Our recent pandemic has forced us to hunker down. It’s par for the course, for many artists to stay inside for long hours, but this is beyond normal, as we know. Like many artists, I work at home. To earn a living, I teach, do storyboard work, and have a renter. But I’m also a painter; a sedentary painter. My paintings run the gamut from pure plein air work, to studio work from my own reference and plein air studies. I work hard on my art, but have been lax with my body. Hence, I’ve been stiff. Not now.
Walking uphill as if I’m late for an appointment, returning home to do yoga, drinking as much water as I can, is stretching the stiffness out of me. It feels good. It’s hard work and entails a bit of pain, but I’m feeling more energized. I’ve got a very long way to go in terms of entirely being fit, but I’m actively aligned with the intention to overcome myself. Literally, I’m stretching, and can already feel the rewards.
Similarly, I’ve been barreling down as of late in my painting. While having been under guidelines to stay in place, rather than go out to paint en plein air, I’ve bravely painted my overgrown backyard. I’ve also faced down some unfinished plein air paintings that needed to be brought to life. I’ve even painted trees into a painting where it pleaded for them, out of my head, while there were none in my photo reference. In small ways, I’ve been challenging myself to be better and to do better. If ever there was a time to concentrate on improving my painting, it’s now.
“The Lemon Tree”, for instance, was a recent plein air work that I’d started but not finished. I wanted very much to pull it out of just a lay-in to a finished painting that had a degree of concept, with a degree of…gravitas and grace. What transpired was a battle between me, and the entire army of the painting, itself: the lemon forms, saturation of color, controlling values, attempting to execute beautiful, curvilinear lines and shapes,…subverting some elements to enhance others. You know the story.
I stretched myself just as far as I could possibly go. I tried everything that came to mind, painting things in, painting things out…over and over. I wasn’t sure if I’d win this battle, but it was truly worth it if I did.
A focal point in the tree had to be established. There were lemons, which are forms whose color and value are bright and light. They are rounded, sinking into and popping out of semi flat, rippling leaves. How to describe a cluster of lemons without overworking them? As well, there are many lemons on a tree. How to put that across without making the tree look like a polkadot party dress?
After repeated trial and error, I settled on describing the forms of the lemons, but in parts, rather than by wholes. Leaves and shadows upon the lemon forms could become a device for taming the polka dot effect. Shadow brings down value which can push forms softly back into leaves. Some of the lemons on the underside of the tree could be described by entirely darker value, but still remaining in warm, low saturated orangy tones to hint at their existence.
Amongst several other challenges to overcome in this painting was to depart from my photo reference to enhance adjacent areas. For instance, I gave the patch of trees behind the lemon tree and house, a bit of distance by bringing the values closer together, and cooling the color; not using as much yellow. That helped frame the lemon tree rather than compete with it. I lengthened their height, to add a bit of “majesty” to the main subject, the lemon tree.
The apex of the little house helped bring the eye upward and away from the lemons, as did the cluster of trees behind. The filmy branches that lightly curved downward from the top of the painting, helped bring the eye back down into the painting.
A dance of light amongst the weeds at the base of the tree provided a secondary focal point. Too, it lent relief to the darkness of the lemon tree and was a decorative anchor. Even though I threw in some fun warm color, keeping values closer together than were in the lemon tree helped keep that information from competing with it. The warms weren’t in the photo, but helped bring a more rounded, colorful feel to the painting overall.
By making conscious decisions, wrought by trial and error and then, discovery, I stretched beyond my tendency to the literal, and began creating a work of art. I felt I had learned many things in this painting, and for the most part, won the battle. It could have been better; I could have done more to possibly improve it further. But there comes a time to move on; to take the money and run, as Woody Allen would say. (By the way, this painting is for sale, and is on my website at norakoerberfineart.com). Just sayin’.
I truly believe that what is learned and overcome in a work of art, somehow becomes intrinsic to how we then paint. It stays in there. It’s like a mental toolbox of experience that we reach into, that gets fuller with use, over time. The more tools you have to build your house, the greater facility you’ll have in creating it. Over time, that greater facility translates to lesser battles, more swift answers that fly off the brush which, I believe, is a quality that is recognizable in a great painting.
Mainly, I’m aiming for eloquence in what I have to say in a painting. I’ve got to push myself to get there. I am still, emerging. I have a long way to go. Sometimes it flows; other times, it’s stiff. But if I want to win those battles more than lose them, I have to keep stretching
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