Returned to the Easel

“Plane Compression”
Transparent Watercolor 22 x 30 inches

Okay I am back! Hawaii was fantastic ! Frankly, however, I have been itching to return to the easel here at home.

This piece is quite similar to the other non objective pieces I have completed in the last few months. It was half finished when we left for our Hawaiian Holiday
All I needed was one look at it’s lonely, half baked existence on the easel to awaken my juices and get me rolling once again. I arose quite early this morning (4AM) to get after it. I am still not certain that it is complete. I may let it hang around for several days before I declare it final and finished.
On another note, I put the last few non objective pieces down on my studio floor this morning and lined them up next to each other. They all look very similar . . . . .which has both good and bad points . . . .it is a spur in my sides, though, as it indicates that I am becoming stale. Gotta move on to another ‘theme’ . . . . .which may not be all that easy. I like the motif of floating planes and shallow space, which is what all of these are . . . .and I noticed that the compositions are quite similar, too! A change up is due!!
Until next painting . . . .

Realities of the Painter’s Voice


“Girl in Hat”

watercolor 30 x 22 inches

An older painting suffering from the Painter’s “Voice”

Ah! You might think that the ‘painter’s voice’ would be how he/she puts paint on the canvas and the content of what he paints to be his/her voice. Well, you would be right in most cases. However, I wish to speak about the OTHER voice.

In spite of what some would believe to be true, great painters are not popped from the womb already skilled at the level of master. Nor do some take up the brush and make instant success with whatever they attempt. In fact ALL painters (who happen to be human beings) live with a voice inside their head which is continually kibitzing and making commentary on virtually everything the painter does, has done or even is considering as possibility to do. That is the voice of which I speak.

As a painter who took up the sport later in life, of course, I immediately sought the advice and instruction of those whom I considered to be proficient at it. The reason for this was that the voice within was urging me onward to learn quickly because I wanted to impress my wife and kids with a fabulous artwork I could hang over the couch . . . .and I was willing to work at it for a week or so. (hint: laugh here)

BaHa!! After watching these demonstrations and listening to the experts (on video or live) explain how easy it really was, I heard the voice screaming at me from inside, “You’ll never be able to do this. Better give up now before you embarrass yourself. You are not talented enough. It’s too late for you, Screwball! You should have begun when you were age two! Etc.Etc.”

Apparently, I wanted that painting above the couch more than I wanted to listen to the voice, (By the way, I am still trying to get the perfect one!) because I kept going. A few good painters had whispered to me that they were not happy with their own level of skill, thus empowering me somewhat.

You may wonder why I point out my foibles and failures . . . even show off the latter to other painters and here on line. Why? It is because, over time, I have come to learn that those ‘experts’ or ‘masters’ or ‘those who are sooooo talented’ are all suffering and arguing with their own voice. I have witnessed many who simply gave up painting because they came to believe the voice.

Oh! Have I mentioned that our relatives and family and friends often join with the voice? Have I mentioned that mothers in law and others will urge our spouses, sometimes, to urge us to give it up? Have I mentioned that the battle for personal confidence in the realm of painting NEVER stops? That’s right, it NEVER ends. Have you considered that if you became a great painter, that the art critics would be standing to have their voices heard above the din of faint praises and try to mitigate your skills? Oh, yes. You see, all of those other people speak only for their own taste. Let me repeat that another way.

Those who criticize or offer their advice (particularly those who don’t paint and know little about it) are always trying to express that you “should” paint according to their taste . . . . .not yours! Think about this: The reason you wanted to paint in the first place was to have some fun, make pretty pictures that YOU liked and maybe a bunch of other reasons. The biggest reason is to express your own tastes . . . .not someone else’s.

In the classes and workshops that I instruct, I place much importance on the value of failure in the learning process. I also try hard to explain to those whose voice is nearly overpowering their painting efforts that we ALL have this evil, negative little loudmouth at our internal microphone. Sadly, few believe that everyone has it. Most people believe that they are singular and alone in their battles with their inner voice. Others refer to “confidence” or “courage” because they believe that that is the name of some special quality that those ‘experts’ have . . . .and that they never need to deal with the little bugger who lives not so silently within us. Baloney! ALL artists deal with it. Musicans, teachers, managers, ditch diggers and athletes, too, wrestle with it. In fact, all people do have that little rascal piping up with unwelcome commentary!

