Painting Contemplation

Contemplation may involve thoughtfulness, observation, gazing upon, prayer, or meditation. Painting an abstract concept such as “lost in thought” pushes an artist to also become lost in thought. Putting oneself into the mindset of the subject makes it easier to depict what the subject is doing, even if the subject is completely at rest, merely observing, thinking, or even head bowed and eyes closed. “Thinking” occurs while at rest, but is also an action; the techniques used for painting rest and painting action are both at play.

Bluebird” was painted for a children’s book, in which a bluebird named Bello has a wild imagination. He observes his surroundings and then imagines stories. In this scene, Bello watches the grasses moving like waves of an ocean and imagines a big ship on the sea. Painting the act of “observation” combines action and rest, a contradiction of sharp and precise angles (the bird’s body profile and perching post) and flowing brush strokes (the landscape). The bird’s vivid blue hues, the sharp tilt of his head, his extended chest, and his stable stance on the post depict energy and action. He is standing tall, gazing, not merely at rest. However, he is also still, unfazed when his feathers are bit ruffled from the wind. The grasses are in motion, and by contrast the bird looks at rest. 

My Son Praying” deploys similar techniques and strategies as “Bluebird“. His body language involves sharp angles while the surrounding composition involves flowing brush strokes that look almost like watercolors. The act of praying is depicted by his arms positioned from pointed elbows to firmly clasped hands in the shape of a triangle. Angles display energy and action, while round shapes convey stillness and rest.

My Son Praying” takes contemplation to a deeper level, as he is concentrating on spiritual things. Personal spiritual devotion can be conveyed through symmetry and mirroring. The pillar-like shapes of the candles run parallel to the subject. My son and the additional elements of the composition (the plate, food, and utensils) fit neatly, centered, between the candles. The utensils frame his plate and mirror his arms, as they are positioned and angled on the table like a shadow or reflection.

While his shirt is a vibrant green, the candles are boldly red. While the folds in his shirt indicate movement as his body is bent, the candles’ flames also have indicator lines that show movement, as the flame flickers and glows. Mirroring also occurs through repeated brush stroke patterns, such as the repetition of the horizontal lines of the closed eyes that are repeated in the bottom edge of the meat on his plate, the table’s edge, and the wood grain of the table. The same type of repetition occurs with vertical lines. Follow the pattern of vertical lines (the hair on his head to the folds of his shirt, to the utensils alongside his plate).

Follow the lines of symmetry that create balance in this painting.

Framing and repetition is so strong in “My Son Praying” that we can envision an infinity symbol running through it (imagine that the candles are the outer loops and the overlapping center loops cross where the arms and utensils are).  Symmetry and patterns give art a mathematical validation of balance. When depicting contemplation of a spiritual nature, abstract concepts such as “infinity” are shown by balance.

Bluebird” is observational and thoughtful, “My Son Praying” is prayerful, while “Tiger” is meditative. Can this contemplative tiger train his mind in awareness, transcending through contemplation into knowledge? Or perhaps this big cat is simply thinking about his next meal. Whatever he’s pondering, the act of thinking is depicted by the conflict between activity and rest. The mind is active while the body is at rest. The tiger is detailed, while the landscape is not. The colors of the tiger are vivid, while the rest of the composition is not. The body language of the tiger involves triangular shapes and angles, while the landscape is more flowing and organic. The tiger is white and black, while his world is shades of color. Dark and light, yin and yang… maybe this tiger has all the answers! 

Painting Rest

When we feel that someone may be resentful toward us, it’s difficult to be spiritually, emotionally and therefore even physically, at rest. My mom was a very private person who suffered indignities at the hospital. She would have been mortified to realize everything that happened to her, and for many of those experiences she was unfortunately alert and aware. As her caregiver, I felt responsible for what was done to her even though I had no power to intervene (I tried; I had no legal authority). When she died, I felt guilty for not stopping interventions that I knew she did not want; medical decisions made by nurses and doctors that were (to her) a degrading loss of dignity. 

