My Blog About Art

Painting Gimmicks March 26, 2017 18:05

I went up to Boston last month and visited the Museum of Fine Art. Although it is horribly difficult to find things there, something great about this museum is that it allows you to get very close to the paintings so that you can really examine the technique and learn. I wanted to see some paintings by Heade, but they are on tour, so I looked at various other things.

Some of them were Dutch still lifes, which I have enjoyed reading about and appreciated for their virtuousity. I did come to think of them as a bit gimmicky with their flashy trompe l'oeil stuff--plates overhanging tables and whatnot. But I certainly learned a lot about painting glass from looking at reproductions of these paintings. So I was happy to see they had some originals there.

But I was sure surprised when I saw that some of them featured way more gimmickry than I had ever imagined. For instance, at points where a glass was depicted as glinting with white paint, the artist had put globs of something clear, resin perhaps, that stood out from the canvas to catch the light and sparkle. Even more surprising, at least one painting showed the underneath of a fancy goblet which was painted over with some kind of varnish containing tiny gold sparkles. Good grief. More and more, I think of these paintings as visual jokes. 

I can't remember who was the artist, someone famous, in another section of the museum who had painted some military person wearing a coat covered in gold embroidery with a lot of fine lines. I got very close to examine how it was done and saw that the artist had used a thick gold metallic paint to make it stand out and shine as the real thing would. So in other words, glitz and gimmickry.

Then I came across a Rembrandt painting of a woman wearing a large gold chain. This was built up on the surface with gesso to create a 3D chain that was then painted over with real gold paint. "Gee whiz it looks so real!!!" Hell no.

I really hate this kind of thing in art. I like realism and even photorealism as long as it is not too glitzy (save me from the chrome reflections in trucks and diners, please), but IMO sparkle paint, clear globs on the canvas, and three-D modeling with gesso go beyond realism into the realm of cheap special effects. I was disappointed and will not think of these paintings in the same way anymore. They have moved from art to kitsch. I can really see now why they were so popular with the newly monied class.

For me, art is about interpreting reality, not reproducing it. I love learning technique, but geez. IMO, technique should be a tool, not a goal.

Gesso & Brushes January 24, 2017 09:31

I finished "Hope of Transformation." The original painting sold right away (yay!) but I have plenty of prints. I then went on to do "Love Spell," which was fun because of the bright colors. I used a very textured gesso layer on that one and found it was a bit harder to do much detail because of it. Should have known.

Poison Toad work in progress Harold Roth 2017I've been messing with gesso a lot. I love the smooth surface I get from using the clay scraper, but it is incredibly messy, so I decided to try applying it with rollers and then sanding. A foam roller made applying it a snap but left a very pebbly surface. I tried a mohair roller with a 1/4" nap next, which is supposed to leave a smooth surface. Not quite, although it left less of a texture. I also tried sanding between coats and sanding just at the end. The painting I'm working on now, "Poison Toad," I sanded just at the end. It's a pretty good texture for me. It's enough to grab the paint and counter brush strokes (I like to paint smooth) but not so much that it interferes with details, like the pebbly texture of the foam rollers did. So that's positive. The rollers also make it much easier to gesso up a wood panel, which is what I've been using in the Vessels series.

For several years now I've been using Escoda synthetic brushes, which I switched to while still painting with watercolor on the recommendation of a post in an art forum. I used very expensive Wiinsor & Newton Series 7 sable brushes all my painting life up until that point. Escoda Prado synthetics don't hold as much water, but wow do they ever hold a point. Once I changed over to acrylics, I began experimenting with brush shape and find that now I really like brights. For those who aren't familiar with brush terminology, these have a square shape rather than the rectangle of a flat. They are great for pushing paint around and for "smudging" it, which I like to do. I do wear them out quickly, so I tried Escoda's synthetic mongoose brushes (Modernista) when I began "Poison Toad." These are much stiffer and they are flats rather than brights, but they work pretty well for my technique. I ordered the smaller sizes to try for details.

I also decided to try Golden's Sandable Gesso, which is made for stiff surfaces like wood and panels. I like painting on wood boards, although they are 10% heavier than canvases, which means higher shipping, especially for the larger sizes. Because of that, I also sent for some GAC 400, a fabric stiffener, to use on the back of gessoed prepared canvas. This might make them stiff enough for me to feel more comfortable with. If not, I might go ahead and try stretching my own canvases and using the fabric stiffener on both sides before gessoing. This should make them very stiff. But I hope that a couple coats on the back with stiffener and the usual 6+ additional coats of gesso on the front will result in a canvas that is stiff enough. 

Almost finished with "Hope of Transformation" December 26, 2016 14:18

Hope of Transformation, work in progress, acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 24" by Harold Roth This painting has been harder than the last three or four. First, I've had so much to handle in my personal life for the past couple of weeks. But second, I've been having a very difficult time doing fine detail on some of my paintings. Last night I realized that I could remedy some of that issue by resting my entire forearm on the painting. Good thing I paint in acrylics so I can do that. It has really helped. But also good that this is a wood panel. Although I can rest the heel of my hand on a canvas, resting my whole forearm to steady my hand just doesn't work on canvas. For that reason, I'll be using up my wood panels for this series, which has a certain amount of detail. When I use up the panels I have, I'm going to splurge on gessoed wood panels, because I am just a slob when it comes to gesso. And as I mentioned last time, we hates it. Since I "grew up" painting on paper, I got used to using the support for a support. I love the feel paint-wise of a well-gessoed canvas, but the bounciness I hate.

I still have a bunch of canvases, so I'm going to use them for paintings that don't require the same amount of detail. I've got some ideas, most especially a series on the various moons and another on all sorts of water.

Vials Series: The Black Crow December 07, 2016 10:43

My next work in the series is "The Black Crow" (sometimes also called the Black Toad) which is based partly on the alchemical idea of the first stage in alchemy, which involves, yes, rotting or putrefaction. The Black Crow means the decaying of all the gunk that is part of the Prima Materia ("A formless primeval substance regarded as the original material of the universe"). What's left is purified. I wanted to combine that idea with some of the images from vanitas paintings (yep, still on the vanitas thing--that's what the image is in the corner of this paragraph): an hourglass, most importantly, although I am thinking about including a tipped-over glass and skull and perhaps a pipe in the foreground around the hourglass. I'm not so sure about that. But I know the hourglass will be there, along with a black butterfly and a piece of lead, the quintessential Saturn metal. Saturn rules this stage of alchemy.

