Friday, October 2, 2009

Back to my greatest pleasure - figure class at the LOUVRE

"Camille" was my favourite painting done last year via the figure drawing (or painting in this case) class that I've taken for several years now at the Louvre in Paris.

Not many people visiting Paris know about it but there are public art classes offered at the Louvre in a number of different forms. Most famous is the renowned "Ecole du Louvre", which started off in the late 1800s as a center of instruction related to the Louvre's vast archeology collections but has now evolved in to one of the world's premier sites for Art History education and professional art curator training. Take a look at their beautiful (and multi-lingual) website for a taste of the offerings there.

The Ecole du Louvre also sponsors a series of free evening classes that run each year related to art history themes and are provided on a open seating basis and have art loving Parisians dashing from their workplaces on Friday evenings to get to the doors and stand in line to see if they can snare a seat for one of these packed, deeply appreciated classes, usually combining a lecture and slide show. The first time I attended one of these series, co-sponsored by the City of Paris, which, as one might imagine, has an amazing array of cultural and art related offerings, I was surprized that the course entitled 'Arts and Crafts of the City of Paris', actually started with the first presentation discussing artifacts of the Paleolithic age...! This was one of my earliest experiences of trying to wrap my head around the idea that in Europe the frame of reference really is much older than in North America. Long before a 'City of Paris' existed, there were artisans fashioning tools and ornaments, and, I should have realised that with the profound dedication of the French to the science and study of archeology, the class would go ALL the way back to the earliest known 'arts and crafts'. Nothing if not thorough, that was the beginning of an amazing chronological account, lasting over many months, of Friday evenings in the Louvre hearing and seeing images of art unfolding over the centuries within the confines of what later became the geographical area called the City of Paris. The Ecole de Louvre is particularly famous now for training the museum specialists and Art History professionals who later go one to curate and enrich the vast museum system in France. Full of innumerable riches, The Louve is just one of thousands of museums in France and the world that have is staffed by the incredibly well-educated professionals coming out of this institution. Beyond the three year professional certificate programme for art historians there is also a summer school programme that visiting international, non-professionals can participate in. So if you've ever had a desire to participate in this type of instruction, take a look at the offerings here.

But my area of delight is found in another wing of the Louvre building (can we say 'vast'), that which houses the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. "lesArtDeco" as the French call it, is a treasure trove of everything design related from haute couture to furniture to set design to Guimard Metro station designs. And, don't be fooled, the study of "lesArtsDeco" as a field that produced some of France's finest artists. Rodin, for example, was rejected for admission several times to the renowned Ecole de Beaux Arts, but became the seminal artist of his generation, ushering classical sculpture into the modern age with his passionate, interpretive work that turned the field of art on it's ear when he produced such masterpieces as Balzac and the Gates of Hell. And he was a graduate of l'Ecole des Arts Decoratifs. So, the decorative arts are no poor cousin to fine art in the French tradition, and it is a huge gift, and opportunity, that the Musee des Arts Deco has an open enrollment series of public art classes for both children and adults.

"Les Ateliers du Carrousel", which hosts nearly 2000 students in over 120 courses each year was founded in the 1950s under the auspices of the Museum of Decorative Arts and focuses in on the instruction of that the French call the "plastic and decorative arts". The term 'plastic arts' here means the arts that are made by hand, pliable, if you will - therefore all fine arts such as painting, drawing, sculpture, etc. fall into this category.

Over the years now of life in Paris I have lots of experiences in art classes in a variety of different settings, some of which I will tell you about here in the future, but the day I walked in to my first figure drawing class at the Louvre, I knew I was home. I will tell you more about it was this year unfolds, but right now, gotta go, and quit talking about the class before I miss it. More soon...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Back in the saddle

Ca y est, as the French would say - it's the "rentrée", the beginning of the school year in France is really the beginning of the business year as well, as everyone heads back to work and school after the long French summer holidays, usually taken in the month of August.

I'm thrilled to be back to my "modele vivant" class at the Louvre. There are a few landscapes and related posts I'd like to still put up from the end of the summer, but here are some initial quick sketches. I'll feeling a bit obsessed with feet these days. Feet and hands, always needing to be worked on. Happy rentrée everybody!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Day in the Life...

I finally got the opportunity the other day to try to paint the scene with the curving path and rolling farm fields near Auvers-sur-Oise that I talked about in my recent post and it was, unfortunately, one of those days when things seemed destined to go wrong. I got out to the spot early and it was cold and bright, exactly the type of weather I like best, but within a few minutes stuff started to happen…

First, as I was setting up I realised a key screw had fallen out somewhere along the way and my field easel was unstable and lopsided. It would still stand up but I found myself adjusting the legs to compensate for the angle of the lopsidedness. That was pretty comical, but I decided to keep going.

