Wednesday 12 February 2014

The joy of an old book

Books have always been an important part of my life. I love to read, and while I sometimes dabble with e-books, it's paper that I truly love. I'm never without a novel on the go and I have shelves of books in my home. My studio is no exception and it houses a collection of art-related books. There are books on art techniques, the art business, and books about artists: Escher, Stubbs and DaVinci are represented alongside more modern favourites like Bateman and Landsdowne. Every so often I pull one off the shelf and muse through it. And from time to time I add another book to the collection.

The first art books I collected were Birds of the West Coast, Volumes I and II (1980) - beautiful, hard-cover, coffee-table books of paintings by J. F. Lansdowne. This B.C. based artist, who passed away in 2008, portrayed Canada's birds in exquisite detail. His books have and will always be among my favourites. Lately when I found myself hankering to add to my book collection, I did some Internet research and decided to order another of Lansdowne's books: Birds of the Northern Forest, published in 1966. Finding out-of-print books is ridiculously easy online and I had no trouble tracking down a copy.

When I opened the package and saw the jacketless, slightly tattered book inside I have to admit I felt a pang of disappointment.

However when I started leafing through the book and found Lansdowne's signature on the title page, I felt much better. It pleased me to think that the hands which had created such beautiful paintings had touched the pages of this book .

It also pleased me to learn that this was an ex-library book - a public servant of sorts which had been enjoyed and admired by many. As I practically swooned over page after page of exquisite paintings, each accompanied by a sketch or two, I knew I'd made an excellent purchase. However, it was when I settled down and began to read the descriptive text for each species of bird that I realized what gem I held in my hands.

The writer, John A. Livingston, was a Canadian broadcaster, author, staunch environmentalist, and unfortunately a dedicated smoker who succumbed to ailments related to that bad habit nearly a decade ago. While Lansdowne's paintings are, as expected, brilliant, the writing is equally gorgeous. It's richly descriptive - almost poetic! At times it's humorous, making the factual information about each bird all the more entertaining. Plus there are occasional notes about the challenges faced by bird species in the 1960s, such as the use of pesticides and poisons, over-hunting, and habitat loss - problems that are not unfamiliar to us today.

I've had the book lying around in my kitchen since it arrived, so it has yet to make its way into the studio collection. Every day I randomly open it to admire one or two paintings and read the accompanying text. It's be come part of my routine.

To give you a taste, here are a couple of my favourite passages from the book, and they just happen to be about one of my all-time favourite birds, the winter wren. The description fits so aptly it's as though I stood alongside Mr. Livingston in the woods and together we observed the bird:

"With its very stubby tail and dark plumage, and its reluctance to leave the tangled down-timber and mosses of the forest floor, it often resembles a mouse as it darts and scurries about in the security of its almost impenetrable surroundings. Were it not for its song, most times one would never see it."

"The song of the winter wren is one of the marvels of the northern forest. It has no characteristic phrase, no definable structure; it is a glorious welter of pure, crystal notes, a formless babble of tinkling expressions so attenuated as to seem endless."

The next passage taught me something new; it also made me chuckle:

"The male winter wren may build several nests, only one of which may be used. Or, if opportunity arises, he will cheerfully turn polygamist; the extra nests are available for such an eventuality."

Imagine my delight when I walked through my favourite stretch of forest the other day and heard, for the first time this year, the winter wren's signature song. A bout of mild weather must have made him feel that spring was just around the corner, but sub-zero temperatures since then will have reminded him that winter is still very much here. I will never listen to the wren's song again without thinking of Livingston's colourful description.

I've written about my love of wrens before (Something about wrens, Good things in small feathered packages). They frequently appear in my art, including the chair I painted for Critter Care Wildlife Society's fundraiser (A forest grows... in a chair). With inspiration fortified by a nearly-50-year-old book, I'm confident these marvellous little birds will continue to be featured in drawings and paintings yet to come. 

A recent study I made of a winter wren,
painted with dyes on silk.

This book has made me feel like I am, in my own small way, part of the legacy of creative individuals whose passion for birds, animals and the natural world lives through the art they produce and at some point leave behind.

I will treasure Birds of the Northern Forest, keep it safe while it's in my hands, and hope that it will be equally loved by its next owner. I might even share some more passages on this blog at a future date. And given there are more beloved books on my studio shelves, I suspect some time I'll be writing about the joy of another old book.

If you'd like to see and hear a winter wren in action, here's a link to a delightful Youtube video.