Because this inner competition is the absolute reality of finding our artistic path, I believe that learning to shush the voice is as important, if not more important, than mixing color or learning to draw.

I have been called unprofessional because, supposedly, I am supposed to present the image of perfection and to make painting appear easy and nonchalant. What do you think? Do you find that, as a painter, you are bolstered in some way by learning that we all struggle with the voice? Do you find relief knowing that every artist needs to become deaf to what relatives and friends and critics have to say? Do you rise up with your brush in hand with greater courage because you finally learned to say “To hell with you, Voice! Shutup!”? Or, do you believe that more teachers and ‘experts’ should relate their own struggles and explain the realities of the often solitary aloneness we feel as creative people? Or, do you think I am a buffoon for pointing out that we are human? Really! What do you think?

Let me say here that insanity is not the subject. Nor am I saying that one should ignore sound instruction. Learning is about dealing with our demons. Learning is not some special skill handed down from heaven. Learning is about sweat, effort, trials, failures and occasional successes. Learning never, ever stops for us artists. So, we must tune our ears to those who can lead us. The first one we must shut out is the one person who will tell you that you are better off baking cookies. Listen to those who empathize with your struggle and urge you onward. Listen to those who make it plain that every artist, no matter their station or level of achievement, fights their demons with sheer effort and work.

Then there is the other aspect of the voice . . . . .the aspect that drives us forward to become more discerning about our work and to follow our suspicions and feelings about it. We must develop the ‘selective ear’ to our inner voice and know when to listen and when not to listen.

Oh! One last thing. . . . . . Listen to those painter who have a sense of humor about ‘being professional.’ They are the ones who will snicker at their own voice and reply to it with some sarcastic retort while they joyously sound off about how fun this process really is. They are the ones who will giggle about having paint on the toes of their new shoes or paint on their new sweater because they just couldn’t help themselves and just HAD to paint without regard to what they were wearing. After all, if we are crazy enough to not change clothes before we pick up a brush, there Must be SOMETHING wrong with us! Right??? 😉

The Power of Association

A few bad boys
Nicholas Simmons, Ted Nuttal and myself

A few days ago I had a meeting with a young man trying to make his way in business. He has a head start because he knows the power of associating with those who are where he wants to be.

That is, he understands that we don’t go through this world alone. There is great power in associating with others who are doing what one wants to do. In some circumstances, that power can be very negative, obviously, but if directed in positive directions it can also have extraordinarily positive results.
As you know, dear readers, I work quite hard at learning my craft . . .painting. Early on, I made it my intent to get to know other painters in order to learn from them. And there is much we can learn about anything from our acquaintances and friends. Often, it is nothing more than manners or how to behave in some situations. Other times, there might be technical information shared. And in still other circumstances one might get a glimpse of flashes of genius. Those flashes might appear in the form of an attitude or how one copes with the frustrations of their craft and their place in life. One might assimilate knowledge that they are not alone with their inner feelings of inadequacy and that all who are around them endure the very same challenges. Knowledge such as this can strengthen one’s resolve to succeed and open the gateway to others’ experience in unknown territory. In other words, road maps to get to new levels appear.
Yes, this is a philosophical musing. But an important one. If you are a painter and visiting here, there is much to be learned from all the links. But there is one more thing: you might make distant friendships with someone who might, at some place in the future, mentor you in some way. That is why I blog. It has been a form of association that has paid enormous dividends. It is also why I share the information I have learned about painting; to pass the baton . . .to give for the sheer pleasure of watching others make more of what is given them.
Last week, partly because of my attitudes about association and freely passing along a little wisdom here and there, I was an instructor at Kanuga Watercolor Workshops in Hendersonville, North Carolina. I must say I felt as though I was in the midst of a love fest! 250 people of like mind and heart all gathering in a retreat location for two reasons only: to learn about painting and to associate with painters from around the country. In short, a paradise for those who understand the power of association with other artists.
One would wonder ‘why would four days at “painting camp” be so important?’ One only needs to experience this once to fully understand the underlying importance of being there. Last week, painters such as Mary Alice Braukman, Nicholas Simmons, Gerry Brommer, James Toogood and the infamous Ted Nuttal gathered to spread the good news to their students and associates alike. Joan Fullerton from Taos, New Mexico, Don Getz from Ohio, Linda Baker and others who hail from the heights of AWS and other art organizations were also there. And they didn’t come to hang out just with each other. It was all about sharing and giving. (If only the whole world was like this, eh?) We all had great fun together and we enjoyed associating with the participants who came to learn. But most of all, we learned from them.
Check these people out. They all have much to give . . .and they do so. Personally, I grew from the experience with each of them. Moreover, if you can arrange it for next year, set aside the time and the money to attend Kanuga Watercolor Workshops, you won’t regret it!
I returned home exhausted from spending so much energy, but completely elated from the associations and friendships established. In short, it was a WOW experience!

