In the Abstract

As mentioned before on this blog, I love abstract painting and I have it in my mind to some day make some enormous abstract artworks to cover our walls. The only trouble is, I don’t really understand how to do it. Early in our lock down, I dragged out some masonite boards and started experimenting. I have done a little research into contemporary artists whose work I admire and most say that when they start a painting they have no idea what they are after. While that seems like fun, it also seems a bit intimidating. How do you judge your own work when you have no image in mind? It’s like being blind. I did paint four or five canvases this way, all quite different, and enjoyed the process a lot, but had no sense of where I should go with it or when I was finished, so I put them all away in a stack. I have started painting over them lately. I pulled out the one above to gesso over it and begin something else, but I paused. I sort of liked the painting. It has a landscape feeling and it reminds me a little of a painting I grew up with in our family house, so while I’m not sure what I will do with it, I did decide to allow it to live.

Tea and a Good Book

This week I also did a little collage work, incorporating some of my old drawings. I have so many beautiful old papers and stacks of drawings, so I tried to see if I could put them together in an interesting way. I like this technique and I will continue to explore it. Rick is less enthusiastic about it, as it is something of a technical challenge to line up all the little collages correctly and roll them through the press to adhere them to the moist printing paper. One mistake and the whole thing has to be trashed.

Country Roads

This week we stayed home, but the phone has started to ring again and the world is getting back on the road over here. This weekend all our rooms are taken. Meanwhile the sun is making it’s own ornate paintings on the terrace…

and in the hallway. Summer weather is upon us.

The spring flowers, my favorites, have passed, but we’re still left with a carpet of campanula in the terrace beds…

and star jasmine growing up on the fence. As to the delicious scent, as you stand by our gate, I will have to leave that to your imagination.

The Big Adventure

Last Sunday we took a long drive in the countryside around our village. For the first phase of the opening up here in France, we are permitted to travel 100km, as the crow flies, from home. We packed up a lunch and chose a direction, which happened to be south, and just started driving down little roads that are innumerable in our corner of the world. The day was perfect, the sky deep blue, the temperature warm but not hot and the roads sparsely populated. We had a vague idea of finding a trail and taking a walk, but the main object was just to see the world beyond town. I had not sat in our car since February. It all seemed very daring.

The first thing I noticed was how fecund the world is at the moment. How many shades of green are there? From the intense yellow green of the newly sprouted corn fields, to the deep forest green of the oak trees, I couldn’t begin to count. I have never had allergies, but my eyes began to water as we made our way along. It was as if the air was swirling with new life.

Just about the time we began to feel a bit hungry, we passed a sign for The Château de Courtanvaux. Although the castle itself was closed, the grounds were open and we headed down the forested drive to the parking lot. We had been here several times before but never fully explored the grounds. It made a perfect place for our picnic. We found a bench in the shade of some trees and enjoyed the serenity with a few other families who were also there.

The 168 acre grounds are open all year, free of charge, for walking and picnicking. There are forested hiking trails, formal and informal gardens and a lake with a path all the way around.

Enjoy the sound of the French countryside!

A pleasant water course leads from the château itself to the lake and beyond. The water tumbles down in steps.

In other times we have seen wedding parties taking photographs here. The grounds are very photogenic, as you can see. The bridge is a favorite spot for the bride, in her flowing white gown to pose with her new husband, dressed in black. I could picture them there.

The formal rose garden is on the castle level, which we didn’t visit this time. Instead we enjoyed the field of wild flowers and native grasses.

We took a nice long walk all through the grounds of Courtanvaux before traveling on.

A few iconic sights greeted us as we zoomed past, including this two layered ghost sign on the side of a building and these incredible stupa-like structures built by an artist outside a town we pass through from time to time. We have never seen the artist at work, but each time, they multiply and change. They are located right on the roadside and visitors are welcome to stroll among them.

We were gone from home for less than five hours, and our walk was more a stroll than a hike. Even so, at the end of the day I was so exhausted that I could hardly keep upright. I suppose I was just a bit overstimulated!

The View From Here

This week the village has come back to life. Our phone has been ringing and we’ve hosted our first guest. The Place in front of the maison is now full of cars. People are coming and going. For myself, I haven’t yet ventured outside our gates and haven’t felt desperate to do so. I have my nice chaise longue on the terrace and a beautiful view from our apartment windows. These make me feel much less restricted. Tomorrow, however, we intend to take a nice long drive and stop for a walk in the countryside. I haven’t been in the car since March.

I did some oil painting this week. I really wanted to do some abstract work but I find I don’t know how. I push the paint around and never have any idea what to do with it. I decided that I would try to make some abstract figurative images, which are popular at the moment and I have seen some fabulous examples, loose and expressive. However when I started painting I didn’t feel quite confident enough. Instead I came up with something semi-realistic. I decided to try using a limited palette, just four colors (two sets of compliments) and white. I don’t think I’m quite done, but for the moment I am putting it aside.