Saturday 1 February 2014

When success can be measured by tears

Over the years I've created countless portraits of people's beloved animals - the dogs, horses and cats who enriched the lives of their humans. I started as a teenager when I ran a classified ad in the local paper and for $25 or so would make a pastel or pencil portrait from a photograph. 

During that period, I made this oil pastel drawing of a collie from a photo I found in an old book. Remind you of anyone?

An unknown collie I drew in 1975.
A premonition perhaps?

A photo of my collie Riley
 taken a few years ago.

That was just the beginning. Here are a couple of portraits I created in the 1980s (with apologies for the image quality; photography technology - not to mention my photography skills - has made remarkable improvements since then):

My career as an artist has evolved and matured but commissioned portraits are still an important part of my art practice. I know many artists who don’t much like working on a commission basis and I understand why. It’s the kind of work that contradicts the typical artistic temperament. For one thing, it involves creating a piece of art about a subject that’s not of the artist’s own choosing. For another, there are often deadlines involved – particularly when the portrait is destined to be a gift – and that can generate the kind of stress that's not conducive to creativity. And thirdly, the artwork has to measure up to the client’s expectations as well as satisfying the artist. It's not the ideal scenario for highly individualistic artist-types who prefer to do things their own way, in their own time, on their own terms! But I feel like I’ve developed strategies that have helped me flourish as a commission artist.

First off, I stick with what I know: animals. In the portrait business that usually means dogs, horses or cats, and these are all critters with which I’ve had lots of personal experience. I believe each and every one of them is special, unique and interesting – beautiful in their own way even when they’re missing an eye or an ear, or when the signs of advancing age or a difficult life are clearly visible. If they pose a particular challenge I embrace it, knowing it will push me to expand my boundaries and encourage artistic growth.

This little Boston Terrier pup was one such project. He had been very, very special but his life, during which he had lost an eye, had been brief. Only a handful of grainy Polaroid photos were available. Sometimes an old-fashioned magnifying glass sure comes in handy!

But you might wonder how I generate a personal connection with animals I don't meet in person. After all, I have talked before about my firm conviction that creating a meaningful piece of art requires an emotional investment on the part of the artist.

In a perfect scenario, I certainly prefer to meet my animal portrait subjects. When that’s not possible, the next best thing is to hear the animal’s story as told by his/her devoted human. I can form an emotional attachment to an animal in the blink of an eye (I’m not sure if that’s a gift or simply a bizarre personality quirk) and when I hear their story I have little trouble making a personal connection. I envision what they were like and what it would have been like to be around them. I can almost smell them and feel the warmth of their bodies! 

A portrait for a long-distance client.
From what I was told about this horse,
I felt like I knew him!

I truly appreciate what each and every one of these animals means to their human(s) and I feel empathy for that bond. Even if my client can only supply a handful of not-so-great photos, I jump in with both feet with the goal of making a perfect portrait. 

From this particular selection of photos...

...and from what I learned from my client about each cat, his/her personality, and their lives together, I created this portrait:

Listening to the stories also helps me get to know my human client and what their expectations might be. If they’ve come to me for a portrait, I know they’ve seen my work and appreciate what I do, so we’re already half-way there! It’s up to me to help iron out the details and also to figure out how to make the portrait perfect. Collaboration is important – both I and my client must be satisfied with the end result. They’ve come to me for my expertise but their input is crucial. After all, I’m making art for them.

The last issue, the one of deadlines, can be challenging. I find the best thing is to be transparent about what’s possible and what’s not, to reorganize schedules as needed, and devote some late-night hours when necessary. Creativity under time constraints is not ideal but it’s a reality of the work. I’m never averse to working hard.

I’m always just a little nervous when it’s time to unveil the finished artwork. Even though I am an emotional person when it comes to animals, I’m often surprised at the depth of feeling my clients display when they first see their animal’s portrait. Very often there are tears. This makes total sense to me when it's a portrait of a dear, departed companion or one who's nearing the end of his/her life’s journey, but when the critters are alive and well with many happy years ahead, I never fail to be caught off guard. However, tears are a sure sign I’ve done a good job! I always keep a box of tissues handy.

It’s not always easy, but art-making has got to be among the most satisfying work there is. When I can bring tears of joy to the eyes of a fellow animal lover, it’s particularly so.

This little cutie is my next subject.
You'll be able to see her portrait in a few weeks' time.

If you'd like to learn more about the portraits I create, visit the 
portraits page of my website. Over time some of them have been featured in my blog and you'll see them if you read back through the archive of postings. Most notable are Evolution of a PortraitA Father's Day Gift, Portrait of a Best Friend, and recently My New Friends.