Haseltine wrap-up

Next-to-last session, I started adding a lot of detail in the rocks and waves. Waiting until closer to the end to define the little figures by the large rock, because I wouldn't even want them there--but they are important for human scale against those rocks, another good decision by William Stanley Haseltine.

Prior to this session, I was thinking I had the sky color pretty well sorted out--but after a week away, I found it to be too dull. One major handicap that I had not anticipated, was the lighting in the gallery. The exhibited paintings are beautifully illuminated by spotlights, but Copyists' work on the easels are dependent on skylights for lighting. Every time clouds passed across the sun (which happens a lot here), my light changed. 

Those figures on the rocks, by the way, are so detailed in the original work that you can see the brim of the hat worn by the male and a ribbon around the hat of the woman seated next to him. I can't see that in the original from six feet away, so I opt out of that much detail in my copy. I also chose not to include the seagulls that were sprinkled about the sky.

Final result, oil on canvas, 18 x 24:

One of my favorite aspects of being a Copyist is talking with people from all over the world. I get to use all the languages I know, and I get to be an ambassador. Given the current political climate, I'm happy and amazed to still see so many visitors from overseas.

I was often asked why I chose this work to copy. As a landscape painter, I have a fondness for the 19th Century artists who made landscape their focus. And, being newly-relocated to the East Coast, I thought this would be a good way to vicariously explore the Atlantic coast, which is so different from the Pacific coast where I have spent most of my life.


Haseltine marching on

Fourth session was mainly about final decisions on composition, especially related to the rocks, figuring out where problems still existed and fixing those. The sky and water seemed like they'd be the easier problems to solve. (Ha!) At this point I finally have the horizon close to where it should be and it feels like the diagonals and interaction of the rocks are beginning to work as intended.

Fifth session, about 20 hours into it at the end of the day. Beginning to resolve the sky and water, but still not happy with the color. This photo is in poor light so not accurate, but Haseltine's sky palette actually was very subdued. It's difficult to know how much of that is due to time and varnish, but the work looks remarkably fresh for its age, and its provenance would support that impression, so now I have a decision to make. Do I mute those blues and greens all the way down to the point that he did? So many visitors have said that they like aspects of my work better than the original (even saying that to the guards, so they aren't just being nice to me)...  Maybe it's okay if my copy has a little bit of my style in it.


Haseltine continued

After the first session, I studied printouts of photos of my work in progress and considered how to keep Haseltine's rhythm and structure while changing the proportions of the work. This wasn't a challenge that I decided on ahead of time, it just turned out that an 18 x 24 was the only canvas I could get on a moment's notice...but now I'm really happy about it because it added another dimension to the exercise.

Visitors are universally kind and complimentary; even obviously-experienced painters are very generous with praise. Not all Copyists want this much interaction with the public, but as a former Artist in Residence, I welcome it. The Copyist program considers it part of the reason I'm there, and I embrace that.

By this point, I thought I better start washing in some local color...and that pretty much quadrupled the interest in the work!

I was mainly still struggling with the drawing and composition, but adding a little color did help me get more of a sense of how his composition worked to move the eye around, and I made quite a few more changes after this.

The following week, third session, I made more changes to the drawing and added more local color, still avoiding detail. There were lots of opportunities to explain how we construct a work, not by fully developing one section at a time, but by working the whole surface and keeping the development unified, slowly adding layers of color and trying not to kill the underpainting in the process.

 The single most often-asked question is, "how long did this take you?" People were surprised when I said, "About 12 hours so far." It reminded me of something that a visiting artist said during my BFA studies. She said (about demand for one's work), "People want something that looks like it took a long time to make." 

This is about halfway finished at this point, and I'm actually trying to slow it down more. As a plein-air painter, I've gotten into the habit of rushing to beat the changing light, and that is proving to be extremely difficult to overcome. Even as I'm explaining to a visitor that Haseltine painted this in the studio, not on site, and probably over a course of several months, I'm thinking "I gotta hurry up and finish this." Perhaps the most valuable part of the exercise was being forced to slow down, look carefully, and be very patient. It helped that I was forced to take a week between each session; I had very fresh eyes for the next session.


Copyist at the National Gallery of Art

In the grand tradition of learning by copying master paintings, the National Gallery of Art is one of the few remaining museums in the country which has a Copyist program. I applied for this months ago, knowing that we would be relocating to the DC area, and was accepted. I was able to begin my first master copy at the end of July.

I chose an East Coast landscape, something not far from my comfort zone but a challenge in that it's a studio work and the opposite coast from what I'm used to. Narragansett Bay in Massachusetts has a very different look and feel to Pacific coastline, so this was a good way to familiarize myself. Here's the original by William Stanley Haseltine, painted 1864:

Haseltine achieved fame for his "rock portraits", and the detail on this work is astonishing. I didn't aspire to replicate all the detail, but rather to ponder and learn from his decisions of color and composition. Copyists are not allowed to have the easel any closer than 4 feet from the painting, so our eyes are even further and much of the detail is lost anyway. We can walk up close to examine, but can't stay there to paint.

Being a Copyist is a lot like being an Artist in Residence, because a big part of what we do is interact with visitors and afford them the opportunity to see how a painting is constructed--something that is an unknown to most. I love talking with people from all over the world about art, art history, underpaintings, color palettes, and so forth. 

