Small test print
I’ve never done a small test/sketch print before. I always do drawings first, but not prints. However, with the new larger size I’m working (at least part of the time), it suddenly makes more sense. That’s a huge time commitment, and I saw a printmaker I follow on IG do a test print and thought, yes! Also it’s a chance to print at several different places in the carving process and see what I think. So here is a small test print of a tree tunnel just outside of Auvers-sur-Oise, just up a small path from the cemetery where Vincent and Theo are buried together. I went two years ago and went back several days later to sketch it again. Both times I got distracted by color and texture and straightened the tree out more than I meant to. So when I went to do a print, I pulled out my reference photos along with the sketch. The sketch captures what grabbed me about the scene, the photo helped me get the shape truer to what it is. Here are the sketch plus my more careful drawing for the print.
I almost never do reduction prints because once you cut away, you can’t put it back again. And I have trouble planning in my head several layers without being able to see them put together and then adjust them. So I usually do several blocks. But for this small test print (and a simple, two part image), I printed the green at two different stages first and then cut away more for the black to go on top, printing the solo black somewhere between those two stages. I still cut away more of the green than I think was good. I’ll go back in with markers or paint and play on top of these proofs before doing the bigger one. But I think it may be possible, with that level of preparation, to do a simple reduction instead of doing two separate blocks. That would definitely be less carving and also less expensive, buying one larger block instead of two.
Here is what the two different base layers of green looked like before I printed on top of them. I wish I’d left the green a little higher along the horizon line. That’s one thing I’d like to play with and likely change in a larger version.
I spent a couple more days doing intricate and steady work on my current prints, but tonight I was missing my sketchbook. The Memphis Urban Sketchers had a "virtual sketch crawl" today (Saturdays are our normal days), so I wanted to join in. I sit on the sofa a lot in the evenings, but this is my other favorite spot. I'm grateful, so grateful, that I had spent the last year working to make my house a warmer, more pleasant place to be. This corner is one of my new happy places.
I just framed the poster last month to remember a really pivotal show for me. It was a solo exhibition of Berthe Morisot, and she's my new art hero. She just flat out went for it. She was showing in the salon in her 20's and then showed at every Impressionist exhibition that they put together themselves. Frustratingly, fully half of the show was from private collections. Museums just weren't collecting her when they were sucking up every available male impressionist canvas. And her work is amazing. One critic called her "the angel of the incomplete" because of her confident, calligraphic style.
After I saw her show, plus another current woman artist show, also at the Musee d'Orsay, two different friends challenged me to go for it if what I wanted was another museum show. My first, at Dixon, was a career moment, but I'd been having this "what now?" feeling ever since. I don't see ever landing in the Orsay, but Morisot's gumption and drive made me redouble my efforts, and I was awarded a show at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art for 2022. Which, given the current world situation, is perfect. And I'm so glad for something really exciting to work towards just now. It's been a huge bright spot for me lately.
I just hung all these for this weekend’s Open Studio, but it occurs to me that some of you might be too far away (or too busy) to make it to midtown Memphis just now. Here is the batch of small edible still lifes that are available this holiday season. The two oils have deep gallery sides and are ready to hang, and all the watercolors and gouaches are framed and ready to go. The oils are 8” square, and the others are in the 10-12” range. $225 each. It’s fun to see them hanging up all in a group in my hallway, but I’d be happy for anyone who wants to give the present of an eternal eclair or perfect avocado to take one home.
Once a year, a painting just flows as I work on it and is better in front of me than the vision I had been hoping for. It’s magic, and it’s what hooked me on being an artist. That happened for me the first time when I was 14 painting in a Memphis College of Art summer kid session. Sadly, it doesn’t happen often. Even after decades of making art, usually what comes out never matches the vision in my head when I started. Which doesn’t mean I’m not proud of my work, but it does mean I always see the bits I wish were different.
I was struggling to paint all summer, and it was deeply good to come home from Paris with new ideas and inspiration. This is an image from there, even though I took the photo several years ago and have been thinking about it and waiting for it to make sense in my mind before I started to paint. I’m enjoying being back to oils now that I’m home with my easel (this is 3x4’, so not a travel kind of piece), and even though I’ll keep struggling with paintings in this water series, it was a lovely gift to get started again and have it be so much fun.
