Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Happily making progress.

While I haven't written here in some time it's not because I haven't been working at my art! I've been deeply immersed in this voyage of discovery and delighted to be making progress. The only way an artist learns is by doing - "paint a thousand bad paintings to learn how to make good ones." While I feel I have only started to learn to paint the human figure I am happy with how far along I have come.

A big part of making progress as an artist is acquiring mastery of the tools and medium. I experienced a double whammy when I turned to figurative work, abandoning decades of experience painting landscapes - and perhaps more significantly, switching to acrylics from encaustic wax/oil painting. Fortunately working in charcoal and pastel has provided a bridge between the processes. Drawing in various mediums has been the foundation for all my work since my earliest beginnings and it is standing me in good stead in this new direction.

I enjoy experimenting with the limitless possibilities of acrylic. It is very different from what I'm used to, and I am purposefully NOT allowing myself to think of those differences as disadvantages, but rather am learning what I can and cannot do with the amazing stuff. The marriage of the two mediums - acrylics with pastel - has resulted in some satisfying works in the past few months. More exciting is that it has fuelled a tsunami of creative thoughts and possibilities.

That is a happy place for an artist to be.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hell0 2011!

Yeah - yeah ... it's been awhile since I've posted (but there's something about reading "no followers" that reduces the enthusiasm for writing. I must be doing something totally wrong. Everyone said "Blog, Bob - BLOG! It'll bring people to your art.")

Ah well. It's good to stay in practice (writing every six months is staying in practice?!)

In spite of the world's attention being elsewhere I have kept at my easel and have steadily been improving on my art. I was forced awhile back to abandon the solvent-based mediums I've been using all my life. I had become sensitized to the toxic nature of the fumes and so began a love-hate relationship with acrylics.

Well, just like an arranged marriage - you can learn to love something you have to spend the rest of your life with. I'm slowly coming to terms with the possibilities of this amazing modern medium. I've lots to learn (!!) but I'm getting to a point where I'm getting good stuff from it. I'm especially delighted with the way it combines with pastels in smaller works (smaller for me is anything under 3' X 4'.)

Relocating to the "big city" (Victoria - hah!) has been good for connecting with models so I am enthusiastic about the coming year. Should be some good progress in the coming months.

Stay tuned ... (I'll try to write more often. But I do post new works to my website frequently.)

Monday, July 26, 2010


This blog is about change. While there not be a shift in the universe taking place artists have been known to be bellwethers in society.  I won't claim that the urge to move from landscapes to nudes is a symptom of anything more than a growing apathy about the beauty in nature.  But I have a nagging sense that something bigger is afoot.

Things happen for a reason. Changes are taking place in my life of their own accord and the only way I am going to find out what this is about is by accepting what is coming. A major change that is about to take place is a move to the big city. For the next two years I'll be living in the capital of our province and I am keenly looking forward to ready access to art, culture - and models - while I am there. I am focused on pushing my artistic abilities beyond my current limitations. I want to experience - and learn - everything I can about figure drawing to break through the walls of my own conservative approach. I want to paint things wildly creative.

Seeking change like that is not like me - I am atavistic - always comfortable to hide in a time warp where unapologetic representation was the norm. I don't know that I can completely abandon representational art - but I hope to stretch the lines a little thinner than I have.

Is there an audience for what I want to do?  Art lovers have always had a warm spot for images of beautiful bodies rendered with passion and purpose. I want to get to that place where my work is steeped in that same appreciation. Looking at my current paintings I know I have a challenge ahead of me before I "arrive." But I feel the changes that are happening around me will help lead me in the right direction.

Wish me luck....

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Angst, etc.

Manic depression is one of the hallmarks of the creative soul, apparently. I'd have to agree from experience. Sometimes life sucks, and when it does it becomes exceedingly hard to draw from the creative well. That always starts a vicious cycle that can become overwhelming. Feeling too glum to paint leads to massive guilt because of valuable time being wasted, which then leads to deeper depression until it is impossible to find the desire to climb out of the despair. Grrrrrrr, we really are our own worst enemy at times like these.

