A Special Painting for a Special Person

I had mixed emotions when I was asked to paint this #commission. The subject: a funeral procession, intended as a gift for the widow. 'Doesn't seem too cheerful, does it? I was able to turn my thinking around, however, because I knew all the parties involved.

In late summer of 2012, Tom Fritz died after a long long battle with cancer and related complications. We had the pleasure of meeting Tom about a year earlier, and enjoyed an evening with his local family, our friends Adam and Josie. We combined friends, food, a campfire and music on "Rocky Top", a beautiful gathering place on the top of our hill. Despite his ongoing health issues, Tom had a remarkable positive outlook. Talking with him quickly reminded me of how important it is to be grateful for all the good in our lives. Tom's wife Janie and I became instant friends, particularly when I learned that she was one of the only people I had ever met who had attended the same college as I did, the now defunct Bradford College. Janie went when it was a girl's junior college, and I went a while later for my B.A. in Creative Arts. The college was in my hometown, so it was always near and dear to my heart - the campus pond was one of our favorite places for winter ice skating. My own college years lacked any time for a social life with my fellow students, as I loaded up on courses in order to earn all my bachelor degree credits in 2-1/2 years. By the time I married on Valentine's Day prior to my graduation, I had only my student-teaching semester left for art teaching certification. Anyway, back to this #painting ....

Tom was a Navy captain, so he had earned the honor of being buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. His burial ceremony was scheduled in April, and it turned out to be a cold, rainy, grey day. The air was foggy. The flag-draped casket was wrapped in plastic sheeting. The horses were reflected in the wet pavement. This atmosphere dulled the tones of everything, contributing to the visual somberness of the procession, and emphasizing the emotional somberness. There was a dignity and pomp to the manicured horses pulling the caisson upon which the casket rests. Three teams of horses are used, each with a rider mounted only on the left horse - in early horse-drawn artillery days, the right horses in each team carried provisions and feed. At the front of the procession, a seventh horse is unharnessed and rides alongside the front left carriage horse to guide him. The horses walk very slowly, and everything is silent, broken only by the clip clop of the hooves on the pavement.

My challenge was to evoke some of the emotions in the #painting that I imagined the day had presented: honor, sadness, love, grief, pride, compassion, closure. I tried to emphasize the overall grey cast to the scene, letting it contrast with the stark blacks in the main figures. Rows and rows of grave markers stretch off in every direction, with larger and varied stones in the foreground. No engraving is discernible, so as not to distract from the procession. The faces on the men are not detailed, since their individuality is not as important as their symbolism. The red of the flag draws the eye to the casket.

As the procession lead to the burial site, Janie noticed a red hawk perched on a nearby tree. This was truly a spiritual moment, since Tom loved red hawks, so it is included in the painting in a subtle way. Thank you Adam and Josie by giving me the honor of painting this for Janie.

Art & Vision

"Art is not what you can see, but what you can make others see." - Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

It's interesting that such a statement was made by an artist who suffered from vision problems. Since I learned a few days ago that I have a cataract in my left eye, I decided to explore how vision affects art. I don't have an explanation, but I had a cataract develop in my right eye at age 43, which really threw me off - weren't cataracts for old people??? A tiny cloud on the other lens showed up at the same time, but it took 15 more years to develop. This time I took the news better and I know what to expect with the surgery, so I've got that going for me anyway.

FYI, cataracts are caused when normal proteins in the eye clump together instead of floating freely, this results in clouding of the lens and vision loss - not correctable with glasses or contact lens. Surgical removal and replacement the lens with an artificial lens is the accepted treatment to restore vision lost to cataracts. Symptoms of cataracts may include:
    Painless blurring of vision
    Sensitivity to light and glare
    Double or multiple vision in one eye
    Poor night vision
    Fading or yellowing of colors
    Frequent changes in glasses or contact lens prescription.

As Degas' quote stated, I like to think that I help people see more in my painting than they might have noticed in the scene that I have depicted. A new painter recently confirmed what I've always believed: an artist looks at the world around him with heightened awareness. Perhaps I detected my vision symptoms early because of my sensitivity to what I see…??? In my case, the symptoms which lead me to an eye exam when I had the cataract in my right eye in 1998 were very different from the vision changes I noticed just this week in my left eye. I've used my painting Decadence, and my years of experience with Photoshop, to illustrate my symptoms here.