Last Day in Paris
I'm slowly scanning in at least my favorites from my sketchbook, so I thought I'd write about my last day. I had finished the work I needed to do there (still lifes for my September show and sketches for a graphic essay I'm planning), so I treated myself with another beautifully quiet morning at the Orsay and lunch at one of my favorite bakeries. It was amazing (and emotional) to stand with this self portrait by Vincent for 45 minutes, practically on my own. Two couples came through, saw it, and left. Otherwise it was just Vincent and me. Usually this piece is five people deep with everyone trying to take selfies. I felt so privileged to spend this quiet time with it. I've been thinking about self portraits a lot, had been doing some of my own (an annual Paris occupation for me) and had already done my study of Berthe Morisot's stunning one. I couldn't catch Vincent's likeness, and the background got a bit too dark, but it was wonderful to look at it deeply as I did the copy.
My friend Beth Rowlett so kindly made me a watercolor kit especially for this kind of sketching. It's attached to a wristband with heavy velcro, so I don't have to juggle the paint box as well as the book and water brush when I'm standing up in a museum. I like to sketch from a bench when I can, but there aren't benches everywhere I want to draw. You can see that I use the left side of the page to test colors or blot my brush as needed.
I also did a copy of a Bonnard painting. One of many things I love about the Orsay is that it has an absolute host of paintings of women and dogs. This one is completely charming, with their heads so intimately together. It speaks of the love in that relationship, and I was missing Mr. Darcy. I'd meant to copy it two or three years ago but hadn't gotten around to it that first summer of spending time here. Then it disappeared. The Orsay rotates paintings regularly. So when it reappeared this summer, I knew I had to take the opportunity.
I have a new art hero. The Orsay had a solo retrospective of Berthe Morisot while I was there, and I was transfixed. I’ve always been drawn to her paintings when I’ve seen them, but (unlike so many of the other Impressionist painters who seem to be ubiquitous), there just aren’t that many out there in museums. A telling fact in this show was that fully half the paintings were in private collections, which was a shocking percentage. What it means is that museums weren’t collecting her when they were eagerly buying up works by her male peers. Monet is in a category all his own for me — he invented a new way of painting, and while all artists (especially prolific ones) produce some uneven paintings, every period of his work is fully realized and exquisite, which is not something you can say about all artists. Even great ones. But I feel that Morisot holds her own with any of the other Impressionists and more than outdoes some of them.
I spent a lot of the show tearing up, frankly. It was amazing to read that she began showing at the Salon, the pinnacle of the French art establishment, at the age of 33 and continued to do so for a decade, barring one year when they rejected both her submitted works. I kind of doubt it’s a coincidence that that year was the same year she also showed in the very first Impresssionist show (called the New Painting). She exhibited with that group as well for all eight years of their organized shows. She participated with them against the advice of male painter friends, including Manet. She knew what she wanted for herself, and she went for it. She also continued painting under her own name even after her marriage to Manet’s brother. I have to think it would have been advantageous for her to assume that well known name, but she wanted to paint under her own name on her own terms.
Morisot was written off by many for painting mostly domestic scenes, much like her contemporary Mary Cassatt. But Degas painted a ton of interiors and women at their own daily lives scenes and never got downgraded for it. Even more, Vuillard made a career of interior, domestic scenes, but it’s ok if you’re a man. Morisot’s work reminded me of Vuillard and the Nabis as well as of the other Impressionists. Both groups of artists looked at Japanese prints and worked on compositions echoed the flat picture plane of those prints. Vuillard and Morisot both went further and echoed a lot of the surface pattern found in many of the prints. Look at this fragment by Vuillard on the left (it’s part of a huge piece, so I couldn’t get it all) and a very early portrait of two sisters by Morisot. I’m also adding a second, very typical Vuillard that has both the sense of pattern and the domestic interior theme.
Morisot subverted the domestic conventions, though. She painted women at work, even if it was the domestic work in her home and in her circle. These women have more dignity and power than many of the other Impressionist paintings of women at work in cabaret settings, where they were often victimized by men. She also painted her husband and her daughter repeatedly. In a striking role reversal, these pieces show her husband entertaining and caring for their daughter while she is the one at work. It was a quietly revolutionary act.
