new year’s resolutions

monet 1
Claude Monet – Haystacks

January is a natural time for making plans.  A whole year’s calendar sits there all open and full of possibility.  I’ve been reading a lot about goal setting during the last year and so my “new year’s resolution” this year is to be more consistently resolved!  I have always enjoyed making plans but I never realized that there’s a real art to planning itself.

I’ve been reading books by Brian Tracy, the best of which, in my opinion, are “Maximum Achievement,” “Goals!” and “Eat that Frog.”  And I just read Tony Robbins’ book “Awaken the Giant Within” which is full of wisdom.  Some of his stories are a little dated now, but the ideas are pristine.

The first element of goal setting is self-examination.  I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want from art at this phase of my life.  I look back at some of my earliest heroes, artists like Claude Monet (above).  I want to figure out how to emulate my heroes.  So, for instance, I’d like to master large landscape painting.

As the goal books will tell you, big plans need to be parsed into smaller, doable, trackable chunks.  For that reason I’m doing a gazillion small landscape paintings, and I’m approaching them in many different ways.  I’m using acrylic paint because it dries quickly but I know that much of what I learn from free-wheeling acrylic painting can be translated into oil also.  And I’m going to translate it.

There are many other facets to my particular plans and I won’t bore readers with the details.  Each person has different goals and every project needs to be thought through in its individual paths.

I just want to share some of my enthusiasm for the beginning of another year.  It’s a blank canvas.  It is full of possibility.  You have many choices about how to paint your year.  And I encourage you to embark on the new year with joy.

So, eat that frog!  You can even paint that frog.  If you’re an artist, you can have your frog and paint your frog and eat it too!

(You’ll have to read Brian Tracy’s brilliant book, though, if you want to get the joke!)

frog detail 3

the beginning of learning

The beginning of learning is wanting.  Learning begins with wanting.  When I first wanted to paint I was a child and I wanted something from art that a child craves.  Desire was composed of bright pretty colors, realism, things that looked bold and compelling.

Junk Art

If you want to increase your freedom in painting, sometimes it’s useful to designate a specific painting as the official “junk” painting.  The junk painting is one that doesn’t matter.  It’s the canvas upon which any liberties at all can be taken.  You can use cheap materials, you can paint in poor light, you can have a headache, you can change your mind as many times as you want.  Expend the last dregs of your palette, all the half dried and sticky mess that remains behind from your “real” painting sessions on this unfortunate canvas.  The canvas you might have thrown out is wisely saved to be used with the paint you should have thrown out.  And with these junky tools allow yourself to take chances, to draw freely, to rehearse any idea.  Here you can be a completely free spirit.

Everything you learn you can later use in a serious painting.  The junk painting can also be a way of warming up.  You can get started thinking visually with great freedom on the little canvas that doesn’t matter.

The photo above is sort of like “finding Waldo.”  How many versions of the picture do you see…?

If it should happen that you find yourself typically doing better in the junk art — with its expansive freedom — than in the “real” arena — with its more expensive materials and greater sense of duty and its various crippling “shoulds,”  then some fine morning just switch them — only forget to tell yourself.  On that fine day, use the expensive canvas and the choice paints for the “junk” picture du jour and worry yourself silly with the cheap canvas and the palette scrapings.  Just don’t tell your brain about the switch!  Mum’s the word ….

Top of the post:  a “junk” painting in progress ….

The Devil in the Details

And it is possible too for people to be deceived, deeply, deeply deceived.  He could paint like that – came so close – and then he turned down this other path and made these silly things for the rest of his life.  And the world has embraced the silly things and the few true things he made are thought of as background for his “invention.”  They are just curiosities according to the experts. 

Still – he did make a few true things and that is better than nothing.  Once – he was true.  Some people are never true. 

Then too, some people are always true.

