Talking about what art means can be a slippery business. Each work of art has two lives: a public life and a private life. When an artist puts the work out for public viewing, whether online or in person, the work automatically gains the meanings that viewers receive from it.
One of the reasons I enjoy writing a blog is that it allows me to share some of the private meanings that I put into the artwork. I think viewers appreciate having the behind the scenes view into what the art means. I even noticed this in my recent workshop with Skip Lawrence. During the critique discussion of one of my paintings, he discovered that elements of the painting were inspired by specific memories, and admitted that this knowledge made him appreciate the work more.
Often one can discover clues to the artist’s intent by looking at the title of a specific work. For example, the rather dark painting at right, “Barn Interior” might make more sense when seen with its title. Perhaps the title might help you imagine soft, warm lighting with mystery, dust motes, straw, gaps in the siding and all the rest of the smells and sounds of an old barn. (I hope so!)
Fog, another painting I worked on in Santa Barbara has a very different, specific feeling. The colors are very close in intensity… all fairly muted. How does this fit the subject (Fog?)
One pitfall that viewers can often encounter when viewing abstract art is the “Rorschach Test” phenomenon. I HATE it when viewers feel obligated to find realistic images in an abstraction. I would much rather have a viewer tell me what they feel. Here are some actual comments that I received from viewers about the painting below, titled “Heat.”
“Moody & Broody”
“This is Moving to me”
“Brings to Mind the Fires we get in Southern CA”
“Reminds me of a raft trip through a burning forest”
Which of the comments do you think I was excited to hear? Which one stands out as not applicable? “Discovering” an object within the painting that does not relate to the title is not the best way to appreciate the work. If one does see subject matter in an abstract painting, best to keep it to oneself.
I don’t mean to imply that an abstract work is not successful if the viewer does not understand the artist’s intent. On the contrary, I feel that the meaning of a painting can be one thing to the artist, and something different to the viewer. Although I had a specific memory in mind that inspired the painting “Heat,” I purposely chose a more general title.
Instead of calling it “Campfire” “Forest Fire” or “Fireside” I simply chose the title “Heat” to allow viewers to bring their own experience of fire to the interpretation of the painting. It could also imply emotional heat, both positive and negative. Leaving the title fairly general allowed viewers to imagine all sorts of content of their own.
What kind of interpretations do you make from the three paintings in this post? How important are titles to you in viewing abstract artwork? I love receiving your comments!
Join me this weekend for the opening reception of the Watercolor Society of Oregon’s 50th Anniversary. I will be in attendance as the public and artists view 80 paintings, selected from artists throughout the state by Michigan artist Kathleen Conover. The show runs April 9th through May 23rd, 2016 at the Oregon Garden Resort in Silverton, Oregon.
My painting, below, was inspired by a meadow of spring wildflowers called Camassia. They are a brilliant blue, and often cluster in oak Savannah’s. This particular field is part of Bush’s Pasture Park in Salem, Oregon. Let me know what you think!
A bit of background for the un-initiated: in an international, juried show like AWS, one sends a digital image, plus an entry fee, and a panel of 5 judges review thousands of entries to select a show of between 100-150 paintings from all over the world. Once the show has been through preliminary selections, the original works are shipped to the venue, and awards are selected, in this case by a different panel of judges.
GIANT DISCLAIMER: My hunch is that my friend asked me to write this post so she could glean my ‘secret’ to success. The secret is: there is no secret. The only way to success is through repeated ‘failures’ or rejections. I’m currently reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
So far, my favorite Chapter is titled “Persistence.” If there is one key to succeeding here, that would be it!
Gilbert writes about “The patron goddess of creativity” and how she “can make really weird decisions about who gets her money.” “In short, she may show up for you, or she may not. Probably best, then, if you don’t count on her, or attach your definition of personal happiness to her whims.” This is how I look at it, and how I was able to write “Rejected Again, Hooray.”
I’ve been working to gain entry to this show for about 15 years. It is a tough nut to crack, and I’m not sure I have a lot of light to shed on how to do it. I think a lot of it is luck… Of course luck often finds me hard at work! But for what it is worth, here are my observations.
Believe in your work – this particular painting was rejected from the AWS show last year… I still thought it was among my best work and decided to submit it again… This time it was accepted!
Gain exposure by entering other high visibility shows – if the panel of judges have seen your work before and been suitably impressed, they are more likely to recognize your piece. This piece had been in a national show and won an award.
Save your best work for the most competitive venues.
Strong contrasts and Unity are big selling points – This painting has both.
Thoughtful design choices – this painting utilizes a z shaped design, and shape repetition.
Look for areas of complexity and areas of simplicity – this painting has both.
Listen to what peers say when they view your work. In this case, a respected friend said she couldn’t stop thinking about the painting, couldn’t get it out of her head. Another friend identified it as a quantum leap in my work.
