My BYOB tour of Pittsburgh – that’s “B” for botany, birds, and bugs!

One Mission. Two Months. 12+ Paintings. Hundreds of new friends (with 2, 4, and 8+ legs). Thousands to thank.

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Self-directed residencies are like cooking classes (stay with me) – they have a habit of leaving you exhausted, proud, and wanting to do more without always appreciating the work that everyone around you put in to make it possible.  Thank you to the organizations, businesses, friends, family and broader Pittsburgh community for making it possible for me.

For those playing a bit of catch up, my summer artist residency project was fairly simple: 1. Suffocate myself with birds, bugs, and botany, and 2. translate it each day into a pattern, print, or fine art work . I’m happy to report that both objectives were successfully met, plus loads of additional perks. Here are a few highlights:

1. Meeting scientists – Spending my days with ornithologists and entomologists selecting behind-the-scenes bird and insect specimens made for a huge boost in my creative output. Hearing these experts talk about their work and studying their collections flooded my brain with ideas for the paintings that lay ahead. And as word spread about my project, other scientists introduced themselves, which led to opportunities such as touring the amphibian and reptile collections at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Who knows, exotic frogs and reptiles might soon make an appearance in my work.

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A tray of Red-legged Honey Creeper specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
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Carnegie Museum of Natural History entomologist John Rawlins poses with a Brahmin Moth. He jokingly calls this his “mad scientist” face.

 

2. Lunching in good company – I didn’t think there would be such a response to the open invitation for people to come join me for lunch wherever I was painting on a given day. Yet, nearly everyday in July and August an artist, interior designer, retail shop owner, scientist, or just about anyone you can imagine accompanied me for my afternoon break to learn more about the residency.

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I made all of my lunch dates pose for an obligatory photo, including these two – illustrators Molly Thompson and Gregg Valley.

 

3. Painting from floral arrangements made specifically for my artwork – Stephanie Kirby of Blue Daisy Floral Designs hosted me at her beautiful shop to paint her signature arrangements. She took my paintings-in-progress-patterns when I arrived and used them as the basis to create custom arrangements. It was such a fun collaboration! Another perk was installing enlarged prints of my artwork in Stephanie’s bridal consult room – check them out if you are in the area.

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Stephanie Kirby’s floral handiwork and my painting of her bouquet. The painting is a work in progress.
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Painting from fresh floral arrangements after installing my work in Stephanie’s bridal consult room.

 

4. Makin’ the news – Fortunately, this project garnered some media attention. I was interviewed on CBS’s Pittsburgh Today Live, and Alexandra Oliver wrote an article about my work for Pittsburgh Articulate.

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On the set of Pittsburgh Today Live with host Brenda Waters.

 

5. Befriending budding artists and scientists – One thing I didn’t see coming was the fact that my residency schedule overlapped with peak summer camp season. Between the hours of 10am and 2pm-ish, I was regularly surrounded by swarms of curious elementary students.  Questions flowed like the juice boxes, but the sticky fingers were worth it because of the many endearing conversations I had similar to this synopsis of a chat with six year old Nora – Her: What are you doing? Me: Painting a moth. Her: That’s really good. Me: Thank you! Her: [long thoughtful pause] Do you want to be friends? Me: Of course!

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6. Getting better at what I do. On my last day at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I decided to be a glutton for punishment and paint a Brahmin Moth. After an entire day of painting nothing but this single mind-numbingly detailed specimen, I sat back, looked at the fruits of my labor and thought, “I think it’s fair to say I’ve become a better painter.” Practice makes perfect.

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A real Brahmin Moth specimen and my own painted version of it. The painting is a work in progress.

 

What’s next? There’s talk of a show of all of the finished paintings – stay tuned for details. In the meanwhile, mark these bigger events on your calendar where you can buy prints of my residency paintings, as well as scarves, pillows and other products printed with these works:

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All 12 of the paintings from my residency together. Several are still works in progress.

If you’re hungry for more visual eye-candy from this project, I regularly posted photos from the project to my Instagram and Twitter accounts.


A marathon of painting birds, bugs and botany

Ashley Cecil painting flowers

Maybe you’ve seen my elusive Instagram or Facebook posts about my “top secret” summer project of 2015. If the suspense is killing you, don’t fret because this blog post is the grand project announcement.  The secret is that I’m partnering with Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the National Aviary, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and four Pittsburgh florists to undertake a self-directed artist residency during all of July and August. In plain English, that means I’ll be on-site for those two months at these seven organizations feverishly creating new paintings from their respective specimens, exhibits and floral arrangements.

