Friday, March 29, 2013

Controversy in art awards - a good thing?

Who decided the art world must be constantly embroiled in controversy in order to survive? 

It is with some trepidation that I write this article, as my meaning can so easily be misconstrued. But I'll be as careful as I can and give it a go anyway.

I recently attended the opening ceremony and presentation evening of the Great Southern Art Award, in Albany. The venue for the event, the Vancouver Art Centre, is beautiful. The exhibition is well hung, well lit (mostly) and looks great. As is usually the case in open competitions, the work on display crosses the gamut from expressionist to realist, "traditional" to "modern" and from relative beginner to professional.

Before going further, I should disclose that I have an entry in the exhibition and that I did not win a prize but that's not what I'm writing about. It is, however, why I'm approaching this with trepidation.

During the opening speeches, one official commented that the judges' choices were likely to be controversial. She added that this was a good thing because controversy means that "people are talking about art".

From Duchamp's urinal to Mapplethorpe's explicitly homo-erotic photographs, the "art world" is no stranger to controversy and there's no doubt some of these controversies generate a lot of public conversation. And for major art events such as Australia's Archibald Prize, which is no stranger to controversy, the resulting conversation may well serve to increase public awareness.

So is controversy always a good thing?

To paraphrase a comment by a friend, should we bulldoze native forests because the resultant controversy would get people talking about conservation?

While there will always be questions about pieces selected for prizes (I refuse to dismiss art as mere "objects" as has become the fad), perhaps the biggest controversy from the local art award I attended will be that the two highly-credentialled judges decided not to award a prize in one of the categories. Although I'm aware that some competitions have a "no prize" clause, this is the first time I've seen it invoked and I would usually expect it to apply only if there were too-few entries or if the entries were seriously sub-standard.

I don't have the exact wording of the judges' comments about that category but at the time, I distilled them down to "you all need to try harder". Had I entered that category I would likely have been deeply offended and this would be a very different article, written with no trepidation at all. I might add that the entry form for this particular event does not appear to include a "no prize" clause.

To be clear, the question for me is not whether prizes should go to abstract or representational art, as I long ago accepted that it is subjective and not everyone thinks or sees like I do – and just as well because the world would be a boring place indeed if all art looked the same. My question is whether the conversation that results from controversy is necessarily a good thing for art at all.

Do we have to be cruel to be kind?

Can we assume that any publicity is good publicity, especially in this social-media-age where public commentary can be swift and fierce and have even major corporations back pedalling in an effort to pull themselves out of a controversial mire. Of course, if you're big enough, you'll probably ride the storm until it passes.

Controversial competitions:

Some competitions have a long history of awarding prizes that may be considered controversial outside of a small section of the art world. These awards can draw the ire of the viewing public and may well generate conversation, including letters to the media. But does the controversy elevate art in the community or devalue it?

In the past I have avoided some art competitions simply because they seem to court controversy or, at the very least, to discourage representational artists. Regardless of style or genre, I wonder how many of those artists who had entries in the non-awarded category in the local event will bother to enter the same competition in the future after being told, explicitly, they aren't good enough.

As an artist, there's little point paying entry fees to competitions that you have no genuine chance of competing in because you paint in a non-confronting style. Not only are you unlikely to take home a prize, but these competitions are less likely to attract buyers of your type of work. People who look for beauty and majesty in art aren't being attracted to controversial exhibitions, they're being turned off by them.

Where are we headed?

Perhaps the biggest concern for me is that the "controversy is good" mantra is self-perpetuating. When controversy is considered important, each exhibition must strive to be a bit more bizarre than the last. Over time, it becomes less and less about art and more and more about controversy until, finally, we end up with Piss Christ.

Let me finish by saying that I am open to disagreement. If you strongly disagree with me and think that controversy really is the foundation of art, then by all means accept my commentary as a part of the conversation that this "controversy" has generated and welcome it, therefore, as a positive contribution to that foundation – in which case, I guess, you really don't disagree with me at all :)


Art Controversy Follow-up
ArtSpeak - making a mark

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Plein air clouds in oil

I headed back down to the coast today, hoping the heavy cloud would clear. It didn't.

I tossed up whether to paint a seascape despite the lack of sunlight but it just wasn't inspiring. However, looking out  to the horizon, from a high vantage point above Lowlands Beach, I did find some interest in the large cumulus clouds. So I decided to paint them instead.

Plein air clouds painting in oils by Andy Dophin
(Lowlands Clounds. Plein air sketch. 20x30cm oil on board. © Andy Dolphin)

Since I almost never paint plein air clouds in any amount of detail, I treated this as an exercise.

