A successful festival, shadowed by sad news

My booth at Window on the Arts
My booth at Window on the Arts

Saturday’s Window on the Arts Festival was a smashing success, both for the festival itself and for me personally. I was a bit concerned about how large (or small) a crowd it might draw, with this year’s relocation away from the central town square to a nearby but not-so-central park; and the night before, the winds and rain came crashing down on the early set-up gazebo tents (mine amongst them). However, the local Binghamton newspaper had given the festival the front cover of its Thursday “Good Times” supplement, the Friday night storms stopped in time, and all began — and continued — well.

Parade of the Puppets opens the Festival
Parade of the Puppets opened the festival, just before the sun came out
End of the Festival Parade
End of the Festival Parade

I showcased my “Feathered and Feline” series of art about birds (mostly owls) and cats — along with a few other pieces, and had matted art prints and art cards of most pieces, as well as many not hanging at this show. I was so busy selling prints, cards, and earrings that I never did have time to set up for on-the-spot portraits. It was so gratifying the way people responded to my cats and birds, and I even sold a larger print of The Flood,

The Flood
The Flood: 10.7×8.3 in., pastels over ink underpainting on fibered buff paper

a pastel piece of last year’s flooding Susquehanna River.

And beyond the sales, everyone wanted to interpret and discuss the art. I just love hearing people’s interpretations of some of my images, especially when they’re not speaking directly to me. “Oh, look,” said one man to his wife about Window, “it’s a cat looking into a mirror, and he sees himself as an owl.” Wow. That’s the one that’s stayed with me.


In the early afternoon, Sweetie brought food, the dog, and a break (after calming me down and packing the car for me in the morning — not to mention helping me set up the gazebo tent the night before). We were both impressed by the quality of the arts and crafts there, as well as the quantity of fifty artisans… and Sweetie is not easily impressed!

Alan Crabb 1942-2012

As I walked around the festival on my break, he took over the sales for a while but called my cell phone, after checking Facebook on his phone, to tell me that Alan Crabb had died. It was not unexpected; Alan had been in the UPenn hospital for a couple of weeks, suffering open-heart surgery and severe complications after a risky heart procedure, but it was still a shock and a sorrow. He was friend and maestro to so many, a beloved high school music teacher in his working years not so very long ago, a gifted world-class tenor, and one of a kind. He was a manic, maddening, arrogant, rude, distracted, and self-centered Welshman with an aura a mile wide: a demanding but gentle mentor to all who sang under his direction, a warm and loyal friend — father of two adult sons from his first marriage (to the first — and so far only — woman mayor of Binghamton) and of a two-year-old son from his recent second marriage to a lovely young violist. Sunday, I felt consumed by exhaustion and grief, and laid low for a day. Rest in peace, Alan Crabb — 1942-2012.

This week I have several projects to start or continue: finish unpacking the car (and clean it), mat and frame my two entries for the upcoming Rude and Bold Women show, get back into the new still life (calling to me now from its easel across the room…), replace the traded-out still lives in the Acme exhibit, design and build the Acme business window, photograph contra dancers for Unlikely Dance, sing Diamonds in the Rough‘s “Eldercare Tour,” and — as if that’s not enough — start a call for images of Alan, with which I plan to build a commemorative/interpretive painting of him. More on that next.

The Mirror finished, and lessons learned

The Mirror
The Mirror, on Etsy at GreenBoat Gallery. Click on the picture to see the listing! More in-process photos below.

I’m pretty sure “The Mirror” is finished, and it’s been a real learning adventure. I rather like it — have already signed and listed it — but there are a lot of things I’ll do differently on the next one.

First, I’m going to work on heavier paper. This was done on some Strathmore Laid charcoal paper I had lying around and hadn’t used because I didn’t care for the color. Lesson learned: use a ground color I actually LIKE, and that will complement the subject matter. I’d eventually like to work into using prepared hardboard panels like the ones I’ve been using for colored pencil pieces (but with more grit in the ground), but since I’m going to be teaching this pastels course using paper, I suppose paper should be my first priority as a substrate.

Next lesson: I will NOT use white conte pencil for my grid! It still shows slightly, in the finished piece. Not only did I emboss it into the paper because the medium was so sharp and relatively hard, but it seems to resist coverage by the soft pastels. I do love using a grid; it gives me proportional and composition control while allowing freedom of movement for my drawing hand. However, I have to find another, gentler, less permanent way to line it out.

Another point learned: although the indiantrene blue and the burnt umber sticks are very dark and make interesting substitutes for black (I don’t generally use premixed blacks in any medium), the violet, though lighter, is a livelier black sub.

Over the last few days I’ve done a bit of online research on pastel technique, and one artist wrote that she generally works top to bottom so the pastel dust from above doesn’t fall on finished work lower in the painting. That’s a very good point. I don’t know if I can muster that kind of discipline, or how it would affect my work, but the falling pastel dust gave me some problems for sure. The last time I worked with pastel it was not upright on an easel, but that’s what I prefer now.

