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In the early stages of an oil painting, it feels OK to let people see a monochromatic underpainting. Once I start work on the full-color overpainting, it will be months before "Rolling Wave" is fit to be seen again. I work on 3-6 pieces at a time, and I don't mind if it takes a long time to finish them.
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Sore shoulders, sore wrist, winter blues, and distraction ... oil painting isn't a sport, but sometimes I think it should be seen as one. I've been systematically addressing each of those four problems, and I'd like to share with you what's been working.
Lately, I've been doing strength training a few times a week to build my shoulders, back, abs, and thighs. After a few months, I find that it's easier to work in the studio 4-6 hours a day, 5 days a week, if I've got the shoulder muscles to handle the work of using my right arm continuously.
I've discovered a piece of exercise equipment called resistance straps or gravity straps. They're a no-name, less expensive version of the name-brand TRX straps, which were developed by a Navy Seal to allow all those ripped alpha males to lift weights while deployed in the desert where there are no athletic facilities. (To see the product, search for "TRX straps" on Amazon, and to see some exercises, search YouTube). These nylon straps require only your body weight to exercise. They're affordable, small, and portable. You can use them for upper body and lower body exercises, and "going Naval" requires only that you skooch forward a little, increasing the angle of your body to increase the difficulty. I'll admit, I'm not all that Naval.
I also use a yoga swing, a kettlebell, and a NordicTrack for indoor exercising. Even though the NordicTrack takes up relatively little space compared to my husband's elliptical trainer, compared to my other stuff, it's a monster. But a NordicTrack provides the best aerobic workout, because the upper body and lower body are worked separately, and it involves twisting at the waist, like cross-country skiing. NordicTracks are no longer manufactured, but they're easy to find on Craigslist. You have to have good balance to use one. It's tricky at first.
Anyway, walking the dog was clearly not enough, so I'm turning up the music in the studio, and putting in a 45-minute circuit a few times a week. The variety keeps me from getting bored. It does help. My shoulders would be stiffer and sorer without this.
I also notice that I flex my wrist a lot when I paint, which is increasingly painful. So I've borrowed a wrist brace from a neighbor to immobilize my wrist, and see if it helps. I only wear the brace after I've finished mixing paint with a palette knife and I'm ready to switch to a brush. I'm still able to to hold a brush both ways—like a pen and like a remote control—but my wrist isn't flexing, which I understand can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. If I find that the pain is relieved, I'll make an appointment to see my doctor and explain the situation and probably buy my own wrist brace. <Sigh.> Getting older requires more gear just to keep the pain in check. During 2019 I'll hit the big 5-0, and I might as well accept it.
Winter blues. Who in Seattle hasn't looked up at the lowering sky and scurried off like Gollum to lurk in the basement, eat raw fish, and mutter about My Precious? I've adopted two measures to deal with winter blues: light therapy and sleep meds. I got a small light box from LiteBook, and I hang it from a camera tripod every morning and let the light hit my face from above, mimicking the angle of the sun, while I do my morning e-mail, Facebook, research, and writing on a laptop in the living room. I've been using a light box for about 3 months now, and I'm noticing better energy, better mood, and better sleep.
I imagine the average adult muddling through modernity, sleeping from roughly 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. While I usually prefer to take natural supplements after consulting a naturopath, right now I'm making do with an inexpensive over-the-counter sleep aid. It does help.
If you've slogged through this article on the travails of aging while painting, this little tidbit will—I hope—be your reward: I listen to some kind of audio while painting: music, nature sounds, a podcast, something to keep me focused. For years I used a Bluetooth speaker with my iPhone to generate the audio. Recently I bought a pair of Bluetooth earbuds, the kind that use a U-shaped housing that you wear around your neck. They free you from that stupid cord you have to deal with when using plug-in earbuds. That cord runs down the front of your torso, getting caught on stuff and making it hard to concentrate. One day, I tried listening to my usual audio through the new wireless earbuds instead of the speaker. I was able to focus on the work much more easily. I attribute this to the fact that now I can't hear the heat kicking on in the studio, or the crows in the alley, or any ambient noise. It's amazing how much easier it is to stay focused. I've increased my expectation of a good studio day from 3-4 hours a day to 4-5 hours a day.