Clouds are constantly changing and you may not realise just how fast they change until you try to paint them. Each time you look up, the bit you were just painting is different. It could be a different shape or size or it could change from sunlit to shaded, or vice versa. It might even disappear completely, either through evaporation or being hidden behind another cloud.

To deal with the changes, a lot of commitment occurs in the very first brushstrokes. I laid down a quick outline of the major cloud mass then quickly blocked in some shadow areas, leaving the sunlit areas untouched. I threw the ocean in as a thin wash, just to hide the primed board, then painted the hazy area between the base of the clouds and the horizon. By now the clouds shapes had all changed dramatically. Sticking with my initial layout, I added the clear sky area, sculpting it around the clouds. Then I added the highlight area.

With the main areas laid in, I looked along the horizon for banks of cloud with similar shapes to those in my painting and used these as a guide for modelling my light and shadow masses.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lone Karri - plein air landscape revisited

Karri tree. Plein air landscape oil painting by Andy Dolphin.
Lone Karri. 
Plein air sketch. 25x30cm oil on board. 
© Andy Dolphin

I took another look at the plein air painting of a Karri tree that I did last weekend. The original painting is shown above. As always, click the image for a bigger view.

I mentioned at the time that I wanted to adjust a few things and here's the revised picture.

Karri tree. Plein air landscape oil painting by Andy Dolphin.
Lone Karri. 
Plein air sketch. 25x30cm oil on board. 
© Andy Dolphin

I gave the original picture a light coating of alkyd medium and rubbed it in with a lint-free cloth. This brings back some of the gloss that is lost when the paint dries, making it easier to colour-match. It also provides a better surface for retouching as the brush will slide easier over the wet medium and the new paint edges can be blended more easily.

There were three principal things I wanted to achieve.
  1. Enhance overall brightness and warmth
  2. More separation between foreground and background
  3. Fix some minor compositional problems
I began by adding more warmth to the lightest part of the sky and, using this as a starting point, lightened and brightened the distant hills and tree line. At the same time, I adjusted the large background tree to give it a better shape and stop it "kissing" the foreground tree.

I made minor adjustments to the light and shadow in the canopy of the main tree. I was trying not to get too fidgety here - always a risk.

The original plein air work was completed with a very limited palette or ultramarine, permanent crimson, burnt sienna and yellow ochre. In hindsight, I felt this one needed more saturated colour as we are just at the start of autumn and it was a very warm, clear day. So in the studio I added cad yellow deep, cad scarlet and permanent crimson to the palette. It only took a little of these colours, mixed with the three original colours, to add the vibrancy I needed in the foreground grass and the warm reflected light on the tree trunk and branches.

The warmth in the tree trunk not only helps to separate it from the cool atmospheric hill in the background, but also better depicts the reality of the scene on the day. The original painting, by comparison, now looks like it was painted on an overcast day.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Plein Air Magazine

Mid-last year I subscribed to Plein Air Magazine after seeing it mentioned on a couple of blogs written by respected artists. I didn't want to mention it here until I'd received a few issues and determined if it was a product I'd want to recommend.

Having just received my fourth issue, I think I can make that recommendation now.

As magazine subscriptions go, this one is pretty cheap with an international price of US$74.98 a year, including postage, for six editions of the print version. Savings are available for two- and three-year subscriptions. Note that US subscriptions are much, much cheaper still.

There is also a digital version of the magazine available. The publisher is responsible for organising a major plein air expo each year in the US and promotes and supports other events related to plein air painting.

Each issue of the magazine naturally features articles about plein air painters but also about collectors and sometimes a little art history. There's a fair bit of advertising but it is segregated to the front and back of the mag, leaving the middle for the stories. Many of the ads in the front section feature large reproductions of paintings by selected artists and are quite informative in themselves.

The magazine's website offers a lot of free content too, including a weekly email newsletter, and you don't need to be a subscriber to access it.

If you're interested in plein air painting, this might be the magazine for you.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Vale Derna Johnson

I have just received the incredibly sad news that my artist friend Derna Johnson has passed away after a long battle with illness.

Derna took me under her wing when I first decided to try my hand at fine art. She guided me toward exhibitions and galleries that she felt would assist me on my art journey. I often showed her some of my works for critique, before I exhibited them.

I wrote about our friendship and her mentoring in October 2010. She was a pocket rocket filled with ideas and the drive to see them through to reality. Bayswater's Ellis House, converted to a now-thriving community arts centre in 2003/04, is a prime example of her tenacity.

It was in 2010 that I received the news that Derna was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. She fought it like a trooper and when I saw her again, some six months later, she didn't look like she'd been sick at all. It appears that, rather than wallow in sickness, Derna took her own cancer as an opportunity to find ways to help other sufferers.

