In the Eye of the Beholder

Though the artist must remain master of (their) craft, the surface, at times raised to the highest pitch of loveliness, should transmit to the beholder the sensation which possessed the artist.

~Alfred Sisley

I’ve pondered these ideas… is the art in the eye of the beholder, or in the artist’s rendering of that thing, that image, that concept?  Is it both or neither? Is it, as Sisley suggests, a vehicle of transmission?  Art being the thing that carries the sensation, the feeling of the artist to the viewer who can then somehow share in what it was that possessed the artist?

Well, lots to think about there.  And many have.  For me, art is a very personal thing… you, and only you, know what you like.  Sometimes you know right away, and sometimes it grows on you, but regardless which way you fall in the spectrum of like or dislike, no one should tell you what to like.  It’s up to you to decide. For me, I gave up a long time ago trying to please my audience, because that’s an impossible task really, and so, I decided to please myself.

The other side of that same coin is, sometimes, in my own personal work, I may not care for a piece.  If I hate it, I will paint over it so I can get some more miles out of a canvas.  (Most artists are into recycling… even the old masters did it, it’s not a new concept.)  Or I will stash it away as a reminder that not everything I do is gold… far from it!  I really should get rid of some of the old crap, but I’m rather nostalgic about the old stuff… even the bad old stuff.  So, I keep it for me, and show it to no one.

BUT, one day, a friend was in my studio and she gushed over an unfinished piece that I happened to think of as bad enough to recycle. There it was, propped up against the wall waiting for a coat of gesso so I could stop looking at it’s horribleness.  I really disliked it.  However, much to my surprise, she loved it!  Something about the colors spoke to her and when I gave it to her she was thrilled.  I made her day with something that meant very little to me, but meant so much to her.

Now, rather than focus on the part about me handing over something I had no attachment to (as if that makes my gesture less than noble and then less than worthy) focus instead on the part about Maria.  She loved it.  She was happy.  She was so pleased to adopt this little wayward canvas and give it a home.

This was the third time this happened to me.  It took this happening three times before the significance of the act held any meaning.  And that was this: for me, even as a creator of art, am not the sole person to judge the value or beauty of my own work.

While I am making it, while I paint and create, I get something intangible.  And if, at the end, that thing pleases me, then great. If it doesn’t, then that’s ok too.  I still got something from the process.  BUT that thing that I don’t care for aesthetically does not mean that it’s bad.  In fact, someone else may love it.  More than one someone… maybe even lots of someones!

Case in point,  Purple Repose:

Purple repose

Purple repose

I hated this painting.  In fact, I was planning on recycling it but while I was waiting for the paint to dry I changed my mind.  My husband saw it and liked it, so, with a shrug, I kept it.  I hung it in the house and after a while, it grew on me too.  I came to like the blue colors, the broad strokes, the way the horse’s shoulder bumped out.  Later that year, I included it (as a print) in a series of blank greeting cards.  It became one of my best sellers.  People loved it!

The same thing happened with Walker Pass, only in reverse:

North of Walker Pass

North of Walker Pass

By reverse, I mean, this is by far my absolute favorite painting (right now).  I LOVE this piece.  It only got a couple of dozen Facebook “likes”.  Granted, this painting has yet to make it out of the house, but still… my dog snapshots get more “likes”.  I didn’t take it personally, because I truly believe in my heart and soul, that art is a personal thing.  I may take it personally if you tell me you hate it and why it’s awful and say other mean things about the thing I love, but hey, I’m only human and that kind of behavior is mean spirited and small.  You are entitled to your opinion, just keep the details to yourself if you hate something (or someone!) I love.

On the other hand, my next piece, I just didn’t love so much.  It’s not recycle worthy, not by far… you’d never see it if it was.  And I still wouldn’t post or show any piece I found embarrassingly bad, or trite or derivative or unworthy.  So, just because I don’t love it, doesn’t mean I don’t like it.  I may just think of it more as a second runner up.

