moving the needle

face scribble notebookWhen I want to get myself to do something, I write about it a little.  I have a bunch of notebooks that I keep — journals — with writing in them — leftover habit from English major days.  Sometimes I just think in ink — “what if I did X ?”

One of the things I thought about was that I should make more little sketches — incoherent little sketches that are to drawing what making lists in notebooks are to writing.  Now I am much quicker to give thoughts a visual shape even when I have no motif in front of me.

Recently I made a little sketch of a still life.

sketch of three things

I don’t know if I even realized that it’s a sketch of the ruby red still life.  But next thing I knew the thought that I should make a painting of the pastel was firmly rooted in my brain, and I was sifting through the stacks of stuff looking for a canvas panel of the right size.



koi variations

The big koi drawing got a rework.


big koi april 9 drawing state 2 (2)A few days ago (April 2nd) I posted a large preparatory drawing that I have used to rehearse a large painting that’s in the works.  The drawing is 50 x 42.5 inches large.  One challenge an artist faces making large works is photographing them.  In my case there isn’t enough natural light available in the room where I work to get a good photograph.  Doing photography outdoors, of course, introduces its own challenges (not the least of which is how to drag the drawing and its huge heavy drawing support outside).

Well, I got the drawing and its heavy support outside. But then I had to locate a place with indirect light because the first and easiest location for my photo shoot produced the image seen below.  Very charming, but not descriptive of the drawing.

koi drawing with lights (3)

The photo did however prompt a wonderful idea: the photograph with its “clouds” was so lovely.

 Why not make those effects part of the drawing itself?

And I have since altered the drawing (new version at the top of the post) to introduce some of these lights that remind me of cloud reflections floating over the koi pond.  The over-exposed sections of light, made more dramatic in contrast to various shadows, are not real clouds, but they’re close enough to push the picture in that direction, and do note that these effects were still natural ones.

These were lights and shadows I found in nature. I’m still imitating nature here.

Certainly it’s possible to continue a process of this sort, I’ve taken the reworked drawing outdoors again and repeated this process.

big koi april 9 2 (2)

New lights and shadows in new locations on the reworked drawing.

Portraying Nature is a complex endeavor.  Nature is everywhere.  It’s in your head as well as “out there.” Time is a part of Nature too.

The stages are part of the lovely game of painting. Taking the picture into this direction is, granted, not the same thing as making a faithful representation of the motif en plein air.  But it is nevertheless a kind of naturalism and a kind of fidelity too.

Random insights

two trees in the gardenI am learning about the ebb and flow of days. There is always something to do, and in art especially one can always draw.

I realized late last night that it doesn’t matter whether I work from a photograph, or from life, or from drawings, or imagination, or memory, or invention, or whatever.

What matters is the sense of conviction — when you feel that each decision is “true” then you put things together using your unconscious skills.  The picture will have cohesion because the ideas in your head will have cohesion.

I like to work from life most of all because in that instance I am least aware of making the choices and am most caught up in the motif so that the unconscious can have complete sway.  It is the very opposite of slavish imitation — it is a complete freedom from imitation that one finds inside imitation.

Thought management for artists

pencil drawing after Bonnard


You have to find out what works for you — sometimes down to the very fine detail.  Should you stay up at night and draw into the late hours?  Should you get to bed early and rise with the dawn?  Do you need coffee to get started or a very cold bottle of water?  What kinds of notebooks are appealing?  Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend a day going round with a small notebook drawing random sights?

Or perhaps you do that all the time, and what you need is to choose some very complex image and work at it relentlessly.  Do you work from life?  Make drawings from memory?  Have you investigated things that artists did in history and apply them to contemporary motifs?  Do plans and schedules keep you on track?  Or are you the sort of person who needs to feel spontaneous?

Whenever something isn’t working for me, I try something else.  Sometimes I just start drawing in medias res because I’ve lost the thread of my ideas.  Then I find that just moving my hands jump starts some thought process, like a dream remembered, and I rediscover the thing hidden in my mind.

