Thursday, April 3, 2014

Developing a Visual Language or Symbols

The Beauty of it All #4, 16"x20"x acrylic, Dura-Lar on paper ,2014 copyright Mary Zeran
On a recent trip to Mexico, I was reminded how important symbols are.  Perhaps, you were lucky enough to grow up in a family that made things and had a "visual language" or perhaps, symbols were part of your culture.

A fantastic collection of masks at The Museum of Popular Art in Merida, Mexico

Isn't it funny how all those pictures can mean something to a certain group and nothing to others? In Mayan culture, a Jaguar is the symbol of courage.  That bad kitty is the sort of animal that gets in your head and tells you bad things. When something is in your head saying nasty stuff, you need a lot of courage, right?

In my own life, that Jaguar has begun to have a lot of personal meaning.  I like to think of him as my "inner critic" telling me I suck, or can't do things. When he shows up, I know I'm about to have a challenge presented in either a mental, emotional, or physical way.

have courage...

As many of your know, I grew up in a family of folk artists.  When I see textiles, embroidery, and surface decoration, I have an instant understanding of  the images and symbols. Abstracted florals have been a huge tradition amongst the women artists in my family.

Traditional clothing from The Museum of Popular Art.
A painted box by my Gramma Mary Virginia Knight.
Rosemaled box by my mother Margaret Zeran.

Each time I pick up a brush or my scissors I am abstracting the language of my family.  Immersing myself in flowers, trees, and all the colors of nature brings me closer to my family and their traditions. 

How about you?  What sort of visual language did you grow up with?  Do you have artists in your family or artists in your community that taught you their visual language?  Can you see the language in your own work?  I'd love to read some of your answers in the comments section below!

Life in the studio has been so exciting lately.  I have a solo show up at Luther College in Decorah, IA.  This place has special meaning to me because we used to travel there often to look at Rosemaling and buy boxes for my mom to paint on.  Go to this link for details.

Special thanks to David Kamm of Luther College for this wonderful chance to share my work and to Decorah Newspaper for the nice writeup.

I have a three person exhibit in Chicago at Hairpin Arts Center coming up in May.  Go to this link for more details.

Grafix did a nice feature on my work for their newsletter.  Go to this link to see the  article.

I've been working on some "How to Videos" with the folks at Grafix. Katie has put together a very nice video of me painting on Dura-Lar plastic film. 

We've answered the burning question "How do you glue this stuff?" with this video.


Workshops are going full swing.  The students in April's "Collage Start to Finish" workshop are such fun people.  If you missed this workshop, I'll be hosting an all day "Magic Metallic Monoprinting" class on Saturday, May 3rd from 11-3.  To signup go to this link.

Right now, I'm in the process of scheduling Fall workshops and 2015 slots. I have a few Summer spaces open.  If you are interested in having me come teach in your area, send me an email at maryzeran (at)

Thank you as always for visiting my blog.  Your support is so important! I wish you creativity in the next days, weeks, and months. If you enjoyed this post, please share!



Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Squished Paintings: Part II

All About Red #1, 11"x8.5", mono print, 2014 copyright Mary Zeran, Private Collection

When I decided to give myself a 6 week, in studio, artist residency, it never occurred how tired I would be.  Bone tired...

As usual I've bitten off more than I could chew.  I thought I would be able to devote all my time to two online classes and get a commission piece done?!?!...  Silly, silly me.  Turns out my brain is really only capable of learning one new skill at a time. So what did I do?  I opted to complete the commission piece. While it was being framed I picked up my brayer and started printing.

I've always used Dura-Lar as my printing plate in combination with acrylic paints. I use a really soupy, heavy paint sort of approach which produces lots of squishes, blobs, and smushy marks. I like that, but I wanted to get a more delicate line. During Linda Germain's online class I feel like I my mono-printing skills took a huge step forward. Not only did I learned how to make and use my own gelatin plate. Linda spent some time demonstrating proper brayer techniques, how to cut stencils, and some stamp making techniques I hadn't seen before.  really amazing stamps. Post class, I feel like I have so much more control over the medium and some nice prints to boot!

