Art Blog

It’s Way More Than What You See !

Watercolor 15 x 22 inches
Most people look at a painting like the one above and what they see is a clothes line with clothes hanging on the line in sort of a poetic rhythm.   That is right where most people cease to see what is happening design wise.
This painting came from a group of photos taken in Italy . . . and most of those were taken looking straight at the clothesline in a nearly 90 degree frontal view.   Put on the canvas or paper that way, the line would have been parallel to the edges of the paper, which would have been very commonplace and stilted, if not boring.   Stretching the line from off the top left edge of the page and sliding it over to the upper right edge made for a degree of tension or movement across the piece.   The challenge, though, is that lovely oblique movement could rifle the eye right off the paper into nowhereland.   And that little fact was the prompt to put the two very dork shapes there at the edge of the work . . . to stop the eye . . . . and their vertical alignment offers a directional contrast, while the dark-light contrast with the upper right dark shape and white shape holds the eye.
There is another gimmick being used to insure that there is a connection to the left most edge . . . and that is that two pronged shadow on the left edge of the wall that connects to the laundry shadows.   That little ‘move’ provided an edge to edge connection of a pathway of darker colors all the way across the page.   Now, all the darks form a pattern that supports the smaller congregation of light shapes (laundry) hovering just above the long passage of darks.   And, notice that the aggregate of darks are larger than the aggregate of the “lights” (laundry).  (Larger meaning amount of space covered on the painting space).  So, not only do we have dark / light contrast between the shadows and the laundry, but also a large-small contrast between the two value extremes.
What the lay person doesn’t see is the mental gymnastics that every painter must work through to establish a great design and to make a painting compelling to look at.   All the above named contrasts establish that sort of excitement to what could have been a very mundane image.  Our job as painters is to (and you can write this down in your journal) “Exalt the mundane to the extraordinary!”
The last consideration was to impart some color excitement in the shadows of the laundry to exaggerate the feeling of reflected light.
There’s more to write about, but you get the idea.   A great painting isn’t really about whether the image is pretty or ‘charming’ (or if it manages to go with the furniture), but whether the design is strong and compelling to look at.   It is the not so obvious stuff that makes a painting exciting and interesting.

The Value of “Wasting Paint and Paper”

Watercolor, 18×24 inches
I am a risk taker.   That is to say at times I commit to risky acts that might make life uncomfortable if I fail to succeed in the risky act.
Several weeks ago, I attended a big watercolor portrait demonstration in which Christopher Schink, Myrna Wacknov and David Lobenberg would each be separately painting a portrait of the same model . . . and all were doing it simultaneously.   Schink suggested that Me and Myrna and He do a similar demo in the south Bay Area.   Off handedly, I said “Sure, let’s do it!   That would be fun!”
An hour later I was questioning my sanity !!
You may know most of my work, dear reader, as landscape painting and, occasionally, non objective work in watercolor.   Portraits??  Are you kidding?   Not me.  I mean NOT A CHANCE IN HELL !!
Moreover, compete with (or set myself up to be compared to) those two painters?   Was I nuts??
So, I made my bed.   I am in trouble.   Rather than chicken out, I made a promise to myself that I would start in making portraits and figure paintings ASAP.   What I know about myself is that if I am under pressure to perform, I will cram / study to learn what I need to learn and rehearse / practice until I can, at least, hold my own . . . .or, at least, give it the old “college try.”
To date, I have painted somewhere near 20 full blown paintings and done a ton of drawings at my local Art League with nude figures.   I sure found out in a hurry that I didn’t know what I didn’t know!!   So, now I know what I don’t know.   And I am scrambling to learn and to practice what I am learning.   Yes, practice.   I am, what some would say, wasting lots of paint and paper.   That is, making paintings, critiquing them for ways to improve (my gawd, you should have seen the first ten!) then throwing them away and beginning anew each time.    And I am not messing around with cheap paper or small formats.   I am painting on 300lb rough, full sheets . . . ( and hoping for the best!!)
I have learned a few things in my painting career . . . . one is to LET GO! . . . .Forget the details . . . get in there and paint as though this were the most fun thing I have ever done.   Have fun and experiment.   Act like there is no “show down” and try some different stuff.   Every painting is a lesson!   So, Mike.   Paint like there is no tomorrow and L E A R N !!
The painting above is a portrait of my dear, patient wife, Diana, who has posed for me numerous times . . . and her sister has, too . . .just to throw in variety.   I must say, with that open minded attitude about doing, virtually, anything along the way in order to learn is really paying off.
It is June 20 and my ‘performance date’ is July 18.   This painting has given me more confidence that I can do just about anything I want, technique wise, and get away with it, if I have the basis of a good design.   So, there is where the work is being put in . . .design and composition.
Incidentally, isn’t Diana beautiful?   It’s tuff work but somebody has to do it!!