Planely Scattered

“Planely Scattered”
watercolor 30 x 22 inches

The title today relates to what my life is like at the moment: Lots of different things going on, very little of it to do with painting.

Scattered, for sure. Distracted, yes, but my thoughts, dreams and actions all are centered around moving pigment in a related way to cause a viewer to entangle him or herself in a visual conversation with a painting.
Decidedly, a painted appeals to us on very deep, often unidentifiable levels. Questions like, Why do I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach when I look at this? Or, What is it that makes me want to touch this painting? Why doesn’t this look like a ‘regular’ watercolor? This piece makes me relax. Why am I so curiously inspecting every inch of this painting?
These should be questions that us painters should be able to answer easily and create the visual stimuli necessary to ensnare them. We are the creators of the work, we should be able to steer the viewer to feeling something.
Often, in lectures to those who will listen, the ideas of what makes a ‘good’ painting are openly discussed and argued. There are three things by category, but those three things involve volumes of explanation. They are “”Content”” . . . .that which arouses our feelings and sensibilities, or a story . . . . .””Design”” . . . .The relationships between the marks on the canvas and/or paper, or how all the painting parts fit together . . . .and “”Technique”” . . . .how the paint is applied and is technique in concert with Design and Content. They are all inter-related in one way or another. That is, the technique and design must support the content. However, if the content is extremely strong, and the design equally as strong, technique can often take a back seat . . . or not be as important as the other two areas.
I am often asked what is necessary to be accepted into juried shows. These three items must be in concert to win that admittance. It may seem daunting to the novice painter, but the study of these aspects of making art is what this journey is all about. It really is much more complicated than just making a pretty picture. To grow and to learn about ourself and all that we can do with art is a high calling. It is a step into our higher self.
Not that there is anything wrong with ‘pretty pictures,’ mind you, but how many millions of them are out there? To put one’s self onto the track of learning all the above aspects about making art is to put our minds to the purpose of being our highest self. I would say that is worthwhile, wouldn’t you?

Studio Busy News

“picasso” wet from the rain
No paintings today, folks. Just news.
It may seem as though nothing is happening in my studio, but quite the opposite is in play. It seems as though everything is coming at once.
First news is my entry to AWS was an award winning painting at NWS, but was turned away at AWS. Go figger that! Who knows why? It is always a crap shoot . . .luck has to play a part.
Second news . . . .my workshop season is in full swing! Am off to Reno this week, then to the Carolinas and beyond in the next 30 days. My studio is being used frantically as I prep for classes, exercises and examples for the participants . . . and the mess is stacking up. Any of you painters out there have difficulty keeping things in order in your studio? For me, the busier, the messier.
Third news . . . .I have a new “job.” This job is one full of honor and responsibility to tradition and prestige. I must answer to those who have gone before me as examples and it won’t be easy. However, I am hoping I will be able to bring new wisdom, new energy and lots of expansion to the post. I have been chosen as President of NWS (National Watercolor Society). I officially took office this last month. Busier!
If any of you out there have thoughts about the society or where you’d like to see it go, I would like to hear from you.
Many of you know of the other news . . . we have a new puppy. “Picasso” is his name. And, yes, he is very demanding and steals our attention constantly. (What were we thinking?? :p) ) Even busier!!!

