staying in the game

Count me among the professional artists

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though I’m enough of a student of Degas to feel some ambivalence about the term “professional,” However, art is the main thing I do and I have many pictures now that I’m preparing to market so therefore I am a professional. It’s my profession.  It’s what I do.

Nevertheless I understand the feeling of a serious amateur painter who asks “why am I doing this?” And it’s useful before venturing further to remind ourselves what “amateur” originally means: “late 18th century: from French, from Italian amatore, from Latin amator ‘lover,’ from amare ‘to love.’ Pro athletes were at one time banned from competing in the Olympics because they were paid athletes. The difference between amateur and professional related not to quality, but to money.

Anyway back to art, I have wanted to be an artist since at least the age of 9.  I know this because I stumbled upon something I wrote in grade school (my parents never threw anything away) that stated firmly: “when I grow up I want to be an artist.”  I’ll omit the date, but suffice that I was nine when I wrote it.

I have had many, many bumps along the road in my artist journey (and periods of time when I did almost no painting — as when I went to college where I studied literature). Painting is the thing that always pulled me back whenever I wandered, and it did so because I love the beautiful paintings by the Old Masters and longed for the difficult challenge of painting, have wanted to understand it at its highest level, and love thinking about and experiencing the world of visual perception. I like staring at stuff. Always have.

Moreover while certain subjects perpetually confuse me —  for example my brain has no use for mathematics which I say with no pride — the visual things have always felt like something I naturally and inherently understand.  Even when I had not a clue how to do some art skill (draw a contour, mix a color) I felt that inwardly I understood — that I could figure it out myself if I stayed at it long enough. That’s not to say that art came easily.  I recall that in the days when I first got serious about drawing, my head would ache.  After a session of drawing, I felt overwhelmed with fatigue.  Sometimes I just wanted to retreat to bed and take a nap. I was often having a case of the vapors.

I was young then, bit of a crème puff. As we get older, we get tougher — less quick to wilt.  Art’s struggles were not things I welcomed at first, but they are now. These days I want to make painting “harder.” I look for things that puzzle me, confuse me. I want to attempt things that I don’t know how to do. I come to that eagerness for difficulty from a place of skill.  I’m much more confident because I remember earlier times when I succeeded through difficulties. I face the unknowns by using what I do know. I gained skills over the years. I am eager to stretch and use them.

Youth is wasted on the young!

Still, there’ve been times when I think about a specific work — think to myself that it’s a wreck.  “Why waste my time going further with it?” I have learned to ignore that sentiment. A drawing I have that is now a special favorite went that way. I was drawing my husband’s garden from a photograph and about mid-way it wasn’t working, but I kept going because “what the heck.” It’s turned out to be a very lovely drawing to me now that it’s finished, and is different from other things I typically do.  I am so glad that I didn’t abandon it at that icky, awkward stage — that I kept going. I would post it here, but I haven’t been able to take a decent photo yet.  The colors are subtle, and all my attempts to photograph it so far failed to do it justice. Now that the weather is sunnier I’ll have another whack at the photography.  It’s on the long “to do” list.

I love that drawing. And I wouldn’t have that drawing if I had listened to those doubts. There are other works that were also awkward that I’ve made the last year that I didn’t like so well — one I already posted at this blog though I didn’t report the negative feelings. It’s reposted above.  I know that I have learned things by doing the blue still life above, have gone out of the comfort zone.  I know it because of the negative feelings. So even regarding the blue still life, I’m glad that it led me into new territory. Perhaps at some later juncture that new territory will further develop into something that does have meaning for me, that I’ll care about the way I love the drawing of my husband’s garden.

I could explain exactly what features of the blue still life I don’t like, but it would be too much of a digression in an already long story.

Maybe it’s different from your situation.  This post develops from a long comment that I left at another artist’s blog. I’ve adapted it here — making it even longer! But you and your situation — I have no idea to whom I speak.  Who’ll find these words?  Today or some other time?  I don’t know who you are.  I hope that you’ll consider what I say when I tell you about discouragement — everybody feels it — and persistence.  If you love what you do — or if you want to love it — you must stay the course. That’s the ticket price.

