Art Blog

Getting to “Beyond the Obvious”


“Spotlight at Dusk”
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches

As painters, most of us are confronted with the “Tyranny of the Subject” . . . . .

That is becoming enslaved to representing the subject, rather than stating one’s feelings about the subject.   That is being so captive to the visually perceived attributes of a subject that the artist cannot think outside of those limits.   We sarcastically poke at artists who are confined by a subject to that extent by openly challenging that person to “use a camera and be done with it!”  Sadly, many painters are fully and completely limited by the superficial, visual aspects of any subject and are not free to express themselves about the subject or how they feel about it.  I believe that is what separates an illustrator from a true artist.

There is a blurred area between illustration and fine art.   That blurred area was inhabited by Norman Rockwell.   He was able to represent people in a format of telling an emotional story.   He imbued all of his work with something we artists refer to as “Content.”   That is some form of story or emotion or message or socio-political statement made via visual hints.  For Rockwell it was facial expressions and costume and surroundings that told his stories.

In my humble opinion as an artist, content is only part of reaching beyond the obvious. . . . .

Have you ever noticed that when you are about to step up to the easel that there is a race of thoughts going through your mind about whether you can pull off this painting?   Have you ever been faced with wondering what you spouse “thinks” about your work . . .I mean really thinks.   Or, have you ever, even for a minute, wondered if you were really cut out to be an artist?  If you are truly creative? If you have “enough” talent?

And what about the worry of spoiling the carpet under your feet?   Or spilling something?   Or wondering if you’ll ever be able to clean up this mess?

Well, those questions are part of what I mean by “beyond the obvious.”   Generally, everything that affects a painting, including your mood, is what is meant by that idea.   Most lay people see only the subject of a painting.   And many a person ambitious to become an artist can only see the subject. There is much, much more to consider than just a pretty picture!   There is all of the design elements and the conditions or relationships created by how the artist treats those elements inside of and around the subject.   Quite frankly, one’s psychological positioning of self is very much a part of the making of a painting.   For example, if one is nervous about what others will think or if one is worried about their reputation if the painting is a failure, you would probably see the tightness and brittleness in that person’s paintings.

You see, the combination of all that goes into making a painting . . one’s feelings about self and artistic skills, one’s understanding of design and composition, color strategy, value pattern, unity of shape etc. . . . . are exactly what is beyond the obvious . . . .that is beyond the physical, visible attributes of a subject.   What is not obvious is what we can’t name in a painting.   Like the space between shapes, or the sense of rhythm in a painting, or some odd color that has no name.  Then there is the habit of wanting to NAME everything in a painting . . . to treat all parts of the painting as real objects (not healthy for painters!), like the empty space behind something being named “background.”   (Sorry if I touched a nerve there!).   Or naming that dark green shape as a “tree.”

The moment we resort to naming, we are immediately corralled into thinking about the physical attributes of “tree” . . . . for examples, the leaves, the branches, the trunk, the bark and so on and on and on . . . . . . . rather than whether or not the shape is of the correct color, value, temperature and intensity to affect a harmony in the entire art piece . . . .all attributes of how the shape fits into the whole painting.

Who was it who said, “A rose is a rose is a rose?” . . . . .some beginning painters think “Green is green.”   They probably do not consider how toned a green is, or if it should be warmer or cooler (or how to make it so), . . . . .their perception is that grass and trees are green, which is an over simplification, for sure!   That sort of thinking is the left overs from grammar school!   And, breaking that sort of thinking is a huge part of becoming a ‘painter.’   One must attune themselves to thinking “Beyond the Obvious.”  It is a journey, even a struggle at times.   But the road must be travelled.

This means confronting and dealing with those inner thoughts about whether or not you are “good enough.”   This means STUDY of the principles of design and composition.   It means practice and challenge in one’s studio to the extent that you wear out brushes until they are useless.   It means, literally, wasting paint, canvas and paper for years in order to develop one’s “style.”   It can, and often does, mean depression and excitement and frustration and elation and everything else in the emotional spectrum.

