Saturday, February 25, 2017

Mary Cassatt, Lady At The Tea Table (Metropolitan Museum Of Art)

On a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, I came across Mary Cassatt's painting, Lady At The Tea Table.

I'm sure I must have seen this painting before, but this was the first time I really paid attention to it.  Of course, you know what drew me in.  The blue and white tea service.

The lady in the painting was Mary Dickinson Riddle, the first cousin of Cassatt's mother.  The tea service was a gift from Mrs. Riddle's daughter to Mary Cassatt's family.

According to this article in the London Review of Books, Mrs. Riddle did not care for the portrait as it did not do justice to her reputation as a great beauty.  Since she was a cousin of Cassatt's mother, I'm assuming she was of a certain age and perhaps did not care for being portrayed differently than she saw herself.  (I totally get it :)

In any event,  Mary Cassatt ended up holding on to the painting until Louisine Havemeyer, a collector and friend of Cassatt's,  persuaded her to donate it to the museum in 1923.

But that's enough of Mrs. Riddle.  Let's talk about this blue and white tea set!  It is just fabulous.  As you know,  I'm always on the lookout for blue and white pieces, but I have never seen anything like this.

These are some close ups that I shot of the painting.  I just love it and predictably, I have developed an obsession with getting my hands on a set like this and using it in a painting of my own.  I have several blue willow pieces and could probably set something up, but I am going to attempt to find a complete blue and white tea service.

By the way, I took the two close up photos, but the photo of the entire painting is one I downloaded from the Met website.  Recently, the Met made 350,000 images available for digital download with their new open access policy.  This is pretty amazing and something that is really helpful to me personally.  There have been many times I would have liked to discuss a work of art from the Met, but was unable to get a decent photo on my own.  Now it is so easy.  Just look up the work you are interested in, and if it has the "public domain" symbol underneath the photo, you can download it to your own devices and use it as you see fit.  Of course, I will always link back to the artist and the Met, but I think this is a great idea.  The Met has been great with allowing photos in the museum and now they have taken it to the next level.

Now that we are free to download images, I plan to talk about some of my favorite paintings from time to time.  If there are any works you would like me to post about, let me know in the comments.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Wine And Fruit, Updated

You may remember that last summer I posted a new still life, Wine And Fruit.  I considered it done and signed the canvas and made a blog post, but there were a few things that were nagging at me.

This is what I thought was the finished painting.  So what was annoying me?  A few things, starting with the size of the wine decanter.  After staring at it in my studio for a few months, I realized that the decanter was just too big.  Gregg always tells me, if you think something is too big, that means it is.  If you look at the top of the decanter, it is nearly at the top of the canvas.  Not only is it way too high, but it takes the object away from everything else in the painting.  And that was another problem, everything in this set up looks like a bunch of different objects rather than a cohesive group.

I also did not like the background.  Though there really were the light and dark stripes on the fabric (from the sunlight in summer), they were not reading well on the canvas.  And a viewer would not know that the sun did that, they would just think I painted some stripes on my background.

Last week I decided this needed to be fixed or painted over, so I chose to take a shot at repainting.  The first thing I did was to repaint the background.  I just used a simple dark, mid tone and light.  While I was doing that, I painted out the top of the wine decanter.  I then spent several frustrating days getting the correct size and shape for it.  While I immediately got the height, getting the shape of the bottle was very difficult.  The dimensions were right, but this decanter starts with a long neck and gets progressively rounder, something I was having trouble capturing.  Finally, last night, I got so annoyed that I just started throwing paint on to the canvas, and that is when I finally got it!

Once the decanter was properly sized, I moved on to the next problem:  the fact that everything looked like a bunch of separate objects.  Everything was in the right spot, so I just needed to get it all to work together.  I did this by adding color to everything.  I pumped up the green highlight from the pear on the blue and white bowl, then I lightened the grapes at the front of the bowl as well as on the little bunch next to them.  Next, I fixed the green highlight from the pear on the glass decanter.  I added a little more color to bring them together.  I also put some of the wine color (alizarin and black) into the background.  Those steps helped the glass decanter fit in with the rest of the painting.

When you fix anything on a painting, you then spot everything else that if off.  The next thing I tackled was the pear on the far left.  In reality, it was that light, but because it is in the darkest part of the painting, it just didn't make sense.  I darkened up the pear using the shadow and mid tone colors, as well as darkening the shadow underneath it.  I felt like it was still a bit isolated, so I added a few extra grapes to the bunch in front of it, and that really helped bring it into the rest of the painting.  I also put a bit of the wine color on to the pear on the left side of the decanter, as well as putting a dab of the pear green on to the left side of the glass.

