Monday, October 27, 2014

By-products of Painting: Little Round Things

Celebration - acrylic - 36" x 42" - 2014

I recently received the pleasing news that my collage Celebration had been accepted for an exhibition. "Pieced Together" will open at the Cultch, 1895 Venables St. in East Vancouver, on Wednesday November 5 and run to December 7. (Please see This will be the first time that I have been able to exhibit any of my "little round things" outside my own studio.

I have been creating and accumulating acrylic paint discs for several years. It all started as a way to minimize the amount of paint that I put into the environment via the sink drain and our water system. I was shocked to see painters washing heavily laden brushes and palettes under the tap without scraping off excess paint first. Although acrylic paint is less toxic than other media it contains heavy metals--notably cadmium--and various dyes, binders and other chemicals that are potentially harmful to human and animal health. So I developed a few habits that are second nature to me now. They do slow me down a bit, but that gives me time to think. In a painting session I tend to use a different brush for each colour, and I have to keep them wet. Before plunging a brush into my pot of water I rinse and scrape it into a small plastic vessel such as a yogurt container. The water evaporates over a few days and gradually the paint hardens into a disc lining the bottom of the pot. When it's quite dry, and thick enough to hold together, I weasel it out with tweezers. Soon after starting this practice I began to control the colour combinations a bit, putting all my green scrapings into one pot, reds into another, etc., and then perhaps adding a contrasting hue. I noticed that some pigments--cadmium and earth colours--drop to the bottom, some, such as ultramarine, granulate, and others, the synthetic dyes, form smooth transparent layers. It's a chemistry lab in miniature.
Maybe only their mother could love them, but I find these miniature abstracts fascinating. Each one is unique, and some are quite beautiful. Some suggest images of real things, such as the one on the right, which I called "Cockscomb."
Nine Paint Discs - 10" x 10"
Little round things are not, however, easy to work with. I have a large collection now, and have made a few attempts to do something with them by mounting them in various ways. Two of these efforts have sold: Nine Paint Discs is a formal arrangement on a plain white
Pie in the Sky - 7" x 7"
panel, and Pie in the Sky consists of three discs on a bit of a discarded canvas.

Paint Disc Abstract 3 - 4" x 4"
I also experimented with scanning a disc, blowing up the image and printing it out, sometimes collaging an actual disc onto the print.

Paint Disc Abstract 6 - 4" x 4"


I have a couple of other ways of making by-products while painting. At the end of the day if I have still-moist paint on my palette I scrape it into an airtight container, give it the occasional stir, and eventually have neutral grey paint to use on the edges of my canvases. Even the paint-laden water in the pots used for rinsing my brushes and keeping them wet gets re-purposed. I pour it into a pail and let it evaporate until I have a disc up to a foot across. A lengthy process, but a lot of paint saved from the drain.

All this is fine as far as it goes, but I would really like to incorporate discs into a larger conceptual work, where the medium and the subject matter are closely identified. I'm not quite there yet, but Celebration is a step closer. I made it to submit to a show with a recycling theme, but first I tried a formal arrangement with the discs representing the triangular logo that indicates a recyclable container.
Canada Recycles - 19" x 26" - 2014

Canada Recycles detail
I included the word "Canada" in the title because it is clearly visible on many of the discs. The lettering on the base of the yogurt container, reversed on the inside, has embossed the hardening plastic.

Neither of these compositions made it into the recycling show, which was disappointing at the time, but the important thing is that I was motivated to produce something with my discs. Doing just this little bit to lessen the assault of human activity on the natural environment gives me some satisfaction, and meanwhile I am continuously adding to my stash of a raw material which has intriguing possibilities and costs me nothing!

