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.”

Teachable Moment


In the previous post I revisited my complaint about Ellsworth Kelly, who is representative, who perhaps even exemplifies, the false art that has become a staple of contemporary museums and university art history programs.  It has dawned on me over night that this topic brings with it the potential of a teachable moment.  So, I have decided to launch a kind of anti-Ellsworth project here, which can begin with Ellsworth (a topic that brings many viewers to this blog) but which leads toward what I hope can be a more fulfilling and genuine encounter with a living, everyday art.  Since I’ve always felt that one should begin wherever one finds oneself, I will begin this “tour” for the Ellsworth visitors with an Ellsworth Kelly-like idea.  Perhaps other readers may find something fun and useful in it as well.

So.  I was at Lowe’s hardward store this morning, and seeing the paint sample display I thought naturally enough about Ellsworth Kelly, my blog and my previous arguments.  Having already told readers that they could do their own “Kelly” pictures quite as easy as pie using hardward store paint samples, I decided to grab a bunch and do it myself!  Hardware stores are devoted to the “do-it-yourself” ethic, so it seemed entirely ripe and just and good to apply this ethic to art — even to the High Museum Art.  Let the art world learn something from the world at large, I say.

Above is the first result.  I took the squares and placed them side by side.  You can compare them with the Kelly image that I first posted here.  This one has fewer squares, they are all colored squares with no white or black spaces.  I arranged them quickly in what struck me as a pleasing harmony.  This pattern is more “raw” in comparison to Kelly’s chessboard-like image.  But then, I was in a hurry and felt that spontaneity has its own virtues.  Mine has shadows and messy elements of things not lining up perfectly.  I think they lend it character.

You can do the same thing, obviously.  In subsequent posts, I will complicate this project.

Tree Cartoon, the School of Fish

Every once in a while here, I post a collage or a “cartoon.”  This cartoon (large compositional study for a painting) belongs to the Big Tree idea that I posted in mid-June.

Other collages I’ve posted include this abstract image, this idea for a child’s mural, and this study of a detail of a painting.  It’s fun to organize them so that they can be compared.  I’ve never seen them together except here on line.

For almost every subject I undertake, I do studies.  Some of these studies take the form of collage. Collage is such a free and expressive media.  You can organize large areas of a picture in one swoop.

I like to explore the possibilities and details of the images I design.  Often these studies vary enough from the original to suggest new projects.  This particular collage was supposed to help me figure out the tree idea, but became more about the fish.  It takes on a new interest for me now as I embark on a new round of paintings of fish swimming.  Meanwhile the fish in this collage have found themselves quite a nice little pond where they bob up and down like corks.

[Top of the post: Cartoon for the painting “Big Tree,” by Aletha Kuschan, Xeroxed pictures glued to paper with crayon drawing]