This year, we chose some real, alternative Christmas tree options.
We had two trees in our living room. (I’ve always preferred to have more than one tree for the holiday season.)
One “tree” was actually a bunch of small branches, arranged in a large glass jar, so they looked like a small Christmas tree. I’d picked up those branches at a nearby Christmas tree lot, where they had a stack of extra, odd-shaped branches in a pile to go to the trash.
We decorated that arrangement with all the normal Christmas-y things, including a lot of small, sparkly, multicolored ball-type ornaments. The size suited the small scale of the tree design.
To visitors, it looked like a normal, small (2 – 3 foot tall) Christmas tree. We liked re-purposing discarded branches to create it. It felt very “green,” on several levels.
Our “Charlie Brown” Tree
Our other tree involved some serendipity.
I was out for a walk, and noticed a wonderful, large branch by the side of the road. It was about four feet tall, and I think it had been pruned from someone’s pine tree.
I brought it home and found a really large, gold, globe-type ornament to hang on it.
(It drooped, naturally. It’s the way the branch had curved on the original tree… it’s not sagging or anything.)
The effect was almost exactly like the little tree in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.
I propped it against the wall, in a shallow bowl of water. It lost absolutely no needles during the holidays, and it’s still pretty soft & flexible, now.
This afternoon, I’m taking this little tree and our jar of branches to the nearby woods, so the branches return to nature.
These were among my favorite Christmas trees ever, and no trees were killed (or money spent) to enjoy them in our home.
I think this is the beginning of a tradition in our home, and it just sort of happened this year, because I wanted a couple of small trees that fit the size of our apartment.
One of the best things about being an artist is the beauty I see everywhere I look.
When I was cleaning one of my palettes this past week, the running colors were so gorgeous, I had to capture them with a photo.
(Note: I paint with water-soluble oil paints, so I can clean them in the sink without toxic cleaners such as turpentine. My cleaning product of choice is Incredible Pink, a biodegradable general cleaner from Maine.)
The photo shows my palette in the sink. The picture was taken without a flash.
From left to right on my palette, here are the colors I routinely use for my paintings:
French ultramarine blue
White (sometimes Zinc white, sometimes Titanium white)
For some paintings, I also add Sap green and/or Burnt umber.
Of course, in the photo above, you’re seeing the residue of lots of mixing on every square inch of the palette.
This is the same palette I photographed — before cleaning it — for this website’s header graphic (as of Jan 2011).
Before renewing my love affair with pen & ink illustration, I needed a new rapidograph.
Since childhood, I’ve always loved black-and-white illustration, and my drawings are a mix of contour-style line drawings accented with cross-hatch (etc.) shadows.
My “people” have always been silly looking things with large noses that often extend directly from the hairline, and either amused or perplexed expressions.
When I first stumbled onto illustrations by Edward Gorey, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit. Though his writing themes are far darker than mine, I totally got his artwork. I’d filled notebooks with similar drawings; they’re what I created during high school study halls when others were either working on homework or passing notes.
Though I used a traditional crow quill pen (and ink well) during my teen years, I discovered rapidographs once I went to college.
As I was breaking-in my new pen, I wanted to create a series of ATCs. (Artist Trading Cards are usually 3.5″ x 2.5″ mini-works of art.)
The first was a drawing of my painting umbrella, shown above. The umbrella has a silver top and vents, to keep me cool when I’m painting outdoors on summer days. The lining is black, so reflected light doesn’t affect the color of my work.
The next ATC was a sketch of our living room fan, shown at left.
We keep this fan by the patio door, to bring in cooler breezes when summer days are a little too warm… but not hot enough to use the a/c.
The tricky part of sketches like these is knowing how much detail to include, and what to leave out.
I’m not sure that I got it quite right with this card, but these were just for practice, anyway.
In retrospect, I probably wouldn’t do so much cross-hatch style shading on the fan’s support. However, that exercise helped me with a later card, and I try not to get stuck in making everything just so.
Perfection is one of those traps for me as an artist: If I get bogged down trying to improve my work to an unachievable standard… well, I stop making art, after awhile. So, I try to remember what’s “good enough” when I’m working.