"Blue Jays on Gray" painting with Blue Jay specimens

Why? Well, it’s twofold. Firstly, because I have a young child, I’m not a fit for most formal residency programs where an artist packs up to spend weeks or months of uninterrupted time producing new work at a purpose-specific facility (it turns out, people don’t like toddlers throwing tantrums nearby while they’re making art). Secondly, because I find painting my paintings and selling my paintings to be two full-time jobs, I need to find a ways to get myself in front of new audiences while not compromising on my production time. So, this residency is my solution to staying close to home while creating new work while also meeting new people equally interested in birds, bugs and botany.

Ashley Cecil with beetle specimen

I’ve spent six months planning the unique residency in coordination with over a dozen individuals at the seven institutions and businesses. After many emails, phone calls and meetings, we’ve ironed out a schedule for the public to watch me work. I’ll spend one day per week in my studio getting the paintings to the stage where I’m ready to paint the objects in the foreground (birds, insects and plants). On the following three days, I’ll work from live and taxidermied specimens of birds, insects and plants at the participating venues (admission fees apply at the three institutions). On top of the regular painting sessions, social events are scheduled at two florists for you to sip cocktails while enjoying the art and my fragrant floral subjects.

Like all things I plan, this schedule will likely change. So, get the latest updates on my whereabouts from day-to-day on social media (I’m on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook), or email me (ashley(at)ashleycecil.com). I’ll also be using the hashtags #ashleycecil, #byobirds, #byobugs and #byobotany. Hmmm, this sort of feels like a spinoff of “Where’s Waldo” in the making.

Week 1
Wed, July 1 – National Aviary
Thurs, July 2 – Phipps

Week 2
Mon, July 6 – Studio
Tues, July 7 – CMNH (insects)

Week 3
Mon, July 13 – Studio
Tues, July 14 – CMNH (insects)
Wed, July 15 – National Aviary
Thurs, July 16 – Blue Daisy Floral: Painting followed by a happy hour from 5:30 – 7:30 PM. RSVP required.

Week 4
Mon, July 20 – Studio
Tues, July 21 – CMNH (insects)
Wed, July 22 – CMNH (birds)
Thurs, July 23 – Phipps

Week 5
Mon, July 27 – Studio
Tues, July 28 – CMNH (insects)
Wed, July 29 – National Aviary

Week 6
Mon, Aug 3 – Studio
Tues, Aug 4 – CMNH (insects)
Wed, Aug 5 – National Aviary
Thurs, Aug 6 – Phipps

Week 7
Wed, Aug 12 – CMNH (birds)
Thurs, Aug 13 – Cuttings Flower & Garden Market: Painting and open house with drinks and refreshments from 2- 6 PM. Event details are here.

Week 8
Mon, Aug 17 – Studio
Tues, Aug 18 – CMNH (insects)
Wed, Aug 19 – CMNH (birds)
Thurs, Aug 20 – Phipps

Week 9
Mon, Aug 24 – Studio
Tues, Aug 25 – CMNH (insects)
Wed, Aug 26 – National Aviary
Thurs, Aug 27 – 4121 Main

Come solo, bring a friend, bring your kids – all are welcome. And, since I do have to eat everyday, I would also love to get lunch with you at CMNH, Phipps or the Aviary. Let’s make a date!


Old painting with a new purpose

I suffer from a condition I call “Maker Syndrome.” Being a member of Pittsburgh’s Techshop worsens the symptoms, which are creative distraction, idea overload and project envy. It takes a great deal of focus to keep myself on task with an already tedious painting process. So, I’m thoughtfully adding new skills to my repertoire that build on what I’m already good at. My latest budding area of expertise is reupholstering furniture.

Ashley_Cecil-Pin_tailed_Manakins_on_Blue-chairThe first few attempts were on chairs from Craigslist, like this outstanding find. I sanded them, spray painted them and recovered the seats with my custom-printed fabric.

Blue_Jays_on_Gray1Then, I landed a commission to give the makeover treatment to a client’s family heirloom dinning room chairs. The commission started with the client picking this existing 24″x24″ acrylic, oil and 22k gold painting of Blue Jays, which I then translated into a design conducive for printing on fabric.

Blue_Jays_on_Gray1_for_fabricIn this particular case, the parts of the original image that were intentionally cropped off at the edges of the canvas had to be Photoshop-ed in so the image could be centered on the seat. The gold leaf in the circular design also had to be replaced with a solid color since an image of gold printed on fabric looks, well, fake.

Ashley_Cecil-chair_commissionBlistered knuckles, a box of upholstery staples and an entire season of “Orange Is The New Black” later, I had eight of these beauties to return to my client’s dinning room. They’re a match made in heaven with that rug, right?

Digitally manipulating the original painting was not at all easy. Actually, I had to take a six week-long class on Photoshop specific to artists/textile designers to figure it out (well worth it by the way). I emailed the folks who run the workshop on Pattern Observer to show them the fruits of my labor and their excellent teaching skills, and they posted about it on their blog!