Saturn is dry and cold, like the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, which I thought would make a great background for the hourglass and crow. So I started that landscape on canvas. Then painted over and started it again. Then decided to put the Milky Way in the sky instead of just blueness. Didn't like it, painted over it, and painted the Milky Way again in another way. Painted over that and found it had too much texture to paint over so I had to trash that canvas, something which I almost never do. I always reuse a canvas, but I pretty much never paint with texture. Thing is all the dots of the stars stuck out like warts. So I stuffed it in some cardboard and put it in the dumpster. <cringe>

I started again on a wood panel, but after just putting the ground on, I didn't like the feel of it and put it aside. Felt like I was really spinning my wheels. 

I dug around in what I have on hand and found a pre-gessoed Ampersand panel I got a long time ago. I forgot how slippery they are! I don't like how bouncy canvas is, but I like how the paint glides over a well-gessoed canvas. 
The Black Crow work in progress, sketch inAt any rate, I started over yet again on the panel. Then again. That time was the winner. And why? Because I went for some colors I really like to use together, pink and light blue. I just love the sort of shimmer they give. This is a strong pink from anthraquinone red and zinc, and the blue is anthraquinone blue and zinc. Then together I made a violet. This is not the best photo, since I took it at night, but it gives an idea. I have been having good luck with doing drawings on my paintings using Faber-Castel pastel pencils. These erase great with a wet paper towel and don't make dents in the paint. I painted the crow last night but still have more work to do on it.

Speaking of canvas, I've been thinking of switching to panels instead because of gessoing. I usually add about 6 layers of gesso to the pre-primed premier canvases I get from Blick to make them as smooth as I like, but I hate doing it. I make a big mess and I never get the gesso layer perfectly right. I often don't have a gessoed canvas ready to go when I am ready to paint. So I am going to try something else. It's much easier to gesso a wood panel, so I'll try that, and I also would like to try some pre-gessoed linen canvases that Jerry's has. I've heard that linen is stiffer than canvas, and this brand is supposed to be pretty smooth. It would be great to not have to gesso things ever again. Because we hates gessoses.

Vials Series: Moon Vessel Finished December 06, 2016 18:46

Moon Vessel work in progress 112316I got the base painting of the crab done. I used titanium plus a bit of green I mixed to start the underpainting of the body (and didn't go further on, because it was not the right color for that). The crab is not symmetrical, which I know is going to drive me nuts, but then, real crabs are not symmetrical either. I am forcing myself to stop being so OCD about symmetry in things I paint. It's just another way of letting perfection turn into an obstacle instead of being a tool. 

Moon Vessel surreal landscape by Harold Roth acrylic on canvasI finished the crab part of Moon Vessel but ended up with the crab being too dark and had to do it over. It was worth the extra work, though, because the crab shows up much better from a distance now. I still have lots of work to do when it comes to keeping contrast in mind while painting. I need to get in the habit of looking at them from a bit away on a regular basis. That's a good technique for checking contrast and whatnot. 

I like the vibe of this painting as somewhat like a tarot card. I'm really glad that I started this series. It is much more to my taste than anything else I've done recently. It gets my imagination going and I feel like I am producing much more interesting images. I get to use my landscape skills, but honestly, it's nice too to be reminded that I can draw. I don't have to trace anything or use a grid or a projector or anything like that. I can just look at my reference photos and draw the image in pastel pencil with whatever modifications I want, thank the godz. I am totally grateful for this gift, because it saves me buckets of time and allows me to be freer in my image choice. 

It also makes me remember a youtube video I saw of a German hyperrealist painting a very large (over 5 ft) portrait of his son from photos about the size of a sheet of letterhead. I thought, how could he do this? He didn't draw it on the canvas first, just started painting and kept looking at the photos and then back to the canvas. And he wound up with this really fresh and good hyperreal painting. I wondered if he in-between takes maybe used a grid or a projector, but now I know that he did not. He was just really darn good at rendering. I've seen hyperrealists who trace or copy from a photo in little pieces in a way that just makes me feel awful to look at, but clearly there are others who use reference photos like this guy. I hope someday I can have such rendering and painting skills at my fingertips. Practice practice practice! 

I've got the original and larger prints available on this site and smaller prints on Etsy. I've been trying to post work-in-progress images on Pinterest, but it is just such a wiggy, buggy, and as far as I'm concerned, just plain creepy system that tonight I gave up. So from now on, I will post work in progress on my Facebook art page and here in my blog. 

Vials: Moon Vessel November 20, 2016 19:35

I'm starting another series I'm calling Vials. I want to continue to make use of my interest in painting landscapes, only as background. But I'm going to venture into using a lot more symbolism from the occult and from alchemy. I haven't done much with symbols since I left off doing abstracts based on the Golden Dawn color scales. But the symbols of alchemy and magic were the main things that drew me to those paths in the first place, and I want to make them a major part of my art, incorporating them with my interest in natural forms. 

background of Moon VesselI started with Moon, one of my favorite things to paint. I got the background pretty much just as I wanted--a fairly calm sea at night (because Water is a Moon Element). This landscape doesn't have enough interest, to my mind, to stand on its own, but its ace when I use it as a background for other things, I think. I've been realizing this more and more--my interest in landscape is not powerful enough to stand on its own. But as backgrounds for other things, they work well.

You can see the lines I drew to divide the painting. I've been using Faber Castell pastel pencils for drawing on my paintings, because they wipe off easily with a damp paper towel. I divided the painting into thirds because I wanted to feature three objects in it: a crab (which is a classic Moon critter, see the tarot trump of the Moon), a bottle with the moon inside it, and a luna moth.

I wasn't sure I could depict the bottle well enough, even though I had decided beforehand that I want all the paintings in this series to include a bottle of some kind (thus "Vials," even though a lot of them won't be actual vials). But I decided that I had examined enough Dutch still lifes to understand how to paint a bottle and that I should just jump in and try it. So that's what I did.

Moon Vessel work in progress 112016I found a number of reference images of antique bottles online but finally settled on an imaginary bottle because none of them were exactly the right shape. So once I got the moon painted, which was simple enough--a circle drawn around a hot plate and painted in with a number of layers of titanium--I drew the bottle and then painted it. I was surprised that it came out fine. Highlights are a combination of zinc and then titanium over that.

