The Unlikely Dance series: finished, and soon to be shown!

Unlikely Dance: Roundabout - 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas
Unlikely Dance: Roundabout – 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas

Finally, I’ve finished the Unlikely Dance series — and what a journey it’s been: a year and a half of learn-as-you go planning and painting! Except for the first one I’ve started each piece with a growing sense of confidence, only to be waylaid by an obstacle or three in the form of illness, competing time demands, technical issues, composition, lighting, line…

In the case of Unlikely Dance: Roundabout, the first issue was naming; I didn’t have the piece finally composed when the call came for a list of exhibit information. Knowing at least what dance figures I was using, I called it “Unlikely Dance: Velveteen,” for the velveteen waistcoats the figures wear. But, unhappy with the provisional visual context, I decided to change from Cutler Gardens to a shoot in downtown Binghamton’s courthouse square, and settled on the new traffic circle as an unlikely — and visually interesting — dance site. The light was wonderful, and shot specifically to match the angle of the sun in the original photos of the figures. So I renamed it “Unlikely Dance: Roundabout,” for a nice dance-like reference. That caused some confusion about the exhibit name… but all is well now, and the show is scheduled to open on First Friday, November 1.

Skintones palette for Roundabout
Skintones palette for Roundabout – warm lights and cool shadows

On the painting end of things, the primary challenge of this piece was the composition, which proved to be overly heavy on the right side. The angles of the figures #2 and #3, the mass of the neoclassical bank building on the right, and the unstable curved line of the traffic circle’s edge all conspired to rotate and lean in that direction; I actually found myself tilting my head when I looked at it. The darker buildings and the cloud formation on the left were meant to counterbalance that effect, but they seemed to be outweighed.

Fortunately, a darkening of left-hand elements, a lightening of the right-hand elements, a few added or revised stabilizing vertical elements (the bank window, the central figure’s spindle, the end of the cloud formation, a subtle color trail in the sky) worked pretty well without spoiling the dynamics. It’s all a lot easier to say than it was to do, but I’m happy with it now.

So: the exhibit! The culminating show of this grant-funded painting project will be in the gallery space at the Broome County Arts Council, 81 State St., Suite 501, in Binghamton. Along with the complete series of finished paintings, I’ll be showing studies and preparatory materials with each piece. Read more about it here!

Now I have to get all those smaller materials matted and framed — and in some cases, ready to show — and get print-quality photos of all the paintings in the series, to post for sale in my online shops in time for the show.

Here’s the progression of “Roundabout” as it went together:


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The “Unlikely Dance” project was made possible by a grant from the Artists Fund of the Community Foundation for South Central New York, facilitated by the Broome County Arts Council.

Down to the wire with Unlikely Dance

Unlikely Dance: Confluence, 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas
Unlikely Dance: Confluence, 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas

My Unlikely Dance grant period is over on November 1; today is October 2, and I have one more painting to do. Yes — it’s deadline time again. In fact, I have a solo show of the completed grant-funded Unlikely Dance series OPENING on November 1 (details on that to come). That means I really have to have this last painting finished by the 24th so it’s dry when I hang the show on the 29th and 30th. Yikes. Work steadily, and hope that everything comes together well — that’s my plan.

It’s the second part of that plan that didn’t work on the piece I just finished (above), and I blame the Pre-Raphaelites. You know the Pre-Raphaelites, that super-sincere, uber-romantic, technically amazing group of 19th century English artists? I’ve loved them since my college days, when my second-generation abstract expressionist instructors were horrified by that forbidden love. I wrote papers on the Pre-Raphs. I collected books on them. I hung prints of their works on my walls. Meanwhile, over the last 15 or 20 years, they’ve become enormously popular in the mainstream. Oh, it’s gorgeous, schlocky stuff, and I still love it. But it’s not where I’m going with my own work. What happened was, after I’d done the underpainting of Unlikely Dance #5 – Confluence – I was unsure of how to proceed with the foliage of the tree, both on the trunk and over the figures. So I pulled an art book from the shelf to consult… a book called “The English Dreamers,” a collection of Pre-Raph and related works.

