Thursday, November 10, 2016

Painting Victory, Part II

Tubes of the Trade, 8" x 10", oil on canvas 

This is the final painting I completed for Strada Easel's September Challenge.

The challenge, in case you don't remember from the last post, was to paint from life everyday in September. That doesn't mean plein air landscapes only - still life counts. When I didn't have a ton of time or I thought it might rain, I set up a still life on my front porch. Just like when I paint landscapes outside, I stopped when the light and shadows changed dramatically from my original composition.

On the last day, I laid some of my paint tubes on a stool on the porch. This turned out to be my favorite painting of the whole month. I learned more about myself as a painter and about what I still need to learn than I had in years from this sill little pile of paints.

When I painted the tubes, I got into the correct frame of mind for painting very quickly. This is a state in which artists cease identifying the scene as objects - metal tubes, white paper labels, plastic black caps, wooden stool - and start focusing on what we really see - colors, shapes, tones, values.

We are often taught to do this by painting and drawing white, grey and black shapes - spheres, cones, cylinders, cubes, rectangular boxes.

The idea is that these shapes are pretty much everywhere, so if you learn how light hits a cylinder, you can paint a tree trunk, if you can paint a sphere, you can paint a tomato, etc

New paint tubes look like a combination of cones and cylinders, but older, partially empty tubes don’t look like anything else - just scrunched up metal with white paper stuck to it.

For a long time, I thought I was pretty good at painting shapes and colors instead of "trees", "rocks", or "lemons" but painting the tubes showed me that I was far from entering that perfect state non-object thinking.

When I painted the used tubes, I reached a deep state of looking and painting exactly what I saw because I had no choice. It was very difficult and humbling and extremely fun.

Winter is coming, and with it, maybe some more still lifes of challenging subjects.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Painting Victory, Part One

Day 13 of the STRADA September 30-Day Challenge

As you can see from the photo above, my outdoor easel is a not ideal. I am making it work, but it would be nice for it to be a bit taller and to avoid using a bulldog clip to secure my paintings.

The thing is, I have other easels - an embarrassing number of them. But this set-up is the only one that fits entirely inside my backpack. That leaves my hands free for lunch, dog water and a bowl. I haven't weighed it recently, but it isn't too heavy when it is all packed.

But it still kind of sucks. So when I received the following email from Strada Designs, I got excited:


September is a beautiful time of year to paint and we are committed to helping artists improve their work. One of the best ways to improve is to make a personal daily commitment to painting. Beginning September 1st, do a plein air painting each day.  Post the image of your piece for that day on Facebook.  Remember to use the hashtag #stradaeasel so we can keep track and share your progress on our Facebook page. At the end of the month if you have painted and posted each day for thirty days straight (the entire month of September) you will be entered to win a STRADA Easel of your choice. 


I took the Challenge because I knew that the worst that would happen is that I would paint a lot, and that is always a good thing.

Not only did I complete the Challenge, but I actually painted for 34 days straight because I was on Appledore Island at the end of August. While on the island, I painted more than one panel a day - usually 3 or 4 - so I think the total was 40 paintings.

Strada will announce the five winners tomorrow night. But I feel like I don't need to win an easel to feel like a champ. Over the next few posts, I'll tell you about my major revelations.

The main thing I learned - re-learned really - is that I enjoy painting. That might sound dumb to anyone out there who doesn't paint - everyone assumes that artists have an undying passion that motivates them to work all the time. The truth is that painting is a lot of work and sometimes we avoid doing it. But the Challenge forced me to get started everyday. Even when it was raining. Even when I thought there was nothing to paint. Even when I was tired or busy.

I painted through two migraines, four days of agility competitions, many cloudy or rainy days, an open studio, and a reception for a solo exhibit. I also planned and carved layer one of a new 16” x 24” woodcut.

I always ended up enjoying painting, even when I really dreaded doing it.  

Rediscovering a joy in painting is Victory Number One.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Solitude vs. Isolation

Appledore Blue, jigsaw reduction woodblock print, 6" x 8"

As you know, I visited Appledore Island to teach printmaking and paint a bit in August. While I was out there, someone told me that the Peabody Essex Museum, (currently exhibiting a bunch of Childe Hassam's Appledore paintings) had asked our students some questions about their experiences creating art on the island for the museum's blog. 

