Thursday, September 27, 2007

Jumpstart your artistic process

"Jumper", Oil on Paper, 18x22inches
Jerry Lebo, 2007

It is quickly turning fall in DC these days and I am already starting to reminisce about summer—although it is still warm here.

The above painting is based on a composite of my daughter and some pictures we took in 2006 at the pool. I have been thinking a lot about the psychology of paintings and thought I would do a painting of my daughter just at that moment when she is about to jump into the pool—at the point of hesitation—and try to capture both the light and the feeling of that moment.

Well, I am finally getting over my jet-lag from the trip over the last few weeks, but am still having trouble getting back into the studio. So, I thought I would do a post about the ways I have used in the past to “jumpstart” my painting process and get myself back to the easel.

1. Get a inspirational book or magazine. I am not talking here about reading a book—that is something not to do (see below). I am taking about getting some inspiration from an art magazine or book that gives you some idea about how you might try a new painting technique or a getting book about creativity. I have mentioned a couple of books I like to use in my past post, such as JF Carlson or Edgar Payne’s book about composition. Just seeing a new composition idea is sometimes enough to get me to pick up my brushes. I also like to look at books about painting techniques or color, but there are a lot of bad art books out there. To help you out, I have made a list of books I like to look at for inspiration on Amazon, check it out here. I also came across this book about creative exercises that I think is pretty good—the exercises are not all for painters, but some are. It is worth a look. Finally, if you just want to look at some good contemporary painters, here is a list.

2. Do a small Painting. I have found that one of the biggest mistakes is to try to get back into your painting regime by trying something big. Instead, get yourself a small canvas 6-8 inches, not bigger, and do a little landscape or still life. Have an idea in mind before you start—don’t just start out mindlessly laying down paint—but make the idea simple. For example, try to paint a piece of fruit and try to capture the sense of its skin or the color of the inside. Another idea is to just try a new composition or just work on getting the tonal relationship correct—don’t worry about color. The idea is not to make it too challenging, but to do something that you can do in an hour or so, as a quick sketch or small painting. Often these small paintings lead to bigger ideas or a series.

3. Get Some Exercise. I know it sounds strange, but many of the painters and artist I know need a bit of exercise to get the juices flowing. In fact, I think that painting and exercise share some similar traits. You know that feeling when you haven’t exercised in a while and you are just not inspired to put on your shoes and go for a jog. You make every excuse not to do it, and usually go and eat something instead. This is very similar to the inertia of painting. You have to take that first step. If you exercising regularly at all, you will know that the just after a good run or trip to the gym is the time when you are most alert and ready to go. So, go for jog or to the gym, and right afterwards hit the studio. You will be surprised at the creative energy that will flow. Many artists simply go for a good walk in nature—that is often enough. If you haven’t exercised in a while, try that. Go to the local nature park, take your camera, and see what you can discover. The key is to hit the studio right after you get back when the juices are still flowing. If you delay, the inspiration will be lost.

4. Copy something. Finally, my last trick for getting myself back into the studio after a long hiatus is to copy something. Not something complex, but to take a painting that I like and make a small copy or take an excerpt from a larger painting—and make a small painting. For example, take a picture or post card of a Poussin or Tiepolo painting and paint a little excerpt. In the past, for example, I have taken the little cherubs in their paintings and done a little study. Those little floating babies can be the subject for numerous paintings. You will never get bored doing copies of these little cherubs. Here is an example of a Tiepolo painting and an excerpt you could paint.

Of course, if you don’t like babies or Cherubs, the idea can be applied anywhere. Take a Cezanne and copy a pitcher or piece of fruit. Take a Gauguin and paint a tree or a face. Copying is both a way to learn, but also take the challenge down a little bit. You don’t have to think of a new idea or do a big painting—just paint something.

Things not to do. Now that I have told you some of the things that have worked form me in the past—let me give you a short list of the things that do not work, for me at least:
  • clean the studio
  • watch a movie
  • read a book
  • go to the museum (can work, but usually drains my visual energy)
  • sleep
  • work
  • talk on the phone
  • do a household project.

