Inspiration Just Outside the Window

There’s only one thing worse than getting lost in cyberspace when I’m supposed to be writing: looking out the window of my art studio when I’m supposed to be painting. Assembled in front of …

Source: Inspiration Just Outside the Window

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Inspiration Just Outside the Window

Birder Heaven Med

There’s only one thing worse than getting lost in cyberspace when I’m supposed to be writing: looking out the window of my art studio when I’m supposed to be painting. Assembled in front of my azaleas, feeders of all shapes and sizes attract a variety of birds. In fact, I had to buy a book to identify them all. I’ve seen male and female cardinals, blue jays, blackbirds, grackles, Carolina wrens, black capped chickadees, vireos, robins, flycatchers, sparrows, mourning doves, finches, mockingbirds, tufted titmouse, towhee, woodpecker, and warblers. And a few I can’t identify.

Of course, squirrels make a nuisance of themselves, but their antics are entertaining. They slide down feeder poles like drunken firemen, spin around on the hanging feeders like Tilt-a-Whirls, and chew peanuts upside-down from the mesh slots. Too often, I find myself fiddling with my zoom lens instead of painting.

A local art gallery association to which I belong challenged all of its members to shoot a photo of their studios and frame them. (“Egads,” I thought, surveying the stained rags, splattered floor, piles of boxes and paint cans, and dozens of portfolios vying for space in my studio. “What a mess! Who wants to look at this!”) Then, in the medium to which we artists are accustomed to working, create a piece inspired by our studios. It didn’t have to be something inside of the studio. Just inspired by it. The framed studio photos would hang next to the inspired pieces for an upcoming show.

Easy choice for me. My studio is completely banked by windows on the north. I feast my eyes upon azalea bushes, sassafras trees, pines, dogwoods and a redbud. I’ve collected a vast array of bird feeders, and to watch the birds feeding and flitting is a captivating retreat.

For this challenge, I wanted to paint as many bird species as possible, using a gold background of gingko leaves. (I planted a gingko tree in another part of the yard years ago; it’s still only three feet tall.) I knew that I wanted the design to take a circular motion, one that started with a cardinal smack in the middle and ended with something faint and tiny in the background.

Originally I’d named the painting “Birder Heaven,” but when my husband saw it, he exclaimed, “Oh, it’s an Angry Bird!” Well, that took care of that! “Angry Birds in the Garden” was a delight to paint, and as many paintings do, it evolved beyond what I’d foreseen. I can’t wait for the show to open.

In the meantime, I try to focus on my drawing board. It helps if it’s raining.

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Blurring the Lines

The exhibit, “Masterworks of American Impressionism,” just ended at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News. How exciting to view works by Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent among others. Photographs do not do justice.
Neither do teachers who still, in the year 2014, insist that art is prettified repetition limited to an old fashioned textbook definition. “What is art?” one of the docents asked a group of school children recently.
“It’s drawing inside the lines,” a wee one responded.
Ouch.
At least she brought her class to the gallery.
“Drawing inside the lines” was a perfect, nearly scripted setup for the docent’s explanation. There is far more to art than staying inside the lines. In fact, the Impressionists did not stay often inside the lines, either linear, literal or figurative. The point of their movement was to blur the edges of tradition and realism, to take the viewer on a visual journey of emotion and texture and light, to create familiar subjects in a somewhat realistic manner that disintegrates into dots and squiggles and smears when the viewer stands close, forcing one to cry, “How did she do that?”
Movement—the stroke of a brush or palette knife creates curves of paint that cup the light, blur the edges, launch motion. How to stay inside the lines when your intent is to create light? To emphasize a rounded form, transparent fabric, the glow of a sunlight through the curve of an ear? How to stay inside the lines, why to stay inside the lines when a wide, flat stroke of white on warm gray can create a 200 page book like the one being held by the reader in “Man Reading”? Yes, my favorite piece in the show. I just couldn’t stare at it enough. I wanted to devour it, as though the paint were whipped cream. That swift, sure touch of white to indicate the pages—pure genius.
If the students who toured the exhibit came away with a smidgen of that idea, they will have learned more about art than all of their elementary school education combined.

Running to keep up with the keyboard

Dijbouti. Suez Canal. Night vision goggles. Combat rescue. Cargo ships. International flights. Missed flights. Arab culture. Clans. The mechanics of heat and missile speed. All the things a good writer should know. Like David L. Robbins. And me.
Me?
Yes, I write. And I don’t write in the genre of David Robbins. Good thing, because not only would I never be able to steer a ship the size of five football fields under the smile of a whimsical, indulgent Arab captain (I am, after all, a woman), I would never be able to keep pace with David Robbins, who has the energy of five cruise missiles and the stamina of five football teams.
I felt like I’d had five cups of coffee after I’d listened to his talk at Christopher Newport University today.
To say that I enjoyed his talk immensely would be an understatement. To say that I felt inadequate would be, too. I write about art. Family. Gardening. Health care. Mental illness. Asperger’s. A bit of science fiction. And yes, I have had a short story published about an honor killing in Pakistan.* I blush to think that I had to look up the spelling of Kalashnikov. David Robbins I am not.
I focused on the protagonist as a woman in a harsh and unfair culture, a woman as a mother and a poet, a pure spirit, an individual. I researched the type of food a typical, if poor, Muslim housewife would make in Pakistan, the smells of that food, the smells and colors and noises of the marketplace she so seldom sees. I focus on the place she hides her forbidden poetry–so near, so intimate, and so undiscovered–beneath the bed in her own home. I write about the beautiful embroidery she stitches to sell behind her husband’s back.

