Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Art in the California State Capitol

View of the Capitol building, from the side • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

I spent a wonderful day in Sacramento, at the State Capitol, last week, when painter Molly Corbett Kruse and I picked up our paintings, which had been on exhibit in Senator Pat Wiggins's office. Koren Benoit, art curator, gave us one heck of a great tour of the artwork, which was followed by another marvelous tour with a Capitol Museum docent. So, now, do I ever have stories to share here.... My next few posts will be written about art and the Capitol – the paintings, their stories or the stories people tell about them now – a little bit of the intersections of art and politics here in the Golden State.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thank you

Napa Valley vineyards, view of Mt. St. Helena from the foot of Diamond Mountain
© 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

To my blog readers, near and afar: thank you! I hope that this blog is helpful to you. I began it for my students here in Calistoga, in the Napa Valley, but it has found readers from all over. The internet is a wonderful thing, isn't it?

Scarecrow by Michael Holmes, from the First Annual Calistoga Scarecrow contest
photo © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

If you're particularly enjoying this time of harvest and changing colors, I invite you to visit my painting blog at, where I have posted photos of autumn vineyards in the northern Napa Valley, around Calistoga, and photographs from the First Annual Calistoga Scarecrow contest (you'll be amazed by the creativity of the scarecrow makers).

You can find specific posts on photographing autumn scenes in the Napa Valley at:

You can find specific posts on the Calistoga Scarecrow Contest at:

And may you have a happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Green Goo principle

Morning Celebration in progress • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

Someone once told me that if you were to open a caterpillar's cocoon before it emerges as a butterfly, what you would find would be green goo. The caterpillar essentially has to dissolve in order to reconstruct itself in its new form, and go through a complete transformation.

Morning Celebration in progress • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

This is a lot like the process of painting!

Morning Celebration in progress • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

You start out by creating the essential underlying structure or gesture of the painting, and everything seems very clear as you block in the big shapes.

Morning Celebration in progress • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

Then, as you get further into the painting... something happens. Clarity dissolves. You want – what color there? Is that really working? Those shapes look weird. What WERE you thinking? It just doesn't seem to be coming together.

Morning Celebration in progress • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

This can be very depressing (if you let it).

Morning Celebration in progress • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

What it actually means is that you are right on track. (You didn't expect to hear that, did you?) You are in the Green Goo phase of the painting. It's most helpful (and not easy) to remember that a butterfly WILL emerge, as long as you follow the process all the way through.

Morning Celebration in progress • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

Sticking with it at this point can be difficult. You may feel frustrated – you may want to chuck the whole thing. Stepping away from the painting for a little bit – an hour, a day or two or three, a matter of weeks, a matter of months – may be a good solution when you're really stuck. Then come back to it. You'll be surprised how, suddenly, you'll see the next step you need to take.

Morning Celebration in progress • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

I have had some paintings wait years. I have some paintings waiting for me now... easily a dozen or two. Morning Celebration has been waiting for a few months now.

Morning Celebration in progress • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

But the butterfly will emerge! Don't be hard on yourself; just trust the process. If it feels difficult and frustrating and everything seems confused and unclear, remember: you're in the Green Goo phase of the painting. You're right on track.

Monday, November 15, 2010

One step at a time - beginning a painting

When you're beginning a painting from a subject, the same principles apply, whether it's a still life, landscape, or portrait, and whether it's realist, impressionist, expressionist, abstracted, or some other style. You can only take one step at a time – and you can't get to the end before you've begun.

Generally, new painters want to skip the preliminary steps and go straight to painting luscious detail. But – you can trust me on this – if you skip the preliminary steps, you will go far awry. Then you'll get depressed and frustrated and want to chuck the whole thing - pain that you can save yourself by just taking things one step at a time.

In this demonstration, Gregg Kreutz "Market Flowers" DVD from Liliedahl Video, on YouTube, artist Gregg Kreutz begins by catching the essential gesture of his still life subject. This also establishes the placement of the subject in his composition.

