Painting from a Photo

Photo of Prairie Tree

Prairie Tree, Acrylic 18″ x 14″

It’s always good to be offered a commission, but it usually involves painting from a photo someone else has taken.  Recently I was asked to do a panting from the above photo, which the woman was very enthusiastic about.  A friend had let her family stay at their country place while work was being done on their house.  What she wanted me to do was to paint from the photo they had taken while there so she could give the painting to their friend.

I said I would do it but I didn’t tell her what I thought of the photo.  The tree in the photo was directly in the center, and artists are taught never to put the center of interest in the middle of the painting.  Secondly, the size of the foreground was too near the same size as the sky, another no no.  Also, the foreground in the photo was so dark that it was difficult to see the vegetation.

The painting above shows how I handled these problems.  I moved the tree a bit to one size and shortened the foreground and made it lighter.  I thought this preserved the  essence of the scene while making it more pleasing to look at.  She was a little concerned that the painting did not look exactly like the photo, but did buy it.

Keep Your Eyes Open

St. Edward's Church, Rear View, edited

St. Edward’s Church, Rear View, acrylic, 20″ x 16″

In July husband and I joined a Road Scholar tour of the gardens of England.  It was a tour I had long wanted to take because I love both painting and growing flowers.  And England has just the right climate, cool and moist, for growing wonderful blooms.  We did see some spectacular gardens, many on large estates that required a crew of gardeners to keep everything looking just so.  These gardens contained not only flowers but water features,  hedges trimmed in various shapes and in some vast expanses of woodland.  I look a lot of photos.

But when looking over my photos at home, I found that the two I most wanted to paint had no flowers in them at all.  The photo above shows the first painting I have finished inspired by our trip to England.  Here’s how it came about.  Our group was in the Cotswolds and our tour bus had dropped us off in the town of Stow on Wold  for some free time.  (I have no idea what a wold is).  It was a fairly small town built as some U.S. small towns are with the shops surrounding a green area.  Husband and I walked along these main streets and looked in at a craft fair in the city hall.  For a time we rested on a bench in the green area.  But soon we were ready to explore again.

This time we took one of the side streets leading away from the center of town and soon came upon a very ancient looking stone church surrounded by gravestones in the church yard.  We did go inside the quite elaborately decorated church, which we learned was St. Edward’s.  We admired the stained glass, the altar and the beautiful needlepoint kneeling cushions.  But what I immediately knew I wanted to paint was outside, behind the church with its moss covered stone walls, and heavy, dark, wooden door surrounded by two giant yew trees.  The scene looks like it belongs in some Medieval tale.

So keep your eyes open and a camera handy.  You never know when inspiration may strike.

 

Seizing the Moment

Here in Lawrence, Kansas, spring arrived early this year.  All of a sudden the landscape was bursting with color, especially the trees.  While it was still late March the Bradford pear trees turned white with blossoms.  The redbuds and flowering crab apple trees soon followed.  Now the neighborhoods are also filled with lilacs and the young cherry tree in my back yard is covered with blooms.  What an inspiration for a painter.

But these very colorful sights are also very fleeting.  A tree that is in full bloom one day may in a spring storm send petals to the ground.  If you want to capture some of this beauty with paint you’d better not put it off.  Coming out of exercise class one morning I noticed a row of blooming Bradford pear trees across the street.  But I was in a hurry and didn’t stop to photograph them. Passing that way in the afternoon I did stop but somehow the scene was not the same.  The light was coming from a different direction and that made a difference.  Fortunately, I had enough sense to go back the next morning and photograph them and I have started a painting.

But actually painting on site is so much better.  When I was driving out in the country to paint at an artist friend’s house, I noticed her blooming Brandford pear tree long before I reached the house and that’s what I decided to paint chosing an 18″ x 14″ canvas with wide enough stretchers not to need a frame.  I was faced with a very windy day.  But I was determined not to waste this opportunity.  So I painted in my car, even though the car I have now is very small.  And I will remember the beauty of springtime whenever I look at that painting.