It was a lot of fun giving this old painting a new purpose (sans the blistered knuckles part). Do your chairs need a facelift? Or do you need that orange chair above in your living room? Get in touch and let’s talk upholstery.


My process step by step

George, the stuffed Passenger Pigeon has gone home to his drawer at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It was great getting to know him as he stared at me day after day while I painted his portrait. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end (literally in his case as an extinct species of 100 years). The process of creating this homage was well documented and gives me an opportunity to share how it works. Passenger_Pigeon_on_Mint-background-500x500px-150pdi Step one is covering the canvas with a solid color in acrylic paint, followed by a flat pattern. Passenger Pigeon - painting progress There’s no room for error with anything that’s added from this point forward because the next layer of painting is done in oils – if I did make a mistake, I couldn’t paint over it with the background color because you can’t paint acrylic (water-based) over oil. So I’ve developed a way to eliminate or at least minimize mistakes – before I continue painting, I draw the bird(s) that will go in the foreground of the painting on craft paper exactly posed and sized as I want them on the canvas. Then I carefully cut them out and lightly tape them in place. Passenger Pigeon - painting process Now I use a color of oil paint similar to the background to trace the silhouette of the bird so I know exactly where everything goes. Passenger_Pigeon_on_Mint-bird_only-500x500px-150dpi And then I paint it in with oils. Passenger_Pigeon_on_Mint-500x500px-150dpi I usually freehand the foliage and insects because a stray brush stroke of a flower petal is far easier to “fix” than any part of a bird. Sometimes I add a design in gold leaf, but I don’t think this one needs it. So there you have it – a finished “Passenger Pigeon on Mint.” Painting is still only one part of what I do. I’m also a textile designer and seamstress/maker. Just this week, Ben Saks of Float Pictures finished a video documenting my process from start to finish. So I will stop typing and let you watch. Enjoy!


Painting in progress, September 23, 2014

My latest work-in-progress is highly atypical for me – not for any aesthetic reason, but because I loathe pigeons. This bitterness blossomed during my stint in London, where all pedestrians compete with these aggressive and plentiful nuisances for scarce sidewalk space. However, I’m challenging myself to get up close and personal with the urban winged pest in honor of the 100th anniversary of the extinction of a specific variety of the bird, the Passenger Pigeon.

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The painting has taken me to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for visual reference material. Typically, I have access to their extensive ornithology collection. This time, I learned that there are limits when it comes to extinct species. Yet, I lucked out and was allowed to borrow a “crappy” specimen missing a tail and a patch of feathers on the breast. The mangled bird is temporarily sitting on my desk, staring at me as if to say, “it’s a good thing I’m stuffed lady, or I would peck your eyes out.”

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Today, I drew the bird on paper at exactly the scale and position I want it on the board, which is already prepped with an intricately painted design. I’ll carefully cut the bird out of the paper and trace its outline onto the board before painting it in. In the end, it will loosely resemble the photo above (plus some variety of orange foliage and Darkling Beetles).

While I’m cohabitating with this creepy bird, it feels appropriate to name it. The very last Passenger Pigeon died on September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. The bird went by Martha, named after Martha Washington, American’s first First Lady. So, I will call my pigeon George, of course.


Commemorating Judith Kasdan

Judith Kasdan Scholarship

Earlier this year, I had the great honor of creating an award to memorialize one of Pittsburgh’s outstanding residents. Judith Kasdan, as her daughters describer her, “taught in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, owned a children’s shoe boutique, served as President of the National Council of Jewish Women, and earned her Law degree at age 56, subsequently passing the bar exam and serving as an Allegheny County Public Defender. She was a fierce supporter of programs to improve the lives of women and children and had a keen motivation to make the world a better place.”

To honor Judi, her three daughters established several memorial projects. One is an annual staff recognition award for an employee of the Hillman Cancer Center where Judi was a patient. Another is a scholarship at the Duquesne University School of Law where Judi earned her J.D.

It was a heart-warming process to work with Judi’s daughters to create a design with visual elements that symbolically represented her spirit. I was also thrilled to be able to use my current style of painting for what will be fabricated into a free-standing award.

Green Figbird on Blue

Knowing that I would have an unused original painting at the end of this project, I decided to push the artwork beyond what I needed for the award design. The image directly above is the finished painting, including a Green Fig-bird and a design in 22k gold.

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In laying out the elements of this painting, I had to be very careful about where the Green Fig-bird was placed because I didn’t want it to overlap with anything else so that the bird could be easily removed for the award design in Photoshop. This required cutting out the bird drawn by hand on craft paper. This allowed me to move the bird around on the painting so I could decide where it looked best before committing to its final spot. Once in place, I lightly traced around the paper silhouette with paint and then went to work rendering the bird. The rest was freehanded around it.