    In my experience, all of these things take away energy you might otherwise use for painting.

    Hope these ideas are useful. Now, go paint. Sixtyminuteartist

    Tuesday, September 18, 2007

    Painting from Exotic Locations

    Cloud View, Samoa

    Well, I am ashamed to say it has been two weeks since my last post. I am even more ashamed to say that I have not been able to do much painting, as I have been traveling and very busy with work related matters. However, I have been trying to feed my artistic fires during my travels, and hope that when I get back to DC this weekend that I will be able to get back to some serious painting. Today I am in Sydney, Australia so I finally have Internet access again--and thought I would send some artistic rants to anyone who is out there listening.

    I have just spent the last two weeks in Papua New Guinea and Samoa, and I had a lot of time to think about what it would be like to paint regularly in these exotic locations--and for the first time I think I understood what drew Gauguin to Tahiti. As you probably know, before Gauguin went to Tahiti, he spent some time in Brittany and around northern France. I recall when reading his biography, that he was mainly motivate by trying to find a simple lifestyle, where the locals led a simple life and he could get on with his work without the distractions of modern life. Of course, he also need some scenery to paint. In the end, he left Brittany and eventual traveled and settled in Tahiti. But, why Tahiti over Brittany? It would be easy to assume it is the lure of the tropics and sunshine and light, but after my trip to Samoa--I think it is much more complicated that that.

    Samoa is a tropical paradise, and although I have not been to Tahiti, I think they share a lot in common, including climate and a Polynesian culture. I found myself several times in Samoa daydreaming it would be like to just stop in a local village, send for my paints, and never come back to the modern world. Paint my life away in a tropical paradise. In effect, it would be like following Gauguin--albeit some one-hundred years later.

    View of Fagaloa Bay, Samoa

    This got me thinking about, what is so compelling about Samoa--that it would draw an artist like myself? The views, of course, are everywhere--as it is clearly very beautiful. But, I think, as with Gauguin, this would be too simple of an explanation. After thinking about it for several days, I have concluded that the simple fact is that Gauguin was drawn to Tahiti mainly by its people and their culture--more than anything else. In Samoa, the Polynesian culture still dominates daily life. The Samoan people are very welcoming and friendly, and they take life in a much different way that most Western societies. The need to achieve is not as important as the need to participate in the broader family and community success. In sum, it is a much more accepting and communal way of living--and people are much more aware of the importance of enjoying the company of others and life.

    So I am not entirely disappointed that I have not been able to paint. First, because I know that I have learned something that will help me as an artist in the future. I will most certainly never look at a Gauguin painting the same way again. It is now clear to me that in painting in Tahiti, Gauguin was as much interested in the psychology of its people and representing the sensation of being immersed in its culture, than with style or technique. Some might say he went for the women and to indulge himself in sex. But, as a painter myself, I am sure that this was not his primary motivation. He may have had personal weaknesses--and indulged himself. But, he could have done that in Paris or elsewhere. I am sure he loved painting more than anything in the end, and would have quickly left Tahiti if he was not able to paint something that was satisfying. So, in my mind, his painting is not about the visible beauty of a place--but an essence of place and communal acceptance as an artist.

    So there you go, some thoughts on Samoa (and Gauguin)--but mostly about the importance fo finding a place where people accept you and you can feel part of a community.

    All the best, sixtyminuteartist.

    Friday, September 7, 2007

    An American Artist in Brisbane

    View of Brisbane from Cultural Center

    As I said in my previous post, I am traveling for business over the next few weeks, so my posts may be fewer than normal. Today, I arrived in Brisbane in Queensland Australia for a layover with a day to spend in the city. So, what is an American artist to do for the day in Brisbane. Having never been here before, the answer was simple—go the art museum.

