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Peabody Essex, Neptune, and a Sold Painting

A couple weekends ago we traveled down to Salem, MA and went to the Peabody Essex Museum. I’d never been inside, but a little less than two years ago we were in town for a variety of activities (ghost tours, boat tours, house tours!) and we walked past the museum a few times. I’ve wanted to visit since then.

Sarah and I met up with my parents at the museum. We had few expectations. We just wanted to see what was inside. While buying tickets for general admission, the Yin Yu Tang Chinese House, and several local colonial house tours our admissions man found out that there were no more tickets for the house tour he’d promised us. He felt bad for misleading us, even though it was no setback, and he gave us all free tickets for Yin Yu Tang. We hustled over there to catch the next tour.

Yin Yu Tang is an 18th century Chinese house that was imported bit-by-bit to Salem and reconstructed at the Peabody Essex. It is breath-taking. Now I know superlatives and exclamations are overused, but not when applied to this house. This is a building heavy with history from a culture I have little experience with. I stepped through the front door into the courtyard and it was impossible to know Salem was outside. It was total immersion. I listened to all the stops on the audio tour. Even if we had seen nothing else that day, Yin Yu Tang was worth the trip.

After seeing the Chinese house we explored the rest of the museum and wound up at the special exhibit on Thomas Hart Benton. Here are a few of my favorites from that exhibit:

Self-portrait with Rita

Self-Portrait with Rita

Negro Soldier

Negro Soldier

Kentuckian

The Kentuckian

Benton was strongly connected to Hollywood, producing posters for many films throughout his life. He also created many pieces of anti-Axis propaganda during WWII. He liked social commentary for sure.

It’s hard to see how visceral and strong his style is from these photos. From his first paintings I knew I’d found a new inspiration. His figures just pop. They’re muscular and sculptural. Comparing his paintings to the photos I’m reminded of my first time seeing van Gogh’s work in person. Five or six years ago I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and was really overcome by his paintings. The posters I’d seen in art class didn’t hold up to the real thing. There’s so much life in every van Gogh brushstroke. While not done with as much impasto as van Gogh’s, Benton’s brushwork evokes the same sort of feelings.

I’ve been thinking about Benton off and on and the power of his figures. And perhaps subconsciously that came into play when I chose a subject for my plein air painting this Wednesday.

I went to Prescott Park to meet with the NH Art Association, though I didn’t see most of the other painters as they were on the other side of the park in the gardens. I was posted up in front of the Charles Hovey Fountain, which depicts a young Neptune catching a fish.

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I was umbrella-less that day, having accidentally left it at home, and when the sun peeked over the trees I had to end the session. I couldn’t see the canvas and my neck was melting. When I came back on Thursday the park was covered in a dense fog. This changed the lighting slightly, but surprisingly not too much. Though the highlights were not as strong on the figure I could exaggerate them in my painting to match the previous day.

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Neptune’s Catch   9″ x 12″

My favorite part of working on this painting was the pedestal. On the first day I had painted everything below Neptune that dark green color  When I finally worked on the pedestal on the second day I simply cut out its shape by painting the water lighter around it. Then I added a few shadows and highlights. It left the pedestal loose and impressionistic.

I wish I could’ve spent more time working on the background. I was held back. After two paint throughs of Neptune I realized I’d made his head too big and that was throwing the perspective off. I had to chop his head almost in half and repaint the whole face. That was a bit of work.

While I was working I talked to a man who told me the rod Neptune holds is a trident and that the triple-pronged end was stolen several times.They kept replacing it until they submitted to the thieves and just left it off.

On the first day, Wednesday, I was walking back to my car when I caught a good view of an old colonial on Court St. I set up in the shade of a tree and hashed out a quick 5″ x 7″.

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Two thirds of the way through the painting I met a nice woman who expressed a great interest in the piece. We agreed on a price and exchanged info. I delivered it the next day!

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Mustard    5″ x 7″

I almost forgot to snap a photo before I delivered the piece. This one was a little rushed and doesn’t show the depth of the yellow on the right.