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.

The Ultimate Challenge

“Breakthrough”
Watercolor 22 x 30 inches
click on image to enlarge

After years of painting and trying to tackle all sorts of subjects, I came to realize that it wasn’t the subject that compelled viewers to be attracted to a painting and then to study it . . . .it wasn’t the subject at all. It was HOW it was painted.

Well, you say, that’s great news! What the heck do you mean?

In a few of the last many posts, I have mentioned the elements and principles of design. (elements: Line, Siz, Shape, Direction, Color, Value and Texture. Principles: Unity, Harmony, Dominance, Conflict, Repetition, Variation, Gradation and Balance.) It is in the paying closer attention to these principles, rather than the subject, in forming the marks (elements) that one arrives at a good painting (or not so good.)

We have all had the experience of painting places we know, or painting from excellently composed photos, or painting from life. In those instances, much of the work of composing the elements . . . .shape, texture, color, value, etc . . . .is done for the painter. More often than not, however, while we believe it to be the case that the photo or the model will lead us to a good painting, the opposite happens. Something along the way is forgotten, left out, or ignored . . . .and that comes from relying on the subject to lead the way. To be a great painter, one must reach inside to find that which makes terrific art. It is in our most creative state that we bring something better in our paintings to the world. But HOW do we DO that??

That is THE question. It is the stuff that isn’t obvious which brings a viewer to an excited state of examination. It is the contrasts, the harmonies and the surprises that we dream up to make that happen . . . . . .and it takes lots of practice, patience and many trials. . . .and the study of good design.

One must separate one’s consciousness from the world to force that reach into our authentic creative selves to produce visual answers to the question of HOW. The best way I know of is to paint non objective abstract paintings. In my opinion, that is the ultimate challenge.

That challenge, which is to create something not before seen, means there are no visual crutches or prompts. There is no script to follow. It is design in its purest form.

To do it well doesn’t come easily . . . .in fact, it is the most difficult thing a painter can attempt. It doesn’t occur by coincidence or by slinging paint and hoping for the best.

It happens through meticulous painting and cautious, examination and consideration of painting alternatives. This piece, entitled “Breakthrough,” is such a piece, which has taken months to complete. A few hours here and there. Rest. Look. Evaluate. Rework. Enhance. Rest. Think. Wait, Look, think . . . .and on and on and on. I began this piece in August. Here it is December . . . 5 months later. And I am still looking, thinking and wondering if it really is finished. Is it the best I can do? Do all the parts fit? Is it balanced? Is it interesting? Should it go public?

In the end, it is pieces, like this one, that teach us painters how and where to fill in the blanks when we are painting from life or photos. The challenge of creating something from absolutely nothing is the ultimate stretch. But it is also the place from which the NEW and DIFFERENT are born. It is the place which delivers the unavoidable authentic stuff that only you can make.

If you are interested in attempting this, you may want to consider a one week workshop in how to produce abstractions in work similar to this. It is well worth the investment, as the time spent will awaken even the most experienced artist to the importance of good design. As it turns out, I give such workshops. Interested? Drop me an email if it isn’t on my website.( I haven’t posted the dates yet)

The Chase

“Sentinel Haze”
watercolor, 18 x 24 inches

There is a big message here if you are a painter. Read all the way to the bottom.

As an occasional art instructor it is my job to enlighten about the elements and principles of design. Enlightenment is one thing but applying that to which one has been exposed is quite another.

There are 15 words to wrestle with. The elements have 7, the principles 8. The elements: line, size, shape, direction, color, value and texture. The principles: Unity, Harmony, Dominance, Conflict, Repetition, Variation, Gradation and Balance. (Comment: others may argue the selection of words to be included or traded out, but we are all really focusing on the same things.)