The next ATC in the series was a little trickier, at least in terms of perspective and detailing. It’s my husband’s desk chair.
When he’s not sitting in the chair, he leaves a folded piece of flannel fabric on the seat. That’s to provide a softer surface for our cat, George, to sit on, and to keep some of the cat hair off the chair.
So, I was once again faced with the question: How much detail to include? The flannel is plaid and has ragged edges; I left out the former and included the latter.
The sketch isn’t perfect (ah, that word again!) but it’s good enough.
My next ATC was based on one of my favorite scribbles from junior high school and later. I used to draw these in the margins when I was taking notes in boring classes.
Though some elements are reminiscent of Peter Max’s art, I was drawing these before he was popular. I think several artists of that era drew from popular and iconic 1960’s art and illustration.
In some cases, I’d color these kinds of drawings.
One eventually became a huge work of art that decorated three walls in an elevator of a Marlborough Street apartment in Boston, Massachusetts.
A later one because a massive mural for an office just outside Salt Lake City, Utah. It could be seen from the street through a huge plate glass window. I was tremendously proud of it.
Both were full-color paintings, usually featuring vivid crayon-box colors.
My next ATC is a nod to my high school art teacher, Roger Mulford.
One of my best friends (and classmates), Laura Whipple, and I both drew flowers for a class assignment. Like me, Laura favored pen & ink drawings with lots of detail, and sometimes “dotty” shadowing.
Roger called it the Morey-Whipple (or Whipple-Morey) style of art, and we all thought that was pretty funny.
(Roger has always been a somewhat renegade teacher, insisting that we call him by his first name. When the school insisted that he had to be “Mr. Mulford,” he retaliated by calling us “Miss” and “Mr.” with our surnames, so we were still all on equal footing.)
My final ATC in this series was a moment of whimsy. It’s a representation of the skies over Whitefield, NH.
The Inn is on the general path described by Betty and Barney Hill, the first Americans to report an alien abduction.
They talked about the route the UFO followed, over their heads as they drove south on Route 3 from the Canadian border to around Exit 33 (off Rte. 93) where they were abducted.
The UFO overhead may not be realistic, but… well, it’s fun.
Starting today, I’m posting printable versions of these ATCs at my alternate art website, Aisling.net. A new one will be featured (more or less) each day for six days.
And, for animal lovers, here’s our cat, George. He’s the one on the left. His brother, Tom, is on the right.
Disneyland is celebrating its 55th anniversary. I grew up surrounded by Disney art, figures, and I watched the Mickey Mouse Club every time it was on.
I’m commemorating Disneyland’s anniversary with an artistamp. It features art by my mother, Muriel Joan Bernier (1919 – 2010).
Click on the image to download a PDF copy of the actual stamp (smaller than illustrated).
If you’re not sure what an artistamp is, you can learn more at one of my other websites: Artistamps – Definition at Aisling.net. (Page will open in a new window.)
The artwork at the upper left, which was also on the Fantasyland board game, was my mother’s original art*. She freelanced for Disney in the 1950s, and I remember her drawing this picture and many others for Disney.
(The cover of the Fantasyland board game, above, and the actual board shown below, are entirely my mother’s artwork.)
One of the best benefits of growing up with a mom who drew for Disney is that we’d go to the Disney movies over & over again. My mother would sit next to me, with paper and pencil, and she’d sketch ideas for new artwork as we watched… well, whatever Disney movie was at the theatre that week.
My mom did all the artwork for the Fantasyland board game, and most of the artwork for the Steps to Toyland game, also a Disney-related theme.
(Scanned from a vintage Parker Brothers Game catalogue)
Though Mum did lots of artwork for Disney, she never visited Disneyland when I was little. Her first visit to Disneyland was with me, in 1978. She loved it!
I remember asking her what her favorite attraction was, and she answered without hesitation, “Space Mountain… and I will never go on it again!” Then, she laughed.
In the late 1980s, Mum visited Walt Disney World with my children and me. We had several days there, and stayed at the top floor of the Contemporary Resort.