I think there is something to be said for letting the ‘Hand of the Artist’ show… The gestural line work in this piece definitely qualifies, and contrasts with the more regular, geometric patterns.
I can’t stress enough that belief in oneself is the key- even when this piece was “Rejected Again” I still liked it and believed in it. Be persistent.
Go with your gut!
Another reason to believe in your work is that the perfect buyer for a painting might not surface immediately. Often it takes years for an artwork to find its forever home. In the meantime, it is easy for us as creators to feel doubt and insecurity creep in, regardless of the quality of the work, or how we viewed it when we first completed it.
This can be one of the most difficult parts of being an artist: being an objective viewer of one’s own work. Where does it fit within the body of work? Which opinions or critiques does one listen to? Ultimately, the artist must listen to their own instincts most strongly.
I’ll leave you with the words of Honore’ de Balzac:
“All happiness depends on courage and work.”
The New Year always gives me a feeling of great potential. I spend time going over the past year’s accomplishments and deficits and setting goals for the coming months. This weekend we woke to a blanket of white over everything. It makes the land look fresh, simplified, clean and bright.
You don’t see the weeds, the pruning that needs to be done, the fallen limbs from wind storms… Just a simple, fresh slate.
“We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives… not looking for flaws, but for potential.”
In looking forward with my art this year, I’m hoping that instead of changes, I can keep many things the same with my artwork. I’d like to maintain the flow of ideas and practice that I had last year and the year before. The temptations and allure of change are great. There are always new techniques, rabbit trails and experiments that seem more attractive and simpler than delving deep into one’s emotions, memories and psyche.
The challenge is to remain true to oneself, while still keeping open to fresh ideas. To hold onto the strengths and working habits that feed successful work.
* New animals on the farm. Why do they feed my creativity? I don’t know… Maybe it is their playfulness. Whatever it is, they make me happy.
*Teaching: I taught 4 workshops and almost weekly classes at Oregon Society of Artists. The creativity of my students never ceases to energize me and inspire.
*Showing my work: I exhibited in 18 different venues last year, both in-state and out.
-North Valley Art League in Redding, Rocky Mountain National in Golden, CO, Louisiana Watercolor Society, Northwest Watercolor Society in Seattle, California Watercolor Association in the Bay Area, and National Watercolor Society in the LA area. I showed in two Watercolor Society of Oregon exhibitions, the Lake Oswego Reads show, the Sitka Invitational, the Attic Gallery, Mary Lou Zeek’s Blink pop-up, the Lake Oswego Festival, The Portland Art Museum’s Rental Sales Gallery shows (x2) and Portland Open Studios. My work earned 6 awards, 3 of them in National shows. Whew!
*New work – I made over 35 new paintings
*Blogging- I published 29 new blog posts, including one of my most popular posts ever: “7 Compliments Guaranteed to Make Any Artist Swoon” This post has daily views… and has already reached 3,417 readers. During the year, my blog reached 11,144 readers who viewed my site 23,440 times and left 140 comments. I love seeing that steady growth! I’m hoping that next year, I’ll have even more repeat visitors, and more comments.
Click the titles below to check out a few of the other posts that were most popular:
And, the Winner is: Kristen Hamilton! Congratulations Kristen! 🙂
Way back in June 2008, I started an adventure in putting my ideas on the World Wide Web. Little did I know that this blog would still be going strong 7 years later. From its humble beginnings, my blog has grown – it now gets almost 200,000 visits per year, and has almost 400 posts in its archives. That’s a lot of reading & writing!
My hope is that folks who visit my site find inspiration, enjoy seeing new artwork and come away looking at the world a bit differently. In the next year, I’d also like to increase the number of repeat visitors, drawing each of you back in.
Please help me do that: Tell Me, what kind of information or inspiration you’d like to see on my blog! Leave a comment and I will add your name to a drawing for one of my favorite books on color: Making Color Sing by Jeanne Dobie. If you’d like more than one entry, share this post on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest and let me know. One extra entry for each! It’s easy to share using the buttons at the bottom of the post or on the left side of the website page. I will be drawing for the winner of this fun giveaway on June 30th.
Thanks to the artists who took the time to share their work for this online ‘show.’ I hope you’ll click on each image to visit their websites!
“We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson
Up, Up & Away
I’ve just returned from the 40th Exhibition of the Western Federation of Watercolor Societies in Lubbock, Texas. It was an honor to represent Oregon’s Watercolor painters there, and to bring back six awards for artists from the Watercolor Society of Oregon. I felt blessed to reconnect with my friend Margaret Godfrey, who traveled with me as Alternate Delegate and my co-chair for the exhibit in 2017 in Eugene. I also connected with other delegates and alternates from the 11 other societies, new friends and old.
