Friday, January 3, 2020


I once heard an artist say that you have to focus on the things that challenge you the most in order to grow. If you always do what you're best at, you become stuck, and your work stagnates. This may be a bit harsh, but it started me thinking about my strengths and weaknesses as a painter.

The truth is, color throws me a bit. It's not that I don't love it. I use color both liberally and literally; it helps to relay emotions and to celebrate the beauty in a subject. When I used pastel full-time, there was an endless supply of colors from which to choose, no mixing necessary. After transitioning to oils, I remember wishing that Sennelier put their exact pastel colors into tubes. And now, after indulging in oil paint for a decade, I realize that no matter how hard I try, I always mix the same greens, purples, browns and beach tones. My practice has fallen into color autodrive. Eeek! How to extricate myself?

Then, one day last week, I took a walk in the woods near home. I noticed that the only color that stood out in the monochromatic day was the gold of beech leaves that still clung to their branches. I picked one, took it home and set it on the palette in my studio. The next day I attempted to mix it exactly. It was thrilling to have an actual "end-point" and I loved the result, especially when I dropped it into a black and white "start".

One little leaf guided me towards a way out of my entrenched habits with color. Interestingly, my son gifted me a book for Christmas called, "The Secret Lives of Color". In it, the author traces the social and scientific history of color. It is fascinating and has already challenged how I think about this cornerstone of painting. So, I am now committed to study and challenge color in new ways going forward. A perfect New Year's resolution!

"It is the best possible sign of a color when nobody who sees it knows what to call it." John Ruskin, 1859, from "The Secret Life of Color" by Kassia St. Clair.

Friday, July 19, 2019

A Place I Wanted to Paint

A few days ago, I went looking for the Palomita Nature Reserve. It is a marsh that begins at the mouth of Little Pigeon Creek on Lake Michigan, covering 40 acres in Ottawa County. This ecosystem houses more than 70 species of birds, plants and fish. It has been preserved with the help of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.  I made my way along Lake Shore Drive, saw the adjacent boardwalk and pulled my little red car to the side of the road. I fished my soft pastel supplies out of the back seat and headed to the overlook.  This was a place I wanted to paint.

The marsh spread out in all directions. Waterlilies floated near and far. The birdsong hugged me with a multi-layered chorus. I looked closely at all the varieties of green. This will be a challenge!

A jogger from two miles down the way stopped to gaze across the expanse. She said that, when in town, she runs to this platform every day in order to absorb the calm and beauty. She spoke passionately about the birds that she observes. We discussed the life experience of trees.

Later, a young mom arrived with two little boys, one on a two-wheeler, the other on the classic "Big Wheel". This family came here often, as it was an easy ride from home. The older boy told an animated story about stopping to look at a toad and getting stuck in the mud.

I settled back into painting. The day was hot and humid but a soft breeze kept my neck cool. As I worked, I thought about the importance of this open space. Not only does it provide protected habitat for a myriad of species, it is a place of learning, watching and experiencing. It is a living space where one can go to contemplate, to listen. In this era of technology, the value of such easy access to nature is immeasurable! I was thrilled to be painting there, and am happier still to communicate it's beauty through my art.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Mission

Ah, so the mission is easy. That is, easy to define: a painting, a great and glorious oil painting!
I accept.

Now, with one week under my belt, I am starting to understand the magnitude of what I have taken on.  I have asked something of myself which I cannot fully envision. This is not unusual for me when starting a painting. But, the longer I am here, the more I realize the sheer number of permutations that exist on this magnificent Pacific Coast. Every direction is teaming with possibilities.

Take the jagged cliffs, for example. The sun moving across the facets makes new patterns continually. They read like hieroglyphics. At one point the rocks on the edge are a huge bird; later, they are a woman, looking out to sea. I understand that years of contemplation might only afford me a glimmer of their truth. But I love trying. I grasp at the shapes with pencil, pen or charcoal. I flush them in with watercolor or pastel.

The ocean has its own vocabulary as well, far beyond what one can pick up in a two-week stay. She growls as she slaps and digs at the rock walls with a heavy thump, thump. Or, she whispers while gliding in softly, little bubbles popping, a gentle whoosh as she wraps her arms around each boulder. 

