Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



April 2008

"My thirty by forty is really swell for me, the rest is miniature."
Marsden Hartley, Letter to Hudson Walker, 8 February 1940,


quoted in Marsden Hartley, Elizabeth M. Kornhauser, ed.

Choosing a Format - What Does It Mean?

Dear Reader,

Before I begin this month's blog, Happy National Poetry Month! If you are looking for a way to celebrate, here are some suggestions:
1. Read a poem each day.
2. Copy several poems into a notebook.
3. Open the dictionary, find a word and do a five minute freewrite into a new poem.
4. Buy a poetry book (please).
5. Choose as your default page when you go on the Internet.

The subject for April's Judy's Journal came about because I recently made a commitment to have a solo exhibit in January-February 2009. Before the meeting, I came up with some talking points. Drafting possible themes or overarching ideas helps me to focus (see Judy's Journals 2006-August; 2005-June). Since most galleries work at least one year ahead, as soon as a proposal is accepted, I can work toward selecting and making paintings.

Since 1999, I have designed eleven solo exhibits around subjects (rocks, environments), themes (transformations, series paintings, trios), poetry/painting pairs (reciprocity), and materials (works on paper).

To begin thinking about this exhibition, I studied albums containing photographs of my paintings, which are arranged in chronological order. I noticed that since 2002, I have had an affinity for working in the square format. The term format means "the proportions and size of a support," according to Artist's Manual (Angela Gair, ed.). Even though dozens of my pieces have been rectangular, square paintings outnumber rectangular. A total of twenty-three paintings measured twelve inches by twelve inches. As I wrote their titles on a list, I knew that I was on to something.

In the chapter, "Marsden Hartley's Materials and Working Methods," Stephen Kornhauser and Ulrich Birkmaier wrote: "Throughout his career, Hartley painted on a variety of supports for reasons of economy, preference, and availability." I understood the first and third reasons; I hunt artist's supply retail stores and catalogs for their sales, and the twelve by twelve format is usually in stock. The middle reason, "preference," was the one that interested me.
Besides feeling that the twelve by twelve format was and is "really swell for me" to quote Marsden Hartley, I asked myself why I panic when I don't have a supply of those canvases? I needed to answer this question because I knew in my gut that I wanted to do an exhibition called "Twelve by Twelve," and that meant I needed to develop an exhibition statement. I opened my journal and used writing to find out what I knew, what I knew I didn't know I knew, and what I needed to learn (I didn't go to UNH for nothing).

What does my romance with the square format mean? I have concluded that it is a decision based on indecision and exploration and portrait/landscape rectangles do not support those needs.

The portrait orientation (taller than it is wide), my second most frequent choice, says, "This is a portrait of someone or something. A person feels 'right' framed in that shape and has a presence and demands recognition." Whether it is a portrait of a homeless person or a self portrait, the tradition of portraiture resides within the painting's shape. If I choose that orientation for a landscape, it is as if I am looking out a window at the scene. The landscape registers on my brain as a portrait of a mountain, building, tree or field.

Occasionally, I use the landscape orientation (wider than it is tall). It says to me, "This is a view. It is meant to be read left to right. The brush and eye will travel and explore the story of its composition, whether it is a field or a tabletop."

Because I do not plan ahead when I begin to paint, committing to portrait or landscape format is not always possible. Curiosity and a sense of play are high on my scale of artistic prerequisites. The square suits this state of mind. Choosing a portrait or landscape sets up expectations. I want to be in the painting and orient myself as I go. I turn the square frequently during the process. Up becomes down. Left becomes right. The weight of colors, lines and shapes play different roles, depending on their orientation.

One more thought: when writing a poem, my decision not to decide on format is just as fluid. I am always in a square frame of mind. Will the poem reside on the page in couplets or quartets, stanzas no stanzas, long lines or short? I try them all. I play.

Which format do you reach for when you begin a painting? Or a poem? Why? Contact me: and share your preferences.