Additional images can be viewed at:
I am very pleased to have new representation at Gallery 901 in Santa Fe, NM. Please check out the gallery if you are in town:
I have just added some newly returned work to my data-base, and taken off the aforementioned holiday gifts. If you are looking for a large painting, this is a rare moment to peruse the many choices:
Since I sold the piece in October that was on my large living room wall, I have had the pleasure of replacing it, temporarily at least, with this favorite that I recently had returned to me:
Looking ahead, my thoughts are on the project I am developing for my residency in Nantucket in Feb.-March. This will involve an expanded and more experiential exploration of place, using drawing, printmaking, painting, writing…and who knows what else? Memory will be a theme.
Also coming up this winter, a special show/sale starting in early February at Albert Shahinian Fine Art in Rhinebeck, NY. More on this in a few weeks.
Finally, for those of you who do the drive from Kingston, NY up Route #28 to your home or weekend place, or if you just want to listen to a very well-produced culture/history/arts audio tour of the Catskills, check out this piece by neighbor and friend Brett Barry of Silver Hollow Audio (who Catskills/HV/Berkshires folks will know from the segments that he does on WAMC). My bit is about half-way into it, but with Brett’s interview prompts that created the individual discussions followed by skillful editing, the whole piece is beautifully interwoven and well worth listening to.
I am wishing us, individually and collectively, a year of truth-seeking and compassion; of finding community; and exploring our deepest joys.
In representational art, the formal aspects of a painting can contribute to a narrative or mood just as readily as the descriptive. This is a theme that I discuss often in workshops, talks, and here on my blog. I recently finished two paintings of the same locale and time of year—same day, in fact—using a very similar palette that illustrate this point well.
In fact, the difference between them really boils down to the mood that the shapes create.
In “Lingering”, below, the overall feel of the piece is warm and welcoming, despite the weather depicted being overcast. Putting ourselves in the scene, the misty/drizzly day creates a sheen and depth to colors in the marshes and a sense of intimacy—privacy, almost— within the landscape. On these sorts of days there are fewer people about; the air is thick and embracing; vistas tend to be limited. There is a boundary of trees at the horizon, enclosing the space.
On the formal side, the eye is led into the piece by the wide open shape of the tidal pool at the bottom left, and then is invited to move around by the directionality of soft edges and dispersed accumulations of detail. Variations of color within the areas of orange marsh grasses encourage the eye to linger. Sky and water are a mauve, relating to the coolest of the reds in the marsh.
I would describe “Lingering” as warm; friendly; intimate. And descriptive, for sure.
In the second piece, the color is the same but the feel is much bolder. Now we have a highly structured piece with assertive directionality. The eye is swept into the image by the strong zig-zag created by the edges of the marsh and moves back to a open area with minimal detail along the horizon. The detail that does exist is necessary to balance the composition, keeping the eye moving within the painting rather than being swept off to the right by the strong edges of the tidal creek.
The description of “Edge of Discovery” could include abstract; expansive; dynamic. Movement within structure.
As I was working on these pieces–about a month apart—I decided independently with each that the image needed some interest in the marsh as it went back in space. To create this, I added the back tidal pools in both cases, and then the evolving paintings clicked into place.
Even here, with a similar solution to a common problem, the feel of these pools is quite different. In “Lingering” there is quite a bit of detail to the two glimpses of white, while in “Edge of Discovery” the bit of water is minimal, austere (and right in the middle!), jibing with the overall reductive composition.
So, when we talk about mood in a landscape painting, we are discussing two things. One is the mood of the moment captured—how would it feel like to be there? The other is the feeling that the lines, shapes, and surface of the painting create for the viewer.
Color relates to both. It reflects the seasons; light; locale; and time of day of the views that we see around us. It also is inherently linked to mood and personal preference.
Kandinsky in his 1910 “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” posits that abstract elements have emotive power in their own right. In comparing these two paintings, it becomes clear how the shapes with their edges and directionality and the overall composition that they create impact the mood projected.
Unlike with color, many people are not consciously aware that these particular formal aspects are actively contributing to their experience of a representational painting. It is up to the artist to be adept at exploring the endless possibilities of these pictoral tools as the painting is being shaped, narrowing the gap between a good painting and an excellent one and finding variation in feel from piece to piece.
