Join me....

I believe that art enriches and informs our lives everyday in many positive ways. Sharing those experiences, whether as an artist or as an appreciator, is part of the pleasure. I welcome your comments and hope you find something of value: a laugh, an insight, a new idea or just a happy moment. Enjoy art!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Willing to Fail

A math professor at Williams College bases ten percent
of his students' grades on failure.
Mathematics is all about trying out new ideas -- new formulas...
and knowing that the vast majority of them will be dead ends.
To encourage his students not to be afraid of testing
their quirkiest ideas in public, he rewards rather than punishes them for 
coming up with wrong answers.

from Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit

Ms Tharp continues: "If Leonardo and Beethoven...failed on occasion, what makes you think you'll be the exception?"

I am trying to embrace this.  Honestly.  But it is much harder than it sounds.

Playing a wrong note is one thing....hauling off failed canvases is quite another, at least to me.

But back to the willingness to fail.  

I have become more aware of the emotion expressed in certain pieces of abstract art ( - mainly because I have become more aware of abstract pieces in general.)  But none of my attempts seem to satisfy me.
So again I try...willing (almost expecting) to fail.

Some warm ups by cutting up pieces of patterned papers in black and white:

These exercises are a wonderful way to experiment with pattern and variations of size and contrast.
Just make a pile of different paper "fabrics,"  then cut and paste (photo below).  No subject, no message, I just wanted to make the final configuration pleasing.

Time for something large and in paint. So I started with charcoal and a fixative on a large square support and blocked out shapes inspired by a photo of heavy clouds rolling in over a field.  Somehow I lost both photos.  Then I lost my nerve and put the painting away for quite a while.  I was totally indecisive as to how to finish it.  

Fast forward to this week: I've been working in turquoises and oranges and they give me such a rush of energy that when I spied that forgotten board leaning against the wall I grabbed it and began painting.  I let the underpainting guide my response to dark and light but used only the colors I was already using for another piece.

I was liking this ...a lot.

A Perfect Storm
24 x 24 on board, painted 3/4" edge, no frame

It would be a bit presumptuous of me to claim this a "perfect abstract" but it was a perfect storm of energy, color, preparation and nerve.  It is going to remind me to be fearless.  And it is not going off to the dump anytime soon.

Finally, I have framed and hung the abstract masterpiece below where I see it daily when I leave for my studio.  The wild abandon, the obvious lack of constraint and the vibrant colors all say "GO FOR IT."  

Go For It
mixed media abstract, 12 x 9
done by my 2 1/2 year old grandson

I can sum up my week's lesson this way: Go for it and you might create a perfect storm.  Or not!
Either way, a math professor at Williams College is wise enough to give you credit if you fail.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Please: Try this at home

I hope never to be accused of being an art snob.
Any process, any material, any level of
effort used in the production of visual arts gives me
a good warm feeling.  No judgement should
be made when the process brings pleasure.

And while I firmly believe that mantra I find myself standing in judgement, and thus in the way, of my own creative efforts.  And so I confess.  As I talk the talk I need to remember to walk it.

So please, in the name of "good, warm feelings,"let's try this at home.  I was skeptical...but it really was fun.

I signed up for a "print making"class at the college and was mildly disappointed when the teacher passed around styrofoam trays the first night.  You know, those environmentally horrid picnic plates that are cheap, white and made of styrofoam.  (I save trays beneath meat and prepackaged fruit, but use them as disposable palates for paint. ) See? I was already judging and getting in the way of possible pleasure, shame on me.

trim off the edges so that a flat piece remains

We were instructed to "draw" on the flat side (inside without trademark) of the tray and then go back over the drawing using a ball point pen pressing into the foam to make an indentation.  This would make our first printing plate.  Yeah, right. I confess to feeling that this was a tad elementary and not what I signed up for.

But...I could not have been more wrong: magic unfolded and it was chock full of important lessons.
Not only will I do this again, but I will save trays to do this with the grands on a snow day.  If you don't "draw" make swirly lines or geometric patterns.  Change the size of the tray (cuts easily with scissors) and make several smaller stamps to layer on top of each other.  Oh the places you can go!

