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Continuing Education: Portrait Painting

During the first class of Portrait Painting at the Ann Arbor Art Center, we were asked by teacher Tricia Hampo to introduce ourselves and share what brought us to the course. Back in the summer, while researching the courses offered during the Fall semester, I had surprised myself by making a little star next to Portrait Painting on my list of potential courses to follow. My initial intention in following courses was twofold: improving my own style as a landscape painter and meeting new people with similar interests in the area. When my heart skipped a beat upon seeing that the Portrait Painting course had a few spots left, I began to reflect on my reaction and where it might be coming from.

Back in high school and university, I painted a lot of portraits. I came to portraits by the straightforward path of class assignments. What I loved, and tried to do, was capture the expression of the person and what made them unique in my eyes. Much like landscape painting, I was looking for that “click” when the image became something powerful, enabling the viewer to connect emotionally with the work. Sometimes it’s a brushstroke, a highlight, or an essential and intuitive splash of colour in the right place. I love getting the curve of the nose or the hint of a smile just right. Here below are a few examples.

Cut to today and it has been about six years since I last attempted a portrait. My journey took me to landscapes and, until this Fall, that is what I have kept to. But this year abroad and the possibility to follow courses means I can experiment and expand. I decide to continue my education and go for the portrait class!

The first portrait I did in the course was a difficult one, but I am extremely happy with the results. The process looked like this: pencil sketches in black and white and colour, a watercolour sketch, and an acrylic painting. The reminder from the teacher, Tricia, to focus on value over colour was extremely helpful. I started with a black and white sketch of the portrait before introducing colour. Due to the instruction and working among others in a classroom setting, I became very intentional and slowed down my process.  

For my next project, I again started with a few sketchbook drawings in pencil. This allowed me to get familiar with the subject matter and, again, practice patience and practice value. Tricia suggested we work with a limited colour palette – in particular what is called the “Zorn Palette” after Swedish painter Anders Zorn. I used yellow ochre, cadmium red medium, titanium white, and payne’s grey. It is amazing how many colours can be made out of these base colours. While I didn’t exhaust all colour possibilities in this one portrait, the base colours and those I mixed from them fit exactly what I needed for this portrait of child and grandfather. Here are some images of my process and the final product.

While I am continuing to paint landscapes, it’s been great to get back into a subject that I had previously enjoyed and continue to grow and learn with other artists!

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Hiking the Maritimes: Inspiration From My Travels Home

When I am not in the studio, I like to be outside. During the last year especially, it has become clear that getting out, even for a short walk, is crucial for my physical, mental, and creative health. In the three weeks that I have been back in the Canadian Maritimes, I’ve visited and revisited some great spots in the provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick. In this post, I outline the hiking trails and beaches I’ve visited so far and connect these trips to my painting practice.

My first stop was Trenton Park in Trenton, Nova Scotia. In the area visiting family, I went on a short hike through this new-to-me park. I was trailing behind my family, camera in hand, recording trees, plants, and this beautiful toad, which stayed poised on the tree trunk letting me take its picture.

The Homestead Trail in Prince Edward Island National Park, P.E.I, was our second hike this trip. I was awestruck by the fields of tall and abundant Queen Anne’s Lace blowing in the wind. I remember learning the name of this plant from my grandfather, a nature enthusiast (and painter). Being unable to visit the area last summer, I was especially missing the red sand, typical of the island, and the sweet summer smells of wildflowers in bloom. During this hike, I took some reference photographs of birch trees for the painting I am currently working on.

Sometimes unplanned trips are the best kind. An impromptu trip to Northern New Brunswick to visit an old, forever friend gave me the chance to revisit the area where my grandmother grew up – where I have spent some time as a child – and visit some relatives while there.

The Acadian coast of New Brunswick – the largely French speaking part of the province – boasts some great spots including Shediac (Parlee Beach) and Bouctouche. If you continue north along the coast, you will eventually see the beautiful view of the Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec.

A special part of this trip was visiting the beach at Jacquet River (Belledune) – the village where my Granny grew up. At the request of my grandmother, I painted Turvey’s Rock on the Jacquet River beach last summer. This summer, I visited the location after not having been back for over ten years. It was a little strange to see this place after having painted it from a reference photograph and very minimal personal memory. Typically, I first visit a location, take many reference photographs and/or make small sketches and the work comes after.

My most recent short trip was last week to Fundy National Park. Like many of the other places visited, this park holds a lot of personal memories for me. Growing up, I had an oddly acute and specific dislike of Alma, the little town at the foot of the park. I think it had something to do with it being a small town and my dreaming of bigger places.

After returning from Paris in 2010, however, and after working in tourism during my university summers, I developed a strong, proud, and unwavering love for my home province and all the amazing things this place – including Alma! – has to offer.

The expansiveness, the nature, and the quiet, are elements that I love about the Maritimes. Hiking the trails of Fundy National Park, we were often mostly alone, meeting other walkers only occasionally. The quiet of these walks means it is possible to hear the sounds of the animals: birds, chipmunks, and squirrels; to pay attention to the smells and the details of the sights.

Again, I took many photographs for my current project, furthering my interest in the paper birch. I noticed the delicate peachy-pink of the bark, and diversity of low-to-the ground foliage.

These days, with a few weeks left in Canada, I am back in my (temporary) studio. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll continue to paint and make a couple more little trips in New Brunswick to soak up this Maritime summer. I can’t wait to see more beaches, rocky cliffs, and explore new trails!

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Studio Companion Series: My Go-To Music

Thus far, The Studio Companion Series has focused on the podcasts that inspire me in my studio practice. This week, for the final installment of The Studio Companion Series, I focus on the music that gets me started in the studio, keeps me going through challenges, and helps me over the finish line!

