Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Catching Up

It has been a while since the last post so I have some catching up to do. No excuses. Just busy doing some other things to provide inspiration, like travel, completing my scuba license in time to dive off the Monterey Peninsula in CA last week (more on that in a later post) and a number of other side projects that are best left for summer.

Back in August while vacationing with my family in northern Michigan at a one time logging camp/now summer resort, there is a tree stump behind a cottage that we rent. It is quite large and very weathered, so I imagine it is an echo of the forest that used to surround the camp before the operation went bankrupt in the late 1800s. Purchased as a music camp after lying dormant for many years, the result is a splendid resort called Watervale, still owned and operated by descendants of the original purchaser. Its natural beauty and the Victorian charm of the original camp structures have been the source of much inspiration for vacationers and artists over the years.

The remains of this tree have always intrigued me as it lies not too far from a path leading from the back of the cottage. Late afternoon shadows cast by the surrounding trees and flowers interplay with the coarseness of the surface of the aged and faded wood allowing for a delightful dance of texture, light and color.

Johanna's Garden
10 x 14, Watercolor on paper
Birch Over Lower Herring 
10 x 14, Watercolor on paper, 2013

Thinking back on the past couple of years of visiting Watervale, I remembered the piece shown above that I completed last year while sitting at the front of the cottage which faces a small lake. The sheer size of the tree, the complexity of its leaves and trunk and the amazing texture of its bark just begged to be painted. 

It is included here as a comparison to the other painting as they capture different views of the same place at similar times of the year, but separated by a year. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Lost Art of Just Being

Over the course of life, we all encounter periods where it is difficult to create. Perhaps it starts as a grayness nibbling at the edge of your reality, a slight fog or out-of-focus perspective as if your eyeglass prescription needs updating. It bleeds into your life, tainting everything you touch and eventually the flow of ideas stops. It could be due to the stress from your day job, a relentless hen-pecking of details that keeps a distracted mind even more so, leaving little energy for anything else, especially creativity or just plain "being". Or maybe it is one of a million other little things that occasionally clot together to form a personal thrombosis, from which we are tempted to seek solace through cable TV, the web or the refrigerator; anything but to feel the disconnectedness.

Ah, there it is; a theme. What I'd like to extemporize on today is the "The Lost Art of Just Being". I wasn't sure where this was headed when I sat down at the keyboard this morning but this feels like a good direction so let's see what unfolds.

There is this mantra that we need to have a "reason" that keeps us motivated, gives our lives purpose. But what if we didn't? Let's assume for a minute that we weren't created "on purpose", put here to fulfill some mission but merely "happened". If we cut loose from the ties of expectation, what happens next? Hmmm. This is interesting. There is no one to disappoint, no afterlife to worry about, no expectations to keep us awake at night. No one to impress. Our to-do lists are in flames. This feels great!!

But suddenly with this "freedom", a terror appears; there is no foundation, nothing upon which our feet can stand. Everything is fluid, nothing solid. All that we know is an illusion. Isn't this death, a nothingness without form or end?

As horrifying as the vast unknown can be, isn't facing it required to create something new? Breaking from the old order, the structured ways of seeing things? Sometimes, we just need to sit, watching, listening, thinking, creating an emptiness for no reason other than to create it and see what appears. If there is such a thing as God, and I were "it", this is just the kind of exercise I'd try. Create an emptiness so vast and then just sit and watch what happens next.

So we sit in the darkness, waiting, a dull anxiousness pervading. And then a door opens. Or an explosion occurs. Take your pick. And we follow its tail, or hang on for dear life. Or do nothing and watch the energy/opportunity/life fly away. As Douglas Adams once quipped, "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by." Your choice. And sometimes in the darkness someone taps you on the shoulder to point the way.

I was once a Boy Scout, and not a very good one at that. I joined the organization at about the same time my body commenced poisoning me with an overdose of hormones transforming me into something non-human where everything I met that hinted of authority caused me to subvert the rules and rebel. I cared not for advancing in the ranks or for the structure of the troop but reveled in knowledge and being outdoors and so managed in spite of myself to make it to the rank of First Class.

