Thursday, January 28, 2010

Picture Perfect?

Photography is a wonderful and useful creative vehicle. As an art form, it can be emotionally expressive, intellectually provocative, brutal in its realism or as freely abstract as any painting. In its illustrative use in journalism, a good photograph brings a deeper understanding to the story being told. On a personal level, cameras have become a necessity. It's hard to imagine a time when all of the important (and many of the mundane) events of our lives were not documented by photography.
I have something of a love-hate relationship with my camera. As an oil painter trained to work exclusively from life, I have a hard time with the use of photos as reference material. No, I don't think it's cheating to work from a photo- far from it. It is often far more difficult to work from a photo than it is to work directly from life. The reason for this mainly has to do with the "flattened" perspective of photos, distortion from the lens, and from a painters point of view, the lack of a full range of values (light and shadow) and colours.
I didn't use reference photos until I began painting horses for a living, and then did so out of necessity. You can set up a still life and paint it at your leisure until it collects dust or rots. You can mark the pose of a model with chalk or masking tape so that the pose can be resumed at the next sitting. As for painting a landscape, true the clouds and light do move, but at least the movement of the light is predictable and if the clouds aren't totally accurate, no one will be the wiser. Horses, indeed all animals, are another matter. I painted one horse portrait from life, early on in my career. Once was enough.
Above is the reference photo for a dog portrait I recently finished. The car, road, disembodied pants, misplaced shadow and slightly washed out colour all have to be dealt with to make a successful painting. Also, going from photo to painting, I have to take extra care to control my edges. By "edges" what I mean is the area of a painting where an object meets another object or where it meets the background. Too much sharp focus and crisp edges will make the dog look superimposed. Not enough crispness and the focal point of the painting won't look distinct enough. It's something of a balance.


Portrait of Sam 8x10 oil on panel ©Alyson Champ

I am fortunate to have some friends who are hugely talented photographers. If you want to see some really excellent photos, I encourage you to check out the work of: Phil Norton, Tracy Martin, and Brenda Castonguay .


Friday, January 15, 2010

Tangled Up in Blue

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way -things I had no words for. Georgia O'Keeffe

Photo ©Alyson Champ

I know that music is often spoken of as the language of the emotions, but what of colour? Colour psychology, which is a relatively new discipline with roots in ancient eastern medicine, tells us that colour has a profound effect on mood: the power to calm or to stimulate. Colours in the red/orange family are thought to be active and exciting colours. The blues and greens of the spectrum are soothing and passive. Factual neurological evidence aside, here in the West, we do certainly have strong, long-held associations of colours with particular concepts. For example, the colour red is associated with courage and sacrifice, but also love, passion, and appetite. Red is a favourite colour for restaurant interiors for that very reason. A bright sunny yellow is frequently called the colour of the intellect; green the colour of youth, nature, and life; purple the colour of nobility and wisdom; black the colour of mourning; white symbolizes the pristine and virginal; and when we hear someone singing the blues, we know exactly what that means, don't we?

I'm writing about the impact and meaning of colour because I find myself at something of a turning point in my artwork. Having been an oil painter for more than twenty years, I am increasingly drawn to collage making as my primary means of artistic expression. Obviously this has necessitated some changes in my materials, most notably my switch from oil to acrylic paint.

As a painter, I never learned to love acrylics because they seemed to lack the richness and luminosity of oils. Acrylic colours always looked "plastic" and gaudy to my eye, like a cheap imitation of the real thing. But collage making has caused me to revise that opinion. Oil paint just doesn't work for the type of collages that I want to make. I experimented with watercolour but didn't like that either. Finally, I started fooling around with some tubes of acrylics, and guess what? It was a perfect fit.

Apart from the convenience of water solubility and the fact that you can apply acrylic directly to paper without any primer, I find that the quality of saturated, intense colour, which was the original reason that I hated acrylic paint as a painter, is the virtue I have most come to love in it as a collage artist. And the variety of colours available! It boggles the mind. I have become hooked on phthalocyanine blue and quinacridone violets. What the heck are they? Have a look below.
Purple Iris - 20x24 painted paper collage mounted on canvas
©Alyson Champ


This is the latest in my Iris collage series. For this one I moved away from strong colour contrasts of the previous flower collages, and have opted for a more analogous blue/violet palette, with the exception of the small punctuations of yellow and orange. I wanted the flower to have the appearance of emerging from its background and to make the picture so lush and rich in colour that viewer could just sink into it. Here's a detail:
Purple Iris detail ©Alyson Champ
So, what's the verdict? Soothing, calming, peaceful? I think so. I hope you are getting a little bit of what I felt as I watched the blue pigment soak into the white paper which was just, "...oh my....".