For the second year in a row my artwork will grace the program cover for the High Hope Steeplechase in Lexington, Kentucky at the gorgeous Kentucky Horse Park. I'm honored. Last year an older painting was used, this year I've painted something special for them:
Oil on canvas, 24"x12" (as yet untitled)
These are the silks of Mrs. S.K. Johnston, a prominent owner of jumpers and flat racers. The event takes place the Sunday after the Preakness, this year falling on May 17th. I'll have a booth exhibiting my artwork, soooo, if you're in or around Lexington that weekend, do stop by! Y'all know I love Kentucky and will use any excuse to visit.
Set up my easel at the state boat ramp access at Saratoga Lake. After the long, cold, wearisome days of a winter that wouldn't quit, it was a luscious pleasure to stand in the weak sunlight and bask in the balmy 60 degree temps while savoring the aroma of real turps.
It was mostly quiet except for the sound of cracking ice and the Canadian geese who were returning overhead as I applied my year-long study of plein air to a piece of Arches oil paper. It wasn't too bad an effort for the first day out in months:
I'm feeling confident in the knowledge I've acquired from different sources: books, video instruction and help from artist friends. I've been accepted in the Mountain Maryland Plein Air Competition taking place the first week of June.
Everything is still brown with nary a bud to be found. Most of the snow is melting and the lingering ice on the lakes is thinning...loudly. The winter has been tough, especially for an artist who desires to paint outdoors. Thankfully, I had lots of commission work to keep me busy in the studio.
I've completed my fifth "Blanket Finish" greyhound for my excellent client (nine in all). It's becoming repetitive and challenging to invent different designs within the concept. I only have a few colors to work with. Before the smug amongst you state that you could never stoop to do this kind of commercial work...you're probably right. There's stooping, twisting, bending, picking up and laying down, ladder climbing and lots and lots of deep knee bends and squats. My art studio becomes a workout room.
When the hound stands at attention in my living room it sure looks pretty, certain as to why it's been requested over and over. I don't mind this at all. It's part of my role as a self-sustaining artist, all the while spurring creativity within the confines of a predetermined format and idea. I get paid for this and the artwork makes someone very happy. And that, my dears, is priceless.
There's one more to go, but my client has asked me to hang tight. So what to do in the interim? A program cover for an upcoming steeplechase!
There's no use complaining about the weather. Almost the entire country is affected by the extreme cold and up here in the northeast...snow...lots of it. I simply cannot paint outdoors as some artists are able - my hands and right shoulder are beginning to exhibit the signs of a lifetime of repetitive motion. I'm okay with this as I consider this cabin-bound time important for study and practice.
And study I have. My dear artist friend Robert Stebleton suggested books by David Curtis of the U.K. which further led to books by Curtis' teacher, Trevor Chamberlain. I resonate with the simple, common-sense instruction by Chamberlain and will say his teaching and paintings have had a huge influence on the shifts I choose to make in my work. I'm finally experiencing some clarity after considerable floundering.
As Michael nails it: "...spot staring and wandering aimlessly." That perfectly sums up my state of mind for the past year.
Chamberlain suggests: "It's worth having a supply of boards that you have prepared yourself, and which you don't feel are too precious, to experiment and practise on, and for doing quick colour sketches of things that interest you." Fortuitously, I recently received a pile of old masonite panels that will serve his advice quite well.
Here are a couple of the better experiments:
Not quite as loose as I'd like, but my color and light is improving.
I am pleased with the spontaneous, fluid brushwork of the Geese:
Alas, this week I'm back painting another greyhound and it looks like another will follow. Certainly helps keep the heat on in this winter of extremes. So very grateful!
Introspection and unmerciful examination are the rule of the season.
My other half, Michael Bray, has taken on the research intensive job of cataloging my artwork. It's something we've been discussing, something that should have begun years ago and is imperative now that I'm fast approaching social security age. He's jumped in with both feet and is dumping images and whatever information he can dig up into a data base on a daily basis. I want to advise you as a young artist to begin this process right from the start of your artistic career, even if you don't think you're ready.
I didn't and I really wish I had. At least I have help at this late period. Not taking myself seriously and involving myself with the racing industry in the first half of my life, I shrugged it off telling myself I wasn't a serious painter or yet well-known enough. Now that my resume impresses even myself, it's a neglected aspect of my business that's about to bite me in the butt.
