Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ethnic Series

I am working on a series of ethnic Mexican scenes for a possible exhibition in my native Austria a year from now. Europeans seem to be very interested in the folklore of this country.
Due to its diversity in indigenous cultures, Mexico is extremely rich in native crafts and folk art: textiles, pottery, basket weaving, masks, jewelery, embroidery, wood carvings, rugs, hand painted decorative items, hammocks, toys, mouth blown glass - you name it, they have it.
This woman is a Huichol Indian. The Huicholes traditionally live in the Sierra Madre Occidental, where the States of Durango, Zacatecas, Nayarit and Jalisco meet. They were the only indigenous tribes that were not defeated by the Spaniards during the conquest and they continued to live in relative isolation until very recently. In the last ten years, more and more Huichol people have come to the cities to offer their beautiful and very popular yarn paintings, jewelery and other decorative items, which they cover with intricate designs in colorful beads. Their work has been shown in museums in the United States and other countries and they are now internationally famous.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Resisting Kitsch - Or Not

I have stayed away from sunsets for the first twenty years as a painter, in order to avoid kitsch.
This one is my second ever and the first one I like. I think it works, probably because I simplified a lot, which is always a good idea. Or maybe it is because I just finished it!
I had been painting the whole day today, first blocking in a portrait for a commission I have been putting off, then finishing a seascape, also commissioned and finally, even though I was tired, I felt like doing something fast and fresh before quitting. I had a lot of color on my palette and a previously stretched 15"x15" linen ready to go. A couple of years ago I had painted at this location but resisted the sunset. Now the photograph of it was exactly what I was looking for.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Rodin on Portrait Painting

My husband keeps telling me, I should paint more portraits, he feels they are my best work. I don´t know if they are, what I do know is, that I feel happier painting outdoor scenes.
Portraits are a triple challenge because, besides getting the features exactly in the right place (likeness), and having to penetrate deeply into the consciousness of others (character), you have to please the subject of your painting.
I love what Rodin said, and I quote again from the book I mentioned a few posts ago:
"But the greatest difficulties for the artist who models a bust or who paints a portrait do not come from the work which he executes. They come from the client for whom he works."
A few lines below he continues:
"It is very seldom that a man sees himself as he is, and even if he knows himself, he does not wish the artist to present him as he is."
To that I might add another aspect: People know their faces mostly from their mirror image, not the way others see them. Since no one´s face is totally symmetrical, their real appearance looks a little wrong to them.
I have done portraits of married couples and it did not surprise me that he liked hers very much and she was very pleased with his. Their own likenesses, they thought, were a bit off.
I am glad that, in the case of Teresa´s portrait, both husband and wife were happy.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Plein Air painting

I made this little PA painting from one of the terraces at the Villa Amor resort in Sayulita, Mexico.
It was a particularly sparkling day, the sun was hot and high, and after years of visiting that beach, I knew the light was special and I had to capture it quickly before it changed.
I have a series of 8x10 s of Sayulita beaches hanging at home, painted in all kinds of light and weather. Makes me want to go back!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Painting skin is fascinating.
I was lucky enough to have my eyes opened by the great Spanish painter and teacher Sebastian Capella, who carried forward the legacy of Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida. Sorolla brought skin alive through the use of color.
Like any other surface, skin can have many colors, depending on the quality of the primary light source (warm sun, cool stage light, etc.) and whether there is any reflected light bouncing off nearby colorful objects.
We are used to seeing color in everything, but when asked to reproduce what we see, the left side of our brain tells us a different story: Certain things are supposed to be a certain color. Skies are blue and skin is skin color, for example. Not for me, thank goodness.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Handmade Amate Paper

I made the drawing of this horse on a handmade mexican paper, called "papel amate".
Since prehispanic times, the indigenous people of Mexico used to make paper out of a variety of natural fibers. Papel amate can be made from the bark of several types of ficus trees: The macerated bark is placed on a wooden board and beaten repeatedly with a volcanic stone until the fiber releases a sticky substance which holds the resulting pulp together. It is pounded flat and arranged into the shape of sheets, which have uneven edges. Then it is air dried.
The paper has a beautiful, irregular surface and the color can be from very light beige to dark brown.
In the Mexican states of Puebla, Guerrero and Morelos, this paper is used for either monochrome or very colorful, naive paintings, depicting traditional events like weddings, harvests, rodeos etc..