When caring for Mom, I regularly brought her cut yellow roses from my beloved rose bushes in front of our big kitchen window. The morning after she died, I looked out at the roses and was startled to see a rabbit quietly sitting there. All day she sat there. The next day, she was there again. The next day, again. All day this rabbit sat in silent vigil at the roses. My family felt it was Mom’s spirit visiting us, helping us let go.

After days of looking out at the “Visiting Rabbit” sitting next to my roses, tension and stress from the dramatic events that happened at the hospital began to ease. How many times had I cut those roses for her? Dozens? More than that? What about shopping for her, cooking for her, doing her laundry, washing her hair, cleaning her bathroom and living area, bringing her gifts, and everything else that shall go unnamed? I had done my best. I had to believe that Mom was not resentful about what happened at the hospital or anything else. She was giving me permission to let go. Wasn’t that what the rabbit was for, to help us let go?

It’s healing to be forgiven by others, but when we choose to forgive ourselves, we are truly set free. Many of us believe that we are forgiven by the mercy and grace of God, and yet we may struggle to forgive ourselves for things we may not even be responsible for. When we choose to accept forgiveness from others, forgiveness from ourselves, and extend forgiveness outwardly as well, we have found a path toward spiritual, emotional, and physical rest.

Painting an intangible concept such as “rest” relies on shape, form and contrast. When we depict activity around a subject, that subject will in contrast then appear to be at rest. Surrounding the rabbit are bending, twisting, and spiraling shapes, indicating activity. The flowers are boldly yellow, heavily textured, loosely painted, and extend above the rabbit; who is low to the ground, lightly textured, tightly detailed and dimly hued in earth tones. The rabbit’s form is rigid, almost like a statue, and yet the eyes show a glistening life spot and the fur is so textured it’s almost as if we expect it to quiver from the rabbit’s breathing movements. The key is to create stillness while also expressing life

Art is philosophy. When we paint deeply introspective and intangible concepts such as “rest”, we bring insightful conversations to the language of art. To experience rest, a person’s needs must be met. What those needs are, can only be defined by ourselves. The fewer perceived needs, the easier it is to rest.

Sheltering Tree” is a spiritual and physical place of rest. Tranquility, meditation, prayerfulness, solitude, and stillness are conveyed through greens, blues, and earth tones- the colors of nature. So, when painting a natural landscape, an artist doesn’t really need to modify anything to depict rest. Nature has already shown it to us.

Docked Boat” represents how respite is always held for us, tied to our shore. When we need rest, go to the docked boat, untie the rope, and drift away until the stress looks small and far away. This could be a spiritual and emotional metaphor, but the concept is even better when also taken literally. While mental vacations and spiritual retreats are lovely, sometimes we need to physically get away. Such a vacation may or may not include active exercise in natural surroundings like rowing a boat across a lake, but regardless of activity or destination, putting real physical distance between ourselves and our daily lives is healthy and rejuvenating.

While “Visiting Rabbit” prepared us for rest (forgiveness, letting go, acceptance), and “Sheltering Tree” gave us what we needed (as determined by ourselves). “Docked Boat” encourages us to desire rest at regular intervals. Depicting “desire” in a painting can be conveyed by creating pleasant visuals that are receding, reflective, or obscured. Our human nature pines for that which we cannot have, but we can see just beyond our grasp.

In “Docked Boat“, the water line recedes- how far does it go? What’s the scenery like if we go there? What’s beyond? We can see reflections in the water; mirrors remind us of the passage of time. The past, present and future mingle into nostalgia and wistfulness, pining for something we can’t quite name. Recede, reflect, obscure. The boat is obscured by the bending, swaying tree branches that seem to taunt us. The more the boat is hidden, the more we want to see it. 

While the larger view is obscured, there’s the docking post, clear as day. Why, so is the rope! We can reach out and grab it, untie it.. and then everything we yearn for will be unveiled and accessible. “Rest” is waiting for us to choose it. Our future is held for us. We can row away from the things that tie us down when we choose to set ourselves free. Then, we’ll row back to the shore, refreshed and renewed, and ready once again for our endless pursuit of happiness- may we find it in meaningful work, love, laughter, and rest.

