Saturday, December 31, 2011

Grey Gray Grey….The Last Day of 2011

On days like today, it's challenging to be a pleinair painter unless you like to work in charcoal. That's why I'm staying indoors for the 10th day in a row and working on paintings in my studio. Although some artists would tell you that you should be able to find beauty in anything, including a grey landscape, I disagree. It's the reason I don't put parking meters or power lines into my city scapes or landscapes. An artist is not a camera, and we can choose to edit. I choose to ignore the ugliness that city engineers and thoughtless planners construct to blight our landscapes…and I paint around them. I also choose to ignore the grey days and choose instead to focus on making my day brighter.

Many years ago I lived in Arizona where the sun shines 340 days out of the year. I never understood what a gift it is to see a sunrise or sunset until I move back here to the midwest. Thankfully, I've taken about 2000 photographs of the southwest and it's at times like these that I pull them out and flip through them for something to paint. Yesterday I did two small watercolors of Arizona sunsets and it brought the light back into my studio.

I also have another trick on sunless days like today. I have a Verilux light - also called a "Happy Light" that puts out full spectrum lighting. If you sit in front of this light for about four hours, it elevates your mood. Walking through my house, you can see the difference in the light color when you approach the studio. It looks like the sun is shining in that room alone. The real indicator that the light was working was when my sun-seeking cat jumped up on my crowded desk and attempted to lie down in a tiny empty spot in front of the light.

If all else fails to bring me out of my "grey" funk, I jump in the car and drive south until I get past the clouds and I stay there as long as I need to before coming back to the grey mitten. Most of the time, however, I'm fortunate that my "happy light" and a few paintings of sunsets usually succeed in bringing the color back into my life.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Core Beliefs Influence Art

The painting above is by Bierstadt, an artist from the Hudson Valley School.

Each Saturday that it doesn't rain, I meet a bunch of artists to paint in the outdoors near my home. It's not an incredible landscape we look upon, but sometimes, I get incredible paintings from going there. This past saturday, my painting was just ok, nothing spectacular, just ok. I didn't follow my usual pattern of facing the sun...which may have made the difference. I've written in here before that I am usually the only one facing the sun. Everyone else paints what the sun is illuminating.

But on Saturday, there was one artist facing the sun and his painting was pretty spectacular. It was dark except for one slice of sunlight on a patch of grass illuminating the island. I asked him why he had chosen that particular subject when there was all the fall color to paint. He mentioned the Hudson Valley School and that they had one thing in common: they all painted light from a mysterious source. Then he mentioned that his choice of painting light illuminating the darkness came from his beliefs.

The Hudson Valley School is known for reverent, religious renderings of nature. You do get a sense of their beliefs when you look at the paintings. And yes, there is always a depiction of light coming through darkness. Was this on purpose? Did they intend to give a religious message? Or was the landscape just so beautiful that they wanted to catch the quality of light? I believe that my artist friend was correct. They were painting light from a mysterious source to communicate a message to us. They were asking us to pay attention to this one quality of their landscapes.

When I sing, it doesn't matter what the subject matter is, I always sing from the same place. I sing from my core. I sing knowing that I am an instrument and the music is coming through me. It's not about me up there on stage, if it was, I wouldn't be able to utter a note. I'm much to self-conscious and nervous to sing in public. But, I can do it when I sing from this core belief.

I have never applied this to my art in a conscious way. Nearly always, I will see the finished painting on the canvas before I ever apply the first brush stroke. So I can talk, joke and just use technical skills to finish the work, without too much effort. Occasionally, and much more recently, I haven't been able to see any painting on the canvas at all! That's when I get nervous and lose confidence in myself. I call it "being connected." I'm not connected when inspiration doesn't come easily. When I can't "see" the painting. A similar feeling comes over me when I can't "hear the music." It's disturbing and I feel very alone at those times, ungrounded almost.

These are very personal things. I don't know if all artists go through them. I have heard music in my head most of my life. Usually it's songs I'm working on, or just classical instrumental works. Sometimes, I'll get a commercial jingle stuck in there and I'll have to consciously think of something more appropriate to get it out of my head. Otherwise, it will loop over and over again and drive me mad. On the visual side, I will see things that need to be captured. I'll slam on my brakes, turn around in the middle of traffic and go back to take a photo. One time I pulled over to watch the sunset so abruptly that a car pulled in behind me on the side of the road. When the woman got out, I started to tell her that I just pulled over to watch the sun set. And she said, "So did I!" And we both turned to watch this amazing flaming orange light fade into the horizon.

