Saturday, January 31, 2009

On the Edge

Zig Zag 2007
6 x8
Private Collection

I'm feeling on the edge about my work at the moment- a feeling that something's afoot. This happens every so often. For the first ten years or so after I started painting again, it would happen about every six months- what seemed like a huge leap forward, mostly in technique. Then, as time went on, the shifts became more incremental, less dramatic- more about refinement of both technique and aesthetics. Or, so I thought. Then about two years ago, there was a major realignment- an 8 on my personal Richter scale. I stopped working in pastel (which had been my primary medium up until then) and started working exclusively in oil in an indirect way, rather than the alla prima method I had been trained in. At the same time, I really honed down some of the aesthetic choices I was making about what I paint and why- a direction I had been moving in for several years. Looking back, I realize that there were lots of little tremors and small quakes over the years preceding all those changes. My husband is actually more sensitive to all of this than I am. So, last week when he said "something's happening", I listened. And, I think he's right.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Member of the Tribe

Twilight Rise
18 x 24 oil on linen
Available at Deborah Paris Fine Art

Ever since Seth Godin published his book, there's been a lot of talk about tribes- how to build them, lead them, market and sell to them. But, whenever I hear that word, I can't help thinking about the first time I heard it applied to artists.

In June of 1992 I took a workshop with Ned Jacob in Maine. I had only recently started painting again after a long hiatus and pursuit of another career, in which I was still fully engaged. I didn't know who Ned was- didn't know that he was practically a legend to representational painters (particularly in the West) and that he was revered as a master draughtsman, painter and teacher. I just knew that I liked the description of the class in the brochure I received and that the dates fit in with the week of vacation I had coming.

The workshop was held at a summer place with an inn and cottages near Rockport. It had a small building that was used as a studio. Everyone stayed on site and meals where taken together-family style. Although the class was billed as a landscape workshop, it soon burst out of those narrow confines into something much bigger and quite magical. Ned loves the figure and soon found a model, so we painted outdoors all day, then did life drawing in the evenings after dinner, looked at thousand of slides of paintings by artists like Sorolla and Levitan, and talked endlessly about art. It was pure heaven.

One morning we were painting at the harbor in town. Ned was in the middle of a demo and we had all learned by that time he expected quiet, rapt attention when he painted. As we stood around in hushed reverence, a woman came over and started talking to him-chatting away about the fact that she too was a painter. When she left, another student made a remark about the intrusion. Ned looked up and smiled and said "its ok- she's a member of the tribe". And, then he explained his idea that all artists were members of a tribe- one that spanned both space and time - a tribe that included the cave painters, Rembrandt, and even me.

That week changed the course of my life- or perhaps more accurately- rerouted it to its original heading. I understood what I was meant to do and that I was indeed a member of the tribe.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Of Poetry and Painting

Last Light at Palo Duro
15 x 15 oil on linen

Available at the Panhandle Plains Museum Invitational

"Life is a spell so exquisite that everything conspires to break it."
Emily Dickinson

I have always felt a strong connection between my love of poetry and my painting. I'd like to take credit for that as an original idea, but, alas, its one that's been around since antiquity. As I was driving over to Sherman the other day, letting my mind wander and my eyes enjoy the landscape, it occurred to me that what I love most about poetry (aside from just the sound of the words) is its dual nature of compression and expansion. What I mean by that is that an experience or idea is compressed into a poetic form-a few words- each chosen carefully for maximum impact of meaning and sound, and in that very tightly woven group of words, whole worlds can be described and felt. The compression, the winnowing down seems to distill the meaning and feeling into something more intense and expansive. That's exactly what I'm trying to do in each painting. And, yes, I really think about stuff like that when I'm driving.

A note to my blog subscribers: For some reason, Feedburner (the service I use to deliver my posts via email) has redelivered an old post from December several times this week. I can't figure out why and can't seem to stop it. I do know that Feedburner has been experiencing many problems lately. I'm sorry- just wanted you to know I wasn't obsessively pushing a button somewhere like that guy in Lost.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Last Train to Clarksville

Winter Crows
6 x 6
Available at Deborah Paris Fine Art

I have had a number of inquiries about the workshops I am teaching in March and April that start with the question-where is Clarksville and how do I get there? Another popular question is whether this is the Clarksville of the Monkee's song Last Train to Clarksville. The answer to the latter tells you a lot about the answer to the former. Clarksville is one of the oldest towns in Texas, having been established in 1833. It has the oldest extant courthouse and the oldest newspaper still in print in Texas. At one time Clarksville was a thriving town and a center of the cotton trade in this part of the southeast. There were about 14 cotton gins in and around Clarksville and a cotton exchange on the town square. The railroad came through the north side of town with a depot, and number of storage facilities and grain elevators at its main crossing. The town's fortune's began to wane in the 50s, and at some point, not only did the train stop running, but the tracks were actually taken up. Not exactly a vote of confidence about the future of Clarksville. So, by the time the Monkee's wrote their song in the 1966, not only was there no train to Clarksville, there were no longer any tracks.

