The Art of Arrogance

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Heavens Collide, 10 x 10″ Acrylic, Soft Gel Medium, Granular Gel Medium on Illustration Board

“Walk to your easel casually, but with a dollop of arrogance.”

– Harley Brown

Harley Brown is a well-known painter famous for his wit and somewhat outrageous declarations of what it takes to be a good artist. So the statement above really is about confidence – we can probably succeed stopping short of outright arrogance! But a lack of confidence can cause so many problems, including lack of growth, repeating mistakes and failure to even pick up the brush.

While many artists are reluctant to speak openly about their accomplishments and talents for fear of sounding conceited or boastful, each time we are alone in our studios and approach that blank, or worse, partially completed problematic piece of canvas or paper we must do so with confidence in our ability to do what we intend to do. Sometimes we fail but next time we know we’ll somehow muster that same confidence that was there last time to get us started.

I think this is one of the wonderful qualities of making art. It puts us in touch with our own abilities time and again and reminds us that there is reason to have confidence in ourselves. In these times, something to treasure.

This is another piece in my series Universal Meaning. Someone commented on how different these pieces are from my more typical angular and geometric work. This is one of the intentions I had in this seris, to work with as few straight lines as possible. But don’t worry, in my spare time I’m also working on another series which satisfies my need for order – when this series is complete I’ll post work the that, as yet unnamed, series.

Fact is Stranger than Fiction

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Beginnings, 10 x 10″ acrylic

“The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”

– Tom Clancy

Here is one of the great paradoxes in life.

Most people would agree that art (I think of art as a form of fiction) has to make some sense – if it’s totally random, it crosses the line from art to something else. The artist must have some intention, even if it is obscure to them and others. You make choices about design, color, value, etc in ways that make some sense to you.

Even art that seems random is probably not created randomly. Ask the artist – they weren’t just splashing paint around with their eyes closed (now,  I don’t want to hear from all of you painters who do just that!). You have to have an extraordinarily broad definition of art to include something that makes no sense at all.

Reality, on the other hand, can sometimes be quite random or without apparent sense. Or at least it is so complex as to defy any attempt to make sense of it. And we accept this. Not to say that there are not things in reality that have exquisite design and make total sense. Just that we do not reality to the same “standard” as we do fiction.

In some way, the artist is always trying to make sense of something, whether it be reality or their imagination. The degree to which they are successful at this at least partially defines the success of their art.

In a Land Far, Far Away…

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Nova, 10 x 10″ Acrylic, Spackle on Illustration Board

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all sciences.”

– Albert Einstein

Is all beauty mysterious?

What makes something mysterious? Is it just that we don’t understand it? I think there is more to it since I don’t understand many things that I don’t consider mysterious (like why my teenage son won’t get a haircut). In addition to this lack of understanding there is some implied significant meaning to the object in question. There is a sense that if you do figure it out, you will learn something of value. This appeals to our yearning to discover truth in our lives and adds an important dimension to our perception of that mysterious object.

Mystery makes the beautiful more beautiful. It adds a quality of excitement, of greater meaning and potential. It touches our hearts in a way that something beautiful but without mystery does not.

Einstein groups true art and science together in their dependence on mystery. Most of us do not combine science and beauty or art in the same train of thought. And at some level, much of science deals with things without mystery, self-evident facts and processes which seem dry. Consider that there is a lot of art in the world of which the same can be said (I’ve made my fair share!). But at some level, both in art and science, true mystery is encountered from which emerges the true essence of both art and science. Perhaps each are equally capable of teaching us the same truths as we unravel their mystery.

This piece is the second of a series I am working on which I call “Universal Meanings”. In this series I’m exploring form and movement within the void, whether that is external space or our inner consciousness.

Hey, What’s the Story?

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Cosmos, 10 x 10″ Acrylic on Illustration Board

“Looking is the end of a painting in my view. If you want a message, go read a novel.”

– Douglas Atwill

First of all, my apologies to those who read my blog for my absence over the last few weeks. I won’t go into the tedious details of the motivation for that truancy – let it suffice to say that many things contributed and not all of them are resolved. But my intention is to saddle back up and rejoin the fray.

