All posts by Nancy Reyner

Why is Art So Confusing?

Ever been to a museum or art gallery and can’t figure out why a painting is on exhibit? It may not look finished, make sense, feel attractive, or give any idea of its meaning. I recently received an email from a New York City artist asking for help in understanding a painting by the surrealist Yves Tanguy (pictured below) that he saw in the Museum of Modern Art, titled “He Did What He Wanted”, painted in1927. In his email the artist said he tried to figure it out, knew it was surreal, but still felt lost. Even the wisest of us can feel a bit miffed while viewing an art exhibition. Here are some ideas I have on this topic:

Art comes in a wide variety
Our world is diverse. There are many different types and styles of paintings, as well as people, each of us with a different perspective, different ways of viewing and creating art. So it follows that there will always be some art we prefer, others we don’t, and some that we will not comprehend, and may not care to either. If you don’t understand it, or like it, just move on until you find one that interests you.

Being on display does not always designate quality
Museums are educational institutions. They collect art for a wide variety of reasons, but in general try to purchase works that had an impact in the way we now view art history. Viewing an artwork on display in a museum, with our contemporary eyes, may not give us any connection unless we know about that artist or artwork, or have donned a pair of headphones. Even if this artwork is created by a designated “master”, this may not be their best work. That is because great masters like all artists, created a wide variety of  works, and some may be great while others are lukewarm. Museums may only be able to purchase a lesser quality work by a master due to finances or market availability. Keep in mind that just because a work of art is in a museum it may not be of high quality, and it may not speak to us.

If the work doesn’t communicate anything to you, then let it go and move on to another image that does. Its more fun to keep looking for work that moves us then spend time with ones that don’t. When I go to a museum I give myself one and a half hours max. After that I no longer have the viewing attention. In that time I wander around in search of one painting that will really move me. Once I find that one work I will stand in front of it for long periods of time to soak it in. What I am soaking in is not always intellectual or analyzed, but more emotional or felt. I go to a museum for that experience, not to see if I can understand all the works that are on display. Sometimes I will go to a certain exhibit to see what the curator had in mind – try to figure out what the educational message is from the show as a whole. But in general I like to view art for the “high”, the emotional and spiritual impact I can get. This, then, gives me motivation to keep painting, to see that art does and continues to have value to the human spirit.

About Ives Tanguy
As I first mentioned, in the email that inspired this article was a painting by Ives Tanguy. Here is a link to read more about him.

He is very well known as one of the surrealist masters. I am not drawn to this particular work of his, however, I am aware that paintings look very different in person then from a photograph. The full impact of a work of art comes from all the factors, some of which are missing when the work transfers from paint to photograph: factors such as size, surface texture and sheen, quality of the pigment and color refracted by light, handling of the paint, and the artists “signature” in the brushstrokes. So I will keep from making any judgments until my next trip to New York.

Surrealism is an important movement in art history, and is still a major influence in contemporary work. Here is a link to read more about surrealism:

During the time when surrealism was popular to a specific group of artists, there were other parallel movements in the culture such as the early development of contemporary psychology. Surrealism is based on our collective unconscious, so images, forms, shapes and colors are utilized to create a dream-like state in the viewer, and to evoke personal connections. This was a big deviation from other works of that time, that strove to create a very specific place, time and snapshot of reality. This particular work by Tanguy presents a grouping of forms (geometric and “real”) in a landscape that will mean different things to each of us. As Carl Jung discovered, there are certain forms that mean the same thing to us, thus forming our collective, which is better stated in his books on the collective unconscious. When we look at historic works with contemporary eyes we may not find anything of interest. I do believe, though, that a really great work of art will connect to our human spirit in some way throughout time.

Ives Tanguy, “He Did What He Wanted”, 1927

Nancy Reyner, painter, author and instructor offers assistance to artists in a variety of ways. Click here for more info.

Thoughts on Space for Painting

“Space…..the final frontier, where no man has gone before”. Does anyone still remember that famous opening line from Star Trek? It’s been coming to my mind lately since I will be offering a talk entitled: Transitional Space in the Creative Process.

The location venue where I will be speaking has monthly art talks, attended mostly by artists, so I am looking forward to keeping the talk open, throwing out some thoughts on the topic, sprinkling in a few new concepts, and allowing time for open forum discussion.

Here are some of my current thoughts so far on the topic:

Both “space” and “transition” are vital words for art and artists. As a painter, my work is presented in a two dimensional format of paint on canvas. Engaging a viewer by moving an image from the flat format into the experience of three dimensions is my greatest challenge. In my opinion, powerful painting expresses this experience of space, along with the potential to move the viewer’s experience from the mundane to divine. Painting then, creates the space to transition the viewer’s experience.

