It's about the art

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Monday, July 31, 2006

Contour drawing

I spent the weekend at a friend's property with spectacular views of the night sky and distant hills. I divided my time between painting and eating fabulous food with good company, but I also had my sketchbook out most of the time, and did this little contour drawing by lamplight at the end of the day. The cabinet door is heading in some strange directions, but I think the little fan on the stove turned out better than expected.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Synchronicity is a funny thing. I've been reading and thinking about the practice of keeping a journal recently, and not just a write down your innermost thoughts kind of journal, but an illustrated journal that celebrates the day to day bits of one's life. Much of this was sparked by finding Jana Bouc's blog, and similar sketching blogs by artists and amateurs alike.

I was listening to a piece on National Public Radio this afternoon on Charles Darwin. It's part of a series called "Speaking of Faith", and the guest of the show, James Moore, is a biographer of Charles Darwin who was placing Darwin's ideas into historical context. There's a webpage devoted to the show that has images from Darwin's notebooks, with commentary by David Kohn. And I was thinking about how science used to be filled with this same kind of journaling. Before the age of the camera, naturalists sketched and contemplated the details of nature in a different way.

And the difference is really about time. About taking the time to observe and contemplate, which requires a bit more patience and attention than just snapping a photo. I suppose I am particularly drawn to the idea of taking time to sit and sketch my daily world because I'm so overwhelmed with work and other obligations right now. But I think the universe is telling me it's time to sketch a little more. The image above is a sketch I made sitting in front of the Palace of Legion of Honor in San Francisco. It's a small start.

Monday, July 24, 2006

vision and Monet

I just finished reading "Vision and Art: the biology of seeing" by Margaret Livingstone. It's a pretty dense book for something that wouldn't look out of place on your coffee table. It's not a difficult book to read, but there's a lot of interesting information to absorb. I've been reading it slowly and will likely read it through again to try and take her ideas in a little more deeply.

Anyway, one of the ideas the book talks about is the idea that our peripheral vision lacks acuity. Because our eyes are moving all the time, we don't really notice this, but try focusing on a single point on a page of a book, for example, and then try to make out the words to either side of where you have your gaze fixed. You'll see how quickly you loose detail. The interesting thing is that peripheral vision isn't blurry or out of focus, it lacks spatial precision. So you have a hard time fixing the location in space of objects seen with your perpherial vision. The result is your brain fills in the details to give you an illusion of detail, but it can fill in these details differently each time you look at something with your peripheral vision.

What does this have to do with art, and Monet? Last Saturday, in an effort to escape the heat, I visited the Palace of Legion of Honor in San Francisco (which was amazingly fog-less) to see the Monet in Normandy exhibit. Livingstone contends that the impressionist painters, by creating images that were spatially imprecise, give an illusion of movement or vitality because of the way your brain completes objects. I tested this idea looking at Monet's paintings, and it was true. If I kept my eyes still instead of roaming the painting, the paintings seemed both more realistic and also had an illusion of motion. The flags seemed to flutter a little, the air seemed to shimmer in the heat and so on.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Featured item on Etsy

I woke up this morning to find that my new Mullein linocut is featured on the Etsy home page. Very exciting!

Friday, July 21, 2006

woolly mullein

"Mullein" 3 color reduction linocut on mulberry paper.

I was cleaning up the studio last night, and stumbled across a photograph of a mullein plant that I'd intended to use as the reference for a block print. So I jumped on in and the image above is the result. I used this print to experiment with some new oil based ink. I bought some transparent base, as someone on baren mentioned that they use transparent etching base and then just add color using a pigment suspension. I have some akua color pigments, and I tried mixing with those as well as using my oil paints as the source of pigment. I'm very happy with the results. I was able to get lovely transparent colors and I love how the oil based inks roll out. I think I'm hooked.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


"Sand Verbena" 8x10 oil on panel 2006

I've had a thought percolating through my brain about vision, illusion and art. When I'm painting, I'm trying to create an illusion of a location. And while I'm standing there, the retinas of my eyes are being bombarded with the complete spectrum of visible light. Based on the electrical response of four different types of receptors in my retina, my brain constructs a mental picture of the scene. The details I am aware of are shaped by how my brain and the wiring of the receptors in my eyes interact. From this pattern of electrical response in my brain, I mix together 7 different pigments and apply them in a suspension of oil on a panel. So there are several levels of translation between the experience of a location and the painting that is the product of that experience. Of course you're experiencing the image of the painting above through yet another series of translations (digital camera to computer to internet to your screen).

Another way to say this is that since each pigment I use has unique spectral qualities, that it reflects a particular pattern of wavelenths of light, I am tricking the eyes of the viewer into believing they are seeing more colors than they really are. And to achieve this I am manipulating the limitations of having only 4 types of receptors in the human retina.

And before you decide that I'm truly over the science geek deep end (probably too late for that), what this all means is that I'm trying to create a series of illusions with a limited pallete. And what makes my art unique is in part the way my brain interprets the information from my eyes.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

visual literacy

I read this essay on visual literacy by April Gornik the other day. I've been thinking about it alot, particularly since I'm trying to articulate for myself why I find reproductions of paintings so distasteful. Don't get me wrong, I understand that the reasons people create reproductions and perhaps why they buy them has to do with the economics of buying and selling art. My discomfort with reproductions is more philosophical than practical.

What April Gornik articulates in her essay is that the physicality of a piece is as important as the image, and she points out that many people don't have the visual literacy to distinguish between "something that had been made by hand and something that had been made by a machine". In a world in which most images are reduced to the flat presentation of a computer or TV screen, the connection between the physical nature of a work and its impact is lost.

As any person who has visited a museum knows, seeing a reproduction of a painting in a book or on line is not the same experience as seeing it in person. For one, there is a completely different sense of scale. On line, all pictures are reduced to the size of your computer screen. You can't relate to either the grandeur or preciousness of an object on line. And there is the other aspect of seeing works in person that has to do with the connection made between the artist and the viewer. I vividly remember walking through the Uffizi Gallery in Florence as a teenager and marveling that all these objects I had seen in books were real, that they actually existed. As April Gornik says, "The real power of the visual arts in their capacity as virtual reality is the physicality of the experience, the somatic connection that remains between the work of art, the artist who made it, and the person looking at it. That connection is an essential part of the human experience, a verification of humanity, history, and our connectedness itself."

I guess my unease with reproductions has to do with a desire on my part for authenticity of experience. A reproduction is just the shell of the art. It's all image and no substance. What I find so engaging about painting plein air is the reality of the experience. Sure, I do some editing and rearranging of the image when I paint, but the painting is a more authentic record of my experience of a location than a photograph can ever be. So why try to reproduce that?

Large Plein air landscape paintings

"Clouds Over Sonoma Mountain", oil on canvas, 36" x 18"

I've been having this internal debate about how to approach big paintings. I love painting outside, but returning to the same location with a big painting can be a pain, particularly in the wind. I have had this one canvas kicking around for a few months that I started on a windy day with these great clouds marching across the sky. The difficulty was that the shadows kept moving with the clouds! After having my entire painting rig nearly go head over heels a couple of times, I packed it in. I managed to get back to the location one more time, but it was completely overcast and the light was very different. But I didn't want to give up on it because I really liked the start, and the way I had blocked in the clouds.

Last night I set up a temporary studio up and pulled out my reference photo of the location. I felt a little odd re-working a plein air painting from a photo, but mostly I just adjusted the colors of what I had put down before, and I'm very happy with the final result.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Emeryville Arts and Music Festival

"Evening at Point Isabel", 8x10 oil on panel.

This coming weekend I'm showing my work at the Bay St. Emeryville Arts and Music festival. It takes place on Bay St. Saturday July 15 and Sunday July 16 from 10-6. If you're in the area I'd love to see you and chat about art and such. I'll be on Bay St., just a few booths north of Ohlone Way. If you want a preview, most of the paintings and prints on my website will be available for sale.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Checking value

I managed to get out to paint today, and took some "big" panels, 11x14 in. I went back to Helen Putnam Regional Park in Sonoma Co, looking for patterns of live oak and golden non-native grasses. I've been struck recently how different the sky looks now that the weather is hot and I wanted to check the relative values of the hills and the sky this afternoon. I had a small brain wave and pulled out my digital camera. By selecting black and white mode, I was able to estimate relative value just by looking at the screen. This particular value contrast has given me trouble before, because the hills are so yellow and the sky is so very blue. (There's another post here) By using my camera, I was able to confirm that the sky was darker than the sun-drenched hill.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Painting with bugs

I finally made time to get outside and do some paintings. I was looking to capture the rolling golden hills of summertime in Sonoma county, and I managed to do three paintings over the course of the day. I was glad I had my umbrella with me, because the sun was hot and I was happy for the little puddle of shade it provided.

The painting above is titled "Subtle Path" because what drew me to the scene was the subtle change in color in the shadow of the tree where this little deer path wound through the dry grass. I'm not sure the painting captured that aspect, but I'm pretty happy with the distant hills. I kept changing the shadow as the light shifted, which is usually a bad idea. I blame the insect invasion for messing with my concentration. While I was painting this I was swarmed by some sort of bug like a weevil (OK, so I never took entomology, to my eternal regret). They didn't bite, but I spent the afternoon picking them out of the piles of paint on my palete and trying to keep them from dropping down my shirt. Nothing like painting outside to practice one's focus.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More Poppies

I spent the morning working in the front garden tidying up the mass of poppies. Even though they looked dead from a distance, I found that most of them were sprouting again from the base. Amazing plants to be putting out new growth in the heat of summer without any water.

The print is a variation on an image I carved a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in a previous post I decided to try hand coloring a print, and this is the result. I love the variation in the color of the poppies in my yard, and it was fun to capture that in the print. I think this image is my current favorite.

More Poppies

I spent the morning working in the front garden tidying up the mass of poppies. Even though they looked dead from a distance, I found that most of them were sprouting again from the base. Amazing plants to be putting out new growth in the heat of summer without any water.

The print is a variation on an image I carved a few weeks ago. I decided to try hand coloring a print, and this is the result. I love the variation in the color of the poppies in my yard, and it was fun to capture that in the print.