But, it was a challenge.  I worked hard on this one.  The drawing was complex, the details, intense.  It is the 3rd in my series of images from the wilderness, photos taken by women hikers on the CDT or the PCT.  I’m calling the series, The Wilderness Of Women.  Now, here is where I love social media.  On Facebook, I asked women hikers if they would share with me (for the purpose of painting) photos from their hikes and I got an amazing outpouring of images to choose from.  So, choose one I did (thank YOU, Judy Flexer) and got to work.

Sketch for Spectacle Lake

Sketch for Spectacle Lake

I thanked Judy online and somehow, I don’t recall how it happened, but Judy kindly sent me a high resolution image of her photo.  I thanked her politely, but inside I was worried.  All those details… how was I going to block out all those details?  “Oh, buck up, Sky… you’ll be fine!” I told myself.  But I was worried.

And so, I bucked up and promptly fucked up.  It became a horrid mess of tiny, detailed, muddy strokes of paint.  Not the sure and swift flight of color that signified I was “in the groove.”  I bravely soldiered on, slogged up one muddy hill and down the next… madly mixing, swiping, swooping, adding, subtracting and aaarrrggggg!!!!  Nothing was working.  I was in utter despair.  So I did the only thing I could do.  The thing I have never done before.  I almost couldn’t believe what I was doing.  I took it off my easel, laid it flat, and poured turpentine over the entire painting.  I took a rag and wiped it clean.  All of it.  Even the sketch.  Gone.

I waited two days to go back into the studio.  I just couldn’t bear to look at it.  I had never scrubbed out a canvas before, it felt like a failure.  But two days later, I was ready to get back to work.  I followed the faint leftovers of pencil lines that were under the first orange outline and redrew the sketch.  Instead of the high resolution image, I went back to my original Facebook clipping.  That picture, I altered to be bolder, more saturated in color than the photograph Judy had taken.  I made it small and took off my glasses to blur the details.  I needed to see blocks of colors, not every single rock and tree.  I put on a favorite CD and lost myself in Spectacle Lake.

This second go round was tricky… I still had some issues and some personal demons to slay, but it finally came together and I was satisfied.  I signed it today, so that pretty much means it’s done.  It may not be a favorite, but it’s good, I’ll say that.  And when I posted it to the woman hikers page on Facebook…. well, it got 75 likes, right off the bat.  Goes to show you… beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Oil on Canvas 14x16

Spectacle Lake on the PCT
Oil on canvas, 14 x 16

 

 

 

The Inspirational Stretch

Where does inspiration come from?  One can never tell, really.  I like to think of it as weather… a storm that blows in strong and unexpected or a misty rain that slowly seeps into everything.  Sometimes you see it coming and can shape it to bond and meld with your own will.  Sometimes however, there are bolts of lightning that make the hair stand up on your head and scare the bejeezus out of you.  I like those moments of inspiration, they are electrifying, thrilling and exciting.  But I also love the slow seep, where an idea builds and builds and before you know it, you’ve created something magical out of nothing.

Inspiration is where you find it.  this frozen puddle makes a cool fractal!

Inspiration is where you find it. This frozen puddle makes a cool fractal!

But lately, I’ve been all over the weather map.  It’s been raining, sunny, stormy, foggy.  And since our Western Oregon weather pattern has been matching my inspirational mood, I’ve been spending a great deal of time outside.  I’ve been hiking and testing equipment and getting ready for a return to backpacking.

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That’s me in the corner… getting in touch with my hiker self.

Maybe it’s all the hiking… or all the thinking and research I’ve been doing, but my muse has kinda skipped out on me.  It seems as if I didn’t have a single idea.   Well, that’s not exactly right… I have ideas but what I want is lightning  bolts.

So, when in doubt, clean.  I straightened the studio, scraped off the old paint on my palette and checked my inventory.  That’s  when it hit me… I was out of canvas!  How did that happen?!

Ok, so I know how it happened.  I’ve been painting.  Duh.   I thought about getting on line and ordering a new batch but I came across some stretcher bars I bought on sale and decided to do something I hadn’t done in quite some time.  Stretch my own canvas.

