goes for blues. They might be lighter or darker, but not “warm” or “cool” or “strong” or “dull” as so many describe them. So mixing paints was an exercise in madness and I ended up buying countless tubes of paint in hopes that I'd hit on the right combination.

I was steadfast in my quest, though, and eventually happened on a book that wasn't useless: The Watercolorist's Essential Notebook by Gordon MacKenzie. It was a revelation. For the first time, it was explained to me that it wasn't a crime to use greens straight out of the tube, and that pigment names also had particular number designations that I could look for on the labels. He also described the varying qualities of pigments, listing which ones mixed well with which, and which ones resulted in a dull muddle. Around the same time, I also came across Bruce MacEvoy's personal research project at http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/water.html. In this staggeringly comprehensive website I discovered descriptions of nearly every known pigment in the universe, complete with diagrams and scientifically tested descriptions. In fact, this site has been such a boon to my painting process that I often wonder what I'd do if it suddenly went offline.

 Color swatches

Eventually, I began to paint not just with others, but on my own. Ever-so-tentative at first, but as time wore on I became more confident. Each painting I made, I looked things up, made swatches of colors and got brave enough to ask for help. I wrote down what worked and what didn't work. I made a lot of spectacularly bad paintings. In fact, I STILL make a lot of bad paintings...but now I have a better idea of why they went wrong, and they are getting less frequent. In fact, the one thing I've been hearing more and more is, “Colorblind? I never would have guessed!”



Note: This last post ran so long that I had to cut it in half(!) Stay tuned next week for “On Being a Colorblind Artist, part 4: How I Paint.”










Monday, April 07, 2014

On Being a Colorblind Artist, Part Two: Adolescence

Me, circa 1984.

In 1983, my dad got a new job and we moved from the small town of Barboursville, West Virginia to the expanding western bustle of Fort Collins, Colorado.  It was a rough transition, as we had no family there and it was the middle of the school year; we moved several more times in our new town before settling in.  As a result,  I ended up going to three different elementary schools and three different junior highs.

Needless to say, always being the new kid was a challenge.  Bullying was simply seen as "kids being kids" back then; I endured taunts (and even physical violence) for my glasses, my hair, my accent, my clothes, and for just being perceived as being an outsider. So it was only natural that I wouldn't mention my problem with color -- why give my tormentors more ammunition?  I was weird enough as it was.

So when I'd give a wrong answer in class, such as saying that a sweater was "gray" instead of "violet" in Spanish class, or when I'd have trouble telling apart green and pink chalk lines in Geometry, I would just suck it up and let the other kids think I was astoundingly dumb instead of letting the teacher know I was having difficulty.

The one class that I succeeded in above all others was Art. After reading Jim Arnosky's Drawing From Nature book at the library, I was inspired to get my own sketchbook, and I drew and drew and drew.  Eventually my efforts paid off, and suddenly I found myself being included in things. If anyone needed a cartoon or a sign or a t-shirt design, I was their gal.  Teachers asked if they could keep homework projects that I'd illustrated.  My work was selected to be framed and displayed in the superintendents' office.  I was asked to do posters for the school plays.  The insults eased, then stopped altogether. I was finally fitting in.

The designs called for black and white only. Whew!

In high school, I enrolled in two classes that would start my future down two very different paths: Painting and Russian Language.  I was especially excited about the painting class, because I'd never had formal instruction before.  Oh, sure, I'd been painting with my watercolors, but now I'd get to try other mediums.  It went well...until we got to color theory.  I was asked to mix paints in several exercises for a grade. For the very first time, I got less than 100%.  My teacher was perplexed.  I was horrified.  For the rest of the semester, I would only paint with colors straight out of the tube.

The only color mixing exercise that I didn't throw away. 

Russian class, meanwhile, was a more positive experience. Despite the daunting alphabet and grammar, our teacher infused her lesson plans with folklore, music, and art. The Cold War was thawing out, and there was a feeling of hope that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. might avoid nuking the planet into oblivion, after all. Consequently,  my paintings began to take on a bit of a Slavic tone.

A little painting I made for my grammar book cover.

I took two more years of the language and, in early 1992 went to Moscow as an exchange student for part of my senior year.  It was a mind-expanding experience, to be confronted with so much great art. The Pushkin Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery, the Hermitage...a veritable treasure trove of Russian and European paintings, and they were stunning.  I was in awe. And everywhere I went, I sketched.

A few surviving pages from my sketchbook (it was damaged in '97 due to a flood).


By the time we visited the home of Ivan Bilibin, one of Russia's most admired illustrators of the 19th century, I was convinced that when I graduated I should go to art school to become an illustrator myself, if not a painter.  After all, most of my favorite artists were illustrators.  When I got back to the States, I finished up my senior year by taking a class in commercial art.  I designed type, book covers, posters and the like.  It was numbingly tedious, as we didn't use any computer programs, but I was optimistic that when I got into art school, I would be taught how.

"The Unexpected Visitor", 1992


However just as the world's geopolitical forces were shifting, so was the art industry.  Looking back, I now understand why my art teachers weren't very encouraging when I mentioned my career plan.  I remember one poignant conversation I had with my painting teacher, when I asked her what subject matter she painted in art school.  She got a wistful look on her face and said,  "Well, I mostly poured paint." 

"You poured paint?" I asked. 

"Yeah. Onto the floor. I didn't do anything overly representational. It wasn't encouraged."  

And my commercial art teacher? "I thought I was pretty good," he said,  "But then I found out that there were guys there that were way, way better than me.  I went from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond. I was into caricatures and stuff, you know? None of that ivory tower stuff. Art school, it just...messes with your head." 

Instead of taking their experiences at face value, I thought they were trying to dissuade me from applying because my color sense was so wretched; that they were somehow trying to spare my feelings. 

My parents, while always being very supportive of my art, didn't see much of a future in an art career, either. They felt I'd be better off with a degree in law or business.  My career counselor said much the same.  And so, armed with a handful of scholarships and government loans, I graduated and went to college.  As a last-ditch effort, I left my major undeclared and squeezed in a painting class between my courses on International Relations and Russian History.  On the first day, the instructor laid out all the subjects that would be tackled in the course, starting with several weeks of intensive color theory. After class let out, I hesitantly came up to him as he fumbled with some charts. I explained that I was concerned about mixing colors, as I'd had great trouble with it before. 

"Colorblind, eh? Women aren't colorblind," he said, sounding slightly annoyed, "If you're in this course, you've got to do the exercises, plain and simple. It's useless without them."  

I dropped the course.

Thus ended my efforts to paint; I buried myself in my studies.  In a way, it was a relief.  The world I lived in didn't have room for artists who couldn't see color correctly, just as it didn't have room for colorblind pilots, policemen, firemen or electricians. Why make life harder for myself than it had to be?