Plein Air Watercolor Traps

“Coastal Litter”
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches
As you know, by now, rocks and cliffs along the ocean front here in Central California is an obsession for me.   I can’t seem to shake it.   And there are a few other habits I can’t seem to shake. . . .
One is copying what is right in front of me out there on the painting scene.   Not that what is in front is bad.   Not at all.  Because the beauty of those places is beyond description!   Garrapatta State Park is one of those places where a painter could stand in one spot for a very long time . . .maybe a year . . . . turn 360 degrees . . . .a few degrees at a time  . . . .and there are literally dozens of paintings looking straight out through every point on the compass!!   Weather changes, light changes, view changes, wind changes, temperature changes, surf changes, and more!  It is enough to boggle even the most experienced painter’s mind.
The Traps, you ask?   Those damned views !!!   I call them traps because there is little effort needed to reach into one’s creativity pouch to pull something especially unique out and put it on paper or canvas.  Falling for what is obviously in front of one is a trap where deep thinking is put aside in order to record what is seen.   (Yes, there is a school of thought out there that considers “accurate recording” “good art.”)   I don’t happen to feel that way.
More than a record, I have awakened to needing something more emotional . . . .more unique.   I don’t take the word “Unique” lightly.   When a painting is sincerely unique, it is the only image like it in the entire world.   It is a one of a kind, never to be repeated spiritual statement of the artist’s vision and feelings.  And, frankly, that takes careful thought and preparation . . . not just a five minute thumbnail sketch.
Another trap is to make a painting that fits into a ‘category’ of paintings well . . . . . as in “Landcape Impressionism.”   To make a painting look like a million other artists could have painted it (and maybe have!!).    Obviously, there are better quality or better versions of said same . . . .But!! . . . most of them are not “unique.”   There was a time when that uniqueness stood out . . . like when Monet was bringing Impressionism to the public.   Each of those artists had a personal vision!   It was different!
The other trap is to remain comfortable with what we are doing.   Yep!   Staying in the same mode, painting the same things, never taking a risk is just like signing a contract for one’s artistic demise!   In fact, I believe that is precisely what happens when a painter settles for what is in front of him (or her).   And, I must confess that is exactly where I have been for the last two or three years!
Yep!   There it is.   I have confessed.
So, let this be an introduction to my next phase of making stale paintings.   You may not think they are stale . . .and that is fine.   But the time has come for me to get out of my lethargy and do something special . . . to grow . . . .to change my thinking . . . .to reach farther . . .
Want to come along?   I want to begin a group of artists who will be accountable to each other and to reach beyond the mundane same ole stuff.   Come on!   Step up.  Join me.   Drop me a note at if you’d like to be accountable for new growth.

Disney, Henri and 4 other artists

“The Far Edge of Town”
Watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

Walt Disney in an old documentary about painting makes some very strong comments about “how to paint.”  He quotes from Robert Henri’s book then shows what four other artists do to create a painting.

In the end, someone said, all artists are self taught.   That is to say that every artist must spend the time struggling at their own easel, without coaching or teachers, to find the way to paint to suit them. That means that painting is, essentially, a sink or swim school of learning.  You cannot be taught what you like . . . .nor can you be taught taste . . . what inspires you has to do with how you have lived, your genetic code, your parents and what ever artistic influences have struck you in your life and many more events and introductions experienced in your life.   In short, only you can decide what is right for you!   Every great artist makes art that is unique  . . . .that is to say no other artist paints like another.

Yes, but how do I get there?   Paint!   That is an active verb.   You can’t really get it from workshops, or watching others, or reading or even school.   Sure, there are parts that can be learned in any of these venues, but most of that stuff has to do with mediums, brushes, surfaces and different techniques.  From there, the student must plow the ground themselves.   Certainly, there are hints here and there, but the fact remains that personal easel time is the very best teacher out there.

Some of us call that time spent “Brush Mileage.”   Or, wasting acres of paper or canvas.