I never read the questionnaire, but I heard that one of the questions was something like: How did the solitude of the island affect your art? 

I passionately responded, “Solitude? Where did anyone find any solitude? I’ve been racing all over this island trying to find some!”

That very morning I had rushed out of bed early to paint some dramatic light before breakfast only to find that two artists and a poet already set up near my chosen spot and a gaggle of museum curators had gathered for a little tour of good sunrise viewing sites.

While I enjoyed the first light from my rocky perch, I didn't get any painting done.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about this issue deeply, because something about the island does change my perspective about painting. There is something special about the place, for sure.

The mysterious "altered state of being" reminds me of how I felt when I was in SEA Semester as a college student. I was on a sail boat with around 30 other people for 6 weeks. We did stop a few times and see other folks, but for the most part it was just us.

What I felt on that boat was definitely not the result of solitude. Think about it - 30-odd people on one ship out at sea means no one is alone. Ever.

We had no solitude - we had an isolated community.  Just like on Appledore. I don’t really know how many people were on the island when I was there. Well short of the 120 maximum amount the place can hold these days. Less than 50, probably. But the island isn’t very big. 

The buddy system is encouraged. The rules are fair but strict, as any violation means extra work for someone else. Everyone eats together on a firm schedule. We sleep in close quarters and hope to fall asleep before our neighbors start snoring. 

There are also smaller sub-communities of artists or scientists or staff or alumni within the general population. During dinner, we artists share our experiences of the day, report on exhibits we enjoyed earlier in the summer, our favorite artists or a newly discovered color. We take advantage of being isolated from our non-artist friends and families and co-workers and everyone else with other like-minded fellows.

Solitude is what I get when I go to the printmaking studio alone early in the morning or lug my painting pack into the woods. Solitude is alone-ness without loneliness. Important to my creative process, but not why I go to Appledore Island.

On the island, it is not solitude that changes our attitudes about our surroundings, our creative work and our companions. It is shared isolation from the mainland and a shared appreciation for the history, culture and natural beauty of the place. It is a shared rigid schedule that allows space in our day for focusing on our art creation. 

It is a shared interest in creating and helping each other do so. Together.

Note: I wrote this before I read the blog entry PEM published earlier in the month. I encourage you to head over there and see what some other artists think. You will also be treated to a marvelous poem. I was surprised to see that they've included a photo of me drawing and a second one of my paintings and a print from last summer. 


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Where is Appledore? FAQs Part 2

Appledore Evening, jigsaw reduction woodblock print, 6" x 8"

At the Annual Craftsmen's Fair at the beginning of August, my booth was full of seascapes. At least three of them were scenes from Appledore Island, including two of the biggest.

As people looked around, many of them turned to me and asked, "Where is Appledore?"

Growing up, my family's summer vacation was on the beach in Rye, NH and the silhouette of Appledore Island and the Isles of Shoals on the horizon shadowed us wherever we went. Since not everyone shares that familiarity with them, I guess it is time for an explanation.

The real and mythical histories of the Isles is long and fascinating and beyond the scope of a blog post, but here is a brief description to wet your appetite:

Appledore Island is one of the Isles of Shoals, a small group of islands off the coast of the border between Maine and New Hampshire. Even though they have a group moniker and share history, some of these islands are in Maine and the others are in New Hampshire. Appledore Island is on the Maine side. 

While most of the country has no clue what or where they are now, they have a rich history. Settlement on the Isles began in the early 1600's. The cod caught and salted there was world renowned in its heyday.

Later, Appledore Island became the home to Celia Thaxter whose father had built a hotel there during her childhood. As an adult, she hosted famous artists and writers on the island, including painter Childe Hassam. Hassam completed dozens of rocky seascapes and pictures of Celia's flower garden. Many of these paintings are in an exhibit this summer at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.

Now Appledore Island is the home of the Shoals Marine Laboratory (SML) which hosts high school and college students every summer while they learn about marine biology, ecology, engineering and other ocean related sciences. 

