Category Archives: Randomness

The sentimental debate

Just to clarify, by sentimental debate I am not referring to a sensitive way of arguing the pros and cons concerning art, or any topic. I am talking about the question of what does it mean to have a piece of art be overly sentimental, and why is that a bad thing, if it is really a bad thing.

I do not know if this issue is the most controversial topic in the art world, but it sure has impacted me. To explain what I’m talking about, I will take you on a little journey (yes again) back to when I first heard that word pertaining to artwork. I was presenting my art to galleries in the Grand Rapids area, and meeting with the owners. I kept hearing that word being used to describe some of my art and I received several warnings not to cross the line any further.

At first I did not know exactly what they meant and I faked understanding out of embarassment. After a while I pieced it together though. What the various gallery owners were referring to was what I later came to call “being cheesy.” Let’s say you have a painting of a field near a barn. That does not necessarily sound “cheesy.” Now let’s add a little swing, a farm cat asleep on the porch, the farmer milking the cow, and maybe a bright green tractor. Then to make it more clear, just think of any stereotypes about a happy farm house and throw them in the picture as well. Oh I know…how about a little girl swinging on a tire swing (which by the way was the subject of a picture that I had showed to a gallery once).

Now you have what I was told is an overly sentimental painting.

I remember one gallery owner showed me the Art Business News that I was also subscribed to and pointed out all my favorite pictures of women laying leisurely on  beds and mothers with their daughters strolling on the beach in sun dresses. I thought he was going to talk about how interesting the brush strokes appeared in the photos of those oil paintings, but then he said something like, “See what I mean? It makes me want to throw up. All the art in this magazine is crap.”

Wow, I thought those pictures were amazing because of the technique used by the artist and the wonderful feeling they gave me about how beautiful life can be. Well what is a good painting then? I became completely confused and what I thought I knew I realized I did not know at all. Then he finally added that a painting does not necessarily have to be about garbage in the streets or death, but that it has to be about real life.

Ok, now I at least understood his point. I suppose I do not know any extraordinarily beautiful women just lying around draped in pink sheets on their bed, perfectly posed.

Well now that I understood how to avoid painting something that was overly sentimental, I began to purge those ideas from my artwork. Then just when I thought I had figured out the art world, I was blind-sided again. At first it was just little commments from friends and family about how they loved those “cheesy” paintings and how they make them feel good.  Then I noticed yet another retail store open for Thomas Kinkade (that very same gallery owner I talked to used Kinkade’s artwork as an example of extreme over-sentimentality). If he is not a good painter, why does he have dozens of retail stores? People seem to love his paintings and he apparently must be quite wealthy by now, which one could argue is a measure of success.

Soon I noticed “cheesy” paintings all over the place. They were at art shows, in people’s living rooms, and offices all over the area from my dentist’s office to government buildings.  If that type of artwork has no value, why are people buying it? Does not the fact that people value that art enough to pay for it mean that it has value? Who is right then – the gallery owner or the mass of people buying all that “cheesy” artwork?

I guess for artists it must be about who they are painting for. Are they painting for the millions of us who like a nice picture to match the colors in our living room, or are they painting to create a piece of art that holds merit to art collectors and gallery owners?

For me, I found a balance. I strive to push myself further with my artwork to create art that means something and has interest on several levels. But every now and then I will paint something that I believe somebody might buy someday because it has nice colors and water in it (people love the calming effect of water in a picture). I suppose I will let others decide if my art has value, “cheesy” or not.

Why an art blog?

You may ask, “What is this blog, and why should I read it?”

Well during the last several years I learned a great deal about the art community here in Grand Rapids, and I realized that, at least in the circles I belong, that there is not a large amount of dicussion over fine art. There was even less prior to Art Prize coming to town a few years ago.

But even now, we have our festivals and a rich culture, a few art competitions (ok Art Prize is the largest cash prize competition in history), and a number of non-centrally located galleries. But that is it. It just seems like our medical community draws more conversation than our art community.

Art Prize winner 2010

Art Prize winner 2009

I have found a select few who will engage in a conversation with me over brush strokes and the pursuit to avoid sentimentality in paintings. Unfortunately, most people that I know judge a painting on how realistic it looks. The closer to Photorealism, the better the painting, and therefore the better the artist. Just look at the winners and the top two-dimensional entries in Art Prize.

I admit that I had a huge learning curve these last ten years. I mean, I did not study art in college, and it was only a few years ago that I took my first workshop. As I grow as an artist and strive to create something more profound and emotional as opposed to creating a larger Kodak print, I realize how art can not only affect the artist, but also the audience. I have also found other artists and have heard their struggles to survive and support a family as well as others who wish they could make the leap to be a full-time artist and leave their unfulfilling “day jobs” behind them.

This would be a good place to make one of my confessions…I am a history buff. I’ll leave it at that for now, but it has been clear to me how art has been highly valued throughout history. Not just the good times, but the really bad times filled with war and plagues. I just can’t belive why people today do not value art and what it can bring to society, and why we do not talk about it at every third water cooler. I say ever third, because you still have to fit in the war in Iraq and the economy.

This brings me to the blog. I moved my website to the blog in order to merge it with the newsletter, The Art Advocate, I had created a few years back. I called it the Art Advocate because I wanted to advocate for art. Art and the discussion of it, the pursuit of it, and the appreciation of it, has value for us and I want to promote that. This blog is my attempt to bring art to those of us who do not hang out at an art salon (or do not konw that an art salon has nothing to do with your hair).

To answer the final question, Why should you read this? I honestly have no good answer for that one. I can say that one of my goals is for other more interesting writers to contribute as guest posters in the future, so be patient.

Until then, I hope your next water cooler (ok nobody actually talks at a water cooler anymore) conversation will include a discussion about the controversial issue of the use of photographs as reference material.

My best friend, my paint brush

Have you ever watched an artist gaze intently at his/her paint brush?

Maybe you overheard your junior high school art teacher whisper oh so quietly to their old wooden handled filbert brush while sitting in the corner of the classroom.

No? Well I know for sure that I am not the only painter with a special relationship with my paint brush. To confess, I actually have more than one brush that I am intimate with. In fact, I have a whole harem, including synthetic brushes and my Eastern European sounding foreign comrade, the Kolinsky sable brush (I even have him in two sizes). 

I am sure you may wonder why the paint brush is so important to artists. Other tools such as paint, easels, canvas, paper, and thinners can affect the quality of a painting. However, the paint brush will directly impact the styel which is unique to the artist.

My paintings just would not be my paintings without my flat or bright style bristle brushes. I will explain this more, but first I have to admit that my relationships with my paint brushes were not always like this. And like most relationships, it has evolved over time.

At first, I simply had a paint brush. I needed one of those to dip into the cup of paint in order to get the paint onto the canvas or paper without getting my fingers all dirty. They meant nothing to me and I would just discard them after misuse, lack of care, and abuse on the canvas. Buying a paint brush was easy too. I would go to a staore, find a size I would like, find the cheapest version of it, and pay for it. Boy those were the days!

As I got older and was able to financially afford higher quality materials, I thought that better paint would change my world. I once thought that a better golf ball would make my drives straighter also, but buying higher quality equipment will not make an athlete into a professional. Buying higher quality art supplies will not make an artist a professional either.

The paint brush, though, becomes part of an expression that makes an artist who they are. It does not make them necessarily a better painter, it just makes them who they are. Of course better paint and canvas can make a better quality painting, and watercolor artists would do themselves a great injustice if they used inferior paper. But each paint brush is designed to handle paint differently. My soft sable brushes are reserved for creating smooth blending for portraits. I use my synthetics to spread large washes of color in the beginning of my painting process.

And I rely heavily on my bristle brushes to create the visible brush strokes. These strokes are what I feel make my paintings interesting and are what I hope the viewers come back to again and again as they discover the variations and patterns, once the intitial emotional impact of the painting fades.

So what type of brush should an artist buy?

Looking at the paint brush section at an art store makes you think you are buying a hunting license. Do you want hog bristle, black sable, mongoose, or white sable? And what about the types of brushes? Do you want a flat or bright? How about a round or filbert, or maybe a fan brush? Is there anything wrong with synthetic brushes? I mean they usually are cheaper, so are they of less quality?

Unfortunately there really is no good information out there to tell you. Believe me, I looked. It really comes down to trial and error. But as you try different brushes, you grow as an artist. Then before you realize it, you start to forge a relationship and your style begins to emerge. Each brush stroke has meaning and only your brushes can help you make that stroke what it needs to be.

Next thing you know, you are alone in your studio, whispering oh so gently to your number 6 bright hog bristle brush!

Kemme Studios grand re-opening

Well we went from a site I designed from scratch to a WordPress blog.

You might ask, “Why on earth would you do that?” I know, I know.  I spent weeks reading the Idiot’s Guide to Frontpage, then months creating my website, only to start all over on a blog. I have been running a WordPress blog, since July of 2010 and love the ease of it. I found that I never touched my Kemme Studios website, other than to update photos for completed paintings because it of the difficulty of it. Kemme Studios remained stagnant.

This new format will be easy to update and add to. More importantly, I will be able to post articles about painting and hopefully create some discussion among artists and those interested in art. A blog is the perfect format.


What goes into a painting

Have you ever wondered what all actually goes into making a painting what it is?

There are plenty of terms to describe various art principles. Most of us have learned at least a little in school about composition, horizon line, value, hue, perspective; and some of us even learned about balance, proprtions, center of interest, and color harmony.

But there is even more, such as the concept of the path of the viewer’s eye, message, brush strokes, emotional impact, the Golden Mean, and secondary points of interest.

You can easily find hundreds of books and articles written about each of those topics separately, but how much of that actually goes into each painting? Some artists are unaware that they are practicing some of the principles and paint how they feel. Other artists have been known to spend hours preparing for just one single brush stroke. I’ve never done that, but I have been known to spend up to twenty minutes to  mix just one color on my palette.

Local Grand Rapids artist, Jim Connelly, once passed on to me that creating a picture is as much about art as it is about science.  It made me think about how there are many artists out there who are very creative, but lack the technical skills. On the flip side, there are artists who have developed tremendous skills, but their paintings lack the life needed to create an emotional impact. It is strange to realize how such a detailed painting seems to need something that beckons you to come back for more once the novelty of it all passes.

So when you are looking at a painting, how do you know if the artist is both creative and skilled?

The creative part is easy. When you look at the picture, do you find it interesting? Do you find yourself thinking about it after you walk away, or returning to it many times to find new and exciting things you never noticed before? Does it make you feel different, change your mood, make you think, or remind you of something nostalgic? Those types of emotional connectinos come from the heart of the artist, but what about the technical skills?

My wife puts it best when she looks at one of my paintings and says that she is not sure why,but it “just does not look right.” Well to get it to look right I have to go back to the basics. The big ones are value, proportion, and composition. If you saw in black and white, you would be seeing the value of each color (dark versus light). The values create dimension, making objects come to life. Similar values create patterns that move your eye around the painting and are so important that an artist can completely play around with colors as long as the values are correct. 

This leads us to composition. A composition has to not only lead the viewer’s eye into a painting, but has to move the viewer around the painting and find places of rest without letting the eye wonder off the sides. I sometimes spend hours trying to determine what a person would see first, then second, then third while looking at my painting. I have to make sure they find the center of interest, but are able to leave it and discover other gems, while still being able to find their way back to that center of interest.

Proportion deals with the relative size of things. You know, “is that vase way too big for that table?” Nothing ruins a contemporary realistic painting like the edge of a building being crooked or a person’s arm too long and bent in the wrong spot. 

To be honest with you, these are only some of the principles most artists think of while doing each painting. Most of these a viewer will never know about because I believe a good artist can mkae the painting look easy. But that is the beauty of a good picture. There can be so much  more than just the fact there is a flower pot on the table that is pretty, or that there are red and blue buildings that remind you of your hometown.

So the next time you find yourself looking at a painting you enjoy, try to look harder. Get up close and look at the brush strokes, or pick out the larger shapes by squinting your eyes. Try to figure out what you first see when you look at the picture, and then what you find yourself looking at next. The reward will be yours, because you will see what the artist sees.

And trust me…that is a wonderful way to look at the world around you.