As a general comment, in these times that we live, most of us grew up in schools where we learned to “please the teacher.”   And to do that, we had to do things a specific way to come out with the ‘right answer.’   After watching this 16 minute video, you will see that there is NO right answer.   That is why I think that beginners should not be asking for critique from anyone other than wise highly qualified painters who could cause the student to learn quickly about personal insight in the painting process.

Enjoy this video:  Click here.

Taming The Lion

“Harbor Impressions”
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches

Occasionally, one stumbles into a mood that prevents anything serious from being played out in the studio . . . . .or anywhere else.   I am not sure if this is just a spilling out of happiness . . . or a vacation from being too serious.    And I am still not sure of the source . . . .but I know in my soul that it is important to take on that sort of mood while operating a paint brush on occasion.
Eh?   What do you mean, Mike?   After all, isn’t learning to paint a serious pursuit?   Well, yes, it is.   In fact, it is one of the most serious forms of study that any sane person can take on.  But there must a be a time when us painters must throw much of our inborn caution to the wind, take a big risk and paint something in a manner not done before.   Putting paint down on a dry canvas or a dry piece of cotton paper is about as commonplace as it can get.   Change that surface so that the paint does different stuff with the paint than we are accustomed to trying to control . . . .that packs all sorts of failure risks!!
Aw!   Go ON!!   Take a risk!!   What have you to lose?    If you are a watercolor painter, try this . . . . . . with a big clean, water saturated sponge, wash down both sides of your paper a minimum of three times . . .  .wiping with lots of water . . .  .until the paper gives up all of its native stiffness.  It should have the consistency of a saturated rag.   Really!!
Once done, place the paper on your board so that it is perfectly in the place you would want in order to paint on it.   (Caution:  You may have to staple it down at some point, so be sure your paper is on a board that will accept stationary staples.)
Lay out the saturated paper.    Roll up a terry cloth hand towel in a very tight roll.   Hint:  fold it lengthwise first, then roll from one end of the long dimension.    Pressing firmly onto the paper roll the rolled up towel over the paper in order to take up the majority of the water on the surface, in the fiber of the paper and underneath the paper.    What will remain is a piece of fairly damp paper with no shiny spots on the surface.  
Use a flat, syntheticwatercolor brush to apply the paint when the time comes to make marks.    Why synthetic?    It won’t hold much water in its bristles.   You will want to have the paper do most of the adding of water to the paint . . . . DO NOT saturate your brush.
Now, go ahead and paint what ever subject you like.   Lots is going to happen that you don’t expect . . . .  .beautiful ‘granulation’ . . . . soft, even fuzzy edges . . . . intermingling of colors in places you least want or expect . . . . values will significantly fade . . . .just about everything you would normally fight, in order to hold onto control will happen.
Go ahead . . . . . paint on it . . . take chances . . . what will happen if your brush is too wet?    What will happen as the paper begins to dry?    Yikes!   What if you make a mistake?    Can you wipe it up?   Can you lift?   Can you make a graded wash?   Can you give up control?   Well . . . . CAN YOU?
Here is the point:    The only way you will ever get to know your medium well enough to master it is to challenge it (and yourself) in every way you can!!   That’s right!    You must test it and test yourself so often that you get to the place where you can anticipate what it is going to do before it happens.
By going on a mental “vacation” and opening yourself up to courting absolute failure and letting happen what will happen, you will find that it is actually fun!!   That’s right, it is play!!   
There’s more to goof around with than just the paper and how dry it isn’t.   How about painting everything in a painting (and I do mean everything) with a three inch flat brush?   Or a big hake brush?   What if you confined yourself to just three colors?   Or, what if you put ox gall in your water?   What would happen?    Or, horrors!!!   Paint with your paper absolutely vertical!!    Could you stand it?   Or could you put yourself into a frame of mind to give it a go and let it do whatever it is going to do?
At some point in our painting life, we have to face every sort of challenge.   The masters never had much trouble with challenges because they actually practiced every possible thing that could happen and practiced how to handle the conditions that arose.  
Just because “it’s hard” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tackle it!!!!!    Get into that lion’s cage and tame the lion !!!    (You won’t die or even get scratched!)

An Important Message to My Painting Friends . . .

