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Saratoga Car Show… The car I had hoped to paint, making the turn.

A vintage car festival at Saratoga State Park- a win-win, or so I thought! It was Saturday morning and I had the whole weekend ahead. After weighing my options for places to paint, I decided the car fest would be an ideal place to plein air paint. Stately brick buildings  provided the ideal backdrop for cars from the early 1900’s through my favorite decades, the 1960’s-1970’s. I was so excited to paint a few of the cars. The park was buzzing with action. Skidmore College was holding its graduation. It was the first seriously nice weekend. Luckily, I found an ideal parking spot and schlepped my gear to the show. Of course, before setting up, I had to walk around and gawk at some of the cars.  They were offering Ford Model-T car rides around the reflecting pool.  the old Model-T chugged along its course with happy passengers being transported back in time. I set up my easel so I could paint the car as it made its way around a turn in the gravel road. There was a big tree on its left as it turned. Perfect, I thought! Confident, I decided to paint a 12″ x 16″, a big change from the 6″x 8″ I had been doing. I got this! So, I thought. First mistake: my umbrella wouldn’t work. The sun was beating down on me and I couldn’t figure out how it attached to the easel. My second mistake was skipping breakfast and only having a granola bar and one warm water bottle with me.  My third mistake was attempting to paint on a panel primed only with Zinsser. I have decided to prime with gesso, but that’s a story for another day. Needless to say, my paint was sliding all over the panel which was extremely frustrating. And lastly, and the biggest irritation: people! Now normally, I don’t mind one or two random people stopping to peek at my painting. It’s actually sort of fun. But there was an onslaught of people. Person after person had to tell me their story about painting, cars, Saratoga. I just wanted to paint. It really got me thinking about plein air painting. I have been juried into a few plein air shows this summer. They will be my first competitive plein air events. The problem is, while I teach and love presenting material I am familiar with, when I am plein air painting, I just want to be left alone. Is this the norm? I couldn’t take it anymore. Tired, hungry and hot, I packed up my gear with a painting half done. I didn’t even include a car in the painting!

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My half done painting…missing the car.

After downing an extra-large ice water when I got home, I decided to venture back out in the afternoon to a more remote area. Ah….time for redemption. I painted a smaller panel, just a 6″ x 8″. Only a handful of people stopped by

with friendly dogs for me to pet! that was a win-win. Dogs, painting in solitude with the sound of the birds chirping. Two hours later, I was pleased with my plein air postcard. Life was good again!

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Plein Air postcard sketch.

Season of change

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Old Ford truck, painted by Lisa David en plein air (outside). Located in Saratoga county, upstate New York.

Finally, it’s spring here in upstate New York. The earth has come alive with chirping and squeaking, bright yellows, chartreuse greens. There is great excitement among my plein air painter friends. Everyone is talking about shows they are in and planning meet-ups. This is all new to me. I discovered plein air last summer. Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. I have entered a few shows, teaching a workshop, even started a club with 15 high school painters! Needless to say, I’m hooked. This spring season for me is full of change. Personally, I’m about to become a grandmother to my son and his wife’s first baby. My daughter is also getting married this year. Yikes! Now I find myself packing my car almost daily with art supplies venturing out for another adventure.

If you like adrenaline, fast rides, and attention, plein air painting in public might be for you. But if you are like me, and are more solitary, like nature, then painting in quiet locations is for you. This season of change, I plan to “tip toe” into painting more in public places, as opposed to painting in more remote settings.

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Old school truck for the North Colonie School District sitting in a field in Saratoga County.

The wonderful thing about painting outside, plein air, is that there are no rules, except you shouldn’t trespass! In this season of change, I finally got the nerve to ask permission to paint something I’d been eyeing for years. A family farm until about 12 years ago, my suburban development has some rich history. Near the entrance, there is an old truck covered in tall grass. I’ve had my eye on that truck since the day we moved in, about 9 years ago. I finally summoned the courage to ask the owner of the property adjoining the parcel figuring I could at least access the truck. My suburban neighbor was more than gracious about walking through his property. I didn’t get permission of the actual land owner because I never see them around and I figured the old truck has been parked there for at least 20 years. Trust me, this truck hasn’t moved in at least that long. There are lots of pieces of old farm equipment scattered through the field. Within five minutes of setting up my easel, an older gentleman wearing his Saturday plaid flannel and jeans approached me. However, to my surprise, he was thrilled that I was painting in his back yard. In fact, he brought me around and showed me lots of other treasures on the property, including an old pond and a corn crib. I was thrilled! I met an interesting person who was more than willing to share his property. Phew, I wasn’t trespassing and in fact, this one property will yield an abundance of wonderful paintings! I’m glad that in this season of change; I was bold enough and decisive enough to finally paint that old truck!