As most of you know, I love bold, bright color. By the time I hit week 3 I had used up all my yellow.  I took a huge color departure. Instead of switching to Golden Open Acrylics for the rest of the class, Linda suggested I work with the color I had. What a great exercise! At first I fought the idea, but then I did what I was told and the result was some great exercises in value. Those of you who work with bold color know, it can be easy to use the color as a "crutch", and that many a bad composition has been saved by a fabulous color combination.

All About Red #2, 11"x8.5", mono print, 2014 copyright Mary Zeran

All About Red #3, 11"x8.5", mono print, 2014 copyright Mary Zeran

All About Red #4, 11"x8.5", mono print, 2014 copyright Mary Zeran

Onward...over the next few months, I'm focused on making collage and painting.  Nothing like doing something else to invigorate you mentally and make getting back on track a little cumbersome. As I struggle to find my feet again, I am excited to see how this new information informs what I do in my regular work.

Being an artist and art educator can sometimes feel like you have a split personality. I finding that both endeavors require a lot of attention. As many of you know, this blog is more about art education. If you want to see the rest of the prints, go to my tumblr blog. I also have an instagram site. That site shows images of studio life ie: my natural environment.


While we are at it. Registration for my workshop "Collage Start to Finish" at Cedar Rapids Museum of Art is now open. Spaces are filling fast, so if you are in the area, sign up now at this link.

I've have a solo exhibit at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa and a three person exhibit at Hairpin Art Center in Chicago coming up in April and May. I've added a new feature to my website titled News. Go to that link for details.

Thank you as always for stopping by! I hope you are having fun being the creative person that you are meant to be. If you enjoyed this post, please share.



Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I Love Collage!

"Wood and Corona #1", 11"x14", acrylic, Dura-Lar on paper, 2013 copyright Mary Zeran

Something I love about making collage is there is always an exit strategy. Not only is the process additive, it is subtractive. What that means is, if it looks like the piece needs more stuff…add it. If it looks like there is too much, remove things. Collage is all about combining different materials into a piece of art that has personal meaning.

This Saturday I'm teaching Spontaneous, Spirited, Simple Collage at Gilded Pear Gallery. Some of the techniques we are going to play with are:
  • creating our own "raw materials" 
  • discovering our personal way of making marks 
  • playing with color.  COLOR!!!
  • cutting up found papers, and photos 
  • talking about design 
  • and gluing…lots of gluing.
If you are in the area, there are a few spaces left.  Just contact Suzy at Gilded Pear Gallery to make your reservation!



Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Giving Myself Time to Learn

Undulating and Circular, 12"x12"x2", acrylic,
Dura-Lar on cradled panel,
2013 copyright Mary Zeran,
photo credit:  Mark Tade, permanent collection.

It's time for my annual "In Studio Artist Residency". The mission of my residency? Over the next 6 weeks, I'm going back to school to learn how to be a better teacher. So how am I going about this?  I'm studying "Extreme Composition" with Jane Davies and "Make Monoprints" with Linda Germain.  

One week into the classes, and I am so impressed.   Both women are amazing teachers. Their online workshops are well organized, chock full of lots of great information, and each teaches lessons broken down into nice digestible segments.  They say that to be a teacher is to learn twice. As I am re-learning, I am discovering some new things and seeing how other people tweak similar lessons.  

Drawing with Ink.

Lesson #1:  Line drawing can be fun! Believe it or not.

When I was at university art schools didn't teach basics skills. Foundation classes like how to mix color, shade, and perspective drawing were considered something unnecessary or skills learned in High School.  The how was secondary to the why.

My biggest complaint about abandoning technical training was I felt like I was thrown into deep water without knowing how to swim. This flailing about was good on certain levels. I learned how to trust my instincts, and tap into my natural way of working, but I never really felt like I knew the rules. Rules can be good right? Did you know there are rules? I didn't. At that time, I thought all artists were divine creatures touched by god. They came out the womb knowing how to do all this stuff naturally. If you weren't born with it, you were out of luck. Sound familiar?