Space as it relates to art, can be seen metaphorically and literally; and plays an important role in art-making. From the architecture of my studio space to the objects and images positioned in my periphery, these all affect the work itself often emerging into the image like shadows. A certain mental space is required too, as I paint from both sides of my brain, alternating left- and right-brain modes with a constant flow. Space is needed to transition from everyday thinking to the inner psychological space necessary for me to do my work.

Got any thoughts on this? Then please add your comment.

Nancy Reyner, painter, author and instructor offers assistance to artists in a variety of ways. Click here for more info.

Zen & the Art of Viewing a Painting

When watching a film or listening to music there is a linear way these works of art unfold to our eye or ear. A movie and a music performance both take a fixed amount of time to absorb from start to finish. While viewing a painting we might not be aware of a similar linear process that’s involved. I’ve heard through museum researchers that the average time a person looks at a painting is 3 seconds. It is possible (and probably the norm) to take in a lot of visual stimuli all at once whether viewing a painting or just being in every day life. Obviously there is no fixed amount of time to view a painting, however I have found that if I slow down the viewing process while taking in a painting, my eyes seem to move through the piece like they’re on a road trip.

I spent some time investigating this phenomenon and found that I tend to view a painting starting on the left side and working my way across towards the right. I wonder if this is related to the fact that as an American I read from left to right. Perhaps those in other countries whose language is read from right to left might find the reverse is true. At any rate, paintings are their most inviting when there is some “entrance” on the left side of the painting. This could be anything that creates a diagonal movement into the work. It could be a light ray, a path, a tree branch, a figure, a brushstroke, anything that has an angle. If, however, there is some shape or form on the far left that is completely vertical, running up and down along the left side of the painting, then it can create a visual barrier. Without some sort of inviting angle, the viewer might not be compelled to look at the painting for more than a quick glance.

After some practice of viewing paintings in slow motion I have found even more surprising discoveries. Once the eye gains entrance on the left, it will happily move towards something bright colored, or something with high contrast that contains a light value (like white) next to a dark value (like black). This just scratches the surface of the visual tendencies I’ve found. If anyone is interested perhaps I’ll write more in my next blog. In conclusion, I have found that the more the eye can travel on a journey through the painting, the longer the viewing experience, and the more potential for creating a fulfilling visual and aesthetic experience.

Nancy Reyner, painter, author and instructor offers assistance to artists in a variety of ways. Click here for more info.

Adding a Warm Glow

A painter emailed me about his recent acrylic landscape. He said it looked realistic but did not have the uplifting feeling that says “buy me”. He wrote, “I then applied a mat glaze of yellow to warm it up, but it looked like a boring painting with a yellow mat glaze. I then gave it a yellow gloss glaze hoping for a beautiful day, the sun’s out feeling, but it looked like a dull painting with two glazes! Please help!”

First I would like to suggest to add more faith in your process, reducing the amount of energy that goes into frustration when the painting doesn’t look INCREDIBLE every time you do one layer, one brush stroke, one thing. Doubting, frustration and critical judging at each step is usually a waste of time and energy. It also puts you in a place of indecision.

So that said, now a few tips on glazing techniques.

(A glaze is a transparent mixture made with about 50-70% medium and the remaining amount with paint color. For more information on this please see the several previous blog entries I’ve made on this site on glazing).

With acrylic I noticed that it takes 3 or 4 layers of a glaze to equal the refraction that oil offers in 1 layer. So when you decide to add a yellow glaze over your painting to warm it up, first apply one layer of a glaze made with a warm yellow like Cadmium Medium or Hansa Yellow Medium. Then when that dries, apply another layer of a cool yellow glaze like Green Gold or Hansa Yellow Light. When that dries add yet another layer of a high powered modern color glaze like Nickel Azo Gold.

As you apply each layer try to apply it unevenly, so that you have more of the color on one side or one area then the other. (I like to accomplish this not by using more quantity of glaze – I like THIN glazes – but by applying pure medium in some areas first, then when the glaze goes over that area it becomes more transparent.) Then when you apply the next layer change the way this next color is applied (more color – less transparent on a different side or area than the last layer). This way you are adding a yellow tone to the painting, but you are also creating a richer quality by using multiple layers. And working with it unevenly adds to the illusion of depth much more than when you apply equal layers that change the whole surface of the painting the same.

