Monday, December 15, 2014

Soothing My Cranky Christmas Self

I'm still here, swinging between grouchy and grateful as the season grinds towards its conclusion. November and December are my two most hated months of the year and yet contain within their scope some of my most favorite times as well. As of today, I have just two more teaching days and I will be released into the blissful freedom of winter break. However, with a Christmas present budget of absolutely zero dollars, I'll be hunkering down in the studio to make a sleigh full of gifts so I anticipate my daily schedule won't actually slow down until after Christmas Day.  I really do try not to be Grinchy but the relentless drumbeat of "Buy! Buy! Buy!" combined with clingy wet, cold, gray weather often conspires to make me grumpy. I have been soothing my cranky self the only way I know how: gallons of hot chocolate and monster creation.

I've drawn or sculpted 89 creatures since November 9th. Let this be a lesson to you: if you decide to finally open the door to your secret passion - I mean really swing it wide and spread your arms in welcome - be prepared to be trampled when all that has been long hidden bursts into the light. When I concluded about a month ago to get out of my own way, the imagination floodgates crumbled like walls of straw. I can't stop doodling and painting all manner of monsters, robots, aliens, and mutant life forms vaguely recognizable as Earth fauna. It is wondrous and glorious and I hope this wave of creativity washes over me long into the new year.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Product Review: Stillman & Birn Journals

"You're only given a little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it."
                                              Robin Williams

For me, brand-new journals are an incredible sensory experience before they ever see a drop of paint or glue or ink: the smell of fresh, clean paper, the sound of a crisp spine cracking open, the feel of pristine pages under my fingers! I also love blank journals for their potentiality, the promise they hold for future art projects, ideas and imagination brought forth into the real world. 

I'll be honest though: I am a paper snob. I decided long ago that life is too short for cheap paper. I like the paper in my journals and sketchbooks to be courageous, to stand up to any media I might throw at it without warping or bleed-through. I want to be able to scrub the surface repeatedly without deterioration and I want my tools to glide effortlessly across the page without skipping or dragging.

Enter what I consider to be the Cadillac of journals: the Stillman & Birn Beta series sketchbook. I purchased an 8-1/2 x 11", hardbound Beta several months ago. After it arrived in the mail, I spent time simply running my hand over the pages, marveling over the quality of the paper. I confess that initially, I spent a lot of time stroking the paper but zero time working on it. It seemed too precious; I couldn't imagine any work of mine worthy of such a lovely substrate. So this beautiful journal sat on my shelf, empty, a monument to both quality journals and my abject fear of ruining said journals.

Finally, after a long time of contemplation and bravery-building, I cracked that journal open and began a new project I titled "A Little Spark of Madness." I am using this journal to open the door for all the creatures and critters in my head who are clamoring for the light of day. 

The Stillman & Birn Beta journal features 180 lb natural white, cold press paper that has held up to watercolor, gouache, paper collage, markers, pen & ink, acrylics, and colored pencils. (Here you can see that I am experimenting with different media, trying to find the illustration style I like best.) The journal is hardbound and unlike so many other hardbound journals on the market, this one lies flat when open! Awesome! (The spine will feel tight when you first open the journal but as time goes on, the spine loosens up and the book lies flat easily which is handy if you need to photograph or scan your work.)  

In fact, Stillman & Birn offers all of their journals in hardbound and wirebound styles. Their journals feature either 100 or 180 lb paper and you can also choose between natural white or ivory-colored pages and three different surfaces: vellum, cold press, and smooth. Check out this link for a handy chart of the technical details for each journal series. 

Whenever I post a product review, I like to present both pros and cons. Clearly, I love the Beta series journal but here's what you also need to consider.

These journals are not cheap. I paid $24.95 for this 8-1/2 x 11-inch journal on Ebay and I think that was pure luck (both finding it & the price.) Currently, there a couple of Ebay listings for the Beta ranging from $33.59 to $42.98. Yikes! On Amazon, a 5-1/2 x 8-1/2-inch Beta is going for $27.61 right now (with free shipping if you're an Prime member.) I'm an Amazon affiliate but I'd recommend caution when shopping for Stillman & Birn journals there and thus, I'm not including an affiliate link; the prices on Amazon & Ebay are high compared to other shopping options. Instead, try an art supply store like Dick Blick. They carry all of the Stillman & Birn journals except....

