starts, stops, and dreams that continue

garden at baltimore

I been having an interesting conversation with a WordPress pal about the question of when a painting is finished and how you know when to stop.  Or, if you should ever stop. (Pierre Bonnard, we’re looking at you.)  I’m in a place in my art where I feel like I have to keep going forward with a picture until I really have no more ideas for it.  If I see something that I think I need to change, I change it.  I also make decisions with the specific aim of “finishing” the painting, but I find that I don’t really like the term “finishing” and I don’t seem to be alone.  I’m not sure why, as artists, we don’t want to finish the picture.  Would “complete the picture” sound better …?

One of the things I love about drawing is that there’s less pressure to finish something.  The drawing above is an example.  It is as “finished” as it’s ever going to be.  I was sitting before the actual scene on a summer day.  The clock ran out.  I assembled my things and returned home.  The ending of the drawing was abrupt and arbitrary, but the drawing does seem complete to me just as it is.

With paint you can always add more layers.  You can cover over an entire picture, if you like.  (As I’ve discovered in a big way with my current painting.)  So there’s really nothing to stop you from just painting and painting and painting.  And I do like the idea of getting into the weeds.  It can seem like there’s places deep inside an image that you can find, little corners where you can begin exploring, where you can get marvelously lost.  It’s not an idea that scores you points in art school discussions about composition, but it is an interesting dream-like way of staying inside a picture.  If you are willing to risk all, willing to blow the whole wad, you might completely screw things up but there are also potentialities — particularly in oil painting, a medium that seems designed for visual risk taking.  It’s a gamble, but certainly a more fruitful one than other forms of gambling.  There is that something that beckons.

Or should I say tempt?  I’m not sure.  I was looking through some canvases and found a couple that I thought were more or less finished and now I find that they are not.  Once I feel that way, I know I have to go back over them — otherwise, no matter what anybody else sees, I just see the “unfinished” picture.  It’s not even about an ordinary feeling that the picture somehow resolves.  It’s more that I just see too many openings for more visual information — stuff that ought to be there.

So that’s what I love, in contrast, about drawing — no pressure.

Okay.  So I say that, but as soon as the words escape I can think of a kind of painting that is very like drawing — a kind of painting where you reach a fecund moment when you — stop!  It’s wonderful.  When everything has just reached a nebulous, energetic, open-ended kind of fruition. I used to paint always, exclusively for that moment.  Now I’m wondering what it would be like to do that again.  And can you do it with a large painting?  Ooh la la, choices and decisions and longings.

Starting pictures is wonderful because the beginning is such a rich field.  The picture that you stop at the magical moment persists in that field of beginning but somehow rounds it out and makes it dwell in persistent potential, like a wave that crests but never falls.

Well, some things to think about.

draw your dog

dog drawing ap 30

The drawing catches little of the actual situation.  Lucy lies inside her kennel where it is dark. She lies on a black mat which makes the darkness more amorphous.  The edge of her dark muzzle against the black mat is difficult to discern.  Meanwhile, I draw upon a white sheet of paper.  It could hardly be less amenable to the subject matter.  And I use a blue ball point pen (wonderful tool) which if used to create dark passages requires many scribbles, and I am feeling fundamentally lazy today.  This is abstraction and mindfulness.  There’s a species of drawing possible — that seeks out the keenest realism — that nevertheless often fails to resemble its subject.  Here it is.  I recommend it highly.

dog drawing 2 ap 30

I began again.  The first drawing — sequence of heads — lacked room to put in her ears.  Below her muzzle I played around with zigzag lines that pretend to treat some of the form of the mat she lies on — that black mat which fuses the edges of her nose into indistinct lineless contour, soft dark on dark.

dog drawing 3 ap 30

Even in the deepest darks, one has a sense of the contours of a thing.  I pretended that the tonality wasn’t even there.  I just made lines around forms of the dog’s head.  I followed curves, depressions, convexities, concavities, searched out the end of the nose, the flap of the lip, the edges of the ears, and so on.  If you don’t know where a thing goes (this works temporarily for house cleaning too, so take note), just put it somewhere.  You’ll figure it out later.   Perfection is the enemy of the good.  A useful catch phrase.  Remember it.

Then Lucy turned over!  A very relaxed dog!  I found myself looking at a beautiful pose:  the dog head upside down, underside of the chin, lovely honey colored spots on a white patch of an otherwise brown dog.  I started drawing (not shown).  Thirty seconds into it, she resumed the first pose again. Ah!  Gone so fast.  I decided to draw it — such as I might — from memory based on the not illustrated fast contour.  The memory drawing is below — not sure if it’s at all legible.  Doesn’t matter.

dog drawing 4 ap 30

Sometimes you draw just to draw.  Your hand describing the forms in concert with your active looking begins teaching you to understand the forms.  It’s a relaxing and useful thing to do.  It stills your mind.  It hones your focus.  Look at one thing at a time and react using the line as a form of biofeedback.  It’s a form of meditation.

