Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Tyranny of Tinsel

From Monday to Saturday each week I read the comic strips in the local paper. I have a huge admiration for the artists who keep their strips going day after day, month after month, year after year. One of my favourites is "Cul de Sac" by Richard Thompson, a family saga featuring a repressed, nerdy little boy and his little sister, who has a Type A personality and no inhibitions at all. In a recent strip, when preparations for Christmas were getting going, the boy stuck a tatty bit of last year's tree trim on the ceiling, and called it his "Tinsel of Damocles." This inspired phrase has kept me company since the moment I read it. Essentially, it encapsulates the same sentiments as I expressed in my painting "A Long Wait" (please see last month's post). The sad fact is that apart from the few years when my children were children and I had to be a closet Santa Claus, I am not very good at Christmas. My malaise started the year I moved to Canada. In December I went to California to visit some family connections, not quite blood relations, with whom my grandmother had exchanged the occasional letter. On Christmas Eve, I of the iron stomach suffered an acute and embarrassing attack of nausea. Fortunately I recovered quickly enough to enjoy the turkey dinner the next day, but for several years after that I came down with some ailment just in time for Christmas. Usually it was a streaming cold or a digestive upset, but one year it was a full-blown flu that hit just as I got home with a mountain of festive food, none of which I could even look at.

In recent years my seasonal indisposition has taken the form of the November blahs (again, see last month) and an ostrich-like denial that Christmas will ever come at all. This is accompanied by a slump in my energy level, which is never too elevated in the first place. Then, at the last minute, the mood lifts and I suddenly spring into action, sending off cards, shopping like crazy just when most things have sold out, and putting up a few token lights and decorations. Oddly enough, and touch wood, the physical ailments are a thing of the past, and I have no trouble enjoying Christmas when it actually arrives.

This year my "tinsel of Damocles" has had an extra strand dangling ominously over my head: the weighty responsibility of having to write a blog post. I know no one's festivities are going to be wrecked if my readers don't hear from me--they're probably much too busy to care--but my own self-respect requires that I deliver on the promise I made last month to write a new instalment mid-December. And here I am, well past the mid-point of the month, still procrastinating. The trouble is that, since starting this blog since February, I have already written about most of my inventory of paintings, or at any rate those that have stories associated with them. So perhaps it's time for the blog either to end, or to evolve into more of an ongoing journal about what I do in the studio.

While I think about this question, I'm signing off for 2011 with a painting done earlier this year. It's the one I'm using this year as my paper Christmas card, and comes to all my readers with my best wishes for Christmas etc. and 2012, and with my heartfelt thanks for your support and encouragement of both my painting and my blogging efforts.

First Snow - acrylic - 24" x 18" - 2011

Next blog post? We'll see!  

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Colours of November: Not Only Grey!

Thirty days hath November . . . and in a typical year, here in the rain forest, most of them are wet and dreary. As I explained earlier this year (Please see "Painting in a Wet Climate", Feb. 27) I've been collecting photographic images of November, and later painting from them, for several years now. I began doing this to stave off the seasonal depression which I associated with the weeks leading up to Christmas, and was pleasantly surprised to find that there was no shortage of colourful painting material to be discovered.
So here we are, in November again, and I'm at the planning stage of another painting on the theme "In Praise of November," based on a photo I took last year. It's an odd image, a "witch" crudely crafted from a child's hockey stick, a store-bought mask, and duct tape. Evidently this creation was thrown negligently aside once Halloween was over. I spotted her lying recumbent on a chafer-ravaged front lawn, grinning complacently at the sky.

Meanwhile I'm again taking photos of anything that strikes me, and have added to my collection some mouldering hosta leaves, a seagull sitting on an industrial chimney, and a litter of fallen crab-apples. This year it's not hard to find bright colours, as in this image of a heap of gunnera leaves photographed today in Queen Elizabeth Park. With a third of November already gone, we've yet to have a sharp frost, a gale or a serious downpour, and the trees have kept their leaves much longer than usual. Although the native trees tend to have yellow leaves rather than the brilliant reds of Eastern Canada, there are enough exotic ornamentals in Vancouver to provide an impressive range of hues.

