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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? To me, most 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 Japanese 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?


Stay tuned for the third and final installment next Monday....

Monday, March 31, 2014

On Being a Colorblind Artist, Part One: Childhood




As some of you know, I have a secret.  I'm colorblind.  Not black-and-white, but the red-green sort that's commonly known to affect men, but occasionally shows up in .04% of women.  I could go into the biology behind it, but suffice it to say that my dad is also colorblind and my mom is a carrier of the gene.  If I ever had any sons, they'd all be colorblind by default.

For years, I was convinced that admitting my so-called "disability" to others would make people think less of my art, but now I'm learning that this isn't true -- if anything, it's the opposite!  But like so many things, perceptions are formed early on and can be hard to shake.  Even now I find myself reluctant to mention my colorblindness for fear of being seen as a novelty.  I would much rather be known for my skill or my subject-matter than as, "The Colorblind Woman Artist".

So back to the beginning.  How did I find out that I didn't see color like everyone else? There may have been a few signs here and there, but it wasn't until I went to the eye doctor for prescription glasses at eight years old that I was formally diagnosed.

 Trying on mom's glasses.  Little did I know I'd have my own pair soon.

I remember looking at all these funny cards with spots on them, and being asked to follow a path, or say what shape or number I saw.  Most of them didn't seem to have anything on them but spots, and after about the 5th spotted card or so I suspected it was all some sort of confusing game to make me look silly.   I then remember overhearing that in addition to being nearsighted I was "colorblind" and thinking to myself that this wasn't true, because I certainly could see color!  But grown-ups had all sorts of odd ideas and it wasn't my place to contradict them.

There were some things that I began to wonder about, though.  Like maybe all those "extra" crayons in the 64 crayon box actually weren't spares, as I'd always thought, but distinct colors.  Colors that I couldn't see.

I actually thought that most crayons had "spares" in case a kid lost one.

It didn't seem to matter much, though, because when a school activity called for "green" all I had to do was look for the crayon with a "green" label. (Although I must admit, I harbored a bit of resentment for kids who absentmindedly peeled them off.) Most markers and watercolor sets had labels, too.  I rarely if ever mixed any colors, and had an interesting predilection for brownish-orange or blue:



      

 
I also apparently had a predilection for adding flying "M"s in my work


Another trick I learned was that if I didn't know what color to paint something, I could either show it in shadowed silhouette, as seen above...or else do the entire painting using a single shade, as seen in this ambitious piece:


Even though I enjoyed painting, much of what I did at this point was still in pen or pencil, as I felt I had the most control over what I was doing.  That said, I didn't worry too much about color, and had just about gotten used to the fact that I didn't see it perhaps as well as everyone else.  So what if I couldn't tell the difference between two shades of pink? So what if I accidentally wore mismatched socks?

Then I became a teenager and....everything changed.



(To be continued)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Painting with Parrots


 
Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Fruit Still Life with an Amazon Parrot


Some artists have dogs. Some have cats. I have a parrot.

The best part about having Skeeter is that I no longer am alone in the studio all day, and he gives great feedback.


The only unfortunate thing is that I can't paint oils around him, as birds have extremely delicate lungs that, when exposed to solvents or other airborne chemicals, are damaged more quickly than our own respiratory systems (hence canaries in coal mines).

Apparently parrots have a long history of being depicted in artist's studios. My guess is, buildings had better cross-ventilation back then...or else the parrots simply didn't live very long.

 Peter Jakob Horemans, Kitchen Still Life with Figure and Parrot
 

George Flegel, Still Life with Parrot

Jakob Bogdáni, Two Macaws, a Cockatoo, and a Jay with Fruit

Monday, March 17, 2014

7 Essential Reasons to Paint With Other Artists




There's a popular notion that artists are loners; introverted, unkempt bohemians who hole up in their studios, shunning human contact whenever possible. And there may be an ounce of truth to this. Yet looking over the course of history, the most innovative art wasn't formed in isolation, but in the company of peers. Michelangelo conversed with both Da Vinci and Raphael. Monet and Renoir painted side by side with others in their Impressionist circle. Picasso swapped paintings with Matisse. Even an isolated and unstable Vincent van Gogh reached out to fellow painter Paul Gaugin before entering his most intense period of creativity.

So why did these artists paint with others? And why should you?

1) Constructive feedback. Sure, you can get nice comments from gallery visitors or “likes” on Facebook, but a fellow artist can let you know specifically why the composition or color scheme you chose is to good (or not-so-good) effect. Also, they can help you know when you're done with a painting so you can step away and not work it to death.

"I especially like this bit, where you bravely applied a mauvy shade of pinky-russet."

2) Connections. Your local art scene is smaller than you think. Someone will always know someone you need to get in touch with, or has insider information on a show you'd like to enter.

3) Safety. Whether in the wilds of a national park or a Parisian sidewalk, it's always preferable to have an extra set of eyes to watch your back


4) Supplies. Absentmindedly forgot your hat, paintbrush, Titanium White, or other essential item? Chances are, someone can lend it out, or at least commiserate. We've all done it before.

5) Cheap models. If you can't find a scene to paint, you can always paint your fellow painters.

Monet, painted by Renoir 

 
An older Monet, painted by Singer-Sargent

6) Stories. There is much to be learned from listening to stories of other's past experiences. Also, once you've been at it awhile, you'll have plenty of adventures to share, yourself.

7) Support. Rejections. Creative slumps. Withering critiques. It's a hard journey at times. Yet it's somehow easier to take when you realize there are others on a similar road.


