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. 

If you have to paint from a photo…

Landscape painting reference photos

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.

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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!

What’s your story?… and why it matters!

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Leisure Time. 6″ x 6″ Oil on panel. Fond memories in this camper circa 1971.

Recently, I have noticed books, websites and podcasts for creative people about finding your authentic self – your true self.  Reason being, if you can tap into that, your art-making will be inspired from within, thus you’ll create more authentic and genuine pieces.  Why is this an important and necessary process?  Your art needs to have integrity. For you to defend your art as the “real thing” it needs your truth. When the art you make comes from within, you will see it on the canvas.  It has a ring of truth.  Your art will stand out and bring you peace. You will look forward to creating and sharing.

So how do know how to find your truth? Your story? We all have a story, a point of view. I wanted to find my truth. Should I read books, take personality tests, Google and listen to podcasts? My discovery of my story was relatively simple. I stopped looking outside to find out who I am.  No one knows me better than myself. My experiences, likes, dislikes, memories, ideas are only mine. I thought about it for a bit and looked at the work I most enjoy making and sharing. Then my story revealed itself. I’ll share it with you!

I’m a girl who loves the 60’s who was raised by a genius scientist and an alcoholic mother with a heart of gold. While she attempted domestic life, our suburban development house overwhelmed my mother. Four kids kept her busy. Erma Bombeck was her idol and voice of sanity. Someday, I’ll share the whole story. For now, let’s just say I watched a lot of TV to show me what normal life was. I yearned to live in the Brady Bunch house.  One fond memory I had growing up was camping at state campsites in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. We were all crammed in a popup camper. It felt so great to be with other kids and families doing this “normal” activity.  So, camping has a strong hold on me. I have a log cabin in the Adirondack mountains which I use as a studio for summer painting.  I love pine trees and the color of pine needles. That’s who I am. I love vintage and the Adirondack landscapes. A lot has happened in my life along the way, but I can honestly say my love for life in the 60’s and the mountains pretty much consumes my thoughts. Simple? Sure.  And for now, that’s just fine for me. What’s your story? Listen to your inner voice….shhhhhh. Hear it?

Michne Family in our Leisure Time Camper

Staying cozy in the Leisure Time Camper, 1972. I’m the happy one in the back.

P.S. Timing is everything. I just started reading Larry Moore’s book, Fishing for Elephants. If you are struggling with finding your authentic self and your inner voice isn’t screaming at you to get your attention, Larry can do it for you! It’s a great read so far. Good luck in your journey, may you be at peace with your story.