It seems to me that I often hear about friends’ travels to exotic places: Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and feel a bit jealous. This domestic trip, and most all of the domestic trips I’ve made with WFWS, had just as much inspiration and adventure.
I did feel as if I were almost in a foreign country! The dialect, the weather, the flatness of the landscape and culture were all different from my home state. What remained the same were the connections I felt with the people I met and the art that I viewed.
I wanted to do something that would enrich both artists and patrons, as I think my audience is composed of both. My solution is to post an online exhibit and I hope you will contribute!
Call for Entries:
An open call for digital entries to my online exhibit titled “Connections: Friends and Travelers.”
Artists may enter up to two works of art (only one will be chosen for display). To submit, please email your digital image up to 2 Mb in size along with written permission to publish your work on this website only to ruth (at) rutharmitage.com. If you’d like your image to link back to your blog or website, please include that link as well in the body of the email.
Collectors, please share a photo of one of your favorite art pieces installed in your home.
To thank you for your participation, I will be drawing one name from all entrants to receive a small original painting (see below.) Entries must be received by June 12, 2015. If you’d like to have an extra entry in the drawing, or you don’t have a piece of art to enter, create a link to this post on your blog or Facebook page and note the web address of that link in your email too.
Once all entries are received I will be posting an online exhibition in gallery format here on the blog. I hope that you will participate, and enjoy seeing some beautiful artists’ work! Watch this space for the exhibit coming up, and more chances to win a giveaway! If you are not subscribed, you can have new posts delivered in your email! Just enter your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right: delivery by feedburner.
Gardening has taught me so much about painting. Here are a few kernels of advice for all you budding (get it?) artists and gardeners.
You know how it is when you come home after 10 days away and some of the little things have changed drastically? Yeah, that happened! I was in Newport for the Watercolor Society of Oregon‘s Spring Exhibition and Convention, then stayed for the workshop with Gale Webb. The image above is a painting that resulted from that class.
I’m thrilled to share that my painting “Coming Through the Rye” received an award… honored to be among one of the artists chosen from this stunning show. The 20 Award-Winning paintings will travel the state for the next six months. Check out my Events Page for more information!
I came home from my time away to an explosion of growth in the garden… Tree peonies and dogwood in bloom and WEEDS! 🙁 I also came home to try to carve out some time in the studio. With deadlines approaching and commissions on the table, that is essential. But I also need to get out in the garden while the weather is good and the weeds are small!
5 Things I’ve Learned About Art and Gardening
1) Devotion: To have a beautiful garden or art practice, you MUST devote time. My art practice thrives when I put in the time. My garden, right now, needs a bit more time. It is full of weeds, needs pruning and is getting away from me.
2) Pruning: pruning judiciously leaves more room for light, more time for art. Do you struggle with overcrowding? My garden is facing that issue right now, as is my life! Too many commitments have broken into the sacred time I usually reserve for my art. It is time for a little pruning of my schedule AND my garden!
3) Seeds or ideas: Both must be carefully managed so they don’t scatter. Keeping my ideas in a sketchbook or journal is like keeping a file for seeds. It pays to review what I’ve done in the studio (and the garden) what produced well and what I can learn from it. Which idea or plant is best suited for the resources I have available? What do I need to balance out my inventory? Making a plan and sticking to it is easier said than done, but it pays to keep my eye on the prize and focus my efforts.
4) Watering and Fertilizing: just like seeds in the garden, my art ideas need resources to grow and thrive. The ‘water’ of my art practice is viewing other art, exploring new materials and reading. I ‘fertilize’ my imagination with reading poetry, non-fiction (currently a book on butterflies), journals and fiction.
5) Being Present: When I’m in the garden, I’m happy… happy to be weeding or planting, planning or just enjoying the fresh air. When I go into the studio, my focus shifts to creating. I try not to waste time in either place, wishing I were elsewhere. I capitalize on the rainy days by spending them in the studio and enjoy the sunshine in the garden when it arrives. It takes both rain and sun to make a garden. Similarly, it takes both joy and sweat to make a painting.
Just like walking through a beautiful, mature garden, art viewers often see the end result when a finished work of art is presented. It is difficult to imagine the sweat, persistence, concentration and hard-won time that went into creating that painting, just like one does not always consider the battle with weeds, elements and failure that led to the creation of a beautiful garden. Persistence in the face of frustration is often the key in both art and gardening!
You can be sure that gardening and painting both reap lasting rewards, though. Both teach us about beauty, stamina, flexibility, appreciation and joy. Both allow us to share with the world our own unique aesthetic. Gardening and Painting both constantly surprise me with unexpected gifts – a volunteer plant, an unusual blending of color…. What similarities do you see between gardening and painting?
Leave me a comment! I love hearing from you. Let me know what’s happening in your art life or your garden. As always, I appreciate your sharing my words and work with friends and family!