Archive for the 'Technique' Category

Training the trainers in Eastern Kentucky!

Tuesday, July 26th, 2022

“We make a living by what we get;
we make a life by what we give.”
— Winston Curchill
 

I’m still feeling a satisfying vibe from one of the most personally rewarding events ever! My hands-on collage workshop was part of the “Train the Trainer“ series in Paintsville, Kentucky for the Johnson County Extension Office. Participating artists intend to share this learning throughout their community in the coming months. My thanks to a fabulous group of creative individuals who were curious about “all things collage” and inspired to “pay it forward” among fellow citizens in their beautiful area of our Commonweath.

After an opening presentation with my whirlwind tour through over 200 years of collage history, a demonstration offered cutting tips, the basics of pasting technique, an overview of translucency and transfers, plus an emphasis on maintaining the flow of improvisational layering. (See my end-result demo piece below.) Throughout the day we stressed the fundamentals of visual aesthetics, while keeping our focus on intuitive spontaneity within an experimental process. Tables cluttered with potential ingredients were the norm, as participants tackled three time-based exercises and produced a collage miniature for each. Their well-crafted, colorful solutions were the take-home product, and we managed to fit in a closing discussion full of important observations. I was impressed with the group’s talent, curiosity, and spirit of creative adventure! It was an astonishing thing for me to observe how fluently they attuned to the vocabulary of collage expression, having no prior awareness of Hannah Höch, Joseph Cornell, or the Merz of Kurt Schwitters.

 
It’s been a while since I accepted the role of teacher. I was surprised and concerned to discover that it was no longer within my “comfort zone.” I faced a gauntlet of self-assurance to run before I felt prepared. The delightful, encouraging Brenda Cockerham, our project leader, provided vital support. As ever, Dana was an indispensable “partner in all things.” Why must I periodically be reminded that giving back is every bit as significant as anything I get from my artistic practice? I’m a fortunate man, because cutting and pasting offers a universal experience that is effortless to share with others — if I just get out of my own way. Collage at all levels presents an ideal opportunity for individual receptivity. It’s rewarding to watch this sense of discovery, similar to what I experience myself as I explore the wide potential of art made from paper that would otherwise be cast away. This connection with others fires my enthusiasm to compile additional collage insights and to continue passing them along. There is much to gain within a shared creative environment when we take discarded stuff and create value where none existed, and find wonder, meaning, and beauty where none had been expected.

 

Don’t Clown Around
collage experiment by J A Dixon
created during my workshop demonstration
6.5 x 8.5 inches

Still Life with Peony Tulips

Monday, October 11th, 2021

“We think of the things we own and use as defining us in some way, but that can only be true if we first describe the things. Describing is a remarkable human act. It connects our inner and outer experience: as we observe and record the material world, we respond and reflect. We enter the realm where the material world meets the imagination. That’s the fertile ground of art.”
– Sheldon Tapley
 

I created this artwork for The Object Seen: Contemporary Still Life, current exhibition at Art Center of the Bluegrass in Danville. The juror was Sheldon Tapley, masterful painter, draftsman, and Stodghill Professor of Art at Centre College. I received a 2nd-place ribbon and cash prize. The honor came as a surprise, since I don’t consider myself a practitioner or student of still life as an art form. I have, however, looked deeply at artwork made by Sheldon and those who are. The arms-length quality of modern still life has compelled my close scrutiny for many years. Given that influence, I brought to the genre what I’ve discovered by “painting in papers” from direct observation (the long sweep of art history hovering somewhere outside my conscious awareness, with its rich tradition of artists tackling visual cornacopias of objects and edible fare). I decided to interpret a tabletop group of objects from raw material, rather than assemble a conventional collage composition from found images.

Please view a video clip of the juror’s remarks about my artwork.