GATHER:  foam tray or plate
ball point pen
brayer or wide paint brush
acrylic paint or printing ink
palate to spread paint, can be another plate or freezer paper or piece of glass
paper or cards to print onto
sense of play

I now understand that this simple exercise is done to illustrate
the printing of negative and positive spaces; what we "take away" (via the pen-made indentations)
will actually be the lines that become positive spaces.  What is
left (the areas of foam untouched) will be solid paint

Roll on the paint or ink covering the "plate" as evenly as possible.  Lacking a brayer just use a wide brush to smoothly cover the foam with paint.  You can turn the plate over onto the paper or, easier yet, leave the plate ink side up and gently lay the paper on top of it, pressing evenly over the back of the paper.  You can even smooth it out with a credit card or a clean brayer.  Carefully peel the paper off, holding the plate down and lay aside to dry.

my first print
negative space (the dark green of the paint) is what I did not etch out
with the pen

Another lesson learned here is that the left becomes right and the right left...important to realize if you are using words or want a directional emphasis in the final piece.  The first couple of impressions are not as lovely as those following.  I noticed the bottom edge was raggity and would need further trim.  But hey, not too bad for being a skeptic.

The class oohed and ahhed as prints were made.  Doubters became believers.  We now had a foundation on which to base our next pursuits.  Relative questions could be asked.  Below is a sampling of results (with the artists' permission of course).

Andi is rolling ink onto her cut tray

She places the tray ink side to her test paper and

with a clean brayer gently presses the design onto the paper

holding the paper down she carefully pulls back the styrofoam for the reveal

Anna Lise cut a dog for her first print, see the tray back, use other side

isn't this amazing?  a pro job from a recycled tray, color me impressed

So why don't you find a ball point pen and make a birthday card?  An original.  The cost of cheap paint will be far less than a Hallmark version.  Have fun.  Try this at home.

Carving in Color,

p.s. my experiment with leaving comments bombed.  Off to research.....

Friday, February 9, 2018

Festina Lente

 Several years ago we quit making new year's resolutions
in lieu of choosing a word we would try
to live by.  It has been more 
productive for us and we enjoy exploring that word and
all of its nuances for an entire year.

My word(s) this year is:

For the literal definition of this greek phrase and its latin translation go here.    As I begin to focus on this term I am finding additional references to it almost everywhere: slow food (art), hurry slowly, meditative walking and so on.  Even my favorite buddy Austin Kleon addresses the idea here.  And I found a podcast devoted to the subject here.

I am trying to capture the essence of this word everyday not only in my work and pleasure but in my head has always been about a mile ahead of my feet and I'm finding that is not the best way to get around anymore.  Join me in slowing down and getting more done!  Or did you choose a different word for 2018?

Before I share my "slow art" I want to try an experiment.  Many of you have noticed that you are unable to comment on my blog so that others can see it.  I get many responses via email but it is nice to be able to have a conversation on reactions to a subject.  I have tinkered with the settings a bit (all greek to me) and hopefully have adjusted that.  Try commenting directly on the comment section of the blog (if you receive by email you may have to click over to the view on-line) and lets see if we can share our thoughts.  Of course I love getting your private input but I often learn a lot from readers and it is nice to be able to see it all.

Finally, my "slow art" in January.  We headed to Florida for a week of camping, beach strolling and reading in warm weather.  I did not take my studio with me and of course my hands got itchy to create.  So on a long leisurely beach combing walk I collected many shells which all had one thing in common: a hole!  Most of course were made by sea creatures sucking out the little animals living inside but some had the wear and tear of the ocean creating a hole in them.  A few sticks, some rocks for balance and a ball of jute from the dollar store....I was in creative heaven for several days working on my wind sculpture below.  Slow, meditative, challenging, and satisfying.  Festina lente.  Enjoy.

my pockets filled and dumped 
sorting through my gathered treasures

imagining a layout
auditioning sticks

art installation at the campsite
the rock and sticks on the left had to be
added for balance...gave the piece a very
"primitive" look

Friday, February 2, 2018

Warming Up


can paralyze an artist!
a great big blank canvas readied with white gesso

It happens to a lot of us.  We literally dream of the world's most gorgeous masterpiece.  We take pleasure in readying the canvas and selecting the brushes, gathering the paints and positioning the easel.  Then.  Nothing.  Nada.  Time to alphabetize the spices or scrub the toilet.  Delay tactics.

Fear?  Loss of confidence?  Why is it so hard to make that very first mark?  I think it is because we are afraid of a commitment that can't be undone.  Or we realize how much we have invested ($ wise) even at this early stage.  Whatever.  That first brush stroke can take hours.

I've tried several approaches to ease this stage fright and every artist has their own technique (just ask them).  But lately I have been trying to do more prep work before that first brush stroke in the hope that by the time I face that pristine acre of white I will be confident enough to leap.