Next up was the luna moth, which was actually much easier than I thought, although I want to mess around a bit more with making the body look furry. I did find that, as I suspected, I could not mix a good pale green for it using the yellows in my palette--yellow ochre or azo yellow. So I used a new color I bought to use for sunlight, titanate yellow, with just a titch of anthraquinone blue and some titanium. Bingo!  I got this far over the weekend and hope to do the crab in the next couple of days. A chose the blue crab as my model crab.

Aquarius Moon is an Asshole + Finished But Not September 18, 2016 15:59

I spoke to a friend yesterday about my issues with images popping into my head in the middle of a planned painting and how I didn't know how to react to such things. I want to master traditional landscape painting but at the same time, I wonder if these images that pop into my head are the art I should be doing. I told her about my post-modern vanitas series now put aside. She knows about astrology and is familiar with my chart, and she immediately said that the images that popped into my head were due to my Aquarius-situated Moon. Aquarius like to be a contradictory asshole, and that's what was happening. It makes perfect sense! :)

She encouraged me to try my surrealist vanitas series and also had a good recommendation for dealing with weird images that pop up in the middle of a painting: that I make note of the image(s) and that I tell myself that those images are to be treated at a later time. Then I could go ahead and finish the painting I'd planned. I think this is a great idea, and I last night went and made notes of the images that had popped up and was able to continue working on my landscape painting.

Landscape painting Moss on Rocks work in progress, Harold Roth, 2016I finished the painting today--at least, I finished what I had intended to paint. But I don't like it much. The glazes I used to change the rocks from yellow to red to brown were too many and made the rocks really too dark to distinguish except under bright light. I then used an overglaze of perylene green + zinc + glazing fluid for the reflection of the sky on the water, but I should have thinned it a lot more than I did, because it obscured even more of the rocks. Then I didn't like how the wavelets looked. I know it will be different with an isolation coat on, which will intensify and deepen the colors, but that did not seem like enough. All that wavelet space needs something in it. If I don't put something in it or modify the painting in some significant way, I will just paint over it because I'm dissatisfied with it. So I figured modifying it was a better choice.

I like how the moss images look, very stylized, reminding me of 19th-century natural science illustrations, so I'm going to continue with that shape. What I'm envisioning is a bit fantastical, and that will be a first in terms of my landscapes. I said to my friend yesterday that I did not think my painting was good enough yet to do surrealist work, but I will give it a try here, since I consider I have nothing to lose with this image.

Addendum: I finished that painting, which became the somewhat odd "Nymph and Her Children." This was my first real step into surrealism, if I can call it that. Since then, I have set off boldly in the surrealist direction, because for one thing, it allows me to combine my enjoyment in painting landscapes with my weird side that enjoys symbols and emblems and mysteriousness.

So much for that decision September 16, 2016 14:52

Work in progress, Harold Roth, 2016I did the grounds for the next two paintings after picking out some reference photos. I happened to start with the one that is based on a photo I took at the shore of Seneca Lake. This has lots of mossy rocks and reflected sky and a very just slightly wavy surface. So I thought cool--tranquility or something like that. Although I surprisingly could not think of a title.

So yesterday I put in the colors that will show through the sky reflection (in the upper right corner) and began making smudgy shapes for the rocks in the foreground, which will be covered with moss. Today I went further in the modeling of the rocks, as you can see. The colors are weird because they will be covered with glazes that modify how they look.

I sat there painting and thought "Although I can pick out rock shapes pretty easily, it is boring." As I sat there letting rock shapes arise from the deliberately uneven colors, I had a sudden flash of not rocks but the shapes of human bodies. I stopped painting and focused on seeing that more clearly. Not bloody bodies or dead people. But just human shapes. Mysterious. 

I thought, "This would require redoing the rocks area. I'm not too far along, so it wouldn't be much of a hassle. And it would make for a much more powerful painting." 

But who would want to buy such a painting? 

And then I thought that question, although it's important if I want to make a living from my art, and I do, can't be the determining question about my paintings. Can it?

I posted a comment on a little while ago to the effect that instead of "painting what sells," as someone said, an artist should paint what is unique to that artist--their own personal vision. It's good business sense, based on the blue-ocean strategy where you create something unique so that you don't have competition. 

So can I take my own advice? Here I was all sure that I should be painting spare Luminist type landscapes. I enjoy learning technique and working on mastering my tools. I would be happy to paint such paintings. But everywhere I look, if I let my artistic "eye" relax, I see shapes within shapes, living forms, struggling to burst through the skin of the mundane. I feel like I should be painting that hidden world. But will anyone buy it?

I don't know.

And if they don't, will I become bitter, like some artists I see posting who have accumulated literally hundreds of paintings they can't sell and who burn them (!) because they run out of room and won't sell them for cheap? I don't want to become that.

But would I? If I were refining my own vision? Or would I end up that way if all I ever did was paint competent spare Luminist landscapes?


Reading over my last post, I see something I didn't see before--that what attracts me so much about the Luminist paintings is the dream-like quality of some of them. They seem full of some hidden meaning or something about to be revealed. Perhaps I can capture that dream-like quality in my own oddball paintings of, say, a shore with body shapes. 

I'm going to give it a try and see what happens. 

Indecision: Post-Modern Vanitas vs. Spare Luminism September 11, 2016 15:16

Kensett, Eaton NeckI have been thinking about starting a new series (well, two, actually) of paintings based on industrial buildings and having a connection to the vanitas genre. I mentioned this last week and today am planning to gesso a couple canvases so I can get started. But then I happened to see this painting, which I have loved ever since I stumbled across the Luminists a couple years ago (and read everything I could get my hands on about them). It's a view of Long Island by John Frederick Kensett painted in 1872.

Kensett, Sunset on the Sea, 1872Some say the reason why this painting is so spare is because he didn't finish it, but there are other paintings from this time, the end of his life, that are similarly spare, such as this one, "Sunset on the Sea" (1872).

There's something almost abstract about these paintings, but further, they are for me serene without being sentimental and beautiful without any showboating. They are what they are--acomplished landscape paintings that for me have a spiritual or dream-like quality. 