I enjoy painting 5″ x 7″s a great deal and I’m contemplating building a body of fifty or so of them and then renting a booth at a large art or craft show.

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The Trestle at Bedrock Gardens

A short ride from my apartment is the expansive and unique Bedrock Gardens. I met several artists from the NH Art Association there for a plein air session. For the first thirty minutes I walked around searching for a subject. There was just too much to see. To avoid becoming overwhelmed I finally just picked a subject and went with it.

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Trestle 5″ x 7″

This trestle was standing in the center of a long stretch of grass lined by two parallel rows of young trees. I imagine that in ten years time, once the trees have grown, the trestle will sit at the end of a beautiful, tall, and leafy alley.

There was a lot of information to squeeze into my tiny 5″ x 7″ canvas panel. For twenty minutes I wrestled with the perspective drawing until I got the trestle constrained. I knew if I didn’t contain it at the beginning that it would only get harder to work with.

I hit my rhythm early on with this painting and had it done by noon. Everything seemed to fall into place.

Trestle is for sale at $70. If you’d like to purchase this painting, please send me an email at thewritingmann@gmail.com.

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Beside the Thirsty Moose of Dover

Last week I began an ambitious painting on a 12″ x 16″ canvas. I wanted to commit myself to a multi-day piece. My time spent in Portsmouth and Kittery made me want to paint major scenes from several seacoast towns. Since Dover is right down the road, I went there first. Dunno why I didn’t just stay here in Newmarket.

Due to morning errands, I had to start in the afternoon. I puttered into Dover around one and walked around for half an hour looking for a spot. Originally I had wanted to paint the mills and the Cocheco River, but I couldn’t settle on a view I enjoyed. Lugging my easel a couple blocks north I found something that would work. Standing beneath the awning of the Thirsty Moose I had a direct view of town hall.

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It was overcast the first day and very cloudy. The painting was a concentrated labor. I tried to stay positive knowing that the clouds would eventually move and the sun would give me some fun shadows and lights to play with.

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When the clouds did move I found my spot was incredibly hot. I put up the umbrella, but that didn’t mitigate the heat that rose up from the pavement. Additionally, I was standing at the middle of what was essentially a wind tunnel crossing. The streets behind me and to my right were lined with multi-storied buildings that funneled the air violently straight down, causing my easel to shake and rattle and in one instance fly up into my chest. I weighed it down after that with my bag of paints and luckily the worst of the winds were only on that first day.

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The canvas was still wet from some last minute toning when I began. This caused some of the colors to muddy as the color I mixed on my palette smeared together with the burnt umber background. Day one involved a lot of perspective work.

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Once I had the trees, light posts, roads, and buildings in their general positions I hammered in the lights and shadows. Part of this process involved developing the background and rendering clouds. I needed the lights in the sky figured out so I could use them as reference and compare them to the lights in the foreground. At first the clouds were much bolder, blocky, and meaty. That style pulled them too far forward. I scraped them down and it gave them a necessary softness.

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With the painting mostly finished I focused fully on color. I had pushed the shadows too red previously and needed to bring them back to the cool side. I’ve been watching a lot of James Gurney‘s videos on YouTube and taking notes on how he works en plein air. In his video on painting a taxidermic Galapagos tortoise he mentions how he paints the shadow under the tortoise blue in order to give it the appearance of being outdoors in natural sunlight. After watching that video I really began to see how blue shadows were outside. I tried to incorporate that into my painting.

Dover Crossroads

Dover Crossroads 12″ x 16″

The painting took 5 days to complete with me working three to four hours each day. I met a lot of people on the street and handed out a good number of business cards. If you’re reading this cause you took a card, well thanks for stopping by and talking! I do enjoy it.