My final act was to pump up the white on the edge of the lace, and then add some of the colors of the fruit and wine to the top plane.

Wine And Fruit, 16x20, oil

And here is the finished (for real this time) painting.  I am much happier with it now and have no qualms about sending it out into the world.

As it is so often with painting, the moral of the story is: don't give up!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

How I Built My Collection Of Still Life Props

Recently, I've gotten a few questions about how I built up my collection of still life props.  While I will paint the occasional portrait or landscape, I am a still life artist, so that means I need vases, objects and fabrics in addition to fruit and flowers.

When I got my studio a few years ago, I started on the hunt for objects to paint.  The vase in the painting above, Lilacs, was the first piece I bought.  I got it in a vintage shop near my house.  It was very overpriced, but I liked it and have used it in several paintings, so it was worth it.  

My next big score was a lucky find on Craigslist.  An estate sale was being held at the home of a serious blue and white collector.  I didn't know about the sale until a few hours after it started, so when I got there, the seller was happy to make me a deal.  I got a bunch of items for less than the price of the vase above.  

These are some of my small pieces.  Many of the items here came in a box I won on Ebay.  I got very lucky and searched "blue and white porcelain" and came away with a box of blue and white odds and ends.  The whole box was only $27.00 and I've used the pieces in it many times over.  Ebay is a great resource for still life painters.  The search terms I use are "blue and white porcelain", "vintage blue and white", "vintage blue transferware" "vintage silver (pitcher, footed bowl - whatever you are looking for)"  "vintage delft" "vintage blue and white Chinese porcelain".  I could go on, but you get the idea.  I prefer vintage items for my paintings, so that is what I search for.  I also search from the lowest price to the highest.  Many times I will see similar items with vastly different pricing.  Why pay more for the same thing?  Especially when it is going to be used in a painting studio and has the potential to get paint on it.  

I have my larger pieces on a cart in my studio.  The items here came from all over the place, which is part of the secret to my success.  I'm always looking for props.  I look online, in thrift shops, retail shops, and my latest discovery, Amazon.  In this photo, two vases are vintage, the large vase in the middle is from The Enchanted Home Shop, the wine decanter was an engagement gift and the small vase in the back was $7.99 at the Whole Foods in Chelsea. 

So let's break this down a little bit.  I'm always popping my head into vintage or thrift shops to see if there is anything I can use.  You never know what will be available, so just pop in any time you have a chance.  Here in NYC we have Housing Works, Good Will, Junk and tons of thrift/vintage/antique shops as well as the flea market.  It helps to know what you are looking for before you go in so you don't get bogged down.  I look for vintage silver and blue and white porcelain.  I scan the shelves for those two items and if I don't see them I'm out and on to the next thing.  Also, if you have any friends who like to go thrifting or to garage sales, have them keep an eye out for things you may like.  

I mentioned that the vase in the middle was from The Enchanted Home shop.  The Enchanted Home is a design blog started by Tina, a lover of all things blue and white.  She had so many inquiries about items in her home, that she ended up starting a shop.  Though her items are new, they have that lovely vintage look about them.  These pieces are beautiful, so they go back and forth between my house and the studio.  

Both of these paintings feature porcelains from the shop.  If you keep an eye on The Enchanted Home website, you can get great deals when a new shipment arrives.  There is a pre-sale happening tomorrow morning and I will definitely be checking it out.  

Wedding/engagement/home gifts.  These are things I already owned that have made their way over to the studio.  I've been married long enough that they are in the vintage category at this point, so it made sense to use my own things rather than buying more stuff.  And it is not only my own cabinets that I raid.  I have many things that I have pilfered from my Mom's china cabinet as well.  

The candy dish and the embroidered napkin in the painting above came from my Mom's house.  If you have a still life painter in your life, nothing is safe!

I mentioned above that I got the small vase for $7.99 at the Chelsea Whole Foods.  I bring this up because you never know where you will find something you can use.  The small round vase as well as the cylinder above were bought when they were getting rid of some of their glass vases and I got these for a steal. I think the glass cylinder was round ten dollars.   Even if you don't use something right away, if the price is right, grab it.  If you paint as many still lives as I do, you need a large amount of props to rotate through out your paintings.  

