An Evening at the Boatyard

This painting was a little difficult to photograph due to the contrast in the subject and the thick texture in the paint. But I ultimately succeeded in capturing a good shot on a flat and cloudy day when it wasn’t too dark or too blaringly bright outside. Hopefully the energy I felt in returning to the easel shines through in the piece.

“Evening at the Boatyard”, Oil on linen, 20 x 24” ©Jennifer E Young

“Evening at the Boatyard”, Oil on linen, 20 x 24” ©Jennifer E Young

I have been looking at a lot of art lately and painting a few lemons in between (both literally and figuratively😅.) As a result I feel compelled to express myself in a way that is not so literal. I don’t know how far out into the world of abstraction I want to venture, but I do feel the pull to simplify in the very least. What’s enough but not too much? That’s the question. I haven’t found the answer yet, at least not in my own work, but it’s something very much on my mind. It will probably take many more paintings (and quite a few more lemons) before I even come close to an answer.

Local fare

Doing the mom/artist thing is a constant juggling act. For that matter, doing the mom/anything thing a juggling act! I love painting the early morning light, but so many mornings, despite my best intentions, I cannot get out of the door to paint on locations as early as I would like.  It seems silly, but this can actually be a source of considerable anxiety for me. But, as with so many other lessons that parenting teaches me, I have had to learn to make peace with what is, and perhaps even embrace it. 

This painting occurred on such a morning. With a late start I decided to see if I could find something of interest to paint in my neighborhood. It's actually not that hard in Ashland, as it's a small railroad town with beautiful historic houses and lots of charm. 

"Bicycle Garden," Oil on linen, 10x10"

"Bicycle Garden," Oil on linen, 10x10"

If I'm not mistaken, this bike has been on this corner since the fall, in anticipation of the UCI Road World Championships that whizzed through our locality in September. In Ashland, decorated bikes were set up everywhere. Even after the races, many of the bikes have remained, their decorations changing according to the season. I have been eyeing this corner for a while now, enjoying the charm of it. When the daffodils popped up, that sealed the deal for me. 

Incidentally, you never know what can happen when you stand on a street corner in a silly hat, no makeup, and sweatpants. You just might encounter a photographer who works for the local paper!


Back from the ethers with a new WIP/painting demo

My lapse in posting has probably made it seem like I fell off the face of the Earth or something. In fact, I was in Texas last week (which actually did feel a bit like another world to me --just kidding Texans!) I had to slip away unexpectedly to assist my mom, who was just released from the hospital after major surgery. The good news is that she's been doing great, and I'm back home now and back to painting. It's been far too windy and rainy this week to do any plein air work, so I've decided to continue my French landscape series with nice big 40x30" linen canvas in the studio--a vertical painting of an ancient church in ruins among a field of irises.

I started with a monochromatic tonal wash in transparent red oxide:

France painting demo work in progress

While this is a representational painting, my approach to the work is in the abstract. My aim at this stage is to express the pattern of lights and darks in a fluid and interesting manner. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you might remember a plein air painting I did of this same site last summer. Even though this larger painting will be of a different view from that location, I will use my plein air painting and my experience from that work to inform this piece.

The finished painting will have a lot of irises in the foreground, but I don't bother drawing them in at this point. My main concern early on is to connect my darks in such a way as to create an interesting underlying armature that will provide a structure for any detail, and also hopefully provide enough interest so as to lead the eye around the canvas.

Painting in this monochromatic, thin wash helps me to develop my overall composition without great commitment. Transparent red oxide is not a highly staining color, so if corrections or changes are desired, any marks I make at this stage can easily be wiped away with a paper towel dipped in solvent (I use Gamsol).

Incidental staining is not really a concern any way, since I usually like a toned canvas. It's sort of like I'm making a grisaille painting and toning my canvas at once. In this instance, I decide to leave the lightest lights (in the sky) mostly completely white, as I will next use the white of the canvas to develop the shape of my clouds:

landscape painting demo of the french countryside

Basically I'm painting the negative space of the sky with the blue paint mixture. Working on linen is a real pleasure. It makes it really easy to use my paper towels to smudge and wipe away paint so as to refine shapes and create those soft, wispy edges.

southern france landscape painting work in progress by jennifer young

After I established the basic cloud pattern, I start to add paint, color and shadow to the white of the clouds. I also begin to develop my darks, and give some definition to my area of interest; the ruins of the old abbey.

Further developments are under way and forthcoming soon....Stay tuned!

Small WIP & value sketches amid the rubble

A series of wet gray days have kept me from painting outside, so I've spent some time putting my studio(and myself!) back together in the aftermath of the workshop. For me, "spring cleaning" always seems to make things look worse before they get better.