We went on nearly all the rides, but — as Mum said — she wouldn’t go on Space Mountain again.
Every moment was great and filled with awe. For us, there’s no such thing as “expecting too much” at Disney World.
My mom passed away earlier this year, and she didn’t want me to post her artwork online. (My mother’s always been eccentric. Once she decides something, she rarely changes her mind. Questioning her about it… well, it was pointless.)
This, however, gets around that. The images shown above — including the artwork for my artistamp — were already online… just not credited to her. I know she’d be irked if she realized that her artwork was displayed without acknowledging her as the artist. So, if anything, this corrects that.
So, here it is as an artistamp. Ordinarily, I add my artistamp postal name — Ballynafae — and a postage amount (usually 3p) to make my artistamps look more stamp-like. In this case, it didn’t seem right, so I added the basic text and here it is, as-is.
I re-learned a valuable artistic lesson this week. It’s about energy and the creative process, when I’m not working in flow.
This is a difficult time for me. My mother – who is ordinarily very strong and healthy – is in the hospital.
I’m continuing to work as much as I can, but some days are better than others, as I worry about my mom.
Two days ago, a client said some thoughtless things, best summarized as, “Yes, well I’ve been through worse, so how soon will you deliver my painting?”
That’s why I chose a sunrise photo (at right) to illustrate this post. As awful as that exchange was, what the client said was a turning point. (I’ll explain in a moment.) The sun was beginning to peek through the clouds.
This painting has been through ups & downs. It’d look like it was turning out as lovely as my initial vision… and then things would go horribly wrong.
When the paint dried, I’d get it back to the good point… and it’d go sour again.
And so on.
When I woke up yesterday morning, I remembered that art is often collaborative energy. When the work is created for someone else (as opposed to creating it just for the sake of creating it), I’m convinced that their energy is involved, as well.
That’s been confirmed in quirky ways, in past commissions. A client will say something like, “How did you know that’s the fabric from our kitchen curtains when I was little?” Or, there will be some other element that I just happened to get right.
I never take credit for that. I always explain that, on some level, I just show up with the paintbrush… or the sewing machine, or the glue for the shrine, or whatever. The finished art is always the result of collaborative energy, so the client gets the art that he or she is supposed to get.
Nine out of ten times, it’s a happy result. Now and then – and this painting was one of them and I didn’t spot it for months – the result is not what I’d hoped for. Oh, it’s never truly awful art… it’s just far from what I usually create.
So, I woke up yesterday and decided to work on the painting all day.
At 5 p.m., it would be finished. Even if I wasn’t thrilled with the results, it’d still be a completed painting.
The day went better than I expected. The painting looked pretty good at 5 p.m. Not great, but not as bad as I was afraid it might. It’s a good painting – better than “motel room art” – but it’s not a painting that I’d sign.
I hung it up to dry in a hallway we rarely use. The photo at left shows part of the canvas. (It’s the same as the photo at the top of this page. I included it a second time so you won’t have to scroll up & down.)
Around 6 p.m., when I took another look at it, I realized that the painting is gorgeous… if you cut off the bottom 1/4 or so. It’s a large canvas, so this could be done, and the horizontal orientation would shift the focus to what’s truly beautiful in the painting.
(This reminds me of the adage of many fiction editors: When the author thinks the novel is finished, remove the first three chapters and the book will improve dramatically.)
However, at the outset, the client and I had agreed on the painting’s dimensions, so I’ll let her decide whether she wants to trim it or not. I’m pretty sure she has a specific location in mind where the work will be displayed.
Nevertheless, I’m always demoralized when art doesn’t turn out as I’d like it. I can rationalize all I want, and though I maintain that the client’s energy is a significant factor in every commission, the art still represents me as well.
I’m doing my best to remember, as Seth Godin says on page 163 of his brilliant book, Linchpin, “When art is created solely to be sold, it’s only a commodity.”
He’s right. I won’t accept commissions in the future. Commissions turn art into a job. For me, art has to be a passion. When it’s a job, the energy is lost.