“Bad Dawg”
Watercolor 22 x 30 inches
Some painters will look at this painting and think to themselves, “I could never do that.”   Or they might say something to the effect of “Yeah, he was born with that talent.  He scares me!”  Or, ” I could never be that good.”
Or, those same people might look at this painting and think to themselves, “Why would I want to paint like thaaaaat?   I am a ___________ painter.”   (Fill in the blank with realist, plein air, floral, animal, blah blah blah blah!)
Here is the message very bluntly:   “Comparing yourself (and your painting skills) to others is VERY UNHEALTHY!”
Yep.   There it is.   Comparing your painting prowess to other painters is a self defeating process that will prevent you from EVER becoming “good.”   It is a natural inclination to look at masterly works and wish to develop one’s skills to that level.   It is quite another to be intimidated by a skilled artist because you “don’t think you are as good as he/she is.”    Oh Dear!!!    What a perfect way to live in constant disappointment about yourself!!  Moreover, what a perfect way to be in constant self defeat! Ever wonder where thoughts like that come from?   The “I am not good enough” thoughts?
Let me say this about the artist who is “good” . . . . . .he, or she, most likely put their head down for years and worked his or her butt off trying to become “better” at what they are now “good” at.   Yes.  Work!!  Hard work is the only difference between you and that other artist.   And I am not talking about hard work in workshops or school or some ersatz painting convention.   I am talking about time at your own easel painting.    That is a LOT of painting.   Making plenty of mistakes.   Ruining acres of canvas or paper.   Yep!   Making lots of throw away art.   So much of it that you might wonder if becoming “good” will ever come.   My advice is simple:    Paint, paint, paint, paint, paint, Paint, paint, paint, paint, paint, Paint, paint, paint, paint, paint, Paint, paint, paint, paint, paint!
Eventually, a comfort with making errors and mistakes will become part of you.  Yes, I said a comfort with making “bad” paintings.   It is okay to make those!!
Our teachers in school were cruel overseers who did not understand the human condition  . . . . .nor did they really understand how learning happens . . . . . .it happens through failure.   Yep, when you think about it, failure is our best teacher.   It is through failure that we actually see what not to do and what to improve upon.
I travel the country teaching painters to paint.   That is, I teach the processes and means of design and composition.   There is an underlying lesson, however, that seeps into the pores of the participants in my classes . . . .  .that is to just paint for the sheer fun of making marks, trials, experiments etc and not to worry about what anyone thinks about their work (play).   It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about your paintings!!!  (Secret:   you can never underestimate the taste of the public.)
The only thing you should be working toward in your time at the easel is your own satisfaction . . . . . . .  . .no one else’s.    Reject the opinions of non painters.   Shed the advice of your spouse.   Be deaf to all criticism from unqualified persons.   And, take with a grain of salt, any critique, unless the person offering it gives you a few alternatives for making improvements.   Consider those alternatives, then make up your own mind about what you will do (maybe nothing!!).
WHAT MATTERS MOST IS YOUR SATISFACTION WITH WHAT YOU PAINTED.   Be prepared to be disappointed.   Be prepared to be like that old barber in the barbershop (years ago)  . . . . when your painting is complete, merely shout “NEXT!” and go onward.  Don’t look back.   Just focus on the next painting.   Not all will turn out well . . . . . but a few will!!!   And that few is precisely what you are seeking.
If you are Unsatisfied, paint it again.   Maybe even again.   And maybe three or four or five times again.   (Remember, I said hard work).   Be patient and enjoy slobbering the paint around.  (it is, actually, fun!)  Take chances.   Take risks.   Take an attitude to do ‘the unthinkable’ just to see what will happen.   Be open to happy accidents.   Be open to making a painting that does NOT look like what you are painting.   Do it for FUN !!!
You may not see actual improvement in that process from one painting to the next.  But I can guarantee you that over time your paintings will improve.   Your brush work will naturally evolve.   Your drawing skills will naturally develop.  You will, as a matter of course, relax with what you are doing.   One day you will look at a perfect gradation of color in one of your paintings and wonder how you did such a beautiful wash.
Here is the last piece of advice that I have to offer . . . . . . .if you are looking to paint like someone else, it has already been done.   When you get there, all you will have is a painting that looks like that other artist did it.   Think about that for a second.   Why would you want thaaaaat?
In conclusion, your painting “voice” is unique and special.   There are no others like it.  Let it shine!   Let the world come to hear your voice.   Sing your own visual music!   And, by all means, don’t compare yourself with anyone else!!!
P.S.   What is “good?”   What is “Better?”   Do you know?   Really?   Consider this . . . . .as you become more experienced, your ideas of what is “good”/”better” will change.   It is very much like the proverbial carrot hanging on the string in front of the mule . . .  . .chasing but never catching it.
P.P.S.   You have heard it before, certainly, but the goal is NOT the end result.   It is the journey itself.   You will soon realize that the learning, the struggle, the disappointments, the frustrations, the elations, the trips, the painting sites, the subjects tried are all a compilation of a wonderful life experience!!

