Enjoy life now... it has an expiration date.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Oh the value of those little 4" x 6" inch cards.....

We're talking about the WetCanvas Vacation Dreams project (see post dated July 25 for details). This is my first project of this type and so far it's been a ton of fun... but, happily, it's also been a wonderful learning experience.... and I have lots more cards yet to make! Besides the obvious benefits of receiving keepsake original art from around the world, there's also the fun of doing lots of little mini paintings. Plus, having a deadline helps keep me motivated and on track.

What have I learned so far that has me raving about this project? Read on....

- Because there's so much latitude in subject choice I'm finding out exactly what subjects hold my interest long enough for me to complete a painting. Some of my choices have surprised me. I'd always envisioned myself painting fresh landscapes with clear colors, lots of blues and greens (a la Maine, England, Ireland, etc). While I still love those subjects, I've also been strongly drawn to portraiture, some architectural themes, desert themes, and "macro" style pictures.

- Doing lots of little paintings gives me a wonderful freedom to fail. This frees my "inner painter" from my "inner critic" and for me, these two often work in opposition to each other. After all, it's only a little piece of paper that measures a mere 4" x 6" ... so what if it comes out horribly? Trash it and start a new one! No problem, no pressure! This freedom has been part of what has helped me to choose subjects I might not have chosen if I were doing a larger painting.

- I've noticed my painting habits changing as I continue making cards. It's a "tight focus" thing versus a "big picture" thing. I used to get so involved in one little area, trying to achieve perfection before I moved on, that I'd frequently get that part too dark, too detailed, too saturated, too whatever, and then have to go back and adjust it to blend in with the rest of the picture. Today, as I was working on one of the cards, I noticed I was steadily moving around the picture. A little here, a little there so that the entire picture was being completed in a much more balanced way. I also noticed that working this way I did very little correcting, erasing or re-coloring.

- I'm learning to walk away from the picture. It's easy for me to get lost in a painting. It's so totally absorbing, so fascinating that I lose track of time... and sometimes lose perspective as well. I've noticed that when I take a break, even if it's only 10 or 15 minutes, when I return I see the picture afresh and spot things that I didn't see when I'd been hovering over it like a protective mother hen for two hours.

- My confidence is picking up with every card I complete. I've tried to keep in mind past mistakes that I don't want to repeat, and successes that I do want to repeat. When I look at a reference photo now I find that, with each new experience under my belt, it's becoming easier to visualize the photo as a painting.... with the color and compositional changes it might need to make it a more interesting picture.

- I'm just flat out enjoying switching between, and sometimes mixing, colored pencil and watercolor. I'm experimenting to my heart's delight.... after all, it's only a 4x6 piece of paper, so what if it comes out horribly................. and well, we've already covered this!

- Last, but not least, I've learned that there are lots of really nice people out there who are willing to share painting tips and encourage each other along the way. A sincere "Thank You" to Jeanne Grant who nudged me into this first WC project and who has inspired me with all of her colorful cards. Thanks, Jeanne, it's been a lot of fun already!

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Sewing Box

Well, it's been one of those kind of weeks. Although I don't like to wish my life away, I'm glad the week is over and the weekend is here. Plus, the hubby's band is not playing this weekend so we've got a weekend at home (Woo Hoo!). I did get my column written (I write a monthly column for a little rural newspaper in a neighboring town) and have decided to post it here on the blog. I'm working on a Vacation Dream card tonight and will be mailing some of those out..... probably next week.

So, until we get back to art, we're writing. Here's my latest column:

The Sewing Box

At our house sewing repairs crop up regularly. The hubby is forever tearing holes in his pants pockets or has a shirt that needs a button sewing on. Such tasks bring my old sewing box off the shelf and into service.

When you’ve owned and used an item for almost forty years you’ve seen it so many times that you really don’t see it anymore. Last week, I settled down at the kitchen table with my sewing box to repair a pair of work pants. Bright sunlight streaming in through double windows make the kitchen a favorite spot for hand sewing. Needle threaded, I started the repair. As I stitched in and out, working in a smooth rhythm, I could feel myself relaxing. I glanced over at my sewing box. The light made the faded colors seem a little livelier. Around the edges of the box the fabric folded over from the outside to the inside and here the original colors could still be seen. My Mom bought the sewing box for me from Jessop’s, a fine department store in Notttingham, England, before we moved to the U.S. Oval shaped and covered with a yellow/mustard fabric in a stylized floral pattern, it plainly stated "early 1970’s". I remember the thrill of becoming the owning of a "proper" sewing box. It had a lift out top tray with divided sections for the various sewing notions and a roomy bottom layer large enough to store scissors and a quite a few spools of thread. I was a bit ambivalent about the fabric color and bold pattern, but, nevertheless it was mine to use and cherish and I did.

