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Archives: September to December 2010

hot press
Painting on watercolor paper

No photos yet, but I just completed my first three landscape paintings on paper. These are similar to the other semi-abstracted landscapes I've been doing, only I am able to get a little looser on the paper paintings. Or maybe I'm just getting looser at painting in general. I am planning to do at least a dozen of these before posting them on my website.

No photos yet, but I am planning to update my painting site before winter is over. Not that winter has started quite yet. I will probably restructure the site, while possibly keeping some elements of the current design. The photo thing is bugging me. I have pretty much resigned myself to the fact that my cute little secondhand digital camera, while great for resource photos and snapshots, is not so great for the photography of fine art, and nothing in Photoshop will change that. Not when I want as accurate a photo as possible, one that reflects exactly what I see with my eyes.

A larger scanner would be divine. It's another thing to try to save up for. A larger scanner would solve this problem beautifully. A larger scanner would cover just about anything else I've been painting these past few years.

I have a block of hot press watercolor paper, given to me by a watercolor painter friend who prefers cold press. I prefer hot press. It's smoother. I don't like built-in textures on my surfaces. So, here's what you do:
• Carefully remove the paper from the block with the side of a palette knife.
• Position the paper on the birch square sitting on your easel.
• Tape all four sides with masking tape, evenly all around.
• Gesso twice with a foam brush, letting the gesso dry between coats.
• Tone the gessoed paper with thinned oil paint.
• Paint the painting.
• After the painting has dried, carefully remove the masking tape.
• Oooh and aaah.

This whole process will take at least a few weeks. Plan accordingly.

creative fun from almost nothing
States of being - Confusion

Being confused is when your mind is in a twist. Make that a double or triple twist. You are bewildered and perplexed, and any sense of clarity has up and left. When you are in a state of confusion, your particles of thought are well-scattered. There they go.

To express confusion visually, you can make a combination of too many things at once. Create something in at least a few mediums, using as many materials as you can, and make it in as small a space as possible. If you already work in mixed-media, then collage as many layers as the support will hold. If you work two-dimensionally, then use an outrageous amount of colors at once. Go past colorful. Use so many colors that it almost looks gray from a distance, but not quite. Go for enough clutter that it is a mess, but not so much that it becomes a pattern or a muddy mess.

You can also have visually clarity, but express confusion in meaning. Depict too many things going on at once, with too many meanings. This is also a good use for old unresolved pictorial work. Take what you have done so far, and add stuff that has little to do with the original picture. Do not obscure the picture too much. Add another element that barely relates with what you have depicted so far. You are not aiming for absurdity, but confusion, to have some truly vague sense of meaning, but then again, not quite. It shouldn’t really mean anything, but does hint slightly at having some meaning. Just for confusion’s sake.

Being afflicted by confusion is like having an active eggbeater inside your head. It’s all a big tangled knot, spaghetti on the rampage. Express this mental mess by creating work that is all scribbly and incongruent. Do you work in fiber? Make the biggest, most impossible knot that you possibly can. Woodworkers can create something out of knots of wood.

All of the above is active confusion in some way or another. You can depict the lack of clarity in another way. Make layers of things obscuring other things. Portray fogginess. Use semi-transparent veils in two or three-dimensions to confuse what may or may not be there.

Portraying Confusion exercises and guidelines:

• Regular portrait: The person is not looking at the viewer, and their outfit, hat or glasses are not on quite right. There is a cluttered room or landscape in the background.

• Challenge portrait: The person is looking directly at the viewer, and there is a plain background. The background and person’s clothing are limited to two colors.

• Regular abstract: Make a mess of perspective, with lots of random lines and masses, kind of like Pollock meets Escher.Have no visual cohesion. (Hint: Pollock’s work was cohesive, with an all-over pattern.) Use a ton of different colors. Weigh them.

• Challenge abstract: Do an abstract that is geometric; mostly right angles and simple shapes. Use a maximum of three colors, plus black and white if you choose.

• Craftwork: Mix at least five different materials and at least seven different colors (including black and white). Have the piece clash visually with itself. Make it appear to have a function, but have that function not be the least bit functional.

Every month a new creativity lesson is posted. See the archives for the full series. See September and October 2009 for further explanation on how to use the exercises.

Go to Painted Jay Publishing for the whole book:

Trying to capture what we see

Trenton. It doesn't get more exotic than that. Maybe because it's where we went for our fifth grade class trip. Mmmm, state capital. Many years later, a different we, a much smaller group of we, traveled to Trenton for Thanksgiving, or as our good friend Simon says; "Saint Macy's Day", at least when he's referring to the parade. But that name kind of fits the whole weekend in this foolish era. 

blurry view from train windowWe had a good time. It was a good day. Even the train trip up was fun. The three of us found an empty three-seater behind some very curious kids who decided we were interesting, and we then decided that was interesting and the situation kept us entertained for awhile.