A Long Wait - acrylic - 2009 - 18" x 24"
My first November painting is called "A Long Wait." I took the photo from the window of a waterfront restaurant on Vancouver Island. The old seaman isn't a real person, but a wood carving, one of a group of figures. I don't know anything about the sculptor--if you do, please pass on the information. Whatever the old man is waiting for--his ship to come in, perhaps?-- combined itself in my mind with the long wait for Christmas when decorations go up right after Halloween, or even sooner, and look tired and tawdry long before the actual holiday. To me, Christmas in November seems as hopeless as standing in the rain and looking out to sea.

Last of the Leaves - acrylic -  2009 - 20" x 20"

In spite of the stereotyped notion of November as rainy, the weather can actually vary from mild and benign, like today, through fog, hail and rain, to heavy, though usually short-lived, snow. Several of my November paintings feature trees or other vegetation in various types of weather.

November Snow - acrylic - 2009 - 20"  x 20"

After the Storm - acrylic - 2009 - 18" x 24"
What a difference a couple of days can make! After Thursday's sunshine a sudden change brought strong winds and heavy rain. The mountains disappeared into the mist, the trees were stripped of their leaves, and this afternoon I drove back from the suburbs in sleet! Such abrupt changes prompted "After the Storm" and "November Rainbow." The former was a view of the western sky as seen from the Oakridge parking lot at twilight; and the rainbow appeared in the east one stormy evening, splitting the sky into blue and pink, and casting such an unearthly light on the buildings as the base of the arc that the old tale about the crock of gold seemed entirely credible.
November Rainbow - acrylic - 2009 - 24" x 18"

Next  weekend I'll be taking part in the annual Eastside Culture Crawl for the seventh time. If you live in the Vancouver area I hope you will include our building, Portside Studios at 150 McLean Drive (northeast corner of Powell and McLean) on your itinerary. Here's a map, and you can check out the details at www.eastsideculturecrawl.com

Two November paintings that I will be showing at the Crawl this year are "Lakeside, November" and "Blizzard at Night." Please come and see the real thing!

Lakeshore, November - acrylic - 18" x 24" - 2010

Blizzard at Night - acrylic - 20" x 30" - 2010

Next blog post mid-December

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pet Projects: A Cat, a Dog and a Lizard

A few years ago, at the annual Eastside Culture Crawl, a boy of ten or eleven came into the studio and stared for some time at my display of paintings, after which he offered me some advice: "What I think you should do," he said, "is to paint pictures of puppies and kittens, because I think people would really like those, and would want to buy them." Of course, I thanked him for his suggestion, and I hope I was gentle enough in my attempt to explain that a great number of paintings of puppies and kittens have been produced in the world and that I prefer to choose more original subjects. What I probably did not add was that it is difficult to paint animals--particularly baby ones--without falling into the cloying sentimentality of pastel greetings cards and old-fashioned drawing-room pictures. It is, however, possible, as some of the masters have shown: you don't have to be soppy about dogs to enjoy a little book called David Hockney's Dog Days--here's the cover: 

Hockney's two little red dachsunds aren't sitting up begging with bows around their necks: in most of the paintings they are just stretched out asleep. Somehow the artist has made them delightful without being cute or uncanine. If I could paint puppies and kittens like that I think my young visitor might be proved right.

The Master - acrylic - 2005  
In spite of the pitfalls I have of course had a go at pets, though mostly not my own, and I am currently engaged in painting a black and white cat. Black fur presents a challenge, as it's hard to see enough detail, and flat black hardly ever looks right. I didn't have that problem with my own cat Stripes, whom I painted several years ago. As his name indicates, Stripes was a tabby, but his mother was a Siamese. He was the only survivor of his litter--the rest were stillborn or died after birth. The Siamese heritage combined with the indulgence he received from his mother and his human family in his infancy produced in Stripes a cat of great intelligence, character and mischief. Above all, he had Attitude. He was afraid of nothing, except perhaps the vacuum cleaner, and would take on prey of any size, bringing home at different times huge rats, a squirrel and a young crow, the last of these still very much alive. And he accomplished memorable feats, such as dragging my daughter's fleecy bathrobe down the stairs to the kitchen, where he tried to stuff it in his dish. Of course he regarded himself as head of the household, as is shown in my painting "The Master", in which he clearly has the upper hand over my son.