Painting Self

Self-portraits are revealing not only of the artist, but of the time period the artist lives in and a historical representation of universally shared human experiences with local, national, and global communities who occupy the same timeline. When the artist is shown as an Observer, the painting of self is merely a cameo appearance. In “Natalie at the Fountain“, the viewer sees only the back of me as I’m taking a picture of the featured subject, the fountain.

When the artist is depicted as an Observer, the painting may have a nostalgic, vintage, or surreal vibe, like seeing the presence of a time traveler. In the fountain art, I painted in the present what I had done in the recent past, that would then be viewed far into the future. All of that can bend the mind into pretzels if we think about it long enough. When the Observer is painted differently from the overall composition- different color (like my red dress), style, perspective, or in any other way that draws attention to the cameo appearance- the Observer looks even more like a time traveler who witnesses a fleeting dot on our shared timeline.

When the artist is more than an Observer, but instead a Participant, the self-portrait drives the painting. In “Come to the Garden“, I am part of the composition as I sit on the swing with my mug in hand, sunhat showing you that it’s a warm sunny day here in coastal Georgia, and the tilt of my head guides you to join me in being captivated by the birds, flowers, and trees. In this way, my presence serves as a storyteller who brings all of the eclectic elements of nature together under one cohesive work of art. 

Instead of standing separate and apart in a red dress among a subtle earthy backdrop like in the fountain painting, this time I’m wearing the subtle hues while the rest of the composition pops with vibrant color and striking contrast. While I’m a Participant, I am not the Star. The self-portrait doesn’t upstage the featured elements of the composition, but instead complements and supports the art.

When a self-portrait is the Star, it is the main feature of the painting. “Fred” was inspired by a black and white photograph that my late father took of me when he needed willing subjects for his photography class. The picture of me peeking out from behind the neighborhood fire hydrant was taken at Grissom Air Force Base housing, where Dad was stationed at that time. The entire painting is about the self-portrait, and that’s where the story is. Subject placement makes this obvious, but the lack of details in the surrounding landscape (while there are many details in the featured subject) also points the viewer toward the self-portrait as the Star.

Whether a self-portrait of an artist is depicted as an Observer, Participant or the Star, a painting that reveals a glimpse of the artist and the timeline shared by all who occupy it, is a historical marker. Sharing one’s life with others adds to the tapestry of this universe that we call home. In this way, art is like time travel. Will you journey with me?

“Fred”

art oil painting FRED book cover by Natalie Buske Thomas

FRED

“A Little Girl with a Big Imagination”

     “Fred” is a collection of oil paintings that was published as a children’s book to inspire creative children to always believe in yourself and to never give up.

     Fred is the nickname that Natalie’s father called her. Apparently the story goes that one day when Natalie was three years old, she announced that her name was no longer Natalie, but Fred. No one knows why and Natalie has no recollection of this incident, but her father honored her wishes and never called her Natalie ever again, always Fred.

This oil painting of “Fred” (peeking behind the fire hydrant) was inspired by a black and white picture that her late father took when he was enrolled in a photography course. This was taken on Grissom Air Force base, where he was stationed. Watch more art from the Fred book come to life:

"Little Girl in a Tree"

Watch Natalie paint this art from the Fred book.
FRED

"Classroom Scene"

Watch Natalie paint this art from the Fred book.
Fred

Watch Natalie paint more illustrations from “Fred”:

Painting Social

“Social” has several different meanings, but what I mean here is how we communicate and interact with each other through talking, writing, reading, art, music, entertainment, touch, gift giving, selfless actions, and more. In our first example, “Redwing Blackbirds” are having a chat. Painting the act of talking is depicted by the tilt of the head. The speaker’s face is positioned upward, or forward, while the listener’s face is tipped downward (the reverse direction works well too). Angling the head or body position shows interaction between the pair or group.