And . . . . .it also means that you must get rid of the notion that people are “born with the skills and talent.”   They aren’t.   No one is.   All of this stuff is learned and developed skills, which take years to accumulate.   Is it any wonder that we honor painting masters as we do?   They went through the same struggles and challenges.  We all have had to look beyond and understand what is the obvious.

Deconstructing the Composition

 “Spring Cotillion”
Watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
After publishing this painting on Facebook last week, an old high school buddy wrote a very funny comment:   Some cowboy wrote a song about these guys . . .”Get a Long Little Doggie.”  
Of course, I laughed at it the first time I read it . . .then it really got into my head . . . to the extent that I awoke from sleep with it chiming in my noggin!!  
The comment spoke to me about how the lay person looks at and sees a painting . . . .all they see is an image of something or some place.   In fact, that is the LAST thing with which a good painter is concerned or even thinks about!   Believe me, I was NOT concerned with making “cute” little dogs!
Obviously, the idea came from a sight seen in Washington Square in New York City last spring.   A gathering of people, all walking their dachshunds, had joined together as the dogs became ensnarled in their leashes.   I remember my reaction as I peeked in between the people to see the scene and was struck by all the leashes coming from different directions!   It seemed to be organized chaos!   So, out came my camera to record what I was witnessing.   I was only able to get away with six or seven photos before they disbanded.
Finally, after months of looking at the photos and wondering what I could do with them,  I remembered my reaction to the LINES (leashes and sidewalk seams) and DIRECTIONS (two of the elements of design) . . .and thought that I should use that reaction as the basis for the painting.  (It really didn’t matter to me what was at the end of the leashes . . . .dog or human.)
The photos had all sorts of superfluous stuff in them that had to be eliminated . . .peoples legs and shoes, baby strollers, purses and  . . .well . . . “stuff” that didn’t contribute to saying what I needed to say.
The three dogs, which stand in the center right, were the only dogs in the picture space in the beginning.   They are there with the leashes (line) coming in to the picture space and conflicting with the lines (seams) in the sidewalk as my beginning fascination.   While the lines and direction conflicts were my fascination source, the three dogs just didn’t provide a sound composition.   That is, they were clumped in an off center location in the picture space, which left a big gaping empty space on the left and below.   So, I added the dog in the bottom right to link up with the other two black dogs to form a single dark diagonal shape (yes, the “shape” is the three blackish dogs). . . .which left another big space in the upper left.   There were a number of different options to put into that space, including the lower carriage of a baby stroller . . . .but that didn’t fit the “dog dominance.”  I have learned if something is completely alone in a painting and does not relate with everything else in the picture space, it will call attention to itself and cause the focus of attention to be in the wrong place!   Eventually, in some other photos, there were two pups nuzzling each other who were projecting an interesting shadow . . . .bingo!   That shadow was imposed into that blank space (upper left edge) to help finish off the dead space and overlapped with the diagonal dark shape (the three black dogs)  (You may notice that I refer to them as “shapes” . . .because when it comes to seeing a composition, virtually anything can be a “shape.”   It doesn’t really matter WHAT a shape is, as long as it occupies space and is interesting to look at.  That shadow also helped tell more of the story about what was going on.   At this point, I could see that I had a large “compositional shape” occupying the picture space . . . . that of the three black dogs and the added shadow in the upper left edge . . . .a big oblique “clump” which holds the entire composition together.
Then, faced with a left margin being also void, the little red guy was put in to BALANCE the composition . . . .he had to be a tad bit more intense, color wise, in order to offset the weight of the other bunch who were dominating the lower right of the painting.   Eventually, I had to face up to hitting another balance issue by having a blank in the upper right corner, thus the added dog and legs & shoes to add a bit of humanness into the mix, without that difference calling too much attention.   As it currently stands, the ‘white’ of the shoes IS a small distraction and needs to be calmed down so that the VALUE difference doesn’t attract attention.  As the painting progressed, I found the leashes to be off in value, too, and not distracting enough to bring the wanted emphasis to the conflicting directions . . . so they had to be lightened and the colored edges were added to relieve the overall grayness of the rest of the painting and to soften the impact of the one dog’s “dress.”   That dress is an attention getter, for sure, which presented enough of a challenge that other intense colors had to be included into the picture space so that the pink would not seem to be so alone.
I will also admit to a heavy dose of procrastination and thinking after completing the drawing on watercolor paper before I ever picked up a paintbrush.   I had to  carefully consider the ORDER of operations so that it all didn’t appear as a patchwork and would integrate together and appear as a UNIFIED whole.   The entire ground had to be washed in first, without intruding into the dog shapes, which were left as raw, untouched paper.   Shadows had to wait until last . . . .why?   If you look at the piece, the shadow shapes and the lines all seem to act as connectors to all the separate dog shapes.   They had to overlap and connect every part of the painting.
As I laid out the paper to begin painting, I could see things I could not see when making the drawing a week previous . . . .I had included a set of carriage wheels in the upper left corner . . .they had to go!
I was ready to begin the painting phase . . . . .how would I paint the dogs?   What method?   After laying in the ground around the dog shapes, I realized that to give the dogs enough strength, I would work each one wet into wet with plenty of soft shifts in value and tone inside each shape (play of light reflection on their coats.)
Once all these issues were settled, the painting could be declared finished.
I can see now, there are a few edges that need softening and more work is needed to integrate those shoes a bit better.  You see?   As far as us artists are concerned, our paintings are never “done,” we just abandon them!  J 