Roth, Moon Over WaterWhen I started painting again, I had no idea where I was going with it. But I well remember the first painting I felt was really me, the original of which I have framed for myself (Moon Over Water). I had never seen Kensett's paintings when I did this one, but you can see why I'd like Kensett's late works when I came across him. I think it's the combination of his attention to color and light, the smooth painting surface (no thick brush marks), and absence of a lot of "stuff" (people, animals, boats, roads, whatever). His paintings maintain the traditional "view from a window" approach of older landscapes, yet there is something about these landscapes that feels like we would not see this view in real life, that they are unreal and therefore dreamlike. It is that quality, the unrealness, that fascinates me most.

Kensett was a very popular painter, not least of all because a lot of the places he painted were (and some still are) vacation spots for the robber barons. He was successful enough to buy himself a little island off CT where he had his studio in the warm part of the year. I don't know if anyone wants to buy paintings like this nowadays, and I would like to sell paintings. But I know that this dream-like quality, this straddling of a careful rendering of an actual scene on the one hand and on the other the capture of a fleeting moment like sunset or a sea and shore basically without a human presence attracts me very strongly, more so than any post-modern or surreal vanitas.

My problem is that I just want to do all sorts of paintings. I get a little greedy that way or feel like if I don't go down all possible roads, I will miss something. But honestly, life just isn't long enough for me to master all these different kinds of paintings, and I need to focus my painting more so I can truly master what I do--so that I can best portray on canvas the beautiful, dream-like quality I often feel out in nature. 

So I put my vanitas ideas aside for now and dug through my reference photos of the lake and the hills of upstate NY to see what I can come up with next. I found about five that are good candidates and now that I've gessoed a couple canvases, I'll start putting on a ground today.

Finally Here! September 06, 2016 10:01

My Blick Light-Duty EaselI moved from Elmira, NY to Pawtucket, RI on August 18/19, but it's taken me all this time just to get sort of settled in. I still have stuff to unpack, but "only" about 15 boxes, mostly kitchen stuff, clothes, and more importantly, all of my art stuff. I love my new place--a loft in an old fabric mill. This space is filled with light from ten windows and has more room than my former house. And I can walk to all sorts of things and take the bus to others. It's fab.

I did take some time the other night to put together the easel I bought from Blick a couple months ago. I'm still missing the bit that holds the top of the canvas, but I remember putting it in a box and so I just haven't gotten to that yet. Meanwhile, the easel is there to spur me on.

Someone on FB posted that Blick is having a canvas sale, and even though I've got 5 or so 18 x 24" wood panels and one 16 x 20" canvas on hand, I bought 6 18 x 24" canvases. I've gotten used to gessoing the canvases and how they feel with a lot of gesso layers that allow me to paint without any "bounce" but still leave enough flexibility for me to press the canvas against the scanner glass so I get a good image for reproduction. I didn't want to deal with gessoing the wood panels and then trying to photograph them correctly right now. So they are going to wait until I have enough time to do that. 

I have a lot of ideas for new paintings. I still want to work on water images and have a raft of reference photos I took on my last trip up to Seneca Lake, my favorite of the Fingerlakes. It was a great day for photographing--the water had that sort of oily quality it does sometimes when there's no wind. So I look forward to trying that out on canvas as well as doing some little wavelets against the rocks and some nice contrast between surface reflection and weeds and rocks below. I love those sort of palimpsest type images. Layers on layers! 

But I also downloaded a bunch of reference photos of all sorts of industrial buildings, inspired by a photo of a very foreboding prison, now abandoned, that stands in a town I lived in as a teen. That photo sent me down a rabbit hole about industrial buildings which in turn gave me all sorts of ideas for new paintings. I would like to move toward more complex images on larger canvases that allow for that a bit better, so I will try it on one of the new canvases as soon as they get here. I'm planning on two series, neither of which is about clouds or water, although they might be included in these images.

I've got notes about color and two reference photos ready for a basis for a sketch for the next painting--not on the actual canvas but on a sheet of paper I can in turn use as reference for the illustrations for my forthcoming book on herbal magic. I got the idea from the way I used notes in grad school--the very act of writing down the information was enough to sort of fix it in my mind. I thought drawing might work the same way, and it did for the plant illustrations, so I'm going to try the same technique for paintings: Put together a drawing based on arranging and aspects of various reference photos and imaginary stuff to come up with a drawing that I use as a reference for the painting. I'll take photos of the process.

Politics and [My] Art July 30, 2016 19:55

A typical Botero paintingSome people believe that the combination of politics and art in general is a deadly mix, but I'm more of the school that art can never be free of politics--that even "art for art's sake" is a political statement (thank you, Russian Formalism). The big question for me is how I can go about combining art and politics successfully. Note, this is not a manifesto ("This is the way you have to do it!!!!"). That's why I've got "My" in brackets. It's about how I might combine art and politics in my art. 

botero abu ghraibI remember when Botero did his Abu Ghraib series. Here was an artist whose work I never liked much because I thought it was a bit gimmicky in style. And yet he was able to produce a series of 80 very graphic and IMO powerful paintings based on the leaked photos of Americans torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu GhraibI know that I could never do what he did. I could never paint one picture of people being tortured, much less 80+.

But lately, because of the stuff going on in the US, I've been thinking quite a bit about the relationship of my art to politics. I wasn't sure that it actually had any. Did that mean I was just being self-absorbed? I hoped not, but...

I've always been a firm believer that we each have gifts that we can and must make use of to give back to our world. I see this not only as a responsibility we fulfill to our society but as an act of gratitude to the gods for giving us those gifts. My art has a strong relationship to spirituality and magic, and I thought that working to make the spiritual and the divine more visible was more than enough of a use of my artistic skills. But then there was the increasing darkness of the politics of our society.

El Lissitzky, "The Red Wedge will Beat the Whites"I consider that political art can help us make sense of what is happening in our country and maybe even help us a find a way out of this mess, at the very least by bucking up our spirits and letting us know that we are not alone. I kept thinking of people I knew long ago who succeded at making good political art. I didn't see how I could do that with my own art. After all, what have I been painting? Landscapes and abstract stuff. Not even any human figures, which seem essential to most political art, with occasional exceptions, like El Lissitzky's "Red Wedge Will Beat the Whites" from the Russian civil war. Figurative art is just not me. I even tried doing deliberately political art back in the seventies. Fail.

