New Paintings

Paris Bistro, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches, 2024
Camondo-Dining-Room-30×30 inches, oil on canvas, 2023
Chantilly1, 20×24 inches, oil on canvas, 2024
Camondo2, 30×40 inches, oil on canvas, 2024
Prêt-à-porter, 18×24 inches, oil on canvas, 2024
Chantilly2, 30x24inches, oil on canvas, 2024
Flowers from a friend, 30x24inche, oil on canvas, 2024

TARGET PRACTICE

Over the past couple months I have been wanting to bring more of a feeling of directness that seems to have faded of late. Sometimes it’s good to refresh and work in a different medium and even subject matter for a while, in order to get out of old habits that may have become entrenched in one’s process.

So I decided to go back to drawing with ink pen. Here I am forced to own every mark because I cannot erase it. I felt like focussing on portrait, partly because I just like portraits and partly because tackling the human form is the most challenging thing one can approach as an artist; it enhances your skill level, sothat anything else you draw or paint can come more easily.

I grabbed this image from my travel photos, which I had spotted in a Parisian shop window in the 6th arrondissment:

I had always wanted to make something from this, but wasn’t sure if it fit with the other work I was doing. So now was the time:

I liked this one a lot in terms of the colour and texture in the original photo, and wanted to see how I might try combine the ink pen with water-based media. So I made it again:

In this one I am using gouache. At first I worked with very transparent washes, especially in the detailing of the jacket. I was careful not to cover up the liveliness of the ink lines. You can get the most vibrant colour when you use glazing and let the white of the paper show through.

But when it came to the face and hair, I was pushed to work pretty thickly, more like oil-paint in order to achieve the painterly quality of brushwork I like to see.

Gouache dries darker when you use more water– the best way to hit the correct values is to be bold and use just paint. In the background I used a technique whereby instead of just plain grey, I broke it up into warm and cool light value brush strokes. I was influenced by a wonderful portrait artist I have discovered on Instagram named Nicolás Uribe. Check out his work at https://www.ourpaintedlives.com/.

I was also thinking of Manet’s portraits I love so much, especially this one which I think I may have shared before:

A Bar at the Folies Bergére, Edouard Manet, 1882, Collection of the Courtauld Institute

I also had my new friend Heather come to my studio and sit for me. There was a kind of failed attempt at painting her from life which was partly because my space at the time was not very suitable for this due to the less than adequate lighting setup. I have just secured a bigger studio so I look forward to sharing more about that soon.

Although I did achieve a likeness in two and a half hours, I found myself bumping up against what I have noticed in the past– I have trouble drawing and painting people I know from life, because I feel compelled to engage with them as friends. This gets in the way of the quiet and for me fragile, vulnerable process of looking and recording, which takes all of my concentration. And I need to put in a lot of time until I am satisfied. Not everyone can give that amount of time, and I would feel like it is too much to ask to do so.

So I decided to try a new tack by arranging a photo shoot. Heather could only give me twenty minutes out of her busy schedule as a graphic designer and her part-time day job, so I wanted to be as efficient as possible.

Here is an ink sketch from that session, enhanced with opaque white gel pen, because I always end up needing to make alterations in portraiture. So you could say that this is inching into the world of painting by adding a bit of white:

And here is an oil-painting of Heather:

Heather wore this fantastic scarf that I admire which added some pattern energy. And I love the sculptural shape of Heather’s hairstyle. Her dark features remind me a little of Manet’s sister-in-law and a talented artist in her own right, Berthe Morisot. She sat for him many times:

Detail of a portrait of Berthe Morisot by Édouard Manet

In my research I also did a back-to-the-basics online oil painting course with UK artist Alex Tsavaras. He delivers very good, clear instruction at SIMPLIFY Drawing and Painting and on his Patreon channel. This was a very humbling experience. I admire his direct, beautiful brushwork in his portraits and looked closely at his supply list, which introduced me to some wonderful brushes I have added to my arsenal of tools: Rosemary and Co Eclipse Comber long-haired brushes.

They are synthetic but feel like animal hair, with more spring and muscle than softer sables. They can be used for oil, acrylic, or gouache. I made a few pet portraits and discovered they are fantastic for doing detail such as hair and fur.