The peony tulip blossoms were created en plein air in a local flower garden. The small “still life within a still life” was commenced and partially finished from a setup of actual objects. I relied on photo reference for the rest. Ingredients include colored paper (printed and unprinted), wallpaper, ruined book parts, tissue, reclaimed tea bags, string, and a dried leaf, plus minimal use of walnut juice, burnt coffee, tinted paste, and marker-ink edging. Adhesives include wheat paste, acrylic matte medium, and white glue.

 

Still Life with Peony Tulips
collage on salvaged canvas
18 x 23.75 inches

•  Second Place Prize

Paint the town. (With paper!)

Saturday, July 3rd, 2021

“If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”
— Mario Andretti
 

One week ago, I spent a windy Saturday in frantic competition with the clock, and managed to get an outdoor collage artwork framed and delivered for Lexington’s annual Paint the Town plein air event. At the opening reception that same evening, I was stunned to get a prompt sale and 2nd-place prize. It was one of the most exhilarating twelve hours I’ve experienced in quite a while.

Oh, the dubious lengths some of us will go to chase artistic intensity — even the temporary madness of extreme deadline pressure — all in the pursuit of rapt spontaneity. Heaven help me!

It doesn’t seem so long ago when I first took my collage obsession out of doors, and this kind of open challenge was a goal too absurd to contemplate. I had scouted the location and spent a couple days in preparation. By the time I’d registered a blank canvas, raced to my site and set up, one of the precious six hours had evaporated. I began to battle the breeze (nothing new there). Nor were the other 40 artists involved my foes. It was clear that the only towering opponent I faced was a daunting imperative to speed up my process. I’ve never pasted paper so fast in my life!

The judge said this about my piece: “I was very interested in the way this artist managed to create such an evocative landscape using collaged paper — and on a windy day! Places and buildings often hold so many memories and meanings, and the use of text on the siding of the buildings — with the words appearing in reverse, so they become texture and tone — adds another level of meaning.”

It’s gratifying, and profoundly reinforcing, to have a knowledgeable evaluator find significance in aspects that have evolved gradually to become a natural part of my plein air method. I appreciate her remarks, the organizing effort of all those with Arts Connect, the camaraderie of the participating artists, the buyers (Scott and Paul), the indispensable support of my dearest partner — and you, reader, for visiting here and for reading all of this!

Onward to the next challenge!

 

Off Upper
plein air collage on canvas by J A Dixon
12 x 12 inches

•  Second Place Prize / S O L D

New Birth, New Growth, New Beginnings

Friday, May 28th, 2021

“Younger than we are,
      O children, and frailer,
Soon in the blue air they’ll be,
      Singer and sailor.”
 
  — Nest Eggs | A Child’s Garden of Verses,
      Robert Louis Stevenson, 1900
 

Today is the final day of “New Birth, New Growth, New Beginnings,” a juried exhibition celebrating spring at Art Center of the Bluegrass. My accepted artwork originated from a satisfying blend of subject, medium, and poetic reference.

The green space that surrounds my home studio has been a haven for multiple generations of robins. A surreptitious, close-up glimpse of their familiar nest eggs was the visual idea that dislodged any others I might have used to interpret the theme. Spring is my favorite time of year, as it is for many, and perhaps the finished piece captures how my imagination is charged with anticipation for nature’s annual season of renewal. There is also something about the chaotic order of a bird’s nest that ideally lends itself to collage ingredients. I wanted to include the textural patterns of printed text, along with actual organic substance — in this case, the inner membranes of hard-neck garlic stalks from the previous year’s harvest. The “patina” of salvaged wallpaper from a nearby historical tear-down provided areas of desired subtlety. Relying on reclaimed tea-bag material has gradually become an integral part of my technique, but I hadn’t put it to use before with such a linear quality. For zones that would benefit from deeper shadow, I added walnut juice to my typical polymer sealant and “smoothed” the eggshells ever so slightly with colored pencil and a milky tint (giving rise to the final description of “combined mediums”).