(recently updated with new work)

This year's Eastside Culture Crawl will take place November 20 - 23.
For details see

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Two from 2013: "Granville Bridge" and "Bend in the River"

Bridge on the Lydd - acrylic - 11" x 14" - 2010
When I painted Bridge on the Lydd four years ago (Please see this blog, September 2011) I was primarily concerned with painting a landscape that included reflections in water. The bridge figured prominently in the composition, but did not interest me more than the trees and rocks and reeds. Apart from the gently rippled water there is no movement in this picture: it is a static, peaceful scene.

In 2013 The Vancouver Sketch Club chose "Bridges" as the theme for a group show. My contributions were a view of Granville Bridge, one of three bridges spanning False Creek and linking Vancouver's Downtown with the rest of the city; and Bend in the River, which depicts a bridge over the Lune, just outside Kirkby Lonsdale in Northern England. Like Bridge on the Lydd, these paintings are landscapes of a kind, but this time with a man made structure as the main focus. As I worked on the paintings and developed the image of each bridge and its surroundings, I was surprised how often I found myself thinking about movement. The bridges just stood there, stable and stationary, but these paintings seemed to be about motion, arrested, contained or implied.

Constructing a bridge, even the most basic--a plank thrown across a stream--implies that you want to go somewhere, and that there is an obstacle that you have to go over or under to get there. Usually there is movement in two directions, often running at right angles: cars go over, trains go under. Or the trains go over and pedestrians go under. Or boats go under, or a fast-flowing stream goes under, or water in an aqueduct goes over . . . and there's a little bridge in Queen Elizabeth Park where my children and I used to act out the story of the Billy Goats Gruff. My little goats would trit-trot across the bridge while I lurked underneath waiting for my big moment: Up jumped the TROLL! Delighted screams!
Granville Island sketcher - photo

Granville Bridge is a utilitarian structure of no great charm, heavily used by commuters on their way to work and home again. It's a main artery into Vancouver's business district, and crossing it feels like driving a stretch of highway. Side views are scarcely more inspiring. Much more interesting are the spaces underneath, and the worm's eye view of the bridge from far below. At the south end the bridge passes over Granville Island, popular with both tourists and locals for its market, galleries, cottage industries, children's amenities, and green spaces. There one idyllic summer morning, under a tree and beside a pond, I settled down to draw with some of my Sketch Club friends.  I also took
Granville Bridge - ink
Sketcher - ink
photographs, and later, in the studio, painted Granville Bridge.
Granville Bridge - acrylic - 16" x 16" - 2013

From this angle the bridge acquires a certain grandeur, due to the immense height of those concrete supports. But why did I keep thinking about movement? I know nothing about civil engineering, but I was very much aware of the downward thrust of the verticals--I could feel them boring deep into the earth--and the upward leap of the bridge deck. The movement seemed barely held in check. It reminded me of a  story I'd once read about a bridge that couldn't withstand the tremendous pressures and tensions and sprang apart like an overstretched rubber band.

A bit of research informed me that the bridge disaster I was thinking of was fictional, but I discovered that Wikipedia has a remarkable, and very long, list of bridge failures going back to the Middle Ages: . As I scanned the list I began to think it's a miracle that any bridges hold up, and that's a scary thought in a city like Vancouver, which is hard to get out of without crossing water. It's true that we've had only minor earth tremors in the fifty-odd years I've lived here, but there's that Big One waiting to strike. Granville Bridge was opened in 1954, and has been seismically upgraded. I hope it's enough: that's one kind of bridge movement I don't want to see.

My second bridge painting is based on a photo I took when visiting a friend in Kirkby Lonsdale. It was not a promising day for walking around sight-seeing: the sky was moody, threatening rain at any moment.
Bend in the River - acrylic - 16" x 16" - 2013
I called this painting Bend in the River because this time the movement which interested me--and was a challenge to paint--was the turbulent rush of the water as it rounded the corner.

