Saturday, December 22, 2012

The catalog for the Art School at Laguna Gloria in Austin has arrived! I've studied it carefully. I know I must take Life Drawing. This is as much a required discipline for an artist as prayer is for a priest. But in addition I'm still intrigued by learning this new medium of watercolor. Looks like some opportunities are presented. First I must get my spouse's next surgery scheduled. That defines the parameters in which I can work.

I'm on the road a lot and I naturally look with an artist's eye. Now the landscape is almost totally in earth tones with splashes of green (mostly cedar) here and there. Whereas I have only been able to see these scenes as acrylics something is changing: Now I'm seeing watercolors. I don't know why.

There was another experience with watercolor at Camp Allen that I have not yet shared. Because it was a little more conventional as a watercolor, perhaps I found some encouragement there. First I will show you a photo of the scene. Then a quick watercolor--spent only a couple of hours with it. The last photo is a close up of a section of that painting that I found especially pleasing.
This is an early morning scene. What intrigued me was the almost turquoise color of the water against the earthy and green tones surrounding it. To my delight I have found that a Payne Gray will convey a lovely bluish gray sky. Add Alizarin red to it and one has a gorgeous color for the bark of the pine trees. Here's the watercolor interpretation:
No, it doesn't look as serene as the photo. Perhaps I spent too much time with the various textures. But I was pleased with the colors. Here's a nice section of the painting:
I like! I like! Maybe I can do watercolor. It is interesting that I'm now seeing the landscape in terms of watercoloring. Where I am with this right now is that watercolor is a good medium for studying a subject. Perhaps I can use watercolor "sketches" as studies for painting in. . . . Have I said this yet? I want to return to oil painting! More on that later.

For now I must return to other callings: I've got three sermons to deliver: One tomorrow--last Sunday of Advent; one for Christmas Eve--Tuesday; and one of the following Sunday. Thanks for giving me an excuse for this little break to indulge in art or to procrastinate: Whichever it is!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Camp Allen is a beautiful conference center located about an hour's drive northwest of Houston. I often spend a week there as chaplain-in-residence. The only requirement is to lead morning and evening prayer and to be friendly and helpful to guests as needed. Most clergy use it as a time for retreat. Many of us are so tired by the time we arrive that the first few days are spent catching up on our sleep. I went there the week following Thanksgiving and napped my way through the first three days. 

For me Camp Allen is also a wonderful place to paint. Years ago they allowed the chaplain-in-residence to stay in one of the cabins which looked out on Lake Coffield--Sassafras Cabin. It's located at the far end of the lake where there is a lot of variety: It is marshy, providing a delightfully ragged edge and hosts a great variety of plants. Momentarily waterbirds or deer have flashed across the scene. From that location I have done many paintings over the years.

However, the popularity of Camp Allen began to require that they keep Sassafras Cabin open to paying customers and clergy were moved to Bluebonnet Cabin. It is a nice cozy little cabin nestled into the woods but without a lake view. Try as I may I've yet to find a single inspiring scene from the vantage point of that cabin. What that has meant is that I spend a lot of time driving around to find a place to paint without intruding upon others. After a couple of days during this stay I realized I had turned the "opportunity" to painting into an "obligation." How can one paint if one is not inspired? So I gave myself permission not to paint unless I found a scene that made my heart sing. In other words, permission to spend the week without painting.

Then it happened: I decided to drive over to Sassafras Cabin to see if anyone was there. No one. So I parked my car and walked down the long slope  to the water's edge where I could look around to the right of the forest to see that favored spot. It always looked different but this time it took my breath away! The scene was a riot of color: Tallow trees (never noticed before) lighted up the landscape in their bright red fall colors. It was the kind of scene that makes one want to fall upon their knees in awe!

Okay. There being no one around I worked up one drawing that morning and another from a different perspective in the afternoon. My plan was to return the next day--hoping there was still no one around--and begin two watercolors: One from the morning location and the other from the afternoon. 

Those painting never got started! The cabin was rented starting the day I had planned to paint. So I didn't go back. I did have my sketches but they were not well developed. Not much I could do working straight from them. What a huge disappointment! Back into the car I drove to the other end of the lake where I could see the scene in the far distance. I could vaguely see the blaze of colors and thought I'd see what I could do in reference to my sketches. But it was frustrating not to see the details. 

