Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Painting's Journey: Truro Lighthouse

Truro Lighthouse, 24 x 30" oil on canvas, christine sullivan

Well here it is. After a week of decisions - some good, some not so good, and this morning's painting session, I am finally feeling better about "Truro Lighthouse" and think it may be finished. Or close. Here's the update:

I arrived at the studio early this morning and read a bit of my Joseph Albers: To Open Eyes book and turned to look at where this painting was up till today. Covered in two, possibly three session's worth of bright blues, greens and peach colored paint. Ugh.

Two days ago I was so mad at where it was going I just tossed it in the corner and painted a few others. Rather successfully I might ad. So this morning I decided I needed to remind the painting just who was boss (chuckle) and finally it hit me. My color strategy was entirely WRONG and the foreground had to change. 

I went to work, first at the palette, developing a new family of warm, earthy colors and a few new greys, and then got to it. For the next hour I painted, changing almost every inch of the 24 x 30" canvas and then, breathing, I stepped back and smiled.

As a relatively new painter I continue to struggle with the mental game and often find myself caught in that grey matter area between my ears that chews on such things as what do I want to paint, how do I want to paint, why do I want to paint and who am I painting for. And what I've noticed this week is that sometimes, well actually often times, I have all this garbage going on in my head while I'm painting!?!? Can you relate? It's also referred to as, "getting in your own way." 

So...I've learned from this painting's journey that I need to work at "being in the moment" because when I'm painting with crap in my head then crap will stick to the painting. And also to stay connected to the subject matter - to be connected with the land so much that you can smell the salt air and feel the breezes. And finally, to be strong and confident in the studio. It really will make all the difference. Now, if someone would just tell Sybil...

Thanks for joining me and, 'till next time, I hope you are enjoying and learning from your own creative journey.
- cs/ss

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Painting's Journey, Day 2: Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Work in Progress - End of Day 2
What a wonderful day for painting! The heat wave broke last night and the light breeze was flittering the leaves making interesting designs on the wood floors and after a short walk with the dog it was off to the studio.  Instead of going right to the easel I first sat down and wrote down some ideas I was having about the Cape and the dynamic connections I have with the ocean. Then I set up a new playlist of music on my iPod (Sting's Brand New Day and Dan Fogelberg's Netherlands were my favorites today) and then sat and looked at where I left off.

I really liked the preliminary draft using mainly black and white and a little red so the big decision today was whether to continue in this direction or jump and go with color. I spent more
Work in Progress - End of Day 1
than an hour at the palette and made up batches of neutrals in earth tones and a few greys with a more "cape/federal" blue tones. Then I spent time looking at the photo and decided I should mix up some oranges and a few greens.  

I took a deep breath and decided to go with color. Starting with the tree line down went dark green, then a muted ochre. I dove into the orange and went for the foreground. And then went into the soft yellow of the lighthouse and brought that forward as well. Painting all areas of the canvas at once is a great habit I picked up along the way. As I was painting the front of the houses in the federal blue shades I pulled them forward onto the fence posts and in the small house in the upper left. 

Stepping back I liked where it was going but at the same time felt like it just wasn't me. Immediately I hear the voices from the Cape saying, "Chris you really need to paint from life!" I took a break and reviewed my notes and closed my eyes and put myself at this location. What did color do to the scene? Was I just making a "pretty picture" (another kiss of death) here? 
Work In Progress - Early Day 2

When I went back to the painting I focused in on the technical issues. I realized the lighthouse needed to be "heavier" so I widened it and moved the "light" part of the lighthouse around a bit (see image to right). This decision turned out to be a bad one and I spent the next hour over working it.  Sigh.

Then, the funny thing that happens during these moments is the little things you "try" that turn out to work and become learning moments - this happened after I let this painting sit alone for awhile and worked on another one and when I came back I went to work on the top of the lighthouse - you'll notice it is still a bit distorted (in the top photo) as it changed shape a few times but enjoyed making marks with the palette knife. 

I finished up the day by starting to work on the details - the white trim of the windows, the fenceposts, adding dark blue to the roofs and back right trees. Then it 5PM and time to give it, and my feet a rest. 
There is still much to do before this is even close to finished but feel I know what it needs..while at the same time feel like I may take it in an entirely different direction. Guess I will just have to sleep on that! 


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Painting's Journey: Day 1, Choosing the Subject

Yesterday I started work on the above painting, Truro Lighthouse, and thought it would be interesting to follow a painting from start to finish as I work on some new ideas. Below is my first post. Feel free to travel with me and post your comments along the way... 

