Courting Failure and Thinking

“Origins”
Watercolor 22 x 30 inches
The terror of failure often accompanies painters as they make their way through their paintings. The sheer idea that failure may appear and inform the world that we are incompetent scares the liver out of many, many painters.
I happen to believe that in order to go beyond what is accepted as ‘good’ or “just like a photograph” one must come to terms with failing and allow it to accompany every attempt at making art. The reason I believe that is that I know that plain vanilla just doesn’t attract much attention. And, in order to do something truly extraordinary, one must risk failing . . . the extraordinary is, obviously, difficult. Otherwise it wouldn’t BE extraordinary.
To make non objective paintings, the artist has no crutch on which to lean, such as a model or scene from which to reference. The artist is out on the end of the gang plank, so to speak. Every element, Line, Size, Shape, Direction, Color, Value and Texture, come into play . . . . . and every element must be considered in how it affects every other part of the painting. Then, composition also raises its head and demands to be not only recognized, but designed. There is much conjecture by lay persons that “my kindergartener could do that,” or “a monkey could,” etc. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Non objective painting doesn’t happen by accident or by throwing paint at it and hoping that the painting will come out okay.
Painting non objective work entails deep thought and lots of evaluating alternatives for each of the elements mentioned above. The outcome is something the artist tries hard to reach and is most often disappointed . . . . “It didn’t come out like what I had in mind.” It never does . . . .but as we grow, we get closer.
So, when I want a mental challenge, painting a piece like the one above is what I attempt. And a challenge it is!!! In fact, the process is total mental immersion.
Did this one work? Heck, I don’t know yet. But the fun is in the doing.

Still on the Edge of Heaven . . .

“Carmel River Mouth”
Watercolor 22 x 30 inches
A hiatus on Wednesday to carry out a work assignment prevented me from painting, but it sure didn’t stop me from thinking about being back at the easel while at work! Sometimes, plein aire painting can be a full blown compulsion for me! This week I was certainly in that compulsive behavior zone!
One of the very first workshops I ever attended was at this location some 20 years ago from a gentleman by the name of Gerald Brommer. You may know of Gerry or even attend his workshops. I know that he has given some 600 workshops all over the world. The Monterey area in Northern California (which is where this painting was done) was one of his favorite haunts. It was his paintings of that area that swept me into taking up this delightful pastime. I will be forever grateful to him for his encouragement and for setting an example for me to follow for the rest of my life.
That said, I wish there were spectators attending this painting session. I could do nothing wrong it seemed. It nearly FELL off my brushes. There was a mellow feeling as I set up my gear and proceeded to lay out the composition. Every move, every stroke, every wash and every glaze seemed as though nothing could possibly go wrong! There are occasional moments like that in the pursuit of painting. They don’t come often, but when they do there is incredible excitement (almost like a drug high!) that follows and keeps me floating for many days afterward. One would think that after 24 years of painting that sort of feeling of euphoria wouldn’t come around much, but it sure does for me. When I think about this sort of reward, I become very spiritual and quite grateful for the gifts I have been given. (amen!)
There are a few more paintings that happened this week, two of which are still in the category of “starts” and must be resolved in order to declare them finished. I will post them as soon as that happens. Meanwhile, I am returning to teaching my ten week class “Watercolor Beyond the Obvious” on Monday of this coming week. So, I must prepare, rather than paint.
Knowing me as I do, though, I imagine this compulsion that throbs within will win out in a day or two!! ;-))

And Another . . . .

“Merced Gold”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
Thsi subject is simply terrific for putting strong compositions together. The shapes really lend themselves to commanding and dominating the picture space . . . . .everything else in the painting is just support of that one idea. Which, incidentally, is how all good paintings should be . . . elegantly simple.
Just look at Sargent’s works . . . .not a lot of extra stuff . . . . just simple shapes of figures or buildings . . .and generally they beguile the viewer because of the light and the way the shapes occupy the picture space.
This big rock is a large as a small house in reality. And its shape and edges are fascinating. I love the way the white sits in the yellow dominant field. The yellow provides such a feeling of light and season.
Am still ‘at it’ as I am putting nearly three paintings a day away. There is more to see! Stay tuned!

Toying with Line and Color

“Line Splice”
watercolor trial 22 x 30 inches

Few a few days I have been alternately prepping for a workshop and painting . . .among other things. This is a hurried painting on the back of a ruined painting . . .in other words, a trial of a few ideas.

