Beginnings and Endings

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Graffitix, 9 x 9″ acrylics, ink

“Genius begins great works; labor alone finishes them.”

– Joseph Joubert

Do you feel excited when finishing a painting? Do you feel like you are in the grip of a creative impulse? How would you compare your feelings, emotions, state of mind at the end of the painting process to what they are when you start a piece?

If you are like me, they tend to be very different. When you start a piece, something has probably inspired you to take a particular direction. There are many possibilities ahead of you, nothing is beyond your reach. You are in the full embrace of your creative potential. By the time you are nearing the end of a piece, so many choices have been made, almost all of the possibilities eliminated. Perhaps the original inspiration has been lost along the way. Maybe you are already thinking about the next piece and don’t feel very motivated to put more time into this one, even though you feel it needs … something else.

It is hard work to finish a piece. Whatever experience you’ve had getting to this point is with you and that may be tinged with disappointment, bewilderment or frustration. And then there is the figuring out of when to stop – it’s so easy to stop short of what is necessary or to continue on well past that point.

As Joubert says, this is where the hard work occurs, often without benefit of the support of the creative spark that got you started. But we must cross that finish line each and every time, if only to be able to start the next piece. There’s always another painting waiting for us.

Anxiously Awaiting You

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Urban Sunrise, 9 x 9″ Acrylics & Ink

“But the artist who is more interested in creating deeply than in ridding herself of anxiety will refuse to know too soon.”

– Eric Maisel

In his fascinating book, Fearless Creating, Eric Maisel talks about the necessity for the artist to invite in and deal appropriately with anxiety. While not dealing properly with anxiety at any stage of the creative process can create a block, refusing to allow anxiety in at all dries up the creative juices. You probably know this double-edged sword well – if everything feels too comfortable and familiar, you likely aren’t feeling at your creative peak.

One of the ways that we control our anxiety is through knowledge – when I’m trying to explore new territory with my art, there is a definite feeling of anxiety caused by not knowing what I’m doing. It’s easy to fall back on familiar techniques, styles, mediums, etc. Sometimes at the end of a session I’m confronted by work that isn’t at all what I intended to do and looks alarmingly reminiscent of past work. I fall into the trap of wanting to know too soon what I am doing in order to relieve the anxiety inherent in not knowing.

Albert Camus said in his last published lecture, Create Dangerously:

“On the edge of where the great artist moves forward, every step is an adventure,
an extreme risk. In that risk, however, and only there, lies the freedom of art.”

I’m often aware of the delicious tension I feel inside between the anxiety that pushes my creativity and the anxiety that stalls my creativity. I’m constantly doing things to tap into the former while also avoiding the latter. The space between these two states is where the freedom Camus talks about exists. It’s where I feel the most alive and energized and where I do my best work.

Your Artistic Path

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Crimson Angel, 9 x 11″ Acrylic

“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”

– Joseph Campbell

How oddly reassuring.

As artists we all struggle with knowing if we’re on the right path. There are usually obstacles looming ahead of us on that path – bumps we stumble over, forks we are stymied by, hills we tire of climbing, forests which block the light of day so we cannot see.

Surely we must eventually reach a point on the path where it is suddenly clear sailing. And, indeed, when someone else looks at our path, they often claim to be able to reach higher ground, from which they can see where our path is leading us with great clarity. They are eager to describe where we should go. I certainly have done so for others.

We can become frustrated with our path and impatient to have it cleared ahead of us. But we have to find our own way – what makes it our path, and thus our art, are the very difficulties we encounter and engage with.

So the next time I run into something on the artistic path that I don’t understand I will know that the next steps I take are surely my own and are taking me where only I can go.

Careful What You Ask For…

“If it’s free, it’s advice; if you pay for it, it’s counseling; if you can use either one, it’s a miracle.”

– Jack Adams

The act of seeking advice as an artist is a most delicate operation. Most of us want some feedback once in a while. But who to ask? Do you solicit it from another artist, the informed opinion? Or from some non-artist, looking for the fresh, everyman’s viewpoint? Should you ask someone close to you, a spouse or partner? Or is it better to get input from a more objective observer?

It’s all fraught with peril, to be honest. Our artistic egos are so fragile.

Sometimes asking for advice is a thinly veiled plea for praise or affirmation. And if we get advice instead of praise, it can be hard to swallow. Even if we know there is a problem with a piece and sincerely are looking for a new perspective on how to fix it, the feedback can be unexpected and unsettling.

My wonderful wife, Susan, is a professional artist and art teacher so you would think that we would be in the ideal situation where we could support each other by offering sage advice when needed. Well, that does happen sometimes and each of us always approaches all such opportunities with the sincerest desire to be nothing but supportive and helpful. But these interchanges can be a veritable minefield in spite of best intentions.We’ve both learned to be very selective about when to venture there.

We each have our own idiosynchracies when it comes to taking advice – my own particular variant is that I will often quickly reject advice, even bristling at it. But usually within a short time I do just what was suggested (assuming it is reasonable)! Just my foolish way of protecting my territory, I suppose…

We’re all in this together…

“The creative act is not formed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

Marcel Duchamp

This quote I ran across reminded me of the recent discussion we’ve had here about showing your work to others or not.

I know that I am always fascinated to see how different people can look at the same piece and have such different reactions and experiences. It’s not just whether they like it or not, but why they do or don’t, what they see in a piece, what it makes them feel or think about, what experiences they’ve had that it reminds them of. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of being completely surprised at how someone reacts to one of our pieces and that invariably at least slightly changes how we perceive it.

When people react so differently to the same piece the difference obviously is in them. So it makes me wonder exactly what inherent quality or value is in the work without being observed by others. There is, of course, my relationship to the piece. But as it is shared with others, it is evolving, projecting it’s “inner qualifications” into the world, becoming something different than it would have been tucked away in my drawer.

I’ll keep repeating this to myself as I welcome hundreds of people to my studio next month for our Open Studio event…

Inspiration

“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.

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?

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!

When to Stop

“A work of art … is never really finished; it is abandoned.”

Brooke McEldowney

I love this quote – it’s so true. The hardest part of making art is knowing when and how to stop. Especially when you reach a point in a piece where you really like it but feel something else needs to be done. How often do these next steps spell then end of that piece? Eventually one gets timid and the pile of almost-finished pieces grows.

You may have heard the advice that when a piece is 75% complete, it’s done. Of course, the challenge is that it’s impossible to tell when that point arrives because it implies you know how much further you could go. The optimist in us believes that a few more little changes will make all the difference, while the pragmatic side of us wonders if we should just leave well enough alone.

In many ways I think it has become harder to know when to stop. Less representational work doesn’t give us much help in knowing when we’ve achieved a sufficient likeness. If your work involves digital tools, there are so many and so many capabilities, that the possibilities become endless. For photographers, in the old darkroom, there was only so much you could do with the limited tools you had. Now, one can go on and on, endlessly tuning, tweaking, testing, twisting… It takes a lot of discipline and good judgement these days to know when it’s done.

Like much of modern life, we have more possibility, more capability and more complexity in the art world these days. Not sure that’s better, it’s just the way it is…

The Dancer or the Dance?

“People call me the painter of dancers, but I really wish to capture movement itself.”

– Edgar Degas

I don’t have a name for this new series of images yet, nor do I really have a name for the type of artwork it is (as Miki has pointed out in previous posts it is hard to find the right name). The combination of photography and painting in this manner is a little unusual – it’s certainly neither of the two but what to call the combination? Mixed media is so overused as to be almost meaningless. While the computer plays a crucial role in putting the two together, most of my time is spent on creating the original paintings that are used as well as the photographic image. The part on the computer usually constitutes less than 5% of the total time. Any suggestions?

I seem to always be drawn to making artwork that is a little difficult to explain to people. I guess this has it’s advantages and disadvantages – maybe the uniqueness increases interest, but sometimes it just confuses people. I am often present when my work is shown and always struggle to find the right amount to say about how something is made.

I will be showing this work (as well as some monoprints) at the upcoming juried ARTrails Open Studios event in October. If you are in the area, stop by!