I’m so easily unconsciously influenced by others’ work I love — it amazes me sometimes. It just happens, somehow — images come off the ends of my brushes, with no conscious thought of the original on my part, that reflect some art I’ve recently seen. (Take for example the Della Francesca-looking face, far right, in Unlikely Dance: Golden Clouds, which appeared just after I’d seen “Piero Della Francesca in America” at the Frick.) So Confluence turned itself into a Pre-Raph imitation: pretty, detailed, and without visual impact of any kind. I loved it — until I suddenly hated it.

I despaired. I combed the internet for clues. I discussed on Facebook. But in the end, I went back to Degas, and then, for some reason, to John Singer Sargent. I own books on Degas, but not on Sargent, so I went to the public library and borrowed a couple. I’ve seen and admired more of his work recently, thanks to a Facebook page called I Require Art, but knew little about him except that he was American, turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th), and had painted Portrait of Madame X, that wonderful profile portrait we had to learn in art history. He was a master of “bravado brushwork,” (his idol, Diego Velazquez, was, as well) and that’s what I was after. Degas was never as consistent as Sargent, so I spent a couple of days perusing Sargent… and it worked. As I posted on my professional page on FB, “Confluence 18 – finished at last! John Singer Sargent certainly had a thing or two to teach me, this time around. Clarified the light source, punched up the contrast, simplified many elements, changed a head. I could go on…”

So now I’ll go on. Here’s what got straightened around:

1. In the first place, I’d made a composition with four equal figures, and that’s a no-no. Three, yes. Five, yes. Not four. I realized that in my previous paintings of four figures, I’d singled out one in some way, so it read as three plus one, rather than four. How to do that here?

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent 1882
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent 1882

After a couple of days with my library books, I turned back to Sargent’s portrait of four young girls — The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit — and noted how he’d not only singled out the sitting figure for that necessary “three-plus-one” compositional effect, but also set them in varying degrees of light , with one girl barely visible in the shadows.

2. I’d gotten far too detailed and democratic with the tree on the left, and it was a distraction. So I painted a dark glaze, made with a brownish “mother grey,*” over the tree trunk, and then over the foremost figure, which overlapped the tree. This solved the problem of visual clutter, of singling out one of the four figures, AND of the next —

3. My light source wasn’t clearly defined. I had light falling on the back of the left-most figure (#1), on the backs of the two right-most figures (#3 and #4), and on the face of the second-from left figure (#2). The face of figure #4 was also in multi-directional light, and I had dappled light falling through the foliage onto the grass.

My current palette, clockwise from left: titanium white, cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, cobalt violet, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian, sap green, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna
My current palette, clockwise from left: titanium white, cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, cobalt violet, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian, sap green, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna. *Mother grey is made up of all of these colors mixed together. This preserves and promotes color harmony within the painting.

With the dark glaze on the figure #1 and the tree, one of my light sources went away. With a change of head on figure #4 and a diminution of highlights in the figures’ black dresses, the light became more defined and less ambiguous. And with a slight shading of figure #2’s face, that ambiguity gave way. I also gave the piece more contrast, mostly by making the darks darker — divisions between rocks, the underside of the waterway under the bridge, and the barely-visible rocks under the water on the right.

And I think it all worked. I have impact. I have definition. And I have two weeks left to paint Unlikely Dance: Velveteen! I can do it.

The “Unlikely Dance” project was made possible by a grant from the Artists Fund of the Community Foundation for South Central New York
To follow my progress in Unlikely Dance, just click on the “Unlikely Dance” link under TOPICS, on the left of any page in this blog.

Unlikely Dance: Fresh photos, fresh paint

The Ballyclare Irish Dancers, in the bandstand at Recreation Park
The Ballyclare Irish Dancers, in the bandstand at Recreation Park
Last evening, in the heavy summer heat and humidity that’s settled over the Binghamton area, I photographed a women’s dance group called the Ballyclare Irish Dancers. What fun! It was all I could do to not start jigging myself, though my jigging experience — what there is of it — is in the English Morris tradition rather than Irish. All shapes, sizes, and ages these women were — and all of Irish descent/heritage — and how wonderfully they danced, in their simple dance kits of black knit skirts and tops, black stockings, and Celtic-pattern neckscarves. This is the real stuff, to me — not the costume-y children’s competitions. The joy of dancing was contagious, even in that oppressive air, and I got a lot of material to work with on my next Unlikely Dance piece.

