musings from the studio and beyond ~
dawn chandler’s reflections on art and life. . . .
One of the many things I love learning from other artists is what their daily studio practice entails. What rituals they embrace to get into the flow of creativity.
Often when the subject of creative flow and ritual, comes up, writer Stephen King’s name is mentioned. Stephen King has authored nearly 100 books (!!) Maybe this is how and why he’s able to be so prolific:
There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, ‘you’re going to be dreaming soon.’
— Stephen King, quoted in Manage Your Day-to-Day.
So it was with particular interest during my class last month at the Sedona Art Center that I listened to Robert Burridge as he described his daily studio practice. His involves writing his “morning pages” (à la Julia Cameron, whose book The Artist’s Way was pivotal for RB).
Next, he goes into his studio and spends a few minutes pulling random words or phrases out of the dictionary and quickly painting the meaning of each word.
3 minutes per word.
18 minutes total.
Black and white paint only.
Here are mine:
The words and phrases captured above?
Gather. Kiss. Claustrophobic. “I love being an artist!” Calm. Immigration.
(Can you figure out which goes with which?)
(Also, note that I didn’t have pure black paint with me, so instead I mixed a blackish color by combining Payne’s Grey with Burnt Umber.)
What’s terrific about this exercise is that it doesn’t give you any time to overthink. You come up with a concept and BOOM! Get it down! The goal, of course, is to visually explain a meaning as simply and quickly as possible.
After 18 minutes of this, you’ve got a creative flow going.
However, I’ve just jumped ahead of myself…
Recall that the focus of this class was on the abstracting the figure.
And so for two full days of class RB arranged for two models to pose for us.
Each of these figure drawing sessions started with several one-minute poses, then five-minute poses, ten-minute poses, and eventually 20- or 30-minute poses, with the models adorned in costumes in the longer poses. Per traditional figure-drawing classes, RB urged us to note first, the gesture of each pose — the main movement or thrust or line of the figure.
Despite my efforts of late to embrace a Buddhist-like disattachment from the ego, I admit I was stoked when, several hours into the figure drawing exercises, RB walked by my table, surveyed my drawings, and said approvingly, “I can tell this isn’t your first rodeo.”
Maybe it’s those handful of Monday evening’s spent at live figure drawing sessions this year. Maybe it was that, just before leaving for AZ I found again my favorite figure-drawing tool. Maybe it was the fact that these models really know what they’re doing and what makes for a fabulous pose. Or maybe my muse was just in a ebullient state. All I know is that I was on a roll when it came to drawing the figure that week.
With the longer poses, we moved from drawing the figure to painting the figure with black/white/grey, paying special attention to lights and darks — essentially what is being illuminated by light, and what is in shadow.
And finally, we moved on to color.
While there are all kinds of color theories and color wheels out there, RB has developed his own, highlighting combinations that especially appeal to him. His combinations center on contrasting color pairings, with two more related colors added to give emphasis or POP. So four main colors, all of which could be tweaked with white and black.
While no one was required to use RB’s color-whee during these exercisesl, one of my goals was to play and experiment with color, so I was happy to make use of his wheel with small, playful studies (see top image). Again, we had a time limit, to get us to work quickly and loosely, without overthinking. (Apparently a goal for many of the artists there that week was to “loosen up” with paint.)
After experimenting with these small color abstracts, we returned to the figure, focusing on gesture, light and dark, and now introducing color.
And here’s something that was kind of surprising to me: At the end of each day I was EXHAUSTED. Just SPENT. Here I’d brought my computer and all kinds of “office work” projects to work on in the evenings after class. But… Nuh-Uhh. No. Way. Not. Ever.
It was surprising because I, obviously, paint for many hours most days back home. But here in the classroom as a student, it was intense focusing, with no distraction (except for the bowl of chocolates some evil classmate placed inches from my work station…). To be able to focus so keenly for so many hours was incredibly tiring mentally.
And yet… When I got back to my room, all I wanted to do was paint some more. I was so creatively energized by the day’s exercises, I just had to immerse myself in more creative play. I had ZERO energy for Xcel spreadsheets, but still plenty of energy for pushing around color.
So I did… in my sketchbook, with watercolor pencils:
And even ventured outside one evening to push around color in a more “traditional” manner….
“The answer is ‘YES!’ If you are asking me a question about your painting, the answer is ‘YES’!”
His point being that most of his students are looking for permission to paint the way they want to paint — the way they’ve always dreamed of painting — but were too intimidated to try, too scared that the critics in their lives and in their heads might rise up in disapproval.
Which is why he handed out to each of us bracelets with the word PERMISSION emblazoned across them.
Three weeks later and I’m still wearing mine.
For me, the bracelet is less about permission to paint what I want to paint, and more about wanting to be reminded of the terrific energy of those five days in May being an art student again.
