What’s Next?

studio wallAfter a dearth of studio time for the past year, this week I dove in. Paint– sumptuous, full of promise, easily jumped onto the canvas. What a feeling! Although I knew that the-ease-of-doing would be short-lived, I relished every minute and chose not to doubt. Canvas, paper, board, some fresh, some with prior attempts, offered places in which to wander.

Whenever a painting starts to look good and starts to mean something it’s easy to get too careful. Signs of discovery are replaced by marks that are not energized and searching, but cloying and timid. Uncertainty takes the place of intention. Not good.

So what’s next? Let me confirm, there is no easy formula. The closest I can come to describe reliable next steps would be to say that it’s about creating a mental, emotional and physical environment for creativity to grow. And then take time to look.

On this particular day I have five paintings in various stages of completion. One is from an underpaintng that has been used for everything from a demonstration to a door mat. It is the next big one to tackle. There is some good mark-making in it, some fine painting “accidents” and pretty decent form over all. It reminds me of walking in the swamps in South Carolina, a lacy, draping density allowing beads light to bounce over congealed water. Sun rays peak through low-hanging moss. At least that’s what I see in this black and pink mélange. A landscape of contrasts. I’m intrigued, but not enough to pick up a brush.

Then there is a piece that came from two sessions (months apart) of laying-in a structure of lights and darks. The palette in each pass was completely different inspired by different landscape photos. Within an hour of beginning magic occurred–no idea how it happened. A painting appeared. I didn’t/don’t totally trust it. But I think I’ve finally learned to be patient and let them sit a while before over-reacting. It’s too easy to kill the spark. It’s close, but not quite there. A honed eye will most likely inform the next move—eventually.

There is another work on paper that is representative of struggle and gnashing of teeth–scratched, rubbed, scrubbed, gold leafed–nothing but doubt on that piece. But somehow I love the random way it’s become organized and how my frustration has turned into boats and a storm. I love this painting. But it isn’t right yet and I keep looking at it out of the corner of my eye–mentally cropping, imagining color shifts–nothing for sure yet.

I have a small one-foot square canvas that has been the recipient of leftover paint randomly placed on the surface over months. A studio mate came in and complimented. Enough to get me to ponder. I get it? Maybe. But am I fooling myself? I didn’t really pay attention to it. Is that it’s only fault? Does it matter, such a small thing? If an artist like Angelina likes it, is that enough? So I watch that one with the other eye.

Then there is a small scrap of paper that was left in the classroom. It started as someone’s first attempt at figure drawing. Very tentative minimal contour lines of the standing model were left on a long, gray rectangle. I turned it horizontally and filled in each area of negative space with a random light. It started the week we began cleaning out the stacks so it went up on the wall for anyone to mark in it. Week two of that process I blithely scribbled charcoal on it in rhythm to the music and eventually turned it back to a vertical. Shawn walked by toward the end of class and gave it some much-needed red that was left on her palette. I began to see something in it. Wasn’t sure what, but I put it in my studio. After staring at it for a while it began to remind me of photos of Scotland daughter Kate took on a hike when she got engaged. With cell phone hanging on the wall (bad practice) I began to render that scene. I like it this one.

Mid-week and one day thus far was just for looking. Seriously. Lights on. Lights off. Hours. Not sitting and just staring, maybe a little clean-up or answering an email, writing this post, glancing at Facebook, all the while trying to catch the paintings by surprise to see if they will give me a clue as to what they need– annihilation or coaxing? A flourish or a bath?

I can’t wait to get into the studio today, turn on the music, light a candle or two, make some tea. Perhaps if I sneak up on them they will reveal a path. If not, I’ll look to other artists for their directions to borrow. I’ll read some poetry.  Daydream. Eventually, and this is the important part, I will commit to have some faith in what comes next and just wait.


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Hearing Voices

The image of the lone artist, toiling away in isolation in a solitary studio may be more of a romantic idea than actuality. Other than painters, sculptors and poets or novelists, all various kinds of art-makers need others to make their art—musicians to play, actors to act, dancers to dance, craftsmen to build, etc.

Last night I sat in a local theater and watched a film of a play (film of a play, I know, weird) being performed at the newly renovated Garrick Theater in London. The visually sumptuous details of the lovingly restored 100+ year-old theater were on screen prior to the start of The Winter’s Tale. During those ten minutes or so of Kenneth Branagh’s silky-voiced descriptions my imagination led to Shakespeare, the artist and his art. I was struck by how many people have been involved in bringing Shakespeare to life for over 400 years.