What started me on this negative rant this morning? I've been feeling down for many months and this is just part of that baggage. I'm feeling trapped by my existence. Where I have lived for the past twenty years has not been conducive to pursuing an art career. It's a small, remote village three-hours away from the nearest traffic light; a day's travel from the nearest major urban centre - and any hope of an audience. A dying resource economy has drained the vitality from our citizens - we are all in survival mode - and it's pervasive.

My paintings gather dust in my studio - it's been years since anyone but a small handful have seen them. Anyone in my hometown who would want to buy my work has already bought it. And my hopes of reaching a web audience seem to have foundered on some impenetrable wall as my blog and website remain unvisited. (Is anyone reading this anywhere?)

As I surf the web in search of answers I stumble across young artistic talents who have achieved wide exposure only a few years out of Art School, their online galleries show "SOLD" on nearly everything. I don't know what their secret is. But it fuels the doubts that hound us artists and I end up questioning my choice of subject matter, my technique, my medium - worst of all I question my skills. Am I really an artist at all after all these years?

I've wrestled with these demons many times and I'm familiar with their taunts. It is hard, but I close my ears to them and grit my teeth and try to stay focused on doing the work. Only by doing my art can I get better - and I hold out the hope that by getting better I will find an audience for it.

Thank God for the models who pose for me! The moments of brightness they bring into my life are all that prevents dark despair from destroying me. I feel incredibly blessed whenever I meet a woman who believes in my work enough to share her beauty and spirit with me. It is that warmth and humanity that sustains the willingness to attempt these marks on paper. When they succeed and my model is happy with how I have shown her to the world then I truly feel like I have succeeded as an artist in a small way.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

We're All Beginners

I'm part of a small group of life-drawing enthusiasts that meets every other week for 3-hour sketch sessions. In our tiny town I am grateful to have found a lovely model willing to pose nude for us. We had a newcomer attend recently and a comment he made led me to today's thoughts. I'd asked him if he'd drawn from the model before and he replied that he was just a beginner and hoped that was okay. I chuckled to reassure him saying, "don't worry - we are all beginners here."

Now, I'm in my late 50's, and I've been making pictures since I was old enough to hold a crayon. So what was I saying when I said that I too am a beginner? Each time I stand before the stark intimidation of a blank sheet I am starting anew. While I have acquired a handful of skills and techniques that give me confidence to face each new challenge I don't often feel I know what I am doing. The first stabbing mark on the virgin surface is a testament of faith... "leap, and the net will appear." (Thank you Julie Cameron....) I have no idea how the work will progress, I'm not really in control of the process at all. Things go best when I can allow my conscious mind to wander down other paths while my hand and eye take over on their own. Every now and then "I" check in on the work and am either amazed or dismayed by how it's progressing.

While I am often uneasy about the not knowing - at the same time the constant ambiguity is what fuels the adventure. "Where IS this going to go?" A big reason I am moving away from landscapes is that they were becoming predictable to me. The challenge wasn't there like it used to be. I was beginning to develop tricks and gimmicks, and I felt my art was losing it's freshness. I think it was Delacroix who said, "A painting must look like a battleground..." by which he meant it should give some indication of the struggle the artist has in accomplishing a piece. He finished up the remark by adding, "... but it must also look as though the battle were won." My last couple of landscapes stopped showing signs of struggle - the life had gone out of them. They sit unfinished while I seek fresher battles.

My nudes consequently have become that new warzone  - full of disasters and defeats, with the odd small victory. The confidence that comes from a lifetime of making pictures carries me through the darker horrors with a promise of the sweet taste of something well accomplished. And with each sketch and painting I learn and grow. It's what being an artist is all about. History doesn't remember artists for the obscene prices their work fetches; it remembers them for rising to the heights of their creativity. That can only come from overcoming challenges.

Another comment I have made to newcomers to our life drawing group is that in three hours of multiple poses none of us are likely to create a masterpiece. The sessions are about gaining valuable experience. It helps to accept that every sketch is only a beginning -  that it's okay if it doesn't end up on someone's wall. Each and every one of those sketches - those battlegrounds - adds up to the victory that IS being an artist.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Website Redesigns and Easel Time

I finally did it! I rebuilt my website www.RobertHemphill.com from the ground up. If you've been reading here you'll see that I am not as focused on painting landscapes as I once was. My interest has shifted to life drawing and my old site didn't reflect that very well. It does now.