Earlier this year, when I decided to take an art workshop, I didn’t quite know where to begin. I knew I wanted to be anonymous, and go with an instructor who was unfamiliar with me and my work. Beyond that I knew nothing. So I did what most people in this day do when they are seeking knowledge: I did a Google search.
A few minutes lost in the warren of Goggle, and eventually I came to the Sedona Art Center, where I spotted a 5-day “Artist Retreat: Abstract/Figurative Workshop” taught by Robert Burridge.
I was vaguely familiar with Bob Burridge, and his expressive semi-abstract paintings of figures and color-rich still lives and florals. There have been a lot of knock-offs of his style, but his work is strong, and overall I rather like it.
I also knew — or had heard rumor — that he was known for having a bit of an ego, as well as a ready throng of followers of “women over a certain age.” (I wondered if that weirdly qualified me….) More to the point, his classes were known to be energetic and engaging, “with lots of great handouts.” I signed up.
You might be wondering why an artist mostly focused on landscape would sign up for a class focused on the figure. The truth is I’ve always been interested in the figure, it just hasn’t been the focus of my work for many years. But back in college, drawing — particularly the nude model — was my strength. I even inquired about majoring in figure drawing, but a drawing major wasn’t offered (the thinking being that ALL artists should be masters of drawing).
Café and airport doodling have always lead my eye and hand toward noting the people around me. And few years ago, I created a number of mixed media paintings incorporating photos of figures, many of them sculptures of solitary women.
Rarely, though, is there a figure in my landscape paintings. But whenever I have included figures — almost always quite small, seen from a distance — patrons and fans respond very positively. I suspect it’s because the figure is an invitation for them to place themselves in the picture; to escape for a spell, more deeply into the vista, perhaps, than a straightforward landscape without a figure.
Lately I’ve been thinking of bringing the figure into my landscapes more, especially after I created this painting last year:
All this to say it really isn’t such a surprise that I signed up for a class about abstracting the figure. Besides, I’m the kind of student who is just excited to learn darn near ANYTHING as long as the teacher is good and the class is engaging.
And so it was that twenty of us from all over the country gathered for five days of intensive, guided art-making in the beautiful work space of the decades-old Sedona Art Center. Of the students, four or five of us were pretty advanced, while the others were less experienced, some much less so. Yet everyone had a palpable desire to learn, to stretch themselves. The energy in the rooms each day was buoyant and generous.
On day one, our first instruction from Bob was:
Write down what you want to get out of the class.
Write just a line or two. Do not write a paragraph. Do not be self-conscious. This is for no one’s eyes but your own.
With a tip of the hat to Dear Sugar/Cheryl Strayed, I wrote this:
I just wanted to paint like crazy. What ever assignments he gave us, I wanted to create with abandon. To paint and paint and paint and paint. Without the distractions of household chores, office work, walking the dog and visitors and email and errands and news and all those other temptations that conspire every day to pull me from my work.
Further — more technically — I wanted to break out of the grid.
Look at any of my mixed media paintings — and especially my ‘textual landscapes,’ and there is a very definite underlying grid. There’s another whole blog post waiting to be written on this subject. For now, suffice it to say I wanted to challenge my “usual” orderly composition style.
And finally, I wanted to play with color. For the past couple of years when working in acrylic, I’ve mostly used the same palette. I wanted to change this up — for a few days, at least — and play with new combinations.
Next came a discussion of materials, and why Bob insists on things like using Holbein or Golden paints (pure pigment = pure color = superb quality), Utrecth gesso (it’s smoother and thicker than other brands), Viva paper towels (they’re incredibly thick and absorbent, and there’s no quilted pattern to be accidentally pressed into your paint) and Murphy’s oil soap for cleaning hands and brushes (great product, readily available, inexpensive)
Then on to concepts, and our first art exercise: value and thinking about light and dark.
When planning your painting, decide on lighting first.
With the exception of certain materials, all of the concepts Bob taught were ones I was already familiar with — so familiar, in fact, that I take all of them for granted. But that’s exactly why it was so cool to review them. Indeed, quite a few were things I simply hadn’t thought about in a while — like color relationships or articulating the twelve standard design compositions for paintings.
I delighted in the review, and took copious notes throughout.
Ahhh, the joy of giving myself permission to be a student again. . . .
To say I was in a funk is too strong. I guess you could say I’d kind of painted myself into a corner. However you want to describe it, I was ripe for a creative shakeup. Much as I love my work and love my life, earlier this year I was in need of a creative change of some kind.