So when you see one of these glorious sights of spring, seize the moment.  Take a photo if you must or better yet don’t put off setting up your easel outside.  This is one of the best times of year to paint.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Perspective

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Kansas Hay Bales, acrylic, 12″ x 12″

I’ve lived in the same town since 1969.  I have been painting on the country property of two artist friends for about 10 years.  The result is that I have been seeing a lot of the same sights for a very long time.  This leads to the obvious question, what can I paint that won’t look very similar to what I have already painted?  There are several ways to look at this difficulty.  An art teacher in college urged us to look at just about anything as a possible subject.  She took us into a downtown alley and suggested we sketch trash cans.

It is true that we can always expand our notion of possible subject matter.  I tend to favor colorful scenes, especially flowers or autumn scenes with yellows, reds, and oranges.  And I’ve painted a lot of them.  Lately I’ve noticed that I’m seeing more earth tones in my paintings.  These kind of scenes seem to also lend themselves to studies of texture, which works well with a palette knife.

Another way to look at same old, same old scenes is from a different angle or a different shaped canvas.  Recently I was once again on the same country property where I had painted so many times before.  I almost despaired of finding something I wanted to paint.  Large circular bales of hay are very common around here at this time of year and I have painted them before but usually as part of a larger scene, objects in the distance. So I decided to try something different.  I happened to have a small square canvas with me, a size I seldom use.  It was possible at the location where I was to get quite close to the bales so I decided to make them the center of interest.  I enjoyed studying the colors and textures in them as I tried to put my impressions on canvas.  The result is the painting above, which both I and my painting friends were quite pleased with.

Inspiration

Onions, acrylic, 11" x 14'

Onions, acrylic, 11″ x 14″

One never knows when the inspiration for a painting may strike.  So often I’ve chosen a subject to paint simply because I happened to be in that location and had time to paint.  But occasionally I will see something and just know that I have to paint it.  When my kids were young that was really frustrating because I didn’t have to time to respond to those inspirations.  They don’t come along very often but when they do I can now respond, happy in the knowledge that such paintings usually turn out well.

I had been painting in a friend’s studio with several others earlier this year.  When we finished painting and went upstairs to eat lunch, I saw a bowl of onions on her kitchen counter and there was that feeling.  “I’ve just got to paint this.”  Who knew a bowl of onions would beg to be painted?  Anyway, we were done painting for that day.  But she told me she liked to cook with onions and usually had a bowl of them on the counter.  So the next time we painted at her house I made sure there would be a bowl of onions for me to paint and that they would be the reddish kind that I had seen earlier.  I wondered what I would use for foreground and background but that was solved for me when she sat the bowl on a small wooden table that was just the right color.  And the floor of the studio, seen in the background, provided the needed dark accent.

So keep your eyes open and who knows what you will see.  It isn’t only dramatic sunsets, majestic mountains, or an especially beautiful face or body that can inspire an artist.  It could be something as simply as a bowl of onions.

 

What Might Sell

Sunflower Field, Acrylic, 16" x 12"

Sunflower Field, Acrylic, 16″ x 12″

Fine art, as opposed to commercial art, is supposed to be all about the artist’s inspiration, the artist’s choice, what he or she feels like creating.  And we do have that freedom.  But art supplies are expensive and entering art shows has become ever more costly.  Galleries take from one third to one half of the price of what they sell.  So it is nice to sell something once in a while, both to pay for the costs of being an artist but also just for the feeling that someone cares enough about my work to pay money for it.

Therefore as fine artists we are going to be thinking somewhat about the tastes and the pocket books of those who see our work.  For instance, during this recession, which is supposed to be ending, I’ve been painting on smaller canvases because people have less money for luxuries.  I also think about which paintings to put in which show.  Since I travel to Colorado every summer I have accumulated a number of Colorado paintings.  But I have found they seldom sell here in Kansas.   A relative advised me to concentrate on flower paintings and I have sold a number of those over the years but I also still have quite a few.  Some years I have sold paintings of sunflowers, such as the one above, which will be in Art in the Park in Lawrence this weekend.  Other years they remain unsold.  I am fortunate to have a friend whose family plants a whole field of sunflowers every year, so I have plenty of opportunity to paint these symbols of Kansas.

The style of frames also has changed through the year, and that is something an artist who hopes to sell has to consider.  When I began painting seriously frames usually had linen liners.  I still have some of those.  Then the style went to various kinds of gold frames, usually without liners.  The current fad seems to be for black frames.  I don’t really like them as I don’t think they go very well with landscapes but I have a few.

