The Learning Curve

I always find it interesting that I don’t know what I don’t know until I’m faced with executing something for which I have not expected the unexpected.  This past year presented me with a big one of those challenges, and in more ways than one!

I received a commission to do a large painting to hang in the main room of the library at a college.  I was given free reign in my subject choice, with the caveat that the director would approve my choice (or not, of course).  I walked through the different floors of the library, enjoying the paintings of fellow artists. Many of these lovely paintings were of Florida woods and vegetation. I then went back to sit in this particular room where students and teachers were reading and studying, remembering my own days in college libraries and how full my head would be.  I can remember looking up and feeling as if my eyes were seeing countless pictures, words and numbers even though I was looking at blank walls.  That is when I received my inspiration.  I decided to paint a vista that would allow someone to look up and be taken along a flowing channel into a peaceful, wide open, natural space that is familiar to those living here.  That is how I feel when I look at the channels in the marshes of Florida.

painting of Florida marsh by Mary Jane Volkmann

I purchased and prepared my canvas and dove in. As I progressed I realized that I was struggling with issues of lighting.  I paint in an enclosed porch area.  It is a delightful space with a bank of windows facing east.  In the morning the light is natural and cool, but in the afternoon there is a lot of light bouncing off the green leaves, bleached wood and a cement slab outside the windows, so the color in the room becomes very warm and yellow, showing the colors I had paint differently than I think I have painted them!  This is easy to adjust when painting smaller canvases, but there isn’t much space to move around a large canvas and be able to stand back from it to see it.  I changed the lights in the room to counter balance the effect of the temperature shift, but because of the dimensions of the room parts of the painting were lighter than others, so I found myself subconsciously compensating and in the process, undermining the effect I was trying to achieve!  I began carrying my easel and painting in and out of the studio until finally I felt as if I had taken the painting to a sweet place with which I was happy.

The next challenge was trying to photograph the painting.  Thankfully we have digital photography or I would have spent a lot of money trying to get a decent photograph.  My camera doesn’t know what to make of my paintings, however.  It thinks it is really smart, so it ramps up the contrast or blasts the color, leaving me very frustrated. Above is about the best result I could achieve without hiring a professional photographer!

The sweet news contains three little anecdotes.  1.  The frame they chose delights me.  2.  After delivering the painting I happened to tell the library Director that while I was working I kept thinking about some of the lines from the poem “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.  It turned out to be her favorite poem! She had a plaque made and it is now hanging next to the painting.  3.  A friend came to our house to see the painting, thought for a while and then he said to me, “I’ve driven hundreds of times across bridges over these marshes and this is the first time I am seeing them.”  I smiled.

painting by Mary Jane Volkmann hanging at Santa Fe College

Here is the poem:

poem by Wendell Berry

Greetings to all!

Mary Jane



6 thoughts on “The Learning Curve”

  1. Oh Mary Jane – this is WONDERFUL! the painting, the story, the happy ending – everything! I feel that one of my greatest strengths as a person is that I never know how hard something I’ve never done before is going to be, so I’m not afraid to try. 😀 xxxooo

  2. 😎 I’ve always been awed by your gift of artistry,Mary Jane. You inspire me after a year of not painting. I too had an experience where the painting was too large for the space I was in and then I fell and had surgery on my hand. thank you and may the Good Lord bless you

    • Thank you so much, Elaine. I hope your hand is healing well and you will soon find yourself in that creative space again, enjoying the process in whatever ways it unfolds for you! Withing you all blessings, too!


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