Visual language. Expression. Artist. Authenticity. Statement. Creating. Creativity. Original. Style or technique. Mix up those words to form different sentences. If you can think about your art-making in these terms, the doors of possibility will be more open. There is a skill set that can be practiced and the more that happens, the likelihood you will find fluidity in your expression. But the more important elements can be described with the words above.

Rick Bartow, one of our great Oregon artists, died this week. Coincidently I had finally tracked down a video about him I had seen years ago. I wanted to show it in class specifically because of our latest focus on visual imagery as language. And I finally found where to buy one. (Salem Art Association.)

Here is his artist’s statement from 1990:

          “Marc Chagall once said ‘let us try to discover what is authentic in our lives’. I think the next step is to attempt an expression of that authenticity.

         I have recently begun to employ more than one figure in the work, a conscious effort to remove the figurative element from a psychological to a more physically involved state. It also stems from a desire to see people not alone.

        At times I understand where an image originates, but more often than not it is the initial result of an unconscious use of line and form.

       The energy of the work sometimes becomes too active for a small format. The gestures can now utilize a larger area.

       As life becomes richer and more dear, the drawings become larger, more involved, the imagery more complex and the color more intense, in an effort to express what I feel is authentic.” R.E. Bartow 1990

He talks about what is on his mind and how the size, format, color and gesture of his work varies in response to those concerns. Response. It implies dialogue. Simply reproducing an image without it is likely less engaging to the viewer—and to the maker for that matter.

So think in terms of dialogue. One thing changes the next in response to what has gone before. There is no way to solve all the problems of a piece at one time. Paint the whole surface as a reaction to the way things are developing, don’t try to pre-think to the end result. Examine your thoughts and feelings of each element you add or change. How does it visually affect the whole?  What does it say?  (DO NOT insert anything negative here.)

This takes LOOKING. As I’ve said ad nauseam—Time and looking is as important as moving the color, line, etc. etc. around. It’s as important as drawing and color theory, among other things.  And you don’t have to learn it.  You just have to do it and then pay attention to what you see.  Until you can allow yourself that, you will only add to any frustration you find in the process.

I’ll be showing the video of Rick Bartow in action this week. You will see his engagement in the process and perhaps get a hint of how his concerns manifest themselves on paper. (It is not available online.)

An absolutely beautifully written article by Oregonian writer, Bob Hicks, about Rick Bartow can be found here:

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The idea of painting as a visual language is not new. But we rarely consider the correlation of the pen and the brush. For beginning and often-confused artists (like me), who struggle, (daily), seeing the similarities may be helpful.

The word “composition” is a key. Composing in writing has rules of grammar and punctuation and “elements of style”. Because these are emphasized throughout our school years and we learn them over time, we don’t feel lacking because in the third grade we wrote differently than in the college. Yet, even though one may have not had any art training since the third grade, as adults, when we pick up a brush and don’t know what to do with it, we deem we are talentless. I’m not exactly sure what “talent” is. There are examples after examples of seemingly talented folks who don’t make good art and vice versa, but that’s another subject.

Connecting the familiar idea of writing with a less familiar idea of painting may lessen the pangs of immediate judgement, which is too often death to art-making.

The elements and principles of design are helpful. Sort of. (I have handouts, we’ve studied them, look them up if you’re not familiar—they’re easily found). Sometimes knowing there are “rules” to follow makes painting less mysterious. But creativity is very often about breaking rules. If we’re after poetry in painting (and we are), think of rules like those in Haiku. Rules may be the ticket. But the abandonment of ee cummings or Jack Kerouac, may also inspire. Be aware of your preference and play to that. Or, do an “about face”. Look for rules to break to see what happens. (Are you imagining examples?)

When writing/painting, nouns/objects play the biggest role. They are modified by “adjectives”. Verbs add action or tension. The story you want to tell, the statement you want to make, informs your choices. I think this is sometimes the hardest part of the process–choosing a subject. Subject is what often drives one to paint and a well-chosen subject can provide a lot of fuel for the endeavor.But alas, I’ve been there too. Anxious to dig into colors, harmonies, texture and line, but have no idea and not sure where to look for one . Just as writers advise, prepare by observing, taking time. “Notice what you notice”. And then honor what comes forth.  Write/paint without thinking.

