Monday, October 11, 2010

Falling Into Art and Learning to See

We all have reasons we create (or collect) the art that we do. Each of us is inspired by or drawn to different things/ subjects/ colors. As we travel through life, our tastes change--rarely do mature adults listen to the same music as the High School crowd. Sometimes it just takes us a while to find out who we are, and what our place in the world is. A gallery director once told me that an artist doesn't come into his/her own until they are about 50 years old. I know that varies, but I am always suspicious of child stars who paint "Just like____". I don't know how that could last. Perhaps they just connected to their source of creativity early. What do you think?

I have always done creative things, and done them fairly well. The list of media I have tried is longer than my arm. I did all kinds of styles and subject matter, won awards and sold art, but didn't find just one that felt like ME until 1995. If I only list the ones I kept up for years, they include: metal sculpture, handmade paper, ceramics, stained glass, and watercolor. Now I add oils to the list, but that is something I fell into, which is the subject of this post.

This is a picture of my mare, Chamois, with me sporting the black eye I got when I fell off at high speed. (No, I don't have a picture of the broken tailbone that came with it, and wouldn't show you if I did!) The fall was the result of a loose saddle combined with inexperienced horse and rider. Horsemen say, "Green plus green equals black and blue!" I can attest to that, but in my case, many more colors resulted. But that's a good thing.
I got tough, got back on, and stuck with it. Eventually, I learned that controlling a 1,000 pound animal requires the rider to be calmly assertive. I am not sure whether it was the fall or the assertiveness training that caused a change in my approach to my art, but I suddenly took up oil painting. I was wearing a helmet, but I sometimes wonder if I rearranged a little wiring. Two weeks later, on an art trip with my mom, we stopped at the derelict ruins of a gas station with an old orchard behind it. Looked like good subject matter, and we shot photos. I looked down at the ground littered with peach pits from many years, and I was struck by their colors. Painting them with all the color I saw was a big rush. It was NOT a great painting, but it was a wonderful beginning. I started really SEEING color. I feel like it was there all along, but I didn't know how to look for it. It takes practice, like anything else. Lots of color worked its way into my art, which now revolves around the horses and cowgirl ways that brought it into being. I've also worked at carrying the same vision into my watercolors. In finding the color, I found my art, my style, and my self. And it happened before I was 50. (But barely!)

Different people are tuned in to seeing different things. The guys in my family catch a glimpse of a passing foreign sportscar, and blurt out the make, model, engine, horsepower, and torque. To me it was "a red convertible". Sorry, guys--just not my thing. Now the RED part, that's where I start to look closer. Calling a car "red" is just naming its "local color". Most beginning artists fall into what I call the "local color trap". When deciding what color to paint an object, they mix up one color that resembles the average of its colors. This results in an average painting.

Red apple. Green grass. Brown tree trunk. These choices are the result of things we think we know because we saw them in kindergarten. Maybe the teacher put that crayon in our hand. It is actually a case of Seeing what we Believe. When teaching students to draw, I was amazed at how hard it is to overcome that, and begin to Believe what we See. We know buildings are made of right angles, but we have to overcome that knowledge in order to draw them properly. We know that car has only one color of paint. Red, right? Look again. If it has a good wax job, not only will you see highlights and shadows, you might even see the sky and clouds in the hood. The lower areas may reflect the pavement or landscape, with only hints of red. Even in a really old paint job, the variety of lights and darks (values) is what defines form, and gives an object shape. Flat colors make for flat objects. If I use only the crayon labeled "flesh", I will never create much of a portrait.

Here are a couple of fun "seeing color exercises". Look at tree trunks--how many are really brown? A little tougher, but fun when you "get it", is looking at faces. Noses and ears are usually more red than larger areas of the face. My favorite is "bounce light", or "reflected light". It is the light that reflects from the surroundings, and on faces, it is most visible under the chin. Look for a person wearing a bright color, and see if you can find that color in the skin under the chin or eyebrows. Once you start looking for color, you find it everywhere. A world that is more colorful is more fun, so I am having a blast with my art. If it took bruises and pain to find my muse and get me here, it was well worth it. Some of Life's most important lessons are painful, and it helps to look for the good that comes with the bad, like the other colors with the black and blue.
With my most recent paintings, I feel like my exploration of color has taken another step forward. There is still so much to learn, and I never want to stop!

"New Day" 48x24" oil

If you have a lesson learned the hard way, or have a different way of seeing color, please comment!