Pumpkin, oil on primed paper, 2023

I’m in the process of testing the comber brushes on other subject matter such as branches, twigs and fern-fronds in landscape.

Talk soon!

warmly,

Val

One Week Left: VAL NELSON at VISUALSPACE GALLERY

There’s just one week left to view my solo exhibition at Visualspace Gallery in Vancouver. If you haven’t yet been able to view the show, I hope you can make it! The show closes Saturday, May 7.

I’m so grateful that there was a great turnout at my opening and also my artist talk. So many friendly and enthusiastic friends, art lovers, and former students. Thank you so much for coming!

A sneakpeek virtual tour of the show can be viewed on the gallery’s Instagram page, and the entire collection can be viewed here. A video of my talk is being edited and we will be able to share it with you soon.

Never say never, but these may be the last historic interiors I paint, as new things are percolating in my studio now. 

Visualspace Gallery

3352 Dunbar Street at 17th Ave

Vancouver, BC

604-559-0576

Gallery hours: Tues to Sat, noon to 5 pm

Gallery director: Yukiko Onley

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 7-TheLightofTruth24x30in-email-750x606.jpg

PHANTOM DNA at VISUALSPACE GALLERY

I’m excited to announce my solo gallery exhibition April 7-May 7 at Visualspace Gallery in Vancouver. Now that things are opening up again in BC, it’s time to celebrate! I look forward to seeing my wonderful friends and supporters there, with their smiles. 🙂

Please join me for the OPENING RECEPTION on Saturday April 9, 2-4pm. There will also be an ARTIST GALLERY TOUR ON April 23 at 2 pm.

Photography credit: Diane Burroughes

THE PAINTED PORTRAIT

I will be demonstrating a copy of a 16th century anonymous master for the Chemainus Art Group next week. I did this open acrylic study on cardboard to prep for that. I used a very limited palette: Titanium white, yellow ochre, cadmium red, and raw umber, similar to the Zorn Palette but replacing black with the warmer umber. It’s fascinating to see how much range you can achieve with only four colours.

THE FAMILY DOG or: PAINT WHAT YOU LOVE

When I was about eleven years old, my Dad asked me to paint a simple image in poster paint of our family dog, Tia, as a prototype for a printmaking class he was preparing (he was an elementary school teacher). I had pretty much learned how to draw by making copies of images from cartoons, especially Walt Disney, and the Saturday morning comics that came as a supplement to the newspaper.

Lady and the Tramp (Disney): how to paint highlights on a nose

Those comics were delivered by a local paperboy, who would race down the driveway on his bike, shout “Here’s yer paper!” and dash off again. Our two dogs Jinx and Cocoa waited all day with evil anticipation for this very moment. With Olympian speed, they would race around the corner of the house to the front door. Jinx would seize the paper in her jaws and shake the paper into smithereens, after which Cocoa would pee…er…urinate… on the shreds. It was a race against time for us to interrupt these two partners in crime before they executed the dreadful deed.

But I digress.

This summer I had the opportunity to paint a different dog image, while teaching private classes to a 12-year old student.

I had met her parents when I was looking for a new home on Vancouver Island. Although I ended up not renting their suite, synchronicity was at play because they had meanwhile checked out my website and were excited to learn I teach art classes! Their eldest daughter has always loved to paint, and has been getting great results through her lessons with 4Cats. But her parents felt she was at the stage of needing some more detailed guidance, and they were eager to have her train with me.

I encouraged them to sign her up for introductory oil painting lessons, as she already had a nice facility with paint-handling using acrylics. The family would be traveling on their summer holidays, so I recommended a quick-drying oil-painting medium: Gamblin Galkyd Lite.

VALUE SCALE

Over seven lessons, we covered the concept of value (the range of light to dark), how to pre-mix some of the main colours before diving into the painting part of a session, and how the best way to work with oil paint is to block in the dark values and mid-tones (on the value scale above, the mid-tone would be the “3”). It’s a good idea to hold back on painting the lightest passages to near the completion stage, to avoid muddy colours.

