Below are images of a work shown in progress through to completion, of the Porcelain Dining Room in the Chateau de Versailles. It’s a commission I’ve enjoyed making for a private home near Toronto. The wide panoramic format was pieced together from individual photographs I took from a trip in France a number of years ago. I remember going through the chateau twice, the second pass offered a satisfying, golden afternoon light. The composition reminds me of the forced perspective one observes on the virtual tours of museum websites.
Blocking in always begins with big brushes, to locate everything and establish colour family and main values. The next step in the painting is to use smaller brushes and go in for specifics of detail, sharpening edges and creating stronger focal points. I want the viewer to feel immersed in the space, with lots to encourage the eye to keep meandering, discovering new subtleties and maybe even surprises. It’s important to me that a painting unfold for the viewer slowly, to withstand the test of time.
In the final session something happened that wasn’t planned. Here’s the finished piece with its new title, Mantlepiece with Talking Objects (Versailles).
Working with the warm colors of the parquet flooring, gilding, and marble, really helped energize the gray days of winter.
Now that the cooler weather of Fall is here, I’m so grateful to be able to get back into the studio and paint paint paint. A little study I made last winter of a scene on my breakfast table has been calling to me. I painted it on an old envelope.
The appearance of objects, and their quiet presence or “itness”, has long been something that really gets to me. I wasn’t sure about this humble image, but after much deliberation I decided there’s something about it I need to pay attention to.
So here’s a painting I made this week:
And I started another one:
For the next several months all I want to do is immerse myself in the wordless process of looking, and recording what I see. I’ve been tussling with a purist notion that I must work only from life; but the practicality of it has not been easy to deal with. The dimensions of my apartment limit me from painting there with an easel; a way around it could have been working very small, but to be honest I get very claustrophobic with all my painting gear cluttering up the place. My home is a sanctuary, where I can rest. So the solution is of course
This past year of working off and on from life has really helped me. Observing how light changes in a space over time informs how I now see colour, and I realize I have more freedom to mess around with what goes on in the rectangle. At the same time my drawing is getting better.
And my Ipad and Iphone now have those updated apps that have much better options for image correction.
You can see I’ve put grid marks on the canvas above. Having watched Antonio Garcia Lopez paint in the film El Sol del Mebrillo by Victor Erice I realized that within extreme control (measuring), one can then have great freedom (painterly interpretation). But Garcia doesn’t like working from photography. I’m okay with acknowledging I live in the 21st century and can use any technology I want, as did Bonnard, Vuillard, Degas, and those guys who probably used the camera obscura (Vermeer, Caravaggio). However, so far I’m not interested in actually projecting and tracing. I like drawing too much, and I feel like something interesting happens when I get things slightly wrong even though I’m trying to get it right.
Anyone can draw. But people in our culture often think of drawing as something done by children, or a specialist in drawing, called an “artist”. Many times I’ve heard stories from people about an early point in their lives when someone looked at a drawing they had made and said “that doesn’t look real,” or “what’s that supposed to be?” which sadly discouraged them from continuing to draw. They just stopped.
Most of us as children had the compulsion to take crayon to paper or any available surface, out of the sheer joy of making marks, expressing something we saw or imagined or felt.
Right from the early cave drawings we humans have been recording our experience of the world. What excites me the most about drawing is that when you slow down and really look, the beauty and variety in the world around you begin to reveal themselves. You begin to notice the proportions of buildings, the difference between the ears on a cat compared to those on a dog, the complexity of pattern of wood-grain, or the subtle gradations of light that make up a back-lit glass of water.
On August 9, I will be leading a one-day intensive in my studio, “Drawing Jumpstart.” I encourage anyone, draw-ers and “non-drawers” alike, who have some curiosity and a sense of play to join me. We will have a wonderful day together as we explore the process of recording what we see in various ways.
I also have a few spots available in my “Painting Jumpstart” class on August 23.
For more information about the classes and for registration, go to the Teaching page on my website.
