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.

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!!

Last Touches

As usual, the painting in the last post was crying out to me about that big light valued shape jutting out from the painting. It was too ridgid, too edgy, too long, too “a lot of things.” It needed changing.

But how does one change something which, in many ways appears ‘right?’

I have learned over the years that if my gut is niggling at me about something in a painting, I should pay attention. So, I did.

A mere value change at the left end of that long shape . . .a lost edge here . . .a slightly cooler tinge at the far left of it, but warmer than the tone under it . . . then put it in. Oh! that changed how the other stuff around it reacted. So, a little wash over a shape or two to make them settle back and . . .there! I am calling it finished. My gut is quiet now.
PS . . .Some have asked “Did I do a sketch first?” Yep!! It didn’t have all the nuances in it, but most of the compositional arrangement of light and darker valued shapes were planned.

Experimentation and Inspiration

“Oaks on a Wall”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches
Often, in execution of the lessons I give in classes and workshops, I am distracted from a deep inspiration to create a specific painting. Other kinds of distractions come up, too, but all of them frequently take me off that inspired track. That is one good reason for taking a week away from everyone and everything to just concentrate on painting. Such was the case a few weeks ago in Yosemite.

Returning to class from Yosemite, I had to give a mindless demo of different ways to create textures or to give a sense of surface in a painting. I say mindless because it was simply a blank piece of paper and a bunch of different examples of stamping, lifting, spraying, splattering, smudging, dripping etc . . . .all with no image or intention of making a painting.

Meanwhile, in the back of my mind was a vision I had seen through the eyes of a zoom lens . . . .the face of one of the sheer granite walls towering hundreds of meters above my place on the valley floor. Full grown trees grew out of cracks on the stone! Yet those trees and the abstract patterns in the rock had me buzzing inside.

I took the demo sheet home and began experimenting with more textures and colors and ‘stuff’ just to see what I could come up with that **might** suggest those walls and their abstractions on that same sheet . . .just slobbering layer over layer.

Often, it is the coming together of sheer experimentations and the visions from inspired ideas that create works which arrest a viewer and hold their interest . . . .much more that a tired scene of something everyone knows.

Clearly, to be different, one must do different things at the easel. The painter must allow the paint to act like paint rather than conform to some notion about looking like something else. Experiments can show us painters new ways to consider our beautiful mediums. In fact, I believe most of our work as artists must be connected to experimenting.

See If You Can Explain This . . .

“Meadow Stripes”
oil on stretched canvas, 16 x 20 inches
Warms advance and cools recede, right?

I have been painting the wildflowers in this meadow over the last few weeks. In meddling with one of the last paintings to make repairs, I decided to take license with color. That is to change several things to see what would happen (the cool thing about oil painting is that you can cover up anything! So you can experiment till your heart’s content and not waste a single piece of canvas . . .you can always go back over it!)

In this painting, the dark tree line in the rear of the picture space is cool red. While the hills in the back are pale, warm blue. The sky is a warm, pale yellow. The big tree on the right is green and the foreground ranges from blue violet to yellow grays to dull greens. My color logic says “no, this won’t work” . . .but it does.

If I think in literal terms, red is warmer than blue. That part is okay. But why does the red recede like it does in the tree line? The two green trees in this piece scream with warm, intense greens in the light, but out of the light they are icy blue in places.

Maybe the key to this piece is the warm, orange underpainting, which leaks through the colors in the foreground giving it an overall warm, advancing presence. Do ya think?

Thinking about the color wheel, I suppose that the yellow greens live higher, more toward warm than does the alizarin crimson based tree line. Whadda mind trick this painting is. Maybe you can explain it to me. ( I am serious!)

P.S. I’ll be signing off for a few weeks. I am going on a ‘walkabout.’ That is to say I’ll be travelling for a few weeks. This time no paints will accompany me (ouch!) Painting has always been my mistress, but this time I am taking the real mistress with me. She gets all my attention on this junket. If you knew her, you’d wonder who’d be able to pay attention to anything else! I’ll prolly be chewing my nails and twitching from the absence of paint and making art when I get back, but we are going where it’s a bit cold. So, there’ll be some snuggling happening, I am sure of it! 😉 (Maybe that’ll help!)

