The surface of a body of water is a reflective, moving, open expanse. Beneath it, the water roils with life—rooted or crawling or burrowing or swimming, lifeforms going about their business of feeding off of each other and reproducing and eventually dying. Above it, life also carries on.
One day last July, while staying on Otsego Lake near Cooperstown, NY, I headed to the dock to sit and gaze at the water for a few moments. Looking down at the dock to find my seat, I heard a throaty, loud honk/squack. We had been enjoying visits all week from a mama duck and her nine ducklings, so my first thought as I turned my head was, “that was not a duck!”.
Nothing behind me, but as I straightened to face the side I was now seated at, I saw an adult eagle taking off from the water about 25 feet in front of me. It had been addressing my intrusion, I think!
Shortly after, I decided to make a call to my friend Jenny, with whom I had been playing phone tag. I got her voicemail, and the message went something like this: “Hi Jenny, we’re playing phone tag but I am around today so give a OH MY GOD THAT IT THE BIGGEST *#!%ING FISH I HAVE EVER SEEN IN A LAKE GOTTA GO BYE”.
The fish was directly below my dangling feet, at least two feet across, lit up by slanting sunlight. I know there are fish in these waters, despite an altered ecology due to Zebra mussels—my husband has caught some other years from our small boat and I have seen them feeding off of bugs at sunset. And yet, it was as if this big fish had crawled up on land and joined us on the deck for cocktails, such was my sense of worlds colliding.
I am puzzling out, ever since, what was so startling about this fish sighting. After all, I have been among whales in our 16 foot boat off Race Point in Provincetown—including a pod of killer whales; froliked with a mola and some dolphins in the harbor; snorkled off St. Thomas among all sorts and sizes of sea life.
I think that my jolt of surprise was about expectations, so often the case. I had for days been focused on the surface reflections, and I lost track of the awareness of how much is going on underneath and that during my daily swims, I was intruding upon their busy world. Seeing this large fish directly under my feet brought that crashing back.
As artists we are concerned with both surface appearance and deeper function and meaning. The surface is mesmerizing and ever-changing, feeding our visually-linked emotional hunger, and soothing our quotidian bumps and bruises. The complicated churn beneath, however, mirrors life in its day-to-day, demanding a nuanced and dedicated attention.
This summer has served to remind me of how much I appreciate my galleries. It can be rewarding, sometimes, to hop off that train and do something self-generated like an open studio or studio tour; or an event at a non-gallery venue. But ultimately, a gallery is where people go to view and buy art. It is a business whose purpose is to exhibit and sell art, and therefore all effort is going to that end.
Invitations generally go out in a timely fashion, instead of getting buried in the more pressing things that a non-gallery venue might have to attend to. The galleriest installs the show, with beautiful results based on years of experience. Folks walk in off the streets who are interested in art; search for the local galleries when visiting; respond to invites. A showing of a grouping of selected works in a collector’s home gets on the schedule without delay, follow-ups are done to inquiries as a matter of course…and so on.
That said, the mom-and-pop galleries struggle to stay afloat, with many more friends and lookers than buyers. So collectors, please support your favorite galleries!
And if you are an artist with gallery representation, this is how you can help:
I had a lovely time teaching this past June in Woodstock and August on Nantucket, with a full house for my color-mixing workshop in both places.
These are the demo pieces that came out of the two landscape workshops:
My week on Nantucket was filled with not only with my wonderful students, but also with salt air and good food and warm friendship.
I organized an informal gathering at Thomas Henry Gallery so that my students could see my work there, all of the sea or the island:
The Woodstock School of Art invitational Monothon in July was a printmaker’s dream. Imagine having a printing staff at your beck and call, both master printmakers and monitors, facilitating your every move. Master printmaker Anthony Kirk guided and facilitated my hoped-for plan, my first monotype triptych (and then a few more).
One 8″x10″ was chosen from each participating artist, to be sold at the show there opening September 8th, 3-5pm This is my donation print that will be featured, followed by some of my other wave monotypes.
We will be featuring monotypes and my vintage series, along with oil paintings, in my grouping for the upcoming four-artist show at Albert Shahinian Fine Art in Rhinebeck, NY, their yearly Luminous Landscape exhibition. The show opens on September 29, 5-8pm.
Several of my summer sales:
One of my favorite pieces from the past decade, Perceived Acuity pleases me for its simplicity, movement, elegant shapes, and unusual color:
Link to in-studio available works in oil and on paper:
Coming right up, my teaching week in Provincetown, Sept. 17th for Color Mixing and 18-20th for the Landscape Painting Intensive. If you are feeling inspired and spontaneous, come and join us!
Also upcoming: another residency on Nantucket in November. My focus there and in my studio will be on Atlas/Forms of Water, from the sky to the land to the ocean, and everywhere in between.
These are works on paper, many of them unframed, currently in my studio. Often works on paper are an option that is more affordable than oil paintings. Several of my galleries and consultants also have a selection of framed or unframed pastels, most notably Albert Shahinian Fine Art in Rhinebeck, NY; JSO ART Associates in Westport CT, and Megan Peter Fine Art in Redbank, NJ.