I remember, when I first learned to paint, that watching the instructor at work was probably the most exciting and important part of understanding how to use the materials. I still get a bit of a thrill watching other artists do their thing on Youtube! So with beginners I usually paint along with the student.

One of my heroes: Bob Ross

She chose several subjects, including a flower, a couple of landscapes, and her final project, a portrait of the family dog. Here is my version:

And here is the student’s version, which I think has a special sparkle.

Beautiful things happen when you paint what you love!

If you know of anyone who would really enjoy learning how to paint, or has some knowledge already and wants to go deeper, check out my Class Menu for several options I will be teaching this Fall. I also offer mentorships, critiques and demos.

You can tune in to a live demonstration, “Space and Light: Painting the Domestic Interior” I will be giving online with Opus Art Supplies on Saturday, October 9, 11am – 12:30. The announcement is not yet up on their website, but I will send a newsletter soon with the details. Meanwhile check out some of the other inspiring demos on offer with Opus in the next several weeks.

Talk soon!

Manet and In the Studio

This is something I’m working on right now. It’s the interior of a bistro I fell in love with on Rue Oberkampf in Paris. I really enjoyed the zing of colour of the fruit, and the play of morning light bouncing around on various surfaces. And of course the fuschia pink bar stool are très française. At right are gleaming bottles and glassware which will be really fun to paint when I dive back in to finish this.

Initially I made a smaller version of this painting, but realized the subject warranted a bigger scale for a more immersive experience.

The new canvas is 24 x 32 inches. This is not a custom size you can find off the rack at the art supply store, so my darling man cut down a 24 x 36 canvas for me.

I like to use a grey palette at this stage, so I can see how highlights stand out against that midtone. The final hits on the painting are usually the lightest lights, and the darkest darks. I am nuts about the in-between colour mixtures that you can’t quite name, the “greyed down” colours which help the brighter colours sing out.

As usual this is a process through which the painting will eventually tell me what it wants to be, and the meaning comes through the making.

When I see this kind of setting, I can’t help but think of Manet’s brilliant painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère which he painted in 1882. I dare not compare my work to his, but I am certainly inspired by his lush use of thick paint, and his ability to strategically choose what to emphasize in the composition. This is exceptionally sophisticated art-making.

https://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/collection/impressionism-post-impressionism/edouard-manet-a-bar-at-the-folies-bergere

I was fortunate to be able to view this painting first-hand at the Courtauld Institute in London. This is from the institution’s website:

This painting was Manet’s last major work. It represents the bustling interior of one of the most prominent music halls and cabarets of Paris, the Folies-Bergère. The venue opened in 1869 and its atmosphere was described as “unmixed joy”. In contrast, the barmaid in Manet’s representation is detached and marooned behind the bar.

The Folies-Bergère was also notorious as a place to pick up prostitutes. The writer Guy de Maupassant described the barmaids as “vendors of drink and of love”.

Manet knew the place well. He made a number of preparatory sketches there but the final work was painted in his studio. He set up a bar and asked one of the barmaids, Suzon, to serve as his model.

The painting was first exhibited in 1882, at the annual fine arts exhibition in Paris, the Salon. Visitors and critics found the composition unsettling. The inaccuracy of the barmaid’s reflection, shifted too far to the right, has continued to spark much debate.

To my mind, good painting that stands the test of time needs to be aesthetically captivating to keep the viewer’s attention (it is visual art after all), but also open to a number of interpretations that cannot be locked down.

However as humans we are captivated by story; we are compelled to know more.

It is possible that he was directly pointing to the barmaid being just another seductive object for consuming with one’s gaze–notice the two round white electric globes flanking her, echoing the lens of binoculars held by a woman in the crowd.

Manet was also known to be an admirer of the work of Spanish court painter, Diego Velàsquez. A similar contradictory space and perplexing riddle are present in Velàsquez’ Las Meninas.

https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/las-meninas/9fdc7800-9ade-48b0-ab8b-edee94ea877f

The painter is looking out at the scene he is creating. Like in Manet’s Bar scene, in the spotlight here is also a beautiful female wearing a corsage on her breast. She looks out at us, while her courtiers attend her. At back is a also a mirror, this time reflecting the images of the king and queen who in this space would seem to be in the studio but only apparent through their reflection. Their physical presence is only implied, and is outside the frame. In the 17th century, when this was painted, the young princess was being groomed to be the wife and queen in a politically arranged marriage to further the power of the Spanish monarchy. So she too is merely an object for trade. Everyone here has their role to play, and know their place.

