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 two artists and a poet already set up near my chosen spot and a gaggle of museum curators on a 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!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Old Problem Made New Again

 © 2016 Hannah Phelps

"I just like to start paintings - I like the big shapes and the clean colors and the loose brushwork." 

I was whining and I knew it, but I couldn't stop it in time.

"Then just keep doing that," my instructor supportively countered.

That was about ten years ago in my first outdoor plein air workshop with painter Stan Moeller. We were scattered around the grounds of the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion, many of us attempting to paint the very old and extremely quirky bright yellow house. My composition included some blue water in the tidal bay and a little island. I had smeared colors in three large shapes on my canvas first - unabashed lemon, blue straight out of the ultramarine tube and vibrant purples. And I had really liked it. The composition was balanced and the whole picture had a liveliness about it that I didn't want to ruin. The start excited me so much that I had a hard time doing anything but dab at it for while.

That is when Stan offered me that great tidbit. It has helped me start and complete some great little paintings on site that feel fresh to me even after a couple of hours worth of hard work.

Lately, I realized I was whining again about the same thing. But this time, I keep it mostly to myself and the medium is printmaking.

I love the first layers:

Simple shapes with interesting color relationships. 

 They are full of so much promise.

I often rush to get the second layer going because the whole thing is so much fun. Usually, layer three is ok too.

But by layer four, I feel that I should be getting closer to finishing a piece and instead I find myself figuring out how to add more layers. Adding more layers that will complicate the energy between hues and become opportunities for prints to slide or have mysterious registration problems. Turning something that was just "not quite right" to all out ruined.

I'm afraid that the only way to stay loose and excited it to remember to stay loose and excited. Strangely, this is taking a lot of practice. Remembering my painting lesson helps. I am hoping that telling you all about it (whiny or not), will help too.

The little wave is working out so far. Layer two is pictured at the top of the post and layer three has been printed:

 (upper left + bottom = upper right)

We still have movement, nice colors and pleasing shapes. 

I have another opportunity to practice my positive attitude on my new little one too. That one gets more ink tomorrow!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Return of the Bottle Jack Press

Clockwise from top left: woodblock with transferred drawing, plein air oil painting from Appledore Island last summer, tracing paper with line drawing, pencil drawing/value study with Sharpie outline

The DM Penny Press is still evolving into a bigger, better space. While it finishes this lovely transformation, the bottle jack press is helping in the home studio. Small things like a little 6"x8" are perfect for it, though, technically, it can handle something as big as 16"x16".

Anyway, the new little wave and the marsh scene must wait for the Conrad Mchine Press to be ready for us again, so I started this little one at home. Before the DM Penny Press opened, my homemade bottle jack press got me through about 10 prints (you can see some of them here), including some Collector Christmas cards. 

Yesterday, after a long day of printing, I finished layer 1:

Soon, I will be printing in a studio overlooking the Merrimack River. Last time, you saw a bright scene of New York. Yesterday, this was the less than inspiring view from the home studio (taken when it wasn't sleeting):

At least it wasn't tempting to play outside.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Travels and Working From Home

 New York City; photo taken from Williamsburg

There is so much going on around here that I don't really know where to start. 

At the beginning of April, I went to New York for a few days. Along with a nice visit with family, I saw the Degas Monotypes exhibit, the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in her new home and ate lots of great food. 

I also paid a visit to Guerra Pigment and bought a little starter kit for myself. There will be more about  that adventure and my new toys at a later time. 

A trip to NYC is always enjoyable. A small break from printmaking was probably needed, but there is a lot going on here in NH. 

The biggest news is that the DM Penny Press is moving to a larger space within the Waumbec Building. Everything about the move is exciting - more space, better location for events, and three large windows overlooking the Merrimack River. 

However, I haven't been able to use any of the equipment for a few weeks. I don't know when I will have access again. We also had to host the first Trolley Tour of the year in the new space which isn't ready yet, but everyone who came was very understanding about it. 

Some folks visited us specifically because they had seen a nice article about the printmaking studio in the Hippo the week before! You can read it here.

Of course, I can't just stop printing because the studio is moving. I am getting some work done here, starting with a small change in the marsh scene. Instead of laying on the giant drying rack, they hang from the laundry lines in the studio.

