Confessions of an Art Show Judge

After having served as juror and/or judge in a number of art exhibitions, it is time I answered that question that is always on the minds of the artists in the shows. That question would be, of course, “how do you make your decisions,?” or “What criteria do you use when you judge or select a show?”

Let me make a few statements at the outset: The first is that it is NOT the subject that attracts the juror or the judge. Secondly, paintings are not chosen for great technique. So, if subject and technique aren’t the criteria, what is?

Very simply, let me say that creativity plays a huge part in my choices.

Allow me to explain more specifically . . . .

First, the painting must obey and exhibit good design: Subject should not appear to float or be disconnected from the frame . . . .there should be obvious UNITY in the piece . . .that is to say that all parts of the painting must look as though they belong to everything else . . .there must a feeling of “One-ness.” There should be well established paths for the eye to travel into the work and to enjoy the various contrasts within the context of the piece. Regarding contrasts, I try to avoid pieces that are too strident or excessively contrasty. And, of course, good composition is a must.

I could go on regarding design, but the stuff I wish to explain here is creativity. Creativity can and does take many different forms. And it can be a euphemism for a lot of goofing around. There are many paintings out there that are monuments to technique and skill, but lack feeling. To that point, I have a strong prejudice against paintings that are obvious copies of photos. That means if it looks like a photo, I will probably ignore it. Where the creative hand shows itself becomes immediately obvious if the subject has been altered in some way to expresses a feeling or exhibits something about the artist and his or her method of thinking as well as technique.

For example, the painting may show off an obvious texture because the artist deliberately smeared, smudged, twisted, or clobbered each brushstroke. For some artists, that may seem like carelessness. In my opinion, far from it. Texture can be a very exciting element when put to use in a way to enhance an image . . . .that is to make it exciting to look at.

Another example might be that the artist purposefully modified and completely changed colors out of the sheer desire to show off “fun!” . . . or went in the opposite direction and painted the painting entirely in grays. Either way, the artist had to
T H I N K in order to complete the piece and still hold good design.

I can recall several pieces that I considered completely enthralling because the artist obviously made his or her representation of a thing or place “Odd” or “Manipulated” or “Striking” . . . .certainly NOT “real.” It is those times when the artist confronts reality by openly opposing it and making his or her own “version” of the subject that it attracts attention. The viewer is drawn to the image BECAUSE it upsets reality.

Yes, I agree that there are some artists who can make photorealistic paintings that make the viewer look with awe and wonder. Those paintings deserve recognition because even the tiniest of mistakes can be glaringly obvious within the context of so much “accuracy.”

A painting in this man’s opinion should show that it is indeed made of paint. And it should show something about the person who painted it . . . that is to say something beyond skill. Let’s call it imagination. Paintings that do that are usually stunning to the viewer (at the least, THIS viewer!).

There are so many available tools to the painter today . . .computers and projectors and software . . . all of which can steal from the artist what the artist FEELS about making this painting. Those tools can indeed make for more accurate drawing . . .or some goofy distortion . . . . and those tools do have a place. But when it is obvious that such tools were used, it affects me as “Ho-Hum.”

I recently judged a statewide exhibition in which the top award went to a small painting of paper coffee cups. (OMG! Are you serious??) Yes! This painting stood way out above many others as it took a seemingly mundane subject and, through her creativity, elevated the subject into a state nothing short of spectacular. There were smudged, softened edges, atmospheric color, splatters and specs, lost and found areas and more. All of those ‘additions’ or ‘modifications’ told me this artist had attained a level of mastery that went way beyond just copying what she saw.

There have been many more that I can instantly remember. In every case, the artist did something special with lines or edges, colors, values, shapes to make the subject appear very unique and exciting to look at. After all, in my humble opinion, paintings are supposed to communicate a feeling to the viewer . . . .not just an image that is a record of some thing or some place or some body. It has been said many times before . . . .if you want to r e c o r d something, use a camera!

There is one last part of this confession: personal taste DOES enter the process of judging a painting. We can’t help it. As humans, as artists , as sentimental people who have struggled through their development, we have biases and strong opinions. Mind you, those opinions and biases were earned via hard won experience. So, the next time you question such decisions, try to see through that judge’s eyes.

On Attaining Artistic Maturity

“The Old Veteran”

Watercolor 30 x 22 inches

I cannot say that I am an expert on this subject, but after nearly thirty years of working hard to attempt to attain such a state, I do have a few opinions. . . . .