Because painting is my chosen vocation and I’m committed to it unequivocally, I paint come what may.  (By “paint” I comprehensively include drawing in any medium, painting in any medium — oil, watercolor, pastel, other kinds of crayons, colored pencils, acrylic — I have used a lot of different materials.)

I don’t know if you have any idea how awful a violin sounds when played by someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing — especially a cheap violin.

I have another example also — an even better one. It demonstrates that I know something about the difficulties that beginners or amateurs or others on the spectrum of experience feel.  Some readers have known me to reference this topic before. When my daughter was little she began violin lessons through the Suzuki program (the one that emphasizes early lessons). I saw all these little kids playing the instrument, knew that some would get to be good at it in just a few years and asked myself “why not me too.” So I got a cheap violin and began learning along with my kid (I already knew how to read music, but with the violin I found that — for me — learning to play by ear worked better).

I don’t know if you have any idea how awful a violin sounds when played by someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing — especially a cheap violin. It really did sound like I was torturing some unfortunate animal. I didn’t just think about quitting sometimes. I thought about it every time I touched the instrument which was nearly every day. Later I bought a decent student instrument and it sounded a little better but I was still a long way from being “musical.”


I kept at it. Now after over ten years I am beginning to understand the violin and I play well — not likely to ever be confused with a “real” violinist but I am very glad that I didn’t give up. It opened up a whole new world. I hear music differently now — especially if there’s violins in it. I hear the violins as I never heard them before. I love my violin and have a special relationship to what I learned because I gained it mostly alone (had a few lessons for a while but not many). I did it my way. Just like Frank Sinatra. Cue music (especially the violins).

And yet! When I first warm up, in let’s say the first ten minutes of a session, I often wonder all over again if I should quit the violin — even now — why keep doing it — I’m not very good — etc. I hear all those negative messages again inside my head. I have learned to ignore them. After a bit, warmed up, I play music that I love and I am always getting better. And I enjoy it. It stretches my mind! And I can put on a record album and play along with it. Some professionals can’t do that if they don’t play by ear. Isn’t that neat!

If you hear a voice telling you that you cannot paint, then paint my boy, and that voice will be silenced.  So said Van Gogh.

He knew a thing or two about hearing voices. Sometimes the temptation to quit comes when one is nearest to making a break-through. So if you love what you’re doing — and sometimes even if you don’t love what you’re doing! — I think you gain by having faith, going forward, being willing to see where the path leads, find the new experiences and the new knowledge that it offers. The feelings change.  They wax and wane.  The knowledge stays.

Good luck to you one and all!

[Cat freaked items — available for purchase here.  I borrowed their picture to illustrate my early violin practice.]


around the pond again

Going through my drawing stash I found

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another pond. It was among a group of drawings that I started and didn’t finish.  I’m taking it up again and here it is in medias res — not as much at the beginning, but not complete either.

Something about the loopy shapes of distant trees and foliage fascinates me.  They are subjects I go after again and again. I want to have the sense of their shapes being very clear, very distinct, as though you could reach out to them and grasp them, which of course you cannot do in either a drawing or with distant trees — but it’s an imaginative gesture.

I also like the scribble as a way of indicating the randomness of nature. The scribble of thought and hand parallels Nature’s scribble of plants growing willy nilly here and there. Things are in front of other things, leaves of grass, fonds of plant, wave and meet your eye as an infinitude of layers. I like to think of the piling up of layers of pigment as a simulacrum of these things.  Chemicals imitating molecules.

Or something.

first things

But what approach to teaching is most likely

101_8725 (2)to help people learn to draw accurately?  I’m thinking that I should adopt some of the strategies that I know contribute to realism. These are truly things that I sensed myself from looking at paintings. I didn’t learn theses ideas in a class or from a book, though I sometimes encountered similar ideas in those places too — which is perfectly logical since true ideas will occur to independent observers simply because they are true.

Think about that next time you’re trying to figure something out.  You’ve got your own logic machine sitting there on top of your neck.

There were always things that I did — for instance I knew that you have to sort out the large forms first. I put local color down as simplicity first (if it looks like green, use green, then adjust).  I knew that some things can be accessed as contour and some things are only with great difficulty understood through line. I find that tonality and masses are the easiest way to quickly summarize a scene.