This lead me to the question: are some of the great works in art history the result of poor vision? Much has been written about artists and their eye diseases, documenting how vision problems changed the way they saw their world and changed their art. The conclusions are generally that the artists who developed eye problems did not change their painting style for artistic reasons, but, rather, because they were seeing the world so differently from their days with good vision. Some artists changed their medium; some stopped working in strong light; some switched to bigger strokes and less detail. In most cases, paintings by these artists became more abstract in later life, paralleling increased eye problems… not stylistic change. So I'll still attribute creative genius to artists who spearhead great movements in fine art.

Degas 1872: The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the Rue Le Peletier, © Musee D'Orsay, Paris
Still, it's interesting to explore how eye problems have influenced the work of great artists. For artists whose styles were well established and documented at a young age, it's easy to see changes in their artwork before and after untreated eye diseases. French impressionist Edgar Degas, quoted above, developed vision problems in his 30s, and struggled with both a loss of central vision (probably due to macular degeneration) and retinal disease for 50 years. With limited written medical documentation of his problems, researchers have studied changes in his art over his very long career. Degas' early drawings and paintings are precise, with lots of detail, careful shading, and attention to detail, like the folds of fabrics. As the years progressed, his artwork became progressively less refined.
Degas 1890: Dancers in Blue, © Musee D'Orsay, Paris

By age 57, he could not see well enough to read, but he learned to adapt as an artist. He switched from oil paints to pastels, which are used with broader strokes and much less precision, and he also took up sculpture, printmaking and photography. His eyesight dropped to somewhere between 20/200 and 20/400. He found it difficult to work in bright light, especially sunlight, so he worked indoors in light-controlled surroundings, like backstage at operas and ballets. And he continued to create masterpieces, just different from his early work. See how the Degas painting from 1872 shows such great depth of space, and is so much more detailed in the dancer's faces, clothing, and surroundings, than the pastel done in 1890.

Leader of the Impressionist Movement, French painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) was diagnosed with cataracts at age 72, but he struggled with changing vision for years prior. His writings indicate his growing frustration with deteriorating vision; he could not perceive colors with the same intensity as previously. His early works are renowned for his exquisite sensitivity to light, color, and detail, worked in bright colors or clear pastel hues. His later works use tones which are muted and darker, more yellow and brown rather than vibrant blues, greens, and reds. The shapes are less detailed and distinct as he became less able to see contrasts of lights and darks. Cataracts can absorb light, desaturate colors, and can make the world appear yellow; symptoms which Monet's later works indicate. It is reported that in his later years Monet kept his paints in a regular order on his palette which he memorized, and he carefully read the color labels, in order to help with color selections. This way he could use colors which he might no longer be able to see. Since he primarily painted outdoors, he began to wear wide-brimmed hats to cut out disturbing glare, and eventually avoiding painting outside in midday. "Waterlily Pond," one of his many paintings of his own gardens at Giverny, differs greatly in color, brush strokes, clarity, and detail from "The Japanese Bridge at Giverny", painted about 24 years later:

Monet 1899: Waterlily Pond. © National Gallery, London

Monet 1923-24: The Japanese Bridge at Giverny. © Musee Marmottan, Paris

Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), one of the greatest painters in art history, is believed to have suffered from a vision problem which caused the left and right eyes to receive different images ("stereo blindness") and this may have also caused depth perception. This might explain why Rembrandt was exceptionally attuned to light, shadow, details and other visual components, using these as clues to help him judge distances, The result was a mastery of creating deeply dimensional images on the flat painting surface.

American artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) lived a very long life, but suffered from macular degeneration from about age 80. She reacted to her vision changes by expanding her artistic interests from paintings in oil and watercolor to working with clay and creating videos.

I'm certainly not in a class with these great artists, but I've decided I don't want to change my painting style or media. I'll take advantage of today's medical advances, since I don't want impaired vision… so I've scheduled my initial consultation with the eye surgeon!