But although it would appear that all is luxury and ease, the Spanish monarchy was in fact crumbling and its King, Philip II who was Velasquez’ patron, was a weak ruler. One could say that Velàsquez was a skilled propaganda artist. The fact that he painted himself into this image may suggest he is saying directly to future viewers of his masterpiece, “I painted this, and I knew what was actually going on.”

Velàsquez, an avid reader of philosophy, knew that creation is alchemy. We artists conjure our own realities through the power of our imaginations, with the skills of our hearts, minds, and hands.

C’est cool, non?

A bientôt, Val

To Touch Something is to Love It

I’ve finally completed the painting above “Paris in Springtime”, which I have been working on for at least a couple of years now, off and on.

Engaging myself in the studio this summer helps me remember fondly my times spent in the city of many greys.

Right now I’m thinking back to Paris, where I was in May of 2017…

Because I would soon be teaching a painting workshop in Tuscany, and I hadn’t painted very much at all since the car crash, I wanted to get back into the groove by painting from life. I had brought with me a great plein air setup which involves a Strada paintbox recommended by fellow Vancouver painter Marie Josenhans. You can attach it to a standard camera tripod.

I laid out some oil colours in the paintbox, and with excitement set out early one morning to the beautiful Père Lachaise Cemetary. As I was unfolding my tripod, an official came by and insisted I take it down. It was the “regles” or rules: no tripods in the cemetary. I pondered what might be the reason for this–perhaps because I might kill some ghosts? Ha ha ha!

At any rate, I was not going to not paint this fantastic place, so I put the tripod away, and placed my paint box on a tombstone, working quickly before the light changed too much. Similar to when I draw, I felt like my paint brush was actually touching what I was looking at––the surfaces of the stones, the textures of the leaves and grasses as they shimmered in the early morning breeze.

Which brings to mind a quote from a book I love, All the Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This stunningly beautiful story is about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

In the early chapters of the story, little Marie-Laure accompanies her father to his place of work, the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She loves to explore the fascinating collections of nature specimens there.

“To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.”

As the German troops force her and her father to flee the city into the countryside, she experiences many difficult realizations about the evils that humankind can inflict on others:

“This, she realizes, is the basis of all fear. That a light you are powerless to stop will turn on you and usher a bullet to its mark.”

Werner, an innocent young German boy with a natural talent for fixing electronics, has a dream to be a scientist, falls guilelessly into serving Hitler’s military as a wireless radio operator.

The painterly prose generates great empathy for both protagonists by helping us understand how two people can be caught in the middle of a conflict that neither have asked for. I think I can honestly say it’s one of the top ten novels I’ve read in my life.

Another painting project I really wanted to do was a portrait study in oil of Stella Libert, a talented cinematographer I had met through my Canadian-Parisian friend Dana Wyse. Stella agreed to sit for me in her lovely petite apartment not too far from the Père Lachaise.

I’m really glad I took a photo of the study, because when we reconvened a few days later for another sitting, I couldn’t make it better, and in fact it actually lost something in the process. So I eventually painted over it.

Merde!

Oh, excusez-moi.

Sometimes a study is just meant to be what it is: a recording of the process of looking. It doesn’t have to be “finished”. So you painters out there, be okay not to censor yourself! Your initial impulse may contain some of the best of what is unique to you. Keep those studies hanging around, they may remind you of what you are capable of.

By the way, below you can see a beautiful short film made by Stella called “Paris Je T’Aime”, which artfully follows two parkour artists over the rooftops of Paris as they break the “regles” through exerting their freedom to defy gravity.

And here is a bonus little segment that shows Stella at work directing and filming it. Très cool:

Until next time, à bientôt.

PARIS PORTRAITS: The Act of Looking

Still life objects and snacks (caisse-croutes)

Dana Wyse, a Canadian conceptual artist friend of mine who lives in Paris, has a very interesting practice. She makes pills that cure the perceived ills of the world. You can find her artistic apothecary in contemporary art exhibitions, and at a regular spot in the bookshop at the Palais de Tokyo.