The specifics of how to create a less literal landscape painting seem to be a constant topic of discussion with my students, especially those who don’t come from an art-school background where the artist spends formative years in the mix, constantly exploring or discussing different ways of making art.
I have previously written about the toggle between formal concerns and storytelling in representational work in the following post:
And about pure abstraction in this post discussing the shows of Ellsworth Kelly, Jenny Nelson, and Melinda Stickney-Gibson:
Stepping further into how to break down this discussion, I see that most non-realist landscape painters are combining several ways of achieving this, and that the methods fall broadly into the two categories of what you choose to paint (and leave out) and how you choose to paint it.
In the image selection arena, the artist can either choose a view that had reduced detail for an open, minimalist landscape, or a macro view that has a prominent pattern —-for example, a rock cliff , sundappled water, or a glen of tree trunks.
The tools that the artist then employs in the painting process to emphasize abstraction can include simplifying, flattening, or distorting the shapes: reducing the amount of elements included; changing naturalistic color to non-literal choices; and/or unifying the surface with brushstroke or other technique to create overall texture or pattern.
I have selected pieces from a number of contemporary artists who explore this terrain, many of whom I know or am friends with. In most cases artists are combining several of the approaches mentioned above, using pictoral tools that we, in this generation, have been fortunate enough to inherit and absorb from centuries of painting. The contemporary landscape painter then draws from the smorgasbord that art history provides and, putting it all in a sort of personal artistic blender, comes forth (usually over time) with their own version of the abstracted landscape.
Because the combinations are personal and often subtle, I have chosen to discuss each painting on its own merits rather than sift them into the categories introduced above.
I should add that I love gestural and color field abstract painting and generally am not so interested in realist landscape work. But having long ago chosen for myself a stylistic swath that lands somewhere in the middle, I find these explorations to be endlessly exciting, both in my own studio and in the work of other artists.
I couldn’t resist selecting this piece of Stuart Shils, as I have also painted this dramatic locale in Western Ireland. It is just clear enough that in foreground we have farm fields, but the second shape is so peculiar that the mind could read it as abstract. So, by choosing to paint this bit of cliff that wends its way out into the Atlantic in a long curve, the artist has chosen subject matter that lends itself to abstraction and has also painted it in a broad, loose, and painterly way, emphasizing the color field aspect of the shapes within.
Deborah has selected as her subject matter in this painting broad areas —and only two–that lend themselves to a patterned surface. It is key to the painterly beauty of “Sparkle Square” that the flecks of reflected light are varied in placement and shape, as are the shallow waves and subtly shifting color. Mystery is created by the dark shape of the shore. This is an example of the artist both selecting an image that is abstract in its simplicity and rhythm, and enhancing those aspects in the surface treatment.
Hannah, who also paints pure abstraction, selects material for her landscapes that has a feel that suits her sense of shape—squared off rhythmic forms that repeat within simple divisions of sky and land. In “Windham” I love the way the sky is so different from the ground—the sky like a Rothko and the ground a de Stael. At the same time, the mind reads them perfectly as an ethereal sky and cultivated sweep of land.
In Eric Aho’s ice series, the view is more pulled in than expansive, creating opportunity for very strong compositions that play with the formal elements of shape and line within a reduced color composition. The black shapes have depth when the eye reads them as descriptive—cracks in the ice leading to water below—but also emphasize the directionality of the fractured shapes as they point toward each other and the center of the piece. My eye delights in the play of shapes with this piece every bit as much as it does with a completely abstract painting.
As I have long influenced by the mid-century generation of American color field painters, this piece of mine reads as near abstraction, sitting on top of the picture plane almost before it reads as landscape. My selection of tidal flats as subject matter—already so stark and minimalist—is the starting point, enhanced by flattened shapes with subtle variations in color but no descriptive textural detail. The strong horizon evokes a vista, but turn this piece on its side and you have an abstract painting.
Brighter-than-literal color is not of itself abstract, but combined with the simple fields of color that Wolf Kahn is known for creates a painting that sits right up on the surface plane. In addition to his famous barns, Wolf has also worked extensively with the repeated motif of tree trunks moving across the canvas, creating the patterned effect discussed above. In some paintings this is a more regular and more pronounced repetition, but I particularly liked the color in this piece and the way that the folliage is treated as diffuse scrubs of color. Look carefully, though, and you can see that as soft-edged as these shapes are, they are very particular, varied, and elegant.