Sometimes the perfect catalyst for change is simply a conversation with the right person at the right time. That right time was in February, and that right person was my “Art Sista” Joan Fullerton, who swung through Santa Fe for a night during a winter road trip. ‘Just the day before her arrival I had received disappointing news regarding some competition I’d entered — I don’t even remember now what it was — but the rejection still stung a bit when she and I sat down at a small table at Santa Fe’s Violet Crown Theater restaurant and ordered a round of pizzas and vino. For three hours we sat there sipping, noshing, giggling and discussing all things Art: painting, materials, marketing, teaching, learning.
Joan is one of my Art Sistas who has found a fantastic balance of creating her own art and teaching others** She’s a well sought-after instructor, and travels far and wide sharing her insights via painting workshops.
Part of our conversation that night was regarding teaching, as Joan encouraged me to consider offering workshops out of my own studio. The benefits of teaching, she said, are huge. For not only does having to explain and guide other artists help you to articulate your own creative work, but — maybe best of all — you learn from your students; the experience feeds and inspires your own art. And you make new friends. And sometimes even you even acquire new collectors.
I was intrigued.
Years have passed since I’ve taught anything — be it basic drawing, elements of color or backpacking and camping skills. But when I used to do it — when I used to teach all those things — I enjoyed it. And I think I was pretty good at it.
If I were to offer workshops in my studio, I could only handle a couple of students at a time, for my studio is small.
And ohhhhh…. the idea of making room for others to paint is daunting.
Then there’s the issue of language.
It’s been so long since I’ve taught art-making, that I’m not sure I possess the vocabulary or language skills essential to convey concepts to beginners. I’m so used to conversing with myself about art, I’m not sure how well I could vocally articulate ideas to students. I’m sure I could eventually get up to speed, but those skills have long been lying dormant and would need a good bit of massaging to spring into action.
“Hmmmm….. What I should probably do is take some workshops myself…. see what goes on in a painting class…. Otherwise I haven’t have a clue what kind of exercises to put together, or how to guide students….”
And that’s when one of those moments of clarity hit me — the kind where you suddenly wake up, realizing you’ve been sleeping for decades in a self-made cave:
I haven’t been a student in years.
Oh sure, I consider myself a perpetual Student of Life, and a whole lot of what I read is about expanding my knowledge on various subjects.
But I haven’t been an art student in a classroom setting in ages.***
It’s kind of like a few years ago when I became reacquainted with artist residency programs: I attended one back in the early 90s — it changed my life — and then never gave them another thought until Art Sista Shawn Demarest encouraged me to apply to Playa. For 20 years artist residencies were simply not on my radar, and now they’re back on now.
Or when it dawned on me one day a couple years back that, despite hiking all my life, I hadn’t been backpacking in two decades (and promptly set out to fix THAT lack).
Same with taking art classes. After earning an advanced degree in painting, I just got busy making art. And for many, many years I’ve done just that, without really giving art classes a second thought. Doubtless I’ve felt I already know all that I need to know to make my art — which is true. To a point.
Time to change that and be a student again.
Which is why I found myself two weeks ago barreling west on I-40 to Flagstaff, then cutting sharply south on Rte 89 to descend into the red earth vortex of Sedona, Arizona to attend a 5-day, all day, painting workshop.
What did I learn?
** Darlene McElroy is another of my Art Sistas doing this… (see below…)
*** Two exceptions: I did take a one day workshop 12 years ago, when Joan invited me to join her in taking a mixed media workshop with … Darlene McElroy! It’s how I first met Darlene, who has since become another one of my closest Art Sistas. Darlene’s workshop transformed my art-making, leading me into mixed media painting.
The other workshop was about 8 years ago, taught by Joan in her Palmer, CO studio. Filled with great energy, lots of laughter and terrific insight into technique and processes, I can see why Joan has waiting lists to get into her classes.
My high school senior English professor used to wear a pith helmet. I don’t remember the specific circumstances required for him to don the pith helmet, but they had something to do with intellectual pithiness. I also remember that it was rarely donned, but when it was, it was a rather humorous and joyful event.
Here in my household we honor a pith helmet — The Esteemed Pith Helmet — three or four times per year; basically whenever I get around to writing the latest edition of my oh-so-occasional Studio Art Notes Newsletter. Different from my blog and social media posts, my Studio Art Notes Newsletter is a niftily-formatted epistle to friends, family and followers, highlighting recent paintings, sketches, riveting art facts & tales, random musings, inspiring quotes, show announcements, museum exhibitions you don’t want to miss, and more. Additionally, there’s usually a coupon code for 15 – 20% for my online art store.
Without question, the single most anticipated highlight of all is….. The Random Wilson Pic.
Still, that doesn’t explain the donning of The Esteemed Pith Helmet.
This is tricky, because I want to tell you about The Esteemed Pith Helmet, without revealing too much info.
Hidden in the text of my Studio Art Notes Newsletter is a wee little contest. It’s an amusing little game my readers, Wilson and I play, with a series of questions whose answers are found in the newsletter. Anyone passing the intellectual rigor of the wee little contest then has their name written onto a paper tag, which is then placed in The Esteemed Pith Helmet.