Their body language speaks of an active conversation going on between the two birds. A loud or energetic exchange can be conveyed by painting a widely opened mouth (beak) and contrasting body positions. Their eyes and feathers are also expressive, mainly by the positioning of the lines and shapes. The speaking bird (extended body position) looks to be standing firmly for whatever he’s so passionate about, while the listening bird (bent body position) seems resigned to getting an earful. Notice the feet? The speaking bird is perched firmly, while the listening bird is clutching in a slouched manner, but neither look like they’re about to fly away any time soon. Engaged in rapt conversation, this pair looks like they could be old friends.

These affectionate “Spring Lambs” express their friendship through woolly hugs and shy smiles. Painting social touch can be depicted through texture and brush strokes. Soft textures, through fabrics (or fur, feathers, wool), combined with smooth brush strokes (skin, faces, eyes) can convey affection. A slight smile and a subtle tilt to the eyes suggests positive social interaction.

The highest social level, or perhaps we should say “the deepest depth”, is communicating through selfless acts of love. In the above “Angel Releasing Dove” video, you can watch how I made this art with shells and a dove from a sand dollar. Painting extended limbs and outstretched bodies conveys the act of letting go, releasing energy and emotion, and making a full, without abandon, commitment to an action. The shell “wings” are in both the back and the front, seemingly to support the angel as she leans forward to release the dove. Perhaps we can view this as a metaphor: when we choose selfless acts of love, we will not be left to fall, as we will be held up by angel’s wings.

Painting Relaxation

Matthew the sea turtle is an animal rescue who captured my heart. He’s since been returned to the wild, his ocean home in coastal Georgia on Tybee Island, but his delightful personality is unforgettable. Complementary hues such as earth tones and blues create a mellow balance that depict relaxation. Matthew’s natural coloring, gliding through peaceful waters, made this painting an easy fast project. Some subjects are so relaxed, they practically paint themselves!

Color and brush strokes also convey relaxation. Colors associated with food and nature work well. Brush strokes that dab and glide, lay smooth, and rounded- rather than short jagged rigid strokes- create a feeling of peaceful calm. Styles such as impressionism work well for this.

In “Trees and Stream“, a girl has lost track of time and is reading until the sun goes down, or is she enjoying the solitude of early morning at the break of dawn? Your interpretation probably depends on whether you feel most relaxed in the quiet morning hours or in the soft darkness of evening.

I hope that my video (above) helps you escape into a peaceful orchard for a few precious seconds, sound on for full relaxation effect.

In our first example for today’s “Compare 3”, the sea turtle was an obvious choice. The subject himself is a type of animal associated with a mellow peaceful vibe. He’s also in water; the natural properties and colors of this element make the job easy. Then, we stepped up to the orchard painting, which took a bit more thought, but we were still guided by clues (peaceful reading, resting in nature). In our last example, we won’t have animal or human personalities to show us- we must think and feel creatively.

The act of relaxation, refreshment of mind and body (a state of calm and peacefulness) can be depicted through “tranquility”. Tranquility is another way to define a state of peace and calm, of being untroubled. Many people draw upon their personal faith to meditate on thoughts and inspirations that are spiritually intimate and soothing; easing fear and anxiety, accepting a tranquil spirit. “Fruitful Vineexpresses tranquility, a deeper, more permanent state of relaxation.

Did my video (above, with sound on please) ease your spirit? We can glide into relaxation through activities we enjoy, such as being in and around water, and by maintaining a naturally mellow personality, like Matthew the sea turtle. We can also consciously seek relaxing and stress-reducing lifestyles that incorporate regular time for leisure, reading, solitude, and being in nature like the girl in the orchard. But, ultimately, the deepest and most profound state of relaxation is when we find spiritual calm, as depicted by the grapes on the vines.

When we are untroubled, we can just “be”.

Painting Action

Today’s “Compare 3” is about painting action. In the first example, “Sparrows“, we have a bird in flight; coming in for a landing, and a bird at rest; perched on the ground. The feathers on the sparrow in action are more linear than the rounded feather patterns on the resting sparrow. The claws on the landing sparrow look extended, while the resting sparrow’s claws- while also open- look relaxed. The action is shown through subtle differences in line shape, weight, and direction.