    Before the museum, however, I needed to find the art store—since I forgot to pack one very important thing—disposable palette paper. So once I checked into the Hotel, I went straight to the yellow pages. It took me a few minutes to figure out that the proper terminology for looking up an art store in the Australian yellow pages is “Artists Materials”. It took me a couple of more minutes to find one within two blocks of my hotel. So if you are ever stuck for art supplies in Brisbane—go see “Eckersley’s” on 91 Edward Street in downtown. It is a small store, but they have most anything you would need. It is a bit like Plaza Art in Washington—not a discount store—but prices were reasonable and the staff were very helpful.

    Once I had my art supplies, it was off to the Art Museum of Queensland. Just across the river from the downtown and easy walking distance, the Art Museum is part of the city’s “cultural center” which includes, the Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, State Library, and a history museum—as well as a performing arts center, etc.

    Edward Vuillard, "Le Salon des Hessel", c. 1905

    I went to the Art Museum first, and it was well worth the visit. The gem of the visit was the largest Vuillard painting I had ever seen. I never even knew he had painted this large. Most of the Vuillard’s in Washington DC are small paintings—but this one was wall size—at least six feet wide by 2-3 feet tall. It was a real treat to see it. Hanging near the Vuillard, was a Pissaro, Degas, and not far away a nice Sickert (a painting of Whistler’s Studio)—and a nice De Kooning was hanging around the corner.

    Beside the European and American art in the museum, the Art Museum has a large collection, as you might expect, of Australian artists. Although, one could easily write off Australian painting as largely an imitation of European and/or American art of the same period—and a lot of it looks that way--it has its own uniqueness worth pondering. Surely, no American or European artist could done the same justice to a painting of Brisbane Harbor in 1880. The last time I was in Australia, I had discovered Tom Roberts, who is perhaps the most famous of Australian artist of the early 20th century—along with Brett Whiteley, who is one of the most famous contemporary artist. This time I dug a bit deeper, and found Arthur Streeton (a contemporary of Roberts) and Charles Conder--these guys could paint.

    I finished off my visit with a quick trip to the Museum of Modern Art. That is where I got my second surprise of the day. There was a big retrospective of Howard Arkley’s work. He represented Australia in the 1999 Venice Biennial--and passed away in the same year at a young age. This show totally blew my mind. I don’t think there is any doubt this guy was a genius. The way this guy used line and color and really captured a sense of space and place was incredible. I don’t know if you can get a sense of how good this work is by looking a reproduction or a single work. But, seeing 50 of his paintings in one place was a revelation. If you are in Brisbane anytime soon—you have to see this show. To me this is a must see show--a sleeping giant--but only around until Sept. 16. I don’t paint this way myself, but this show made me want to.

    So there you go--what to do if you are an American artist in Brisbane for the day. Go to the museum.

    All the best, sixtyminuteartist.

    Wednesday, September 5, 2007

    Painting the Southwest--picking up the thread

    "Chimney Rock Morning (Study), Oil on Panel, 11x14 inchesJerry Lebo, 2007

    I have decided to focus on southwest landscapes in my next series of paintings. The above is the first of a series of studies--which will culminate in a larger painting (I hope). The above study was painted over the Labor Day weekend--as a first salvo towards that larger work. We recently completed a three week painting vaction in the Santa Fe area--where I primarily did small paintings. I have a lot of memories and pictures, but that is not the main reason that I have decided to do this series. In fact, the reason is based on what I call the "thread".

    The "thread" is what I call the core elements of a painting--the sense of space, mass, and color. In my mind, when you start a landscape, you are basically trying to play, and hopefully make a statement, about one of more of these. The other day I noticed the last painting I did last year with a southwest theme sitting in the corner of my studio, and realized that there was a statement in there that I felt I was ready to pick up and try to push in a new series of paintings. In this case, it is all three of these elements that I am going to try and push in this new series.

    Here is the painting from last year which is where I am taking as a starting point.

