Time struggles, plein air, and new calendar of events

This week has been a little crazy; two openings and a plein air event for me, theater rehearsals and school and sports for my daughter, and all of the regular stuff of life in between. But some version of crazy seems to be the norm for my schedule every week, and I am not alone.

While I was painting this week at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (more on that in a minute) I ran into an artist friend and we started talking about how disorganized we can sometimes feel and how guilty we feel about not being better at marketing to social media, to our newsletters, and yes, to our blogs. When time is crunched, the choice of whether to do any of the above or to paint always seems to result in painting as the clear winner.

It’s a frustration that I know a lot of other artists share, many of whom, like me, aren’t always masters of time management or organization. “I need a calendar of events on my website,” I said to my friend, “a quick and simple way for people to check in and see my upcoming shows and events. Maybe it would help me stay more organized too.” When I got home that afternoon, I checked out my site and lo and behold it does have that functionality. So viola! I now have a calendar!😃

If you check out the aforementioned calendar you can see that I have been spending the week painting at the botanical gardens as part of a promotion for National Public Gardens Week. Local artists who applied to paint during this week will submit their completed works for a chance to be juried in to an exhibit at Lewis Ginter that opens June 22nd.

Work in progress, 12x16”, painted during National Public Garden Week at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens

Work in progress, 12x16”, painted during National Public Garden Week at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens

I really like these kind of events because even though I regularly paint outside on my own, they get me out and focused and inspired. I enjoy seeing what other artists are doing and collecting new ideas on various artists setups and tools of the trade. It’s a very different vibe from the more formal events that are organized around competition. I have some friends who thrive on competition and use it as a means to drive themselves onward to bigger heights. For myself, it’s a little more stressful. I do the competitions from time to time and haven’t yet regretted it, but I am not that competitive by nature. So the more relaxed festivals that are really just a celebration of art and plein air painting are truly my jam.

Edges, mark-making and tools

Happy New Year!🎉 Okay, granted I am a little late to the party, but I’ve had a busy couple of weeks moving into a new exhibit space for 2019. More on that soon, but today I wanted to share a bit about mark making, and neat little tool that I stumbled upon along the way.

I didn’t have tons of time over Christmas break to paint, but it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been on my mind. I have been thinking a lot about how I can loosen up, to create pieces that are truthful but not quite so literal. One of the things I struggle with is varying not only color but brushwork, so that there is not so much sameness everywhere. I vary brush sizes and shapes, but it still can leave me feeling a little bit like there must be something more. Sometimes I want to push a bunch of paint around and brushes alone don’t always do that.

Then one day, I purchased a Color Shaper. I actually bought this to spread gesso, because I have some pre-gessoed canvases that I bought that have been sitting around in my studio unused because are still a bit too rough and absorbent for my liking.

Before I even used it for gesso, I got curious. I had heard of other artists using these tools fairly extensively for applying paint in their work and I got to wondering whether it might be a useful tool for varying my edges and textures in my painting.

It didn’t really do what I was hoping for. These shapers come in varying degrees of firmness and the tool I ordered was an extra firm. Good for gesso spreading, but not for my painting. Still, I saw the potential so I went back online to see if I could get another one with more flexibility. But before I got that far, I stumbled upon these do-hickeys and fell in love.

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These guys, officially called Princeton Catalyst Wedges, are made of some kind of silicone or rubber and come in a variety of shapes . They are more flexible than my prior purchase but still firm enough to move the paint. They don’t have handles, but frankly I prefer this handle- less variety because it allows for more control.

What does it do? Well, for starters it pushes a heck of a lot of paint around, creating the ability to make bold, impasto passages or thinner, more ethereal ones.

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I can use it to make a fairly straight edge with the straight, thin side of the tool, or use it t scrape down passage to create softer edges.

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I can use it as a blending tool, or a tool to separate out colors and make them stand out. In short, I can use it to exploit the properties of the paint in a way that is a nice variation from straight-on brushwork .

