Saturday, June 17, 2017

About using photos... or not

My time at Weir Farm is already half over. Hard to believe. So far I have completed five interior and still life paintings and half a plein air painting. I've also been invited on some interesting tours by rangers and volunteers that add to my appreciation of the history of this site. One tour centered on love letters between Julian and Anna as a way to get to know them better. Very sweet.

Being here really does ignite the creative spirit, even though I am not able to set up my easel and paint within the historic home or studio. Working from photos is not typical for me but since I can still re-visit the locations, I don't mind. To be honest, there is "controversy" among artists about painting from photos. People tend to fall into one of two groups:
  1. those who use photos routinely and believe painting from photos is fine
  2. those for whom painting from photos is totally taboo... and maybe even an insult to the creative process
Some of us are a bit less dogmatic. Honestly, everyone has different creative goals and can forge their own path. For me, the goal is to work from life whenever possible and use photos only as a "Plan B". Like extending the life of a perishable still life when grapes are becoming raisins. Or when a National Historic Site invites you to paint on campus...but not IN the historic rooms. I had to adjust my process here. First I explored with a camera and took as many photos as I thought I might need. But I also had access to return to locations for more photos, clarification or inspiration. The Park Rangers and staff have been very accommodating.

This is my set up in the studio, with photos displayed on a large monitor -
easel, monitor, painting set-up

One advantage to using photos is that it's easier to create a two dimensional painting from a two dimensional image. Perspective and foreshortening are easier to see, as spacial relationships are flattened in 2D. And this, I believe, is one objection by artists in group #2 above. It's easier: less blood, sweat and tears.

But it's also true that paintings done from photos can look flat. Cameras can only see a small percentage of colors compared to what our eyes can see, so much of the richness is lost. I think if you've been painting from life, it's easier to realize what's missing when you have to work from photos. The best way to have that understanding is to spend time drawing and painting from life.

This pantry is pretty simple looking but it had perspective challenges. It was hard to figure out from photos because I couldn't back up far enough to see where the angles converged, but going back to the space I was able to compare which walls were truly parallel or perpendicular and make sense of it.
light in doorway, china chelves, cups and saucers, still life, oil painting
The Butler's Pantry at Weir Farm ©2017 Dorothy Lorenze
Some artists object to the use of photos on the grounds that it's not traditional, the old masters didn't rely on cameras. But I personally question that. Artists are generally creative problem solvers and I can certainly imagine Leonardo da Vinci being fascinated by a camera. In fact, given time, he probably would have invented it!

In 2001 David Hockney wrote Secret Knowledge a book about how he believed early painters used optics and lenses with the camera obscura to trace images onto canvas. You can see the BBC episodes about it here and here. It's interesting but I think the more fascinating study of master artists relying on mechanical assistance is found in the film Tim's Vermeer, available on youTube. It's an amazing demonstration of a non-artist recreating a painting using mechanical visual aids. What I think is especially worthwhile is his observation of how light is diffused over distance. It's an important concept for representational artists because it helps create depth, enhancing realism.

Photography is a helpful tool but my feeling is that it shouldn't replace drawing from life. Drawing is about training your eye to see and spending time with the subject to get to know it better. That can help in so many ways beyond rendering form well. The time spent drawing and observing helps you decide what to enhance and what to exclude, decisions that can make a better painting.

Here are some of my latest Weir Farm paintings. I took photos of this room from every angle. And although, in the end I chose this image, I used the others to get more information about where the light was coming from, and especially how light affected patterns on the wallpaper and carpet. This one is not finished yet, still need to fine tune areas, but it was a good example of how using multiple photos gave me more information.
orientla carpet, fireplace, chinese ginger jar
Julian's Parlor at Weir Farm, ©2017 Dorothy Lorenze
After all the time-consuming tediousness of the first few interiors, I needed to return to my comfort zone and do a little still life. This is a scene from Weir's studio so it was also painted from a photo. I'm sure that my time painting still life from life helped give this little painting some of its richness.

bottles, palette, colors, paints
Watercolor Pigments at Weir Farm ©2017 Dorothy Lorenze
Tomorrow I get to choose another scene to be inspired by at Weir Farm. And later this week I hope to join the rangers in their workshop about discussing artwork with the public on tours. That should be really interesting!

Thanks for sticking around through this long post. It's been a busy and very interesting journey these past few weeks!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

A day in my life at Weir Farm

Getting settled at Weir Farm couldn't have been easier. The staff were welcoming and helpful and the weather cooperated so I was able to wander the grounds and take it all in.

My artistic goal, while here for the month, is primarily to paint interior scenes of the many historic spaces. But painting in situ is not allowed since this is a National Historic Park ...with government rules, etc. Totally understandable. So I'm working from photos (more on that in a future post) and since I'm a semi-neurotic over-achiever, I visited in advance of my stay to take pictures for prepping and planning.