“Waves at Jenner” uses brush stroke to create both an energetic expressive field and at the same time capture the feel of big surf crashing on rock, all of this using low-key, tonalist color. To my eye, the mind reads the scene perfectly for what/where it is, but the white strokes are actually more abstract than descriptive, sitting up on the surface of the picture plane. Arnold works in both abstraction and landscape painting, and this piece falls beautifully somewhere close to the middle of that spectrum…but rather closer to abstraction.
Heather very much starts with the first strategy, reducing the content not only by choosing the simplest sea and sky imagery but also by eliminating detail within that. The subject is just recognizable, mostly because of the horizon and the gleams of light in the sky. The color is dense and murky–and also gorgeous—evoking one of those heavy weather days, but even more so a color field painting that sits on top of the scumbled and blended surface.
In “Outlook XVI”, as in other work by this artist, the soft blend is a wet-into-wet technique starting with a little more detail than many of the pieces discussed here. The surface is so heavily blended, however, that the subject matter takes a back seat and the viewer’s attention is brought to the movement that Jeorg made to achieve this effect. The result, in a descriptive sense, feels both like moving weather and as if we are witnessing the scene from a moving vehicle. As a whole, the technique crates both dreamy narrative and energetic abstraction.
This monoprint of Steve Dininno’s is a study in monochromatic color and and reduced detail. To abstract an urban view—a scene that is inherently busy—certain light/weather phenomena are generally employed. In this case the image is being swallowed in fog, allowing the graphic elements to swim out of its implied depth even as the lines of perspective lead the eye forward into the scene. That there is so much interest in “Boardwalk” while at the same time so much empty space is a clear demonstration of the power of the less-is-more phenomenon, when skillfully done.
These trees and, I presume, a light pole, are about as un-fussy as they could be. They, and the blended and scumbled surface relate to the Wolf Kahn piece. However, the eye here is funneled back in space, much like in the Steve Dininno above, and the analogous color composition is quietly moody. The foreground blacks help anchor the piece, creating contrast within the otherwise low-light scene. This piece balances beautifully between capturing the mood of a moment and place and pure, delicious painting.
In this piece Kate uses surface texture to work the sky into a color field that is only just recognizable as a cloud bank. The shape of the shore is simplified, color exaggerated, though she did create a juicy reflection–so much a part of the land-into-water visual experience. The water is quieter than the sky, as is often the case. The white line that was scratched into the pigment on the left is a lovely graphic element that is entirely non-literal. Examining the elements, there is clear back and forth between those that are more descriptive of the scene and those that are more abstract.
Thomas is doing several painterly things in this piece that move it away from realism. There is clear patterning and brush stroke both in the field and the sky above that break up the surface into rhythmic abstraction. Combined with the soft band of fog in the middle distance, this creates a duo perception of paint sitting on top of the picture plane and a recognizable field/sky with atmospheric perspective. The relative symmetry of this image also illustrates the point that when a painter reduces the number of elements, those that remain hold an enhanced interest.
Staats is a master at relating shapes and creating light. Similar to my aesthetic, the number of shapes tend to be reduced and surface of them flattened, but the outlines of the shapes themselves have a good deal of subtle variation. In this piece, the paint handling within the shapes is also beautifully varied, the strip of light in a way that describes light itself and the shapes within the buildings in a more abstract manner. The blur on the left encroaching on the foreground building also seems to be more about the movement of the watercolor than about any recognizable visual phenomenon.
On the whole, what makes these all good paintings is that they are successful in capturing both the feel of the scene depicted and the surface, compositional, and color interest of pure painting, allowing the viewer to delight in both aspects. As for all painting, drawing ability is essential, since the artist needs the hand to do what the eye requires; creating dynamic compositions made of compelling—and usually highly edited— shapes, palettes, and surface.