We all have soundtracks to our lives. Different moments in time are marked by the music we chose to listen to and/or that is around us in our environments. For me, my teenage years are closely intertwined with the music of two Canadian singer-songwriters: Sarah Harmer and Feist.

I remember getting ready for school on sunny spring mornings in the early 2000s while listening to the CD my sister had given me for my birthday, Feist’s Let it Die (2004). I felt very grown-up selecting my jewelry for the day and singing along to songs about adult life (like “Mushaboom”). Just like the art that I was discovering at the time in my high school art history classes, the music of these women ignited a feeling of anticipation and hopefulness both for my life then and for my future. Through lyrics and rhythm, I felt the world opening up.

Like music, painting can be energetic, intuitive, and emotional. Painting in high school, I had a couple of go-to albums including the Garden State soundtrack (2004) and the Bridget Jones’s Diary soundtrack (2001). Listening to these today transports me back to my childhood home playroom where I had set up my little studio. Today, I’m still listening to Sarah Harmer and Feist and have added some new artists to the rotation. I’ve noticed that my music choices in the studio fall into two main categories, one a bit quieter and more reflective, the other, more energetic.

Cover of Feist’s Let It Die album (2004)

#1. The Rhythm of Reflection

The music that fits into this category is of the personal, comforting kind. It’s here where Sarah Harmer and Feist belong for me. Listening to their albums—You Were Here, I’m A Mountain; Let it Die, The Reminder, respectively—takes me back to a time when I was first really discovering my love of painting. This is the music that I know so well I can describe it as my “background” music; it’s part of my own story present, past, and imagined future.

I listen to this music when I am in the flow of painting: mixing colours on my palette and putting them down on the canvas. Hours can pass and the familiar soundtracks offer rhythms that put me in a calm and reflective mood. I can let my mind wander and connect with my emotions while listening and painting.

The artists I listen to are, in addition to Feist and Sarah Harmer, another long-time favourite, Madeleine Peyroux, and a brand-new discovery, The Weather Station.

Madeleine Peyroux’s album, Half a Perfect World, always feels like just the right soundtrack for the first warm day of spring: a sunny sky with a gentle breeze and fresh flowers (this association probably has something to do with the song, “The Summer Wind”). Peyroux’s warm voice and the jazz instrumentals make any day feel special.

The Weather Station is a Canadian folk band that was recently recommended to me by a friend and has made it into my permanent rotation. Their 2021 album, Ignorance, is described on their website as a “sonic landscape”, a “wilderness of notes”. I couldn’t put it any better than Kitty Empire, who wrote in her Guardian review of the album that it “Trickles out emotion in careful dropperfuls.”

How it helps in the studio: The long-standing connection that I feel towards this music helps ground me in my working flow. I usually feel in a pensive, reflective, or contented state of mind when I’m listening to this music and the emotions swirling around, I can channel into my paintings.

Cover of The Weather Station’s album Ignorance (2021)

#2. An Energy Boost

The music that is in this energetic category is of the more intense or fast-paced, upbeat variety. Going through my music libraries, I’ve noticed that much more of what I listen to fits into the former category, but that doesn’t mean this category is any less important.

I listen to this music usually when I am finishing a painting and in the last stages. This is the time in my painting process that involves adding highlights and the final touches that make the painting come out stronger as a whole. I follow my intuition, but these stages require boldness and energetic enthusiasm. I don’t want to put the brush down before I really feel that finished “click”.

The artists I like to listen to are, First Aid Kit—folk musicians and sisters from Sweden, ABBA—the Swedish pop-rock legendary band active in the 1970s, and Brandi Carlile, a contemporary American singer-songwriter. The beats and vocals of these musicians keep me on my toes in the studio.

First Aid Kit has songs that fall into both the reflection and the energetic category but when it comes to the music’s role in my painting practice, it’s songs like “Wolf”—with haunting vocals and fast beats—that help me take risks.

ABBA makes me want to dance, which can be hard to do while painting (but not impossible). The instrumental introduction to “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” grabs me every time.

Brandi Carlile’s song, “Carried Me With You” (from the Pixar film Onward) I heard at the beginning of the pandemic. I listened to it again and again and it felt like a sort of lifeline to gratitude in a very uncertain time. More recently, I’ve been listening to her songs “The Story” and “The Joke” for their beautiful lyrics and the power of Carlile’s voice.

How it helps in the studio: the energy of the music gives me energy and boosts my own feeling of confidence. This translates into trusting the bolder brush strokes I make towards the final stages in my work and helps me to keep going until the end. It happens sometimes that I think a painting is finished but realize that this is tiredness or impatience speaking. A finished painting ignites a feeling and energetic music helps me carry on until that point.

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Cover of First Aid Kit’s album The Lion’s Roar (2012)

The painting process takes many hours and has many phases: from sketching the composition to working on colour values, details, and finishing touches. I go through many emotional shifts ranging from confidence and optimism to frustration and impatience. Over the days and weeks that I am working on a painting, I need both calming and energetic music in the studio.

I love sharing what inspires me and hope that you share a love for some of these musicians or maybe have discovered one or two musicians to look into!

This concludes The Studio Companion Series, the podcasts and music that help me in my studio practice. I’ll be back in two weeks time with a new post on my painting process and inspiration.

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Studio Companion Series: My Go-To “Self-care” Podcasts

In today’s post, I cover my go-to self-care podcasts! This is the last post in my Studio Companion Series focused on podcasts. If you’ve missed them, be sure to check out my previous posts in this series: My Go-To “Bigger Questions” Podcasts and My Go-To “Everything Art” Podcasts. In these previous posts, I selected my top two favourite podcasts in the category, and it’s the same this week! After a brief description, I share when I listen, what I love, what I’ve learned, and how the podcasts help me with my studio practice. Enjoy!

Category 3: Self-care.

