A Man with a Plan

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Emerging, 6 x 6″ ink, newsprint

“I found that if I planned a picture beforehand, it never surprised me, and surprises are my pleasure in painting.”

– Ives Tanguy

“Without planning, your painting will probably be indecisive and fragmented, and you’ll try to say too much in one picture.”

– Ron Ranson

So which camp do you fall into?

I must admit that I do not plan a painting ahead of time. I don’t do small sketches, value studies, etc. I have occasionally in the past, particularly when I was doing more representational work. I’m a little too impatient to put too much time in up front on a new piece.

These days I find that I like to start by putting some random expressive shapes, textures and colors on the blank paper and and then constantly ask myself, “what does this need next?”. By intuitively trying to determine what is not working, what is missing, what should be added or taken away, the painting itself  communicates its needs to me. This dialogue works because there is a need in me to resolve unresolved qualities of the image. Something isn’t right, it’s unbalanced, lacking harmony, discordant. It’s like a musical phrase needing resolution – the notes move in a direction in which the tension mounts until the composer, with a deft touch, adds just those notes needed to restore order to things.

Of course, some art, both visual and musical, intentionally creates and maintains the tension of unresolved parts. It’s a little uncomfortable to see or listen to this art. The artist may be after this discomfort. Perfect harmony or resolution is not something that I’m really after in a piece. Figuring out just the right amount of resolution or lack thereof to leave in is one of the challenges in finishing a work. My favorite pieces fall short of perfect harmony but each stroke I’ve added has made something whole within the piece. There is, I hope, some method to the madness. Just not enough, I also hope, to get rid of all the madness!

Something New…

red balloon
escapes the child’s grasp
sunrise floats away

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New Day, 6 x 6″ monoprint

“Poetry is good for unleashing images.”

– Paula Rego

I am planning on periodically adding short haiku poems I’ve written to my postings, as this is a poetic form I’ve become interested in. Traditionally the pairing of haiku with painting is known as haiga which appeared almost simultaneously with the first recorded haiku. Not surprising, since Japanese painting and haiku are made with the same brush. I’m afraid many of my paintings will not fit the typical character of a haiga painting, which tends to have subdued colors and very simple motifs.

We all know that words, like images, have tremendous power. But writing about a piece of art often seems to drain away some of it’s life. Pairing it with words which themselves aspire to an aesthetic grace can add another dimension to the work, infusing it with more spirit, not less. The way in which the words and the images coexist creates an exciting dynamic.

The juxtaposition will alter your experience of both the painting and the poem. By composing these haiku before, during or after the painting process, I suspect also that the brush will behave differently in my hand.

Doing Beauty

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Shoji 1, 6 x 6″ monoprint

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”

– Rumi

I’ve always loved this quote from Rumi – actually had it on my website homepage for years. What great words for an artist to live by. We “do” beauty, which makes the word more than an empty adjective.

Now beauty is a term which isn’t all that popular in the art world these days. Considered a bit trite. But Rumi gives us some guidance – he talks about the beauty of “what you love”. In other words, when you are passionate about something your expression of it will contain a beauty that flows from that love.  This is why a beautiful painting must have passion behind it which helps to distinguish it from just a pretty picture. And this is why there are so many different paintings and photographs which are beautiful, for they represent the range of human passion.

The next time you encounter a beautiful piece, contemplate for a moment the love that inspired the artist to create it. Share in their passion.

Simple or Complicated

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Oriental Grunge, 10 x 15 acrylic, ink

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

– Thomas Eakins

As artists we are taught that it is better to simplify what we put in our paintings – as Robert Browning said, “less is more”. When we start to paint objects or the landscape our tendency is to paint every last detail. For most of us, this is a strategy bound to fail. We learn to imply a million pine needles with one stroke of the brush. In figurative studies we learn that a simple line can convey as much or more about the human body than a realistic depiction. What isn’t literally there is filled in by the imagination of the viewer and thus offers a fresh dimension to each observer.

Yet many of my paintings are … complicated. I like to put a lot of “stuff” in them, different shapes, textures, colors, mediums, etc. Of course, in these non-representational pieces I’m not trying to make my work look like something else, so perhaps I’m not bound by the same need to avoid too much information which can make a realistic painting lifeless.

