The only rule is there are no rules

drawing landscape 1 mar 17

1) There are no rules. There are ways of gaining skills, but no rules.

2) What do you want your drawing/painting to look like? Do you have (a) favorite artist(s) whose works you particularly admire? Find someone to emulate because it gives you a first standard toward which you can aim. It gives your efforts specificity. It doesn’t have to be etched in stone. But you need specific goals so that you can make progress that is measurable. My first hero that I remember was the French 19th century painter Edgar Degas, but even before that I had heros even if I didn’t always know who they were — various artists whose works illustrated books, magazines, etc.

3) What are you looking at in making your painting/drawing? If you are not looking at something, you need to start. Just drawing from your head will greatly limit your ideas. Have something that you are looking at and attempting to copy — either another artist’s work that you copy to learn, a photograph that you copy to learn, or an actual three dimensional subject. Or all three.

4) Remember that something is going on in every part of the picture. Even a continuous tone is “something that is going on.” Make sure that some of your attention wanders toward the “insignificant” parts of the image so that everything can be part of the whole. Even if you are leaving part of the page blank, that blank can read as a decision rather than an afterthought.

5) Pick something that you really like so that it can fully engage your attention. If you draw a vase, choose one that you find fascinating to look at — because your attention becomes the picture. If you are looking at a real blue vase, start noticing its whole surface with the attention of a lively tourist ant that crawls around on all its parts. As your attention wanders ant-like, notice the specific color of blue in exactly that spot and how it is warmer or cooler, lighter or darker, richer or duller, than other adjacent parts of the vase. How dark is the darkest dark? How light is the lightest light? What is in between? Does the blue have subtle qualities of other colors hidden in it? A slight bit of yellow? Or of rose? Or deep purple? Of warm green? Other colors are present even in an object that seems to be “just one color.” Whether you choose to depict those other colors or not, learn how to notice that they are there.

6) Think not just about the thing but about the spaces between things. Get two vases — or a vase and a lemon — or two lemons, an apple, a vase and a bowl — and put them together into a group. Start noticing the relationships between the objects as much as the objects themselves. If it seems hard, that’s good. It forces you to see shapes and forget things and names of things. Wrestle with it. You have lots of paper. You can make drawings first and paint later. Draw and redraw the same thing, always looking for what you find most appealing in your subject.

7) Sometimes make yourself draw quickly. Sometimes make yourself slow down. Draw the same subject from different points of view, or at different times of day. Draw something you’ve never drawn before. Draw something you’ve drawn many times. Shake things up. Sometimes do the opposite of whatever you usually do. And inside it all, find joy. Joy may prove at last to be the best teacher.

Dreaming through chaos

butterfly on sept 25

Lots of times I’ve been nostalgic for that period of my life when I first started painting, when I was a teen and felt such keen longing to be an artist. And yet when I was a teen, I was often miserable painting. It seemed so difficult and chaotic. Sometimes the painting unfolded in front of me in ways I liked, but just as often it became a mess that I had no idea how to untangle.
butterfly detail 3

The butterfly painting unfolds in chaos now, and I forget as I mull over the mess of it that here is the territory over which I once longed. Decades have passed since I first “wanted to be an artist.” I have enough experience now that I could — right now — untangle this mess. I know exactly how to tame the picture so that it can become something crisp and realistic. I can get an orderly purchase on this image through stages.
butterfly detail 2

But I’m NOT going to straighten it out. And it’s now that I realize what the nostalgia is about. If only I had known when I was younger to just walk into the chaos and keep going. It’s what I’m going to do now. The orderly means available to me — I’m not knocking order and prevision — they have their place — are options that I am going to reject. Something I want lies on the other side of chaos.

wacky beginning

All I have to do is just keep putting paint on top. I am resisting the temptation to straighten this thing out. Instead, I’m going to go through it, just like you walk through a field of brambles. I close my eyes and imagine the stages of chaos, a bunch of lines here that later I discover are wrong, and brushstrokes of paint that form one layer that afterwards has to be annihilated, and ant paths through the image that circle back upon each other, or that wander around seemingly aimlessly — perhaps aimlessly in truth ….

And yet ants do reach their destinations eventually.

Far away teachers


An internet friend introduced me to the paintings of Australian painter Elizabeth Cummings, who until today was completely unknown to me.

Cummings has taken inspiration from some of the same artists as I, and yet her paintings help me see these painters — ones like Bonnard and Matisse — with a fresh sense of the possible.

So I put aside the project I was working on to make a quick pochade in a less reserved way. I have not gotten any where close to Elizabeth Cumming’s abandon. But I creep toward something of my own.

My inhibitions are strong. I can only shake them off a bit at a time. I need my hang ups. They’re an essential part of who I am. But sometimes I let them relax.

I can do as I please

I’ve been working on a painting of a butterfly the last couple days, putting it aside today so the paint can dry.  I’ll return to it later.  When I have several projects going at once, I get the most done. I flit from one to another, like a butterfly foraging among flowers, and some of them do get neglected, but my painting, overall, benefits from the casting around for ideas that comes from doing many things.

But sometimes an idea, a thing, a desire, an ambition gets put away for a long time, gets relegated to the attic of life.  How does one retrieve it?  Do you nose around in the attic to see what you’ll find?  Just yesterday we heard the announcement of a “new” Van Gogh. How many treasures has a person got stored away inside the attic of the past?  When is the last time you looked up there?

“When a passion lies inside, unable to be expressed, it will have a strength upon its awakening that will carry one forward with a greater determination than before,” said Linda, my internet friend that I’ve never actually met. She must have been reading my mind, as well as the minds of several others.

When I first began painting in high school, I made a picture of a butterfly. It was pretty awful, but I must have had a reason for choosing the subject. And these many years distance from my beginning, a butterfly has called me back.  Soon after my youth, I learned that my motifs and my ambition were considered old fashioned.  In my twenties I was already, by the “art world’s” reckoning, a dinosaur. I didn’t care. I did as I pleased.

It turned out that I wasn’t a dinosaur, that plenty other artists wanted to paint in ways similar to what I wanted, that the directness of seeing and recording was alive, well and vigorously being practiced as I would learn decades later via the internet.

But even if life had not given me permission to do what I please, I would have done it anyway.  I did do it anyway.  I thought my own personal life mattered.  And it did!  And it does still.  So I’ll paint all the butterflies that I please ….