Check out Amazon using the same search terms as mentioned for Ebay.  They have a nice selection of blue and white and the prices are good.

The other part of my still life set ups are the fabrics.  While we have a ton of fabric stores here in New York City, many of them are chaotic and require hunting through a ton of fabrics to find what you want.  That is not my thing at all.  I use muted red, gray and green backgrounds and I'm not interested in taking all day to find them.  I happened upon a store on Long Island, Carle Place Fabrics, where they have all their items displayed.  I was able to immediately point out to the sales woman what I wanted and have the fabrics cut into one yard pieces.  

Check out the local fabric shops in your town and don't forget about quilting shops.  They often have a good selection of fabrics at decent prices.

I hope this was helpful to any of you who are looking to start a still life prop collection.  The most important thing is to know what you want and always be on the lookout for it.  If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments.  I'm happy to expand further on anything mentioned here.  

* My usual caveat.  I paid for everything mentioned here.  I was not given any perks by the shops listed.  I just wanted to pass on all of my sources in case anyone here can use them.  

Sunday, February 5, 2017

New Still Life: Ginger Jar With Nectarines And Grapes

Hello to all my readers.  I did not mean to take a blog break, but things have been a little crazy here.  For the past few weeks I have been working on four (!) paintings.  I did not plan it and it is ridiculous to be working on four different canvases at once, but that is what happened.

So what was the outcome?  I finished one this past Wednesday, one on Thursday, one canvas was abandoned and one more is in progress.  The abandoned painting is not a big deal.  I got the idea in my head to work on an old painting.  It started out pretty well, but then went downhill, so I decided to  discontinue working on it and just move ahead with the new paintings.

Here is a recap of the first painting to be completed.

This painting started out as a demo that I gave for my still life class at The Art Guild.  I just did a basic block in for them, but I liked the start so I decided to continue with it.

When I began working on the rest of the painting, I decided to switch things up a bit and use my wooden shelf as the base instead of the fabric.

This was the second day working on the canvas.  As you can see, I was still working on the background color and the shadows.

I believe this was day three.  It was finally beginning to look like a painting.  That is always a fun time, but it is also the time when any mistakes become evident.  I don't worry about getting everything perfect when I first begin a painting because I don't want to get bogged down at the beginning.  If you do, it can zap the energy of the painting.  But of course, any problems will have to be fixed, so I got started on those around sessions four and five.

The main issue with this painting was the ginger jar.  I *love* my ginger jar, but it is not easy to paint for several reasons.  One, the symmetry of this piece is hard to capture and two, ginger jars are full on top and then shrink down.  You have to be careful that the jar does not start looking flat instead of full and round.

At one point, things were so difficult that I had to turn the painting upside down.  That usually happens when you have given up all other hope for solving the problem  A painting distress signal, if you will.  Finally, after much time with the t-square, I was happy with the dimensions of the pot and could move on to other things.

After two days of working on the pot, I was finally happy with the shape of it and felt ready to move on to the fun part, the blue and white pattern.  However, I did not do this right away.  I let the painting sit for a week to make sure it was absolutely dry.  That is not something I usually do, but after all that work on the pot, I did not want to have to do it again if I made a mistake with the pattern.  If the painting is dry, you can just wipe out any problems with a paper towel.  And in this case, there were some problems.

Here is a close up of the ginger jar.  As you can see, the pattern is pretty bold.

This was my first pass at putting on the blue and white pattern.  While it went along fine, when I was done, something seemed off.  I knew the pattern was done correctly and I even checked it with the t-square.  What I eventually realized was that my highlight was in the wrong place.

I always do the highlight early on in the painting so I can be sure my whites are done correctly ( if you can't see the highlight, your lightest white is too light).  This meant that the highlight had to be taken out and moved.  Since it had been on the canvas for two weeks at this point, I had to use a palette knife to get the paint off, then repaint the white part of the jar, and then redo the top left parts of the pattern.  I was SO glad that I had let the painting dry.  It would have been a total redo if the paint was still wet.

Ginger Jar With Still Life And Grapes, 16x12, oil

Here is the finished painting.  I was glad to have this one done and get on to the next.  Here is a snippet of the painting I finished earlier in the week.

This painting has an alizarin and french ultramarine background, and in one day there were spots that had totally dried out, making it impossible to get a decent photo.  As soon as the painting is dry enough to varnish, I will post a photo and recap of it.

I'm very glad to have these two paintings finished.  I'm in the middle of the third canvas and so far it is going well.  I'll keep you updated!