These are the things I know. These are the things I weave into a story of willpower, family, betrayal, terror, despair, faith and love.
And then it dawned on me, why should I be David Robbins? I have no desire to aspire to his scope of of travel, level of production or genre. “Write what you know” is a well-worn phrase, to the point of cliche’, but it is so true. I know art. I know embroidery. I know marriage. I know children. I know nature. I know dogs, cats, and horses. I know what it feels like to stitch in haste, to prick my finger with a needle, then observe a single drop of dark red blood spring from my fingertip like magic, to wonder what would happen if my blood were diseased, or if I accidentally smeared it on an expensive fabric that were to be given as a gift to a head-of-state, or if I licked it and found that I’d developed a desire and addiction for it.
It doesn’t take a whole lot to send my imagination into a flight of creativity, a what-lf situation that leads to a story or a description that leads to a poem or painting. I take it for granted; I was born that way.
So with David Robbins in mind, and not in spite of his animated, high spritited adventures and his engrossing story telling skills, I continue with my smaller life, my quiet paintings, my detailed descriptions. Shame on me for thinking I have to keep up with the Joneses of the writing world. There is no need to run to keep up with the keyboard. I only have to make sure that it’s there, waiting, each time I’m ready for it. I only need to keep pace with myself.

*http://www.livewirepress.net/

 

Color My Palate

The colors I eat are mostly browns and tans … oatmeal with dark brown sugar, chicken with Italian spices, baked potatoes with the skin covered in olive oil and sea salt. The best form of brown, even from Martha Stewart and Sherwin Williams, is the warm brown of chocolate—hazelnut, milk, organic dark, and extra dark. I’m supposed to eat a palette of colors—green for iron, orange for eyesight, and I remember the carrots and beans in my mother’s homemade vegetable soup, colors of fall and winter and warmth and fullness. Like the leaves outside the front door, our red maple and the neighbor’s oak, the bright yellow of willows whose bark peeled and curled with character and familiarity.
It never occurred to me to eat by color until I met my mother-in-law, who cooked from difficult magazines like Gourmet, each meal an experiment in organic chemistry, portions measured perfectly, colors like a palette to soothe the palate. Imagine, me, an artist, ignorant of a food palette! Oh yes, I’ve made up for lost time, but when things get tough, I always fall back on basic essentials and routine. Chocolate, smooth and full, resting on my tongue like an ocean of flavor, while I float away on the restful tide.

Redoing, repainting, rethinking

I knew when I painted the huge (30″ X 40″) acrylic of my daughter in a summery, sunglasses, tank top pose, getting into a car, that the proportions were wrong, but I was on deadline for a show entry. I just needed the image to be sharp, bold and attractive enough for a photo and email entry, and I could work out the kinks later.
I was overjoyed that the work was accepted.
Now, for the hard part.
I loved the mouth and the face. My favorite parts. But the head, overall, was too small. The rest of the body, such as  the arm, then the purse, as well as the car,  had been worked out proportionately, so my only choice was to paint over the face.
Sigh.
She ended up with a gaping black and red smile that looked like the Joker, aka Jack Nicholson. The perfect reflected light and shadows on her chin were painted over and enlarged. I am about a third of the way there.

Part of me is disheartened. Part of me is excited. I love to paint, and I love this painting. Trained as an illustrator, my background involves 00 (double-ot) Rapidographs, ruling pens, and T-squares. Large paintings involve a lot of large brushstrokes, then standing back several paces to obtain a true view.
It helps to loosen up with a glass of wine, too. And chocolate. No salesmen or corporate clients to worry about messy fingerprints on pristine illustration board.

So much of my life is like this now–redoing, using broader strokes, standing back to assess my progress. I can’t help but wax philosophical and consider that it is a good thing. I’ve got years of training under my belt. Teeny-tiny, detailed illustrations, drawn and re-drawn to clients’ specifications, published in the form of calendars and matchbooks. Cleaned typefonts, enlarged from aforementioned matchbooks, enlarged to 20 times their size, meticulously sculpted, then reduced and re-photographed. Pica measurements. Darkroom stats, printed too quickly, then cleaned up with White-Out on deadline.

I’ve earned this freedom, this joy.  And it shows. This painting, and others like it, have a sense of life to them that was lacking in my older, scripted work.
I hope that this sense of joy and freedom, built on accomplishment, spills over to other areas of my life–parenting, caregiving, organizing, cooking, volunteering. Whenever I feel my neck tighten up, or my temper flare, I remind myself to walk softly and carry a big paintbrush.
It feels good.