Why do we value an original piece of art over an imitation? These days, with improvements in reproduction techniques and technology, the reproduction may be as good as (or even better than) the original. I know, I own a fine art printing studio, and it is true that not only can the reproduction look every bit as good as the original but it may also be more archival. I have had nationally renowned artists in my studio comparing the reproduction to their original and worrying that no one will be able to tell the difference. Now, this is not always true and there are definitely ways in which an original painting technique might not reproduce well but it is possible to do so in many cases. And most of us would not place as much value on that reproduction as on the original. Why?

Some believe the value of an art piece comes only from the visual experience we have of it, how it makes us feel upon seeing it, etc. In that case, a “near-perfect” reproduction would be of comparable value because it would give us that same experience. Or consider a painting that is a forgery but is good enough to fool even the experts – the actual visual experience of the forgery is the same as if it were authentic. Once we discover it is a forgery, the painting itself has not changed – only our knowledge of it and it’s relationship to the world has changed.

So it must be true that the value of a work of art is more than just how it looks and what our visual experience of it is. It is partly that, but also its value is based on our knowledge of its relationship to the world. We value it because it is the original, it was created by a specific artist at a specific time, perhaps in response to a particular artistic tradition, etc. It isn’t simply a parasitic forgery of someone else’s work. It isn’t a mechanically produced copy of the original. There is a context in which we see the work which goes above and beyond simply what it looks like.

When I look at a work of art about which I know absolutely nothing, I am basically left only with my own visual experience of it. The more I know about the work the greater the potential for me to place a higher value on it.

As in most things, knowledge leads to greater value.

Simple Things

“In mathematics the complicated things are reduced to simple things. So it is in painting.”

– Thomas Eakins

I found this quote as I was contemplating simplicity and immediately thought of our friend, Miki. She is that rare union of mathematical and artistic passion in the same person. So this post is dedicated to her…

As I work on these abstract monoprints, I am constantly trying to decide what needs to be included and when I’m done. There is a lot of ability to layer and to remove with this technique, so I can keep going on a piece – often until I’ve made it way too complicated. My favorite pieces are those that have some strong patterns or shapes floating in an interesting field of color and texture. I often reach a stage where I like what I’ve done, but something seems to be missing. This may that “crisis” point in a painting that Danu has talked about, the point of departure for many pieces, where they either head in the direction of “success” or the direction of permanent storage, or worse.

Simple doesn’t necessarily mean fewer elements in the painting. I think that each piece has a natural order that it can handle – some pieces may have more going on in them, but for each there is some point at which it is not longer “simple”, where the fundamental nature of the piece has been exceeded in some way. I know intuitively when that has happened, usually fairly soon after I’ve reached that stage (it’s a disappointing realization!). I don’t think this is a rational process, but one more of feeling, based on the inner motivations, inspirations, intentions and reactions the artist has toward the piece.

In mathematics, reduction of complexity to a simple and elegant proof is described as “beautiful”. So it is in painting…


“Don’t wait for inspiration. It comes while one is working.”

– Henri Mattise

What is inspiration?
How do we find it?
How does it differ from impulse?
Is it necessary to be inspired to make good art?
Is it something that we can create or do we have to wait for it?

Artists want to feel inspired. We don’t always feel we are. Maybe most of the time we feel we aren’t. We look for the telltale signs – we’re excited about something, we feel the need to create, our attention is focused, there is a “quickening of all man’s faculties” (Puccini).

Many of the great artists I’ve read about second the sentiment Matisse expresses above – you have to keep going, keep working, even when you do not feel inspired. Somehow that process invites inspiration, or at least allows it to occur. I find that the more I expose myself to art, whether by doing it or seeing it, the more the opportunity for inspiration occurs. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, humbled or intimidated by the excellence of others, but eventually those contracted emotions subside and I can step into the creative stream whose shore I’ve been standing on.

Inspiration can be initiated from something outside of us, or from inside. My favorite work has been done when I felt inspired – I can’t think of much I like that was done when I was in the inspirational doldrums. Sometimes what I create when inspired doesn’t satisfy me either. I usually don’t doubt the inspiration but rather my ability to process it properly. This is a frustrating feeling, as it feels like an opportunity lost.

Sometimes in retrospect I realize I wasn’t really inspired but rather was acting on impulse. Some new idea intrigued me and I went with it, but these impulses usually die out quickly. It’s clear that it wasn’t true inspiration, it didn’t have “legs” and my poor results weren’t due to lack of technique or execution.

I think true inspiration is a particularly individual event. It’s one which is a result of our efforts and some good luck and, when it occurs, is a current that we should ride for as long as we can. It’s one of the ways in which we can truly feel alive. The chance to feel inspired may be one of the main reasons we seek to create art.

