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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

On Keeping a Sketchbook




I'm a big proponent of using sketchbooks, and enjoy looking looking through other people's sketchbooks. There are many reasons to keep one:

  • to jot down ideas
  • for trying out compositions
  • to record observations from nature
  • for experiments and lab notes
  • for preparatory studies for larger works
  • to showcase one's skills to clients
  • as a diary
  • as a travelogue
  • as a work of art unto itself
  • for doodles and caricatures
  • for keeping lists

...or all of the above.

Opening a sketchbook can be like lifting a hatch on an artist's mind. What did they put down, and why? Is it methodical or free-form? Sparse or fully-rendered? What details were important to them? What were they attempting to figure out?

I've scribbled in sketchbooks for a good part of my life. Some have been lost, some have suffered significant damage. While I was organizing my studio this week, I came across one I hadn't opened in a long time. I dusted it off and took a look.

The first date was several pages in, next to several faint drawings of a mule deer: “February 19th, 1989. 6PM. Horsetooth Valley.” I'm guessing I was attempting to draw from memory or from a book, because it'd be pitch black out at that time of year – and at 14 years old, I certainly didn't have a car.



 A previous, undated page. 
 
1989.... It was fascinating, to view my younger self's work with a more experienced eye. My scrawled comments in particular were revealing. Several times I mention that a simpler drawing was a “quick sketch” or a “one minute sketch” – perhaps out of concern that a professional might deem it as Not Upholding Official Sketchbook Standards. At the time, I didn't know that it was okay to just get the gist of an idea down, that it didn't have to be perfectly proportioned and shaded and ready to put in a frame.

My bunk at camp. 

"Gotta go!"

Many of the sketches were done directly from life, as I'd heard that's what “real” artists did; but a few sprang from my imagination, too: i.e., a futuristic domed city with a vehicle zooming past with what appear to be ringed spikes (antennae? weapons? ski poles?) stuck in its engine intakes. Why I tended to draw domed cities, I'm not sure. I think it had something to do with all the ozone layer discussion at school. In addition to sketches, snippets of poems and songs found their way into the pages. Comments from old friends and phone numbers from new ones were jammed into the margins, or even incorporated into the drawings themselves.


An early appreciation for William Blake.

I particularly found it amusing that, after nearly three decades, certain things now appear somewhat dated, such as my parent's boxy Dodge Aries “K” car, my friend's Sony Walkman, or that you could get a large popcorn at the movie theater for $3.75.



"Study of popcorn on the floor." 

There were about 80 pages in all, but I've shared only a handful here because I don't currently have time to scan them, much less clean them up digitally. All I have to say is, hooray for camera phones! Speaking of which: nowadays many artists are exclusively using their phones or tablets instead of sketchbooks. I've tried it, but so far haven't switched over to full-time digital sketching. Perhaps I might one day, but for now I'm content to tote a small book and pencil around wherever I go. I might get graphite smudges on my face or be eye-rolled as, “sooo last century” – but at least I won't run out of power. 

There were also several pages dedicated to amateur botany.

The Estes Park McDonalds is still there, along with that crow's many descendants.

Monday, January 09, 2017

And What Do You Do?

Edgar Degas, The Conversation, 1889.



It happens all the time.

I meet someone in a new setting; and, in a matter of minutes, the question comes up.

“And what do you do?”

It's a very direct, very American question, and I've often wondered about how we casually toss it out there, oblivious to the unsettling intimations that it would create in older, more stratified regions of the world.

I used to say, “I'm an artist.” But this caused confusion, as many musicians and actors describe themselves as artists instead of, well, musicians or actors. So I amended it to visual artist – but that, too, was baffling.

A few years on, I tried painter.

“Ah! I see. Home interiors or exteriors, or both?"

Even when I narrowed it down to the crazy-specific: “I'm an artist and illustrator who specializes in painting birds and local landscapes,” the quizzical looks remained.