Believing It

I took up the violin at age 47 when my daughter was a Suzuki student.   That was eight years ago.  For a variety of reasons, including that we have aimed our resources at teaching the kid, I haven’t had much instruction — a few lessons here and there over the years coming from a variety of different violinist acquaintances.  Mostly I taught myself to play by ear, listening to and trying to unravel the melodies of my favorite jazz musicians.   At first I sounded like I was torturing the cat (no offense to Alice, above, who also loves violin).  But over time I’ve gained an increasing understanding of my instrument and a growing confidence.

Nevertheless I was completely unprepared for what happened yesterday.  I was in the parking lot and a neighbor approached me, asking “are you the person who plays violin?”  In a building full of strangers that can be a somewhat scary question: is this going to be her nice opening way of telling me I have to pipe down, that she can hear me clear across the building?  But instead she said, “I crack my window open whenever you’re playing so I can hear it better.  I think your playing is just beautiful.”

I am still dumbfounded.  What a kind thing to say, what an amazing surprise, and am I beginning to be almost a real violinist?  After eight years….

Don’t tell yourself you “cannot” do something for reasons “x,” “y” and “z.”  When I began the violin, through all that cat-torturing phase, it was hard but somehow I felt an affinity to that violin and knew that playing it was “possible.” 

Believe it.  Do it.

One More Little Squares Story about Beginnings

colored-tiles-of-childhood-remembered

I can’t help it.  All my inner squares wish to be heard.  I remembered this story while noticing the tiles in the bathroom, as I wondered if my bathroom tiles could ever possibly inspire me to paint pictures as great as Pierre Bonnard’s fantastical tiles of paradise inspired him to paint Marthe in the Bath.

Anyway, while I pondered, I remembered a time when I was a little girl.  We visited my uncle and his wife and my cousins in Dobbin Heights at their little house on the edge of town.  My cousins were playing with tiles in the paradise that was my uncle’s quirky back yard.  They had tiles of all colors, and we quickly turned the handling of these tiles into a rich game.  Whether my uncle had recently redone his kitchen or whether it was for some other reason that he had all these tiles I never knew.  But they were small tiles about an inch square and there were all sorts of beautiful colors.

I played with my cousins the entire time of our visit, and when it was time to go home my uncle put a large bunch of tiles into a paper bag for me to take home from the family’s huge supply.

And I loved those tiles.  It was one of the earliest times that I became aware of loving color — just loving color plain and deep and pure.

Interesting to notice now that the tiles were a gift.  People often give us the very things we need before we’re even aware of needing them.  My uncle (who has always loved to build things) was thus one of my earliest art teachers.  He gave me a bag full of tiles.

I wonder if some of my readers would be willing to share your art stories?  What got you started along your path of color and line?
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Into Paradox

flowers21

I’ve continued working on this drawing.  None of the changes and additions that I’ve made to it are even noticable so far, and I haven’t taken a new photo yet.  But I post it again to illustrate what I notice about my thoughts as I continue drawing, trying to go deeper into the image.

One  thing I notice is how difficult it can be to look at the same things — the same still life, the same drawing — day after day and try to find the “new” in it — the present moment.  One’s thoughts can get so crowded with extraneous ideas.  I sit down to draw, but I might actually be thinking about something else.  It’s not that it marrs the drawing to think about other things, because it doesn’t necessarily do that.  It’s just that one might as well have the experience of seeing the things!  That’s what it’s for, isn’t it?

As with playing a musical instrument, once you have learned to play a piece you can reproduce it — almost mindlessly.  But, where then, has the music gone?  One wants not only to hear the music, but to feel it also — to be swept up inside it.  And the challenge in drawing is to be swept up in that.

There’s a paradox about art (perhaps true of all the arts?).  When you are very new to it, it presents lots of technical difficulties.  In painting, learning to draw or to mix color or, in piano learning to read music and to manage ambidextrous fingerings of lots of notes!

Eventually one gets increasingly comfortable with the difficulties — so much so that eventually they aren’t even difficult.  While a beginner, though, one has so much raw desire.  And after one has become more practiced, some of the desire has perhaps been unintentionally tamed.

One needs to find the desire again — even the difficulty needs to become a new discovery.  The uncertainty one fought against, the feeling of failure or the fear of it, the absent confidence — ah, they were friends if only one knew!