Human civilization has increasingly peeled itself from the balanced interdependence of the natural world. More of us are doing our best as individuals to fix that torn relationship. There are different ways to promote a necessary restoration. It’s important to discover as many as possible. I find myself taking more advantage of bringing art to nature and nature to art. I am thankful that my life conditions grant me creative opportunities to experience this healing process.

 

Soon in the Blue Air They’ll Be
collage with combined mediums on structured panel
J A Dixon, 20 x 25 inches

•  S O L D

Sixth Chapter: A virtual field trip for youngsters . . .

Saturday, August 22nd, 2020

 

 
“You can decide that you want your art to be very close, exacting, and faithful to the scene, or you can just let nature charge your imagination, and you just go from there.”
from our video “ridealong”
 

It turned out to be one of the more memorable days of the summer — not just another opportunity to take my collage making to a natural place, but a collaborative effort with my friend Brandon Long from Art Center of the Bluegrass. Responding to the new demands of the era, he was in the middle of organizing a virtual field trip to dovetail with our annual En Plein Air exhibition. He wants to encourage youngsters to create collage artwork out of doors, so he asked me if I would be the subject of a short video. Our local PAACK had already scheduled an event at Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge, but, with the likelihood of rain, the gathering had been postponed earlier that morning. Brandon and I felt lucky, and we pushed ahead with the outing anyway. We were successful in avoiding the poison ivy and pulling off our little production at the edge of Island Pond. Not much later, a thunderstorm sent me skedaddling beneath a nearby shelter. Somehow, I came away with a good start on a miniature that I could finish in the studio. My goal has always been to spend less time with the indoor follow-up than I spend on location. Sometimes it happens, but usually I need a 50/50 time ratio between site and studio to bring something to a satisfactory resolution. There are artists who would not consider that a legitimate plein-air solution. It’s a standard limitation that we use for our Central Kentucky group. At any rate, I find the entire process to be personally rewarding. If I keep doing this, I think that basically I’ll get to where I can complete something in the field. Meanwhile, the challenge is to “paint with paper,” capturing the essence of a viewscape on site, and then to avoid messing that up with my finishing touches.

Creating Collage “En Plein Air”

 

Before a Storm
plein air collage miniature by J A Dixon
50% / 50% — site to studio
7.5 x 7.8125 inches
available for purchase

Fifth Chapter: Sparring with the breeze . . .

Saturday, October 5th, 2019

“This idea of having something that isn’t quite in focus, something that isn’t quite understood, is interesting. I think details that are over-plentiful, details that are very dense, are lifelike. They exist in natural environments. Forests have a huge amount of details, because they are not built on a human level, so they are impossible to analyze at first glance, and I think we can only recreate what nature has done already, so I don’t think that the idea of simplifying something is a good thing.”
— Édouard Lock
 

August and September provided a stretch of exceptionally dry weather that was a disappointment for farmers in the Bluegrass, but valued by our intrepid PAACK of regional artists who work out of doors. I was able to create three more satisfying landscape miniatures.

Those who have followed this sequence of descriptions realize it hasn’t been that long since I met the challenge of doing collage en plein air. It has evolved as a gradient progression of discoveries. I’ve learned to think of my application of paper ingredients as a density of “brushstrokes” rather than the placement of simple design elements into a composition. The two-year process has brought my artwork from a crafted illustration with cleanly pasted elements to a more layered, painterly effect. I’m tending to work wet-on-wet, using sandpaper and blades to score and feather edges. The thickness of papers is torn into “veneers” with areas that can achieve a blended translucency, and I’m more routinely taking advantage of recycled tea-bag “skins” to add warmth, texture, or visual softness. I continue to use three different liquid adhesives — wheat paste, white glue, and polymer gel — which offer contrasting levels of stickiness and drying time. I saturate the paper for manipulations not available with dry material and then flatten the surface with a cloth or burnisher, depending on a desired level of dimensionality. Bits of printed text continue to appear as part of my treatment, providing subtle highlights or more overt suggestions of pattern. This growing vocabulary of techniques has given me more confidence to tackle scenes that might have looked too difficult not so long ago. Attempting to “paint” a pond fountain or a rocky outcrop with only paper would have seemed more daunting when I first started to do this.

