Monica Burrow
Original Art

Blog - A Palette of Ideas - on being an artist

(posted on 24 Jul 2018)

Last month I had a brand new artist's experience with the shipping of the largest commission I had done to date. I had done some work on the phone looking at options to ship between Vancouver and Toronto. I began in April with a research phone call to several companies about the costs of shipping. At one point the client even looked into having me take the canvas off the stretchers, roll it, and ship it that way. The cost seemed rather high, given what I was hearing from freight and cargo companies for a packed complete canvas. Since the work was 3 foot by 4 foot unwrapped, I had quite a large item on my hands.

I went on the internet and looked at ideas for lightweight sturdy packaging and was able to adapt my packing strategy to capitalize on quite a few free materials I could easily find. I had some good tips and went ahead collecting the various components of the end wrapping.

First I wrapped the work in white roll drawing paper that I bought at my local art supply store to keep it clean. Next I wrapped the image side and edges with some scraps of that hard pink 1 1/2" insulation board to protect it. Next I bought two half sheet scraps of 1/4" door skin or mahogany plywood and put one on each side of the work. The next layer was was an appliance box from a dealer where we had bought several appliances over the years. The whole thing was well taped around the edges and in both directions across the middle. Lastly I purchased enough 6mm heavy poly plastic to totally waterproof the whole thing with a last layer. All seams were taped in case the package ran into rain on the tarmac somewhere.

Once my clients had finished their renovations and cleaned up enough, I phoned again to recheck the information from one well known Canadian airline.  Initially their answers seemed too good to be true.  Upon calling back, it all checked out as correct! I was even able to book the wrapped parcel using the actual dimensions, on a flight. It flew on a specific flight due to the fact that it would be on a wide body jet and be built into a cargo container and not laid on top of other loose cargo. I was able to purchase insurance through the airline.

About the only thing they didn't offer me for the painting was a seat with pretzels and drinks! The timing of the Thursday flight meant it arrived in Toronto after midnight which meant arriving on the Friday. This meant that with the weekend looming the buyers had 3 days to pick up instead of 2, before storage charges began to apply.

Once I had it booked it was a matter of taking it to the cargo hangar at Vancouver Airport and signing it in. It even traveled collect so I did not have to put out any money ahead of time and the clients paid the bill at the other end to release the parcel.

Everything was well written out for the client in emails where all agreed to the amount, which turned out to be substantially less than the cost of undoing the work from the stretchers, shipping rolled, and re-stretching. Through the magic of smart phones I was able to track and text the client with the work's progress through the system and they sent me the photo as it arrived on the other end - in absolutely perfect condition.

With good preparation and proper packing I discovered that paintings can really fly, and with less fuss than it would take for a person!

(posted on 17 Apr 2018)

Now coming to the end of months of working on the commission I mentioned in an earlier blog:

At the end of the last work session, I started feeling that things were getting to a point where I was getting to the home stretch.

Early on when I was first learning to paint, an elderly lady in our Guild said "Always quit when you think you are 3/4 finished." She also said "Put some paint on the canvas before it is fully mixed on the palette, that way you get more complicated colours."  It's something I've always tried to keep in mind. Don't overwork the piece.

Another person I learned from said "Don't fall in love, don't marry any one part too early." A great way to say that if you become attached to any one part of a painting too early, and spend the rest of the time protecting that area and painting around it, it will affect the success of the work.

Learning when to stop is one of the most important things for an artist. When is enough, enough?

Here's where I Spy comes in. That game we often played as children mostly when an adult wanted to keep us occupied with something that involved sitting down and keeping relatively quiet. People often ask me how long it takes to paint a piece. It's not an easy answer to give. As with anything that involves the puzzles of the mind and perception, one can spend as much time observing the piece figuring out what happens next, as actually squeezing paint and applying it.

From Plein air where one has to get the scene composed and down on the surface before the light or weather change, to the studio where one could work forever on one piece, there's a middle ground, but it's rare that I don't spend some time backing away and observing. It's usually at the point in the work session where the brain starts to wander that little bit, and one becomes aware that one is in danger of putting down a stroke that is not thoughtful. I don't think between each stroke. Each stroke is not deliberate, but before I start painting the group of strokes,  I have deliberated.

Stepping back for a few seconds is the minimum and the larger the work, the more often I find I have to step back. Once I hit the point I described above where the mind starts to wander, if I'm not hungry or thirsty, I know I have to put the palette away, clean the brushes, take the piece off the easel and take it to where I can put it into my daily life backdrop to watch it. Observation confirms where to go next, points out areas for attention and improvement.