Fudge factors

In mathematics the fudge factor is “a quantity introduced into a calculation in order to “fudge” the results: that is, either to make them match better what happens in the real world, or to add an error margin.”  Of course, in art everything an artist does is a fudge factor.  It’s all fudge.  Is a regular fudge factory.

(Hope I’m not making anyone hungry.)

No matter how carefully an artist draws (and artists should always draw carefully), one can never draw the world the way it is.  If you drew the world as it is, your drawing would need to be one-to-one.  And that sheet of paper is just too big.

So what you leave out and what you put in matters enormously.  And half of the genius of art lies in getting stuff wrong.  We live in the land of metaphor and analogy.

Time Management for Artists, Rule Number Eight (rule number two squared)

Remember that when you were a child no one needed to tell you how to be creative.  No one could.

You already knew the basics.  You’ve always known them.  They haven’t changed.  It’s just a matter of putting knowledge into effect.  It’s a matter of growing up, of being human.

[This post is dedicated to the life and memory of Paul Squires of Gingatao, a great poet of the early 21st century.]

Fast Landscape


During the last several months my schedule has become one of almost constant interruption so I’ve been tinkering constantly with ways of trying to hold onto ideas.  Last paintings that I tried stalled because just as I get “fired up” I have to stop and turn my attention elsewhere.  For a time I was hardly painting, taking refuge in drawing (admittedly NOT a bad refuge) and other things (reading, study).

Well, I still have a large partly begun canvas on the easel — and I’m NOT giving up on it.  Far from it.  But I did sit myself down one day and gave myself a heart-to-heart talking to (I find that an integrated personality is highly over-rated).  I decided — or me, myself, and I decided — that any painting is better than none.

What’s more I have tons of materials left over from some old projects that I no longer need for their original intended use.  I decided that I was going to crank out something.  Whatever it was, some of it was going to be fast and free.

It’s better to be painting than not painting.  It is better to be making line and color decisions than no decisions at all.  I decided that I’d rifle through old photos — better working from photos than not working at all — and I was going to paint whatever I could — whatever I wanted to — I was throwing caution to the winds.

Needless to say, I’m beginning to really have fun.  And I’m getting more jealous of my painting time than formerly.  Sometimes I’ve got fifteen minutes.

By golly, I whip out the brushes.  Fifteen minutes is fifteen minutes!

In Defense of Laziness


I was confessing in the previous post about how much I’ve neglected painting of late.  My attention has been fixed upon other things, and not only have I not been painting, I have not wanted to paint.  I “intend” to work, but don’t.  Little distractions lead me astray. 

I was thinking about it today — about the things that trigger for me a desire to paint.  For me, it’s color.  Even just thoughts about certain color combinations can make me want to paint — though I haven’t tried very hard to use these thoughts to get myself back to work. 

Part of the problem is perhaps about responsibility.  I do believe that being responsible is a central component of one’s character, a core virtue that one wants to possess.  Yes, I do aspire to being a responsible person.  But I have to admit that “responsibility” doesn’t paint pictures.  Sometimes I have done my best painting when I was “goofing off” with an idea.  Sometimes my most productive times have felt more like play than work — good enough to make one feel guilty about the exuberance.

In this unproductive phase, I’m wondering to myself if in order to be more “responsible” in the making of pictures, maybe I need to be more irresponsible.  Perhaps I need a strong dose of play.  Perhaps I am too diligent.  Could I be lacking in a certain kind of essential laziness?  Am I too uptight?    Perhaps the flowers will matter most when they become “just flowers,”  beautiful and useless and transitory like real flowers.  Just simple flowers.