To not know how to draw is the most marvellous thing!  In not knowing, one is searching and striving.  Would that make all beginners masters? And are masters all washed up?  No, of course.  But the spirit of beginning is always something to strive toward no matter where one finds oneself in a continuum of “skill.”

Truly the beginner spirit is more realistic also.  To suppose that one already knows is inaccurate.  Reality is always bigger than we are.

I have been looking at my nearly “finished” drawing of flowers and finding a blank slate inside it.  So much about it is still tentative, I think.  Like the edges of the flowers in the vase where they juxtapose the flowers in the textile.  Where does one begin and the other end?  How does one put this into the drawing?  And space and dimension, how are they to be represented in this flat image?

I find that I am almost more interested in ways of thinking about appearances than strictly in depicting appearance. Sometimes my pictures have a strong life-likeness (you see the vase and the flowers, right?) and sometimes the features I find most intriguing lead to decisions that break the illusion.  If you discover a wonderful line, let’s say, and put emphasis on it, the line may bring the whole thing forward, making the picture flat again. And yet one discovers all kinds of beautiful things in the motif — percepts that are hard to resist.

There’s still so much that’s possible in a drawing like this one.  How much more so in the blank page.  The beginner mind is desirable — it is the continual possession of the newness of the moment.

Creativity verses Ellsworth Kelly

6-me-and-joan

Vincent Van Gogh, back when he was a nobody, wrote eloquently about the dangers of putting over much confidence in “names” in art.  He was prescient.  Today the official art of the museums consists almost entirely of names — which is to say that the contemporary objects on display do not necessary strike a visual person as being particularly interesting to look at, yet we are urged to accept the objects as the highest forms of art.  And it strikes me as significant that the chief selling points of the objects is that they are purportedly made by “important” artists of our era, who are usually people that we’ve never heard of.

A certain kind of art is plausible only for audiences that possess a university degree.  No farmer from either Missouri or Bangladesh is likely to be persuaded that a uniform grouping of various colored squares is important to look at or to contemplate.  However, the same inartistic farmer might be very moved by the extraordinary skill evident in something like the precise rendering of forms found in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks.

It’s obvious in the case of the uniform squares that anyone could produce a similar effect and equally obvious in the case of the Leonardo that one is seeing something rare, difficult, meaningful, enigmatic and skillfully made.

I’m discovering from my blog stats that a surprising number of people are visiting here specifically in search of information about Ellsworth Kelly, since my one previous post on the man has garnered the most traffic of any of my posts!  (Sigh.)  I’m guessing that these unknown visitors are students from classes in contemporary art, come hunting perhaps for useful quotes or information.

To demonstrate my willingness to be helpful, let me refer you to a video on Youtube of an interview with the not terribly interesting and now elderly artist.

The problem of Ellsworth Kelly, which needs to be explained only to educated people and never to farmers from Missouri or Bangladesh, is that he isn’t really doing anything.  It ought to be perfectly obvious, but your college professor is standing there telling you that the man is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and meanwhile perhaps you don’t possess the highest confidence in your own powers of visualization.  But you are being duped.  I’m sorry that there’s no kinder way to phrase it.

Ellsworth Kelly is a classic case of “what you see is what you get.”  His canvases are plain shapes painted different colors and hung on museum walls.  Anyone, however, can get their image on a museum wall these days.  At the top of the post I feature a lovely scene where my painting Lattice shares space with Joan Mitchell abstractions in an enormous exhibit at MOMA.  Lattice really holds its own, don’t you think?  And look how bravely the guard protects my painting, too ….

It would take a long post to explain what art does that Kelly does not do.  The range of things that genuinely comprise what art is includes a great variety of images and objects.  But certainly one short cut to a definition of art in purely practical terms is that it equals something that matters in your own life.  If my readers find genuine meaning in Ellsworth Kelly, if they look at his colored surfaces and find rapture, well far be it from me to dissuade them from whatever works.  But the more visually alert a person is, the more of sensibility that one possesses — whatever intuition of nuance and mood and evocative power stirred by seeing the ordinary objects of common living experience, the images that draw out our deepest feelings and thoughts — these are not, I think, found in his spare fabrications.