The quote above raises the issue of whether a piece of art should tell a story. Much artwork does and many art instructors teach that it must (or at least should). My exploration of non-objective art (such as the example above) has led me to question this view. This type of work doesn’t seem to tell a story or have a message for the viewer. Perhaps the viewer will compose a story in their minds inspired by some aspect of the piece, but I think that in truly non-objective work, this would be pure self-indulgence.

So does a piece like this simply lack some dimension that artwork that tells a story has? Or is it replaced by some other equally compelling quality, perhaps by the very absence of a story? Is the viewer freer to engage with other characteristics of the piece, such as design, color, texture, etc. that may be otherwise secondary to the story?

Are there examples of this dichotomy in other art forms? I think about stream of consciousness novels, such as On the Road [Kerouac] where the story is obscured or not there at all and the focus becomes elements at least one level removed from story or message – emotions, language, character, etc. Or contemporary classical music without a melody or even a recognized tonal scale. Can you think of other examples?

I don’t think that this type art is deficient compared to pieces with storylines or melodies – I think it attempts to elicit a reaction from the viewer (or listener) using different methods and may, in fact, be able to touch us in unique ways.

Goals Anyone?

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Bluebells, 8 x 8″ monoprint

“Goals in life as in art should be specific in order to hope to attain them.”

– Raynald Murphy

Do you have goals, specific or otherwise, for your art? What things in life are better served with goals and which are not, or at least do not require them? Which camp does art fall into?

Setting goals as an artist can be a risky business since goal setting is often associated with issues of success/failure and acceptance/rejection. But isn’t setting goals a critical component of making progress and effecting change in anything we do?

It’s possible to have different types of goals, some externally focused and some more internal. For example, if you are trying to have a commerical career as an artist, you will probably be more successful if you identify specific, measurable goals – have a certain number of shows, be in a certain number of galleries, etc. This way you can identify and take the necessary steps to achieve those goals and make appropriate course corrections as needed. You may also have personal goals having nothing to do with the outside world. These might include developing certain skills, finding your unique style, using art to communicate with your inner self, etc. In either case, you are responsible for setting the goal, so you get to define what constitutes success.

Personally I believe that most things in life are more satisfying if done with some goals in mind. Otherwise, I feel that I’m drifting aimlessly and letting the world dictate what happens. The challenge is to manage the process of achieving your goals without allowing what others define as success become your definition. As I discussed in my last posting, thinking of a particular result as an “outcome” instead of a success or failure can help you see each result as just another step. It is important to remain the sole judge of progress in achieving the goals you’ve chosen.

How to Avoid Failure

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Meteoric, 8 x 7″ monoprint, ink and pastel

“There is no such thing as failure. There are only results.”

– Anthony Robbins

We are in such a rush to judge. Perhaps artists are even more prone to this pernicious tendency because we are always trying to figure out if what we’re doing is any good. Should we do more of the same, are we on the right track, is this painting better or worse than the last one? If we decide our work isn’t good or isn’t improving, we might conclude that it is (or we are) a failure.

What if we instead simply looked at each piece or art as a “result”? Implied in this is a heavy does of detachment from the success or failure of the piece, regardless of how we measure that. If we could simply look at the work as a result along the way, perhaps we could more objectively assess what we could do differently next time. We could dispense with the useless negative self-judgement that accompanies the concept of “failure” and focus on what we learned, what we could change, what work should be done next. The concept of “result” implies temporary – there will be more results and they may be different than this result. And that alone may prevent us from giving up and allow us to pick up the brush again and face the blank canvas.

I’m not saying that I always take this approach to my own work, though sometimes I am able to achieve this state of mind. It’s so second nature for us to judge our efforts. But when I can suspend judgement, the level of pressure goes down and the level of pleasure goes up.

So Much From So Little

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Cosmos, 6 x 6″ monoprint, ink and pastels

“My studio begins at the art supply store. I imagine all the paintings trapped inside those tubes of paint.”

– John Ferrie

One thing that amazes me about art is the variety and complexity of what can be created from the simplest of elements and tools.

I know of some painters who use only 3 colors and white on their palette and yet they can create just about any painting imaginable. A sculptor with a piece of rock, a hammer and a chisel can form any shape the mind can conceive. With 26 letters, a writer of English can write novels, poetry or short stories. A dancer needs nothing but their body to fashion the most elegant of movements, a singer just their voice to sing an opera or a rock-and-roll ballad. The magic elixir that turns these simple tools into a work of art is the creative spirit of the artist.

