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Art is my muse. From art, I receive an endless supply of inspiration.
While I like to think that I an in charge of the creative process and am inspiring the painting, I am finding instead that the creative process of art is actually inspiring me.

Here is an example.

The idea of painting a bird series started when I was doing a small watercolor on one of those commercially produced blank watercolor cards that I planned to send to a friend (Perspective 1). Unexpectedly, this small watercolor painting on a greeting card became a source of inspiration for an exploratory series of paintings experimenting with alternative media.

At first I asked, how might this painting have looked if I had used oils instead of watercolors?

Perspective 1: Watercolor and ink, 4” x 6”

When I first noticed the birds, they were running as a glorious team in front of ocean waves softly rolling into the beach, the birds hurriedly capturing their meal of tiny fishes and bugs from the sand as the waves rushed back to the sea.

It was a few hours before winter sunset on the Abacos islands. The birds and I were standing on the beach in the sharp shadows and strongly contrasting light of early dusk. As I stepped closer to them, the birds fearlessly continued to shift back and forth with the waves, their legs moving quickly and in unison. It was fascinating to watch them perform with such measured uniformity of step. When I walked a bit too close for their comfort they started to skitter away.

And it is that particular moment, when they shifted their attention, that I wanted to paint.

Perspective 2: Oil painting, 22” x 28”

After completing the small watercolor sketch (Perspective 1), I decided to try again in oils on canvas, this time with greater attention to the late afternoon ocean colors, but still using a similar structure for the painting, resulting in Perspective 2. This oil painting reflected more stillness with most of the movement being from the waves washing against the shore while the birds stayed in position enjoying feeding time while small waves washed over them.

I decided to try the painting again and increase the commotion in the picture.

Wet- on- wet background in watercolor

To do this, I started by preparing a background of wet-on-wet watercolors on paper. Once this dried, I then watercolored over it and also used ink to complete the painting. The resultant painting called Perspective 3 is below. It did have the desired feel of commotion while also adding new lines and shades of interpretation.

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Perspective 3: Watercolor on paper, 8” x 11”

Moving on, I tried again, this time asking, can I replicate this painting using a digital arts package such as Procreate?

I started by using a photo of the same wet-on-wet watercolor background that was used for painting Perspective 3 and super-imposed graphics over it. The birds were superimposed over the photo as were shades of color and selected lines. This was experimental on my part and was a first attempt at actually using digital arts for a painting . Here is what happened (Perspective 4).

Perspective 4: Digital Art using Procreate on an I-Pad

It struck me as odd that the only way I could produce Perspective 4 was to print it out, or I would have no physical evidence of my art piece. But that is the nature of digital design.

I also did one piece that was digital only, just for fun and it is Perspective 5. This time I focused attention to the birds’ positioning, letting the motion be implied by the waves .

Perspective 5: Digital Art

Finally, I returned to the physicality of oil paints and canvas and tried the same idea as an abstraction and this is what happened.

I continued to keep a similar structure in my mind while attempting to tell the story of the birds through color variations, brush movements and paint textures. My goal was to leave the feeling of moving water and birds without actually painting them as objects, resulting in Perspective 6.

This was also a challenge for me as I have struggled to reach all the way to abstraction and beyond impressionism. This time I think I made it.


Perspective 6: Oil painting on canvas,” 22’ x 28”

What did I learn from all these variations on the same painting?

What I learned is that the perspective that I take affects the outcome more that I ever might expect, even when the goal or intention of the painting is roughly the same.

As an analogy, if I were writing a story and I choose to write it in the first person, or the third person, it changes the orientation of the story. If I choose this actor or that actor to play the part in a play, or make a remark, the perspective of the story subtly shifts. If I choose these words over others, the entire mood of the short story may change.

The resultant stories that we tell or write have their own lives, independent of the writer’s or the story teller’s original intention. This is true, as well for art.

I believe that this is why it feels so daring to paint and why sometimes people may initially shy away from trying it. It is because each piece of art has a life of its own. It is because of what we may reveal in the process and may not necessarily expect. Perhaps we don’t even initially know this is going to be the painting we have in mind. But now that it is completed we see it as a real and independent construct that may, perhaps, be scrutinized by others, reinterpreted and possibly shared in new ways.

