Sunday, April 21, 2013

VIDEO - plein air landscape in oils

With scattered cloud hanging around on Friday, I headed back out to Barrow Road, where I completed a grey-day plein air landscape last week. I was planning to paint the view from the opposite side of the road and hoped for some sunlight and shadows this time. I got both.

Here's this week's painting.

plein air landscape in oils by Andy Dolphin
 (Barrow Road. Plein air sketch. 30x25cm oil on board. © Andy Dolphin)

I decided to try something different this time, and set up a camera on a tripod to capture video of my progress.

As a result, I've spent the weekend getting a crash course in Adobe Premiere Pro from my son. I think I've spent around 20 times longer editing the video as I spent doing the painting. But I'm super-pleased with the result.

So here you go. It's nine minutes long so make sure you've got a cup of tea handy. Sit back and relax.

NOTE: You can watch it here on the blog but I'd recommend going to Youtube and viewing it at full size.

I didn't take a final location photo of the painting, but I think the video gives a reasonable idea that it probably was painted on site :)

I have to give thanks to Kevin MacLeod, who offers hundreds of royalty-free music tracks on his Incompotech website.

Let me know what you think.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Rural road - plein air landscape in oil

Despite some less-than-spectacular weather, I have actually been doing some painting among all my grumbling about the Great Southern Art Award.

Last weekend, with grey skies from horizon to horizon, I went for an aimless drive down some of the farming roads around here.

I found a pleasant little spot where I could park well off the road and safely stand to paint. So that's what I did.

One advantage of grey skies is that the light doesn't change as drastically as it does on clear days, so you can take your time getting things right. One disadvantage of grey skies is that the light doesn't change as drastically as it does on clear days, so you tend to take your time and lose some of the spontaneity that occurs in faster paintings.

Since I almost never paint on grey days, I used this as another opportunity to see if I could change that habit. I  spent around two hours on this one I think. I lost track of time and had to stop for a while as a farmer drove his sheep across the road right in front of me. Plus the scene disappeared every 15 minutes or so as cars and trucks went past, filling the air with dust.

plein air landscape in oil by andy dolphin
(Rural road. Plein air sketch. 30x25cm oil on board. © Andy Dolphin)

Sorry, I didn't get a location shot.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Art controversy follow-up

Withdrawn in protest:
Jason Wooldridge's popular whale sculpture

The saga surrounding the controversial decision not to award a prize in the 3D category of the Great Southern Art Award continues.

Two artists with entries in that category have spoken out publicly. One of them has withdrawn his entry from the exhibition in protest, three weeks before the exhibition closes.

In a comment on Facebook, sculptor Jason Wooldridge wrote "I was insulted personally but also felt it was an affront to all applicants. The organisers had not considered the possible damage to the reputation of artists who are trying to make a way in this fickle business, a business that is hard enough already without 'experts' telling the public that your work is no good."

On his decision to withdraw his magnificent whale sculpture from the exhibition, Jason added "I had asked them just to withdraw it from sale, but they dug their heels in and said that I would have to remove i did."

Seemingly confirming my suspicion that controversy does not attract artists to competitions, local sculptor Melaine McQuillan wrote "Apparently the judge thought that not awarding the prize would 'encourage a broader approach' what a laugh! I used to be a regular entrant.. I guess I need say no more."
I have avoided the Albany exhibition myself for the last few years – partly due to lighting issues in the old venue (my paintings do not mix with mercury vapour lamps) and partly due to the controversial history of the event. I have sent my works over 200km to a different exhibition instead. With a much better venue for this year's exhibition, I decided to give it another go but I may rethink that decision next year if controversy remains the order of the day.

As an aside, here's an example of the work produced by one of the judges, Philip Gamblen, apparently the person who ultimately made the decision to award no 3D prize. (the picture is from and is reproduced here for purposes of critique and commentary)

In a wonderful example of art speak, the comment accompanying the above image is...

"Thermal Lift is a scaled down miniature domestic ceiling fan, activated by a hand-crank. Like much of is [sic] work, this piece which is suspended just above head-height, creates a sensorial response to both architectural spaces and the natural environment in which we live."

I'm sure it does – although, from the photo, it looks like it's just a small ceiling fan hanging outdoors. I guess it's a case of "juxtaposition".

What's flabbergasting to me is that the person who produces and sells something like this as art, and perhaps it is since a photo tells us little, cannot find a prize-worthy entry among any of the quality pieces on exhibit in Albany right now.

I believe the organisers should think more carefully about their choice of judges next year and decide if they want controversy or credibility. If they want the exhibition to be respected, they have to show some respect to artists who make the exhibition. Without them, it's nothing.

Controversy, in my opinion, is not a winning formula.