Often, the student complains (as do I !) “How do you think of all these things when you are painting?” My truthful answer is really something to the effect of ‘that is what divides the novices and masters.’ And . . .as we all know, there are very few masters out there. . . . . . .but it sure is a wonderful chase to try to touch mastery every once in a while!!

Sometimes, execution fails miserably. The technique completely collapses in favor of some other dominating thoughts while in the act of mushing paint around. Other times, the technique is extraordinary, but the design has a major, uncorrectable flaw . . .and all who see the painting know it. They may not be artists or know anything of painting, but they can sense a design mistake in the pit of their gut.

The challenge to get content, technique and design all working together is mostly overwhelming. When they all come together, the high that an artist experiences is, I suppose, the entire reason for the chase. It is simply temporary nirvana.

On the last day of my trip to Yosemite 6 weeks ago, I stood in awe of the view of Sentinel Rock in a slight haze. I decided to exaggerate that visual effect . . .or at least TRY to . . . .and to experiment once again . . . . .let multi colored washes drain down a vertical page, then define the positive shape (the rock) by painting the negative shape (the sky) in an opaque (using gouache) colorless wash. The contrast of opaque and transparent would be opposite what one might imagine . . . . .that is the transparent atmospheric nature of watercolor would probably best be used in the sky (the illusion of air), while the rock would be thought of as a solid, dense mass (opaque.) I deliberately reversed that idea to see what would happen.

While completely absorbed in all of this stuff, mentally, while painting, I forgot my design principles. Yup! I became sidetracked with the experiment and paid no attention to the ridiculous design error that I had made and was constructing right in front of my eyes. I happily just kept painting. It wasn’t until completion that I realized that I had divided the space evenly (dammit!!!) and created two separate paintings on one piece of paper (double dammit!)

Oh well! It was only a piece of paper to begin with . . . .and now it is still only a piece of paper. However, I am saving this painting because it revealed an extremely successful experimental result which I will employ in another painting later. Lesson learned (again!!)

There is one last comment for the painters out there who read this blog . . . . . . it is the failures and the mistakes that give us painters the best lessons. While we relish and seek the successes, our best friend in the chase is those mistakes that spank us into those, “OOoohh! Now I get it”moments. I have learned to court failure in the chase. In painting, failure really is a friend and not something to fear. No one ever has been hurt or ever died from making a painting mistake. Through failing, we learn and grow!

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.

Oil Brushwork

“Henry’s Purple Patch”
Oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches
I am not sure this painting shows it off well . . .or that any of the others do either. The reason I am not sure, is that brushwork is actually ignored, infavor of no brushstrokes being evident, in watercolor. I am a watercolor painter learning painting. Yep~! Us artists are ALWAYS learning. Always on the lookout for another way to say what needs saying . . .(or to avoid it).
As an element of design, texture is right up there with Line, Shape, Value and Color. It is clearly visible and adds a sense of tactileness to a painting. In watercolor, one must work to obtain texture. It some cases, texture is almost an after thought. Not so with oil. No siree!! With oil, you get texture with every brush stroke! It is when texture is not wanted that a conscious effort must be made to eliminate it. Just the opposite from watercolor.
I have been scolded and complimented on “brushwork.” And it is the least able to be articulated verbally or in print in order to teach how to do it ‘well.’ It is perceived as good, or it isn’t. At least, that is my take on it. Swirls, swishes, schmushes, schlobs and plops all count in the brushwork world. Its when to and when not to that makes the difference (I think). Brushwork expresses texture and edges throughout the painting.
I suppose one must have a sense for aerial perspective to know when and when not to emphasize it . . . .is that correct? Anyone have any ideas about brushwork? Sometimes, I think I am coming to terms with it and it becomes automatic. Other times I catch myself wondering.
Painting these meadow paintings is giving me lots of practice and plenty of room to try stuff. I am learning that holding that long brush by the last end of the handle makes better brushwork. I am also beginning to consciously make an effort to make it all different . . .lots of variation. I know there are some who would argue that, but I sure am not informed about it.
So, here’s your chance, oil painters. Tell me bout it, if you can. I can’t say I am mystified, but I am not far from it.