“Self-care” can be a fraught idea. When understood as a synonym for anything that might be deemed a frivolous indulgence, the term is likely to elicit eye rolls. “Frivolous indulgences” might be considered “extras”: objects or experiences that often come with a hefty price tag and are accessible only to those with the financial means and the time. Self-care is therefore often understood as a privilege and in many ways it is.

At the same time, self-care can also signify something simpler and more foundational. Self-care (the care of oneself) can entail drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, cultivating healthy relationship boundaries, exercising, or at least trying to occasionally stretch. Self-care, at its best, can be a sort of individualized tool kit for each of us: small, achievable activities or rituals that can be worked into our day, five minutes at a time.

For me, self-care is something I was forced to confront at the bottom of a burnout. In the early days, it looked like sleeping a lot and trying not to feel guilty about that. Self-care was asking for help from those around me who I could lean on. It was following some of the best advice I got: to do one thing a day and have that be enough. For me, it involved eating more and slowly building strength through exercise. In general, self-care was getting back to these basics (sleep, nutrition, exercise), which had taken a back seat for too long. Given this experience, I think of self-care as “simply” taking care of myself—whatever that means on any given day: from working in a Jane Fonda exercise routine to the occasional face mask.

The two podcasts I’ve selected for the Self-care category are Forever35 hosted and produced by Kate Spencer and Doree Shafrir and Nothing Much Happens, stories written and read by Kathryn Nicolai.

I started listening to this podcast in 2018 and have hardly missed an episode (it’s a commitment—there are three a week!). Their tagline explains that they are “two friends who love to talk about serums” but it is so much more. The first time I tuned in, after reading about it on my favourite lifestyle blog A Cup of Jo, I wasn’t sure it was for me. Doree and Kate, two writers based in LA, were, I believe, discussing outdoor wear—something like the best boots for winter. I wasn’t going to buy the boots, or the other products mentioned and wondered if the self-care aspect was too focused on the shopping therapy variety for me. I kept listening, however, and am so happy I did.

In their mini-episodes, the friends talk about what’s going on with them (juggling parenting, everyday stressors, new product or pop culture discoveries, working as writers and podcasters from home, etc.). Listeners call or write in with questions ranging from the search for the best cleanser to dealing with grief. In the longer once-a-week episodes, the hosts interview an inspiring person and ask about their self-care, career, and life. Guests have included writers, business owners, actors, estheticians, medical and health care professionals, cultural theorists, athletes, politicians, scientists, and more. Products are recommended, advice is given, and fun is had!

I listen to the podcast anytime, anywhere. But when it comes to painting, I listen when I can use a boost from two people who feel like friends. Sometimes I listen when I take my coffee break and sit in my “evaluating my painting” chair.

Forever35 helps remind me that taking care of one’s own mental and physical health is essential to being able to show up in one’s own life and be able to give to others.

What I love about this podcast is very much tied to what I’ve learned (see below). In a nutshell, I love that the podcast is a reminder to be kind to myself and to others. Forever35 helps remind me that taking care of one’s own mental and physical health is essential to being able to show up in one’s own life and be able to give to others. Taking care of ourselves might mean doing a five-minute meditation, having a phone call with a friend, or a bigger change, like making a career move or asking for help when you need it. I love how Kate and Doree talk openly with each other about life issues big and small and how supportive they are of one another and of the listeners who weigh in.

What I’ve learned from this podcast… Despite being less interested in the serum side of the show, I have learned a lot about skincare. During the pandemic, with ample time at home, I now have a day and night skincare routine. It’s not complicated and did not break the bank: I cleanse and moisturize and sometimes use a serum, now that I know a little more about what it all entails.

From the interviews, I’ve been introduced to so many inspiring women: I’ve read books, watched shows, learned about health, beauty, and business from a large number of people. From the discussions between Kate and Doree and the input and questions from the listeners, I’ve learned that we are all doing our best. There are good days and bad days, but the best we can do is support each other, reach out, communicate, set boundaries, stay curious, and be kind to ourselves and others. These are easy items to rattle off, but the impact of giving more mental space to these behaviours is immense.

This is a bedtime story podcast, designed to help the listener fall asleep. Kathryn Nicolai writes and reads short stories that calm the mind by helping the thinking mind focus on the story being told rather than on the worries of the day. The podcast is described as “bedtime stories for adults”. I’ve been listening to this podcast for two years. When I first started listening, I was having a lot of trouble falling asleep (see burnout above). After listening to an episode every night for a period of days and weeks, my ability to fall and stay asleep improved greatly. Nowadays, I listen less regularly but on nights when I need a little help, I hardly make it through one episode before dozing off.

Nicolai is a yoga teacher and sometimes leads a short breathing exercise at the start of episodes. Her stories artfully describe the little moments in life. The episodes span themes including the sweetness of lilacs, visiting a farmer’s market, going to pick out a Christmas tree, cooking during a storm, and paying attention to the good moments of the day, to name just a few. The stories are sensorial: the sights, smells, and textures of the scenes are described beautifully and with care. This means the listener is right there in the kitchen, in the garden, or at the cottage with Nicolai. Each story is read twice, more slowly the second time, so the sound of Nicolai’s voice and the repetition of the story lulls the listener to sleep.

I listen to this podcast when I need a little extra help falling to sleep. Unlike the other podcasts that I’ve chosen for the Studio Companion Series, I do not listen to this podcast while in the studio. However, a good night’s sleep is essential to getting to the studio in the first place and bringing my best self. I wanted to share this podcast in the Self-care category because it has really been transformative for me. I cannot count how many times I have recommended this podcast to friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers! I love it and think it could help out anyone looking for a better night’s sleep or simply an extra cozy way of falling asleep.