But I also have found, as I have come along in my development as a painter, that I am tending to paint more dark images than bright ones. I wondered at first if these were a reflection of my emotional state and kind of shuddered, but the thing is that despite all, I generally feel pretty happy. No evil eye, I am satisfied with my life, small though it might be in the grand scheme of things. So I didn't think it was my emotions that were being expressed in these dark paintings.

Then I thought about one of my favorite ideas about art, that all sorts of artists pick up on a society's subconscious and even can feel the edges of the future and that it comes out in their work. But honestly, I don't think there's anything hidden or futuristic about the darkness in our society now. It's real and it's now.

I concluded that much of my art is dark because we are living in dark times and that my art dark paintings are simply a reflection of that. And they are probably going to get a lot darker no matter what happens with the election. Because either one can lead us to hell and will if it is profitable enough for their masters.

Belly of the Beast by Harold RothSo maybe my job as an artist is to reflect that darkness without picturing the actuality of it. To paint not prisoners or the dead of our wars, foreign and domestic, but to paint storms and black waves and dark water. Yes. I think so.

Those images as a double-edged sword. They are a reflection of the dark doings in our society, of our fears, and the further darkness to come, but they are also a reflection of justified anger. The storms I paint are not just destructive. They are refreshing and make available great energy and power. I hope that people who view my paintings will be able to tap into that power and that it will assist them in their work of changing our society to something much more positive.
Such a society would merit paintings of sunny days. 

It's not that I won't paint refreshing pictures of water or clouds or fields. Our souls need rest too. But they will be spiced with the invigorating flavor of storms. 

The Intimidations of Canvas June 05, 2016 10:49

Rabbit not wanting to give up its skin for gessoYears ago, a fellow student asked me if I wanted to learn how to prepare a canvas from scratch. I did, and I remember watching her as she stretched the canvas and then gessoed it with real rabbit-skin gesso. She sanded it between each coat. I was so intimidated by the whole complicated (and messy) process that I decided I would avoid painting on canvas. And I did, for decades.

When I switched from watercolors to acrylics, I considered painting on canvas--the readymade stuff that comes all stretched and gessoed (with acrylic, not rabbits). But since I did not do brushwork or impasto, which would rule out using paper, and since I was still intimidated by canvas, I ended up continuing to use heavy cold press watercolor paper. It was familiar. I did try painting on panels too, which I actually liked, even though it meant basically relearning how to use acrylics, since the absorbency of the paper was gone. But the slick surface encouraged me to change my technique, and I knew that I could go a lot farther in terms of what I wanted to paint if I kept working in that technique.

The only problem was that much as I wanted to, I could not get the hang of photographing my works and kept having to use a scanner for photos. It was quite the hassle to find a reliable, more-or-less simple way to stitch scanned bits of the painting together (Photoshop Elements was the answer). Scanning a painting is fine if you are painting on paper, but with my scanner, the beveled edge around the glass kept a panel from being in touch with the glass and so any scan was out of focus. Sheesh.

I went back to painting on paper, feeling a bit defeated. Then I saw a sale on canvases and decided to give them a try. This is what I bought.

When I finally got around to actually using the canvas, I practically howled with dismay. First, the canvas was so fricking bumpy that there was no way I could do any detail on it, and I like me some detail--a LOT of detail, most of the time. Second, the canvas was bouncy. It was like being drunk or in outer space or both. I HATED it. I couldn't see how anyone could have ever painted anything. 

So I went back to painting on paper again, feeling a bit more defeated.

Thank the gods for the internet. I stumbled across someone describing how they did not like the bumpy surface of canvas and would go through all these stages to get a glassy surface. through multiple coats of acrylic gesso. I knew so little about canvas that I didn't even realize that such a surface was possible. Various methods for achieving this surface were described, but I decided to try using a soft brush.

Well, that was a huge messy FAIL. All I got was a canvas full of brushmarks. And gesso all over the place.

Now I was getting mad. There had to be a way to do this. There were paintings out there with plenty of detail on canvas. Was it because they were on linen? I looked at the prices of linen canvases with dismay. Plus I already had all those canvases I'd bought on sale. 

So more prowling around the internet. I decided to try two methods. One involved spreading the gesso with a credit card (I used an AARP membership card, lol). It left edges that I had a hard time getting rid of.

Clay scraper thingThen someone described spreading gesso with this thing, which I believe is actually a clay shaper. By that time, I was a bit aggravated and was pressing the canvas firmly with the shaper, which helped surround the bumps in the fabric and make it smoother. It worked. And it worked well. I made about ten thin coats with the shaper on two canvases. They weren't perfectly smooth, but they were much improved. I liked it so much I even wrote a positive review about using the shaper thing to spread gesso. 

There was still a bit of a give, so I decided I'd put a book under the canvas to act as a support while painting. I do like to stretch out over my canvases and can do that thanks to acrylics drying so fast. 

When I finally decided to take one of these prepared canvases for a test drive, I was so shocked. This is the perfect thing for me to paint on. It doesn't have the absorbency of paper, but it doesn't have the drag, either. It feels just right. And I can indeed create plenty of detail, although I actually do even more coats now to make the surface smoother. I was surprised that I actually like some of the texture showing through and even some of the gesso unevenness on the first canvas (I'd just gessoed right over the brush stroke fail). 

Since then I have gotten much better at making a smooth gessoed surface with the clay shaper. Now I'm almost at the end of those 10 canvases. I want to gradually work on larger supports, so I checked around for 18 x 24" canvases and instead found birch panels on sale. I got five of those. Not being able to lean on the surface still is a bit of a problem for me, and that's not an issue with birch panels. But the thing about panels is they are way more expensive and worse, heavier than canvas. That can be very costly when it comes to the larger sizes. And I do want to experiment with large paintings. I've got five 24 x 36" primed canvases (also bought on sale) for when I use up the panels, but eventually, I want to try going larger. 

Then I found out that using Golden's GAC 400 on unprimed canvas as the first couple of coats beneath the gesso will make the canvas nice and stiff. Sounds like a win to me. When I use up what I've got, I'm going to stretch my canvases myself so I can use this canvas stiffener. I've gotten a lot better at photographing my work, so I'm hoping that's not going to be an issue.

It's more than 40 years ago that my friend tried to show me how to prepare a canvas. It feels neat that all these years later I will finally be doing it myself.

The Spiritual Landscape April 25, 2016 11:09

For the past couple of years, I've been trying to figure out how I can combine my interests in landscape and in magic/spirituality. Ever since I was a child, I've believed that spiritual energy underlies everything and that sometimes we can actually perceive it. I've wanted my art to be a help in revealing that hidden, spiritual aspect of our world.