Then other stuff started happening… first of all, not one, but two, unlucky flies decided to commit suicide in puddles of freshly squeezed paint on my palette. Sad sacrifice to art, but, head bowed for a short moment of silence after each one, I kept going. I wasn’t feeling good, however, about the painting as it was going on to the canvas. I was kind of struggling, despite all the prep work I’d done in that place before and in the back of my mind I kept remembering a quote I’d read somewhere that was attributed to John Singer Sargent - that if the initial placement and establishment of the painting on the canvas didn‘t feel right - that no matter how much the artist worked with it, it never would - better to start another painting. But I kept going, of course, and then, after I’d finally committed myself with big swaths of paint for the underpainting, a breeze picked up and blew up a layer of fine dirt. Drag. Or as the French would say, Zut! After chasing down my wide-brimmed hat, which had also blown off in the gust, I realised the canvas was full of dirt. I was dismayed, but then was thinking well remember those Monet beach scenes where there’s sand in the paint?, and besides, it gives texture, right? The problem was that this was mostly really fine dirt - so it acted like pigment when I tried to paint over some of the lighter parts - and just muddied all the colour. Imagine a fine layer of brown ochre pigment being peppered all over all your delicately blended paints, kind of like cocoa powder sprinkled on top of a cappuccino. Drag-o-rama. Double ZUT!

About that time I spotted the first of what seemed to be a large group of randonneurs (French for hikers) coming into my field of vision, walking up the country road I was painting, heading straight for me. There were about 25 people in the first group. Yes, the first group - because within the next half hour there were about 4 more groups that came up the road. Counting the stragglers I figure a total of around 200 people came by within the following two hours. And this is in a pretty isolated spot - or at least I had thought so before that day. As the different groups and personalities shuffled by, many were very curious, as people often are when they come upon a painter at work out “dans la nature” and, as many of you plein air painters can attest to in similar circumstances I'm sure, they had an interesting range of reactions. Some folks, usually the parents trying to corral restless children, insisted on standing off at a stone’s throw whispering in little huddles - as if I wouldn’t notice them. Funny, people must imagine you’re so concentrated on your painting that your hearing is disengaged and it’s not going to be noticed if they stage whisper. Others coming up and standing over my shoulder opining unabashedly about my efforts to each other and basically ignoring me. And then still others who definitely did want to engage me in conversation, but conversations that ran along long the lines of “Oh I really admire what you are doing Madame, I wish I could do the same, I have always wanted to be a painter. Have you always wanted to be an artist? Oh you have an accent, where are you from? Do you like France? Do you realise Van Gogh painted here? Yes, it is rather cheeky of you to paint in the same place as Van Gogh. Don't you think? I wouldn’t dare. What’s the name of your website? Oh, that’s too long a name, can’t you write it down for me? I don't have any paper with me, but you have lots of supplies there. By the way, my brother is an Internet genius and he can help you figure out how to use the Internet to market your artwork. First thing he will do is to help you figure out how to choose a shorter name for your blog. Can I take a picture of you and your painting… now can you hold the brush up to the canvas and paint in that blue area? Do you realise your sky is looking a little brown?"

By about the third group I had picked up the story of how they all belonged to a regional hiking group and that was their day to explore the Auvers-sur-Oise area. Fantastique...quelle chance!

While all this on an average day wouldn’t have bothered me too much, at least in smaller doses, but 200 people coming by on one of my worst days was hard to swallow. I realised that while I’m not against having pleasant conversations with people who come along and had got somewhat used to dealing with folks’ comments while working in plein air, it sure is a lot easier to deal with them when you feel happy about the work that you’re producing on your canvas. On a bad day - it’s not much fun.

After about an hour, between the third and forth wave of hikers, I decided to abandon my carefully plotted out, but unlucky, painting and try to do something much looser to clear out the bad vibes and get a fresh start. (Finally listening to my inner John Singer Sargent.) I had thrown an extra canvas in my car in the morning, so I pulled that out, together with a palette knife, took a couple of deep breaths and started painting anew. Normally I love to paint the looser the better, and forgoing brushes altogether often helps me get out of the critical place in my head. Painting with sticks and/or fingers are the most fun and can move me out of some very frustrated places. But, not this day, it just wasn’t flowing. The second painting was even worse than the first, a frustrated mess really. And then suddenly I realised there was another group headed up the road toward me, and it looked like a big one, at least 50 people. I’m not proud, I have to admit I had to move fast to get the really ugly knife painted canvas in to the trunk of my car, and to get the less ugly first canvas back on to my easel in just enough time to steel myself for the onslaught of comments. Shameful but true.

