It's Red Bug Time!

I remember my first ride in a Volkswagen Beetle. I was a young teen and my friend Cindy's sister Martha was driving me home in her "bug." To an impressionable teen, she seemed to be one with her car. I remember the left turn from Main Street onto the street where I lived; with no on-coming traffic she didn't slow down much as she cut the corner. I watched her pull the steering wheel with her two hands right next to each other. and it felt like we were turning on only two wheels - wee-ee-ee-e! Lots of people I know have fond memories of their "bug", as it fulfilled its original objective as a cheap, simple car for the masses. I never owned one, but perhaps Herbie The Love Bug makes me attracted to the humble Volkswagen Beetle more as a character than as an automobile.

The effects of aging on vehicles and buildings are a favorite theme in my artwork. The more beat-up, rusting, and falling apart, the more interesting the textures. Last fall when I saw an old Volkswagen parked in a pasture just outside a local junkyard, I knew I had to paint it. The worn paint, streaked windows, rusted wheels - fabulous! I took lots of photos for reference, getting as close as I could, as the pasture was fenced with barbed wire. I was actually on my way to the farm market in our local Mennonite Community at the time. The old car was still on my brain when I finished buying my veggies, as I imagined what setting I might create for the vehicle. I wandered behind the farm stand building, which is on a hill overlooking some of 400+ acres of the community. The distant hills, green fields and winding road were so picturesque on this sunny day, and I pictured how the Volkswagen could be set in such a scene. I took a bunch of reference photos.

All my paintings come together in my mind long before I do any sketching or painting. I loved the chance to paint the red vehicle in a very green setting, letting these two complementary colors work to emphasize my focal point. To create some distance in the landscape, I wanted to add a barn, and I really wanted one with old red paint. Once I was ready to take the painting from my brain to reality, I sifted through my large digital reference photo collection of local barns. I needed one with the right lighting too - the car was lit from the right with a long morning shadow, and the trees in the farm photo threw shadows in the same direction. I found the perfect old red barn in my files, one I had photographed a few years ago. I could position it in my layout so the winding road would lead back to it. I also have lots of photos of old cedar fenceposts and many, many photos of wildflowers, so these became helpful in planning the painting. I use my own photos in my paintings, and this is often one of the rules in painting competitions I enter.

When I thought of "Red Bug" to name my painting (before I even started it), I knew that would fit. I like to create double meanings with my painting titles too. Queen Anne's Lace is a pretty summer wildflower  which we picked for floral bouquets in New England when I was young. Here in the south, the same flower harbors a nasty bug. The minuscule red spider mite gathers under the plant's umbrella-like flower cluster. These spiders are the mothers of "chiggers," a microscopic creature which causes itchy, pussy, swollen bites in the most disturbing places on your body. Queen Anne's Lace is sometimes referred to a "chigger-weed," and chiggers are sometimes called "red bugs". Long story short, I decided to paint Queen Anne's Lace flowers in the foreground of my painting, so the title Red Bug hints at more than just the Volkswagen!

I've worked professionally with Photoshop software for decades, starting with version 1.0 (yes, I'm a graphic arts dinosaur), so I sometimes use this software when I arrange my reference photos. Of course, I wanted the Volkswagen to be my focal point, using the other elements to lead the viewer's eye through the painting. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn't put the focal point smack in the center of your painting - it's too boring. You can see how I arranged and sized the different elements, putting the vehicle left and below the center. You can almost zig-zag from the top left, as the mountain slopes lead down to the barn, the tree shadows bring you back to the left, and your eyes land on the car. Using Photoshop, I can easily change the sizes of the various components and move them around until there's a good balance and a pleasing composition. The composite image I create can be rough, since the photo is not my finished product. If the black background of the Queen Anne's Lace still shows around the flowers, or the grass around the car doesn't match the grass of the farm setting, no problem. You can see how I combined the various reference photos into my final composite in the collage of photos above.

I did this painting in acrylics on a 20" x 16" canvas. My photos show how it progressed, with my initial pencil sketch guiding me along in the early stages. My greens are a bit brighter than in the Volkswagen reference photo, since I took those in October and I wanted this scene to depict June. Also, when I first painted the Queen Anne's Lace flowers in the foreground, they were too white against the green grasses. I didn't want to let them take emphasis away from the Volkswagen, so I glazed over the blossoms with transparent green and yellow tones to dull down the flowers, remembering the brightest brights belong on the focal point. I probably put more detail into the barn than I should have, since it's off in the background, but I was having too much fun to stop!

Voila - the debut of "Red Bug," right at the same time the Queen Anne's Lace is blooming all around me... and the red bugs are biting!

June: Small World


I was flattered recently when my friend Charles said that my artwork reminds him of the work of Andrew Wyeth - wow, one of the artists I most admire! If you are not familiar with the three generations of the Wyeth family of painters, they are foremost among American artists. N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), father of Andrew, was a highly successful artist and illustrator, creating over 3000 paintings, illustrating 112 books, painting historical murals for noted public buildings, and supporting his family with his commercial art work and commissions. Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and his siblings grew up mentored by their father and stimulated by his art, his collections of props, costumes and artifacts, and his visits from other creative artists of the day, such as writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and actress Lillian Gish. Andrew, the youngest child, began many years of intensive art training with his father when he was 15. His first one-man gallery show in New York in 1937 brought him acclaim. Andrew's most famous early work was "Christina's World" (1948), which depicted his Maine neighbor Christina Olson, who was paralyzed from polio, shown sprawled in a pasture, pulling herself back toward the distant farmhouse where she lived with her brother Alvaro. Andrew Wyeth's art career was given a boost when the painting was quickly acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, and it since has become an American icon. Andrew's son Jamie (b. 1946) established himself in the art world at a young age; his success in portraiture resulted in a portrait of President John Kennedy when Jamie was in his early 20s. Andrew's sisters, brothers-in-law, and nieces and nephews have had successful art careers as well.