It's this state of astonishment that brings me back to what I believe. I was astonished that my artist friend chose to paint a single sliver of light when all around him the trees were aflame with color. But this is based on his belief. A belief that light illuminates the darkness. And in his painting that day, there was much darkness and an astonishing sliver of light.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Painting in Competition

Recently I won the "People's Choice Award" for a plein air painting done up in Glen Arbor, Michigan. It was a multi-challenging 7-hour experience.

After camping with a dog that had never slept in a tent or outside before, and rising at 6am to slam down a breakfast, pack and be at the Art Center by 7:45am, we headed out to select a site (my dog and I). The sun was peaking briefly in and out of the clouds, but it didn't look promising for a sunlit morning. I headed as fast as possible to the shore of Lake Michigan, to a site that I had explored the night before. The scene I wanted faced west, and there was no sign of sun. I couldn't see a picture in it. Driving back on the dirt road, a rare bit of sunlight caught the inside of a three-trunked birch tree and lit it up with orange. I slammed on the brakes and pulled over to snap a photo. Quickly, I pulled out the easel and started setting up, but the easel leg fell off and everything dropped into the dirt. I couldn't locate the pin that held it all together, so I used a display easel that I had brought as backup (always bring backup equipment!). This left all my paint and supplies on the ground, but it was better than nothing. Still blurry eyed, I raced to catch the light. The dog went to sleep on a mat by my easel (after keeping me up all night, he was tired). About an hour later, I was pretty happy with the birch trunks and sky, even though the sun had disappeared in the first five minutes of painting. I had just started on the fields and farm house when another painter pulled up beside us.

She was a pastel artist, and had decided as I did, that the lake front was not fit to paint that morning. She started a rendering of the farmhouse and field. My dog was not happy with the intrusion and decided to start being a pain. (He's a rescue and only a year and a half old) Thank heavens, the car was right next to me. Since it wasn't hot yet, I put him in the back of the car with the windows down. That stopped the constant threat of his chain knocking over my secondary easel. By lunch, both myself and my new artist friend had finished fairly acceptable paintings, and the light had changed too much to continue anyway. We decided to do a second painting at another location. She asked me where I was headed. I told her that I had spotted a large building by the side of the creek the night before, but couldn't imagine then how I would paint it and that I wanted to go back and check it out for a possible watercolor painting. She decided to come too.

The Grist Mill, as it was called, sat close to the road next to a steep drive. There was no way to get a good view of it on the side of the river next to the road. But across the river, I saw an elevated wooded area that looked like it might provide a distant vista of both the river and the building. We went searching for a way across the river and found one through a private gated community. There was a place to park just next to the wooded area…and the view and setting were perfect…except for the mosquitos. The little blood thirsty beasts had spawned by the thousands on the riverbank and they were hungry. I doused myself with bug spray, but didn't consider that my dog was also a viable target. As I set up the makeshift easel, he appeared greatly distressed, swinging his head from side to side snapping at the air and occasionally dropping to the ground to chew on a part of his body. It became very distracting and the buzzing around him was audible. I took pity on him and closed him in the car with the air running, where he fell promptly asleep. Now I could concentrate on what I was there for…to paint this incredible scene.

I set about to mark off the dimensions of the building using standard practices of vanishing points to determine the slant and location of each window. In a building of this type, if the lines are off, it ruins the whole painting. Not planning ahead enough, I had not brought a straight edge to draw the edges of the building, so I used the edge of a blank canvas, a little awkward but it worked. With the drawing complete, I called over to my friend who had set up across the river to see if she had the time. She said it was 2:30. I had less than two hours to finish the painting as we had to be back at the Art Center to frame our work by 4:30 and it takes time to pack up. I started to panic. Why had I chosen such a difficult subject? And why had I brought such a large frame which had forced me to do such a large watercolor! I didn't have any choice at that point, so I just decided that if it looked bad, or wasn't finished I just wouldn't enter it in the show. With self doubt and self-imposed pressure behind me, it became easier.