What I love about this podcast most obviously is that it helps me to fall asleep. But more than that, I love Nothing Much Happens because it is such a treat to be led through comforting, sensory stories by a compassionate guide. The magic of Nothing Much Happens is that it celebrates the joys in the mundane. I don’t only drift off to sleep, I go to sleep with a smile on my face picturing a steaming mug of holiday cider or nearly smelling spring flowers. The stories (whether I hear the whole thing or not) remind me that we live in a beautiful world. I’m ready to rest and later, face a new day.

What I love about this podcast most obviously is that it helps me to fall asleep. But more than that, I love Nothing Much Happens because it is such a treat to be led through comforting, sensory stories by a compassionate guide.

One of my favourite parts of the podcast is the beginning of each episode. Before the story begins, Nicolai gives an explanation of how the podcast works to help the listener fall asleep. She also give instructions on getting cozy. Nicolai encourages the listener to switch off any gadgets, find a comfortable sleeping position, adjust the blanket around your shoulder and appreciate how great it feels to be safe in bed.

What I’ve learned from this podcast is that grown-ups need bedtime stories too. I learned how my mind gets stuck on my own stories, past and future, and that I can choose to listen and follow along to a comforting, descriptive story that puts my mind at ease. I like the combination of this brain training along with the creative storytelling and the cozy themes Nicolai chooses. In general, I’ve been giving sleep a more important place in my routine and see it as the number 1 self-care activity. I’m currently reading and highly recommend, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker.

Both Forever35 and Nothing Much Happens remind me to take care of myself and others; to be kind to myself and others. Both podcasts have encouraged me to be more thoughtful about how I spend my time and energy and more thoughtfully consider what I ask from myself and from others. For me, painting is both my work and my passion. I need the energy to be able to do it, but it also gives me a great deal of energy. Feeling good mentally and physically allows me to pursue my creativity and pursuing this creativity, in turn, keeps me healthy.

In two weeks, The Studio Companion Series continues with the final installment: the music that gets me started in my studio practice and brings my work across the finish line–stay tuned!

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Studio Companion Series: My Go-To “Bigger Questions” Podcasts

Laura at work in the studio

While painting, I usually have a podcast or music on in the background. I’ve noticed that the podcasts I listen to can generally be categorized in the following three ways: Everything Art, Bigger Questions, and Self Care. Last week, I wrote about two of my favourite podcasts in the Everything Art category. This week continues with Bigger Questions. Like last week, I’ve selected my top two favourite podcasts in this category. After a brief description, I share what I love about the shows, what I’ve learned, and how the podcasts help me in my studio practice. Enjoy!

Painting is its own language of experiencing: from looking to reflecting, processing, and communicating. It’s part calculation, part intuition. The themes that artists draw upon are limitless: they can be inspired by emotions, events, ideas, imaginings, dreams, etc., and encompass the personal to the universal (themselves intertwined).

Art is about meaning-making and can also be an expression of grappling with meaninglessness. The fine art of painting has always been telling stories—historical, religious, political, societal at large—reflecting ideas and ideals of its time. Because of this, what is excluded from the canvas can be as important as what is depicted on it thus also reflecting the position of the storyteller. Painting is the exploration of being human, and so, bigger questions of a philosophical nature are part and parcel with it.

Category 2: Bigger Questions

The two podcasts that I’ve selected for this category are: On Being with Krista Tippett and Ologies with Alie Ward. These podcasts keep me company in the studio and help me reflect on some larger questions about being human and the world around us. Both podcasts examine the human experience: the first focuses primarily on spirituality, the second on science.

I listen to On Being when I want to hear about the journeys of others and how they make sense of, or experience, the world around them. I need to have enough mental space in the painting process to pay attention to these stories. Therefore, I don’t listen while in the midst of sketching or reflecting on next steps in my work. I’ll go to this podcast somewhere in the middle of my creative process: when I am putting down colour and am tuned into my intuition. These are moments when I am looking for some company, inspiration, and a feeling of connectedness.

On Being is an American Public Media radio show and podcast, founded and hosted by Krista Tippett. Each episode is an in-depth interview with a guest, among them are writers, artists, spiritual teachers, medical professionals, philosophers, and educators. On Being is described on its website in the following way: “On Being, as it has evolved, takes up the great questions of meaning in 21st-century lives and at the intersection of spiritual inquiry, science, social healing, and the arts.” The podcast has been recognized by many outlets as one of the best, has won the highest awards for broadcasting, and, in 2013, Tippett was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama.

What I love about the podcast: The first thing that struck me about On Being was Tippett’s voice: it radiates calm and kindness. Her care and attentiveness to her interviewees is evident in both her tone and her in-depth questions and responses. From the many episodes I’ve listened to, the interviewee’s willingness to be open and vulnerable with Tippett and the listeners is refreshing. They talk about their upbringings, how they got to where they are, and what is meaningful for them about the work they do. I love how, through these interviews, the audience gets a chance to at once learn from different experiences and to find commonality or universality in the personal story of another.

What I’ve learned from the On Being podcast is that art is often the product of struggle. This is far from a new insight, but I often come away with a new understanding of some aspect of my own experiences by listening to the stories of others. Many of the books I’ve read I’ve heard of through the podcast, most recently: Mary Oliver’s book of poetry, Devotions, Katherine May’s personal narrative, Wintering, and Andrew Solomon’s nonfiction book, The Noon Day Demon: An Atlas of Depression. The candidness of Tippett and her guests inspires me to slow down and be more thoughtful in how I view and treat myself and others around me.

#2 Ologies with Alie Ward

I listen to Ologies when I am in the flow of painting and want to connect with the complexity of the world around us; when I want to be awed by how much there is to discover about “ordinary things”; and when I need a little humour in my day.