The thing is that I haven't really known how to go about doing that. I thought that abstract art was a better genre for this task because it has a history of a concern with the relationship between art and spirituality or the spiritual since day one. And I do feel like I have captured some aspects of spiritual energy in my abstract art. 

But I also very much enjoy landscape painting. Part of the reason why is because when I am out in real landscape, I feel a much stronger contact with that underlying spiritual force than when I am, for instance, in the house. It feels like there is so much more to perceive out there. And of course, there is a lot more life.

I just couldn't see, though, how I could combine the kind of love of pattern that is often a part of my abstract paintings with landscape painting.Abstract painting has allowed me to engage in a process I call "letting it arise," where I try to go with the flow of what I am painting, try to let whatever contact I have with the spirit world come out in imagery. This has been very satisfying for me and I think has produced some good art. But I didn't see how I could do this with landscape painting. I figured I would just keep landscape and abstraction separate and try to portray the spiritual aspect of landscape by employing things like mist or focusing on clouds or water, which seem sort of inherently spiritual. But it still felt like there was an inconvenient wall between my landscape painting and my abstract painting. What to do. I decided I would just let it lie and focus on technique for a year and hope it would sort itself out. 

I didn't have to wait a year for that to start happening. One day I stopped at Montour Falls, a small waterfall nearby with a pool of water at the bottom, and took a bunch of reference photos. These would go towards learning how to paint water, since that's a landscape topic I really get into. A few months later I decided it was time to use those photos to paint a pool. So I began working on that, painting for the first time on a heavily gessoed canvas, a support I'd not used before.

That support turned out to be exactly what I had been looking for in terms of texture and just the feel. So I painted happily along.

I got all the rocks at the bottom of the pool painted--way more rocks than actually exist--and I liked how the colors were progressing. I had to redo the rocks because as is often a problem I have, I didn't give them enough contrast. But finally I had that part done and could go on to paint the water's surface.

Before I did that, I looked at what I had so far. I liked how it was coming. But honestly I could see nothing more in it than pleasantness. That might be enough for some people, but it's not enough for me in my own painting, especially when I have spent as long as I had spent already on that one. It's not that I believe a painting should involve suffering (and anyway, I'd already suffered painting all those rocks, lol). But I do think that for me, a painting has to be more than a nice bunch of colors and shapes. It has to reveal that hidden world as much as possible, and to do that, I have to reach deep into myself. If I just stay on the surface of myself and focus on technique, then those paintings feel like just work and they don't satisfy my soul. My soul starves with that, and for me, that is not art. That is just paint on a piece of fabric. I want more.

I thought about how I might indicate the spiritual or magical aspect of this image.  I decided to incorporate some of the patterns that bubble up when I am painting abstractly. These things always pop up for me, often triggered by faint cues in the texture of the paint and the support itself. I feel like that texture is almost like the half-heard vowels of someone speaking from that other world. My job is to fill out those words as best I can.

With this painting of the rocks, I thought about the idea of traces of previous or even hidden knowledge, of other cultures, other people, maybe even other beings, who might have written on those rocks or embedded in them something important to them. I wanted that writing to be a blend of something done deliberately and something that occurred naturally through maybe fossils or wear on the rocks. I wanted the figures I put on the rocks to cause the viewer to wonder if they were naturally made or not. I started painting.

It took me a long time to put those symbols or marks on the rocks, and it was much more difficult than when I do an abstract painting. I need to work on letting the images arise in landscape painting the way I do with abstraction. I need to allow myself to open up and put these images onto a landscape painting, to show them as fitting into that landscape. This is a beginning.

I did a brief study of ripples on an unfinished painting and then put them on this one, and I was done. 

I feel like I've taken a big step with this painting. Even though it was not a seamless incorporation, and even though I must work on allowing more images to bubble up during landscape painting, and even though I've still got lots of technique to learn, I feel like this painting is a distillation of what I have been trying to do all along. The incorporation of these patterns into my landscapes allows me to combine my interest in landscape with my interest in the supernatural. It allows me to portray those two things in unity instead of in two separate paintings. And it makes my painting uniquely mine, which is always good in art. 

So even though the painting is not as good as I would like it to be, I am pleased with it. It is the signpost to a different path, one that I expect to be very productive and satisfying for me--and I hope for my viewers as well. 

Whistler and Lautrec April 08, 2016 20:40

The Falling Rocket by James MacNeil WhistlerI'm just about finished with the biography of James McNeill Whistler by Anderson and Koval. Although I love his Nocturnes, as he called them, and I think Falling Rocket is a truly great painting (that's it on the left), he was an unpleasant person. Still, I often laughed with identification when I read descriptions of his ferocious doubts and misgivings about his own work. He'd work on a painting for hours and be all happy about it for 15 minutes, "It's GREAT!", bragging all over about it, and then an hour later he'd go and scrape it off the canvas, terrified that someone would see it and think what a crap artist he was. The authors' style is very engaging, so if you have any interest in Whistler, I recommend it. His painting technique is not much touched upon, but there is a lot about the world he moved in and the changes happening in painting at the time, especially the cracking of the tyranny of academic Realist painting

Because I'm almost done, I had to get the next book ready. This is about Lautrec, who has been a favorite artist of mine since I was a child: "Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fin-de-Siecle" by David Sweetman.

Meanwhile, I've been working on a cloud painting that has just been giving me the business since I started it. Half of it is just fine and went on without a hitch, but the other half holy carp. I have messed with it and messed with it, and it has improved. I have learned a ton about painting clouds and just paint/glazes from doing it. I hope I will finish it this weekend and that after all the time I have put into it, I can put it up. Maybe not on my art site to sell, but at least here. It was meant to be a study, although a large one. I wouldn't mind taking some of the elements and redoing them. I based it on a photo I took of a storm cloud out east of Seneca Lake last year. 

I've decided to spend the next year working more on technique, because I feel I need to do a lot of work on that. I did get distracted from doing water studies to doing cloud studies (water suspended in air). I've done 3-4 prior to the one I'm working on now, but I was so displeased with them that I just trashed them. Unlike Whistler, this was not some hysterical self-consciousness on my part but just a decision not to keep works that are junk. Sometimes a person can try too hard. 