None of it would be possible without the generosity of those who host our outings. With a spirit of hospitality, the diversity of two farms and a wonderful view of the Dix River were each made available to us for a day. I rely on a square viewing card to select my composition and the all-important place to sit.
 

A point of self-criticism: my plein-air “collage rig” had gradually crept into the forbidden zone of overkill, so I made an effort to lighten my load before the next PAACK venture.

My goal has been a self-imposed limitation of studio follow-through, equal to or less than the amount of time I spend at the original site. I was able to meet that comfortably with August Afternoon, for a 50/50 allocation. When completing Fountain and Shadow, I had to suspend my detailed labor on the central tree. I’d prefer to invest less time indoors and was able to do that with Reflection on an Outcrop (a more desirable 60/40 ratio). Having been studio oriented in my art practice, I always need to guard against allowing the concluding phase to upstage a vital plein-air impression. I’ll rely on memory as much as I do an iPhone photo taken on location. It’s also important to remind myself that, as much as I enjoy my “maximalist” propensity, the objective should be a creative interpretation instead of a literal rendering. It is, after all, a collage artwork.

Collage Madness, my joint exhibition with Connie Beale, is currently on display here in Danville, Kentucky at the Mahan Gallery of Boyle County Public Library. It has provided the first ideal opportunity to showcase my approach to plein air collage and I’ll explain my process to visitors at a Gallery Talk on Saturday afternoon, October 19th. I’ve covered a number of bases as an artist and designer, but I have to say that this has been one of the most personally rewarding projects I’ve begun. Perhaps many of you can be there to hear my remarks.
 
 
August Afternoon ~ plein air collage miniature by J A Dixon

August Afternoon
plein air collage miniature by J A Dixon
7.25 x 7.125 inches
available for purchase

 
Fountain and Shadow ~ plein air collage miniature by J A Dixon

Fountain and Shadow
plein air collage miniature by J A Dixon
6 x 6.375 inches
available for purchase

 
Reflection on an Outcrop ~ plein air collage miniature by J A Dixon

Reflection on an Outcrop
plein air collage miniature by J A Dixon
6.375 x 6.625 inches

•  S O L D

new year, new art, new approach

Monday, January 7th, 2019

“The most interesting paradox of creativity: in order to be habitually creative, you have to know how to prepare to be creative, but good planning alone won’t make your efforts successful; it’s only after you let go of your plans that you can breathe life into your efforts.”
— Twyla Tharp

“You take what you know, you take things you are comfortable with, and you throw them into a situation of new things, of things you are uncomfortable with, and, all of a sudden, new connections happen. And then your goal as a creative must be: of having the skill to carry it home without breaking it.”
— Christoph Niemann
 

Brandon Long is making a name for himself as an assemblage artist in Kentucky. He manages to juggle this with being a blogger, an active volunteer, and his full-time role as an outstanding family man. On top of that, he holds down a challenging, “multi-hat” position at our local Community Arts Center. This past autumn, his request to exhibit at their annual winter invitational arrived like clockwork: show the public an entirely new work, no jury evaluation, just put something at the leading edge of your creativity on display. There can’t be a single regional artist receiving that call who doesn’t value it as a rare opportunity.

I’d been thinking for much of last year about another immersion into larger works — not always a comfort zone for a self-described “miniaturist.” Add to that several months of recovery from a knee injury which limited my standing time. I reckoned I was overdue for a boost in the scale of my studio work. When it came time to plunge in, I realized it also was the perfect chance to reassess my current methodology. I wanted to explore a way of developing an abstract composition that was different for me. Could I combine and balance both a rational and non-rational process? By now, I had more than a decent foundation in each, but had never fused them in as mindful a manner as I considered possible. It didn’t turn out to be complicated at all, and yet it was a new approach for me, after more than twelve years as a dedicated collage practitioner.