Monet's take on a scene


Renoir's take on the same scene. What a lovely day of painting they must've had.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Fading Into the Background



Lately I've been focusing on improving my trees and landscapes, because it's all too common for me to paint a bird or other living subject...and then hurry up the "background" -- i.e., the environment the creature is in -- and the painting usually suffers for it.  Can you imagine if Louis Agassiz Fuertes or Bruno Liljefors or Robert Bateman only painted clinical, guide-book portraits? Even Audubon himself took great pains to show where and how his birds lived.  It'd be easy to shrug this off and say that modern times call for modern depiction. So what, if we don't have a proper background? Why should it matter? A downy woodpecker can look just as beautiful against a blank canvas as it would perched on a dead tree.  But here's the thing: downy woodpeckers don't exist without dead trees. They NEED dead trees for insects and nesting sites. Where there are no dead trees, there are no downy woodpeckers.  It's part of what they are.  But how many people would know this if the only woodpeckers they saw were depicted in a void? 

So I only feel that it's only right that I slow down and take note of the less flashy: the trees, the rocks, the dirt, the clouds.   They contribute to a deeper understanding of my subjects -- and they are worthy of paintings in their own right.



Friday, January 31, 2014

New Year, New Happenings


Well, it's already the end of the first month of 2014, and I haven't been blogging as much as I'd hoped.  I could blame being busy (and indeed I have been) but even when I've a bit of time I find myself staring at the laptop screen wondering, "Am I writing because I have something I really want to say, or because if I don't write regularly, I'll lose momentum?"

Hum, the same thing could be said about making art.

The last few weeks have seen Colorado in a deep freeze like much of the U.S., making for some challenging outdoor painting sessions.  The "Chasing Light" show went VERY well, considering it was -5F or colder during the five days we held it.  The people who braved the weather were able to see some very lovely art and some even purchased some paintings to take home with them. "Not One Shall Fall", "Lee Martinez Farm" and "Yellow-rumped Warbler at Kingfisher Point" are now permanently off my studio walls; and while I miss them, I'm reassured that they are now being enjoyed by someone other than just myself. Already our little collective is planning to rent out the Carnegie Building to do this again next December, now that we know what we're doing.  Stay tuned...

In other news, I'm honored to say as of this month I'm now a member of the Lincoln Gallery in Loveland. It's just south of the art museum/gallery on (fittingly) N. Lincoln Avenue:


View Larger Map

I've been in a few shows here in the past, but this is the first time I've been able to be a "regular" in a gallery venue.  Coming up this weekend, I hope to get juried into the upcoming show for February, but if not, other works of mine should be on display through the rest of the year.

On the 22nd I turned 40, and it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.  Perhaps it's because Chad got me the bestest gift ever -- an African red-bellied parrot named "Skeeter".  He's ten years old and the most adorable bird I've ever come across.  Something tells me that you will be seeing a lot of parrot art soon...




Monday, November 25, 2013

Chasing Light Show


Save the date!  The last (and perhaps best) show of the year is coming up in just over a week, over at the newly-renovated Carnegie Library in Fort Collins:




































It will run for four days, from the Wednesday the 4th through Saturday the 7th, culminating with the "official" opening at 5pm on First Friday (Dec. 6th). There will be snacks, drinks, and lots and lots of paintings by eleven Northern Colorado artists and myself.  Also, I'm scheduled to be one of the artists doing a demonstration on Saturday, so if you've always wanted to see how I work in person, here's your chance!


Wednesday, November 06, 2013

News and Upcoming Shows

Eeek, where did the month go? I'm happy to report the show at Glenwood Springs went very well.  The fall weather was gorgeous, and it was inspiring to see work by so many other Colorado-based artists.  The biggest surprise? "Blue Crowned Motmot" took a first place ribbon in his division!


It's embarrassing to admit that at first I wasn't sure if the ribbon was actually mine.  There were so many other great entries...and it didn't help that, when I took it off the hook to look at it, it had been left blank. Apparently during the hubub of all the awards, someone had forgotten to put a name on the back of it.  When I went over to ask, they checked their list and were like, "Ah, dear! Of course it's your ribbon!" and they immediately filled it in.

While on the trip to pick up the Glenwood paintings, I stayed at a friend's place and participated in the last "paint-out" of the Colorado Plein Air Festival.  Since the flooding had taken out the pre-determined spot, it had been relocated to Meininger's river lodge in a forested area near Bailey.  Henry Meininger (of famed Meininger's Art Supply) was a most gracious host, and the lodge was amazing: spires, stained glass and handcrafted wood.  It was like an mysterious izba in a Russian folk tale:


Of the three pieces I entered into the competition, this is the one that got juried in.  If you want to see it in person -- not to mention a bunch of other impressive Colorado paintings -- it will be on display at the Denver Library from November 12th until the end of the year. 


In addition to this show, there is another one coming up the first week of December here in Fort Collins. This is the main reason I've not been updating the last few weeks, as I've been very busy getting ready for it.  It's just me and eleven other artists and it will be AMAZING.  Stay tuned....

Monday, September 23, 2013

Getting Ready for Glenwood

Artwork awaiting transport

Next week is the Fall Art Festival in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.  It's the biggest show of its kind in the entire state, and has been held every year for over half a century.  I've entered eight pieces -- three oils and five watercolors -- which took a little bit of preparation to put together: signing, varnishing, framing, pricing, labeling, putting together an inventory list, protecting the artwork for travel...phew!  Now they're winding their way up into the mountains via a fellow artist's car; I'll be joining them for the show on the 28th.  Stay tuned for an update on this autumnal adventure....