Monthly Archives: September 2012

Yolo Art and Ag

I spent a great morning painting last week in western Yolo County, California.

The Yolo County Arts Commission has a program it calls Art & Ag: they work with farmers to bring painters to their farms. Once a month, painters can come to a farm to paint. It’s a great program, because it lets us paint on private property we otherwise wouldn’t get to see. I, for one, really appreciate the opportunity. I’ve lived in California most of my life, and in Sacramento most of that time, and I’ve been to places with Art & Ag that I’ve never been to before. This is the Scott Farm west of Woodland. Those are the coast mountains in the distance, near Lake Berryessa. The morning was pleasantly cool, and the barn provided lots of shade to work in.

What interested me with this scene was the juxtaposition of the farmhouse and the wind turbine in the distance (it’s in front of the mountains, almost in the center of the shot, below). A few minutes later, some cows wandered in front of us, in that pasture in front of the green (olive trees?). Instantly, this plein air study became a sketch for a larger painting, of the cows and the wind turbine. Agrarian and high tech. I’ll post an image when I get it finished!

Painting setup in Yolo County
A plein-air study in progress at Scott’s Farm in Yolo County. The wind turbine went in as the very last thing.

Painter’s Block

Have you ever been blocked?

Writers talk about writer’s block. Being blocked occasionally is normal, but it’s an odd feeling.

My Mephistos by Stephanie Benedict. Graphite on paper
My Mephistos by ©2007 Stephanie Benedict. Graphite on paper. Collection of the artist.

I’ve recently finished a couple of months of pretty intense painting (for me!): submitting to shows, sometimes getting in, sometimes not; painting some large paintings to the gallery I’m in. And then there’s the rest of life that keeps jumping up and seeking my attention.

So I find myself now with nary an idea in my head. Not for a new painting, and hardly for this blog. But, following Steven Pressfield’s advice in Turning Pro, I’m getting up and starting anyway. Thomas Edison is reported to have said that “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” So I’m putting in the perspiration time.

I just started reading Twyla Tharp’s Creative Habit. I’ve long been a believer in establishing habits to encourage your monkey mind to work. Things like having a studio set up, and only working in the studio (not including any plein air painting: I mean don’t try to work in the kitchen). That way, your brain starts thinking “oh, I’m in the studio, it must be time to paint.” Or, as Tharp describes, starting work with a ritual to put your brain into gear for work. What that ritual is, is up to you.

Creative types may rebel at the notion of ritual or repetition, but I’ve found it works. Always showing up at the computer to work on blog posts, or going for a walk before I start to paint.

Then there’s the idea of filling the well, too: the creative well is dry, so I need to refill it. Walking helps here, too. Motion. Movement. Mopping the floors, or cleaning the studio. So while I’m refilling the well, I’ll also keep to my habits, my rituals. I’m getting exciting for what might come next!

Do you have habits of creativity? Or rituals you follow?

A Framing Malfunction

I learned something about framing recently. Never wait until the last minute.

I’ll have more about frames in a future post, but for now I want to show you what happened recently when I waited too long to order and test out a frame.

First, here’s the painting. I seem to like these panorama formats.

Around the Bay by Stephanie Benedict. Oil on canvas.
Around the Bay ©2012 Stephanie Benedict 15” x 45” Oil on canvas.

I always envisioned this painting in a floater frame: that is, not with the frame wrapped over the edges, but the frame held away from the painting.

Detail view, Around the Bay by Stephanie Benedict
Detail view, Around the Bay, showing how it would look in the frame.

About a month before the deadline to take the piece to the gallery, I ordered a gold floater frame. It arrived about a week before I needed it—and I left it wrapped in the bubble wrap. The painting was wet, I was trying to finish it, and I didn’t want to risk scratching the frame by handling it too much. So I waited until the painting was done and dry.

With typical frames, you attach the frame to the painting with brackets or framers points or even nails—but you don’t nail through the painting. The painting is rigid, so all you need to do is put the framers points or nails behind the canvas to hold it into the frame. The front lip of the frame itself keeps the piece from falling out the front.

With a floater frame, there is no front lip, so you have to attach the frame to the painting by screwing it to the stretcher bars from the back. But when I went to do that, the brackets the framing company provided were too short, and would have put the screw right through the spline holding the canvas to the stretcher bars. This might be OK, but I didn’t want to risk my painting by screwing directly through the edge of the canvas.

On this floater frame, the screw would have gone through the canvas
On this floater frame, the screw would have gone through the canvas

I went to two hardware stores and a Michael’s to find longer brackets: no luck. Happily, my friend Kat Oliver works in steel. She fabricated some longer brackets for me. But she had a problem: the jig she had made them deeper than the originals: from 3/8” to ¾”. And when I tried to use them, that extra depth made the painting stick out in front of the frame awkwardly. So I couldn’t use them.

The bracket on the left came with the frame. The one on the right was hand-fabricated.

In the meantime, just in case, I had put an extra coat of black around the edges of the painting. I’d used black gesso on the edges to begin with, but paint had splattered around the edges, so I added a layer of oil paint to the edge.

