Saturday, May 28, 2011

East Meets West - An Inspiration Story

One of my most recent paintings. "Silent Spring"
 Just this past week I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture presented at the Smithsonian by the Asian art curator Robert Mintz. This presentation covered the history of antique Japanese woodblock prints as well as three of the better known Japanese print artists. The artists discussed were Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige... all phenomenal in their own right. Sadly, my favorite Japanese print artist wasn't mentioned in the program. His name was Yoshitoshi and his work has inspired mine in ways that are not quite obvious to others.

When I first moved to the Washington, D.C. area,  I worked as a graphic designer during the week and worked weekends at Shogun Gallery. Shogun Gallery was located in Georgetown at that time. I had been interested in Asian art, but was not exposed to it in any substantial way until I walked into the serenely lovely Shogun Gallery. The walls were covered in prints by the artists that I mentioned above and many, many others. Classical Japanese music was always playing there which added to the ambience. The gallery had a large collection of prints by Yoshitoshi and my infatuation was born. Infatuations usually dissipate, but occasionally a full-blown love occurs. This is what happened with my appreciation of Yoshitoshi's art. I have never strayed or cheated where his work is concerned!

Yoshitoshi was born in 1839, during the last decades of feudalism in Japan. He was the apprentice to the great Ukiyo-e (Floating World) master Kuniyoshi when he was around eleven years of age. His first full-color print was published when he was fourteen. The wood used for these prints was cherry and each color was made by using separate wooden blocks. There was an artist who created the designs, a wood-carver and a printer were also involved to finish the final prints. At the age of twenty-six, Yoshitoshi was the tenth most popular Ukiyo-e artist of the day. In 1868 Yoshitoshi witnessed the fall of the feudal regime and as a result produced the gory series One Hundred Selections of Warriors in Battle. The success of this series elevated him to the forth most popular Ukiyo-e artist of the day.

Several years later, Yoshitoshi suffered a nervous breakdown. He and his peers fell on hard times as the nation proceeded to modernize. In fact, he was forced, at one point, to rip up the flooring of his home for heating fuel. He endured the ups and downs of financial stress as well as the hardships of government censoring. He dubbed himself Taiso ("Great Rebirth") at this time. Sometimes you will see him listed as Tsukioki Yoshitoshi or Taiso Yoshitoshi. Artistically, he moved away from blood and gore and created other images including One-hundred Aspects of the Moon and Thirty-six Ghost Stories.

"Rendezvous by Moonlight"
 I own two Yoshitoshi prints from the One-hundred Aspects of the Moon Series (I include images of them here). I bought them while working at Shogun Gallery and have been seized with overwhelming desire to add to those pieces with each passing year.

"Received Back into Moon Palace"
So, how has the work of Yoshitoshi inspired and informed my work? I have given this considerable thought. For several years I have made predominantly vertical paintings. Of course, this isn't always the case in my work, nor was it always the case with Yoshitoshi, but most of my work tends toward vertical compositions as did his. Yoshitoshi incorporated the use of diagonal lines in many of his pieces. These diagonal strokes lead the viewer's eyes into and around the image. I use diagonals very often in my landscape work for the same purpose. I tend to gravitate to fairly simple compositional structures which was common to Yoshitoshi's work as well. Finally, Yoshitoshi (and many other Japanese print artists) had compositions that featured high horizons. I consistently gravitate to high horizons in my landscapes. The image of one of my most recent paintings at the beginning of this post is a perfect example, as is the image of another of my paintings below.

One of my favorite instructors once said that inspiration is born from experience. My experience years ago working with Japanese woodblock prints certainly inspires my work today. Thanks for reading....


Tuesday, May 17, 2011


"At Eighteen" Portrait of Artie to commemorate his high school graduation

I will admit in advance that this is an odd way to begin a posting, but here goes.... I was sicker than I can remember being on Thursday night. This will make sense as I continue this post.

A little less than 4 years ago, we took our only child to Virginia Tech as a freshman. After unloading what seemed like his entire life, we left him at Miles Hall looking a bit bewildered. Truth be told, I was a bit bewildered myself. What was I going to do without my "person"? Artie and I share a special relationship that is apparent the minute anyone sees us together. The day after we dropped him off at school, I felt nauseated. I was relieved to find out that other parents experienced this discomfort as well. Misery does love company after all.