I want to reconsider these ideas. I’d like the force of the ideas to be able to impress itself upon me anew — as though I were noticing something for the first time. For it’s not obvious that the large forms are anything specific.  Actually the large form is an idea within an idea. Yes, the large form is the thing to be sorted out first because the large form will take up most of the page (or the canvas), but of what does “the large form” consist? That’s the other reason why it comes first, because one is figuring out what “it” is. That choice can be pliable, can be different things visually at different times. Perceptually it’s “what you notice now.”  Deciding that “this” is the large form verses “that” makes all the difference in the world as to how the painting will proceed.

Things in a painting are not identical to things in life. Things in a painting are what we see. They are percepts.

A painting is not identical to its subject matter.  A painting is an idea about the subject matter, a way of thinking about it, seeing it. Emotions might be present also, but they aren’t part of “the painting” until they have a shape.  So that shape is the thing. Any subject might be conceptualized many different ways. The same motif can be rethought many times. That’s why I’ve been able to repaint the same things again and again and have them turn out differently over successive efforts.

It goes back to the original meaning of abstraction in art. It’s difficult to illustrate “the big idea” at the start of any picture. The illustration above is random, from the grab bag of things.

The notion about “mistakes” — whenever art teachers are relentlessly concerned with avoiding mistakes — alleging that the differences between what you want and what you got occur because you didn’t get it right — they imply that you should know what you want before you see it. (Obviously it’s often true that a mistake is a mistake.) But invention isn’t about “getting it right.” Not in that sense. It’s about making an image that has — when all is said and done — certain qualities that hold it together and make it into something that’s like a world unto itself.

Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.  I think that’s a good analogy for art (minus the slapstick and the potential for injury).  One is looking for a fine mess and a way of getting into it.

recasting the past

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I would chide myself for not finishing things except that there’s also this upside to procrastination: I look through my stacks of drawings and rediscover them, take them up again, and complete them from the vantage point of a different place in time.  I found this drawing in a stack.  It’s 22 x 16.5 inches.  This picture depicts the same motif as one that I posted a few days ago. Everything’s a bit different in this one. Lines shake a little more. A color might be punched up a bit more. Also the paper color and texture are very different, and these differences affect everything else in the picture.

Oil pastel is a sensitive medium. You can do quite a lot of dragging color over previous colors and the combination of marks produces a dynamism.  It also allows colors to mix optically so you actually get different color effects than you would if you tried to mix the pigments into each other as you would with paint. You can see in the details that follow how textural oil pastel can be.

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I’m not using a “technique” when I do these marks. They are instead all decisions, responses to something that I’m seeing. I am drawing with the sticks and so the marks are drawing “ideas.”  For instance, in this detail there was a limb hanging out over the water and it separates from the background by its slightly brighter aspect.  I put down a light line, some marks for the leaves on the branch, and a dark line that marks the limb’s separation from the background.

It’s all abstracted and simplified in relation to the thing I’m looking at, but these are decisions.  They are specific, nonetheless. And a gazillion specific decisions adds up to lots of marking in the drawing.  And I find it really wonderful to think about the scene in these ways.  See this, put it there.  See something else, there it goes.

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It can make you feel very connected to the place. Here’s the same passage in a different orientation. I saw ripples in the water so I put down the ripples. I saw bits of lighter green so I just drag them across the darker green. The layers of pigment pile up in ways that imitate the density and confusion of light that comes from the scene.

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Up close the passages are very abstract.

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If when observing parts of the picture using a camera, they seem to be well composed, then it suggests that the process of thought going into the small elements of the picture are mimicking the compositional choices you make when you work on the whole.  The relationship between whole and part ought to be in harmony.  Any one of these details ought to seem like it’s the natural child of the parent image.

I like this version better than the one I posted a few days ago.  So, learning from the experience working on this one, I’ll return to the slightly larger format and carry it further some more too.

On the whole, I’m quite content that I never finished these when I first began them. Finishing them now is working out really well. I don’t know how exactly to use time in painting, but when events conspire toward a good outcome — I’m glad for it.

yesterday’s life class

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It finally stopped raining.  We’ve had more rain in the last month here in the Washington area than I remember from EVER. The first rain is surpassingly lovely.  The 17th day of rain, on the other hand, can be a tad disappointing.