Next, he begins blocking in the large shapes (he has toned the canvas beforehand).

Then he turns his attention to the background. Notice as you watch the video that he does not paint with black – he mixes his darks, creating a much more interesting color.

Only then, once he has established the basic shapes of the composition, does he begin to break the painting down into smaller shapes and greater detail. Here is the final painting, as he puts down the last brush stroke. Although this video clip doesn't show you the intermediary steps, he is very clear that how he has begun is essential for getting these lovely results.

The process is the same, whatever style or genre you're working in: you can only take it one step at a time.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Robert Genn and The Painter's Keys

Robert Genn painting on location. His caption for this photo reads, "I didn't like the look of that Toyota over there so I left it out."

Robert Genn is a Canadian plein air landscape painter who works in acrylics, lives in British Columbia, and travels throughout the world painting.

Twice a week he sends out a thoughtful email newsletter, a letter musing on something to do with art, the act of painting, the process of creativity, the business side of art, or life as it applies to art and artists generally. Artists from all over the world respond, and he posts some of the responses, with artwork, on his newsletter's website,

Robert Genn's painting in process, beginning with the big shapes

In his post, Light and Shade, Genn writes about painting boats on location, thoughtfully explaining and demonstrating his process. He blocks in "general shapes and patterns early on, while keeping only a partial eye on the eventual lay of the light. In other words, the strongest light areas go in at about the half-way stage of the painting." Notice how he is thinking in terms of the big shapes? He's not concerned with details, even the details of light and shadow, as he begins.

Robert Genn's painting, the next step – addressing the negative shapes

Then he sharpens things up by painting the negative shapes, seen clearly in the sky. Notice how he uses the sky to shape the masts and railings of the boats? You can see the photos online above his post "The divided self," from October 29, 2010.
Robert Genn's painting in process, through to framing

His final steps, as he puts it, are "strengthening design, heightening colours, gradating sky," and finally, "Get it stopped and think about it in a frame."

You can enjoy Robert Genn's newsletters twice a week, too, as I have for a good bit over ten years now, by subscribing at his website at

You can also watch short time-lapse videos of him taking a painting from start to finish, on YouTube, at (Notice how he uses a glaze of phthalo blue rubbed across the whole painting, as a mother color, to bring everything into color harmony?)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Seeing the Big Picture - III

B.R. Cohn Vineyard, east of Glen Ellen • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

I said in the last post on this subject (for both previous posts, see Seeing the Big Picture - I and Seeing the Big Picture - II) that there are two simple things that will help you see the big picture. (Only two? Nyaaah... humor me here....) The first is making thumbnail sketches.

The second simple thing that will help you see the big picture is squinting.


Squinting reduces the amount of light entering the eye, and allows us to see things more in terms of value (lightness and darkness) than color. It allows us to mimic night vision, in a way. At night, our ability to see color is limited, so we see objects as variations of light or dark.

B.R. Cohn Vineyard, east of Glen Ellen • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

Without getting too technical, it has to do with the rods and cones in our eyes, which determine how we see (you can find a scientific explanation of them at The Rochester Institute of Technology Center for Imaging Science, or a more easily understandable explanation at the University of Washington's Neuroscience for Kids - obviously very smart kids).

So squinting helps us see large areas of similar values. If you squint at the photographs above, in this post, where are the light patches? Where are the dark patches?

Arrangement in grey and black No. 1, the mother of the artist
James McNeill Whistler, 1871

If you squint at Whistler's Mother, where are the light patches? Where are the dark patches? Where are the middle values? (Whistler has done a lot of the hard work for you here.)

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone • Thomas Moran, 1893 - 1901

If you squint at this small image of Thomas Moran's The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where are the light patches? Where are the dark patches? In this most highly detailed painting (you can see a larger version of it here), can you see the bigger picture?

