Monday, February 28, 2011

Chilly River

© Hannah Phelps
W.I.P. of Water in Two States, Piscataquog River
oil on board, 14" x 18"

I painted outside the other day for the first time this winter. I've been busy creating inside as the snow piles up outside my windows - working on some big canvases from outdoor studies and carving/inking more white-line woodblocks.

Friday, New Hampshire got smacked with another storm. The next day the fresh snow was too much for me to ignore any longer and I had to get out there with my easel. Despite what everyone around here fears, this stuff isn’t going to be around forever and I need to paint it while it lasts.

I’ve shared the result at the top of this post. The Piscataquog River runs through my town, so short trips in any direction offer nice views of it. The painting still needs work, but I am pleased with what I have so far.

I cheated a bit with a trick I’ve wanted to try for a while. Before I left the studio, I used a photo of the river that I took a week ago to draw some thumbnails. I picked one to enhance into a value study and then drew that composition right onto my painting surface. When I arrived at the painting spot, I could just set up and paint without worrying about designing the picture. I already knew what my overall value play would be and where I wanted the river. With that shortcut, I was able to get a really good start on a mid-sized surface in an hour and fifteen minutes.

And yes, I did get cold and that is why I stopped. This is a bit frustrating, because I do know better. I was wearing my fashionable navy blue quilted coveralls, so my body was toasty, but my toes and fingers were numb and hurting. I have good boots and good socks, but I don’t have the special boots painter, Stapleton Kearns, recommends. I meant to get a pair for this year, but I haven’t yet. Maybe next winter.

I know how to keep my hands warm, but I rushed out without the proper gear. If you want to try painting outside but are afraid your hands will get too cold, the trick is to wear a sturdy heavy mitten on your rag hand because you don’t need dexterity to wipe a brush. On your brush hand, wear a thin or fingerless glove and keep a chemical warming pouch in your pocket to easily warm up your fingers when needed. Wristies work really well too, because they sort of collect heat in a little aura around your fingers. 
Another great tip a little league coach once told me is to smear moisturizer or petroleum jelly on your hands and use latex gloves to keep warm without getting too clumsy. He said it was the best way to keep a grip on baseballs and bats during early spring practices. It works for brushes too. Plus, your skin will be silky soft when you are done, if you care about that sort of thing.
Winter seems to be sticking around, so you may as well go outside and try to enjoy it....


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Contour Dogs

© Hannah Phelps
Contour Drawing of Coast

Back in November, I signed up for The Sketchbook Project. (You may have noticed the logo on the sidebar...) The rules are wonderfully simple: order a Moleskine sketchbook, pick a theme, fill your sketchbook with anything you like (loosely related to your theme), send the sketchbook back to the sponsor, the Art House Co-op, and follow it online as it tours around the country for a year before landing in its permanent home in the Brooklyn Art Library. Doesn’t that sound fun?

Some people use their sketchbooks to do very finished pieces. There are folks who take all the pages out so they can sew in their favorite paper. I hear that people even put one giant poster in there, cleverly folded to fit in the book when it is closed.

Well, I didn’t futz with the pages (mostly because I don’t know how to sew) and I used the book in a more traditional sense. When artists go out with sketchbooks to draw, we are often playing with ideas or practicing drawing certain forms. Sticking pretty closely to my theme, “Raining Cats and Dogs”, I completed about 40 contour drawings of three Golden Retrievers - my Hatrick and Coast, and my sister’s dog Geraldine.

The term “contour drawing” means drawing the outside of the form. It is an exercise for learning to focus on looking hard at a subject in order to represent it accurately. Originally, I learned to do “blind contours” which meant looking only at the subject and not at all on the paper. In pure blind contours, the pencil doesn’t leave the paper, creating a continuous line as the eye follows the edge of the form.

Not always the outside edge - it could be any edge. For example, when I am drawing Coast’s face I might start with the outline created between his lip and the floor, but as his lip wrinkles a little and I can see some evidence of the structure of his nose, I leave the lip and continue my line into the interior of his face. That is how the eyes and nose and all that end up with detail. I am pretending that the pen is following the form in 3D..

With The Sketchbook Project, I bent the rules a bit. 
Hey, it’s MY sketchbook after all. So I did allow myself to peek at my paper. But not too much. The point of contour drawing is to look most often at what you are drawing and not at what you are creating. I draw my dogs because I am trying to learn more about them and contour drawing allows me to do that in a wonderful way. I have to trace their shapes with my pen just as I would stroke them with my hand. Most of the drawings have a bit of the essence of the dog's personality. Some of them are really weird, but that is fun too.

In case you are wondering - “Didn’t the dogs move?” Well, of course they did. They are highly paid, but they don’t really get the modeling thing. So they move. If it is early enough in the drawing, I just keep going and don’t worry that there are lines to nowhere. If it is a bit later into the drawing, I stop and start a new one.

Here is the secret - if I am working with the same three dogs all the time and I spend a lot of time around them, chances are I am going to see that pose again. So I just wait and finish it when they settle into a similar position.