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Plein Air Painting by Lisa David. 

Why produce a series of paintings?

Lisa David, The Chase

Lisa David, The Chase, 16″ x 20″. Remember chasing the ice cream man with your dollar?

We all have them – our personal favorite painting, the baby, the one painting you were born to paint! Sometimes, we get lucky. Perfect combination of subject, composition, value structure, color harmony – it just works. That one painting may inspire an entire series. Before you know it, your authentic self as a painter, your style, shows itself. That’s what happened to me. The Chase is a painting of two kids wearing nothing but swim trunks chasing an ice cream truck. Everyone remembers the excitement of hearing the ice-cream truck’s song fill the neighborhood. “ICE CREAM MAN!”, we would scream, then run to find loose change and hope he didn’t get away. That painting has set the course for most of my work since. Childhood memories infiltrate everything I paint. If you are struggling with finding your voice and distinguishing yourself as an artist, maybe your favorite painting can be an inspiration for a series.

Below: Images from the “Summer as it was…” series.

Over the past five years, I have immersed myself into several series of paintings rooted in memory, specifically childhood memories. They have produced enough work for galleries, shows and studio sales. I’ve done a series of 70 small paintings about summer in the 1960’s and 1970’s; a series of ten summer drinks from the 1960’s and 1970’s; a series of 28 paintings of family on a 28-day road trip in 1972. Currently, I am working on a series of 12 paintings about school in the era of Dick and Jane.

 

Below: Images from the “Summer Refreshment” series.

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Frozen Pink Lemonade, 10″ x 10″ Oil on panel Remember the sound the frozen lemonade concentrate would make as it left the can and the stickiness it made all over the counter?

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Coke and a Smile. 10″ x 10″ Oil on panel Remembering just how refreshing an ice cold Coke can be.

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(Mr. Harvey’s) Suntea , 10″ x 10″ Oil on panel My 5th grade teacher made us suntea in a big glass jar. It would marinate in the window all morning long. We drank it out of little Dixie papercups.

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Tub O’ Soda, 10″ x 10″ Oil on panel That time I won a green raft for the 3-legged race at my Dad’s company picnic. There were tubs of soda like I had never seen before!

Prior to painting, I threw pots. Lots of pots. I was a production potter throwing hundreds of pounds of clay a week fulfilling orders for gift shops all over the country and abroad. I had 18 sales reps selling my wares at wholesale prices which barely left any profit for all my hard work. My passion turned to excruciating work and before I knew it, I resented dry hands, sore back and the constant hum of my pottery wheel. I barely slept. Something had to change. I decided to paint. Years later, the same principles that helped me produce shelves of pottery helped me produce series of paintings.

Lisa David Summer of 72 poster image

Lisa David, Summer of 72 A family goes on a 28 day roadtrip; Some real memories, some imagined.

It’s satisfying to complete a body of work, a series of paintings. It feels good to have paintings for galleries, shows and sales. It also feels good to tell people what you are working on. Here are a few tips to help you if you want to tackle a series of paintings:

  1. Determine the number, size and subject of a series. Set parameters about when you will finish (a painting a day, season, month). Pick a good number, then use social media, blog, etc. so others can follow your journey. Make it a realistic number. The summer I painted one a day was a huge commitment.
  2. Source items if you’re doing still-lifes or take photo references combined with observational work. I keep a sketchbook and draw thumbnails for each image. I have bought a few rather bizarre things off eBay to paint, like an old metal ice-cube maker, pick-up stick game, even an old orange life preserver!
  3. Have gumption and stay with the idea until it is complete even if you doubt your skills and subject. I use the word “GUMPTION” as my mantra and listen to the Hans Zimmer song Gumption from the movie The Holiday! It keeps me painting through anything. There were times when I thought, am I nuts painting Tang, cinnamon toast or Yodels? I may be nuts, but at least I’m being authentic.
  4. Contact venues for showing your latest series. Tell people what you are painting.
  5. Set up for success: order supplies to see it through, clean your studio before you start, plan times to paint, tell your family that you’ve decided to make the commitment. Take the series seriously.
  6. Enjoy every second – painting is the good stuff!
  7. And remember, if something is important to you, you will find a way. If not, you will find an excuse.

Happy Painting…and give Gumption a try!

Wiping down & Scraping off

 

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Tools for wiping down and scraping off paint

If only we could hit “undo” on an oil painting and back up a few steps to restart an area. It happens to every artist. Even Sorolla would scrape down multiple times until he got it right. Scraping down work is frustrating. Aside from the physical disruption of the painting, it can deplete your confidence. It also wastes time and paint. But, it’s inevitable. Sometimes you need to scrape down your work to get it right.

 

Scraping down paint is usually done on an area of a painting which is dry. During en plein air painting or alla prima (wet on wet), it is more likely that you are wiping away a wet area. Often, artists do a combination of both scraping down and then cleaning up with a mixture of odorless mineral spirits and medium to rework the area. I have been pretty far into a painting and realized the need for a scrape down. Perhaps the number one reason I scrape down or restart is inaccurate drawing. I recently was working on a portrait and noticed the left plane of the face was about a third larger than it needed to be. It required reworking the entire left side, hair and all. I debated letting it go and giving it the proverbial “whatever” but decided it would haunt me if I left it. Poor compositional choices are also reasons that I have scraped down. When painting en plein air, for example, I tend to paint what I see rather than rearrange elements to make a more pleasing composition.

 

How do you scrape or wipe? It really depends on how wet or dry the paint is. If the paint is too dry, you can use a flat edge razor blade or a palette knife. Sometimes I will use a small piece of sandpaper to sand into the edges of surrounding paint. If the paint is wet, I use a Q-tip or Viva paper towel dipped in Gamsol. I also have a handy rubber tipped tool I purchased from Hobby Lobby.

 

To avoid the need to wipe down or scrape off, there are a few things you can do. First, do a drawing of your composition. Take a few minutes to get a pleasing design. Stand back often. Set a timer if you are well intentioned but get engrossed in your work. Paint thinly first (lean).  Don’t rush to add in details too soon. Keep squinting to see your values. Use comparable sizing early in the painting to get the drawing correct. Compare everything to that first bit of color or the first line you placed on canvas. If you do need to scrape or wipe down, it’s all good. At least you are out there painting!

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Sanding down an area to fix after paint has dried

 

Favorite Brushes

 

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ART, 8″ x 8″ Oil painting by Lisa David Remember wearing your Dad’s old shirt and using those long brushes? Art class was the best special of the week.

Every artist has them:  their favorite brushes. Over time, your favorites end up like Woody in Toy Story – tossed in the back row or put in some old brush jar, part of your personal museum of art supplies. I bet you have a collection. If you’re like me, you don’t throw out old art supplies. You think one day, you may need them, or maybe your children will want them. Maybe, just maybe, some collector will find them valuable!

Oh, the stories your old brushes could tell. They know all your secrets. The time you had to repaint over that garish green, or how many times you wiped down and restarted. Our brushes have personalities. Some are sharp, giving us a quick edge. Others are dull, glazing over quiet areas. Brushes can be downright ugly misshapen unfortunates, bristles going this way and that.  Even your once favorite brush can go bald after a while, losing precious hair. You think, “I didn’t even notice and now you’re practically bald”.

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Clean paint brushes with Murphy’s Oil Soap, baby oil or olive oil soap.

Brushes are extensions of our brains and hearts. When you reach for a brush for that specific stroke, it’s best to get it right the first time. The brush must work in harmony with the paint. If the paint is too thick, too thin or not the color you thought you mixed, it can sense your frustration. Sometimes, we take our frustration out on our brushes. We forcefully rinse them in solvent, then blot with too much pressure on the paper towel. Sometimes we even throw them in fits of rage (well, I don’t, but you know who you are!)