Around the Bay by Stephanie Benedict: edge view
The black edges of Around the Bay by Stephanie Benedict

So for now this is how the painting is hung, at High Hand Gallery. I’m still working on getting longer brackets, so I can frame this piece eventually. Otherwise, I need to order or make another 15” x 45” canvas—without the gallery wrap—just so I can use that floater frame!

Have you had framing malfunctions? Do you prefer not to use frames?

My New Favorite Sketchbooks

I recently discovered some nice little sketchbooks by Global Art Materials, Inc., called “Hand Book Journals.” They come in sizes ranging from 3.5” x 5” to about 8” x 10”, and have paper that will take washes with wet media.

Hand Book Journal Sketchbook
I love these little sketchbooks. They have great paper, and fit in my purse.

Now, there are hundreds of kinds of sketchbooks out there, with a variety of papers. Most are more expensive than I want to pay, and many have paper I don’t care for. They’re either perfect-bound (pages glued in) so they don’t lie flat, or spiral bound, so the pages can rub against one another, smearing your graphite drawing.

The Hand Book Journals are different. The Hand Books are sewn bound and they lay flat when you open them. (Note: so do Moleskine sketchbooks [and it’s pronounced mol-a-skee-na].)

But what I really like about these Hand Books is the paper. They say you can use pen & ink, pencil, marker, and light watercolor washes. The paper is lighter than watercolor paper (they don’t give a weight), but it does take light washes very well, and doesn’t buckle.

The reason I like paper that will take water is that I like to sketch either with water-soluble pencils (I like General’s*) or pens (black Tombo pens are great, but I use watercolor paper for them). Now, most teachers will tell you that line is the basis for all painting. OK, fine. But I see masses, so I want to draw (or paint) masses—and pencil points just won’t do. (Yes, I know the arguments against what I’m saying.)

Gateway Sketch by ©2012 Stephanie Benedict
I did this sketch in about 10 minutes using a water-soluble pencil and plastic waterbrush. The paper is more buff-colored than it appears here.

These little sketchbooks are easy to carry, and make it easy to do small, quick studies of whatever is nearby.

And really, isn’t the point to actually do the work? I’ve found that if I don’t like the materials, I’m not going to use them. Perhaps because I came to painting late, I’ve never developed the habit I see in some others of always sketching. I’m trying to become that single-minded, but it’s slow work! I really like these little sketchbooks, and if they get me to sketch more—that’s what’s important.

It turns out several of the on-line retailers carry them, but only in the smaller sizes. I’ve only seen the 8 x 10 at Johnson’s Paint in Boston.

What do you use to sketch with? How often do you sketch?

*General’s Pencils are made in the USA.

Red at the B Street Theatre: Four Stars

When I studied drawing with Dan Samborski at American River College, I had an ongoing argument with him (conducted almost entirely in my own head) about what constituted good art. Not well executed: good. Meaningful. Worthwhile. Samborski’s tastes run to post-modern, and I am far more traditional. He talked quite a bit about 20th Century American painters; about modernism, postmodernism, and how passé Impressionism’s “purple shadows” are; about meaning and the impulse to create; about what the artist was trying to express. It was good stuff, and my silent argument with my teacher energized me long after I completed his classes.

Mark Rothko No.14 San Francsico Museum of Modern Art
Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960, 1960; painting; oil on canvas, 114 1/2 in. x 105 5/8 in. (290.83 cm x 268.29 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Helen Crocker Russell Fund purchase; © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Samborski’s words came flooding back to me as I watched the B Street Theatre’s production of Red by John Logan on Saturday night. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Play of 2010, Red focuses on artist Mark Rothko in about 1958, as he worked on a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. The play is an interpretation of Rothko’s struggle about whether his own work was meaningful art or commodity. Rothko is hugely self-absorbed, but eventually admits to his assistant, Ken, his fears of dying and, in the words written on the wall in the Book of Daniel, of being “weighed in the balance and … found wanting.” (Isn’t that what we all fear?)

This two-person play is a brilliantly conceived and, in the B Street production, finely executed portrayal of both the art world in transition and an individual artist’s struggle to make the work all it can be: to engage the viewer, to resonate emotionally, to communicate—something. The conversations between Rothko and Ken swirl around and through vast territories of human experience, from what they teach in art school nowadays to murder. Meanwhile, the action on stage (such as it is) revolves around the everyday acts of stretching canvas, mixing colors, getting Chinese takeout. One of the plays lightest scenes comes as the two prime a large canvas together, to music (Handel, I think).

One of Samborski’s contentions was that few movies (or, by extension, plays) capture at all well what it’s really like to be an artist, to create for a living. On that point I agree with him. Happily, profoundly, Red is an exception: it fiercely captures both the mundaneness of studio work and the feeling of, in Samborski’s words, “walking on ball bearings” as one brings each piece to life and imbues it with one’s hopes and fears for its existence, even as the world marches on.

The B Street Theatre’s production, featuring Brian Dykstra portrays Mark Rothko and David McElwee as Ken, is definitely worth seeing. Red runs through September 22. Four stars.