Occasionally, there is an element that is barely or not quite recognizable…but interesting or gorgeous. My comment to my students when this emerges in their work is “I don’t know what that is…but I really like it so I don’t care”. This observation would apply to the irregular light shape on the right in the Fasoldt piece and the field in the Sarrantonio. In many of the other pieces, there is an element or shape that we think is probably this or that…but we are not sure: the cliff in the Shils; the dark shore in the Munson; the orange band in the Kahn—field or hill?; the tidal pool in my piece; the light pole in the Elder, and so on. These mysteries serve to create complex interest as the mind works to accept the mixed metaphor that they provide.
I would like to mention the galleries that I share with many of these artists: Julie Haller Gallery in Provincetown, MA; Albert Shahinian Fine Art in Rhinebeck, NY; Gold Gallery in Boston’s South End; and Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury VT–check them out to see additional work!
Last month I led a retreat for six artists on Cape Cod, using the cottage where I have been vacationing with my family for 18 years as our base for making art, meetings to discuss the artists bodies of work and career direction and, of course, exploring the tidal flats (see my first post, “Back on the Sandflats”). I also had private discussions with each artist, following up on their accomplishments and contacts with ideas for further progress in exhibiting and selling their work.
The retreat was modeled on the mentoring groups that I lead in the Catskills, often with a mix of artists in different stages of work and career development. There are many things that the artist likes to think about, and other things that the artist needs to think about. Below, a discussion of our week, and some of the issues that surfaced for the artists in this group, Polly Law, Loel Barr, Sylvia Weinberg, Sue Desanna, Helen Kohler, and Maureen Burr.
Maureen, who took my painting workshop in Provincetown last summer, is returning to making art from a long absence. A pressing question for her: is it all right to be exploring many different things, or should she be narrowing in on one or two?
Early on, the artist should be following her interests wherever they lead. Being “all over the place” is ideal, much as a young art student will typically try different styles and media for years before finding a mode of working that is of abiding interest. Nothing else matters but the process. Creating one’s own style is partly a function of limiting alternatives, so this should not be forced, but allowed to happen through exploration. As the inner voice and eye hone in on an individual expression, other options drop away naturally.
Loel has been sifting through permutations of this question for years. Multi-talented, she has found satisfaction in slices, each media or style scratching a different artistic itch.
After years of working with this variety, it would be more satisfying to find one or two directions that focus all of her talents and ways of seeing the world. At this stage, “all over the place” can feel overly scattered. Honing in on a focused direction still should not be forced—ever—but the mind, both conscious and unconscious, can be alert to paths that present themselves that will unify the work.
I also first met Helen in one of my painting workshops. It turns out that she is pursuing two bodies of work, one landscape painting and the other fiber art. In this case, the discussion of multiple directions takes a different turn.
If you are an artist working happily in two completely different veins, you are lucky indeed! The only challenge in the marketplace is that you will probably have different exhibition venues for the two bodies of work. Years ago, an art consultant told me that when I submit to galleries, I should pick one or the other of the bodies of work I was doing at a time, because galleries would get confused, and then think that I was.
A little tongue-in-cheek, but good advice. The artist in this position has to research venues with a dual intent, but there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, you may find a gallery that likes and establishes you with one body of work, and then takes an interest in what else you do later on.
“I am just processing all the information I got last week from all of you and it will keep me busy for weeks to come,” observed Helen in a follow-up email.
Artists in the mentoring groups learn from each other. I have observed repeatedly that when a group of artists is discussing a body of work, they might disagree on a particular passage in a painting, for example, but will invariably agree on what is working overall. While looking at Sylvia and Sue’s landscapes, the group unanimously preferred the looser, more open, interpretations. This meant not that the group all had minimalist taste, but that those were the pieces that stood out within their bodies of work.
Artists can also be the most important contacts of all for each other. Currently, with so many galleries closing and their artists searching for new ones, the best way to get the attention of a gallery is to have an intro to the owner or director, which one artist can provide for another. Artists can also support each other by sharing information on exhibition opportunities, consulting with each other on thorny questions of conduct, and critiquing each other’s work.
Sylvia, an accomplished watercolorist, has been focusing on finding a technique in oil that is equally satisfying. She is also returning her energies to finding new venues for showing her work after a period of years during which personal matters took up much of her attention.
Sue was also looking to refocus, and just bump up, in general. An experienced pastelist, she is always honing her voice, and is currently looking for new venues to show her work.
