It was a shearing day on a large organic sheep station on the north island of New Zealand. Huntaway dogs barked, jumping over the fences into the pens, helping the shepherds separate ewes from their little lambs. The air smelled of lanolin and dust. I was working for room and board, WWOOFing, camera in hand. One main reason for my being there was to study sheep so I’d feel what they were like and then, better paint them.
My motivation to paint this work came from several sources. After completing the painting, “Listening for the Shepherd”, my similar but much smaller watercolor portrait while staying in Tuakau, NZ in 2007, I had this painting appear in my mind’s eye, strongly. Life-sized sheep.
A collector asked me to paint sheep on canvas earlier this year. I agreed, but gave no time frame. Then, in early July, an email invited me back to Vermont in early August. I was seven hours east, in Maine and needed a good reason to return to Vermont. This painting came to mind. It gave me a great deadline and goal – paint a 30×40 acrylic in one month’s time…ha.
Two very helpful new friends helped me track down a place where I could purchase large stretched canvas in the boondocks of Maine. They also kindly provided transportation. Subsequently, I spent nearly all the money I had buying canvas and paint. I could never have begun this painting without the help of Margaret and Sally!
I am also very grateful to my aunt, Helen, who provided me with love, support and a home during the initial month and finishing details. And I appreciate the many other encouraging people who assisted me on my journey to and from Vermont. My work is, as always, a joint affair. I am indebted to you, friends. Living as an artist has not been easy. I sometimes think of trying something more…steady…
Declaring my intentions, I told a local artist that I planned to begin a large painting. She asked what my deadline was and said if it “were her painting, she’d start the day before” the deadline…uh, I had a feeling this was no quick, one-day piece…she saw my sheep three weeks later and gasped, “Did you just do this?!” “No, I’ve been working on it for weeks,” I replied.
As I often say, it’s very difficult to produce good representational work in a hurry. A certain mental and emotional space is needed. I love the pressure of deadlines but I’m no last-minute artist when it comes to large pieces such as this one.
Several of the summer folk on this particular bit of Maine coastline meet down the road on Thursday mornings to paint together. One lady is over ninety, but she paints beautifully! I joined this group while doing the initial scaling and working on the under-painting. They told me I was brave to work on a piece this large…they were all very kind, helpful and encouraging. I love my painting friends.
Thanks to thirteen huge 4’x6′ murals I painted for Pastor Neal’s changing sermon series, years ago, large white surfaces don’t scare me anymore.
A stranger’s cellphone camera captured the under-painting image, below. One painter friend, 87, told me it looked “done” to her at this stage. To my mind, “done” was something very different!
Since I didn’t have a camera of my own, I asked someone to take a photo of the next stage…however my email and her new camera/computer don’t seem to be connecting. I plan to fill this blank spot with another stage of the painting, if I possibly can.
I continued working several hours every day possible, painting outside because acrylic fumes bother me. The painting was propped against the house on a low table. In the afternoon the sun would move over the edge of the house, giving me some shade from it’s strong rays.
On cloudy days when it sprinkled rain, I painted inside a storage room with the door open for ventilation.
The end of July arrived but the painting was not finished. I left for my day-long trip back to Vermont, carrying the thin canvas inside a large cardboard box, through Boston, the “T” and onto two buses.
I stayed on a farm a few days and painted there. After moving to house and cat-sit for my sister, I then painted there. I went north to stay in another location to teach an old student, and painted there. This painting is well-traveled!
Anyway, the collector in Vermont saw this work when it was only half-finished, above. She also viewed it in bright sunshine – not the best lighting because it really looked softer when inside…she didn’t choose to purchase it, as it was. I agreed it still didn’t look the way my mind had envisioned it. The colors were too strong and cartoonish.
One of my art mentors, Phyllis, 82, saw the painting while it was in Vermont, around this stage, above. She asked if she could critique it. “Sure,” I said, “I’d be glad to hear what you think.” “It’s NOT done yet.”
Phyllis made some comments regarding the hard edges. She was very helpful. As she showed me some weak areas, it became clearer in my mind what I still needed to do.
I’d reached an impasse of sorts. I was struggling to make the wool look soft. Watercolor edges are easy to soften, even after the paint has fully dried. Not so with this paint. Hard edges were becoming the bane of my existence.
Watercolor painting may have become a bit boring to me but these sheep were certainly a challenge… Maybe I bit off more than I could chew.