I admit it - it got that bad.

After that last group passed, and I realized how low I had sunk I finally gave up and started packing up my things. In the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara: tomorrow would be another day. And some day I’ll try again. But I will absolutely check the Internet first on the Hikers Association of the Oise Valley, to make sure they are hiking somewhere else that day. And, maybe I’ll take along three empty canvases… and fly repellent.

So, as you might imagine I’ve debated long and hard about putting this unlucky canvas up here on my blog. Maybe it’s not SO bad, but it’s not great either. That elusive painting spot stays on my list of scenes I want to paint, but I’ll wait - probably quite a while - before trying again. So, here it is, and yes, the black spots you see in the sky and foreground are dirt. Click on the image for a close-up view. I’ll see if I can maybe pick the dirt out later when the painting is dry. And tomorrow will be another day.

And for an example of a lovely, beautifully loose painting of a country road, check out Carol Marine's work here. A fantastic artist whose blog I follow regularly and to whose level of accomplishment I aspire.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Auvers Encore

OK, I confess, I've become a bit obsessed with Auvers-sur-Oise this summer, and although I've never particualrly been overly pulled by his art, I seem to be having a kind of late adolescent obsession with Vincent van Gogh this summer too. I've spent most of my free weekends haunting the countryside around Auvers-sur-Oise. As I mentioned in my earlier post, it is an unusually beautiful area and was the subject matter and inspiration for Van Gogh in the last days of his life before his death in 1890.

Been driving around the back roads, exploring lots of nooks and crannies and have found this one spot that I would love to paint from, but circumstances (weather, not enough time, the crops being harvested and me in the way, etc.) have resulted in my only having been able to do a few studies there. I hope, one day, to actually paint the scene en plein air.

In the meantime I thought I'd go ahead and share my preparations with you, photos, an ink sketch, and today's little watercolour sketch. It was late in the afternoon when I got there today and the shadows were quickly creeping into the scene, but I still had a lot of fun. This rolling countryside has really gotten into my blood.

Today, the same set of adolescent boys that I have seen a couple of times there before, came up and talked to me. Trying to figure out why anybody would be wanting to paint the farm fields they are so hellbent on getting away from as soon as they are old enough.

I was really touched when one of them asked if I minded them walking on up the road I was painting - they didn't want to spoil my view.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Vincent's Fields

Oil on canvas, 20 x 50 cm

Auvers-sur-Oise was the place Vincent van Gogh spent the last three months of his life and produced over 75 paintings in 70 days. Today's Auvers is still fairly simple. It is beautiful and bathed in that unusual light that apparently fascinated him, and fascinates many painters today, including me.

I am lucky enough to live about a half hour away from Auvers, which is to the northwest of Paris, and it is exquisite painting country. There is something about the curve of the earth there, the way sky and the arcs of slightly hilly fields come together that is particularly satisfying and beautiful.

When I finally got a car after having lived my first four years in Paris as a pedestrian and metro-rider, one of my first places of pilgrimage was to Giverny. The second was to Auvers-sur-Oise. The road then was hopelessly full of potholes and the old car I was driving, a gift from a friend because it was way past its prime, was equally hopelessly lacking in shock absorbers. So it was a slow-going, jarring, but unprosaic journey into the valley of the Oise river that meandered along and got more and more beautiful with every bend in the road. Green and flowers abounded, along with beautiful 200 year-old homes flocking the hillsides. One often sees those homes in the more picturesque outskirts of Paris. They were built by the bourgeoisie to escape the heat of Paris in summer around the turn of the nineteenth century.

When I first went eight years ago, the place was surprisingly quiet. There was a small museum set up where Van Gogh had last rented a room, the same room he died in later after having shot himself in the chest on the night of 27 August 1890. The sadness of his mental illness and suicide can only be balanced out slightly by the glory of his work. Those wild, blazing canvases of searing colour and movement and feeling that affect all of us who gaze upon them - they are his gifts to us.

Vincent van Gogh, Champs de blé aux corbeaux, July 1890

"Vincent's Fields" is only about the forth landscape I've ever attempted. As you can see from my earlier posts, I'm passionately addicted to figure drawing and painting, and working with live models. So, I have no idea really, whether this landscape is any good or not. I usually need to put things away for a while and then look at them later to have any perspective on my own work anyway. I do know that at one point an incredible set of storm clouds rolled in, and then that fast wind that comes before a storm, and I got totally excited about painting those clouds and trying to hang on to the canvas at the same time. I was kind of wildly slapping paint on the surface and by the time the clouds had blown on by, out of my range of vision for the painting, I realised, oh yeah, there are the fields to paint as well... (I was a little emotionally spent by that point.)