Come time for the next Studio Art Notes Newsletter — usually a few months later — Wilson sharpens her fierce fangs and, with her ferocious teeth, pulls a name out of The Esteemed Pith Helmet. The winner — HOORAY! — receives a sweet little original 5” x 7” painting by yours truly — That’s a $225 painting for free!
THEN, once per year, ALL of the wee little contest entries from the various newsletters of the year are placed in The Esteemed Pith Helmet, and the Grand Prize winner is randomly found twixt the beastly teeth of Wilson. The Grand Prize? An original 8” x 10” painting by yours truly — a $480 painting for free!
Why do we do this? Because it’s a cool way for me to “give back” to my fans and followers, with all of us having some fun along the way. But my fans and followers have to work a wee little bit a few times per year: indeed, they have to read my Studio Art Notes Newsletter, sleuth the wee little contest, and enter.
Now listen, I’ve had some people accuse me of lying about the wee little contest, because they haven’t been able to find it, and therefore they assume it’s not there. But I assure you, it is real, and if you’re a subscriber and you haven’t found it, it’s because you haven’t looked hard enough. If and when you DO find it, you’re going to to gasp, “Ah-HAAAA!” and feel more than a wee bit clever, which, of course, you are.
Over there —> are the latest more-than-a-wee-bit-clever readers who sleuthed the contest and SHAZAM! had their name drawn with slobber out of the Esteemed Pith Helmet and won a painting!
And here are the paintings they won:
One more thing: In order to receive my Studio Art Notes Newsletter, you have to subscribe to it — which you can do easy-peasy, right here. (And you can also view past editions of the newsletter there as well.)
Subscribe in the next day or two and you’ll receive the latest edition, which has a coupon code of 20% for my online store, good through May 10th. (Though if you sleuth and enter the wee little contest, you’ll get a coupon code of 25% off!).
If you think you’re already subscribed, but haven’t received the latest newsletter, check your spam folder (especially important if you use gmail) and let your email server know that mail coming in from firstname.lastname@example.org via MailChimp is approved by you..
And now, on this rainy morning in Santa Fe, some inspiring pith for your day—
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet (3.1.56-90)
We had been camped on the far edge of the high south meadow. The evening before we were lead up a west slope trail, where, just beyond the ridge in the blaze of sun sinking quickly before us, we stood at a fence line, and watched color radiate from a point just beyond Wheeler.*
That night, we slept in the company of evergreen and aspen.
For five nights we slept upon the earth.
For six days we breathed deeply the high country air.
Morning glistened with the promise of winding trails and clear streams; of paintbrush and iris and penstemon; of trailside conversation, songs and laughter and perhaps even — no, definitely — a bear sighting both magical and maybe a little too close for comfort.
All in a day.
All in a week.
All on the trails of Northen New Mexico.
This memory is from a series of days in July, 2015 when I had the joy of backpacking again at Philmont — the place where I first fell in love with New Mexico back in my teens and college years. This time I returned to the trails of Colfax County with thirteen other women, nearly all of us former camp staff members; every one of us possessing a deep soulful connection to “The Ranch.”
We had chosen a “South Country” itinerary for our trek, in part because the South Country is a bit more verdant than Philmont’s North Country,’ and some of us just really wanted to enjoy again the lushness of those high mountain meadows and streams.
Little did we know when planning our itinerary that 2015 would be The Year of Rain.
The Year of Green.
I’m talking Ireland-type green, as captured over there —>
in my 2016 painting, When Rain [Finally] Comes to New Mexico
(which I jokingly subtitled “Yes, It Really Was That Green” )
Day three of our hike brought us to Apache Springs Camp, tucked away in Philmont’s far southwest corner — a place I had visited only once before c.1983, and then for only a few hours. It’s a beautiful, beautiful spot, and I regret not venturing there in my youthful summer’s days off decades before.
Just a few weeks ago I finished a new painting from this journey — the painting pictured above. It captures a moment during our morning departure from Apache Springs, Most of us had made it down to the cabin already, but a couple of us straggled behind, lingering in the light dancing across that long stretch of aspen-edged meadow. No surprise that the forester among us had the wisdom to linger longest in the light. For I’m pretty sure that solitary hiker is Mary Stuever: former Philmont Ranger turned New Mexico Forester, gifted author of The Forester’s Log.
Several possible titles for this painting are ricocheting through my head, but I can’t quite settle on one.
But perhaps you have some suggestions for a title?
If so, I welcome them.
(Feel free to, comment below or via of my studio FaceBook page where I’ll share this post shortly.)
Meanwhile, there’s so many more paintings I’ve been meaning to do of this trip . . . Here’s what I’ve completed so far,:
And again. . . .