Friday, December 26, 2008


On December 12, 2008 the full moon was supposed to be the largest in decades (don't ask me why or how - maybe Dana Wigdor knows)

I'd been nursing an idea for a painting of the Mettowee valley flooded with moonlight and dotted with fire as part of my AOA proposal so when George Bouret (of Game Supper photography fame) e-mailed me the news about the December 12th moon and asked if I wanted to join a group hike to the top of Mt. Haystack to see it I jumped at the chance.

We decided to start early enough to catch the last of the sunset. It was pretty cold at the top - less than 10 degrees - but we stayed for an hour and took in the sunset, the after glow, and the rising of the largest and yellowest moon I have ever seen. My hair filled with icicles but it was worth it. Today I painted this little study (6" x 9") from memory and a touch of imagination...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Another Life

Last night I took a break from Art of Action Madness and went to my local life drawing group.

The Pawlet drawing group is something that Tom and I started about ten years ago. We meet at the library and - with shades heavily drawn - draw from the model every Wednesday night from October through April. It is a lot of work to run the group (among other things we have to assemble and disassemble the model stand every week) and with Tom now teaching twice a week at the Art Students League in New York, we finally decided to give it up. To our surprise and delight, other members of the group stepped in; the group continues and is better than ever. Plus I get to waltz in at 7, waltz out at 9, and enjoy the title of Drawing Group Leader Emeritus.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Number Crunching

With the clock ticking on the AOA proposal I finally sat down today to some hard paper work - and I don't mean drawing. In fact my mantra is "no fun drawing or painting until the bloody thing is finished"

I sketched out the narrative section a few days ago and, while it needs major rewriting, the ideas are coming together and it is burbling along. I figured it would be a snap to write down the specifics of the proposal - sizes of paintings and such - pop some numbers in and tie the whole thing up in a neat parcel.

Here is a question: will I ever get it that the fact that something seems clear in my imagination doesn't mean that the translation to reality will be simple? You would think a lifetime of painting would have taught me that but, no, harsh reality comes as a complete surprise to me time after time - like one of those cartoon characters that never realize they are never going to catch the bird, or the wabbit, or whatever.

As soon as I started to attach numbers two things happened: 1)the whole structure began to wobble as I tried to figure out how to make each of the three proposals seem reasonable (but, of course, the 40k, the most reasonable...)


2) It struck me in a new and thoroughly unpleasant way just how little money I make for the work I do. This disagreeable fact is usually hidden from me since I don't routinely calculate expenses for each painting. In real life, my husband, who is also a painter, and I spend money on art materials and frames in bulk (huge bulk) and collect money (um, much less bulk) when they sell. When I sell a painting I rejoice in the income and don't stop to contemplate how little of the cash is profit; since Tom does the bookkeeping I never have to put two and two together and find they make three.

Tom and I have been scraping by on painting sales alone for fourteen years. Every now and then we think it is all over; that one of us is going to have to bite the bullet and find a job, but somehow we always manage to pull through. It seems like yesterday that we were young folk just out of art school living in our studio and thinking about nothing but painting. Now we are twenty-odd years older, have a house attached to the studio, and still think mostly about painting. Despite a lifetime of tight budgets, we count ourselves incredibly lucky to be painting every day. Which brings me back to Vermont. One of the things that makes me feel at home here is the presence of the farmers. I don't know many of them - they work all the time, and so do I - but I am comfortable in the knowledge that there are people around as ridiculous as I am, people who spend their whole lives doing something that doesn't pay well just because they can't give it up; it is the life they love.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"It's not all about you" - or is it?

This figure will be in the foreground of The Game Supper

One of the overlooked aspects of this project is that it is not just about the future of Vermont as it relates to social issues, it is also about the future of Vermont art and redefining what it means to be a Vermont artist.

Way back at the beginning of this odyssey, when I was thrashing around for an idea for a project, I read most of Paul Searls' "Two Vermonts". He says that practically since its inception Vermont has been idealized as a place where the pre-modern and the progressive world live in harmonic balance and that this image of Vermont really gained traction in the late 19th century as Americans began to feel uneasy with their increasingly industrialized existence.

When I read that I finally understood why I live in Vermont and why I am a Vermont artist: I have always had "an uneasy relationship with modernity", to quote Searls; in my work I continually try to find a balance between the pre-modern and the modern. Like a 19th century Vermont tourist I want to believe that these opposing forces can be reconciled.

When I first looked at the other finalists' work (about ten seconds after finding out I was a finalist) I was struck by the fact that virtually everybody was a realist and had a narrative aspect to their work - yet the work looked contemporary and modern - the Vermont balance.