Above is a resource photo of a vineyard with the grandfather mountain silhouette behind it.  It is in black and white so my paint choices will not be influenced by the local color.  It is not the best composition but I have an idea (or two).  

On a recycled 8 x 10 canvas I try some layout with the main post and the two rows of vines beside it. I really hate the dark mountains behind the vineyard and nearly abandon the whole scene.  yuck.

Several days later I try again with acrylics on paper.  I have no intention of finishing this, I'm just playing with the composition and the game plan.  I'm still not hung-ho but not totally discouraged...yet.

Several days later I took some blank newsprint exactly the size of the intended canvas and started with a pencil drawing.  Shifting the mountain relative to the vines (using my artistic license), I gave the middle ground, a large bank of trees I had dismissed earlier, a bigger role to play.  The eraser enabled me to re-size things and correct the perspective.  Pencil is the most forgiving tool!

After I was satisfied with the pencil composition (which doesn't photograph well) I made some notes on the paper about possible color choices...just so I wouldn't forget the combinations I had imagined.   I purposely decided to work in spurts on this piece so that the failures (which I anticipated) did not sum up my entire day in the studio (that can really kill one's confidence).

I put the pencil drawing on top of the blank canvas with some transfer paper between and made marks on certain areas so I could accurately move the composition over.  This was to lay a framework.  To transfer every line of the drawing would box me in and force me into a "paint by number" look which I wanted to avoid.

Now we are off and running!  There is nothing on this canvas that I can't tweak, adjust or change but I had no hesitation in putting color on once a few guide marks had already broken the white space.  I realize that the chin of grandfather will be changed in future sessions but hey, it's in a good location.  And I know I have left plenty of room for an in-your-face front pole while the "path" of the other rows will guide the eye back and over.

There is no guarantee that this piece will emerge a "keeper."  There is still a lot of room for error but I feel like the warm ups took away the fear of the unknown and helped me start confidently.  I hung my pencil drawing up to refer to and if I want I can lay it back onto the canvas and make additional marks for guidance.  

Almost everyone teaches students at some point to draw a "notan" or a sketch of possible compositions.  Traditionally these are thumbnail sized.  And while I find these of great value (if I would consistently do them) I always fail in trying to replicate such a tiny diagram on to a larger canvas.  I suddenly found confidence in sketching it out using paper of the same size. 

So.  I will keep you up to date on how this piece progresses but I am also going to try a few more large pieces with the same process.  When one is first learning, it seems like a whole lot of foreplay and unnecessary dancing.  "Show me the paint," we want to shout.  But a lot older and a little wiser, I am learning that intentional time spent prior to touching the actual canvas is actually a very worthy investment.   


Friday, January 26, 2018

What's in your Spark File??

"Before you can think
out of the box,
you have to start with a 
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Wandering a bookstore recently I picked up What Do You Do with an Idea by Kobi Yamada.  It's a beautifully illustrated (by Mae Besom) children's book with an adult story.  And since January has always been my month of introspection and direction adjustment, I was intrigued by the notion that we could teach youngsters how to handle "ideas."

And (stay with me here) that led me to think about all the ways adults deal with "ideas" and could I freshen up my methods.  Most of us have zillions of thoughts pass through our brains daily.  But precisely because there are a zillion, most don't take up residence. I have heard many a peer claim "well, I had a brilliant idea but I forgot it."  

I keep a file of inspiration photos in my studio.  When I began they were systematically ordered into folders labeled "mtn landscapes, still life flowers, animals, water" and so on.  Then I could pull the folder and be ready to paint.  Last week I had a student who needed a reference photo to work from. I pulled out the files and discovered, horrors, that any sense of order had long ago given over to a random stash and dash method.  I was so embarrassed....why?  

As I vowed to set aside a day to bring the folders back to order I began coming across additional information that talked about our need to harness and store "ideas."  Call them hunches, projects, titles, shapes, questions, topics, or the recently coined "sparks".... each of us needs a method that keeps a check on all those wacky thoughts that pass through the brain as possible "to-do's." Here is some of what I captured:

ORDER:  maybe that's good for some folks, but, apparently it is not the best method for all. In one of his blogs Austin Kleon  talks about "finding what you didn't know you were looking for."  A- Ha moment: "I am trying to find a waterfall but o-my-gosh here is that killer photo of a sunset over the ocean I meant to paint and its perfect for the next....."  I love those moments.  Takes me no time to do a 180 and run in a new direction.  