This is just the beginning - there is lots more to share! First off, there is an opening reception this Friday from 5-7 pm at McGowan Fine Art for a printmaking exhibit - I hope to see you and catch up!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Marching On with the Marsh

© 2016 Hannah Phelps

The marsh print you have been following no longer looks exactly like this - there is now a tiny bit of a light brownish-green on the right hand side.

The whole story is that this print is really close to completion. Really very close. Nearly there. But there is something not quite right about it all. Yesterday and today, I went to the press to work on it, but I wasn't sure what to do. Adding the tiny bit of greeny-brown seemed like a good idea. Like it might ground the right side in a magical way. I guess it did - I don't have a good photo to share yet and I only just printed it so I don't know how I feel about the whole thing.

Ink I added to the right side of the marsh today. Looks better on.

I might have decided to add a smidge of something in the water and a little pinch of color to the trees on the right next. Or maybe not.

I just want this print to be done. At the same time, I am afraid to finish it. I loved the early stages, when everything lined up perfectly and even if layers didn't act like I'd expected them to, all the changes were exciting and seemed headed in a positive direction. 

Now there is so much to preserve. And printing more layers can go really wrong by slipping in the press, not lining up exactly right, colors that don't look nice together afterall,...who knows what else.

I feel very cowardly. And through a pre-planned trip, I'm even "running away" for a few days so I won't be able to see it or work on it.

When I get back, it is decision time. If the print needs more, just do it. If not, just sign it. 

Scary stuff.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Layers of Ink, Layers of Prints

© 2016 Hannah Phelps

Two solid days in the studio and we have layer two done on the small seascape.

They have to sit for a few days, but then blues, browns and greens galore!

Just a quick reminder - if you are looking for something to do this evening, come to the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen Headquarters in Concord, NH tonight from 5-7 pm for the Opening Reception of Continuing the Tradition. You will see some great stuff, including three of my jigsaw prints!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Results of Carving

all images © 2016 Hannah Phelps

Here is a lyrical picture of some wood chips from the small seascape jigsaw block. Just a little bit of carving to get ready for layer two.

The blocks went to the press today and will go back tomorrow. Layer one is there at the top. The right middle of the image is going to be some rocks with water pouring all over them. 

Actually, you've seen the reference painting - here is a reminder. The original is a square, so the bottom is missing in this print. 

If you would like to see any of this live - the presses and tools and all that - DM Penny Press will be open April 21 from 5-8 pm as part of the Manchester Open Doors Trolley Tours. 

Is there something you'd like to see specifically? Let me know and I can make sure to have it with me that night.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Jigsaw Woodblock and Some Rollers

 © 2016 Hannah Phelps

Just thought you might like to see some tools and blocks and the inky mess it makes on the glass. The first layer of the this print, a little seascape of Appledore Island, is done and on the drying rack. 

It sits next to the Cutts Island marsh scene you've been following, which is so close to completion that it is getting a bit smug. It isn't done yet - that is known, but what remains a  mystery is exactly what will happen next. 

Who doesn't love a good mystery? 

Serious question, I'd like to know.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Getting Warmer...

© 2016 Hannah Phelps

Here is the marsh scene you've been following. This is layer 6 and it should have been the end, but it isn't. Each color addition reveals more possibilities, which translates to more layers. 

If you look at the drying rack in the background, you can see the first layer of another new print too. Starting a new print takes a little pressure off any that are further along. 

As a print nears completion, there is less wood to carve away and more color relationships to reconcile with any change, no matter how small. Every little decision has a large impact and so much work has gone into the edition that fear of mistakes looms large in the studio.

Conveniently, planning new work is the remedy for any printmaking paralysis. 

Whatever it takes to keep the press rolling.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Background Colors

© 2016 Hannah Phelps

Yesterday, you saw this block naked - its surface untouched by ink. Today, it helped create some layer ones for a new print. 

This will be a horizontal seascape - in the photo, the inside edges of block and print are the top.

The marsh isn't quite finished yet, but starting new things is too exciting to put off for too long, don't you think?