Sometimes it’s easy for me to get sidetracked by the range of materials available to the artist these days. Especially when I’m feeling stuck, I can delude myself into thinking that if I just had a different color, a different brush or paper, all my problems would vanish. I have found this fascination with the “stuff” of art to be particularly common in the world of photography, where many people are more interested in the latest techno gear than what makes a good photograph. Some of the best photographs of all time were taken with what would be considered antique equipment today.

It is fun to play with new materials and sometimes that newness can actually invite a breakthrough. But it’s not the stuff itself that makes the difference, but rather the way in which it allows us to engage once again with our creative side.

Talking with your Art

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Distant Shores, 6 x 6″ monoprint

“All painting is an accident. But it’s also not an accident, because one must select what part of the accident one chooses to preserve.”

– Francis Bacon

The process of painting is a wonderful play between unexpected results and calculated decisions. Nothing is more pleasing to the artist than to be surprised by what you’ve done. I’m watching an instructional DVD on abstract painting at the moment and I can really relate to the instructors occasional gasps of pleasure at the effect of some brushstroke. Often the results are what we intended, but while those moments can be satisfying, I think more delight is to be had with the unintentional.

But it’s not all accident. As Bacon says, there is also some serious calculation going on as to what  should remain and what should be discarded, covered up, redone. This process of editing is much more analytical but no less important to the success of the piece. Without this discrimination, the work ends up as a mish-mash of interesting little happenings that have little relationship to the whole. This is where you might have to reflect on what your overall purpose in the painting is, to get a little more intentional about it. While it’s fine to let the process itself dictate your path, the dialogue you have with the painting must be a two-way communication. At some point, it’s important to tell the piece what’s on your mind. The final word on the matter is when you declare the piece finished.

Then you are ready to begin a new conversation with a new piece – I could talk like this forever…

Painting Music

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Jungle Rhythms, 6 x 6″ monoprint with ink and pastel

“Listening to Mozart when painting can make you believe in God.”

– J.M. Brodrick

I can’t paint without music playing in the background. But I’m very particular about what music it is. The music definitely informs my painting and if the wrong tunes are playing, the painting is easily derailed.

Without question, my favorite music to listen to while painting is by the artist known as Moby. Interestingly enough, my wife, who is also an artist who paints to music, can’t stand to listen to Moby, not even one song, not even a single chorus. Oh well… clearly it’s all personal taste.

I find that some music is too slow and meditative and doesn’t energize me – I like to develop a slight sense of frenzy when I work. Other music, such as some jazz,  can go too far in the opposite direction and interfere with the flow of my painting (a recent experience with Charlie Parker comes to mind). There’s a sweet spot that settles me into the right groove to paint by. Music I love at other times just doesn’t work while I’m painting.

I suspect there’s a lot of you painters out there who rely on music to get your artistic juices flowing. I’ll bet there are even some out there who might be embarrassed to admit which music serves this purpose for you. Or maybe it depends on what type of painting you are working on. In any case, I’d be interested to hear what you like – maybe I can find some new inspiration to paint by!

A New Life

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Cattails, 6 x 6″ monoprint

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another.”

– Anatole France

I’ve been contemplating change a lot lately. Perhaps it’s the time of year to think about what and how you would like to change going forward. I definitely feel like I need to make some fundamental changes in my artwork. I’ve been struggling to figure out how to accomplish this.

So I’ve been thinking about what is holding me back. Is it a lack of technique? Not having thought enough about my artistic vision? Anxiety about failure? Unsure what steps to take? All of the above?

Someone far wiser than me (who I happen to live with) suggested that change only occurs when we become willing to give up what we’ve learned to do. It’s so easy to fall back on these tried and true methods, even if they are not serving your purpose as well as you’d like. At least you’ve made some progress with them, done something you like at least a bit. When you do something entirely new, you may have to go through that rough period where nothing at all satisfies. Then it’s soooo tempting to fall back in with your old habits and methods. Must be like trying to give up smoking…

Obviously what you’ve learned will remain with you and perhaps still make an appearance now and again, but to undergo true transformation, you have to be willing to die to one life in order to enter into another. Yes,  a bit of melancholy there, but also lots of excitement!

What changes are in store for you this year?