Thomas Moran, like Albert Bierstadt a painter of monumental scenes of the American West (this canvas is 8' x 14' in size), was able to incorporate lots of splendid details into this enormous canvas, but it wouldn't work unless he was very clear about the big shapes – about the big picture.

Squinting allows us to simplify the big shapes in whatever we are looking at – the land before us, a still life setup, a model, a photograph image, a painting – and see them clearly. Use it! Often! It works! (And try it out on those thumbnails....)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Block printing studio time this Saturday

Angel of Peace • © 2003 Karen Lynn Ingalls

Calling all block printers! (Well, in the area, anyway....) This Saturday, Calistoga's Community Presbyterian Church (also known as The Green Church) is opening its doors for a special block printing studio day, November 6th, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00p.m.

This is non-instructional time – it will be just printers, inking and printing away, sharing the time, and generally having a lot of fun and making a lot of prints, together. You could think of it as a printmaking quilting bee, of sorts.

If you'd like to print collographs or monotypes in the company of other printers, you're welcome to join us! Whether you're printing cards for the holidays, or a series of prints, or experiemting with the medium, you are welcome. This is time to print and share the printing process with other printers.

Dragonfly • © 2003 Karen Lynn Ingalls

So what do you bring? Your block, paper, water-soluble ink (no solvent-based inks!), brayer (that has not been used for solvent-based inks), a surface for inking (plexiglass sheet, disposable paper palette pad for acrylic painters, or printer's bench hook), and your creative spirit!

Cost? A donation to the church to thank them for their generosity in opening their space to us, and to cover their costs. Where is the Green Church? 1407 3rd Street, at the corner of 3rd and Berry Streets (just across from the Orthodox Monastery and down the street from Calistoga Elementary School), in Calistoga.

What do you do to participate? Join us this Saturday! It would be great if you could let me know in advance, too - you can send me an email at or call at 707.942.0197. And our thanks to the church for welcoming us!

Monday, October 25, 2010

New Class Session starts this week!

Where is the year going? It seems to be flying by. Only two more painting sessions at the Calistoga Art Center remain before the holidays! The nearly-November four-week session begins this Friday, on October 29th, from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., and continues on 11-5, 11-12, and 11-19-10.

Then we'll take a week off for Thanksgiving, and return with a three-week session on Friday afternoons, on 12-3, 12-10, and 12-17. Note: the classes are only being offered on Fridays at this time.

I hope you can join us!

The self portraits of Helene Schjerfbeck

Self portrait • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1884-85

Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck's self portraits show clearly the evolution of her style from one that was highly realistic to one that simplified and abstracted the forms of her subject.

Schjerfbeck's life and career was shaped to a large extent by her health. Breaking her hip when she was four, she was left with a difficult limp that made getting around difficult, and kept her home from school. The Independent of London described her work by saying," Imagine the life of Frida Kahlo yoked to the eye of Edvard Munch...." She used her time to sketch, and became a prodigy, accepted into the Finnish Art Society as a drawing student at the age of eleven (most entrants were sixteen).

The support, after her father died two years later, of her mother and a teacher, who recognized her gifts, allowed her to continue to study. By the late 1870s her reputation was growing in Finland. A travel grant and her own determination and continuing marketing allowed her to travel to Paris, and to other places in Europe, including Florence, Prague, and England.

Self portrait • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1912

In 1890, because of worsening health and finances, Schjerfbeck needed to move back to Finland, where she continued to paint. Her paintings were "rediscovered" in 1917, when she had her first solo exhibition. She continued to explore and grow as a painter, and her work had changed considerably during that time.

Self portrait • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1915

In 1921, she wrote to a friend, "Now that I so seldom have the strength to paint, I have started on a self-portrait. This way the model is always available, although it isn't at all pleasant to see oneself." She continued to paint self portraits – at least 36 during her life.

Self portrait • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1939

Schjerfbeck painted most of her self portraits from 1939 to 1945. Painted with a brutal honesty, and perhaps reflecting the fear and panic of the breakout of war with Russia, during which she had to be evacuated, Self Portrait with Black Mouth, painted with both brush and palette knife, is one of those.

