Happy Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year is upon us! This is the year of the Ox — a symbol in the lunar calendar associated with strength, diligence, hard work, and reliability (no plow skills needed). Oxen energies are expressed each time we plan a course of action; apply consistent effort, whatever our pace; and evince a little bit of “stubbornness” (let us say, perseverance) in adhering to a vision or idea. This is, in other words, the year for planting our feet on long-harbored dreams and making them come into fruition — the year that expended elbow grease will be likely to pay off (one hopes!). As per the lunar zodiac, this year also appears to favour restoration, replenishment, and recovery in their various senses, but will also be a time to carry the responsibilities that accompany the rewards. I like to treat the zodiac not as a firm set of predictions, but as an open-ended starting point for orienting action and energy (I read the I Ching in a similar way).

So. In that spirit, I wish you Oxen energies as you continue, this year, to bring into being the things in your heart!

Ok. Art-wise, my heart has been a flowery place. I recently did a simple still life drawing. More imagined flowers, in pencils, drawn in January. I see them as clowny and happy and pretty.

I treated myself to a new set of pencils in January, and I enjoy them: the scratchy texture isn’t 100% coverage on the page, but penciled space holds movement and line in a way that makes me feel like I show up in the picture. And in comparison to the fluidity and flow of paint, pencils require a little bit of elbow grease — a little push, from the inside out, to make things happen. I recently finished another picture that involved penciling the surface of an 11 x 14″ page — and I did feel like a little ox, bearing the colours across the paper, slowly over several days, until the whole thing was covered. Pencils, simply, are good for my soul.

Ok. Wishing you the creative mirth of flowers, and auspicious beginnings! 🐂 🌸

Welcome, February

After the blink of January, February is upon us. Chicago received its second blizzard in a single week, and we are now under even bigger snow drifts and slushy puddles. Remember the 6 foot snowperson from the previous post? Well, an even bigger sibling has presented itself in the very same park. This one stands a little over 7 feet tall and is staying fashionable in a green scarf. At that height, this must have been a group effort.

We are also in the thick of a February deep freeze, starting today. Today the low is -14C, and the weekend will see us at a low of -19C at some point with the temps sticking around all of next week, if the forecast is correct. Well. Let’s see how our daily conditioning stroll goes. It is the period for soups, space heaters, wool, and chai. When I get alarmed at cold weather, I remind myself that, growing up in Canada, these temperatures were normal! I was a kid whose commute to high school took over an hour, with a lot of waiting in bus stops and open-air train stations in -15C weather… Here in Chicago, some train stations and bus stops are equipped with overhead heat lamps. Heat lamps. Torontonians knew no such luxury).

On the art front, I have been keeping busy, and bullet journaling my way through the week, finding myself strangely productive. I owe this, in part, to the start of February — new energies abound and the Lunar New Year is approaching. I also like to think that the colours in this week’s theme helped things along a bit. For this first week of February, I went with something festive and ferny-flowery (again).

Against the strong inclination to hibernate, the colours are keeping me awake and focused. 🙂

I hope you are staying safe, well, and warm. Giant Snowman and Snow Flamingo send their greetings. Until next time. 🦩⛄

Floral portrait

Happy Friday. I hope your week has been going well. As well as possible. 🙂 We are, in Chicago, plunged into a good few inches of snow. It came down in a blizzard last Monday & Tuesday; it is so much snow that we spotted a near 6 foot snowman in our neighborhood!

In all this Winter, I cannot help but dream, a little bit, of floral things and the return of Spring.

Last month, I decided to try another (self?) portrait of sorts — something to bring up the botanical things in my mind and set them under a full moon in that late-dusk time of day so conducive to colours and their imagination.

I chose to work in gouache/acrylic for the saturated pigment, and pencils for texture. When working with gouache, I like to use Scotch tape to create a frame around my work. It helps me to bound my space and design (and lifting the tape off at the end to see a straight edge is neat).

Some thoughts on mixing paints + pigments

The skill I wanted to practice with this painting was mixing pigments. I discovered that you can layer pencils to produce interesting things! I also learned that objects that are “conceptually” green need not always show up as green. But the main lesson learned: gouache can be mixed with acrylic, since they are both water-based. I have a tube of Winsor & Newton acrylic in Titanium White, and have been using it to lighten my gouache. The resulting paint shows up really smooth and opaque with great coverage. It’s a very forgiving and layerable paint that allowed me to repaint areas of the face over many times as I was figuring the picture out.

Note that mixing gouache with acrylic does change paint texture: once dried, the gouache-acrylic hybrid isn’t as matte as gouache alone; it has a slight sheen and shine compared to the velvet-y light-eating surface of gouache. I’m ok with that, but have heard that shine is less conducive to producing good scans for reprints (so there’s that to consider). For now, my acrylic-gouache hybrid is saving me the trouble of running to the art store, as I go through those tiny tubes fast.