Water March 06, 2016 18:35

Morning Star by Harold RothI finished a painting I've been working on for a week, Morning Star, but I was not pleased with the way it turned out for a number of reasons. One of them was the water. It just isn't right, and I have messed with it too long, I think. I ended up putting a bunch of glaze over it, and that helped, but I just had to stop.

I did feel a lack of confidence about tackling the water in that painting. I clenched, afraid to wreck the work I'd done so far. And I'd had a couple of close calls on other parts of the painting (which I still see, even though I remedied them more or less). So I decided to do a couple of small water paintings this weekend.

study of water by Harold A. RothIn the first one, I tried to use some techniques I've seen illustrated, but they did not work for me. Only when I gave up on trying to impose them on the painting and let myself paint more like myself did it improve. Even then, it was just okay. I'd already spent too long trying to force it to be something I could not do. 

study of water by Harold RothThe next one I decided to just let the image arise, which is what I often do with an abstract. I thought I might be overthinking the water thing. I am all for studying and for learning technique, but sometimes the brain just gets in the way. That's part of the clenching issue too. But I think this one came out better. I pretty much ALWAYS do better when I let the image arise.

To remember what I'd done, I came up with a set of steps. I have to make sure to start with a fairly dark layer or two. I have a tendency to paint too thinly, so this means several coats. Just before each layer gets tacky, sweep through it with the flat brush used on edge to make streaks. Do another layer the same way. Then begin picking out shapes in the paint with another color. Here I used quin red + zinc + glazing fluid + Aeroflash colorless. I went over that several times. I stopped to re-emphasize the dark color (ultramarine blue) twice. Then I did further highlights with a pale yellow made from imidazolone yellow + zinc + a bit of titanium + glazing fluid + Aeroflash colorless. I gradually moved from a size 6 to a 0 Escoda synthetic flats for the highlights. 

I wish I had done this with the Morning Star painting. Maybe I will indeed go over the water section of that again and see if I can make it better by following these steps. I'm going to have to wait a few days, because I can't look at it objectively right now. I do know I have to get over clenching. That's a hard one. But I don't think there's been a time when clenching ever didn't make a painting worse. So I have to quit doing it.

Competitions February 21, 2016 15:01 3 Comments

I've been entering competitions for the past two weeks--five so far. Originally, I rejected the idea after a local museum posted a competition that made it seem like it would be basically a losing proposition for me even if I was accepted and I sold my painting. 

But then I got to thinking about how much money I spend on Google Adwords for my shop, Alchemy Works. I budget $100/mo for that without even thinking about it. Does it do any good? A friend and I both agree that from our experience, paying for Adwords helps us maintain our standing in the search rankings, regardless of how much Google denies that has anything to do with it. I also pay $100 every two months for print ads for the shop.So I started to think that I might pay up to $100/mo to enter competitions. It's a business expense, after all--not that I've got much gross to claim so far this year for Harold Roth, Artist, but hey, we all have to start somewhere, and a business expense is a business expense, especially when you are building your business.

I started prowling around the Art Times site page "Opportunities for Creatives." This lists all sorts of calls for artists. Another one is Art Show. And there are more besides. I didn't realize that there were so many different calls for artists out there. The first one I entered one is about competing to be shown in a gallery (a one-shot deal), which is basically a chance to sell the painting and to get a line on a resume. Next was a themed online exhibition which could give linkjuice, very important for a new website like my art site. The more links you have from other sites, especially authoritative sites (which have been around for X years, X being the mysterious Google number), the higher your rankings will be in the search results. The higher the rankings, the more visitors. The more visitors, the higher the rankings yet again and more visibility and hopefully some resulting sales, although I don't get my hopes up, since typically I know from running an online shop that 1-2% of visitors result in actual purchases for most sites. Not very high. But it took me three years to build my shop into a going concern, and I expect it to take at least that long to build my art site into an income supplement. Baby steps

It's important to build good links and attract people who are actually looking for what you sell. Links from an online exhibit could help. For that reason, I've looked for competitions that feature placement in online exhibits, hoping for link juice even though there are no prizes and no possibility of a sale off the exhibition site, only a link back. This kind of competition is basically paying for a link if you get accepted. Links for pay are usually garbage, but it is not all bad if it's a focused link.

I also found competitions put on by organizations, like the National Society of Painters in Casein and Acrylic or the National Oil and Acrylics Painters Society..These seem to have more money in prizes and more prestige. Coolness! I can only hope my work will be accepted. 

I've learned a number of things from entering competitions so far, even before I have received any results. if I don't have paintings that fit in to a particular competition's theme, I can't go off and try to create something to fit into that theme. It just feels klutzy to me, and it's a waste of my time..It's probably not a good way to develop one's body of work, since it's inevitably going to be some kind of side thing that does not fit in all that well with one's main corpus. Maybe it's worth it for some artists, because it inspires them to do something they might not have done otherwise, but I have so many ideas for paintings that I don't need any inspiration. I have, if anything, too much inspiration (my idea of doing the Golden Dawn's color scales, for instance), and I feel like my style is still developing and that I have to focus on that. Since I am relying more and more on "letting things arise" when I am painting, trying to impose a rational concept on the process feels counterproductive to me. More like an obstacle than anything else. I'm sure it works for some people, but for me it feels artificial.  

Another thing I've learned is that the various requirements of these competitions have forced me to think about how I describe what I do not only to the rest of the world but how it feels to me, to put that feeling into words so that I can examine it and think about it further. For instance, some competitions request an artist's statement, an artist's biography, both, or a description of the process of creating the work(s) entered in the competition. Having to write these things has taught me a lot about how I see what I'm doing, how I see the creative process, and how I go about my paintings. I haven't got anything to put on a CV except for going to art school back in 1970-72, but I can describe my artistic life and my artistic process. I have learned a LOT about what I am doing by having to put it into words for strangers. Nothing like multiple perspectives to help a person see a phenomenon truthfully.

Finally, I've learned that I am very very different from the gumbie I was back in art school. Then I was completely and totally baffled by the art world. I had absolutely no idea how to market my art, what kind of art I should or could make, and how I could fit int. Honestly, the art world was a very different place than it is now (for which I am grateful). Just reading over some of the requirements for submitting works to competitions made me think how terrifying it would have been to have to come up with, say, an artist's biography for Harold Roth back in 1970. Of course, the fact that the school I went to did not teach us how to sell was another problem, but even if they had, I doubt I would have been able to do it at that time. I was just too naive, too lacking in confidence, and too undisciplined. Forty-five years of life has taught me a lot of skills, which is happily surprising.