Eat That Which is Served!

“No Wind Today”
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches
en Plein Aire
A long time ago, my Mom made special awareness to all of us five kids at meal time:   You will eat what is served to you!”     “I am not cooking different meals for everyone who wants some thing more special than everyone else at the table.   Learn to enjoy that which is before you!
And so it is with painting en Plein Aire.   In artistic parlance, paint what is in front of us!   That does not mean that we cannot or should not add our own “style” or embellishments.   In fact, it shouldn’t mean that we don’t convert the image in front of us to our personal tastes . . . .abstract or realistic.   
Plein Air painting offers tuff cirumstances in which to paint.   Wind.  Cold.  Heat.   Sun.  Bugs.   Distracting People.   Inadequate equipment.   Difficult places to sit / stand.   Wildlife (skunks!).   Angry dogs.   Bothersome people.    People who have never painted a lick . . . .some who have . . . .and some whose “Aunt is an artist.”    You get the grist of it.    When Painting outside in the open air, there are lots and lots of conditions that try very hard to break your concentration.
That is, if you let them.
There is another side of the coin:   Standing in front of an easel, paints and brushes in hand, not knowing if you can carry it off right downtown Paris, France.   Or, standing in front of Yellowstone Falls painting the scene with one of your favorite artists, or Being at a secluded beach on a beautiful day watching every stroke be perfect,  Or Standing in the shallow, meandering water of the Merced River looking up at Half Dome in Yosemite park as the dome takes on an Alpine Glow and turns the color of a pumpkin.   Or, maybe it is when you are at Point Lobos State Park on the coast of the Monterey Peninsula, with two painting buddies . . . . everyone hyperventilating at the drop dead gorgeous scenery.   Or, fogging off to the French Conuntryside in the Lot River Valley trying to make artistic sense of a medieval village or citadel!  
Okay, so I have had my easel blown over and paintings spoiled while confronting the elements.   I have come home bitten and burned and sick to my stomach from hunger.   But, Baby, there is nothing like the places I have been and triedto paint (yes, unsuccessfully) !!!    I can still smell the air at Yellowstone Falls in the year 1995 . . . . .twenty years ago!!   I still look at the painting made while standing ankle deep in water of the Merced River because that was the best view . . . . .I can feel the trickle over my shoes!   And I can recount the crazy conversations and sharing the intense, deep connection with three friends while we painted Point Lobos.  (Google some images of that place!)
Yes, there are aggravations, distractions and disappointments.   But with them there are pleasures so rich and so unforgettable, that every one of those teensy little bothers are simply the external white noise to which we never pay much attention.
If you haven’t mustered the courage to fight off the elements and distractions, you are missing out on an extraordinary experience.   Those pleasures just sit out there waiting for us artists.   Yep.   They are sitting there right now ready to be eaten up by our excitement and our zeal to capture the beauty.
Thanks, Mom, for training me to eat what I have been served!!