A simplistic example: You love trees, you’ve been to the forest, you take some photos or you recall memoires (very, very hard to work from just memories. By all means do it, but it’s hard.) So what about those trees do you love—are they massive and majestic and will outlast us all and that moves you? – are they saplings, elegant and graceful and a little fragile? –it is hot and they offer shade? –or has a storm taken the leaves and they are black with rain and rich moss? How many to make the whole interesting? If it’s one tree, how do you make it enough? Trees, etc. are the nouns. Adjectives are shape, size and color and will describe the space, the temperature, the time of day, the time of year. And a verb will determine tension and relationships between objects. It connects things.

Your technique (i.e. Haiku, Kerouac or Shakespeare, etc.) is the thing you develop by connecting to your subject and by the doing. Like your signature, it must flow from you to not feel stilted or false. It may be a way of applying paint never seen before or it may emulate a favorite artist until your own technique, your own vocabulary, emerges. Play with this. Observe whether you like to blend, to scrape and scratch or to draw; whether color is subtle or vibrant or you are driven to strong contrasts. Know that anything you like is worthy, just be aware. Practice that–being aware. Your job is to connect to a subject (story, idea, place, person or thing), and then balance, harmonize and unify by a techniques that suit you.

So now imagine those trees in the hands of various artists—Pollock’s would be dancing (actually, dripping), Turner’s would be shrouded in a mist, or a storm, but light would emanate, and Rothko would be painting a meditation. Van Gogh? Picasso? They all tell different stories about the same subject. Their approach often stems from curiosity. About what are you curious? To what do you connect? What story is yours? Think of painting in this way and see if it doesn’t open up possibilities.

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A Painting Primer

Just this week I’ve painted on: paper, (nice paper—300 LB Lanaquarelle), with the remains of several starts, leaving a highly textured underpainting; a smooth, gessoed panel; and a fresh canvas. Each substrate has a different feel and takes paint differently. I’m not sure whether the viewer can tell any of it, but as the painter, I can tell a great deal of difference in the benefits and limits to all of them. Each surface responds to my touch in a different way and requires a particular mark-making “vocabulary” in order to communicate—in order to get the paint to do what I want. (Although it still has a worthy mind of its own, much like a teenager.)

My favorite surface is a clean, white sheet of hot press, good quality paper at least 140lb weight. Of course 200–300lb paper is even better. When I dampen the surface of this beauty and then begin to register the darkest darks of the composition in charcoal, silky shadows spread with ease leaving a rich, black stain to be absorbed into the surface. From there my mood, the music, the subject, carefully chosen, etc., all have a hand on what comes next.

The smooth hard surface of board absorbs nothing. Paint can run and drip, sometimes too much. The board resists any pressure. This lends itself to using tools that scrap thin layers across the surface, drying quickly allowing for new layers, creating visual texture and depth of color in each passage. The same impetus informs the progress, but the process of creating layered passages of angles and lines derived from the tools is a little like building with Legos. Lyrical lines and blended passages tend to play second fiddle to the structural quality of rubber palette knives and color shapers.

The canvas comes with its own subtle and uniform texture that used to get in my way. But I’ve learned to tolerate it. The ease with which I can turn the painting while working and ultimately frame it leads me to use canvas more frequently than the other substrates. But its spring-back in response to pressure influences my marks. The tooth of its texture tends to grab the paint, even when I don’t want it to. It’s my least favorite, but most practical.

Brushes for any surface contributes to the paint quality. I am a brush whore. Brushes are the most exciting and the most expensive things I own other than house, car and a few pieces or furniture. There is so much possibility in a brush!  Bristles (many kinds) are stiffer than hair and allow a dry-brush technique that leaves space between threads of paint. When loaded with multiple colors you can create an irregular, woven-look, allowing for luminosity. Hair brushes (also many kinds) absorb water and offer smooth brushwork. Flat brushes carve. Pointed rounds make expressive lines. Mop and Hake (wash) brushes hold lots of water and pigment allowing for covering large areas. And when used mostly dry, with a spritz of water from a spray bottle, they’re great for blending.

Choice alternates between what I want the painting to look like and how much I enjoy using the tools. The look evolves with my understanding of the subject. Sometimes the enjoyment can cause overworking.