Understand Public Sculpture (Dana Wyse)
Speak French Instantly (Dana Wyse)
Palais de Tokyo bookshop, Paris. Dana Wyse artworks on display.

Dana graciously set up an opportunity for me to give a drawing lesson to some of her friends, with the agreement that they would sit for me to draw their portraits. On a Saturday afternoon shortly before 2pm, I showed up at her studio apartment in the northern edge of Paris. The complex she lives in, La Maladrerie (which seems to translate as “the Leper Colony”), has an interesting cultural mix of artists and immigrants, with streets named after painters, such as Allee Gustav Courbet and Allee Matisse. It is a bit of a labyrinth, so Dana met me at a stone wall near Allee Georges Braque and shepherded me in to her spacious modernist flat that also serves as her studio.

Soon her guests arrived with snacks to contribute to the table. Dana has all kinds of cool and odd things she collects and displays in her apartment.

I chose as our main still life subject a taxidermy fox which seemed to be leaking saw-dust. Dana added a baseball, a plastic rose, and a miniature faux bourgeois armchair to the arrangement.

One of the three guests was Mélissa Laveaux, who is a talented musician with roots in Canada and Haiti. I wish I had a jpeg of the awesome drawing she did of the fox’s fierce-looking head, but you will just have to imagine it. The other two visitors, Sarah, who is a bit of a poet and a bit mysterious, and Stella, a cinematographer, made some nice work too.

The following day I received an enthusiastic email from Dana saying they all had had a great time, and that Mélissa wanted another lesson. Meanwhile we also received some complimentary tickets to Mélissa’s upcoming sold-out concert.

It was a treat to have the opportunity to see and hear her perform. She arrived on stage bearing a striking yellow electric guitar and a bright flower in her beautiful dark dreadlocks. Mélissa charmed us with her self-deprecating wit, skillful playing, and sensuous voice. After the concert we went for a drink with her and Pauline, a young painter at a low-key bar within walking distance of the theatre.

They mostly spoke French and I was a bit mystified about what was being said. I think since Dana is fluent they may have assumed at first that all Canadians know French. I can speak like a five-year old more or less. Dana apparently sounds like a Californian to her French-speaking friends.

Pauline joined us at the next drawing lesson I gave Mélissa, which we did at Melissa’s apartment in Belleville. We then went to the nearby park on a hill, and sat on the concrete steps overlooking Paris:

Mélissa has a lot on the go with her performing and song-writing, and asked if she could do some admin on her smartphone while I made the pencil drawing of her in my Moleskine, and Pauline just hung out with us.

Mélissa Laveaux, 2017, pencil in Moleskine sketchbook

The next week Pauline N’Gouala and I met at the Parc aux Buttes Chaumont and had a lovely walk and chat while she told me a bit about herself and her artwork. A wonderful afternoon with a warm, beautiful person.

Sarah, a soft-spoken young American woman who has been living in Paris for a while now, hosted me at her then Bois de Boulogne loft apartment. She shared her courtyard garden with a neighbour and friend, another Sara, who represents photographers.

Here is Julien, who I met briefly at a café, who stood shyly for only 20 minutes for me and then disappeared.

There’s something really special about sharing time and space with a person who makes herself vulnerable to being looked at. This experience is very different from working from a photograph, it is much more energetically charged, there is a sense of urgency, an awareness that this moment is fleeting. You have to focus more intensely.

Which brings me to my announcement that I am hosting a new in-person painting workshop, “Empathy and Embodiment” in a large new studio on the weekend of August 15 and 16, great for social distance learning. If you have been living your life online for the past several months, and are craving social interaction, this will be a safe and inspiring way to do that! I would love to see you there.

Check it out and let me know as soon as possible if you’d like to join in, as it may be quite popular. 🙂

I’m also starting to teach painting and drawing classes one-on-one and small groups online. and as many as three people in-person in my airy studio. I can tailor a class to your specific needs. Shoot me an email and we can set something up! val@valnelson.ca 778-865-2650