Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Language of Art: Value

The language of art often includes words that convey another meaning in real life, as I tell my art students (ages 5 through 14). We are studying “value” this week.
Student drawing of a cone
They will tell you that it means how dark or how light something is. I remind them that it includes all the shades of grey in between. We create value scales in pencil, crayon, and charcoal, which most of them love because it is very messy (one 6th grader won’t touch it because it gets his hands dirty). 

Student drawing of a sphere

I try to impress upon them that without value, there would be no picture. With no black, you can’t see white. And all the shades of grey are what create form, or as they like to say, “3-D!” We draw cones and spheres under bright lights and ask ourselves “is this part lighter or darker than that part?” Forms begin to appear.

Differences in value lead us to contrast, which has similar meanings in art and in real life. I like this one, from Collins English Dictionary: “distinction or emphasis of difference by comparison of opposite or dissimilar things, qualities, etc.”

©2013 Rebecca Stebbins
Altering contrast can improve a picture. The calla lilies on the left and right are identical, but the contrasting background makes them appear differently.
©2013 Rebecca Stebbins

In life as in art, paying attention to contrasts can be helpful too: cool, cloudy days help us appreciate warm, sunny days; without sadness, happiness would feel empty. Perhaps we wouldn’t appreciate eloquence as much if we weren’t exposed to so much daily drivel.
For a more eloquent explication, here’s what Emily Dickinson had to say:


A door just opened on a street --
I, lost, was passing by --
An instant's width of warmth disclosed,
And wealth, and company.

The door as sudden shut, and I,
I, lost, was passing by, --
Lost doubly, but by contrast most,
Enlightening misery.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Violence and Voice

"Brought to You by the NRA" by Michael D'Antuono
Artists are responding to the horrific murder of children in Newtown, CT in a variety of ways, including a new play, "New Town," by Sean Christopher Lewis and his company Working Group Theater, in Iowa City, and a gallery show at Charles Krause Gallery opening for the inauguration in Washington, D.C.

If I have doubts about the relevance of visual art in our culture, perusing responses to this painting, "Brought to You by the NRA," by Michael D'Antuono, provides reassurance of a painting's ability to provoke a wide range of people. Look here: to view some very angry responses. It's difficult to have a real dialogue amidst the din of ad hominem attacks and hyperbole, but I think we have to keep trying.

My first day back at school after the holidays, I found the front door locked after a ‘strange looking’ man had been spotted in the neighborhood. We become paranoid after incidents like Newtown, and angry, like I am every time I board an airplane after 9/11. But now I stand in an x-ray scanner, take my shoes off, and carry liquids in tiny bottles in a plastic bag. I’m willing to do so to improve our security. Gun owners should be willing to subject themselves to the tightest restrictions as well, as it will make the world a safer place.

I teach art to 80 students, kindergarten through 8th grade. Being a schoolteacher has not been without angst since the Newtown tragedy. I have lain awake in the night pondering how I might morph into a superhero at the “call of duty,” were an intruder to enter my classroom with a gun. Elbow-deep in papier-mâché, I race to my securely locked gun cabinet in a split second and . . . not a chance.

Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" from 1937 has remained an enduring statement against violence.
No one can rebut our government with an assault rifle, the way the colonists repelled the British in an era of more simple weaponry. Arming citizens to equal the military is no longer feasible or desirable (want nuclear weapons in your neighbor's garage?). A hunter needing an AR-15 to bag a deer, when others are successful with bow and arrow, doesn’t deserve a shot. Self-protection? It didn’t work for Nancy Lanza, and why should she be any exception? It’s a money game: weapons manufacturers will seek any excuse to make a profit, regardless of whether it comes on the backs of dead children. The NRA is in lock step with them. I find them more of a threat to civil society than the gamut of our elected officials, except perhaps for those in Congress who cave to veiled threats from the NRA.  

I value safety over violence, and I value our children’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness over anyone’s unfettered desire to acquire assault weapons. It’s that simple. No one is threatening to take away the right to own a gun. But we can ban semi-automatic weapons; mandate background checks for ALL gun and ammunition purchases; require gun owners to register their weapons with the federal government and require states to comply with the national registry; and require all gun owners to take and pass a mental and physical health test annually. If they can, then fire away. If they can't, they forfeit the right to own firearms, just like convicted drunk drivers lose driving privileges. We need a federal buyback, a la Australia, to get weapons off the streets as soon as possible. I wish we could stop glorifying gun violence in video games and film, but my guess is that won’t happen until after the apocalypse, if ever.

My intention for this blog is to write about arts and creativity, relating to my life as a painter, gardener, and art teacher, illustrated by my own work and the work of artists I admire. My daughter helped me name it Rebecca’s Perspectives, a play on perspective drawing and perspective in painting, but also perspective as a way of thinking about a variety of topics. I’m only a few posts in, and already I’m wrestling with whether or not to tackle an issue like this. But I’ve noticed that civilised people are often reluctant or afraid to discuss the things that matter most, and we’re not better off for it.
I applaud those artists who are willing to take on the significant issues of our time, particularly when they contribute to meaningful dialogue at the risk of attack. As an artist, my instinct is to pursue what I love with renewed passion, and to continue encouraging others to seek and find beauty in their lives. My instinct is to shun violence, and this writing is probably the most I can muster as a direct response.