It can also draw out a word of opinion from my husband, who is really objective and has very useful things to say as he plays music but doesn't paint. Because he doesn't paint he is objective, and not competitive. He doesn't know the "rules", he just knows when something bugs him. Most of the time the stuff that bugs him is right where the problem is. Often he knows when it's done too. How does he know this? As a viewer, he doesn't need to be hit over the head with every detail. If I am going to leave something for him to think about and participate in when viewing the painting, than I have to leave room in the picture for him to fill something in for himself.

It's that magical quality where you look at the brush strokes the artist put down on an individual basis and then resolve them into the subject, before going back to the parts again, only to return to the total. Your eye begins to move through the painting in the way that pleases you enough to stay with the work and marvel at how the shapes allow you to see what the artist saw and add in something of your own.

The observation stage can last a few hours, or it can last a week or two. It calls for patience.

After over 25 years as a painter, even when I stare at the blank gessoed canvas before I start a piece, I know with confidence to a decent degree what I am aiming for and how to get it there. Things can change as I work through the piece, but I always know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I can see it from where I begin. There is a point though where you just know you are so close you can touch it.

It's at that point that I start making a list. The bigger the piece, the more I write it down rather than carrying it in my head. It's just like I Spy.

I spy with my little eye: and the list develops from there. It's funny how that list is enough to create the objectivity I need to make the last adjustments. Changes in tone, value, mass, highlight and low-light. It's the final adjustment just as a chef makes a final adjustment to the seasonings just before serving the dish.

And suddenly it's there. The painting is done. Each last stroke is put down thoughtfully and I know I'm there. It makes sense to me and it's enough. Time to put the work out into the world and enjoy it without looking back. It could be time for a new piece or painting the next one in a series from similar reference material. Either way, it feels like the piece is done.



(posted on 17 Jan 2018)

It's been a while since my last blog entry. Life has it's ups and downs, and the last few months of 2017 have been some of the strangest I have ever experienced. There is a big commission on the easel that clients are waiting patiently for with understanding and I'm almost able to get back to it.

In December I spent a month in hospital totally focussed on treatment and the process of trying to heal after finding out I had something potentially life threatening going on. Isolated from all except masked and familiar family and friends, I did some daily exercises to the beat of The Stones, read books, and used a great set of Faber Castell pencil crayons and three colouring books to mindfully stay in the moment after my treatment while waiting for signs that the improvement in my faulty numbers would begin.

The art I was making was different than my usual in that I was not creating the image. I used photo reference on my phone in order to get colours, light sources and shadows to look accurate. I was playing colour against colour, light against dark, creating dimension and passing the hours until I could go home.

Part way through the treatment, the sight in my right eye began to be compromised and it was two weeks before I could see someone about it in the hospital between Christmas and New Year holidays and the sheer volume of others who needed the eye department's services. I decided in relation to everything else what while the eye was a priority for me as an artist, that life itself was bigger. I reminded myself that many artists have had sight compromises and have adapted.

Today I discovered that the issue will resolve itself and I was reassured that I would be able to see as well as before.

I realized that art and having the materials in my hands during the last month was a great part of what got me through the time, made me hopeful, and made the weeks pass more quickly.

At this time of year in order to keep consistent light on the easel, I paint on sunny days when there is natural light to keep the colours and values accurate to what I want and consistent from work session to work session. I got home and looked at the commission which is about one third finished. I still liked what I saw. I am eager to get back at it as soon as I can. Losing my health whether temporarily or permanently is one thing, but the important discovery was how important painting is to me in my life. It is an even larger priority than I had ever suspected.

It was a good Christmas actually. My family stepped up to support me, to create their own version of Christmas at home, to show me I was valued beyond what I ever believed. Between Dec 21st and Jan 8th I recieved 10 blood transfusions. One came from four strangers who went into Canadian Blood Services and gave - on Christmas Eve of all days. A day when many are caught up in, and busy with, last minute preparations.

These things and the presence of painting in my life are gifts that cannot be wrapped with a bow and put under a tree. Whatever the future brings, I will always remember that and try to put a little into each piece I paint.

Happy New Year - may 2018 bring good things for all of us and keep the important things in life at the forefront.


(posted on 13 Aug 2017)

It's been a month of extraordinary heat and no rain, with over a week of smoke filled skies that looked like a tube of Golden's Titan Buff. Two days ago the heat broke, we began to see a faint hint of Prussian Blue to the sky and then the clouds showed up. I saw a star at night and the moon was a normal colour.

Painting was a way to pass the hours, but motivation at a humidex of over 30 degrees can be an elusive thing. 

Yesterday the rain moved in at 10pm and we got a good overnight soaking. The first rain since July 21 when we had a few drops.

The best thing I could do for my studio in July, was to look around and see what could be thinned. I once took a workshop from a woman who said if she was blocked, she would tidy her surfaces and creativity followed. Some people need to have a lovely layered chaotic space where they know the whereabouts of each item in the layers of detritus and sediment, while I work better with spaces between the bits of visual chaos. Calm areas that make me feel productive.