It is very daring to go through this creative endeavor, almost always resulting in further development and inspiration.

Art remains my muse.

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I call this oil painting “Beginnings”.

It went through several iterations and is part of a project that I am working on.

Beginnings, in oils on canvas, 22” x 28”

There is a feeling of satisfaction and a type of introspection going on in my head when doing a creative study such as this as I freely put up the colors and textures where I want them, adding them with a joyous sort of freedom.

This is the first abstract I have tried that I sense is complete. It is a complete thought, an idea that I envisioned using a brush and some paints.

I don’t want to touch it.

No mini maneuvering would improve it for me. It is a new beginning, unexplained and free.

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Water color collage
Cut up pieces of watercolor art glued on poster board

Some time ago when the Global Pandemic was first announced and before there were Covid vaccines, we were in our home for long periods of time. I started taking some zoom art classes. One very enjoyable zoom class was conducted by the artist Poca Kim and was offered through the Oregon Society of Artists.

Painted over with acrylic

Through our zoom meetings, Poca Kim introduced me to the idea of cutting up old watercolor and acrylic paintings to inspire new paintings. I made a number of collages using old paintings that I had no intention of using. I imagined myself peering into cities from what might be a prison, but also might be tree trunks.

At the time that I did these collages, I thought that I was viewing the city from the perspective of the safety of nature. Looking back on these photos, I now see that I was also indirectly messaging the idea of viewing the world from a sort of prison-like setting of a Global Pandemic.

Much like a diary, old paintings tell stories too.

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The Flight, Watercolor and Ink

This watercolor painting, The Flight, was completed as a two-step maneuver. First, I laid out the background to the painting as wet-on-wet watercolors, so that the ocean, beach sand and light would move back and forth as a series of reflections. Once dried, I superimposed the birds in flight, using a combination of watercolor and ink.

In my earlier attempts to paint these birds, I figured out their positions and got them arranged and interacting with the water in useful ways, but still felt that there was more to do than simply positioning. Somehow, the division between birds and water held and I wanted them to be more intertwined. I wanted the birds to be in transition to flight and to represent this by mixing the various approaches to water, the concept of time, the colors of reflections, making it more chaotic. This time, I feel that I got the movement back into the painting as I had initially wanted.

Using this same technique of wet-on-wet followed by ink, I also painted the birds in a more regal way, as they stand, pre-positioned in the water for flight, but not yet moving. The colors of the background are less agitated with reds, and the birds are positioned more stably in the water.

What did I learn from this exercise? I learned that it takes patience to incorporate new techniques into paintings.

I feel that I am finally back on track for painting with my natural style, but with the privilege of understanding some new techniques recently learned from exchanges with other painters. Taking lessons and studying under other painters both digs up new ideas, and also dredges up old habits, allowing these new ideas and old habits to interact, creating new opportunities, but also feelings of frustration.

I am happy to continue working across these two major zones of learning and intuition with new paintings, and am thankful for the lessons learned.

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Haystack Reflections, water color, 8″ by 11″

Water color of a monstrous rock that juts out along the Oregon Coast, near Cannon Beach, a popular place for photographs.

Haystack Rock monumentally interrupts the horizon while proving irresistible to soaring birds and crashing waves. It is an awesome place.

The number of reflections that play off of it feel infinite, whether it is bathed in sunshine or covered by fog.

Haystack Rock, personal photo

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Hopeful Thoughts

This week we lost a dear friend

who will be remembered in our thoughts,

while mingling with the past,

of days long ago,

when our children were young

and our futures unknown.

A dear friend missed, held quietly in our hearts and minds,

as a bright and hopeful thought

of loyalty, honesty, humor and love.

The Past

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This painting of the birds went through a number of transitions.  Each painting that I did on the way, holds personal meaning for me.

I like to paint something using different perspectives, over a period of time. Depending upon my mood and what medium I am using, a painting may be completed in a few minutes.  At other times, it may result in a long and more “drawn out” relationship with the subject that has many layers and glazes of paint.  