RECORD:  I knew a man who always had 3 x 5 cards in his front pocket.  He might whip one out, jot something down and never miss a beat in a conversation.  Even after computers and cell phones he carried those cards.  Artists claim they have sketch books but are they tiny enough to fit into a pocket? Austin Kleon (can you tell he inspires me) swears by a pocket sized moleskin and a G-2 pilot pen.

In her wonderful book, The Creative Habit, Learn it and use it for life, Twyla Tharp explains in chapter 5 that each of her dances or projects starts with a box from Staples.  She labels it and tosses in all manner of memorabilia possibly related to her idea....thoughts, newspaper clippings, photos, anything goes!  This becomes her tangible spark file and resource guide.

RETAIN:  My lack of order seems to be applied to my numerous sketchbooks, not just my photo files!  my habit is to have them handy (like kleenex on every table) so I don't waste time hunting for one (ideas don't stay as long as they used to).  The other day I was gathering them up to see if any blank pages remained and I became engrossed in reviewing them. one I might have jotted down an idea dated 2011 and the next entry is a line drawing done in 2014.  Then I glued in a beer label.  Next entry was 2015, pages and pages for a blog.  But it was all there!  I now could cherry pick what spoke to me and flesh it out.  Even fleeting, wacky notions had been retained and, upon having marinated, might prove worthy!  Where do you keep your box, your 3 x 5's, your moleskins or your sketchbooks?  

REFLECT: Silence is the most under-valued element in our lives today.  It's been proven that multi-tasking is debilitating to all tasks and that our brain really needs some down time.  My best thoughts (and apparently I am one of many) have come a) in the shower or b) alone in the car without a radio on.  Why?  Because then we give freedom to our thoughts to play together, mix up, cross pollinate and associate. We are able to remix old ideas.  The point is, ideas come from other ideas as Leo Babuta explains, whether they are business ideas, fundraising ideas, hobby ideas.....

So.  What's in your Spark File?  Better yet: WHERE IS your spark file?

I've decided my personal methods are just fine.  What I need to vow to do is to REVIEW these files more often.  Maybe before a long drive (or a long shower) I need to read back over whatever sketchbook is nearest, sift through the mixed up inspiration photos or clear off the pile of bits and pieces of stuff on my desk.  There might be an unpolished diamond in the mix.

Now.  What is your method?  Teachers, professionals, mothers, artists, cooks and musicians....all of us need to harness our creative thoughts. Do share.

Sparking color fully,
p.s. I chuckled at the times I found my grocery lists or follow up reminders in my books!  But according to the experts this is super fine.  Who knows when "fresh tomatoes, farmers market and dry cleaning" might all blend for the perfect theme of a painting series?  

Friday, January 19, 2018

Painting with Artistic License

It took me years to realize that permission
to change things was granted when
I picked up my "artistic license."

I love to look back on my own process and see where certain decisions got made about the direction of a work.  Somethings can be changed as the closing marks are laid down but some decisions get made right up front.

photo of a parkway overlook, cropped by folding

I liked the shadows in this photo made by the light coming through the trees.  But I made some executive decisions when I laid out the piece in a black/white/grey underpainting.

Already you can tell that I wanted more sky and background and that the brightest lights would be in the sky, the edge of the largest tree and then to the road.  I liked this layout and really thought it worked fine as executed.  The bits of orange I was trying to leave were from a painting underneath.  As I choose my final color palate however I decided not to leave them.  (Perhaps I should have stopped right here?)

I did ok  keeping my middle tones together and laying out where I thought I wanted the lightest lights to go.  

Then I lost all organization and decided to abandon the piece for a bit.   I had lost most of the original lights and the darks were mostly a blackish brown which was not very interesting.  I began to lose interest when I realized I had not kept the light areas connected as they originally were.

NOT looking at a piece for a while can be as helpful as taking the time to look closely.  I would occasionally set it back up on the easel and play around a bit never really being totally satisfied.  Keep in mind that the reason it has blue tape around it is because I was painting it in the frame.  Yes! Not something I suggest you try at home but I was experimenting on top of an old piece that I could not remove from the frame so what the heck...the fact alone made me willing to take some chances.

finished?  for now.

So I'm done.  I think.  It changed a lot and I still believe the foreground could use some simplification.  But nothing ventured, nothing gained.  I used my "license" not only for permission to change the reference photo but for using up the surface of another painting.  I don't think I made a silk purse out of a sow's ear but I do want to use this reference again in a different palate - I believe my rehearsal was well worth the time.  I may even take a white marker and redesign bits of it just for future use.  And, while you cannot see it here, painting on top of another piece made for a very interesting texture.  Onward....

Using My License to Practice (art),