After about 4 days of relaxed-pace work, the portrait was done.

This portrait reminds me of the good things in store. We are, after all, only 2 months away from Spring.

Wherever you are, I hope that you are finding some solace in the beauty of Winter. For now, the flowers are living in my dreams, but a little green is on its way.

Until next time. 🌺


Painting timeline (for reference, by day)

  1. Pencils + composition
  2. Gouache (background + portrait)
  3. More gouache and pencils (mid-ground)
  4. Last of the gouache details, fussing, then declaring done

Robert Henri on the song within

Hi, folks. We’re on the cusp of another year, and bringing some hope and lightness to this passage feels more necessary to me than usual. Today, I’m reposting a 2018 reflection; I’m revisiting it because I find myself seeking out an affirming and ‘art teacherly’ voice — some guidance and inspiration for what I hope to be a new phase of embracing creativity. My past thoughts on Robert Henri’s text, The Art Spirit, have been helping me remember some things. SO, whatever your medium, I hope this offers a creative uplift.

I look forward to seeing the incredible projects that 2021 has in store for you, and wish you another year, as Henri wrote, of “great happiness in creation.”

-Shirley


I’ve been enjoying The Art Spirit, by painter and portraitist Robert HenriOriginally published in 1923, The Art Spirit is a collection of Henri’s notes, letters and lectures to his pupils and proteges on the creative life. For the devoted student of painting, there’s lots to sink one’s technical teeth into: painterly lessons on colour theory, composition, the importance of keeping a clean palette (I always lapsed there), avoiding the overuse of ‘white’ to convey value (I did that), and cultivating the powers of visual memory.

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But this little collection shines most brightly in how the fragments come together to convey a message on the ‘art spirit’: the joyful cultivation of vision and imagination. For Henri, art (a term which the book does not take too seriously) comes from enchantment with life. Part of the labour of making, he suggests, lies in developing self-knowledge through experience, the senses, and the imagination — allowing ourselves to be touched and moved by the things around us, and finding exuberance and discovery in our own unique worlds of feeling. Several times in the text, he suggests that the object is not to ‘make art,’ but to live — and to trace the lines of that living through the things that we make.

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Image source: The School of Life’s The Dangers of Being Dutiful 

This is a familiar message. But I enjoy how Henri expresses the idea, in different ways, with his own mix of wonder, warmth, and the ardent desire that budding artists learn, beyond technique, to recognize, value, and find tremendous joy in their intuition — what he calls the “inner sense.” For Henri, painting is not merely a technical skill; it is a way of being alive and in full relation to oneself and the world. Henri uses a particular metaphor for this relationship: creative joy is like finding and singing your song with all of your heart — a scary proposition, when I think of it, but The Art Spirit suggests that we give our throats “a chance to sing.”

You’ll find some of The Art Spirit moments that I found interesting below.


The real study of an art student is more a development of that sensitive nature and appreciative imagination with which she was so fully endowed when a child, and which, unfortunately in almost all cases, the contact with the grown-ups shames out of her before she has passed into what is understood as real life. 

On the experience of creative insight (on safeguarding your “song”):

At such times, there is a song going on within us, a song to which we listen. It fills us with surprise. We marvel at it. We would continue to hear it. But few are capable of holding themselves in the state of listening to their own song. Intellectuality steps in and as the song within us is of the utmost sensitiveness, it retires in the presence of the cold material intellect… yet we live in the memory of these songs… They are the pinnacles of our experience and it is the desire to express these intimate sensations, this song from within, which motivates the masters of all art. 

Cherish your own emotions and never under-value them. We are not here to do what has already been done.

Find out what you really like if you can. Find out what is really important to you. Then sing your song. You will have something to sing about and your whole heart will be in the singing.

From Henri’s letter to a student:

Your education must be self-education. Self-education is an effort to free one’s course so that a full growth may be attained. One need not be afraid of what this full growth may become. Give your throat a chance to sing its song. All the knowledge in the world to which you have access is yours to use…Don’t bother about your originality, set yourself just as free as you can and your originality will take care of you. It will be as much a surprise to you as to anyone else.

The end will be what it will be. The object is intense living, fulfillment; the great happiness in creation.

And one last one, for now, from a painting critique Henri wrote to a student (something which I think all evolving artists need to hear):

“I like your work and have only to ask you to go on your own interesting way with all the courage you can muster.”

Paper Butterfly

Fall-like weather is gingerly making its way to Toronto, and with that the monarch butterflies are starting their southern migration. It’s common to see little butterfly friend-groups flitting just above city traffic – playful and hovering and disappearing into the still-green boughs of trees. Is there anything more bittersweet than this flying away?

Here is a butterfly I can hold in my hand – in cardboard and coloured pencil.

Any signs of the changing seasons in your neck of the woods?

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