Today, I am the proud parent of a Virginia Tech graduate but the night before the graduation was another story... many hours spent intimately attached to the bathroom... odd bookends indeed.

"At Thirteen" Portrait of Artie to commemorate his Bar Mitavah

There is not a person that has ever spoken to me for more than 5 minutes that isn't made aware how very much I love my son Artie. Many have questioned if the name had something to do with my profession, but in fact, Artie is my father's namesake. In Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, children are not named for a living relative or friend. Sadly, my father (one of the best people I have ever known) died 7 years before Artie was born. There was no question which name would be chosen for a son of mine should I be fortunate to have one. Interestingly, Artie looks and behaves very much as my father did. Life is good!

This past weekend Artie graduated from Virginia Tech. We were so very proud of him. In an effort to not completely embarrass him, I am not going to wax poetic about what my life has been since he made his appearance. What I am going to do is tell everyone who reads this blog that I am due to make a portrait of Artie to commemorate this occasion. I have made paintings of Artie to mark important life events, and this graduation is certainly one of them. So, in front of everyone, I vow to continue the  tradition. Until then, I have included a couple of paintings that I have made of Artie in the past, as well as a few photographs from the weekend. Bear with me, I am a proud parent after all!

Right after receiving his diploma

I have one more interesting bookend to share. My father attended Ohio State before World War II. He never graduated in favor of serving in the military. Artie will be attending The Ohio State University in September to work toward his graduate degree. If someone had told me that my son would be attending the same school as my father, I would have been mighty skeptical. Life does provide us with many unexpected twists and turns and this one makes me smile.

Proud parents with the graduate!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

True Confessions

In the summer of 2008, I traveled to Canada with my family. We have enjoyed several visits to the Canadian provinces. Our neighbors to the north are ceaselessly polite and pleasant and the landscape is second to none. On this particular trip we went to Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia was beautiful and I got a lot of resource material for future paintings, but (true confession #1) this trip devolved into what we refer to as the helliday. My brilliant husband planned way too much driving for this trip. We clocked in much more time in the car than we ever had out in nature. Our feet rarely touched terra firma. This prompted much consternation from my then nineteen-year-old son, and frankly I was none too happy either. That said, the first part of our trip was devoted to the lovely small fishing village of Digby. The steel blue of the water was different from the water in areas closer to home. Although expansive, looking at it evoked feelings of melancholy in me. I am described by many as relentlessly upbeat. That said,  I actually enjoy reflective moods.

At the urging of my pastel students, who requested reflections as a subject for a demonstration, I chose one of my many photographs from Digby. This image was taken in the morning. I was moved by the calm waters and the interesting cloud formations, as well as the slight mist rising from the water. Ultimately, the fact of the matter is that I had a gut feeling about the image and my memories of that early morning in July. This gut feeling prompted me to want to paint this scene.

The challenge for this particular piece was in keeping a limited, monochromatic palette. I wanted to maintain extreme subtleties and a minimalist approach to the piece. I tend to often take a bolder plan of attack. I always start with a black and white sketch before beginning the painting to be sure that the composition is working. This saves a lot of time once I begin painting. To set the stage, I started with a monochromatic watercolor under painting. which was completed during the demonstration for my students. I always have to brace myself before doing a demo never knowing what the results will be. In other words, I am a bit nervous painting in front of others. (True confession # 2)

Watercolor under painting of Digby #2
 After the watercolor dried completely, I began placing areas of pastel judiciously on the painting surface. I often describe this method to my students as thinking twice and painting once. If I cover the watercolor with pastel, there is no going back to the watercolor. As a result, I want to be sure that I am pleased with the pastel placement.