Tell me what you think you in the comments below. Please be civil.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Matter of Taste?

The Magpie
The Magpie by Claude Monet. Worn out or enduring?

Being a painter allows me to explore a life of introspection and discovery. My aim is to continually learn, sharpen my skills and deepen my understanding of what I want to convey through my work. I am interested in beauty, and my goal is to discover beauty and to share it, to encourage other people to care about the beauty of our natural and artisanal world, and to understand how precious and how fragile it is.

When I paint outside, I choose to paint the landscapes I love, mostly in California and in France. I am drawn to the rugged beauty of the coast and the mountains, and to the quality of illumination that exists in certain places and at certain times. I am looking for the shapes and colors that work together to tell a story or invoke a sensation.

When I wrestle with the challenge of creating something new or saying something profound, I am drawn back to the enduring appeal of the paintings of the French and California Impressionists. They were groundbreaking artists of their time, and now they are not. Still, many people are drawn to their paintings, which command astronomical prices and sold out museum shows. So are they old and worn out? Or did they create something timeless? I believe there is value in discovery and innovation, and there are plenty of contemporary artists whose work I admire who are pursuing beauty in new and different ways. I also believe that in 100 years we may not be so captivated by pickled sharks and rumpled bed sheets posing as art. But we may still be enchanted by the dance of light on a haystack, or the curl of shadow underneath a wave. And as long as there is magic to be found in the lightness of the world, there will be value, for me, in painting it.
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
Natural history, or art history? Or just a pickled shark?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Inside or Outside?

Calla lilies in Delft vase 2013
Thursday was a painter’s day, to be sure. It started in the studio, finishing these calla lilies that are in full bloom here following the Christmas rains. Calla lilies have always seemed exotic to me; I’m not sure I ever saw one growing before I came to California, but I feel like they are associated with funerals. They grow like weeds in our garden, in thick, tall clumps, and then disappear completely in the dry season.

And then it was Ray Day, a painting tribute to Ray Strong, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 101. I was fortunate to meet him and to paint with him - he was an exceptional, exuberant person, a fantastic painter, and a larger-than-life character He lived an amazing life. There are some wonderful video clips of him here 

Anacapa Island from Camino Cielo 2013

The greatest thing in the world, he said, is to be a landscape painter. On a day like this, it’s hard to disagree. From the top of East Camino Cielo, more than 3,000 feet above Santa Barbara, we could see all the way to Catalina Island more than 100 miles away. It was a stunning day, and a fitting tribute to remember an artist who felt so strongly about sharing his gift with others. 
Photo by Ellen Easton

Ray was a founding member of the Oak Group, local plein air landscape painters whom I admire tremendously. In addition to being extraordinarily talented artists, they have dedicated themselves to the preservation of our environment here and have done phenomenal work painting to raise awareness and to raise funds to protect endangered areas of the central coast and valleys of California.

The legacy of landscape painting in California is daunting, and Ray was certainly a pillar of it for many decades.  Even though I love painting in the protected privacy of my studio, there is nothing better than being a landscape painter.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Rare Bird

Red shafted northern flicker.
Rare Bird
I saw a flicker yesterday. It was completely unexpected, as I was on the homestretch of a run shortly after sunrise on New Year’s Day and feeling a little peckish. First I saw a pair of red-headed woodpeckers, their circular doorway cut high up on a utility pole. A few feet down the wire sat this fat, spotted flicker, unmistakable, and further down, a few mourning doves.

The flicker is not a particularly rare bird; in fact there are so many that their status is “of least concern.” But it is only the 2nd one I’ve seen in Carpinteria in almost 20 years, and the first was so surprising, and so beautiful, that I’ve never forgotten it.

Sometimes when we see something common, it loses its magic. Or perhaps we lose the sense of wonder we feel when we see something unexpected or unusual. We forget to pay attention to how beautiful it really is, common or not.
Channel Island Pelican,
In Harold and Maude, one of my favorite movies, Maude tells Harold, “Dreyfus once wrote from Devil's Island (where he was wrongfully imprisoned) that he would see the most glorious birds. Many years later in Brittany he realized they had only been seagulls... For me they will always be glorious birds.”

Here in Southern California, Brown Pelicans were once nearly wiped out from the pesticide DDT. I remember how thrilling it was to spot one when we first lived in California when I was a child, because they were so rare. After DDT was banned in 1972, the birds made a remarkable comeback, and today they are common along the coast. But to me, they will always be glorious birds - especially when they fly in formation along the crest of a wave.
My friend and fellow artist Kim Snyder paints birds here in Carpinteria – many of them are common on our coast, but when captured in a painting, they are indeed glorious and through art they become symbols of something more than just birds.
Perhaps this is the power of art: to transform the common into something rare, and beautiful, that calls out to us to notice. Maybe we need art to remind us to look - and to allow us to see - those things that are so common t us that we forget to notice how glorious they are.