My image of him is from the movie Shakespeare in Love—a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants, passionate, emotional man, sometimes inspired, sometimes not, always behind and often writing onstage with the help of his acting company. Yes, genius came from his pen, but various words, phrases and ideas were often supplied by others. And the publication of the folios were the efforts of his colleagues who also did some editing. So what we see and hear now is not only interpreted, but was not 100% his to begin with. Does that diminish him as an artist?

Realizing that this greatest of all wordsmiths had the aid of colleagues and supporters during his lifetime, after his lifetime and all the way to the present, I started thinking about the painters who, despite the romantic ideal, were definitely not always working alone in isolation: Braque and Picasso developed Cubism together; Vlaminck, Derain and Matisse painted side by side in their fishing boats, their work echoing each other’s; Cassatt and Degas painted in the studio and worked on the same plates for the printing presses; Warhol and Basquiat; etc., etc. These were brilliant creators who, despite their ego requirements, cared more about the pursuit of discovery than an overblown sense of their own originality. Matisse and Picasso, almost in dialogue, interpreted each other for years, respectively in their own language.

Before the modern era, every prominent painter had assistants who did more than just mix paints. Many, many painters throughout history employed apprentices to do much of the brushwork and who knows exactly where their work starts and stops.

So how do we think about this idea of creativity and originality in art-making?

The pursuit of art is the pursuit of truth—one’s own truth, that is not wholly known. But we seek the glittering shards of it and piece them together. Contributions by others sifted through our own, one-of-a-kind filters can underwrite originality. The endeavor is about discovery and understanding, leading to more discovery. It’s not about some idea of originality born divinely out of the ether. Information is not originality, information is not wisdom, information is not knowledge. Information in the form of advice or opinion, or a touch, or an idea is simply a tip for formulating the questions.

Art isn’t a destination it’s a progression. And a remnant of a map left on the road with a few clues doesn’t make the journey invalid. Tell either Picasso or Matisse that their plate of lemons is other than art. Or tell Rembrandt that The Night Watch isn’t great because of his apprentice’s hand.

Whatever your personal philosophy is, or however your work takes shape, It’s the authentic pursuit that will speak to the viewer. If you believe in that and trust that your voice will emerge regardless of any helping hand used to get through the wobbly parts, your work will ultimately be original.

Borrow and, as Picasso, one of the most original of creators, says, steal. It’s all fair in service of discovering your own voice.

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Why create? Ask the Experts.

Ask people why they pursue any activity beyond their daily necessities and the answer will generally fall into one of two categories–self-improvement (includes duty, generosity and illumination) or pure enjoyment. If art-making is not a daily necessity, why do it? Some specific responses from some contemporary artists:

Sculptor Richard Serra says he creates art as a way to solve interesting problems about life, and believes that artistic creation influences the way we see the world.

Gina Gibley, Choreographer— “I make art for a few reasons. In life, we experience so much fragmentation of thought and feeling. For me, creating art brings things back together.”

Judy Dater-photographer— “I like expressing emotions—to have others feel what it is I’m feeling when I’m photographing people.”

Pete Docter, Pixar animator/director— “I make art primarily because I enjoy the process. It’s fun making things.”

An answer I’ve never heard an artist utter–“I create to make beautiful, completely original, one-of-a-kind, significant works of art.” That may be the hope, but it’s rarely the impetus. Yet so often the canvas is approached with those kinds of expectations–so much pressure!!! Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the emotion? The centering? The problem-solving? Or even the understanding? So why do so many people act like the reason for art-making is achieving a grand result? The pressure creates unproductive anxiety. And it can, and most likely will, lead to a stifling, stultifying preciousness.

Process, process, process. I know I beat this drum A LOT, but watching people work week after week it’s what I see A LOT–an uncomfortable response to what are perceived as missteps. If you exploring and having fun and attempting to understand something, when and where are the missteps?

As a reminder to us all some great innovators share their wisdom. Mondrian said “I don’t want pictures. I just want to find things out.” And Picasso: “One doesn’t make a painting, one makes studies, …” “I am seeking.” said Vincent Van Gogh.