I decided to call the painting finished after five days because it was beginning to feel that way, but also because I was beginning to tire of working in that spot. Honestly, I still think the perspective could use some work. I’m not sold on the depth in the painting. I’ve always struggled with that factor. Probably because I’ve mostly only painted in the studio. I remember being in Italy and painting and one of my professors explaining atmospheric perspective to me and just not having it click in my head. Of course he showed me one of the grad student’s paintings, as she was situated right behind me and had a similar view, and I could definitely see how her painting looked better. I could see how she’d made the mountains blue in the distance. I just wasn’t sure of how to go about doing that. It’s something I’m still working on. I just don’t often get a chance to practice painting from a point that has clear and defined atmospheric perspective. I’ve climbed a lot of mountains in the last couple years, and when I get to the top I sit and look at the layers of mountains receding into the distance and think about how simple it is to see the atmospheric perspective now, and how simple it would be to paint those mountains. But depth and atmospheric perspective works a little different at ground level. It’s still there, just much more subtle. And I know that exaggerating that effect could give my paintings some nice depth. I tried it a bit with this painting, blurring the buildings in the background and painting them mostly blue. I’m just not sure how successful it is.

I’m thinking of expanding my palette a bit. I’m using alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, raw sienna, gold ochre, cadmium orange, ultramarine blue, sap green, and a bit of cerulean blue. This limited palette has kept my paintings feeling unified, but I’ve noticed that painters on YouTube usually organize their palettes by having a warm and a cool version of each color. I might try this out and see what effect I get.

If you’re interested in purchasing Dover Crossroads, it’s for sale at the low, low price of $325. What a steal! Get it now! There’s a limited supply of only one! Hurry! Send me an email with your order to thewritingmann@gmail.com!

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By the Lake in Webster

This past weekend Sarah and I went to Webster, New Hampshire and stayed at a cabin for a night. Her aunt and uncle had rented a place on Lake Winnepocket and invited us up. It was a cute town on a nice, quiet lake. We got there around 8 on Friday night and spent a few hours playing games and sitting by the fire. In the morning I woke up to paint.

The sun wasn’t above the tree line yet and it was hard to find a subject that wasn’t entirely in shadow. I decided to paint the neighbor’s cabin, knowing the direction the sun was heading and hoping I would get some interesting lighting. I worked for around an hour and realized there was some heavy cloud cover above. Everyone was up at that point and getting ready to check out the local flea market. I set the painting aside and joined them.

Halfway through our excursion the sun burst through the clouds and the day took a positive turn. We got back to the cabin and I was able to work the painting to a point that I was satisfied. The lake was calling. It was time to go swimming.

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Lake Winnepocket Lodge 9″ x 12″

The lack of sun was tricky, but even worse I was also dealing with an ungessoed, smooth panel as my painting surface. I’m used to the texture of canvas. My brushes did not act as they normally do. I wanted to try the panel because I sometimes don’t like the repetitive woven texture that shows through cotton canvas paintings. The panel painting only began acting as I’d hoped after I’d painted several layers and I was starting to paint over semi-dried paint. I also noticed that my brush was much more likely to pull paint away from the panel. The tackiness of semi-dried paint played a much larger role on panel. Perhaps I’ll try linen or some sort other sort of smooth, woven canvas.

Like this painting? Buy it for only $150! Email me at: thewritingmann@gmail.com!

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Wagon Hill Farm

Grabbed an ice coffee this morning and met the NH Art Association at Wagon Hill Farm for a plein air session. The farm has a lot of land and I only saw a couple other artists before I set up. I imagine people were spread around the property.

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House at Wagon Hill Farm  7″ x 5″

I painted from 9 am until noon and got this small painting done. Now that I’m back home I can see that the colors are a little washed out. The roofs could use a little more color and a little less white. I probably should’ve spent more time on location, but I was out in a field, hot, and being attacked by horseflies. But it was a good day nonetheless. I will have to go back and do paintings from other perspectives. It’s a great place.

If you like House at Wagon Hill Farm, it’s for sale for $70. Let’s talk about it. Send me an email: thewritingmann@gmail.com.

