Monday, May 17, 2010

Perils of Plein Air Painting: Hee Haw Round-up!

I awoke yesterday morning with anticipation of a peaceful day outdoors painting en plein air. The night before I had planned on a site at a nearby farm where the view was pastoral, quiet and angled correctly for the early morning light.

Still not fully awake, I drove into the farm yard with coffee in hand and was greeted by six free-roaming donkeys. I parked and eased out of the car so as not to frighten them off and went in search of someone to get them back into a pen. I checked the house and several barns only to find that I was alone. Not even a friendly dog in sight....just donkeys. Each of the nearby fenced enclosures had either cattle in it or more donkeys and all visible gates were closed.

It was clear that I was going to have a problem trying to get the six donkeys into an enclosure without other animals getting out. If you've ever tried to herd animals into an enclosure you know it's almost impossible to do so alone if there are already other animals in the pen. Where one roams free they all want to roam free. I could see the writing on the wall and knew there was a strong likelihood that I was not going to be painting the early morning light as planned.

I tried calling the owner on his cell phone, the only number I had. All I got was a message that said "...thank you for calling. Please leave your number and I will return your call as soon as possible". Great! I left a jumbled message and hoped that he'd show up soon. In the meantime, the donkeys were on the move.

I don't know a lot about donkeys, but I found out three things mighty fast. First, for being such small animals they can move remarkably fast. A LOT faster than this artist. Secondly, they have a mind of their own (they don't care for or listen to strangers). Third, they don't respond to "here, donkey, donkey, donkey", "cluck, cluck, cluck" or "tch, tch, tch" was clear I didn't know any magic words. Well! What to do now?

After 20 minutes of racing back and forth, fancy footwork and sweet talking, I finally got one donkey in a pen. Unfortunately, "my" donkey was not particularly well received by the current residents. After a lot of braying, kicking, biting, etc. he ended up in one corner of the pen and the others in the opposite corner...all with ears back (unfriendly sort of...not unlike boxers after a grisly round of fighting. I was now down to five free-roaming donkeys. Roughly figuring, if I allotted 20 minutes per donkey, things were not looking good, and still no help in sight.

It was at this point my charges (notice that they have become "mine") decided to head down the lane at full speed headed for a busy side road. Having a bad foot, I didn't even try to keep up. I jumped into my car and the race was on. Would I be able to catch up, make it past the donkeys, and turn them before they made the road or not? I gripped the wheel and drove like a mad woman with stones flying as my tires bounced over the uneven stony ground. Luckily I was able to outdistance the herd just short of the road and turned them (doesn't this sound like a movie plot?) back the way they had come.

The only good thing I could find about this morning was the fact that donkeys are herd animals and are not inclined to separate from each other. I can't even imagine the scenario of them going off in five different directions. Horrors! Returning back up the lane, they stopped short of the barn to graze on a grassy knoll. Leaving well enough alone, I prudently decided to stay in the car and watch them while I explored my options. It was with welcome relief, that about 10 minutes later, the owner and his wife showed up and the three of us herded the five donkeys into a pen. Hee Haw! Round-up completed in just under an hour of high jinx.

For more "Perils of Plein Air Painting" stories be sure to see posts at right for March, 2010.

Monday, May 3, 2010


"Clara", 16x20", oil on canvas panel
Copyright, 2010 by Sharon Griffes Tarr

Balancing artistic integrity and a clients vision in a commission can be a daunting task for an artist. In "Clara", as compelling and endearing as the subject was, the painting of it offered numerous unique problems that had to be dealt with prior to and during the painting process. I'd like to share these with you.

First, the photograph provided by the client did not include the entire figure of the child or in her reflection. Secondly, she had already grown past this age and was no longer available to me as a model. To resolve the lack of legs and feet in the photograph, I simply hired another child as a model to replicate her extremeties. While not perfect these references were sufficient to at least create a believable reflected image.

The second issue to be dealt with was which to emphasize, the child or the reflection? I chose to down play the main figure except for the face around the nose and eye and to increase the color and light contrasts in the reflection, thus directing the viewers eye to the mirrored image. Keeping edges appropriately soft between the two was also a delicate balancing act. Consequently, there was, in my mind and in my brush, an ongoing yin yang between the two images. Throughout, I had to constantly consider and reevaluate relationships so as not to lose the original intent.

On the choice of pigments, I chose to modify what has come to be known as the "Zorn Palette". In reality, it is a Victorian palette of Ivory black, Titanium white, yellow ochre and red (Zorn used Vermilion). To this I added Cobalt blue, chose Permanent Red Medium for my red, and changed to yellow ochre pale. I used thinned down Transparent Red Oxide to establish shapes and suggest features during the initial block in. This slightly expanded palette allowed me to execute the warm and cool contrasts of Zorn and Sargent while effectively capturing the child's warm flesh tones. Overall, I am well pleased with the outcome of this painting feeling it captured all that was intended. The plus side of this is that my clients were delighted and that validates my creative efforts.
Footnote: This from the client who commissioned "Clara". "Your 'Clara" still takes our breath away." So lovely!"