 

The Excellence Mindset

“Spring Cotillion”
Watercolor 22 x 30 inches
There are, literally, thousands of  painters out there who desire to attain excellence in their painting life.    Most all are missing something.
One would think that something is skill.   I say it is NOT skill.   Skill comes with familiarity, which is born of practice.   I dare say there are a lot of painters out there who practice plenty, but excellence has not crept up behind them and took up residence in their output.
I believe there is an aspect of mental attitude (this is that something), which must be ever present in order to invite in excellence and have it stay in residence.   That aspect, to which I refer, is something akin to an attitude of carelessness.   Eh?   Did you say carelessness?   Yep!   I did.
Let me explain . . . .one needs not care about what others think about their paintings.    That care less attitude must also be present about the aspect of failure.   Do you know any painters who are nervous about failing?   Do you know any who are concerned or even worried about what their peers might think of their paintings?   In fact, do you know any painters who are “afraid of breaking the rules ?”
These are mental barriers or obstructions to achieving fine work.   One must be willing to fail . . . .and I mean OPENLY willing to go down in flames in front of anyone who might be watching.   And rules??   What rules??   That’s right!  WHAT rules??   There are no books out there written by painting experts about “RULES!”   There aren’t any!!   At the very least, the painter must be willing to turn his or her back on anything thought of as “rules.”
And there is another aspect of attitude that all painters must eschew . . . . . . that is steering away from the unfamiliar subject.   We must be willing to take on any subject at any time and risk falling into that deep canyon of failure to ‘do it well.’
We are a sensitive bunch, us painters.   We fall for those sentimental scenes that evoke loving emotions of comfort.   We frequent galleries and museums to look upon the excellence achieved by others and are often swept up in other artists’ techniques or design approaches.  We even admire those paintings that appear to be vastly different than anything otherwise seen out there.   Yet, when confronted with painting the unfamiliar, we veer away at a speed not often seen.   We openly avoid the possibility of failure.
I must confess that I am no different in that respect.   I, too, experience the fear . . . those pangs in the gut that warn of abject exposure that I might be a fraud.   Yep!   I have it, too.
I have learned, however, that we must take on R I S K with a lustful appetite for it.    Yes, taking risks is what bridges us across those chasms of skill and familiarity with painting challenges.   When we cross into unfamiliar territory and come out of it having won, there is no greater rush of emotion and feeling of accomplishment!   In some ways it is outright defeating the devil himself !  
To be more brief, let me just say that it is the repeated willingness to take risks that makes the great painters.   It is stepping into the unknown with brush in hand and tackling the possibility of outright failure without looking over our shoulder at the possibility of failure.   We must take what we know into the challenge and be open to discovery that what we know may not be enough.   We must be open to devising new techniques to allow us to swim through the rough current of possible failure.  And own the possibility that we can be swallowed up by our venture into the unknown.  
In owning that possibility . . . .in being completely aware that we don’t know enough to break into new levels of skill or excellence . . . .it is in there that we learn the next step to attain that place we seek.
There are myths and metaphors out there, such as slaying the dragon, that rightly apply to our struggles to become.   And “Becoming” is really what our search is about . . .wouldn’t you agree?
On this day, I achieved a victory.   I entered a completely unfamiliar place to paint a menagerie of dogs and people . . . .and to represent it as some sort of social event to which debutants attend in their ‘coming out.’  I wasn’t at all sure I could.   I simply didn’t know if I knew enough to make it come to life.   With limited resources, could I bring the idea to life and exploit some ersatz design stuff to ensnare the viewer and, perhaps, bring a painting to life that may be worthy of competition?   I didn’t know . . . . . . but I was willing to waste the paper and the paint and the time to find out.   Was it luck that this outcome materialized?   I will let you be the judge.   But I feel a sense of victory!! 