Lately though, things are looking up. A beautiful renovation of the historic courthouse was completed a few years ago, and the town square was renovated and refurbished with a Main Street grant last year. The beautiful old brick buildings are beginning to be restored and an art gallery opened on the square last year. Recently the block on the south side of the square which includes the old cotton exchange has been purchased with plans to renovate it. And, there is a lovely B&B in an historic home a few blocks off the square. Still, getting to Clarksville can be a challenge. Needless to say, there is no train. Its located in the northeast corner of Texas, so its within driving distance of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana and about a two and a half hour drive from either Dallas or Oklahoma City (the closest large airports).

For me, the landscape is the biggest draw- lots of rolling hills, fields, ponds, big oaks and tall pines and a slow pace to life that allows me to explore them all. The workshops will be held in my studio on our property- a comfortable, easy environment for learning and painting, both in the studio and outdoors. I am looking forward to sharing them with my students this spring. Both classes are limited to 8 participants and are beginning to fill. So, if you are thinking about signing up- don't miss the last train to Clarksville.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Artist Statement, part II

Winter Field
6 x 6
Private Collection

In my previous post, I wrote a bit about revising my artist statement and promised to follow through by sharing it. First, though, I need to back up a bit and explain how I came to be doing this at all. I am no artist statement fan- as I said, I have read too many that are pretentious and incomprehensible. And, I have read many that are, well, just boring- probably far more in that category- statements that didn't make me want to turn my head or click my mouse with breathless anticipation or at least curiosity about what this work might look like. So because of that and my "the work speaks for itself" philosophy, I never invested any time or energy in writing an artist statement.

Recently I contacted Alyson Stanfield with a marketing question. She asked me for my artist statement and noted that she could not find it on my web site. Hmmm-well, of course not. I sent her what I had thrown together the last time somebody asked for one, with a note saying it could probably stand to be "tightened up" a bit. Right. In the course of responding to my original question, Alyson generously offered some advice about how I might go about doing that ( I highly recommend her book). One of her suggestions was to go back to it each day at the same time and look for new ways to improve it. Doing that gave me the chance to think about what I really wanted to say- or not say- about my work and to weigh the amount of attention paid to different components like technique, influences and my overall aesthetic. The other and more dramatic thing I realized was that I could not have written this two years ago or perhaps even a year ago. I still don't know that having an artist statement makes one bit of difference to marketing or selling your work, and it does feel a bit like too much navel gazing. But, it can be a powerful exercise in gaining clarity- and for that reason alone, its invaluable.

Between Sunday and today, I edited it again and actually shortened it considerably. Who knows-maybe I'll get it down to one word! Here are the "before" and "after" versions. I let my husband read both versions-he's a pretty good judge of whether something goes too far on the "woo-woo" meter. He liked the second, later version best, and the word(s) "woo-woo" did not cross his lips, for whatever that's worth. I wanted the words to read the way my work looks, so that reading and then looking would be a seamless experience. Did I do that?


In my work, I am concerned primarily with light and atmosphere, as well as mood. My paintings create a sense of quiet dignity in the landscape, evoking an inner standstill which allows a moment of reflection for the viewer. Using Renaissance techniques to apply veils of transparent color, combined with modern pigments, I produce a luminous glow in my work. I am most influenced by late 19th century tonalist landscape painters, but I incorporate a modern sensibility into my work through spare design and choice of color.


I look for the extraordinary in the intimate, ordinary landscape - the moment when light and atmosphere create a bridge between outward movement and inner standstill, allowing a moment of reflection. A luminous glow, produced by using Renaissance techniques to apply veils of transparent color, is combined with a modern sensibility in design and color. I ask the viewer to look, and having looked, to linger.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


8 x 10
Available at Deborah Paris Fine Art

”… in all nature, for instance in trees, I see expression and soul… ”
Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, 5 November 1882