Ahhh—the meditative experience of train travel, as the landscape floats gently by. After saying goodbye to Barcelona, a few hours later I arrived at the beautiful Atocha Station in Madrid.
I love the in-between spaces of travel, where time is suspended, and human presence, ephemeral.
Taking the handy metro from Atocha, I emerged in the Plaza Tirso de Molina, where I was delighted to find that my new accommodations overlooked this interesting view, great for people-watching.
Also, I didn’t at all mind the hit of colour in the hot pink bedspread.
First stop, the main reason for coming to sunny Spain: the magnificent Prado Museum, where I spent most of the day soaking up the fantastic works of Diego de Velázquez. No photography was allowed, but I did make a small drawing of one of his dwarfs, whichVelázquez painted around 1645.
Velasquez made a number of paintings of jesters and dwarves for his patron, King Philip V, to be hung in the royal hunting lodge. Though these characters were employed as a source of amusement and entertainment for the Spanish court, Velasquez captures the intelligence and dignity of his subject, The Jester Don Diego de Acedo, el Primo.
I spent several hours in the large room with Velázquez’ masterpiece, Las Meninas, and a number of fabulous Equestrian portraits. Alas, the one of the young prince Carlos was on loan to another museum.
I had previously painted a study of that one from a reproduction in my dog-eared book, Velázquez: The Technique of Genius, so I was looking forward to seeing the painting firsthand, having become so familiar with the master’s work.
But there were still plenty of top-notch painting chops to absorb, such as Goya, El Greco, and Bosch — oh my! But perhaps that is for another blog.
One gets hungry looking at so much art. Luckily on the road across from the Prado, you can visit the very fine Museum of Ham, or “jamón” as they say in Spain.
And behind the Prado is the lovely Buen Retiro Park, where you can eat and drink at little cafés, overlooking a peaceful lake. I returned here several times over the course of my eight days in Madrid, to rest up from the intensity of sight-seeing. There’s nothing like hanging around trees and water to help you recharge.
A friend from Vancouver put me in touch with her friend Maria who lives in Madrid. Her apartment has a view of the Palacio Real. Maria kindly served me tapas, and invited me back to photograph her lovely apartment in the daytime, as I was charmed by it and saw potential for new paintings.
I was fortunate to be able to see an exhibition of royal portraits at the Palacio after my photo session. The show included a very good group portrait of the current Spanish royal family by contemporary Spanish painter, Antonio Garcia Lopez. The painting took 20 years to complete because, as the artist says, he was hindered by having to work from photographs.
Lopez, who usually only works from life, is an artist I have been admiring for some time now–there is a wonderful film, El Sol del Membrillo (Dream of Light) which unfortunately is only available in PAL format, so I have to admit that I sometimes look at a pirated Youtube version in Spanish with no subtitles. This award-winning film by Victor Erice is probably one of the best films I’ve seen on the life of a painter.
I also like to immerse myself in this very good book about Lopez.
Here is another of Lopez’ paintings. Isn’t it fabulous?
And here is a spot very close to where he made it. The Edificio Metrópolis building in the left foreground has been vastly improved by the shroud of a celphone ad.
At the Bellas Artes building, you pay a few Euros and take an elevator to the roof, where you’ll get a panoramic view of Madrid. Madrid’s Academy of Art has its headquarters here, and this is where Dali and Picasso were once students. I now know that there is also an excellent painting gallery there. If you visit Madrid, please go and visit it and tell me what you think.
September 20, 11am-1pm at Opus Art Supplies, Granville Island, Vancouver.
Gain confidence in working with a limited palette. Award-winning artist and sought-after painting instructor Val Nelson will demonstrate, in oil paint, how the informed use of values and edges is integral to painterly realism.
Space is limited and registration is required.
Please visit Opus Granville Island or contact them at 604‑736‑7028 to register.
How thrilling to disembark from the airport shuttle and step onto a Spanish plaza! A quick walk down the Ramblas brought me to my new AirBnB home for the next five days in the Barri Gòtic, which was pretty handy for seeing a lot of the city’s offerings in a short period of time.