This Saturday, March 19th, you can see me working on this print if you come to the DM Penny Press in Manchester, NH from 10-5. Click here for the best directions, which are on the DM Penny Press site. See you soon!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Creation Means Carnage

© 2016 Hannah Phelps

At least in reduction woodblock printmaking.

For instance, this will be a little seascape print, but right now it is a piece of shina plywood cut into three pieces and unmercifully, though carefully, attacked with sharp objects.

Tomorrow, the torture will continue - the wood will be smothered in ink and squeezed through steel rollers with some paper. 

The things we do for love. Of woodcuts.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

More Printmaking Math

© 2016 Hannah Phelps

Layer 5 is underway. The photo shows some newsprint with the new ink, a print after layer 4 and a print with the newest layer on top.

Even though the colors get extensive testing, you never really know what the colors will do on a real print. And the ink tends to soak into the paper after a few hours, so waiting a few hours before making decisions on the next layers is wise. This photo is very "fresh" - by tomorrow, everything might seem lighter and less dramatic. 

Which might be better or it might not... 

We will all know in a few days. 

Friday, March 4, 2016


© 2016 Hannah Phelps

Two prints are completed from the newest white-line block!

The lovely thing about white-line woodcut prints is that it is nearly impossible to print two that are the same. Each time you print one, you can try new color combinations and value relationships. 

These prints were done only days apart with the same pallette, but they turned out very different.

Which one is your favorite and why?


Thursday, March 3, 2016

Getting Everything Inky

© 2016 Hannah Phelps

Art making is equivalent to mess making. Every printmaking day, this scenario plays itself out - ink on the glass (on top of a countertop  here), ink on some rollers, ink on a few pallette knives, ink on the jigsawed woodblocks and ink escaping from the plastic wrap meant to contain it.

Cleaning up involves scraping, wiping, rolling and bundling. After practice with a proven system and a lot of vegetable oil, it doesn't have to take more than about 20-30 minutes leave the work table spic and span (assuming nothing ends up face down on the floor) and ready for next time.

In case you were wondering about this. Maybe you weren't - is there something you would like to know? I might not know the answer, but you could try asking.

Either right now, here on the blog, on the facebook page or in person at DM Penny Press on March 21 from 10 am - 5 pm where/when I will be printing live all day!


Wednesday, March 2, 2016


© 2016 Hannah Phelps

The embarrassing truth is that when I mixed ink for this, layer 4, I only ended up with two new hues. The violet-y in the background trees and the darker green in the closer trees. 

I was going to add a layer to the grasses, but I completely forgot about it somehow. I had carved the appropriate shapes and planned all along to include that area in this layer. Hours after I had cleaned up the inking glass and put everything away and moved onto a different project, I realized my mistake.

Instead of creating a new mess, I decided I could just print the trees and not worry about the grasses until next time. The grass would a little behind, but so be it.

When it was time to print, I had an idea:  "What happens if I roll the already-mixed yellow from layer 1 back on top of layer 3.... And I liked it! Problem solved, progress made, grasses defined and a wicked cool (as in color temperature) grey in the marsh popping with the yellow.

Yippee for serendipitous "oversights". 


Saturday, February 27, 2016

Getting Close

© 2016 Hannah Phelps

This print might be done. It will stay attached to the block for at least a day to make sure.

After it is liberated, another piece of paper will take its place. It is good to print at least two right after carving to make sure the original idea has made it this far.

The "original idea" in this case was supposed to be the brightly colored dead leaves against the brightly colored snow shadows. Pitting vivid oranges against brilliant blues can be as exiting as an MMA fight, don't you think?

This close up view of the background doesn't show you most of the snow shadows, but it does highlight the woodgrain in the block and its relationship to the print. Kinda neat. 

Along with printing this white-line woodcut, I carved and mixed ink for the marsh jigsaw print. Big day for a Saturday. Artists get to make their own hours which often means they work all hours. Time for a break now though. Back to the press on Monday.


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Planning the Next One

© 2011 Hannah Phelps

While layer 3 of the Cutts Island scene sets up on the drying rack, there is time to start planning another print. 

This plein air painting of a marsh, also in Maine, will probably be up next. It should be fun to figure out how to get all those "sky holes" in the closer trees. No water, though. This might be a first!


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