Take A Trip

One of the things I love about doing illustration work is the worlds that open up to me. With a recent request for images to go with the term Arabic, I was taken on a journey to a world far away. One in which, despite the amount of times its in the news, I actually know very little about.

Researching all things Arabic led me to learn about the bird market in Kabul, that the colourful camel trappings are handmade, the different names of traditional clothing, and a whole lot more. There are Buddhist temples in Afghanistan, and a 55 meter Buddha statue. I got to meet people I wouldn’t otherwise know, by getting permission to use their likeness in my images. Beautiful people and beautiful hearts are not confined by borders or religious views. If only the love people have inside them could remain uncorrupted by borders and cultish religious manipulation.

Painterly illustration of a beautiful Arabian woman in a white hijab with roses and lights.

These are just a few of the images resulting from my virtual journey to far away lands. Many will be available from Arcangel Images. Today the Arab world, next the Asian one, with a stop in the Wild West! I have been assured 2022 is going to be an exciting and busy year!

Cindy Revell

Yesterday, after several years I finally got to meet, face to face, with an under-appreciated Alberta artist whose work I have adored for years. Cindy Revell is from Sherwood Park east of Edmonton, and is best known for her whimsical paintings featuring fantastical creatures and richly patterned tapestries. Cheerful, bold colours, exquisite brushwork, and a bit of humour makes her work playful, fun, and quirky enough to stand out.

In a world of decreasing options and generic sameness, the uniqueness of her work is enough to make Cindy’s work attract attention, but the paintings are expertly executed as well. These paintings are for the dreamers, the poets, the adults who refuse to let go of their inner child, and the bold who embrace difference.

During our conversation, we talked about the struggles of not being mainstream…..of being uncommon. Our society has become so trained to sameness and lack of choice, that it isn’t always an easy road when you choose to go against the norm. The artist’s life is a struggle at the best of times, but then adding in quirky often makes the climb even steeper. But Cindy has climbed over the roadblocks to have a successful career as an artist, teacher, and mentor.

Speaking of mentoring, Levelling Up Mastermind groups will be starting a small group mentoring session with Cindy in the near future. I can tell you, if you are on the artists path, this is one session that will provide valuable guidance you won’t soon forget. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to gain the experience and knowledge of one of Canada’s most under appreciated artists. (No I am not being paid to say this!)

Best of all, from our all too short of visit, is that we now are the proud owners of Night Whispers by Cindy Revell. The painting featuring a red deer and blue bird in conversation on a rich tapestry against a backdrop of leaves, is so absolutely perfect for our new home. The stories and connections this painting invokes are many.

From the memories of deer sleeping outside our windows on the farm, to the bluebird houses hung around the property, to my love of textiles and past work in the fibre arts, to our move to Red Deer, and to how the first night in our new home I marvelled at the sound of the leaves whispering outside the bedroom window that night (and many subsequent nights). We were even talking about our days raising sheep and the 2 am visits to the lambing pen to check ewes, and how I missed those night sounds. The Night Whispers, that only those who sit in the quietness of the night know.

Cindy, we are overjoyed with this painting!

On Thinking Like A Book Cover

I split my photography between photos for the wall decor industry and the book publishing one. When shooting for book covers, I need to adjust my thinking quite a bit from that of the fine art or decor market, which is more concerned with producing a pictorial image that can enhance a living space.

For the book cover market, I am looking for the story, or the potential story. There are times when the two can overlap, but I usually put myself into a different frame of mind for covers. Since I like a good mystery or suspense story, I often try to think in terms of that genre when out shooting. The resulting images often have a bit of a dark undertone to them. Like this bison skull, below. It has a clear bullet hole in the head. Overall the image tells a story that could be successfully used on the cover for a variety of stories, besides the stereotypical western genre.

A bison skull with a large gunshot wound.

The image below of the old fashioned workshop, could be used on the cover of a suspense novel. Perhaps a story about a mass murderer, or the disappearance of an important person. But it could just as easily be about the breakdown of a marriage. The loss of a grandparent, or a story set in the past. What about a story about a seemingly idyllic neighbourhood with a dark secret. Is it the caretaker?

An old farm workshop with antique tools.