A few weeks ago I deleted the Facebook app from my phone, and I now use Facebook only on my laptop. That was a good move for me. The studio is an Internet-free zone. (My only exception to this is Pandora.)
I still put a lot of effort into my homemaking duties: cooking, laundry, dishes, errands ... those tasks all fall on my shoulders, and doing them well takes time. It's the deal my husband and I made when we got married, and I wouldn't want to change it. I'm a natural homemaker: domestic, reclusive, and orderly. If I were more career oriented, I'd probably find a way to spend more time in the studio each day, and we'd probably heat up convenience food in the microwave more often, but that just wouldn't work for me. Still, as the years go by, I find that I'm getting less obsessive about my sock drawer and more obsessive about my paintings. So I'm slowly, gradually, systematically shifting the balance between the house and the studio.
Walk softly and carry a great painting. Isn't that how it goes?
When attempting something difficult, I suspect most people seek advice from experts now and then. I'm no different. A few times a year, I take a batch of nearly completed paintings to the studio of master painter Melissa Weinman for a critique. Below are three new paintings, pictured before the critique and after. Details are in the captions. Click on the first image, then click the arrows to navigate back and forth.
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I’ve heard that there are two kinds of creativity: the short burst and the long haul. The short burst results in a finished work created very quickly, like The Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” which Paul McCartney wrote in less than a minute after waking up from a dream. He just scribbled down some notes and Whammo! A hit!
Then there’s the long haul. This is where the creator reworks and reworks a project to bring it slowly to completion. An example of this is Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah,” which took him 12 years of reworking, sometimes in agony, before it was finished. His steady work habits brought about his success. It wasn’t dramatic or glamorous, but for him it worked. To me it’s encouraging that with persistence, anyone can succeed in creative work, at least in theory.
I’m not sure that all creators fit neatly into one category or the other, but I’m definitely a long-haul type. I sit there for days, picking away at a little painting, not caring how long it takes. If I feel the need to rush through a painting and compromise the quality of the work, I should find something else to do.
I read recently that two things are required for successful creative work: a point of view and hard work. Notice that there’s no mention of talent there. Talent is real, but it’s not everything. First come the basic skills, then the building up of good work habits, then you hope you have something worthwhile to say. I could make beautiful, accurate paintings of white cups all day long, but without something original in the painting, it’s just a technical exercise. That original something: that’s point of view. For me, I’m slowly developing mine, or maybe I’m just slowly developing the courage to tell the truth in my paintings.
I believe in hard work, but I don’t believe it’s necessary to put in 12 hours a day in the studio, or even 8. My modest 4 hours a day is sufficient. First, because I so often struggle with low energy, it’s all I can do. Second, it really doesn’t matter if I create 12 paintings in a year or 40. What matters is that I’m doing my best. I never rush. I never blow off the advice in my critiques. I don’t let myself off the hook, so I don’t have to make excuses for the quality of my work. I believe that one good 8x10 is more valuable than a middling 36x48.
This definition of success isn’t about selling paintings or being represented by a big-name gallery. I can't totally control those things. This definition of success is about doing my best.
One reason I like this unglamorous approach to art making is that it opens the door to anyone who has the time and the desire. It’s not about having a mystical gift. It’s not about wearing a beret and smoking cigarettes. It’s not about being surly. It’s just about work. And where would we be without that?
Below is a promotional video I made showing my new works on the walls at Madrona Wine Merchants in Seattle. If you can't watch the video in your e-mail or blog viewer, click here.
Madrona Wine Merchants
1127 34th Avenue
September and October 2017
3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3
Most works are for sale. Because I'm an emerging artist, my prices are still low.
Original art brings something to a home or office that reproductions can't: original art is human and it's personal, because it's made by hand. It brings warmth and distinction. People of all levels of familiarity and comfort with art tend to be motivated by the same impulse: "I like that—I really like that."
To purchase a painting, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Paintings can be picked up after the exhibit closes in late October.
This painting has a lot of significance for me. The drapery represents inner activity, and the objects represent outward reality.