What I re- discovered through Jane's class is that a person can learn a lot about your drawing tools by just doing simple exercises like drawing a ton of lines with many different tools like pencils, pens, droppers, and my favorite brushes. After doing some of her exercises,  I felt like I gained mastery, and I felt calmer.

Drawing #1, 7"x5", acrylic on paper, 2014 copyright Mary Zeran

Let's take some time to talk about Art myths.  One of the myths goes like this...artists are intellectuals, pursuers of truth, they are Bohemians...insert black garret here. Drawing the model is an exalted thing... it is how artists learning about anatomy and how to re-create the human body in visual form.  Models are young nubile women of questionable morals and background...muses. Insert the opera La Boheme here.  Models often became artists lovers, even though the artist was married. In art history, the description goes like this...the artist's model was also his lover, she died of tuberculosis, syphilis, or insanity after their relationship crumbled.......but I digress.

In my art school experience this was not the case. Nude models were local people who did this job  to make extra cash: for instance students, musicians, dancers. (The best nude models are dancers. They have great muscle control and can hold poses for long periods of time), and local characters.

Welcome to Life Drawing!  All of us arrived with out boxes of brand new tools: charcoal, pencils, erasures, and paper.  The teaching said, "Get out your charcoal and a piece of paper.  This is Larry. Draw him."

Who was Larry? He was one of a host of permanent characters in town. Larry played drums in bands and on the city square, thus earning the "street name" Bongo Larry. To get an idea of how Larry looked, imagine a extremely skinny man in his 50's.  He had long blond hair, and sported the uniform of most heavy metal fans of the early 80's.  You know the look: black jeans, white, leather high tops, black T-shirt, and black jacket, leather if they were lucky.

So why is Larry such a person of conversation?  Remember that most art students in the 80's were virgins.  Walking into a Life Drawing Class was probably the first time any of us had seen a naked person besides our parents or an illegally obtained porn magazine.

There stood Larry.  A hush went throughout the room. Larry was NAKED not nude, wearing a studded belt and holding a stuffed snake. NAKED.  The female student next to me said, "is that how penises look?"

At that moment, I realized I was about to have the image of Larry's backside as he squatted down, and in particular, his genitals etched into my brain for eternity? ...perhaps starting out with basic line drawings would have been good.

Drawing #2, 7"x5", acrylic on paper, 2014 copyright Mary Zeran

These drawings were done on Lenox 100 drawing paper, with black  Golden Fluid acrylics, and lots of water.  I used a brush and oiler boiler (which is becoming my absolute FAVORITE tool).

By the way, workshops at Cedar Rapids Museum of Art are starting to fill.  These workshops won't be like my art education.  You will learn techniques and ways to make art.  And everyone will have their clothes on.  I promise!



Monday, January 6, 2014

Tips: All About Edges

Examples of my work hanging on
gorgeous chocolate colored walls at Gilded Pear Gallery.

Thoughts on Presentation and Edges

One of the things I am always impressed by is when an artist has paid as much attention to how the piece is presented as the time they put into creating an image. 

Under the heading of presentation are things like matting, framing, and for me....edges.  

Have you ever been to an art gallery and noticed the edges on paintings? I know this may seem like a silly little detail, but details, details, details are one of the things that can set your work apart.  Sloppy edges on a painting draw the viewers eye AWAY from the art and onto the sloppy edge.  For my money, a little bit of prep work is so worth it to avoid this problem.

These three cradled panels are prepped, and prepared with different grounds and glazes.
Notice the drips and over painting.
Imagine all the work it would take to clean the edges up after the piece was completed!

How to Tape Edges on Cradled Panels
You will need:
  • A sealed cradled panel, some companies refer to these as painting panels, wood panels, birch panels, artist panels, or even gesso boards.
  • 3M Scotch Blue Painters Tape
  • MUSIC!!!  Because NOTHING makes boring tasks fun like music!