What’s that you say?  Stretch… canvas??  Well, well, children, gather round.  Way back when granny was poor as… well, a starving artist, she learned how to stretch her own canvas so she could paint.  Nowadays, she usually buys pre-stretched but she still knows how!  All you need is canvas, a wood frame and a staple gun.  I used to grip my canvas like a mad demon, but then I discovered canvas pliers which made all the difference in the world.

Tools of the trade... so to speak.

Tools of the trade… so to speak.

You can use regular duck canvas you buy at a fabric store (if you can find a heavy enough weight for the job) or you can order specialty artists canvas.  They even make pre-gessoed canvas.  Gesso is the sizing that is painted on a raw canvas to prime the surface for paint.  More about that later.

First things first, the frame.  You can build your own, or buy the premade and ready to put together “in whatever size configuration you like” kind.  These slip together at the ends with some clever tongue in groove joints… a couple of taps with the hammer and you are good to go.  Cut the canvas to size, (larger than you need, obviously) then, starting in the middle, staple to the frame.

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Canvas pliers doing their job.

Canvas pliers have a nice wide mouth and a foot to pry along the edge of a frame or stretcher bar. They grip the canvas, you roll them over the edge of the bar and pulling tight, staple the snot out of it! I couldn’t hold the camera, the canvas and the staple gun all at the same time, so you’ll have to use your imagination.  I staple each middle section, turning the canvas as I go, then work the corners in turn.  To get an even stretch, you need to put in a few staples, turn the canvas, do a few more and so on.  Rotation is the key to an even stretch.

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All finished stapling and trimming the excess canvas. I like to wrap my canvas around the edge of the frame and then paint the edges of my work. Eliminates the need for frames.

Probably the trickiest part besides the stretch is how to fold the corners.  How?  Trial and error, my friend, trial and error.  Just do the same thing on each corner, and make your folds as even as possible.  If you are not handy enough to make a neat corner fold, then canvas stretching may not be for you.  No worries though… it is kinda a pain in the ass to stretch canvas.  There is a reason why I don’t usually do this anymore!

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Next step, Gesso!

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Gesso… two types. Cheap and the not so cheap.

Gesso is just fancy primer. You can use regular wall primer but it is usually very thin unless you buy a top of the line product like Benjamin Moore which has some nice primers. Artist quality gesso is made with high quality materials such as titanium, plaster, clay, gypsum and marble dust suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion.  They will be thicker, cover better, and have the ability to be tinted.  But several coats of the cheaper stuff will most likely do the job.

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I use a wide brush that is dedicated to primers as the thick material is hard to wash out and will ruin my finer brushes.

If I had ironed the canvas before stretching I probably wouldn’t have this fold shadow in my fabric.  I thought I could stretch it out, but alas, it is still there.  The Gesso process will eliminate it, since as it dries, the sizing (glues and acrylic polymers) will shrink, further tightening the canvas.

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I paint several coats in perpendicular strokes. Even though this image shows a diagonal stroke, it was just to lay down the Gesso before smoothing it left to right. You can see how thick it is.

As I was writing this post, I stopped to do a little online research on Gesso and was surprised to find a number of YouTube sites that showed how to make homemade gesso with white glue, titanium paint, plaster and of all things, baby powder.  You can save $$ by making your own gesso, but I wouldn’t  suggest following unreputable sources.  Some of the videographers couldn’t even read the label on the Plaster of Paris box, which threw all credibility out the window for me.  However, they are on the right track.  Gesso in it’s most simple terms is white stuff and glue… painted on a surface so you can then paint on something white.  Done poorly, it will flake off and ruin your work.  Done well and it will last hundreds of years.  Keep in mind those old masters of yesteryear didn’t have access to the wealth of materials we can find in our local home improvement store.  So, really, in all probability you are going to be ok no matter what you use!

Finished canvas ready to rock and roll!

Finished canvas ready to rock and roll!

Best part of stretching my own canvas… I can make a non standard shape (this one is about 16″ by 34″ something you cannot find anywhere) as well as the satisfaction of DIY.  And I saved about $35.  Ten paintings later, that’s $350 so not too bad in the savings department. Oh yeah, and I also found my inspiration for my next piece! That lightning bolt was lurking about waiting for me to stroll by. So stay tuned!