Painting something fun, instead
At that point, I had a lot of blue (French ultramarine and pthalo) and white on the palette.
This other canvas – a personal, fun project – needed work in some blue areas, and I thought, “Why not?”
Within three minutes of working on this canvas, I was so re-energized and happy, it was like the storm was over and the sunlight was sparkling on the world around me.
The photo at right shows part of that canvas. (It’s a moonlit scene, and the white rectangle is blank because I haven’t added a building in that spot.)
This painting seemed to come alive with color and tones. It’s the kind of work I’m accustomed to doing, and I absolutely love it. (I talk about this in my post, When You’ve Got the Blues…)
Though this painting isn’t finished yet, it’s so beautiful, I almost regret that it’s already been requested by someone.
Well, to be honest… I regretted it only for a second.
Once again, I feel that this is a work intended for someone else, and their energy is part of the creative process.
It was an important moment, and I woke up today feeling vastly affirmed as an artist.
Since then, I’ve been painting morning sunrises, and I’m enjoying art again. What a relief!
Follow up: My mother’s illness was, indeed, serious.
And the insensitive client…? Her house went into foreclosure, and I think a divorce was involved. The house sat on the market for a very long time; the client had bought it right before the 2008 financial crash.
I’ve never taken another commission. I’ve learned that the inspiration for the work has to come from inside me; it can’t be dictated by anyone else. Especially when her criteria are for the size of the canvas and the colors in the painting to match the living room location where she’d hang it.
As the late Larry Gluck used to joke, that’s just motel art.
The blue landscape painting turned out gorgeous, as expected, and that painting is in the collection of friends who’d suggested the painting in the first place. They had a personal interest in the subject of the work. I hope they liked it. I really enjoyed the process of painting it, and definitely loved the finished work.
The opening line of the book is, “Artists paint to discover the truth.”
That really resonates with my views. There is a truth — an essence — in everything. It’s that essence that inspires the artist; something in what we’re looking at (or feeling) triggers a deep, artistic vision.
That’s what leads to the art.
Maintaining the vision can be a challenge. Between the shifting light (of a landscape), the passage of time (flowers, fruit, etc.), and subtle mood changes (portraits), the initial essence may fade or intensify.
Once the art has begun, artists often refer to the internal vision rather than what we see around us.
In addition, some creative visions are as fleeting as our nightly dreams. Within minutes, they can elude us. Sketching the concept, or jotting down the ideas, can be imperative.
However, those sketches or notes are often like the words on a teleprompter. The structure is there, but the brilliance is in the emotion conveyed when the artistic product is created.
The complete vision — the structure and the emotional content that initially stirred us — fuels the passion that’s essential to an authentic artistic expression.
The greatest challenge may be holding onto that rich, initial vision. Because it’s internal, it’s subject to mundane influences, including our own memories as well as our moods. Life’s events don’t always harmonize with the vision we’re clinging to; it can be a challenge to create beautiful art in the face of everyday “slings and arrows.”
Nevertheless, an artist has no choice. Passion drives us, despite the obstacles, to create work that has its own voice. To deny that passion is to shrivel inside, and gradually shut out the unique beauty around us.
Whether that passion is voiced as a music, painting, a perfect loaf of bread, or a finely-tuned engine, it’s still art.
Discovering the truth means affirming yourself as a creative being. Each of us has that essence within us.
I paint, and journal, and sew, and so on, to discover steadily deeper truths about myself and the world around me.
I love this little guy, and he’s only partly finished. He’s created from a single sock.
The stripes are woven into this cotton sock; they’re not just printed on the fabric. That can make a big difference when designing a sock doll… though I’ll admit that the printed-on designs offer more creative inspiration, at times!
I think this one’s going to be a little punker, with a pink-ish mohawk. Or maybe not. I’m not sure yet. I’ll let him decide.
Mostly, I think he’s absolutely adorable.
(He’s sitting in a plastic sandwich-sized storage container. He’s about nine inches tall.)
I generally post this kind of art at one of my other websites, under my Aisling D’Art pen name.