When I was a young artist spending most of my time at the track, I did still manage to paint and I did sell. Off and away those pieces went with no record of their existence at all. Don't let this happen to you. Those artworks sold because some of them were okay, not great, but at least should have been documented in some manner. When I evolved into being good enough for gallery representation, I was quite naive and never insisted on the collector information from the gallerist - just grateful to have them exhibit and sell my work. In one way, I understand why they don't want to freely impart this info - there are lots of unethical artists who will undercut a gallery. However, I advise you to stand your ground, insist on it and even walk away if they won't comply. I've sold hundreds of paintings through galleries and although I have images of those artworks, I have no idea where or with whom they ended up. Not good.
Michael has recently entered over 200 artworks that were sitting here on this laptop of three years. There is still an external hard drive and two old computers for him to plod through. Then, boxes of old slides and photos. Here's our typical conversation:
M: "What's the name of this painting?"
S: "Can't remember"
M: "What size was it?"
S: "Medium size (arm illustration)."
M: "I need to document the exact size."
S: "Can't remember."
M: "Do you think it was 18x24?"
S: "Yeah, that sounds about right."
M: "What happened to it, did it sell?"
S: "Uh-huh. Gallery X sold it."
M: "Who bought it?"
S. "They wouldn't tell me."
This is not a conversation for a professional artist to have with her business partner. I'm embarrassed but I'm telling you because I want to impress upon on all of you at the beginning of your fledgling career how important it is to keep decent records. Not just financial bookkeeping but a thorough cataloging of everything you create. In my defense, I've kept very good records for the last 10-15 years and can tell you who bought what, where, when and how much, members of the collector's family, what they do on weekends and what kind of car they drive. Regardless, that leaves several decades basically unrecorded.
Don't let this happen to you. It's a pain but make it a habit. You'll thank me later.
The theme is "eagles". I wrote in a previous post about artists like myself who fall madly in love with their current subjects. And I did. It was bound to occur, being drawn to the same power and grace possessed of a thoroughbred. How do these two descriptive words find their way into the same sentence? And why am I so easily seduced by power (strength) and grace (beauty)?
Notwithstanding the political and symbolic connotations, these magnificent birds with a seven foot wing span drew me into a milieu I'm very familiar with. They are the thoroughbreds of ornithology.
Unlike the graphic "Blankets" series, realistic images present a different set of challenges when applied to the contours of the of the fiberglass sculpture. Painting on these forms is...a lot of work.
The majority of an eagle's diet is fish. One side of the greyhound depicts the birds fishing while the other side places them in a woodland environment.
It's not high art. But it does keep the heat on. And I am learning to handle acrylics and miraculously, even get a bit skillful with them. Also, the number of deep knee bends required is getting my legs fit. Painting these fiberglass statues entails lots of physical movement - up and down, standing on a step-stool, kneeling, bending, put the hound on the floor, stand it up on the table again, lay it on it's side...it's no wonder I'm pooped at the end of the day! Plus, they weigh around 35-40lbs.
I've already painted a few with a similar theme. This one has stronger design and I'm as satisfied as I can be with this graphic, un-painterly style. It's...pretty. Feedback from the prior "Blankets" confirms it: people in the greyhound biz love them.
It's a good project for these long, cold, dark days of winter.
The particular destination for this puppy is a track that has an extra number: 9. It's akin to an also eligible and it's purple, providing another color to work with. Because it's on the AE, I used it sparingly. If you don't know horse racing, you have no idea what the heck I'm talking about. Let's just say that if one dog scratches another dog that drew number nine gets to race. To be honest, I'm not all that clear about the rule myself even after looking it up.
The year was a big improvement. Sales were up and I made some very solid contacts. I didn't get a lot of personal painting accomplished because of several decent commissions. But production hummed. Being the workaholic control freak that I am, learning to delegate was a major realization. Huge. When I let go and trust, the momentum of my ideas seem to continue on smoothly without my constant watch. It's actually quite a relief.
My biggest epiphany occurred when I finally decided which direction to take my artwork. When clarity was finally achieved (and I've floundered with this for a long, long time), I began to make decisions and take action. Very affirming.
