I spent a lot of time with my sister's family over the long Labor Day weekend, and I also spent a lot of time painting. I tried (and failed) to recreate the mood and feeling of the recent flower painting from my sketchbook. But nothing turned out the way I wanted it to. It didn't help that I was experimenting with some new surfaces (claybord and aquabord), but most of the blame still lies with me. I abandoned the looseness and lightness of the sketchbook painting, and found myself with overly busy compositions and messy over-worked paintings... and disappointment. But I keep reminding myself that I also learned something throughout the process, so it wasn't a complete loss. Still... wouldn't it be nice if everything always turned out perfectly? :)
I also decided to make the sketchbook painting into a print because I keep flipping back to that page in my sketchbook. It reminds me of summer, which now that Labor Day is gone and September has arrived, is more or less over. However, summer can stick around as long as it likes. I'm in no hurry.
The print can be found here.
Earlier this week I was a bit out of sorts. My to-do list was long, I was thinking/worried about a few important people in my life, I wanted more time to just paint, etc., etc. So I went to bed on Tuesday night determined to wake up early and get some quick sketchbook painting in. Before checking emails, before checking my blog feed, before anything. I decided to paint in my sketchbook so nothing would feel overly precious or precise. So I would just paint.
I painted quickly. I didn't think too hard. I just got something on the page.
And everything totally shifted.
It's really amazing what a quick bit of painting (or insert any creative endeavor) can do when you are doing it just for its own sake - for the process, not the outcome.
It's likely not a coincidence that end result -- the flower painting above -- turned out to be one of my favorite recent paintings.
But most importantly, it was exactly what I needed. Perhaps I need to start off more days this way. :)
"Sometimes I wonder how I managed to fall in love with watercolours because they often feel untameable. Unmanageable. I have always been fairly risk-averse, yet it is a risk every time I drop a brush full of colour down into water. Each wash of colour can bring failure or success or a million variations in between. As the colours slowly – or far too quickly – creep and spread across the paper, I learn again and again, painting by painting, that I can't control everything. Overworking and meddling will bring nothing but dull, muddled washes and disappointment. But the combination of water, paper, and clear, bright colour can also lead to unexpected and, if I’m lucky, magical things. Yes, failure is possible. Risk is inherent. But I am learning that it is all worth it. Painting with watercolour brings no guarantees, but as Samuel Beckett famously wrote: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
And so, I continue to try again."
So... I went to bed on Monday night believing that something good was about to happen, and then... something did. Coincidence? Ok, sure. But embracing a bit of optimism certainly isn't going to hurt anything. And as I stated in the essay, if not, I'll just try again.
Antique French Chair [print here]
I love traveling vicariously through my sketchbook, illustrations, and photographs. This week I’ve been traveling via my daily paintings, including a Barcelona balcony and a colorful Paris street [images 1 and 2 below]. While I’ve enjoyed exploring closer to home this summer, it can't compete with traveling down a far-away highway on an extended road trip or getting off a plane in a new city or country.
A few years ago I was in Paris for a brief weekend visit and as I was wandering around Montmartre alone on a warm, sunny, picture-perfect afternoon, I walked around a corner and found myself in the middle of a flea market. It was one of my favorite travel moments. A few leafy trees cast welcome shadows over the stalls and I slowly wandered, returning to the same tables over and over again, admiring the sewing notions and light fixtures and coffee pots and books and artwork and dresses and vases and much, much more. It is not an exaggeration to say that it was the flea market of my dreams. I bought a few things to bring home, including some vintage buttons and a bracelet, but I had to settle for taking photographs of everything else. I’m so glad I did because I revisit those photographs often, and on Sunday I started painting a collection of some of my favorite things from that day .
All of this reminded me of the first thing I painted from that magical magical flea market: the yellow chair above. Honestly, I probably didn’t pay any specific attention to this chair while I was walking around that sunny afternoon in Paris. I love chairs, but it’s not a style that I’m particularly drawn to. However, when looking at my photographs later, it really stood out to me as a classic example of French style and I knew I had to paint it.
On Sunday I went back through those photographs and as I picked a few things out for that day’s painting (which still is only halfway finished!), I realized that there are so many more good things in those photographs waiting to be painted. I always meant to begin an illustration series based on the treasures from that day, along with the other things I love about Paris: green metal chairs in The Luxembourg Gardens, sidewalk cafes, and colorful, ornate doors, and balconies. I wandered into that flea market four years ago, but perhaps now the time is right for finally reviving that series. Besides, a return to Paris isn’t on my itinerary any time soon, so painting will have to be my mode of transportation.