First the statue: Progress often involves a shedding process, which explains why a crow (which symbolizes death) would have a place in this composition. Certain paths are no longer desirable.
Now the crow's feathers on the right: They have a shape and a function. If you were to pick them up, they would keep their shape, and we know how feathers function as part of a bird. The feathers are part of the visible world. They're like clues. Notice that one of the feathers is lit with a cool light, and one is lit with a warm light. That's a reference to the unconscious (warm color, larger size) working with consciousness (cool color, smaller size).
Now the drapery: If you move it, it won't keep its shape. It’s also much larger and more colorful than the objects. The warm shadow areas on the sides represent the unconscious churning that is hidden by a calm exterior. The calm exterior is driven by the conscious mind; a linear, methodical thought process—reason. Reason is represented by the areas of the drapery that are lit with cool light. The intersection of that area of brightest, coolest light and the crow's beak represents the intersection between inner development and outward results. It's a tiny area of the composition, but it's the focal point.
So ... if you undertake any creative process, the visible part (represented by the objects) is only the result of lengthy, convoluted inner activity, most of which cannot be controlled or directed.
Why, then, did I title the painting “The Slow Pace of Decay,” and not “The Slow Pace of Development”? Because outward decay often accompanies inner development, and after all, the subject of this painting is the crow.
A heavy Italian frame works on this painting for one reason: drama. The painting and the frame both feature a lot of black, and the metallic ornamentation compliments the smooth textures in the painting.
Let me explain: If the painting were heavily ornamented—lots of spiky details, for example—the frame should be simple. If the objects in the painting are smooth and simple—as they are here—the frame should have some ornamentation, which gives the whole piece glamor and finish. In this case, it’s that metallic ornamentation that says “fine art.” It’s like jewelry for a painting.
A few weeks ago I started a cute little painting of a pair of teacups and a teabag. I can't explain why I'm drawn to white ceramic objects and teabags, but these kinds of things make it into my setups every now and then.
As I worked, I copied the objects faithfully, and I invented the background color. I'd been longing to paint with soft lavender and its complement, soft gold. I shared my progress with my Facebook friends, and I asked for help giving the painting a title.
At this stage, I took the little painting to Ruston, Washington, an hour away, to be critiqued by my mentor, master painter Melissa Weinman. She pointed out a number of technical problems in the painting, but called it "a little gem" nonetheless. She has a big heart and a sharp mind.
Back in the studio, I had the pleasure of fiddling with the painting until I was happy with it. The final stages of a painting are always fun. I took the still-slightly-wet painting to my favorite frame place, Jayeness Moulding, a wholesale outlet where I have an account. My little dog, Dudley, accompanied me, like usual. The lady in the shop stuffed him full of cookies and love, and offered me a discount on a beautiful moulding, lavender mother-of-pearl, that looked great with the painting. Was it Dudley, or was it the fact that I had put so much effort into this little painting? I'll never know. She had been saving that moulding for herself, but she let me have it.
Feeling happy and grateful, I drove home with my beautiful frame and a few others I couldn't resist from the shop. A week later, I varnished the painting and photographed it. I fitted the painting into its frame, using techniques I learned from a persnickety framer a few years ago, and to which I adhere.
After posting the photo to Facebook, I was surprised and delighted to receive a message from a fellow artist: she wanted the painting. She had offered ideas for a title. We arranged for her to pick it up a week later.
After signing the papers and paying me, she agreed to photograph the painting in its new home. When I got the photo, I felt strangely fulfilled: this little thing that I'd put so much love and work into was now enlivening someone's home. That's a privilege.
I believe other artists will agree: it feels great to see your work in someone's home, a part of their daily life.
No doubt painting takes a lot of equipment. The biggest challenge is getting that darn panel to hold still so you can paint on it. With dry weather coming, many Seattle artists and art students will want to head outdoors for that brief moment of sunshine and dry ground to paint "en plein air." This 5-minute video ought to make the world of portable easels a little less confusing.
If you can't watch this video in your blog reader or e-mail, click here to visit my website.
You'll probably remember my marathon of painting as I prepared for the Small Works Sale at Gage Academy of Art. I was fortunate (and delighted) that my mentor bought one of the paintings before it ever made it to the sale. It occurred to me at the time that the appeal of the painting could have been the white-on-white color scheme.
