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Reminiscing on the Seeds of an Art Practice

When I lived in Colorado, I took courses and did drop-in life drawing sessions on a weekly basis at what is now the Cottonwood Center for the Arts. At that time it was founded and run by Sparky Lebold, who is a charismatic and talented artist. It was by chance that I started at Cottonwood, by finding a posting for courses in the mail room at the condo complex where I lived. I remember well the first night of a drawing course. The studio was in a small 2 story old brick building just a 5 minute drive away from home. As soon as I opened the door of the studio and began the climb up to the second story studio, I smelled the wonderful aroma of oil paint and a familar feeling of both comfort and excitement came over me. Ah boy, I hadn’t made art for quite a while (8 years!) as I focused on my career and I was looking for a little culture in my new home, having moved from Utah shortly before.

I was new to the group and nervous about that as well as about the challenge of drawing after such a long dry-spell. I looked around to get my bearings and determined that I needed to find a space among the other easels and horse benches. The first session was unremarkable as I found my bearings again but my skills returned slowly as the course progressed. I remember Sparky remarking that I kept getting so much better with every session. I wasn’t learning to draw, I was stretching familiar old muscles!

That first session led to years of mostly dropping in to life drawing sessions. I fell back in love with drawing. And I got to know a man whose work, character and passion for being an artist was incredibly inspiring to me. Sparky lived his love of art making and I was certainly jealous of that commitment. I didn’t have the courage to take that leap of faith and the financial choice, to quit my day job. I still don’t. However… as retirement nears, I imagine a time when I can just paint. Andrew and I will likely move up island (Vancouver island, that is) to retire to a smaller community and we intend to choose a town where there is a vibrant arts community. Perhaps we will open our own little studio/gallery. Perhaps the spare bedroom will simply be our studio. Either way, I will paint!

And lately I’ve been exploring the joy of painting pets. The seed that inspired that decision will be the topic of my next post. Another seed planted by Sparky. I owe him a lot. And I miss his passion for art and life. I know he’s still painting, which pleases me very much.

Painting of two cats
Sisters, oil on paper, 15″ x 22″
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Work in progress

I recently made an order of paint brushes from Rosemary & Co for my standard long bristle brushes and to that order I added a few brushes that I have been wanting to try. I’ve noticed that some fabulous artist’s such as Colley Whisson use very soft brushes, so I added to my order one brush from each of these lines:

And they changed my world.

All of a sudden my portrait painting stepped up it’s game and I’ve started a series of 5″ x 7″ character studies.

The brushes are AMAZING! It is difficult to explain why… they hold a lot of paint, the paint goes on softly and smoothly and the comber helps to soften edges even more. I use the Evergreen primarily as a background brush right now because it is too large for the details of the portrait. The long flat is my main brush and as I said, the comber is fantastic at creating a random softness between two fields of paint. Oh boy, are these brushes a pleasure to behold. So much so that I had to put in another order. I like to work with 3 brushes of the same type and size so that I have one each for my light, middle and dark tones. That way I’m not wiping the brush in between every change of light.

And the little portraits are so much fun to do. I can complete them generally in 1.5 hrs, which is currently about the limit my focus, free time and energy level allows me. I am using random references from magazines and news stories – just as structural guides rather than portrait references. I find I will start a piece and it just doesn’t feel right so I wipe it off and try another. When they are so small like this, I don’t lose much time or effort starting over – it’s actually a good little warm-up exercise. Then when a piece comes together, the person that emerges tells me who they are. Author, policeman, chef, etc.

I don’t really know where I am going with this series but I sure am enjoying the process and the progress that it appears I am making. I do feel it is leading  up to a course I’m taking at MISSA this summer called Charcoal Noir: Creating Compelling Visual Narratives.  My hope is that with the work I’ve been doing on these oil portraits and my charcoal portraits will coalesce with the course into a full-on multiple figure painting or drawing. It’s been decades since I created large-scale figurative paintings and I’m curious to see what I will come up with, especially with these miracle brushes!

 

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Smelling the Roses

I’ve started to see some rewards for my focus on charcoal drawing lately; I have figured out what my tools are and how to manipulate them to achieve a desired effect (more on those tools in a later post). And while I am not entirely happy with my ability to nail a likeness on every portrait, I am satisfied that I can work a drawing past a failure point (where I would have given up in the past) and on to a successful piece. When I am drawing someone I know, a likeness is preferred but when I’m simply using a photo or photos as a starting point and structural guide, I’m not interested in a likeness.

This weekend I took on the challenge of drawing from an old photo of a friend when she was a toddler.

Sweetheart
Sweetheart, charcoal on Stonehenge paper, 16″ x 20″

I am very satisfied with the drawing itself but when you directly compare the two, it’s clear what needs to change.

Comparison of photo and drawing

Her eyes are too far apart and the shapes are not quite right. Her nose is too large. Her lips are not quite as pursed. The shape of her head is slightly off at the top… I could go on. I may decide to rework the piece and I may not… I don’t want to lose the lovely marks and textures of the drawing. The question is, will I be satisfied in the long run if I don’t rework her?

What’s interesting is that I’ve never done this kind of direct comparison as a part of the drawing process and perhaps it’s what I should be doing. At least until I get better at finding a likeness… much like how I’ve practiced to the point of understanding the tools, perhaps this is just another tool to use to find what I want to find.

Interesting.