In this water color and ink painting shown immediately below, my relationship with these birds started out in a rather carefree manner.  It was a small painting, only 4″ x 6″, and I wanted it to be an inspiration for a larger painting on the same subject.  I did this watercolor and ink in a matter of a few minutes.

The Birds (Watercolor and ink)

What is it about this tiny watercolor painting that feels so big and bold?  It is actually a very small painting, but I feel that it has the sense of being large. I like the way that the reflections and shadows of the birds dance around in the swirling sand and water. The birds’ dark shadows disrupt the soft  blue, reflective water as ocean waves press and pull the birds inward and outward, while they scurry around and search for food.

When I paint them again, this time in mostly transparent oils, using a much larger canvas, the mood changes.  The birds become steadier, and more firmly geometrically situated, implying a kind of calligraphy on the canvas.

(Oil)

If I had all the canvas and space in the world, I would not continually paint over what I have painted, but would keep each stage as a chapter of a “book painting”.

(Oil)

Moving from moody and earth toned, I start adding brighter oil colors to the proposed calligraphy of birds.

As this process progresses, the version of the painting becomes less calligraphic, but instead allows each bird and wave to be individually reflected upon.

In the end, I chose to leave the final painting lighter, softer, and less moody than how I started, mainly by smoothing out the ocean water’s movements and lightening it up through a series of tonal washers, or glazes. In the finished painting, the beach was a softer, lighter color of browns than the dark brown birds with their white bellies, offering some contrast between them, but not creating strong calligraphic marks as I initially had. Here is the result.

The Birds (Oil)

This dialogue between the birds and me has been prolonged through quiet moments of shifting dispositions and is now turning into several months of visitation. Our conversation is so interesting that I am sure we could continue this dialogue for several months more. However, I am getting restless.

It is now time to move on, to try new ways of thinking with paint.

What did I learn from this painting? I learned that the quick movements of inspiration are hard to keep. But perhaps they are not for keeping. What they do instead, is attract the painter to the idea of the painting. One might stop there. Or one may press forward and consider the depth of the attraction, sometimes realizing that at the end of the painting, there is a relationship over time rather than a single result.

My painting are already abstract, but I hope to play with abstraction even more. The aim is to keep the thought, without committing completely to the shapes, of reality.

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Afghani Girl, oil painting by Mary Chamie

A young Afghani girl, perhaps 10 years old, tries to see the group of foreigners who are traveling through her village. The walking paths between the rural homes are small which does not allow her to get close enough to see what is happening. Other curious onlookers, who also want to see, crowd around the team leaving the young girl on the periphery.

I was leading a United Nations team of international demographers and statisticians, visiting Afghanistan on a potential census assessment, when the frustrated and curious little girl caught my eye.

I noticed her as we were walking a very narrow path when she ran through a back alley and moments later appeared on the roof of a low building next to us. As our team moved forward to visit homes, she kept showing up on the next straw roof. I saw that she was jumping from roof to roof in order to keep up with us. The distance between homes was not far, but she was still brave to be doing so. I was amused by her persistence and quickly photographed her while she knelt down on the roof to watch us. She gave me a shy, satisfied smile, knowing that from her position she could see everything.

Here I am with Kabul, Afghanistan in the background. Photo from census mission, 2003

Since then, I have wondered many times what has happened to her. It was 2003 and she must have been about 10 years old. Now, if she has survived, she is close to 30. Time has marched on, but things are still not easy for the people of Afghanistan. I often wonder, where is she now and how has she fared? Women have recently been ordered by the Taliban, the current government, to cover their faces once again. She is likely wearing the burqa, or bright blue robe that is worn over a woman’s face and body when she is outside of the home, or in the presence of strangers.

When I paint such memories, I am not sure whether to call them paintings, or portraits, or illustrated short stories. But whatever they are, they are often about children whom I care about and wish that I had a better way to keep track of. These children, like the clouds that float by after a heavy rain, or like quick creek waters in the spring that noisily rush by, come and go so quickly, yet they leave lasting effects on the mind. Painting this Afghani girl portrait brings her back to life. I see her wonderful smile again. I remember the palette of her life colors.