I became immediately angry with even my attempt to try. After an initial wash of color I considered the effort futile. I looked around in my supplies and found some felt watercolor pens and quickly scribbled over the background wash. I had given up on the painting and felt I had nothing to lost. As a last impulse I pulled out a mat knife and scratched into the paper. My emotions were running high by then and was careless--giving a finger a good nick. I tried to wrap the finger and stay with the "art working" but it kept bleeding so I decided to stop. I didn't need my blood for the red color!

The next day I looked at what I had done with fresh eyes. It wasn't the painting I wanted.  Some of the scratches are a little severe. But, by golly, I felt like I captured the spirit of the scene! I decided that the "painting"--wrestled once again with the angels--found its own valid song to sing.

Fall colors can be so rich. I see so many scenes that I long to paint. This is a small acrylic painting that I did some years ago of a seasonal creek that runs across the front of our land. It's dammed so that it forms a small pond before overflowing onto the neighbor's land. Can you see that there's many layers of paint? Just like life, I had no idea how it would come out when finished.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Aging has its challenges! I haven't posted for awhile -- or painted for awhile--because I've not been well and because my spouse had surgery. However, dealing with an aging body and mind as one struggles to grow and stay challenged is a primary concern of this blog.

What I have discovered in these past two months is that there tends to be a lot of stopping and starting. That's hard because it takes planning and energy to start up anything. Then, when something forces one to stop there's the disappointment and frustration to wrestle with and the fact that the starting up again will require all that energy once more!

I am finding that I am losing money on taking classes. I signed up for a Life Drawing class this Fall. I loved it!! It was so encouraging and invigorating to see that I could actually do this again. I had wondered how I would do in such a class after not doing it since college. I worried about how stiff my drawing might be. Already I knew I couldn't purchase the larger tablet because I just could carry it in as a younger me would have been able to do: Those are some of the adjustments one has to consider.

How wonderful it felt to see the lines flowing and shapes emerging! So much energy began to pour forth. Felt great. Each class made me eager for the next. Then suddenly it all came to a halt with the spouse's surgery. Neurosurgeon's office hours were the same morning in Houston that my class was in Austin.

So I missed three sessions. When I was free again only one session was left and I felt half-hearteded about it. Even if I did get it all going again, where was it to go? The class had come to an end. However I went but I had also forgotten that I was using two kinds of paper and all I brought was the cheap newsprint. (Aging mind issue?) So I couldn't work much without tearing up the paper. Even so I was reckless and determined and used water to wash in some values. Probably just venting some of my anger about lost opportunities.

I go into all this detail because this is the reality of Learning to Watercolor--or any such effort--when the body (and the bodies of those for whom you have close relationships and responsibilities) begins to present its challenges. This, then, is the point of this particular post: Starting and stopping and starting and stopping is a real and energy sapping reality in attempting to do anything of this nature as one ages.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Following this blog gives you the inside of an artist's work and struggles. Some paintings may never appear anyplace other than this blog--Not because I've hidden them from the world but that I started work on the painting again and turned it into something else. Remember this one?

My reflections on this painting several posts back made me wonder if I might work some more on it to develop the moment in which one might see both rain and sunshine at one time.

I started out by putting more of the orangy-lemony sun of autumn on the far left side and try to develop the feeling on rain on the left. While doing so I found that I kept having two paintings in one. My challenge was to pull them together. Quite a different effect, isn't it? No doubt there are those who would prefer the more tranquil scene above. That's okay. But it is no more. It has been replace by the painting below which I find more vibrant.
I'm now calling in "A Change in the Seasons."

To everything there is a season. A challenge of human existence can be to live fully into the season in which we find ourselves. Each one in its own time.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Woke up at 3:30 this morning and found that I had so much on my mind. There were other things planned for the day but I knew that I had to set everything aside to paint. Worked some more on the painting that I'm calling "Fracking in Process." Everything is in vibration (the action involved in exploring for the valuable contents deep in the earth) and a bloody oily something flows around the painting against the fresh green of nature which is endangered by our relentless search for fuel.