So if you’re making studies and seeking and finding things out almost anything goes. There’s no right or wrong approach, or technique, or mixing of ideas or materials, or no collaboration that, in the pursuit of learning, is without merit. Let someone or something you may not like shake you out of a rut. Copy, borrow, steal, stumble, make mud and bad noses. Get advice. And choose to ignore it too.

Then hear this: “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing.  Making your unknown known is the important thing.” Georgia O’Keeffe

The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.”  Auguste Rodin


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Once More To the Breach!

This past weekend a film of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Henry V showed locally. The day of the actual performance was the 600th anniversary of the famous battle of Agincourt, (featured in the play). And as next year is the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, which is a big deal for THE ROYAL SHAKESPEARE Company, and because it was being filmed, stakes were high.

The artistic director of the company directed the play—always a sign of the prominence of the production. The theater itself is inspired by the Globe. It features a small, thrust stage with all the bells and whistles one would expect from the pedigree. Set, costume, concept, etc. all very learned. The acting was definitely competent. It was clear the cast took their job seriously and reached for the stars.

Yet, as much as I love this play, as much as when Henry yells “to the Breach” I’m typically moved to suit up in armor and charge, as much as the arc of the character and the touch of “Harry in the night” and the love scene at the end brings tears, in this production I was left cold. Slightly bored actually, despite the many things I learned about the show and the history from this point of view.

I’ve seen the play 5-6 times in the last 15 years and it is one of those that makes my heart swell and the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was so puzzling why I felt indifferent. Other films of theater productions have been stunning. So I don’t think that was the problem. But neither my date or I could figure out how we could possibly feel like we just left a history class.

Art is complex, but clearly determined to be worth the trouble looking at all its history and how people have fought to make it and to save it. At its best it is truth-seeking. But its making, its immediate effects, its lasting resonance all not easy to grasp. The day, the environment, the traffic even, the mood of the audience can all have an effect on how it’s received. Our subject matters. Our study matters. Practice matters. The quality and quantity of our media and tools can make a difference. But they don’t make art. So what is it that resounds? –The endless question….

Matisse said “Exactitude is not truth”. For him the job of the painter was to leave the essentials of the subject on the canvas. (Perhaps this is why after an all-day painting session he would have his assistant wipe out what he had done only to start with the same model, and the same setting again the next day. It was how he searched for the essential.) So who’s to say what is essential, what is truth and where is the meaning? The artist?   The audience? The critic? The “purse”? The answer lies in a cocktail of the first two—the latter be damned.

The mixture is a mystery. We know the artist must not create to please the audience, however the audience for the painter, just like in theater, in writing and music, completes a circuit—the connection that illuminates. It is mercurial, it is a kind of magic that requires imagination, a desire to express and belief in the process.  As the chorus in Henry V says: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, …. behold…”

Once more, to the breach!

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More Than the Sum of its Parts

A visit to the Portland Art Museum this week began with a terrific visual assault of towering walls covered in  19th century style, oversized wall paper. These walls are then covered with paintings, hung salon style, from the museum’s collection. They refer to the rich bounty of the Oregon Territory. In the center of the huge Schnitzer Gallery are multiple sculptures combined to create a new sculpture. The whole thing is a giant assemblage of museum images and this incredible wallpaper inspired in some sense by Oregon’s origins.

A quote from the Oregon Trail introduces the idea of the artists David Allen Burns and Austin Young: “…I was upon the summit of a tall mountain which commands a bewildering prospect of that loved valley… The birds of autumn caroled their soft melodies around, and the blushing flowret bent at the feet of the intruder… Away to the north was the smoke wreathing above the trees which clustered around the lone mission-house and I thought there was an altar to God, and incense from the bosom of the wilderness.” —Excerpt from A Sketch of the Oregon Territory, or Emigrant’s Guide, Philip L. Edwards, 1842.

So poetic.

As I was leaving that gallery to view the Seeing Nature exhibit, I overheard an older “him” say to “her”—“for a small, po-dunk town like Portland, this is a really nice museum.”


The Allen Collection, Seeing Nature, is stunning. It will move on from Portland to the Phillips Collection in Washington DC and then to Seattle. See it while you can. It is also poetic. But there is an interesting side note to the exhibition that is also one of Paul Allen’s (and my) interests—how the brain sees and interprets the visual world. There is a 5.30-minute video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-7mO2FhaVE&sns=em that is worth a look before you go.