No question that I am enjoying myself immensely. The challenge of capturing a quintessential portrait of this area only fires up my (already continuous) desire to make art. But the luxury of abundant time, without other commitments, allows me to experience this place slowly, using every sense. I am calmed by the ocean's song and happy to suck in big lungfuls of her salty scent. I am honored by the resident eagle, who deigns to land in the tree out my window, surveying his vast territory. As the daylight fades, I am content to snuggle into a soft blanket on the couch with a good book and a cup of hot tea. And, I am hopeful that the answers to my mission will come to me, unbidden, as I work.  

Monday, May 20, 2019

Pinch me, please!

Ok, so I feel like I'm in the middle of someone else's novel. Is this real? I look out the window, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and contemplate the Olympic Peninsula. Perhaps I should start at the beginning.

Last year, some delightful folks from Canada asked if I wanted to travel to Vancouver Island to paint the view from their beloved cottage. Why, yes! We put the plans into motion in January and here I am. I flew into Vancouver and spent two days exploring. It is a clean and polite city. There are fountains everywhere and waves of rhododendrons in full bloom. After my short stay, I caught a bus that took me onto the BC Ferry, then all the way to Victoria, where I rented a car. The ferry was magnificent - huge, shiny and new - and, after walking around the perimeter of the boat, I settled on the bow and drew the tufts of land that announce Vancouver Island's approach.

After spending one night with this delightful family in their little piece of heaven, I took off for Tofino, a small surfing town at the end of a peninsula that looks like an arm bending into the Pacific Ocean. It was a long drive, up the east side of the island and across the middle. Once into the mountains, I was reminded of Alaska, where around a turn you are likely to see green foothills ending  in big, placid lakes. Tofino crawls up a hillside in the Pacific Rim National Park Preserve, with a small city-center on the water. I walked out the door of my Airbnb a bit dazed; all these new perspectives were begging me to record them!

Luckily, part of me understood that it was time to slow down and experience, instead of seeing everything as a potential painting. (This is harder than you'd think!) I hiked a trail through a rainforest where the trees were large and old, with crooked limbs that reached around, covered in moss. I thought maybe when I turned my head one might stretch out and tap my shoulder. Ahhh - so much wisdom buried within!

The beach at the end of the path was massive, encircled with craggy rock walls. I relaxed on a giant piece of driftwood and did some simple drawings and watercolors.

And now I am back near Sooke, around the southern tip of Vancouver Island, in a cozy cottage overlooking a jaw-dropping view. I have a lot to discover in the two weeks ahead of me, not least of which is how to turn off the "to-do" list in my head and open myself up to the breath of the skies and the heartbeat of the ocean.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Monoprint Retreat

I think possibly the best part of our 3-day monoprint immersion was the collaborative art-energy. Put three professional artists in one space with the goal of understanding new materials, and you get a great wave of power. I'm not saying that any of us mastered the medium, but we lived and breathed the challenge together, attaining our own successes.

It has been over 15 years since my press did any rolling (except on its wheels, looking for places to sleep). When Angela Saxon and Royce Deans arrived, we dug out the blankets and brayers (from mouse infested storage - eek) and moved furniture around my studio to create a functional print shop. Royce brought 7 pieces of thick, narrow glass, which we set up as a palette, along with the water-based printing ink Angela had ordered. Add to that some thick cotton paper that was hiding in my flatfiles and we were off and running!

The process was a bit of a challenge. It took some time to understand that we were not making paintings. For starters, printmaking ink behaves very differently from oil paint. It is sticky and does not perform well with brushes. Also, the print comes out as a reverse image and the last layer of ink applied is not on top. This was more than mind-boggling!

Each of us used an individual approach to image-making on our plates. I rolled on ink with brayers, lifted it off with q-tips and wet wipes, then reapplied ink with squares of matt board or more q-tips. When the plate finally looked finished (and I fell in love with it), the resulting print was often quite different. Argh!

But the beauty of the situation was our ability to concentrate on our own work while progressing cooperatively. We talked through road-bumps. We joked, laughed, collapsed on the couch, ate hot soup, played loud jazz and worked until the wintery landscape through the window turned into a black mirror, reflecting our activity. It was exhausting and energizing at the same time. The sheer force of our determination created a vitality that propelled us on.