Perhaps you can see the detail work in this painting that you could not have seen in the last post. Yes, it is acrylic. No, I can't say this in watercolor. I've got to have thick paint that I can scrap back into. It's labor intensive. It's therapeutic.

Oh, yes, I'd like to learn to watercolor; but when feelings are strong I have to go with the medium that "speaks" for me now.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fracking explorations are beginning in my woods. We rejected requests to come onto our tiny piece of land but our little 21 acres don't matter to them. Property owners on all sides gave them permission when the money crossed their palms. Bulldozers have been preparing sites for the fracking test just across the property lines. I can hardly stand the sound of their careless and violent pushing through the woods taking down anything in their way. Have the drivers noticed the little old woman standing just across the way? On the other side of the property line.

Today they passed me on the road as they went down the road to another property. In this part of the world we all wave at one another. But these people are brought in from elsewhere for this task. What do they care about me or our woods? They passed me by-- tossing dust in the air. I glared at them. They didn't attempt to wave. I would not have waved back. But they don't even know that this is the custom of the land. They'll do the job they have been given and leave. Go home and have a few beers.

A watercorloring friend said to me, "Watercolor whatever you're feeling." I feel so angry, helpless, frustrated, and worried over this second great intrusion upon our woods. (The first was last year when they put in the great pipeline.) If it is at all possible to watercolor such powerful emotions it is certainly outside of my reach right now.

But acrylics I know. I must speak of this violation. I will use the medium I know--not the one I am learning.

 This just doesn't show the agony of the artist in expressing her feelings as Mother Nature is violated time and time again. Up close you would see that the paint has been applied  thickly and with various instruments (including palette knife) has been scrapped back into the canvass. The blood from the earth flows out and turns into a think oily dark green. The bright green of nature edges the scene but it cannot endure this kind of violation for long.

Is humankind on a track toward self destruction?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Walking on the edge of night. I'm not usually out this late. Just enough remaining light enables me to see a buck running across the field, then another. Each one leaps across the path before me. Night sounds begin to emerge from the woods around me. I refuse to turn around until I get to the gate. 

The surge of energy that pushed me over the creative hump must play itself out before I can stop walking.

I had been stuck. This morning I remembered a writer that had encouraged other writers to just keep writing every single day--even when you don't feel like it. I thought: And that applies to art. I'll go down to the studio and just keep painting even thought I don't know where I'm going with this.

I added more color. By mid-afternoon it occurs to me that I'm tying myself down too much to the sketch. Surely I had  studied and absorbed the scene enough so that I could just paint how it felt. I left to let the last wash dry.

When I returned in the late afternoon I had agreed with myself to just let the feelings flow onto the paper. I painted, washed away, painted again and then--to my surprise-- I began scratching into the surface to retrieve some whites. Hard. I felt as if a midwife was urging me, "Push, push, now, now!" Then, it felt birthed. Stop, I told myself, stop. Go for a walk--although it is late. When you return you'll know what you think of it.

Oh, this is not at all what I had envisioned when I began; but it feels exactly right. Is this acceptable as watercoloring--including this violence done onto the paper? Am I failing as a watercolorist? Those beautiful scenes I have seen done by others. Graceful, pretty. This is not it at all! That lovely scene that I had in my head in the beginning has twisted in upon itself and become something else more . . . truthful.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, how dare you conclude the story in such agony!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The fields are awash in brilliant yellow. This photo pales before the reality.

I was stalling, I realized, making one excuse after another. Then I knew: The beauty of all this was beyond my little skills. I was overwhelmed. I was too much of a beginner to try to do this. And yet I felt I had to capture it because soon it would fade away. Only weeks ago the landscape was fringed with a lovely white flower; and while I pondered over how to express it in watercolor the flowers faded away. Hadn't I learned? Now was the time to capture the yellow. Now!

Go back to the basics, I told myself: Walk the roads, pick the scene, stop and study it and sketch it. Just that much. That's all for now. And so I did. The sketch below is basically of the area where the photo was taken.

Upper left on the sketch pad is the initial sketch. Lower left the shapes of the values. To the right the lines and textures are indicated. Lots of notes. In the studio I used colored pencils to lay out the colors.