Luckily for me, when the young scientists return to classes there is still enough summer left for SML to offer some adult programs. The art tradition is still alive on Appledore with the Landscapes and Seascapes class that begins this Thursday. I'm one of the three instructors, teaching printmaking, of course, and I feel very lucky to be a part of it all. 

After the class is over, I am staying a few extra days to paint the sea, as I did last year. This painting from last summer is the model for the print on the top of the post. Hopefully, I'll have a bunch of new, solid compositions to work from when I return home.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Frequently Asked Questions Part 1 - Annual Craftsmen's Fair

The Other Gold Swimming Phelps, oil on board, 2009, sold

Last week at the Annual Craftsmen’s Fair, my #1 FAQ was not about the artwork. It was about my name.

Specifically, am I related to that other Phelps. The really famous one who is winning even more gold medals in this Olympiad.

The answer is no. 

I did used to live in Baltimore, MD back when he was a baby swimmer and had just made his first Olympic team and only people in his hometown had heard anything about him. (So I completely understood this.) I knew recreational members of the Baltimore Aquatic Club, Michael's training ground, who said he was a very nice guy. Alas, I never met him myself.

But like almost everyone else in America, I’m a fan. His accomplishments are incredible and I feel lucky that I was able to enjoy watching him achieve the impossible time and again on TV.

The most memorable of my encounters with hopeful Michael Phelps fans was a little boy who saw the booth sign with my name printed across it in big letters. He stopped, his mouth formed a tight “O” and he sucked in an audible breath. 

Then he pointed at the sign and hissed to his father, “PHELPS! Is that....?!?!?!?”

His father chuckled, looked at me and shook his head, “Ah, no. Come on.”

“Michael?” I asked. “Yes,” Dad laughed back.

And he got my standard answer, “No relation, I’m afraid.”

We can only hope that some of these people will love hand-made craft and fine art as much as we all love our gold medalists. 

Honestly, though, as I rest up after my first Annual Craftsmen's Fair, I'm finding it hard to be upset about being upstaged by a living legend.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Finishing Up and Heading Out

What happens when one print edition is recently signed and numbered and two more are hanging out on the drying rack wearing their final layers?

Trips to the coast to paint on site, of course! I took this photo last Monday right at the end of my light. Eventually the sun sets even on the longest day of the year. 

The painting looks huge in this picture, but it is only 8"x8". I have settled into this size for outdoor painting (and its close relative, 8"x10") because they are large enough accommodate bold brushwork but small enough to finish an idea in less than an hour. Both sizes fit in my handy Raymar wet panel carrier, so I can carry 6 panels and have my choice of rectangles or squares. When the compositions turn into prints - if they are lucky enough to be exciting enough for that - they can grow as needed.

And future prints growing in size is the plan for the next few months. Large paper is on the way here and the E-24 at DM Penny Press can handle an entire 22"x30" sheet. I happen to have some plywood in the studio big enough to push these limits too. Why not?

There are actually a lot of reasons "why not" - big mistakes leading to wasting a lot of paper and ink and wood being the most obvious - but I don't want to focus on that. I just want to play and see what happens. The two most recent large prints, Turbulence on Appledore and Upright Wave, turned out great, so I'm going for it.

Lest we forget how fun little prints can be, though, here are two process pics of the latest ones. The finished version of this print is the one on the top left:

And the final version of this one is top right:

Hurry for finished prints of all sizes! 

What size art do you like to collect or make?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Smooth Printing

© 2016 Hannah Phelps

The bottle jack press is cranking away on these little crashing waves! Maybe it missed our time together last summer when there was no big C-24 etching press for me to visit a few times a week.

Whatever the reason, layer two with its white on top of grey, green on top of light yellow, and middle lovely reddish brown on top of orangey-gold is working out quite well.

Economy is the buzz word for this print. Let's see how quickly and efficiently an elegant idea can emerge from piles of ink and plywood. 

That is always my goal, but a few prints have needed too much attention lately, so I am laser focused on it this time. Plus there are three prints in progress around here and I just want to finish something. 

Right now, this one and the other little seascape are behaving and I am having fun with them. One or two more layers on each and we might have TWO finished prints!
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