My Cheat Sheet

Sometimes I have a little drawing off to the side while I’m painting. It’s there so that I can talk to myself, as it were. I rehearse in thought — and with actual tools — aspects of the painting that I’m going to be changing. It’s like a visual “to do” list. Sometimes I have written notes too.

I go back and forth between these alternative versions and the actual painting. The purpose is not to spare me from making mistakes. The painting is fluid. It changes. I accept that readily enough. The cheat sheet is more a matter of discharging thoughts. I have these ideas about maybe this, maybe that, and the ideas are more quickly traced through more direct tools — these being my notions of immediacy — everyone is different.

As a river has little tributaries that pour into its current, these alternative tasks are just what they are. They are part of the enjoyment of the moment.

portion of the painting roughly corresponding to the cheat sheet, detail of a landscape in progress

Finding the Abstract Details

I have been wondering, for myself and maybe it’s relevant also for some kindred spirit somewhere among contemporary artists, what happens if you begin in the place where Pierre Bonnard left off? How do you assimilate someone else’s insights, make them your own, and then take them in a personal, individual direction? I have loved Bonnard for a very long time, but I have always been a little timid about following him too closely because what if people thought that I don’t know how to draw?

It’s one of those silly thought patterns that interrupt one’s intention and disturb one’s courage.

The question about the path, however, is not exclusively about Bonnard. One could ask the question about any artist at all. You could love Botticelli or the Rohan Master and want to modernize them in the sense of reinterpreting the art through your own life and circumstances.

Anyway, to emulate one’s hero, there’s many things one has to learn. Also, you find the manner of learning that suits you. If you’re familiar with Bonnard’s art, for instance with the many drawings that lay behind his images, you’d recognize that the drawing above is not the sort of drawing he made. It’s too abstract. In this case it’s not a drawing of any thing: it’s a drawing (a further interpretation of) an abstract part of the painting I’ve been working on (below). It’s a scribble of some brushstrokes that were already without clear form. But for me it was simply a sketch I wanted to make. It was a way of thinking about the gestures of shapes.

The whole painting (above) measures 36 x 60 inches. I have made numerous drawings, some large, some small, for its design and I stole the initial motif from a famous artist who is not Bonnard. More and more I invent its parts, being guided by what’s already there. It’s like looking for objects inside clouds. I firm up things that seem to exist as hints.

And with thoughts about Bonnard I have become much more careless about the color too. As one sometimes does with drawing, I began painting parts of the picture with my non-dominant hand (left in my case). Using the non-dominant hand seems to break through much hesitation. I find myself not only working with a different freedom, but thinking about the picture with a noticable letting go.

The whole definition of a detail changes. The details are not leaves, grasses, tree boughs — or not exactly. They are instead blobs of color, dots, dashes, veils, strokes, various marks. Then you realize that there’s no obvious number of them, no obvious conclusion. You could continue dotting and dashing the picture forever in theory. (That was Bonnard’s problem actually.)

Of course one does stop eventually and at last. Whatever’s there when you do stop is the picture completed. I am not at the beginning of this process nor at the conclusion, but somewhere in between today — not sure quite where. But it’s an interesting development. It’s a change for me. And it’s nice to be continually learning.

Does anyone have a guess which famous artist I stole from?? If so, leave your answer in the comments. Other comments are much welcome too.

And if you liked this post, please consider sharing it on your social media. Thank you for reading!


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When I began this little acrylic painting on panel (14 x 11 inches) it looked quite different.  I liked it but I knew I didn’t like it enough.  So I decided to rework it.  The still life table had changed totally so that meant incorporating it into the new still life stuff — hence parts of it had to be completely repainted. Had no idea how that would go, but I’ve been experimenting with acrylic, so I figured there’s no better way to find out than to just do it. Here’s how it looked before:

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Since I switched to using acrylic paint, I have had Matisse in the back of my mind.  For a long, long time I have wanted to experiment with the “fauvist” ideas that Matisse pursued in his very early career. There were certain still lifes that I have always really loved — especially certain dark and rather chaotic ones — that seem to hold such fertile material in them.  Matisse chose to take his art in a different direction, but I have wondered what his painting might have been like had he followed the murky fauvisme instead.  And it seemed to me as though he left that trail there for others to explore ….

These are just two examples, but both reveal the dramatic lighting, murky passages and rough manner that Matisse explored.

So I have some projects planned that will pursue darker tonality, rougher and broader kinds of drawing and exaggerated color, but even in a small work like this painting of the little black pitcher, I have been trying to get at a more instinctive handling.  I find that some sources of interest for me are all the myriad color changes to be observed on a small scale between objects, as in passages around the perimeter of the orange, or between the orange and the lemon, or in between anything and anything.  Such observations in realist painting aim to get at the true appearances — and oddly enough I am striving for a true effect also.  And yet my picture doesn’t become realist.  It’s an odd paradox that Matisse explained as a parallelism — that you are aware of always wanting to get at some truth of perception but it is nonetheless an image that is “parallel to nature.”

The details are really important and for me they’re where the real action is.

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I don’t know how much I’ll work on the painting, and I like all these passages, but they can be further developed as readily as the whole painting itself was open to reworking.

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Each section of a painting can become like an independent composition.  And as your attention focuses on different parts, it’s like these “independent compositions,” can merge and shift constantly.

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I am also developing more latitude for abstraction or accident in the paintings.  Some things happen that turn out to be interesting that were never planned.  I have always been aware of such passages as I paint, but I never completely let myself just leave them or let myself develop them ….

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A passage like the one above which depicts a bit of drapery can become a great place for observing small color differences.  I just painted this green part broadly to cover up what was there from the earlier version, but it’s definitely a passage to exploit going forward.

I am keeping the process fun because I have a tendency to freeze up at various junctures along the way. So in contrast to past habit, I am telling myself that I have permission to pile on as much paint as I please.  Also I know that I’ll never learn what this medium is like if I don’t try out lots of different approaches.  Painting lots of layers over others is just “one of the approaches.”

I like acrylic because its fast drying time makes experiment easy.  You can paint pretty much as fast as you can think.  It can wear you out.  You can paint as if you were digging ditches so it can be “hard work” if that appeals.  Or it can be very whimsical and free.  Certainly you can allow yourself great freedom regarding drawing since you can always immediately paint over anything that you perceive to be “a mistake.”



subliminal interpretation

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I am approaching the current still life in a much less literal way and find myself loving this approach.  Formerly I would have sought more fastidiously (not always more successfully) to duplicate the patterns as I see them in the actual still life.  But with the green cloth in this painting, I’ve decide to shift the pattern elements according to my intuition.  So the still life in front of me is a guide not a rule.  And I can change the cloth around later on, if desirable, to get some other views.

Thus I’m very aware of myself interpreting the imagery.  Now one might wonder how that affects the composition as a whole, and I’m being very subliminal about that as well.  I stand back from the painting from time to time to see how it all looks.  But as I am painting, I know that my brain sees a wider view than the thing I’m currently focused on painting.  And I’ve decided to just trust my brain to arrange things in a holistic manner while my attention fastens onto this or that particular. Sometimes things will link up from top to bottom in ways you are not aware of having designed.  You stand back, scratch the head, and ask “how’d all that get there?”

As long as the painting looks good all this is good too.  Do not pry too inquisitively into the workings of the subconscious brain.  When it goes well, a simple “thank you” to your right brain for its good functioning will suffice.

You’ve gotta trust your brain.

Rummaging through words & through corners of thought

drawing detailVan Gogh was such a wonderful writer as well as being a great artist.  If you rummage through his letters even at random, you always find something remarkable.  So it is that I  find this passage today:

The poor soil of Drenthe is the same, only the black earth is even blacker — like soot — not a lilac black like the furrows, and melancholically overgrown with eternally rotting heather and peat. I see that everywhere — the chance effects on that infinite background: in the peat bogs the sod huts, in the fertile areas, really primitive hulks of farmhouses and sheepfolds with low, very low walls, and huge mossy roofs. Oaks around them. When one travels for hours and hours through the region, one feels as if there’s actually nothing but that infinite earth, that mould of wheat or heather, that infinite sky. Horses, people seem as small as fleas then. One feels nothing any more, however big it may be in itself, one only knows that there is land and sky.



For Van Gogh on that day it was his being in an enormous prospect outdoors, among infinite seeming fields.  For me it is the confined corner of my studio where I find another sort of infinity — for everywhere I look I see some small thing that opens large with details and beauty.  And everywhere I look the things seem imbued with ideas.  Nature has filled the room with thoughts and the things are poems.

Learning about the small stuff

Made another honey jar drawing this morning, of which this above is a detail.  I was wondering if perhaps I was carrying my honey jar research a little too far.  How many drawings of this set up do I need to make?  Yet I find that I enjoy looking at this same motif again and again.  Moreover, more surprising, I learn something new with each drawing I make.  When a simple meditation upon a honey jar can yield so much perception, you have to wonder about the character of the life we live.  There is so much to see, hear, taste, touch, do and remember in life.  So much to learn — all the time, every day.

The small spaces in stuff

In a detail of my current flower painting I see an opportunity to indulge in microcosm-making by which I mean that there’s enough “stuff” in just one small section of the bouquet to create a whole series of new works.  Is mind-boggling to consider.  Maybe here’s one reason why I am always making “studies” — it’s just that there’s so much to gaze into, Mother Nature being so mesmerizing.

Here’s a photo of roughly the same bit of still life as it appears in the section of painting illustrated above.  Astute readers will notice that these flowers are not real.

It’s not Mother Nature in the flowers that I find so mesmerizing in this instance, but Mother Nature in the photons — all those marvelous little light-thingys bouncing around in amongst all the other thingys.

I did a drawing too (one of many).

Thinking about Renoir

I was thinking about Renoir after reading a Facebook page discussion of one of the artist’s paintings in a Washington museum.  Decided to think with the pencil.


After I took these photos, while looking at the Renoir picture some more, I decided I had further thoughts about it, so I did some reworking.

And up close …

My version’s different from the old guy’s, as versions always are, but I hope I captured some of his bright optimism concerning young women, youth and beginnings in life.