Day 1 - Choosing the Subject

I was in the studio on another hot and humid Monday morning here in Elmira, NY - the fan whirring loudly as my bottle of water condensates on my work table. I wasn't sure what to do and was sitting at my desk reviewing notes from workshops I had taken on the Cape last Fall as a number of photographs of the Cape loosely fell between my fingers. I looked up at my post-it note goals, two of which are: increase your inventory of Cape and/or boat paintings and, push yourself to venture into new and unfamiliar territory. 

I took another look at the small stack of photos and lock in on this snapshot of the Truro Lighthouse and it took me back to the day I visited. I was alone on a rather brisk, grey November day. Here, high above the Atlantic Ocean, was a place I hadn't been to since I was a young child. I remember the feeling of anticipation I had while walking up the sandy path and then, as if a vast curtain opened there it was. The beautiful, formidable, strong fortress mothered by a warm, clapboard Cape house breaching the sky like a whale's tale. And her surrounding split-rail fence invited me in to continue walking. 

The wind picked up as I followed the path out to the top of the bluff and embraced the ocean view, the salt air filling my lungs. When I turned back to look at her, there stood before me this image and it caught my breath. Her solid cement foundation rising out of the sand dune seemed to rustle at my soul and I quickly picked up a blank canvas and decided this is what I would work on today with my passion fires brightly burning. How long as she been there? How many ships caught her beacon to safety in a gale? How many people have worked and lived here? 

I then got to work. I took my time between the photograph and the canvas. Back and forth. Back and forth. And then boldly determined and drew in the three dynamic "composition lines" that I learned from Cynthia Packard during one of her workshops (which I now remember took place the week before this photograph was taken). This step sounds easy but it takes some study and practice because where you place the image on the canvas can make or break the painting, and if it's not determined BEFORE you start painting then you will, most certainly, fail. Trust me...and the paintings I've tossed over the balcony.

When I felt I had this step down I began to sketch in the next layer of dynamic lines. I should have stopped here because I drifted off and started sketching the subject itself. This is the "kiss of death" according to Cynthia, who, along with her mother, Anne Packard, feel that you really should only paint from life. And while I agree, I am going to use this approach to help abstract out my lines. We will have to wait to see how this pans out.

Next, I begin the under-painting process. This is when I block in the shapes, lines and form and plan out the high contrast areas. I then sketch in, with the paint brush, the dark lines to solidify the main graphical elements. Then, with the foreground still staring blankly at me, I rather quickly paint-sketch in the fence posts with an exaggerated purpose. 

I step back and like how these help to lead my eye back into the painting. It feels a bit too realistic for me but I trust I can handle that later in the painting process and decide to leave it. I fix some of the errors at this point - the lighthouse was too "fat" and some of the buildings needed adjustments (and still do, which can wait until later) - and at this point I start to like where it is going and feel okay leaving it until tomorrow. 

I tease some color onto the roofs which I know I shouldn't do as one of my "rules" is to never begin to add color until I've determined what colors will be on my palette so I do stop at this point and start thinking more about where I want to take it. What is it about this lighthouse? It's history. It's purpose. How did it make me feel when I first came up to it and when I looked back at it. What is it that draws us to them? And more technically, what colors would convey these feelings? A more muted approach or a more bold, colorful approach? I leave the studio with this door of thinking wide open and with eager anticipation to return. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How One Show Can Make A Lasting Impact

Two years have flown by and it's time for the 64th Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition held at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY. This juried biennial features 100 pieces by emerging and established western and central NY artists. The works were chosen from a field of 623 entries by 230 artists and juried by Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Regionally, this show carries with it a prestigious history and it's an honor and a pleasure to be included. Especially since the gallery is celebrating it's 100th anniversary. This show has created a bit of history for me, too - both personally and professionally. I was thinking about this when I made the trip to the Memorial Art Gallery last week. 

"The Cardinal", 48" x 60" Oil on Canvas, 2011, $5,700, Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY

Friday was delivery day for the upcoming show. I woke early. Packed the car with the large painting chosen for the exhibition (above) and three smaller works selected to go in the gallery store (see the very end of this post), along with some plein air painting supplies (just in case) and started to rain. Not just rain, it poured the entire two hour drive from Elmira to Rochester. 