    "North of Espanola", Oil on Canvas, 30x28 inches

    So stay tuned. I am about to travel for business, so progress may slow a bit. But this is my thread.

    all the best, sixtyminuteartist.

    Sunday, September 2, 2007

    Working in Series--are there benefits?

    "Cherry Pop-Tart", Oil on Panel, 6x6 inches
    Jerry Lebo, 2007

    Well, I have come to the end of my latest series, which I am calling "Bite Me". "Cherry Pop-Tart" is the final of these paintings (a series of six small paintings) that I have undertaken over the last few weeks. If you missed any of them, look at my previous postings or click on the "Gallery of Paintings" link on the right of my blog. I will be posting "Oreos", "Snickers Bar" and the Pop-Tart painting on Ebay for sale in a few days, if you are interested in a purchase. I really enjoyed doing this series, and it has gotten me thinking about whether there is any benefit to painting in a series--or working on multiple paintings at once. I think the answer, at least for me, is "yes".

    The first advantage--which definitely came out in the "Bite Me" series, was that working on a series allows you to "feed" off of your own work. While I was painting this series, I kept the others around the easel to give me information and ideas that might inform the painting I was working on. For example, there was a point where I felt I was struggling on the Oreos painting a bit. It was nice to be able to go back to the sense of light and marks of the "Fig Newtons" painting, which allowed me to think about how I might introduce something similar in the Oreos painting. Of course, the Oreo painting is different in that the tonal range is much narrower--but just having the Fig Newton painting nearby as a reference allowed me to think about simplifying the marks and sense of light in Oreos--and help me make a much more interesting painting. Several times when doing these series, when a part of one (say, the background) was not working well, I could go back to the others and see if there was something I could draw on.

    I think most painters, at least those who have the time, will work on more than one painting at once. For instance, one of the most common reasons I see artist working on multiple paintings, is that it keeps them from having to continue to struggle with a particular painting that is not going well. Then they can come back to the problem painting later. But, I think that even those painters who are "time-constrained" can benefit from this approach. For instance, if you just hang four or five paintings around your studio and work on each one for a set time, say, 30 minutes (or sixty) and then move onto the next one--I think you will see a benefit. The first thing that will happen is that it will reduce the time you spend painting "in circles"--which can happen if you have a lot of time with one painting. But, perhaps more importantly, if you know that you only have 30 mins. with a painting--you will be much more decisive in your painting. You cannot paint all the details if you only have 30 mins--you will need to see the overall big changes that need to be made to bring it towards completion--and make these first. Try it sometime. Try even shorter periods of time--say, 15 minutes--if you only have sixty minutes in the studio--this will allow you to work on four paintings at a time.

    The other benefit of working in a series is that it forces you to focus on what you are trying to achieve in your work--and to develop that particular element. Progress in painting is very slow, so if you can achieve one small thing in a series of paintings--that is progress. If you paint many individual paintings--it is hard to see what you are achieving or what to focus on. Running from still life to landscape to figure painting, can lead you no where. How can you find a thread or consistent vocabulary when your work jumps from one genre to the next? On the other hand, if you plan to do 10-20 landscape paintings in a series, working on the same subject or location, will force you to consider both the elements of what you are seeing in more detail--but perhaps more important, what you are trying to achieve. You cannot paint twenty paintings of the same subject without seriously considering your painting vocabulary and what you are trying to say.

    So, I am a great believer in painting on many paintings at the same time. If you only have a short time in the studio, the same effect can be achieved by working in series or on multiple paintings at once. I plan to apply this approach in my next period of work--which will be a series of landscapes of the southwest--based on my recent trip to Santa Fe. Although, I will be traveling for work over the next few weeks--so I am not sure how far I will get. I will need to be flexible to keep up my sixty minutes a day while traveling.

    In the end, one of my goals in doing six paintings in series was to try to bring them all together in a more cohesive statement of work--which was both a challenge and fun. I hope you have enjoyed and have gotten something from my postings around this series.

    All the best, sixtyminuteartist.