Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Art Question: Is it too late?

Recently, in response to a comment I made on Facebook that I think it is too late for humans; we have so polluted the world that it is hostile to life and that humans are beyond the point of no return, I was asked the following question by R. S.:

"Mark, if it's too late, what are any of us doing rearranging deck chairs on the titanic?"

Is this an art question? Absolutely. This is at the heart of what I do with my art, not in a technical craft-making manner but in a philosophical aesthetic manner. We have not learned our lessons as a species. We have been warned for millennia (literally) that our ego, our greed and our fears will get in the way of our existence, they will be our end. And yet here we are, not on the doorstep, but having walked through the doorway into the kitchen and are bent over looking in the refrigerator for a beer and a leftover boneless BBQ chicken wing cheeseburger. I do not want to partake in this destruction, but by the very nature of my existence in this society, it is inevitable. Can people work hard to create change? YES. Can people pull together to make this a cleaner greener world? YES. Can we save ourselves from the destructive powers we have unleashed on this planet? NO. It is too late for that. And the most amazing part of all this is that after being in existence in our current form for over ten thousand years, we were able to end everything with our actions of only the last one hundred and fifty years. A blink of an eye, really.

So, am I rearranging deck chairs on the titanic? No. Were people in WWII concentration camps wasting their time creating choirs and drawing and painting in their shelters? No. Because our world is ending, should we stop being ourselves, stop doing what we love, stop working with people to make it a better world? No. Were the musicians on the Titanic wrong to be playing as the boat went down? No. They were musicians and gave of their talents to make that horror-filled world a little better? I am a artist and a writer - what else would I do? I will continue to paint and express myself until the end whenever I die, whenever this world dies. I am a community organizer and I will also continue to organize people and communities to make this a better world. Why? Because I want to live in a better world than the one I live in today. Does that mean I will help save everyone from death brought on by our environmental collapse? No, it is beyond that.

Our financial system collapsed last year. Many people, experts and economists, had been predicting it for up to six or eight months before it happened. Yet, most people were taken by surprise. Now, the scientists and experts are telling us that our environmental system is on the verge of collapsing. Are you going to be taken by surprise?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Photographs: Water II

These are four more photos that are in the Project Art for Nature exhibit at the University of Minnesota at Morris starting at the end of this month. This first image is of tree reflections in the water on a sunny day. This is the first colorful water image I have taken and think that I will be exploring the richness of color in reflections in the future. I enjoy the fact that the water is in focus, but in places the reflections are not. This is a very fun piece.

This second photo is of reflections on a rather calm surface of water. If it were not for the dark reflections of pine trees, the ripples would not be visible. The black and white shapes in the water start to express a sense of yin/yang, but the eye is taken out of this by the two yellow sticks floating in the foreground. I also like the little bubbles and detris floating in the foreground. The contrast in the water was so high as evening was approaching, that the debris and bubbles look like a bunch of little dots. I also like that this photo is framed with a white mat. From a short distance the white of the photo starts to bleed into the mat.

These final two photos are of water lily pads on Rainy Lake. People living on Rainy Lake are starting to have problems with ecoli in the water. Every home on the lake pumps its drinking water from the lake. Residents are finding that they have to keep upgrading their filter systems as more development is happening. The evidence of problems is not just in the drinking water but in the lack of blooms on the lilypads. Each year it seems there are fewer and fewer blooms. This photo was taken in mid-to-late August and yet no blooms.
There are such things as indicator species - certain animals that are the first to be affected by pollution. Canaries were used in coal mines to indicate gas leaks. If the canary died, the humans had better leave the cave quickly. Frogs are considered an indicator species. Frogs will become malformed and die sooner than humans in an environment becoming hostile to life. I believe beauty is an indicator species when it comes to the human soul. Beauty will wilt and die in an environment becoming hostile to the human soul. I am serious when I ask "What is beautiful in your life?" I do want to know the answer. I also want to do what I can to create a healthy environment for our souls.

What's beautiful in your life?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Photographs: Water

I have been taking photographs of the Mississippi River as part of Project Art for Nature for the last year and a half. These photos have been resources for my paintings of the Mississippi, but I have come to enjoy the photos so much that I am framing them and hanging them in the PAN exhibit at the University of Minnesota at Morris. Displayed here are three of the seven photos.
Each PAN artist must choose two natural areas in which to work. My first site is the Mississippi River Gorge located between downtown Minneapolis and downtown Saint Paul. My second site is the Review Islands on Rainy Lake along the Minnesota/Canada border, a protected grouping of four islands owned by the Oberholtzer Foundation. Both sites are defined by water and have been created by erosion from volumes of water rushing past rock as well as each tiny wave and ripple slowly lapping against shore. These three photos deal with ripples as pattern on the surface of water. One starts to sense the rugged surface of water which grates away the land. There is also a sense of the volume of water underneath this surface that is at work.

I took my photos and did very little in terms of editing or changing them for this exhibit. I just tweeked the contrast a little. They are framed in black metal frames with a ragboard matte. The prints themselves are on matte heavyweight archival paper. I did not want the sheen of photopaper as I felt that a matte paper would communicate the volume and density of the water better.

If you are in the Morris area between October 22 and November 27 please stop in and see the show. There are ten other wonderful artists in the exhibit and it promises to be quite a show.