Even seemingly random subjects can make great book covers. I would never have thought when I snapped a photo of our cat on the fence with a specialty camera set up that it would end up the cover of James Patterson novel, but it did.

The silhouette of a cat sitting on a fence.
James Patterson Book Cover

The book cover industry engages my creativity and imagination and allows me to become a bit of a storyteller in seeking out and composing my images. It’s a job I truly love.

You can view my portfolio’s of images for licensing on Arcangel Images and Millennium Images.

Burrington, Monet, And Me

Arthur Alfred Burrington was an esteemed English painter. Although most known for his watercolours which formed the bulk of his work, he was equally adept at oils. Alfred received his training in London at both the South Kensington School of Art and later at Slade School. He went to Rome and Italy to study the great masters. In France he studied at the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts, under the tutelage of Leon Bonnat. He also studied under Gustave Boulanger and Fernand Cormon. The later taught such famed artists as Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, Vincent van Gogh, and several other highly celebrated artists. 

Burrington spent time at the artist colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany, before finally settling in the French Riviera at Menton. It isn’t known whether Burrington and Monet became acquainted in Brittany or Paris, but it is known that they painted together at Menton. Alfred is the subject of Monet’s ‘Portrait Of An English Painter, Bordighera‘ in 1884. 

Portrait Of An English Painter at Bordighera by Monet

The painting below is believed to be a painting of his father, Edwin Henry Burrington. The Burrington family was well established and highly respected in Bridgwater, Somerset. In 1848 at the age of 27, Edwin published a book of poetry entitled Revelations Of The Beautiful. Edwin was quietly involved in the literary circles, often writing articles in leading London papers, and was on the permanent staff with the London Press as the critic. His book of poems was well reviewed by the press.

A Visit From Grandfather – A Somersetshire Cottage by A Burrington

Edwin Henry Burrington was my husbands great x3 grandfather. Arthur his great x2 uncle. 

I have always likened painting to poetry. The melodic rhythm of the written word and abstract interpretations seem to echo with my thoughts of painting. I equate high realism in art as journalistic reporting. The facts as observed by one person. While impressionist and abstract representational art is more like poetry in its emotive suggestion which allows the reader/viewer to interpret the meaning. 

Many of my landscape and figurative paintings were drawn from inspiration of Burrington’s poetry. A nod to my husbands family history which is so rich in art and poetry.  

Nature Is Revealing – 8×10” – Oil on canvas panel

“The prosers of the busy world are they
Who never kindle mutual faith and feeling,
For such have hearts which waste themselves away,
Yet never know that Nature is revealing
Both love and loveliness by night and day.
The poets of the busy world are lovers,
The truest and the best.

Edwin Burrington

Don’t Worry About Rejection

I had originally written a smaller version of this on my old blog, but thought it would be a timely entry for today. I had a hard rejection this week. It was something I had expected I would be rejected for, but had still placed a lot of hope in. I had built up a story in my head of the benefits of being accepted, and as soon as I do that, the rejection stings all the more. 

“Don’t worry about the rejections. Everybody that’s good has gone through it. Don’t let it matter if your works are not “accepted” at once. The better or more personal you are the less likely they are of acceptance. Just remember that the object of painting pictures is not simply to get them in exhibitions. It is all very fine to have your pictures hung, but you are painting for yourself, not the jury. I had many years of rejections.
– Robert Henri

That line starts a couple of paragraphs in Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit about painting for yourself. If you are an artist and haven’t read this book, I urge you to do so. If I could only have one book on my bookshelf, this would be it, and I would read it over and over again like the Bible. Because it really is the artists’s bible for the knowledge and insight it contains. While it won’t tell you how to mix this colour with that to get the perfect green, or how to hold the paint brush, it will tell you how to paint through authenticity and braveness. 

He goes on to talk about not trying to paint good landscapes, but of trying to show people what makes the landscape interesting to you. To show people your heart and your inner thoughts. Your paintings should be like hunting – a search for that special thing with meaning to you alone. There will be hits, where you capture that special thing, and misses. But each attempt records your progress in trying to define and understand that thing. The paintings act as stepping stones for others to use in trying to see and understand the specialness that first captured your imagination. 