I sat by the window, camera at the ready, planning to take photos of factories for painting backgrounds. I don't have the best camera, it really wasn't the ideal vantage point, the lighting was questionable and taking photos though a dirty window from a moving train... well, I've done it before because that's the circumstances I had. Sometimes you do what you gotta do. And it's just for reference, so really, it's all okay. This photo to the right is one of my favorites. It even has a face!

yes, they keep on coming
Yet another late November

I'm finishing up my first representational painting in over a year. It's got stems. The one I hope to begin in the next week or so will have a face. I'm also back with the abstracted landscapes, working with those Valley Forge photos I took recently. One is mostly in blues, because that's what I had leftover on my palette. Sometimes it happens like that. And I'm beginning to paint on hot-press watercolor paper, partially so I can experiment some more, and partially so I can have some lower-cost work to sell, as long as I sell them unframed.

And then there's the writing; here and on Daily Kos. A few of us are starting up a weekly community poetry diary in the new year. It's in the planning stages now. This is getting me to write poems and lyrics again, which is a very good thing. I've been skimming through older poetry files and found a whole bunch of poems and notes that involve my earliest years of being a visual artist. Some will get posted here from time to time.

I wrote the poem below a few weeks after I turned twenty. I was in my third semester at Mass Art, doing terribly as a student probably, but becoming a painter nonetheless. There doesn't seem to be a title anymore.

After midnight
December now
words flow
rain comes down
flows down the hill to the tracks
dirty hair clings to my back
words flow from the plains
to late night tired subway trains
I believe it now

Car doors
and high heels
clicking on the street
tonight I’ll freeze
tomorrow I will be tired
I’ll paint in my sleep
with the hands of a woman twice my age
alert and dreamy cat eyes looking from my face
oh, I believe it now

There’s a rush on time
a slow cautious leak
motors for the month of December already
take a deep breath, somewhere I’m ready
there’s no solution
for two decade confusion
I believe it now

Stories up in boxes
and depression
I want no analysts – I’m all rebellion
mistrustful of what they’ll sell someone
water – my comfort – my birth
comes down to lick the earth
no deceiving now

bigger than a pochade box
The world’s tiniest studio

I have the world’s tiniest studio. It's half a room. I am grateful I have a studio at all. Let’s get that out of the way first. But things are getting very, very squished. And I really need to stretch out and paint bigger than fourteen inches in any one dimension. With rare exception, it’s been a very long time.

studio You can see for youself how tiny it is. I've got three paintings going right now, all 9x12". It's like painting in a kayak. It's a painting booth. I ought to show you how it looks under the table; supplies and tools and paintings and supports relatively well-organized and all in their place, as long as I do not add so much as one more roll of masking tape or a new tube of paint.

There is the option to join up next to my boyfriend’s studio space in his building, but it’s neither climate nor squirrel controlled. I like some warmth in winter and I need my cool in summer, and so therefore here I am. I like my basic creature comforts. Plus, I am sure I would paint less, what with the commute time and all. I like having a home studio. I get more done, and at any hour, although there are the space limitations. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

That which doesn’t squish us makes us expand in other ways. How to create whole worlds on a two-dimensional 6x8” plane... I am becoming quite good at this. But just the same, I really need to spread these wings of mine.

creative fun from almost nothing
States of being - Confidence

Confidence is not cockiness, but comes from a realistic assessment of your own personal power and abilities. When you are confident, you know for a fact that you are just fine with the issue at hand. You are secure enough in this knowledge that you do not need to put anyone else down in the process. With a sense of confidence you are strong, sure and steady. Like the mountain that sits in place, the running river and the blowing wind, you are doing what you were born to do without question or doubt.

As an artist, it would be wonderful to have complete confidence in your creative and technical abilities. In order to get there, you need to have enough confidence in yourself to make mistakes, and to not always be brilliant. Being confident is not the same as being perfect. The goal of perfection can paralyze you with the fear of failure. Fear is anathema to confidence.

I remember one teacher from Mass Art that made a great impression on me. This was a beginning painting class. He wanted us to have the freedom to make mistakes. He wanted us to make “big, bold, beautiful mistakes” so that we could learn from them. Hopefully, we would not repeat those mistakes, but instead find new glorious mistakes to make and learn from. This is how we built confidence in our abilities, and at the same time we learned to love the act of painting.

With experience, you will become more confident. By taking chances with your art, whatever those aesthetic risks may be, your work will eventually grow stronger. Push yourself beyond your own boundaries, and although you may create some strange things along the way, you will eventually discover that you have abilities you never thought possible. When you realize that you can achieve new things through your own power and determination, you will become confident, and so will your artwork.