A long sleep helped me shake off jetlag, and my first day’s exciting agenda was to go and say hello to Pablo. Five minutes’ walk down narrow Medieval streets was the Museo Picasso, which held a fine collection of works made by the Catalan artist in his formative years, including academic figure studies, plein air landscapes, and paintings of friends and family.
I spent a little time furiously drawing in pencil the bronze bust of one of Picasso’s first girlfriends, Fernand. Shortly afterward I was taking a break on a bench in the foyer, beside a young woman who had apparently been doing a bit too much site-seeing. She kept nodding off, and jerking awake again. Amused by the spectacle and recognizing a great drawing opportunity, I did a quick semi-blind contour drawing of her without turning my sketchbook page. I finished off the composition by including a ceramic owl that I could see in the next room.
A short train-ride away from Barcelona is a quiet little seaside village, Arenys de Mar. There I was given a quick tour of the Art Print Residency, run by the master printmakers and gracious hosts, Jordi and Claudia.
It has a fantastic print studio, three bedrooms available to residency artists, views of the surrounding landscape and the sea below, and cork trees growing on the hillside, on which Jordi showed me the cutting marks from previous cork harvestings.
Afterward he dropped me off at the next village, Caldes d’Estrac, where I spent a beautiful afternoon at the Fundacio Palau, and afterward stumbled upon the local peoples’ favorite haunt, an unassuming beach café with the Mediterranean surf rolling in. One of those beautiful unplanned moments I always treasure on my travels.
Since returning home to Vancouver from Spain (which I’ll cover in another blogpost), I got back to my exploration of painting and drawing from direct observation, this time at i.e. creative, the workshop/studio on Granville Island of an art school alumni friend, Cheryl Hamilton. She and her business partner, Michael Vandermeer, make public art, and I’ve always enjoyed their witty kinetic sculptures they made for the entrances to Science World and Ocean Concrete, which to me are like large-scale drawings in space.
When I asked Cheryl if I could hang out in their studio to make a painting of their activities, she and Mike were completely trusting and supportive of the idea, and welcomed me to stay for as long as I needed to make my work.
My first visit was for scouting and planning where to put myself and my easel. After making a quick sketch I could see that the best painting place was at the back of the shop. It was a good vantage point from which I could take in activity around a large steel pole that thrust back toward the front windows, and I could paint there while not interfering much with the studio’s operations.
I really love this angle, but I couldn’t physically fit in the easel, painting gear, and my body at this exact spot. So I opted for a shift three feet to the right, where I could show more of the space, and include the bright light from the windows.
i.e. creative always has several projects on the go. During my painting sessions, Cheryl and Mike were in and out of the workspace, sometimes meeting at the big table in the shop, sometimes upstairs in the office; they planned project logistics, met with clients, wielded power tools and prepped materials for casting, mentored Emily Carr University students, and fielded questions from visiting tourists. Somehow throughout their busy days they also managed to fit in polishing and welding jobs for a metal parts foundry, and grab some friendly conversation with their Granville Island artisan neighbours who occasionally dropped by.
Meanwhile, the polishing of four long steel poles for a large-scale artwork in Steveston was among the works in progress. Jeff, the studio assistant, walked slowly forward and back along the first pole which was resting horizontally on supports. All day long, there was pressure on his right arm as he worked the handheld electric Makita polishing tool. Beneath his construction earmuffs he wore earbuds so he could listen to his Ipod, and over his face, a respirator and goggles (it’s not a good idea to breathe in steel particles). In my conversation with Jeff about the intense physicality of the task, he likened his body to a lobster, with one outsized claw.
My painting came together quickly, as I wanted to treat it much like a drawing with lots of white space.
One morning I arrived to find the artists out in the alley with a finished pole, treating its surface and washing it down. Its surface shone like a mirror. “How long will you be working on this?” I asked them. “About an hour,” Cheryl said. I quickly grabbed a large sheet of paper from my portfolio and some pencil crayons to draw gestures of the activity as they finished the cleaning process and wrapped the gleaming pole with layers of plastic sheeting for storage.