"It's not all about you" is a phrase I hear often these days; usually it is a sound reminder not to take myself too seriously - but I think the finalists might want to consider that a significant part of this project is indeed about them.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Oil on linen

I love to draw...but after awhile I get antsy and need to swing a brush, so a couple of days ago I prepared a small canvas and decided to start an oil study of the Game Supper. If all goes well I'll do this 3' x 6'; the study is 18" x 36".

My 'canvas' is actually Belgian linen. Tom (husband and fabulous artist, check his blog Dammi i colori) and I spend 3 weeks every summer preparing our linen for the year. We stretch the linen, size it with three coats of rabbit skin glue, and put on two coats of white lead with a palette knife; when we are ready to use a canvas we sand the surface lightly (wearing a mask!) and tone it with dry color brushed into another thin coat of glue.

I was happy to be painting again but things did not go well: I had trouble with the figure on the left and ended up wiping it out; the figures on the right are way too small. Kind of happy with the initial statement of the central figures though.

The truth is I jumped the gun. For a painting this complex I need to draw more. The drawings give me necessary information - does the figure's head tilt the head this way or that- but, just as importantly, the act of drawing gets the action of the of the figures and the rhythm of the painting into my mind and hands. It is like practicing a piece of music. Next time I pick up the oil study I want to have practiced enough to be free to move and flow and improvise and still be on the beat.

Back to the drawing board.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

On Drawing

Studies of a couple of boys at Game Supper.

I love to draw. If painting, for me, is all about passion: the loaded brush, the waiting canvas - drawing is all about tenderness, about intimacy. I set the drawing board on my lap and curl around my work; I caress the paper with chalks, gently rubbing in middle tones with a chamois; with a soft eraser I dab away the lights.

I tell my students that everything an artist knows is in their draughtsmanship; if you know what you are doing you can read an artist's work in their drawing without ever seeing a canvas - it is all there in black and white (or red and white as the case may be...)

It's true - drawing is the foundation of the painting structure: the design, the form, the light and the shade. Drawing is the Alpha of painting (and when I find out what the Omega is I'll let you know).

Apparently nature, too, starts by drawing:

From an article by Oliver Sacks in the New York Review of Books:

"While most of the flowers in the garden had rich scents and colors, we also had two magnolia trees, with huge but pale and scentless flowers. The Magnolia flowers, when ripe, would be crawling with tiny insects, little beetles. Magnolias, my mother explained, were among the most ancient of flowering plants and had appeared nearly a hundred million years ago, at a time when "modern" insects like bees had not yet evolved, so they had to rely on a more ancient insect, a beetle, for pollination. Bees and butterflies, flowers with colors and scents...would infinitesimal stages, over millions of years. The idea of a world without...color affected me with a sense of awe."

Me too.

That the world of black and white preceded the world of color, as drawing precedes painting, overwhelms me. Think of it: every time an artist does a preparatory drawing and develops it into a painting they mimic the evolution of life on the planet...

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Fire Meeting

The Pawlet Volunteer Fire Department meets the first Tuesday of every month; this week I joined them. Five men, including the fire chief, one woman, and a lad of 14 were present. I talked about the Art of Action and my desire to use my project to highlight the fire department and its importance to the community; I gave them a sketch (no pun intended) of my proposal. I said that, if successful, I'd like to make a giclee of one or two of the images and donate the profits to the fire department - but cautioned that that is getting way ahead of myself! The firemen were thrilled and offered any and all help I might need. I spent the rest of the meeting sketching and listening. Afterwards half the group hung around for an extra hour talking about the challenges the department faces and regaling me with stories of Pawlet Fires Past. Plus I scored a video of them actually putting out a structure fire (new jargon) at night. Heaven.

There were a couple of things that took place at the meeting that went to my heart - and the heart of this project. The first was the fire chief's recommendation that the department cut out the October fund-raising breakfast. Not enough people come and it is not worth their effort. The June Chicken Barbecue is already gone. One by one, community events are slipping away. My stomach tightens. I want to stop the erosion; I want the rhythm of community life restored.

The second was about gas money. One of the fire fighters not present at the meeting has embarked on the basic fire-training course. This course is 180 hours - a lot of time, much more than it used to be when the older guys took it. Added to that, he must drive a considerable distance for the training. The issue under discussion was whether the man should be compensated for gas money. Ultimately the decision was to do so, but this conclusion was painful to all - not because they begrudge him the money, but because this decision means the thin edge of financial compensation has penetrated the fire house walls.