Anyway, I seem to be drawn a lot to Auvers these days and will write more about some recent experiences there in coming posts. The roads have been made smooth now and there is a beautifully maintained museum and restaurant at the Auberge Ravoux where Van Gogh lived out those last months of his life. The whole town is well organised for walking and seeing exactly where Van Gogh painted many of those incredible pieces. It always was, but is even more now, a pleasure to visit.

Figure drawing classes at the Louvre are on hold for the summer thus the good weather has driven me outside. We'll see what other canvases I can come up with. Compared to Van Gogh's record I've only produced one canvas in the last 70 days.

All the best, as always, to all of you.

"Vincent's Fields" photo courtesy of Sophie O'Gorman

Plein air/canvas photo courtesy of Mitchell R. Bloom

Thursday, May 21, 2009


A long time ago in a previous life, I took an art therapy class. I was really interested in the intersection between art and therapeutic processes, being an artist and a family therapist at the time, and I eventually incorporated a number of art techniques into my work with families. Sometimes I would have the whole family work on an art project together, the point not being what they produced, but rather that along the way most of the family dynamics would reveal themselves during the process.

I especially found this experience moving, for some reason, when the dads would be involved. I guess that's because it seems like you don't often see fathers doing activities with their kids in public much beyond organised sports (at least where I'm from you don't). And to see a whole family down on the floor drawing together, the adults sharing crayons with the kids, (crayons usually being the kids' domain) always touched me.

One of the art therapy techniques that I picked up and modified a bit once I got to Paris and started taking night classes at Parsons, was the scribble drawing. In art therapy there is a consciousness about that tender passage point between going from the white page in front of you, to putting marks on it. You want to start out gently, without overwhelming people's sensations. For example you wouldn't want to use a liquid medium right away because it could be evocative of blood or other bodily fluids. And since I worked a lot with child abuse victims at the time, that was a really important point to me.

So I memorised the suggested way to start out with the simplest of tools. You can begin with a fresh piece of paper and a pencil. First instruction: put a dot anywhere on the page. There we go! The pristine aspect of the page is broken, transcended, might be a better word - and we're already in different territory. Second instruction: scribble - go ahead, let loose! Third instruction: faster! Forth instruction: Now take a new piece of paper put the pencil in the middle, close your eyes, hang on to the page with your other hand, and scribble for one minute. I'll time you. GO.

Time's up.

Then you'd have the person put the pencil down and take a look at the drawing. What do you think? Do you see any interesting shapes in there? A duck? A moon? A sailboat? A snake? OK, now turn it around and look at it from all the different sides, what do you see now? Then you'd have the person take up the pencil and color in some of the images they had identified. I didn't get in to interpreting any of the images (always more reflective of the person gazing upon the drawing than the person who did it, I think) but rather we just walked through the gate together - they had just made their first scribble drawing, from an empty space to a full page, and it was fun along the way.

And I loved, and still love, doing this exercise myself. I do it all the time to loosen up at the beginning of a drawing/painting session. And once I got to Paris and started taking my continuing ed class in figure drawing at Parsons (Parsons was pretty expensive and I could only afford one class at a time and still stay in coffee money), I had and instructor named Bill MacHenry who suggested we do an exercise of one minute, graphite or charcoal on the page, hand always moving - fast - and only looking at the model, no looking at the page until the minute was up. Gorgeous! How fun. Plus, there they were, my two loves (art and therapy) colliding with each other and melding.

The really fascinating thing I noticed in doing this exercise while gazing upon a model was that the masses of energy and form in the drawings had come through via an instinctual level - you could discern the figure, and the emotion in the pose once it was on the paper, without ever having analysed it or made conscious decisions about how to represent it on the page. No measuring, just gazing and hand perpetually moving. And at the end of the minute - it just existed, in another form in front of your eyes once you did take a look at the page.

Needless to say, I've stuck with this exercise and use it a lot to loosen myself up whenever I feel tight or frustrated or simply want to change tracks when doing my art. This drawing "Center" feels like a really good example of the experience - charcoal with a touch of white chalk, done in maybe 3 minutes with just a few indicative lines added in during, say, the last thirty seconds - in order to coalesce the figure and add some light/dark values, et voila! It exists. Amazing fun.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Monday, May 18, 2009

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Inevitably shimmering...

What is that essence of art, life, and love, for that matter, that shimmers, scintilates, gives you goose bumps and leads to flights of fancy? That essence of things that make you catch your breathe in preparation of offerings of beauty that nestle into our being, delighting us, challenging us, perplexing us?

Welcome to my exploration...

For more of my art and photographs please see: