Inspired by Blue Sky

Blue skies
smiling at me
nothing but blue skies
do I see.

~Ella Fitzgerald, Singer 

I never get tired of blue skies.

~Vincent Van Gogh, Painter

The traveler who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.

~E.M. Forester, Author

Artists, song writers and singers, poets and novelists create art and music that helps us recall the magic and universal love we have for blue skies. It’s a calming color, according to psychologists, who also suggest that humans see it as a stabilizing, reliable color. Looking at it can even help lower the heart rate and body temperature.

I love to paint skies and clouds in every season. This small 5 x 7 inch oil painting was done with a palette knife. These special painting knives were designed and first used in the 17th century to mix paints on artists’ palettes, but artists will paint with anything that’s available—fingers, sticks, grass, bones, and palette knives. By the mid 1800s, they were in wide use among artists, who used them to apply thick paint fast. And that makes them a perfect tool to use in Minnesota, where I live, because winter temperatures almost always makes paint thick and difficult to manage with a brush.

Beginner’s Mind

Experiment in art school. Then, choose a medium and a subject (i.e., landscape, portrait, etc.) and work hard if you want to be successful. That advice is well-intentioned and logical, but all work and no play can make anyone dull or bored. I’m far from bored with painting or with landscapes. The landscape offers something new to see and paint every day. But I’ve got the urge to play and try something different in addition to my painting practice.

When I began painting landscapes in 2015, I looked at a lot of work by other artists and I felt particularly drawn to artwork by several Canadian artists, known as The Group of Seven. They painted between 1920 and 1933 and used many techniques developed by the French Impressionist painters. While I use some of the Impressionist techniques …

                              The Jack Pine by Tom Thomson, Group of Seven artist

                 Forest Algoma (1922) – Arthur Lismer, a Group of Seven artist

I don’t paint like any of the Group of Seven artists. And while I could try to imitate their work, it’s not my style. Their work and particularly the work of Tom Thomson shows the influence of Japanese woodblock print artists, an art form I’ve loved since discovering it during my college days. While I’m almost 100 percent certain I won’t be making woodcut prints—they’re beautiful, but oh so much work (not play)—I’m getting reacquainted with lino prints, a close cousin to woodblock printing.

Woodblock print by  Yoshida Hiroshi

My Winter Diversion/Play

Photographing Artwork

Photographing artwork can be easy or difficult depending on your expectations. If you just want a photo of your artwork and you don’t care if the color is accurate, then taking a photo is easy. Just lay your artwork on a flat surface or place it against something upright and take a photo with your smartphone camera. Those photos often are pretty good. But not always. The photo on the right was taken a couple of years ago in my kitchen under incandescent lights. I didn’t have a digital camera so I used the camera in my phone. The sky color was in the ballpark, but the snow was very yellow even after I pulled it into Adobe Elements and tweaked the color balance to get a whiter white. Anytime I have to manipulate the image to get better color balance, the easy factor (using a smartphone) is significantly reduced. Still, it was the best I could do at the time given what I knew about this topic.

If you want a photo that accurately represents the colors in the original artwork, then photographing artwork can be more challenging. There is a learning curve that includes knowing how different kinds of light can affect color. The color we see depends on the mix of light frequencies that reach our eyes and the frequencies that the object absorbs. Incandescent light is warmer, florescent light is bluer and cold. Things photographed outside in daylight will look different than what is photographed in artificial light.

The middle and left photos were taken after I bought my Canon Rebel T5. I took the middle photo about a year ago, before I knew about white balance. The sky was too blue when I compare it to the original art and the snow was too blue, so again, I adjusted the color balance in Adobe Photoshop Elements. It was closer, but not quite right.

The photo on the left was taken today with my Canon DSLR in my living room where a lot of natural light comes in through north, south, and east-facing windows. The color isn’t perfect, but it’s very, very close, and that will make a difference to anyone who might want to buy it from my online gallery.

When I photograph artwork, I place a piece of gray-colored foam-core board on the floor and lay the art on top of the foam-core. It’s best to be away from windows so no direct light falls on the objects. I set up in the center of the room so the light is even across the artwork and there’s no glare. Then, I take the photos from above, with my camera pointed straight down. A photographer showed me how to do this and it works great.

Before I took the photos, though, I adjusted the white balance in my camera. I have to adjust the white balance every time I photograph my artwork, because the ambient light is always different, depending on the time of day and amount of sunlight. Today, it’s snowing, so the ambient light was a little flat.

Because I don’t photograph my art every week, or even every month, I tend to forget the steps I need to follow to adjust the white balance. Then, I have to find a video (again!) on YouTube that shows me how. I’ve watched quite a few videos, and some are definitely easier to follow and learn from than others.

Bottom line: If you photograph your own artwork and you want your photos to be accurate representations of your work, then take the time to learn how to adjust your camera’s white balance. Use this link to How to Set the Color (white balance) on Your Camera to see one of better videos I’ve watched. All cameras are different, but they’re also alike to a large extent. If this video doesn’t help you, then look for one that is specifically for your camera.