As described on Alie Ward’s website, Ologies is a “comedic science podcast”. The podcast’s host, Alie Ward—a science correspondent and communicator, television host, and writer—interviews experts on various topics including animals, food, the human body, history, space, and more. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, “ology” means “a branch of knowledge or a science”. We are used to hearing of “ologies” such as psychology, astrology, and paleontology, to name just a few, but Ologies delves into the science of the common to the obscure.

What I love about the podcast is hearing the passion in the guests’ voices about their particular “ology”. This passion ignites my own curiosity and I find myself looking at things differently. After listening to many episodes of the show, I find that I am more regularly appreciative of how intricate all systems really are. It’s fun to learn about all kinds of topics with which I may be familiar but about which I might know little or may have misunderstood in some way prior to listening. Ward’s enthusiasm and curiosity make learning joyful and accessible. Another great thing: each episode, Ologies offers support to a charitable organization of the interviewee’s choice.

What I’ve learned from Ologies covers many diverse topics! I’ve learned about trees, bears, fear, addiction, pumpkins, Fall/seasons, personalities, sleep, marriage, beauty standards, blood sugar, and the gut biome, to name a few things. I’ve learned that no matter your interest (pumpkins!), there is always more to discover: the world is not a boring place. When it comes to my own interest in landscape painting, I found the episodes on trees and the seasons to be fascinating.

Both podcasts keep me curious about the inner and the outer world (themselves intertwined). This curiosity helps me in my own painting practice to be connected to myself, my intuition, and to think about the world at large: how ecosystems function and the importance of caring for our environment.

In my next post, The Studio Companion Series continues with Self Care. And then, the final installment: the music that gets me started in my studio practice and brings my work across the finish line–stay tuned!

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Studio Companion Series: My Go-To “Everything Art” Podcasts

Silence is rare when I’m working in the studio: I like to either have music or a podcast keeping me company. What I choose to play in the background always depends on a variety of factors: my mood, energy level, what I’m working on, the time of day, the weather, and probably other factors of which I am not aware.

The first decision I make is: will it be music or a podcast? I’ve noticed that I usually listen to music at the very beginning of a painting—when I am concentrating on the sketch and am making more conscious scale and drawing decisions—and at the very end of the painting process when I’m often adding finishing touches: intuitive highlights here and there, when the energy is high.

When I’m working away, in the flow of painting, I like to have comforting voices in the background. Looking through my favourite podcast list, I can divide my podcasts of choice into three main themes: Everything Art, Bigger Questions, and Self-Care. Because there are three categories of podcasts that I want to delve into respectively, I’m introducing the Studio Companion Series. I’ve selected two of my favourite podcasts from each theme to write about in separate blog posts. The podcasts and music I listen to are not “only” company; they help me think through process issues and they inspire me. Hopefully, they may also be a new discovery for someone reading! In this first blog post of the series, I’m focussing on the first category: Everything Art. After a brief introduction to the podcasts, I’ll share what I love and what I’ve learned from them.

Category 1: Everything Art.

I listen to this podcast when I am looking for comforting voices, a companion in the studio, when I need some inspiration or to question and perhaps re-think my long-held art-making beliefs. The Messy Studio Podcast is hosted by American abstract artist, Rebecca Crowell and her son, producer and entrepreneur, Ross Ticknor. In addition to interviewing fellow artists and others in the field, the mother and son team usually focus on one topic that’s interesting for artists. Some recent episodes have covered themes including challenges and risks, success, overworking, finding downtime, and abstracting your work.

What I love about the podcast is the combination of personal and professional rapport between Rebecca and Ross. I always come away with some new insight to mull over but it feels as comfortable and intimate as a discussion around the kitchen table.

What I’ve learned: Sometimes you listen to something at just the right moment. I was feeling frustrated with my latest painting, “Horizontal Sculptural Trees”, and worrying that I was “overworking it”. In episode 169, Rebecca and Ross discuss overworking and express that this is typically taught as something of which to be wary or downright afraid when it comes to art-making. This aligned with my idea of overworking an artwork and I was surprised that the pair questioned this negative connotation of the term. They discussed the notion of overworking in a balanced way, which did not ignore the real problems of continuing to work when frustration gets the better of us but, most helpfully, they talked about how continuing on through the rough patches is how we learn and grow as artists. I went back to my painting with curiosity instead of frustration and worked through the challenging areas in a way that I would not have had I let the fear of ruining it take too strong a hold.

I listen to this podcast when I’m thinking about marketing, how to connect with other artists, my process, or am looking for some general art inspiration. Art Juice is hosted by two UK-based abstract artists, Louise Fletcher and Alice Sheridan. The two artists discuss what they have been up to in the studio and the ins-and-outs of their respective art businesses. Topics like the importance of a subscribers list, social media engagement, and keeping up to date with new ways of connecting, for example, through online learning and live events, have been especially interesting for me.

What I love about the podcast is the conversation between the artists. They are willing to explore the many sides of one topic, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, but always curious and willing to share their views and experiences.

What I’ve learned from this podcast includes many practical tips about selling art online. One important take away from listening to multiple episodes of this podcast is the encouragement to strategize about clear and consistent communication through online channels. In addition, the most recent episode, featuring artist Lewis Noble, discusses the topic of abstracting from landscape. Although my works are stylistically a combination of impressionistic and expressionistic representational landscapes, I found it incredibly useful to hear about the methods of abstracting from landscapes in this episode.

A common element of both podcasts is that they are hosted by abstract artists, all three of whom are inspired by the landscape. As Rebecca Crowell pointed out in conversation on their podcast: all art is an abstraction. This is both seemingly simple and yet foundational to remember. Whatever an artist’s style, artists make ideas, objects, and scenes into something different from that object in the world or the initial inspiration for a work. Listening to abstract artists talk about their work has encouraged me to push my own style boundaries and trust my own intuition in the painting process. I’m glad to have come across both podcasts and highly recommend them!