I have no idea if entering these competitions is going to prove financially black. At this point, I feel like if If I get link juice, I will be pretty happy and will consider it money and time well spent. But the biggest benefits have already come--in a growing confidence (yes, I DO know how to write and follow directions, lol!) and a good, new perspective on what I'm doing through writing the artist's biography and so forth. 

If you've entered competitions, what has been your experience? 

It's a Size Thing January 15, 2016 11:41

The other day I listened to a podcast of a scholarly paper about abstract expressionism's relationship to architecture. The speaker seemed to think that abstract expressionist painting was unique in how it was used as kind of a space occupying or even a decorative element in large modern apartments and homes--this even though the painters themselves disdained this role. As far as the artists were concerned, their art was not about decorating walls. Customers had a different idea.

Nightwatch by RembrandtThe question reminded me of Baroque art. Here's an example--Rembrandt's Night Watch at 143 x 172", not something that would have hung in someone's home. So might today's non-representational painting be seen as a kind of state art, only this time, the state is composed of wealthy corporatists? A disturbing idea, but given how plutocratic our society has become, perhaps not so crazy. I hate to think.....

Willem Kalf paintingContrast this monster to this 20 x 20" still life by Willem Kalf. This hung in someone's home, even if it was a wealthy home and the picture was painted to indicate that wealth.

I'm not trying to attack abstract expressionism, which I like. Just thinking out loud about things like size and its relationship to painting style and in turn to how the painting is used--whether as simple decoration, as a statement about wealth, or just art (whatever that means). What do these things say together? This is not for me a rhetorical question.

I've been thinking about size a great deal in my own work. For a while, I fantasized about painting on very large canvases (and I mean canvas as opposed to the heavy watercolor paper I've been using for years). In actuality, the largest I've done are a few works 22 x 30". I found that I got a bit lost in the center of the support with that size, so for now I'm working on a smaller and for me, more comfortable size, 16 x 20". I'll probably work up to 22 x 30" or thereabouts again, but I think that's going to take some time. And I wonder how important it is for me to paint big. Maybe painting smaller is more fitting for what I do and what I would like to do in the future--and for my potential customers.

One thing I've noticed along these lines how many artists paint small. For example, I was startled to find that a landscape painter whose work I enjoy often paints small, like 12". His paintings don't look small at all. Others paint in a range of sizes, including small ones as a kind of orbit for people who don't want to spend as much but would still like to get a painting. 

I know I have a long way to go before I settle the size question for myself. Part of me really likes the idea of painting relatively small. Isn't that how most people see art nowadays? On a laptop or in a print on their wall? Or even on a greeting card or postcard. Another part of me still has the big huge canvas fantasy. To be resolved at a later date...


Letting Images Arise: Automatism December 28, 2015 18:25 1 Comment

For years, I began a painting with a drawing. Often, these drawings were quite detailed, especially during the period when I was doing a lot of botanical art. The resulting work was Realist and quite tight. I thought this tightness was just part of my nature as an artist. I was wrong.

When I began experimenting with acrylics, two things happened: my underdrawings became simpler and my painting style looser. Because of the use of white pigment in acrylic painting, which is generally forbidden in watercolor, and because it's possible to paint over acrylic without concern about lifting what is beneath it, I became more relaxed about painting. I even tried different brushes. I'd always used expensive sable rounds, but I tried synthetics and other shapes and loved them.

Mandrakes in SpringOne day I was playing with a filbert brush. I enjoyed the root-like shapes it could make and decided to do a painting without any drawing at all first. I really liked the results and experimented more and more until finally I abandoned Realism for abstraction. Slippery slope. :)

As far as abstraction went, I did a lot of stuff that was simply pattern. I found I had a fascination with ripples, waves, striations, and cavities--all sorts of patterns found in the natural world.

Elemental Water I by Harold RothBecause I didn't have the right audience for this sort of work, I didn't get the responses I had expected. I lost confidence and went back to more typical (and perhaps bit boring) Realist stuff. I did my best to convince myself that it was okay for me to do this, even though I never felt any sort of gut challenge in doing a Realist still life or landscape like I did with an abstract. I do love real and painted landscapes, though, and so do lots of other people. So...

But I could not stop envisioning abstract shapes and forms. How to focus what was coming out on the support? How to make it more than a mere pattern? I thought about how I often work with tarot. I ask a question but simply let the cards tell me whatever it is I need to know..

Water WitchWith painting, this meant that I allowed the image to arise as I painted. I hoped that if I were open to a connection with the spirit world while I painted and at the same time tried to focus on a particular concept (like spirits of Mars or Water magic), that whatever came out on the paper would simply take the form most appropriate for that energy or work and for me. A meeting up or coming together of a magical current and my consciousness and my skill or lack of it as a painter.

This was a bit scary, since I feared that this method might be skating quite close to the bullshit area. Many of you out there are aware of the snobbishness often focused on abstraction ("people paint abstractly because they don't know how to draw/a monkey/toddler could do that"). I've run into quite a bit of this on art forums, which is the main reason why I don't participate in them anymore. Even though I reject such a perspective, I didn't want to be a bullshit artist either.

Despite my fears about possible bullshittery and worries about inadequacy, I kept on. The more practice I got painting in this way, the better I felt it working. It was like a groove being worn in ice or stone that could channel a greater and more focused flow the more it was delineated. And I felt that my painting improved. I had better use of color and saw my composition improving. I thought I had simply discovered this approach on account of my long association with magic.

Then I ran across a discussion of automatism in Surrealism, an art movement I know little about. I was familiar with automatism from spiritualism, where mediums might use it to channel communications from the dead (automatic writing, for instance). The Surrealists took up this technique, but instead of channeling the dead, they channeled their own subconscious. As Andre Breton wrote, "‘Pure psychic automatism is the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns." And artist whose work I'd had on my wishlist for a long time, Ithell Colquhuon, was a magician as well as an artist, and she used automatism a lot in her work.

I wouldn't consider myself a Surrealist, but I intend to make further use of automatism in my painting, drawing on the astral or spiritual (or woo) instead of the subconscious. It was wonderful to find out there was plenty of historical precedent for this.