In 2010 I came into possession of three large canvasses.  A 24 x 36, a 30 x 40 and a 28 x 40. I used the 24 x 36 to paint "Pumpkin Time on Westham Island" (which can be seen in the gallery Sold and Archived Works). It went on to win a spot in a competition in our Guild, it won an Envision Credit Union Category Prize in a local art show, and went on to sell on the last day of the show.

The other two canvasses stayed in the studio waiting to receive the  right image. Somehow clients never chose the size, canvasses that large have to be something that is live-able for more than just myself, and then there was the empty white canvas intimidation factor.

One day this past month I realized that they were taking up mental as well a physical space in my studio and one day I sent out an email to fellow artists I know who like to paint big, put a good price of 30% of the orig. pre tax value on the two as they had been no cost to me, and within an hour had four artists willing to take them off my hands. By supper time they were gone and I had the equivalent of two tubes of paint I would definitely use in my wallet!

Last week I was sorting through some knitting wool that was taking up a drawer in the corner of the studio while other items remained homeless and distracting on the floor. As I opened another drawer, I noticed a tray of coloured acrylic inks I was given once. At the time  I thought they would be very inspirational. In over ten years they never made it out of the drawer! Sent out an email to fellow artists I know who I thought might find them useful and within an hour I had someone who works in illustration, and does the most beautiful detailed fine work with ink, reply. She was thrilled to the extent of 3 exclamation points in her query about whether they were still available. Within a day the inks were in her studio where they WILL be used.

The feeling of weight, relief and freedom I feel when this happens contributes directly to my enjoyment of a tidier studio where I will feel more productive. The enthusiasm of the other party is infectious. Things I won't even miss out the door, leaving room in head and heart for a more creative space. It's something i highly recommend.

(posted on 17 Jul 2017)

Today I uploaded an 8" x 10" piece called "Violet Louise" which can be viewed in the Gallery - Sold and Archived works.

It's a piece done for a specific owner. Her mother owned the store over 40 yrs ago in an old heritage building that still stands in a neighbourhood of Vancouver, Canada. I took a reference photo of the building as it is today.

The challenge with this painting was that the building, unusually, is still the same on the exterior in an architectural sense, but the colours are not at all the way they were when I wanted to depict it! I asked the future owner's son, but although he tried to help via chat, no one in the family had any photos. My next step was to ask a friend who still visits the neighbourhood if he knew. I thought, being a history buff with a great memory, he might shed some light on the issue. He checked with a friend and sent back some educated guesses along with some paint chip sample ideas for heritage colours. Helpful but still not definitive.

I contacted the future owner on a pretext to "settle an argument" and she didn't twig to what I was doing! So she gave me a little info, but I couldn't pump her too obviously. Her info was general and didn't shed much light on it as I couldn't make a clear request or say why I was really asking.

She did give me one very helpful clue. She said the jeweler who was originally next door had a black and white photo of part of the building on their counter across the street in the new store. So I called the jeweler as the same family operates it today.

The original jeweler's daughter was very helpful, sent me a blurry scan of the photo in it's frame, and told me what she knew. She told me the store was in the middle of the three units, and there was black tile under the street level display windows. She settled the question of the trim and confirmed it was always black. She wasn't sure about the pebble dash stucco colour, but thought it was a dirty grey. This was nice to hear and narrowed things down, but made for a very accurate but boring painting full of grey.

So I used artistic license and decided that, in a nod to Violet, the building would be violet to contrast with the greys of the sidewalks and pavement and show off the black trim. Of course, the way to get the sky to pop was to put it in quinacidrone gold to exploit the complementary colour pop against the purple colour and symbolize the humble good fortune her family achieved in Canada after coming from Hong Kong.

I purchased a refillable ink pen and, filling it with high flow black ink, put in the black trim to get finer detail than my hand would permit by brush. In the end it was a case of detective work creating enough truth in the end result to make it believable to someone who knew, from long term memory, a good chunk of what it should have looked like. Getting the shapes and lines correct within the context was enough to allow me to take off into the symbolism of the owner's mother's name and the gold sky to indicate the life she was able to create for her children in Canada.

(posted on 30 Jun 2017)

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of Canada's Confederation I have completed a commission for a landscape from Utah. The family is a cross border one, she a canadian and he an american with canadian citizenship. I don't know how they choose between the BC and the Utah scenery. They are both so tempting to paint!

In this latest piece, "Wasatch Sunset", it's about the sky and the clouds at sunset. I have always been incredibly inspired by clouds, and have found them to be a fascinating subject. The sky and the light, or lack of, in the clouds is often what draws me to consider taking a reference photo or stopping to marvel over something that later ends up as a painting. Clouds can be very useful to me in terms of composition, to draw and direct the eye. Sometimes the sky is subordinate when the rest of the composition dominates.