The Studio Companion Series continues: the Bigger Questions and Self Care categories will be the topics of upcoming posts, as well as the music that gets me started in my studio practice and brings my work across the finish line–stay tuned!

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A Visit to Nino Mier Gallery Brussels

Excitement built as we rounded the corner at the Sablon, the gallery district of Brussels, and walked along Rue Ernest Allard. The afternoon excursion marked the first time my husband and I had been out in the city center with the purpose of visiting art for a long while. Masked, and with plenty of hand sanitizer, we arrived at number 25: a recently renovated historic townhouse and home of the newest branch of Nino Mier Gallery in Brussels.

There was a small moment’s confusion when the door didn’t budge upon trying to enter, but I soon spotted a bell, and we were swiftly welcomed by Director Alexia Van Eyll. After establishing that it was our first visit, Ms. Van Eyll explained the space, spread over four floors, and provided us information about the inaugural exhibition, then on view. We learned that we were about to see works by more than thirty artists, including paintings and ceramics. I immediately got the sense that I could ask questions without hesitation here.

What struck me upon entering the gallery was the light. Large windows on the street side allow light to enter all levels of the building, including a small area just below street level. The entrance is a split level. Exposed stone and brick on the lower level, which continues up to the main floor, lends warmth to the space; the light cream tones of the walls and the large windows at both the front and back of the building make the space feel cozy and charming at first sight.

From left to right the works of Jan-Ole Schiemann, Peter Bonde, and LETO at Nino Mier Gallery Brussels, March 6, 2021.

We started downstairs, in the alcove space, where we were struck by the work of Jan-Ole Schiemann (@studio_2.63), entitled Fusion. This is a mixed media piece on canvas, framed in a thin dark floating frame. The thick bold lines hit the viewer immediately yet, upon closer inspection, the use of ink and the layering of colour create lovely transparent areas; the interior of the outlined shapes reveal themselves to be softer.

At the ground level, we encounter the familiar white walls of many galleries, but the rustic light wood floor beams give the space a fresh feel indeed. Bookshelves, a marble fireplace, a large whimsical floral arrangement, and a view on the sculpture garden made me want to discover more of this refinished building as well as the art on display.

The first floor was just as open and airy as downstairs. Rounding the corner, my attention went directly to Dashiell Manley’s work, Knowing Glances (Possible Winks). This oil on linen is a Monet-esque palette of soft greens, blues, and purples applied in shell-like shapes, which are so thick the painting becomes sculptural. I loved the little surprises (winks?) of bright yellow, which were applied to the already thick painted surface like jeweled embellishments on fabric. This painting made me smile.

First floor, Dashiell Manley’s Knowing Glances (Possible Winks) at Nino Mier Gallery Brussels, March 6, 2021.

That smile continued on the second floor when I encountered Thomas Wachholz’s (@thomaswachholz) work, JUST CARE FOR ME. An elongated, cartoon-style multi-coloured skirt, with pointy-toed little black boots peeking out from underneath, is against a background of solid light mauve; a horizontal stripe of darker mauve runs the length at the bottom of the piece. This piece felt very fun and carefree, but that reaction was complicated by its capitalized titled.

Second floor, Thomas Wachholz’s JUST CARE FOR ME at Nino Mier Gallery Brussels, March 6, 2021.

I loved how the gallery takes advantage of the historic townhouse’s divided structure by creating cozy corners that lend a sense of home to the space. On the second floor, we find the adjoining rooms are outfitted with a couch, coffee table and chairs, and a large modern meeting table where, I imagine, many a meeting takes place. Floor lamps, plants, and flower bouquets are the small touches that put the visitor at ease and seem to say: take your time, feel at home.

Second floor, seating area, on view Cindy Phenix’s Relocated Decisively at Nino Mier Gallery Brussels, March 6, 2021.

The inaugural exhibition also contained a little sneak peak of the next show, the work of Jana Schröder (@janarrrrrrrrrrrrr). We saw her painting entitled, Neurosox AU L1, here pictured below: a large scale gestural abstract painting, juxtaposing dense and transparent colour areas. Schröder’s solo exhibition, Mother, is currently on view at the gallery until April 10, 2021.

First floor, Jana Schröder’s Neurosox AU L1 at Nino Mier Gallery Brussels, March 6, 2021.

I’m glad that, in addition to their galleries in Los Angeles and Cologne, Nino Mier has opened its doors in Brussels. This is a space that feels inviting, a space wherein I felt I could take my time with the artworks. I felt encouraged to linger and revisit rooms—the chance for a second look inherently available since one must climb to the top floor and then return the same way, of course. I appreciated this cozy gallery space and took my time with my favourite pieces. I look forward to visiting again!

Thanks for reading!

Gallery information:

Nino Mier Gallery (Brussels)
Tuesday-Saturday (10am-6pm)
+32 2 414 86 00

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Discovering Contemporary Landscape Painting

Side Landscape Painting Now - Book on contemporary landscape painting, including the work of David Hockney, Alex Katz

It’s always exciting to receive a package in the mail, especially these days when a food delivery, care package, or new pair of sweatpants interrupts the regular stay-at-home routine! I was especially counting down the days last week, awaiting the arrival of this much anticipated book: Landscape Painting Now: From Pop Abstraction to New Romanticism.

Edited by Todd Bradway and Barry Schwabsky, Landscape Painting Now: From Pop Abstraction to New Romanticism, was published in 2019 by Thames & Hudson. It is a beautiful, 368 page, hardcover book, featuring the work of over 80 contemporary landscape painters from around the world with more than 400 colour reproductions.

I was interested in this book for two main and intersecting reasons:

  1. I was looking for an inspiring reference book to help answer my questions of: what’s happening in landscape painting currently and who are the driving forces?
  2. to fill in what was, for me, a gap in my own art historical knowledge. I was wondering: what is the status of landscape painting today? Indeed, is it still relevant?

