A million colors of white

Van Gogh_feistyharriet_July 2016

I dabble a bit in painting, I would hardly call myself even an amateur, really. But it’s a fun hobby and I get a ridiculous amount of joy from an afternoon in my little studio with all those little tubes of paint, mixing and painting and remixing and painting on another layer.

There are probably a lot of lessons to learn from mixing and painting, but there is one that I can’t stop thinking about. If you’re trying to make an interesting painting–contemporary, abstract, realistic, whatever–you need lots of layers and subtle differences in color. Red is never just red, in fact, it’s most interesting when it’s got a little green in it. Blue is most interesting with a little orange or yellow in the shadows or highlights, respectively. And white and black are the most realistic when there are bits of all the other colors mixed in.

That image up there is a still life by Vincent Van Gogh hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago. From across the room it looks like floppy white roses; but when you come up close, one white rose is lined in lavender, another in seafoam green, blues and purples, yellows and reds are probably more frequent than straight up Titanium White, the whitest white.

Consequently, the deepest, velvety black patches of paintings have bronze and purple, forest green and burnt umber, and sometimes even stripes of silver or yellow to offset those deep, rich dark colors. (Also, coincidentally, it’s a LOT harder to get a decent cell-phone photo of all that variation with unforgiving museum lighting and guards nervously pacing, anxiously intervening when they think you are too close. Ahem.)

I like to think about people in terms of those flowers, and the dark skirts of Victorian ladies, or the sumptuous midnight backgrounds of Dutch portraits, with gorgeous browns and vibrant reds and inky blues. We all have undertones and edges that change who we are, that reflect where we have been and what we have experienced. The variations and changes, the subtle glint when the light changes, the differences in perception depending on where you stand.

This is what makes us human. This is what makes us interesting. And this is what makes us so dang hard to understand each other, and so beautiful to each other when we finally can see all the colors and undertones and variations that work together for each, individual person.

Harriet sig

Chicago: Art and Museums

I know there are a lot of competing schools of thought on museums, some people find them stuffy and full of crumbly, boring antiques. Others are fascinated and inspired by them. I certainly fall into the latter camp, especially when we are talking about art museums. For me, a trip to Chicago is not complete without a few hours spent wandering around the Art Institute. Their Asian art wing is amazing, their Islamic textiles are gorgeous, and their ancient world exhibits are near perfection. I appreciate their religious art and icons from the middle ages, but what I love the most is the contemporary and impressionist wings.

Chicago 22_Art Institute OKeeffe_feistyharriet_April 2016

Georgia O’Keeffe spent some of her early life in Chicago as a commercial artist and took classes at the Art Institute as well. She donated a large chunk of her work to the museum and they have it mixed in with contemporaries of O’Keeffe, artists who were just beginning to break the mold of realism in the United States (the Impressionists in Europe had a head start, for sure, but they also mostly painted recognizable objects where the “modernists” in the United States in the 20’s and 30’s painted abstract shapes and forms, using color and line to convey emotion instead of familiar objects.) This is O’Keeffe’s largest painting, inspired by the clouds she saw from the window of an airplane. I love this painting and the way she uses almost Pop Art techniques to simplify the shapes down to their very basic form: white ovals = clouds.

Chicago 20_Art Institute Mondrian_feistyharriet_april 2016

Ah, Piet Mondrian, you sure know how to populate a square and make a girl swoon! The contemporary wing of the museum has some beautiful pieces in it, some resonate with me quite strongly, others I don’t even respond to at all. And that’s okay. This is a public art museum, not my living room. I don’t have to love everything on display. But the handful of Mondrian’s? Oh yes, I love those.

Chicago 19_Art Institute Van Gogh_feistyharriet_April 2016

May I introduce Vincent Van Gogh’s palette. There was a huge Van Gogh exhibit going on while I was there, they had imported pieces from around the world and had ROOMS full of Van Gogh paintings, highlighting the similarities and evolution in his style, as well as the themes he painted over and over.

There were so many people packed into those rooms that I began to panic and get a little claustrophobic. Hundreds and hundreds turned out to see these masterpieces, which is fantastic, but is not really my ideal setting for viewing art. I did squeeze through the crowds to peek at all the Van Gogh goodness, but after about 30 minutes I snuck out to other areas of the museum that were nearly empty.

Chicago 23_Art Institute Stairs_feistyharriet_April 2016

The grand staircase at the entrance. I had to wait a very long time for a clear shot, people are up and down those stairs constantly in search of something inspiring.

Chicago 18_Art Institute Seurat_feistyharriet_April 2016
I love this Seurat painting, I can stare at it for hours, kind of like people watching. It’s easy to zone out and let my own thoughts take over (a much needed relief after the intensity of the crowds hovering around the Van Gogh paintings), and imagining George as he painted, dots and more dots and more dots, tiny little components that, at a distance, create this jaw-dropping masterpiece. That is probably why I love the Impressionists, they seem to turn unrelated chaos into art. Life is–or should be–like that a little bit, I think.

Chicago 14_Agora_feistyharriet_April 2016Agora, by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. These enormous metal legs and torsos populate a sizable swath of Grant Park, on the south end, near the skate park. My nieces call this section the Pants Park, and love running through those legs, playing tag and hide and seek. I love that their everyday lives have such richness, so much culture and art that, for them, is just part of the backdrop of being little kids in the heart of a city.

I’ll be back, Chicago. I’ll always come back.

Harriet sig

Sometimes, I play with oil paint

Oil painting_Zelda_feistyharriet_2016

Several years ago on kind of a whim I bought a set of professional water color paints and a how-to manual. I hadn’t tried using watercolors since I was a kid and, frankly, they are a lot harder than I remembered. You can’t layer paint very well with watercolors, it jut makes everything a muddy-colored mess. Within a few weeks I had given up on watercolor and moved on to oil paint, where the final product is ALL about layering. I watched some YouTube tutorials, read “Oil Painting for Dummies” several times over (yes, really), and got my hands dirty.

Oil painting_windmill with purple sky_feistyharriet_2016

I quickly fell in love with the medium, with the smells of paint and linseed oil, the feel of brushes and palette knives, and the different ways to get paint from the tube onto a canvas: big brush, small brush, fingers, skinny knife, wide knife, paper towel; thick paint vs thinned paint; paint well mixed or paint with stripes of the combining colors still showing. I love mixing up colors, trying to add a bit more yellow, or burnt umber, or viridian to get the perfect shade.

Oil painting_winter barn_feistyharriet_2016

Now, I am in no means a professional artist, and for now I have no real aspirations to become one. Professionals have taken years and years or courses in color theory and composition and medium; they have spent tens of thousands of hours honing their craft and practicing.  Really, I doubt I will ever attain that level of skill, I prefer “abstract” because for me it’s easier to identify my attempts as such instead of trying to pretend I know how to draw faces or bodies or anything else truly recognizable. I sometimes dabble in reality, but usually give it crazy sky or bizarre colors or something so I don’t have to worry as much about it being too real-looking.

Oil painting_Windmill on the hill_feistyharriet_2016

But, I love it. I think this will be a life-long hobby for me. One thing on my life bucket list is to get paid for a commissioned painting; I would not accept payment for something I didn’t consider at least quasi-professional, so for now I paint for my family, and a few friends, but mostly I just paint for myself.

Oil painting_Spanish monastery_feistyharriet_2016

Ok, so, based on this post you’d think I have a thing for windmills…and, I suppose I kind of do, but mostly I have a thing for color–the crazier the better! Do you have any hobbies you’ve taken up as an adult? Or hobbies that you dabble in for the love of it, and not necessarily because you’re brilliant at it?

Harriet sig