You can find an excellent review of her work by Marjan Sterckx at Helene Schjerfbeck: Finland's best-kept secret.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Soft Block Printing Workshop - Saturday

Join our Soft Block Printing workshop this Saturday, October 23rd! It's at the Calistoga Art Center, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

In it, you will learn to create block printed cards and art prints with easy-to-cut soft blocks (much easier than linoleum blocks) and non-toxic, water soluble inks – for the holidays or any time. Above is an example of the possibilities of soft block printing – it's the holiday card I made a number of years ago. Don't be intimidated! Much simpler designs can be just as effective, and often even more stunning.

Bring potential design ideas (or sketches worked out for a 4"x6" design), and your own materials, if you have them – or you may purchase materials in class. If you have any words you would like to incorporate in your design, bring them, printed out in a font you like.

The Calistoga Art Center is located at 1336 Lincoln Avenue (2nd Floor), Calistoga. You can find out more and register online at

This post, Soft Block Printmaking Workshop, introduces the process a bit (I posted it before this summer's workshop), and this post, Soft Block Printing workshop - Photos, shows the printing process (we will only have time to print one color per print, though), from this summer's workshop.

Seeing the Big Picture- II

Looking Up Yosemite Valley • Albert Bierstadt, 1865-1867

It's all too easy to lose sight of the forest, for all the bewitching detail of the trees....

When you begin a painting, are you able to clear all the enchantment of detail from your vision? Are you able to see the subject of your painting in its essential shapes, in its large simple forms of light and dark and color?

Albert Bierstadt's monumental painting Looking Up Yosemite Valley (links to a larger image) makes a great test case. There are details of people and horses; of trees and fallen logs; of rocks and mountain crags, of water and a waterfall. Are you able to look at this painting and, while enjoying the marvelous detail, still see the big picture?

Why is it important to see the big picture? If the big shapes of your composition work, the details within them will follow. And if the big shapes of your composition don't work, no amount of beautifully painted detail will make it work anyway.

Two simple things can really help you do this well: the first of those is drawing thumbnail sketches (and that really means small). Practicing by drawing thumbnail sketches of great paintings helps you discover the big picture. You will see how the big shapes in these paintings make them work.

Thumbnail sketch of Albert Bierstadt's Looking Up Yosemite Valley
© 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

In a thumbnail sketch, you reduce the composition to its essential shapes (and values, if you are including them). That's when you can see most clearly - does it work? If not, what would make it work better? Seeing this in the work of other artists – such as Albert Bierstadt – helps you see this for yourself, in your own work.

Here's another link to a large image of Looking Up Yosemite Valley, so you can try it for yourself.

Ready for more? Albert Bierstadt Gallery is Wikipedia's gallery of a considerable collection of Bierstadt's paintings – plenty for you to have fun with. Remember, keep it quick, small, and simple. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The paintings of Helene Schjerfbeck

The Convalescent • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1888

Helene Schjerfbeck (pronounced sheriff-beck) was a Finnish painter who lived from 1862 to 1946, and whose work changed considerably over that time from realism to something much more simplified and abstracted. She was continually pushing her work and growing over the entire course of her artistic life.

The Convalescent is a good example of her earliest work. Painted in 1888, when she was 26 and living in St. Ives, England, it won the bronze medal at the 1889 Paris World Fair.

At Home • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1903

According to Wikipedia, at Helene_Schjerfbeck, Schjerfbeck is considered to have become a modern painter by 1905. In At Home, you can see how she has simplified her forms. She is painting a portrait, but she has simplified the figure to its biggest, most basic shapes.

Katkelma • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1904 – 5

In Katkelma, painted in 1904 – 1905, notice how, in addition to her simplification of the shapes of her composition, Schjerfbeck is experimenting with underpainting and the use of texture.