As I continued making stitches, my attention kept returning to the sewing box. I thought of its contents: assorted colors of thread, beeswax to help the thread sew smoothly, a seam ripper, buttons, pins, tailor’s chalk, other odds and ends - and needles. Lots of needles. Fine needles for delicate sewing and sturdy short needles for quilting. Large needles for repairs on tough fabrics. Curved needles for crafts and huge needles with tips smoothly rounded for sewing together the individually knitted pieces of a sweater. And embroidery needles. Who in the world uses embroidery needles these days I wondered? I realized with a start that my sewing box said as much about me as it did about the era in which it was purchased. Mind drifting, I was once again sitting in sewing class. High school. England. In that time, all girls learned to sew. A young lady was not considered to have a well-rounded education without a working knowledge of basic and decorative sewing skills. Of course, girls also took the usual academic subjects, but the "domestic arts" classes of cookery and sewing were a treat. I loved the feel of the fine new fabric under my fingers and the satisfaction of a job well done when a garment turned out nicely. I thought about the variety of stitches we learned: blanket stitch to finish raw edges, hidden French seams for garment strength and neatness, smocking for charming children’s dresses or sundresses, backstitching for strong repairs (what I was doing at that very moment) and embroidery stitches with enticing names like satin stitch, French knot, stem stitch, and chain stitch. In addition to sewing at school, my Mom is, and has been for years, a skilled seamstress. As a youngster it was fun to use scraps from her latest project to make clothes and adornments for my doll. Besides keeping my sewing box all these years, I also kept my doll. "Jane" is now 46 years old, although unlike me, she hasn’t aged a day and looks almost as fresh and pretty as the Christmas morning Santa left her for me. She sits on top of the filing cabinet in my office/studio, wearing a faded dress. Around the hem of the dress is a narrow ribbon trim held there by the clumsy, loving stitches of a young girl learning to sew.

As I sat stitching and reminiscing, I wondered how many of today’s young girls acquired the home skills that my generation did. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a lot. And I guess these days there’s not much incentive to learn to sew.... it’s just easier to discard a garment in need of repair. Do young girls today even own a sewing box?

In some ways I envy today’s generation; especially the ease with which they handle technology. Yet, while I envy them on one hand, I feel sorry for them on the other hand. Kids grow up entirely too fast these days. Slow growth is better. Something is missing. I can’t imagine many of today’s kids playing a game of marbles, enthusiastically constructing their own makeshift club hideaway or knitting a scarf. Things we did as kids. But those kinds of activities bring wonderful benefits. Like time to think. Time to be creative. Time to dream. Time. The quiet, slower activities of my generation and generations past gave the gift of time.

I finished the repair and folded the pants. Once again, they were ready to wear. I saved a few dollars by repairing instead of replacing and felt refreshed by the lull in my day. While my fingers were busy, my mind was relaxed. A most content state. A few minutes with the sewing box had not only restored the pants - it had restored me.

Copyright 2008 by Teresa Houston. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced in any form without written consent of the author.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Latest CP work...

Top: Reference image

Bottom: Watercolor and Colored Pencil Portrait

Okay... something I've worked on that I can post!

As you know, I've been working on cards for the WC Vacation Dreams project and those works don't get posted until they reach the recipient. Since I've haven't mailed any yet, none of them have reached their destination (imagine that!) I plan to batch mail when I get a bunch completed.

The work I'm posting today started out as one of those cards, since it's a portrait of a little boy in Basque, Spain (image from the Reference Image Library at WC.... thank you Minoux!) who appears to be dressed in costume. Perhaps he's part of a festival?

When I saw the photo I thought he was just adorable and had to draw him. What started as a Vacation Card turned into a mini course in CP portraiture. I thoroughly enjoyed painting this portrait and feel like I learned a lot. I underpainted the boy's scarf, hat and shirt and the tree and greenery in watercolor as an experiment to see if laying down an application of color in non-critical areas would make the CP process a little faster. I'm happy to report that it did. His face was worked entirely in colored pencil. I left the background/greenery loose because I wanted to focus attention on the boy.

I had some problems with this portrait. A couple of areas I worked, reworked, then reworked some more. I'm surprised I didn't make a hole all the way through the paper (used Stonehenge, BTW... some tough paper, that). I'm really trying to get out of this reworking thing that I do but at least I am beginning to understand my own creative process. I've learned that I need to visualize how I want it to look before even pick up a colored pencil. For me, trying to paint without knowing what I want to achieve is like trying to get somewhere I've never been without a map. Yep, a lot of wrong turns and missed turns (i.e. work and rework). I've also learned that when I'm painting I need to "be there now". Painting takes intense focus- the minute my mind starts straying while I'm painting you can pretty well bet it's going to be an area that will have to be reworked.

Overall, I was fairly pleased with this portrait, although after I scanned it I saw a couple of areas I'd like to touch up (read "rework"!) and areas where I strayed from the reference. It's amazing how scanning the work and placing it alongside the original image on your computer screen seems to highlight the problem areas that were previously hard to spot.

I think for the next few paint sessions I'll be in watercolor and completing more Vacation Cards. Although I do sort of have my next portrait in mind!