Certain brushes become our very favorite. The “in ” brush – the popular brush. You bring it out for every painting, even take it on plein air adventure outings. Then, there are the cheap brushes. The discount brushes on sale at the big box art store. Come on, you know the kind. You can’t resist their low price.  Once in a great while, you may find a quiet, little unassuming brush.  It’s almost too good to be true – the price was right and it did the job.

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My studio paint brushes, Gamsol solvent & Viva paper towels.

Painters have their favorite supplier, too. And soon, when you thought you were the only one with the cool new brushes, everyone else has them and you are all painting the strokes!

Your brush truly is your most important tool. How it feels in your hand, the weight, the texture of its finish, the feel of the bristles as they glide on the canvas. If only some magic could flow through them like Tinkerbell’s wand!

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Brushes I used down to practically nothing. Hey- ya never know when you’ll need one bristle!

I paint with a woman who uses only one brush! That’s it! It’s a short flat, probably a number 4 or 6. Yes, I agree, flats are a good versatile brush. If I’m being honest, I could get by with about 5 brushes. So why the need to continuously purchase more? Luckily, for the Rosemary Brush Company, I can’t seem to get enough!

Of course, cleaning brushes is also part of the artist’s job. At the end of each day’s painting, I give my brushes a little massage for working so hard. I use either Murphy’s Oil Soap or baby oil in the palm of my hand. Then, using olive oil bar soap, I gently squeeze paint from the ferrule down.  Then, I lay them flat to dry.  When I start the next day’s painting session, these lucky brushes end up in the front row instead of back on the bench. Every few months, the weeding out process begins again, and those Woody brushes get put in a special container as if to say, someday we’ll be used again- someday. And so goes the life of a paintbrush.

If you have to paint from a photo…

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Reference photos I have used for studio paintings.

There’s a lot of debate in the art community about painting from a photo.  I was at a figure drawing class recently and the topic came up. There were several plein air painters in the group. There were also some newbies who didn’t quite understand the stigma related to both techniques. The debate went something like this: If you paint from life, your painting will be more lively, vibrant, have energy. It won’t look like a photo, it will look like a painting. You will get the colors and values accurate. The other side argued working from a photo allows you to paint on your own terms, in a studio. It offers the artist convenience and more freedom of subject matter. You are able to see details. You can take longer on a work.  It may look realistic. The rationale for each goes on and on.

I have my own opinions (as does everyone!). Basically, a painting is a painting. It’s not a photograph. The untrained eye will think the painting from a photo is “so good”. If it is tight and realistic, they may compliment it by saying “I thought that was a photo!” For a long time, I heard these statements. I thought this meant I was a good painter. I may be a good painter, but I want to be a good artist. I have become more aware and appreciative of paintings that show more of the artists brushwork and process. For me, being an artist means I am leaving a bit more of “me” on the canvas; my brushwork, my colors and my composition.

I studied photography in school. I have taken tens of thousands of photos. In fact, I have over 25,000 on my phone from the last year. Yikes, that’s a lot of photos! Anyway, I feel confident in my skills of composition and design. I learned to paint by copying my photos. But is the art in the photograph or in the painting? Recently have I discovered painting from life. I’m still copying what I see, but for some reason, I feel more like an artist! I get a rush from painting from life. I can interpret the colors and make bolder brush strokes.  Consider this: If I took a photo of the exact place I plein air paint, it would show a moment in time. A quick snap – a freeze frame. As a photo, it might be wonderful. Ideally, it would trigger an emotional response.  Now, if I stay in the same spot, becoming immersed while painting for a few hours, the experience would transfer onto the canvas.  And for many artists, they will use the plein air painting and a photo reference together for a studio painting.