...the hardbound version of the Beta journal! I've found that the hardbound Beta, particularly the larger size, is sort of like the unicorn of journals. After much searching, I was finally ordered my journal through Ebay and a stationery store in New York that no longer exists. The seeming rarity of the hardbound Beta is a mark against it for me simply because it makes me scared to work in it for fear of using it up and not being able to find another! I've fallen in love and I am terrified that I might get my heart broken when I'm ready to move into another volume of my illustration work. Still, I'll carry on and tackle that issue when the last page in my Beta looms large.

So in summary...

Superior quality, heavyweight paper that withstands multiple media without warping, bleed-through, or "pilling." Hardbound style lies flat when open (as does the wirebound version obviously.) Extra sturdy black covers are easy to alter with collage and paint. 

These journals are costly and that, combined with the quality of the journal itself, can be an intimidating one-two punch. In my personal experience, the hardbound version of the Beta series can be hard to find; watch out for price gouging. I advise checking Dick Blick (or similiar source) for best selection and price. (If you want to buy elsewhere, at least use Blick's catalog to get a good idea what these journals cost on average so you don't pay more than the list price.)

Overall, I consider paying a little bit more money for a lot more quality a great trade-off. Stillman & Birn journals are the premium option for commercially-produced journals. And just a heads-up: if you love to make your own journals, Stillman & Birn is now offering the paper from their fabulous journals in 22 x 30-inch sheets!       

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Bit of Poetic Beauty for Ugly Days

"Luke's Junkyard Song"
by Mary Oliver
from her book Dog Songs

I was born in a junkyard,
not even on a bundle of rags
or the seat of an old wrecked car
but the dust below.

But when my eyes opened
I could crawl to the edge and see
the moving grass and the trees
and this I began to dream on,
though the worms were eating me.

And at night through the twists of metal
I could see a single star -- one, not even two.
Its light was a thing of wonder,
and I learned something precious
that would also be good for you.

Though the worms kept biting and pinching
I fell in love with this star.
I stared at it every night --
that light so clear and far.

Listen, a junkyard puppy
learns quickly how to dream.
Listen, whatever you see and love --
that's where you are.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Sugar Skull Scalawags

I actually created these sugar skull characters last year but I thought they might be too weird to post. However, since it's Halloween and, in the interest of embracing the strange side of myself and my art, I dug their container out of the pantry yesterday and aimed my camera in their direction. The skulls themselves are made of molded and hardened white sugar so I'm not sure how long they'll actually last. They've made it a year intact and free of far so good. I have stored them in an airtight container nestled amid those little packages of silica gel (you know the ones stamped "Do Not Eat"?) that come with a new pair of shoes or anything other product that needs to remain dry within its packaging before it gets into the hands of the consumer. I save every one of those packets I come across and toss them in with the skulls to keep my skeletal friends nice and moisture-free. By their smiles, it seems that all is well. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Finding My Authentic Mojo

As I've mentioned, I'm working my way through Tracy Verdugo's e-course "Paint Mojo." We're on the final week of this wonderful six-week course. Much of the content is centered around finding your own voice and connecting with the inspiration all around us to spark fresh, new works of art.

One component of this class is a week-by-week painting project. It is always difficult to learn from an artist with a very specific working style and NOT end up with something that looks like a mimic of that artist's work. Keeping this in mind, I followed Tracy's process up to a point. As the weeks progressed, I drifted more and more away from Tracy's instructions and back towards my own way of painting. Last week, our canvases had reached the point where we were beginning to look for something in the painting that was calling out to us to be brought forth. Students were finding soaring birds, elegant elephants, intriguing underwater scenes, ethereal other words, lots of pretty things.

I tried to find something pretty, something "normal". I really did.

Instead, I found this fellow. He roared so loudly that I had no choice but to bring him to life. It is very important to note that although I am ceaselessly drawing them in my sketchbooks, I never, ever paint my creepy critters and characters onto canvas. Stretched canvas is so expensive that I reserve that substrate for my show work. (No, I am not able to stretch my own.) In addition, I've never considered my creature doodles as anything marketable so when I create work to sell, I stick with themes that are proven sellers. I love bird and animal imagery anyway so in the past, this tactic has worked for me. However, when this creature emerged from the paint, I experienced an amazing (and very scary!) change of mind.