School Girl II (Girl in Black) • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1908

In School Girl II (Girl in Black), painted in 1908, the girl's figure has essentially become a flat shape in the composition. Schjerfbeck has reduced the figure to its essence, and is working with the composition in terms of two-dimensional shapes.

Under the Linden • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1911

In Under the Linden, Scherfback has continued to simplify the figure, retaining the beauty of the girl's gesture and a lovely sense of the light, but simplifying in a way that creates a rhythm and movement in the composition that is distinctively her own. Her work serves as a wonderful model and inspiration for learning to find the big, simple shapes in whatever it is we see, and to translate them into paintings.

You can read another short, insightful biography at Artists in 60 Seconds: Helene Schjerfbeck.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Seeing the Big Picture - I

Looking Down Yosemite Valley • Albert Bierstadt, 1865

Have you ever tried making thumbnail sketches of great paintings?

It is a great way to get at the essence of the painter's composition.

The painting above, Albert Bierstadt's Looking Down Yosemite Valley, from 1865, is a wonderful example of monumental 19th century landscape painting. It measures 64.02" x 96.26" (about 5 1/3 ' x 8'), and in every way conveys the grandeur of its subject.

In making a thumbnail sketch (no more than a few inches wide), you want to get down the big picture. There's no room for any of the glorious details of the original. You want to get down the essence of the painting quickly, in just a few minutes.

Thumbnail sketch of Bierstadt's Looking Down Yosemite Valley
© 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

Here is my quick pen-and-ink thumbnail sketch of Bierstadt's painting. My objective was to get the essence of the painting down in a few minutes. Because light and shadow are important in this, I decided to include values. Although the proportions are a bit off, it was a good way for me to study the composition.

Ten-minute sketch of Bierstadt's Looking Down Yosemite Valley
© 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

Having seen the difference in proportions, I decided to make a second, ten-minute sketch. A little more detailed than the first (though the same size – these are about four inches wide), notice that I am still concentrating on the big shapes.

You might prefer drawing in pencil rather than pen (it feels more forgiving). Look closely at the painting you're working from (try Bierstadt!), keep it small (even two or three inches in size), and see what you can do in a few minutes.

Here's a link to a large gallery of Albert Bierstadt's paintings. Remember, keep it simple. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mixing it up - II

Mixed media painting in process • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

In the previous mixed media post, I began with an already completed painting, which became the center of interest in the new mixed media painting.

This piece began with a blank canvas. I underpainted it in red, with acrylics, and used a combing tool to add striations and texture. I added layers of paint and papers (again, scrapbook papers), using masking tape to cover and then reveal different areas of the canvas. (You can see the blue painter's tape masking areas for new layers of paint yet to come.) I attached the papers with Golden's Soft Gel (Gloss), which allows the colors to glow richly. If you like a duller, more antiquish effect, you could use Golden's Soft Gel (Matte).

I had no particular plan – this was just about getting into the process and playing, seeing where it takes me. I could, if I want, use this process on heavy papers, creating art papers for other collages. I could also paint another painting over the top of this, allowing parts of this surface to appear, and disappear, wherever I wanted.

The point of it is to dive in and play with the materials. See where they take you!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Artrails, Sonoma County's open studio tour

The second and third weekends of October are open studios time for the Sonoma County artists who participate in Artrails (it is their 25th anniversary). Like Napa Valley Open Studios, it is juried – but, befitting a larger county, there are 149 artists this year.

You can download maps and look at artists' work online at

Mixing it up

Mixed Media - graphite, acrylics, pen, collage • © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

It's always good to try something different now and then. It invites you to play. You need to approach new things – whether new media, techniques, colors, or whatever – with a beginner's mind. And that keeps you from getting into a rut, creatively speaking, and expands your sense of possibilities. You learn new things that you may call upon in the artwork you do the rest of the time – or you may find yourself called to explore new directions. All in all, creative play is a good thing.