So then what watercolor paper would I use? Rather than stall again by preparing the paper I chose a watercolor block. By then it was nearing mid-day so I told myself to just do an initial wash of two main colors. I could then take a lunch break and come back with more courage.

I didn't come back. In this not-climate controlled place that I call my "studio" the paper had buckled. I knew the uneven surface would get in my way and cause all kinds of mishaps. So there it sits: The buckled paper with the first wash, the carefully done sketch propped up for reference, the big brush I used for the wash, the colored pencils I used to lightly sketch out the basic shapes and of course the bucket of water to the right.

Days later it continues to sit there just like that. Many other things compete for my time. I knew I would have to work for the time to paint. I knew that learning to watercolor would not be easy. I will have to make some decisions. Can I find I way forward or will I allow distractions of one kind or another to allow me to stay stalled?

These brilliant flowers: Some call them bitterweed--they say that cows won't eat them. If they do they make the milk bitter. The locals shrug their shoulders. They're just a weed, they say. The severe drought has caused these fields to "go to ruin." They say that with some good soaking rains and proper attention these weeds won't take over like this again. This bittersweet beauty blazes across the fields only this season, they hope. I must hurry, I know, if this scene is to be captured on watercolor. Yet, there's more at work here. In the taste of next season's local honey might be a blazing hint of yellow.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

In-between moments unsettle us. It's been a weekend in which sunshine and rain have alternated as well as come together at the same time. This acrylic captures that odd sensation when the sun breaks through an overcast sky. Here sunlight dances across the left side  while rain holds down the right.

The artist paints, the viewer makes meaning. Will the viewer live into the tension of the moment that I attempted to capture? Or will they hurry on to conclude that it is about to be a sunny day or a rainy one. One thing or another. And which will it be?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Long ago music in the old dancehall had died away. The building sat quietly beside the road that brought people into the center of town for business in the new courthouse.
With pencil and sketch book in hand I walked up and down that road a couple of times looking for a scene to capture in watercolor. The watercolor class field trip time was coming to a close. Many class members had already retreated to the local coffee shop to while away the rest of the time before our shuttle would take us back to Ghost Ranch.

Then I noticed the remains of an old motel just to the right of the dancehall. (Out of picture.) I settled in under scarce shade to sketch the what was left of the old building.
As I planned and noted the values--the deep darks that peeked beyond the greys of old aged boards as well as the medium tones of forefront shade that I shared with the scene--I could almost hear the din of a long ago time but I could hardly begin to imagine the clamor of life these old buildings had witnessed. A scattering of wildflowers threw various colors across the front but I noted that essentially it was the faded pink adobe and green weedy field that defined the color scheme.

Back in the studio I chose the two colors as a beginning wash: Alizarin red and viridian green. Complementary colors--meaning opposite colors on the color wheel that can intensify one another when placed next to one another. When mixed together they create various shades of grey.

 To my delight I discovered the painting shaping up nicely by using only those two colors. Finally I made a decision not to use any other colors. I left out the yellow flowers next to the building and the purple flowers near at hand. I concluded that the two colors alone said just enough to let the viewers' imaginations fill out the picture of what once was but is no more.

Sometimes it takes the least in order to say the most.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Now that you know that this blog is not literally about learning to watercolor, I can switch mediums.

Off and on over the years I painted in acrylics. And mostly I painted landscapes. I could go for years without painting and then bring out the acrylics and splash the paint around wherever I wanted without any need to make it resemble the real scene. It did not matter whether the real tree was a oak, pine or cedar. It only mattered that tree-like shapes made the landscape work as a painting.

Painting a human figure presents a greater challenge. Because of that I did very few. Happily, just a few paint strokes satisfactorily caught this image of my youngest daughter as a toddler playing in the sand.
 This painting has always brought me pleasure. No photographs of her--as delightful as many are--capture her as does this painting. Which brings me to a new insight.

In this the summer of my 70th year I began to realize that I was losing interest in painting just natural landscapes. In the watercolor class I found myself attracted to scenes where there was a trace of human beings--buildings, lawn chairs, clothes hanging on a line.

