Sunday, December 28, 2008

Marshall Hall on a Warm Winter Day

Marshall Hall, oils on canvas board, 11" x 14"

The day after Christmas (Boxing Day) I headed down to visit my friends in Southern Maryland. We'd planned to do an art share: a show and tell about what we have learned and done in our art classes this year, and I hoped to get in a little painting too.

Sadly, Marguerite was too sick to join us, but we three had fun in the studio sharing our art. Looking at it all together I was surprised to see how much it added up to. It was wonderful to see how each of us had grown in our chosen areas of interest this past year: Patrise in her studies of the face and figure for her illustrations, Linda in her narrative painting and myself in plein air with oils. In the evening we joined other friends in their circle for a dinner of delicious Christmas leftovers.

Getting up the next morning, it was cloudy--would it rain, drizzle or clear? Patrise had suggested we paint at Marshall Hall, at the southern end of Piscataway Park, where there is an old ruined manor house dating from the 1720's. The idea of painting ruins has always appealed to me--I think of the romantic painters' fabulous drawings and paintings of ruins--Linda wasn't so keen on that, so she decided to go to the familiar north end of the park while we packed our gear and Patrise's two dogs and headed out to Marshall Hall.

I remember that in the 60s' when we lived in Arlington, there was an old amusement park there that I think we visited once, but I have no specific recollection of it. The sun began to burn through the clouds on our drive down, and by the time we'd walked around a bit with the dogs and found where we wanted to set up, it was sunny and so warm that I had to shed my parka (on the way back I saw the thermometer in my car registered 63 degrees Fahrenheit).

The ruined house was a challenge to paint--I selected this view because I thought the shadows would help us articulate the architecture better, but the ugly chain link fence needed to be edited out. Patrise invented a broken-down picket fence for her painting which I thought added a great fantasy element to her piece, while mine is far more austere, maybe Hopperesque. There is a stark and austere beauty about this season, and the ruined house in light of the wintry sun seemed to complement it perfectly.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Painting a Still Life on a Dark Day

Still Life with Red Onions, oils on canvas board, 9" x 12"

It was dreary as I headed to Lee's studio for our afternoon session of painting: one of our typical rainy winter days. Lee had set up two still lives for us. The ginger jar and the red onions in this one appealed to me, but I knew the colors were going to be tough to bring off.

We didn't want to use the overhead fluorescent lights, as these tend to distort the colors too much, but it was so dark in the studio I really had no idea what colors I was mixing. We opened the shutters and I kept walking over to the window with my palette to mix colors. That was marginally better. Seeing my struggles, Lee offered me a tiny light with two LED's that I could clip on to the palette, which helped quite a bit. I still couldn't see my painting very well, but the colors on my palette were more visible.

I may look for a light like this to add to my kit--it could prove useful in the future. Last summer when I tried night painting, the miner's lamp with LED's proved to be too bright for the job. This might work better.

I don't know that my colors are terribly accurate, but I think at least my values are close to true. The blue bottle was the most challenging. I am developing a greater appreciation for still life painting now that I understand how challenging it can be.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas

Today as I was working on a piece for Cubanology Biweekly about old Cubans, that is to say my parents' generation, I was transported back to our early days of exile in Arlington. After I finished my piece I began looking through my collection of old family photos but could not find any with all of us (somebody has to take the picture).

I did find this wonderful photo of my sisters and I by the Christmas tree... thanks to the magic of Kodak I can tell by the furniture and the window that this was taken in the house on 11th Street we rented when I was in high school. The hair and clothes say this was the heyday of Mod London: the Beatles were all the rage, and every girl tried for the Jean Shrimpton look--the long straight hair, big eyes and pale lips--Shrimpton was the first supermodel. It must have been 1965 or so, the year I graduated.

My older sister Beatriz (standing) was in college by then. The youngest, Cecilia is on the left, Silvia in the middle and I'm on the right, with the far-away look. Desperately wanting to amount to something, wondering if I would. I'm still wondering, after all these years...

I feel so lucky to have grown up with three sisters, through all our small tiffs and teasing, rivalries and camaraderie. With less than two year's difference in ages between each of us, we four Maza girls were a tight-knit bunch. We had our own friends in school, but we tended to be herded together so everything we did, we did together. It gave us a sense of how to deal with others.

It's hard to believe it's been twenty-five years since Cecilia died. Bea, Silvia, and I have our own families and we get together but only a few times a year, on family occasions like Christmas. The children, some of them now married and in other cities, are numerous, and we add up to around twenty on Christmas for dinner. Mom and Dad, all of their generation, are gone now, and it is we who are the elders of the clan. The torch passes on. I wonder what our kids will remember of our Christmases together, if it'll be the same for them as the way we remember Nochebuena in Cuba.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Challenging Week

Still Life #2, oils on canvas board, 12" x 9"

After a very challenging week at work, I headed over to Lee's studio for an afternoon painting session. He'd set up two still lives for four of us students to work on, both using challenging colors. I picked the one with the purple cloth backdrop, not only because it was closest to where I'd set up, but because these were colors I rarely see in nature, much less paint.

This painting isn't one of my best. I had a particularly hard time articulating the difference between the purple cloth in the light and in shadow--it doesn't even look like it's deep purple, does it? Dealing with the reflections in the shadows of the bowl and pitcher were equally difficult. Looking at Lee's demo piece and how he dealt with these areas was helpful, but with the best will in the world, I was too worn down and distracted. In the middle of the session, my office called on my cell phone--that broke what little concentration I'd been able to muster!

By four o'clock the light was fading fast, so this was as far as I got. I lingered a bit talking to Lee about the state of art in our current cultural climate. He brought up an interesting point: what eclipsed the impresionists at a time when they were at their peak was the modernist movement, which dealt with abstraction from nature and breaking down of all the "rules". Now that the "contemporary" artists deal with abstractions of an abstraction and there are no rules--where exactly does that get us? Other than the current ego marketing, that is, where the artist becomes his own creation to sell because he really has no other actual commodity such as "art" to market--those are merely pieces of any old junk passed off as art (because the artist says so). Is it any wonder the public is confused?

Which is why we really need to get back to having standards and actually learning to draw, paint, sculpt, or whatever by going through a process of practical training in an apprenticeship. And why Lee believes that the plein air movement is reinvigorating American art at this moment. I agree with him, or I wouldn't be there, of course. Looking at the light teaches us how to see color in all its infinitely rich possibilities, and yet make it new.

To my dismay, I came home to open my Artist magazine yesterday and read among the predictions in "The Future of Art", the writer believes the plein air movement, "which has been going gangbusters since the 1990's, will wane as a marketing genre." How about it, fellow artists, do you agree?