[1 - a Barcelona balcony]
[2 - a Paris street]
[3 - a few of my favorite things]
A few years ago I felt a bit lost regarding my painting. Not a bit. A lot. I had committed to painting on a consistent basis, often daily, but when I looked at what I was painting I didn’t see what I wanted. There wasn’t a consistent style, and I just didn’t see me. I was also overwhelmed by choices. There were so many things I wanted to be painting, but at the same time, I couldn’t decide what to paint. I had always thought that constraints were limiting and counter-productive. Yet in all that freedom I found that I was lost. But I kept searching.
After painting primarily with oils and occasionally with acrylics, one day I decided to pull my watercolors off the shelf. I hadn’t used them in years, and I was never very attached to them. But watercolors immediately felt right to me. I loved the transparency and how the color could be either subtle or bold and how the paint would move and seep through the water. Watercolors also required me to be patient, but not too patient, and I quickly learned that, yes, I was the one applying the color, but I wasn’t really in control. Each wash of color brought the unexpected and the potential for failure. And that’s the thing: I don’t do well with failure. But this, this process, was the perfect antidote to my perfectionist tendencies. Paint. Let go.
With my watercolors permanently and happily on my desk, I focused on style. I wanted consistency, to create something that when you looked at it, you would know that I painted it. I loved Paris, I loved old buildings, I loved nature, I loved landscapes. With all the choices, I found myself frozen when it was time to decide what to paint, but I continued on because I just wanted to paint something (anything!). I needed to find my way.
And then, one afternoon my mom and I went to an antique shop in Minneapolis. I was just getting into photography and decided that I wanted to start collecting vintage cameras. I found a black Spartus camera sitting in a box on the floor. I brought it home and propped it up on the edge of my painting desk and I started painting. I remember that the TV was on but I wasn’t paying any attention. I was sitting at my old drafting desk that I had moved behind the couch in my living room, just inside the front door. It was a winter evening so it was already dark outside and my desk lamp cast a bright glow on the paper. And I watched as the camera became a three dimensional object. Line by line, area by area, wash by wash.
And then I sat back and looked at this plain, black camera, floating in the center of the white paper, and I knew I was done. I had planned to add some shadows and a background. But I knew that I didn’t need to add those things. I just wanted the object against the bright, white paper. Done. And suddenly, after months of painting and floundering and thinking I wouldn’t find it, I found my style. It was simple, yes, but it felt right. It was there, on the paper, and I recognized it as mine. Now I find myself ready to expand and be open to other styles, but I know I’ll always return to it, like going home.
Most of my paintings and illustrations are of vintage items. There are antique kitchen utensils, vintage cameras, fishing poles, old cars, skeleton keys, and sewing items. While it might seem as though this was part of a plan, it was simply because I painted what I liked, and more often than not, the thing that I liked was old. I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I consider what is currently inspiring me and as I look ahead to what I want to be painting next. Over the past few months I’ve painted a lot of flowers, my sketchbook is full of abstract paintings, and I plan to explore some new subject matter going forward. But I also continue to be pulled back to vintage objects. I am drawn to their classic design, uniqueness, color, and shape, but most importantly, I am drawn to the embedded history and memories within these old and well-used items. Put simply, I am drawn to their stories.
Vintage decorating is currently a very large and prominent trend in home decor, but I think that decorating and living with vintage items is actually deeper and more permanent than merely being a trend. Decorating with antiques is nothing new, and at least part of its current resurgence could be a reaction against the all trends and fads and constantly changing cycles within the fashion and home decor industries. I think many of us like vintage things because they offer a timeless connection to the things that matter most: our families, our past, and where we came from. Vintage items can be reminders of family recipes and traditions, and they can offer a collective sense of history and story. Not every memory is pleasant and the past isn’t better or more worthy than the present, but in a world where nothing stays the same, vintage items can remind us of things and people we don’t want to forget. Family recipes, holiday traditions, childhood memories, grandparents, and loved ones no longer with us.
I look around my own home and I see a mixture of both old and new: antique store and flea market finds, IKEA furniture, handmade items, things that belonged to my grandma, and a small but growing collection of original art. Within these objects, I don’t just see chairs and artwork and and books and pillows. I see my own history, travels, likes, and memories. I see my story. Nothing is permanent, but as things continue to change around us faster and faster, these tangible objects connect me to my family, my past, and this place — the midwest — where my ancestors chose to settle and where I still live.
I see my story as I look around my home, but I also see my story — and my mom’s story and my grandma’s story and her grandmother’s story — in my illustrations. I choose to paint these things for a reason, and going forward I hope to share some of the stories behind my illustrations, including memories, family stories, or personal notes regarding the inspiration behind the illustration. And if you have a story to share along the way, I'd love to hear it.
Days 1 and 2 of my personal July painting challenge are in the books over on Instagram, and I'm already looking forward to what days 3 through 31 will bring. So far I've stuck pretty close to familiar/comfortable territory, but hopefully the month will bring some good surprises and, of course, a lot of time for painting.