Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What if I Just Can't Afford to Buy Art?

The Painter's Triumph, 1838 by William Sidney Mount, 1807-1868
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2012

Even if you have higher priorities than buying art right now, there are still ways you can enjoy the fun of exploring artists' studios at Silicon Valley Open Studios.

The smallest investment you can make is to buy a greeting card. Most artists have published some of their more popular images as greeting cards. These are collectible in themselves, and they are also useful for sending important hand-written messages. Set in a cheap frame, they can sometimes be integrated into your decor. If you like an artist's work, it is a pleasant courtesy to buy a card during your visit. It also helps you remember who is who, for the more prosperous future when you can buy that favorite work. Artists may also sell packets of blank greeting cards, which make nice gifts.

Speaking of gifts, art can be printed in just about any format, and some artists offer their work on mugs and T-shirts, and other small, useful items. If you are looking for something unique that you can afford to give a friend with taste, these items are only a little more expensive than ordinary souvenirs, and infinitely more impressive. Artists generally advertise this type of product on their website. If you are interested in any local artist, you can readily find their website by running an internet search on their name, or by searching the SVOS website.

A good compromise price-wise, and a big step up taste-wise from the decorator's section of your local discount department store, is a print of an artwork by a local artist. Many artists offer prints of various sizes in their studios, and some of our local artists offer works on online print services, such as FineArtAmerica.

It might take quite a search to find just the right painting for a certain spot in your home. During that time, you can save up your money, learn about the local art scene, and develop your taste. When you shop in stores, you see products created by formula. When you shop in artists' studios, you see works created by imagination, talent, and personality. Even if you don't buy, you'll feel uplifted.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Putting his Own Spin on Reality

The Art of Ed Lucey

The contented cows of California
The most interesting part of my interview with Ed Lucey was his explanation of how he composed a landscape with cows that he was recently commissioned to paint. It is a large canvas—it was sitting on the floor of his studio, ready for delivery—and it caught my eye because I have a weakness for cows as a subject, and because the cows are grazing in the hills of California in early spring when the pastures are still green, another favorite subject.

Although this scene is completely believable, it exists only on canvas. Perspective is the first problem: in the real world, you would never see a view of cows at such an easily readable angle. The artist has gently tilted the scene toward the viewer. I know this because in his source photo the cows are more clumped in a line, overlapping. Moreover, those lovely hills came from a different photo. And the barn, which looks like it has always been there, was originally red, and much closer to the cows. Ed explained that he used Photoshop to try various compositions, and he showed me printouts with the barn in different locations. Something clicked for me when I saw the barn moved to just the right place. Composition is the great strength of this work. Your eye goes right away to the largest cow in the foreground, then follows the cows of diminishing sizes toward the middle; your sight follows the line of cows to the barn, then along the lines of oaks across the hills. The foreground is anchored by a stream that fits into the s-curve of the underlying layout.

It is not surprising that composition is one of Ed's great strengths, since he has a degree in industrial design and worked as a product designer for thirty-five years. Less expected is his romantic use of color. While his paintings represent reality in a general way, sometimes he gets pretty imaginative with color, in a subtle way.

Also, his paintings don't have the precisionist style you might expect from a person with an industrial background. Ed likes a painterly look with obvious brushstrokes. He gets this by using water-soluble oil paints. This was a new medium for me. The advantage of oil paint over acrylic is that it takes longer to dry, giving the artist hours or even days to fuss with it. Historically, the disadvantage was that turpentine was needed to thin the paint and for cleanup; turpentine has unhealthy fumes, so the invention of a water-soluble version is a great boon. Working in oil allows Ed to soften the edges of his shapes, showing the action of the brush and the substance of the paint.

Ed is not an arty sort of a guy; he's more of an information hound. He's more likely to tell you about the many species of eucalyptus trees or LBJ's working ranch in Texas than about what inspires him to paint. When I listen to him, I hear a sort of competitive spirit,  as in bicycle-riding. He's driven to push his skills to a higher level. When he sees that one artist can get a certain effect, he wants to try it, too. "But I like to put my own spin on it," he adds. The same is true of his subjects. Whether located in the country or the city, he depicts what he sees, but he puts his own spin on it, enhancing the good parts, ignoring the imperfections. Ultimately, I think it's that little something he adds to reality that expresses who he is, and that's what drives him to paint.

Here are some iPad snapshots I took in Ed's studio. More accurate photos are available on the SVOS website (see side panel) and Ed's website.

This painting has a strong underlying structure pulling your eye toward the light.

Colorful eucalyptus

The brushstrokes and the working method are obvious.

Realistic interior space with heightened color.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Golden California

The Art of Maralyn Miller

The cool thing about artists is that art permeates their life. Everything they do has a special flair. When I'm in their environment, I feel like I'm in the land of creativity.

The studio of Maralyn Miller is a good example. From the moment I located her address across from Los Gatos High, I knew I was entering the world of an artist. Instead of having a conventional lawn and a clear path to the front door, Maralyn's front yard is a woodland glade of gnarled old trees and thick shrubs, with paths paved by natural stone. An unobtrusive sign points toward a rusty iron gate with a branch-like design. The interior garden has several nice sculptures in different styles mixed with a variety of potted plants—all in a careful, but informal, arrangement. A natural stone path leads around the house to the studio in the back. In the inner garden, the fence is adorned by a large painting of the hills of California in the summertime.

