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.