Archive for the ‘What If?’ Category

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve had mixed results on scaling up my teeny farm paintings. I’ve finished the 3rd of the 6 x 6 MDF pieces. This one actually feels like the small pieces, which makes me feel good. This is only about 4 times the size of the teeny farm paintings, so it’s not a very large jump.

Ethel Hills - Farm Painting - Mixed Media on MDF Panel - 6" x 6"

Ethel Hills – Farm Painting – Mixed Media on MDF Panel – 6″ x 6″


The next step is a piece that I’ve been working on for a week and a half. It’s watercolor & collage on watercolor paper – 22″ x 30″. I’m enjoying it, but it’s not coming out anything like I thought it would. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I was hoping to finish before the holidays, but that’s unlikely.

Here’s the piece as of last night.

Ethel Hills - Farm Painting - In Process 12/21/14 - Mixed Media & Collage - 22" x 30"

Ethel Hills – Farm Painting – In Process 12/21/14 – Mixed Media & Collage – 22″ x 30″

I’ll tell you more about it when it’s finished. At that point, I’ll introduce my next What If?.

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If you ever have that moment when you walk into your studio and have no idea what you want to do or why, this idea might be for you.
If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that I’ve adopted an assignment type approach to my studio practice. I pose a What If? and give myself a deadline. For example, right now I’m working on What If I made it bigger?

Last week, I was looking over a few art books as I waited for visitors to my studio. (turned out to be a pretty quiet night in my corner of the building). Anyway, one of the books I picked up was Ed Betts’s book Creative Landscape Painting. Turns out that this book is a collection of great “What If”s. They include some of the basics – high horizon, low horizon, aerial view and also some more unusual concepts – lyrical symbols, intentional ambiguity and distortion for design. Each idea includes sections on concept and plan, plus a sample piece of art. Certainly not all ideas will resonate with you, but I’m sure you’ll find several that make sense to you.
My copy was purchased several years ago with the help of my local used book dealer. It was published in 1978 by Watson-Guptill. Check your library. There are still a number of these books floating around.

After looking at this, I realize that I gravitate toward this type of book and have a few other similar ones on my shelves. There is a similar one by Ed Betts – Creative Seascape Painting. If that is your subject manner, you might look for that one. The set up is the same. 50 ideas discussed with a section on concept, a section on Plan and a sample of the idea.
I also have another set of similar books, also put out by Watson-Guptill in the 80s. My favorite is Watercolor Bold & Free by Lawrence C. Goldsmith. This one lists 64 different experiments – 9 in Composition, 38 in Concept and 17 in Technique. I bought this book years ago when we were traveling in California. I had just started watercolor and this book was definitely “way over my head”, but I’ve always loved it. Here are a few of the titles – “Use Only Wet Washes”, “Compose from the Top”, “Spatter Freely”, and “Position Tension Spots”. This is a book I used to go to all the time when I’d get stuck. There was always an idea there for me to try.
I love the idea of each of these ideas being an experiment. That always worked for me.
Another plus for this particular books is that it is chock full of the author’s paintings. Although they are nothing like anything I paint, I’ve always loved his work – soft, simple, beautifully pure watercolor.
There is a similar book about acrylic, Acrylics Bold and New by Nicholas Roukes. It’s also published by Watson-Guptill and is also divided into Experiments in Composition, Concept and Technique. This one isn’t my favorite, but you might prefer it if acrylic is your medium.
I don’t believe any of these books are still in print, but should be available through a used book dealer or your local library.

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My current “What If” assignment is to take the very simple and tiny farm paintings and make them bigger. I must admit to having mixed results with this.

My first attempt started with MDF panels that are 6″ x 6″. I thought I might try just going slightly larger. These pieces are only about 4 times the size of the original tiny paintings.

The painting on the left is one of the tiny paintings I started with. The one on the right is the slightly larger version done in acrylic & collage painted on an MDF panel. I think this worked well. The feel of the piece is similar, which is surprising considering the differences in materials.

My second attempt wasn’t as successful.

Again, the piece on the left a sample of the mini paintings. These were done on watercolor paper, with just watercolor and pencil as embellishment. The piece on the right was my attempt to scale this up – just a bit. I really don’t care for the new version. A large part of the problem is the medium. I just couldn’t get that light, almost sketch like feel, using acrylic on panel. Maybe I should say that I didn’t get that feel. Perhaps if I tried again, I’d be more successful.

Right now, I’m going to view it as unsuccessful and move forward. I may try again at a later date, but I think the difference in both medium and support is the real challenge here.