But… well, I just wanted to share this photo with you. He’s a real sweetie, and – when he’s completed – he’ll be going to a family member for Christmas.
A couple of weeks ago, I looked at how stress was affecting my work. It’s straight out of The War of Art book. (I should at least browse that book once a week. It is brilliant.)
This situation was a Catch-22 in a way: I needed to complete a commission… to feel free of the stress that keeps me from completing it.
(It was a painting for a friend, but I soon realized the subject didn’t inspire me. Worse, the friend was sure to be insulted if I said that.)
Meanwhile, I needed to maintain my sense of joy in art. That’s where this painting has come to the rescue.
Living in New Hampshire, I’ve seen many landscapes that inspire me to paint.
The painting I’m working on started as a view from a highway near the White Mountains. I’m not sure where we were driving to, but the image out the passenger-side window was almost hypnotizing.
When I realized how enthusiastic I felt about that subject for a painting. It swept me up, and I had to turn it into art.
Of course, the view was magnificent but – as I studied it – the concept of the painting emerged. It had to present something engaging but also comforting.
It needed a focal point.
I decided to make that a hotel… a destination.
The painting is the destination?
I knew the building I probably wanted to feature in the painting. It’s the Spalding Inn, a quiet little hotel my husband and I had visited regularly, and my father’s generation had stayed at, too.
In the mid 20th century, I guess it was the place to stay. Today, it’s a nice alternative to more commercial hotels. (There was no way I was going to try to place the nearby Mountain View Grand Resort in this painting. Oh, it’s gorgeous, but it’s also a behemoth to try to paint.)
So, my husband & I visited the hotel and took photos from a variety of angles and locations.
I even stopped by the side of the road, about 20 miles away, to get a long-distance photo of the hotel’s setting. (My idea was to place the hotel, like a jewel, in its magnificent setting amid the White Mountains.)
When I returned home, I worked on a pencil sketch until I had something I liked.
Then, the underpainting
The next step was a quick sketch, to use as an underpainting. It’s cadmium red paint on the white canvas.
The sketch (in red acrylic paint) is in the photo at the top of this page. That kind of sketch is where the current work really began to take shape.
Even better, working on it exhilarates me as an artist.
So, each time I reach a stopping point on this piece, I’ll switch to the commissioned painting until that’s finished. Ta-da! The energy & enthusiasm carry forward.
(Have I mentioned how much I don’t like half-finished paintings sitting around my studio? To me, they always look like failure trophies.)
I either want to finish the work, happily… or paint over it and pretend it was never there.
Ah, yes, studio drama! Well, at least I have my creative meltdowns in relative solitude.
I decided the painting should show the hotel at night. The initial sun became a moon in the sky. I’m also including several physical landmarks nearby, somewhat exaggerated to present a more lyrical context.
I’m going to avoid the “starry night” imagery as much as possible. (That’s a Van Gogh reference.)
However, a certain amount of texture may be essential.
It’s a little early to decide, yet.
Yesterday afternoon, I worked on the hotel painting again. That’s it on the right.
Oh, there will be about six or seven more layers of paint on this. The finished work will look only vaguely like this early, sketch-y version.
That said, I’m pleased with it.
And yes, I was able to work on the other (commissioned) painting, when I’d reached a good stopping point with this one.
Everything’s moving ahead nicely.
When one project falters, add a second one?
Throughout this process, I was reminded of an old friend, “Hap” Hazard. In the 1970s in L.A., I heard him talk about how he nearly went broke with his flight business.
He presented the dire figures and his dilemma.
Then he asked if we could figure out how he solved it.
His answer? Get a second airplane.
His other expenses (hangar, PR, etc.) were all fairly constant, but by increasing his fleet, he not only looked like a more successful business (attracting more customers), the increased flights only slightly increased his expenses.
Meanwhile, he doubled his income. And that kept him in business.
From that, I learned that cutting back isn’t always the answer to problems. Sometimes, you have to increase your reach for success.
Later note: I finished the painting and I love it. It’s now in the collection of the friends who’d encouraged me to paint it.