They are squares.  That’s what they are.  Somebody tell the professor.  But don’t believe me.  Believe Van Gogh who diagnosed this problem over a hundred years ago.  It’s the worship of “names,”  though even that doesn’t quite explain it in Kelly’s case. Here, it’s the odd worship of nothing.

I first discussed Kelly here.

Thoughts up Close

When you look at the details of a picture, you see how its illusion is created.  The image above is a detail of one section of the flower bouquet.  It zooms in on the flower patterns of the cloth that’s piled up against the vase of flowers.  From this vantage, much of the expression of three dimensions is lost to sight.  The shadows and the lights appear to exist on the same plane.  In the detail, one realizes how much the third dimension of this particular drawing was created by the motif as a whole since without the whole motif we cannot see distinctions of figure and ground.

These “textile” flowers are as impressionistic as were the “real” flowers in the vase.  Both are abstractions: shapes that appear in masses whose details consist of lines, hatchings and scribbles.  So, for instance I began some of the flowers of the textile’s pattern as rough, smeared shapes of red crayon.  And afterwards I went back into that red with lighter or darker shades to begin the process of imitating the tonal differences within the flower.  The irony is that is so doing one makes a “picture of a picture” since another artist designed the textile that I use in my still life.

The character of the drawing materials is hard to conceal, and I made no effort to hide it.  The visibility of the drawing is what attracts me to the use of crayons.  But it makes the illusion of the subject harder to achieve.  The tonal qualities of light passing over objects — the light and shadow of the cloth and its folds, or the diffusion of light around the contours of the vase, or the contrasts of light and shade amid the masses of flowers and leaves — all these effects have to be created through either hatchings or smudges and are refined by careful positioning of light or dark or warm or cool tones.

The visual qualities that pass before your eyes, the numbers of choices available to sight, are staggering in potential complexity.  From among all these possibilities one chooses a path that is your rendering of the picture.

It’s as though you confront a vast field thick with flowers and wild plants.  You see a prospect you want to reach, and you ponder what direction to take through the brush to reach your destination.  If you follow something you learned from an old master, it’s as if you have found a path that you can walk for a distance.  And when that path wears away and returns to the full wilderness of the meadow, from that point onwards you must walk your own path.

And this fact is not a difficulty.  It is freedom.

Painting is a slow path

I let a bunch of time go by without posting anything.  Like many bloggers, I spend some time musing and pondering this new medium called “the blog,” and wonder aloud about the different genres of writing that it can evoke.  For me as an artist, I would have to say that it’s impossible — or nearly impossible — to write about the work I’m actually doing —  at least when I’m doing it.  Art doesn’t make good journalism.  Art is not an “every day” kind of topic.  No “breaking news” going on.  It’s mostly quiet stuff.

I mean I could write a narrative of how I actually work.  But would anyone read it?  And survive?  Awake?

Painting is a slow art form.  Sometimes it’s like watching an ant parade.  You make all these abstract decisions: how large is this shape?  what color is this exactly?  should I put this here or there? should this line be wider?  lighter?  should it taper? or should it be bold?  or is it okay — even wise — to fudge?  to guess?  to be in doubt? Should an edge be hard or soft?  Do I draw today?  Or should I paint?  And for me, lately, my questions are ones like “do I finish the koi or begin the flowers?”

How does one make these questions interesting for a reader?  Even my mother is not holding her breath waiting for the answers, yet these choices are — they really are vibrant, living questions.

To be able to describe the act of painting and all its attendant thought processes would be a fascinating project if you could truly put the reader into the same relationship with things that you’re in when you paint.

That’s one of the things I try to do, but it’s hard.  We are the heros of the dramas we live ourselves.  Yet it doesn’t always look so exciting to the outside observer.  To capture the authentic excitement of quotidian existence ain’t easy!  Especially when its small and it unfolds slowly.  Like molasses leveling.

But I try.