Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Camaraderie – The Joy of Painting Together

When the Plein Air Painters Chicago Steering Committee created its mission statement, camaraderie as one element listed after painting, improving, and selling paintings. It wasn’t at an afterthought, but all aspects of painting ranked higher on the priority list. As it turns out, members usually rank the interaction to other artists as the second most important reason they belong to the PAPC. They came for the painting and stay for the people who care about painting, and are willing to console and kavetch about painting. They want to commune with someone who knows what its like to feel discouraged, be driven to paint, or need a nudge to submit a painting for a contest or enter a competition. Camaraderie doesn’t mean family, but it can be the ease of old school friend, the excitement of learning new things from a date or the shared intimacy of disappointment and success. 

So, I’ve been thinking about how the members of the PAPC experience camaraderie. I admit, I didn’t love the word when we first placed it in consideration for our mission. I suggested instead, the word fun, but it took little convincing that we should expect more. Words like  welcoming, inclusive, and supportive shaped the concept. It was quickly decided that we welcome everyone to paint with us, paid membership or not. If lunch after a paint-out is in the works, everyone is invited. If someone’s discouraged about matching a color, getting the shape of a car, or struggling to give a figure more dimension, they only have to ask.  PAPC comrades in art will come to the rescue. 

Here are other ways for any of us to show camaraderie.

Social media –
  • When a painting is posted on Facebook and Instagram, like it, better yet, make a comment. 
  • If a fellow artist shares a promotion for a personal or group show, share it, attend it and take friends who like art or like you. Consider sharing promotions from the Palette and Chisel, what helps them helps the PAPC.  That goes too for any of your instructors.
  • If someone posts a newsletter, share that on the same social channel, and, copy and paste it to another. Whether the newsletter is written for artists or collectors, it may benefit someone. 
  • If you’re also a figurative or portrait painter, invite models to bring family and friends to a show to see their likeness.  
  • Grow your network. Keep track of people who buy or are interested in your work. Let them know not only about your own show, but group shows as well.  
  • We all need support and camaraderie at one time or another. Use your social networks  to ask for what you need… be the receiver and expect that your comrades in art will respond.

  • Critiques onsite - Plein air painting reminds me of my son’s high school track team. Everyone worked toward personal bests and there were MVPs, but the team stayed till the last competitor jumped. You may choose not to be critiqued or enter a competition, but you sticking around till the end, offers support and encouragement. 
  • If someone asks you for a critique of their work.  Start with a question, How will my critique help you? Focus on that. 
  • Begin with a positive, ask if they want more. Be precise and don’t offer an opinion if you don’t know how to fix something that’s not working.  Err on the side of encouragement. 
Go with a fellow artist to museums and galleries. 
  • There’s nothing like looking at a painting with someone who shares the language and understands what it may have taken to create the image you’re seeing. It doesn’t have to be an art expert, I’ve learned. In fact, for me, some of them have a tendency in explaining to forget the feeling. 
  • Once immediately after a paint out in Grant Park, Ray Vlcek and I toured plein air paintings at the Art Institute. Maybe it was our fresh encounter with landscapes, but those few minutes we took to notice and discuss the capture of light, composition, shapes and patterns was especially useful. Check out the light in this 1909 plein air landscape on display at the Art Institute of Chicago by George Gardner Symons.   
  • Discussing online work with a fellow painter can be valuable too. After staring at raucus waves in changing light for a couple hours I was no closer to capturing them. Studying Anders Zorn’s paintings Sommamoje, Caique Oarsman and Pier paintings with an artist, helped me see them better and stop obsessing. BTW, while I still don’t paint water well, but it helps to know that Zorn spent more than two years on some of his paintings.  

Camaraderie for me is still about fun and sharing the joy of painting plein air.  How can I encourage you? How can we encourage each other?

Saturday, January 19, 2019

How to Edit a Landscape with Help from Twyla Tharp

How do you decide what elements to include in a landscape? I am regularly challenged by this. I typically want to paint it all... every damn leaf.  I watch other plein air painters include three people, not twenty, move a tree, change a tree shape, omit a building, or add clouds to a clear sky, without a hesitation. Exclusion for me is an inaccuracy, maybe a lie. I think plein air paintings are creating a moment of history. Cave walls tell us about the animals present, and sometimes the dress of the day… Not that I expect my paintings to last millennia.  Yet, I do see merit in editing for the composition especially.