You could say Maralyn's studio is perfect, the dream studio. It is large; it gets lots of natural light from a skylight; it has a variety of well-designed storage both for her supplies and for her inventory of work; it has lots of display space for her paintings and pastels. What more could you want? You could want even more space, and that's why Maralyn later converted her garage to a second studio, also very well planned for display and storage of her work. The atmosphere in both studios is softened by decorative mementos and a crowd of impressive awards and certificates.

What I like best about Maralyn's art is the way she captures romantic light effects with pastels. Maralyn has painted with both oil and acrylic paint, and sometimes a combination of the two, but for the past year or two, pastels have been her main medium, and when she talks about "painting," she may mean creating a picture using colored chalks. The quintessential driving force in Maralyn's art right now is the technical challenge of capturing tricky light effects, such as sunset on a stream in a snowy canyon or the reflection of a crane and puffy clouds in a woodland pool. She explained to me that pastels seem more appropriate to create romantic light, whereas heavy textures can be conveyed best in oil. She added, "That's from my point a view. Another artist might see it differently."

Maralyn's favorite subject for some years now has been golden California—the hills and valleys of Northern California and other scenes she runs into while exploring them. Her approach is romantic and idealized—no telephone lines, no rust heaps, no fences. Maralyn was born in Fresno, and she paints California as it exists in her memories and dreams, expressing her love for the landscape rather than depicting objective reality. Her style is representational but not detailed or specific. Though she sometimes gets into hard-edge photo-realism, her usual work has soft edges, expressing the softness of her feeling for nature at its best in her home state.

As an artist, Maralyn is the complete professional. She photographs every painting and records sales and buyers. Her work has shown in more galleries than she can count. She is a proud member of several local and national artists' organizations, and for many years she volunteered in the gift shop at San Jose Museum of Art. She studied art in high school and college, and has taken many workshops since then, ever eager to improve her technique. "I'm still learning new things," she said eagerly. During her family-raising period, she owned shops that sold art supplies and picture frames, but she always found time to make art. For many years now, she has been able to put art first, living her dream of the artist's life. She says, "Art is my whole life. Always has been and always will be."

In case you've been wondering about my spelling, the name really is Maralyn, not Marilyn, and it is pronounced "Marlon," like Marlon Brando. These photos are just iPad snapshots that I made during the interview. You can see official photos on the SVOS website (see sidebar) and Maralyn's website.

Maralyn's studio is hidden by a shady front yard.

Maralyn designed this gate herself and had it fabricated.

Her front garden contains sculpture by other artists.

Paintings are not as fragile as you might think.
This 2-part oil has a typical subject for Maralyn,
but it is much larger than she usually paints.
As an artist, Maralyn Miller is the complete professional.

Maralyn expresses her love for the landscape of California.

The reflection of a sunset in an icy stream is a difficult technical challenge.
Maralyn used pastel to create this magical effect.

A perfect moment to remember
An idyllic scene, softly recalled.

An unusual foray into photographic realism.
The complex play of light and shadow is irresistible.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How to Talk about Art

American tourists viewing canvases by Henri Matisse at
The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, 2009
My friend Mary decided a few years back to redecorate her house with original art. Since her budget is limited, she decided to use work by local artists. "It's amazing how much good art is being produced right here in Silicon Valley," she commented recently over coffee, "and you wouldn't believe the variety!" She checks out the work at various art/wine/craft festivals during the summer season, but she says that her best luck has been with Open Studio events, like SVOS (see side panel). "Last year I got a really cute little pastel for my daughter's room. For my dining room, I got a landscape with a gorgeous sunset." She enjoys visiting the artists in their studios because she feels like she is exploring new worlds and discovering treasures to take home with her.

"The only problem is, I can't talk about art. If someone asks me why I like something, I'm like…'uhhh, I don't know. I just like it.' I wish I could communicate better."

There are only so many things you can like about a painting or other work of flat art to hang on the wall. Let's see if we can analyze them. "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."

The quality that generally attracts me first is the combination and balance of the colors; certain colors are special to me in art, just as in the clothes I wear and the decoration of my home.

Au Café (Synchromy), 1918 by Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, Arkansas
If you look long enough you can make out a man and woman having coffee,
but the painting's appeal is in the array and balance of primary colors.
Light quality is another big factor for me. I can't resist a devastating sunset, rays of light penetrating a forest, or any sort of magical light.

Washington Street, Indianapolis at Dusk, 1895 by Theodor Groll
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Twilight in the city when the lights first start to come up
is a magical time that is difficult to convey.
Sometimes a special technique appeals to me, perhaps because it looks so difficult, maybe because it is entirely new to me. One of the biggest technical challenges in painting is to convey the sense of touch—the smoothness of satin, the roughness of granite. When the artist gets the texture right, you imagine it with your fingertips.