Deciding to make three works at horizontal, vertical, and square proportions, I began with thumbnail concepts in my journal, moving from tiny doodles, to color sketches, and from there to rough collage miniatures. The activity was deliberate, but I tried to hold it at an intuitive level. After that, I moved to the typical task of preparing the “stretchers,” although nothing would be fabricated from scratch. I found a nearly fifty-year-old, unpainted canvas in remarkable shape. I stretched Pellon® fabric over a discarded picture frame. I paid almost nothing at a flea market for a castoff “student-esque” painting that needed some reinforcement, its canvas re-stretched, plus lots of primer. After sorting categories of available paper scrap into flat boxes, I was ready to explode into routine sessions of Merz assembly, with an occasional reference back to my preliminary ideas. When probing to the heart of intuition like this, a collage artist stumbles upon strange dynamics. For instance, there are times when you’ll ignore an emotion that says “this doesn’t belong,” only to press on and discover that it totally “works” with the next layering of ingredients. Perhaps this is more characteristic of collage maximalism than collage minimalism. I would accept that fully, but it’s fascinating to remain aware of the “joust” between whether to trust feelings or trust pure impulse, and to discern the difference. Finally, there came a point when I introduced the hard evaluation of a visual critique, before finishing with intentional refinements — and even that final stage allows for spontaneity.

It’s not always easy to know when a piece is done, and maybe it never really is. Eventually, an artist has to claim victory and sign the damn thing. I ended up delivering two works to the Center for the “New Year New Art” show, and let Brandon pick one that fit best. It was the square, the one I called Harmonic Squall.

Please give these four details your scrutiny. Let me know what you think, and, if you find yourself in the area, attend our opening reception this Friday evening. It’s always the first good party after New Year’s Eve!
 

Harmonic Squall (detail) ~ collage on canvas by J A Dixon     Harmonic Squall (detail) ~ collage on canvas by J A Dixon

Harmonic Squall (detail) ~ collage on canvas by J A Dixon     Harmonic Squall (detail) ~ collage on canvas by J A Dixon

four
details
from
Harmonic
Squall

Harmonic Squall ~ collage on recycled canvas by J A Dixon

Harmonic Squall
collage on recycled canvas by J A Dixon
26 x 26 inches
available for purchase
 
Purchase this artwork.

Modern Use

Monday, December 17th, 2018

“As long as movements require our attention they are kata (form), when the kata become spontaneous they become waza (technique). As long as we persist in viewing kata superficially, we will begin to think that they are of special importance.”
— Yushio Kuroiwa
 

When explaining aikido, the late martial artist Yushio Kuroiwa taught the practice of rational movement, so that one could spontaneously execute a natural movement as a result. For me, this idea has a distinct parallel to the art of collage, which is based on repetitive experimentation. With study and discernment, the collage artist can discriminate the difference between a superficial composition that was contrived with too much self attention, and an intuitive composition that developed more naturally — an expression of synchronicity — that grew from understanding the essence of creativity.

Kuroiwa encouraged his students to not blindly follow masterful forerunners, but to observe and discover their “causes, effects, and processes of things, and their similarities and differences through experience.” He pointed out that “someone with poor handwriting cannot write beautifully, even when using a good pen. A skilled calligrapher, however, can write beautifully even when using an inexpensive pen. It is not that the pen is good, but rather that the writer’s ability, as a result of long experience, is excellent.”

It is beneficial to keep in mind that even though we are “working artists,” much of our “work” is not significant in and of itself as an artistic product, especially if it is merely a conscious application of formulae largely exhausted decades ago during the formative years of our medium as a modern art. Instead, maintain your drill, your ritual of formation, not to yield marketable artifacts, but to internalize an “organic” process that leads to a rewarding sense — that we have freely expressed the natural ability to create something with real spontaneity.