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Morning at Fort McClary

On Sunday I was encouraged by Lennie Mulaney to join the NH Art Association at their weekly plein air outings. I truly enjoyed the weekend’s competition and decided to tag along today. We met at Fort McClary in Maine around 8:30 am. Several signs said the park didn’t officially open until 10 am and we joked about getting arrested for trespassing as painters. After a quick look around, I set up my easel on the far south side of the fort.
McClary Setup

The large rectangular stones are leftovers from the building of the fort’s walls. After the end of the Civil War, construction was ceased because the McClary style of fort was deemed out of date. The stones were left haphazardly stacked in a few piles around the property.McClary Step 1

I wanted to include both the stones and the fort in my painting and as luck would have it I found a location that delivered a great composition. The stones in the foreground pointed straight back to the fort, drawing the viewer’s eyes in.McClary Step 2The focus of this piece was color. I wanted my darks to breathe a little more life than they have in the past. Once I’d blocked in all the major shapes I focused on color comparison. I brought a lot of warmth into my shadows with Cadmium Orange and broke out the Cerulean Blue to help provide some interesting cools. Since my last few paintings have been somewhat dark I thought these two colors could work to bring more light into my painting.

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Fort McClary 5″ x 7″

Towards the end of the painting a couple masses of clouds collided just behind the fortress, creating a rolling, chunky column that brought some variety to my background. I have had almost zero experience painting clouds from life, but I threw them in. It was a challenge. I swiftly brushed out the purple darks and by the time I was ready to put in the mid-tones the clouds were out of my composition. I watched them float away to the right, still painting, imagining them still behind the fort, still painting, developing the fluffy transitions from darks to lights, still painting, and I was turned sideways by the time I was done.

I’m extremely happy with the final piece. It’s another one of my tiny 5″ x 7″ canvas panels and I’m really starting to fall in love with that size. Lots of work can be done in a short amount of time, making them great for studies.

If you’re interested, you can purchase the original, unframed panel for $100. Send me an email at thewritingmann@gmail.com!

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Plein Air Competition in Portsmouth

Ten or so months ago I was crouched beside the magazine racks at the Barnes and Noble when I plucked out Plein Air Magazine. I thumbed through the entire issue and read most of the articles until my bent knees and crunched toes told me it was time to stand up. Though I’d read most of it, I purchased the issue for its wonderful artwork. I figured they would make great references.

In Italy I painted en plein air almost every day, sometimes turning out two or three paintings. It was great fun and the ridiculous heat did little to staunch my enthusiasm. It’s possible I was energized simply because I was in a different country, for when I came back stateside I did little plein air painting. There was not motivation or incentive. On occasion I’d wander outside with my oils, but what little plein air work I did mostly came in the form of watercolor, pencil, and ink sketches.

My lacking personal experience with the harmony of the arts and the outdoors did not prevent me from marveling at the artists who call plein air paintings office work. I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the painters I follow. I’ve watched video after video on Youtube of artists showing their processes. When I finally saw that the New Hampshire Art Association was holding a plein air competition, I signed right up. (Side Note: I commonly refer to the New Hampshire Art Association as NHAA, but it turns out that’s actually the New Hampshire Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m trying to avoid the abbreviation now so people don’t think I paint alcoholics or I’m an alcoholic painter.)

The seacoast is a haven for plein air painters and I knew it would be a tough competition. Still, I have a good amount of self-confidence and believe I’ve made substantial progress this last year. Though I have not been able to dedicate as much time to producing art as I’d like, I have made several museum trips and studied paintings intently. In the past I would just paint. Now I try to make decisions in my work.

I got to the New Hampshire Art Association’s State Street gallery a little past 7:20 am on Friday. Inside I was greeted by Lennie Mullaney and she signed me off the registration list. I was officially participating. We talked for a short while and I found out that I had seen her work several years before. She had been an MFA student at UNH while I was getting my undergrad. Her work had been displayed at the end of the year show. She has some absolutely lovely recent artwork focusing on bridges, houses, and ocean scenes around Portsmouth.