Meanwhile, be sure to tell me what you think about this color curiosity in the comments section.

The Dance

“Red Rover”
Oil on canvas panel, 12 x 16 inches
As stated in a recent post, this month is about focusing on plein air painting.

I can get very excited about this stuff, especially when the weather is offering sunshine and lots of subjects to paint. I must confess that I have taken on a near madness in this pursuit . . . .making two paintings a day! Yes. I am falling out of bed at sunrise, pulling on some clothes and leaving the house to paint. In five days, ten paintings have appeared. So far this month, 20 paintings have happened. And I have more waiting to be done. (Yes, there is other stuff getting accomplished, too, for those who are wondering about that. 😉 )

I am not sure of what to do with all this energy, except that I have an ethic about getting better and better at something. That ethic is to practice . . . .a lot !! If being taught by an expert, the expert will openly say something to the effect of “get the first 500 paintings out of the way, quickly,” . . . . . . which is really about producing quantity versus concern for quality. In that production of quantity, all sorts of things develop . . .not the least of which is to build a firm familiarity with how the medium responds. Moreover, a relaxation by the artist takes over at some point. That is an attitude of accepting what is happening on the canvas rather than trying to steer it. It is there, in that attitude that one’s style emerges. It is there, in that attitude that quality appears as a result of an internal knowing of what that medium will do when left undisturbed. (Am I saying this correctly?) . . . .and so leaving that brush stroke to say what it will.

In a fascinating book I am reading, “The Outliers,” by Malcom Gladwell, he speaks of mastery of anything coming as a result of being involved with it for ten thousand hours. Yes, it sounds like a lot of time. When I thought about it, and recounted what amount of time has passed while I had a watercolor brush in hand over the years (or was studying it) . . . .those hours long since passed. Who was counting?? Not me! I just wanted to paint!! Just like today. I just want to paint. I have to paint. That is to say, there is not a choice. I must!

Maybe mastery will come at some point. Maybe it won’t. I don’t care if it does or does not. In the chase, I get to paint !! And that, Dear Reader, is what makes this guy’s clock tick. It is the music to which I dance . . . . .and dance . . .and dance . . .and dance! What a joy!

And this painting above was simply the joy to undertake the challenge. Life is sooo good!

A Nagging Image

“Don’t Trip Here”
watercolor 22 x 15 inches
Late last summer, my painting buddy and I went to this location to paint. It was one of those magical days where one could hardly concentrate on the painting because the sights and happenings all around us were so distracting.

I came home with an oil painting that day, but wasn’t all that happy with it. It has been hanging in the back of my mind for months. Really! The scene has been nagging at me so badly that when I sit down with my sketch book, my hand seems to draw it. With variations, of course, but my subconscious is poking me over and over with that incredible landscape. I came home from the workshop last week and was very tired. For exercise, I decided to use a sharpie pen and a large piece of newsprint to just scribble out any sort of drawing. Guess what showed up !!

So, I tackled the idea in a vertical format, which presented some challenges . . .because the bottom of the page was a long distance from the focal point way up on top. I had to design the entire lower 2/3 of the painting to keep the viewer entertained and the eye moving upward. Also, I had decided to use a similar color scheme to some other pieces I had painted.

I am on a tear to paint this week, since I have to teach another workshop the first week of May. I have much to do to get ready, so I must take advantage of the time I do have.

The Sketch and The Urge

“Almost There”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches
There are curious times for us artists. We have strange urges, sometimes. Those urges have to do with compelling images trying to come out.

This sketch has been in my sketch book for many months . . .probably a year. And every time I go near it, it calls to me. I could feel the emotion of it, but could not put my finger on the sort of color scheme I needed. Then, on a rare quiet moment, alone in my studio while in North Carolina last month, I could stand it no longer. Out came my largest flat brush and lots of reds. I painted furiously and put in the directions, big movements and large shapes. . . . .and I made some serious errors . . . .Edges for one. And there was one edge on a shadow which rode the edge of the path that simply came from bad judgment.