Portraying Confidence exercises and guidelines:

• Regular portrait: The person is shown upright, front and center, and looking straight at the viewer. Use at least two primary colors somewhere in the painting, either as part of the figure or in the background.

• Challenge portrait: Place the person being portrayed in the bottom third of the painting, or so far over to the side that at least one third of the figure is off of the picture plane.

• Regular abstract: Use only black, white and a maximum of four primary or secondary colors (red, blue, yellow, green, orange, purple). Have the main activity of the abstract be centered, either horizontally and vertically.

• Challenge abstract: Have 80% of the activity way off to the bottom or over to one side. Have some element of something that is mostly hidden, or describe a general sense of important things being hidden.

• Sculpture or craftwork: Choose one strong bold color, with or without slight variations on that color. Have that color be at least 75% of the piece. Combine three strong forms or shapes as the predominant feature of the piece.

Every month a new creativity lesson is posted. See the archives for the full series. See September and October 2009 for further explanation on how to use the exercises.

Go to Painted Jay Publishing for the whole book:

small victories
Intention happens eventually

Nothing like spending half a month both under and besides the weather. But I'm seriously on the mend, as are my troubled feet, and yesterday we had the good fortune of being loaned a car for the day. It was the exact car I'm pretty sure I want, only in a different color. Mine would be a medium green. Yep. Mmmmm.

We ran some much needed errands. We delivered smalled paintings to be shipped to South Florida, where they will be on display and hopefully sold. We stopped at a fabric store where I bought stuffed creature making supplies; felt squares, embroidery thread and a few other things. And we went to Valley Forge, where we breathed the closest thing to fresh air we could find in this congested corner of the world.

photo by Alexandria Levin I've been wanting scenic photographs of rolling hills for the longest time. I finally got them, over a hundred. Taking the pictures doesn't take much. It's just a matter of getting out there where you want to be. I've been looking for geometric variations in the picture plane, nothing flat. It's as simple as that. I also got wonderful close-ups of grasses and meadows; visual details that will come in very handy some time soon. Next I need more space to work in, just a little bit more to start. Maybe I'll do some of these on paper, with artwork storage always being a brain-twisting adventure around here. I've already got a portfolio folder and that has a place to live as long as it doesn't get too fat. 

Intention. I have too many creative ideas, and that is definitely not the worst problem to have. Little by little they get the attention they deserve.

creative fun from almost nothing
Off-season flu edition

In my tiny little studio, where all I really want to be doing right now is pack everything up and move it all to a larger studio, sit a few pieces of watercolor paper all prepared and ready-to-go for oil painting. Since I have blocks of good quality watercolor paper, but no big flat table for working in that medium, nor room for one, I thought I would use some of it for oils. Not as drippy.

It seems like this is a really good time for developing a series of exceptionally inexpensive pieces. There is no such thing as cheap high-quality work, unless the artist creating that work is either doing it for free, or actually paying to sell their work after all costs are factored in. This is a difficult equation. But I thought I would try. Sort of a two-session indoor-air sketchy try at painting still-lifes. I haven’t gotten very far.

That was the plan this past weekend. The germs of the world had another plan. I was to get the flu. They say that you know it’s the flu because of how sudden it comes on AND how it feels like you’ve been hit by a truck. Definitely the flu. A very late last-season flu? An unusually early this-season flu? Who knows. Day one was awful. By day two I was on the mend, and I continue to recover, so for that I am extremely grateful. I’m not steady enough yet to paint. I thought about flu-painting with a shaky hand, but decided that was silly.

Meanwhile, how are you doing? Creatively blocked? Feeling super-duper stuck and uninspired? Not in the mood for any creativity exercises or activities or lessons? That’s cool. We all go there from time to time. But to keep yourself in the loop, do something. Just use your materials. No creativity expected.

• Gesso canvasses, prepare panels, sand frames.
• Paint a dresser or a chair or a wall one solid color.
• Weave, sew, knit something in one material, one color or type of yarn only.
• Photograph just one thing; either the exact same item or scene or person repeatedly, or choose an object like a coffee cup, and shoot a few dozen different ones, but your chosen object only.
• Carve or build a pure geometric shape, such as a square block or a pyramid.

Need a break from creating anything? Do either of these instead:

• Clean your studio or reorganize your materials.
• Dream with an art supply catalog. Pretend you get one free item per page. Yay!

Bonus points if you get new creative ideas along the way. No demerits if you don’t. Either way, you win.

Keeping myself literally in the loop, I’m crocheting a scarf this week, which is nothing but a long skinny rectangle. It’s a plum-red heather wool, and I’m using the V-stich, which is super-simple, quick and elegantly lacy. In a few days it’s back to painting.

Every month a new creativity lesson is posted. See the archives for the full series. See September and October 2009 for further explanation on how to use the exercises.