At the Topeka Art Guild Gallery I have sold a painting in both the previous show and the current one.  I almost didn’t enter the painting of Potter’s Lake in the previous show because it was of an iconic Lawrence landmark, Potter’s Lake, on the University of Kansas campus.  I had shown it probably half a dozen times in Lawrence without selling it.  Then it sold in Topeka.  The painting I sold from the current show was an 8 inch by 10 inch painting of two pink seated flamingos done from a photo I took at the Topeka zoo.  I had originally painted it four years ago for an exhibit at the gallery promoting breast cancer awareness.  We were asked to do small pink paintings.  I even put it in a black frame but it didn’t sell then.  I decided to try again with it in the gallery only because the theme of the show was Journey Through Topeka and I only had one other painting of a Topeka scene.

On Sunday I will be in Art in the Park in South Park in Lawrence.  My tent will be along Massachusetts Street.  So come and have a look.  Maybe once again I’ll be surprised at what someone will buy.

An Artist’s Life

Tranquility, acrylic, 15" x 10"

Tranquility, acrylic, 15″ x 10″

Unlike some other professions, many people don’t really have much idea about what being an artist is like. First, there is a lot going on that makes the actual creating of art possible.  Let’s start with subject matter.  For an artist whose paintings attempt to look like what inspired them, that means learning to see among the innumerable images with which we are surrounded that one central image that could make a painting.  That could mean being outdoors and looking thoughtfully around.  Indoors it might mean gathering a few everyday objects and placing them so that they make an interesting still life.  But in this age of digital photography and computers it can also mean taking a lot of photos and storing them on a computer.  Then, depending on one’s level of computer skills, there are things the artist can do to photographs to give even more possible ideas of subject matter.  I took the photo on which the above painting is based several years ago.  Since I recently discovered posterizing, I tried that with this photo until I liked the results and then painted from that.  Computers make possible things I would never have expected.  Not long ago I received an email from a relative I had not seen or heard from in many years.  He had seen and liked my art that he saw on his computer.

Then one must put together the materials and try to acquire them as inexpensively as possible.  I cut out Hobby Lobby coupons that appear weekly for 40 percent off one regularly priced item and also look at the sales.  Frames are a big expense.  I look for sales of oddly sized frames at places that do framing.  I used to be able to occasionally find very inexpensive frames in good condition at Good Will or Salvation Army stores but that is getting harder.  I recently saw two old frames at a Salvation Army store that I wanted to buy but didn’t because in my opinion the asking price was more than what they probably sold for new.  Someone also told me that some of these stores are selling their more desirable items on E Bay.

But after a painting is completed and I like it and think it is pretty good, what do I do with it?  It seems to be getting harder to find places to show them.  Some of the places here in town where I used to show art are no longer available.  I applied to several art shows since the first of the year and recently received two rejections.  Our church is having a rummage sale so I have given them two older paintings I no longer show.  I was a bit surprised to hear good comments about one of them.  Maybe it will find a home.  Then there is a recent painting of mine that I really like but won’t keep because it seems to belong to someone else.

A good thing about being an artist is that there is no retirement date.  Artists of any age can and do continue to learn by taking classes, studying art in books and art magazines, museums and even using the computer.  Recently on my email I was offered, without having to pay, a series of lectures by various artists.  I think it was one each day for 21 days.  I’m a little behind on watching them but I intend to listen to them all.  As long as we can physically continue to create art we are free to do so.  It is a frustrating and joyful experience we are unwilling to give up.

 

 

Santa’s Thinking Art

Highpoint Corner, acrylic, 12" x 7"

Highpoint Corner, acrylic, 12″ x 7″

Of course all artists, me included, are hoping Santa will swoop down and choose one of their pieces for a Christmas gift.  The Topeka Art Guild Gallery is making that a little easier by having a big selection of paintings selling for less than $100 in their current show.  The show will run through January, so if you receive a monetary gift for Christmas you might want to pay the gallery a visit.  The above is one of my contributions to that show.   Art is more lasting than the latest electronic game  or that trendy piece of clothing that you won’t want to be seen in next year.  It is something you an enjoy in your home or office for years to come.