Should Artists Keep Art Journals?

orchid-still-life.jpgI have journals and notebooks scattered all around my home. I love them. And I love to write in them. I’m just not very consistent about when I write or what the purpose of my writing should be. So sometimes, often, I have two or three journals going at once and I’m writing about different things that I do in each of them. I can frustrate myself when I want to find something that I wrote and I have to look in all the possible places. On the other hand, I’m often pleasantly surprised when I open an old journal and reread things that I wrote.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about possible benefits of keeping a journal while I do my artwork. Knowing myself as I do and knowing my propensity for starting a new journal on a whim, I decided to give this idea of an artist’s journal more thought before diving in. I have made drawings in sketchbooks from time to time, but I’ve never really made writing about my work a priority. What I have in mind is along the lines of Van Gogh’s diaries.

van gogh diary

I started to think about keeping a journal while I was doing a plein air painting of water lilies a couple of weeks ago. Water lilies only stay open for a few hours when the sun is bright and overhead. Plein air painting is both fun and challenging. I love to be in nature and watch the light expose the contours and colors of everything. I feel challenged to complete a work on location though because the light changes so quickly that the window of opportunity is narrow. Two hours is pretty much it. I’ve continued to paint up to three hours, but after that long, the sun has moved a lot, causing both shadows and colors to be quite different from when I started. My point is: time is short and there is a lot to figure out and do sort of on the fly during a brief window of time.

Speed is essential, and it takes time to develop speed. The things that slow me down are getting a good composition and color mixing. The little 6 x 8″ painting below took nearly three hours to complete on location.


6 x 8 ” oil on canvas panel.

Back to the water lilies—I’d been painting a couple of hours in the sun. I was hot and tired and I wanted to go home. I also wanted to finish the piece I was working on so I began to think about how I could get faster. I could paint every day instead of two or three times a week, which definitely helps. I’ve given myself challenges during past summers to paint every day for a month or 50 days. At the end of that time, I can honestly say that I could complete a 6 X 8 ” painting in two hours instead of three IF I was very choosy about the subject matter I decided to paint. There are a lot of variables that impact the time needed to finish a piece.

Or I could figure out a different way to get better and faster while in the field. That’s when journaling came to mind. Like I said, it takes time to plan a composition. It also takes time to understand how things grow. Tree branches grow differently on different kinds of trees. Clouds are all different. Flowers all grow differently. And then there’s the whole color and value thing.

peonies diary

Dawn Clements recorded the progression of peonies from opening to wilting and falling off the stems. She worked on the above piece for days, and she thinks of her drawing as “particular moments that would have otherwise slipped away.”

“There is another private and messy place where I observe, think freely, and notate, especially when I am away from home. That place is a folded-up piece of paper I carry in my handbag. It is both a drawing and a book; a collection of daily uncensored observations, notations, transcriptions, thoughts, and information. It is not designed to be completed, even if eventually it may become finished. In a way, it is always finished and never finished.”  — Dawn Clements

Most artists who keep a journal or diary include other diary-like activities. They document their joys, concerns, interests and goings-on. For many, posting updates on social media, based on journal notes. Still others are finding ways of connecting the idea of diary to their studio practice.

I like the idea of having a collection of observations, notations, transcriptions, thoughts, and information. So I’ve decided to give journaling on location a try. I plan to allow myself an hour before I begin painting to observe the scene I want to paint. I’ll work out the composition and do some drawing to familiarize myself with the shapes of things. If I don’t finish a piece on location, having things written down or drawings will help me remember what I was thinking about when I chose and scene and painted. It’ll help me remember what colors I mixed together to come up with the colors used in the painting, too. Color mixing is one of those “on the fly” things that’s done fast in the field and that can cause problems later when I want to finish up a piece in my studio.

I won’t know the benefit of taking the time to record observations in a journal unless I try it for at least a while.

Why Paint in a Tradition?

Bonnard-the dining room

Pierre Bonnard, The Dining Room in the Country, 1913

I’m a plein air landscape artist and I do some still life paintings when the weather is bad or it’s just too cold to stand outside for three hours. I live in Minnesota. Today, I can say that I paint in the tradition of painterly realism, but it took some time for me to identify the tradition—painterly realism—that I feel most aligned with. In college, I was infatuated with the French Impressionists, and with Pierre Bonnard in particular. Then as now, color and light are nearly the first things that draw my attention to a scene. The Impressionists used broken color to capture the sensation of light. Bonnard was actually considered a Post-Impressionist painter and criticized by some because he broke with his contemporaries, developing his own style. Reviewing an exhibit of Bonnard’s work, Jed Perl wrote:

“Bonnard is the most thoroughly idiosyncratic of all the great twentieth-century painters. What sustains him is not traditional ideas of pictorial structure and order, but rather some unique combination of visual taste, psychological insight, and poetic feeling. He also has a quality that might be characterized as perceptual wit—an instinct for what will work in a painting.”

In a world where innovation is revered, why paint in a tradition? Why not just paint, like Bonnard did, and ignore tradition? Two separate but related reasons come to my mind. On the one hand, artists who reject tradition and strive to be different can become famous for their original work. But their work appeals only to an elite group—typically intellectuals—it’s not understood or appreciated by the masses. On the other hand, it’s the masses that adhere to culture and tradition and are typical consumers of art.

Innovative contemporary 2.JPG

Innovative contemporary artist Liana Turnbull Bennett

I love the landscape—skies, water, trees, grasses, rocks, flowers. I love its structure and color. I love the light. I love to simply observe until I see how light and color and structure work, and work together.

Painterly realism has its roots in Impressionism. Bonnard, Van Gogh, Monet, and others had a painterly style. Occasionally, I employ broken color, but I’m more interested today in understanding how to use composition, color, and value to create structure and light, and I’m less interested in making colors vibrate (broken color), although sometimes that happens. I do paint for myself, but not so I can innovate. I think helping people see what I see in nature motivates me.