Patrolling His Wall - acrylic - 2008 - 24" x 32"
My first attempt at painting a dog was "Patrolling His Wall". I am always a little disappointed when people say "Aww" as if the dog looks cuddly and sweet. Actually he was all businesslike ferocity, though I hope he did have an affectionate family life when he wasn't working. I can't tell you his name, his breed, or whom he belonged to, or even for certain if he was a male. He was a massive guard dog--look at his heavy collar--and he erupted, high up on the old city wall of Brasov in Romania. My companion and I were having a beer on a cafe terrace at the foot of the wall, when something must have startled him and provoked a volley of deafening barks above our heads. I photographed him from below, but cropped off most of the wall in my painting. In doing so I lost something of the dog's vantage point, but having the focal point perched on top of a virtual mountain just didn't work as a composition. 

I think dogs are at their best when they have a job to do, and this dog took his responsibilities very seriously indeed. I hoped to capture his determination to protect his property at all costs--which is why I don't want him to be seen as a softie. As regards the painting, it was difficult and frustrating, in part because of the awkward viewpoint and perspective. I value it chiefly for the foliage in the background, which is painted in a looser and more impressionistic way than I had been able to achieve before.

Soon after making the acquaintance of my future son-in-law, I also met his bearded dragon, a lizard about a foot long who lived in his comic-book store. Simon had had the dragon some ten years by then, which speaks highly of his handling and feeding of it, since many reptiles meet an untimely end in captivity. However, after another year or two it died, and one year I had the idea of painting it for Simon's birthday. I had gathered that the dragon was female and that her name was Trish. I therefore asked Simon to lend me some photos of "Trish," at which point he told me a bit sheepishly that her name was Chish, a contraction, he explained, of "chickenshit."

Although he hunted, Simon was not able to find any photos of his pet, so I had to go further afield to find models. I didn't want to work from someone else's photos, so I drove out to the Reptile Refuge in the further reaches of Surrey, on a dark, rainy afternoon. The Refuge, which I believe has now closed for lack of funding, had a collection of bearded dragons along with many other adopted reptiles, many of which had been abandoned by their owners. I found my way to the dragons' quarters, squeezing past a school group in the narrow space. I asked if I could photograph the lizards, which would have necessitated a flash, and was not surprised when permission was refused. So I stood close to the glass, jostled by the school children, and made some sketches. Later I chose one of them and made Simon's birthday present, but then I used the same pose for two different versions, which became more colourful each time.
Lizard 2 - acrylic - 14" x 11"

In Memory of Chish - acrylic - 12" x 12"

Lizard 3 - acrylic - 12" x 12"

Of the above paintings, I sold "The Master" and "Lizard 3", and Simon seemed happy with his present. Another dog,"Designated Driver", which I featured in my blog on April 23, 2011, also sold, as did my other attempt at reptiles, "Cancun Conversation" (blog March 6, 2011.) So I'm not doing too badly with my animals, and maybe that young boy was on the right track, even if I'm not up there with David Hockney.

Next instalment mid-November

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reflections: Looking into Water

The first time I thought of reflections in water as a subject for painting in their own right, rather than as an incidental element in a landscape, was in 2006-7, when I painted "Geometry of Reeds." I had taken a couple of photographs at Emma Lake in Saskatchewan (please see my blog post of February 7, 2011, for more details of this trip), but had been surprised by the results: I had intended neither to take such a close-up view of the reeds, nor to take the picture in black and white. I never found out how I had managed to take these photos, but I liked the way each reed and its reflection made an arc, and the way the two halves of the composition were almost, but not entirely, symmetric. In the painting I added non-realistic colours from imagination, but otherwise kept close to my mysterious photographs.

Geometry of Reeds - acrylic - 40" x 30" - 2006
 I sold the painting at the Eastside Culture Crawl in 2007. It was the first time that a potential client had seen a painting of mine on the Internet, and had come in specially to find it. The client liked the real thing, and wanted to buy it, but since it was quite large (40" x 30") she felt she needed to go home and measure her wall before committing herself. I agreed to hold the painting until she came back. When she did she was clearly quite upset. While she was talking to me the first time, someone had broken into her car and vandalized the door handle so the door wouldn't close. She had nevertheless gone home, done her measuring, and returned to complete the purchase--leaving an unlockable car in the same parking lot! I felt that her  determination and enthusiasm for my work was as big a compliment as the deal itself.