Both of these exhibits speak to the complex makeup of the visual arts. The formal elements, which are necessary for the viewer to grab onto the vision and the conceptual context, which provides meaning, are presented in a rich weave of ideas. Back and forth. Back and forth. Yum. The heart and soul that make up the “Duende”– the complex, mercurial element that elevates the work, pulsates in the halls.

There’s a third exhibit that one visit couldn’t handle. Needless to say I’m going back soon.

A day of beauty, ideas, poetry, heart and soul—more than the sum of its parts.

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Nice Hat You’re wearing.

That statement is a compliment—praise, approval, kudos, etc. Blue and orange, violet and yellow, red and green—they are complements. In traditional color theory it is considered that they make a balance. Think of the color wheel with a pencil going through a hole in the center. When the colors on opposite sides of the color wheel are weighted the same, the wheel stays in balance. (Not wholly scientific, but a good visual.)

Complementary colors are not necessarily colors that “look good together”, although they usually do. They are colors that can cancel each other out. When each color/hue of the same value and saturation are mixed with each other, they create a neutral. Conversely, when placed next to each other, the cones in the retina are stimulated equally by the light waves from complementary colors making it difficult to focus on them at the same time causing the optical effect of vibration. (This is actually much more complex than I’m describing, but for our purposes, it’s enough.) You can use this reaction to manipulate the effect of your visual message, to draw attention to different parts of the composition or to create bold, vibrant pictures. In short, complementary colors make things “pop”.

Color theory is extremely complex and not necessary to understand. But it’s handy to know the effects color can have if you haven’t truly played around with its interactions before.

Josef Albers (the pioneer of understanding color interaction): “In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually. To this end, the beginning is not a study of color systems. “

[Interaction of Color and our class] “…places practice before theory, which after all, is the conclusion of practice. … Just as the knowledge of acoustics does not make one musical — neither on the productive nor on the appreciative side — so no color system by itself can develop one’s sensitivity for color.”.

From Pantonne: Color is light and light is energy. Scientists have found that actual physiological changes take place in human beings when they are exposed to certain colors. Colors can stimulate, excite, depress, tranquilize, increase appetite and create a feeling of warmth or coolness. This is known as chromodynamics.

So we continue to play with color—this time using a complementary color scheme. Bring your ideas for a subject or come early enough to find one in the studio.

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Am I Blue?

Well, no. But Billie Holiday, who wrote the song of the same title, was much of the time and so was Picasso, at least for a certain period—his “Blue Period”.

As a young, just-moved-to Paris-artist, Picasso found himself broke and relying on a fellow Spaniard, his good friend Carlos Casagemas, for companionship and support. Casagemas took his life in a Paris café by shooting himself in the right temple on February 17, 1901.

Picasso had traveled back to Barcelona early that year and was not in town when the suicide happened. Surprisingly, his work of that spring and summer was actually quite vibrant. But as fall hit so did a severe depression. And, as some art history legend has it, Picasso, after realizing that Casagemas’ death was a reaction to unrequited love, still took up residence in his friend’s former apartment and began a liaison with his friend’s lover. (He might have been suffering a little guilt.)

The point is that Picasso chose to use a predominantly monochromatic color scheme for almost four years as a way of emphasizing emotional content. He was probably the first artist to do so. Monet, whose obsession with the study of light would simplify his pallet in an effort to understand, but Picasso used the color blue, just as Billie Holiday meant it.

Picasso’s Blue Period was followed by his Rose Period which represents more pleasant themes depicted in cheery, hues of red, orange and pinks. Over this seminal period of Blue and Rose Periods, lasting over five years, Picasso made a statement about the power of color to communicate emotion. And the art world listened.

This week I propose a challenge of working monochromatically. Not only is it a great way to develop mood and content, it is a great way to learn about value, among other things. From Wikipedia: “Monochromatic colors are all the colors (tints, tones, and shades) of a single hue.

Example of a monochromatic color scheme

Monochromatic color schemes are derived from a single base hue and extended using its shades, tones and tints. Tints are achieved by adding white and shades and tones are achieved by adding a darker color, gray or black.

Monochromatic color schemes provide opportunities in art and visual communications design as they allow for a greater range of contrasting tones that can be used to attract attention, create focus and support legibility.

The use of a monochromatic color provides a strong sense of visual cohesion and can help support communication objectives through the use of connotative color. The relative absence of hue contrast can be offset by variations in tone and the addition of texture.[1]

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