I kept the painting around for weeks. Looked and looked and looked at it without resolution. Then, today, I decided something had to be done . . . .that urge to complete it was nagging. There is no model or place to seek for correction. It is all an abstract notion that came into a sketch.

It sure isn’t much when it comes to being a fancy, recognizable place, but it sure does speak to me at a level I have yet to put my finger on. And in a mat, it just slays me!!

Do you suppose it’s the reds?

In Consideration of Shape

“Blushing Bluff”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
SOLD
Mention SHAPE to five different artists and they will all tell you what they think it means. Usually, the answers will have to do with the subject . . … The “shape” of the pitcher in the still life. . . . The “shape” of the face of the model . . . .the “shape” of the cloud in the sky, etc. There might be five different answers, but they will usually relate to a subject.

We become so lost in the delineation of getting a ‘shape’ correct . . . or deeply engaged in spending our efforts trying to ‘explain’ a subject. In doing so, we lose track of the most important shape in the painting and how it relates to the other ‘shapes.’ That most important shape is the shape of the canvas or paper. Huh???

Yes, we are drawn into a painting by the relationship of the shapes within the painting and the surrounding rectangle. The comparison of size of the painted shapes and the frame of the surface is a huge design consideration. Where the edges of a painted or drawn shape stop or start in comparison to the rectangle is also an element of attraction. For example, in the case of this painting, the edge of the cliff and that tree approximately hit the edge of a square inside of the rectangle, which is remindful of the golden mean. That ratio seems to be highly magnetic to us humans.

Moreover, one needs to look at the overall shapes of the three different groups of value (lights, mediums and darks) within a painting to see how they compare to each other (hopefully, they are of unequal proportion) and how they also relate to that same rectangle of the outer edges. The character of the shapes is also something often overlooked. Are the shapes generally organic in nature, or geometric . . . .curved or linear? It all has to add up.

Some artists sense this stuff and never consider it cerebrally, but they definitely feel it when it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ There are those of us who sense that something is at work that sets us to feeling something good or not so good about a this stuff, but can’t isolate just what it is that makes us feel one way or the other. So, it pays to understand the design relationships and their dynamics so we don’t fumble around so much.

I will be presenting information such as this at a workshop for the California Watercolor Association in Concord, California this coming week. Let’s hope there will be time and inclination to post once or twice during the workshop. ‘Till then . . . .

About The Dream

Call me a hopeless romantic. Or, call me a naive child. Perhaps I am.

Maybe you might be, too. I had several people remind me today that the rainbow connection exists.

What is that, you ask? Years ago, it was a song . . .sung by a favorite character of my daughter’s and mine. It was brought to my doorstep again today, my birthday. I wasn’t particularly excited about it being my birthday, but the reminder was about a dream I had years ago . . . .and still do. Not the sort of dream in sleep, but a vision of a hopeful future.

It has arrived. The future, that is. And the reality of that dream is at hand.

The voice I heard in that song was none other than Kermit the frog. Yup! He sang it in his corny, twangy voice . . .but there was nothing corny about the lyrics. . . . .

Why are there so many songs about rainbows?
And what’s on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
And rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

Who said that every wish would be heard and answered
When wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that, and someone believed it,
And look what it’s done so far.
What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing
And what do we think we might see?
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me.

All of us under its spell,
We know that it’s probably magic…

… Have you been half asleep? And have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name….
Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it
It’s something that I’m s’posed to be…

Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me.

Some would make fun of this private feeling I have about these words. Let them! Today, I was reminded that I heard that sweet sound . . .those voices from within calling my name. It has been through that ‘inner voice’ that my dream . . .my vision . . .is here.
You, dear reader, and those with whom I have come to know through my art over the years are all part of the dream. It has materialized in greater and greater form every year since good ole Kermit sang the lyrics . . . .the dream, I mean. In a few days, I will board a plane bound for the East Coast to be with some of the worlds best watercolor painters . . which is more of the dream coming to life. . . . . . . Like Kermit said in his song . . . . .”I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it. It’s something I’m s’posed to be . . .”
You may smirk or snidely chide or even dismiss it. I never did. I still listen to the voice.

(Click Here if you’d like to hear Sarah McLachlan sing it as it should be sung.)