Sunday, June 6, 2021

Hans Hofmann: teaching one abstract painting technique

Students are, as I have said before, the best thing that ever happened to my art making process. 

Case in point: I teach one lovely woman who works in a hospital by day, and is exploring color and expression through oil paint on her off days. 

We began with a simple-ish painting of a blooming dogwood in rain, but she quickly expressed a preference for the proto-Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann (1880 - 1966) paintings I shared with her. By the next week, she'd bought a book on the subject.

Miz—Pax Vobiscum, 1964
Oil on canvas
77 3/8 x 83 5/8 in. (196.5 x 212.4 cm)
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX. Museum purchase (1987.3.P.P.)
Photography courtesy of Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

“I told a friend about Hofmann,” she said, “and he said, 'Hold on!' He showed me a painting of colored squares he'd done. But … it was just colored squares on a canvas,” she laughed.

Already she understands that Hans Hofmann's paintings are not just squares of color on a canvas. It's wonderful when a student comes equipped with such sensibility!

We decided to reproduce one of his paintings by following his process. The end goal would be to create on canvas what Hans Hofmann called "push pull," and Josef Albers called "non dominance."

Elaine de Kooning (the better de Kooning painter, in my opinion, and an invaluable annotator of art history as she participated in it) laid out Hofmann's approach in this fascinating article in Art News.

First, a complicated subject is required. I chose chairs around a kitchen table.

study by Julia Gandrud

Hans Hofmann used a messy studio, and the predictability and familiarity of chairs and dresser legs, to help create a space we recognize in spite of the overlapping lines. 

He then blocked out what he wanted to sit back, creating a central subject. 

study by Julia Gandrud

From there, he began to wrestle with light, immediacy, and push pull by creating large rectangular areas in pure color. 

study by Julia Gandrud

As de Kooning notes, “By this time (after three hours’ work), the artist was holding fifteen brushes in his left hand, and his four original colors had each multiplied into as many distinct tones.

Try it out yourself!

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Color Wheels following 3 different rules

 Creating a color wheel may not be glamorous, but it's a great way to help beginner - and even some advanced - painters step up their color understanding. 

The benefits include: 

  • understanding the spectrum transitions
  • learning to mix tertiary colors
  • developing a preference for certain pigments
  • later use for color scheme selection

In this post, I will only address the approaches for the creation of color wheels. Color schemes will come up in another post.

Dark to white

Here is a 12 color wheel with an acrylic base. Each inner circle approaches white, while the exterior circle is mixed with black.

The pigments are: 

Quinacridone Crimson

Cadmium red hue

Cadmium red hue & cadmium yellow hue (more red)

Cadmium red hue & cadmium yellow hue (more yellow)

Cadmium yellow hue

Cadmium green & cadmium yellow hue

Cadmium green

Thalo blue

Titanium white & cobalt blue

Ultramarine blue

Ultramarine blue & quinacridone crimson

Permanent violet dark


In the following oil based color wheel I have chosen different pigments. I always use three different blues - you simply can't capture all the sky and wave colors without them.

This time, the center goes toward gray, mixing in both mars black and titanium white with each interior circle.

The pigments are: 

Alizarine Crimson
Cadmium red hue
Cadmium red hue & cadmium orange hue 
Cadmium orange hue 
Cadmium yellow hue
Cadmium yellow hue & thalo green
Thalo green
Thalo blue
Cobalt blue
Ultramarine blue
Cobalt blue & cadmium red hue
Dioxazine purple


In the final color wheel, also oil based, the concept was to focus on the neutrals. I did this by mixing a touch of the opposite color on the wheel (what I sometimes brutishly but not strictly accurately be called its complimentary color). The result can lead to some beautifully subtle colors.

The pigments are: 

Magenta (quinacridone & titanium white)

Cadmium red hue

Cadmium red hue & cadmium orange hue 
Cadmium orange hue 

Cadmium yellow hue

Cadmium yellow hue & thalo green

Thalo green

Thalo blue

Cobalt blue

Ultramarine blue

Cobalt blue & cadmium red hue

Dioxazine purple

In that last color wheel, notice the transition from the warm purple to cadmium yellow - I have often seen this color in the shadows of concrete structures.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Moving on by writing it down - the potential healing power of telling your story

Normally, I am a painter and writer of fiction. I also write nonfiction blog posts about art and literature. 