On a particular camp-out in the evening after dinner, I was sitting alone at the edge of the restless opaque waters of the Kankakee River outside Chicago, my legs drawn to my chest in folded arms, my knees supporting my chin. I was intrigued with the rippling surface manipulated by unseen things, its swirling motion coaxing me to become fully absorbed in its unfolding. Eventually I became aware of someone standing near me and out of the corner of my eye recognized one of our troop's scoutmasters. We had several with widely differing personalities and this one was the sternest with a temper that could be fired in a flash, commanding respect and to my unkempt teen-aged mind, distrust. A silence enveloped us as he stood above me on the bank, his hands casually stuffed in the front pockets of his pressed leader's uniform khakis, looking out to where my eyes gazed. "What are you watching?" he asked gently respecting the solemness and peace of the moment. I thought about it for a bit and then looked up at him and said "The water going by." He nodded as we looked at one another, before turning back to the river. "That's a good thing. You should keep doing it." he said. After a minute or so, without another word from either of us, he turned and walking back to camp.

In the stillness that followed as the dying sun pierced holes through the distant trees, there was no way for me to know the impact those words would have throughout my life. I learned later he was an architect, an eye for the aesthetic as well as order contained he, and perhaps in the midst of my anger and rebellion saw something that I myself couldn't. That in the maelstrom of life we all need a life ring to hang onto. It is only by being ourselves and creating this space, to ponder and to endure while the patterns of life fall into place around us as we blindly lurch do we reconnect to what is important. Whether we sit in stillness alone in a crowd and feel our human-ness or watching the elegant mundanity of a flowing river we need to create a space in our garden for something new to grow.

So what does this have to do with art or creativity?

We've all lost the thread at some point and will continue to do so again. Not just feel it, but live it, under a shroud of mist so dense that we loose our bearings, the details of life smothering us, obscuring little voices inside before they have a chance to be heard. Where the words no longer appear on paper, the canvas repels the brush, the fingers no longer able to stand the thrum of strings. Though there are times to fight back, to rage at the Resistance as Steven Pressfield encourages us to do in the War of Art and to continue the ceaseless struggle of a Type-A society, there are times that we need to stop, to surrender to the moment and let it, let you, be.

And in these soft moments of nothingness, a twinkle of light on a wetted stone, a chord change, a turn of a phrase, a breeze across the cheek and we are instantly in love again. A universe explodes from nothingness. Life screams from our finger tips, pores oozing technicolor so rich as to defy vision. And we wonder briefly looking back how we got here from there, before being swept forward too fast to care. And then we begin anew; to create, to stand in awe of all that is around us and let it move us to create beauty, or perhaps if only to mimic the beauty that already surrounds us and hope that we pay it due homage.

It is with these words that I post the following images; the twinkle of the water's edge, emerald water over rock. And I paint again.

Observatory Point
Plein Air, Oil on Panel, 8 x 10

On The Rocks
Plein Air, Oil on Panel, 8 x 10
Coral Head, Karens Cove
11 x 14, Oil on Panel

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Des Plaines River at Flood

I recently spent an afternoon at Ryerson Farms, to walk along its muddy trails, sit under the shade of an Oak Tree in a meadow, the soundtrack a hum of honey bees around a hive or the occasional screech of a Red-tailed Hawk. Along the rushing waters of the DesPlaines River I stopped to capture a small grouping of trees leaning over the coffee-colored waters that rushed by. Several feet below me on a bank next to the water sat an American Bullfrog motionless the entire afternoon basking in the warm summer sun while I sat painting.

Des Plaines River at Flood
Watercolor on hot press paper, 9 x 12

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

More Underwater adventures

Another piece I am currently working on which is titled "School's Out" started out as a crappy video I took on my iPhone while snorkeling a couple of months ago. Swimming between coral heads just off shore with my wife, we were instantly surrounded by a school of thousands of 3-4" fish flashing brilliantly in the sun. As we moved, so did the fish, swooping and diving in shimmering synchrony.

After coming home and reflecting on the experience and then watching the video, I started doing some oil sketches to play with color and composition. The images below are studies for this piece as well as playing with color from underwater images take around Vancouver Island from a trip a few years ago. 