It’s all just preference. Some artists have the propensity for details and getting every detail in their painting. There are collectors and art buyers who love to show off such works. Others prefer a more painterly approach, seeing the brushstrokes and the mark of the artist. While both techniques have their merits, here are a few tips to consider if painting from a photograph:

  1. Whenever possible, create a small painted study to accompany your photo. Not possible? Then draw a sketch. Not possible? Take some color notes. What colors would you mix? Jot down what the weather was like, or some words for your mood.
  2. If you must work from a photo, at least work from your own. Don’t use other’s photography. All you will be doing is showing your skills at copying. No fun.
  3. If you use a smart phone, keep it in portrait mode when possible. Also, make sure to keep the phone at same level and perpendicular to your vision. Distortion and wide lens are giveaways that you painted from a photo.
  4. Beware of shadows and highlights.  Your photo will obliterate the highlights. It will make all your shadows black.
  5. Make corrections immediately after taking the photo, while you are still in front of your subject.
  6. Take several photos in the same area, all around, all views.
  7. Compose ON THE SPOT if possible. It saves time and sharpens your vision as an artist.
  8. Find your focal point and soften the rest. Our eyes see differently than a camera. We cannot focus from one thing to the next. Try it! Look at something, anything in front of you. Now notice the extraneous objects surrounding the item you have focused on. You cannot make out their details. The camera flattens everything and shows you everything in clear focus but, we do not see that way.
  9. If you do paint from a photo, edit elements that won’t help your composition. Don’t put in every last item or detail. It can really weaken your painting
  10. Convert your photo to black and white to help see the values. This can be helpful if you are new to painting or just are having difficulty making them out.

Above all, remember that the camera is a tool. YOU are the artist, the one mixing the paints. YOU are the one reading the information and interpreting what you see. And only you can prevent forest fires. (Just seeing if you’re still with me!) All that really matters is that you are fortune enough to paint!

 

 

 

When life gives you lemons, paint them.

lisa david artist blog painting lemon brushtrokes

L’il Lemon, 6″ x 6″ Oil on panel. A very special, but not-so-good painting.

We all have them. Bad days, bad weekends. Lemons. This past weekend was definitely subpar, a lemon. There was no one thing that happened; nothing disastrous. Just a typical weekend, some cleaning and bill paying Saturday morning that took too long.  My whole house seemed to need spring cleaning. Before I knew it, I was putting away the winter coats, arranging lemons and rummaging around for a spring candle. Next, the bills needed to be paid.  That’s enough to put anyone in a down mood. Then, time for errands. I stopped by my Dad’s to pick up a new plein air system he custom designed for me. Quite deluxe (will post pics soon!). Of course, I wanted to test it out, but I wasted 2 hours aimlessly driving looking for just the right spot. Snow banks and trespassing laws prohibited me from most of the places I would have painted. I finally got set up, ready to paint a nice barn and thought: boring- it’s just a nice barn. Nothing interesting, old or vintage about it.  I went back to a place I had painted before but within 5 minutes, my hands start to go numb. What now? It was already 4:00 and the day felt like a waste. I was furious at myself for sleeping late, taking too long to clean, paying bills on a Saturday and wasting precious weekend time driving. I needed to do something to snap me out of my self-imposed “Looserville” syndrome.

Lisa David artist blog lemon

46 brush strokes (plus or minus one!)

Lemons. I had just read about an artist who challenged her students to complete a painting in a limited number of brushstrokes, like 40. The object of the exercise is to be aware of color mixing, brush strokes and brush selection, not to mention accurately reading color and value. Lemons! I had all those lemons in my clean kitchen!  Within minutes, my bitter mood turned sweet. I used a limited palette: White, Cad Yellow Pale, Cad Yellow Deep, Alizarin Crimson, Cad Red, Ultramarine Blue. I had a piece of canvas taped under the painting. Each time I made a brush stroke, I made a tally mark. I used a size 8 Rosemary Ivory flat brush. I started with the darkest value, then mid tones, and then highlights. I added the background last. The little lemon taught me a few things: One, that I need to slow down (in life and in painting) and have more gratitude.  I need to isolate shapes to really see accurate colors. I used my view catcher for this. Big brushes are awesome. Powerful, bold and confident. I typically would have used a small brush fussing with all the details. Brush strokes matter. I learned to not squander them, rather consider each stroke, it’s direction and length. I reached my 40 stokes and ended up using about 6 more to complete the background. Is it a great painting? No, but it’s an important painting; a reminder that when life gives you lemons, instead of making lemonade, paint them instead!