The next example “Wild Horses“, isn’t subtle in its representation of the act of running. The action is boldly shown through skewed perspective and heavy brush strokes, deep shadows, and contrasting highlights. This style of painting action looks almost like animation or cartooning. Because of this, the painting has a fun vibe. Compare “Wild Horses’“, carefree emotional weight to that to the rather serious, pensive emotion of “Sparrows“. How an artist depicts action depends on the story being told.

The following video of “Wild Horses“, session 1, is a tutorial about how to approach this type of painting, that depicts action. Skewed perspective, blurred lines, and the illusion of some parts of the body nearer to the viewer than others, are all effective means to paint action. The video is 13 minutes long and shows parts of the process in real time.

If interested in viewing more tutorials, you can see all of my free art lessons through the Classroom landing page. “Wild Horses” was a great project for illustrating action. So, we went from a subtle representation of action in “Sparrows” to an overt depiction in “Wild Horses“. In our final example, the swimming action of the dolphin is a blend between subtle and obvious.

The “Dolphin” action is shown through the bold water spray, but also through the subtle bend of the body and the gentle shadow changes in the water. In this way, the natural elements the dolphin interacts with support the illusion of action. When we paint connectivity between a subject and the natural world, action and stories are more believable.

Painting action is important to stories about drive, freedom, joyfulness, and passion. Moving is living. While a still life and a restful impressionistic scene are quite beautiful, balance is even more glorious. For all the days we sit, may we also splash, run, and dream that we can fly.

Painting Abstracts

Today’s “Compare 3” is about painting abstracts. Abstract Art could be described as painting “about nothing”, but even a purely random splashing of paint still ends up as “something”, somehow. I’m not much of an abstract artist, but I do occasionally paint in an abstract style, such as in “Abstract: Creative Mind“, which was created for a children’s book project. I also regularly enjoy painting abstract concepts and ideas, such as in “Time” and “Breakfast with Friends”.

Abstract: Creative Mind” meets the traditional definition of abstract art; the composition has no intentional identifiable physical world subject, is not confined to a construct, and is instead about form, line, texture, and color. Whereas, this next oil painting is about an Abstract Concept, in which the subject is identifiable, but the painting represents something we can’t define in a concrete physical way. “Time” can be represented by objects we use to measure and mark time, but time itself is an abstract concept.

In this last example, “Breakfast with Friends”, the painting represents an Abstract Idea, such as “happiness”, “peace of mind”, “wellness”, “connection” and “community”. Social and psychological concepts aren’t tangible objects, and therefore what these ideas mean to us vary from person to person. We cannot disagree that a chair or a table are pieces of furniture, or that tigers and lions are big cats, because these are facts verified by the physical world. But we certainly disagree about how to define “justice”, “fairness”, “balance”, “health”, “contentment”, “freedom”, “socializing”, “conformity”, “oppression”, and much more. 

However, we can find warm fuzzy spaces of near-universal agreement. In an age when contemporary lifestyles include plugging into virtual connections first thing in the morning, it’s a common human experience to eat breakfast while logged into conversations via newsfeeds, social media, blogs, e-mail, and other platforms. These fellow humans we connect with are our community. Some of them become part of our inner circle, and our morning breakfast routine. We can imagine a virtual coffee house or greasy spoon diner, offering breakfast any hour of the day, and there’s always someone to share our human condition with.

Abstract ideas such as “social connection”, “contentment”, “nourishment” and “support”, can be depicted by warm hues, earth tones, and complimentary colors. Shapes and lines create symmetry and balance; the feeling that diverse pieces are coming together harmoniously. The merging of food (physical, timeless, universal human need) and technology (intangible, modern, universal societal need), gives an old fashioned comfort to a progressive world that often feels cold and isolating.

Because we cannot, and will never, agree to a single definition for abstract concepts and ideas, it would be a relief if society would evolve from the practice of dictating which definitions are “right” or “wrong”, and break free from the tyrannical acceptance of punishing people for “wrong thoughts”. I will never agree that this is what progressive, educated people should advocate.

Through art, perhaps we can gently remind ourselves that there are abstract concepts and ideas we can agree upon: Most people do not want others to suffer. Most want goodness for themselves and others. Most people want to feel a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.