I first ordered the white tool, pictured above, left. Then then I discovered the black, which I like even better because you have greater versatility with both a long and a short edge. “Why not just use a palette knife,” you might ask? Well, I do love palette knife paintings but I always just end up switching back to brushes and reworking them because I have never been quite able to achieve that combination of softness and boldness I aim for. These little tools act like palette knives with more of a brush feel, if that makes sense.

“Coral Reflections, Late Summer”, Oil on linen, 24x36” ©Jennifer E. Young

“Coral Reflections, Late Summer”, Oil on linen, 24x36” ©Jennifer E. Young


I’m still not ditching my paint brushes; they are the work horses in my studio. But I’m having fun playing around with these new tools and exploring what I can do with them in my paintings.

Change is Good (Part II)

In my last post I explained how I go about making changes to a previously completed painting that may need some minor tweaking to improve it. Today’s post deals with more drastic measures. This still life isn’t really that old, but almost since its completion I felt I wanted to do something different to the background. Both the shawl on the left and the angles on the right bothered me, as did the color combinations as they related to the foreground. All of these elements served to distract more than enhance the still life arrangement. 

Still life, version I

Still life, version I

So, after sanding, scraping and oiling out (as described in my previous post) my first thought was to create a very simple dark background, which is a classical approach to still life painting employed by a lot of painters through the ages. I also got rid of the awkward angle in the lower right portion of the table cloth, and carried the horizon line straight across.

Still life, version II

Still life, version II

I actually liked these changes, though without the background distractions it really brought out how evenly divided the painting was by the bottle of forsythias, making for not-so-interesting negative space on either side, only accentuated by the plain dark ground. The dark color also really brought out the remaining texture underneath, even when the paint layer was built up. So, I decided to play with it a bit, knowing I could always come back to the simple dark background if I really wanted to.

“Forsythia and Delft Blue”, Oil on linen, 20x24" ©Jennifer E Young (click the image for details)

“Forsythia and Delft Blue”, Oil on linen, 20x24" ©Jennifer E Young (click the image for details)

What I arrived upon felt to me to be both whimsical and old world at once. It almost reminds me of an antique screen or stage set of a decorative painted sky. The “clouds” served to break up the background space, and the softer, happier palette made me feel happier too. It can be a little scary to make these kind of changes but I’ve come around to the idea that  if the painting is nagging on me, the benefit of change can outweigh the risk. Have I ever “ruined” a painting doing this? Yes indeed. Occasionally my over-zealous scraping can poke a hole straight through the painting. Other times my changes may fail to satisfy me and I end up scrapping the whole thing entirely. But if I’m not satisfied with the painting as it is, it’s probably worth risking it. In any case, if I’m lucky, I have miles of canvas to go before I’m done. 

Change is Good (on revising oil paintings)

I’m not afraid of anything in this world
There’s nothing you can throw at me
That I haven’t already heard
I’m just trying to find a decent melody
A song that I can sing in my own company
— Songwriters: Adam Clayton / Dave Evans / Larry Mullen / Paul Hewson (U2)

I've heard it said that there's nothing new under the sun, and that's probably true when it comes to painting. Nevertheless,  I never stop striving to improve, both in terms of technique and in how best to express myself. I want to make work that speaks to me and hopefully speaks to others as well. No one painting can say everything and I don't expect it to. The best paintings say just enough, with sensitivity, but without overstating. 

And then there are the ones that need re-stating. :-/  Often with such paintings it is easier to just wipe down or tear up my first effort and see if I can try again on a fresh canvas. Sometimes though,  it seems worth the effort to attempt a revision first before scrapping the whole darn thing. If the painting is fresh and new, reworking is a fairly easy and straightforward task, as there isn't an under-layer of built up paint to compete with.

But it may not occur to me right away exactly what change is needed, and it's only after sitting with it a while that I want to go back into it again. In these cases, a little bit of elbow grease is required, both to ensure proper adhesion of the new paint layers and to knock down any unwanted texture. 