Oil on paper:
Mixed Media/Collage (Of paper and other things, on board):
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.
This topic, a favorite of mine, resurfaced recently in a discussion of Andrew Wyeth with my son. He had stumbled across and was admiring some of the more minimalist drawings and prints, not being familiar with the more famous work (Wyeth is not taught in most BFA program art history classes). In contrast, I had never taken a really close look at the more abstract work, finding it masterful—especially in terms of composition– upon scrutiny.
All artwork that uses recognizable imagery carries some kind of a story, from the merest hint of one created by our own associations with an object or objects depicted to artwork that focuses on documenting something very specific about the world around us. Where an artist chooses to fall along this spectrum is of course a major piece of our stylistic puzzle.
Wyeth’s work is a good vehicle for the discussion of high narrative vs. open abstraction, as is my own, since we both wander back and forth between greater openness and more specificity in different pieces.
“Christina’s World” is the obvious choice for a high-narrative Wyeth. I have never liked this piece so I originally wasn’t going to include it, but the reasons for my dislike pertain to this discussion, so I will begin with it.
This is a piece that is melodramatic, and photographically so. I find the poignancy of the narrative so cloying that I can’t appreciate the composition, and the rendering so exact that I take no pleasure in the surface of the painting. The story is sown up to the point that there seems to be no room for the viewer.
Public Sale”, in contrast, is a gorgeous piece in its tonalist color and sweeping angles that manages to combine a strong narrative with equally strong painterly devices.
Wyeths compositions are stunning in their use of interlocking diagonal shapes and edges to create movement. In “Public Sale”, the tilt of the hill serves the story, clearly the destabilizing event of a home lost to the bank. We are kept from a sense of sliding off the left side of the piece by the dominant color of the driveway angling back toward center right and by the lovely soft stands of trees on upper left that travel off the edge of the piece with the slightest upward angle.
The ample use of gritty black and near-black for the human-interest details of figures, car, buildings, and so on also help convey a theme of human unkindness and grief in the midst of an idyllic (though also man-made) landscape. The genius of this painting is that it has in equal measure the open feel that the sweep of the landscape provides and the tautness of a clear story line.
I suspect that for these major oil paintings Wyeth started with the story and mood that he wanted to convey, and organized the painting to express these.
In the watercolor below there is a major shift toward the abstract with dynamic angles delighting the eye as the lines and shapes lead it back and forth across the painting. Even the signs of human activity have more presence as shapes than as descriptive objects. Much as I am impressed by “Public Sale”, I actually want to look longer at the watercolor. There is no story arc…just endless possibilities as shapes lead into others and tones and lines divide the picture plane.
The following two watercolors are quirky and abstract, playing with forced perspectives, odd linkings of shapes, and fabulous textures. The documentary nature of many of Wyeth’s figurative paintings and figures in a landscape is not present in any of these watercolors, creating an open feel that invites the viewer to enter.
This discussion of content and abstraction is of enduring interest to me as I explore the compelling terrain that contains them both. My roots lie more in the abstract (I call it my “comfort art”, the work I was studying in my teenage years: Rothko; Agnes Martin; Kandinsky—the abstract expressionist work; Frankenthaler; Gotleib; de Koonig.) That I long ago chose to work with landscape imagery doesn’t lesson my ongoing love affair with the formal elements of painting, though it is exactly the intrigue with the push and pull of these two aspects of representational art that generated that choice, as I try to have it all.
The following pieces of my own compare to the Wyeths as examples of paintings with either more or less narrative.
In the first, “Bridge Crossing with Violets”, there is an openness of the dawn sky seen through the fog that counterbalances in mood the grittiness of the truck traffic. We are clearly in a particular moment in time, but there is no story arc.
Sandflats with Cloudbank, in contrast, is almost a pure color-field painting. The whole piece sits right up at the front of the picture plane, the horizon line implying depth but not really describing it (abstract artists always say that the minute you put a horizontal line on a canvas you have a landscape whether you want one or not). The clouds have a bit of volume, anchoring the flatness of the sandflats and stripe of a tidal pool. The shapes of the scene actually looked like this—I might not have had the courage to paint that stripe if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Still, this is a piece that is more about painting than place.
“Diagonal Cloudbank” falls somewhere in between–still a minimum of detail, but creating an experience that takes you there, and perhaps is equally about painting and the moment in time.
My approach to a painting is to carefully work out the formal elements of color, shape, edge, and surface and let the implied narrative and mood follow organically, sometimes surprising even myself. With the below piece, for example, I didn’t expect it to convey such a taut mood, since it is an ethereal subject matter.
Someone once said that all good art allows for the viewer to project their own feelings into the piece. That turf is vitally important to me—I want every single painting of mine to provide that opportunity, at least to the right viewer. In my experience, if the narrative is too specific, it does not leave this chance for open, nonverbal interpretation.