Another Round

“Attaching a Scarlet Letter”
Watercolor, 22 x 22 inches
Another round!!   Another shot at adding another image to a series!
In this case,  the series is Men at Work.   I have been playing around with this series for 7 or eight years . . . . .and not too many paintings in the series, yet.   I say “Yet” because these images don’t come to me, nor do I come across suitable images from which to make paintings very often.   One has to wait patiently and be diligent about assessing every happenstance of stumbling onto men at work.   First, I desire to have interesting images . . .  .not just a bunch of guys leaning on their shovels around a big hole in the ground (we see that often, don’t we?!!)  😉   What I mean is that I need to see action . . . . . and there needs to be some sort of background story along with the work.   And those sort of images don’t show up very often.   Linemen replacing broken utility poles is one such example.   One can only imagine what might have caused the broken pole  . . . . not to mention the incredible risk that the linemen encounter every day in their jobs.   That is interesting.
Then there are the mundane, or seemingly so, stages on which the workmen act out their form of “theatre.”   Here, in this image, is one example.   People pass by guys like this all day long, glance at them, and move along, not paying heed to much other than ‘those guys in that cherry picker up there.’
To me, this little act of the theatre said so much that I found fascinating:  the shadow, for one.   The contrast of the white uniforms against the red letters . . . .  .and the fact that we see such signs so often in our day that we don’t even realize that we see them . . . . .they are just part of an every day landscape!!  Like, who spends time looking at and observing them?   Really!!   But put two guys up there fiddling with them?   That is a different story!
So this piece goes in with the rest of the “Men At Work” series . . . . some painters, some linemen, some plasterers just about anything one can imagine.   And there is much more to come . . .  .but what?  And when?   I just have to remain alert and pay attention.
And, as I look at the image, I am forced to wonder about the strength of the composition.  It appears to me that too much attention is given to the letters, while I want the viewer to be mesmerized by the workmen.   I will consider cropping a good part of the left portion of the painting to cast more attention to the men in the basket.
Sometimes, us art people find the gold in places we would rather not find it.   In my case, I always prefer to do the ‘discovering’ and subsequent photographing and/or sketching myself.   But it doesn’t always work out that way.   Such is the case with this image and the source of it.   This image appeared in our local (Santa Cruz Sentinel) newspaper approximately 7 years ago . . . . at least I think it was that long ago . . . . . .I have held on to the image for that long waiting for public memory to dissipate.   Also, two or three computers ago, I wrote to the gentleman who had taken the photo requesting his permission to use the photo in an artwork.   He graciously and cheerfully gave his permission with the best of his good wishes and he did so in writing . . . .I fear, however, that the letter rests in the grave with the used up computer someplace.
As a point worth making here, for those painters out there who read this material, I STRONGLY advise getting permission when ever using any publicly displayed photos . . . .or even photos that you did not personally make yourself.    I have seen some art careers destroyed by not doing so.   Seriously, it could mean being publicly humiliated and perhaps being sued!!   Get permission!!
Keep your brushes wet!

Suspense . . . . and Effort

“The Plaster Master”
Watercolor, 22 x 30 inches

Today, after several weeks of working on two paintings, specifically to raise my bar of quality and to test that bar height against the best of the best watercolor painters in, maybe, the world . . . .but for sure, the USA, . . . .I completed the two paintings.

One has been “finished” for months.  But a day or two ago I looked at it again, in one of those deep concentrative states, and saw sooo many things which needed tuning up to high quality.   Funny, how one simply doesn’t “see” until he is ready to SEE!

There is an old saying:   When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.   And my teacher really showed up this week!   I was led to learn the Law of Attraction . . . an led to learn about the power we each hold to draw in virtually anything that might be in our world of desire . . . . even if it is a minor thing.   Being led there was precisely the very thing I needed to come to terms with all the many things which have been flowing in my direction for years.   Actually, I have always suspected that we artistic people are more than just creators of pretty paintings.   There is something way bigger at work in our creative consciousness!!!   The fact is that we create virtually everything that “happens” to us as we go through our lives.

That might be a difficult thing to understand or even believe for many people.   But I can say, without reservation, that we DO get what we wish for . . . .even unconsciously wishing.

So much for that for this article.   For twenty five years, as you know, Dear Reader, I have been learning to paint . . . .and my teacher lives at the business end of my paint brushes.   That’s right.  It is me.   I have studied, and learned.   I have painted and learned.  I have entered shows, competitions and exhibitions and learned.  I have taken and taught workshops and learned.  I have observed other painters and learned.   The fact is the hunger to understand never, ever quite relaxes.   That hunger is my teacher.  And projects such as this one are exquisite challenges to rise above mediocrity and to reach for excellence!

Once per year, there is an art organization in New York City that stages a juried exhibition once per year around the first part of the year.   This is a water media show and I must say that the best of the best painters apply to show in that prestigious exhibition.   This will be the third time I will be accepted, IF the jurors so decide to accept the paintings I have prepared for this purpose.  And within that third time there are great honors . . . .recognition by my peers and superiors . . . that the paintings submitted stand up to the few masters who hold similar honors.   It is one of those propositions that haunts and haunts one until it is attained.   It is one of those things that is constantly nagging at my standards of excellence.   And, mind you, there is no easy path to be there.   One just needs to be at one with that business end of the paint brush that I spoke of a few paragraphs ago . . . for many, many paintings  . . . until enough “brush mileage”has accumulated and mastery begins to appear.