It wasn't until 2010 that I returned to the study of reflections. I had suggested the subject to the Vancouver Sketch Club as a possible theme for a Club exhibition. My fellow members took up the challenge with enthusiasm, and I produced three small paintings myself, while collecting ideas for larger ones.
Bridge on the Lydd - acrylic - 11" x 14" - 2010

"Bridge on the Lydd" was painted on site during a painting holiday at Brambles on the borders of Devon and Cornwall in Southwest England. Artist hosts Janet and Peter offer short courses, workshops and art retreats in and around their old converted farm property (to view see www.bramblesartretreat.com ) where in June 2010 the glorious summer weather allowed us to paint outdoors every day. Even so, we got a bit chilly working in the partly dried up river bed, and the high spot of the day came when Peter left us for a while to bring us hot Cornish pasties from the nearest pub. 
Fishes in Circles - 8" x 8" - 2010
 "Fishes in Circles" and "Public Baths" were painted with the Sketch Club show in mind, but more immediately for the Anonymous Show which is mounted each November by North Vancouver Community Arts Council. It's a fund-raising event for the Council, with each painting being priced at $100, of which the artist keeps half in the event of a sale. The paintings all have to be eight inches square, and are displayed anonymously, which is supposed to entice buyers to gamble on acquiring, for a very modest price, something which may have been painted by someone famous! Gallery walls covered with the tile-like paintings make for a very attractive display, and this is a painless way to collect original paintings, whether or not they are a sound financial investment. www.nvartscouncil.ca/exhibitions/anonymous-art-show-2010

Public Baths - acrylic - 8" x 8" - 2010
The window of my studio space overlooks the roofs of the buildings across the street, and I enjoy watching the birds--mostly seagulls and pigeons--that congregate there, especially when the rain has left big shallow puddles. The pigeons in "Public Baths" reminded me of ladies at a beauty salon as they offered each other preening advice and admired themselves in the mirror. No one snapped up this small painting in the Anonymous Show, but it did sell in the summer at the Sketch Club show at the West End Community Centre.

The Picnic - acrylic - 24" x 20" - 2011
And so to 2011. One of my first paintings this year was "The Picnic"-- my only attempt so far to paint human beings reflected in water. It's based on a photo taken on one of my trips. I have no idea who the people are, and I don't think they would recognize themselves from this portrayal. Perhaps it's better that way, as I'm not sure they were enjoying their day out very much. As with other paintings of people, I was interested in the body language of the subjects. In this case, there seems to be little connection or communication between the man and his wife, who are each lost in their own thoughts.

Since the spring I have been exclusively concerned with reflections, but from a different angle. I became fascinated with looking down into reflected images, without reference to the objects above the water surface. I am at present completing the tenth in a series called "Watery World", which will have to wait for another time.

Next blog post mid-October

Friday, August 12, 2011

Facing Facts: assorted not-quite-portraits

After reading my blog entry on "Travelling Hopefully" back in March, a friend emailed me the following question:
Do you deliberately avoid faces? It seems to be quite noticeable and has me wondering what the faces are like, and perhaps I don't want to know anyway. It is intriguing.

It was an intriguing question for me too. Certainly I had no intention of being coy and deliberately hiding the faces of my subjects . . . but neither had I ever attempted to paint a real portrait. What exactly is a portrait, anyway? To me it goes beyond the definition in my Collins dictionary--"a painting, drawing, sculpture, photograph or other likeness of an individual, esp.of the face." A truly achieved portrait says something about the essence, or soul, of the person, which the artist has perceived and communicated. It's more than skin deep. Oddly, and for no reason I can explain, I feel no particular desire to paint portraits in this sense, and portraits by other artists, even great ones such as Rembrandt, are to me not the most interesting kind of paintings. Since earliest childhood I have been fascinated by faces, and can remember filling notebooks with drawings of them; but I don't think I ever thought of them as real people, even though I had a fanciful belief that if I coloured them they would come alive at night when I was asleep.

Twelve - acrylic (date and dimensions not recorded)
I have, however, produced a number of paintings featuring people, especially members of my immediate and extended family, and have been surprised on several occasions to find that the resulting image, even if the back was turned or the face partially concealed, was instantly recognizable, and not just by me! An early attempt was "Twelve", which was based on a postage-stamp sized segment of a not-very-good snapshot. The girl had long since grown up, and may very well prefer to disown this version of herself, but even her mother acknowledged the likeness! I was not, however, trying to capture an exact likeness of her face, let alone her soul, but rather to express, as indicated by the title I chose, the truculent negativity that I remember as part and parcel of puberty and early adolescence.