At the time I photographed the scene I knew nothing about the bridge, and it wasn't until yesterday, when it occurred to me to try to find out its age, that I learned that it has quite a story. It's called Devil's Bridge, and according to legend was built by the Evil One himself, but only after he was tricked by an old woman. The price for building the bridge was the first soul to cross it; but the old woman threw a piece of bread across and sent her dog to retrieve it. The devil got only a canine soul, but evidently kept his side of the bargain. Since the bridge dates from around 1370 it has seen a great amount of traffic back and forth since the unfortunate dog's inaugural crossing, but it has been closed to motor traffic since 1932. A nondescript new bridge replaced it, only a short distance away and visible under the central arch of Devil's Bridge. In my painting I concealed it behind some trees.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Objects Fight Back: Abstraction and Fantasy

First of all, many thanks to those people--you know who you are--who have gently reminded me over the past few months that it's a long time since I added to my blog, and have indicated that you would like me to write some more. Belatedly, here is my first post of 2014.

Most of my painting time in 2013 was taken up with experiments in abstraction (please see blog posts of October and November.) At the end of the year I was left with two unfinished canvases that leaned accusingly against the wall and demanded attention. I had started both of them in the same workshop on Intuitive Painting that produced my "Images of War" series. The instructor had asked participants in the workshop to bring three objects. I turned up with an apple made of wood, a soapstone carving of two seals, and an iron key rack depicting two human figures carrying fish. I can't remember why I chose those particular items, except that they are all treasured possessions, but I do recall wanting representations of living or organic things that were not actually very realistic.

There was a catch, though. At the workshop we were asked to swap one of our objects with another student. With a pang I let go of my smooth, shiny apple and acquired instead a posable model dog, another object that was recognizable but certainly not realistic. In fact,
in size, colour, material and detailing all four objects were nothing like the originals, though they weren't much abstracted, either. 

Our instructor, artist Eri Ishii, then wanted us to make a composition of our three objects, working intuitively and not being too concerned with realism. I produced two paintings, neither of which Iooked finished and neither of which impressed me as something I wanted to keep. Unfortunately I did not take a photograph of the first effort, and have only the vaguest memory of it. I do remember that it had some awkward straight lines derived from the edges of the table on which the objects were arranged. I did photograph my second attempt, after fiddling with it a bit more after the workshop. This is what it looked like:
The seals are easily recognizable, and in a way the dog is too, though I couldn't help thinking it looked more like a human figure with its hands over its ears in a "hear no evil" pose. The little fish are peeking out from under the base of the dog model, but the fishermen have disappeared. The painting is weird, and I'm not sure about the sizzling hot colours, but part of me wonders why I didn't just accept it as a bit of surrealism . . . or else plough it under and reuse the canvas.

Anyway, that's not what happened. After almost a year the two paintings were still leaning against the wall, challenging me to do something. In the case of the one pictured above I eliminated the platform to which the dog was attached, so that the amorous seals, which had been awkwardly perched on a sort of diving-board, were now resting on a flat surface, and the fishermen with their catch emerged into full view. I also got rid of the hot colours and modified the background shapes. Finished product:
Meeting of Three Objects - acrylic - 18" x 24" - 2014
Did I improve it, or did I lose something important in the reworking? I can't decide. Your opinion is welcomed!

The other painting is much more abstract and very little of the original still life remains. You can still distinguish the shapes of the dog and the seals, but the key rack is gone, apart from a schematic reference to the hooks--the elongated feet of the fishermen. The other shapes evolved from areas of negative space. I moved things around and overpainted, much as I did with my "Intuitions" series of 2013. The assemblage of shapes seems to be floating through space.
Abstraction from Three Objects - acrylic - 16" x 20" - 2014

The other day I found a reusable frame lying around and tried it on this painting. This will give you an idea:
Adding a frame somehow adds stature and authority to a painting. At any rate I liked Abstraction from Three Objects a lot more, and it occurred to me that it's rather a restful work and that the colours would go with the decor of my bedroom. So this Cinderella of a painting has found a home, at least for now. As for me, I'm sure I will continue to feel the gravitational pull of both realism and abstraction.