Color is King

“The orgiastic moment is the laying on of the color.”

– Kurt Vonnegut (he says he hung out with a lot of painters…)

I’ve begun reading a new book, “Color Codes” by Charles A. Riley II. The subtitle is “Modern Theories of Color in Philosophy, Painting and Architecture, Literature, Music, and Psychology” – whew! Quite a range of topics to cover. So I’m sure this will generate a few postings in the near future…

One thing that has struck me already is the importance color has had in intellectual thought over time. For example, it turns out that many important philosophers spent a lot of time investigating color. I believe this is due to the fact that color is such a common phenomenon (everyone knows what red is … or do they?) so it provides a rich opportunity to explore a wide range of issues related to how we experience and understand the world around us.

Many books have been written on the subject of color – there was Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgement (1790), Goethe’s Theory of Colors (1801-1810), Hegel’s Aesthetics, Schopenhauer’s Theoria colorum physiologica, and Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color (1950). That’s a lot of brain power aimed at understanding color (and other items related to aesthetics). In particular, I am impressed that Wittgenstein spent his last days working on the issue of color – he gave it that much priority.

Just to start the ball rolling, here is an interesting question to contemplate – one which as artists we face on a daily basis. Wittgenstein talks about the difficulty of matching or comparing colors since they are so dependent on their surroundings. He asks you to consider a painting cut up into small pieces, so small that each one is essentially a single color. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle it is only when they are put together that they become the sky, or the vase or the figure. So, he asks, do the individual pieces show us the real colors of the parts of the picture? They do make up, by definition, the color elements in the painting, but we only see the real colors in the context of the entire painting.

At a practical level, as painters we all understand that colors take on different qualities in the context of other colors. We use that knowledge intentionally as we paint. But it certainly makes the effective management of color more complex. Take the number of colors we might create and then multiply exponentially to account for the subtle differences created by surrounding colors – it’s a dizzying palette!

I have a feeling that color is a somewhat slippery thing. Maybe that’s why we artists are so fascinated by it!

The Dark Side of Art

“I like the idea of blank spaces and that they get filled. I also like blank spaces that are allowed to be. Some kind of creative tension arises from the nothingness.”

– Sandra Geller

In my figurative work I like to use black empty space as a counterpoint for the human form. Some have remarked that they don’t care for the large negative spaces, but I like the way these figures seem to emerge, chiseled from the dark. If the figure is in repose, as in this case, a feeling of stillness results for me. If the figure is in movement, the contrast of the light and color against the black exaggerates the dynamics of the motion. These are the two extremes my photographic work attempts to convey – stillness or dynamic motion. The in-between is of less interest to me. Black is the perfect partner for each.

How have you used black in your paintings or photography and why?

All Art is Abstract

“All paintings are abstract. Some abstract paintings also have pictorial representation or narrative content, but in essence they are first and foremost abstract because we have only paint.”

– Robert Bissett

I think we do sometimes lose sight of all the ways in which art does not really reflect reality. Sometimes a work of art seems so realistic, you want to reach our and touch it. But in reality, it isn’t realistic – by it’s very nature it is at least one step removed, almost always several steps removed, from reality.

Being an artist requires us to make decisions about how our work will differ from the world around us. First, we choose what piece of reality we’re going to represent. We decide what to include, what to leave out, what colors, shapes and textures to use, etc. This “editing” process is the first and perhaps the most important step we take to define the individual piece we’re creating.

As a photographer I’ve always been amused by people who believe photography literally captures and recreates the world around us. As soon as you point the camera at something, you’ve made a choice as to what to include and exclude. There are all sorts of further ways in which “reality” is altered when taking a photograph – exposure and aperture settings, what kind of film you’re using (does anyone use film anymore?) each of which makes the scene look very different, what time of day you take the shot, etc. And when making a print of the photograph, there are artistic decisions about what paper to use, how large to print it, and many changes you can make to the image in the printing process that further affect the final piece of art. Think of black and white photography – is the world black and white? Yet, we routinely accept these photographs as representing reality.

We create our art, at least in painting and photography, in two dimensions only, unlike the 3 dimensional world around us. The pigments we use, no matter how good they are, cannot recreate every color that exists in the world. Our perceptual system can distinguish tonalities, hues and qualities of light that simply cannot be reproduced using any art form.

So by definition, all art is abstract. The content of the work may be representational or not, but the act of making art is, in essence, an act of abstraction. Maybe this is why it is so seductive a practice. We are recreating the world in a new way – can you imagine a more empowering act?