It is easy to get sidetracked and forget Henri’s advice, especially after receiving hard rejections. The temptation is always there to adjust your work to follow the masses. Looking at who is being successful, what the gallery you want to be in is showing, or what your peers are painting can mess up your art and make you lose sight of your inner voice. That thing that made you want to be a painter in the first place. That thing that will, with time, set your work apart from the masses.

This week started with a hard rejection, but that rejection came just two days after an exciting acceptance. So why, as artists, do we tend to wallow in the rejection more than we celebrate the successes?  In a previous blog post, I’ve questioned whether the reason goes back to our basic learned fears from childhood. Being picked last for the school team, playing second fiddle to another child at home or elsewhere, or of not getting an A on that math test you studied weeks for. It is the fear, despite our best efforts, we are not good enough. 

When Brian Was A Boy – 16×20” – Oil on canvas

When we have success it’s easy to brush it off as luck, a fluke, or something similar. We can have our little celebration and feel great for a day or two, until the next rejection comes in. The highs are never quite equal to, or as long lived,  as the lows. But those rejections really don’t mean anything, or shouldn’t mean anything. They can’t, without your permission, diminish the work you are doing and how far you’ve come in your career. To have no rejection means you have also not taken steps to grow and advance as an artist. 

“Take the history of art in France. Practically every artist who today stands a glory to French art was rejected and repudiated by the committees and juries.”
– Robert Henri

You must have confidence in yourself and the work you are doing. Use rejection as an opportunity to try and take an unbiased look at what you are doing. Can it be made better? What might be lacking? Am I being authentic to myself; my voice? Receiving 20 rejection letters means you have tried 20 times, which is far more than the person who only tried once and quit. And if you are going to try to have a career as an artist, you are going to have to face rejection, because the fact is the shear number of people trying to be an artist, is far greater than the number of opportunities to present or sell art.

Last year media outlets showed images of students taking the entrance exam for a Chinese art school. There were 7,000 hopeful students taking the exam that day, which consisted of painting and drawing exercises. The article also reported that 900,000 people take the national college entrance exam for art in China every year. 900,000! That is 900,000 people in one country alone that would like to make a living as an artist. 

Thousands of Chinese students vying to get into art school.

You have already proven you have the fortitude and stubbornness to hang in there and keep going just by believing in yourself and having the courage to make those submissions. Keep going, keep putting your art out there, and keep improving until your work is so good it can’t be ignored. 

Mary Mary Quite Contrary

It’s been a really long winter here in Alberta. I had, up until Spring arrived a few weeks ago, hardly been out of the house aside from weekly trips into town for groceries, and the odd trip to a nearby city for appointments. I was decidedly housebound and eager to see green and get outside to paint. This funk had extended itself to my work at the easel.

I’ve had various paintings on the go over winter, and have a whole stack of sketches waiting to be painted, but my contrary mood has me bored with it all. When a conversation with a friend who was experiencing similar problems happened, we thought maybe doing some focused exercises together (via the Internet since we don’t live close enough for in-person visits) would help. So we quickly put together a small group with the aim of doing monthly exercises into different topics to help refresh or refine our painting skills.

Our first exercise was colour shifts: using different colours of the same value in larger shapes. I thought I’d start with doing some block studies, but the problem is I only have a couple of blocks. When I saw the candy jar with liquorice allsorts, I saw blocks of a sort. Perhaps not quite as easy as the solid colour wooden blocks that many artists use, but block shaped objects which could offer that spark of fun I am always looking for in my projects. So I set up a couple blocks, then thought “I need something else”, and saw the rubber duck in the bathroom and added him to the set up. “Why not?”

Before I knew it I was taking a left turn from my regular landscape work, studying some key skills I’d always been meaning to study, refining my skills in both painting and seeing, and most important…..having fun and getting excited to show up at the easel each day. Three little still life paintings featuring the candy have been done so far. More will likely follow. 

What A Sweet Duck – 8×10″ – Oil on paper

Identifying areas of skill that you’d like learn or improve on, and setting up some exercises to study and practice those skills is a great way to help get over any creative slumps. Even if it doesn’t directly help with a slump, you will have a reason to show up at the easel each day and be working to improve your painting abilities. Self-improvement can never be a bad idea; and showing up to the easel every day is half the battle. 

“Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert

Here is a list of other things I often turn to when I am feeling stuck or frustrated:

  • Do something completely different for a day or two. My muse always seems to show up if I go out and commune with nature. Go for a walk, or a drive in the country. Do some baking, or clean the house. Meditate or exercise. Don’t go visiting friends. Don’t do something that requires a lot of thought that isn’t related to your work. It’s okay not to directly think about your art, but you want to allow those thoughts to happen naturally. Spending time alone is important for allowing you to zone out and get in touch with your inner voice. 
  • Quit looking at other people’s work. If you are in a slump, your monkey voice is likely pointing out all the areas you are inadequate and how much better everyone else is. If that is happening, even slightly, unplug yourself from the temptation to compare. If you have to unplug the computer to keep yourself from checking into Facebook daily, do it. The world won’t implode in your absence! 
  • Grab your sketchbook and sketch whatever is in front of you. Don’t set up anything, just draw what is there now. Your coffee cup, the paintbrushes sitting idly on the table waiting to be used, your breakfast, the dog or cat, your spouse, whatever is in front of you. Don’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes. Don’t over analyze it and don’t be precious with it.  You are not creating art. You are exercising your hand eye coordination. Bad drawings, horrible drawings even, are to be expected. Do this once a day at least until your slump is over, or longer if you find it a valuable exercise. 

    A similar exercise is to use a small viewfinder and randomly place it on a magazine, newspaper, or other image and sketch whatever the viewfinder happens to land on. 
  • Start over: take an old painting that you don’t like and sand it down. Be sure to use proper safety practices by wearing a particle mask and surrounding your work area with dampened newspapers to catch the dust, which is toxic. Paint over this old painting with whatever. Taking a old painting that was likely to end up in the trash, and reusing it, frees you up from being precious with a new canvas. Who cares if you have to toss it in the end. It was likely going to end up there anywhere. Alternatively, use paper – coated or not. I like to use uncoated paper because there is absolutely no expectation for archival survival. In other words – I know it’s not going to last and can’t be sold, so I’m free to make a mess. 
  • Ask yourself why you paint. It’s pretty simple really. If you can get in touch with what inspired you to become a painter in the first place, you’ll be well on your way to ending that slump. 
  • Give yourself permission to fail. Along with this, give yourself permission to play. Just show up at the easel with your permission slips, and do something. Anything. No rules. “Today I am just going to play.” “It’s okay to produce bad work today.”
  • Read fiction, poetry, or artist biographies. Don’t read art technique or how to books though. How about W.O. Mitchell’s “Who Has Seen The Wind.”? Or watch a movie. Not those horrible American movies loaded with violence and special effects though. Look for foreign films. I have become a huge fan of British programming on Netflix. So many are well written, lack the crudeness of American television and film, but also have beautifully inspiring cinematography. A well written piece of fiction, be it book or film, can spark my imagination like nothing else. 
  • Do a master copy. Pick your favourite historical painter and do a copy of one of their paintings. 
  • Finally, take the Buddhist approach: “This too shall pass.” Everything is temporary. The world is always changing. Day to day, minute to minute. So just go with the flow and enjoy the beauty of rest and renewal. Oftentimes slumps happen right before creative leaps, so there’s actually good reason to celebrate the slump rather than trying to fight it.  

“The will to do springs from the knowledge that we can do. Doubt and fear are the great enemies of knowledge, and he who encourages them, who does not slay them, thwarts himself at every step.”
– James Allen 

What about you? What are some strategies you have used to help you overcome a creative block, or slump?

Vision Quest Part II

My Vision Quest series had been going well until someone commented about me not being of First Nations descent. I tried to brush the comment off, but something got under my skin. Then I started hearing other negative comments. People were quietly questioning if I was guilty of cultural appropriation for painting these images, which made me question myself. A long dry spell resulted.

The last thing I wanted to do was insult the people I was trying to celebrate through my paintings. I talked and listened to some other non-native artists who were representing First Nations people in their art. They all seemed to have a relationship with a native person. Some said I needed to seek approval to do my work, so I set off to do this, not having a clue how to actually do it.