That, my dear friends, is something that simply has called to me for years . . . . to reach the possibility of mastery.   In fact, you might understand more if I said that “I AM the Possibility of Mastery.”   I live in that possibility.   I breathe it.   I think about it.  I even teach it in an indirect way.  It is way more than play, or a simple pastime or hobby.   It is the possibility of fulfilling a dream!!

So here it is.  I have completed the work for this year.  Honors might possibly be waiting to find me in January . . . . or they won’t . . . . .which means that I am not yet ready . . . that more effort is required.  That the universe has given me this task to fully complete . . .no matter what . . . and it has provided something else for me to chew on while I ply away at this endeavor:  pure, unadulterated joy and happiness along the way!   I must confess that I recognize that I have been bestowed with a few great gifts!!   Those gifts were never meant to be squandered or taken for granted.  They were given to be developed to the optimum state that they can be!   And I am grateful for them . . . .yes, painting  . . . . at least the desire to be excellent at it . . . has been one of those gifts.   Another is the possibility of loving . . . .yes, LOVING.   To bathe in that possibility is a gift from god . . . .as is the gift of creativity.

You may think that these are the ramblings of someone who has gone daft, but I can assure you, daft I am not.   I have stepped into all of the challenges for each of the possibilities and done so willingly and with great passion.

And so, Dear Reader, I am quite alive and quite enthused about every moment of being alive . . . .and grateful for my gifts . . . . .even if I might have to wait in suspense for this January’s decisions . . .or the next . .  .or the next after that.   I signed up for this.   And I am prepared to accept the challenges and the results . . . . for what else is there other than the joy of the journey??

The Making of a “Good” Painting . . .