Abstraction vs. Realism

There is no right or wrong in art. Both representational and non representational art can be good or bad. Good art, at least for me, is one which creates a response in the viewer which is similar to the artists own initial impression or intent in relation to the subject matter.
Even though I paint representationally, I am always using a certain degree of abstraction. Nature is three dimensional and my canvas has only two dimensions, so, by definition, I need to abstract. How much I want to stick to what I see or how far I want to simplify is up to me and they way I feel that day. Sometimes I enjoy playing around with both abstraction and figure in a painting. It is just a matter of shapes and colors put together in a harmonious way.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Music and Visual Arts

I believe music and visual arts have a lot in common and many artistic people have a sensibility for both.
I went to high school in Vienna, Austria, and I still regret the fact, that at a certain age we had to choose between art education and music. I chose visual arts, but would have loved to continue with classes about music as well.
Both art forms can express moods and atmosphere so well, both can evoke emotions in the audience (as can language, I guess, but I never got much into writing).
Recently, when I started teaching a course in color theory, I found myself using a lot of comparisons and referring to technical parallels between the two.
Both art and music benefit from contrast between economy and variety, rhythm and calm, a strong statement and an element of surprise. Accents make the work come alive but the general layout of the composition is more important than the detail.
In any case, I feel it is best not to say it all, but to leave a little room for the pleasure of interpretation.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Children in Portraiture

A few years ago I was commissioned to paint the portraits of two sisters. Children won´t hold still for you, so I worked from a family snapshot for one and a studio photograph for the other. I knew the kids quite well, as they lived across the street from me. Otherwise I would have had to ask for a whole bunch of photographs to get to know them better - I do the same when I have to paint a portrait of an adult whom I don´t know well and who cannot sit for me.
And being familiar with their personality was very helpful.
The older sister, the blond girl, was very outgoing and full of spunk, her little sister rather sweet and shy. Their mother left the choice of backgrounds up to me and was quite happy with the prickly cacti in back the older and the soft meadow behind the younger child.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Trends in Art

Art is not exempt from fashion.
Every time has its preferences and trends and, most people, with few exceptions, follow them.
The last century has seen its share of abstract or non representational art, some of it exceptional, some of it bad, some hardly art at all, but as long as it is in fashion, everything goes.
Now it looks like realism begins to have a comeback.
Recently, work which is shocking, offensive, violent, or which otherwise causes raised eyebrows is being favored by the critics.
Novelty at all cost - but is it art?
I choose to paint representationally, because I feel attracted to the (often hidden) beauty nature has to offer. There is plenty of tragedy and ugliness in the daily news, I don´t need to contribute to that. Besides, I am convinced that it is within the human condition to crave beauty.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Rodin on Drawing

I have a model and a bunch of artists over to may studio every Friday.
We put on some classical music, turn on the spotlight and set the timer to 1 minute. Everyone works with frenzied speed and concentration to capture these quick poses as best he or she can. Next are 2 minute and 5 minute poses, like the one in this example.
More than a warm up, they bring out the best in us. Not only do the models strike more interesting poses than when they have to hold it for 10 or 15 minutes, but the artist has no time for, what Rodin called "..the inexpressive minutiae of execution and false nobility of gesture which please the ignorant."
Quick drawing does not give you time to be afraid of mistakes or to worry about style. And that is good. The purpose is not to create masterpieces but to practice; to grow as an artist and to keep in shape. Says Rodin: "Craft is only a means, but the artist who neglects it will never attain his end, ............. in short, no sudden inspiration can replace the long toil which is indispensable to give the eye a true knowledge of form and of proportion and to render the hand obedient to the commands of feeling."
I feel so lucky that my profession as a painter allows me to enjoy every minute of this "long toil"! Well, almost every minute, with the exception of washing my brushes...............

Friday, April 11, 2008

Rodin on Beauty

Santa Teresita is a - well, how should I say it politely - pretty ugly part of Guadalajara. But that does not mean that beauty cannot be found there.
I had been invited to participate in a water color show and, even though I am an oil painter, I accepted.
My aim was to stay away as far as possible from the artificially sweetened, the pretty, from what´s commonly perceived as beautiful. I looked around for a subject that the other participants would not consider worthy. I found it in the tangle of telephone cables and electrical wires strung between the roofless houses of this part of town.
And I could not help remembering a passage I read in a wonderful book, called "On Art and Artists", published by Philosophical Library, New York, which is a summary of interviews given by the great Auguste Rodin, in which he says - and I quote: "..... In short, Beauty is everywhere. It is not she that is lacking to our eye, but our eyes which fail to perceive her. Beauty is character and expression." In another chapter he offers this: "There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character,....... And that which is considered ugly in nature often presents more character than that which is termed beautiful......"
I recommend this book to everyone who does creative work.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Painting in a realistic, or impressionistic way is nothing more than interpreting what the eye sees and what the mind perceives in one´s own, personal way, creating a two dimensional illusion of a three dimensional reality on paper or canvas.
The illusion of distance or depth of
field can be achieved in a variety of ways: Objects become smaller, contours less sharp, and color and its temperature change too.
Atmosphere acts like a series of veils which "hang" between the foreground and what can be seen far away. The farther the distance, the thicker the accumulated layers of veils. Shapes behind these atmospheric layers will therefore look less defined and cooler in color than what´s up close.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