The Horse Warriors – 22×28 – Acrylic On Canvas

I spoke to one artist who said I needed to consult with an elder. So I sent emails and tried to make phone calls to find out how to get in touch with an elder. Those efforts all lead nowhere. Calls and emails went unanswered. Finally I talked to another artist who volunteers with our historic park, which hosts an annual pow wow. I figured he might know of someone I could talk with to find out how to find an elder.

The name he gave me lead to a person who worked at a local friendship centre, but she’d quit the day before I called. However I explained my situation and they gave me the number for another organization in town. Finally success. I was able to make the arrangements to meet with an elder.

I was so nervous of how my work would be received. I went in to their resource centre before meeting with the elder and was able to show my work to a small group of First Nations people and the centres employees. The work was so well received. I can’t even say what a relief it was.

The meeting with the elder went as expected. I had already known in my heart the answers that I was seeking. I have been given a gift and a voice. It is my story I am telling – my impressions and thoughts of First Nations people and their culture. They can not give me permission to do my work, because it is mine and they have no right to say if I can or can’t do it.

There are certain protocols which could raise concerns, such as if I were to call it Native Art, which I have never done; or if I were to copy existing work, or paint on sacred items such as drums or teepees, or represent myself as being of aboriginal descent.

I was told that those who question me are doing so out of their own insecurities or jealousy. I need to ignore them and not let them get into my head. And finally I was told how to honour and talk to the spirits so that my visions keep coming to me.

Since that time the images coming to me have been overwhelming. It is like the floodgates have been opened. I can’t paint quickly enough to keep up with the visions and ideas. And I am full of gratitude for both the gift  and support I have been given. The spirits have given me, and others who have a similar calling, this gift. It is not up to me to question the reasons behind it, but to follow and honour it to the best of my abilities.

Vision Quest Part 1

I have been working on my Vision Quest series of paintings for several years. I can’t say when exactly it started or exactly why, except to say that I’ve always been driven to represent First Nations people through my work. Even within my photography there are many images that have obvious, and many not so obvious, connections.

I titled my series Vision Quest because that is how many of the images come to me – through visions, dreams, or abstract thoughts. Sometimes the work will be influenced by a story or event, and I’ll try to fit the imagery to the story. Sometimes the image comes first and I try to fit the story to that.

Daylight Dance – 11×14″ – Oil on panel

Why the First Nations people? I have tried to rationalize this over the years, but the truth is I don’t really know. It’s just what I’m being guided to do. In my rationalizations I have come to the conclusion that it’s because these peoples traditional ways represent what is missing in our society today. Respect, freedom, harmony between land, nature, and spirit; honour for the past and future, a sacred knowing that goes beyond science and logic; and living an artful life.European immigrants, of which I descend, tried to strip away the spirit, stories, and traditions of the First Nations people. I don’t know what part, if any, my ancestors played in the horrible treatment they received under the wave of immigration. I hope none since my Scottish history shares some of the struggles of the First Nations people of being displaced from their land and made out to be the savage enemy. They came here in search of freedom to live peacefully as farmers. I know of no direct ancestors that were involved in the political or military shaping of this country. When I dream I see stewards of the land who have taken care of our planet for thousands of years without the damage we have caused in a fraction of that time. Ultimately it is the struggle between freedom and oppression, an uncertainty for the future, and a belief that if we listened there is a way to live in harmony with the environment and each other. It is my hopes that I can give the First Nations people back some of their spirit and help celebrate their culture for the strength, beauty and integrity it deserves.

In part two I will share the some of the negativity that has resulted from this series, and what I’ve done about that. 

Take A Vacation

I just got back from holidays. My trip ended up not being anything like what I’d planned. I had planned for my husband and I to rent a house on the beach of a mountain lake for the week. We were just going to kick back and relax. I’d planned to do some painting and my husband planned to read and soak up the sun.