I started this just days after our plane landed in Maryland while our household goods were still in transit, so I had a field kit of shortened brushes, a handful of paint tubes, and a wooden palette. The National Gallery supplies the easel. I went to a Michael's craft store and bought a cheap 18 x 24 canvas, good to go. Of course that ended up increasing the challenge, because the proportions of that canvas are different from Haseltine's, and I didn't want to crop the image, so I decided to reformat the composition to fit my canvas. A supreme exercise.

Here is the first draft of the underpainting, after one 4-hour session.

And my setup in the National Gallery. Lots of visitors asking "why are you only using one color?" --teachable moments about underpaintings and layers. They appreciate the explanations and insights into a process that is mysterious to them. I would love to do this every day...but local resident Copyists are only given one day a week to work, between 10 am and 4 pm. There are about 30 of us, but I have yet to see another working the same day that I'm there.

The painting cannot leave the premises until the copy is done and documented, so it stays in a locker room set aside just for Copyists. After each session, I photographed the work in progress and used a printout of it to assess what I needed to change for the next session. And with the battle over proportion, there were a lot of changes.


Drawing as a Journal

The last blog post was about the fairly rigourous practice of natural history illustration. Nature journaling, on the other hand, can be as personal as a diary. The main reason to do it is to enhance your memory of your experience and to help you remember what you saw and questions to ask later, to learn even more. Graphite, colored pencils, and watercolor are all immensely portable and time-tested tools for recording the moment.

Nature journal pages from a couple hours in a park in Austin TX, watching Great-tailed Grackles and other birds. A nature journal is a personal record, not scientific or convening to standards. It's a way to remember what you saw and to ask questions to be answered later. It is not at all about creating a work of art. 
The best reason to do it is to remember that experience in a completely different way than simply taking photos. I'll never forget these birds, their sounds, their actions, even the weather and the feel of the breeze that day. And I learned a lot about them later by finding answers to questions I noted in the moment.

A journal can include sketches of anything. The scene outside your window each day, the clouds in the sky, anything you would like to remember having experienced or would like to research more later. As part of our recent move to Maryland, I've been finding images of fishes that are common here and sketching them for #SundayFishSketch on Twitter. Here are a couple of those, a Bluefish and a Longnose Gar.

For more about nature journaling, I recommend John Muir Laws, his books and videos. Among the many many books on the subject, his approach worked best for me. Audubon.org has an excerpted demo on How to Draw a Lazuli Bunting, and also here's an article on How to Go from Watching Birds to Drawing Them. As it says in the article, sketching doesn't just make you a better artist, it makes you a better observer of the natural world. And you'll make unforgettable memories, whether you make "art" or not.


Drawing as a learning tool

Drawing is a fantastic way to focus on just what's in front of you, a kind of mindfulness that can only be achieved by close observation and recording what you see. That presence in the moment is a sanity-saver when the world at large seems to be falling apart.

Natural history illustration is a fairly exacting discipline. I took the online course offered through EdX, one of their "Massive Open Online Courses" or MOOCs. It's free, or pay $50 for the certificate, your choice. It's a great intro to the field of scientific illustration, which has certain forms and conventions for recording and conveying observations.

Potoo, similar to a Nightjar or Tawny Frogmouth, native to South America. This rendering was my final project for the EdX Natural History Illustration course.

Deltochilum dung beetle. I became fascinated with dung beetles (and drew a lot of them) because of Emily Graslie, who exhorts all of us to remain curious and "be the dung beetle" that makes goodness out of being knee deep in shit, which we pretty much all are at this point. Take five minutes out of your day and watch this video. Guaranteed, it's worth your time.

Trypocopris, Sulcophanaeus, and Heliocopris dung beetles.

A typical format for analyzing the form and structure of a flower, for illustration purposes. Measurements, color notes, dissection, observations.

A recent article in Scientific American discussed the forgotten benefits of drawing as an adjunct to learning. There is really no better way to learn and remember.



It's been a year since my last blog post, and almost that long since I painted. It was already a struggle after the death of a parent last year, but the result of the election and the national tragedy that has ensued took a massive toll and I was unable to continue working as I had been.

I found refuge in drawing. It's always been that way, from childhood--drawing is the true comfort zone, the untouchable place of safety and happiness. For anyone hitting a block in their work, I always recommend a return to the basics.  The 19th century Bargue drawing course became my focus as it has for so many artists over the years. The book and plates are public domain, available on Archive.org. I've completed 60 of the 70 plates, and will post a few.

Nature Journaling has also enabled me to focus on the beauty of the natural world, which has helped combat despair over the recently-accelerated loss of said natural world...  I highly recommend the work of John Muir Laws, for anyone who has an interest in sketching and documenting the beauty around us. His books and free videos are unsurpassable.

Things are looking up. My husband and I have moved across six time zones, and now live near Washington DC. I was accepted as a Copyist at the National Gallery of Art in DC, and have resumed painting now as I work from the Masters, which is something I've always wanted to do. I'll talk more about that and post those works as well.

This blog has been up for 10 years through good times and bad (actually 12, started in 2005, re-started 2007). For now, here are some of my Bargues to get this show back on the road.