When I worked at the Art Institute, I wrote some copy for a calendar sold in the museum store featuring cats in art. I wrote that as animals that are asleep more hours than they are awake, cats make great still life subjects. Many times when I walked past my own cat, I’d poke him to make sure he was still breathing.
I’ve painted him a few times, and he’s a favorite subject because of his ability to stay put, yes, but also his shape. Cats have great lines. Pointy ears, tails, joints, whiskers, and chins make great silhouettes, even when they’re curled up on a sofa. A master of capturing all those articulated lines was illustrator Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923). I bought a little book of his studies Steinlen Cats (Dover Art Library 1980) that I turn to when I need a reminder about what makes the animal look distinctly catty.
My dear cat recently passed away. I’ve been flipping through a bunch of pictures of him I had taken for art reference. He’d often fall asleep in a sunbeam, creating great shadows (thank you, Cat!). He could fall asleep on top of anything, making funny juxtapositions with other objects (books, keyboards, stovetop). He’d fall asleep on top of anyone, making endearing pairings of man and animal. I’ll do more paintings of him, I’m sure. He gave me lots of rich source material, lots of love, and he let me dress him up in a bow tie for special occasions. I owe him for all of that.
When I paint on canvas, I paint four out of five sides of that thing. Two related reasons:
1) So that it doesn’t need to be framed. With attention to the sides, it has an extra level of finish that leaves the painting looking complete from every angle. Some people will tape the sides prior to painting to then reveal the clean canvas beneath; others will paint them black or another color. I think that continuing the picture around the sides gives it more dimension, plus it’s a little surprise. Plus, plus, it’s awkward for me to stop painting on an edge. Like, I wouldn’t frost just the top of a cake.
2) In case it does get framed—with trendy floater frames. The edges of the frame don’t touch the sides of the canvas, so you can see them even if there’s just a slight space between canvas and frame. I think it’s still necessary to pay attention to the other four sides of the canvas.
Bottom line: Framing is expensive, and people want more frosting.
When I chose to paint a photo from a trip to Miami, it immediately reminded me of a painting with a similar perspective by William Merritt Chase. And, boy, was I glad, because I wanted to see how someone else had rendered the rocks from foreground to background. My concerns were 1) keep the line of monotonous rocks interesting 2) create perspective without getting too detailed or too amorphous.
Like Chase, the rocks in my painting are the main area of interest. I gave a lot of space and detail to a couple of foreground rocks. I added texture, too with some palette knife work. Now how to keep it interesting and lead the eye back? I paid close attention to the shape of my rocks and how the light hit them. I went with more contrast between my shadows and light, keeping the light just on the tops. And then I had to give you a reward for following my dark path. Chase stops you in the middle of his painting with something orange lying on the rocks (a blanket? fishing equipment?), then you get to the titular lone fisherman, and finally a boat. I ask you to walk across all the rocks first to get to the cool, clear ocean, a sliver of bright blue sky, and finally a little hot orange crescent of a kite surfer’s kite.
The hardest part for me was pushing the high-rise hotels back far enough. When I took the photo, it was late afternoon. The buildings were deep in shadow and competing with the rocks. I landed on an abstract treatment to get them out of the way but still let you know you’re in a place like Miami. And isn’t Miami kind of abstract? You leave asking yourself, was that place real?
Last year I wrote about painting on wood panels versus on canvases. It was a hate letter to panels. So many artists I admire use panels, and I didn’t get it. I couldn’t get the paint to stick to the surface. Every brush stroke pulled up more paint than I put down. In December I picked up a pack of little panels to try again, and since then I’ve painted almost exclusively on them. I cracked the code!
I read one artist say that she had the same problem I complained of until she switched to bristle brushes. Someone else said to add another coat of gesso first. Nope, nope. The answer for me was in my technique: I changed how I lay down the paint. On the smooth, hard surface of a panel, I needed to decrease the angle and the pressure of my brush to the surface. Apparently, my technique on canvas is more, um, scrubby, like I’m trying to push the paint into it. On panel, I now pull the brush in more deliberate, even strokes. I’m using more paint, too, so that I've got enough for the brush to glide through. My altered brushstroke works as well on canvas, but now I’m hooked on the firmness of panel. I always liked the slight bounce of a brush on canvas, but now I prefer the hard stuff. So, I’m sorry for bad-mouthing you, panels. This is my open apology, and I can tell that you already forgive me. Peace.
I was having a hard time figuring out what to paint during the 30 Paintings in 30 Days challenge in February. I like to plan it out so that I’m not wasting time scratching my head every day staring at a blank canvas. I’ve been wanting to do some more skyline paintings, but I was coming up short with reference photos, and the weather wasn’t giving me what I wanted either.
I saw a soup commercial that said something like, “What’s the best thing about January? It’s not February.” Gasp! Not cool. I started making a mental list that turned into an actual list of all the awesomeness (some local) that happens in February. The list grew, and suddenly I had a theme for my paintings. I present February’s Best:
Happy February, everyone! Look for my daily-ish paintings on my Instagram feed after I get over the flu. No, my February is not off to a great start. Thank goodness there's so much to look forward to.
Later is what?
After settling into various desk jobs, I always said I'd get back to painting later in life, and later is now. Again means that I tried once before. I decided to write about my painting endeavor, too, as a learning tool, an accountability tool, and to stay sharp in case I have to go back to a desk job. Again.
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