The first of which is simple:   In order to become mature as an artist . . or “good,” . . . .one has to put in the “work.” Not only the work, but consistent, constant practice.

For some reason there is a pervasive opinion in our society that the only place to learn anything is at a university. And if that is not available, one “should” go to art ‘workshops’ to learn for other painters.

I don’t think so!

What can a university teach us about our own tastes?   What can the university reveal to us about our own creative preferences?   (more about that later.)   What can another painter teach us about how our hand moves unconsciously with a brush in hand?   And, how can any of these institutions expose our ability to think critically about our own work . . . .all they can do is render their opinion that is nothing more than conventional wisdom.

Shouldn’t an artist abide by conventional thinking?   Frankly, most who do find themselves attempting to record, or photographically explain what they see.

Over time the painter begins to shun that ‘wisdom.’   One comes to a state of mind that is strictly selfish and opinionated about the qualities of their own work instead of emulating an admired artist. In other words, after years of trying and failing to make another masterpiece (which looks like many of the others that already exist), we realize that when we make something that has NOT been seen before on this earth, we have arrived at the place we have always intended.

There is no amount of training by any institution or teacher that can bring us to accepting our own vision.

How does one find the training and ‘learning’ to reach that level of artistic maturity?

At first most new painters focus on how to deliver the paint to the surface . . . that is technique!   Unfortunately, many painters get stuck there and never grow their curiosity to include design, composition or emotional content.

The maturing process is actually fairly common among artists who have “arrived” at a state of accomplished maturity.   Those who have “arrived” all followed a similar process . . . . .somewhere in their quest, they decided the best teacher they could find was their own easel.   That is they made a conscious decision that they needed to set aside all other actions and diversions and to spend a few years at their easel putting in painting time and wearing out their brushes.

It is here that we find / discover our creative preferences;   we see that our habitual tendency is to emphasize patterns of value, or experiment with color, or become infatuated with textures.   Every artist leans on one such design element in their growth and that becomes a central part of their “style.” (which is nothing more than habit!)

It is there that the artist will begin to experiment and take chances he or she would not otherwise take when someone is looking over their shoulder.   In those experiments (some of them bizarre) the painter reveals new un-thought of options for future work.   In my humble opinion, the process of self discovery is what opens an artist to relying on their own work above all other.

Perhaps the painter will go to extremes, a la Jackson Pollack, and sling paint in hopes for happy accidents.   Or, the artist may take on a disciplined method of exploiting one or two design elements and try learning all the possibilities that lie within.   There many methods, but the true basis of maturity development is focused individual work.   There are lots of different names and descriptions of that sort of work, but it all boils down to having the courage to plow through the frustrations and failures and just keep on painting . . . .and doing it alone for an extended period of time.

For those of us who have done such “work,” I honestly don’t recall ever thinking of it as W O R K.   It wasn’t!!   It was P L A Y!   For me, the act of putting paint on paper or canvas was simply the most satisfying and exciting thing I could have done.   The outcome didn’t matter as much as the act of the process.

If you are an artist seriously thinking about finding that “next level” and beyond, you might want to give this article some very serious consideration.


Consider the Power of Intention (part 2 of 2)

For some readers, the last post about putting our minds into the mode of creating circumstance might have been difficult to accept.

There is another mental state into which we must be in order to springboard our intentions to life.   That is to say that we must control how we think in order to have our intentions come true.

Let me just say that our attitude determines our altitude. Little can come to us if we are of suspicious mind or of negative mind.   That is to say that our power of intention can only work if we are fully and completely open to and accepting of our wishes actually materializing.

There are no secret gospels or mysterious states of hypnosis in which one must be order to bring our desires to life.   There is, however, a very specific state of mind, which must be in complete existence, before that can happen.   My article of a week ago . . .”Not Interrupting the Process” alludes to this.

That is to pout about a painting outcome, or to curse one’s lack of talent, or wish for a different birthright is the absolute opposite of how one’s mental position must be if one is to learn and grow as each ‘lesson’ presents itself.   (In the world of painting, a ‘lesson’ is some accidental appearance of some odd shape, color, size or value of something in your painting which doesn’t give you satisfaction.)

Okay!   So you want to become a much better painter.   What are you doing in your mind to make that happen? How are you going to create that outcome?   Are you disappointed at the result of every painting and blaming some personal shortfall for it?   Are you being impatient to get the results you are after?   Are you saying something like this, “Okay, I “set my mind” for this to happen, but let’s see if it works?”