The year began with the sale of the building we rented on Beekman St. in the Arts District. We did our best to maintain a gallery presence for the first two years after transplanting to Saratoga Springs. The association was splintered and unfocused and it became an uphill battle as we watched businesses frequently come and go. Truth is, if a business isn't located downtown on Broadway, it's screwed. So, it was a blessing to rent this little house on five wooded acres with a creek, wildlife galore and located a mere mile from the racetrack. Peaceful.
Commissions compensated for the disappointment. After the move, we attempted to get involved with other arts organizations who were starting up or restructuring but to no avail.
But 'nuf of that. Springtime marked the beginning of a few road trips which I live for. The return of the High Hope Steeplechase in Lexington, Kentucky ignited my gypsy blood and the organizers graciously used my artwork for the program cover. I returned home with another nice commission.
Early June gave me the opportunity to participate in my first plein air competition. You probably know about our van catching fire the day before we were scheduled to leave and burning up six of my paintings and lots of supplies. Moving onward (applying grace to all that's faced), we did make it to Finger Lakes and although I was shook up more than I realized and painted some really bad canvases, I knew immediately this was for me. I absolutely love, love, love plein air painting and my skills continue to improve as I practice and study.
The summer race meet at Saratoga was great and an encouraging improvement over the previous year. It was a revelation that I'll always be an equine artist to some degree as my repeat clients visited my booth with the specific intention to purchase more racing artwork. And I acquired new clients. I deserve this: I've spent a lifetime dearly loving, promoting and...defending...this sport.
Fall took me back to Lexington, Kentucky for the Secretariat Festival. More commissions and terrific networking. I exhibited some of my originals in the Thoroughbred Breeders' Museum. Then it was on to Middleburg, Virginia for the Fall Races. Unfortunately the weather was dreadful but that's the chance we take participating in outdoor shows. Regardless, the area is spectacularly beautiful and steeped in history.
My contract with NYRA ends in 2015. I'll stay as long as they'll have me but if they don't renew, I'm prepared to launch into Plan B, plein air painting. Exactly where is yet an unknown. That unknown is the mystery that thrills me.
I'm so thankful to those of you who have followed this blog. I wish all of you the very best in the upcoming New Year 2015.
I've received a commission to paint three more greyhounds. Two have arrived and the third is in the mold. Because they require acrylics, not my favorite medium, I'm surprised that I'm actually looking forward to this project. A revisitation of sorts.
A very large freightliner for a smallish box:
Well, maybe not that small.
My anthropomorphic relationship with these hounds could be based on the designs to be painted. I'm sure not all artists would agree, but I tend to develop a kindred relationship with all my subjects. While I'm concentrating on form and shape and color and all the other academic necessities of painting, something else is going on in the background. The brushstrokes evolve into caresses, invoke empathy that shouldn't exist on a two dimensional surface and we...bond. I have privy access. An intimacy ensues as I fall in love with my subject.
But then like a fickle lover I'm finished with you and off to the next project.
Last September I participated as a vendor at the Secretariat Festival in Paris, Kentucky. It's a funky little town that exists in another time period. No chain hotels, no chain restaurants or any other tiresome mediocrity. We were staying in Georgetown, approximately 17 miles due west.
It was late in the afternoon when we tore down and packed up my exhibit. Route 460 is a very narrow road with no shoulder, just a disconcerting two foot drop from the pavement on both sides. The speed limit is 50 mph as I recall making this a white knuckle ride.
I spotted a band of mares and foals on the left side. The light was golden and glowing. Long shadows stretched as the sun sank low behind the trees. The mares were up close to the fence by the road, unusual as they are very protective of their foals and never compromise safety. I was so excited! Can we turn around and go back?
Fortunately, there was a road perpendicular to where the horses were grazing. Michael managed to pull a daring u-turn and park on the opposite road while I jumped out with my camera. At first the mares were nervous and stood in front of their foals. When they determined I was no threat, they relaxed and shimmered with highlights in the fading light. This is the heavenly manna that artists patiently pray for.
I named the painting Eventide which represents the subtle period of transition from late afternoon into evening.
While I was clicking away, a lady pulled up alongside Michael and scolded him for parking on the side of the insanely narrow road. He listened patiently, pointed to me and replied, "I'm married to an artist, what can I say?"