Another tip: To get an antique effect, or add a warm feeling to a painting (especially great with landscapes or portraits) I like to use a glaze of Quinacridone Nickel Azo Gold. These paint colors are incredibly rich, so use extremely small amounts of the color in larger quantities of medium. Test a glaze prior to use for strength of color before applying it directly to your painting by applying it over an unused surface or piece of paper, then blow dry it for fast results.

Nancy Reyner, painter, author and instructor offers assistance to artists in a variety of ways. Click here for more info.

Lickable Art

Over dinner last night with my friend Destiny Allison, I was describing my litmus test for paintings that I liked by using the word “lick-able”. She laughed about it, and agreed that the tactile quality or sensuousness of the painted surface is an important factor for her too. After dinner while viewing a nearby gallery’s exhibition, I found that I would first go very close to each painting, practically sticking my nose in them, to see what the surface was like. I noticed that many of the paintings had a thin layer of paint – not as interesting as a glaze or a wash – just a simple plain layer that had no seductive quality to it. A glaze would be a thin layer that glows with the extra medium in it, and a wash would sink into the surface creating an interesting stain. No, these artists were obviously oblivious to surface quality, and used the paint sparingly, almost as if they were afraid of using too much paint. Or maybe afraid of the paint itself. In other words, I didn’t feel like licking, touching or otherwise longingly gazing over the surface. I also noticed that it didn’t matter whether the paintings were abstract or realistic, and unless first entranced by the surface, I never stuck around long enough to notice the subject matter. When a painter has the intent to create a seductive surface that supports the image or subject matter of the piece, the painting, in my opinion, moves into a higher realm by engaging more sensory experiences. And when the painter has a surface consciousness while painting, it adds this dimension naturally. This surface quality I am writing about is not to be confused with texture. Texture can add a tactile quality and make the surface more interesting (sometimes) but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings have a wonderful lickable quality while the paint is, in general, fairly smoothly applied. If you look closely at her work (in person, of course) you can see her brush strokes moving in various playful directions holding a variety of paint qualities. Yum!!! I would gladly bet that Georgia herself actually thought of licking the surface with her brush while painting. I mean, come on, we can enjoy the simple surface qualities of photographs and prints, but a real live painting in person when painted with the intent to create a seductive surface will get me every time!

Using Textiles in Painting

An artist emailed me about a painting she saw that used strands of burlap fabric glued onto a canvas for texture. She noticed that some strands were flat against the canvas, while others were stiff enough to hold their shape away from the canvas, and asked how this technique could be accomplished on an acrylic painting.

I agree that texture from textiles like burlap can be very attractive in a painting. For gluing this type of substantial fabric I recommend a thick matte gel, like Golden’s Regular or Heavy Gel Matte. The heavy gel will hold it well, and using the matte gel instead of gloss will ensure you won’t have shiny areas showing through where the gel might seep out. If you are using just strands of the fabric, then a softer gel like Soft Gel Matte would suffice.

To stiffen fabric, before gluing, apply a fabric stiffener onto the fabric (like Golden’s GAC400, or rabbit skin glue), letting it dry before gluing as directed above. Alternatively, wait to apply the fabric stiffener onto the strands that end up away from the canvas after gluing.

Creation and Empowered Thinking

Recently an artist from Germany emailed me asking some deep questions about art. She and her friends, it appears, are worrying about whether people will still buy paintings, the high cost of painting materials, and the idea of making a living as an artist. She commented that daily life is changing so fast and asked if “human beings would still pay attention to timeless and peaceful paintings and then to purchase them?” She went on to comment that “here in my country most of the people believe, if you dream to be an artist (creating art with high-quality materials, etc.) you are nothing but a dreamer. They think art was, is and will be unprofitable.” These broad generalizations are frequently heard in my artistic community as well. So after giving her email much thought, I answered her as follows:

In my opinion, there are two belief systems in general. One is that things happen TO us, in which case our only option is to react or respond. The other is that we are at the center of  things that happen to us. This is a more empowering belief system, enabling us to create our own reality. It means we have a say in what happens to us through our thinking. The first belief system puts us in victim mode, while the latter allows us to feel empowered. I choose the latter.

This means that I am optimistic while I create. I do the best I can while making my art, by using high quality materials, thinking expansively, allowing my imagination its fullest scope, and feeling GOOD while I make my work. I like to imagine that someone else will find the work beautiful, and will feel connected enough to it that they will want to own or buy the work. If I am not empowered in this way, and don’t have feelings of joy and optimism while working, then the painting will not contain that special quality that makes it desirable, effective, powerful and communicative.