Her self portrait as an artist, holding her palette and looking out at the viewer full of self confidence, moved me greatly. I did a small sketch of it in my journal. I couldn’t catch the likeness, but it was good to spend that time looking deeply. I also enjoyed studying the way she used paint. One contemporary art critic called her “the angel of the incomplete.” Her brushwork depicts objects with a spare, graceful economy of paint. She catches the essence of things quickly without overworking, and she uses the bare canvas in bold and radical ways. Apparently not everyone understood this, and that very boldness was denigrated as feminine tentativeness and indecision. Some thought she was afraid or unable to push her pieces across the finish line. But she knew exactly what she wanted from each canvas and didn’t feel the need to keep working to appease some outside sense of what a painting should look like. She said what she wanted to, and she left it to stand.
I especially loved the paintings of her daughter Julie. These late ones have an almost Munch-like feel to them to me. Morisot nursed Julie through influenza before dying of it herself, far too young. I would have loved to see where her art took her next. Please excuse the glare on these shots. They’re all just my camera phone as I passed through the exhibit, but I wanted to show you some of the pieces I saw and let you get a taste of the show.
I had such a good time being back at the Rodin Museum the other day that I returned today. It’s my last couple of days here, and I’m spending them in my favorite museums. I started off at the Orsay and then went over to the Rodin for tea in the garden with my lunch and more sketching. This place always fires me up. I did the top one in my big watercolor sketchbook. I felt like getting out a real brush and really playing. The rest are in my small 5.5” book with the water brush. I sketched my tea because I liked the cute little teapot.
Last was the gray pencil again with watercolor. It’s a fun place to try a bunch of new things, and I really love drawing Rodin’s statues.
I feel like I’ve been neglecting my sketchbook this trip, since I’m working both on the still life show and also on a possible graphic essay about Paris that’s in a bigger watercolor book. So I’ve been trying to lock back in a little lately and do some sketches just for me. It always feels good to come home with a visual record of at least the lovely bits of a trip that I don’t want to forget. In that vein, I sketched at the Rodin Museum where I met my friend Mavis yesterday. It’s one of my favorite places in Paris, but I hadn’t made it there yet this year. We had a lovely catch up, sketched, had tea, and then I stayed a bit after and did more sketching. It’s hard for me to walk out of there having done only one. I’m saving the graphic essay images for later, but here are a couple I did in my journal.
I also went back for my favorite curry at Kapunka, got a sidewalk table a second time, and did another sketch.
Good memories in Paris seem to be a lot about eating. Here’s the galette stand at the Bastille Market.
Watercolor versus Gouache
I came to Paris with the intention of doing a series of gouache still lifes for my September show at Playhouse on the Square. (The opening is lucky Friday the 13th for anyone planning ahead.) I like the depth I can get with gouache, but I’m still learning how it works, and often I find myself thinking it was better two layers ago. I’m going to have to pay attention and try to keep from over fussing. Somewhere along the way, I did a couple of watercolor studies in my sketchbook as studies before doing the gouache, and I really liked the lightness and airy-ness of them. So I’ve ended up doing four watercolors for the show as well.
It’s easy to default into the familiar and comfortable, though, and there was a time when watercolor was incredibly hard going for me. It still is sometimes, but I’m glad I pushed through and got it into my regular tool kit. I gave up on gouache two summers ago and don’t want to do that again, but I am still struggling. I want to do some forest studies with it when I get home, and hopefully that will keep me excited about using it. You can see the two side by side here and decide foe yourself. I think the gouache needs a little more blue in the purple shadows. I’ve got a couple I’ll do a small bit of balancing/retouching on next time I get the paints out. Right now I’ve shifted gears a bit and am painting more out in the city again.
Watercolor Still Lifes
I’ve been doing gouache still lifes for my fall show while I’m here, and then I did a couple of watercolor studies for them in my sketchbook and really liked the looseness and light of the watercolors. I decided to do some free standing ones I can put in the show, so here are several from the last couple of days. I really liked the vanilla eclair above, both in sketch and in taste, even though the bakery lady had to correct how I asked for it in French. It turns out “vanille” is not that intuitive to pronounce, even though I had several years of French (well more that several years ago, however).
The macarons were what kicked this off, so I did a couple of them. They’re fun to play with in those bright colors. I need to look at all these, gouache plus watercolor, and figure out which ones I want to order frames for. I’ll put in an order this week so they’ll be built and ready for me to work on when I get home. Math work is looming too, to figure out the sizes. That may be this evening’s project so I can walk out and sketch more tomorrow.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
Get studio email updates from Gideon and me.
To subscribe to this blog, by email: