What’s New?


Webbed, photograph

“We tend to think things are new because we’ve just discovered them.”

– Madeleine L’Engle

I wonder whether artists 100 years ago found it easier to believe they were being creative in a unique way? These days it is so easy to see the art of others.

Thousands of individual websites, blogs, online galleries, social networking art sites like Flickr overwhelm us with access to artists all over the world and their creations. It can be exciting, humbling and inspiring all at the same time.

Long ago artists could only see what other local artists were creating so uniqueness must have felt more attainable. Have you ever had an idea (all on your own) only to find another artist who had already done it (perhaps better than you could)? It can take the wind out of your sails.

Of course, you could avoid looking at the work of others – artificially recreate the limited access artists long ago had to other art. But maybe it’s better to know an idea you have has been exhaustively worked through by others so you can take it a step further. Or is it’s unique status in your own creative world reward and justification enough?

I suspect that the increased access to the work of others has accelerated the rate of creativity and uniqueness in the art world. Increased communication tends to spawn innovation in most fields and I don’t think art is any different in that regard. That increased pace comes at a cost, which is the pressure to take the status quo to the next level.

Some days I dream nostalgically of a time when I would have been the only photographer in town and everything I did was new to me and to all I knew.

Those days, my friend, are gone for good…

What’s Bugging You?


Infernal, 10 x 10″ Acrylic and Spackle on Illustration Board

“You are no bigger than the things that annoy you”

– Jerry Bundsen

I love the efficient wisdom of this quote. What you let bother you defines you. Makes you think twice about to what exactly you are willing to concede that power to.

I’ll admit it – I have issues with patience and tolerance. I’ve been known to complain about this or that. I even recently participated in an experiment with my wife in which we committed to not complaining about anything for 40 days. In these challenging times, I think I lasted 4 days and only because my definition of a complaint was narrower than my wife’s.

What does this have to do with making art?

As artists we’re constantly confronted with challenges and problems – sometimes we call them “failures”. We are frustrated by them, dare I say annoyed. When we adopt this attitude toward these perceived limitations, we allow them to define who we are. We cannot become “bigger” than them, we cannot go beyond them.

I have sometimes thought that my frustration with my current limitations has been the fuel which propels me past them. And perhaps there is some role played by that attitude in my progress, maybe the pot is stirred in a necessary way. But I realize that ultimately I can only move past those limitations when I drop my annoyance with them. I’ve never really fought my way through a creative limit while holding onto these feelings. It’s only when I let them go, that I am able to redfine myself.

In a Land Far, Far Away…


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.

How to Avoid Failure


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


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.

A Man with a Plan


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!

Simple or Complicated


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


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


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


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!