Lately, however, I've been stuck in the writing. It's as if the task of writing will open up floodgates, but I don't have the key right now. I'm having a hard time moving forward with that.

For creative and healing reasons, I wonder if it might help to write parts of my story in long form, however informally. 

I've recently come out of a divorce, aka death of a two decade relationship. That was after a long struggle to find employment (substitute teaching filled the gap, until I found a better fit with art teaching), and a sense of impossibility for my life as an artist, leading to an emotional inability even to pick up a paint brush. 

The divorce was immediately preceded by a second bout of cancer, major surgery to remove my womb (read creativity and feeling valued as a woman) during a pandemic year. 

Thank goodness for teaching – without that, I would not have started painting again. I'd be as stuck in the visual arts as I currently am in my writing. 

When that first student wanted oil painting lessons, I felt a bit like a fraud. It had been so long, and my soul felt too ravaged. My creativity felt beaten down, a lifeless animal. I owe my students all my gratitude. 

Writing is a different story... hah. I don't know where the person who wrote to THE END on five first drafts went. I mean, I didn't polish and publish, but still. 

Maybe I'm too stuck in my own story. Would it help to write a memoir, clear the decks? If I wrestled through my own story, could I move forward with characters and perspectives outside my own again? Would it help me move on to write nonfiction books related to my own story, focusing on how to teach painting? 

I'd like to write a book, or several, that offers art teachers a few ways to teach painting. Teach others to teach color, pattern, and design non dominance – this is both political and aesthetic in the visual world – in a way that another artist could pass on to their students. 

Something is holding me back. I wish I could figure out what it is.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Tension between subject and background in painting creates visual democracy - Patterns

Supposedly, the placement occurrence of motifs in Penrose tilings are impossible to predict in 2, 3, or 4 dimensions. One looks a bit like a joker, another motif like a snowflake, etc. We can assume they will reoccur, much like we can assume that there are no end to prime numbers, but both of those assumptions require fancy mathematical proofs.

Whatever. My point is that some people think you can predict Penrose tiles in a higher (5th) dimension – planes upon planes colliding and multiplying, in a sense, but ironing out to something comprehensible.

Here is an earlier post on the subject: 

Caspar David Friedrich, Romanticism, Penrose, and the 5th Dimension

And then Yayoi Kusama puts a dot on it. Multiple dots. And psychedelic mushrooms in neon colors on black light. Fun. Why? Tension? Democracy of subject? That's my favorite explanation - visual democracy.

I wanted to work with students to create this competition between subject and background. We chose a lovely spotted frog as our subject, and a not especially aggressive play on the spots and patterns in the background. 

Frog in Frogland, by Julia Gandrud, copyright 2021, all rights reserved

I'll add a student's work when they are finished with it.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Elementary School Pandemic Hothouse

I don't know how to talk about the month (only one month) that I spent teaching art in an elementary school during the pandemic. I started, and I left, out of necessity. The first, being willing to work physically in the schools, I volunteered to do because I love to teach, and, as a recently divorced single mother, I needed a job. The reason I left is more complicated. 

image copyright Julia Gandrud 2020

How to explain the hothouse of love and fear in that literally brick and mortar building? The red alertness on the faces of staff, the fatigue so deep that many adults ran on electricity only? The grief, joy, love, gratitude, rage, abandonment in the words and actions of the beautiful kids? They were the sun, even at their worst. And there was some astoundingly bad behavior... even then, those children were beautiful. My heart breaks, thinking of them, as individuals and as a group, knowing that I abandoned them, in the end. 

As I said, I'm a single mother and have my own kids most of the school year. After only a few weeks of teaching, I was sent home because of close contact exposure (a student who regularly ran around the room, joking and laughing during lunches, mask down, unable to absorb the weirdness of not being able to be a normal kid). 

Wouldn't you know it? During that week, I got a rash. It was so bad that my eyes swelled nearly shut. It was so bad that I couldn't sit still for the itching. I called in for a telehealth session. That nurse wanted me to go to urgent care. Urgent care wouldn't see me because I was on close contact quarantine. They sent me to the emergency room... which was overflowing. Again, I had two kids at home, alone, during this. I couldn't risk wading past the COVID tents (yes, there were those) to wait in the emergency room, then get treated, for the rest of the day.