Having studied art history for years, I’d learned about the work of many landscape painters, but when I began thinking about my own influences and looking around for contemporary examples of landscape painters, I realized that more names came to mind of artists long deceased than those still active today. Barry Schwabsky explains a main reason for this gap in knowledge around contemporary landscape painting in his introductory essay of Landscape Painting Now. Schwabsky writes:

“ […] we hold on to habits of mind developed during the second half of the twentieth century, when painting was dominated by abstraction (and later, to a lesser extent, by Pop Art) and when painting itself was sometimes sidelined by emergent genres: conceptual works, performance, installations, and of course, the new genre that was sometimes said to supersede landscape painting in particular, land art.” – p. 13

My education did well to underscore the transformations in aesthetics and subjects of art as responses to shifting historical, political, and sociological contexts. In particular, the courses I took in art theory, criticism, and sociology were explicit in challenging the art historical canon and its many blind spots including the erasure of women artists and artists of colour. At the same time, my education (and, I must admit, my own relation to my education) in both theory and practice left me feeling that landscape painting, especially representational, was, if not a thing of the past, than at least not something worth pursuing seriously.  

I’ve already written on this blog about the impact that the recent David Hockney-Van Gogh exhibition had on me. In particular, it was something Hockney said in the short film that was featured at the beginning of the exhibition—that nature provides limitless possibilities for painting—when something clicked for me. I understood that, despite my own interest, I had been carrying the belief that painting representational landscapes was not interesting. I picked up my brushes after a long hiatus soon after seeing that show. The question of “why landscapes” will be a theme I come back to as I further my own painting practice. In the remainder of this post, however, I will focus on this exceptional book and a few interesting things I took away from it.

[W]hen I began thinking about my own influences and looking around for contemporary examples of landscape painters, I realized that more names came to mind of artists long deceased than those still active today.

Landscape Painting Now is divided into 6 themes: Realism and Beyond, Post-Pop Landscapes, New Romanticism, Constructed Realities, Abstracted Topographies, and Complicated Vistas. The theme I connected to most was Post-Pop Landscapes, which features artists including David Hockney, Alex Katz, Daniel Heidkamp, and Isca Greenfield-Sanders, among others. The introductory essay to the Post-Pop Landscapes chapter clarifies that,

“Post-Pop does not necessary mean ‘chronologically after Pop’: one might even say that the most important part of the phrase is the ‘post-‘ designating an image that emerges after an image that already exists.” – p. 91.

The essay goes on to explain that this “post” understood as “following” Pop-Art is especially not the case with the work of Alex Katz, who was already working in the 1950’s and who is still active today, in his nineties. Katz’s cropped and large-scale compositions are inspired by billboards and the movie screen. Known for his portraits and landscapes, Katz has made these traditional subjects exciting over the last 7 decades.

“Katz’s work argues for the possibility of fresh perception even after we’ve been immersed in the ready-made sensations of mass-culture; it is profoundly optimistic in that sense.” – p. 91.

We can see this idea of painting based on an existing image in the work of artist Isca Greenfield-Sanders (@iscags). Greenfield-Sanders’ paintings of beaches are based on vintage 35 mm colour slides, which is evident not only from the fashion but also from the light quality and the play with exposure in her mixed media works. The 2015 painting entitled Beach Fade, pictured below, has this contrasting effect of bright colours and faded details, wherein sections of the image almost disappear. Taking a look through Greenfield-Sanders’ online portfolio, I am drawn to her strong use of shadows and the play between vibrant and soft colours.

Beach Fade – Isca Greenfield-Sanders
® Isca Greenfield-Sanders – Reproduced with permission from the artist

I also felt an immediate connection to the work of Daniel Heidkamp (@danielheidkamp), particularly his painting, Red Veranda (2017), which depicts a waterfront house with—as its name suggests—a bright red and pink veranda. I’m drawn to the intense shadows and use of bright and subtle colour together. 

Daniel Hedkamp's painting Red Veranda, included in the book Contemporary Landscape Now, example of Post-Pop Landscape Art.
© Daniel Heidkamp – Reproduced with permission from the artist

What many of the artists featured in the Post-Pop Landscapes theme have in common is the use of vibrant colour and an emphasis on the communicated feeling or sensation of the work, which somehow taps into both a general and personal experience. When I look at Heidkamp’s Red Veranda, for example, I feel a connection to my own memories of quiet summer days and lazy afternoons. There is also a sense that the experience of this particular season, place, and time of day are something recognizable.

Landscape Painting Now exceeded my expectations in providing answers to the questions I had been asking myself about contemporary landscape painting. The answers are open ones however, more of a beginning. Having discovered some inspiring artists and having a feeling of renewed support that nature can indeed provide much material for inspiring, interesting, and fresh landscape paintings–both representational as well as more abstracted–gives me both an optimism, following Katz, and a broader language to think about my own interests and artistic intentions. 

Picture of the book Landscape Painting Now which contains a selection of contemporary landscape artists showcasing their work, including Alex Katz, Lois Dodd, David Hockney, Daniel Heidkamp and Isca Greenfield-Sanders.

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Special thanks to my friend and amazing artist, Claire MacDonald, for recommending this book to me in the first place!

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On the Beginnings of My Love for Painting

As I remember it, my love for painting had two beginnings: one rooted in practice, the other in history. When I was a kid, I used to visit my grandparents’ house and paint with my Opa. He enjoyed painting and drawing and, in keeping with his profession as draftsman and metallurgy teacher, Opa was keen to teach me how to draw precisely (protractors were present).