I spent some time this weekend preparing for a demo/talk I am giving tomorrow night at the Sherman (TX) Art League. This is the first time I've really demonstrated the indirect painting method I now use. Because that process doesn't really lend itself to a two hour demonstration, I did an underpainting which should be dry and ready to work on by the demo. I'll do a small underpainting to show the drybrush technique I use, and then work on the completed one to show how the glazes are applied. I also wanted to be prepared to talk about my work- what I paint and why- which, of course, is much more difficult than talking about technique. Recently I rewrote my artist statement. To be honest, I've always had a bad attitude about artist statements- perhaps because I've read so many that are totally incomprehensible and pretentious. The work should speak for itself and if it can't, writing an artist statement won't help. That said, the process of rewriting mine was more clarifying than I expected. For a short piece like that, I tend to write, edit as I go, and move on- a habit from my previous life I guess. This time, I went back to it over several days, looking at each sentence to determine how to clarify it, make it leaner, or whether it should be left out altogether. It ended up being about the same length but the focus changed considerably. I included much more about what I paint and why, than about how I paint it. Which is, as it turns out, what interests me most.

Postscript: This morning I had a half dozen emails from people asking me to share my artist statement. I had intended to post it here last night, but just as I was about to cut and paste, I realized I wanted to edit it again- just a bit- before going public with it. So, I apologize for the abrupt end to the post- I'll be back soon with the results of my labors.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Metaphors in a Paint Box

Scatter Creek Dusk
12 x 12
Available at Deborah Paris Fine Art

Metaphors are the fuel of the creative engine. Although we usually think of them as literary devices, they really have a much wider application in creative effort-from poetry and prose to dance, music and certainly painting. Metaphors are about putting ideas together, putting things in a different context - or as the poet Emily Dickinson said "saying it slant".

As a lover of words, I have always cherished metaphor. But, as a painter, I really didn't understand its importance to my work until the last year or so. At least since the 19th century, the landscape itself has been a metaphor in painting for many ideas- everything from the Profane to the Sublime, usually in the context of evidence of the Creator's hand. I have a well known still life painter friend who says that all landscape painters eventually become religious. An oversimplification perhaps, but its a well taken point. But, I think the real work of metaphors is to make connections- between our now and our past, and in the case of landscape, the natural world and our emotional world. The visual ideas I am most drawn to and compelled to paint are ones that bring to mind memories of events or, more often, strong feelings and associations. Since my paintings are not narrative in any way, these ideas remain in the background. But, if there is any emotional power to my work, I am convinced that is the center of it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Winter at the Pond

Winter at the Pond
oil 6 x 6

Earlier this week we had cold foggy weather. The vault of the sky was so leaden and heavy it seemed it might collapse in on itself and completely envelope the earth. I love the muffled quality of sounds and the gauzy look of the landscape on days like this. One of the challenges of painting these effects is understanding that the sky is actually lighter in value on foggy or overcast days than it is on a sunny days, so the entire painting must be keyed higher. And of course, the range of values is much more narrow. The sky is slightly darker closer to the horizon, and grades lighter as it goes up-again, exactly the opposite of what it does on bright sunny days. But, what I love most are the soft edges and the exquisite jewel like warm tones against the sea of fog and mist.

2009 Workshops

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Where I Stand- Near and Far

Late Afternoon at the Pond
8 x8 oil
Available at Deborah Paris Fine Art

There's an old bit of advice- attributed to Corot- that most landscape painters have heard: start your landscape about 50 feet in front of where you stand. Another version says your visual starting point should be about the distance you can throw your hat. Its also useful to remember that the horizon will always be about your eye level, and will rise and fall depending upon whether you are standing on a hill or down in a hollow. And then there is the question, the most compelling to me, of whether to show the viewer an intimate corner of nature or a grand view. In every case, the artist is the yardstick, the measuring tool. And so the choices we make become a sort of mini manifesto of our art. We say to the viewer: "Stand here and look there. This is how I see it."

Early on, I was seduced by the big view. In Florida,where I was born, raised and lived until about 7 years ago, I was always looking for places where things opened up- where I could see long distances. So, I tended to paint marshes and salt water flats or the open pasture land of the ranches near my studio. Then, I went in search of bigger views out West- I could look out at endless mesas and mountains from my studio in New Mexico and I regularly traveled to Colorado, Arizona and Wyoming to paint the vastness of the American West. I went to California and painted the spectacular views of Big Sur. But, all during those years I would often find myself painting a stand of aspens on a hillside instead of the mountain vista, a high country pond instead of the dramatic waterfall or moonlight on a tidal pool instead of the huge bluffs or cliffs above. Truthfully, those were my better paintings.

I don't think one is better than the other- near or far. I think it depends completely on who the artist is- who is the yardstick, the measuring tool. But in my case, I have come to know that my passion is for the more intimate view. It is there- at the edge of a field or the corner of a pond- that I am most able to show what I see in this world. And so, that is where I stand.