The first idea was to set a mood of an approaching storm and a shadow of danger. That meant I had to use color in a way that was moody and foreboding to a degree: few, if any, pure dazzling colors. I chose to paint in a strategy of Shades, Tones and Tints. In this approach, tones dominate the image while I used shades for shadow areas and the darks. The Tints were reserved for the lineman’s shirt . . . .the edges of it which were in the light.
As well, the use of LINE as an element in the painting was another item I had to fool with to get the feel of which technique to use to express the cables and phone lines in the piece. As it turns out, all but one are freehand. I tried taping the lines off . . . .it was too ridgid. I tried painting with a soft brush and it became too fussy. Then I happened upon a very stiff bristle brush, flat, used on edge . . . .that did the trick.
The gray sky area (the negative space) is much too sloppy for what I needed to accomplish, but now I know I must mix a large amount of wash to attain the uniform feel I am after. I will use a tub of premixed wash on my next attempt and use that as a mother color to establish color variation in the negative space.
The line work in the piece definitely gives a feeling of empty space which emphasizes the shadow of danger. The tree trunk and utility pole on the right of the piece hold the eye inward and make for a strong tie to the left margin via the wires and cables.
I like this one. When I return from my workshop, I will explore making a serious painting of it.

Oh Cee Dee !

“The Bucket Crane”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

“Leaning Out”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

“Two Hardhats”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

Yes, OCD! Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I think I have it. Maybe not full tilt, but I certainly act it, now and then. I wonder if it is something I eat. . . . .

I have been ruminating for a few months on how to simplify my linemen paintings and take them into another dimension. That isn’t the part that is OCD. I finally decided, after a brief visit with Christopher Schink, that I would resort to playing with big flat shapes, with very little detail. All one needs do, is look at Schink’s masterworks and one would immediately understand my choice to begin there. I certainly don’t wish to copy his approach,(as if anyone could!). (Obviously a master, he is, eh?!). Instead, just focusing on big flat shapes will lead me to value and color approaches as well as texture and line.
These linemen are super subjects to play with because of the shapes they can generate when connected to their work and / or equipment. As you saw a few days ago, Dear Reader, I sketched 19 of the rascals and came up with some interesting abstractions of value and shape. I developed more sketches . . .near 40 now . . . . . . so, it is time to see where I can go with paint. Working this subject in series is bound to shake out some new, appealing ideas.
The OCD part comes in during my dreams! . . . . . not wanting to do anything except paint! I find 3AM seems to be my wake up time when in this OCD mode . . . .and definitely NOT on purpose! I just can’t stop thinking about this stuff. So, it awakens me . . .even when sick or exhausted. So, I get out of bed and go to the studio to try some of my ideas and experiments.
Here are a few trial paintings. Mind you, these are just trials. When taking a 3 x 4 inch sketch up to 22 x 30 inch painting, spaces can look very empty and boring if not paid their due attention. These trials are to get a feel for the ideas in paint (usually on the back of some old, failed painting) then make some key decisions about design, then develop the paintings seriously. I have to shake the Schink influence and stick to my own vision . . . .and that, it seems is the cause of my OCD. I can’t leave these thoughts alone!
More later . . . . . .obviously!! 😉

So You Think . . . . .



Sketches and trial composition and color studies of Linemen at work

pencil and watercolor

So you think it’s all talent?? I say Baloney !

It seems every time people comment on the work of artist, including my own, these statements are overheard:

“You are soooo talented.”

“I could never do that.”

“I tried it once and didn’t do well, so I never did it again.”

I say “Baloney!” because over the years I have spent painting . . .and counting all the failures which no one ever sees . . . . .it has been hard, focused and devoted W O R K ! That is not to say that the efforts have been unhappy, or that there has been no frustration or disappointments. Quite the contrary! Underneath all of the paintings before now has been study. Diligent, concentrated investigation and attempt after attempt to resolve unsatisfactory results has been the daily rigor.

Here is an example of what sort of effort goes into developing a painting from an idea.

First, there are the sketches to determine how the artist wants to compose or present the subject. Often, the effort stops there. Once in a while, though, an idea persists and further development is called for.

Rather than paint the mundane, ordinary stuff we see daily, why not elevate it to a different stature. In this example, I spent a full week exploring different color schemes while also considering different compositional ideas. Oh, sure I had reference photos from which to select ideas and approaches, but after several drawings on tracing paper, modifications had to be made to make clear what was being said visually.

In the end, I did develop a painting from these studies, which I will show in the next post. The point here is not the finished product, but the effort over fully two weeks of daily work to bring that painting to life.

Talent? Baloney!! It is trial and error and error and error and trial and more trials and more errors. It is having the stubbornness to not be swayed by the failure to deliver the goods on the first try, or the second or even the third, but to attempt again and again making refinements along the way.

Mastery is not a trait someone is born with or is given as a gift. Every good artist I know puts in way more time than many folks do at a job. They dream about it at night. They read and study about it. They drill themselves in exercises and studies. They are often compulsive about it. They are willing to risk failure daily in order to have the opportunity to make a single success at painting.

So, if you want to really compliment an artist (musician, dancer, actor, painter, sculptor etc.) let them know you appreciate their insatiable efforts to get better and better. It really is quite a cool way to live . . . . .it is most fulfilling!!

Haste, Balance and Adjustments

“Hobby Horse Dreams”
Watercolor 18 x 24 inches

Today, just as I am readying to depart to an NWS board of directors meeting, I kept noticing that I had a problem with my last painting.