But here’s a dilemma — the current piece on the easel, Beethoven Oaks, is set in Recreation Park (though I photographed the dancers in Gilbertsville, NY), and the neo-classical bandstand is visible in the background. Last night’s shoot was IN the bandstand, and the setting is lovely. So far each piece in the Unlikely Dance series is in a different Southern Tier location — Green Skirt in The Forum, Golden Clouds on the street in Johnson City, Entry Hall in the Phelps Mansion Museum, and Beethoven Oaks in Recreation Park. (See the first three together at the bottom of my Unlikely Dance page.) WHAT shall I do with the Irish dance piece?

Beethoven Oaks, stage 10
Beethoven Oaks, stage 10 (unfinished) – 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas
Speaking of Beethoven Oaks, I’ve been slowed down a bit lately in pulling it together, but I’m very happy with it so far. Hoping to have it finished in time for Binghamton July Fest, July 12-14.

The “Unlikely Dance” project was made possible by a grant from the Artists Fund of the Community Foundation for South Central New York

To follow my progress in Unlikely Dance, just click on the “Unlikely Dance” link under TOPICS, on the left of any page in this blog.

Back to Beethoven Oaks: fun with whites and lights

Unlike Dance: Beethoven Oaks (unfinished) -- 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas
Unlikely Dance: Beethoven Oaks (unfinished) — 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas

After a few days off, I’m back into Unlikely Dance: Beethoven Oaks (actually, the least “unlikely” setting in the series so far). Really enjoying playing with the white clothing in the clear spring light — whites are seldom actually white. I’ve used cool colors — cobalt blue, cobalt violet, alizarin crimson, plus titanium white and some cadmium yellow medium to tone down a bit — in the shaded parts of the whites, and sparked it up with a complementary yellow-white mix for the lights. These whites are poppin’! Tree branches are roughed in, to be defined further by eventually painting the sky in between them — meanwhile I’ve begun to establish a bright blue “color trail” amongst the branches to lead the eye back into the center of the composition. I’m trying to paint more in value ranges than in color matches, and so far I like it.

River Willows - 20 x 16 in., oils on canvas
River Willows – 20 x 16 in., oils on canvas

I’ve finished River Willows, but something about it is bothering me. Too weighty, too dark, too something. I may have overworked it.

Once again a “bridesmaid” at the Fine Arts Society Members’ Show, in May I won an Honorable Mention for Dance Study: 2 and 1. It’s a nice recognition nonetheless — and I’m happy for the award winners, several of whom are good friends.

Dance Study: 2 and 1 - 11 x 16.5 in., colored pencil on laid blue pastel paper
Dance Study: 2 and 1 – 11 x 16.5 in., colored pencil on laid blue pastel paper


The “Unlikely Dance” project was made possible by a grant from the Artists Fund of the Community Foundation for South Central New York

To follow my progress in Unlikely Dance, just click on the “Unlikely Dance” link under TOPICS, on the left of any page in this blog.

Unlikely Dance continues, as my process evolves

Beethoven Oaks (finished underpainting)
Beethoven Oaks (finished underpainting) – 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas

I’ve got a good start on the next Unlikely Dance piece — the fourth in the series — which I’m provisionally titling Beethoven Oaks. The setting is a Binghamton park variously called “Recreation Park,” “Rec Park,” and “Beethoven Park” (because Beethoven Street runs alongside it); the dancers are sourced from a photoshoot I did in Gilbertsville NY last month. Once again, the dance is in incorrect formation, but I crossed that line again in favor of a lively composition, and I’m quite happy with both the design and the underpainting. It’s been a values-based battle so far, as the lights and darks are complicated in places where they intersect and contrast. The color block-in should be interesting!

Also interesting, to me anyway, is my evolving process of putting these pieces together. For one thing, I’ve changed my palette, in both physical shape and content. I covered the physical part in an earlier post — still figuring out how to best use it, but I really like it.