Next Move - acrylic - 14" x 18" - 2005
Two Cakes - acrylic - 24" x 18"

In some paintings of people, it was the direction and intensity of the gaze that interested me. Children are good subjects for this, because of the whole-hearted, whole-body concentration that they bring to tasks. "Next Move" and "Two Cakes" are examples, both based on family photos.

The Bike Lesson - acrylic - 30" x 14"
In the case of "Bike Lesson" it was the body language that appealed to me. The little boy, both proud and precarious, is on the brink of taking off on his wheels. He is well protected, with his helmet and knee pads, but still needs the caring touch of his father, soon to be left behind as the older generation always is.

"On the Ferry" (see above) combines the intent gaze with the directional body language, so that the four men seem to be racing ahead of the ship towards their destination.

Shore Line - acrylic - 16" x 14" - 2008
"Shore Line" is another painting of back views. This time, the gaze is implied in the huddled body language of the old ladies, who seem to be shifting and fidgeting  as they share confidences about what they see. I imagined them as poised on the brink of their end-of-life voyage that is not far off; but the purchaser of the painting put a more cheerful spin on it: she saw it as a depiction of herself and her friends a decade or two in the future, enjoying companionship and a day on the beach.

Snooze - acrylic - 30" x 24" - 2010
Finally, two recent paintings of family members show quite a lot of face, and are certainly recognizable, but again my intention was not really to paint their portraits. I have always enjoyed watching babies and small children sleep, because they work at it with the concentration that it deserves, given its extreme importance. (Adults, in contrast, tend to regard it as a necessary waste of time, a sort of void between periods of real life.) The little boy asleep in the car is patently recharging his batteries ready for another bout of three-year-old boisterousness. His cap and work shirt amused me, too: he might have just come off shift on a building site!

Seaside Pub - acrylic - 16" x 24" - 2011
"Seaside Pub" shows an elderly, long-married couple sharing a special moment. Again, the gaze and body-language are the important items. I painted the picture for an exhibition on the subject of love--in this case the love of two people who have grown closer over the years and can still enjoy a private joke or intimate confidence.The exhibition jury declined my painting, but I'm still glad I did it. It's a statement of optimism about what a relationship can be.

Next instalment mid-September

Monday, July 11, 2011

Looking Through: "Lunchtime in Paris"

Lunchtime in Paris - acrylic - 18" x 24" - 2010
This painting is based on a photograph that I took in the cafeteria of the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, where I happened to be having lunch right at noon. It's another "Looking in/Looking out" painting (for other examples, please see earlier instalments of this blog), but this time the outside view is glimpsed through an immense clock which dates back to the days when the building was a railway station. The clock in my painting is reversed, like a mirror image, because its front was on the outside of the building and would have provided the time of day to passengers approaching the station. It faces the Seine, with the Tuileries Gardens in the distance.

I was in Paris for a week, in June of 2009, with the same friend who accompanied me to Cancun (see blog post on "On the Ferry", March 6, 2011.) This trip was not, alas, a free one, but it was a very good deal--airfare from Vancouver, bed and breakfast for a week, transfers and taxes, a boat ride on the Seine, and a half-bottle of champagne, all for $1300 each. Since I had not had the opportunity to do any cultural sightseeing in Paris's since 1967, when I was whisked into the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, which blew me away, and the Nike of Samothrace, which didn't, my main objective was to spend as much time as possible in the art galleries. We visited the Orangerie, the Louvre, and the Picasso and Dali museums, but enjoyed our day in the Musee D'Orsay the most. (As a retired language teacher I feel embarrassed at not putting the acute accent on "musee," but don't know how to do it.) We also fitted in a day at Versailles, and always made sure we left time for strolling, sitting, just generally hanging out, and of course, eating!

Back in my studio in Vancouver I started painting the scene on a 20" x 24" canvas. It was one of the most difficult challenges that I have set myself. The massive iron framework that supports the clock itself is seen from a slight angle, and is nearer to the viewer than the clock face, so that the various circles are not quite round, and not quite concentric. The spokes and segments of the circle needed to look as if they were equal, but they weren't quite, because of the oblique angle. And painting those Roman numerals backwards proved to be extraordinarily difficult, though I still can't quite understand why. At the point where I was beginning to despair of ever getting the perspective acceptable it occurred to me to check the corners of the canvas stretcher, and sure enough, they weren't right angles and the sides were slightly askew. No wonder I was having so much trouble! I took the canvas off the stretcher, which I took back to the store for a refund. Then I restretched the canvas on a slightly smaller frame--18" x 24"--which worked a lot better. Even so, the painting was a struggle from beginning to end. I have to hope it was a useful learning experience, because the irony is that the paintings that are most laborious to produce rarely turn out as well as the ones that seem to paint themselves. I think part of the problem with "Lunchtime in Paris" was that I had fallen into the trap of being enslaved by my photo, and feeling that the composition had to be literally and mathematically accurate. Since completing this painting I have tried to be less literal, and to let myself play around more with the composition. It's certainly more fun that way!

Art Practice News:

This post is a bit later than intended because I was away in England for 3 weeks, and just returned. While I was there, in addition to visiting family and friends, I took a wonderful short course called "Adventurous Drawing" at West Dean College in Sussex. Please see www.westdean.org.uk for pictures of this amazing place and information about their courses and activities. 

I've been updating my website to include more recent work. Please check it out at www.myartclub.com/judith.fairwood
Designated Driver

My painting "Designated Driver", featured in my blog on April 23, was recently sold!

I have four paintings on display until mid-August at the West End Community Centre, 870 Denman St., Vancouver, as part of the Vancouver Sketch Club's show on the theme "Reflections."
Bridge on the Lydd - acrylic - 11" x 14" -  2010

Bathtub Voyeur
My little painting "Bathtub Voyeur" (Blog March 20) is back from Brazil, and on display until July 24 at the Ferry Building, 1414 Argyle, West Vancouver, with the Mini-Art Exchange exhibition of "Faces."  

And finally,a few examples of the photos I took in April on my trip to Death Valley and other arid bits of the USA. Eventually I hope to do a series of paintings of sand dunes, but first I have to get the opposite--reflections in water--out of my system!

 Next instalment Mid-August

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Inside/Outside in France: "Country Church"

Since 2009 one of my recurring interests has been painting scenes viewed through a door or window. Examples that have featured in my blog include "The Open Door" (Feb. 14), "Hanging in the Rain" (March 13), "Designated Driver" (April 23), and, most recently, "Through a Curtain" (May 2)."Painting the Porch" and "Buying Postcards" are further examples of paintings that include an inside and an outside view.

Painting the Porch - acrylic - 14 " x 11 "
Buying Postcards - acrylic - 14  " x 11  "
The two paintings are based on a single photograph that I took inside the village church of Montaigut-le-Blanc in 2001. The photograph shows all three female figures --the woman selling postcards, the woman buying the cards, and the woman sitting outside painting. In my initial sketches I included all three in my composition, but I couldn't make it work. The figures seemed to get in each other's way and provide no clear focus for the viewer's eye. So I tried separating them, while still keeping the church interior almost identical in each panel. I found that it worked better to make the wall and rock garden look larger and nearer for the "Painting" panel, so as to frame the artist in a setting. In the "Postcards" panel, on the other hand, the scenery outside is just incidental background: all the action is inside the church.

I was in Montaigut for my first painting holiday, an eagerly anticipated event for which I'd been saving. I arrived with high energy and enthusiasm, inspired by a show of Morandi's still life paintings that I had just seen at the Tate in London. In one important respect the trip was disappointing: since the program was advertised as a "workshop" I had expected a fairly structured format, with assignments, supervised work, and critiques. This never materialized. The only instruction was a painting demonstration each day, and for the rest of the time we students were left to ourselves. Since then I have participated in several painting holidays, in England, France and Canada, and have found in each case that, without being slave drivers, the instructors have kept their charges busy and given lots of direction and feed-back, so I know now that my expectations were not unreasonable.