Controversy in Great Southern Art Award
Why art speak annoys me

Friday, April 5, 2013

Pine and Vines - plein air oil landscape

This is a spot about 8km from home. The massive pine tree has caught my eye before but not when I've had time to stop and paint.

plein air landscape vineyard by Andy Dolphin
(Pine and vines. Plein air sketch. 20x30cm oil on board. © Andy Dolphin)

Lots of greens always means lots of "fun". It's a real challenge to differentiate all the tones and temperatures when you're standing before a scene like this.

I started around 2pm with the sun sitting high in a clear blue sky, so almost everything was in the sunlight. But things were ever-so-slightly back-lit and it's obvious the vines are darker than the grass and, with enough staring and squinting, they start to look warmer too. So the green for the paddocks and the grass between the vines gets more blue mixed into it. To push the warm-cool contrast still further, the vines get more yellow and even a little red mixed into their green.

Here's the location shot...

location plein air landscape vineyard by Andy Dolphin

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Of objects, juxtaposition and making a mark

When I began this blog I resolved to stay away from controversial issues. But it's not in my nature to bite my lip. The dam might finally have busted.

Consider this a follow-up to my article on controversy in art. It is, in that regard, my second contribution to the controversy which was invited at the City of Albany's Great Southern Art Award.

I've never been much of a fan of the pompous, pseudo-intellectual gobbledegook known as "art speak", or what has now apparently been re-branded as "International Art English", a label which itself reads like nonsense.

As a pursuit with a long history and many different approaches, media and techniques, there's no doubt that art needs its own subset of the language. Genre labels such as impressionism and expressionism make sense in conversations about the art world. Terms like intaglio, chiaroscuro and plein air, while possibly sounding elitist to "outsiders", are a useful shorthand in communication between artists.

But art speak is something different. It doesn't appear to be about communication so much as obfuscation. At its worst, art speak comes across as decidedly elitist – almost as if the very point of using it is to elevate the perpetrator above the supposedly ignorant masses. The in-crowd and wannabes nod knowingly as the art critic waxes lyrical about a blank canvas, while the masses wonder if the artist will ever get around to starting the piece.

What is art speak?

I used to joke that you weren't a real art judge or art critic if you couldn't wedge the word juxtaposition into your commentary on some work.

Juxtaposing is nothing special, it just means to set things side-by-side. Good artists use careful juxtaposition to their advantage all the time, but while it's a legitimate tool in the artist's arsenal, outside of a certain corner of the art world who really uses it in public commentary?

Before I delve into examples of art speak, there are two particularly annoying snippets of it that drive me bananas.

The first is the apparent dismissal of artworks, even great works, as mere "objects". You might hear a critic refer to a particular painting as "a wonderful object", but is it really flattery? An object is essentially something that exists, something that has form, something tangible. So damned-near everything is an object in one sense or another. How is it remotely useful to describe an exhibition of beautiful paintings or sculptures as a collection of objects? It is pointlessly obtuse and no more instructive than calling them "things" or "stuff".

Next cab off the rank is the redefinition of painting to be simply "mark making". What is that even supposed to mean? Am I supposed to feel better knowing that when I'm tearing my hair out trying to get a painting to work that I am only making marks? Frankly, I'm insulted by it.

How does "mark making" differentiate art from any of the other myriad reasons why things, or objects, are painted, stained, coloured or otherwise defaced? Is a fingerprint taken by the police a piece of art? Is the original print the police discovered on a broken safe also art? What about the red wine stain on the carpet from the last office party – is that art too? From my perspective, painting is no more about mere mark making than music is about "sound making" or race-car driving is about "moving around". Not all movement is racing, not all sound is music and not all marks are art. The mark-making label is meaningless. It's gibberish.

In my opinion, the terms, "object" and "mark-making", diminish the efforts of artists and appear to be used so as to open the art world up to people who otherwise demonstrate very little artistic skill or expertise. As a result, Rothko's blurry brown rectangles are heralded as great art alongside, or more likely above, skillful, beautifully lit portraits by Rembrandt – they are, after all, both objective examples of marks that were made.

And that brings me to the most pervasively annoying forms of art speak - the artist statement and the art critique.

James Gurney showed us a very simple Artist Statement Generator in 2009. Used correctly, it will give you gems like:

"My recent work is an exploration of the irreducible act of mark-making which delves into the connectedness of the real and the abstract by mediating clich├ęs through a retro-nostalgic lens."

Simply beautiful, and so descriptive - oh, and "mark making!" Despite housing just 64 possible combinations of output, that boilerplate statement table really knows its stuff.

And of course, where there's an Artist Statement Generator there must surely be an Art Critique Phrase Generator. This handy little web-based tool will have you bamboozling the suburban class quicker than you can say...

"With regard to the issue of content, the disjunctive perturbation of the purity of line makes resonant the distinctive formal juxtapositions."

There you have it - "juxtaposition". It must be good.

With just 50 critique fragments to chose from (offering 100,000 possible combinations), this automated process delivers statements that are indistinguishable from the real thing. And because art speak critiques are so often entirely meaningless, the results of either the robot or the human art critic can be applied to almost any artwork, without even seeing it.

