THE PROCESS OF PAINTING
Surrealist art depicts objects not normally seen together and contrasted for poetic expression. Many of the paintings have dreamlike images in strange juxtapositions from the unconscious mind.
Artist Dawn MacDougall explains it as art that shows the viewer something they are familiar with in a totally new context.
“The basis of surrealism is, you take real objects and you express them in an unreal context — it makes them surreal,” MacDougall said.
People who have seen the works of Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte or Joan Miro are familiar with this art style made famous in 1920′s Europe.
MacDougall, a Rio Communities resident since 2005, is a member of the Belen Art League. Her favorite painting genre is surrealism, and Miro is her favorite painter, she said.
When she was a child flipping through a Time Magazine one day, she came across a picture of a Picasso painting of matadors, and was transfixed by his unique style.
“I thought this is just the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” MacDougall said. “And I never thought I had any talent or ability — I just thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”
In her 20s, a friend of hers was planning to take a Tole painting class, a simple form of painting on basket lids, pieces of wood, rocks, old metal and other objects.
MacDougall was persuaded to join her friend in the class and found she really enjoyed painting, but she decided she would rather paint on a canvass than on a cutting board. She bought canvasses and oil paints and began to experiment.
“I mucked around for awhile,” she said, “and realized I needed some lessons.”
At this time, she and her husband, Graham “Skip” MacDougall, had recently moved from Michigan to San Francisco.
“I thought I really need to find somebody who teaches art,” she said. “I’m a firm believer in, ‘You ask the universe, and it will provide to you.’ Sure enough, the next week in the (news) paper, someone was offering art classes.”
After learning the basic skills of drawing and painting, she practiced her craft by painting landscapes, seascapes, copying the masters, painting kittens in baskets, flowers in vases, but always in the back of her mind was the matadors painting by Picasso, she said.
The more proficient she became, she realized she really didn’t want to paint real life. She wanted to paint from the pictures in her imagination.
“I remember seeing like this as a child,” she said. “I could see pictures in the leaves on trees or the coloration in tiles, in stucco, whatever. I could make whole pictures out of this.”
Converting her skills to render pictures of the real, she transposed her art to the surreal.
MacDougall stirs her creative juices with pictures clipped out of magazines and other media that she organizes by subject in a cabinet she calls “the morgue.”
Each drawer is labeled for the type of pictures, such as clocks, musical instruments, dancers, abstract animals.
“I save those, and then when I go to start a painting, I go through my morgue and I pull out all kinds of things that I like,” MacDougall said. “Then I think, ‘how can I make this work in a painting.’”
Shuffling the images around, she arranges them to see which ones work together, and which don’t.
“I’ve taken a vase of something and the mandolin from my music, and then I make those work in a painting,” she said. “Because, as I was always taught, ‘You can’t paint what you don’t know,’ my teacher always said.”
The notion that a painter just paints from their mind is how new students often fail, MacDougall said.
“You have to really, really know your subject in order to paint it,” she said. “You need guides, and that’s why, in my morgue, I have everything. I have all kinds of pictures of clocks and watches … if I’m going to go and paint a clock I have to know exactly what that looks like, not sort of or kind of. That’s the difference between right brain and left brain.”
The left brain tends to dismiss a familiar object, assuming it knows all it needs to know, whereas, the right brain will investigate the object to see the intricate details, various shapes and dimensions, she said.
“You have to have subject matter to look at,” MacDougall said. “It’s very, very difficult to paint out of your head. I mean yes, maybe after years I can paint certain things out of my head because I’ve painted them over and over, but you really have to know, so you really need reference material.”
MacDougall doesn’t employ any painting techniques. She uses only a paint brush or palette knife to create the effects and textures in her paintings.
She has studied with many painters over the years to expand her skills and acquire fresh perspective.
She passes on what she has learned by giving classes.
Teaching art is a pleasure to her, and she offers art classes for beginners to advanced at the Belen Art League gallery from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Wednesday.
She recommends anyone interested in her classes come in to observe how the class operates and see if they like how she teaches.
“I teach a little bit of perspective, a little bit of color harmony, you learn about composition,” she said. “It’s not like a book lesson where you learn, ‘This is how it is.’ You kind of have to absorb it all — all the time.”
In her beginner’s class, she uses a simple landscape of trees to start students with the basics, and teaches them how to keep their perspective, color harmony, to keep a focus on where the light source is coming from, and how to incorporate the five elements of composition: balance, scale, unity, variety and activation.
Activation are brush strokes or objects the lead the viewer of the painting around the canvass instead of getting stuck in one spot.
The “point of interest” in the painting is where the eye enters the canvass, she said.
It’s not necessarily the subject of the painting, but it draws you into the painting, then activation leads you around the painting, she said.
“I just love to paint, I love the process of painting and creating,” she said.
“How it turns out has no ramifications for me. I don’t really care about the end outcome. So many people get so hung up on how it’s going to turn out, if it’s going to be alright.”
Painting is in part a process of letting go, letting it happen, allowing the muse to have her way.
She says it takes two people to paint, one to paint and one to say when it’s finished.
If not for her husband she would continue to paint long after the painting was finished, she said.
While Skip isn’t a painter, he has a good eye, and helps her fine tune her paintings, she said.
MacDougall’s oil paintings can be seen in the Belen Art League’s fall and spring exhibits at the Harvey House Museum in Belen.
Her art classes are held at the Belen Art League Gallery, 509 Becker Ave. For more information, call Dawn MacDougall at 861-5624, or the gallery at 861-0217.
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