In the end, I realized it wasn't just the title: it was that the profession itself isn't all that common. The average person simply doesn't know anyone pursuing my line of work.  Graphic designer?  Perhaps.  High school art teacher?  Very likely.  But someone who creates paintings to hang on a wall?  Not so much. According to the May 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report there were 4.6 million salespeople, 2.7 registered nurses, 1.7 million truck drivers....and 12,240 “Fine Artists, Including Painters, Sculptors, and Illustrators”.  That's right.  Just 12,240.  That's effectively less than .008% of the entire U.S. workforce. The only thing rarer might be a golf ball diver or parachute mender.*

Maybe one day in the near future, we'll walk around with augmented reality stats that luminously float above our heads like ultra-savvy social media profiles. All someone will have to do is nod or blink in my direction, and they'll know everything there is to know about my work without even having to ask.  

Until then, I'll content myself to be patient and explain what I do, even if it takes a bit of effort.







*Or professional chocolate taster.  Mmmmm.



Saturday, December 17, 2016

Just Yesterday


I'll never forget a conversation I once had with my grandmother.

“As you get older,” she said, looking out the car window as I, a newly licensed driver, cautiously navigated traffic, “time goes faster and faster.”

She continued: “I look in the mirror and think, 'Who's that old lady?'  I feel like I was your age just yesterday.”

Just yesterday.

As another year draws to a close, I'm starting to understand that she wasn't just using a figure of speech.  Time really does seem to be accelerating, like an evening toboggan ride down an icy hill.  My experiences are becoming more abridged, more porous. Last week can blur into last month, or an event fifteen years ago. 

I think it has something to do with cognitive processing.  If you are blessed to live long enough, the activities of your day-to-day life begin to wear familiar patterns in the carpet of your mind.  So as you're washing and putting away the same dishes 1500 times, or saying goodnight to your spouse 10,000 times, or celebrating your birthday for a cumulative six weeks, perhaps your brain starts to deal with all of this information in a way that's the most economical. Maybe it begins to take out the similarities the way that digital compression takes out redundant pixels:



When you're younger, you don't notice this as much because your data set (i.e., life experiences) isn't large enough for you to lose track of your files (i.e., memories).  A seven-year-old can recall nearly every single book they've ever read because, well, there's only three years of reading to sort through.  And because those first books were so different and new to a developing mind, and because they were undoubtedly read over and over, those stories and pictures were emblazoned on the reader's memory for the rest of their life, even if they can't recall the exact titles.


Yet if you ask me a comprehensive list of every book I've read in the last decade (several hundred?),  I'd be sure to overlook a few.  Shorter experiences such as movies are even more challenging. And the instant a picture is taken with one's phone? Perhaps lost for good. “Photo or it didn't happen” has become a catch-phrase of our distracted modernity.



In a way, I think this is why painting from life can be so meaningful.  Instead of merely watching a screen or taking a drive-by selfie, one has to engage the scene in a more purposeful way.  Even at my fastest pace on my smallest paper pad, it can take at least a couple hours to complete a painting in the field. Note-taking, composition-finding, paint-mixing, outline-drawing...and of course laying down the brushstrokes themselves. It involves such an amount of effort and focus that, by the end of it, I feel as though I've not only created a record of a place; I've inhabited it.


Later on, when I view the work again in a different context, framed and hung on a wall, it's almost like looking at a pinned butterfly specimen.  While others see a motionless picture, I recall a living scene.  Once again, I hear the spruce boughs whisper, or feel the sun's warmth on my face.  I smell the river mud or the ozone after a departing storm.  It's more than a picture. It's a direct connection to an actual experience that was lived-out in both space and time. It's a memory made visible through the filter of my existence.

And perhaps...just perhaps, by slowing down to think and observe and create, my perception of time will do likewise.











Tuesday, November 29, 2016

4th Annual Chasing Light Art Exhibition


It's that time of year again!

After twelve months of tramping across the varied Colorado landscape with our easels in tow, my painting friends and I are putting on our annual painting show.  It's becoming quite the event, and is still being held at the grand ol' Carnegie Building on 200 Matthews street -- just behind the Fort Collins public library near Old Town.

Opening reception (i.e., when all the artists and yummy snacks will be available) is this Friday, December 2nd from 6 to 9pm.  The art itself will remain on exhibit until the 10th.