I’ve been working on a couple of other ideas which I’ll be sharing with you over the next few weeks.




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Sunday seems to be a good day to review where I am and where I’m going. As predicted, I didn’t get a huge amount of work done this last week, but did finish up my What If. We traveled for the holiday, so my goals for the week were pretty modest.

I did finish the small yellow/green paintings that I had already started. I’ve gone through and measured all the small paintings. Some of them will fit in mats that I already have, but most will require custom cut mats. (Poor planning on my part.) I’d like to get a few of these matted up so I can see how they look, but I’m not going to get all of them done right away.

I’m finding the idea of these small pieces kind of interesting. I like the idea of dividing the space up and indicating different areas/fields/crops with simple symbols. So I guess I’ll stick with the simple symbols, but make the paintings larger. What I’m not sure about is the scale. Should they be only slightly larger, say 6” x 6” or 8” x 10”? Or is it time to work on a much larger scale??

This brings me to my next What If. What If I take these very simple farm paintings and make them bigger? Would they translate to a much larger scale or should I keep them on the small side? I like the intimacy of these very small pieces, but is it time to go Larger and Bolder?

These are the questions that I will explore next. I’d like to give myself a bit more time on this one. Changing the scale is not necessarily a simple thing, at least for me. Just because something works in a 4” x 4” size, doesn’t mean that it will translate easily to 20” x 20” or 4’ x 4’. (Not that I’m prepared to do anything quite THAT large)

This will be my assignment for the next few weeks. It’s a busy time with exhibition commitments as well as family commitments. For these reasons plus the need for extra time for this type of change, I’m giving myself until just before Christmas – December 21st to see where this leads me.

Here are a few of the small paintings that will be the models for the next phase –


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Well, it’s now November 23rd and time to decide what my next step is – continue with the teeny paintings or pick a new What If.

Well the truth of the matter is that I already decided. I finished up quite a batch of the teeny paintings in reds, oranges, and pinks earlier in the week. I have now started another batch using yellows and greens as the underpainting. These are very similar in style and composition to the earlier ones. I like the simplicity of these. I started 12 of these and have finished 4 so far.

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With the holiday coming up, I’m not going to be terribly ambitious for next week. I know that I’ll get some studio time in, but not as much as I’d like to see in a week. I’m going to keep my due date as Sunday, at least for now, but keep expectations more in line with the time available.

My What If for this next week is to finish up the green and yellow pieces that I’ve already started. I also plan to review the earlier pieces and make any adjustments necessary. I’ll also measure them to get an idea of what I’ll need for mats.




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What If I continue to do these teeny paintings, but instead use a different painting as the model? I did a very interesting painting based on land divisions and farms that started out with a bright red/orange background.


Starting point –

Ethel Hills - Series Class Assignment #7 Version 3 - Mixed Media - 11" x 15"

Ethel Hills – Series Class Assignment #7 Version 3 – Mixed Media – 11″ x 15″


This piece is very different from the others that I was working on. It’s taken a very abstract turn which I really like. I am a sucker for these colors and I love the way the way the pencil works with the acrylic under-painting. It’s quite striking.


Results –


Here are a few of the teeny tiny versions. Since the color is so FAR away from realism, these pieces feel far less real than the ones done with just watercolor and pencil. They feel like they’re much more about abstraction, color & line. In these, I didn’t include the same type or markings. So there are no explicit orchards or row crops.

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Idle thoughts –

I’m still enjoying playing with this idea, so I’m going to continue for a bit longer with these to see where they go. So let’s just say that my next due date is this weekend. By November 23, I’ll finish up the next batch of paintings and review them. At that point, I’ll decide if I’m going to pursue this a bit further or if I’ll start on an entirely new What If for next week.



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As I mentioned yesterday, I just finished up a workshop. Now I’m trying to digest the information and make some changes to my studio practice.

One part of the workshop was weekly assignments.

In the past, I haven’t been that organized in my studio. Basically, I paint intuitively. This means that I’m not terribly structured about what I’m going to be working on in any given day. I’m often off on a tangent based on a new idea of some sort. The idea of going into the studio with an assignment is something of a foreign concept. It may not be exactly the right way for me to approach my work, but I’m willing to experiment.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’ve come up with a similar idea that I think may work better for me. Instead of an assignment, I’m going to try a “What if?”

Our last class assignment involved the idea of repetition. My solution was to do lots of small paintings with repeating elements – straight pencil lines to mark the painting, then watercolor painted on the pencil grid and then pencil embellishment on top. I didn’t have all of this worked out ahead of time. It was more of a – What if I made lots of tiny paintings based on these ideas? This looser idea was more a place to start than a specific assignment and seems to fit better with the way I naturally work.


Here are some of the results:


One of the larger paintings in this series –

Ethel Hills - Series Class Assignment #6 - Mixed Media - 11" x 15"

Ethel Hills – Series Class Assignment #6 – Mixed Media – 11″ x 15″


A few of the tiny paintings that I did.

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This turned out to be a great What If? I love these tiny little paintings. I started out by dividing my paper with masking tape into smaller blocks. Then I drew lines in pencil representing potential divisions of land. I didn’t think about this too much, just that I wanted some larger and some smaller shapes.

Then I painted these with just a little bit of watercolor, not to cover the paper, but to separate and emphasize the different shapes. After this dried, I started looking at the pieces and trying to picture farmland.

The farm where I grew up was part  , part wood lot, part garden and part pasture. Where we just had a small family garden, the farmer who now rents the land has various types of veggies and sometimes sunflowers. The orchards have been replanted and there are still some cattle on the property.

With all these thoughts whirling around in my head, I used pencil to draw in the indication of some of these elements – orchards in almost all of the paintings, wood lots with dense pencil marks, trees – lighter pencil marks, row crops indicated by pencil lines in rows and then a few small dark rectangles to indicate buildings.

Clearly some of these are more successful than others, but in general, I really like them. Unfortunately, I was rather casual with the masking tape, so they are not all the exact same size. That means that I’m going to have to custom cut the mats for these, which will be a little bit tedious. And I did a lot of these odd sized ones before I figured out how to do a better job of sizing them. I’m embarrassed to say that figuring that out took me way too long.

Tomorrow I’ll show you the next batch of tiny paintings.

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I just finished up a 10 week on-line class with Lisa Call. I took her class on working in a series, so I’ve been diligently working on one of my ongoing series of land paintings. I’ll be showing you some of the work from that series as I move forward, but today I want to talk more about the process of ending a class/project/whatever and sorting out where to go from here.

This happens to us all the time. You take a workshop, go to a conference, meet with other artists, listen to a great lecture or series of lectures. And you’ve got all these great ideas.

Quick grab one before it disappears!! To get the most out of something like this, you need to implement some of the great ideas that you generated.

So my first step in solidifying what I learned is to pick one idea and implement it. The class had weekly assignments, generally based on a specific design element – for example, color, line, value, etc. This seems like a great place to start.

The first thing I’m going to try out is the idea of going into the studio with an “assignment” of sorts. I tend to paint intuitively, so this will give me a bit more structure than I normally have, which I think will be a good thing.

There are a few things about working with an assignment that worked out great during the workshop. First of all, there was a deadline, a due date for the assignment. Secondly, there was a plan, a very rough plan, but still a plan. Thirdly, there’s a point of comparison. And finally, I think that this fairly light structure will help me keep the work moving forward.

Having a deadline helped me start working, keep working and also made me stop working and finish a piece when I ran out of time. That may not be the way I want to run my studio practice all the time, but I think having an element of that will be helpful to me.

Having a plan, even this really simple plan, is helping me to be more thoughtful about my art. It helps me focus on my objectives. And even when I totally lose it half way through the painting, I still have that idea to come back to at the end of the day. I have the option of trying again or moving in a different direction and I do it by choice, not by accident.

Having a point of comparison was very helpful in evaluating and critiquing the art. Knowing what I planned to do was very helpful in evaluating the finished product and the process.

Having this relatively simple structure is going to be very helpful in keeping the work moving. Over the next few months, I’m going to be experimenting to develop a simple system for recording and evaluating, but it must be something that works for ME. For the moment, I’ve just taken a ruled journal to keep some notes on what I’m working on and why. I’m thinking that the simpler I can keep this the better off I’ll be.

So one simple idea that I’ll be implementing immediately is really not much more than the old adage – go into the studio with a plan.

Tomorrow, I’m going to explain a bit more about my own twist on the idea of an “assignment”. Something a bit looser that fits my personality better and is closer to the way I naturally produce art.

Since I really like posts better if they have images, I’m including one of the pieces from my land project series that began this whole thing years ago.

Ethel Hills - " Hills Farm #5" - Watercolor - 22" x 30"

Ethel Hills – ” Hills Farm #5″ – Watercolor – 22″ x 30″


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