From the gallery I did a little fast walk sprint to Prescott Park to claim my spot. A couple days before I had scoped out the city with a camera, trying to decide on locations and subject matter. During my exploration I stumbled upon an almost surreal view of the Prescott Park gardens. It was as though the painting was already created and all I needed to do was copy it down. I had to paint it first.
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The day before the start of the competition I had purchased a $5 umbrella from Five Below to keep the sun off my canvas. Though my setup was by far the least expensive and the most jerry-rigged of all the contestants’, it worked and that is all I needed.

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For my last few paintings I have used burnt umber or burnt sienna toned canvases. There’s something intimidating about a completely white canvas and the tone diminishes that aspect while also contributing a base dark to work from. Additionally, with plein air painting the reds of the tone provide a nice complement to the greens of nature. Here you can see I also brought a level to avoid accidental tilts or skewed perspective.

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A couple hours into the painting my parents showed up with some surprise drinks and snacks. They were on their way to Nova Scotia and wanted to say hello. For the next three days I chomped on the pretzel thins they brought.

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While I worked on my painting the gardeners worked around me, pulling weeds and laying down loam. They’d told me early on that I may get wet when they turn the sprinklers on, but thankfully I was done before that happened. I may have been motivated to work fast because of that potential threat.

Prescott Park

Gardens at Prescott Park   8″x10″

Towards the end of the painting other artists began showing up and I directed a few towards the gallery. I had an older couple walk by and tell me that they’d seen quite a few of the other artists and that I was the youngest one, and the only male so far. Which wasn’t surprising. That’s been the reality of all of the classes and programs I’ve participated in. Only one other male student went on the Italy trip and in most of my undergrad classes I was one of three guys. Even in my English classes the proportions were female heavy. It’s great that love for the humanities and the arts is still very much alive, but it is kind of sad that I don’t have many same-age male artist friends to share experiences with.

I was satisfied with my first painting and ready to move on to the next one. I packed up and hiked out of the shade and into the heat. A couple blocks away I found another spot and plopped on down.

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It was around noon at that point, with the sun directly overhead. It’s hard to paint at that time due to the lack of long, deep shadows. But I knew which way the sun was setting and figured I could get the painting started and wait for the shadows to come to me. So I sat in the sun and was shortly back in the shade as the sun creeped down to the west.IMG_3170

Telephone poles have a paradoxical beauty that fluctuates between the complex and the simple. There’s not much to them besides a pole, a transformer box or two, and wires, but the sheer number of wires can make them appear complicated. It’s this beauty that has me mesmerized. In the fall I did a two day paint of a cluster of telephone poles that really got me hooked. Since then I’ve found myself staring up and thinking of how to include them in more paintings. The competition was a perfect opportunity to see what I could do.

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The view I chose for my second painting looked down into the heart of Strawberry Banke. The buildings I painted were hundreds of years old. Did the people who originally built them ever think that someone else would find their homes picturesque? I certainly love old colonials and I wonder if our current homes will ever be seen with as much interest and nostalgia.

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By the time I’d blocked in the painting the sun had lowered enough that some interesting shadows were appearing. I quickly threw them in, knowing that they’d soon change.

Nest

Nest 8″x10″

Four hours in I was ready to call it done. My eyes had spent enough time on one subject and the light was changing to a point that I couldn’t continue. I later decided to call this painting Nest due to the tangle of wires that dominate the upper third. It was a fun view to paint and the American flags brought me back to my days working on my Bennington Flag painting Hammer to Fall.

All wrapped up I headed into the center of town to meet up with my girlfriend and paint her portrait at Market Square. Since the sun was disappearing and I only had her as a model for two hours, I hurriedly painted her in and saved the background for the next day.

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Day two began with me waking up to torrential rain at 5:30 and deciding to hold off on painting for a bit. It lessened up in a couple hours and I drove through the showers into Portsmouth around 8:30. Amazingly it cleared up and the weather held off for the rest of the day. I can deal with overcast. I don’t exactly have an umbrella large enough to protect all my stuff from hard rain.