On Saving Unfinished Paintings

“After the Rain”
Watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
There are times when a painting just doesn’t seem to want to enter the realm of excellence.   The stubborn rascals (paintings) can seriously stump us artists about where to take it next.   I have had many of those times when a painting just would not allow me to finish it because it would not tell me what it needed.
Does this situation ring a bit of truth for you?
If so, maybe you do the same thing, or something close to it, with those pieces . . .
I found that if I kept a flat file drawer (now two of them) reserved strictly for those paintings who steadfastly and stubbornly held sway with the Art Gods and would not coach me to the finish point.
The file drawer has held paintings awaiting finish for years and years!   Every year, some occasion would arise that would cause me to go into that drawer and look through the paintings there.    Something like an upcoming show or class might cause me to scour through that drawer just in case I may have accidentally slipped a good one in there.   Then one would grab me in a sudden instant!  Most often it was a complete and sudden realization of what needed doing to a few of those pieces resting in the drawer.   Out they would come, onto my easel, and in a matter of a few moments and some simple changes (or additions) the paintings would find their completeness.   Then there are those who stubbornly remain in the drawer for goodness knows how long!
I recently upgraded to a new, bigger flat file as I had outgrown the other . . . .that is to say I could no longer open the drawers without something getting caught or jammed in the works!   I had just plain filled it up!
So, in the transfer from the old flat file to the new, I discovered the piece above.   I know, for a fact, that painting has been hiding in there for over 15 years !!   Yes!!   15 years !!
Before I finish my story, allow me to make a few instructive statements here . . . .
The first is that I have come to realize that while our vision that began the painting in the first place us is often way ahead of our artistic understanding and development when the actual act of painting occurred.   That is to say that these “stalls” in the completion of a painting are quite normal!   Sometimes we just have to wait while we gather more experience and knowledge before we can see what a painting needs.   When we rediscover one of these paintings at rest in its hiding place, the realization of what it needs, in order to be finished, hits us like a bolt of lightening!   Am I right?   It is a sudden realization and usually a verbal muttering of “Of Course!   Why didn’t I see that earlier?”
“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear!”   In other words, we need to be “ready”  . . . .that is we need to have reached the proper point in our development to actually see the needed modification and how to accomplish it!   We simply had to put the piece away until we were “ready.”
On occasion, we will rush to the finish out of pure excitement . . . .and ruin the piece.   My question to you when that happens is “So What?”   By the time we got around to ‘fixing’ the piece, we probably didn’t have the emotional attachment that we did when we first painted it.   The painting has been silently, microscopically disintegrating while it waited for us to get around to it.   Okay, I spoiled another one.   Move on!  Chalk this one up to more experience!   There is no point in shedding tears.   We gave it the “old college try.”
Back to my story about the above painting.   I remember discovering this rascal and pulling it from hiding.   As I scanned it, instantly knew what had to be done ( I won’t bore you with details ).   Better, I remembered all the build up to get to the place where I put it away (a lot of water, paint and paper has passed under the bridge in the last 15 years!!).   I was instantly reminded of my old painting buddy, Bill, and how we happened upon this scene . . . .and the ensuing excitement to put the subject to work.   And, of course, a lot of “Bill Memories” flushed into existence then, too!   I suppose that is one very good reason to put a few of those stubborn ones away . . . just to remind us of some great times.
In summary, be patient.   Be patient to allow your artistic growth to catch up to you and your painting attempts.   In time you will understand.   Gradually, you will gather the needed wisdom about making art.  You won’t feel it happen, but you may see it in your work.   Remember, your development as a painter can only come with experience . . . .lots and lots of brush miles accumulated at the end of your arm and hand.   Only then will you be able to “save” those few pieces that you put away for later.   Don’t throw them away!   Just keep moving forward.   And you will, at some place in time, be able to bring the full measure of excellence to your work . . .old or new.