It is normal to disagree about what the problems are, or how to solve them, but we dehumanize each other when we deny people the right to view concrete facts as facts, and abstract concepts as ours alone to define, we the individual human being.

May we embrace open minds, open hearts, and the freedom to express what we believe, even if others may not agree or like what we say.

Painting Light

This next theme for my “Compare Three” series is not what it seems. When I say Painting Light, I don’t mean that I’ve painted the light, but rather the light has put itself into my paintings! It was quite an extraordinary experience, each time. And since it’s happened exactly three times so far, I put all three in. During the act of creating, mysterious events may happen that can be described as “serendipitous” or something more. What we make of these events is up to us.

None of the dazzling light that interacts with “Flag on Mars” was edited in. This was all naturally occurring while I was painting, and was at times so blinding that I could barely see the canvas to paint (about midway through video). There’s a simple explanation. My usual painting station was already occupied by another painting in the works and I didn’t want to move my work lamp, so I set up a second station by the patio glass doors for natural lighting. The sun blared through the glass and directly struck the painting at intervals. When the video was sped up to create the short time lapse, the light effects were quite extraordinary. When unexpected things happen during the art process, the act of creating becomes something “more”.

In this next example, my experience with light happened after the painting was done. But I want to first share the painting itself because, as often happens in art, the inspiration for the painting matters and is why the “heavenly” lighting effects were emotional. This art was meant to illustrate the belief that loved ones send messages from beyond. In my personal story, these messages are “delivered” through the number 62 (age Mom was when she died; the number my family sees, especially on important dates, seemingly random, yet occurring so often that patterns defy statistical probability). I started by literally painting that number, and then let the art unfold. It was intended to be an abstract, but somehow I just drifted into painting a rather faint suggestion of a bird. It felt right, so I let it evolve. These are colors that Mom liked, and since it’s not really my style of art, it was probably hers. We tended to like opposite things. If I liked bold, she’d like subtle, and vice versa. In the end, it felt like “her” painting, something she would have liked.

This next video shows what happened to the “Bird of Light” painting when I woke up the next morning. The entire color scheme appeared in shades of red. While Mom’s favorite colors were greens and yellows, my favorite is red. But it was the beautiful light that really took my breath away, and how it added itself so perfectly to the composition of the painting. On the video I say that when things like this happen, it “confirms everything”. When we create according to our belief system and are true to our individual faith and hope, we tend to see our thoughts actualized.

Therefore, what was “confirmed” was what I believed. Being a realist allows for hope and positivity, because it is understood that these are important to the human condition. An open heart accepts life’s tragic moments as well as its peaks of awe and wonder, and is content in a solitary space where serendipity is welcome. The very act of creating is a choice, and sometimes we perceive a response that feels intimate, meaningful, and mysteriously serendipitous, “confirming everything”.

In this last example, “Eagle and Dove” (previously mentioned in blog post “Painting Music“), light began dancing on the canvas (32 second mark, when I’m painting the sky), moving where I was trying to paint. It definitely got my attention because it was distracting to paint while that was going on. My guess is that the outside hummingbird feeder was swaying from either the wind or overzealous birds, and the light bounced off of it into the house, creating a light show on my canvas. However it happened, the result was light on my painting. When unexpected distractions occur while creating, an artist may choose to take a break from the work, or work through it. Regardless of what path is taken, disruptions and detours change our experience, and potentially the outcome of our art. Self-actualization can make the difference for whether or not the outcome is positive.

New Painting- “Tiger”

Fresh off the canvas – “Tiger”, for book “50 Oil Paintings Inspired by Nature“. This animal was requested by my daughter who loves tigers and wanted me to paint one. It is now sold as prints, but the original will remain hers. When the oils set, we’ll hang it in her room.

My lifetime goal is 1k finished paintings!

See the progress for this collection, “50 Oil Paintings Inspired by Nature“, or view paintings from all collections. Natalie Buske Thomas paints 50+ works per year, produced as free 2-minute time lapse videos, books, prints, and fashions. She also offers free virtual classes and shows.