Choose Your Weapon


Enflamed, photograph

“If Velasquez were born today, he would be a photographer and not a painter.”

– George Bernard Shaw

I wonder whether painters from long ago would have chosen different, not-then-available art mediums. It’s curious to contemplate what kind of photographs Rembrandt or Vermeer might have taken had the camera rather than the brush been their chosen instrument. Both were masters of light so I’m sure they would have created rich and compelling work.

It’s interesting to me why more painters do not become better photographers. It’s very common for painters over time to tackle different mediums – watercolor, oil, collage, pastel, etc. Few in my experience become equally interested in the camera. Of course, everyone takes pictures – but I’m talking about practicing fine art photography where the photograph is a work of art in itself. Equally puzzling is why more photographers don’t also take up painting at some point as a way to expand their expressive arsenal.

Perhaps the disciplines are too different. I suppose it’s equally true that not many painters (or photographers) become sculptors, writers, actors, dancers, musicians, etc. For some reason I have found painting and photography to share more in common with each other than with these other artistic mediums. But perhaps to others, picking up the camera feels as foreign to them as would sitting down at a piano or playing Hamlet.

What draws one to choose painting or photography to begin with? Both produce visual images depicting our world. Both allow for a wide range of creativity and expression. Both are considered valid art forms. Have you ever asked yourself this question? Have you ever contemplated getting serious about painting or photography, whichever you don’t do now? If so, why have you chosen to do so or not?



Beginnings and Endings


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


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.

In Defense of Hope


Tropical Deconstruction, 6 x 6″ monoprint

“As artists our job is to keep the faith and help humankind to remember beauty and thus the promise of happiness. Our work defends hope, the most precious homeland for any soul.”

– Todd Plough

I love everything about this quote.

It says that what artists do matters. That notion may be hard to accept, may seem arrogant or self-indulgent. If we don’t believe that what we do matters, however, it is hard to keep the creative juices flowing. It is important to accept that our work matters, not just to us, but to others.

This job we have that matters is to help others “remember beauty”, a simple phrase that reveals that it is not easy to remember beauty all the time, especially in these days of uncertainty. But beauty is one of the harbingers of happiness. When we see something beautiful it inspires happiness in us. Creating beautiful things and sharing them with others keeps the “promise of happiness” alive for them.

Our work defends hope by offering others opportunities to observe beauty and to experience the happiness that arises. As we struggle to understand the meaning of or motivation for our artistic activities, the simple nobility of this offering to others ensures that what we do does matter.

Art – It’s Not What You Think


“The thing made is a work of art made by art, but not itself art. The art remains in the artist and is the knowledge by which things are made.”

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy

It’s an intriguing thought to view art as not the work itself but the means by which the work is created. Art becomes something much more complex and interesting – the various internal forces within you that enable you to produce the “work of art”. Even “work of art”  takes on a new meaning – the piece created is the work of the art within you.

This makes the answer to “what is art?” take on a much more personal meaning – instead of looking outward and saying this piece is art and that piece is not, we instead turn inward and look for the measure of the art there. Art becomes much more than technique, composition or style – it is the unique combination of experience, intention, insight and creativity that only you have. Art becomes inseparably intertwined with the life force within you.

“The art remains in the artist” – I can think of no better companion.

What Isn’t There…


“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”

– Miles Davis

It’s all too easy to play what’s there – to take another photograph, paint a painting, write a story, compose a song, much like the ones you’ve done before. There are lots of reasons to do so – creating a consistent body of work, improving one’s skills through practice, recreating a past success, fear of making a mess.

It takes lots of imagination, courage and discipline to “play what’s not there”. To take the next step and create something new is exciting, seductive, frustrating, uncomfortable – and ultimately very rewarding.

I’ve been focusing lately on some abstract acrylic paintings – my intention to stick with non-representational work makes it a little more difficult to “play what’s there” since I’m not trying to make it look like anything else. During the period when I was doing landscapes in pastels, I found I was focusing on improving technique and much less on being creative. The explicit nature of the subject matter weighed me down. My focus was more outward.

When painting non-representationally I find myself listening to the pieces more. I start a piece and put it aside, come back and sit with it, trying to understand where it wants to go next. Since there are no external landmarks to direct me, the marks I’ve made so far must be my guides. I enjoy these private conversations immensely.

The Illusionists

“It is dangerous to let the public behind the scenes. They are easily disillusioned and they are angry with you, for it was the illusion they loved.”