But as artists we can use this season of gift giving to further the cause of art in another way.  Think about the people you’ve heard say they have always wanted to paint.  Remember the young person who is excited about an art class they are taking in school.  And what about the struggling artist who is wondering how to afford the supplies needed to continue.  The gift of art supplies may be just the inspiration someone you know will appreciate.  A painting is more than just something to hang on the wall.  Creating it may give the artist the chance to sit in a beautiful natural setting and really see it in a new way.  It may help someone think outside the box.  Or it may simply give someone struggling with overwhelming problems a needed respite.  We who know the benefits of art can choose in this season to share it with others.  It can indeed be the gift that keeps on giving.

Technique vs Inspiration

November 17, 2013

Recently my 11-year-old grandson asked if he could come over and paint so we arranged a time on a day when he didn’t have school.  I haven’t had much experience teaching art and wasn’t quite sure what he had in mind.  I showed him some pastels and watercolor paint as kids are often familiar with those but that was not what he wanted.  He wanted to use the same paints I do, which are acrylics.  We looked at my stash of canvases and he chose a 14″ x 18″ one.

Next came deciding what to paint.  It was too cold to paint outside.  Since I like to look at what I am painting I suggested he might like to paint a still life.  I don’t think he had ever heard of that but I opened the refrigerator and he picked out some grapes, oranges and apples plus two bananas off the counter.  I found a white bowl and we were ready to begin.  I explained that he should paint the background first.  He was surprised at that but was willing to go along with that idea.  I asked him to draw a line where the table would be and then choose colors for the table and background and paint those before drawing the fruit.  Soon he had painted a pale blue background and a dark brown table.

Fortunately acrylics dry fast and I helped it along with a hairdryer.  He had put the fruit in the bowl.  I gave him a piece of charcoal to draw what he wanted to paint.  I explained about the top of the bowl being an oval rather than a straight line and he was willing to accept that.  The grapes proved too hard to draw so he eliminated them and added a second banana.  He listened when I suggested that perhaps he had drawn to bananas too thin.  Charcoal is easy to remove and he had soon drawn two very good looking banana shapes.

I asked him to look at the apples and notice that they were not totally red but had some yellow streaks in them.  He tried that, didn’t like the result and from then on concentrated on inspiration.  The two red apples became flat shapes, one red and one green.  The oranges and bananas became flat shapes too sitting in a white bowl.   Then inspiration really took over.  The bowl developed black spots.  The bowl and each piece of fruit was outlined in black.  The result was rather striking actually.  But then came the final touch.  Above the bowl he painted a pink pig with wings.  Now where did that come from?  There is a commercial where the phrase, “When pigs fly,” is used but in that commercial the pig sits in an airplane seat.

He was pleased with his painting and wanted to frame it.  So I took a frame off one of my paintings and we framed his creation.  Then I drove him and his painting home to show his mom.  I wonder where she hung it.

 

Painting Boldly

September 10, 2012

I’ve recently finished two paintings.  One contained images of three relatives and that one took forever.  I usually use a palette knife when painting but for this one I had to use brushes and small brushes at that.  The faces were the hardest, but the hands were a close second.  I don’t do portraits very often because there is so much detail and if you get the least little detail wrong of a face it doesn’t look like the person it is supposed to.

The second painting I mostly did sitting in a field last week.  It’s the one you can see above.  It was done almost entirely with a palette knife and was painted as fast as possible because light changes very quickly outdoors.  A good thing about plein air painting is that it requires one to be bold.  You have to slap on that paint without regard to whether each tree limb is in exactly the right place or what those flowers would look like individually.  It is called impressionism for a reason.  It’s just an impression but it is your impression.  When you get it right you can look at the result and almost feel the sun on your back and the wind moving those branches.  And if you don’t, you can always take the canvas off the stretchers, throw it away, tack on another canvas and start over in a different place another day.

We can’t paint masterpieces every time.  But we can learn from our mistakes and not be held back by the fear of failure.  No matter what the result, it is good to be outdoors without the distraction of electronic gadgets, gazing at the countryside in autumn and letting that paint fly where it may.

September in Leavenworth County, Acrylic, 12″ x 16″