When it comes to making art, I think I must be a slow learner. Perhaps it’s because I started too late, or worked on my own so much, or perhaps it’s just transitions that cause me difficulty. I had a hard time making the transition from drawing with pencil or charcoal to painting in watercolour. The whole colour thing was so confusing: what would it take to change the colour on my palette into the colour in my imagination? I read books on colour theory, making copious notes and thinking that I understood what I was reading, but when I returned to my palette, the situation had not improved. In 1999, I signed up for a Colour Theory weekend workshop at the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts (MISSA). The course was taught by Xane St. Phillip. The workshop was only two days long, but when I walked out of the classroom on Sunday afternoon, everything that had been a mystery before had become absolutely clear. Such is the power of good teaching.
Then, in the fall of 2007, I noticed that Xane was teaching another weekend workshop. The title of the course was “Notan: The Dark Light Principle of Design”. The exercises were a lot of fun and gave me some insights into the use of positive and negative space. It was fascinating to see all of the students’ work when it was pinned up on the board. So many variations based on a 6″ x 6″ square.
Note to myself: I see that it is possible to construct Notan Flowers; I wonder if an entire garden could be designed using Notan principles? Hmmmm.
This course was also my introduction to the Vancouver Island School of Art . I enjoyed the atmosphere in the classroom and in the school at large–it was a friendly, inclusive feeling, but there was rigour in the teaching, too. We had a laugh about Xane’s quote from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself, everyone else is taken,” but we also had plenty of opportunity to learn from our teacher and from other students. Intelligent critiques of our work showed us where we could improve our skills, understanding and approach.
In late summer of 2009, I participated in a three day drawing workshop with the incredibly brilliant John Luna. During one of the critiques, a fellow student remarked on my pencil sketch of a landscape that it had no straight lines. I could see that this was true. Was this wrong, I asked myself? Did a drawing have to have straight lines as well as curved? Geometric shapes as well as organic ones?
I thought more about this question over the course of the next 12 weeks during which I was enrolled in “Painting: Pattern & Process” with Wendy Welch. The class met for 3 hours each week. During one of her talks, Wendy said that “contrast enlivens paintings”. She mentioned many different sorts of contrast: scale (large and small), texture, colour, value, hard and soft edges, opacity and transparency. On another day, she mentioned that paintings can be saved from total chaos by introducing structure: a grid pattern or a strong line drawing, for example.
One of Wendy’s assignments was to impose a line drawing onto a patterned surface and then make a painting based on the resulting image. The image I chose was of yellow tulips: not the soldier straight kind of tulips, but the falling all over the place kind of tulips. The pattern I chose was a checkerboard. I composed a mock-up of the painting on a sheet of 8-1/2″ x 11″ cardstock and then enlarged the mock-up in pencil on a sheet of watercolour paper, using the squares of the checkerboard pattern as guides for the larger drawing. I was ready to start painting.
I began by painting the light and dark squares of the checkerboard with light washes of watercolour. Next, I drew the outline of the flowers with Chinese ink and a steel-nibbed pen. Finally, I darkened some of the shapes and used white gouache to lighten others. A very interesting thing started to happen. It was the other side of what Wendy had said about using structure to overcome chaos: I found that starting from the grid structure was giving me a lot of freedom to play around with the accidental shapes that occurred where the geometric forms of the grid intersected the organic forms of the flowers. In every part of the painting, I had a choice between emphasizing the curved line or the straight. I didn’t have to think about providing a background: it emerged as these choices were made. I didn’t worry about depicting the tulips accurately. It was a heady experience and a real breakthrough for me.
I completed two paintings of these “no name” flowers: one for the assignment and another a couple of months later. Here are the finished paintings (click to enlarge):