I masked off the areas that I wanted to keep bright yellow in the foliage and began to paint the building first with broad washes of light purple on the shadow side and then more details on each window laid in with gum arabic to maintain their darkness. Then I transferred the building into the water upside down and before it dried completely, I sprayed it with water and let it drip. Some of the spray splashed on to the building and I liked the effect, so I gave it a little more water. As it dried, I called over for time again….it was 3:45. Time had flown! I picked the painting up and waved it up and down to speed the drying time so that I could remove the masking. That done, I set in on putting the lines in for the siding and shadows around the windows. Then it started to rain! That's the last thing you want when you are doing a watercolor. It this point, I just let the drops fall on the painting, and to my surprise, the effect looked pretty good. My friend called over that it was 4:15 and that she was leaving. I sighed and looked at the painting. I guess it was done, but it looked cold somehow, the purple shadows seemed too strong. Then I did something that I have never done. I took a wide brush and filled it with a very wet mixture of orange and laid it in over the entire shadowed portion of the building and let it drip where it wanted to. The orange immediately toned down the purple and brought a warmth to the shadows and softened all the strong lines. It was beautiful. It was a blessing to not have the time to contemplate what I had done on an impulse, and how it could have ruined the painting. I packed up the car and drove to the Art Center to frame the two paintings.

During the show, I stood behind a couple who were looking at my watercolor. "I can't believe she did that in 7 hours" the woman said. "Actually, I did it in three." I told her, pointing to the birch painting on another wall, I added, "That was my first painting of the day."

The watercolor had not won any of the three prize ribbons, and I was disappointed. But it had sold, so that was good. After about an hour, I left the reception to take my dog for a short walk and passed by some patrons as they were leaving. They looked at my artist's name tag. "Oh, Katherine Larson!" they said, "We all voted for you for the People's Choice Award. Your painting of the Grist Mill was wonderful!" My spirits lifted, I returned to the reception, and shortly my name was called.

It's a wonderful thing to know that the public likes your work, it increases your confidence. But, an even greater result has come from this experience. I have learned to follow blind instincts and not analyze things too much. Taking chances and working through fear to the other side allows one the freedom to experiment and discover. And learning that was worth the whole experience.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Personal Voice

I don't know if all artists go through a reinvention process. I only know that after spending two weeks in the forest alone painting, I came out a different person. Since that time, I have looked at my massive body of work with a mixture of disbelief and disappointment. It's almost as if it didn't come from my hand, but was the work of someone else. Someone who was readily influenced by the demands of clients and was responsive to a public that constantly wanted something other than what they were doing as an artist. Believe me, I have been grateful for the work. And, I have been fortunate to have been able to deliver so many different styles of work for so long. But now, I'm finding that a different voice is speaking to me, a personal one. One that keeps asking: "What do you want to say?" And, I think that's an important question. So, I'm trying to answer it.

Little by little over the past two months, I've made some progress. It's not a verbal process, so it's difficult to express. I've thrown out more paintings the past two months than I've ever discarded in my whole life. And, I've saved a few from disaster by working hours on a tiny canvas in the studio. Something that would have taken me 20 minutes a year ago now takes me 10 hours. What I want to say is right on the tip of my brush...but I just can't seem to get it out.

The painting posted above was done this morning at Kensington. It comes the closest so far to what I want to say. The hard part about all of this is that I don't know how long this reinvention of myself is going to take. It's a process of disassembly, of unlearning, and relearning, of playing and of serious observation. It's wonderful and terribly uncomfortable at the same laughing and crying simultaneously.

What gives me hope is remembering the experience of seeing an exhibit of Degas' work at the DIA. They had x-rayed the works and exposed on separate images the number of times he painted and repainted his masterpieces. In some cases, they said the work was repainted several years after the original work was done. It was shocking to me that a "master" could be so unsure of himself that he had to paint and repaint a work that many times. But, now I find it comforting. Now, when I look about the studio, and I want to repaint parts of paintings that I once loved, I think of Degas. And, I wonder, did he at one point in his life look at his work from earlier years and feel the kind of disappointment and emptiness in them as I feel from mine? I doubt it. But it's still sort of comforting to consider it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Destroyer of Worlds

A few days ago I went to a film entitled: "Midnight in Paris." A line from that film haunted me. The author Hemingway is speaking to the main character, Gill, (also a writer) and he asks Gill if he is afraid to die. Because, Hemingway tells him, if you are afraid to die, you can't be a writer. He goes on to tell him that he must be fearless in all things.