You can see some examples of Derna's blue wrens on the Boranup Gallery website.

Farewell Derna. You will be sadly missed across the art community.

Peter Watson Digital Caricature

In a battle that saw many of his Labor colleagues around the state tossed out of their seats, Albany MLA Peter Watson was returned to the job.

While many of the lost seats were previously considered safe, Watson's seat was extremely marginal. Despite this, the one-time Olympic runner managed to extend his lead this time around.

Here's a digital caricature of Watson that I drew for the Great Southern Weekender newspaper.

(Watson Wins! caricature - digital. 2900x4100px. © 2013, Andy Dolphin)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lone Karri - plein air landscape in oil

I headed down to Denmark on Friday to check out The Old Butter Factory.

The premises had operated as an art gallery for years until it closed down about two years ago. It has now re-opened as a cooperative art gallery featuring paintings and sculptures by a handful of Denmark artists. There's some beautiful work on view and you might even catch some sculpting in progress in the downstairs workshop.

If you're in Denmark (Western Australia), check it out.

After visiting the gallery, I took a drive out along Scottsdale Road and several other roads in the area that I just happened to turn down. The region from Denmark to Walpoloe is spectacular - and quite different to any other location in Western Australia.

Large rolling hills are a big part of what makes this area different but on top of this you get majestic karri trees and numerous creek lines. Roads wind their way through the farmlands and there is a lot of potential painting material along the way. The only difficulty is the lack of safe parking (or even standing room) exactly where you want it.

But I did eventually find a spot to park coupled with a view to paint. I wandered around for a while, checking out different vantage points before settling on one looking almost directly into the sun. The farms around here are bounded by mostly-remnant karri forest and most farms have old karris scattered throughout. This tree was set high on a hill, almost as if it was standing guard over the region. It was begging to be painted.

I completely forgot to take a location shot of the finished painting so you'll have to trust me that this is 100% plein air. Here's the painting as it stands.

Karri tree. Plein air landscape oil painting by Andy Dolphin.
(Lone Karri. Plein air sketch. 25x30cm oil on board. © Andy Dolphin)

Back in the studio, with the sun no longer threatening my retinas, I can see a few things that need adjusting to enhance and strengthen the overall composition. At the very least, it could use a bit of saturated warmth in the foreground. I may make the adjustments on the painting itself when it's dry enough, or I might use it as reference material for another painting.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Woolorama win!

Correction: The information I posted earlier was apparently incorrect. 

I've just been advised that my painting "Unndiup" has taken out the major prize at this year's Wagin Woolorama art exhibition.

This is a plein air painting of a gravel road near Torbay Inlet on the south coast. You can read a little bit about it at Unndiup: plein air landscape in oil.

Torbay plein air landscape painting in oil by Andy Dolphin
  Unndiup. Plein air sketch. 
25x35cm oil on board. © Andy Dolphin

I'll be at Woolorama tomorrow to check out the exhibition which has traditionally attracted some beautiful work from artists around the state.


Here I am with Natala King, coordinator of the Woolorama art exhibition.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Art and scams don't mix!

I received an email today asking about one of the artworks displayed on my old website gallery.

Hi there,
My name is Richard,im from phoenix,was browsing through the internet and my eyes caught this particular work(Emu Beach Path),will like to have it for my new apartment probably this month.please let me know if the piece is available and if yes let me have the detailed price and more information about it. i will be waiting to read from you.

The name of the sender on the email is "Richard _ "  (I won't give the full name used as it matches that of an actual artist and I'm certain he has no involvement in this whatsoever). The message repeats the claim that the sender's name is "Richard" - but the email address is which bears no resemblance to the sender's name

Scams of all kinds happen to be one of my pet hobbies, so at no point was I under any illusion that this was a genuine request. I've seen all this before and this one might just as well have had sirens and flashing lights attached because my brain said "ALERT!" before I'd even finished reading the subject line (which was simply "Artwork").

But people do fall for these scams so I've decided to comment on it as we need to shine a light on these things before someone we know is affected. Once you become involved with these criminals, it can be difficult to stop the process and the outcomes can be tragic.

The first thing I did upon receiving this email was to confirm my suspicions by doing a quick search for part of the text. In this case I copied and pasted "was browsing through the internet and my eyes caught this particular work" into Google and, sure enough, the first results are all scam alerts. If that didn't work, I'd try other snippets or the email address (which also works well in this case).