You may think that Mike Bailey is slightly around the bend with this far out thinking.   Let me say that there is nothing new about this stuff.   It is NOT the latest version of new age thinking. It DOES apply to all circumstances of life!  The power of intention has been spoken about and written about for many decades.   Norman Vincent Peale wrote about it in his book “The Power of Positive Thinking.”  Napolean Hill, in his book, “Think and Grow Rich” said, ‘If you can conceive and believe it, you can achieve it.”   Robert Schuler said it in his book, “You Get What You Expect.”   This ‘attitude’ idea is nothing new.   Obviously, these authors have experienced the results of focused intention, or they would not have written about it.

The fact of the matter is that we, as human beings, have HUGE power to create very specific outcomes in everything we do.

If you follow sports at all, you know that the coaches of the most accomplished Olympic athletes train their athletes to “Visualize” their routines or actions over and over again.   And they are trained to play those visualizations of successful outcomes over and over in their minds. The athletes are training their minds to follow that which they have rehearsed over and over again. . . . so that when the moment to perform comes, that athlete will be performing out of habit instead of improvising in real time.

In other words, dear reader, this stuff works !!!!!!

But it only works if we are in the right frame of mind.   Once our intention or goal or desire is set in our thoughts, we must place our thinking patterns as though it is actually materializing.   For example, while I was developing my art course, I was rehearsing some of the lectures and mentally anticipating questions that might come up.   I was imagining (visualizing) the actual events of teaching my material as though it was actually happening.   In fact, I was believing it was already happening.

That is to say, to be in the frame of mind of accepting and allowing the flow of circumstances and processes to occur in their natural stream . . . . and not to reject or fight them off with a pattern of suspicion or negativity.   It is all about being open and accepting to possibility. What ever is to come, will come.

When we are open and willing to accept all forms of outcome . . . .even the bitter tasting ones . . . .the “coincidences” will start to happen . . . .and your intended circumstance will be realized.

In summary, our intentions, or goal, or desires form our future . . .even though we may not be aware of it.   AND, interrupting the flow of lessons and circumstances, which show up, halts the flow and actually prevents the formation of the reality of our intended purpose.   Moreover, we need to visualize and mentally experience that which we intend . . .be open and accepting. (and be in a state of joy that it IS happening, before it happens.)

There is one last little part to this.   As artists, new or experienced, we have to put ourselves into the creative mode while at the end of our brushes. Musicians have a name for it:   Practice!

Take a deep breath and focus on how, what, when and where you want to become.

In that state, you are in the very act of creating it!


Consider the Power of Intention (part 1 of 2)


“Coronet”  22 x 30 inches

Few of us can truly appreciate the extraordinary power of our Intentions.

Frequently, we aren’t even aware of our intention and how strong it might be . . . or what it will manifest.   Moreover, who ever considered that a “silly idea” might become the beacon of our life?   That is an idea passes through our mind and it becomes a desire . . . perhaps an obsession.   Certainty is not something that most of us deal with when considering what lies in our future.   After all, who is certain about what will happen in the next two years?   Furthermore, how many of us can possibly predict where our lives will lead us in the next ten or more years?

We can’t.   . . . . . .   Or can we ?

Several years ago I can recall typing out lesson plans for how I had begun to think about making art . . . . building on the elements and principles of design.   I had an idea about something rarely taught and believed strongly that it should be taught to people who wished to be artists.   In fact, I felt so strongly about it that I felt it should be taught to advanced painters.   Somehow, in the back of my mind, I knew that I might be called to teach something about painting.   That was nearly 20 years ago.

Mind you, I said “might” be called. You might say that it was a suspicion.   Sort of like when you notice you have good feelings when you are in the presence of a nice dog.   Afterward, the idea comes up that it might be a good idea to have a dog in your life.   Know what I mean?   It isn’t completely certain, but then, according to our feelings, it was as clear as any strong suspicion could be.

It isn’t a “goal” . . . a well defined thing to accomplish by a certain date . . . it was an intention.   As in, “I intend to become a good painter.” Or, “I intend to have a dog in my life.” Or, “Holy Cow! I think I have found my purpose here.”   The latter is a full blown realization.   In that realization, is there any contrast or conflict with other ideas? NO!   That realization is so strong that some refer to it as a calling.   “I think I might be called to teach this stuff.”

It was under that sort of realization . . . of I ‘get’ my purpose now . . . .that intention began to take shape.   And there I sat with MS Word typing away my lesson plans. . . . . . . just in case!