During one of their breaks Jeff and Cheryl were having a friendly chat about cooking, which seemed to be a regular topic of conversation in the studio. Jeff quoted a famous television chef who said “You don’t really know how to make something until you’ve done it one hundred times.”
On my sixth day, the painting felt near completion, so it was nice to have a little quiet time for contemplation to understand the last moves to make. The transitory feel of a sketch that I was aiming for called for a light touch. I brought in the ghost of a doorway and subtle outline of Cheryl seated at the table on the left-hand side. Full rendering of everything would have felt like overcooking this piece.
Cheryl said I was welcome to come back anytime if I need to do more work there. What I find myself reflecting on is how art and life at ie creative could flow so seamlessly in such a graceful way.
I’ve been thinking about when and how the artist emerges in a person. I think it’s probably always there right from the beginning. At least for me that was the case, though I didn’t really know what that was, or what that meant for a long time.
I grew up in the forestry town of Port Alberni, in the middle of rural Vancouver Island on the western edge of Canada. Our town was booming in the early 60’s with an impressive population of around 50,000. Port’s iconic pulp and paper mill smoke stacks anchored the landscape, and spewed steam, smoke, and a sour sulfurous aroma into the air twenty-four hours a day. The mill employed many of our town’s young men fresh out of high school.
You could say my first art studio was the kitchen wall of the tiny bungalow we lived in until I was five years old. At some point I started scribbling on the wall beside the refrigerator pretty much every day; luckily for me, my Mom could see this activity was unstoppable, so she hung big sheets of paper there so I could go at it. There were no art galleries or art museums that I was aware of, and I had next to no art classes in elementary school, unless you call gluing cotton balls onto a pre-drawn image of a flower art.
Maybe once or twice a year we had Mrs. Mottel as a substitute teacher. Even though she was pretty strict and we were all kind of scared of her, I loved it when Mrs. Mottel showed up, because in the afternoon she would turn our classroom into an art room and we would make a copy of an image she showed us how to paint, like a sailboat on a lake, or a cluster of totem poles, and she introduced us to rudimentary composition and really basic colour theory. She also taught us proper penmanship, had a Scottish accent, and insisted we roll our R’s when pronouncing the word “squirrel” which, when we tried it, sounded more like “squiddle”.
The closest thing to fine art I remember being exposed to were reproductions of Picasso drawings and paintings you could order from an ad in Life magazine. I sensed that Modern Art had something to do with Spain–everyone at that time was decorating their homes in Spanish iron grillwork, hot orange upholstery, and oil paintings of bullfighters on black velvet, which I thought were really classy.
I was diagnosed with myopia in grade four. Arriving home wearing the exciting new technology (for me) of eyeglasses, I opened the car door and was entranced by the clarity of the gravel rocks in the driveway. For a while I didn’t move from the front seat of the car, I just kept staring at the ground, its appearance was so electrifying. I also recall a summer afternoon spent hanging out on the gravel pathway of my Grandma Connie’s garden, determined to colour every individual rock with wax crayon. Needless to say it was a failed project.
My Mom’s mother was known as “Big Connie” because one of her nieces, my cousin, had the same first name and was of course dubbed “Little Connie”. Big Connie was not actually very big, she was small in stature but had a large personality––opinionated, feisty, but with a good sense of humour if you got on her good side.
My sister and I spent Saturday afternoons and sometimes overnight with her, to give our parents a break. I loved being there because we got to drink tea like grownups (we called ourselves “tea-grannies”), and Big Connie was an artist. She introduced me to oil painting when I was eleven; with her help I painted an image of mushrooms grouped under the shadow of a tree, copied from a “How to Paint” book. A self-taught painter of floral still-lifes and seascapes, when Big Connie had an exhibition of her work at the local community centre in town, she included my clumsy little painting along with hers. It wasn’t until many years later as an adult that I touched oil paint again; I wish she was still here now so we could talk about it.
