Open Studios Profile: Cynthia Riordan

Today I’d like to introduce you to Cynthia Riordan, who will be exhibiting with me during the second weekend of Silicon Valley Open Studios.

Cynthia works in oil and pastels. I love the softness of the lost forms in her paintings, as well as the variety of edges—hard and soft—that make her paintings come alive.

Innocence Pastel © 2014 Cynthia Riordan
7″ x 10″ pastel on Wallis paper
© 2014 Cynthia Riordan

Describe your artistic journey
Art has been important since childhood, starting with oil painting lessons when I was 12 to learn about painting still life. Early creations were giant crepe paper flowers, painting on fabric, silk screening, linoleum block prints, producing fired enamel and cloisonné objects and painting on tile. I have designed and built stained glass windows and panels for residential and commercial clients.


painting of Coyote Creek
Coyote Creek, Winter
11″ x 14″ oil on canvas panel
© 2014 Cynthia Riordan

Where has art taken you in life?

Part of what I love  to do is plein air painting, so that has taken me to many parks, such as Yosemite, Glacier National Park, Jackson, WY, the Tetons, Pt. Lobos.  Recently, I decided to help meet the need of our country’s Goldstar families and join other artists in painting our fallen heroes from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

English Traveler Oil on canvas © 2014 Cynthia Riordan
English Traveler
11″ x 14″ oil on canvas panel
© 2014 Cynthia Riordan

What do you think about before you begin painting?

I consider both the emotional impact I want the painting to have and the technical aspects that must be considered to accomplish it. A value study or notan is something I always do. The light source and how it informs the subject is another important consideration.

View from Ribera Road, Carmel  Oil on canvas © 2014 Cynthia Riordan
View from Ribera Road, Carmel
9″ x 12″ oil on canvas panel
© 2014 Cynthia Riordan

Tell me about one of your favorite paintings or drawings that you’ve made. Why is it your favorite?

Whichever painting I am currently working on is  my favorite.  There are some plein air pieces that I am very attached to because of the memory they evoke of when and where I painted them and how I felt in the place.

If you could ask one question of an artist you admire, who would it be, and what would you ask?

I would like to ask J. M.W. Turner how he was able to so successfully relinquish control in his seascapes so that the viewer feels the wildness and power of the wind and the waves.

You can see more of Cynthia’s work at

Cynthia Riordan will be exhibiting May 10-11 at 1471 Hollidale Court, Los Altos, CA 94024

Return of the prodigal blogger

Joe Pastel on Canson Mi-Tientes paper. I'm not yet finished with this. I have pages and pages of notes from Christian and Rob. Corrections like: make the background distinct from the foreground, dull down the "heavenly light" in the background, get rid of Joe's "mohawk." And lots more things to work on. Whew!

I’ve been letting this blog slide the last couple months, as I’ve been busy with other projects, plus a camping trip to Nevada.

I’ve been trying to finish up my projects from my fourth year at the Atelier (At the top of this post, you can see the last portrait I made in June), and then, just when the school year was finishing and I thought I’d have some time to rest, Christian Fagerlund (the teacher who’d taken over the last few classes at the Atelier while the usual teacher, Rob Anderson was away), offered a portrait painting workshop—6 people, 8 classes, twice a week—during the month of July.

Christian is a wonderful painter, and a brilliant teacher (I’ve been so lucky to have such wonderful teachers: Rob, David, and now Christian). Taking his class has been worth the exhaustion of driving to the East Bay twice a week during rush hour traffic. I’ve learned so much; I can feel my brain fizzing and buzzing like it’s full of 7-Up.

Now I’m taking a much-needed break from classes, and will practice what I’ve learned. That means discipline to work at home the same number of hours that I worked in classes (plus those two extra hours I spent driving to Oakland!).

I also want to get back into the swing of blogging again. I wish someone would give me a push, but alas, in the blogging world, you really have to learn to swing yourself.

Portrait on the clock

Pastel sketch 8.5" x 11"

I started this painting when I was all buzzed from a video by Alicia Sotherland, a portrait artist I quite like. Likeness eluded me for this drawing from a photo. I find it much easier to get a likeness from life. But, after all, I wasn’t trying for likeness.

I had budgeted one hour (which expanded to two) to get as far as I could, and as close as I could to a likeness. But my main goal was to  force my hand and brain to believe that it is okay to have light values in the lit area of the face and dark values  in the shadowed area of the face (I’m always surprised that this is such a difficult concept for my brain to believe). And I was to  use color values for those lights and shadows rather than monochromatic values. You can’t see it in the scan, but the highlight on the nose is cool—a light blue.

Gaining knowledge in the intimate presence

I’m reading Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit. He says, “I think it is safe to say that the kind of seeing and kind of thinking done by one who works with the model always before him is entirely different from the kind of seeing and thinking done by one who is about to lose the presence of the model and will have to continue his work from the knowledge he gained in the intimate presence.”

He thought that the latter artist worked with more mental activity; the artist always “studies for information.”

I drew this portrait with this quote in mind, and in 60 minutes (3 20-minute sets) I got enough information down that I think I can bring it further along without the model. I also had my color chart with me, but in the hurry of trying to capture her likeness, I wasn’t able to make good color choices. I can see that I need more oranges and reds to make the flesh look less “dead.”

First time pastel portrait

Last Wednesday was literally the first time out of the box for my new Rembrandt 30-chalk pastel for portrait set. I soon had several epiphanies.

  • The “portrait set” doesn’t contain any dark values. I can’t seem to get a full value range with the colors available, unless I use black. I can’t seem to mix the pastels the way I can mix watercolor to create a dark value. Chris Saper, in her book Painting Beautiful Skin Tones with Color & Light, recommends adding some darker value pastels to the portrait sets available on the market.
  • Every color in the box does not have to be used. In fact, it shouldn’t be. I should use some kind of intelligence when I choose colors, and not just grab blindly. This means I’m going to have to spend some time making color and value studies with the chalk. Duh. And perhaps then I’ll figure out a way to mix some darker values.
  • Rapid execution does not preclude accuracy. Nor does a more relaxed pace enable accuracy. Oddly, the drawing at the top of this post is a 20 minute drawing, the drawing at the bottom is a 60 minute (3-20 minute sittings) drawing. I like the drawing from the shorter pose—it’s more like the model, has more life, more grace, and more elegance. The “long” pose drawing makes me cringe. Dull, clunky, not only unlike the model, but really unlike anything alive. Yuck.
  • Learning how to draw portraits is going to take some time. Doing the work is going to be what moves me forward.