Sharpening the Saw: The value of a quick study

Last month I completed a weekly class with David Tanner, a painter well-known locally for his portraiture. I believe the best artists, and especially the best teachers, are also lifelong students. Thus I am a true believer in the periodic practice of focused study to “sharpen the saw” and to discover new ways of seeing and working.

My current obligations and time constraints make it difficult to invest in a week-long workshop out of town. So I was really interested when a fellow painter-friend recommended David’s class down at the Visual Art Center in Richmond. I have known and enjoyed David’s paintings for his sensitive portraits, his impressionist style and beautiful color sense, so I was delighted when his class, “Increase Your Speed & Capture the Color in Oil” jived with my daughter’s school and after-school schedule.

I loved the concept of this class, which was to distill the subjects, whether still life or the live model, to essential planes, light and shadow, and color, in quick small oil studies. Each class was roughly divided into two 1 1/2 hour sessions, beginning with one or two objects (a vase, a watering can, a piece of fruit) and various combinations of colorful backdrops. Gradually through each class the level of difficulty increased, until switching at last to the live model.

Quick studies done in class, 8x10” and 6x8”

Quick studies done in class, 8x10” and 6x8”

My biggest takeaway from this class was the importance of regular practice, with quick studies as a sort of artistic calisthenics. These little paintings, no matter how mundane the subject, were created with the INTENTION of allowing them to just be studies and nothing more. So often with my time constraints I feel a great pressure to create finished pieces— something I can sign and put a frame on. This class was not about that—at all—and I loved it! Frankly, I needed it.

Putting a time limit on the sessions helped me avoid jumping into the fussy details too soon. This occurs also with plein air painting practice, though I tend to spend more time on those, establishing correct proportion and a pleasing composition. I can really see using this approach as a compliment to my plein air painting practice, on rainy days when I can’t get outside. It’s also just a good a regular practice to work into my studio time, to improve and sharpen the saw.

Two more from "Public Gardens Week" at Lewis Ginter

Today I am continuing my last post’s theme by sharing a bit about the two additional paintings I created during the “National Public Gardens Week” event at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. I will be submitting all three of the pieces I created during that week to a jury for an exhibit that will be held throughout the summer at Lewis Ginter. If I should get a piece (or pieces) accepted into the show, I will post an update here and also add it to my calendar. Here’s hoping!

This first piece was done in the Rose Garden, which I was so happy to have finally been able to capture at its peak, even while under the full onslaught of the Virginia sun.

“Rose Regalia, Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens”, Oil on linen, 12x16” ©Jennifer E Young

“Rose Regalia, Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens”, Oil on linen, 12x16” ©Jennifer E Young

I own two painting umbrellas, and whenever possible, I do my level best to avoid having to set them up. Not only does it interrupt my process by having to stop and attach it and adjust the angle, it also can easily take on the “Mary Poppins” effect, lifting my entire setup with one inopportune gust of wind. But at this location and at this time of day (and with this skin of mine) an umbrella was an absolute must. Not only does it shade my palette and my painting to eliminate the blinding glare, but it (kind of) shades me too. Here I am with my umbrella set up, working out my composition about midway through the process. I use a stone bag on my tripod to help weigh down the base of my setup. In this case, I’m using my pouch full of paints as the “stones.”

The next painting was done on another blazing hot morning down at the lily pond near the Children’s Garden. I thought I was being quite smart by tucking myself back in a shady corner on a dead-end path pond-side. Sadly that lovely shade burned away in less than an hour, and again I had to extract the dreaded umbrella apparatus.

“The Magical Treehouse, Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens”, Oil on linen 12x12” ©Jennifer E Young

“The Magical Treehouse, Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens”, Oil on linen 12x12” ©Jennifer E Young

Though I definitely struggled with the heat of the morning, I ultimately got lost in the joy of painting this piece. It holds so many special memories for me, having ascended the ramp that leads to the tree house many times with my young daughter. I attempted to paint this structure once before many years ago when I was newer to plein air painting and before I had a child. It ended up looking like an out of place alien space ship devoid of all charm, and I was scared away from painting it until now. I’m not sure if it was the additional experience as a painter or as a mother that helped me so much more this time. Maybe it was a little bit of both. In any case, this might be my favorite of the bunch.

Plein air in the garden

As I mentioned in my last post, I participated last week in a “call for artists” from Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens to celebrate National Public Gardens week. You may know from reading previous blogs that I have painted in these gardens many times as a resident of Central Virginia. But somehow, painting in this context, constructed around an “official event,” helped me to see this place with new eyes and renewed excitement.