In the meantime, I've been so taken with the underwater world, that I am reupping my scuba license (I was quite active in the sport about 25 years ago, including a stint as a Coral Reef Diver at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago) with my son who is getting his for the first time. My goal is to return to Vancouver as well as a number of other spots in the world to gain reference for future paintings. Stay tuned!

School's Out - Oil Study, 8 x 10

Abyss - Color Study

Vancouver on My Mind - Oil Color Study. 
Looking up through the kelp beds
 towards the shimmering sun. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Completion of Moray

The month of May disappeared as my three kids all graduated college over the course of three weekends, so I've spent a fair amount of time on the road visiting them. Now that things have settled down a bit, I've been able to get on with my latest paintings.

I put the finishing touches on Moray! which is shown below. If you are curious to see what the preliminary studies look like, please visit my earlier blogposts from April and March which show sketches and some oil studies. It is the result of a chance encounter I had with a Moray Eel while snorkeling near Stingray City on Grand Cayman back in March.

Bruce Kerr Art - 2015
Moray! 18 x 36, Oil on Panel

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Fish Tale: More Island Inspiration

Years ago, I spent hours underwater as a scuba diver while many a Midwestern lake or quarry and a few warm water locales floated in front of my mask. But it was long enough ago, that what remained were mere wisps of memory, more emotional traces than visual imprints. Until recently. 

The trip I took with family last month triggered something in me that won't rest. I feel as if I were set back in my native environment, my gills breathing anew after having flopped about on the beach of life. Having long been a tropical fish aquarist, I set up a saltwater tank (reef-friendly) to remain a bit closer to the source while continuing to draw inspiration from video and images shot on site and underwater. While not yet having a specific image in mind to make into a larger piece, I am exploring a variety of themes for which I created a couple of oil sketches. 

The first is based upon a pen sketch I published back in March just after returning, in which I was snorkeling in about 10' of water and leveled off at the bottom to swim up to the base of a coral-head. As I approached it a fairly large Green Moray Eel swam out to greet me. Lodged in my head is the moment she came rushing out taking me by complete surprise. 

Moray! 12 x 6, oil on panel

The other image is based upon one of many videos captured using my iPhone with a plastic-bag type affair. Though close to shore and fairly picked over, the diversity of life on the reef was none-the-less stunning. Every nook and cranny was filled with life as schools of fish worked their way around sea fans and coral, the scene caressed by the dappled sun. 

I hope it is none too soon before I once again feel the stinging of the salt in my eyes as I am bathed in the crystal blue waters of life. 

Karen's Cove, 12 x 6, oil on panel

A Quick Portrait and Remembering the Falls

While trying to get my feet back under me after returning from the recent trip, I returned to Richard Halstead's studio for a visit a couple of weeks ago. I was able to do an oil sketch of one of his regular models. Thank you as always Richard, for your kindness and ready access to your vast knowledge of portraiture and all things art-related.

Steve, Again. 9 x 12, oil on panel. 

Ryerson Farms Falls
As the snow took a while to leave the area and I didn't feel like donning warm clothes to paint outdoors, I decided to dig through some reference material taken over the past few months and came across a great series of photos I had take of one of my favorite nature preserves in the Chicago area, Ryerson Farms. If you haven't been there, plan on spending part of an day walking around their grounds, which includes a farmstead with a number of animals and fowl, a new visitors center and miles of walking trails in the Des Plaines River basin. 

At the end of one of the trails sits a cabin at the river's edge, sidled up to gently rolling falls. It was a fall day with all sorts of great colors, all reflected in the water on the upriver side of the falls. 

Ryerson Falls, 11 x 14 oil on panel. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A View from the Islands

While traveling with family in the Cayman Islands recently, we snorkeled the reefs along Seven Mile Beach, Stingray City and Smith's Barcadere. The sketches below were completed after returning to shore, so that I could remember some of the sea life for later identification.

After a longer, deeper dive, I captured these images from Cemetery Reef, which was 20+ feet below the surface with the distant coral heads presenting as ghostly shapes outlined by brilliant white sand, through the translucent water.