The past two weeks have been super interesting. I’ve been making a painting on-site in my local art store, Opus, on Granville Island. The staff there have been great in welcoming me as I test out painting live in a public space, to learn how the experience might affect my painting practice. Standing on a platform in the paper and sketch-book section affords me a high-angle view of the space, where I can get a bit of distance and a dynamic perspective of the aisles and shelving.
What interests me about this part of the store are the rhythmic patterns of different colored papers as they recede in space, and the wonderful childrens’ paintings hanging on the back wall below the managers’ office windows. I always find it interesting making paintings of paintings.
For quite some time now I’ve been wanting to act on the strong compulsion to be in the world as I render it; in contrast to the isolation of the studio and working from the flattened image of a photograph, I’m finding the immediacy of painting from direct observation to be incredibly energizing and challenging. And I’ve always loved a challenge!
The occasional conversations with interested passers-by is a welcome break from the focused intensity required to do the work outside of my comfort zone; and the happenstance chats with Opus staff throughout the day have enriched the experience––most of the people working there are artists themselves, so it’s lovely to hear a bit about their backgrounds, and share conversation about creativity, the value of time, some nuggets about the history of Granville Island, and how this month’s friendly goal-setting challenge of “28 days of art practice” has been helpful in encouraging them to draw or make something every day. The wall at the entrance to the store is gradually filling up with wonderful little drawings made over the past two weeks.
This new way of working has been a bit of a learning curve: the first week I painted four days in a row, then worked on another project and did some teaching on the weekend. The second week I painted three days, and by the fourth day I realized how challenging this process has been on my energies.
The heightened stimulation of this new painting situation, which in a way is a kind of performance, means I have to monitor how it’s affecting my physical well-being. On Wednesday night I slept twelve hours, and I then took it easy Thursday. I visited the store only in the afternoon to show the painting to a couple of artist friends, but didn’t paint that day. I’m learning that the time between painting is important, to recharge, think about the work and where it’s going, and what might come next.
My new online painting class with Craftsy has launched! I’m excited to announce this because over the past five years I’ve been honing a painting class called Loosen Up! that helps students be more relaxed about their painting process. People seem to really enjoy my classes, and it makes me so happy to see their work blossom! I teach out of my studio, and as a guest instructor in some art schools and various art guilds around BC.
As the Craftsy catalogue already has some solid classes on basic painting technique, they wanted me to deliver something more like a “tips” class so people could take their painting further. So in the class I talk about brushwork, and tips on avoiding muddiness, and light and dark patterns. I especially focus on edges; in other words how to paint objects without hard contours around everything.
Craftsy flew me to Denver for a three-day shoot in October, and everyone there was fantastic and they all love their jobs! I met some other lovely instructors there, like knitters (one in particular whom I will talk about in another blog) and cake makers, who help people to get better at making things they love.
Over the winter the Craftsy editors have been putting it all together and now that it’s live, it’s starting to attract new students from all over. Students can play the video lessons and review what they’ve learned, as many times as they want, and they can access the classes forever.
Here’s what students have been saying:
“Val, I loved everything about these lessons. The way you communicated the step by step processes, taking us through from start to finish was easy to follow and clear. The filming was fantastic and the way you talked to us made me feel like I was in the room. You’ve inspired me!
Highly recommend this for any painter wanting to loosen up or just enjoy painting! Thank you.”
“Val Nelson’s experience with painting is a joy to watch and learn. Her approach is encouraging, informative, and she offers a variety of techniques of how to paint more loosely. She shows how painting in a more expressive way is about using the materials in a thoughtful and resourceful manner. I highly recommend this course to any artist who wants to learn how to paint in a more expressive style.”
“This class has revealed so many techniques that I have missing at my level of painting. Thank you for sharing your expertise. I’m self taught so my knowledge of the essential elements of composition, structure, and brush work is weak. This class has been so very valuable to my artistic journey. Thank you, Val Nelson and, once again, Craftsy!”
Here is a link to my Craftsy class. Check it out and tell me what you think 🙂