My painting, "Rugosa Coastline" is a studio piece that was based on a smaller plein air piece I did when I was up in Maine. After a few months of thinking about it I decided that it lacked something that the plein air piece captured. I felt the studio piece was labored, overall too busy, and the colors, especially in the foreground greenery,  too intense for the time of day. So I set to work to see if I could make a few changes, to maybe loosen it up, and tone down the colors to ones more faithful to the time of day I was trying to capture.

First pass of my 24x30" studio painting based on the smaller plein air piece below.

First pass of my 24x30" studio painting based on the smaller plein air piece below.

"Day's End, Lane's Island", Oil on linen, 11x14" ©Jennifer E Young

"Day's End, Lane's Island", Oil on linen, 11x14" ©Jennifer E Young

My first order of business was to knock back some of the texture. Not all texture in the under layer is bad, but if there is  a lot of texture that shows through as a "ghost" image I will sand it down a bit. If it's really built up I may find I need scrape it away razor blade, very carefully, (and pray I don't poke a hole in the canvas). 

Next I will "oil out" to give the new paint layer better adhesion to the partially dried layer underneath. To oil out, solvents or medium (or a combination) is brushed in a thin layer on the surface of the portion of canvas you want to rework. Most often I just use a little Gamsol for this purpose. 

"Rugosa Coastline" (SOLD) Oil on linen, 24x30" ©Jennifer E Young

"Rugosa Coastline" (SOLD) Oil on linen, 24x30" ©Jennifer E Young

The resulting painting was still a bit different than the little plein air piece, but it felt truer to the time and place and to the feelings that I had when creating the painting on the spot. I felt significantly happier with the revised version of this painting, and wouldn't you know, someone else did too? It sold not long after the revision. 

Tune in to part two in my next post, where I'll share another revision I undertook, which ended up with more extensive and fairly dramatic changes. 

Plein air season

Every spring I jump the gun and think that the warm weather is here to stay, only to be blindsided by Ma Nature. Last week reached 80 degrees, so, after packing away most of my winter things, off I went to the garden center looking for color for my containers. That was last week. This week has been a totally different story, with rain, a March-like chill, and wind, oh so much wind!

Well the one smart thing I did in my zest for spring was to dust off my plein air gear on one of those summery mornings and visit the botanical gardens at Lewis Ginter. I went back to the Grace Arents Gardens that sit in front of the Bloemendaal House. I have painted this garden so many times but it is so beautiful and each season offers something new. In the early spring the garden offers a feast for the eyes dubbed "A Million Blooms", with acres of tulips, daffodils, and other spring bulbs.

"A Million Blooms in Grace Arents Garden" Oil on linen, 11x14" ©Jennifer E Young

"A Million Blooms in Grace Arents Garden" Oil on linen, 11x14" ©Jennifer E Young

I also like this particular site because it is one of the few places where there is adequate shade, and as the years have marched on my skin has become very sensitive. I do slather on the sunscreen and wear a big goofy hat, but it isn't always adequate and I pay for it later. I also carry an umbrella, but I don't really use it that much because of the extra time it takes to mount it, not to mention the dangers of having my whole setup topple over from a surprise gust of wind.

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While I was there at the garden painting, I met several staff members who were enthusiastically commenting on my painting. Among them was the social media guru who took this snap of me in the early stages of my painting (bad hairdo and all). I had a great time and felt the sense of renewal that I always feel when I come back to plein air painting after a long break. Then came the wind and rain and cold, which delayed my ability to get a good shot of this piece outside until now.  I really hope the wind settles down today as I'd like to head back out there (or somewhere) today to get in some more on the spot painting while the spring flowers and trees are still going crazy.

P.S. Many of you responded to my last post with comments about my little obsession with a certain color on my palette. Yes, it is blue, but not any blue. It is (drumroll please) Indanthrene Blue. I will write more about it in an upcoming post.