Overworking. It’s the god’s punishment for playing with materials and tools too much, or being a perfectionist, or trying to control the process. Stopping. Looking. From a DISTANCE. It is the only way to evaluate what you are doing. Putting work in progress on a wall to gaze at it for a while has NOTHING to do with display, exhibition, or pride in any way. No one sees it that way but you (if you are guilty of this misunderstanding).  Looking at a distance is ESSENTIAL to seeing! The only judgement is yours. (And while you’re working it may be the only judgement that counts, but go easy and let others help you see.)

Painting is a visual language. Just like words, grammar and punctuation are all means of arriving at a statement, your tools, your media and substrate choices all contribute to your technique, which as Jackson Pollack says: “Technique is simply a means of arriving at a statement”. What are you going to say today?

Up Next—a Grammar Lesson.

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After visiting Pierre Bonnard’s joyous body of work currently on exhibit at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco I can report it is both other-worldly and very familiar. Its luminosity seems to radiate magically from behind the canvas. But the subjects are simple. Daily. Intimate.

Art critic Robert Hughes describes this Intimist tradition- “It assumes that the ordinary day-to-day… is deeply interesting as a subject of a painting. Not because it is lent grandeur by being part of the stage of an artists’ life… but rather because it shows that life…, in its ordinary quality just like yours or mine, … transcends its commonplaceness, thus giving us hope of meaning…in our own lives.” As Hughes continued to describe Bonnard’s work “…unheroic, but exquisitely phrased”.

Bonnard’s particular view must have involved serious personal reflection. To me his work is a soulful meditation on the everyday. It shows an awareness of the notion that “life happens when you’re making other plans.”

Bonnard may have been the first “process painter”. Process painting is the heart of abstract expressionism with its expressive, emotional and immediate concerns. It had its roots in Post WWI Surrealism and Dada. His working method was very modern, leaving room for flexibility and improvisation. It spoke to his delight in pushing the color about. His simple subject matter allowed for formal concerns. He did not care to fight the elements or the changing light in order to paint au plein air like his early contemporaries, the Impressionists. It interfered with the doing. His tiny, notated sketches of what was in his view in house and garden was enough to get started. From there the painting informed itself.

From the MOMA website- Instead of painting on stretched canvases, resting at a     convenient height and tilting at a comfortable angle on an easel, Bonnard chose to paint on unstretched pieces of canvas that he thumb-tacked to the walls of his studios or hotel rooms.

Several pieces of roughly cut canvas were juxtaposed on the wall in several rows, very near each other, often abutting.

Bonnard had several works in progress at any one time, of diverse subjects. Once he had mixed a particular color, he applied it on the various compositions he had on the wall.

Sometimes he painted various compositions directly on a single large canvas that he did not cut until later on.

He did not use a palette, but mixed his colors on plates, and walked back and forth between the wall and the table on which his plates were placed.

He found delight in seeing unpredictable color dance, wriggle and weave about the canvas with a sense that there was no absolute, but always room for experiments and improvements. Try this yellow there and there AND there—and oh, this vermillion over there. Color was not “local”, but for effect. Black was rare, but judiciously placed. Perspective was whimsical. The narrative was enigmatic.

He was not unequivocal as a painter, but instead he demonstrated the idea that we grow and we can more clearly express what we’re trying to say as we learn. Nothing was ever finished. The term “Bonnarding” was coined because of his practice of going to a gallery, an exhibition or even a collector’s home armed with palette and brush in order to change colors on a framed piece hanging on the wall. On his deathbed he had his nephew bring him his last painting so he could change a green foreground into yellow.

The lessons of Bonnard are simple, measured, redemptive and reaffirming. There is no perfect. Only seeing. Doing.  And a willingness to honor what we know and to keep looking.

The Buddhist poet Jane Hirschfield penned this poem about Bonnarding.

nothing ever finished

Because nothing is ever finished

the painter would shuffle, bonnarding,

into galleries, museums, even the homes of his patrons,

with hidden palette and brush:

overscribble drapery and table with milk jug or fattened pear,

the clabbered, ripening color of second sight.


Though he knew with time the pentimenti rise—

half-visible, half brine-swept fish, their plunged shapes

pocking the mind—toward the end, only revision mattered:

to look again, more deeply, harder, clearer,

the one redemption granted us to ask.