That said, I arrived without fanfare and smiled to find my friend, Lori McCall, getting out of her car just as I pulled into the drop-off zone. We had planned to meet here but we didn't speak while on the road and somehow arrived at the same time. Well, we laughed and hugged and then got down to business. I, once again, coaxed the large painting out of the back of my SUV (remember it's four feet by five feet and covered with a heavy tarp) without getting it wet. We both signed in, picked up our tickets and headed around to the front entrance to drop off our small works for MAG's gallery store. 

Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY
It was still pouring rain so we relaxed, made friends with the gallery workers and decided to stay awhile. We noticed a docent-led tour of the museum was about to begin so we tagged along. Afterwards, while the tour was informative and enjoyable, we needed more. So we went off on our own and ended up staying another two hours. We just didn't want to leave. It's that kind of a museum.

Was it the Cezanne(s), the Monet(s) or seeing the large Fairfield Porter I love so much? Or maybe it was falling for a small work by Eduard Vuillard or a uniquely impressive oil by Winslow Homer? Or absorbing the art with a fellow friend and painter who was just as speechless and inspired as I? Or possibly the building itself whose architecture transitions from grand marble hallways and walk ways to two story granite cathedral ceilings with paintings almost the same height?!?  Well, it was all of these and more. And a good reminder why we must have and support our museums. Art must be preserved and is best seen in person. 
Modern Wing, Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY

We said our goodbyes and see you in two weeks and left rejuvenated and inspired to get back to our respective studios.

As I was driving back home the rain started to let up and I reflected on the impact this show has had on my life and emerging art career. There were two significant events that took place during the show that have made a lasting impact on my life, both personally and professionally.

First of which is one that led to additional sales and new, lifelong friendships. As part of the show two years ago I had two small works in the gallery store, both of which sold the night of the opening reception. One of the buyers, a Rochester resident, contacted me a few weeks later by phone and shared how much he liked the painting and that it was a gift for his daughter's summer home on Cape Cod - to which I stopped and said wait, what? really? where on the Cape? Orleans?! Not only is that my home away from home but the painting you purchased was composed from a pond in East Orleans. It was meant to be. He then said he was calling to buy one of my paintings he saw on my website, as a gift, for a dear friend.

That next Spring I received an email from his daughter on the Cape. She and her husband wanted to commission a larger painting. We met in the Fall while I was living in Wellfleet and I installed the completed painting in their home this past May. 

The second led to the award of a 4-week artist residency and a new, impassioned theme for my work. During the show I met up with fellow Elmira artist, Colleen McCall, who, hearing me complain about my small home studio, told me about a call to artists for a 4-week artist residency at the Community Arts of Elmira. Well, I jumped on it.  

As part of the submission process I had to meet with the board to discuss the usual why me's and what would I do's. I pitched the idea of painting a series of "Clothesline" themed paintings using our region as inspiration. This idea came to me during a landscape I was struggling with. And again, later, when someone asked me why I never include people in my paintings? I was thinking about this when I drove by a marvelous farm with clothes out on the line and it hit me - clotheslines are people, too. A reflection of their owners. How they hang. How they handle the winds. Some get left out alone for days. Others are neat and tidy. But always they are tethered together. Much like our communities. And I knew then that it would make for an interesting theme and subject matter.

Well I got the residency that November and first I drove all over the Finger Lakes region taking hundreds of photographs of clothes on the line then went on to paint every day for 30 days in the magnificent and historic Langdon-Pratt building where I was surrounded with supportive and wonderful people. The residency included two artist "talks" where the clothesline paintings were not only well received but I learned the concept struck a chord with the more than fifty attendees as afterwards everybody wanted to tell me stories about their clotheslines, then and now.
Community Arts of Elmira

When it was time to decide which paintings to enter in this years exhibition I included what I felt was one of the best clothesline paintings from the residency, "The Cardinal." And was thrilled when it was chosen. 

So, what a wonderful and lasting impact this show has had on me and I look forward to meeting and making more friends at the opening reception on July 13th.

As always, brush on.

P.S. I am writing this from my new studio upstairs here at...the Community Arts of Elmira. Isn't it funny how the universe works?

Planting Season, 24 x 30" Oil on Canvas, 2013,
Memorial Art Gallery Store

Chequessett Neck (Wellfleet), 12" x 12" Oil,
Memorial Art Gallery Store
Duck Harbor (Wellfleet), 12" x 12" Oil on Linen,
Memorial Art Gallery Store