I have little piles around me...piles of books, of paperwork, and also a small pile of unfinished paintings. Among the latter is this demo painting that I started in the workshop, which I may noodle around with and bring to a more finished state. It's small, just 12x9", so we're talking maybe just orzo or macaroni-sized noodling.

Jennifer Young provence landscape work in progress

I started this workshop demo talking about composition and values and how they related to each other. Since we were working with the limitations of photographs, I wanted to try to get folks to think about the possibility of composition beyond just what they saw in front of them in the picture. When I'm painting en plein air, I will often do a series of small value sketches before I jump right into painting. I will use this same approach too in the studio, to develop my design.

Along with a contour sketch, it is extremely helpful to do this in a very abbreviated quick grayscale, so that I can get a general idea of my value relationships and the overall design that is created not only by the placement of line but also by the pattern of dark and light:

Value study landscape painting
Value study Jennifer Young
Value study Jennifer Young

This is not a new concept, of course. Artists have forever been studying and writing about the arrangement of values (lights and darks) to compose a strong design. The artsy fartsy term for this is "Notan". Okay, it's actually Japanese. Notan sketches can be fleshed out in recongnizable contours (like mine above) or they can be very quick and gestural thumbnail abstractions created for the purpose of identifying the underlying design.

The values are generally limited to four or less.  I used 2 markers; black and light gray, deriving my middle gray from a blending of the two, and letting the white of the paper stand as my lightest value. 

Of course, in life we see a much wider range of values, but in designing and executing a painting, I'm learning that simpler is often better.  If you look at many of Monet's paintings, you might notice that many of them have a very small range of values indeed, and he used color temperature and very soft edges to add a wonderful sense of atmospheric depth to his work.

A quick Google search for "Notan" yielded some good results for further exploration:

How about you?

Painting is a response (so move the $%#! tree).

I was talking to a non-painter about painting recently and she said, "The kind of art I like is imaginative. I don't care much for a copy of a photograph or a copy of a scene even in life. It's far more interesting to me to see a painting that came from the artist's head." Well, I couldn't agree more. But I hate to break it to her; all art comes from the "artist's head." The artist is painting in response to something, whether it be a concept or idea, a story, or an observation. Even in landscape painting (or any kind of painting even remotely related to realism) I think that true artistry occurs when the artist is not copying, but painting her response to a subject, and is fully able to communicate that response in a way that is original and distills the subject to its essence.

The reasons behind my choice of subjects vary. Sometimes it is the sheer beauty of a place that triggers an emotional response. Sometimes the scene evokes a memory. Sometimes it is the light. Sometimes I respond to something as simple as lines and planes. But it is all about my response or my interpretation.

Copying a scene so that it looks like a photo, or even looks like the view in front of me in the open air, is not nearly as important to me as expressing my response to the subject. As I heard artist Kenn Backhaus say once, "I'm not interested in making historical paintings." Backhaus paints en plein air, but he also uses many different combinations of his own photos at times to inform his studio paintings. He uses these resources in order to express his unique vision, frequently with masterful results.

I work in a similar manner (but still working on the mastery part.) ;-) Sometimes one scene says it all. Other times I may combine several different elements from varying photos and studies to relay the idea or feeling about a place or experience. Even in realism, the subject matter is the jumping off point. It is subordinate to the idea --just one vehicle for the greater goal of artistic expression.

Painting on location is important for the simple reason that there is more to respond to in life than in a photo. But even painting en plein air, artists can fall into the trap of subordinating their art for the sake of historical accuracy. I was out painting with a fellow artist once and we set up in different locations to paint the same scene. I took a break from my work and inquired about my friend's progress. "It's going okay," he said. "But I wish that tree was in a different place." "Then for heaven's sake," I said. "You're an artist! Move the $%#!  tree."

Painting successfully from photos offers its own set of challenges, because you are responding to a frozen moment in time. That is not how the eyes see and not how we respond in life. In addition to painting en plein air, I do work from photos. But they are my own photos, usually taken from travels where I have made a point to also do some painting or sketching (accompanied usually by long spans of sitting and sighing and blissfully observing) on location. So even working from my photos, it is always about my experience, except that I am also having to rely more on memory than from life in the moment.

As an artist I've worked using many different approaches. Sometimes it all does come "from my head", and at other times I use nature as my inspiration. There are times when I am so seduced by a scene that I find it perfect, and I try to capture it just as I see it. But even then, I try to keep in mind my ultimate goal to make a strong painting that communicates my unique response. I may not always find success, but it's something to move towards. And if a tree gets in my way, I have no qualms about moving the $%#! tree.