Scammers don't have the time or education to be particularly creative. They don't need to be because it's just a numbers game. They send out thousands of these emails with virtually the same text and often with the same sender name. Even when they change the supposed name of the sender, the email address is usually still the same and still bears no resemblance to the sender's claimed name. It's not particularly sophisticated but they only need one or two people to bite to make the scam worthwhile.

I should point out that the email I received might seem convincing because it actually does name an Emu Beach Path painting that is on my website. But anyone who's ever used mail merge for addressing letters or envelopes will be familiar with how this process works. In short, the computer fills in a blank space using titles selected from different sites for different email recipients. The computer most likely found all the information for the scammer too. The human scammer has likely never seen my website.

My search today not only confirmed that "Richard" is an inveterate and semi-literate scammer but that he seems to have trouble remembering his own name. Other people have received the exact same email offer from someone supposedly called Michael. Although Michael apparently has trouble spelling his own name in his copy, mistakenly calling himself "Micheal", the emails otherwise contain the very same poorly written text and have the same reply email address.

Whoever "they" are, "Richard" and "Michael" are almost certainly involved in a cheque overpayment scam.

So how does this scam work?
  • The scammer contacts you and offers to buy something.
  • You reply, accept the offer and set a price.
  • The scammer might want to organise freight themselves.
  • The scammer sends you a cheque for far more than your agreed price.
  • The scammer makes an excuse for overpayment.
  • The scammer asks you to return the excess funds by money transfer or...
  • The scammer asks you to transfer the excess funds to the freight company.
  • You refund or forward the overpayment (could be several thousand dollars).
  • You send the artwork.
  • The original cheque bounces.
  • You lose the artwork and several thousand dollars of your own money.
Individual cases may or may not involve a supposed freight company - the freight company is also the scammer by the way - or the overpayment might instead be explained as a mistake. Regardless, there will be some bizarre reason why you now have a cheque for a lot of money and another bizarre excuse for why you need to do something with that excess.

The conversations are likely to be surreal with the scammer explaining how unbelievably hectic their life is and how desperate they are to get this deal done urgently. They might go on to express their delight at dealing with you and their amazement at technology and the internet and sunshine and clouds and whatever else might make them seem sincere. Everything will be incredible and wonderful and you will be the best person in the world as you bring them great joy. They'll probably "bless you" too.

But at some point you will be asked to pay that excess money back.

Now, you could, maybe, cover yourself by doing nothing until the cheque has cleared but you won't win. You're dealing with criminals. At the very least, your own bank might hit you with a bounced cheque fee.

If you receive an offer that you suspect might be a scam you should always do a little "Google research" and if you're still not sure, there are websites like "Stop Art Scams" dedicated to throwing a spotlight on these criminals. And let's not forget that most governments in Australia have some sort of fair trading authority who are there to help with information on scams that are known to be doing the rounds. Some, like WA's ScamNet, even have mailing lists you can sign up to so you can receive regular scam news updates.

One of the simplest rules, it seems to me, is to never send any money to someone, or on behalf of someone, who is supposed to be sending you money.

Oops! I forgot to mention that had "Richard" actually looked at my online gallery, the only place where Emu Beach Path is featured, he would have seen that it was sold. Sorry to disappoint, Richard.

Art Scams

Oil and water don't mix!

Ever since I started painting, I've favoured scenes with sunlight and shadow. I love the hard contrasts of dark against light, warm against cool. And it's not that it makes painting easier, it just happens to be what catches my eye even when I'm not actively seeking out things to paint.

On the one or two occasions where I've painted on overcast days, the results have been less than spectacular.

And yet, I see other artists turn out beautiful paintings on what can best be described as dreary days. Their skies are grey, their landscape is grey, nothing is bright and shiny - but the end results of their efforts are very appealing.

With autumn here and the clouds already rolling in, I decided that this year I was going to push myself to paint outdoors on overcast days. With that in mind, I headed out to the coast yesterday afternoon to see if I could find some grey-day inspiration. I finally found something that looked promising and started to paint.

Ten minutes in, it started to rain. It wasn't cold so I just kept painting.

Here's the palette after about 20 minutes. The painting itself had almost as much water sloshing around on it.

Plein air oil painting in the rain. Palette.

Then it stopped raining for a while, before starting to rain again. "Oh, this is fun", I thought to myself.

It's actually lucky that oil ad water don't mix, otherwise my painting would have little more than a puddle on the shell-grit beach. As it was, the oil repels the water just enough to allow you to keep working. But it was messy and it took a bit of effort to get paint off the palette, onto the brush and then onto the painting.

Anyway, after a little over an hour, I ended up with something that shows promise. Here's the location shot taken just before the next lot of rain arrived.