The notation “figure this out” visible at the top of the first drawing has nothing to do with the drawing.  It’s the last words of notes I wrote myself regarding another topic — but it seemed like a good subtitle for the post so I let it remain.

“Figure this out.”  Another good motto to tell yourself whenever you are looking at something and drawing.  Figure it out.  Wander around inside the visual idea. Get your bearings.  Record what information you can.  Leave the rest to float in airy thought until another day.

Answering the question “why”

drawing of a basket by Pierre Bonnard

As I said already, the path to a clean the house is not a straight line.  I take detours. Reading Marie Kondo’s book “the life-changing magic of tidying up” gives me ideas for how to clean my house and unclutter my mind. Once I am living inside that less cluttered mind, there’s the question of what to do. I am also reading a book on mindfulness.  I found it at the end of the aisle at Barnes and Noble.  It’s a “bargain book.”  Costs under eight dollars.  Thus even as I am moving other books out, I acquire new books.  Such is life.

This book on mindfulness asks me at the beginning of the third chapter (after I have tasted a raisin) why I am reading the book.  It’s kind of a talking book.  It asks questions and you’re supposed to answer them.

I bought the book because I read books on psychology.  Mindfulness is a topic that interests me.  But why now?  It was at the end of the aisle where it caught my attention.  And it cost less than eight dollars.  Seriously.  That was the reason.  Okay.  But why did I not notice the myriad other books on the ends of aisles?  Barnes and Noble stores have many aisles.

Psychological topics interest me. I buy the book to learn how to talk about mindfulness, but mindfulness itself is familiar territory. Of course, one can always learn new lessons from familiar things.  When I was a youth we called it “being lazy.”  In my family’s world sometimes you disparaged something that in fact you really believed you need — so don’t be mislead by the description. No one wanted to be always working and lack time simply to live.

The book asks me questions, I can ask questions too.  Why a basket?  Why Bonnard’s basket to illustrate this post? You don’t have to answer, though, not unless you want to.

WHAT?  What kind of question is that?  Why did I post a basket or why did Bonnard draw one?  Either question will do.  Or some other.  I’m not particular. But the topic is basket. My subconscious chose it.  If you have a problem with that, take it up with my subconscious.  Not my area …

An artist draws this and not that.  The subconscious is always posing suggestions — “draw this.”  And the suggestions raise questions, “why this?”  And the questions are often difficult to answer.  Sometimes the answer I offer myself is “why not?”  But that reply is not an answer, it’s an evasion.  It can be taxing to answer questions. Laziness (in the way my family understood it) is a way of getting answers by evading the questions in the first place.  You just let your mind wander around.  Not that we were even self-conscious enough to notice we were being mindful.

As for the book I read its name is, aptly, “Mindfulness: a practical guide” by Tessa Watt.  Someday — perhaps even soon — I’m going to begin writing a book called “Drawing: an impractical guide.”  But that’s a matter to take up in future posts.

dreaming the rooms of a house

studio view 2 big tidy

Of the pictures I posted of my studio, I find that I love this one the most.  So I come back to it.  While I am reorganizing the house, I sometimes feel overwhelmed.  There’s much work to do — in all the rooms, and I have so many chores indoors and outdoors.  It’s spring.  Plants outdoors are growing like mad. Of course I’d like to be focused exclusively on drawing and painting.

I am often wishing my work were done, but wishing doesn’t walk the dog.  However wishing is not without effect.  I have gone through various phases of wishing, and I have imagined the rooms being completed each a certain way.  The sensation of entering each imagined room has a poignancy that real action lacks.  I walk into dream rooms. The visual thoughts associated with the dream rooms give me ideas for actual things.  But an imaginary completed room takes different forms inside different moments of wishfulness. It’s never just one way.  The actual room will at last have furniture arranged in one pattern and not another.  The dream rooms are more flexible.

I want to see the finished product, but the episodes of imagining the task one way verses another are fairly interesting.  I pause to consider them.

The whole house has become the motif and I arrange it like a still life table.

I change my mind periodically. I am wondering what do I want? And when will it be complete?

The picture above has something in it that I love.  I strive to tease out that something. Just looking at the picture brings a glad feeling I cannot quite describe.  Something about the light, the colors. I see freedom of motion in it.  A room is not just a room, it’s a puzzle.  It’s a message in code.  It’s telling me something about directions I might take.  I’m deciphering it.

Indeed, I may get the project finished faster than I think but decoding and reading the message may take much longer.  Deciphering is a very complex task.

how to teach: this is a question

The first thing to know when you begin to draw is


what you love. And since different people love different things, how does one teach?  If I teach my taste to someone who cares about something else, how am I helping that person to reach his goals?  The person who loves Mary Cassatt above, may not care as much for the Rohan Master below.