Before leaving I’d read an article about how nobody takes a true vacation anymore. Sure people go away but they bring their laptops, smart phones and/or tablets with them so they can stay connected to work, friends, and family. Many continue to be engaged in their work and don’t give their brain a rest. I considered this as I packed my paints, cleaned my camera, and gathered my work tools. The article talked about why it’s important to disengage the brain from work. (I wish I’d noted the article so I could link to it…)

Surely that’s for other people though. People who have high pressure jobs or don’t like their jobs. That’s not for us creative types that are living the dream. Right?! Wrong. 

My planned vacation came to an abrupt halt when we arrived at our cosy little beach house to discover it was anything but cosy. With mouse droppings all over the kitchen and an invasion of ants in the living room, we made an about face and left, scrambling to find other accommodations that would accept our dog. We did find other accommodations, but we weren’t on the lake, or even in the same area. The accommodations were nice, but not conducive to setting up an easel on the porch to paint. So my paints remained in the car and I took a true vacation. 

Lowbush Surprise – 8x8x1.5″ – Oil on canvas

Okay….I won’t say I didn’t think about painting, because I did. I read my Sergai Bongart book and Plein Air magazine. I brought my sketchbook everywhere I went, but I didn’t lay a mark on the pages. I also took photographs. I thought about that article and how impossible it would be to fully and truly disengage from art for a week. But my semi-abstinence had some surprising results none the less.

When I got home I found I couldn’t wait to get to the studio. I promptly started a commissioned painting that I’d been procrastinating on, and then the real surprise hit me. All kinds of inspiration for my Vision Quest series started coming to me. Visions I thought had dried up earlier in the year. 

Was it the vacation that renewed my visions or was it something else?

While on vacation we had a few bear encounters. One in particular was a special treat. We got to watch a mom and two cubs up close for an entire day – eating, resting, playing, and peering in our windows to see what we were doing. It was one of those events that won’t be forgotten. A true joy. 

I’ve noticed that I have periods of high creativity after seeing bears. Is it co-incidence or is there something there? The seeing of bears usually goes hand in hand with vacations, so it’s just as likely the vacation is responsible. I guess I’ll truly never know, but will treasure each encounter and enjoy the bursts that follow.

I’m also going to recharge my batteries occasionally and spend some time away from painting, treating it as an important part of my creative process. 

Earth Day

It is no surprise the earth…..mother nature…..the great outdoors, or whatever you want to call it, supplies the majority of my inspiration in art making. Even seemingly unrelated paintings receive the benefit of a little time spent outdoors. 

Albert Einstein wrote: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

No truer words were spoken. When I am feeling lost, be it in art or life, I simply need to spend a little time outdoors to find my way again. Today I woke up feeling frustrated by yesterday’s studio time. Because I know we have bad weather on the way again and it will be a few days until Spring-like weather returns, and because it’s Earth Day, I decided to head outside for a walk in the woods with my Poodle, Rosie. I don’t even need to be outside 5 minutes before the heaviness of mind and spirit vanishes. 

It helps to live in the country and have the wonders of nature at my fingertips. In the forest was a small flock of starlings. I laughed as I listened to their attempts to mimic the other birds, especially their fairly accurate depiction of a Red-tail Hawk. Off in the distance beyond the duck pond was a Red-winged Blackbird calling. My favourite sound of spring, right next to the call of our Sandhill Cranes couple who return year after year to nest in the bog hummocks behind our property.

Two crane mates in a spring meadow. Rocky Mountain House, Alberta

After coming out from the forest, I spotted the pair in the horse pasture behind the house, so went to say hello. It’s my own annual festival of the cranes. A tradition that has gone on for nearly 10 years. Each year when the cranes return they feed in the pasture, and I go out – not too far mind you – and we spend time together. Me watching, them trusting and going about their business. They squawk if I move too quickly or come too close. We each know our boundaries and limits. 

An hour or more can be spent in virtual silence together. The cranes trust has grown each year. Last year I was privileged to witness their mating. This year they came so close I could hear their footsteps crunching on the still frozen grasses. The photographer in me grabbed my camera first when I went out, but after I’d fired off several shots, I found myself wishing I would have brought my sketchbook. 

Could there be any more perfect way to spend time on Earth Day than outdoors sketching or painting? 

Feeling inspired, I am now eager to return to my studio. When I work out the problems from yesterdays painting session I think I’ll head back outside with my sketchbook and see what inspires me.