When my wife and I watch a movie, whether or not it is at home, within a few minutes our senses perk up and one of us alerts the other that this movie isn’t going to be very good.    Then again, there is absolute silence and rapt attention when the movie appears to have the necessary substance to receive, an above average rating from us.
We employ a scoring system of rating the movies on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the absolute best.   Of hundreds of watched movies, it seems we have only awarded two movies with the 5 rating.    Nearly all others, save for around 30 that have received 4’s, the rest fall right in the middle with ratings of 3 or lower.
How is it that we can sniff out those that come off early as unworthy of our time or attention?    Have you noticed similar reactions to seeing paintings?    What is it, in our senses, that tells us to not bother spending any time looking deeply at certain paintings?  
For most of us there is a feeling just behind our navel that sets us off.   We can’t define the feeling, nor the cause of the feeling.   We just “know” that it is there.   And the same goes for many painters in the throes of making a painting.   “Something isn’t right . . . I can feel it . . . .darned if I know what it is!”
For most beginning and many intermediate painters, they focus on the aspects of the subject matter of the painting.   “The perspective on the box seems a little off.”  “Or those birds should have 26 feathers in each wing.”   “The joints in the fingers aren’t quite right.”    These comments are made comparing absolute “reality” with the painting . . . . . . .in other words, the person making the critique is seeking a photo reproduction of what is ‘real.’   In my mind, this sort of criticism is uselessto a painter.
Perhaps you might have seen the play “The Lion King.”   If you did, you probably remember the representations of the various animals using poles and stilts and all sorts of never before seen means of suggesting the gait and confirmation of the animals.   In my case, those illusions were so effective that they were shocking and fascinating!    I couldn’t take my eyes off them.  Of course, the musical background added to the mesmerizing effects of the illusions of the animals.   I can recall some of the moments in that theater production as if they were mere moments ago!
For a painting to win an award from an astutely qualified judge, many of the same things must occur in a painting . . . . .
Nothing should ever stick out and seem as though it doesn’t belong.   In other words, there must be some sort of relationship between all the parts . . . . .and I am NOT speaking of the things or objects in the subject matter.   The “parts” are the value shapes, the color shapes, the textures, the brushwork, the sizes and placement of the parts the painter wishes the viewer to focus on.   There must be a sense of a unified whole about the painting where the parts harmonize in a way to suggest a quiet relatedness with the rest of the painting.  Yet, while harmony must exist in the painting, there should be areas where there is indeed a contrast or a significant shift away from that relatedness to call attention and, yet, not appear wrong.   (That is a mouthful, I know.)    A good painting must at once hold excitement, mystery and belonging. In other words, a bit ambiguous.    For example, in painting a group of people, a few must stand out, so they can be clearly understood as to ‘what’ they are, while many others must be a singular big shape where there is little individual identity at work.   Within that shape should come variations of color and value so that the viewer gains some feeling of internal difference and is entertained, but whose attention isn’t averted from the whole.   The whole must move in a way to support that one big shape.
Omigosh!!   The words are confusing!    Consider the following words as the true parts of a painting, whether or not it is realistic or non objective:   Line (edges), Size (scale, proportion, measure, perspective), Shape, Direction (Horizontal, oblique or vertical), Color (intensity, temperature, value and Hue),  Texture and Value.
How the artist controls color and its four aspects is a good look at the artist’s creative talents and how he or she uses that creativity.   It is way more than copying what he or she thinks he or she sees.   For example, the turn of a surface toward a shadowed side can be shown with a mere value change and the color grayed into that shadow.   Or, the artist can use a big shift in hue and temperature to show the same affect.   Which do you think would be more entertaining to the viewer?
If the artist was to use that latter method, it cannot be alone in the painting.   The rest of the painting must use a similar method to express transition from light into shadow.  In that way, the rest of the painting is in support of that piece of creative license.
Take the seven words above, and tie them to the eight “Conditions” of design.   Some experts call them “principles” of design.    I speak of these words as the conditions that are the resulting conditions or states that are created by the seven elements noted above.   The eight conditions are:  Unity, Harmony, Dominance, Contrast (Conflict), Repetition, Variation, Gradation (transition) and Balance.  
Each of the elements, such as Line, can be assessed by all of the conditions within a painting.  For example, there is a simple line and there are all the edges (which are indeed lines) . . . . . .one can assess just the aspects of Line in a painting by considering the Unity of Line throughout the painting, the Harmony of Line, the Dominance of Line, the Contrast of Line, Repetition of Line, The variation of Line, the Gradation (change) of Line, and the Balance of Line.  (Consider substituting the word “Edges” for ‘Line’ in the last few sentences.)  Yes, each of the elements will have some of these conditions existing in them in a painting.   It is up to the artist to determine the degree, or the amount or quality of the conditions.  For example, how much contrast is called for?   Is it a quiet contrast or is it strident?   Does the contrast chosen find harmony in the painting ?   Or, does it stand separate and away from the other aspects?
This is much to digest, I agree.   It is also the reason there are so few masterworks in this world.
There is another aspect in judging a painting . . . . .that is the choice of what the artist chose to paint.   The “WHAT” combined with the “HOW” is the quality that stops the viewer (the judge) in his tracks to take a much closer look at the depth of the artist’s work.   That aspect of “What” . . . .or subject matter . . . . .can be, for the artist, a trap.    I agree that a fine painting must have some form of emotional content or message . . . . . . . a pictorial story, if you will.    There comes a challenge, however, when the emotional content is sappy or saccharine or overly sentimental.    ( Remember the comment about the movies at the first part of this article?   Does the word ‘corny’ come to mind?”)    What has been seen before, thousands of times, is no longer interesting.   For example, simple reproductions of flower blossoms is a trite subject . . . . . ( I used to paint them myself!!) . . . . . .UNLESS it is done in a highly designed way so as to cast the sense that that image has never been seen before.   It isn’t in the “how well” the artist reproduced the image, but in HOW the artist was able to create an interesting illusion.
Obviously, there are infinite ways of painting the same idea or thing.   What sort of emotional aspect, which is included into the painting, is completely determined by the artist.  How the artist imbues those feelings is really a manipulation of Line, Shape, Sizes, Directions, Color, Values and Texture.   A good judge will turn his or her back on corny, over done subject matter (as seen on greeting cards) because it has been seen so many, many times before.
Creativity is word used often without fully understanding the idea of bringing forth something completely new . . . . .something nobody has done before.   Of course, as millennia elapse, more and more paintings of “new” work closes out the range of our possible choices, it seems.   Yet, artists everywhere are coming up with new ways of saying something visually every day.  
I am reminded of a specific artist who was creating incredibly beautiful non- objective paintings.   She submitted her painting into ‘that big show in New York’ only to be refused entry into their annual show.   Not put off, she submitted the very same painting the next year.   Refused!   And the next.  Refused.   And the next and next and next for 13 straight years !   The same painting!!   Finally, on the 13thyear her painting was accepted.   Then for the next two years, submitted similar, highly creative work and was accepted and awarded her signature status.    Was it her paintings that were the problem, or was it the jurors who misunderstood her work?
Remember!!   It takes that sort of courage to stand for your work!!