Saturday, April 2, 2016

Searching for Focus

This post is a bit lengthy, but please bear with me, there's a lot of text here but I think it's worth the read, or at least a solid skim. It's been a month since I last posted, the reason being is I've been kind of meandering of late, art-wise that is.  I'll pick up the pastels one day, pencils the next, then acrylics or even edit a photo. Right now my studio is a mess, all kinds of stuff out all over the place. I'll work on an abstract, then a detailed realistic drawing then an impressionistic painting.  I've been all over the map lately, which means I've been spinning my wheels a bit, starting a lot of things, experimenting a lot but finishing little.  One of my internal debates has been "What should I focus on?".  It seems most accomplished artists have had a primary focus, if not in medium at least in subject and/or style. I've been somewhat consistent on subject, mostly natural and rural landscapes but I've used quite a variety of mediums, everything from oil paint to watercolor, to graphite to pen and everything in between.  My style is kind of consistent, meaning my art is representational but generally speaking not realistic, however every medium has it's own look and requires it's own set of techniques.  My pastels don't really look like my acrylics, for example even though they are both impressionistic. I believe my portfolio is far from consistent though some have said I do have a distinctive style, at least with the acrylic paintings and the graphite sketches. The quality of my portfolio isn't exactly even either, but that's to be expected for somebody that's been at this art thing for only a few years and part time at that. 
I believe to become a true professional artist I need more focus, either that or just accept that art is little more than a pleasant pass-time, a hobby, not that there's anything wrong with that. However, I feel driven to make this more than just a hobby, but am I ready yet?  Maybe not, at least not until I find that focus.  Lately I think it might be charcoal...

art drawing charcoal rural ranch Oakley Utah

"Oakley Ranch Entrance"

8" X 10", charcoal on paper

Okay, it's no Leonardo or Michelangelo but with time and focus I could get there, or at least much of the way there.  I did learn a lot about technique and materials with charcoal when making this small drawing, I'm finding charcoal more intriguing lately, to the point where I could see it becoming my primary medium.

Why Charcoal?  Well, there's the bare bones simplicity of it for one thing.  You could make a great drawing with nothing more than a single pencil and piece of paper, but having a few accessories is useful such as a blending stump, a chamois, hard plastic eraser, kneaded eraser, and several grades of pencil.  Even with all that, drawing with charcoal is far simpler than painting. But what about color?  Well, I'll admit that it's tough to let go of color, but there's also something special about a well done black and white image.  When the color is gone the language becomes much more simple yet mysterious. All there is to see is the subject itself, the shapes, the tones, the texture. There's great potential for drama in a black and white image, especially with charcoal which is capable of creating deep, rich blacks.  You don't have to forego color entirely with charcoal though.  I've been experimenting with applying washes to my charcoal drawings, sometimes to the charcoal itself also watercolor washes and pastel washes.  Pastel can also be added dry and mixed in with the charcoal.  I think it's best that color be kept subdued and simple charcoal, it should be something that enhances  the charcoal, not compete with it. 
"It's about the process, not the result" is the advice often given to artists, sort of like "It's the journey not the destination" pop culture saying. What I take this to mean is that the artist must enjoy the process of art creation first and foremost, which means enjoyment of the process must factor into the choice of medium.  There are things I like and dislike about using every medium, each has it's advantages and disadvantages to it's hard to say I enjoy one over another.  However with drawing I have to say I find myself "in the zone", (that zen-like state where you get totally lost in what you are doing, it's as if for a moment the rest of the world doesn't even exist) far more often when drawing than when painting. I take this is a possible sign that maybe drawing is more my thing than painting.
But, have any artists made a career out of charcoal?  Yes, they have, quite a few too, many of them have artwork owned by museums even.  Charcoal is a serious medium.  Of course I couldn't help but do a search for accomplished artists that use charcoal as their primary or only medium, and more specifically, have chosen the landscape as their primary subject. I found a few but two in particular stood out to me.  Both artists use charcoal as their primary medium and the landscape is their primary subject but that's where the similarity ends.
Sue Bryan ( creates low-key, tonalist images that have a strong air of mystery and drama about them, the edges are soft and the forms not entirely definable.  Sue's subject is mostly the landscape and mostly pure landscape, only a few drawings have a structure in them. Sue works on paper and as small as 3" X 3" and as large as 18" X 24" or so.  Other than a series that has a bit of green pastel added Sue's works are purely charcoal and applied dry.
Michael Wann ( while also a charcoal artist has an almost polar opposite style to Sue Bryan.  Micheal's drawings are mostly high-key, they still have plenty of mystery and drama but they have a much lighter feel to them.  While you rarely find a line in any of Sue's drawings except to indicate a twig or branch, Micheal's drawings have plenty, yet he makes good use of tone as well but his drawings are far from tonalistic. Micheal's subjects are somewhat more diverse as well, everything from a fully described landscape to a pile of twigs and branches, from an ancient, crumbling structure to a single window right in the middle of the composition. Micheal is also not a purist, he makes use of pastel, washes and graphite, yet he keeps his use of color simple, subtle. Micheal works on canvas and large as well as on paper and small.  I'm finding that it is possible with the use of fixatives to be able to frame a charcoal drawing without glass.
I present these two artists as examples of what's possible with charcoal drawing and the landscape, basically there is no limit, it's easy to see how charcoal can occupy the whole career of a professional artist. Will it occupy mine?  We'll see...

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