wherever you are

landscape oil pastel 18 x 24

I count myself lucky because after years of studying art, I know how to do what I want to do.  And regarding the things I don’t know how to do, now I know how to break through the knot of a problem and learn new skills.  I know that recognizing my weaknesses is a gradual process and I am content to be ignorant about some of my defects.  Indeed, I know that recognizing my strengths is also a gradual process and I am very content to be ignorant about my strengths as well.  I have learned how to love the doing of art in the way that I do it, and from that foundation my art is able to grow naturally.

busy studio 2

I used to have a big studio.  Now I have a small studio.  In the big studio, I made large works.  Now I return to making small ones.  Since I like working large, having to work small could disappoint except that the intricacy of vision is so compelling, and I already have experience in drawing small things and have found out for myself how complicated they can be — how large are the ideas available in compact reality.  If nothing else, my notebooks have taught me that.

still life study aug 18

You can pack a lot of stuff into a small page.  And thus the loss of a big studio can lead very naturally to the acquisition of that larger studio which is the world.  With a notebook the artist suddenly gains access to vast territory.   If my car were my studio, I know now that I can make landscape there or still life, possibly portrait too — I haven’t tried it yet, but I can imagine ….

I wish that I could impress upon people who want to learn how to do art that once you pick up the pencil you are doing it.  All the possibility for regret never goes away, all the possibility for joy is continually available.  You can only draw one line at a time so all the learning has to lodge in sequential decisions.  Some artists have a specific style or idea of what they think art is, and for those artists to reach their goal, they have to assiduously practice the skills necessary to achieve their target:  it’s like practicing an instrument.


Other artists don’t know what they want and must be constantly experimenting to find it, and they must also hone their skills and also be willing to plunge ahead in those moments (and they are frequent) when they have no idea what to do.  I count myself in this latter group, but self-knowledge being such a difficult acquisition, I don’t know really if I’m the classical artist described in the first example or the jazz artist described in the second.  Perhaps the identification doesn’t even matter.

I spent this winter indoors making oil pastel drawings from photographs and it has honed my skills and emboldened my confidence so that I’m ready to go outdoors again and work from nature.  Once I step into that landscape the size of my studio will have enlarged to scary proportions!  Am I ready?  I’m not sure.  But the point is that in art, you must begin where you are.  And it happens that “where you are” changes with time.  If you can inhabit that space where you find yourself in the present, you can do and learn wonderful things.

frog after cuyp

It’s always in the doing of the picture “right now” where learning happens.  So if there was something that was stopping you from this doing, once you jump over that obstacle, you’re back in the game.

get yourself something that doesn’t matter

drawing of

I’ll bet you can’t tell what this is.  A few years hence, I might not be able to tell what it is either.  I might still like it, as I turn it this way and that trying to figure out which side is “up.”  None of that matters.  It was by means of this drawing that I made an amazing discovery about something in the motif that I had completely misperceived.

Every artist ought to have some space in life where he or she can pursue an idea with total freedom.  It’s a mistake-free zone, a freedom of inquiry place.  In that space you can do whatever you want to do.  Sometimes for psychological reasons one builds this space on the cheap.  It’s being cheap helps it feel free.  I have stacks of little notebooks into which I pour my “anything” ideas.  They aren’t even drawing notebooks: that helps their cheapness status.  It means they have these lines for writing that interfere with my drawing from the outset, something I have to ignore, work over.  It pushes forward my sense of “what the heck” to have these out of place parallel lines staring back at me.

Along with a not-drawing notebook I have the blue ball-point pens that were not intended to be artists’ materials.  The not-for-drawing notebook and the not-for-art pens tell me that I can make not-for-art ideas.  I can talk to myself.  I can say, “hmm, does that line go here?  or maybe it goes here?  don’t know, let’s try both.”

Through the regular, occasional making of not for prime-time drawings, I learn all kinds of useful stuff.  And as it happens I even love the drawings themselves.  I love them.  I think this is a delightful drawing.  I’m so proud of myself.  And you’ll never even guess what it is, and years hence neither will I.

Something to think about

Willard Metcalf The North Country 1923 Met Mus of Art

I am finishing landscape drawings today, and I need some inspiration.  Some picture to look at to help me think about those last steps in my own pictures.  I want something that captures the feeling of nature, the light, the air — that’s translated it all into pigment and kept the gritty directness of it.

So this scene by Willard Metcalf, “The North Country, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is going to be my “picture on the wall” today — on the wall in my mind.  And whenever I need a breather, I think I shall go and breathe this air.

To attain wisdom, eat more Chinese food

detail of rice bowl from may 23 2011 wc

I cracked open the cookie, and there is was:  one sentence of the best art advice I’ve ever seen, “The work will teach you how to do it.”  There you go.  Forget all those books on “drawing made easy,” “ten steps to this or that,” “old master secrets” and all the rest.

The work will teach you how to do it.  But are we ready to learn?  Ready to work hard?  Ready to be adventurous?  Ready to make mistakes?  Ready to screw up royally?

It’s only paper and ink.  Or pencil lines, quite erasable.  Or paint that can be painted over!

So there you have it.  Eat Chinese food:  your first step on the road to becoming a great artist!


flowers detail

For a while, I was working on two drawings in tandem, a morning flower drawing and a nighttime flower drawing.  Both drawings are 18 x 24 inches large, and the goal was to finish each one incrementally.  The plan worked very well, and I brought both drawings pretty far along — day after day, using this method.

There is an ideal of finish — and neither drawing quite achieved my perfect ideal — oh sob!  I am not perfect!! Who knew?  but then I have learned that sometimes the goal posts shift in ways that the artist must accept.  Sometimes you just have to go with the natural moment and embrace what it offers.

In any case, I loved having the morning and evening drawings.  I attach different kinds of drawing to times of day and it’s a system that works well for me.  It keeps me going with the momentum of the planet turning on its axis.  After all, you gotta go with the flow….

when the longing for spring takes hold

pen landscape

Where I live winter is winding down, but the month of February is always a bit of a challenge.  You know that winter will soon be gone, and yet it’s still here.  The longing for flowers and warmer days has already taken hold, but the flowers are still a long ways off.  So I console myself with looking at pictures of warmth and try to wait patiently, but I’m not really a patient person!

In the interim it’s good to be busy.   Indeed interims are good things to be busy inside.  I wrote a couple posts ago about the value of using found bits of time for drawing.  Well, I’m heartened to discover wise Paul Foxton, a wonderful British artist, advocating that same idea.  And he says it so well and offers many suggestions for ways to get the most out of an “interim.”

His suggestions for habit creation are brilliant.

The garden considered


It’s the view from the dream, when the colors grey into coming night and that river in the distance is the path your thoughts will take, meandering, carrying you around the bend unto a place no one can find on any map.  You don’t know where the dreams come from.  They come to you with such intensity, press their meanings firmly.  The emotion’s current is strong, and yet I cannot remember any of it once morning comes.  Do I know these places?  How are these my thoughts when they come to me so strangely?