Itness

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.

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Val Nelson, V5Y, 4.25 x 6.25 inches, oil on PVA on paper, 2015

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:

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Val Nelson, A Room in Mount Pleasant, oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches, 2015

And I started another one:

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Day One: A Room in Mount Pleasant #2

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

photography.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Madrid Travel Notes

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.

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Val Nelson, Atocha Station, 48 x 48 inches, oil on canvas, 2015

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.

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Also, I didn’t at all mind the hit of colour in the hot pink bedspread.

DSCF3705madrid-bedroom-morningFirst 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, which Velázquez painted around 1645.

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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.

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Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez, 1656, (image courtesy of Wikimedia and Museo del Prado)

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.

DSCF3196madrid-museum-of-hamOne 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.

DSCF3754buenretiroparkgoodAnd 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.

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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.

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Antonio López in his studio in front of his portrait of the Spanish royal family, nearly complete after 20 years. (Photo: Gonzalo Cruz/EP)

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.

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Antonio Garcia Lopez, Gran Vía, August 1, oil on canvas 125x129cm, 2009-2011

Here is another of Lopez’ paintings. Isn’t it fabulous?

DSCF3458view-from-bellas-artes-webAnd 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.

hasta luego,

Val

 

 

 

 

Painting from observation: ie creative

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.

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Ocean Commotion, artwork by ie creative, 2006 (photo credit: ie creative website)

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.

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Preliminary drawing at ie creative by Val Nelson, 2015

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.

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Michael Vandermeer and Cheryl Hamilton in their studio, 2015

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.

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Polishing and painting at ie creative workshop (photo by Cheryl Hamilton)

My painting came together quickly, as I wanted to treat it much like a drawing with lots of white space.

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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.

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Cleaning and wrapping at ie creative, by Val Nelson, 2015

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.”

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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.

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Polishing, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, 2015, by Val Nelson

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.

 

 

Painting On-Site

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.

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Day 1 at Opus–the first panel of the diptych

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.

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Day 5 at Opus

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.

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Opus daily practice wall of drawings, by customers and staff

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.

Loosening Up! with Craftsy

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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 🙂

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Shooting for fun

I came across a quote by Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu on “Brain Pickings”, one of my favorite blogs about the creative process by the excellent Maria Popova. I think it speaks volumes about the importance of enjoying the process, without attachment to outcomes.

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Jasper Johns, Target with Four Faces, Encaustic, newspaper, cloth, canvas, plaster, wood, hinges, 33 5/8 x 26 x 3″, 1955, MOMA

Certainly in painting, I find that the best work comes when I’m relaxed and curious, rather than trying to make something that I think someone would like. First of all, I have to enjoy what I’m doing, and then I need to be sure it’s something that resonates for me. If I’m trying to second-guess an audience, the work is usually dead in the water.

Here’s the quote:

When an archer is shooting for fun
He has all his skill.

If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.

If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind

Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind.

His skill has not changed,
But the prize divides him.

He cares
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.

~Chuang Tzu

Optimistic Pursuits has moved!

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View from Notre Dame in Pink, Green, and Grey

If you enjoy my posts, I’ve now amalgamated this blog into my website. So come on over and follow me here. If you want to be part of my newsletter list, please then click on CONTACT and follow the prompts. Thanks so much for being part of my painting adventures!

Embracing Technology

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Val Nelson, Hamburger Bahnhof 1, 45 x 60 inches, oil on panel, 2012-2013

In my  September 2012 post on my “In the Studio” page, I bemoaned my boredom with photography as a source for my paintings. Well since then things have changed quite a bit. While photography has limitations, I am once again finding it very freeing, in different ways from working from life. The paintings that “just happen” very quickly are ones that I sometimes prize; but there are also the larger works that emerge slowly, and are an accumulation of “hits” and “misses” that are moves toward the final goal of an image that registers for me something that I hope to call Painting.

The layering of glazes can subtly alter the surface and create nuances of painterly depth that a “premier coup” painting might not. Each approach is just different, neither better nor worse than the other.

There’s also what technology can bring to the process–I’m fairly sure if Velaszquez or Vermeer were here today they would most likely be taking advantage of today’s photography post-production software in conjunction with their painting.

Along with working from reproductions of reality printed on paper or found on my computer screen, I also have been really benefiting from some life drawing and painting in the past while. It’s feeling good to do it all–– it just makes the work richer and I think more informed.

Today we needn’t be And/Or but can easily say yes to Both.

Drawing in the Dark (Part 2)

Vancouver Opera premiere of Lillian Alling, Act 1

Excerpt from Vancouver Opera’s Blog

The things people do in the dark of a theatre.

Some people sit riveted and try to taking in everything that is happening on stage. Others glance upwards and down as they read the surtitles. And others may close their eyes and simply let the music and singing overtake them.

Not artist Val Nelson.

Val draws the opera when the lights go down. Ever so discretely and imperceptibly that her fellow seatmates do not even know this was happening. Val first came to our attention when she drew at Madama Butterfly last season.

On opening night, she was once again armed with her drawing pen to help us record the world premiere of Lillian Alling.

(read more…)

It’s a drawing party, and you’re invited!

Val Nelson, Dining Room_Sergeev (detail), 2009, graphite and pencil crayon on vellum and stonehenge paper
Val Nelson, Dining Room_Sergeev (detail), 2009, graphite and pencil crayon on vellum and stonehenge paper


Join us July 17 for the official launch of Drawn 2009, Metro Vancouver’s inaugural festival of drawing. Watch and mingle as some of Vancouver’s best emerging and established artists create large-scale drawings right before your eyes, with Thomas Anfield, Davida Kidd, Kavavaow Mannomee, Val Nelson, Christian Nicolay, Justin Ogilvie, Carolyn Stockbridge.

You too are invited to draw live, and celebrate the act of drawing!

Music, canapes, performances, installations and more.

Friday, July 17, 7-11pm
One Alexander St in Gastown, Vancouver
(beneath Chill Winston Restaurant & Lounge)

Tell your friends, and be prepared to mark it up!

RSVP: info@drawnfestival.ca

or 604-685-1934

Cash bar (proceeds benefit the Vancouver Drawing Festival Society)
Curated by Julie Lee


On the Drawn Festival: For three weeks in July and August, Vancouver-area galleries and museums will come together to host an unprecedented series of exhibitions devoted to the medium of drawing. The first celebration of its kind in Canada and possibly the world, this unique multi-venue event will include an exciting program of free lectures, gallery tours, exhibition openings, artist talks, and more.

Don’t miss the art talk by Ann Kipling, who is a huge talent in the little-known world of Canadian drawing, at noon on July 18 at the Douglas Udell Gallery, 1558 West 6th Avenue.

Also on July 18, I will be showing new drawings alongside the wonderful work of Brent Boechler and David Alexander at the Bau-Xi Gallery in Vancouver, 3045 Granville Street, opening 2-4pm. Please join us at 3 pm when we will give a talk about our process.

For more information on other exciting events, click here.