Children at Work

Yes, there is artistic beauty in the faces of these rural Afghani children, in their soft beige clothing, adding interest to the modest brown environments in which they live, the mud huts, the clay homes, the straw roofs. The sky above shoots light streams through the nearby foothills of the mountains adding reflective color which further contributes interest to the even-toned homes and softness of people’s clothing and faces, especially at sunrise and sunset.

Below is a combination of photos taken during that 2003 United Nations mission showing the palette that I chose for my painting of this Afghani girl. It is a palette largely of soft browns composed from earth reds and marine blues, with the added bright blues of a woman’s robe.

Palette chosen for this painting

So, here she is, my little girl, this high achiever, who was curious, interested and ready to learn, and certainly very motivated to see what was going on in her unusually disrupted rural village by these teams of foreigners.

I exaggerated the color of the sky to juxtapose it more seriously against the girl’s soft earth reds and browns by mixing marine blue and bright cobalt, to highlight the feeling that one has when one sees the enormous contrast between the color of the sky above and the foothills, the mudded homes and the brown-toned clothing of many people walking the streets.

In this particular painting, I use this improbable blue color to suggest her possible future as a woman tucked under a blue robe, face covered, rather than as she is seen in the portrait, young and free and covered by the bright blue sky.

Photo from United Nations census mission, 2003

For the first part of this blog on painting some of the children I have seen, go to https://marysgardens.blog/2021/05/25/painting-children-on-the-edge/

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In the last six months, I have painted the same canvas numerous times, to reflect on my feelings during this Global Pandemic. It is an old, used canvas that I purchased at Goodwill for a couple of dollars. In the beginning, I painted the entire canvas white with Gesso and then began to use my oils to describe how I feel.

It all started with a celebratory painting filled with color and exploding with light, when things were looking good, the first major surge of COVID illness subsiding,  people standing in long lines to get vaccinated, distances softening and it looked as though the pandemic was coming to a conclusion….but

Early Sunrise

It followed with a shift in color and emphasis based on the fact that there was a significant portion of the population refusing to be vaccinated even when vaccines were offered for free. Ironically, there are numerous individuals in other places eager to be vaccinated, without any access to vaccinations at all. The blues began settling in.

The Blues

Pausing with bright colors to consider whether the fog will ever lift, whether we will ever make it to the other side of this global pandemic, whether it might be better to soften colors and expectations even further.

Fog Settles In

Gliding softly into sadness about what would happens next, darker blues, softer light, yet still appreciating the silence of ever shifting remoteness.

Night of Darkness

Stuck in gloom as reality hits hard, floating in dark waters, far away from realizing the end of the pandemic. Many more lives are unnecessarily lost, years of schooling missed, food sources cut short, distribution systems weakened, life expectancies shortened, quality of living amended again, even farther, bending to the severe isolation and rapid surge of hospitalizations and deaths, mostly of the unvaccinated, during the pandemic.

Doomed

Hope is lost, the painting reflects on shapeless darkness. In some ways, this particular painting was very satisfying, as I lost myself in the darkness covering the entire canvas in dark blacks, reds and blues.

Then, the painting returns to shape and form, but this time, without much sentimentality. This time, it is based on the assumption that life is short, and that today is all there is.

My conclusion? Any painting we may do about this pandemic is true to life, each varied color and mood may be augmented for differential emphasis on our interpretation as to how things are going.

Not a Chance, But Life is Short

These are my ups and downs of painting during a global pandemic.

I hope that you enjoyed this reading these short notes on painting my way through pandemic blues and may consider sharing your own experiences on this notably historical event as well.

We may no longer write long paper letters, but we do know how to blog our way through tough times.

What’s your story?

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A big part of the enjoyment of art for me, is playing with ideas.

Front yard in moonlight, Abaco, personal photo
Edited version, more focused on light

Interpreted scene, oils
Interpreted scene, ink
Interpreted scene, Water color
Personal Photo of our front yard, Abacos

Do I go forward with an oil painting of this, with more vivid colors?

Or should I play with something even more abstract?

What will be gained from taking this to a different concept of artistic thought?

Will anything be learned about its value as a setting?

If I do take such a leap, how can I add to the idea of luminescence?

What is it that lures artists to repeat paintings, differently?

Perhaps life, itself?

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