Artists most often work alone. For me, it takes isolation to get to the place where ideas flow. While I cannot speak for Angela and Royce, I was amazed at how comfortable it was for me to work side by side with these two. Yes, they are good friends. But, more than that, we shared a tacit understanding that allowed us to be open, earnest and vulnerable while retaining the ability to focus. It doesn't get much better than that! And, I did end up with work that approached my expectations. In fact, the day after they left I ordered more paper and ink. I look at my final prints  - a still life and a landscape - and my mouth waters to try the next.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Artist in Residence, Glen Arbor, MI

Well, that was an amazing ride. Artist's Residencies come in all shapes and sizes (there is one offered on a cargo ship!) and mine was outstanding. Thank you, Glen Arbor Arts Center, for providing me with a large, rustic studio in an historic barn and an adorable one-bedroom apartment, right in the middle of town. Thank you, also, for requiring nothing more than that I work at my craft undisturbed and that I talk about it at the end of that time. It was awesome to be responsible only to myself!

Driving there, I had to tamp down my crazy-painting-energy. The clouds created a dramatic arch for me to go through, and, indeed, I had entered a land of striking skies and sweeping vistas. I was anxious to paint. I felt an inherent urgency to record the undistilled beauty, to connect to it on a visceral level. I had to remind myself repeatedly that I had all the time in the world or, at least, two full weeks. I moved into my apartment over the Arts Center and looked about. Around the corner was an art gallery, a bookstore, Art's Tavern and a coffee shop, the grocery just a two-block walk away. Glen Arbor is a blink of the eye on your way up M22; the beauty of the area is unparalleled.

Sleeping Bear Bay, 9x12, soft pastel

I remained calm by working as hard as I could. Originally, I laid out artistic goals for myself (and to the GAAC, on my application) that turned out to be much grander than I could accomplish in two weeks. Instead of composing blogs to trumpet out my thoughts on saving our environment through art, I tuned in to what felt important to me - being outside, painting directly from nature.

Moon Rising, 6x6, watercolor

I worked in pastel and watercolor, depending on the weather and my mood. I spent two rainy days oil painting in the barn from my pastels. Here I obtained my first take-away: my pastels have enough information from which to create oil paintings. This will be super nice in the winter when I don't want to face the elements outside.

On my last full art day, the temperature dropped to the low 50s and the wind shook the maples out my window. I bundled up and headed to a beach where I could hunker down behind tall grasses, my back against a root-filled dune. I sat and contemplated the rolling clouds and pounding waves. This is why I paint! To allow the power of the landscape to rush through me, sweeping away boundaries and borders. To let go of myself as a separate entity, to feel that perfect fusion with Mother Nature.

Port Oneida Beach, 9x12 pastel

It may take months to unpack all that I have gained from this experience, but here's a start. Perhaps the biggest gift of the residency was unfettered time. Following is a list of the ways in which I will make my art-time at home more like my art-time in Glen Arbor:
  • Adjust my schedule so that art-making occurs when my energy is highest, first thing in the morning.
  • Grant myself plenty of time for observation and reflection, both while making art and while out in the world. 
  • Stay present. Remind my mind that it can think other times but not when I'm painting.
  • Don't waste energy on things that are unimportant.
  • Work outside, en plein air, for true inspiration. Fill my soul with the power of nature from the real thing.
This experience was invaluable, in large part because it provided me the vehicle with which to look deeper within myself/my practice in order to come out stronger and with greater purpose. I am beyond thankful that the opportunity was granted me and I do hope to make the world a better place with my art... just not sure what that will look like yet.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Landscapes Closer to Home

In the recent past, I traveled all over the United States in search of adventure in the form of landscapes I had never seen, much less painted. It was a fabulous quest, but a completely different story from today's. This summer I am content to stay closer to home. I swear there is something magical about the West Michigan coastline. It holds secrets from the past and whispers of the future.

Last week I packed up my plein air supplies and drove 6.5 miles to the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. This beautiful stretch of open dunes and wetlands encompasses 173 acres. In 2011 it was purchased by the City of Saugatuck with the help of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservancy Program and numerous private donors. The diverse ecosystem holds wetlands, woods, dunes and shoreline along with rare plant and animal species. It is a true treasure! As I walked the trail up from the Oval Beach Parking lot, I was hailed by the sweet smell of a lake breeze and the soft song of cottonwood leaves tapping against each other, beachgrass rustling below.

I set up near a stand of trees and watched the light play along their branches with genuine joy. I am forever grateful that this special landscape is preserved, not just for my pleasure, but so that generations to come will be able to witness its unique beauty. I am lucky to live in West Michigan and luckier still to be able to celebrate its splendor by making marks on a canvas with oil paint.