I’m sure it is a reflection of my own mind, which loves complexity in almost any form. People looking at work such as this may feel that it’s a bit of a mess, a chaotic jumble. I can’t deny a certain resemblance to my mind. Who knows, maybe if I get enough of this stuff out, I’ll reduce the mental clutter. Bear with me as I sweep out the attic…

Avoiding the Straight and Narrow

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Ikebana 1, 10 x 15″ acrylic, inks

“When the snake decided to go straight, he didn’t get anywhere.”

– William Stafford

Our artistic paths have a trajectory that is unique to each of us. About the only thing they have in common is that they are not straight, often to our dismay. It seems like we’d get to where we’re going faster along the proverbial “shortest distance” straight line. But we need to see each twist and turn as the necessary route that is getting us to where we need to be.

A favorite analogy of mine is that of an airplane – it is slightly off course the entire trip and only reaches its destination because the pilot (auto or human) is constantly making small adjustments to its direction. In fact, if you find yourself on a path that feels pretty straight, you minght want to contemplate whether it’s just taking you really off course. Whenever I have been doing something consistently for awhile, I change it up. Usually I do so because I get bored easily so it’s a change born of necessity. But other times I’ll try something new just for the sake of it, to see if that direction feels like it’s moving me forward.

Of course, the airplane analogy breaks down a little bit with artists, because we  don’t know what our final destination is. So our course corrections have less design behind them. But I think it is safe to say that you’ll probably see a greater variety of scenery along the way if you meander purposefully a bit – and, after all, a more interesting journey is what it’s all about!

The Artful Life

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Dreamcatcher, 11 x 15″ acrylic, ink

“The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.”

– Robert Henri

Maybe if we focus more on what this state is and how to get ourselves into it and less on making art, more art would get made.

While this state may be different for each person, for me it is one in which I am relaxed, open, curious and interested. I’m full because I’ve been looking, thinking, reflecting, opening my senses. In this condition, if I simply surround myself with art supplies, art does start to happen in a kind  of inevitable way. On the other hand, when I’m contracted or anxious, or haven’t been soaking in new images, ideas and experiences, trying to make art becomes a real strain.

Too much of our time is spent thinking about what art we might make instead of creating the optimal inner environment from which the art can easily flow. I suspect that this very same state makes all things in our lives easier, not just the making of art. So maybe we can become happier and more successful in other ways while we set the stage for making some great art. Maybe we will live more artfully.

Naked Painting

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Dreamweaver, 11 x 15″ acrylic, ink

“You must learn […] to manifest the wildness of an artist. This wildness has many faces. It is an amalgam of passion, vitality, rebelliousness, nonconformity, freedom from inhibitions. Think of this wildness as ‘working naked’.”

– Eric Maisel

Maisel recommends taking this literally –  take off your cloths to paint! He mentions a few of the luminaries in painting history who were known to occasionally paint at their easels in such an immodest fasion. Georgia O’Keefe and Marc Chagall were among them. His point is that artists must nurture their creativity through a number of activities, one of them being to connect with their “wild” side. Doing something outrageous is one way to do this and I can’t think of too many things more outrageous than painting naked. It would solve the chronic problem I have of getting splatters of paint on my best clothes.

Some of his recommendations to “get wild” are a little more tame than this one (though I do aim to try this out once my mother-in-law moves out into her new place). One I like is “think big thoughts” – for example, ask yourself “what is the very most that can be done with the color blue?”. Don’t just make a painting with blue in it, but try something outrageous with blue.

Lately I’ve been connecting with my wild side a little each time I paint by “warming up” with starting a bunch of monoprints. This activity is mainly about getting some color, shape and texture down on paper without the intention of finishing them as complete paintings. Once I feel some energy flowing this way, I switch gears and start moving those inks over to larger pieces and adding acrylics to the mix. Later I go back to the monoprints and work more on those that have some potential. I find I’m more productive once I’ve spent some time just playing to loosen up.

The trick is to maintain the same spontaneity when working on “real” paintings as you have when loosening up. Stay wild!