I find it worthwhile observing the sky when I am out in various seasons and weather conditions. I find successful skies often don't need to be laboured over. Some of my best results come from the loosest of brush strokes, with colours mixing right on the brush.

A big attraction of cloud formations is the subtlety and variety of the colours one sees. Creating complex colour sometimes involves painting an area of barely mixed colour several times, each time letting part of what was underneath show through. I think colour is better when not laid down as a premixed solid area. Although my goal is to move toward simplifying more and more as i grow as an artist, I need to ensure that areas of colour remain interesting and varied.

As a Girl Guide I learned a lot from my wartime pilot Dad when I asked him for help with my Weather badge. More than I anticipated actually. It became a full lecture, but the information was so interesting. I wish that in addition to studying the water cycle etc., that elementary school children could learn what the various cloud types can inform about the weather so that one wouldn't need a smart phone in order to decide whether it is prudent to try a plein air day or stay in the studio!

I once had a pair of prescription sunglasses where the tint on the lenses changed over time in such a subtle way that I didn't really notice. What I did notice was that I could see such dimension in clouds, that those with me couldn't see. They were extraordinarily beautiful.

For some time I thought that I was developing an artist's eye, that I was learning to see things on a different level after years of careful observation of the landscape around me. It wasn't until I went to renew my prescription that I learned that the mid grey tint had changed in one lens to a slight rose while the other gray had a slight green tinge. I had a pair of irreplaceable 3D glasses! No wonder my reference photos couldn't hold a candle to what I saw with the sunglasses.

So filter or no filter, I keep my eye on the sky in my landscapes. Sometimes they serve my purpose and sometimes they are the purpose.

(posted on 18 Jun 2017)

I have not painted this way much at all over my 24 years of making art. Last year I joined some of my fellow Guild members outdoors to paint, but not understanding the way it worked, I brought some of the right stuff, some of the wrong. Although it was productive, I painted from photos working on projects on the go already. Yes I painted outdoors, but not what I would call plein air. A few weeks ago I returned from a week of daily plein air painting. This time, I had researched my setup and took what was recommended to me. My husband rejigged an old painting box found at the local thrift store with a camera tripod also found there.

It worked really well. He had thought of everything and, as a consequence, I was free to concentrate on painting. Over 5 days I learned that painting en plein air is both wonderful and challenging. It freed me from photos, enslaved me to the wind and the sun, and improved my ability to see composition in a subject as I quickly weeded out the dead ends and the things that would take away from the final image.

The first day involved having to think about every work item's position, and every brush stroke. On the 2nd day the setup time was cut to a fraction of the 1st day's, and after getting out my viewfinder (an old small mat) I was off and painting. Values quickly became a challenge in a way they are not indoors. The wind and sun dried the paint. Various tiny creatures volunteered to trek across my work, and stroll through my piles of acrylics. I took more risks with colour.

The image developed quickly with the large shapes laid in. The changing light was not as much of a factor as I had thought. My memory of how the scene looked at the start was not as difficult to recall as I had feared. With the composition to hang everything on, it became natural to simplify and look at the overall much more than if I had a photo to go back to for detail.

Eventually I plan to use the five pieces I returned home with as studies for studio paintings and will post them. For now they are percolating in my mind and waiting for other projects to be finished.

(posted on 9 Jun 2017)

For a while now I've been toying with the idea of having a website, as potential clients and fellow artists increasingly inquire about an online presence. Then last week I won an award that consists of a year of website hosting, and I thought, well it appears to be time! Instead of ignoring the task and putting it in the procrastination pile, I decided to wade right in.

The last few days have been full of filling in templates and seeing my images in a different way. Putting them on the website has been a process of objectifying the work, trying to see it as others will.

So far it's going well. I have managed to put most things in the right places, get it looking simple enough that visitors might actually stay around and look through things.

I am reminded of an instructor from whom I once took a workshop back in the relatively early days of my painting. She was one of those lovely people who combine solid instruction with a kindness that brings out the best in every participant, all the while refraining from stooping to stroke the egos of the those of us who paid to be in her class.

I absorbed her opinions on composition, colour, line and technique in mixed media, but something she said has stuck with me more than anything else. Something I have returned to over the years in times of creativity and times when the rest of life seemed like it might get in the way of making art.

She said "Painting is like fishing. A fisherman will never catch a fish unless he keeps his line in the water. To get better as a painter and maintain your creative motivation it's important to keep your line in the water, so keep your brushes wet." - (Donna Baspaly)

So, as I begin this new adventure creating a website, I am thinking of it as another line in the water. More possibilities for creativity. I look forward to the road ahead and the new dimensions it may bring to my art over time.

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