I think it is time to take a risk and put together an entire show featuring my private passion front and center. Yikes! There is a good chance that this is a fool's errand. Let's face it: monsters aren't as living room compatible as pretty birds and elephants. This is really a matter of authenticity. I love creating creatures. As crazy as it sounds, they whisper things to me as they come to life. They tell me to play, to smile, to laugh, to be bold, to be content with who I am, awkward bits and all. I think it is time for my creatures to speak their truths to a wider audience.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

In Between Brush Strokes I Might Blog

Well, as per usual, frenzied prep for an art show landed in the midst of my newly-minted weekly schedule and my comforting, organized routine blew up in my face. I hadn't painted all summer due to my foot surgery so I was scrambling at the end of September to try and complete a few new pieces to hang. Then, just as I got the work, new and old, up on the wall, I booked another show for November and December. (Back to the easel I go!) In addition, I'm working through Tracy Verdugo's Paint Mojo e-course, an incredible, in-depth painting adventure that has captured my remaining spare moments after teaching and physical therapy are done for the week. (I won a spot in this class after Tracy offered a giveaway on her blog - so lucky!) Somewhere in there, I also had the first of two annual home inspections which always hit this time of year.

So ends my explanation for falling off the grid here at Lost Coast Post. Longtime readers will know I do this from time to time; if you're new to my blog...welcome! Be forewarned: with limited time and energy, blogging often falls to the bottom of the to-do list, especially when I'm caught up in painting. It occupies my heart, mind, and attention like no other activity in the studio. Even when I'm struggling, it is an extremely meditative process. I forget to clean the house, make meals, to say nothing of blogging. I guess it makes me a bad blogger but I think I am an infinitely better person and artist when I follow my Muse whenever, wherever, and however She appears. After eight years, I keep returning to this space despite my many distractions and challenges. As always, I appreciate my readers' tolerance of my inconsistent publishing habits so I can indulge my artistic fancies. I'll try to get back to my twice-a-week posting schedule but right now, art is constantly calling me away from the online world. I need to answer that call while I can.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Charting a Fresh Course

As I try to ease my way back into the studio after this summer's surgery, I feel like I'm in a new and different frame of mind. Ten weeks of slow living (albeit a forced occasion) provided lots of time to think. There is so much I want to do in my art life but I am keenly aware of time ticking away. My Parkinson's has made small advancements in the last few months although thankfully, it remains confined to my left side. My hands and feet have their own problems that are here to stay. The odds are good that I have at least another 20 years of productive time, maybe even 30. Looking around my studio, I see so many projects: some started but not finished and many - oh so many - still nothing more than a ghost of an idea. There's a few projects that I took past the brainstorming part; those projects and all the materials I gathered for them, reside in neatly-labeled, untouched boxes. All in all, I have enough supplies and projects-in-waiting to last me at least two lifetimes. I'm not going to cure cancer or be the first to walk on Mars; my legacy in this life will be my art and I'd like that legacy to be more than a vast collection of materials and half-realized dreams.

I decided that one of primary issues is that I am splintering my time in the studio too much, wandering from project to project or allowing other distractions to creep in such as the Internet or housecleaning beyond what is really necessary. So I developed a weekly schedule, assigning specific times for journaling, painting, and crafting as well as regular time for reading, online work, the gym, work, prep for work, and medical appointments. I left lots of "open" space in case something new comes up or I need more time for something already scheduled. Then I made a nice big chart (color-coded, of course) and taped it down to my desk. We'll see how this system works. I'm also going to assign themes to each month - very loosely - so I can focus in on the few big themes I circle around in my work. All this structure may work beautifully or it may be a complete disaster but I feel compelled to try something so I can make the most of my time.  I'll let you know how this experiment pans out...    

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Little Here, A Little There

Since I have a rare week off from teaching, I'm settled in at home, waiting for much-needed rain to arrive here on the parched coast of northern California. I love the patter of rain on the roof and it provides the perfect soundtrack for my art play. I'm working a number of projects, a little here and a little there, as my attention span, energy, and pain levels allow. My left foot, 12 weeks post-op, remains a major distraction and discouragement but I am doing everything I can to move forward. If this surgery ultimately turns out to be a failure, it definitely won't be because I didn't work hard enough to recover.

Anyway, all that aside, I am getting back into the rhythm and routine of daily art-making. There are so many things I want to do! I am considering implementing a monthly theme in my studio so I can play in a bunch of different mediums while maintaining a focus. When I peruse all the project ideas I've collected over the years, I see commonalities in the topics, techniques, and symbols that attract my attention. I've explored my lexicon before but I've been wondering how I can dive deeper into the things that consistently excite me. I brainstormed a list of my favorite topics and have gone so far as to assign a theme to each of the next 12 months but I'm still not sure if the concept will work. Right now, I am leapfrogging from idea to idea and I don't feel like I fully explore any one thing. The same themes keep surfacing in my head but because I only touch upon them in bits and pieces, I'm not giving any my full attention for a sustained amount of time. If I go ahead with "themed months" in the studio, I want to start in October so I've got a couple of weeks to make up my mind. In the meantime, I'll continue the random art play in my free time and see what develops...    