In response to Charles' compliment, I told him the story of how my artwork became connected with the Wyeth family. It's a story I've shared often, but never recorded it, so I'm taking this opportunity to do so.

Rick and I were visiting our good friends Becky and Bob in Maine in May 2001. Their summer place was not far from Cushing, Maine, and they suggested a day trip to the Farnsworth Museum, which had an extensive collection of Wyeth family art, and to the museum-operated Olson House, the setting of many of Andrew's paintings. I had previously attended two fabulous museum shows of his work which left me in awe of the detail and emotion he incorporated as well as of his mastery of watercolor and egg tempera.

While at the Olson House, we had the good fortune to learn about the artist and his work by the curator, 88-year old Dudley Rockwell. He introduced himself as brother-in-law to Andrew Wyeth (their wives were sisters, so the men had been friends and relations since their courting days). We learned that Andrew Wyeth had divided his time between his birthplace in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and this area of Maine where his wife's family had a home. Andrew had spent 3 decades producing about 300 works of art with the Olsons and their home as subjects. Mr. Rockwell was a colorful character; he had had a successful career as president of a company in Connecticut which his father, an inventor, had started. In his retirement, Mr. Rockwell seemed to relish an air of an "old salt" character, sharing interesting and personalized stories of Andrew Wyeth, laced with his great sense of humor. As he lead us through the house, he would point out spots where Andrew had painted and vantage points which had inspired his artwork, such as the window where he had viewed Christina in the field. I asked Mr. Rockwell if he would mind if I photographed him as we toured the house together; I had been wanting to do a 'character' painting and I could tell he would be an interesting subject. He graciously allowed my photographs. We had a lovely visit, ending with a relaxing one-on-one chat with Mr. Rockwell on a bench outside the house.

Back home in Florida, as soon as I reviewed my photos I was inspired to paint Mr. Rockwell seated in the Olson's kitchen, in a rocking chair next to a window of geraniums. I was familiar with Andrew Wyeth's paintings showing the same room. Right away I completed a watercolor painting which I titled "Dudley Within Christina's World" and posted a photo of it in my online gallery.

Fast forward a couple of years.... one day I received an email from a woman from New Hampshire named Ruth. She said her husband had been doing an internet search for his grandfather, Dudley Rockwell, and my painting came up in the search results. She said they loved the painting and the way it captured Dudley so well. I responded to Ruth that I had the original painting available for purchase. Our email exchanges continued; she said she was a teacher and her husband James worked for a printer and they were raising young daughters Rachel and Emma - circumstances which didn't leave much extra money for purchases like fine art. I told Ruth I fully understood; years earlier I had been an art teacher as well as an employee of a print shop (where I first learned commercial art), also in New Hampshire, and my income had been nothing to brag about at the time! She asked where I taught and my reply included my final teaching stint, for grades 7-12 in Bristol, NH. Ruth sent me another note right away. She said she had read my email and quickly fetched her junior high yearbook, discovering that I had been her art teacher! What a small world. Long story short, I priced the painting to make it affordable to Ruth and James and I will always be honored to have it in their home. It's my little claim to fame to have a connection to the Wyeth family.

Over the years, Ruth and I have continued our exchanges and she has shared some interesting stories. When her family went to Dudley's 90th birthday celebration she wrote:
"There were a few hundred people at the party.  It was pretty informal - people came and went.  A tent was set up on the field near the Olson House (right where Christina sat in the painting) and he soaked up all the attention he got. For days after he was still smiling and adding up all of the people who were there…. I was trying to take a picture of Dud and Busy Bee (his wife) as they sat in their guest-of-honor chairs, and I was interrupted by this man leaning over and talking to Dud. I just sort of sighed and thought, 'Get out of the way, buddy!' Then I realized that those skinny legs looked vaguely familiar. I remembered who owned those legs, too. I had been anxiously waiting for Andrew Wyeth to get his butt out of my picture! Needless to say, I didn't mind him standing there after that. In fact, I ended up having the PERFECT spot because he and his wife Betsy stood right there facing me during all the speeches and I was clicking away like crazy!!!!"
     "What the Farnsworth [Museum] ended up doing for Dud was wonderful. First of all they gave him lifetime membership (he was very happy - he had been complaining about the fact that the annual fee was going from $65 to $85 a year!) and then they told him that they're raising $1 million in his name. That will go toward funding a curator to oversee the Olson House in his stead (his big concern was that once he was gone no one would have the interest in keeping it going like he has).... he's thrilled to pieces about it!"

Dudley Rockwell died on October 1, 2006, at the age of 93. Up until 2 weeks before his death he still went to the Olson House and presented his lecture on a regular basis, drove himself around town, enjoyed life with his wife, spent time in his workshop, and loved doing crosswords and watching Jeopardy. He was buried in a coffin which he built himself, inscribed with the words 'Handmade by Occupant.'

I am grateful for my memories of a sunny afternoon in May, walking in the steps of Andrew Wyeth, sitting on a bench by the flowering lilacs outside the Olson House, and chatting casually with Dudley Rockwell.