Over the last couple weeks I began savoring a Christmas gift, reading, not too fast, Twyla Tharp’s 2003, The Creative Habit. Her stories of musicians, writers, and artists of all kinds are entertaining in themselves, but the exercises she suggests have inspired me. They are different from many other creativity books I've read. The one I want to wax on about, is led into with a story about Neil Simon, which you'll have to read for yourself.

Back to the challenge of editing a painting. Twyla talks about the power of seeing, you know, like Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” She recommends watching a couple and making a list of their actions and gestures until you have twenty. He puts his arm around her, she picks a piece of lint from his coat, she crosses her legs, he man splays, she pulls a Kleenex from her pocket, she blows her nose. It’s not hard, to list twenty items in a brief time, Twyla
comments. The second phase of the exercise is to watch another couple and list the actions that please you aesthetically or emotionally. A sign of tenderness in a touch on the arm, the slide of sunglasses onto the head, to see something more clearly, an elbow jab with a laugh, a slight step back at some news. Now judgement is added to powers of observation, and being selective becomes essential. 

Twyla’s point is that what catches your fancy is not as important as the difference between the two lists. What one includes or edits speaks to how you see the world. My thought is that what catches my fancy in a scene are the items I’m going to paint with more intention, might even be my focal point. And, if not my focal point, I will create a relationship to it… place it where it best tells the story I am painting. 

Once again, Twyla danced me into a new way of thinking.

As I wrap up this post, it reminds me of another one, I wrote a while back on making word lists to create a more accurate and interesting piece of writing. That process, coupled with asking yourself, what pleases you emotionally or aesthetically, offers another way to consider what to edit. This link will get you to it Lexicons and Writing. And, "That reminds me of..." is as always another powerful creativity prompt.

Photo: From Twyla Tharp Pinterest Page
Painting: Waiting for the Magic, Mary Longe, 2019, 16x20" Oil on Canvas

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Cat in the Hat and the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

“What would you do if your mother asked you?”

This is the last sentence of the Cat in the Hat. It’s asked after, as you likely recall, Cat through acts of entertainment, causes exponential messes in the children’s house that get cleaned up in the nick of time. Mother walks in and asks Conrad and Sally, “What did you do while I was out?” 

I’ve had a Cat in the Hat morning. When stowing plates and bowls in cupboards, followed by a spatula and peeler in a utensil drawer, I found I could barely pull the drawer wide enough to get out a knife, let alone get at whatever was blocking its opening. Piece-by-piece I remove enough to dislodge the offending item… my nemesis, the sharp, pointy and painful meat thermometer that stabs regularly, no matter how deep I place it in the drawer. 

Having had way too many discussions lately about the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and rather than jam the damn thermometer in the back corner, I emptied the contents on two countertops and the kitchen table, and attempted to ask myself if any of the items bring me joy.  (It occurred to me at that moment that seeing all the stuff spewed everywhere is a stupid time to ask the question.)

I removed the five dividers and liner, washed them and reimagined the space. I moved one of the dividers containing openers and closers (rubber discs, can opener, cork screws, wine stops, etc.) to another drawer which had to be rearranged first, and before that, wiped clean. Skewers moved to a shelf high in a cupboard, risking oblivion, but better than discarding, I reasoned. The shelf below them held my mom’s box of recipes, which surfaced in a recent conversation about hot chicken salad with potato chips… a dish she served at a Coke-tail party before prom in 1969. Of course, I had to find the recipe. That led to photos, a text to my friend and eventually putting away the step stool in the laundry room.  

Damn, I’d been using the top of the dryer as an emergency holding area since the doorbell rung on Christmas Eve. It was piled with wrapping paper, a wood wine rack, a package to be shipped, dirty cloth napkins – the only items that should be there, an empty cat-toy box, a huge Tupperware full of bags of nuts and seeds, and bags, lots of bags… brown paper grocery bags, bags with nice handles and pretty sides, plastic bags thick enough for cat litter disposal, and bags to be recycled at the grocery store. Of course, it didn’t look as organized as I just described it; it looked more like the kitty’s litter box. 

“And this mess is so big 
And so deep and so tall, 
We cannot pick it up. 
There is no way at all!” 

I started a wash and cleared the top of the machines, which led me upstairs to the closet where my wrapping supplies are stored. I flipped. I jammed the tissue into the bag of rolls of happy paper, inside that disaster pit. I’d had enough. 