I have been struggling with a mural for the past month and I had finally decided that I just wasn't going to get the effect I wanted with the I was about to give up and deliver it to the client. Over the weekend, I went Plein air painting with the Michigan Plein Air group...and my frustration with the mural seemed to have transferred to my painting there as well. I was disgusted with my work. At one point, I took the watercolor and dunked the whole thing into the creek. ...It made it better, but I decided to tear it up anyway and start over. I became a destroyer of worlds that own worlds. And, it felt good. Do we have to destroy to create? It turns out that to create something new, that's often the case. Or, at least, part of the old must be changed in order to create something new. Even creating from the void changes the void....

So today, I was drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book while sitting across the room from this mural that I had been struggling with...and I happened to look up at the mural while considering what I was reading. And, to my shock, the mural looked really good! Wow, I thought, maybe I just needed a few days of looking at it for my judgement to get out of the way. So I got up and walked across the room and as I got closer, it got uglier again. Then I realized I didn't have on my glasses. I had been looking at the mural from across the room without my distance glasses on...and it looked great. I had an AH HAH Moment!

Immediately, before I could forget what I saw from across the room without my glasses, I picked up my paintbrush and began a process of what I will call "blurring" of the image. All edges were softened and the shapes took on a blurred, but logical shape. It was no longer necessary to show leaves on trees or ripples in the water...they were there, only subliminally. When we look at the world, it is not a leaf at a time, but we know there are leaves on the trees. We can also only focus on one object at a time, and all others become slightly out of focus. I know this, I just forgot about it in my desire to paint every pretty fall leaf on the trees!

When I get a final photo of the mural, I'll post it here. Right now, I'm in the mood to least partially, some of my other paintings.

Peace out.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Artists out of work

It seems such a shame these days that many artist friends of mine are not working full time in their field. The ability to create visual worlds is a gift, and a relatively rare one I am discovering. But, I have always taken it for granted. And as a result, it's taken me many years to place the appropriate value on my work. Sometimes I'm good at valuing it, other times, not so good. I think it's difficult to put value on one's work until someone else puts a price to it for you. But one thing is universally true for artists, and that is that we live in our own world…the world of our making.

A painting student of mine said she had recently watched a video of Bob Ross yesterday. I'm taking it for granted that everyone who has ever painted or aspired to paint knows who Bob Ross is…if not google him. My student commented on his dialog while he painted, how soft and gentle he was. I have watched Bob paint at least 100 times in my life, and I never grow tired of him. He is in "his own little world" as he paints, and much like a gifted storyteller, he takes you with him on the journey. You can feel the peace in him. I have never seen an episode where he has not used the words, "this is your world, you can paint whatever you feel like."

I feel the same way about the real world that I live in. I can create any reality that I want. I can create a reality where I am working as an artist, or a reality where I'm not. And, I can change my mind about what it is to be artist.

As a child, when I was being taught about all the great artists in history, I noticed that almost all of them were starving or suffering during their lifetimes, but after their death, their paintings sold for millions and I wondered why. I still wonder why. Artists are unique individuals with unique gifts. Every one has a different perspective on the world and most likely, different training and skills…and therefore the expression of the art is distinctly unique. Why then do artists so often falter in their ability to express and value themselves during their lifetimes? I think it is a mindset, a lie that has been taught to artists that we have accepted.

When I was in high school, I did a sculpture of Mozart. It was a beautiful bust of his head and I was very proud of it. I had completed it in two days. The next day, I came back and unwrapped the clay to admire it again and found the face punched in, the imprints of the knuckles clearly visible in the clay. I wept. I did not understand why anyone would want to destroy something so beautiful. Now, after many years, I understand the destroyer.

The statue of David was damaged about 15 years ago by an angry and jealous sculptor who threw a chipping mallet at David's feet and broke off a toe. Everyone seems so shocked at his actions, but I understand them now. He had bought into the lie. The lie that tells us that only a few of us succeed, and that it is difficult to make it in our lifetimes as an artist even with great talent.