Just the slightest amount of pastel placed on Digby #2
 I took a short break and realized upon my return that I needed to add more light in certain areas and break up the foreground shape to enhance the composition.
Lights added and foreground area broken up a bit on Digby #2
 At a certain point, I was frustrated to discover that I wasn't comfortable with the direction that the piece was taking. I felt that the composition was failing (true confession #3). This issue had to be remedied.  A slightly darker value to the lower left hand corner of the piece would solve the problem.  In order to do that I added pastel to that quadrant. Immediately, nausea set in when I realized that I HATED the way the pastel looked. In a bit of panic, since I needed to leave the studio for an engagement, I hurriedly brushed the pastel from the surface and dabbed the offending area with a kneaded eraser... still hideous. Not satisfied, I snatched the painting from the easel, grabbed my water bottle, poured water in a plastic cup and started wetting the area with a paint brush... still hideous. With nothing to lose, I started frantically dabbing the wet surface with a paper towel. I left the studio sure that I needed to admit failure and scrap the piece while I kept reminding myself that this would be a learning experience for my students.
Ugh! Digby #2
 It was with mild trepidation that I gingerly tiptoed into my studio to discover that I wasn't nearly as disappointed with the piece as I had originally thought. In fact, I felt with a few more touches it would be fine. I don't know what happened overnight, but clearly stepping away was a good thing. Here is the end result. Yipppeee!
Digby #2 DONE!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Docent is a Noun

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum
I led tours at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery yesterday. This year marks my fourteenth year as a docent at this wonderful institution. The word docent is a noun and means someone who leads guided tours. Being a docent is definitely more of a verb for me since being a docent is all about the action of leading tours, which is an action that brings me great pleasure. I count myself incredibly lucky to be able to spend time with work that I enjoy in a building that never seems to stop fascinating me. My steps quicken as I approach one of my favorite places in Washington, D.C. In fact, the National Portrait Gallery is really one of my favorite places in the world, which is saying something. Those who have been to the Portrait Gallery know what I mean. Those who have not are in for a treat whenever they come to Washington, D.C. and take the time to visit. I am inspired by much of the work that is housed in this historic space, but what sends me to the moon is sharing as much as possible with visitors. So, for those of you who are not able to make it to the museum with me, I am going to share one of my favorite pieces in the collection. I have yet to lead a tour without including this painting in the proceedings.

Prior to the renovations of the museum building, which took six long years, I stood in front of this portrait in a vain attempt to lock the image into my mind. I knew that reproductions would never do justice to this painting. Then, when I first saw the piece before the building was reopened to the public, I was elated. I knew at that moment that I would be back leading tours, even though my schedule had become packed with activity during the six years the building was closed. Well, enough blather about the piece. Here it is:

Self- Portrait of John Singleton Copley

This is a self- portrait of John Singleton Copley who is known as one of the best portrait painters during the Colonial period. There has been much made of the fact that Copley was a self-taught artist. He did have opportunities to see artwork in his native Boston, but he complained to expatriate American artist Benjamin West that there was no work that could help him develop as an artist. He moved to England to study (studying in Italy and France as well)  and remained in England for the rest of his life. During that time he made the painting that I include here.

There are several reasons why I am moved by this piece. First, I am impressed with Copley's composition since it was a fairly unusual approach. Copley shows us his fine abilities as a draftsman by painting a self- portrait that has him looking away from the viewer. Copley had to have placed mirrors in such a way as to be portrayed looking away from us. The light source is beautifully rendered with emotional immediacy. Finally, I am consistently moved by the brushwork and the fact that this image still looks fresh and contemporary even though the painting was completed between 1780 and 1784. With that in mind, I want to also point out that at this time period all painters had to make their own paints and store them in animal bladders. This would likely have ended my career as an artist! Tube paints were not invented until 1841. That said, I also want to mention here that Copley was a pastel painter as well. So, not only do I admire his work, but we also share a common affinity for a medium that is second to none in its ability to render surface textures.

I hope that you enjoyed seeing the painting of Copley on my blog and that you will seek his work out the next time you are in a museum. If you would like to be on my mailing list, I will be happy to send you my tour schedule. This schedule changes monthly and I lead tours only four times per month. I would love to welcome you to the National Portrait Gallery and introduce you to Copley in person! Just contact me through my website at:

That's me with Thomas Edison while leading a tour at the National Portrait Gallery