Hope to see you there. :)



Wednesday, October 19, 2016

How to Tell Apart a Crow From a Raven





My latest: Crow and Raven: A Comparison of Silhouettes
Watercolor on 16 x 12" illustration board. 


I don't know why, but I get a kick out of identifying things in the natural world. Just as some people can rattle off the names of their favorite football players or film actors, I enjoy knowing the names of plant and animal species. If I come across a tree in a park that I don't recognize, I'll make a point of noting its leaves, bark, and so on so I can look it up later.

I think it's because names give me a starting point to learn more, to understand. I liken it to this: Say you're are in a room with a bunch of strangers at a skiing lodge in, oh, say, Norway. As an outsider, these Norwegians might look rather the same: tall, blond, and athletic. They're just an anonymous, lutefisk eating crowd. But once you find out their names, you start paying closer attention to them. You find differences that make each individual unique. You learn that Olaf is the only one in the room with deep brown eyes, or that Ingrid is a strict vegetarian. Once introduced, you begin on a journey to know them; and, if you are fortunate enough, you may even become good friends.

So it is with “Crow” and “Raven”. Or even more particularly, the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and the Common Raven. (Corvus corax). Both hail from the same family and genus (Corvidae, Corvus) and at a glance can appear nearly identical.

SIMILARITIES

Shiny black feathers
Black bill with nostrils partly covered with feathers
Black legs and feet
Dark brown eyes in adults, grayish-blue for juveniles
Omnivorous – will eat just about anything
Both are known mimics and therefore can make similar sounds
Very intelligent, even recorded using tools
Found in open fields, forests, and wherever people are found


DIFFERENCES*


American Crows

-- Are somewhat smaller; just a bit larger than a dove
-- Bill is shorter and slimmer
-- Typical call is a sharper and higher: “Caw! Caw!”
-- Spread tail in flight is more fan-shaped**
-- Tends to gather in larger groups than ravens
-- Will mob a hawk or eagle in their territory, cawing and swooping at the intruder
-- A bit more restless when perched, flicking tails more for balance
-- At close range, flapping wings are silent
-- Rarely if ever soar on thermals

Bonus fact: the tongue-in-cheek collective noun to describe a flock of crows is a “murder”.



Common Ravens

-- Can be considerably larger, up to the size of a hawk
-- Bill is longer and thicker
-- Adults have a longer ruff or “hackle” of frontal neck feathers
-- Typical call is softer and deeper: “Gronk” or “Gaw”
-- Spread tail in flight is diagnostically more diamond or wedge shaped**
-- Tends towards smaller groups, frequently found in pairs
-- Will more likely escort a hawk or eagle out of its territory than mob it.
-- Overall more calm, sedate behavior when perched
-- At close range, flapping wings are heard to make a distinct whooshing sound
-- Can be seen soaring on thermals

Bonus fact: the tongue-in-cheek collective noun to describe a flock of ravens is a “conspiracy” or an “unkindness”.


Once you get to know these two species, you'll notice these differences – and more. But be careful! Identifying corvids can become habit forming. Especially when you come to the realization that they contain subspecies, as well. Four for the American crow, and perhaps up to eleven for the Common raven.

If you get tired of figuring THOSE out, well....there's always the study of gulls. ;) ***



*NOTE: These are the differences just between the American Crow and the Common Raven. There are additional but lesser-known corvid species in North America, such as the Fish crow, Northwestern Crow and Chihuahua raven (Corvus ossifragus, Corvus caurinus and Corvus cryptoleucus, respectfully) that have their own minor differences.

**Aside from voice, I've found that tail difference is one of the best diagnostics to tell the two apart. However keep in mind that it can be harder to tell when the birds are swooping in to land or are already perched. Also, there are several non-American species of raven and crow that this does NOT work for, such as the fan-tailed raven Corvus rhipidurus of Africa or the little raven Corvus mellori of Australia, which have fan-shaped tails instead of wedge-shaped ones.

*** In some birding circles, becoming involved with the minutia of gull identification has been said to cause mild bouts of insanity.







Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Art Scam Alert

Cardsharps by Carravaggio

So this morning I got this message in my inbox:

Greetings!
 

My name is john Scotfield from SC.  I actually observed my wife has been viewing your website on my laptop and i guess she likes your piece of work, I'm also impressed and amazed to have seen your various works too, : )  You are doing a great job. I would like to receive further information about your piece of work and what inspires you. I am very much interested in the purchase of the piece (in subject field above) to surprise my wife. Kindly confirm the availability for immediate sales.
 

Thanks and best regards,
 

john.


The first clue was the grammar and irregular capitalization. "I actually observed my wife has been viewing..."  Huh??  But then again, maybe they were in a hurry or else had trouble typing on their smart phones.  It happens.

The more telling clue was the gushing compliments followed by the promise of "immediate sales".  Hmmm.

So I cut and pasted the first line of Mr. Scotfield's message into Google.  Bingo.  Another art scammer. 

I'm not sure if it's because artists are perceived as more naive than the general population, but we tend to get a lot of emails like this.  It's part and parcel for having one's name out there, I suppose.

I also get emails claiming to be from New York galleries, decorated war veterans, and wealthy widowers who are all admirers of my work.  Yet before I respond to any of them, I always look them up.  Not merely their name or email address (because those change so frequently) but snippets of the actual message.  And then I usually find it plastered all over the internet, alongside stories of artists who lost money, or a painting, or both. 

It goes like this: The scammer says they want a painting, and are willing to send you a check, money order or credit card number.  Then there's suddenly a time constraint and so you are pressured into sending the painting before the payment clears. Or else they offer to arrange for the shipping themselves, then accidentally overpay.  When you send them the difference, they disappear.

Some say that scammers like this will purposefully make obvious mistakes in their messages order to hone in on the most gullible (and therefore most lucrative) marks. But all the same, I'm putting out this post in case there's someone reading this who has yet to encounter such a thing.

We artists want to believe that what we do is worthwhile and of value, and we also have bills to pay. Scammers take full advantage of this.  If you get an email that seems too good to be true...it usually is.

That being said: don't automatically dismiss a badly written message from an unknown address. I've had a couple of these that turned out to be actual clients!

Just be careful, and remember that Google is your friend.







Tuesday, September 27, 2016

What I did on Summer (and Fall) Vacation




Somehow, 2016 is flying by even more swiftly than I ever thought possible.

The first half was spent furiously finishing art assignments for my mentorship; and the second has been filled thus far with painting trips, art shows, and workshops.  If you follow my adventures on social media, you probably already know what I've been up to. But here's a recap for those who don't have time to scroll through selfies and exquisitely posed food portraits.

JUNE

Completed an all-day "painting marathon" with the Plein Air Artists Colorado. Then a couple artist buddies and I went up to Colorado State Forest State Park to paint, hike, and sleep in a backcountry yurt. We encountered a big moose the last day on the trail. Thankfully he ignored us. I drove one last time to Parker, CO to turn in my final assignments and get an overall evaluation. Conclusion? I'm on the right path. Now it's just a matter of putting together a new body of work.

JULY

Painted, painted, painted; went on several small hikes, attended the First Friday Art Walk as well as the local Artist Studio Tour; framed six paintings for my next show. Went on a brief but lovely weekend campout with our church family.

AUGUST

Had a group show entitled, “Expressions: A Summer Art Exhibition & Sale” that was a general success. Everyone agreed we had a great opening. We plan to do it again next year. Finished two more paintings. Got the house ready for guests.

SEPTEMBER

My husband's parents visited us for two weeks. We went over Trail Ridge road and stayed in a cabin in Grand Lake, Colorado for several days. Visited the Plein Air Rockies show in Estes Park. Watched a bunch of sun-dazed pastel artists draw on the hot sidewalk in Loveland. Then I drove 500 miles north to the Fall Arts Fest in Jackson, Wyoming for four days, then drove another hour over the pass to participate in the Susan K. Black Foundation workshop in Dubois for another week. 

Now I'm home again and plotting to paint some more.

But first, I might take a good nap....




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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!