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.

Talking with your Art


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


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


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?

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!

Something New…

red balloon
escapes the child’s grasp
sunrise floats away


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


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


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!