They say that “Luck” is where opportunity and preparedness intersect.   Some would say “success.”

My intention was clear: I would teach.   I wasn’t clear about when or where, but in my heart I knew I should be prepared.   Intention is not something to trifle with.   Be ready when opportunity presents itself.

A few “coincidences” presented themselves in my day to day living.   (Really folks, when it comes to intention, there are NO coincidences.)   That is to say that various people, odd events, conditions, circumstances, whatever present themselves at unexpected times.   Some call them coincidence, but they are not.   They materialize because of the energy that our intentions create.   (Believe me, I have had so many of these sort of things appear, that I am firmly convinced that I have, in some way, created the circumstances to occur.)

As a result of a stream of these odd circumstances that presented themselves to me, I received a phone call from a University inquiring if I would like to teach my course that I had designed at my computer.

At a university????   Really???

Yes, it really happened and the rest is history.   I taught at the university and word of mouth took hold as the university curtailed their art program.   As a result of that short lived experience, I have been travelling and teaching in the workshop circuit throughout the USA and parts of Europe for 15 years!

Nope!   It is not coincidence.   There are many ways to explain this stuff, of which I shan’t explain.   But there IS SOMETHING that goes out from us to cause our intentions to become manifest.

This is but one story of the power of my intentions . . . I can relate many, many others.   As I approach the end of life (hopefully not too close!) I have come to realize that this is not hocus pocus or mumbo jumbo. And I can unequivocally say that it isn’t luck either.

So, what does this have to do with being an artist?   Simply this:   Take a close look at your intentions . . . . AND inspect your excuses . . . we all have them.   Rid yourself of excuses and ‘reasons’ . . . . we have those, too . . . .be clear about what you want and prepare yourself by being in the process of realizing what it is you intend.   That is to say put all your positive energy and thoughts into preparing for your intention to become realized.

After all, us artists are in the business of creating.   Why not create circumstances?

On Interrupting the Process

“Socked In”  15 x 22 inches

Making art and becoming a better artist is a process.   This process, above all, must flow.   That is to say that every event in our painting experience must follow another event . . . . and another and another and another.   Each and every event counts toward the eventual outcome of every painting we make and our reach for artistic mastery.

Translated, the statement above simply states that every mistake, every path not taken, every thought ignored, every comment from others are all part of the flow of the progression of mistakes and events that are the process of ‘becoming.’

That may sound like mumbo jumbo to some of you who are seeking artistic growth and seeking beautiful outcomes in every painting.

Look at how you feel about the painting just completed.   No joy about it?   Really?   Do you go into a negative funk of thinking “I am not talented enough?”   Do you dwell on the thoughts of “I wish I had made it differently?” . . .or “Of only . . ?”

When our mind and inner voices are speaking to us in such negative streams, do we really benefit from those thoughts?   Not just “no,” but Hell no !!!   We, as artists, must learn to profit from every event that occurs in the process of artistic becoming.   Yes, EVERY event.   Every mistake.   Every wrong move matters. Everything we encounter in our path is significant.

As was said in a previous post, the obstacles ARE the path.

If, indeed, the obstacles ARE the path, then we must learn to care for them as though they were prophets there to deliver profound learning experiences.

We simply need to step back and allow the unexpected events that thwarted our expectations to speak to us in the mode that a carefully concerned teacher would speak.   That is we need not interrupt the process that has unfolded before us.   To interrupt is to cause the flow of progress to halt.

We must allow the process to unfold and to accept the minor events as they occur and pay careful attention to those events, though not always welcome, as profound lessons so that the flow of the process might continue.

Let me translate for you . . . . the painter painted a shape that seemingly was not going to fit with her expectations of how it was supposed to look.   She was repulsed by it.   She could have stopped in disgust and begun again.   She could have thrown the work into the waste bin.   She could have completely turned away from the experience.   I watched her pout and complain and produce a lot of negative energy.

She absolutely halted the flow of energy and events that were lined up to light the way to solutions and new, fresh thinking. What she encountered was a perfect lesson to sort through alternative solutions to a big challenge.   It is these sort of challenges that arise in every single painting . . . .problems!! . . . .blunders . . . .which must be resolved.   Because we are confronted with this sort of problem solving, we must develop our skills and habits to be the solver.

We don’t learn by throwing the lessons away.   We don’t train our instincts or our skill set in problem solving by becoming disgusted or giving up.