I remember Opa’s enthusiasm in trying to teach me to draw an electrical socket and plug to scale. Eventually, after much erasing, we set up our workspaces–with more colourful paints–out in the garden. Like many kids, I scribbled and drew much before this, but when I think of the beginning of my love for the practice of painting, I think of the afternoon I painted this picture of my grandparent’s garden:

Opa’s Garden, early 2000’s.

The other beginning of my love for painting was my introduction to the work of the Impressionist painters in my high school art class. As I describe in this post, I fell in love with the artwork of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists as a teenager as I was learning about art history for the first time. For over fifteen years now, I have loved learning about the lives of artists, the movements that their innovations created, and the historical contexts that made it all possible. The stories around the artworks and their connection to the lineages of images that came before and after them is both intriguing and inspiring.

In particular, it was seeing Monet’s haystacks, Van Gogh’s sun-drenched fields, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s bold curving lines, that sparked a visceral connection to art and a desire to understand this emotional reaction. I saved images by these artists and others, including Matisse and Derain, in a folder on my computer in the early 2000’s, and began to see a collage form of the bright colours, strong lines, and emphasis on light that I was drawn to.

A course book that I’ve held onto since undergrad is Critical Readings in Impressionism & Post-Impressionism. What I loved about this reader was the bringing together of two of my favourite things: the artworks of these movements and the art theory that expands them—a world I was just beginning to explore, and which was helping me to understand my own love for painting. This reader discusses the innovation of the work of Monet, Morisot, Seurat, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and others. As I learned about both the historical contexts and the styles of this artwork, it deepened my appreciation of painting but most importantly it changed the way I looked at the world around me. I began to notice and understand that light and shadow are multi-coloured, that atmosphere and mood can be rendered and communicated, that the environment around us is always changing and is, moreover, worthy of our sustained attention and interpretation.

This is a little snapshot of the beginning of my lifelong journey loving the practice of painting and learning about its history (one small part of its history that ignited my general interest). In my next posts, I will explore my influences in more depth, including the art historical references as well as the contemporary landscape artworks which I am continually discovering and finding inspirational.

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On Winter: A Season, A Subject, A Practice

We are in the darker months of the year and the winter season has been on my mind, becoming the subject of my work. My latest painting, “Winter Path,” is based on a scene I came across while out walking in late December 2020. The catalyst for this painting was how wonderous it felt to see the sun peaking through the clouds, shinning brilliantly on a forest path that was just up ahead. I wrote about the winter colour palette I used—dark purples and light mauves and browns—for this painting in my last post, but this seemed just a beginning of a reflection on the topic.

I have always loved winter: the magic of watching snow falling softly against the dark night sky, the coziness of a crackling fireplace, (usually) the gathering of loved ones and the sharing of warm drinks and meals. But for all its wonders and joys, the winter season is also long and difficult; in Canada, it’s the cold, in Belgium, it’s the dark. I am always just on the cusp of purchasing a sunlamp.

I still recall the winter three years ago, which was one of the darkest on record in western Europe. One day during this winter, a faint beam of sunlight entering my apartment window was such a shock to my system that I walked toward the light with a trance-like awe, my eyes immovable from the pale orange breaking through the dark sky for the short time it lasted.

In her recent book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, author Katherine May explores winter not only as the season it is but also as a verb (“wintering”), as a practice of serious self care. May explains that during life’s difficult times we often feel a call (or sometimes, a demand) for a slowing down and a prioritizing of our basic needs—think: breathing, resting, walking. While the season of winter itself invites rest and retreat—sometimes in the form of cuddling under a warm blanket, gazing out a frosted window to appreciate the cold season at a distance–wintering, May posits, as a practice, is something in which we can engage (by choice or necessity) in other months of the year too. The need to winter can occur when we are dealing with life’s myriad struggles and refueling is a non-negotiable.

May explains that during life’s difficult times we often feel a call (or sometimes, a demand) for a slowing down and a prioritizing of our basic needs—think: breathing, resting, walking.

In some ways, living through this ongoing pandemic is a wintering: we stay indoors and pare down to the essentials of rest, exercise, and new or old hobbies of baking and crafting. For many of course—essential workers and parents, for example—demands during this time grow exponentially and there seems little possibility of recharging. A recent episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Forever35, focused on the experience of essential workers and asked how they were getting through this demanding time. It was an important reminder that while we are all going through this strange time, the experiences of this pandemic period are vast: its difficulties affecting us all in different ways.

I was in the middle of my own wintering when the pandemic began, and that experience has actually helped me cope with staying home this past year. During my own wintering, I had to slow way down (stand still, really) and redefine my own understanding of daily productivity. Starting with the basics of rest, exercise, and a healthy diet, I added painting to my daily activities–a practice I had always loved but which I’d put on the back shelf for too long. The experience of slowing down could be, at times, frustrating. Painting, as I have written about here, helped me to practice patience. These colliding wintering seasons have taught me that the basics–including painting, for me–are not indulgences, extras or after-thoughts, but essential parts of my own well-being. I connected to the following passage of May’s book, where she describes deciduous trees in winter (p.80 e-book):

“The tree is waiting. It has everything ready. Its fallen leaves are mulching the forest floor, and its roots are drawing up the extra winter moisture, providing a firm anchor against seasonal storms. […] It is far from dead. It is, in fact, the life and soul of the wood. It’s just getting on with it quietly. It will not burst into life in the spring. It will just put on a new coat and face the world again.”

What I’ve learned from my own experiences, and what I appreciated in May’s book, was this idea that a wintering period is not detached or separate from life, though it may sometimes feel that way. Resting serves the purpose to regain our strength; eventually we will “put on a new coat and face the world again.” For me, the practice of painting is a quiet and meditative practice. It requires slowing down and looking intentionally. At the same time, painting is a rejuvenating experience, something that gives me an abundance of meaning and renewed energy, even and especially in darker seasons.

Winter Path, Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 cm, 2021.

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