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mining the Archives

I have about a dozen projects in the works right now (some personal and some work-related) which is good but it also means I have A) nothing complete to share and B) no time to pull out the camera to take pictures anyway. This level of busy is not unusual for this time of year but it does feel more hectic than in the past. It might be because I am trying to throw my gears into "full speed ahead" while my post-op foot is still stuck in "hobble." My mind was ready to get back to life weeks ago but my foot has had other plans. I'm not sure when (or if) that situation will resolve itself so I'm just going to keep moving forward, doing as many things as I can sitting down and limping as fast as I can when actual movement is required.

All of this is a long way of saying that I'm going to illustrate a few posts with some older work that I photographed but never posted. While I typically drench my work in color, I frequently go through phases where I want to use nothing but black and white. More specifically, I treasure the combination of black, gray, white, cream, gold, silver, and just a touch of red. Oh, be still my heart! That color scheme feels so light and airy after months of rolling in rich fuchsia, decadent lemon yellow, and opulent turquoise. I have also found that particular set of neutral colors complements many of my illustrations, most especially the drawings with a subtle swirl of creepy. I love creating these more edgy characters and just seeing this motley crew in my photo album has inspired me to do more in this style...because clearly, I need one more project on my plate...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Shell Game

This journal page reminded me of the "good old days" studying scientific illustration.  I spent three years in illustration classes (before I switched my major from oceanography to art) and while I love the resulting art from that period for its technical precision, I remember very clearly how I hated the entire process.  It was time-consuming, painstaking, and focused on perfection in every detail (an understandable requirement for drawings meant for scientific reference.)  My least favorite subject matter?  Shells and bones.

Shells and bones are beautifully subtle objects with soft curves and complex gradations of color and shadow.  They are a headache to draw, however, and as this page progressed, I soon began thinking about how I could get this page over with faster.  My solution was to add a nice big title. I think it is good to tackle challenging subject matter but there are so many things to draw in this big, wide world; there's no reason to make yourself suffer if a particular object drives you crazy.  

In other news, the school year is here and that special kind of busy that consumes my every waking hour has begun.  For the first semester (September through January), I am teaching nature journaling, story illustration, map-making, the elements of art, and a class focused on experimentation and play with watercolor.  Whew!  When I'm not planning lessons or making samples, I am trying to complete some new canvases for an art show in October.  I spent my entire summer unable to do much beyond simple sketching on my couch and even though I still have a lot of healing ahead, I am trying to get back into the rhythm of life.  I'm just moving forward, hoping my foot will decide to cooperate eventually. Anyway, if my blog posts become a bit more erratic, you'll know why.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Coaxing the Muse from Hiding

When I open my sketchbook and my muse spats in fear and runs from the room, I turn to font drawing for solace. I have many books of font exemplars so I simply pull one from the shelf, thumb through the pages, and pick a font to practice in my journal. (This book of circus alphabets from Dover is my all-time favorite; my copy is dog-eared and well-loved.

This isn't "high" art by any means but the quiet time spent doodling and coloring letters helps pass the time until my muse decides to join me in the studio for more complex work. In fact, this type of page can often coax the muse out of her hiding place like a tasty tuna treat can lure a shy kitty out from under the couch. One minute, there's this hissing, frightened creature and then, with a little love and patience, that kitty is twirling herself about your legs, purring and mewing for more. My muse is very much like a temperamental cat and I need only observe my actual cats to remember how to make friends with my muse and put her at ease.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Wound Care

On July 21, I got the stitches removed from the incision on the bottom of my foot and ever since then, for six weeks now, a family friend (who fortunately happens to be a surgeon with a speciality in wound care,) has been visiting every two days to examine, clean, debride, and rebandage the non-healing wound that developed after the surgery.  Things have been proceeding agonizingly slow but I think maybe I have one more week and the thing will finally be closed.  It won't make much difference in the struggle to walk (that's going to take several more months) but in the very least, I won't be at constant risk of developing an infection.  I've already been through two rounds of antibiotics; it will be nice to be able to put my foot on the floor without worrying about contamination.

There are a lot of supplies and tools associated with long-term wound care.  Some are run-of-the-mill, first aid kit components and some come strictly from a wound care clinic.  Some tools I'm allowed to handle (bandaging supplies) and some are best wielded by a professional; I cringe every time the scalpel has to make an appearance but my doctor has steady hands and a gentle touch.  Anyway, since all this medical stuff has been inhabiting my studio table, I decided to select a few items and memorialize them in my sketchbook.  Normally, I watercolor after drawing, but in this case, I felt a simple black, white & red color scheme was more appropriate, more antiseptic.   