But the rain has stopped. Hurray! Nonetheless I do not find myself bounding with energy.  I decided to adopt a more laid back approach in the life class.  I am not abandoning larger than life sized, fauvist colored portrait heads forever but I might be finished with them for now.  I’m not sure.  In yesterday’s class, I made a smaller drawing.  It still involved having to draw the head larger than I see it, but the enlargement was much less dramatic and thus easier on the brain.  I also used local colors. I decided to phone it in.

It’s a life class so the poses are not really set up for portrait anyway, which made all my previous drawings that much more of a challenge. There’s challenge too, though, in the simple, straight-forward drawing, so my new approach to the model for probably the duration of the class will be more laid back. Draw whatever is there.  No straining for a certain viewpoint (I sat on the floor in one class session).  Just open my eyes, be grateful, draw.  That’s the plan.

pastel experiment continued

pastel still life

In anticipation of the pastel class that I’m going to be teaching at McLean Project for the Arts in the fall, I’m experimenting with pastel materials for newcomers, and because the sanded surfaces are so marvelous to use, I’m trying to find a way to make-your-own so that students can enjoy the process without buying expensive sanded papers. I’m fully persuaded that a solution is out there, but I haven’t found it with this first trial.

I got some Golden pumice mix and it turns out to be a little too sandy for my task. It will eat the pastels up thoroughly and given the cost of pastels, that’s not a happy development. It’s a wonderful material such as it is and so I’m trying to figure out what I’ll do with it.  It might be better used with a composite technique of some sort.  For now, though I push on with my search.  Golden makes a “pastel” surface too.  I guess I’ll try that one next.  Maybe I should have trusted the label that said “pastel.”

In the detail below, you can see the surface effect more vividly. It’s not unattractive, but it’s not the thing I’m looking for which is a moderately toothy surface that holds pastel without eating the pastels up.

pastel still life detail

The little object outlined in the foreground is a clay whistle shaped like a bird with its wings outspread.


certain shapes & places

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Certain places mesmerize me. I go back to them again and again — figuratively, imaginatively.  I don’t even have to be there. Sometime about the motif, the shapes, the colors I see and the ones I imagine have a hold on me.

This drawing measures about 20 x 25 inches. It’s one of several versions of this motif that I’ve done. There’s at least four versions of different sizes. I was going through stacks of oil pastel drawings and found this one unfinished and resumed working on it. I’ll probably fiddle with it a bit more before I frame it.

The cropped horizon puts the sky on the bottom of the picture.  I’m thinking about the oval contours of the masses of foliage and the contours of clouds and the confusion where the things meet their reflections, enchanted by the world that floats on the rippled surface of water.

materials of art

Finding the right combination of materials

Kuschan sea shell  in pastel large 18 x 24

is a challenge. In anticipation of teaching a pastel class in the fall at McLean Project for the Arts, I’ve been trying out pastel ideas. The most basic relates to materials. What kind of pastels do I recommend for beginning pastellists? What sorts of surfaces will I recommend? At first I was leaning toward a 30 half stick set of Rembrandts, but certain colors of the sticks can be difficult to use. So I’ve purchased a 24 stick set of NuPastels which I’ll be testing for a while.

I’m already familiar with both brands, but the question in my mind is which small set of pastels would be easiest for someone new to the medium? NuPastels grand set is 96 sticks large. I love them. But I’m not recommending that the newcomer invest in a large set from day one. While some people in my class may have used pastels before, and may have their palette already well sorted out, I need to consider the absolute newcomer too.

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Here are the pristine NuPastels vying with the bananas for attention. I got these at Artist & Craftsman Supply in Hyattsville, MD, a new store in this region. (You can buy stuff from them online also.)

While trying out materials with the beginning artist in mind, I was using Canson mi-teintes papers. That was the surface that certain Rembrandt sticks weren’t liking. When fighting with pastels — some sticks get slick and won’t crumble onto the paper and adhere — I was thinking what a shame it is that I cannot recommend sanded papers which work a lot more easily with all kinds of pastels.  They’re expensive though and expensive surfaces are not good choices for newcomers.  You don’t need to feel intimidated by a sheet of paper.