– W. Somerset Maugham

I couldn’t resist this quote when I saw it as it is a perfect continuation of the discussion in my last post that started with the topic of talking about our art. The public in general does not really have an idea of what it is like to be an artist – I don’t think this is totally due to some unique quality such a life has. I know I don’t really have any idea what it is like to be a surgeon, lawyer or butcher. In many cases, I also idealize those professions in ways that real practitioners of those trades would roll a cynical eye at. Any career, even the most glamorous, has it’s share of drudgery or downright unpleasant work to do.

It is almost impossible to understand any role unless you have been in it yourself. I remember in a prior career when I moved into management (who had always been the adversary and who it was easy to be critical of), I became aware of the realities of making imperfect decisions in the midst of imperfect information. I realized one should always be wary of assuming insight into what others do, why they behave as they do, etc.

I think there is a real reason, however, to support the “illusion” the public has about being an artist. It may inspire them to explore their own artistic side – less likely to happen if you are moaning about some of the tedium involved. It may allow them greater enjoyment of your art – if you complain about what it took to make something, it casts a pall on the piece itself. And it may just allow them to be happy for you, in their belief that you’ve achieved the “good” life. Why steal that away?

There are too few ways in this world to offer something to others – why not honor the illusion that others take pleasure in? Who knows, maybe it we’ll start believing it ourselves and wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Knowing, Thinking and Looking

“Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking.”

– Goethe

An interesting hierarchy.

I agree with the first part – knowing means there are fewer possibilities, and possibility is what keeps our interest. Some people may believe knowing is supreme, but as an artist, I think it leads to stagnation.

The second part is less obvious to me. Which would you prefer to do, think or look? Both contain endless possibilities. Thinking involves our imagination, a realm that has vast potential. Looking is such a rich experience and often we see things we could not imagine.

As an artist, I believe both are crucial and need to be developed. When I want to explore my creativity I will often look at my work and think about how I could change it, what concept I want to explore, what techniques I want to use, what I am trying to express, what should I strive to make different, etc. This thought process usually feels more like a contemplation than thinking, but it is an active use of my mind. At times like these I also pay more attention to what I’m looking at, how I’m looking, where I’m looking, etc. Without focusing on looking in this way, I lack the raw material my new work will need.

I guess I’ll continue to try to be a thoughtful observer in search of a few more pieces of art…

I think, therefore…

“You can’t look at abstract art without thinking.”

– Patricia Cole-Ferullo

Yeah, much of the time you are thinking “What the heck?”…

But seriously, I think this is an interesting and perhaps controversial statement. When looking at something abstract, we start trying to find something familiar or recognizable. We start trying to figure it out, to find some way to relate to it. This is certainly one mode of “thinking”. Since we may not have any familiar forms to look at, we start to pay attention to other aspects of the piece – the colors, design, patterns, shapes, etc. We have to work a little harder to find something about the piece to like (or dislike).

The controversy of the statement is the implication that other types of art do not require thinking. I don’t really agree with that, though I do believe that our minds become engaged in different ways with different types of art. When we see representational art we do not have to work so hard to understand what we’re seeing or what the artist is saying (perhaps). It is given to us more obviously. These images may evoke memories and emotions, or we may become intrigued by the artist’s technique, or the objects may be depicted in new or unusual ways that cause us to consider them more carefully. We may be less likely to examine the piece from the perspective of color, form, etc. since the familiar image itself is so inviting and distracting.

Personally I enjoy the kind of mental engagement abstract art results in. It’s a little like a puzzle that I have to figure out. And I get to make of it what I want. It’s a challenge and it’s liberating, at the same time.

A Day at the Lake

I am an artist who, for forty years
Has stood at the lake edge
Throwing stones in the lake,
Sometimes, very faintly,
I hear a splash.

– Maxwell Bates

We produce so many pieces of art over so many years and, occasionally, we hear the splash. Most importantly, we hear the splash “very faintly”. After all, it’s a very large lake – countless artists have thrown their stones into it.

None of our work is going to make waves in the lake – at best a small splash. But that is as it should be. We are members of an uncommon family, one that has congregated at this special lake for centuries, adding their contributions to the water one at a time. We are members of the family of artists…

The lake is larger than any of us throwing our stones and accepts each throw with equal consent. Not too long after the stone has broken the water’s surface, the lake returns to it’s earlier calm and patiently awaits the next toss. It teaches us that there is no need to hurry, no need to become attached to our stones, no need to take aim when throwing. Listen to the lake…

I, for one, intend to continue to visit this lake. The sound of that faint splash is all I need to know that I am where I belong.