While pretty basic the site is meant to focus on my art. I didn't want the distraction of slick effects (...well, I wouldn't know how to incorporate them anyway.)  I want to make this blog part of my website (I'm worried you won't find your way back once you've clicked away...) *Sigh* ...this stuff is a never ending learning-curve, and it sure can get in the way of easel time!

Easel time - that's what I need. All the important stuff happens in that sacred space - brush in hand and the million possibilities of a blank canvas. It inspires terror - "what if I screw up?" But it also is a delightful challenge - "what if I paint something awesome?" The ambiguity of creating art can be intimidating, not knowing where a work is going to go, how it is going to turn out. The risk of failure can keep you from even starting - so many paintings fail to live up to the first hopeful promise. But our failures teach us our craft. Once in awhile it all comes together in something good and that enables us to move a little forward.

I am adrift in ambiguity right now. Having abandoned the comfort of my preferred medium - encaustic beeswax - I am experimenting with acrylics. I have also left the security of familiar landscapes to explore the challenge of painting nudes on large canvases. I'm not "there" yet, but I AM on my way "there"... (that's why I call this blog "an Artist Arriving.") While I'm finding the steps between rough sketches to large scale canvases elusive, each failure takes me a step closer to accomplishment.

There is no roadmap when creating art. You have to find your own way by trial and error. Growing as an artist is like stumbling through a dark forest, knowing where you are only by what you've just passed through, wrong turns and blind alleys included. Once in awhile you stumble into a clearing full of light and beauty - tempting you to linger and savor it for awhile.

You COULD stay in that lovely safe place for the rest of your days. But artists are restless souls -  compelled to leave the safety of what we know in search of new horizons. Constant movement is the heart of our survival.  I'm looking forward to the serenity that comes when reaching another plateau in these dark woods of creativity.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

To Find a Muse

What would figure painters be without their models?  For four decades I painted landscapes because living in tiny remote communities (and living on the wrong side of the poverty line) made access to models impossible. On a handful of rare occasions I took advantage of group sketching sessions offered by artist-run studios when I travelled to major centres. Landscape was a consuming passion and I will probably return to that genre again.  But in the meantime I have discovered the amazing generosity of models.

Circumstances led me to work in Victoria, BC and while there I started attending drop-in sessions at X-changes Gallery ("www.xchangesgallery.org/") working from male and female models. Those sessions re-ignited a passion for the challenge of depicting the human form, and I discovered that I was better at it than I deserved to be - having had such little practice over the years. Group sessions are great because they are affordable, but they limit an artist's control over the pose, drawing location,  and lighting - what you see is what you get. Working one-on-one is a necessity... but who can afford to pay a model when your art is not bringing in an income?

Luckily there was a solution - Model Mayhem - a networking site for models, photographers, and other creative professionals ("http://www.modelmayhem.com/") . I discovered MM last year and as soon as I posted my sketches from X-changes (and Basic Inquiry Gallery in Vancouver - "http://www.lifedrawing.org/gallery.html" ) I began to get e-mails from models wanting to be drawn. What surprised me was no one asked to be paid - all were eager to work for just a copy of the sketch. Since I am just after the practice I am happy to offer them the original if they like it.

Scheduling is always a challenge when the models typically have fulltime jobs - and a life - but I have worked with dozens of lovely women in the past year. I am always honoured that they are willing to share their time - and beauty - with me. There is no guarantee the works will ever be shown, but that never seems to be an issue. The models are delighted to just be part of making art.

Paola was the first MM model I worked with and she has been an inspiration ever since. Our work together is by far the most arrived. There is a chemistry working there that just seems to lead to greater creativity. The glass or two of wine she pours us during our sketch sessions probably helps the mix. But she is simply a consummate professional, finding interesting poses quickly, holding them, and returning to them easily after breaks, and she is totally relaxed in her lovely skin. Thank you Paola.

An accomplished figure painter from Victoria - Louis Merino - explained to me recently, "It is easy to find beautiful women who are eager to pose for you... the challenge is to find a muse." Paola has been my first muse. I know there will be others, and that's what makes meeting and working with new models such a pleasure. Who knows which one of them will trigger an avalanche of creativity...  and each becomes another friend in art. I am truly grateful for being allowed to draw every one of them.