Knowing that on the last Monday of each resident's stay, they give a talk at the Wilton Library presenting their work, I definitely wanted to have some finished paintings to show! So I actually started the painting of Mahonri Young's sculpture studio (Weir's brother-in-law) at home. It felt good to have one painting completed within a few days of arrival. People do stop by to chat and if all I had to show were the early/ugly stages it would not be encourging! That's just how it is with early stages: gangly adolescents.

interior paintings, studio space, studio interior
Mahonri's Sculpture Studio, Weir Farm ©2017 Dorothy Lorenze

The first full week of painting included some distractions. Doctor follow-ups that couldn't be rescheduled as well as interviews with two local papers. Stephanie Kim of the Wilton Villager has published her very kind comments already and you can read her article here. Meanwhile, it rained a lot and I worked in the studio for hours most days.

I'm focusimg on new habits this month and another goal is to spend time out doors walking, hiking... being. It's easy to be seduced by nature here. There are 60 acres of land with miles of hiking trails that also connect with a larger network of CT trails. I haven't ventured beyond the Weir acres but I'm proud to say, I have walked every day, barring downpours. (plus taken advantage of the open, zen-like upper floor of the cottage to exercise on rainy days.) And here's the thing I've discovered - when I get into the studio after spending 45 minutes out in the fields and woods, I feel  more connected to my work. Isn't that amazing?!!

hiking trails

In addition to the natural beauty, there are gorgeous gardens, naturalized and formal, that just happen to be blooming with peonies and iris. The thing I haven't done yet that is on my must-do list is to sketch on the grounds. But, I know I'll get to it.

My second painting is a simple scene of the butler's pantry. Well, not so simple because the perspective was difficult with so many angles of walls and cabinets. And then there was the matter of putting dishes on the shelves. But that's the kind of challenge I enjoy. It was the light in this scene that first captured my attention.

pantry, china shelves
Butler's Pantry ©2017 Dorothy Lorenze

Today I painted from 7:30 am to 8:30 pm with a nice long walk midday. A perfect and productive day. As I returned to the studio after dinner a group of painters were arriving for an evening painting class with Dmitri Wright, so when I was done I went out looking and found them dotting the landscape like fireflies. It was dusk and they were totally into it! I would never have thought of painting outdoors at that hour, but it seemed truly wonderful and I will have to try it. Another inspiration from Weir Farm!


It was nice to chat with fellow artists (this is a rather solitary experience) and on the way back "home" I passed the windows of the visitor center aglow in the twilight. This house was formerly the home of a Weir daughter and you can just imagine the family discussing plans for the next day... 100 years ago.

Good night from Weir Farm!

 Thanks for joining me on my artistic journey.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Weir Farm Artist in Residence, week 1

Dear Friends,

Please bear with me this month as I expect to write a bit more often because I have the unique honor of being Artist in Residence at Weir Farm in CT in June. That means I am spending the entire month living in a rustic cottage adjacent to a beautiful studio that is mine-all-mine for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through the month of June!


There are all sorts of residencies - from commune-like gatherings of artists of varied visual media to semi-private spaces where the artists range from writers to sculptors to musicians. In these settings, often group meals and common space are provided for socializing and relaxing.

Weir Farm, in contrast, offers a solitary experience in a simple cottage with a summer-camp vibe that is steps away from a large and well lit studio. And the back wall of the studio is all windows, opening onto a deck that overlooks a woodland stream. Ahhh! The cottage is the former caretakers house, built in the 1830s. The studio was built in 2010 specifically for Weir's artists in residence and it's design reflects the original barn that had stood on the site. Very cool!

So, how did I get here? Well, Weir Farm is the only National Park Historic Site dedicated to American painting. After having painted at the studio of George Lawrence Nelson in Kent CT, the idea of creating artwork at the home of Julian Alden Weir, renowned American Impressionist, was too good to pass up so I applied.
"The Art Center's mission is to promote public awareness of the Farm's history and artistic tradition, and through its programs, facilitate contemporary artistic work on the site, fulfill educational goals, and preserve the Farm's unique environment."
http://www.weirfarmartcenter.org/artistinresidence/guidelines.html
Artist Residency Studio at Weir Farm
The residency program is overseen by the Weir Farm Art Center which accepts applications in October. Prospective artists must provide images typical of their artwork and a work plan for their time at Weir, as well as several letters of recommendation. Between 10 and 12 artists are chosen each year to stay up to 4 weeks. It's quite an opportunity for uninterrupted, focused art-making.

My work at Weir will center on painting interiors of the house and studios. I'm looking at this time as an opportunity to think through the challenges of creating mood and atmosphere through light in interior scenes. Not sure if I can accomplish that, but having uninterrupted time to think, examine, plan, compose and execute should bring me closer to that goal.

Today is the first day. Primarily, I've been settling in and finding my way around. I've already photographed some of the spaces that I plan to paint and I'm wrapping my head around what I hope to accomplish over all.


It's not just about the paint, but also about developing habits, to become more centered in the work and to simply be more productive with my creative time and energy. We shall see!

Thanks for coming along for this ride. I will keep you posted!