I later learned that during the sale two paintings sold, and—strangely—both featured a mostly white color scheme.
Why was this? Why did people connect to these paintings more than the others? It's striking to me that of all the new works, these were seen as "must have" paintings, and the only things they have in common are the size, the price, and the predominance of white paint. Are people longing for purity, spirituality, something cleaner or higher? Do the paintings seem somehow less cluttered than reality?
Whatever the reason, I'm going to make use of this information, because, apart from what sells, I care about what people care about. So white paint will probably get squeezed out of the tube in greater abundance.
If you're in Seattle, the sale is still on through Friday.
There's nothing like a deadline—it's wonderful and horrible.
Several months ago, during a casual conversation with the exhibition coordinator at my school, she mentioned that she was planning a Small Works sale for the holidays. She intended for that conversation to motivate us obscure students to create small, affordable works that would help us establish reputations for ourselves and make a little money.
It's a great idea. I love the art world's tradition of offering smaller, lower-priced works at the holidays.
Then she mentioned that the works in the show would probably need to be priced at $75 or less. This started me thinking. Could I produce anything that would be priced that low? Drawings? Only if they were unframed. Tiny oil studies? Only if they were unframed. I just couldn't bring myself to submit work that would later appear with my name on it unframed. Plenty of good artists will happily hang unframed works on the wall and let the buyers handle the framing. But I have this persistent image in my head of a buyer coming home with a drawing, and then the drawing sitting on top of the dresser for months, occasionally with socks or jewelry tossed on top of it. Oy vey! When a buyer comes home with a piece of art, the only thing they should have to do is find a hammer and hang the thing. Some buyers know how to frame a piece attractively, and some don't. Some will take care of the framing right away, and some won't. I prefer to do all of that stuff myself, partly out of concern for the buyer's experience, and partly because I want to have control over the framing. I also provide the hanging hardware with the work when I handle the sale myself, just because I imagine most people don't have picture hangers lying around. Buying and hanging artwork should be easy.
As I considered participating in the small works sale, I concluded that the kind of work I produce really can't be priced at less than $100. I decided not to participate. I also have observed that paintings sell a lot better than drawings. People want color. When a drawing sells, it's usually to another artist.
When the Call for Art was issued about three weeks ago, the price ceiling had been raised to $150. Phew. I decided that I would participate after all. Thus started a two-week period of making a painting a day. I produced only eight paintings during this marathon, because the one larger piece took three days instead of one to complete.
The week before the deadline was devoted to (a) letting the paintings dry, (b) getting the paintings critiqued, and (c) buying frames for the paintings. First I ran around town finding frames for each painting, and I really lucked out. I found frames that enhanced each painting and would allow me to keep the prices low. I temporarily framed the paintings, and I took them to my mentor's studio for a critique. She said something I've never heard before: "These two paintings don't need anything." It was a beautiful moment. She made it more beautiful by buying one of them.
I came home and made corrections to the paintings the following day. Two days later I photographed the paintings, framed them, photographed them again, and packaged them for delivery. Yesterday I dropped off the box of little paintings with the submission paperwork, a few hours before the drop-off period ended. It reminded me of my days as an editor when I helped writers along toward their deadlines. I remembered how much I valued and appreciated the writers who managed their workloads well, and how anxious I felt about writers who took on too much and needed regular reminders of their upcoming deadlines to keep them focused on the stories I needed.
Now I'm on the other side of the deadline, I want to be the kind of artist that curators don't worry about. By the time people stroll through the third-floor hall at Gage Academy of Art, looking at hundreds of small works, they may or may not imagine the behind-the-scenes frenzy of activity that led to that point. Probably not. They'll just assess in an instant whether they like each piece. We humans have an amazing capacity to navigate the visual world. We make sense of what we see in a moment. The people who love art and buy it shouldn't have to think about what happens under the hood unless they want to. That's what artists' blogs are for.
As the years go by, I'll probably come to love and anticipate an annual holiday deadline.
Amanda Teicher creates oil paintings in the realist tradition, focusing on landscape and still life.