Now the Kasdan’s have a personal design to commemorate their mother and recognize deserving medical staff and law students. And I have a new painting (and print) available, which you can see in person it at the Three Rivers Arts Festival!


Textile Thursday

Fabric-swatches

I’m counting down the days until the Three Rivers Arts Festival, where I’ll be open for business in the artist market at booth 26. This is an exciting milestone for me because it will mark the launch of textile products printed with my paintings.

Today was an especially fun step in the textile-making process since test samples of a variety of custom fabrics arrived. The day flew by while I was calibrating colors by comparing my original paintings with the initial yards of test fabric and a color map with hex codes (a.k.a. color IDs).

Now I’m onto creating patterns of the single images so the designs repeat continuously. This is no easy task, I promise you. I’ll save that explanation for another day.

 


Painting in progress, February 25, 2014

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At the start of this year, I promised myself that I would stop going to such painstaking lengths to get the first layer of my paintings down, which is the pattern design. My rationale was that the end product would look just as nice if I freehanded the patterns, versus spending hours meticulously laying them out in advance. Yet, after four hours in my studio today, I once again found my workspace covered with a ruler, triangle, drawing compass, painter’s tape, grids, calculator and a handmade stencil. So much for my new year resolution. Old habits die hard.


Wrapped up in my art

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I just spent my morning at TechShop Pittsburgh sewing this scarf from fabric printed with one of my new paintings. This is a first prototype of what will soon be many.  I’m still figuring out color calibration and testing fabrics. Once I have it down, you too can wrap yourself in my art. The plan is to sell these and other textile products at art festivals and on my website (a shopping cart is coming soon). Is the suspense killing you? I’m pretty ecstatic.


Adorning the cover of Pittsburgh Quarterly

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There’s nothing like standing in line at Whole Foods, browsing the magazine selections and spotting one fine publication sporting your artwork on the cover (it puts me in a better mood before finding out how much I owe the cashier for my fancy almond milk and strawberries imported from Chile).

This was an exciting illustration commissioned by Pittsburgh Quarterly, which required a little ornithology research since the art director specified that only birds native to Western Pennsylvania should be included – hence the beautiful Cedar Waxwing, Northern Cardinal and Red-Breasted Nuthatch.

The overall design was meant to have a holiday feel without becoming dated by February when the next issue is due out. How did I do?


Prototyping has begun

I have always loved snail mail (bills excluded), and especially packages. Since I have started making prototypes of tangible products printed with my artwork, spotting a box on my doorstep or a bulky envelope stuffed in my mailbox takes the excitement to a whole new level of awesome. This iPhone case is the latest item to arrive. It’s already been promised to a friend, but I wanted to try it out myself for a few days to test the quality of the case. I can say after having it on my phone for a mere 24 hours, I can now pass it onto my friend because I’ve already dropped it twice. I’m pleased to report the phone and the case survived without a scratch. Want to buy one for yourself? This case and others will be available soon through a shopping cart, but, in the meanwhile, send me an email (ashley.cecil@gmail.com) or leave a comment. I would be happy to send this box of snail mail love to your doorstep.


Bugs on Baby Blue

Would you rock out a scarf with dainty designs and gnarly bugs? Or how about a throw pillow? Well, you have time to think it over because I have two more of these mini-paintings to finish before printing them on fabric. I think a lacey pattern with a few bees and beetles would suit you well.


Paintings in progress, October 11, 2012

Chartreuse paintings in progress

I’m excited to use these paintings (plus one more not in this shot) as a first attempt at translating my paintings into fabric. Hold onto your   thimbles. I see DIY curtains and pillows adorned with my artwork in the near future.


Painting in progress, June 25, 2012

I’ve opted not to add a bird in this painting. I’m saving it for the three other canvases I prepped with the same chartreuse color. Instead, I thinking about painting a bright insect on the peony or leaves. Maybe a Dogbane Beetle or Swallowtail caterpillar. Suggestions are always welcome.


Blue Jays on Gray

Blue Jays on Gray
24″x24″ acrylic, oil and 22k gold on canvas
Email ashley.cecil@gmail.com for purchase inquiries.
See all artwork available for sale.

Although the Blue Jays in this painting were fairly laborious to paint, the circular design around the outside of the image was much easier to create than those in other paintings in this series. The more organic pattern meant I didn’t have to worry about symmetry. That’s comforting since this is one painting of a pair; the second one has the same design.

I’m off to New York this weekend to attend Surtex, “the global B2B marketplace for original art & design—where artists, agents and licensors connect with manufacturers and retailers to create the next best-selling products in every category imaginable.” Maybe I’ll have an epiphany about what product these paintings can adorn. Wish me luck.