Changing Your Point of View

"Sleeping Ginger," painted in black ink on scratchboard
The point of view you choose for a painting can make a big difference. For example, I always try to depict portraits of dogs with my eye level pretty much at the dog's eye level. "Sleeping Ginger" really illustrates this - if I was standing above Ginger, looking down at her on the floor, the intimacy would have been lost.

In painting an outdoor scene, the point of view is critical, certainly for the lighting of the main subject, but also for guiding the eye of the viewer, making it travel into the painting toward the main subject. You can pull the observer into a landscape painting by using natural perspective lines which converge as they move further away: a fenceline running away from the viewer, a road getting narrower as it travels back from the foreground, a river flowing into the distance. You can use tree branches or the arrangement of buildings to create a visual tunnel, through which your subject is revealed.

Not so interesting
My newest painting, a commission for my friend and great patron Mitch, is the Citico Missionary Baptist Church. It's a lovely white clapboarded country church, with a light blue roof and steeple. Many of Mitch's ancestors are buried in the cemetery which covers the hillside in front of the church. I took lots of reference photos during my visit to the churchyard, as the sun went in and out of the scattered clouds above. I walked back and forth through the grave yard, photographing the church from different angles. As I moved, I was observing the lighting, the shadows, and the arrangment of the various elements in the scene. I was composing the painting itself, juggling the various elements to make it interesting and to help emphasize the church as the main subject.

The grave stones lead the eye inward
In choosing the best point of view for the painting, I noticed I could utilize the perspective of the rows of grave stones, leading the viewer's eye back - as the monuments got further away and smaller - to my main subject, the church. I could see this best when I stood a bit to the right of the church. Then I noticed that from this vantage point, if I moved back a bit, the trees would anchor the right and left edges of my painting, with branches across the top framing the church.

Pulling back really helped frame the scene
Once back in my studio, I really liked the final reference photo for other reasons... the foreground cedar tree was shading some of the grass, and the shadows added additional variety and interest to the foreground without being too busy; the evergreen branches of the cedar would also offer nice contrast with the autumn colors I planned to use in the other trees. But two things needed fixin' - I liked having the white church in brighter lighting as it was in some of my other photos, with dramatic cast shadows; it appeared flat and not so interesting in this final reference photo. Also, Mitch had pointed out one particularly notable ancester, whose monument was tall and interesting - but it wasn't in view from this angle. So, with Mitch's permission, I used "artistic license" and moved the grave! I position it so it balanced with all the other elements, and so its perspective and lighting fit logically with the rest of the scene, in the lower right corner. Voila, my vision was complete - now I just needed to begin painting it!

Here is the final result, my newest painting "Citico Chuch".

New Release Giclee and More!

By popular demand, I have created a limited edition giclee print of "Jerry Van, Music Man." The image area is 8"x10", surrounded by a white border to aid in framing. The textured paper I've used for the print is very similar to the watercolor paper I use and the color is beautifully true to the original watercolor. In fact, it looks like an original painting! These museum quality prints are sized to fit standard precut mats and ready made frames, to make it easy for you. This print sells for $38, plus shipping. They will be for sale at my upcoming Open House at the Tellico Arts Center, Tellico Plains TN, this Sunday, January 13th, from 2-4pm.

I have also reproduced the same painting as a signature coffee mug, and these sell for $12.95. I've made a limited quantity, so get to the Art Center early for yours! My painting "Let It Snow," which seems to be a favorite of horse-lovers, is also now available in a 5-pack of blank notecards and envelopes.

Please join me for a relaxing social gathering on Sunday and see many of my original paintings in the lovely setting of the Tellico Art Center.

An Open House

Now that the holidays are over and schedules are returning back to normal, mark your calendar for my Art Open House.

WHO:  Judy Lavoie

WHAT:  Meet and Greet Art Open House

WHEN:  Sunday, January 13th, 2013, from 2-4 pm

WHERE:  Tellico Art Center, 113 Scott Street, Tellico Plains TN  37385

WHY:  For a relaxing social afternoon of viewing my originals, prints, and more.

I hope to see you there, and invite your friends and family too!