Decisions, Decisions... Deciding What to Work on Next

by JoAnn Frekot

I asked my OT Artists studio mates how they decide what they're going to work on next.  Four of us compared notes, and it turns out, we each approach this topic differently.  Here are thoughts from Katharine Gotham, Christine Tierney, Pat Cleary and me.  

Katharine Gotham

The first thing that determines what I'll paint next is the calendar.  Warm weather months are all about plein air painting for me, and chilly months are for being cozy in the studio doing still-life subjects.  I settled on this pattern a few years ago as a way to accommodate my aversion to painting outside in the bitter cold and a way to consistently work from life instead of relying on photographs.  
(Untitled Still Life, Oil, Katharine Gotham) 

For either plein air or still life, my mission often originates from a flop.  I paint something and think "I can do better than that!" Last summer I was focused on improving my open deciduous trees silhouetted against the sky and hunted them down whenever I painted. For my current still-life series, I am working on incorporating patterned fabrics in the background.  My still-life backgrounds often seem dull and uninspired so I decided to pull out some of my favorite fabrics and incorporate them in my paintings. Having my jumping off point originate from a flop always reminds me that I shouldn't be afraid to try new things and make the mistakes that inevitably will come.    (Untitled Plein Air, Oil, Katharine Gotham)

Christine Tierney

I really don't have a standard method of coming up with my next new painting. Often I am inspired by an object that has sentimental meaning, like my daughter's christening gown. At other times the subject, medium, and style are dictated by upcoming events - for example, if I know I will be traveling to a plein air event, I will focus on water, rocks, landscape and even architecture. If there is an event coming up that has a specific theme (a floral exhibit, or maybe still life) I will work on those subjects. With the theme set, all I need to do is select my props and decide on size, format, style and medium.  (Heirloom, Christine Tierney)

Whenever I am out and about, I’m constantly noticing interesting shapes. I’m really drawn to lights and shadows. While I prefer to paint from life, my iPhone takes great reference photos.  Of course the beauty of digital photos is that you’re not burning up film and processing costs; if the no good, just delete it. So when looking for new inspiration I review my photos and revisit the

photo files on my iMac, cropping and playing with format. I set up a folder on my desktop and drop interesting images into that file. Then I print out several and keep them in a file at my studio. Some are recent, others I’ve had mulling around in my head for several years. When I’m looking for painting ideas I lay them out to review and choose one to be the next Tierney painting!   
("Last Night," Pastel, Christine Tierney)

JoAnn Frekot

I know that for me, it comes down to a subconscious "pull" towards a subject or scene.  In general, I know:  I love working with light and shadow.  I'm a sucker for scenes with paths leading somewhere.  Plants and nature call to me.  I am intrigued with using color to convey a feeling or mood. 

For a while, when I was taking a break from watercolors, I felt compelled to work in black and white pencil on tan paper, rendering closeups of mushrooms and flowering plants.  Why?  

Well, a few summers ago, I went to Wet Paint's sidewalk sale, and a pad of tan drawing paper practically begged me to buy it.  I brought it home and put it in my closet stash.  

Fast forward to my leave of absence from watercolor.  Perusing through my stash, I came across that pad of paper, and my vague question about what I was going to work on next was answered. The ideas for drawings just kept coming.  In contrast to watercolor, I was able to render some very specific detail with a small number of values and a very limited palette.  It felt like I was re-balancing my brain.    ("Turkey Tail Mushroom," Colored Pencil, JoAnn Frekot)

Eight pieces later, I'd gotten the "black and white thing" out of my system, at least for now, and it was time to move on...back to watercolor, but also to painting with acrylics. 

I'm currently working on a series of acrylic floral paintings.  Why?  I try to listen to my subconscious and pay attention to that "pull," and this feels like what I need to do right now.  I find that responding to the invitation to "paint this" leads me to my next project.  I continue to learn a lot along the way, whether or not the eventual painting is what I was hoping for.   ("Rose Bushes," Acrylic, JoAnn Frekot) 

Pat Cleary

My appreciation of form and lines that meander began when I was in grad school. In the lab I'd test
ideas, sometimes a mental image of a protein bound to a gene or the physical impact of a gene on a virus or bacterial cell. As I explored those images experimentally, I began to realize that cutting a figure out of a block of wood that represented something I saw in my mind eye was actually similar to doing science. I was never certain what would emerge from either activity, and in both mistakes and unexpected problems influence the outcome

("Hold Me," Pat Cleary, 1969).

Painting dancers, another activity that stirs my soul, proved be a faster and more forgiving means to explore form and lines and to create an image with movement. I once asked an artist friend in our group about color, “Pat it depends on what you feel”. The meaning of expressionism has long been debated: does a painting reflect what the artist feels while laying down paint or is it intended to produce an expression or emotion among the viewers. I am not sure, but I believe my work is an attempt to tell a story, to produce a question or emotion in the viewer, rather than reflect something I feel while painting. I still look for interesting lines and movement, but have branched out some to sunsets, and portraits of children from my travels.


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