Then, on my way home I stopped in Santa Fe at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Suddenly I found the whole of her work to be very lonely and in that moment I felt a great rush of affection for people. I wanted to run out and embrace all the wonderful people I've ever known. It was a watershed moment. Then I knew that I had to paint this amazing creature God had made. If I was now going to be able to devote my time to learning to paint again it would express my love for people.

This beautiful child of mine. What was she thinking as she shaped the sand into her own creation. She is one with the beach and sky and yet she is already her own being. Somewhere deep within her depths is there still a trace of whatever she was experiencing in that moment?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season. . . 

That Scriptural image from Sunday continued to dance in my head.  I found a small scrap of paper with some doodling I had done in oil pastels maybe a year ago. I turned the paper around until I saw the possibility of a tree. Then I took the largest brush I had and used the paint left behind from the last painting. I felt the tree should sing and dance.

As an artist I chose not to put fruit on the tree. (The painting is so loose you might not have recognized it if I had!)

But I cannot put fruit on the tree. The tree will bear the fruit as a natural outcome of drinking from the stream of living water. We can produce many things but that which lasts comes in its own season. I find myself asking if my season has finally come. Will my tree come to bear fruit before winter arrives?
In the summer of my 70th year I learned the importance of taking the time to do a carefully studied sketch. No wonder my sporadic attempts at watercolor in the past have failed. Watercolor requires a lot of thought and planning on the front end. I had to study all the angles and juxtapositions in order to lay out even the first wash of color. Even the colors had to be thought through and noted on the sketch. (Painting in last post.)

I wonder what difference it might have made in my life if I had disciplined more of my "ideas" into careful plans on the front end. Did I have to grow this old before I gained the patience to do this?

Monday, September 24, 2012

We started with the basics. I did not mind learning all over again about the color wheel and basic design principles. It felt as if oil was being applied to rusty gears. Somewhere within me something began to move again  and it felt so good. A degree in art from 48 years ago mattered little. This is where I needed to begin anew. I attempted to pretend that I knew nothing and wanted to be a clean slate. But the old learnings surfaced on their own. After a few days in the studio we went on a field trip to a small town northwest of Ghost Ranch. We did two sketches in one town, then two sketches in another. The rest of the week we spent in the studio developing our sketches and painting. Here's a photo of my first subject and the painting that I completed.
A little awkward and stiff. (Looks even more awkward with the paper edges showing.) But I've preferred landscapes in the past so I was pleased that I made a building the subject of my first watercolor. I was intentionally pushing myself away from my usual inclinations. Ha! Fooled myself: Wouldn't you know that my first subject would be a church?
I take lots of photos. Sometimes they provide me with inspiration for a painting. I cannot find the original photo for these paintings but the photo was taken at Camp Allen (Navasota, Texas) on the road to Lake Coffield with its characteristic tall pines and thick brush. From that photo I did my first watercolor (above) after returning home from taking the class in New Mexico. Then. . .

The second painting is an effort to feel more free with the colors and lines. (Same photo.) I thought it was fine at the time. Then a few days ago I decided I didn't like that painting at all. I washed as much of the paint off as I could, then came back and painted over what was left. This time I was feeling more comfortable with the watercolor and allowed it to drip. Trying to find the unique possibilities of the medium.

What this means is that the second painting above no longer exists. What is now on that same piece of paper is the third one.

Sometimes you just need to know when to wash things off and find a fresh start. But can anything be totally erased? Watercolor can be unforgiving. It stains the paper so that much of the color stays behind. The watercolor paint is mostly transparent and doesn't really cover over (hide) anything. Here's part of its unique challenge: You're still defined by what was once done. You take what you have and do with it what you can. I'm glad I tried.

This blog began seven weeks following that first class. Of the paintings that I have done since that time this is the one that I like best. Quite a story it is! I promise to show you from the original photo and sketches to first rendition and then to the second effort and all its variations.

It was the 70th summer of my life. As if I suddenly realized I needed to breathe I had realized that I had to paint. Ghost Ranch in New Mexico offered a course in watercolor. Two weeks before my birthday I began to paint. Not the acrylics I had used off and on over the years. I wanted to begin all over again in a new medium--as a beginner.

Here is a photo of my work space on August 7, 2012. This is where I began to learn to watercolor.