Monday, September 14, 2009

More Attempts at a Book Cover

I wasn't quite happy with the last cover I had completed (first image) a few days ago, so I spent a couple more hours at it. I looked over the cover design with a friend, Linda, at work and she had some good suggestions and ideas. I tried those out here in the next design. Changes included moving the ground/dirt aspect of the cover to the bottom of the design. We thought this might "ground" that part of the cover a little more and provide more room for the flower image. We both felt the flower seemed a little cramped in the first image. I also made the old photos look more brown instead of reddish - raw sienna instead of burnt sienna.

I eventually went back to the first image and made more subtle changes instead of the big changes. In the second design there was too much room for the flower and it seemed like I had to add branches and leaves to make it fill the space properly.

I liked the white stripe at the bottom of the first design. It frames the photos and keeps them in their place.  So, in my final design I included the stripe and enlarged the photos slightly so the right side fits the edge better. I also moved the photos down a little so there would be more room for the flower.

On the flower I made the leaves smaller which seemed to open up the space for a little longer stem and room for the words "Parenting and Nature."

All in all I am happy and this will be my final design. Now to tweak the book's interior just a little bit more.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Art Question: How do you make paintings that look dimensional?

What a great question from Carol V. How do you make paintings that look so dimensional? The key is contrast and edges.

Why contrast? Contrast is the tool used to create separation of shapes in a painting. Two shapes next to each other that are in great contrast will separate from each other and create a sense of space. Two shapes next to each other that do not have much contrast will not separate from each other and the sense of space between them will be minimized.

What does that mean?

Let's look at this cabbage painting as an example.
The cabbage seems to have volume and shape. Each leaf appears in front or behind another leaf. This is done by overlapping shapes, but it becomes convincing when you use contrast properly.

In the detail of three layers of the leaves, you can see that the leaves in the background are all darker than the leaf in front of them. The leaf in the center of the detail has a white edge at the top that is in contrast to the darker bodies of the background leaves. The central leaf then darkens as it approaches the two leaves in the front, at the bottom. This creates contrast with the lighter edges of the leaves in front. In this manner space is created, by using contrast between shapes.

Of course, contrast can only happen at an edge shared by two shapes. The stronger the contrast, the stronger the edge. There are edges within each leaf created by the veins. But the contrast and edges between the veins and the leaf are softer than the hard edges between two leaves.

This is the main way in which I create a sense of depth or dimension: by carefully creating or diminishing contrast at edges. There are other techniques you can use to enhance a sense of space, but that is for another time. If you check out the images in my gallery, or other paintings, you will begin to notice this wherever there is a strong sense of space.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Evolution of a Book Cover

I am busy trying to finalize the cover for my book Fertile Ground: Parenting and Nature. I completed the first cover a couple of years ago. I altered it for the first printing. Now that I am ready to start marketing the book more aggressively, I wanted a more professional looking cover. Here are images, in chronological order, of the development of the cover. I won't get into details about each design, but the overall design concept is to show that the fertile ground of human experience and nature are what feed and help a child to grow. The final design was influenced by the fact that when I went to the bookstore to look at books about parenting, I discovered that most of them have predominantly white covers. I'm not sure about the reasons for this, but it made me start to think about my own design and how I could improve it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Art Question: What Do I Do When A Painting Is Off to a Bad Start

I have not painted a flower-painting-of-the-month for August and here it is September already. So I thought I would paint a vase of flowers from the Farmer's Market. At the market I didn't see any flowers that grabbed me, but I figured I could do something with what was there. I brought a bunch of flowers home, divided them into groups for three different vases. One I gave to a friend as a house warming gift, the other two I sketched from. I had been at Mallard Island a few weeks back and busy as a bee upon my return, so I had not been in the studio for the last two to three weeks. So, here I sit with a bad start to a painting. I could tell that I haven't been in the studio for awhile; the flow wasn't there, I wasn't sure about my decisions, I seemed to be using the wrong size brushes and I didn't have an overall idea of what I was going to do.

Here is the image of the painting I have begun. Even the composition and concept are weak to me. My attempts at painting were clumsy and ineffective. My color mixing was like flatulence. Very little in this piece is working. By the time I was wrapping up for the evening I felt I was finally starting to have a feel for where this might go. I might be able to save it next time I paint, which I hope will be tomorrow night.

What to do when a painting starts out badly
There are two approaches to take when a painting starts out badly:
1. Walk away from it and come back later with fresh eyes. I actually went over to a friend's house for dinner after my bad start on this piece. Upon my return I had no clue as to how to make it better, but my mind was in a calmer place to make better decisions and to focus. Having not been in my studio for awhile my focus was not there when I started.  It is much easier and better to start out focused then to try to recover later.

2. Work your way through it until something happens that you like.
Once I returned with a better mindset, I was able to doodle with the work until I started to find something that was working for me. I started putting in the dark areas and fixing up some edges. I now feel that I will be able to apply some lines and paint over some wet areas in order to improve it and figure the next steps from there. Most paintings go through a stage of uncertainty that just needs to be worked through - sometimes you have to work really hard.  When the uncertainty is at the start of a painting you have to work even harder.

If I never feel good about a painting, I will wipe it off with a rag and start from the beginning. Most likely, a completely different subject.

The important thing is to come to a place where you are in the moment paying attention to the paint, the color, the object. If you can get to that place while painting you have won 90% of the battle. So much was going through my head while painting that I couldn't paint well. Having some dinner and enjoying some time with a friend and his daughter put me in a better place to pay attention - to paint. Part of the reason I believe I can save this painting is that I have begun to knock the rust from my painting muscles after some time off. I will probably be in a better place from the beginning next time.

Update: The painting was a complete loss. It went nowhere even with some work and I ended up painting something else on the canvas - oh,well.  This canvas helped me get back my focus - a small sacrifice.