A short distance from my car I looked up at the telephone poles, saw the church steeple in the background, and found my spot. I’d told myself I wouldn’t paint the steeple because it was too generic. Everyone has photographed or painted it. But I felt the lines and poles added something new to it. Partway through the morning I met New Hampshire Art Association photographer Michael Sterling, who took the above photograph of me for the association’s Facebook page.

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As the days and hours went by I took fewer progress pictures. I’d always remember to do it, then see something that needs to be fixed in my painting, postpone taking a photo, paint away, and then forget to take the photo. It was an endless cycle.

Overcast

Overcast  12″x16″

This piece was my largest of the weekend by far at 12″x16″. It took me until four in the afternoon. I spent a solid chunk of time working out the composition, eventually going with a triangular approach with the tip of the steeple being the top of the triangle. There was a lot more I could have done, but like I mentioned earlier, I tend to tire of a subject if I spend too long on it. If the contest was a week long I would have let it sit for a day or two and then returned to it.

Portrait of Sarah at Market Square

Portrait of Sarah at Market Square 9″x12″

With a few hours left of daylight I returned to Market Square and worked on the portrait of my girlfriend. It was a bit frustrating because I could not place myself in the original spot. Other people were sitting there. I was also battling a sore shoulder from holding a palette all day. I painted quickly and went home to a hot shower and some quesadillas.

IMG_3194Day three was crunch time. I only had until noon to work. Three pieces needed to be submitted at that time for jurying. I got into the city at seven, hiked a short ways, and found a spot without fuss. Despite all the preplanning and city exploration I did before the contest, I never used any of my pre-picked spots besides the first one in Prescott Park. I just walked and was fortunate to find subject matter quickly. It helps that the city is gorgeous.

11705612_1465958913704497_7893740499672882910_oTwo-thirds of the way through the morning I met another New Hampshire Art Association photographer: Bill Moore. We talked for a little while, he snapped the above picture, and him and his mustaches and smile went on their way.

To the Side

To the Side  11″x14″

With excitement and satisfaction I finished my final painting of the competition at eleven. I met my girlfriend at my car and she helped me carry my paintings to the gallery. I selected the three pieces with telephone poles: Nest, Overcast, and To the Side. I felt as though they would exhibit well together.

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The competition was juried by Carol Aronson-Shore, a local artist who has done a lot of paintings of Portsmouth and Strawberry Banke. I did not get to meet her as it seemed she was not at the awards ceremony afterwards. Which I understand. No one wants to be confronted and questioned about their decisions and berated for making the wrong ones.

The final showing of all the pieces took place at three and I was happy to find that I had received an Honorable Mention for To the Side. There was certainly a part of me that was disappointed though. I had almost been expecting to place in the top three. I’ve always had a lot of self-confidence in my work. In undergrad classes I’d go around the room and look at everyone’s work and mentally try to calculate if I was one of the best students. I usually thought I was. That’s not to say I was cocky though. Simply, I am always proud of my work. This outlook has been beneficial and encouraged me to continue on with my art. I look back at my old paintings and drawings now and I question what I was thinking. Did I really think that was good art? But the self-confidence in the moment kept me going and so I continued to improve.
11728846_10153447834790903_7496215124281956325_oAfter the show was over I took a hard look at my paintings. I can see where I need to improve compositionally and more than that, I can see where I need to improve with color. When I first started painting I put varying color in every part of my paintings. It was very Impressionistic. Since then I have gravitated to a blockier, single color style. However, I need to find the happy median. There needs to be more color and variety in my work. Part of the problem is my earth tones palette and the fact that those pigments dry dark. I will have to take more time with my paintings and realize that the moment I feel done is the moment that real painting begins.

As a final note, all the paintings here are up for sale. I will eventually have a shop set up for prints and originals, but for now here are the prices:

Gardens at Prescott Park – $150

Nest – $250

Overcast – $400

Portrait of Sarah at Market Square – $200

To the Side – $300

If you would like to purchase one of the pieces, please email me at thewritingmann@gmail.com.