The modern aniline violet was discovered by accident in the XIXth century. A British student who was working on a remedy against malaria, tried to produce a synthetic substitute for quinine. He invented a beautiful purple instead.

In México, in the area around Tehuantepec on the Pacific coast, purple was made for centuries from an excretion of the púrpura, a sea snail. When squeezed, the animal produces a liquid which can be used to dye thread. The curious thing is that the thread first turns white, then changes its color to green, followed by yellow before it finally becomes purple.
A similar mollusk from the Mediterranean was used in the Middle East to produce another shade of violet. The difference was that its excretion had to be mixed with urine and lime in order to fix the color.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


In past centuries, artists had all kinds of difficulties with green pigments. First, none of them were permanent, second, most were either weak or toxic. Of course, greens could, and always can be made by mixing blue and yellow, but there were also other sources in nature:

In ancient China, a greenish earth was used to make porcelain, but it was very pale in color. Malachite was ground to obtain a beautiful tone of green, but it could not be ground finely, or it would loose its color. Suspending copper over a bath of vinegar would produce a patina of another green, however it was corrosive and short lived.

In the late XVIIIth century, Scheele, a swedish chemist, experimented with arsenic, when he accidentally produced a wonderful, but highly poisonous green. He knew about the toxicity, but was advised not to disclose it, as not to jeopardize the potential economic success. It became known as Scheele-Green and was indeed immediately very well received by society. Textiles, carpets and wall papers in green became the latest must have in fashion.
By the way, Napoleon, who was exiled in Santa Helena and lived in a room decorated with Scheele-Green wallpaper, died in 1821. It was later determined, that his body was preserved like a mommy because he died of arsenic poisoning.


Before synthetic colors were invented, yellow pigments came from the strangest and most diverse sources: Concentrated cow urine, ox gall, minerals, tree resins and saffron, among others.
Yellow is a primary color, as is red and blue, and when mixing it with the latter, green is obtained.
The hue of any color, when mixed with yellow, becomes warmer in temperature.

Saturday, April 5, 2008


Red pigments have an interesting history.
Up to the XIIIth century few people knew that the most beautiful reds were made from an insect which lives primarily on the nopal cactus in America and in the bark of a tree in Asia. The fact that the intense crimson red, used for cloth as well as for paint, was obtained by squishing thousands of bugs, was kept a secret for obvious reasons - it was not very appetizing. The name crimson, carmesí in Spanish, Karmesinrot in German and carmine in English, has its roots in the persian word "kermes"- the name for the bug.
The facts about another ancient source of red are not much better, at least not for the health of those who produced it: Vermillion was made by mixing mercury and sulfur, both highly toxic.
As was Lead- or Minium red: It was obtained by heating toxic lead white.
Apart from their repulsive or toxic ingredients, none of these reds were permanent.
What a relief that today´s artists don´t have to deal with any of that!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


A few days ago I finished this harbor scene.
While I was painting it, I remember thinking what a pleasure it was, being able to mix these precious blues, not having to worry where the pigment came from nor how much of it I could use.
A few centuries ago artists were dependent upon shipments of Lapizlázuli from Afghanistan, or Cobalt from Iran. If they could afford them. Lapizlázuli was rather expensive especially if you wanted the really deep tone. Cobalt, which is found in the presence of arsenic, had the disadvantage of being poisonous. The third option for old masters was a blue found in copper mines: azurite. It was less expensive, but also less permanent and less beautiful.
By the way, today´s most basic tube color "Ultramarine Blue" got its name from the fact that the pigment had to be brought from "beyond the sea" (ultra mare), not from the comparison with the deep blue color of the ocean.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Oaxaca, La Calenda

On the Saturdays preceding the Guelaguetza dance festivals (see my blog from March 30), a procession of all delegations walks through the streets of Oaxaca, everyone in their colorful costumes and with musicians playing tunes from their region.
At the head of the procession, known as the "Calenda", are two drummers, dressed in white. Long before the start of the event people line the sides of the road to get a good view and a chance for a good photograph.