We learn and improve by doing the hard stuff.   We succeed through struggle.   We achieve mastery by confronting and finding paths over, around, under or through the obstacles.   While our successes feel marvelous, we learn little if anything from them.

Interrupting and stopping the process is NOT a solution. Interrupting the process invites those same unexpected events to come visit us again and again . . . They revisit because we didn’t take the time to discover the solutions to the problems that appeared.

Our development as painters / artists depends on our ability to accept and respond to every artistic challenge as they come before us.

As a post script, your friends or your teachers do not necessarily have the solutions you desire.   Finding solutions is an experimental process that we must endure alone.   We learn from that process of experience, too.

A Different Perspective . . .

“Abstraction in Whites”

Recently, I completed giving giving a workshop and acting as a juror and awards judge for a large watercolor exhibition.   While I was ready for the task and the possible embarrassment if I failed, a realization came upon me that I have changed my perspective.   That is to say I have entirely revised my attitudes about being a painter.   For many years, I lived the part, but all the while chewed on the notion that I was still an amateur . . . . .and didn’t want anyone to discover that fact!!

I am not sure when the shift took place.   Somewhere, sometime my attitude was one that I had never carried before . . . . .I didn’t give a darn about what anyone thought.   Okay.   If I make a mistake, I made a mistake!  Get used to it world.

Yikes!   That is awfully cavalier!! . . . . Or, is it?

I cannot account for how the mental change happened, but I became aware of it in the midst of my recent workshop.   One of the participants was painting (obviously) and was loudly voicing her displeasure with what she was doing.   She attempted to start over again . . . .and I advised her NOT to begin a new painting . . . .to stay with and finish what she had begun.

Of course, she was even more upset.   I could not verbalize to her what I was feeling and thinking (not about her!).   What my mind was doing was quietly trying to comfort her and let her know that she was experiencing exactly what she should be experiencing.

Eh?  What did you just say, Mike?

She was rejecting the fact that she was confronting obstacles to her hoped for success.   She refused to accept that the obstacles were part of her training to become a better painter.

A great philosopher once said something to this effect:   Obstacles in your path?  The obstacles ARE your path!

That statement totally sums up the current state of my attitude!   I have accepted that mistakes, failures, blunders, faux pas, etc. are the the very places from which our best lessons are learned . . . .and that it is not only ‘okay’ for them to be out in the open, but that they are expected and welcome!

Think about your path to becoming a painter for a few moments . . . .

Was it an easy journey?   Did it happen over night?   Were there acres of canvas or paper wasted and ruined along the way?    Were you ever embarrassed about a painting?   Did you ever find that a painting simply would not come to fruition?   And . . . .did you ever experience one painting just falling into place so automatically that you didn’t know how it happened?

And here is another question . . . .Aren’t you proud of how much you have overcome to become the painter that you are?   Aren’t you looking forward to the rest of the journey?

Of course the answer is an unqualified “Yes” to all the above questions!

Somehow, somewhere and sometime we not only accept that struggle is the formula for success as a painter, but we eventually relish the delicious challenges that confront us along the way.   Our perspective changes from resistance to acceptance.

And so it is, my friends.   Be with the obstacles !!


Scatter Brained?

Planely Scattered-72

“Planely Scattered”

Watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

Begun as demonstration for making textures, this piece was brought to the studio to see if it could be trained into something interesting.

Concerns:   1.  It must be a balanced and unified composition,  2.   Thee should be a strong color harmony and, 3.   It must have a sense of shallow space.   These were the goals I set out to accomplish . . .with nothing from which to copy. Abstracts, or non objective paintings, are challenging to the artist because there is no model to follow.  Everything that happens to the painting must come as a result of careful thought to ensure that every mark fits  into the context of all the other marks already made.   That statement also goes for ANY painting of any subject.

As you can see, most all the colors in the painting are grayed down or ‘unsaturated’ in order that there be a clear sense of fitting with all the other colors in the painting . . .save for the area called the center of interest.   Similarly, the shapes must follow the pattern or character of all the other shapes in the painting, in this case geometric, flat shapes.   Had I put in a curvilinear shape among all the other geometric shapes, it may have stuck out, or seemed as though it did not belong.   As with all paintings, we attack the project with high hopes of success, but move forward with the sort of abandon as though we don’t care.   Some would call this attitude one of courage.

My mantra with all paintings in progress is this:  It’s only a piece of paper !!

As long as I remind myself that no one is going to get hurt, if I mess up, and that it is, indeed, only a piece of paper, then I can dream up just about anything I want to do without worry of bad result.