Wasting Time…

“Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

– Albert Einstein

I’ll admit it, I’m the impatient type. I am always trying to figure out how to get more done in less time and have a really hard time “doing nothing”. Vacations are a problem…

When I create art, even if I am learning something new and should have little expectation of competence, I am disappointed if I end up with work that gets tossed. I feel like I’m wasting my precious time.

But this “wasted time” is the breeding ground of creativity. All that effort, even if it seems to produce nothing, is providing fuel for the engine of the mind and soul. This engine is always churning away and periodically produces something creative. But without the fuel of our efforts all along the way, there would be no creative product.

Einstein is, of course, being facetious – the time isn’t being wasted. If we could just remind ourselves of this at the end of an artistic effort that has not met our expectations. Or if we could just alter those expectations…

Where to Draw the Line…

“Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.”

– G.K. Chesterton

I loved this quote when I found it – I’m always up for a good pun.

But, in truth, there is a lot to ponder about in this statement for the artist. It all boils down to how you interpret the word “somewhere”.

Does it imply the non-specific, random “somewhere”, as in “put it somewhere, anywhere for God’s sake!”? When you are 2 years old this is what happens – paintings are a series of random marks. Sometimes, when faced with a blank canvas, putting some random mark “somewhere” can be a good way to get started. It gives you something to work off of.

Or does it mean a more specific placement of the mark in the painting? Once a piece is well under way, we often reach a stage where the painting needs something to progress and we study and study it, looking for the exact “somewhere” that will work. It’s often not easy to decide.

Often with non-representational work it seems that the artist has reverted back to their 2 year old definition of “somewhere”. How often have you overheard the remark “my 2 year old niece could have painted that!”? But I suspect that more often than not, that painter was operating under the second definition, and those seemingly random “somewheres” were actually much more akin to the specific, intentional “somewheres” described above.

I’ve heard that those who observed Jackson Pollack doing his “gestural paintings” (the recipient of many comparisons to 2 year old painters) were struck by how deliberate and considered his application of the paint actually was. I know from my own experience that if I try to do a whole painting “randomly” I get a big mess. Even the most abstract, non-representational pieces need to have some design and intention behind them in order to work.

I guess it’s all in knowing “where to draw the line”…

Some new work…

I’m going to start posting the occasional abstract painting on the blog. Currently my artistic focus is on the figurative photography and monoprinting I’ve been regularly posting. In addition, I’ve been working periodically on some abstract works using Sumi ink, watercolor, acrylic, stamps and pastel. I must admit that I find this work challenging and most of what I end up with doesn’t work for me. Some of this is poor technique and some of it is that it is just darn hard to compose an abstract piece that hangs together. And then there’s the age old question of when to stop. I tend to end up with no paper white left, which almost always means I did way too much.

The good news is that some of the pieces that “don’t work” end up being integrated into the figurative photography where the demands on the painting are perhaps less as it becomes an element that simply has to work with something else.

I think ultimately if I had my druthers, I would concentrate on this type of work but, so far, my success rate with it is not there. So, more hard work trying to get a little more consistent. The usual remedy for an artist when they are struggling.

By the way, just out of curiosity I looked up where the word “druthers” comes from – looks like it is a contraction of the phrase “would rather”. Well, I would rather do this type of art!

Art, Mathematics and Basketball

The word “beautiful” is very complicated and yet we routinely apply it successfully to a wide range of situations. We all know what it means to say a painting is beautiful (though that description has fallen out of favor in the modern art world). Most of us also know what a beautiful smile is. Those of us who watch sports know what the announcer means when they say that a basketball player has a beautiful jump shot. In mathematics or physics, a proof can be described as beautiful. And a contemplation in a spiritual text can be beautiful as well. The list goes on…

Does the word have the same meaning in each of these situations? Why do we all understand each of these uses yet see that the things being described are quite different and may have nothing more in common with each other than their “beauty”?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, arguably the most important philosopher of the 20th century, had an interesting explanation. He believed that we used “language games” to describe the world. He used the word “games” to imply that there are rules and conventions surrounding various subjects that we all understand. We have to evaluate the meaning of words within the language game in which they are being used. So the word “beautiful” in the sports, spiritual, mathematical or art language games is used and understood within the context of each game with its unique set of rules and conventions.

He also said that the use of the word in differing contexts bears a “family resemblance” – it is not identical across language games any more than two members of a family are identical. Yet we usually can tell that two people are members of the same family, just as we implicitly understand that a beautiful jump shot in basketball bears some resemblance to a Mark Rothko painting. We know they are both “beautiful”.

What other kinds of “language games” can you think of in which we routinely use the word beautiful? I think you’ll be amazed at the variety and complexity of this word and the number of “games” in which we use it…