Mixing it up with multiple media is a good way to play creatively. The piece above began as a graphite still life drawing, with acrylics used as watercolors, on watercolor paper, that I did as part of a series. You can see other pieces in the series at my painting blog, at "A last look at Open Studios" and "Simple Pleasures: Show at Napa Senior Center."

In this piece, the composition just got away from me. It needed another few inches at the top of the paper to make it work. Last week, in class, we used it to create a mixed media collage. I cut off the top of the painting, and we all chose scrapbook papers (available in single sheets or books at crafts stores) that looked interesting with it. I covered an old canvas in yellow ochre acrylic paint, and, when it was dry, began a collage layering process, combining all the pieces we'd chosen, along with the cut-out painting. I skewed the vertical stripes, to make them a little more dynamic, and I added pink polka dots on the table surface to give it a little more spice.

This painting may not be done – I'm not sure. This was how far we got in class on Wednesday. It was fun, it shook us all up creatively and put us in a playful state of mind, and it used the interesting parts of a painting that otherwise wouldn't have worked.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New class session begins this week

View of some of Karen Lynn Ingalls's paintings
at the Calistoga Art Center, during Napa Valley Open Studios

Our second four–week fall Acrylic Painting class session begins this week, with classes on Wednesday, September 29th, from 1 to 4 p.m., and on Friday, October 1st, from 1 to 4 p.m.

If you're new to the class, you can find out more, and enroll, and download a materials list, at I look forward to seeing you!

If you'd like to see something of what you might have missed during Open Studios, if you weren't able to stop by, you can see these posts at my painting blog, Karen Lynn Ingalls: Line, Color, Paint, Joy:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Birth of Impressionism - my favorites

The Family of Jean-le-Boîteux, peasants of Plougasnou • Jean-François Raffaëlli, 1876

San Francisco's Birth of Impressionism show not only set the context for the beginnings of French Impressionism, and, ultimately, the revolutions in painting that sprang from it, but it included many paintings not often seen.

Jean-François Raffaëlli and his work were new to me. A contemporary of the Impressionists, he had a landscape painting accepted into the Salon in 1870, when he was only twenty years old. He then turned towards realism, painting the people of his time with an unsparing honesty quite the opposite of idealized salon painting. This painting of a peasant family from the exhibit particularly struck me as contemporary. The composition, with the figure on the left cropped in half, the arrangement of the figures agains a flat wall, and the suspicious, sharp look of Jean-le-Boîteux, seemed very modern. Painted on a heroic scale, the figures themselves are not heroic, but instead worn and work-hardened.

The Tuileries • Claude Monet, 1875

Another favorite of mine from the show was Claude Monet's The Tuileries. I can't find any images online that capture the beauty and subtlety of its color - greens and pinks and yellows that sang.... He drew the sense of the trees with lovely loopy brushstrokes that enchanted me.

La gare Saint-Lazare • Claude Monet, 1877

La gare Saint-Lazare, painted in 1877, was another surprise. Although I'd seen it reproduced in books, I had no idea of the wonderful subtlety and brilliance of the colors. Monet could scumble like nobody's business. Trust me, this lovely little image of it does not do it justice.

The Magpie • Claude Monet, 1869

The Magpie was a painting of Monet's that I did not remember seeing in books before. A docent said that, at Museé d'Orsday, reproductions of it sell more than those of any of their other paintings. I was unexpectedly charmed, and could understand why that was so. Again, it had a subtlety and variety of color that reproduction cannot manage to convey. Monet used his artistic license, too, in reversing the shadows of the magpie and part of the gate (hey, the composition works better that way). A good reminder: never let reality get in the way of a better composition!

The Cradle • Berthe Morisot, 1872

Another painting that was a wonderful surprise was Berthe Morisot's intimately-sized The Cradle. Again, the subtlety and variety of scumbled colors, the beauty of the composition, the delicacy of the line and the sheer drapery above the sleeping child and more wowed me. It's easy to think of both this painting and The Magpie, because of their subject matter, in sentimental terms, but the strength of each makes them far, far better. Don't dismiss either.