The firemen hold dear the principle of volunteerism. Everyone takes deep pride in receiving no compensation whatever for their many hours of service. This fact is a crucial part of their identity, their independence, their code. I encounter the attitude a lot in Vermont, the "don't insult me by offering money" attitude, and I love it. It is as refreshing and wholesome as a drink of cold water from a mountain spring. I'm hoping my project helps protect this crucial part of Vermont's environment.

Friday, December 05, 2008

What Can a Painting Do? A Response

Thanks to Clair Dunn I got to listen in on what sounds like a fascinating conversation she had with Dana Wigdor and Susan Abbott while they were all up at the webinar in Montpelier. Apparently they discussed the question: what can a painting do. I highly recommend reading Clair's post before continuing with this one: Vermont Directions

Back? Okay. Here is my contribution to the conversation.

I have become addicted to a site that displays a picture from the Hubble telescope every day from now until Christmas as a kind of virtual Advent calendar. Disclaimer: I am deeply troubled by the weird linkage between Christian practice and hard science. However, the images are astounding and the "image a day" concept just works, however it is packaged.

Looking at the images this morning I became completely mesmerized. When I returned to earth (so to speak) I realized that my visual and imaginative journey into space had stretched and shifted my consciousness: my sense of the proportions of existence was different - permanently and profoundly altered. And I realized immediately that this how a great painting acts on the mind and what it can do - it takes you to a different place and brings you back a different person with a new perspective.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

On Photography

I ran into George Bouret this morning and he asked me if I'd done anything with the photographs he and Karin DiChiara took (see Game Supper, a few posts back). Oh m'god - have I been that self-centered (yes). The photographs were crucial and here is the story of what I did with them.

George gave me the 473 (count 'em - 473) images on a disk (two disks actually but that's a detail...). I decided that the thing to do was to go through them on the computer, choose the ones I wanted to use, and print them out. This got the total down to 250 or so - too many to print. Back I went, this time limiting myself to the bare minimum, and got it down to 50. These I printed out and pinned up on the big wall in my studio. The process took two full days but I had a wonderful, multi-faceted, photographic portrait of the Game Supper.

I had asked George and Karin to get there early so as to document the food preparation and as a result there were many shots of firemen slicing meat and ladies cutting pie as well as images of all kinds of people going through the line and of course a huge variety of shots of people eating, talking, toasting. I was overwhelmed and didn't know where to begin. For a while I just stared; gradually I began to sort the photos by subject: pie-slicers together, serving line shots together, etc. My own sketches were vital as they were notes of the kinds of rhythms and groupings that I wanted. On a few occasions I had a scribble of a figure that the camera missed; sometimes I had both photographs and drawings of the same figure, or group of figures.

The hardest part was selection - I wanted to do it all. For the umpteenth time I cursed the short amount of time available - this project is being formulated at what is, for me, warp speed.

Finally I did what always works best for me - I followed my gut. There was one fireman in particular that I had found compelling. He worked the food line all night ladling gravy and serving up squash. Hugely tall, he towered over the others on the line, yet spooned gravy as if he were laying a baby to rest - a gentle giant. I had done a sketch of his head from life; there were many photos of him as well. I wanted to draw this man and that is what I did. Or rather, started to do, because as soon as I began I found I needed a ladlee - someone for whom he was ladling gravy and I combed my photos for a likely candidate - showering internal blessings on George and Karin for providing me with this wealth of material. I found an image of a young girl with a big winter jacket falling off her shoulders and bunching around her arms. Between the jacket and her long wavy hair she looked like an updated sitter for a Titian portrait. Bingo. I sat happily for a few hours making a sketch of the two of them and when it was finished I knew they would be the emotional center of the painting.

The rest of the composition formed (almost) effortlessly around them as I drew from my notes and the photos to find likely figures and ideas. I went back to the photo disks looking now with purpose and specificity. I found 50 more photos, including four of my young girl, printed those out and pinned them up. taking down others that were not needed; I was on my way.
Thanks George, thanks Karin.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Work Day

Spent the day drawing. This is a study for an old man in line at the game supper. When I do a figure painting I do lots and lots of preparatory studies. Some of the studies are drawings and some are small oil paintings. My working method is to start with broad compositional ideas, like the big horizontal study from the last post, then start making more detailed drawings for the principle figures. When I feel ready I do a study in oil using the drawings.

But what about all those photographs? I don't use the photographs directly. Rather, I comb through them looking for faces and poses that fit my vision and then draw from the ones I want. I often combine many photos into one image as I did with this drawing.