Returning to the kitchen, I easily reopened the now tidy kitchen drawer to grab the wine bottle-opener and discovered, in the last of the debris, an item offering true joy - a meat-thermometer sheath, free from Sur la Table, that forever renders my nemesis impotent. 

Conrad and Sally never answered mother.  Maybe neither would I. I didn’t accomplish one thing I had planned.

Sunday, November 4, 2018


Today, the wind and the windows hummed the deepest baseist chord
A guttural tone that mimicked my grandmother’s fret. 
“Lydia took a turn,” she’d say, never saying in what direction. 
“You’ll catch your death,” she’d scold, never explaining how. 

She baked the tiniest of muffins from the tiniest box and tell me not to eat them. 
I’d swat her hand when she’d help me with my dress for church.
“No man will ever have you,” she’d warn, without a trace of doubt. 
“Your independence will be the death,” she’d say, without any clarification. 

A gust, the rain, more leaves on the ground than on the trees. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

How to Carry Wet Paintings: A $5.49 DIY panel carrier

Here is a quick and cheap idea for a panel carrier. 

Plein air painting requires a lot of equipment for just the basics, easel, tripod, an umbrella depending on sun and weather, a medium like pastels, oil or watercolor, and their surfaces to paint on, paper or canvas and linen panels (and all the other options), and brushes. If you are a plein air artist, you know there's more too... rags or paper towels, view finder, mall stick, tools, water, and so on. This post is focused narrowly - for oil painters to suggest a cheap, simple way to transport in a dry panel and to transport out a wet one. 

The premise is simple: Create a light, cheap device that holds two panels of the same size 9x12", 12x16", whatever, to protect them from being dirtied or scratched, and to protect the artist or the artist's belongings from getting more paint on them. (Who among us hasn't found unplanned paint on a light switch, car door handle, and a favorite shirt?) I've described a simple solution below. 

You will need 2 frames, glue and a rubber band. I had the glue and rubber band on hand. 

Yesterday, I decided to paint plein air on a 5X7" canvas panel but didn't have a carrier for it. Typically, I use an 8x10" 9x12" or 11x14" for painting outdoors. For those I have beautiful panel carriers made by a carpenter-friend. To buy them online, the cost is around $20 plus shipping, but mine are works of art themselves, made from scraps of specialty wood. 

To get by yesterday, I took a C-clamp and wax paper, and counted on the idea that once in the car, it would get minimal jostling. The wax paper would keep debris and dust from landing on it and the clamp provides a handle. Anyway, I figured I could fix any smudging.  But then, in Chicago, there are wide and fast corners...

On the way home from the paint out, the wet painting slid around in the trunk of my car. It really didn't hurt anything, but I can't depend on my luck holding. Turns out, I liked the idea of painting small. I painted looser, faster and worked out the values. If I had a bit more time, I could have completed a second painting.  So, I stopped at Michaels and found a package of two wood frames for $10. Immediately, I saw the potential and found a 50% discount coupon on line that to use at the cashier. This project cost $5.49, with sales tax, sans the glue and rubber band. 

At home I removed the cellophane from the frames and removed the glass and paper.  

Using my trusty glue gun, I smeared glue on the front sides of both frames and placed them together. Later, I laid another bead of glue around the edges as an even seal. Someone asked, why do you need glue, not simply the rubber band to hold them together. Because, you don't want them to slide. If you don't have a glue gun, use Elmers, chunks of double sided tape or Velcro, though none of those sound as easy to me.

I was able to place my wet panel from earlier in the day facing the center. I could add a second one on the other side, also facing the center, because the depth of the frames will keep them separated. 

While I used the clips that were included in the frame, I am sure with use they will break off. I added a rubber band for extra security.  Next time I go out, I will insert a blank canvas surface on each side and complete one or two as time and energy allow. Or, if you only have on canvas of the size, you could keep and use, the backing that has the hangers on it.... come to think of it, you end up with a nice frame for showing it at a critique or until you use your carrier again. 


This idea is not my own. I copied it from the very talented, clever and thrifty Wisconsin artist, Dana M. Johnson, who painted plein air with the Plein Air Painters Chicago a couple summers back. As I remember the story, she and her dad created from frames found at a thrift store. I've looked there and garage sales, but never found two identical frames that would work. With the coupon, the price is about as good as it gets and a quarter of what you'd pay for a manufactured panel carrier. Michaels has many sizes of these packages of frames. There's no reason you couldn't make one for each size you use.  

For more on traveling and transporting plein air equipment, check out this post: How to Pack for Plein Air Painting Travel.