One of the favourite tools of the art speaker is self contradiction. They will begin their statement with one observation about an appreciated artwork, then suggest that this first observation demonstrates a contradictory idea. For example, an elite art critic might look at a splodge of paint on a torn piece of carpet and explain that "its apparent simplicity perfectly illustrates the complexity of the urban experience". It's simple, but it isn't really and its simplicity exposes its complexity. Or something.

I think we're supposed to be impressed by the idea that the critic is able to recognise the complex ideas embedded in what the rest of us might just see as a splodge of paint on a torn piece of carpet. In reality, such nonsensical remarks are like Forer statements in as much as they appear to say something specific while saying nothing useful. A similar technique is adopted in the writing of horoscopes.

To illustrate my point still further, here are a few snippets from the judges' comments at the "controversial" Great Southern Art Award. Remember, these are real comments, read out and posted at a community award, and not made up by me, and not the results of a java-scripted joke website.

Please note that I am not passing judgement on the artworks themselves, many of which I admire for various reasons, and I imagine some of the award recipients were as bemused by the art speak as I was. 
  • We enjoyed the use of hand written notes suggesting thoughts that give a strong sense of spontaneity.
  • It has a sketchbook-like quality but with the depth and surface quality of a resolved work.
  • This work speaks of process and the meticulous labour that has made it successful.
  • An intriguing observation of a luscious surface, captured perfectly the layering of paint to evoke a painterly effect. 
  • This work has simple abstract forms that suggest complex seascapes and landscapes, hidden in what appears to be an uncomplicated process.
  • Hidden within layers, other worlds reveal themselves and surprise the viewer. 
  • The successful depiction of these observations is revealed upon closer inspection and the more time spent with these works makes for a more rewarding experience. 
  • We enjoy the hands-on approach to pushing the material into another form.
  • Leaving the work unframed makes the work more accessible.  
  • This work is brave in its simplicity.  
  • Removing the reflection of one’s self speaks volumes.
I think my favourites are those that exemplify the self-contradiction rule in art speak – "a sketchbook-like quality but with the depth and surface quality of a resolved work" and "simple abstract forms that suggest complex seascapes...hidden uncomplicated process. ". But making an artwork more accessible by not framing it is pretty good too. I try to make my paintings "accessible" by hanging them where people can see them.

Now, it could be argued that I have cherry-picked these and published them out of context, and it's a charge I'll wear. But I was there when the full statements were read out and, even in context and without cherry picking, they were still art speak and still largely meaningless.

Several of the statements, like "the hands-on approach", are so generic they make no real sense even when you stand before the works they're apparently describing. Apart, perhaps, from entries in the photography section, I'm pretty sure hands were well and truly involved in making of almost all the artworks on display in that exhibition.

Next time you read an art critique or judge's comments, see if you can really understand what they're saying or if their comments are like Jabberwocky, and you just feel like you know what they mean.

Easter weekend plein air

I managed to get out and painting a couple of times over the Easter long weekend.

My first plein air piece was a super-fast oil sketch of a karri tree nestled in a jarrah grove. I've noticed this spot several times in my travels and there was just enough room to park the car off the road and to set up the easel safely.

It was late afternoon, the light disappeared quickly and I only had about 15 minutes of painting time. Things didn't go exactly to plan but I did get the major idea worked out. I messed with it back in the studio and got this...

(Karri by a fence. Plein air sketch. 25x30cm oil on board. © Andy Dolphin)

I don't usually use a palette knife for painting but I decided to give it a go here as I had nothing much to lose and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I'm pretty pleased with the result.

On Monday I took a drive around Mt Lindesay, near Denmark. I'd hoped to find an interesting view of the mountain but it wasn't to be. Instead, I ended up on Scotsdale Road, an amazingly picturesque scenic drive, and saw some grazing cows silhouetted against the evening light streaking across a distant paddock.

I knew I faced two main problems if I was going to do a painting here.
  1. The cows wouldn't hang around forever.
  2. The sun wouldn't hang around forever either.
To help alleviate both problems, and to see if I could find the interesting shapes, I knocked out a quick thumbnail sketch.

I worked on the painting for about 40 minutes before the sun set.

 (Scotsdale cattle. Plein air sketch. 25x30cm oil on board. © Andy Dolphin)

It was a bit of a battle because we've had some good autumn rain and the paddocks have all turned electric green. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in not being a fan of green in paintings. Note, however, that there was no green pigment on my palette. All greens were mixed from combinations of cerulean, ultramarine, cad yellows and crimson. That's one way of dealing with the green demon.

This one had very little done to it in the studio and I think I've got enough here to help develop a larger painting in the future.

Light and shadow

I took this photo on the Easter weekend.

The light and shadow make interestingly interlocked patterns.

But what's casting the shadow?