An Unusual Workshop Opportunity

“Fragments of an Idea”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches
There are a few opportunities where a fan of water media painting can combine a workshop with the AWS traveling show . . . .that is 40 stellar paintings right from the walls of the Salmagundi club in New York City . . . .The American Watercolor Society mounts its annual show of water media paintings from the best painters in the world at this prestigious location annually in the early spring.   Each year, 40 paintings are selected from that show to travel the USA to various locales.   This year that show will appear in Sebastopol, California!!   So close to Santa Rosa and Petaluma !!
I will be leading a workshop there in Sebastopol concurrent with the AWS traveling show.  If you are driven to really get down to learn how and why paintings do or do not work,   How to judge your own work and how to think when it is time to make compelling marks on canvas or paper, then ThIS is the workshop not to be missed . . . .it will shake you to your toes . . . awaken the muse like never before . . .  . . and have you thinking about paintings in a dimension never before considered.
Here is a link to find out more.   https://form.jotform.com/53077515496968

“Jaded” Art Philosophy

“Landing Pattern”
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches
 
 I happen to be a fan of “The Palette” Magazine.   This magazine is a little known, privately published, bimonthly gathering of articles aimed at watercolor painters.   William “Skip” Lawrence and Christopher “Topher” Schink author the content of the magazine and frequently render their strong, well educated opinions about the constructs of  “good” art.    (I highly recommend that any painter subscribe to and READ the magazine.   It makes us THINK!)
Recently, I picked up a copy of “Life” by Chuck Close.   Of note, one of the things he said in this book is “Inspiration is for amateurs.”   If that isn’t a jaded look at making art, I don’t know what is !!!!    But wait!   Mr. Close has a long life of art making behind him . . . a ton of experience . . .and extremely good experience I might add.
So, what, exactly did he mean by that statement?
I have been wrestling with his meanings and his motives for saying that for several months.  After all, there are many teachers out there who state “paint what you love.”   Today, I read parts of the latest issue of “The Palette” and was treated to someone else’s point of view about the very same thing:   Pablo Picasso said (lifting this from the text of “The Palette.”)   “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
Also from the text of the article, “Experienced painters don’t wait for inspiration, for divine guidance, or some miraculous revelation before they take up a brush.   They dutifully begin working, trying new things, exploring possibilities.   And with exploration comes discovery, some of it bearing fruit, some barren.   But, as Picasso observes, you can’t find inspiration without working.”
“Effort is important, but it won’t necessarily lead to inspiration if it isn’t applied in the right way.”    Here is my own philosophy about the same thing . . . .”The pursuit of perfection is the ruin of what might have been good art.”   Translated, that means that most novice painters (including some advanced painters) are so stuck on replicating what they see, or making everything ‘perfect’ that they miss being creative.   They become enslaved by the subject . . . .and their paintings appear brittle, edgy, even ‘stamped out.’
In this day and age of popular Plein Air painting, there seems to be encouragement to ‘paint what we see.’    Then, the artists spend hours, even days, searching for the ‘perfect’ scene to paint and often confronting deep frustration in the process . . . because they can’t conjure up the “necessary inspiration” they need to begin work.
I say that the true artist will tackle painting the mundane, the common, the ignored stuff and put his or her efforts to exalting it to the extraordinary on their canvas.   It is in that process of digging down into the font of creation and bringing forth something not before seen that wonderful art truly happens.  
 
Jaded you say?   I would only say that after making thousands of paintings, every artist forms inviolate opinions about art making . . . it is from these opinions and hard won experience that mastery emerges. 

It’s Way More Than What You See !

“Monday-Monday!”
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”

“Diana”
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 mebaileyart@comcast.net 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.