Last, a potential problem I haven’t yet confronted: color shift due to application of the final fixatif. Without fixatif, pastel work is incredibly fragile. But everyone I’ve read cites the color-shift problem as a serious risk. I do remember it from when I last used pastels, but I wasn’t as fussy then as I am now… we’ll just see how that goes.

Here are the final steps of my process:

The Mirror - stage 4
The Mirror - stage 4: blocking in the darks, bottom and center. I've also lifted some of the brown from the mirror frame, and gone back in with an olive green.
The Mirror - stage 5
The Mirror - stage 5: adding more dimension to the darks and the fleshtones, detailing the faces a bit more, blocking in the arm and hand at lower right, as well as the adjacent round pot form.
The Mirror - stage 6
The Mirror - stage 6: finishing details in the background/mirror, burnishing fleshtones a bit, finishing the modeling of the hands.

Starting a new piece, with pastels

I’ve been asked to teach a non-credit class in pastels at Broome Community College, so until then I’m working exclusively in pastels. It’s been a while! Using pastels (essentially, dry pigment in chalk-like form) is similar in many ways to working in colored pencil — one of my current media — but VERY different in others. So soft, so smudgy… a very responsive medium, and a little loose and out-of-control, which makes it fun and full of surprises.

I’m considering this first piece an experiment. After fussing around for several days with highly-worked compositions, gessoed panels, and such avoidance-prep, yesterday I decided to go with a simple pre-toned paper (Strathmore laid charcoal paper) and a simply cropped photo, from a modeling shoot with my nieces two years ago, for source/reference.

It’s not a bad start, though I think next time around I want to start with a cadmium red base (worked into the substrate — probably paper again — and well anchored with workable fixatif), as I do in oils. The toned paper seems a little dead to me. Still, working up my chops in application techniques and color layering is proving both enjoyable and challenging.

Working title: “The Mirror.”

The Mirror - stage1
The Mirror - stage 1: taping down, gridding up, and sketching in red. Two regrets, as the work proceeds from here: using white conte pencil for the grid, and not smudging down a red background. The pastels don't cover and spread the conte as I'd hoped, and the paper color, though neutral, seems a bit dead.
The Mirror - stage 2
The Mirror - stage 2: blocking in the lights in the background, experimenting with layering "fractured" color. Love the yellows on the grey -- wishing I had a lilac color stick. Finding that the initial coat of fixatif on the sketch doesn't stop the red from migrating into adjoining color areas when it's dragged a bit.
The Mirror - stage 3
The Mirror - stage 3: found a lilac stick in my alternate pastel set! Dealing with flesh tones and reflections, layering and blending. I'd prefer to keep a fresher mark rather than blending a lot, but the lack of a lively underpainting means I have to blend to make the flesh tones glow. Not meant to be a portrait, but I need to differentiate a bit more between the two figures.

It don’t rain but what it pours…art!

Thursday was an eventful day, in terms of artistic new beginnings.

First I got a call from BCC Continuing Ed asking if I’d like to take over the instruction of a summer non-credit course called Painting with Pastels, as the scheduled instructor couldn’t do it — of course I said yes, though it’s been a while since I’ve used pastels. I re-wrote the course description somewhat, ran out to the bookstore and the art supply store, and brought home an excellent book called “Pastel Pointers,” by Richard McKinley, and a new set of soft pastels to replace the old incomplete set I had. I have until June 6 to brush up my skills and put together a lesson plan, and I’m psyched. Until then, I’ll be working only in pastels. They’re similar enough in working method to colored pencil that I’ll have my skills and know-how back well in time. I love teaching. I also love being pushed back into a medium I once knew well, and will soon know even better.

While I was out shopping for pastels, a former colleague at the New Hampshire college where I worked as a designer until 2010 — she’s now the head of the department — called to ask if I’d be interested in doing some freelance design work for the college. I surely would. I loved working there, did some of my best design work for them, and know all or most of the people involved. It was an exploratory call — nothing for sure yet, but I’m excited and hopeful.

Then in the evening I finally got myself to the mostly-weekly figure-drawing circle at the Windsor Whip Works Art Center — a real breath of fresh air. I haven’t drawn from a live model for several years, and have missed it terribly. It was a small, friendly group, with a good (if very chatty) model, and I enjoyed it immensely. I’m pretty pleased with the results, for the first time out in so long, but in live figure drawing the process is more important than the product, as far as I’m concerned. It’s like yoga for artists — immediate payback in stretching, relaxation, sociability, and play, and long-term benefits in attitude, confidence, and eye-hand fluency. I must make this a regular part of my practice, even if I can only make it once a month.

Here are a few of the pieces I brought home last night — all except the last one are done in Prismacolor Stix (colored pencil in the shape of a pastel stick). For the last — a longer pose — I broke out the new pastels. (I’m not planning to offer these in my online shop, but if you’re interested in buying a print of any, let me know.)