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Mending Fences

This sketchbook page is a departure from others I've shown previously in that I painted this one from a photo.  There is a subtle difference in sketching work drawn from life and that drawn from photos.  Illustrator Danny Gregory illuminated the differences much, much more eloquently than I ever could so if you're curious, click here for Danny's blog post titled "Don't Roll Your Eyes at Me."  I don't think there's anything wrong with drawing from photographs; anything that keeps you drawing is a great thing.  I do make an effort to only use photos I've taken myself and such is the case with this page.

This painting is based on a picture taken years ago of my childhood home.  There was this fairy tale picket fence around the front yard although in reality, there was nothing remotely "fairy tale" about this fence (or the house.)  I suppose this fence was white at some point and I bet it even kept things out (or in) during its early days.  However, when I knew this fence, it was grungy and frail, held up in many places by hope, twine, and tenuous wood splinters that somehow defied the advance of rot.  The juxaposition of the vibrant, advancing, sprawling rose vines against the fading, failing fence caught my attention and I pointed my camera in its direction.  I've hung onto this photo for a very long time; the house was demolished about a decade ago and the tired fence was laid to rest in the resulting rubble.  I prefer to remember my childhood home through this nostalgic lens: wild, wandering beauty overtaking and defeating ruin.      

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

All Wound Up

As of this writing, I am seven weeks post-foot surgery and a follow-up visit to my surgeon officially informed me of what I already knew: things are not progressing normally and I'm looking at least another six to seven weeks before I will know whether this surgery was a success or a colossal misadventure.  I am not surprised - disheartened to be sure - but not surprised as I've been through complicated, trouble-ridden recoveries with all ten of my previous surgeries.  I just happen to take much, much longer to heal.  Familiarity with the situation does NOT breed patience and I am struggling to keep my spirit intact.  Fortunately, I have a very compassionate and attentive medical team and whenever I break down in tears (which is nearly every visit), they listen and soothe and convince me to just stay the course.  So every day, I try to do a little something fun in between all the miserable moments and all the napping on the couch.  Sometimes that means binge-watching Netflix or reading escapist novels or doodling around in my sketchbook.

I have lots of little collections around the house and I really like documenting them. I get a lot of practice rendering different types of surfaces in watercolor like plastic, metal, glass, and fabric.  Grouping similar objects also makes an interesting page with a completed, composed feel.  In the case of these wind-up toys, I discovered that it was quite a challenge to make these drawings look like studies of the actual toys as opposed to cartoons of imaginary critters.  In the end, I really liked this page and decided that I will draw a second set at some point in the near future (hence the label "Set One.")  What a wonderful coincidence that the pharmacy I have to visit so frequently these days also has an excellent selection of wind-ups in their gift section!         

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Gearing Up While Still Recovering Quietly

The new school year starts up in a couple of weeks.  My hours and responsibilities are increasing slightly and among other things, I've been tasked with teaching a semester's worth of nature journaling to accompany the students' unit on sustainability and survival skills.  After several years of teaching middle & high school art, I'm starting to zero in on certain techniques/mediums that I'd like to make my focus.  There's so much that I love to do (and I am given total freedom to teach what I want) but a wide variety of classes also means that I am always swamped with prep work and lesson planning.  Given my questionable energy level and up-in-the-air recovery from this latest surgery, I think it is prudent to concentrate on just a few areas this year.  In my personal work, I've really been focusing on drawing and illustration so it feels right to also make that the focus of my teaching.  I have an art show looming as well so I'll need to get back to the paint somehow but for now, I'm just enjoying drawing.

Given that I'm going to be teaching nature journaling very, very soon, it would be logical and certainly advisable that I be out gathering and documenting some organic objects in my sketchbook but I remain on "house arrest" because the incision has yet to close completely.  ( weeks post-op and still looking at an open wound in the arch of my  I'm allowed to go out for appointments and hobble around the apartment but that's about it.  The pain itself is pretty limiting anyway so wide-ranging outdoor excursions are too miserable to even contemplate.  (I do have some completed nature journals from years ago that I can use as samples so I'm not terribly overwhelmed with the need to have something for students to reference.  Whew!)

Happily, however, I am literally surrounded at home with my very favorite things to draw: art supplies!  Art supplies are right within reach and most are easy enough to pile next to the couch, my de facto studio space for much of the last few weeks.  For the sketchbook page shown in this post, I simply drew and painted the "couch art" supply kit I had assembled prior to surgery.  The challenge with drawing familiar objects is making sure I draw what I actually see and not what I think I know!  
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