Courting Failure and Thinking

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.

Kicking Off 2012 . . . .

“Morning Tide”
Watercolor 22 x 30 inches
Following a challenge by my friend and colleague, David Lobenberg, we have been both painting the same subject from the same photo. When the challenge was issued (by Dave) I wondered about making changes to the composition. The lighting, the value and color changes in the rocks, the foam, the waves, the sky all presented different challenges. I couldn’t wait to get at it! It has taken me nearly a week to complete this painting. One of the reasons it took so long was that the original photo had the bottom 1/3 of the image solid dark rocks. In my humble opinion, the bottom part of the image needed a passage of light in order for the eye to get into the body of the painting. So, I created the entire lower third of the piece to bring that about.
I might have jumped the gun a bit, not waiting to see Dave‘s painting, but have been so deeply involved in “getting it right” that I could not wait to post the results. I am expecting Dave to post his piece any day now.
For those who are wondering “how” this piece was done . . . . . beginning with the sky ten to fifteen graded washes were glazed over each other, using red, yellow and blue. The big rock in the mist was laid in part way through the glazing process then repeatedly glazed over with the various washes in order to ‘push it back’ and envelop it into the colored mist.
I had a lot of fun working this piece as it was a return to a level of concentration which bordered on being in a trance. . . . . . .which is the probable reason most of us painters paint.
Happy New Year to All for 2012 !

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!!

Sometimes I play

“Bottom of the Dome II”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches

Sometimes I Play . . . .

So, but now, you know I am having Open Studio this coming weekend and the net weekend from 10AM to 5PM (Oct 9,10 and 16,17) . . . .

You also know I have been painting a lot these last two weeks when I should be doing chores . . . .but I am finished with that stuff for now. So, it is time to PLAY!! Yes, you read it right: P L A Y!

My form of play has to do with challenging myself to some outrageous (maybe not this time) or challenging art “reach.” What I mean by “reach” is to do something I do not normally do . . . .in other words, try something new and different, where I have to reach to make it work.

I learned to reach when I did a series of 100 + still life paintings, all of the same set up and same point of view. The project forced me to focus on doing something other than copying the subject. Namely, to concentrate on shape, color, value, texture and line instead of the subject itself. My challenge typically is to narrow down some aspect of one or more of those jest mentioned elements. For example, instead of copying what something looks like, such as a tree, I will take on the challenge of shape design through the entire painting.

In this painting, shape design was definitely at the top of the list, as was line. I set out to use line as a source of entertainment and to make flat, angular shapes. A ‘good’ shape is not symmetrical and has a notable direction. Each shape bounded by the orange lines follows those two ideals. There is more to it, though; something enters the equation called “dominance.” In this case as you examine the outlines of each shape, there is an angular nature to all but a very few. That angular characteristic adds a familial similarity to all the shapes which brings about a sense of belonging . . . . . . .often referred to as repetition, this aspect of angularity ‘dominates’ the overall picture space. Had this aspect been left to be random, chaos would have ensued and the painting would have had a confused look about it. There is room for a few shapes with gentle curves, which add some subtle contrast and interest to the repeated character of the shapes.

This was simply plain fun to paint! The dazzling color, the hyped up contrast of color against dark, the zippy and often vibrating red orange line and the passage of blue violet through the piece excites the eye in many ways. I had done a piece like this a year ago and caught myself mentally revisiting what I had done. I caught myself hopping up and down with excitement as this piece neared completion.

Sometimes, you just have to play.

Answering Urges

“Autumn Heat”
Watercolor, 22 x 30 inches

In my last post I mentioned that Open Studio is approaching this coming October 9,10 and 16,17. Okay. So you already knew that.

In getting geared up for it, I have spent much time in the studio cleaning, tidying, making displays for visitors and other stuff. While there, of course, the ideas for paintings keep showing up as I am puttering. Eventually, I find myself in vivid dreams at night until I cannot stand it any longer . . . . . . . . . . .I rise at 4AM, make the coffee and head to the studio.
Did I mention that I am going on my annual trek to Yosemite for a week long painting retreat at month end? Oh yes!! And I always begin the build the excitement a month ahead.
So, there I am in the studio mucho early and thinking about Yosemite. What am I to do? give myself a manicure????? Heck no!!! I turn on the computer in which there are hundreds of my photos of Yosemite and begin sketching. And the ideas are romping through my head at a fast gallup!
Recently, I have been playing with some opaques in my paintings, using gouache in various places to gain different effect. There is another place where I am excitedly chomping at the bit to ‘see what happens’ when I put the opaques to work. I am finding I can contrive some very interesting effects with them, as you can see in this painting.
I’ll be posting more about my experiences with gouache, as I have already completed more paintings and put it to use.

Throw in the Towel? Never!

Before Modification . . .
“Bad Dawg”
Final Version
watercolor 21 x 21 inches

Years ago, as I was learning to paint and making a few hundred attempts per year, I found only a few of those to be “good” paintings.

Now, as I believe that I know a little more about the structure of a painting, I am very reluctant to accept that a painting is finished too early. Now, I seek a greater complexity than before. But it is waaaaaay more than just complexity. It has to do with balancing all the relationships.