I pull out a spray bottle full of dark sepia paint . . . . I step up to the painting table, spray bottle in hand, wondering;  how dark is it?  What if it splatters?  What if the sprayer drips?  My answer to all of these questions is the same:   We’ll see !!   The fact is that the artist cannot expect great things to happen to the progress of a painting if fear will prevent him from doing some things.  In short, as artists, we must be willing to fail.   We must be open to allowing the unforeseen to show up and challenge us.   We must open ourselves to being willing to repair if something “bad” happens.

This demonstration was to show class participants how to make various sorts of texture and how to use them.   In the course of the demonstration, different marks were being made all over the paper . . . with each mark came the statement that “you cannot make a mistake!”   That is to say that mistakes are not possible!   A very wise artist once told me “If you make a mistake, repeat it several times in the painting.  Then it won’t appear as a mistake!”

That brings up one last thing . . .the idea of repetition.   This is something every artist must understand and how it affects unity in a painting.   Just know this, repetition with variations makes for interest and helps hold the sum of the parts of the painting together as a single unit.

On Becoming “Good” . . .

"Cadaques Evening" Watercolor 18 x 24 inches
“Cadaques Evening”
Watercolor 18 x 24 inches

A question comes frequently from workshop participants that I find difficult to answer in more than a single sentence:   “What do I have to do to become really good at painting ?”

In the last few days I have spent a large amount of time reflecting on my own experience as a painter, from beginning to the present.   Here are a few thoughts which are a very frank accounting of what it has taken me to come to my current level of skill . . . . .

I noticed when I first began to paint that something happened to me while I painted. . . I completely lost track of time and everything around me for extended periods of time.  In fact, I was completely absent to what was going on around me.   That certainly isn’t a requirement to become better, but it indicates that something was deep within me which pushed all of my ‘buttons’ at once to force me to go into such a deep state of concentration.

In those states I would experience a wide variety of emotions from sheer joy, to disgust, to anger, to wonder, to disappointment, to love, to hate, to happiness and all manner of stuff boiling up during and after the act of painting.  Yes, all of those feelings came up.  Never had I experienced such a wide range of emotions in such a short time.   It was like being an emotional yo-yo.   A friend calls that batch of emotions (he is also a painter) the “Ickies.”    We both agree that in order to become more skilled at painting, one must first come to grips with managing the “Ickies.”   In my opinion, there is nothing more debilitating than negative self talk and “buying into” those negative emotions.   One must be able to say to one’s self, “Get over it! There is learning to do here!”

Our attitudes determine our altitudes in life and in everything we do.   In painting, I have noticed that the really successful painters all seem to have the same degree of passion and excitement for the act of painting.   That passion, in my opinion, is almost absurd it is so intense.   Those people seem to be willing to forsake all sorts of life pleasures in exchange for the chance to pick up a brush and paint.

It seems to me that this passion for it has some sort of physiological effects, too.   That there must be something released into our bloodstreams much like an addictive drug while we paint.   And it becomes something of an addiction.   We seem to derive an unexplainable sense of well being while we paint that is so euphoric that we crave it . . . and sometimes to our detriment.   Painting becomes extraordinarily important to us.

Mind you, I don’t believe that what was just said is a requirement to become better.   But it does provide the needed drive to push through all the obstacles in life that confront us in training ourselves to become painters.   I do, however, note that our passion can, at times, prevent us from doing the necessary diligence or discipline of proper planning or preparation.   The desire to “just paint” can be overwhelming and compel us to go into a painting fully unprepared, which will in most cases, call up the “ickies.”   Then the internal battles ensue until we do it all over again.  Eventually, we come to some hard won realizations that we had better do the deliberate preparation before we pick up our brushes.

Becoming better does require us to realize that the preparation is far more important than the actual execution.   Frankly, there are many, many painters out there who depend on “happy accidents” to show up and make their paintings ‘acceptable.’    In my opinion, good paintings require much more than sheer happenstance.   They require thoughtful preparation and careful analysis and problem solving.  It is way more than smearing pigment around and hoping for a good outcome.

That said, to fully answer the question, it is my belief that beyond the act of adding up brush miles and painting frequently, one must study design and composition.   Then, in that process of study, one must test their learning in series painting.   That is to focus on a single idea or subject for many consecutive months . . . even years.

In there, among all of these aspects, the novice graduates into progressively more challenging painting circumstances until the skills are all second nature.

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