My current palette, clockwise from left: titanium white, cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, cobalt violet, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian, sap green, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna
My current palette, clockwise from left: titanium white, cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, cobalt violet, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian, sap green, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna

But I’ve also, with the last painting, Unlikely Dance: Entry Hall, added a couple of colors to my limited palette. Influenced by instructional videos from Sharon Sprung, Brian Keeler, and Rose Frantzen, I’ve added cobalt blue and raw sienna (a yellowish brown)… and what a difference they’ve made! Sprung is so right when she says that cobalt blue is not only a beautiful color, but “plays well with others” — so much better in the mix than ultramarine blue. And raw sienna adds so much to depth to fleshtones. I’m not giving up ultramarine (a deep, rich blue which makes a really delicious black, mixed with burnt umber), but I am going to back off on my experiments with yellow ochre; it’s very similar in its pure appearance to raw sienna, but unlike raw sienna it seems to go flat when mixed. In the painting of the piece, I notice I’m becoming more methodical, reducing the intimidation factor: starting with the middle third of the canvas, sitting on my high painting stool, standing as needed to concurrently work the top. Then I move to my low painting stool, to get the area directly below the middle, and finally move to a low chair for the bottom — sometimes even a little paint crate to get right to the very bottom. From each position I frequently stand and back off for the larger view. Rose Frantzen’s intriguing idea of using a large mirror behind me for a quick turn-around doubling of distance from the painting is one I’m intending to try, as well.

The “Unlikely Dance” project was made possible by a grant from the Artists Fund of the Community Foundation for South Central New York

To follow my progress in Unlikely Dance, just click on the “Unlikely Dance” link under TOPICS, on the left of any page in this blog.

Unlikely Dance: Entry Hall finished, Golden Clouds and Green Skirt accepted!

I’ve finished Unlikely Dance: Entry Hall, though I haven’t yet done a “formal” photo of it — glare from the large area of black is giving me some problems. Some last-minute resolutions, such as a cool, thin glaze defining the profile of the central figure, and a more finished rendering of the face — along with the successful re-rendering of figure #1’s face — make me very happy with this painting.

Unlikely Dance: Entry Hall - 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas
Unlikely Dance: Entry Hall – 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas

And yay! Both of my submissions to the Roberson Regional juried biennial exhibit — Unlikely Dance: Golden Clouds and Unlikely Dance: Green Skirt — have been accepted into the show! Now to figure out whether/how to frame them…

Unlikely Dance: Golden Clouds; Unlikely Dance: Green Skirt
Unlikely Dance: Golden Clouds; Unlikely Dance: Green Skirt – each 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas

I’ve also entered — and will enter — a few more biennial competitions; will write more about those as jury results come in.

Here’s the final progression of Unlikely Dance: Entry Hall:


The “Unlikely Dance” project was made possible by a grant from the Artists Fund of the Community Foundation for South Central New York

To follow my progress in Unlikely Dance, just click on the “Unlikely Dance” link under TOPICS, on the left of any page in this blog.

“Entry Hall” progress, and two new landscapes

Unlikely Dance: Entry Hall no. 11
Unlikely Dance: Entry Hall no. 11 (unfinished) – 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas

I’ve realized, in looking at my schedule for the summer, that because of the Unlikely Dance series I have very few new small pieces to show. And getting so mentally tangled up in Unlikely Dance is not really good for either the work or me. So I’ve started two small (20 x 16 in.) landscapes, and am working them in around Entry Hall. It’s proven great for the large piece — taking a couple of days’ break from it gave me a new outlook, and I made a lot of progress when I got back into it. And I’ve found a new model reference for face #1 (L-R), which just wasn’t working. I’m just waiting for the overpainting to dry. I think two or three more work sessions should see it finished.

River Willows 03, unfinished, 20 x 16 in., oils on canvas
River Willows no. 03, unfinished, 20 x 16 in., oils on canvas
During drying times I’ve gotten both small landscapes underpainted, and am nearly finished blocking in first colors on the first one, River Willows. It’s referenced from a series of photos I took last spring, along the Susquehanna River around Endicott, NY.