Hands On


Here’s the next sequence in the series of posts whose goal is to move from a false idea of art into a true one.  I had used poor Ellsworth Kelly as my whipping boy in a post written months ago.  Finding that the Kelly post received lots of views from readers looking specifically for information about him, I decided that I could use Kelly’s example of anti-art to teach visitors something about the nature of genuine art.  To  get the benefit of the whole argument, one needs to consult earlier posts.  However, this post begins in medius res.

Here are simple squares.  It harks back to an exercise I used once while teaching an art camp to a group of mostly 10 to 14 year-old boys.  The idea came to me from my desperation since these energetic boys were driving me bonkers.  I needed something to calm their dynamism and thought that a ten minute session spent doing something quietly repetitious might be just the ticket.  All I asked them to do was draw a sequence of squares and fill each square with a solid color.

To my great surprise, ten minutes drifted into twenty minutes then into thirty minutes.  I told them we had to finish up and was greeted with lamentful moaning, “please — just a little more time!”  I couldn’t believe it.  What was even more wonderful was to observe that each kid had turned this seemingly robot task into evidence of individual temperament.  Each drawing was different.

Before switching to our next topic, I first collected all the drawings and gathered the kids round in a circle in a dark corridor outside our classroom (hoping that dimness would hold them in their quiet mood).  I displayed each drawing one by one, asking the author to raise a hand.  Each kid readily found his own drawing for there were no two alike.

The first “gesture” of art is the introduction of the individual into it.  Even something as simple as drawing squares can unmask the self.

The fact that one physically draws the squares also holds great significance.  To draw squares this way was like learning to write letters of an alphabet. It’s not a great achievement, but it can be a first step toward marvellous possibility.

I use the idea of “drawing squares” because it has so much structure and seems like the very opposite of “creativity.”  Indeed, I think that Kelly’s kind of art hinges on mindless sterility in that he produces a manufactured kind of image and makes it “art” by affixing his name to it and charging large sums of money for it (which quite strangely he has succeeded in getting).

But the simple art of the hand does not gain or lose in virtue by the vagaries of monetary value that society attaches to it.  This first exercise of squares consists merely in making lines, in rubbing down color, in choosing colors, all through which one catches the sense that colors have great innate beauty and can become emblems of mood or state of mind simply by virtue of their powerful combinations.

Meanwhile the role of the hand — the drawing something by hand — even something as simple as these squares — it’s here that both accident and serendipity creep into view.  And the memory of the hand — we begin to realize that the physical memory of gesture is different from yet related to sight.

More squares evolving in the next post.

Square Made More Complicated


To fully appreciate what’s going on here you have to begin with the post about Ellsworth Kelly that I posted here, and work forwards.

Using the same hardware paint sample squares, I’ve taken and covered some of the interior colors up with other squares, layering them in various ways.  The result produces rectangles of many shapes, strong contrasts between light and dark and/or warm and cool colors, and narrow vertical bands of color that play off against the bulkier more squarish shapes.  The final image is produced in a camera. I just arrange the squares and then unarrange them — which means that the great work of art thus produced is forever lost to those high-rolling collectors who might have desired to own them.  Que sera sera.  (I’ll be happy, of course, to reproduce any of these on commission.  The price for one of these better-than-Ellsworth-Kelly pieces is only 8 million dollars.  Quite a bargain.  That’s half what one pays for a Damien Hirst.)

Anyway, since the image exists chiefly in the camera’s digital memory and upon your computer screen, it means that it can be manipulated in one’s software.  I rotated the image until I found the orientation I liked best.  One could also reverse it, change the colors and jazz it up in lots of ways, playing to one’s heart’s content.

And I hope your heart is content.  However, I think your hands should have something useful to offer as well.  The next image will take us back into the mists of time to when people made things by hand.  Or back to memories of kindergarten.  Same thing.  Children are savages.  But they can teach us all the savage pleasures, such as crayoning and drawing for the pure joy of it.

So, next post.  The plot thickens.  Remember, we’re on a journey looking for “real art.”