Both are master artists. To understand their ideas through your own drawing would take considerable skill.  In certain ways the Rohan Master is more difficult because of the exaggeration of the forms. How do you learn how to do that? What degree of exaggeration is right?  He has kindred spirits among moderns.  And yet some artists that we associate with mannerism had very realistic skills. Take Gustav Klimt’s drawing below.

klimt gustave drawing of sister

In the history of art there are so many models to choose from to guide one’s study. But there are modern artists of considerable skill as well. For a student, the prize might be Walt Disney or Andrew Loomis.


Andrew Loomis

Andrew Loomis is not so far afield from one of my favorite artists Pierre Bonnard (above), whose smallish drawings led toward the making of sometimes enormous paintings.


I’m going to ask my students what they like, and what they love, because I believe that artistic skill is driven by longing.  You work harder for the things you love.  And the history of art is filled with so many different ways of seeing, thinking and feeling.  The Master of the Osservanza (above) is very different from Pierre Renoir of the famous Boating Party (below).


They are both pretty different from Pieter Brueghel. His battle of the angels was one of my favorites works of art around the time I began college.


What is the thought process behind such a work?  How did the artist invent his monsters? Once created how did he manage the amazing tonality of this image above?  The transitions of light around these invented creatures is astounding. The image is cinemagraphic.

What a contrast to the lightness of Domenico Tiepolo’s Punchinellos!


Some art is severe, as in Albrecht Durer’s copy after Andrea Mantegna.

Durer bacchanal-after-mantegna

There’s some beautiful and lyrical severity too in J.A.D. Ingres’s portrait of Mme. Moitessier (whose figure is borrowed from a Roman fresco).


So I am somewhat at a loss for finding the beginning.  Artists need to discover what they love so that they’ll have a destination, letting their longing take them along the path.

Whether the destination is simple or complex, you need to know where you want to go. And you make the best progress when the choice is your own.








Looking backwards, going forward

I have been thinking a lot about beginnings — thinking back to the time when my desire to paint was brand new.  After thirty years I bought a new paint box — a compact box, with a sturdy handle and clean new surfaces.  After thirty years’ practicality I thought it was an innocent enough gesture.  Let myself feel young, left my artist’s heart feel brand new.

I have four dozen of small panels.  I’m ready to explore my own household, survey its common objects and do inventory.  To be an anthropologist of my own life strikes me as a very worthy goal.  What ordinary things are lying about for my inspection?

I want light, shadows, colors, edges and some in-between-ness of things.

At the top is a painting I made long ago — can be exemplary for me — I painted a leaf from my yard and a farmer’s apple.  The tree that made the leaf is gone now and a garden has taken its place.

Garden ingenue

Oh, to combine the knowledge that comes through experience with the desire that beginner’s feel!  When you first fall in love with life, things look so radiant and grand.  I cringe sometimes when I find someone trying to teach the young to be “sophisticated” about art.  I have to bite my tongue to keep from shouting, “leave them alone!”  A young heart already knows how to love in such a big way.  One shouldn’t mess with that.  I remember the brightness of my youth when art was a big, unanswered longing!  If only I knew even a smidgen about drawing or color or anything!   I moaned, as spurned lovers do.  I bungled along led solely by desire.

One can suppose oneself to possess a lot of knowledge when you’ve been following an occupation a long time.  I know how to mix the colors now and all that stuff.  But I am always seeking the keen-ness of first love.  I spent the day doing drawings en plein air.  There’s really nothing like Nature to take you down a notch or two.  I can suppose I know whatever I like, but it’s hard to draw things outdoors where life capriciously changes from second to second.  And I’ve gotten rusty too from neglecting Mother Nature (and doesn’t she know!). 

I decided to pretend I knew nothing.  I’ve been looking at the how-to books lately, and I imagined I was in the plein air class of one of the authors.  “Simplify! simplify!” he tells me.  Okay, I’m cool with that.

The sky is blue, the grass is lots of kinds of green.  The shapes — oh the shapes are so weird — and light and shade changes them while you watch.

Beginner’s Luck

Certain kinds of beauty come when the artist is a raw beginner.  I’ve pulled out old drawings and appreciate anew the memories they evoke.  I wish I had drawn more.  Would that I had drawn tirelessly.  Lack of confidence trips up too many young artists.  But the drawings I made when I  knew comparatively nothing have a raw, innocent candour.  And now I find I reseek the beginner’s mind.

I began drawing some years ago using my left hand (I’m right handed).  I wanted to get the awkwardness back, wanted it to slow me down and trip me up, and make me think harder about where my hand’s lines would go.  I have loved the wavy line that is the consequence.  The two kinds of drawings, right and left, seem to have slightly different personalities.  It’s like finding your alter ego.  There you are, long lost twin!

Do not have preconceived ideas about what drawing should be or how it should look.  Sometimes be an explorer of the uncharted world. 

You are living your life for the first time.  It’s all new.  Even when one is old, one has never been old before. 

[Top of the post:  the author’s high school drypoint of her Momma, scratched on plexiglass plate, based on a photograph from the 1940s.  Aletha Kuschan]