Two announcements: My series of paintings "The Sky Beneath" is currently on display at the Tsawwasswen Arts Centre, 1172  56th St.. Delta. The show continues until August 29. I wrote about these paintings in this blog, April 12, 2012.

My series "Artists at Work" will be on display at the West End Community Centre September 8 - 27. address: 870 Denman St., Vancouver. I wrote about this series November 13, 2012, but have added two more "artists" to the collection since then.   

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What to do with a View: Sketches, Photos and Ideas

One reason I rent a studio space rather than painting in my kitchen, quite apart from the health and hygiene considerations, is to force myself to show up and paint. At home there are always distractions and excuses, whereas if I pay rent each month I have to justify the expense and use the place. Now I'm feeling much the same way about the panoramic views from my apartment: while I certainly enjoy just looking at them, it's not quite enough. If I call myself an artist I should be able to use the raw material outside.

My former home had "peekaboo views" between the houses. In 2011 I set myself the task of taking a photograph every morning through the same gap, where on clear days Mt. Baker's volcanic peak poked up.The sunrise pictures, such as this one from late January, were the most dramatic . . . but more often than not the mountain's face was veiled, so I called the series "Mt. Baker or Not." I kept it up for a whole year, except when I was away from home.
Last winter I moved to an eighth floor apartment with unobstructed views not just of Mt. Baker, the highest and most distant peak, but, working from east to west, the Golden Ears,  Seymour, Grouse, the Lions, and Hollyburn, along with many others that I can't name. And on days when I the weather obscures them all, six immense cranes dominate the scene.

Looking directly north I see the eastern side of Grouse, with its ski slopes at present waiting for more snow. I can just about distinguish the line of chair lift supports--easier at night, when they are lit up. Moving down, I see forested hillsides and the buildings of North Vancouver. Then in the middle distance the view gets really complicated, with docks on both sides of the inlet. Massive structures and loading machinery overlap each other and present weird perspectives. It's hard to tell what's on land and what's on the water. Activity continues day and night, and things change shape and position. Freighters, tugs and barges come and go, stacks of containers form and re-form, and the orange cranes regroup themselves and raise and lower their necks, more like giraffes than their avian namesakes. Closer to home the view becomes less picturesque. The neighbourhood is mixed, with a coastal strip of concrete jungle giving way to residential streets higher up.There's an expanse of unattractive flat roofs, and then finally, if I direct my gaze straight down, a discarded armchair or broken table in the alley--right beside a conspicuous "NO DUMPING" sign.

I considered doing a photographic project similar to "Mt. Baker or Not", but didn't want to restrict myself to one spot. And I didn't want to accumulate thousands more photos, either. Instead I resolved to do a daily drawing, selecting whatever section of view appealed to me at the time, and setting a timer so I didn't spend all day on it. I provided myself with a variety of non-dusty drawing materials (mess stays at the studio) and decided to put on a different CD each day as a change from working in silence.

This all sounded fine . . . until I actually sat down to do it. Faced with something like this:
how on earth was I to draw it? And that's just if I look straight north. There are also the views to west and east . . .

Cheerful in felt pen.

Anyway, I made a start, and have been at it a month, though I haven't come close to the daily drawing I intended. I quickly discovered that e
ven a small chunk of the view is overwhelming if I try to draw all the details. I have to remind myself that I'm not preparing engineering drawings, and that, as I wrote myself (this blog, August 2012) a sketch is just a sketch and doesn't have to be a masterpiece.

Best effort so far

Cranes and Lions
Looking NNW

The most interesting aspects of my view are also too far away for me to make much sense of them, so accurate rendering is impossible. Squiggly marks to suggest what's going on are one way to deal with this problem and can be surprisingly effective. Another approach would be to study areas of interest through binoculars, but it's an extremely laborious way to draw, and physically exhausting too. I certainly wouldn't have the stamina to do a whole painting that way!
All of this seems to be leading me back to painting from photographs. That way I can zoom in bits of the view that interest me (I could do with a better camera) and enlarge the detail enough to paint it convincingly. Then I could do something like this crane in process of being lowered, or the group of four with their heads in the clouds:

My researches through my living-room window have given me plenty of ideas for 2014. This blog will continue, probably erratically, so I'll be reporting on my progress. In the meantime, merry Christmas to all my readers, and thanks again for your interest.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Divide and Conquer: Cutting up the Canvas

Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I can't make a composition work. Usually it will hang around for a long time, nagging at me to do something, until, to rid myself of the frustration, I'll gesso over the canvas and re-use it. Occasionally though, I like parts of the work enough to want to keep them, and I have had some success with cutting up the canvas and making several smaller paintings out of it. I've yet to try this with a representational painting--now that would be a challenge!--but I've done it several times with abstract work. 

The first time I tried it was with a painting in which I tried to incorporate "windows" into an abstract composition. I never took a photo of it, so I can't show it here. I still like the idea of creating the illusion of looking through the painting at images underneath, and will return to it sometime; but in the case I'm describing the "windows" were the only parts that worked, so I cut all seven of them out, matted and framed them, and called them "Little Paint Poems." I still have three of them, having sold two and given two away as gifts. They are about 3" x 4" in size.

In this case the parent painting never got finished. I tinkered away at it but gave up. The next time I took scissors to canvas was rather different: I felt the painting was finished, and I put a frame on it and hung it on my wall. But somehow I wasn't satisfied with it.

From the Floor
I called it "From the Floor" because it was a more or less accurate rendering of paint spatters on the studio floor. This was the assignment set on the first evening of a course on abstract painting at Langara College. It wasn't until later that I noticed that the shapes suggested sea creatures, an idea that influenced my selection of bits to cut out and keep, and the titles I gave them.

Marine Abstraction 2 - 14" x 10" - 2010
Marine Abstraction 1 - 14" x 10" - 2010

I found a pair of rich-looking gold-painted frames that set off my marine fantasies very nicely, and I sold them soon afterwards.

And so to this year, when I participated in a two-day workshop on intuitive painting with artist Eri Ishii. We were asked to use various non-traditional tools (not brushes) and just two or three colours to make marks on unstretched canvas. This is my rather messy effort:

Perhaps because of the sombre colours I chose, or else because of the dreary weather that day, I felt almost immediately that my painting represented a battlefield. These were melancholy images of war. They didn't form a composition, but they were powerful. So again I selected bits, and produced four small paintings. I wanted rough edges, so instead of using scissors I tore the canvas, and glued the pieces on to 8" square white panels.

The course of editing, however, did not run smooth. I bought two of the panels from a craft shop, to see if my idea would work. Pleased with the first two paintings, I went back to buy more panels--but of course, I'd had the last two, and they were now discontinued. I tried all the Lower Mainland branches of the store, but with no success. I did track down two more at an art supplies store, but they weren't an exact match, and were quite different on the back, which made framing tricky. Ah, framing . . . I had one suitable black frame, but needed three more. I was delighted to find them all on the same shelf--no chasing around the region this time--but when I'd solved the problem of how to get the frames on to the two different kinds of panel, and hung the four paintings on the wall to admire them, they didn't seem quite right together.  I stared at them in bewilderment, and then measured the frames. One of the new purchases was an exact match for the one I had, but the other two were slightly larger and deeper. I haven't yet had the heart to go shopping again.
Four Images of War - 2013

Friday, October 18, 2013

Call of the Abstract: Truth or Lies?

Galaxy - acrylic - 17'x17" -1999
Knowing that my painting activity this year was likely to be interrupted by trips to England to deal with family matters, I set myself a modest assignment: a series of small non-representational paintings on canvas boards. It had been a long time since I did any abstract painting--here's one example that I still like--and it felt like the right time to try it again. I had learned a lot from painting from photographs, but my last year's work--a series of artists painting or drawing ( Please see Meet the Artists, this blog, November 13, 2012) had taken me as far as I wanted to go in that direction. Apart from a pair of landscapes for a group show, all my painting time this year has been spent creating images that have no basis in reality and not even a mental picture as a starting point. Copying, whether from the real world or from photos, plays no part in this process. My initial intention with each new piece is simply to create . . . something. When it seems to be completed and I can sign and frame it, it is . . . what it is.

This all sounds nebulous and hard to defend. Yet I am certainly not breaking any new ground. Abstract painting is a hundred years old, and Jackson Pollock, perhaps the most famous--or notorious--of the American Abstract Expressionists, died in 1956! My modest little efforts are in the tradition of artists who sought to escape the limitations of realistic representation by creating something from scratch, with as little conscious forethought as possible. It sounds as if it ought to be easy, and occasionally it is; but my experience has been that, while nothing could be simpler than to produce a bad abstract work, creating a good one (and who's to say what that is, anyway?) is almost unbearably difficult. The problem is that there are no external reference points as there are with representational images. A building that won't stand up, water that flows uphill, clouds pasted on a sky . . . all look "wrong" in a landscape. And everyone has a mental picture of how people's faces and limbs should "go" --which is probably why Picasso's distortions continue to cause such bewilderment and derision. But in an abstract work there are no guidelines apart from one's intuitive sense of colour, composition, line, balance--the elements of painting.

Having decided that I needed to do the opposite of painting realistically, or even interpretively, from photos, I was looking for a way to get started when, as often happens, one fell into my lap. An artist called Anita Nairne came to a meeting of the Vancouver Sketch club to give a presentation on her approach to "Intuitive Painting." Anita had her audience members cover a surface with splotches and streaks of paint, working without thought or planning. Next we propped up each piece and studied it from a few feet away, turning the rectangle in all four directions and discussing what images we "saw" in the chaotic mess. The next step, after choosing the preferred orientation, is to pick out the images or shapes one wants to keep and develop, and outline them in chalk. These form the basis of the composition, which can then be completed however the artist wishes.

Anita is not an abstract artist, as you can see from the work on her website, . However, I saw right away that her method could be applied to abstract shapes, and I began to try it. I used the leftover paint on my palette to daub on my first canvas board, with the results shown.

View 1
View 2
 I settled on View 2 and began a back-and-forth process of over-painting and redrawing as I tried to wrestle the raw beginnings into a finished product. I constantly heard in my head the voice of Lucy Hogg, one of my first painting instructors, as she exhorted her students to "listen to the painting," but to be very careful, because, she would add with a wicked little smile, "It will tell you lies!"

Any artist will tell you that one of the most difficult decisions is when to stop working on a painting, and I've found that even more of a challenge with this way of working. There's the constant danger of pushing the composition too far and losing what one liked about it before. Nevertheless, I do reach a point where I feel comfortable about quitting. My first "Intuition" ended up like this:
Intuition 1 - acrylic - 11"x14" - 2013

 I decided not to give the paintings individual titles, even though I like naming things and some of the images are suggestive of living forms or of quasi-narratives. Just giving them numbers seems to liberate them from specific meaning and to give free rein to the imagination. Here are the next two, the same size as the first:
Intuition 2
Intuition 3 
Intuition 5
At this point I made a mistake and bought a packet of boards that I thought were the same size but were in fact ten inches high instead of eleven. I am at present working on Intuition 9. The process continues to be exasperating, time-consuming, and fascinating to the point of obsession. Each time I have absolutely no idea what the finished product will look like. Now I have them grouped together on the studio wall I am pleased with the effect. But I don't really know what to make of them. What do you think: are they telling me the truth, or lies?
Intuition 4

Intuition 8
Intuition 6


Intuition 7 - acrylic - 10"x14" - 2013