Go to Painted Jay Publishing for the whole book:

Arts edition

I love Daily Kos. I spend a lot of time over there getting seriously educated on the issues of the day. But even better, they have these community diaries on everything from trains to recipes to health issues to pets. One of my absolute favorites is the Saturday evening complaint fest called "What's Your F#%king Problem?". How can you lose with a title like that?

Last night I guest-hosted, and called it; WYFP - Arts Edition. I wrote the main diary in three sections subtitled; My Stupid Art Career, The Art World is Stupid and Being an Artist is Not Stupid. What a wild and cathartic ride! I may repeat and/or expand on some of the content here at some point, but for now you can click here to read the diary and comments. If you ever want to know how NOT alone you really are, this is the way to go.

well, almost
Working a brand new medium

A long time ago, way back in the days when I was significantly younger, and before I discovered painting, I was heavily into crafts, almost any kind of crafts. I loved all different kinds of materials and textures and colors, and my earliest daydreams revolved around having my own crafts boutique and selling the things I made. This was in the 1970s when such things were still possible. When I was about 12 years old, I made things to sell at a local store in downtown New Brunswick. The only thing I clearly remember making were these little rectangular creatures fashioned out of felt. They were two-tone, front and back, with a pair of googly eyes where eyes generally belong. That was it, very minimalistic.

Except for sewing about a dozen fish-shaped catnip cat toys, those rectangular things were all I had ever done in terms of creating stuffed creatures all these years. And me with my deep love and slight obsession with stuffed critters. That is, until yesterday.

AJLevin_PinkKittyWithGarlic I have been thinking about sewing my own painting props for awhile. This summer I began collecting fabric scraps and ideas, and then my sewing machine died. So I bought some cheap felt at the local fabric store the other day, found I already had embroidery floss, buttons and stuffing, and yesterday decided there was no time like the present. Here are the hand-sewn results. One pink cat and one blue and green garlic bulb. The bulb was going to be a pear, but I randomly cut without a pattern and it came out garlic.

The other thing I told myself – That it’s okay if these things I am sewing are not so great at first. I suspect I will need to make at least ten or more until I begin to find my way with them. It may be a whole year before I really find my voice with these things. Today I am imagining unfamiliar creatures to sew next. I am also thinking ahead for when I am able to work with good quality wool felt. This really is just the very beginning.

creative fun from almost nothing
Triangles and triangular paths

Triangles are three-sided, three-angled enclosed shapes, with all sides being straight lines. Triangles are a classic form of composition and can create a visual path. Triangles can be implied by the use of color, contrast, edges and line. A triangle can be the large triangular shape of the main subject or object, or a triangle shape made by a few main objects that are overlapping each other. They can also be represented by three similar objects or colors placed on a triangular path that can lead the eye around the whole of the composition. In a two-dimensional composition you might see three distinct areas of a light yellow-green color; a slice of lime in one corner, a chartreuse silk scarf on another side and a branch of new spring buds out the window in another corner. Or you might see three sources of light being portrayed; a lightbulb, a lit candle and the crescent moon. In an abstract piece you might see two patches of red, and then another patch of orange-red in a composition that is predominantly made of cooler colors.

Any kind of triangle will do, depending on the individual piece; equilateral, isosceles, scalene, acute, equilangular, obtuse or right triangle. A tiny little triangle alone in one corner will not cut it when it comes to making a compositional path. Neither will any form of triangulation that is located completely over to one side. It must cover the space to the extent that the eye is enticed to travel the course of the picture plane. Of course, you may use triangles however you like. Just be aware of which ones are useful as paths.

Triangular things to do:

• Using your cardboard composition window (see August 4th entry) take note of the triangles that you see, whether by complete shape or by trios of visually alike objects. Move your window around until you see all kinds of triangles. Use one or more sets of the triangles that you have observed in a new composition of your own.
• Do an abstract piece based on actual triangles and trios that you have seen.
• Use triangular shaped objects or forms in a three-dimensional piece.
• Portray a single object, subject or color three times as triangle angle-points in a two-dimensional composition. Do another one where the same three items are placed in new locations on the picture plane, to make a different sort of triangle path.
• Arrange a figure into a large trianglular shape, or combine a few overlapping figures for the same effect.
• Just look – Look at other artwork, especially 2-dimensional work in any medium. Look for the triangles. The better compositions will have them; whether by color, distinctive contrast, object, shape, path or linear elements within the whole composition.

Every month a new creativity lesson is posted. See the archives for the full series. See September and October 2009 for further explanation on how to use the exercises.

Go to Painted Jay Publishing for the whole book:

Painted Jay Publishing, offering books for artists and other creative folks, by the author of this blog. Available in print and ebook formats at
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