This, we say, is what we meant to say. This. This.

—Jane Hirshfield, from “History as the Painter Bonnard,” The October Palace (Harper Perennial, 1994)

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Elevating the Ordinary

The work of Pierre Bonnard is currently on display at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. I love this work. I was fortunate enough to stumble on a major retrospective at MOMA in 1998. The effects of that exhibit linger. Beautiful, shimmering color and evocative spatial relationships depict simple images of everyday life. Many of his paintings include secreted, sometimes humorous, iconography like the Hidden Pictures in children’s magazines. Repeated looking often reveals an unexpected encounter with a dog, or a cat, or an unknown visitor. The kind of thing to bring a smile.

He painted from memory and from small sketches scratched into a Mole Skin date book. Most sketches were not more than 2 inches square, perhaps contributing to the immediacy of the finished work. He worked on several unstretched canvases at time incorporating painting into a daily routine of meals, walks and gardening. He was known for never being quite satisfied. Even after the work was on exhibit he would sneak in a brush full or two of paint to make adjustments. A story about him on his deathbed declares that he asked his beloved nephew to add just a little dot of yellow to one of the canvases hanging around his room.

In his early twenties (late 1800’s) he became a lawyer while simultaneously pursuing the path of a painter. He was a student of Gauguin, a roommate of Denis, Serusier and Vuillard who together, along with others from the Académie Julian, formed a group called the Nabis (from the Hebrew word for ‘prophets’). Gauguin believed that forms and figures and colors could possess meaning over and above the depicted image. The Nabis echoed that idea, believing that color and shape, in and of themselves, could symbolize experience individual to the creator and thereby elevating communication with the viewer. (They were inspired by the two-dimensional decorative arts of Japan that had recently made their way to Paris.) The Nabis were also called Symbolists.

But Picasso found little merit in Bonnard’s elevated practice of reflection in his painting: “That’s not painting, what he does. He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn’t know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it’s a little pink too, so there’s no reason not to add some pink. The result is a potpourri of indecision. If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what colour the sky really ought to be. Painting can’t be done that way. Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice … that’s what I hold against Bonnard. I don’t want to be moved by him. He’s not really a modern painter: he obeys nature; he doesn’t transcend it.” Pablo Picasso

Yet Matisse called Bonnard “the greatest of us all.” Perhaps painting is a question of the artist’s own sensibility?

Bonnard’s nephew (sister’s son), Charles Terrasse, authored a monograph on Bonnard in 1927. He said of his uncle– “He wished to paint only happy things”.

I’d prefer to think that he favored what was most familiar to inspire. The grandeur of subject matter is not necessary to paint powerful works that transcend the canvas and elevate the viewer. Bonnard did not need sumptuous sunsets or majestic mountains. He did not need aristocrats or wealthy patrons. He did not need exotic lands or political causes in order to find a worthy subject. He merely looked at his garden, his bathroom, his kitchen table, his wife. He did not need to tell a story.

The act of painting,  the intermingling of dazzling brushwork and color as shapes weave across the canvas with subtle contrast but plenty of light was, for him, enough to challenge both the artist and the audience. Bonnard said: “The precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing. Painting has to get back to its original goal, examining the inner lives of human beings.” That which we choose to surround ourselves on a daily basis—the coffee cup and the grocery bag, the flower pot and the paint brush—shoes—perhaps these are the things that are most indicative of our inner lives. Perhaps they are enough to inspire. The challenge this week is to choose your subject from among the ordinary and paint as if you love every stroke of the brush.

“The important thing is to remember what most impressed you and to put it on canvas as fast as possible.” Pierre Bonnard.

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Last year a previously undiscovered canyon in the Jefferson Wilderness was accessed by a team of adventurers. Their trek was televised by Oregon Field Guide. We watch while they negotiate waterfall after waterfall. Forty feet, thirty feet, two one-hundred-foot waterfalls meet in a pool—nine waterfalls in all, with a glacier-blue glow. Steep canyon walls of gray and black basalt reach to the translucent sky.