This painting is my second attempt at a landscape including someone’s house.
I tried to rush the original painting, since the (well-meaning) client kept asking, “Is it done yet?” and the pressure was driving me up the wall.
Heavy hints hadn’t deterred the client from being pushy. Saying, outright, “That’s not helpful,” seemed to get lost in the conversation.
The result: Great colors and a truly terrible composition.
After struggling with this work for months, and watching the painting get progressively worse following each comment from the client, I took out a utility knife one night and cut up the canvas.
(I also photographed the pieces, tacked on the wall, as an installation. It felt very satisfying, though my husband was horrified until I explained what I was doing.)
Those pieces are waiting to be turned into something craftsy. The colors were gorgeous, so I’ll probably use the shredded canvas as beads or dimensional art.
Several weeks later, I could distance myself from the steady pings by the homeowner. That’s when I realized I needed to make the house the centerpiece. It did the setting a disservice, to focus on it as an architectural rendering.
If the painting was about the setting of the house — as if the house was a gem — the imagery might work.
And frankly, I think that’s what the client wanted, anyway. It was all about her house.
Then, I spent most of a day on site, creating two plein air sketches of the house and its setting. I began to understand the importance of painting lyrically.
Feeling a sense of relief and accomplishment, I gave those two canvases to the client. I was pleased with them; I’m still not sure if she was.
(My experience has been: When I simply give art to someone, there’s less than a 50/50 chance they’ll express obvious appreciation of it. It’s as if something free has no value to them. That’s okay. I’ll continue to give art to people because… well, that’s what I do, sometimes.)
Then, I spent several days photographing the landscape from a variety of viewpoints, near & far, at ground level and from some nearby elevations. That gave me a broader context for the painting.
So far, so good. The initial composition worked — laid in with cadmium red paint — and it was building gradually but well.
The photo at left shows the work, as it was a couple of weeks ago. Several of the red composition lines were still visible at that point.
Though the blue-gray area at the front is supposed to represent a road, I wanted it to connect with the water feature near the house. So far, that’s not quite working.
Each layer of paint adds more features. The background is (I think) mostly completed, though I may need to simplify & soften it for perspective.
Now, I’m working on the foreground. Every layer and color is being added with the idea of how it will look underneath a later layer.
The photo at right shows its current level of completion. Most of the red in the foreground is from the underpainting; it will be concealed, later.
Also, I’m altering the road-like proportions so it’s not quite such a flat echo of the golden area to its immediate right.
(When two areas of a painting are too similar, it can make the finished work less interesting.)
However, I’m rapidly approaching completion on this painting. Well… as “rapidly” as one can, waiting three weeks or so between layers of paint. (The thicker the paint and the more white in it, the slower it dries.)
In November, I predicted three or four more layers of paint, with a completion date in late January or during February. (That will depend on how frequently the client calls me, asking if it’s done yet. Clearly, she doesn’t understand the creative process. And I should have set the terms more firmly, before accepting the commission.)
The house will probably remain just a suggestion, with only a few more details than you see now. It’s the centerpiece, of course, but the painting is about the setting that makes the house dazzling.
Keeping my focus on that is getting me through this, but there’s a good chance I’ll never accept a commission again.
I’m going to make this the best possible painting, anyway. So there.
In 1991, I designed and made this quilted wall hanging for a challenge in Salt Lake City, Utah. The challenge fabric was the floral that is in the Baby’s Blocks section, as well as bordering the top and bottom sections (not the actual border, which is black).
I thought that the challenge fabric was insipid. I struggled to find a way to use it.
Weeks passed and the deadline loomed, and nothing about this fabric inspired me.
Then, I realized that I could work in contrasts: meek with wild, and traditional with jazzy.
The finished wall hanging is 32″x52″, and at the time I called it, “Threads of the Past, Visions of the Future.” It is pieced and appliqued, with some stenciling (the small yellow dots) as a surface treatment.
This quilt took top marks, winning an award for originality and design.
Today I call it, “Baby’s Blocks, Gone Wild” and I’m eager to do more with contemporary twists and traditional designs.