There is no such thing in my mind as “nothing but a dreamer”. Instead I believe we are nothing if not dreamers. In my world (which is created not by where I live or which country, but by who and what I attract around me) paintings are selling, artists are freely creating, and life is good. I believe that if you put your heart, mind and soul into creating the best paintings you can right now, and pay attention to keeping the negative doubting thoughts to a minimum, your work will attract its proper appreciative audience. You may need to travel a bit to see more art and more art audiences to keep your thinking as broad as possible. And you may find that what appears to be a limited art community is actually only limited by your own mind. As for the value of timeless and peaceful paintings, I can’t imagine why I (or anyone else) would want to live without reminders that we as human beings are timeless and are hardwired to strive for love and peace. Isn’t that what art is for?

The “S” Curve

At a recent gallery show, exhibiting my new series of gold leaf paintings, I heard a comment about Hogarth’s S-Curve. I’ve heard of subtle compositional tools or structures such as angles, curves, symmetry, and geometry to create order and movement in a work, but had not heard of Hogarth before. I went on-line and found some interesting information, noticing I tend to use this “S” thing quite a lot in my work.

William Hogarth, a British painter from the 1700’s, wrote a book called The Analysis of Beauty, which I just ordered on-line and am looking forward to reading it.

A search on Hogarth’s S-Curve turned up the following definition:

“Notion in compositional theory that objects arranged on an S-shaped line suggest grace and beauty.” click here

I also found a nice description from Terry Grant on-line:

“Hogarth proposed that the essence of beauty of line in painting, drawing, nature and design is not the simple geometry of a straight line or circle, or more subtle shapes such as the ellipse, but of curves that modulate from one gradient to another. Such a curve, the “S” curve is such a structure and he called it “the line of beauty”. According to his theory, S-Shaped curved lines signify liveliness and activity and excite the attention of the viewer as contrasted with straight lines, parallel lines, or right-angled intersecting lines which signify stasis, death, or inanimate objects. He goes on to say that the S curve is the basis of all great art.” click here

For more information on Hogarth and examples of his work: click here

To see more of my work in this series (with very noticeable S curves) click here

When Ideas Flow

I was reminded last night how some of my best ideas come when I least expect it. Why is that? Often I put in long hard days toiling away at my paintings. The next morning I survey the lot and just can’t see that any progress has been made. It’s as if I worked in a circle, gaining some ground, then taking steps backwards only to start all over. Its during these times that every so often I’ll give up, stop painting, and do something else.

Yesterday I pondered some new canvases for a long time, feeling uninspired. Thankfully I had enough insight to see it was one of “those times” where its best not paint and take a break. I rented a movie (Woody Allen’s latest), made a chocolate ice cream sundae, and got into bed early with a good book (The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson). It was only several minutes into reading my book, while my mind was completely off duty, that I got a complete vision for my next painting series. I woke up this morning with a fresh outlook, armed with new territory to conquer, and inspired enthusiasm.

So again I ask, why is that? I believe our mind, although mysterious and amazing, is still somewhat limited. Our mind constantly absorbs things from the outside through our senses, combining with our own preferential judgments from the inside to create a thought or idea. It keeps very busy absorbing and judging. While we can get some successful ideas from this process, these ideas will usually be limited by what we have been exposed to. When our mind rests, for example during meditation, physical activities, or just plain old fun, then it opens up to a larger universe – our larger selves, our collective unconscious, or divine source. It is here, then, that we can surprise ourselves by accessing ideas that can be totally new.

Onwards then, to more ice cream, movies and nature hikes.

Artists Teaching Art

Dear Nancy,
I am eager to continue building my craft as an artist, but would also like to teach art. How can I work towards becoming a teacher someday? Should I continue to develop my craft?

Thank you for your email. I applaud your desire to teach art, as it is very fulfilling for me, and has given me so much in return. I feel as though teaching has taught me even more than I have taught others. May  I suggest that start by focusing on one aspect in art making that you are really good at, something that you just love to do, something specific and simple. For example, lets say you really like painting with bright colors, or painting a particular style or image, or collage, or working from photos – anything in particular that you already do well. Break it down into steps. Then put up a flyer and teach it to a small group at your studio, library or local art center. You can also try offering your first workshop for free. Or before your workshop, offer a free demonstration of what workshop participants will do. While at the demonstration you can have a sign up list for the workshop. That’s a great way to start. Keep your groups really small at first. Each time you teach that workshop write down what worked and what didn’t. Change the timing, the projects, the supply list, to keep making it better and better. From there you can add students, and try out new workshops as your own work grows. Another suggestion is to take workshops from other teachers and keep notes on what you liked or didn’t like from those. Write your own version of how you would improve that particular class. And yes, always continue to develop your craft. It is your enthusiasm and continued passion for your craft that will enable you to inspire your students.