Don't accept the lie. The lie comes from a source that is talentless, void of creativity and filled with anger and jealousy. An artist's life can be filled with love, because we create our own worlds….and the world I choose to create is one of optimism and beauty. My paintings never contain parking meters, or power grids, visions of death, pollution or violence. They reflect the best of mankind and nature and this is intentional. You attract that upon which you focus your time and attention. So, if sunrises, sunsets, trees, waterfalls, animals, light and happy people are not to your liking, you probably won't like my work. But it's my world and I can create whatever I want. So far, being an optimist has worked for me.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Biting Problem

It's true, I expect a lot from my dogs. I expect them to travel with me without complaint or concern for where we are going or what we are doing. I expect them to tell me when they need to go out, but to know that I often won't be able to take them out immediately (like when I'm on the interstate). I expect them to be off schedule, as I often am, and except eating dinner late, going to bed late and often in strange places. In fact, about the only thing a dog with me can count on is that I'll always be there with them and for them. That's always worked in the past with the three dogs that have chosen to spend their lives with me. So, imagine my surprise when my most recent dog started biting me for no reason at all.

The attacks came at odd times. When I asked him to do something he didn't want to do, during playtime, before he went out, after he went out and during his time out. The worst times were during these last three. He would often fly at me at high speeds, slamming his body into me while showing his teeth and snapping. It didn't look much like playing, even if someone had taught him to do it. After less than a week, I had bruises up and down both arms, on my shoulders, calves, ankles, torso and rear...pretty much everywhere. He never broke the skin, but the pain was as bad as having someone pinch me hard with a pair of pliers all over my body.

My friends all told me that I had adopted a "biter" and that I should have him put down. I was less inclined to give up on him. I looked up the problem on the internet and decided that he was a dominate aggressive dog and took the steps suggested on the websites. After a few days of isolation from everyone but me, he got a little better. But the attacks during his trips to "do his business" continued.

He had had loose stools since I had adopted him. The Humane Society said they had done worming on him and that the stools came up negative, so I just assumed it was nerves. But, after three weeks with no improvement, I suspected that there was something else going on. It turned out that he had bacterial infections in the small intestines and was in quite a bit of pain.

It's now been a week and a half since we treated him. The stools are normal, and the biting has stopped....completely. I'm posting this, because I had started to doubt my belief that there are no bad dogs, only bad people. My faith has been restored. He was in pain, and he couldn't tell me, so he bit me to let me know something was wrong. It seems strange, but when you think about's not. People do strange things when they are in pain too. I'm just glad I figured it out before someone decided that he was a "biter" and had him put down.

He's sleeping peacefully at my feet as I write this.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Death of a friend

On the eleventh of January, 2011 my beloved Weimaraner, Jacque died of blebs which caused leaking of air from his lungs into his chest cavity. Six of the seven lung lobes were effected with blebs and only 50% of the lung can be removed with successful recovery. Upon his death, I realized yet again how much these loving creatures contribute to my life. Without him, I no longer wandered into the woods to paint. I no longer wished to walk at all. I didn't know what to do first thing in the morning. I had no one to eat with, or to share the couch. I had no one to talk to in the car when an inconsiderate driver cut me off in traffic. When I laughed, he no longer came running wondering if he had done something funny to bring me such joy.

Eight years earlier, my first Weimaraner died of cancer and a swore I would never get another dog. As a stood sobbing at the dog park, woman I barely knew changed my mind when she said: "If you don't get another dog, you don't understand the concept of dog." I looked at her with confusion, and she continued: "Dogs live in the present moment. Your dog would never want you to grieve like this for the past. She would want you to take this incredible love and give it to another dog that needs it as much as you need to give it." Two days later, Jacque came into my life and needed a home. If this woman had not said that to me, I would not have been prepared to accept Jacque, and I would not have had the last 8 incredible years with him.

So I took this wisdom in hand a second time and waited for the right dog. It didn't take long. Five days ago, I was informed that a Weimaraner had been returned to the Humane Society for bad behavior. He was 8 months old and not house broken. I dropped everything and went down to meet him. His name is Maestro and he is my new beloved member of the family. (see post above)

Painter and Classical Singer in Michigan

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