Cemetery Reef, 5 x 7, Watercolor

Coral Life, 4 x 5, Watercolor

Friday, February 14, 2014

Follow the Path of Inspiration

The painting called Perserverence, shown further down the page, began as an exploration of texture and ended in a complete theme. It underscores how one has to be aware of possibility, letting things unfold without hurry, having the courage to follow turns and accidents as they occur, while not really knowing where they will end. Many times it ends as an interesting study that joins others in a drawer. Occasionally, they come to fruition like this particular painting, pushing beyond the limits of where we thought we could go, whether it be subject matter, technique or style. 

Bruce Kerr Art - 2015
Bark Study, 11 x 14
Acrylic on Masonite
A number of years ago I was visiting family in the Pittsburgh area and their yard was filled with amazing pine trees sheathed in bark of varying hues of deep red, burnt siennas, grays, ambers, blues and greens. I found a particularly intriguing slice of bark laying on the ground at the base of a tree, which I decided to render. I had a gesso panel with me as well as my acrylics and started exploring the color and texture of the bark. I let my eyes run over the rough and tortured surface, leaping down into the perfectly round insect borings, out again over the checkered surface and through the valleys running between the individual blocks that made up the tree’s rough outer hide.

The study itself started with a series of thin washes of ochre to give the painting a base and a bit of tooth for the following layers to adhere to. For painting on gesso board, I sometimes thin my acrylics out to a watercolor consistency, allowing me to put down a series of quick drying luminous glazes that provide a really great base layer. I then used a small sea sponge to place down a layer of random texture, not so thick that it obscured the warm layers behind it, but enough to add visual interest. I then worked in areas of more solid color and drew in the forms of the bark blocks extending out to the edge of the drawing. I finished the sketch with some opaque whites and grays to simulate the reflective blue color appearing in the woody finish. The result is shown at left. I found the original piece of bark so interesting that I still have it today, stored along with the studies shown here in a flat file. 

Bruce Kerr Art - 2015
Sawn Log Study, 9 x 12, Graphite
Still intrigued with the challenges of rendering bark, I did a follow-up drawing of a chain-sawed log that I pulled from the wood pile behind our house. The mechanical texture left by blade passing through the wood contrasting with the rough surface of the bark caught my eye and made for an interesting exercise. The result is at right.  

Several weeks after starting the process of studying bark, I was still not thinking of a painting, choosing to let it gestate while I gathered more reference. My wife and I were walking through a local forest preserve and discovered a Green Stink Bug making its way up the side of the tree. We watched as it slowly traversed the cavernous gullies in the bark. It made me think how if we humans were reduced to its size, this daily walk for this insect would be a challenge for even skilled mountaineers. It makes sense that it evolved wings to make the whole enterprise much easier! We took took a series of photos to capture its struggles and the sense of scale of the bug against the tree and set them aside for future reference.

Returning home, I went back to the wood pile for a bit more inspiration and came across another log that looked like it had started to sprout a limb before the tree was felled. From around this stump, the bark had pulled away, revealing a weird moonscape so I brought the log into the house and set about examining it with a magnifying glass. While doing some sketches of this particular log, reflecting back on the images we took in the forest as well as the earlier studies, the final image started to come together in my head. 

Bruce Kerr Art - 2015
Composition Sketches
To capture the sense of vertical drama I had seen with the Stink Bug's climb, I chose a 12 x 36" format. Gessoing the Masonite surface with a roller, I put down three layers, sanding between each coat for a smooth finish with just a bit of tooth. I spent a fair amount of time completing a series of pencil and colored pencil sketches to get the composition just right, since it was an odd working size. 

Perserverence, Copyright Bruce Kerr
Perserverence, 12 x 36
Acrylic on Masonite
The final result is shown right. The piece was done with acrylic, using a bit of retarder mixed in to do the main blending in the large woody area in the middle. I then painted my details on top of that using opaque mixes. For the bark, I used the sponge technique I had practiced with my smaller piece, adding in the details to the bark, leaving the rendering of the Stink Bug itself until the final phases of the painting. I then varnished it with a semi-gloss finish to bring out the color.