Thanks for visiting. Now, let’s go make more art . . .
 
Modern Use ~ collage miniature by John Andrew Dixon ~ Danville, Kentucky ~ Kentucky Crafted Mixed Media Artist

Modern Use
collage experiment in monochrome by J A Dixon
8.375 x 11 inches
 
Purchase this artwork.

Various and Sundry Scraps ~ No.2

Saturday, October 6th, 2018

Collage is painting, so Cinta can inform and inspire collage.
Many of us wanted to stow ourselves in Teri’s art-supply case.
I’ve lost count of all the things I admire about Sheldon’s artistry.
Cecil: The “spectacularness” of the harmony of all things.
The opposite of collage — two solid hours of Wesley at work.

My thanks to everyone who created these featured videos.

Silk Road Guardians

Sunday, May 13th, 2018

“We have had 6,000 years of history with the horse and only 100 with the automobile.”
— Gloria Austin
 

In the spirit of my preparations for the Derby Celebration, I finished the next miniature in the Silk Road Series. It, too, carries an equine theme and provided me a perfect opportunity to hone my technique for an “apparently seamless” impression when combining a rich tangle of ingredients. There are times when one wants to convey that each element is a distinct part of the composition, and at other times to disguise their individual identity, working with larger visual quantities and textures formed by a composite of scrap.
 
Silk Road Guardians ~ collage miniature by John Andrew Dixon ~ Danville, Kentucky ~ Kentucky Crafted Mixed Media Artist

Silk Road Guardians
collage miniature by J A Dixon
7 x 9.375 inches
 
Purchase this artwork.

The “Collagesmith” as Artisan

Saturday, March 24th, 2018

“Even in the absence of inspiration and talent, I think that through sheer craft you can actually create extremely good work, all the time, reliably. Great work is something else. I think for great work you also need a lot of luck. You can only aspire to really good work. The great work either happens or it doesn’t.”
— Christoph Niemann
 

Sloppy collage artwork has never held much appeal for me. Individuals might define “sloppy” differently, so I’ll rephrase that. I have always found well-crafted collage artwork to be the most appealing. In practice, I have aspired to the highest level of artisanship to which I am capable. According to my peculiar notions, the very nature of collage as a “mash-up” of visual ingredients suggests that one resist all the inherent temptations to condone careless techniques. To do anything less is a disservice to the medium, and strikes me as being a bit lazy.

I have been at this long enough to contrast current activity with a study of my “early” work. I perceive it now as more crisp and aligned with my long stint as a designer and illustrator. I remain proud of craftsmanship that continues to challenge my present hand skills. Like everyone who sticks around, I have moved relentlessly toward a period of life when manual dexterity and vision are unlikely to improve. At any rate, clean, precise work is more about attitude and personal commitment than it is about facility. Lately, on the other hand, I have sought a more organic, less contrived look — the impression that a piece is naturally the way it should be, rather than appear too obviously composed and belabored. As I work, I try not to permit the goal of a somewhat softer and cohesive whole to suggest a relaxation of craft. In fact, I have gradually introduced steps in the process that demand extra time and attention: sanding the reverse side of ingredients for adhesive-saturated compression and eliminating white edges on printed scrap to enhance a seamless effect. I combine that with ample burnishing and some hair-dryer prep before curing time under weight, followed by multiple light-touch coats of matte sealant. I would rather be thinking about practical methodology or a musical playlist than what is literally evolving on the surface before me, allowing that to be as intuitive as possible.

And perhaps (just maybe), Lady Luck will smile.
 
Cosmic Crucifixion ~ J A Dixon

Cosmic Crucifixion
mixed-media collage by J A Dixon
2006, 16 x 16 inches
available for purchase