Note: I  use cradled panels in my work because I do a lot of gluing and glazing.  I find this solid wood box creates a sturdy, stable painting surface.  Not only does the rigid surface prevent delamination, it is a built in frame. BONUS!

I often have a local carpenter make my panels for my, but they are commercially available at all the art supply stores online and brick and mortar.  I also unprimed  American Easel Wood Painting Panels, but I'm eyeing the Ampersand brand because they are highly recommended.  For those of you who are interested in time saving, both American Easel and Ampersand make primed/ gessoed panels.  I am thinking about moving in that direction but, haven't taken the time to do the math ie:  time vs. money.

3M Scotch Blue comes in different widths and doesn't leave a residue!

  • Set out all your materials so you can reach everything. 
  • Wipe down your cradled panel with a cloth.  I like to do this so I don't have any problems with sawdust.
  • seal your panel.  I use 2 coats of Golden GAC 100.  I like it because it is water based, comes in a gallon container, and has virtually no smell.  I run a solvent free studio due to nuking my lungs as a young artist. (I sand between coats of GAC so I get a smooth surface.)
Follow the dark like between the top and side of the cradled panel

How to Begin

  • Turn on your music.  Right now, I'm listening to a lot of Carmen by Bizet.  January is opera season in Cedar Rapids.  I'm getting ready for the upcoming performance!
  • lay your cradled panel on the edge.
  • line the blue tape up with the edge of the top of the panel.  I like to use this because it provides a nice guide.
  • run a strip of tape all around the cradled panel.  
  • Done! Easy!  Fast!  And no sanding afterwards!!!

I hope  you enjoyed this post.  Workshops at Cedar Rapids Museum of Art  start Thursday, February 20th.  The first 4 session workshop will be "Gimme Some Schkinn!"  

In this workshop, I'll share lots techniques I learned during the Golden Artists Educator Program in New Orleans.  You'll create tons of acrylic skins, play with different background textures like Golden's crackle paste, and modeling paste. Explore mark making, texture, and design to create a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind piece of art. 

...and the reason for this post?  Each student will get the experience working with a cradled panel.  As usual, all materials, tools, and supplies will be provided. Go to this link to sign up!

I usually seal, tape, prime, and paint several panels at a time.  That way when I really get working, I am ready to go.  Notice all the different sizes.  I've worked on cradled panels as large as 48"x60".  That size is very heavy.  Talk about a work out!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Best of Mary Zeran Studio 2013

Every January, as the world outside is sleeping,  I  start making a mental inventory...
Things I am proud of and stuff that just didn't quite turn out the way I had planned. This mental exercise is mirrored by a physical purge, where I donate clothes, art supplies, and other things that "just don't work for me anymore".  I also use this time to look at my art, teaching, and how I want to tweak things in the upcoming year.

2013 was an amazing year.  The operative word might be intense.  
As I look back on studio photos, 
I see all the bits and pieces that will become new art,
 new classes, and lots of "raw materials" for the coming year.

Thank you so much for all your support!

What about you? Do you have an annual tradition?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

And the Winner is...

"Once Again Awkward was the Operative Word", 30"x30"x3",
acrylic, Dura-Lar on cradled panel, 2013 copyright Mary Zeran
Excitement, excitement, and congratulations to STH from Glen Arbor, Michigan!!! You are the winner of the Patti' Brady's book "Rethinking Acrylic".  If you email me your address, I'll get it into the mail and maybe, just maybe, you will have it in time for Christmas....or at least the week of. 

I hope you enjoy the book.  It is chock full of amazing photos, technical information, and art...let's don't forget the art.

For the next few weeks, I will be devoting my time to family.    Each year, I do a holiday card with a quote from Charles Dickens.  (For some reason, he always makes me think of the holiday.)  This year's quote is:

However you celebrate this holiday season... 
I wish you and your family, happiness, joy, love, peace, and laughter!