Recently, I heard it said that a symphony is marshalling all the relationships of sounds so that the magnificence of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Wow! Is that ever true for the painter, too!

The act of creating balance and unity among the relationships is the crux of painting fine work. There is intense mental strife in that effort for me. In other words, it is a continuous battle to adjust and modify until everything fits. And so many, many times in the progress of a piece I mutter “just give it up!”

I am finding, as I grow artistically, that it isn’t always one’s ability to paint as it is the willingness to risk failure over and over until a painting is finished. Every alternative must be tested, sometimes tried, to determine if the painter has gone too far or not far enough. At some point, making new marks threatens to spoil weeks of work. And it sometimes does.

When it does, should I quit and begin again? That is one possibility. Or, should I attempt removal of the mark, or modification of the rest of the painting?

I say never quit! Take the piece all the way to near ruin before giving in. Lifting paint out of a watercolor is not easy, but it is possible. Overwork? Of course! There is a patina which develops which can sometimes be most attractive and displays a bit of history of what the artist did to complete a piece if it is overworked.

This piece, “Bad Dawg,” is one such piece that suffered through several different endings before I finally stated, ‘that is enough.’ Overworked? Perhaps. Muddy? Some would say “yes.” Sophisticated? Maybe. In the end, taste prevails. Your taste? What does it say?

In the process of becoming more accomplished, learning to accept failure as a companion is absolutely necessary. The biggest part of that, I believe, is NEVER giving up.

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!!!!

Today’s Demo

“Rocks and Carpets”
Watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
This was the demo today. It is a fairly complex painting with challenges in linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, compostion, value structure, color and texture.
I attempted to show and discuss the thinking process in developing a decent watercolor painting, the preparation and planning to establish a strong composition to a ‘standing room only’ crowd of around 90 to 100 painters. it was exciting and fun!
As most of my readers know from reading this blog, and seeing the paintings posted here, I try very hard to go out to where other watercolorists visit rarely, if ever. This piece was more of a traditional watercolor painted so the audience would relate with the scene, as well as the structure of the piece. I attempted to show how the elements and principles apply in realism, as well as abstract painting.
If you were there, I hope you enjoyed it . . .and I hope you will comment here. All in all it was a fun afternoon, but I have to admit that it took several hours for me to ‘come down.’ I get nervous about these sort of things, even though I paint a lot.
This demo kicked off my ten week course beginning tomorrow, “Watercolor Beyond the Obvious.” More about it later. Thanks to those who came today. You were a terrific audience!

Testing Limits

“Chestnut St.”
Unfinished– watercolor 22 x 30
When are we NOT LEARNING how to paint? Do we ever stop learning? Should an artist only paint what he or she knows? If I am the person to answer, I would say absolutely NOT to the last question. It is ALWAYS about learning!

So, what should an artist be stretching to learn after painting for 22 years?

Let’s start here: How about learning more about one’s capability? What about testing one’s self to remain in control no matter the circumstances at the easel? What of practice to smooth off rough edges in a project or series? How about testing “What Ifs” in color strategies? If you are a watercolorist, how about painting on wet paper and hurrying the process so the paper doesn’t dry? Or, what about a challenge to finish a full sheet in 90 minutes and driving one’s self a little bit nutz in the effort?

All of these things are about stretching. They are about experiencing circumstances out side of the comfort zone more often . . . . .so when they really do arise in a serious painting situation, the artist is more comfortable in working through the ‘emergency.’ It is in these times of horsing around to find out what happens that an artist gains precious experience.

So!! You tell me. Which is more valuable? A wide range of experience, or a few successful paintings done in the artist’s comfort zone? Do you suppose there is value in being able to anticipate the outcome of something the artist does, either by accident or deliberately? Of course there is! It is called mastery of the circumstances. And the only way one develops mastery is to try different stuff and create challenges. In other words, expand the comfort zone. So what if the painting tests aren’t masterworks?

The above painting was done on wet, saturated paper inside of a time limit . . .in a fairly large format to cause me to hurry to keep up with the drying process. I had fun in the challenge, didn’t finish, messed up perspective, but found some lovely little passages that made me want to do this again and again.

Disdain for the Ordinary

“Sentinel Autumn”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
I suppose it is possible to tell much about a person by the way he paints and the paths he or she chooses. In fact, in my own case, it seems my disdain for ordinary work is written all over me and my work (at least, I hope my work shows that!)
There are many paintings out there of the same tired subjects. Half Dome in Yosemite is, perhaps, an icon, but it is also in soooo many paintings that I try to avoid it. That isn’t to say that it is a bad thing to paint. Again, it is HOW it is painted . . .NOT WHAT was painted.
Looking back at my last post, speaking about having the paint speak up as paint and not something else, that really is another comment about avoiding the obvious.
Sentinel Rock in Yosemite drew my attention for most of the week there . . .and I painted it multiple times. This time, I worked at letting the granulation of the pigment speak up. (click on the image to see it). The tall rock was shaped somewhat like this, but that is where the reality gave way to the paint and let the paint make its statements.
There are one or two more pieces to post from that trip. They’ll appear soon.