Since completing this painting, I have had a great regard for the silent sentinels that make up our forests, standing as mute testimony to the passage of time. I often will put my hands against them, feeling the sun warm their cold skin as they rise from their winter torpor or cool in the shadows they create as respite from summer’s hot breath. They are some of the oldest living things on Earth, with some species suspected of being in excess of 30,000 years old. To their kind, our brief Mayfly lives flit by around their bases as they push their leafy arms skyward towards the sun.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Painting in Process: the Making of Elephant Dreaming

In this post, I'll share with you a painting that has been in progress for about a year and a half. Not all of them take this long, which is why I wanted to share the process, as I've been able to document most of the phases. Also, for a work this size, I'd normally do a series of sketches and studies leading up to a completed piece, but in this case, I am doing much of the design work on the canvas. I started the overall concept with some drawings, but quickly jumped to the canvas and started reworking it. It is kind of an interesting way to go about it as I am not really sure of the final result.

The concept for the painting actually started with a thunderstorm about a dozen years ago or so while I was vacationing with my family in northern Michigan. We stay at a resort each year, where the last evening of our week's stay is punctuated by a talent show, put on by a group of willing vacationers. That particular year, one of my daughters came down with a fever so I elected to stay behind at the cottage with her, enjoying the peace of a late summer evening as the light left the sky. In the quiet, over the waves softly lapping at the shore, I heard a distant rumble as a thunderstorm made its way towards us from the far side of Lake Michigan. As it moved closer, I was reminded me of an article I had recently read that described an elephant's ability to "hear" just such a thunderstorm up to 75 miles away through the ground, sensing subsonic sound waves through the pads of its feet. For a couple of days afterwards, I continued thinking about how many other life forms around us have distinctly different senses (read Thomas Nagel's essay "What Is It Like to be a Bat" for a interesting bit on senses and how they shape one's consciousness),  how we as a species have evolved and what senses we've jettisoned along the way to our current form. After all, at a specific point in time, every one of us goes through a phase in utero where we show evidence of a tail, which disappears before we are born. I toyed with the thought, turning it into a short essay called Elephant Dreaming.

Fast forward a number of years, where I am sitting around on a hot forth of July afternoon, sketching for another painting when I start playing around with an image of a female reverting back to a primitive form, replete with zebra stripes, at left below. I sketch out some other possible images before settling on a set of images that I find compelling but also relevant to this theme of lost senses.

I chose oil for this particular piece as I wanted the power of blending to make some of the images more realistic, while letting others go soft as well as the opacity of the medium. In the first image of the canvas below, I wash in the background of a fairly large (18 x 36) canvas over which I layered additional gesso and sanded fairly smooth to remove some of the tooth of the canvas. I sketched out a rough layout in graphite with a female on the right dreaming of her evolutionary past, which includes an elephant, thunderstorm, a whale and other bits to add interest. I then washed over it with a thin layer of Sienna and Burnt Umber. 

After letting this layer dry, I went back at the canvas to move the elephant up to the center to become part of the mountains in the background, make the thunderstorm in the background larger and started to work up the foreground, which includes a honeycomb, and a fetus with a tail. After adding detail to the woman's face, I then set the canvas aside to work on some other pieces as I wasn't sure where to take it next. 

A couple of months later, I pick up the trail again, removing the fetus (due to lack of popular demand-that's what I get for leaving the unfinished piece on an easel in the living room where everyone can comment on it in process!) as well as started reworking other parts of the elephant as I felt like the earlier version wasn't dynamic enough. 

I also added two new characters, the Hammerhead Shark and the Dung Beetle both of which are empowered with some rather extraordinary senses. The Hammerhead, with its eyes spread wide has an array of sensors located along the front of its head that can detect electrical currents as little as a billionth of a volt, allowing it to detect its prey by the activity of its nervous system alone. The Dung Beetle uses the Milky Way Galaxy in the dark African sky to navigate by. So in they went. I also sketched in some bees dancing, relaying to one another a rich source of pollen, at an angle that was a bit more dynamic that a flat head-on of the honeycomb. As much as I liked the geometric appearance of its cells, it proved too distracting for the composition. 

The last image shows where it stands today. The bees are starting to come together and the elephant has a more dreamlike quality while being more solid and lit from above by a hot African sun. The Dung Beetle was too centrally located, and blocked eye flow through the canvas, so he is out for now. The Zebress' head has become more refined and the highlights create more of a three-dimensional form. Will the Dung Beetle make its return? Where will it all end? Stay tuned for more updates.