Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bartman Workshop

Back in October, I attended a landscape painting workshop in Delaware, taught by Walt Bartman Sr.  His son, W.M. Bartman III, was my studio art teacher at Poolesville High School, and I have been lucky enough to take classes with both of them at the Yellow Barn Studio and Gallery in Glen Echo.   Bartman Senior is always jetting off to exotic locales to teach workshops on location, and his classes aren't cheap, so I figured that this was the perfect opportunity to get his fantastic tutelage and insight at a more manageable price.

  The class of about 15 participants consisted entirely of well-to-do middle-aged ladies (and myself). This is the first painting I completed, in oils, after the first morning's lecture at the Rehoboth Art League. At the edge of the Art League's property there was this little marina encircled by a marsh. I didn't have an easel so I sat down on the pier and painted the only view I had that wasn't obscured by reeds. As I worked, droves of Great Blue Herons and American Egrets flew over--I'd never realized that they are migratory, nor that they can travel in flocks of more than two individuals.
Unfortunately, halfway through the painting, I accidentally knocked the lid of my Silicoil tank into the water, and scrambled along the rocks for ten minutes or so in a desperate attempt to catch it. Alas, it floated out to ultimately meet the wide open ocean.
Nevertheless, this is my favorite painting of the whole trip. I think it's because I used a recycled canvas that had been painted over several times, and therefore it had a really nice textured surface that was excellent for getting some more impasto techniques. 

After a short break, we all reconvened at the Art League for a quick sunset painting. This time, I switched to pastels, thinking they'd be better for capturing the immediacy of the sinking sun. We set up at the same marina that I'd painted that afternoon, but before long a new problem emerged: huge swarms of midges, apparently drawn by the odor of the paint (or perhaps just the presence of warm, sweaty bodies) blackened the air like smog.  I was crouched under a stand of tall reeds and subsequently avoided the worst of the onslaught; but one lady emerged from the experience with literally thousands of the unfortunate creatures stuck to her painting, as if someone had shaken poppyseeds all over her canvas. It was actually pretty fantastic.

The next day we painted in the historic town of Lewes (pronounced, vexingly, "Lew-is", thanks to the Dutch colonists).  I ended up with a godawful painting that will be painted over, but the afternoon was somewhat more successful. We gathered at a pristine marsh outside of town and spent four or five hours painting there. I had bought an eight-dollar easel at Michael's by this point, and though it was pretty much useless for anything other than falling over, I was able to embed its legs firmly in the rich, black marsh mud (and therefore keep it upright long enough to finish the painting above.) As you can see, I am still struggling with keeping the foliage and grasses from looking too solid, and the close-up shot has way better composition.  I'll probably go back and retouch this one at home. 

However, I still had a fantastic time because, #1, I was standing barefoot in the middle of this glorious mud flat and it was just a wonderful tactile experience, and #2, all around my feet there were tiny fiddler crabs scurrying back and forth. Whenever I needed a break, I got down on my hands and knees and watched them dashing sideways, grappling with one another, and feeding themselves with their dextrous little claws. I also discovered that they seem equally likely to be left- or right- clawed. At one point, I came across the BIGGEST crab hole I have EVER seen in my life; it was literally bigger than a silver dollar in diameter, whereas all the normal-sized holes are generally only a centimeter or two wide. I couldn't resist taking a blade of grass and poking it in there, trying to get a glimpse of what must've been a massive mutant crustacean. Presently, a MONSTER claw appeared and waved threateningly at me, but I couldn't manage to entice the owner out of his cozy hole. I guess some monsters are best left alone.

On Saturday morning the class, which by now had dwindled in size to about 10 students, met at Gordon's Pond, a beautiful part of Cape Henlopen State Park.  By this point, Mr. Bartman had cottoned on to my preference for painting on warm-toned canvases (primarily red ones), and challenged me to make a blue underpainting on white canvas and go from there.  Of course, this experience was torturous, because I was way out of my comfort zone. However, it really helped me to rethink my color selection and layering.  I'm not at all fond of the finished product (even though it's clearly unfinished, of course), but I appreciate Mr. Bartman pushing me to try something new.


That afternoon we had a class critique, which is always beneficial, back at the Art League. Afterwards we again trooped out to the marsh to paint the sunset, and again, I chose to work in pastel. Mr. Bartman had encouraged me to focus on making my work less dark, and therefore I tried to keep this one lighter and less heavy-handed than I usually do. I think it turned out all right--in fact, it's probably one of the better works of the trip. For the record, I really, really, REALLY adore soft pastels. 

The last day of the trip, Sunday, was optional.  Mr. Bartman had been dying to paint the "big purple house" in downtown Lewes, so we all met there in the morning. I didn't find the house (which is actually a spa) a particularly engaging subject, so I set off to explore the other options. Finally, I came across this scene just out of town. There was this huge cement bridge towering over a defunct train track, which had old-fashioned railroad crossing signs (no high-tech flashing lights or moving barricades to prevent you from driving into the path of an oncoming train. It must have been a lot easier to die back in the olden days.) 
This piece was done in pastel as well.  I got frustrated with the space above the bridge and actually folded the paper over so that no sky was visible above it, but Frans advised me that the composition was far better, and more open, with the sky included. He was right, of course, although this one needs some more work as well. 

All in all, it was a fantastic experience. I highly respect Mr. Bartman as a painter and as a teacher. Actually, he and his son (W.M. Bartman III) and grandson (Bartman IV--who is now three or four) are having a show this coming weekend at the Yellow Barn (Link).  Definitely check it out if you're in the area!

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