I also have a new taboret and palette! My husband is doing a complete renovation of our kitchen (his wonderful food and cooking blog is Dinner at Leo’s), and he no longer needs either the small pantry drawer unit or the wire kitchen cart so I’ve taken them over, and added a 12 x 18 in. cheap metal picture frame on the top for a palette. The glass in the frame makes the easily-cleaned palette, and I put light grey paper under the glass for a neutral colored mixing surface. The wheeled cart is so much easier than the previous small shelf unit to move from one painting to another. Very pleased!

My new taboret and palette
My new taboret and palette: the diagonal rod across the drawer unit is the leg of my folding easel.


The “Unlikely Dance” project was made possible by a grant from the Artists Fund of the Community Foundation for South Central New York

To follow my progress in Unlikely Dance, just click on the “Unlikely Dance” link under TOPICS, on the left of any page in this blog.

Unlikely Dance: Entry Hall – in progress

Unlikely Dance: Entry Hall (unfinished) - 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas
Unlikely Dance: Entry Hall (unfinished) – 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas

I did the underpainting for Unlikely Dance: Entry Hall almost a month ago, while waiting for the block-in of Golden Clouds to dry and working on the smaller, unrelated Puppet Parade. But both of those pieces had deadlines closing in, so they took precedence for a while after this underpainting was finished. In the meantime, I bought a couple of inspiring instructional videos, and both — Alla Prima Portraiture with Rose Frantzen and Painting the Portrait in Oil with Brian Keeler — have affected the way I’m working on this piece. Not that I’m painting the faces in any way like these two fine artists do their portraits; I’m feeling their influences more in the way I’m handling the paint and the values, holding my brushes, and self-critiquing as I go.

Studio assistant Lydia (the kitten) studies my technique
Studio assistant Lydia studies my technique

It’s quite interesting to me how the pieces in this Unlikely Dance series are developing so differently from one another, despite the common threads of size, medium, and theme — I’m learning a lot as I work through this self-imposed assignment.

The dancers in Entry Hall are referenced from my photo shoot of a Scottish country dance group, though of course I’ve changed the visible faces (“borrowing” my niece’s face for the central figure) and placed them in a setting other than the school gym where they dance. To offset the very dark and brown decor of the local museum hallway I’ve set the dancers in, I’m leaning the colors more towards purples and yellows — which do combine to make brown — for some color snap. Pretty happy with it so far!

Here’s the process, up to this point:



The “Unlikely Dance” project was made possible by a grant from the Artists Fund of the Community Foundation for South Central New York

To follow my progress in Unlikely Dance, just click on the “Unlikely Dance” link under TOPICS, on the left of any page in this blog.

Unlikely Dance: Golden Clouds – finished!

Unlikely Dance: Golden Clouds
Unlikely Dance: Golden Clouds – 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas

Finished… and being submitted this afternoon to the 2013 Roberson Regional Art Exhibition, along with my other finished Unlikely Dance painting, Green Skirt. No guarantees of a place in this juried show, of course, and it’s impossible for me to be objective about it. As my artist friend Barbara says, we’re always in love with the latest piece. And I do love it, as well as the many friends and fans on Facebook who’ve Liked it. I’m such a sucker for approval.

Lydia
My assistant, Lydia

Getting good photos of these larger pieces has been a real trial — I was afraid I might have to pay a professional to do it (which I’ve done in the past — photographers have to make a living too, but I don’t make a lot of money with which to pay them). Finally I found a place/time that worked — it’s at the top of the stairway to my studio, where at midday or thereabouts there’s even, diffused light coming from the rooms at either side of the landing. Here’s an unedited version where you can see how I’ve set the painting into the center doorway, with door closed:

Golden Clouds, uncropped
Golden Clouds, uncropped

You might notice the small wadded-up piece of paper in front of the painting, which was deposited there by my young studio assistant, Lydia. She’s not the most helpful assistant ever, and can be a distraction at times, but she means well, loves the work, and is very soft and comforting. :)

And now, onward with Unlikely Dance — I’ve got a finished underpainting all ready for the easel. But first, the whole process of Golden Clouds:


The “Unlikely Dance” project was made possible by a grant from the Artists Fund of the Community Foundation for South Central New York

To follow my progress in Unlikely Dance, just click on the “Unlikely Dance” link under TOPICS, on the left of any page in this blog.