Determined to draw and paint anyway, since that was what we were there for, my friend and travelling companion (who is the woman painting the church porch) went off each day to find a good spot to sit and sketch. There was a wealth of subject matter only steps away, a choice of flowers, gardens, buildings, street scenes and rural landscape. Montaigut is built on a very steep hill, and all the streets are zigzags, with narrow terraces between them. At every turn there is a look-out point over the surrounding country. The park-like churchyard, with its shade trees, clumps of dahlias, warm stone walls, and Romanesque church, became a favourite sketching place.

The village is situated in the central part of France, in Auvergne. The terrain is some of the most turbulent and tormented that I have ever seen, a succession of dramatic ridges and gorges, with the occasional eroded and extinct volcano. Shortly before the end of my stay there I was able to get an aerial view of this landscape. It was my birthday--a rather special one--and I decided to treat myself to a ride in the hot air balloon that sailed by every morning and evening, its timing determined by the need for the right kind and strength of air currents. I had to leave dinner a little early, before dessert was served, which caused me a touch of regret, since the desserts were always delectable. The balloon basket held two other passengers besides myself, and the pilot. I loved the sensation of flying in near-silence, one minute soaring to dizzying heights, the next skimming the trees and hillsides. We flew until it was almost dark, our flight extended longer than expected because we were waiting for the right current to flip us across a highway. We needed a level bit of field where we could land, and where the balloon operators' van could come and pick us up. After we were safely down and the balloon was deflated and folded, the van driver produced a hamper from which the postponed dessert appeared, decorated with sparklers! The assembled company sang "Happy birthday" to me, completing a truly magical evening.

As well as sketching and painting in and around the village, I took photographs, and in 2009 dug out the one of the church. I painted the two versions on wood panels, each 14 " x 11 ". It was only after completing them that I discovered that if I placed them side by side as a diptych, they seemed to complement each other and make a single work. Now I would not want to separate them: I think they look best hung an inch or so apart.

Country Church (diptych)


Monday, May 2, 2011

Dealing with Ambiguity: "Through a Curtain"

Through a Curtain --original version
Last time I ended with a riddle: spot the difference between two images of the painting "Through a Curtain" and see if you can guess why I changed it. This was a tough question to answer considering the quality of my images. Having just spent a week in the company of some real experts in photography and digital manipulation, I'm especially conscious of my shortcomings, and more determined to improve, but for now will have to make do with the images I have, with their misleading faults. Some of the minor differences between the before-and-after images of "Through a Curtain" have nothing to do with the painting and are just indications of my photographic deficiencies. For example, I didn't change the stripes at the sides--the frame of the sliding door. The way they curve and change width is simply a result of photographing a tall, narrow canvas without knowing how to correct the resulting distortion.

Through a Curtain - acrylic - 2011 - 36" x 22"
In spite of the difficulties, one reader took on the challenge, and was on the right track when she wrote: "The back of the chair was making too solid a barrier in the 'first' version. You've lightened it up and this allows the viewer to go past the chair. Also for some reason it becomes easier to actually see the person in the chair." There was in fact a problem with the figure in the chair, who could be seen in two different ways. This ambiguity placed my painting in the company of trick images, which usually depend on how the positive and negative space are perceived, and of those unfortunate snapshots we've all seen where a tree sprouts out of someone's head. For some glaring--though possibly contrived rather than accidental--examples of this, go to http://ronilai.blogspot.com/2011/04/perfect-angles.html  You'll see that the problem (or the joke) usually arises when the photographer doesn't allow for things being in different planes, so that it isn't clear what is in front and what behind. This kind of problem occurs much less frequently in painting than in photography because painting is a slow-moving medium with lots of time to think and make adjustments, but as I've discovered, some mistakes slip through undetected.

The woman in "Through a Curtain" is the same friend who appeared, in a very similar pose, in "Foreign Hotel" (Easel Talk, Feb. 14, 2011.) The more recent painting is based on a photo I took during our 2010 trip to Sicily. My friend was sitting on the balcony of our hotel in Taormina. I liked the contrast between the straight lines of the door frame and the curves of the railing and the organic shapes of the vegetation outside. I also thought it would be an interesting challenge to paint a scene and figure veiled by a nylon curtain. The curtain, in fact, seemed to be the main player in this little drama, and determined the title.

The painting was completed, or so I thought, early this year, and was on my living-room wall when my travelling companion came to visit. To my surprise she did not at first recognize either the setting or herself. When I gave her a hint, she stared at the painting for some time and then asked in bewilderment, "But why did you paint me with a beard?"

I was as mystified as she was, but eventually realized that what she what she was seeing was something like this:

 whereas what I intended was more like this:

For me it remained hard to see the bearded lady (who also seems to have a black face but a white arm) without squinting and contorting myself, but obviously I had to take the painting back to the studio and try to eliminate the ambiguity. I modified the outline of the dark foliage that seemed to be causing the confusion. Then I had to fiddle with the folds of the curtain and touch up other parts of the scene. My friend hasn't yet seen the revised version, but I hope when she does she'll recognize her beardless self!

Please note: from now on I will be adding posts to this blog about once a month. Look out for the next instalment in early June. I'll email the people on my "Notify" list--let me know if you'd like your name added--and will also announce it at www.twitter.com/EaselChirps.  Meanwhile, if you're in the Vancouver area and would like to see the real thing, please come and see paintings at the annual art fair Art in the City this weekend (May 6 - 8) at the West End Community Centre. I'll be sharing a booth with Suzan Marczak (www.suzanmarczak.yolasite.com ) who will be showing ceramic sculpture. Hours and address at www.westendcc.ca . Admission free! 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Serious Humour: Designated Driver

Designated Driver - acrylic - 22" x 22" - 2010

When I spotted the bulldog behind the wheel of the red pick-up I burst out laughing. I was returning to my car in the parking lot of a neighbourhood supermarket. I grabbed my camera from the car and hurried back to the pick-up, hoping that the dog wouldn't move and that its owner wouldn't return before I'd snapped a couple of photos.

A dog in the front seat of a vehicle is a common enough sight, but this was unusual because of the dog's size. It looked as large as a human driver, and was taking its responsibilities so seriously that the title "Designated Driver" suggested itself to me right away. If the boss had come back to his truck the worse for wear, the dog looked perfectly capable of driving home safely.

Sometimes what I think will be the hardest part of a painting turns out to be easy, and vice versa. I assumed that painting the dog's portrait would be extremely challenging, but in fact it came together without much effort. The vehicles, on the other hand, were horribly difficult to get right, especially the vents of the pick-up's radiator grille. I often seem to struggle with perspective issues. Some artists seem to manage perfectly well with wonky lines and tipsy buildings. Others go to extremes of mathematical plotting to ensure accuracy. Personally I don't much care whether it's exactly "right", but in a painting that's otherwise realistic it seems to me that the scene should look convincing and the buildings stand solidly on their foundations. I don't even like those new-fangled real sky-scrapers that twist and lurch and project outwards: they make me feel a bit seasick. So I work away at the perspective in my paintings until things feel stable and grounded.

When working on a painting I inevitably spend a lot of time thinking about my subject. In the case of "Designated Driver" I put myself in the place of the bulldog, and soon I didn't find its situation so funny. Dogs are animals that live to a great extent ruled by the instincts of the wolves from which they are descended. What must it feel like to be left all alone in a completely artificial and inorganic capsule in the barren wastes of a car park? Does the dog regard the vehicle as a sort of extension of the pack's den, which it is obliged to defend on behalf of its human boss? What can it be thinking about as it sits there waiting, surrounded by the incomprehensible nonsense of human strangers coming and going, entering and leaving their metal boxes, creating ghastly noises and fumes as they drive away? With questions like these running through my mind, my amusement at my subject gave way to sympathy and admiration for the dog's patience and tolerance. Living in our mechanized urban world is frustrating enough at times for us humans who invented it. How must it feel to have to live in it without having a clue why it's the way it is, or what's the point of it all?

One thing I really enjoy about showing my work is that sometimes it reminds people of stories or experiences that they share with me. I heard several dog-in-car stories at the 2010 Eastside Culture Crawl, but my favourite was one about a big, fierce-looking dog whose owner didn't bother to take the keys out of the ignition or lock the car, confident that no one would try to break into such a well guarded vehicle. No one did . . . but on more than one occasion the owner got locked out, by his dog! Presumably the dog heaved himself around in the seat and pressed down the lever that locked the car from the inside. Or did he perhaps have a mischievous sense of humour?

Next time (around May 1): Spot the Difference: "Through a Curtain" as it was and as it is

Through a Curtain -  refinished 
Through a Curtain - as first painted
If you can figure out why I changed it you have very sharp eyes . . . or maybe a strange way of seeing things!