Princesse de Broglie, 1853 by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Ingres' technique in conveying the texture of satin and lace is amazing and delightful.
Most people are probably attracted to certain subjects, either because they are familiar or because they are strange. Some people can't resist light-houses, roosters, or giraffes, etc. I like a wide range of subjects, but I'm particularly attracted to unique points of view and evocative social settings.

Art Beauty Shoppe, 1934 by Isaac Soyer
Dallas Museum of Art
Scenes from everyday life have a special appeal for me.
This historical scene has a timeless quality.
Paintings that tell stories are especially interesting to me, such as a father swinging a toddler on his knee, a woman working in a factory, or a crowd hearing war news on the front steps of the court house. This kind of work is traditionally called genre painting.

The Love Song, 1926 by Norman Rockwell
Indianapolis Museum of Art
In this story, a guest carrying an umbrella has dropped by the home of a studious
 friend to practice an old love song on clarinet and flute. The cleaning
girl pauses to listen and to dream.
Details sometimes give a painting a special charm: the longer you look at the image, the more you notice. I might like the way a cute dog is added to a scene of courtship, or a tiny city-scape is placed in the background of the portrait of a dignitary.

The Valley of the Wyoming, 1865 by Jasper Francis Cropsey
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This painting is satisfying as a large-scale view,
but at the detail level it is fascinating.
This is a small section of The Valley of the Wyoming.
No matter how close you get, the details are realistic.
Paintings that don't have a subject that is recognizably related to reality are abstractions. They depend entirely on the elements of painting themselves: color, shape, line, texture, arrangement.

Grey, Blue, Black, Pink and Green Circle, 1929
by Georgia O'Keeffe, Dallas Museum of Art
The shapes, colors, and lines are harmonious, but the subject is anybody's guess.
In fact, for appreciating abstractions, imagining the meaning is part of the fun.
The most powerful aspect of a painting is perhaps the least understood: composition. The arrangement of elements within the space gives the painting structure and reality. Regarding structure, paintings frequently have an underlying layout such as a triangle, a circle, or a sweeping curve. As for reality, if the picture elements—lines, shapes, colors, textures—are not arranged well, the viewer has trouble interpreting the picture's meaning, even at the simplest level. By relative size and positioning of picture elements the artist tells you what is important and what is background.

The Card Sharp with the Ace of Clubs, 1640 by Georges de La Tour
Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth
The composition clarifies the story of the card sharp on the left, the naive
fop on the right, and the hostess of the gambling den in the center,
who directs the waitress to serve wine to the card sharp.
Closely related to composition is direction or dynamic. The artist's objective is to get the viewer's eye to move around the composition. The artist uses line, color and shape to draw your eye from one part of the picture to another.  For example, a certain color might be repeated here and there in a certain pattern, or the direction of one line might lead your eye to a another line on the same path, all with respect to that underlying layout.

Undertow, 1896 by Winslow Homer
The Clark Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
The placid horizontals of the ocean are violently broken by a downward
thrusting triangle. Each shape connects with another in a continuous arc.
Light patterns draw the eye toward the lifeguard in the upper left,
who is straining with effort and wracked by emotion.
The culmination of all these factors is style. The way the painting synthesizes the elements of art expresses the artist's personality, but styles are also subject to changing trends. In some eras of art history, the work of most artists is flat and decorative; in others it is three-dimensional and convincingly real. To run through a description of the styles that have been used throughout history would require a thick book. But you don't have to know all that to appreciate an artist's style.

To a large extent style depends on the way the painter applies the paint. Brush-strokes are like handwriting or fingerprints in being intimately tied to one individual. For instance, van Gogh liked to give each long brush-stroke its own weight.

Grapes, Lemons, Pears, and Apples, 1887 by Vincent van Gogh
Art Institute of Chicago (2010 photo)
Signac like to apply the paint in dots, each one a different shade.

Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, Marseilles, 1906 by Paul Signac
The Metropolitan Museum, New York
Some artists do not want any evidence of the brush.

Virgin and Child, c. 1646 by José Jusepe de Ribera
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Some artists want absolute control over the placement of the paint.

Vein, 1985 by Bridget Riley
Albright-Knox Museum, Buffalo
Others like to leave something to chance.

Round Trip, 1957 by Helen Frankenthaler
Albright-Knox Museum, Buffalo
Another important part of style is the way the artist treats space and dimension. Some artists like to create the illusion of real space and three dimensions.

Rainy Day, 1938 by Yvonne Twining
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Some artists flatten space and deny the solidity of objects in order to turn a scene into a pattern.

Three Women, 1922 by Fernand Léger
Museum of Modern Art, New York
It turns out there are quite a few things you can say about art, a lot more than I thought when I started. In fact, I could go on and on with this!

Analyzing a painting, drawing, or print is a way of enjoying it. How do I love thee, dear seascape over the sofa? Let me count the ways. Your colors are appealing, your light quality is magical, your technique is uncanny, your textures are tingling, your subject matter is relevant, your details are intriguing, your composition is understandable, your dynamics are mesmerizing, your handling of space is convincing, and your style is unique!

By the way, I took these photos of paintings myself last year during tour of 35 U.S. art museums.

For my inspiration I used a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, --- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.