This time of year is always difficult for me because it is a time of hurrying to complete many things in short time allotments. Open Studio at my home will be held October 9,10 and 16,17. The haste to accomplish all the framing and preparations to make that event happen without hitches is always a challenge.
As usual, I framed pieces I have painted in the last year. This piece, which you saw in the last post, was standing in its frame in our living room . . . . . .and while it stood there, it was as if a big hook and yelling voice was attempting to catch me. The piece was out of balance!
See the last post and observe the left 1/4 of the painting. That area was morose, dark and the only area like it in the painting. That area seemed as though it did not belong with the rest of the painting (striving for unity!). Also, the white shape seemed to be too far biased to the right . . .that is most of the weight of the shape was on the right. Something needed to happen to this piece! Something subtle yet effective enough to upset the current unbalanced nature of the piece.
I had to remove it from the frame, mat, glass etc. Then it had to go back to the easel for adjustments and some needed new elements of line. You can see the vertical / oblique wavy lines were added . . .but no change in balance. The Blue ‘dart’ was added to help direct the eye, but the piece was still out of balance. ( I wasn’t just guessing. I knew what had to happen: the left quarter needed a hint of white to pull the eye back toward the left and to compensate for the right biased weight of the big white shape.) The lines and dart were needed elements for interest.
Darn! Wasted time! Not really.
Having learned the hard way too many times, it seems to me that a good painter never rushes to conclusions in finalizing any painting . . . pending shows or whatever the reason. I have, several times, framed paintings and put them in a show only to be embarassed by what I completely missed seeing. Good paintings need time to be digested and reconsidered. More often than not, after a few weeks of resting, a painting will reveal its inner workings and problems as the painter relaxes from the angst of the act of painting. I believe this to be part of the natural order of making art. You just cannot rush it. Many students find they cannot paint well in workshops. This is part of the reason. Good composition requires reflection, observation and thought. . . . . . and not just for a few minutes. Those tiny adjustments can often make or break a painting. And they may not reveal themselves for long periods. It is a matter of being patient and letting the mind dwell quietly on the composition. The painting process is not always won by the swift, but to those who remain in the struggle to compose carefully.
Moral: Put your pieces up in a corner where you can see them for an extended period before the “Finished” declaration is made.

Plein Air Vertigo

“Red Carpeting”
oil on canvas panel 12 x 16 inches

No Kidding! That cliff edge is over 150 feet straight down . . . .and a few bumps along the way!
Standing at the edge and painting really required me to concentrate because the vertigo was always nagging at me.
This location you might have seen before in other paintings and posts. But I must admit that I keep going back there for more. Yes, the vegetation is definetely that color . . . .ice plant . . . a succulent which carpets the area and displays these vivid colors. What a joy to paint . . . .even if I was a little bit dizzy!

On Value Transitions

“Crumpled Considerations”
Watercolor 30 x 22 inches
Last week a gentleman inquired about my method in making these non objective paintings.
First a sketch. A simple sketch which shows two or three simple value shapes. Those different values must, in my mind, exist in a ratio of Large, medium and tiny. Which specific value group is one size or the other doesn’t matter. I happen to like a large lighter compositional shape which reaches for and touches at least three sides of the piece. The dark and medium values would surround the large shape.
Mind you, when I refer to “light,” it may mean several different light values . . . . . .that is lighter than everything else in the painting.
The big trick in putting this to paint is to first isolate the large light shape by blocking it in with various glazes of paint layers. The use of glazes assures variation and, if I am careful with different techniques, texture, too. Over several days, I will gradually begin to encroach on the big light shape along the edges, gradually changing value and color. By edges and the amount of encroachment, this could mean as much as covering the majority of the shape or as little as a mere centimeter into the shape.
The work ensues until there are a series of value steps from dark to medium to medium-light to light to lightest. Those transitions and graduations of value (and color) prevent the eye from being stopped by too much, or too sudden, contrast. Only at one location will there be a strident step from dark to lightest. And that location will be in a very strategic spot.
Gradually textures are created and, toward the end, there are a few stampings and spatters in unique places to help soften or assist a sudden value transition. In short, this process requires a lot of attention to edges and contrasts.
As the piece nears completion, there are always errors and problems with balance and misplaced contrasts. Sponging out areas using various masks (or not) helps to resolve many of these issues.
Overall, the goal is to make a painting which is completely unified from corner to corner, where there are relationships throughout the piece. That is where shapes are related in their character, value, color and or texture. There must be passages and movement through the piece and it must have excitement. That last word is the opposite of boredom. Every single square inch (or centimeter) must have something happening that is related to other parts of the painting, but in that relating must also be different. Texture stampings, for example, must be similar but different. VARIATION is a a key operative.
So!! There you have it. How long do paintings like this take? Weeks and, frequently, months!
Failure is my companion every step of the way. It is part of the process. The trick is to work the painting until it is finished: Never give up. Think think think think!!!!