The voyagers name this place Valhalla. They speak of its spirituality. Strikingly beautiful. Jaw-dropping.  The cameraman says they feel “wonderfully small” with this rare perspective. It was described as surreal landscape full of “violent” greens– bright greens, mid greens, dark greens, mint greens, greens everywhere– rock formations–rushing water, icy blue–infinite, sparkling color and texture. They are overwhelmed by the beauty of this never-before-seen place. They grope for words to sum up what they see. They say: “it’s Like a painting”.

Reverently describing one of Mother Nature’s greatest works as “like a painting”?! Yowza—the power of painting!

Last weekend at a meeting of artists and art-lovers the relevance of painting in the contemporary art world was discussed. One remark that brought a smile was when someone named Tad reminded the group that paint is a “medium”. A medium–(from Merriam Webster): a means of effecting or conveying something (1) :  a substance regarded as the means of transmission of a force or effect (2) :  a surrounding or enveloping substance (3) :  the tenuous material (as gas and dust) in space that exists outside large agglomerations of matter (as stars). And of course, I thought of a séance.

Stars. Communicating with the dead. Transmission of a force or effect. In other words, MAGIC! Paint is no less for me. A joy to handle, to squeeze, to dance, play and party with—pouring dripping, scumbling, slathering, dusting, drawing—drawing in terms of rendering and drawing in terms of drawing out—paint is a powerful medium. It can open rooms, worlds, hearts and minds—not the least of which is the painter’s.

When approaching the endeavor of “painting” it might pay to forgo the image of yourself painting something to be judged, to impress or wow–LET THAT GO! There is too much of that. And, as a child might, be aware that there is magic and possibility in the medium at your fingertips. Children want to “see what will happen”. Try that approach. Stay with it even when it is uncomfortable and unlikely that the result will turn out ok. You may find enough in the doing to ultimately feel that the experience was “awe-some”.

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Who? What? When? Where? and Why?

As a journalism major I was taught the first line of any news story should answer the questions: Who? What? When? Where? And Why? Despite my reluctance to see this type of criteria for viewing art, it’s becoming apparent that the institutional art world is more comfortable when the answers to these questions can be checked off.

The opposing view is more romantic and probably also true: Curators judge a work by an unfettered gaze at it and it alone. It’s the hit in the solar plexus upon viewing that is the ultimate judge. The gallery owner Jeffrey Thomas said recently that “if I can describe a work of art over the phone to you and you ‘get it’, it’s not art”. That’s a little extreme and I think he meant it to be. He’s commenting on how, right now, the contemporary art world seems to prefer a lot of “words” to accompany an artist’s vision.

On one day recently I participated in visiting four artists in their studios in the morning with a museum curator and then a gallery talk by four other artists in the evening. The morning artists, who happened to be under forty, had been awarded by a museum. The evening talk was by established artists, most well over 50. The younger artists were very cerebral in their approach. Connections were made like “the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone”. The evening group, who also have at least local renown, had trouble finding words. Their approach was more intuitive and “web-like” –more holistic, perhaps, like meridians in the body. And their delivery rolled up and down like ocean waves as their emotion ebbed and flowed. Contemporary art seems to be of two minds.

I’ve been painting for over 30 years, exhibiting, teaching, studying hard, as much as I could when I could. But I have no MFA and my resume is thin. I’ve had some immediate success and awards and also years of obscurity. I’ve vacillated between wanting to know desperately “what do they want” and not giving a damn. Now, watching others in our group struggle with the same issues, I’m seeking clarity. But I honestly don’t think any is to be found.

From James Joyce to Dr. Seuss, the rejection of now famous writers is legendary. And Van Gogh is the most iconic painter to suffer endless years of desperation trying to understand the “salon-world”. These are the creators “they” didn’t understand.

As we move forward in a creative practice for some of us there is an interesting choice at hand. Listening to artists who are passionate and articulate can guide. Trying to put vision into words. Working toward things that can build resumes. Answering the questions. Or ignoring the world and following the heart.  Or letting one inform the other and allowing the balance to come as it will. We all decide in our own way.

Below are two paintings by two different artists.  Size is similar, format slightly different.  One photo is professionally taken  the other is not and is decidedly brighter than the actual work.  One was painted a year before the other . The second piece is by Helen  O’Toole, winner of a NW Contemporary art award this year.  It is oil on canvas, entitled Stumble.  Her work will be on display at the Portland Art Museum this month.


And You Wonder 2011Helen o'toole_Stumble Oil on Canvas 2012

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