It dawns on me now that maybe using one of the acrylic pumice mixes might solve the problem so I’m headed back to Artist & Craftsman later today to get some Golden Pumice Gel to use on Strathmore watercolor paper.  I’ll be testing this combination using both the NuPastel 24 sticks and the Rembrandt 30 half sticks.  My chief question will be how full is the palette in range?  How easily are these materials used in this particular combination?

When I did my  kois which were the feature of the previous post I was working on UART fine sanded paper and Canson mi-teintes “touch” papers with a variety of pastel brands including NuPastels, Rembrandts, Senneliers, Richeson, Unison, Diane Townsend and Great American.  They’re all wonderful. It helps that I had depicted the koi in other media before I began doing them in pastel.

Meanwhile, the drawing featured at the top, seen below in scale, was an experiment too, one made before I knew I’d be teaching a pastel class.  I just wanted to make a larger than life size shell to see what that would be like, and I used ordinary Strathmore 400 series paper with Conté pastels.

Kuschan sea shell in pastel large studio view

I like to try things. Strathmore 400 series medium tooth paper is all purpose. It’s not designed for pastel, but it was not difficult to use. You wouldn’t want it for soft pastels, but it’s a decent surface for the harder ones. The notebook pictured on the easel is 18 x 24 inches.

If you look very closely you can see a highly specialized artists’ tool on the upper right hand corner of the drawing.  It’s used for keeping the pages of the notebook tight while it rests on the easel.  I believe it’s called a “clothes pin.”

At McLean Project for the Arts registration is open for my “coloring book” class — a study in line.  That happens in July.


the kois in pastel

Back in September, the koi were everywhere.

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The one on the easel has been pulled from storage and will make the trip to the framer soon.  Hopefully soon.  It needs an application of fixative for which I need to be able to go outdoors, and anyone in the Washington DC area can tell you that we’ve had an unprecedented season of rain.  I have contemplated building an ark.

Last fall I made a lot of koi drawings in pastel.  Other drawings are visible around the sides of the easel. I loved that long session of painting with pastel and am eager to resume using the medium again. Even though many of my life class drawings were made with pastel, I don’t think of those as being the same as these koi drawings since the kois were made on sanded paper.  The sanded surface allows for options that the plain paper doesn’t.  They are both wonderful, though — now I’m feeling guilty.  All art supplies are wonderful, each in their own ways.  But maybe it’s also the control I can exert while working in my own studio that isn’t possible in a life class. Most of my pastel palette had to stay home when I did the life class drawings.

Plus I like working large.  In my studio I was working about as large as is practicable (unless I get a bigger studio).  The largest work (seen behind the easel on its side above, and on the easel in the photo below) was made by taping together two large sheets of sanded paper. When the paper is large, the fish seem more real.  They begin to approach life size.  Kois can get big!

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The board that the paper is attached to is 40 x 6o inches.  But the biggest of the fishes (excluding the ones that got away) are on individual sheets of the large sanded paper.  I put two sheets on a board and would cover up the one on the bottom whenever I worked on the top one to prevent pastel dust from falling upon it. They stay on these boards in storage until they’re ready to be framed.

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During winter with the space being so close I have avoided the big pastel binge, but with the weather improving I long to return to pastel again in a big way.  Need to find these guys a home, and then probably the next up will be flowers.

yesterday’s prep for today’s class

Went better.


I began making some small oil pastels for practice, using photographic sources. I make them late at night and “some times the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t” as said the old Indian in an old movie I saw ages ago.

I also began making a copy of the head of a painting that I only learned about yesterday via Twitter. Wonderful thing about the internet is that you discover bits of art history that you never knew.  The painting is by Albert Herter.  What I post here will be just a detail from his painting. My oil pastel copy in the works appears immediately below, and his original below that.



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PS – in the “learn something new everyday category,” while I was looking for a link to Herter’s painting, having just learned about him yesterday, I misspelled his name. Well, it turns out that there’s an Albert Hertel who was a painter also.  You can learn about him here.