Cloudy plein air seascape in oil by Andy Dolphin

And here's the finished piece. This quiet little beach offered an interesting shape, a range of textures and colours and some stark tonal contrasts even on this very cloudy day.

Cloudy plein air seascape in oil by Andy Dolphin
 Near Quaranup. 
Plein air sketch. 
30x25cm oil on board. 
© Andy Dolphin

I took this photo this morning. If you click to enlarge the pic, you'll see some dried-out rain drops are still there.

So, it's not fantastic but it is something. I'll mess with it a bit and see what I can salvage from it.

Misery in the studio

I liked my little plein air oil study of Misery Beach so much that I decided to do a bigger version in the studio.

I added a few extra colours to the palette for this one just to give me a few more options for playing warms against cools. One downside to a three-colour palette, like I used on the study, is that all colours, whether in light or in shadow, have to be mixed from the same base set. It delivers a level of unity to the finished painting but reduces the opportunity to reinforce contrasts.

So I added a cadmium yellow, cerulean blue and permanent crimson to the original ultramarine, burnt sienna and yellow ochre. The cad yellow would find itself added to most sunlit areas and the crimson gives me wonderfully purplish shadows on the sand.

Here's the main stages the painting went through. You'll notice that I gave the primed board a wash of yellow ochre before I started.

Misery Beach, Albany. Step by step seascape in oil by Andy Dolphin

Here's the "finished" piece.

Misery Beach, Albany. Seascape in oil by Andy Dolphin
 (Misery Beach Dunes. 48x35cm oil on board. © Andy Dolphin)

I'm not entirely convinced I'm finished with it just yet. Time will tell.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Art at Woolorama

 Wagin's giant ram. Photo from "Nachoman-au", Wikipedia.

If you live in southern Western Australia, or feel like a holiday, you should get to Wagin next weekend, March 8 and 9, for Woolorama.

Wagin is an historic country town situated somewhere left of almost nowhere (depending which direction you're travelling), though not quite as far away as the fabled Black Stump. To be more precise, it's east of Arthur River, south of Narrogin and north of Katanning. (Google map)

Woolorama is Wagin's annual agricultural show which has, as the name implies, a strong focus on woolly things - like sheep. It's on for two days, Friday and Saturday, and is a great day out for the family.

Best of all, Woolorama has an art exhibition, competition and sale and it always attracts art of a high standard of entries from around the state. If you don't care much for sheep, go for the art.

I'll be there on Saturday afternoon. I'll most likely be sitting watching (and listening to) someone playing guitar somewhere. There's always someone playing a guitar.

Maybe I'll see you there. I'll be the guy in the hat.

Seascape painting; Misery

It's not as bad as it sounds...

On Wednesday I headed down to Misery Beach, near Albany. I'm not sure how this gorgeous and secluded little beach got its name but one popular suggestion is that waste products from the nearby whaling station used to wash up here before the facility ceased operations in 1978.

Conditions were mostly overcast when I arrived but the sun did break through in short intervals every ten or fifteen minutes, or so. It was windy too!

It's been a long time since I've set up the easel on beach sand and it's always an interesting challenge. The legs have to be fully extended and pushed into the sand - because they're going to sink in anyway and you don't need that happening while you're painting. And you have to be careful not to get sand into everything when you're doing stuff you normally don't need to think about.

Oh, and don't drop a brush full of paint into the sand. It's a nuisance. I know because I did it. Luckily it was only my rigger so it was easy to clean. If you drop your main brush, you'll almost certainly end up spreading grains of sand across your painting unless you have a large jar of solvent you can rinse it out in.

Anyway, here's the location shot. I had to fold up the easel and lean it against a stair case because the wind was threatening to blow it over if I walked away while it was still set up.

Location. Misery Beach, Albany. Pleain air seascape in oil by Andy Dolphin

And here's the finished piece with no adjustments or additions made later.

Misery Beach, Albany. Pleain air seascape in oil by Andy Dolphin
 (Misery Beach. Plein air sketch. 30x25cm oil on board. © Andy Dolphin)

I used a very limited palette for this one to keep things simple. Because of the overcast conditions, I went for ultramarine, burnt sienna and yellow ochre. I chose these colours because the actual scene reminded me of one of the paintings in the "oil painting in different palettes" exercise I did last year.

It was mid-afternoon when I painted this. The key to it, and what attracted my attention, is the shadow being cast half-way down the face of the dune and the way this shadow-highlight line zig-zags into the scene.

One hour earlier that shadow wouldn't have been there at all. One hour later, as I was finishing, the shadow covered the whole face of the dune. Either case might still have offered the opportunity for  a satisfactory painting but each one would have a different feeling.