As an aside, yesterday I froze 22 quarts of tomato gravy (uncooked that would equal about 30-35 quarts of tomatoes that were prepared). Right now I don't even want to look at a tomato. My hubby calculated that we could have tomato gravy with breakfast almost every other week for the next year! He then proposed that we have another "day in tomatoes" so we could have tomato gravy every week. After a less-than-enthusiastic look from me the idea was abandoned. For those of you who are wondering what the heck tomato gravy is... well, it's a regional Southern specialty. Basically, it's a seasoned tomato sauce that a lot of folks like to spoon over rice, scrambled eggs... whatever. I'm not a fan of tomato gravy.... I'm just the person who makes it and serves it!

More Goodies From the Mailbox!

What fun! More WC Vacation Cards have arrived!
At top: "Floating Down the Bella Coola 1" from Joe in Florida
Center: Snorkeling in Cabo San Lucas from Joan in New York
Bottom: "Soupfish" from Bonnie in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Thanks to all of you... they're beautiful!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Received My First Ever Project Card!

Woo Hoo! Look what came in the mail! I joined a WC project "Vacation Dreams" (see post for July 25) and received my first card. How exciting it was to open the envelope knowing there was a piece of original art from someone in another state! The beautiful watercolor scene is of a natural bridge in Aruba. Thank you, Mary... I love it!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Yep... still here!

(above) Skin Tone Bar, (below) Smooth Bristol swatch
I got an email today from a blog friend who inquired if I was "still there" or had I gotten lost in the berry bushes? Hmmm.... well, since the title of this blog does include blueberries here's the rundown on the berry situation: On Saturday, since the hubby's band was not playing (a "free" Saturday! Woo Hoo!) I got up bright and early, 5:45 am to be precise, and began picking blueberries at 6:30 a.m. Figured I'd beat the heat. I figured wrong. Instead of being finished at around 10:30 as I hoped, I was still picking at close to 1 p.m. And it was miserably hot by then. Long story short- I hope that was the last major pick of the season. As far as I'm concerned the birds, deer and all other hungry critters can HAVE the blueberries!!

Okay, now that I've gotten that out of my system, let's forget about nearly 100 degree heat, spiders, wasps and scratchy branches to concentrate on art!

Yes, I have been working at my little art table. I've completed two cards for the WC project Vacation Dreams and started on the third. Since the third card will be a mini portrait I studied Ann Kullberg's book "Colored Pencil Portraits Step by Step" and, as the book recommended, made a skin tone bar. The idea behind this skin tone bar is that it gives you practically every shade of skin you'll need (or close to it - just modify as needed). I also made a couple of "value viewers" which are just a piece of white cardboard with a hole punched in the middle. You lay one value viewer on the reference photo you're using in the spot where you're deciding what colors to use, and lay the other value viewer on the skin tone bar and then move it around until you get a close match for your reference photo. You then know what colors you need to achieve that particular shade of skin. Now this may sound very quick and simple; it is simple, but it's certainly not quick. There are two layers of base color (first layer is cream, second layer is light peach) that represent the lightest of skin tones. Then all the other colors are added, layer by layer. Well, there are 21 -yes, twenty-one! - additional colors. That means 23 total layers on part of the skin tone bar. Yep, that's what I thought too. But I persevered, sitting at my art table dutifully making light vertical strokes while talking on the phone, watching the birds, eating a banana, getting a year older. Well, perhaps the last one is a slight exaggeration.

It was definitely slow going, but I did learn a lot. I learned:
  • Ann Kullberg has the patience of Job

  • I will most likely have a crippling case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in my right wrist if I do many portraits with a lot of skin that is in the shade (i.e. requiring most of those 23 layers). Consequently, all of my portraits will be of people in bright sunshine only. Just kidding.

  • I love my electric pencil sharpener. Yes I do. Save that wrist for the layers.

  • Though initially skeptical, I found out you really can put 23 layers of colored pencil (using light to medium pressure) on Stonehenge paper. Impressive paper.

  • Though even more skeptical, I found out that if you use VERY light pressure, you can also put 23 layers on Smooth Bristol. Honestly. See swatch above.

  • I love the even smoothness of CP on Smooth Bristol.

  • I now understand why Ann Kullberg recommends using a scumbling/"brillo pad" technique (light, smooth overlapping circular strokes) to get a nice even finish for skin. Even though I was careful to be as consistent as possible with my vertical strokes they were still visible in the skin tone bar. This may not necessarily be a bad thing (I think the consistency is more important than the stroke style) but for the times when do you want a super smooth look the scumbling works better than the vertical strokes.

  • Despite the s-l-o-w, S--L--O--W rate of application and the many layers it can require, I love colored pencil. I love its immediacy.... no mixing, no wetting, no washing brushes.... just pick up and "paint". Brilliantly simple!

  • Since I also still love watercolor I'd like to try combining the two and see how that works. Seems like an underpainting of watercolor would definitely speed things along. Then use colored pencil for all of the details that I dearly love.

Last, but not least..... if you've sent an email to me via my gmail address (on the blog) and have not received a reply - I just found out today that the replies I've sent out the last week or so did not go through. I'm not sure what the problem is, nor how to fix it, but I'll be trying to get it worked out. I have replied to all incoming emails so if you did not receive a reply please email me again and let me know - I'll send you a reply using an alternate email address. Thanks!

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