I decided to challenge myself by painting some gardens that I hadn’t tackled before. The first day I went it was AWASH with tours and school groups. There were so many kids there stopping to give their input. All of it was actually very positive, but also a bit distracting. Now, I love kids quite a lot, (and even have one those cuties myself) but on this day they were messing with my mojo and I had a hard time concentrating on what I was doing😅.

The architectural elements were minimal, but even so, required some concentrated drawing, some sense of proportion and placement to get right, especially since I was fairly close up to my subject and didn’t have a lot of room to manuver. I moved my entire setup several times and wiped it all down, before finally settling on a view that satisfied. It left me less time than I had planned to get everything down before I had to head back to my house in Ashland, but I did a pretty decent job, with only the need for a few final touches in the studio.

“Illuminated Courtyard, Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens”, Oil on linen, 12x16” ©Jennifer E Young

“Illuminated Courtyard, Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens”, Oil on linen, 12x16” ©Jennifer E Young

When I was (finally) in a pretty good place with my painting, a kid came by to examine my progress. I estimate he was around my daughter’s age (3rd or 4th grade) . He studied my effort with seriousness, alternately looking at my painting and the scene, my painting and the scene. Finally he gave me a decisive and approving nod. “You’ve done your homework,” he said.

And that, my friends, is the beauty of painting outdoors. It’s filled with its share of frustrations to be sure, but the moments of spontaneity are pure gold.

An Evening at the Boatyard

This painting was a little difficult to photograph due to the contrast in the subject and the thick texture in the paint. But I ultimately succeeded in capturing a good shot on a flat and cloudy day when it wasn’t too dark or too blaringly bright outside. Hopefully the energy I felt in returning to the easel shines through in the piece.

“Evening at the Boatyard”, Oil on linen, 20 x 24” ©Jennifer E Young

“Evening at the Boatyard”, Oil on linen, 20 x 24” ©Jennifer E Young

I have been looking at a lot of art lately and painting a few lemons in between (both literally and figuratively😅.) As a result I feel compelled to express myself in a way that is not so literal. I don’t know how far out into the world of abstraction I want to venture, but I do feel the pull to simplify in the very least. What’s enough but not too much? That’s the question. I haven’t found the answer yet, at least not in my own work, but it’s something very much on my mind. It will probably take many more paintings (and quite a few more lemons) before I even come close to an answer.

For Everything, A Season

It’s been a difficult year. I guess I’m now at a point where I can finally write it down, but based on the June date of my last real blog post,😳 (aside from the occasional quick announcement) maybe it was already evident. June was when the reality settled in for me and my siblings that it was time to say goodbye (for now) to our beautiful, sweet, smart, creative mother, who had struggled with her illness in an acute form for over a year. I thought I was prepared, but no matter how well you understand the “reality” in front of you, there’s nothing that really prepares you for such a loss. With a little distance and time, I am still realizing how much it knocked the wind out of my sails, and I’ll admit that I am struggling to get my energy and my painting “mojo” back.

If you, yourself, are a creative of any kind, I’m sure you know that feeling of creative flow. It’s so great when it’s present and really kind of miserable when it isn’t. That’s not to say that I haven’t painted at all. In fact, the paintings I’m sharing in this post are from commissions and projects I worked on over the past few months. But it’s been hard to get that momentum going where gears are all greased and the ideas and inspiration just keep flowing and I’m chomping at the bit with my next idea.

I suppose there are art marketing gurus out there that say that you should never admit such things and always put your most successful foot forward. “Fake it ‘til you make it,” so to speak, and only share your successes and never the struggle. That can sometimes be helpful, but it’s not particularly authentic. Let’s face it, the struggle can be real and I would venture to say I am not the only artist who has been in this place.

If you are in this place also, my advice is to be gentle on yourself. Do the work that is in front of you, do what you can, but don’t beat yourself up that it’s just “not happening” for you every time you step in front of the easel (or the potter’s wheel or the computer). Celebrate the moments of inspiration in whatever form and for however long they come. This too will pass, but in the meantime, the only way past it is to get through it the best way you know how.

For me, I’m reorganizing my studio, working on an new inventory management system, and cleaning up the office as a way to clear out both the mental and physical clutter. As a result, I’m holding a holiday sale of smaller (mostly plein air) paintings with some great savings in hopes that I can manage my limited storage space and also hopefully send a few more pieces out into the world. I’m also working on a series of still life paintings, as they are less dependent on time of day and weather. More about that in future posts.