I also got back to finishing a couple of etchings which I began weeks ago. The first version of this one was a plain line etching. It improved when I added a little texture, with little etched marks, although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the result.

I decided to add some aquatint, which is a technique a lot like half-tone, used in old photography. Resin is adhered to the plate and when put into the acid, allows grays to be added to an etched image. It brings it to life.

Creative Distraction

Quinn and Zinnie’s reenactment of American Gothic, an iconic painting from the 1930s.

My daughter Emily and her family are finding clever ways to endure the lockdown. They have had their spa days, their dinner parties with the neighbors over the fence (passing dishes back and forth with a basket rigged up on a pulley) and some photography fun. Still, the kids are getting a little tired of being so far away from their classmates. They start school next week, although it certainly won’t be the same as before. They will be required to stay inside their little prescribed space, marked out on the floor, all day long.

I don’t feel the limitations too keenly. I have my own creative activities to keep occupied and days go past so quickly that I rarely have a moment to wonder what to do with myself.

I start my day with a bowl of fresh fruit and orange juice, pretty as well as delicious. At the moment, blood oranges are in season, making the juice extra special. After some aerobics via YouTube, I head down to the atelier where various projects await my attention.

Seasonal fruit is a perfect way to start the day.

In the garden the bee balm is in bloom. I got out my eco-dyeing supplies the other day, which had been untouched all winter. But bee balm makes such a predictably nice blue image, so before they bloomed out, I printed up a few.

Eco-dyed image on paper of wild bergamot, also known as bee balm.

Meanwhile I am back working on some relief printing. Instead of the reduction printing technique I have been experimenting with recently, I decided to work on a woodblock print with separate plates for each color. The nice thing about reduction printing is that everything naturally registers because you only have the one plate. The problem I found with it, however, is that the ink gets so thick on the paper. I wanted to try the more traditional multi-plate technique, but find a reliable way to register all the colors. I discovered a nice system that utilizes wooden pegs. The paper is per-punched with holes which can be put in the wooden pegs on each plate to guarantee the same placement for each color on the paper. The key block plate is printed first on paper and then transferred to each additional plate so that the blocks are also registered with one another. Rick kindly made up a nice rig for me. He is also carving the blocks, which I appreciate very much!

Transferring the key block image from paper to plate to ensure accurate registration.

We got this first color printed this weekend. The registration is pretty good. We still have a lot to learn. Since I seem to be so promiscuous with my art techniques, I am always in the learning stage. But I suppose I must prefer that. Mastery seems out of reach. For this one, there are still three colors to go. It isn’t turning out as I had imagined and hoped, but we will keep working on it.

First color (after the key block).

I am quite spoiled by having Rick available so much of the time. I am taking advantage of his good nature and requesting all kinds of upgrades to the atelier. This week he built me a fabulous new easel contraption in about an hour and it is just marvelous to work on.

Easel with two shelves for watercolor as well as oil painting.

Twice a week I meet with the grandchildren on FaceTime to do art class. We have made a color wheel. some simple shading exercises, cartoon characters and various other drawing projects.

Some pages from the kid’s expanding sketchbooks.

Weather this week has been a little less warm but the flowers continue to burst into bloom both on the terrace and in the garden.

Two rose varieties blooming on the terrace.
Peony bouquet from the garden.

Finding Beauty in Confinement

We take our afternoon tea on the terrace.

For me, this week has passed much like the week before and no doubt similar to the week ahead. Still the natural world outside our gates is not standing still or waiting for us to rejoin it. The pace there has accelerated. I don’t think nature misses us much. It actually gives me great pleasure to hear about how the animals are returning to reclaim empty streets of cities, how the air and water are recovering, how it is noted that even bird songs are louder this year as the avian population is not so stressed by human activity. What have we done to our world that our absence is not only not regretted, but actually celebrated? Less than a hundred years ago the earth was 66% wilderness. Today it is barely 25% and shrinking yearly. Every environmentalist that I have heard speak about this pandemic points out that it is the natural consequence of the way we are using our world. These few weeks of human pause seem very precious to me. It is far from certain that we will abandon our unsustainable ways as a result of being temporarily stopped in our tracks, but some things will change. Nature has a point of view and is perhaps trying to send us a powerful message. It makes sense to try to hear it.

In the thirteen years we’ve lived here, we have never actually had our house to ourselves except during the darkest days of winter. What a pleasure it has been to have these wonderful warm days and spend our time as we choose, without having guests to accommodate. Rick has time in his schedule, which is rare. He decided he wanted to start doing some woodblock cutting, I was really thrilled. I am working on a new print of a clematis branch and I was certainly happy to allow him to do the carving for it. He is really a much better craftsman than I am, more patient and meticulous.

The weeds have gone wild both inside and outside our gate. But if you’re an attractive weed, we give you free rein.

At the big garden the bee balm and brunnera are in glorious bloom. These plants too are volunteers, but I welcome them both wholeheartedly.