When looking for a new gallery, make sure that you are a good fit, both stylistically and in terms of resume and pricing. If you are an emerging artist and there is no mention of that in the “about” the gallery, look at the resumes of the other artists. If they are all international art stars, your time would be better spent looking for a more appropriate gallery. On the other end, if the gallery charges artists to show, check to see if they curate, or if it is just “pay to play”—a vanity gallery. Sometimes an artist needs to share expenses with a gallery early on in the resume-building process, but a straight vanity gallery has no collector base, and no prestige.
Stylistically, you don’t want to be too close to any artist already in the gallery, but too far away from anything that they show. Above all, you need to like their aesthetic.
Polly has been in a unique and mature voice phase of her work for a good number of years. This can raise the issue of staying fresh, stimulated, and challenged—the opposite problem of following too many paths. “I had closed myself into a box of what was allowable and what was not in the way of my work. Incorporating the bits & bobs of beach combings would not have been allowed before. As you can see I had really been closing down artistic opportunities- egad. Well, just walking out onto the tidal flats that first evening was like opening a window and taking a broom to the dusty, fusty, tired, stale attic my brain had become. I became fascinated by the wabi-sabi of the elements on the beach (wabi-sabi is a Japanese term to describe the reflection of the history of an object onto its self.) Ideas came to me when I picked up objects and held them in my hand- I could see how they could be used. It was very exciting.”
Some artists work in quite different series every several years. Others shift a bit from year to year. I tend to work in concurrent series, maintaining bodies of work with small tweaks and changes to interest me from piece to piece, and then every so often bring in a new series when I feel the need for a really new challenge. In any case, change is necessary to stay stimulated, and the mature artist (especially one with an identity and a following) has to find his/her own path to that—looking deeply inside your process can provide clues, as can looking way outside of your habitual references and patterns. Inside/outside—look in, look out. If you have been doing too much of one, try the other.
We also did a gallery crawl in both Wellfleet and Provincetown. The artists split up and made rounds, looking at art, assessing galleries with information that we had discussed beforehand, and chatting with gallery staff and owners. Maureen later observed, “I was really comfortable talking to the gallery owners and feel like I made a couple of good contacts for sometime in the future. For now, I will plan on popping in again the next few times I am down to continue our conversation”.
This is a good way to get to know a gallery and for them to get to know you—keep showing up. If it is the gallery of your dreams, you might want to do this for years—I know of someone who finally got into the NYC gallery that he coveted after a decade of showing up, and repeated submissions!
I had introduced Polly and another friend, Jenny Nelson, to Julie Heller, my Provincetown gallery, over the summer. During our visit to P’town, Polly met Julie and her staff and brought new work (which drew attention immediately from gallery-goers), and I was able to nail down details of a show I will be co-curating with Julie of my, Jenny’s, and Polly’s work next summer.
I am often asked by artists if they can use my name when approaching a gallery. I have no problem with this, but it will not provide any real connection. The only way to help another artist is to make a strong personal recommendation to your gallery, and that only works if you have a relationship of trust with them. Then, of course, they have to fall in love with the work.
Further, many galleriests have told me that when choosing from the big talent pool out there, they are looking for artists who are professional and easy to work with. I see this as a quality of life issue. So many stresses seem unavoidable, so why wouldn’t a gallery owner or director try to circumvent that of a difficult artist?
I know a great number of artists through my galleries, the community, mentoring, and teaching. The only time I intro them to one of my galleries is when I feel that it is as beneficial to the gallery as it is to the artist to do so. Otherwise, I would lose the ear of my dealers, and thus not be able to help anyone at all.
When I said goodbye to Julie after our day in Provincetown the last thing she said to me was, “thank-you for Polly and Jenny”.
Finally, from Maureen, I will include a lovely commentary on the week. “I think the next retreat should be called, “Things they don’t teach you in Art School”, because I left Brewster armed with so much knowledge. The experience of being able to speak to other women artists who have the same insecurities and similar perspectives was incredibly helpful. I left the retreat with much more confidence, and between the class I took with you at PAAM and the retreat, I have found that it I have lost that old paralyzing fear of “what if this piece isn’t perfect?”. I am better able to play with ideas and if they work out, then great. If they don’t, I can try something else. It’s not the end of the world. That in itself is worth everything to me.”