I will share most of the sketchbook drawings here on the blog, including some of the odd ones. And you can see them in person, when you visit The Sketchbook Project in a city near you!


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Uncertainty Principle

© Hannah Phelps
Study  done on Monhegan Island
oil on canvas, 3.75" x 8"

A couple of weeks ago, fellow artist Dora Ficher interviewed me for her blog. First off, she asked me to explain how someone who studied physics in college became an artist.  Dora wasn’t the first person to wonder about this. If you share her curiousity, you will probably enjoy the interview. I know you will like Dora's artwork on her website!

The rest of the story is that I am not a physicist now, but there are some things that I learned while playing with lasers and listening to lectures that I think about all the time - especially when I am creating art.  

One of these things is the Uncertainty Principle.

While I don’t bully my way through complex calculus equations anymore, I am kind of geeky, so I can still refer to the physics texts I have kept from college. Here is a quote:

“...experiment cannot simultaneously determine the exact value of a component  of momentum, px say, of a particle and also the exact value of its corresponding coordinate, x. Instead, our precision of measurement is inherently limited by the measurement process itself such that:    
∆px ∆x ≥ hbar/2” *

What this means is that scientists can’t know how fast something is moving and where it is at the same time. 
The act of measuring one of those things changes the other. In this case they are specifically talking about subatomic particles like electrons.

WAIT!! Where are you going?! 

Don’t just assume you won’t get this because it is physics!! You are probably smarter than you give yourself credit for, so bear with me!!

Because this is actually a mind-numbing, reality altering discovery that does affect you even if you think you don’t get it! Everything in the universe is made out of subatomic particles - including the landscape and including you and me. And the teeny tiny things that we are made of cannot be witnessed without being altered.

Haven’t you experienced that? Have you ever felt that while you are observing something, you are actually kind of missing it too?

This is when I feel it: Landscape artists use the phrase “capture a moment” all the time - especially plein air painters. I use it myself. But the truth is that while any of us are painting a scene, that very act prevents us from really looking at the truth all around us.

While I am looking in one direction, I have no idea what is going on behind me at the same time. When I watch one wave breaking, I then can’t paint that exact wave because it is gone. If I take a photo of that wave, I can’t track its motion. This makes our art exactly what our life is - a composite of memories of what we were focusing on one second at a time. 

And this doesn’t just apply to art or electrons: Sometimes at dog agility trials, a fellow competitor will hand me a video camera so I can tape her dog on course. Whenever I am asked to do this, I am shocked at how little I remember from my friend’s run. I obviously saw the whole thing through the camera, but I can’t tell her which bar came down or if the judge called a fault - I have as little idea about what really happened out there as if I wasn’t watching at all. That is because I wasn’t “watching” it. I was making sure the dog was in the shot and playing with the zoom.  

I sacrificed witnessing an event in order to record it.

This knowledge is why I don’t mind when I forget to bring my camera on painting trips. As a matter of fact, I often leave it home on purpose. I know that if I really want to experience the salt air, the warmth of the sun and the good company of my painting buddies, I can’t do it through a lens. I have to see it and feel it. And risk changing it all with my presence.

* Eisberg, Robert and Resnick, Robert. Quantum Physics of Atoms, Molecules, Solids, Nuclei, and Particles. Second Edition. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1985, p. 65

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Winter Show Off

© Hannah Phelps
Odiorne Rocks! and a gorgeous bouquet
Prints of the Year Exhibit, Concord, NH

Last Thursday, I joined a bunch of other artists and art enthusiasts at the Prints of the Year reception. This exhibit is curated by Parker Potter and celebrates New Hampshire printmakers in the UNH Law Center in Concord, NH. The Concord Garden Club created flower arrangements to accompany the prints hanging all over the Law Center. Above is one of my white-line woodcuts, “Odiorne Rocks!” with a beautiful arrangement by Patty Humphrey and Elaine Tefft. 

If you are interested in seeing an astounding variety of prints, this is the show to see. There are eighty-three pieces including lithographs, Japanese style woodblocks, etchings, silkscreens, monotypes, linoleum reliefs mezzotints and combinations of all these processes all in one place. 

© Hannah Phelps
Granite Composition
white-line woodcut print, 10" x 14"
Prints of the Year

One art reception isn’t really enough for one week, so on Friday I went to McGowan Fine Art, also in Concord, to celebrate the opening of the Love, Lust and Desire exhibit. Art that fits in 8.5” x 11” plastic sleeves cover the walls of the gallery. Sixty artists created “low fat alternative Valentines” for this show.

© copyright Hannah Phelps
Homemade Somebunny to Love
white-line woodcut print, 6" x 5.25"
Love, Lust and Desire

So if it stops snowing for a day or two and you feel like getting out of the house, head over to Concord and enjoy the exhibits.

Prints of the Year will be on display until April 1, but if you want to see both shows at one time you only have until February 12 to get to Love, Lust and Desire!