I went home. I did not get treated. Luckily for me, I have a friend eleven hours away who is a dermatologist. She could do trial and error treatment with me via text and photos, calling in prescriptions. A few weeks later, I still have itches – it was likely poison ivy, not impetigo or the other horrible disease the nurse first thought.

I have had cancer twice – well, three times if you count the minor skin cancer – and can't play around. I chose to quit. 

I cried as I wrote the letter to the principal. I felt depressed for days after. My heart breaks, hoping those kids are happy with whoever replaced me. I hope that person is brilliant and strong. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

One day, I will outgrow my fourth grade ostracism

 When I was a little girl, I had two friends who sometimes fought, and often gossiped. In a fourth grade school yard tussle, Angel Heineschewitz accused Donna of grabbing her, pinching her, in the middle of a fighting huddle. I was a bystander, so Donna asked me, “Did you see my hand in there?”

“I don't know,” I answered honestly. Donna never forgave me.

The thing is, she had reason. Donna was the only black girl at school. I should have been able to say if her hand had been there or not. But I didn't see.

Donna started spreading rumors about me – that I'd been mean to her cousin, on the bus. I'd never met her cousin. She orchestrated a mass excommunication from the fourth grade girls friends circles. It wasn't until months, maybe a year, later, that I confronted her. “You know that I never said anything to your cousin, don't you?” I asked. 

“I know,” she answered. Matter of fact. 

            Julia Gandrud 2020. Use with permission only

Now, as a newly divorced woman with a hostile ex, I am afraid of the same thing. He is charismatic, and I am not. He is friendly, and I am crabby. Whenever one of our mutual friends doesn't respond to me, I fear the worst. 

I'm trying to remind me of the following rule: 

How do you know that your friends are your friends? 

Because they are there. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

"Comply With Directives": Race and Special Education

As I read Rachel Aviv's 2018 article (Georgia’s Separate and Unequal Special-Education System: A statewide network of schools for disabled students has trapped black children in neglect and isolation) about special education being wielded as a racist, Jim Crow like cudgel against black boys, I'm reminded of a story of an acquaintance of mine. 

My friend is white, and was teaching in a school of privileged white children, maybe six years old. Still, she had been begging for help with one child who was biting and hitting others. She got no help. One day, after an already tough morning, complete with difficult interactions with a parent, she snapped, and tied the boy's hands together. She got fired. 

But, like the teacher in Aviv's article who ended up in prison, she had never received the support and guidance she'd been pleading for up until the incident.

Weird punishments, and physical violence, are not excusable. But neither is institutional negligence, leaving teachers to be alone in the responsibility for young people who need more. If the children need more help, so do the adults – maybe we can call that a general rule of education. 

This problem of not caring enough for (and paying enough) our teachers is compounded, exponentially, when put in face of America's institutional racism. From the article:

I just felt like these students, especially the black boys, were put there, basically, because they intimidated their teachers.” Melissa Williams-Brown

It became a way to filter out black boys, who at younger and younger ages are perceived to have behavioral disabilities,” Leslie Lipson, a lawyer at the Georgia Advocacy Office said.

According to Beth Ferri, a disability scholar at Syracuse University, IDEA provided a kind of loophole to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Now racial segregation continued “under the guise of ‘disability,’ ” she said. 

Likewise, the origin of the public school system, as a tool to create good workers who will follow directions, and not read or think independently, is multiplied in this situation. From the article:

Latoya said that, when she walked into her son’s class, “I did not see one white child. All I saw was black boys.” Seth’s “target behavior,” according to the center’s intervention plan, was to “comply with adult directives.”

* * * *

When is being labeled as in need of special education a harm to the student? My brother was mislabled autistic (not even remotely close...) and it meant that none of the teachers bothered to teach him. For my son, on the other hand, I've had to fight for the dyslexic label, just so he gets any of the extra assistance he needs. Otherwise, the teachers were more than happy to let a child California lables “gifted” skim by in the lower third of the class.

I am white, and sound traditionally educated. How much harder is that question when you are black or brown, or don't talk the same way the teachers and administrators do?