I decided I had to try harder to mix just the right value and color – these would have to simulate a softer look, because there was no way to work on the entire painting wet – it was too large. Every time I’d try to go back and work on an area it seemed I made the value or color worse after it dried…
The color of the sheep progressively changed from more browns and tan to a warmer peach. I softened the muzzle of each ewe, lightening the black to grays. I took out the fence in the background, brightening the color of the grass and then repainted the entire fence section on the right grayish, instead of the olive green.
One day it rained. I painted inside a screen door and discovered the humidity in the air kept the acrylic paint wet longer than the heat of a dry day. Lesson learned. Painting on humid, wet days with watercolor usually does NOT work well. But it’s the opposite with acrylic paint.
As acrylic dries a DARKER value than when you paint it, it was difficult to guess the amount of white paint to add. In comparison, watercolor dries LIGHTER than the value of color used..
I know enough about the acrylic medium to fill a thimble. An artist who has painted with this media for forty years told me a bit about adding “medium” and glazing in-between each layer. Seemed it would just make it look more plastic-y and I was striving for the oil look. I couldn’t afford more do-dads, either. I was using borrowed brushes as it was. So I haven’t tried those things, yet.
Here, below, I was still monkeying with the color of the wool on the ewe on the right, and also softening the hard edge between her neck and the folds of wool.
Below is a detail photo of the image above.
Then I replaced the fence with only one horizontal board. Simplified things visually. The two boards were a distraction.
The ewes faces and eyes were still challenging. I was using my sheep watercolor painting as a reference, not having the original photograph with me.
It’s difficult to tell what differs here, below, from the previous photo – the board in the back has been replaced, and the green around the background sheep ear is darker. I also lightened the value of the rear ear on the ewe at the left and worked on the shading below her jaw.
The final work, below, has been sitting in my room for weeks now. I really enjoy seeing it every day. It took about three months to finally complete, amid all the travel. I’ve thought about re-working some areas, but change my mind and think it’s completed. I’m afraid to ruin it.
The canvas still needs to be varnished. An outdoor job. Varnish smell is lethal.
I don’t think acrylic paints are environmentally friendly. Nor are they very people friendly, while wet.
The first joint on my left index finger was sprained from painting with longer brushes than I normally use and from mixing paint for so many hours this summer…I can write and play the piano again but the swelling in the joint has sadly not entirely disappeared…
My left shoulder also took a beating through repetitive motion – mixing and applying color. Believe it or not, painting requires some degree of physical fitness. All those years of heating with wood, at home in Vermont, were helpful in ways I didn’t realize before!
It’s growing on me. It’s said that art sells best by exposure – the more you see something (or someone) the more attached you are to it – usually – and it’s true for the artist as well as the collector! After awhile of having a painting around, selling it becomes quite emotionally difficult. But that’s better than an artist who once told me they take their (abstract) work down after three days because they can’t stand the sight of their own pieces!
I brought these ewes to the Farmer’s Market in September and they really drew folks toward my tiny art booth. One man said as he approached, “Do I have room on my wall for this?” Then he asked, “How much is it?” I told him and he immediately responded, “I do not have room on my wall.” But he liked it. =)
The original, 30×40 on canvas, is available if someone would like to purchase it. Prints on canvas will also be available shortly. Please write me for size and price details: email@example.com
The verse reference under my autograph – a prophecy concerning Christ the LORD, which came true about 2000 years ago – says,
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.” ~ Isaiah 53:6-7
It’s very true, sheep don’t speak when they are shorn. It’s rare to hear them bleat at all – only in response to their lambs, who were carefully returned to their side after shearing was over.
I’ve debated about the painting title. “Silence of the Ewes” sounds grim. “Ewes Waiting for Shearing”? “Wooly Mothers”? If anyone has an idea for a good title, please let me know!
Three large acrylic paintings and several watercolors were part of the fruit of my year, 2012. A red barn, these ewes, and a not-quite-completed large hollyhock floral piece – that will have to happen next summer when the weather improves for outdoor work.
I never did make it for tea with my Californian friend who vacations in Vermont. Next year. However, while home I did have time to read and review a book for an insightful author, Tyler Braun, on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. His fine new book is called Why Holiness Matters.
This blog has been updated recently for iPhone/smart phones and tablets by my dear friend, Pancake Ninja. You may visit her fine blog here: PancakeNinja
Anyone who tells you acrylic is easier than watercolor must not be painting sheep.
Back to watercolor.
I wish everyone a blessed and happy New Year! May it be full of faith, hope and love!
Loving beauty and it’s Creator, your painting friend,