A friend from California sent us California poppy seeds a few years ago. They seem quite happy in our garden, they come back each year and in ever greater numbers.

The last tulips are enjoying their final days in the garden, playing their part in the cycle of life.

The side of the shed, weathered by years of sun and rain, makes a beautiful natural abstract painting.

In our large garden irises came and went a couple of weeks ago, but in the terrace, they are just beginning.

In the fields around the village, horses and other farm creatures are romping about in the sunshine.

Our entry which has always served our clients has been made more cozy by removing one of the two couches we had there. We had a difficult time deciding where to put the extra one until we came up with the idea of having it just outside the atelier, in a little hallway that has served as a storage area.

It has turned out to be a very pleasant place to sit, as long as we remember to take off our inky smocks first.

Inside the atelier itself, I am always moving things around to find better arrangements. Birds and boxes feature prominently on one of the storage cupboards.

Last but not least, this week, I have a simple recipe to share with you. We have begun to make a Chinese style vegetable fritter which is quite delicious and super easy to make. You cut a leek, a zucchini, a carrot, an onion, some scallions, a hot pepper and a mushrooms to make 1/2 match stick sized pieces. Put 2 1/2 cups of the sliced vegetables in a bowl, add 3/4 cup flour, 1t salt and 3/4 water. Still together. Cook in a generous amount of oil until browned and loose on one side (a few minutes), flip and brown the second side. Serve with a dipping sauce of 1T soya sauce mixed with 2t rice wine vinegar. Float a few sesame seeds and red pepper flakes on top of the sauce.

The safflower fields are all bloomed out, but the view is still a pleasant alternative to television.

Flower Power

While I am making prints of late summer flowers in the studio, outside spring flowers are coming into glorious bloom. At our garden, a few minutes walk from home, the cherry blossoms are promising an abundance of fruit in a couple of months.

Although we both long for a car trip, or a visit to the sea, in the meantime it is not so bad to have such an expansive view from our living room windows, especially now. I look forward every year to the all too temporary safflower, electric yellow.

In our terrace garden, life has returned and with it, an embarrassment of flower glory. The wisteria is not only beautiful to behold, but it scents the air with a subtle sweetness.

At the same moment our clematis is carpeted with attractive pink blooms.

And as if that were not enough, the yellow rose, below the wisteria is popping into bloom as well. The weather has been exceptionally warm and the songbirds have returned to the village. The sparrows are busy making nests in our honeysuckle vines as the swallows swoop through the air. The blackbird, with his clever repertoire of songs, sits on the wall outside our window and entertains us from early to late. We continue in place until the middle of May, as required here, all the while enjoying these pleasant days together.

Small Pleasures

Sunset”, a reduction print in 4 colors.

After two weeks of “le confinement,” the French government just announced a two week extension. Regulations are stricter and the local police have been cruising the village checking papers and asking about any activity outside the home. We’re no longer supposed to ride our bikes or even spend the afternoon in our garden, since it is not attached to the house. One hour is the maximum allotted time per day to be out and about. For me, this continues to be fairly easy to accomplish. I am not getting bored or stir-crazy as others may be, but I am beginning to have disaster dreams.

As always, I have lots of art projects to focus on. I continue to experiment with the reduction printmaking technique. I am very fond of the work of painter Nicholas Wilton who has an active YouTube channel where he talks about his process. I have been tempted into trying some abstract painting following his well-articulated principles, but I’m finding that it’s a lot harder than it looks! I enjoy it anyway. I am also meeting Quinn and Zinnie twice a week on FaceTime to do art together. Not to mention all the friends I am enjoying virtual communications with.

The advantage of a big old maison, is that the house work is never done. We have started dragging furniture out, cleaning and waxing floors and rearranging the rooms. Something about that kind of work has always brought me a lot of joy. When the two week extension was announced I thought it presented the perfect opportunity to repaint! Unfortunately, the paint stores are not open, perhaps to Rick’s relief.

Last, but hardly least, is the pleasure of eating. Rick does the shopping once a week. I find some new recipes and write an organized grocery list. On this last week’s menu was a Moroccan Lamb Pie. Delicious! One was enough for both of us, so we froze the other for future consumption.

And then of course we have the spring weather to enjoy, at least from the window.

Despite it all, spring.

The equinox came and went this year without much ado. All our thoughts have been somewhere else. Our own biggest adventure in these days of confinement is the five minute walk to our garden. We are required to carry a signed and dated attestation of the reason for our straying from the shelter of home. We had some very sunny days early in the week, and it was a huge pleasure to observe the pregnant buds, the periwinkles, tulips and primroses popping out. The tiny violets and daisies are peeking through the grass which is in desperate need of mowing.

In “the shack” I found the table still covered with the art and science projects the grandchildren had left last fall.

I feel very grateful to have my studio where I continue to explore reduction printmaking. A day passes quickly for me.

I send you all very best wishes in these amazing times we are living in!