I’m all over the map lately with my art. Making collages for various motifs has been a strategy for seeking simplification. Cutting the colors out of paper encourages one to look for big shapes.

That was the idea. But then collage, like any medium, has a way of imposing its own order. It doesn’t necessary take me where I want to go, though it has taken me to nice places so far.

This collage simplified the motif into disappearance and left other imagery in its wake. Be careful what you wish for.


UFOs & China

Mountains by Chang Dai-chien

I watch the Behavior Panel on Youtube each time they have a new episode. Today I watched their analysis of the body language of several government officials who address the question of UFOs. Because of my current preoccupations, however, this time upon seeing a now famous Navy footage of an unexplained flying object, the feature that caught my attention is not the UFO but the amazing structure of the cloud canopy. I realized how much it resembles certain Chinese ways of portraying mountains, and as some of you know I am currently in full mountain mode myself with my painting.

enhanced version of the Navy UFO picture

The UFO is nice too, but isn’t that cloud canopy interesting? When you go to the footage, you also notice something that Chase Hughes of the Behavior Panel explains in passing, that the figure-ground contrast changes on the infrared video depending upon whether “black is hot or white is hot.” So, in certain passages the tops of the clouds are dark, and that produces an unexpected effect.

I was primed to think about the cloud canopy as mountainous by my current artistic preoccupations. I’ve been looking for new mountain subjects, and whenever I light upon some by happenstance, bells start sounding in my brain. Last night I was watching the old “Jewel in the Crown” series and was struck by the beautiful mountain scenes in that movie, as here, in this cropped frame of one scene:

With the Indian mountain range already firmly planted in my subconscious, I was well primed to see mountains in the cloud canopy of Navy UFO film, so much so as really to bump the UFO mentally aside. UFO? What UFO? I’ve also been thinking a lot about how to invent mountain images and that’s a process that you find a lot in Asian art. So while the US intelligence agencies are perhaps wondering if UFO phenomena have anything to do with Chinese drone technology — me, I’m wondering about how Chinese artists past or present would have depicted those layers of clouds.

I make little doodles in the notebook thinking about the positioning of dark and light passages in a picture, striving to create authentic “randomness.” It’s a topic I ponder a lot these days because deliberation is my way. I try to be deliberate even in regard to accident.

I have written brilliantly about obsession, space aliens and art before. You can find that HERE –> #Imnotsayingitsaliensbutitsaliens – Aletha Kuschan’s Weblog ( give it a click and a read.

If you’ve got some idiosyncratic ways that ideas pop into your head, leave a comment. And if you like this post, please share it with your friends, relatives and neighbors, with the intelligence agencies and with anyone else you know!

Rule of Three

A friend of mine who’s in the cookbook business once told me that a general standard for deciding if a recipe is “new” is that it departs from another published recipe in at least three ways. Nature manages to get diversity from a lot less. According to one often repeated rubric, we share >99% of our DNA with our nearest ancestors on the evolutionary tree. (To find out how much you’re like a banana, click here –> Do People and Bananas Really Share 50 Percent of the Same DNA? | HowStuffWorks.)

Once I created a whole series of images based on someone else’s artwork. I liked the other artist’s composition a lot, but none of the rest of the picture appealed to me. So I took the abstract composition and overlaid it with entirely new material. When I was done, I am quite certain that even the author of the artwork would not recognize his picture’s offspring. The drawing at the top of the post is one sketch from that very fecund idea.

Ideas come from somewhere, and human beings are imitative creatures. Think of children and their make believe. When we send our kids to school, they act out all the family secrets. It can be amusing. In art one of the best ways to learn — from foundation skills to complicated master skills — is to imitate the work of someone else who has already been there. Sometimes imitation can lead to sameness, but imitation also plays a huge role in innovation. It all depends upon how imitation is managed.

The drawing above is a copy after a Pierre Bonnard painting in the National Gallery of Art. Being in a different medium and having lots of other novel visual features, it looks significantly different from the original. But if you know Bonnard’s work, you can recognize the subject. The drawing below is a partial copy of a portion of a living artist’s work, and it looks so different that I feel quite sure I could show it to the other artist and he would never recognize his idea inside this drawing.

I like to steal things. I’m a regular magpie. But I also like innovation and am always trying to find ways to create challenges for myself simply because it’s fun. I don’t like to do the same thing too much. Or, actually, that’s not quite true either since I took Degas’s advice very much to heart “you must redo the same thing ten times, a hundred times.” I love drawing and redrawing the same things. But I have found that you can redo the same subject and also change it. Both things are possible.

These days I do a lot of drawing from life, and I do a lot of stealing. When I steal, I consciously ask myself “how I can change the image?” since that disguise is where I discover the thrill of the theft. Can I isolate the elements of the image that I love best from other features that are identifying? How this challenge is managed varies from project to project, but here’s a few parameters to consider.

Change the color. The above drawing is a detail from a Monet waterlily painting, but where Monet had painted blues and greens, I drew in reds and oranges. I also changed the format. The book illustration I was looking at was vertical, I drew that vertical image in a horizontal format and began unconsciously stretching things to the sides. This sort of format change doesn’t work with all subjects, of course, but it often works well with landscape features (geology being what it is).

I also changed media. What Monet did with paint has to be thought through very differently when using colored pencils. The media themselves impose various limitations and aids. So far I’ve already hit the cookbook rubric. There are many other things one can change.

You can reverse an image. Crop an image. Crop and invent around the cropped feature. You can add elements or subtract elements (as Rubens did in a famous little drawing at the National Gallery of Art). You can change media. You can change the tonality. You can change the size and scale. These are rhetorical relationships, and looking at the tropes and schemes of rhetoric you may well find other ways that you can make jazz variations of existing visual tunes.

Across time through family resemblances you find out who your visual ancestors are. (Sometimes as with real ancestors, there are surprises.) The above drawing is taken from Constable, but run through some Degas, Bonnard and Diebenkorn (and others, including of course me) along the way. You assimilate skills by emulating the skills of other artists. Regina Carter said that early in her jazz career she learned by ear to play all the major solos of Charlie Parker on her violin. And through a careful sort of stealing you recombine the visual DNA and invent entirely new imagery.


the fun that happens behind the scene

I got into the habit of painting large pictures after I discovered that I could rehearse ideas by first making large drawings. And then the prospect of painting on a large canvas began to seem much less daunting.  I knew that I could work out any problems or uncertainties using the less expensive medium.  At first I even used cheap paper to make the preliminary drawings.  Sometimes to make the sheet large enough, I taped together many smaller sheets.  I got that idea from a cartoon by Carracci that I saw at the National Gallery of Art.  It was one large image drawn on a sheet made from assembling many small sheets.

These days I use watercolor paper by the roll and artists’ crayons rather than crayolas.  But I got my start with quite humble (and very amusing) beginnings.

Illustrated above is a large koi painting measuring 40 x 60 that’s almost complete, and a preliminary drawing for it that is slightly smaller, and which has undergone still further alterations, taking on a life of its own.

As to why I wanted to paint large, I think I merely wanted to surround myself with the images that I love — to be even more inside that world.

accidental pairings

One of the ways that I get ideas for new works is from chance occurrence. While I was looking through image files, I found these two pictures side by side — rather as they appear here.  The image on the left is a notebook drawing of the koi.  The picture on the right is a scene from an old studio where a large drawing was nearly complete.

Seeing the two works together like this, the one on the left could almost seem to be the same size as the one on the right — and that gives you an idea how it would look enlarged.  Making large works is not merely about enlarging small works.  The large picture ought to seem as though it is simply “the right size” but seeing this small drawing in this context does suggest that it might look good on a much larger scale.

The process could as easily work the other way.  You could see some huge painting in a museum and realize that it offers you a subject that you could do on a smaller scale.  The key, whatever the circumstance, is to be open to new ideas.

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.

the periphery of interest

Contrary to the center of interest is the periphery of interest.

detail potatoes

I was reading a list of forms of cognitive bias and ANCHORING caught my attention. I found it defined as “the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered.” It hinders decision making — and hence invention — by getting a person stuck at square one.

In art, it’s certainly true, that the artist who is too focused on the “center of interest” (or as I like to call it the “nexus of focal attention” or the “convergence of visual acuity” or the “intersection of visual collision” or sometimes as simply “the point of no return”) —  as I was saying: such an artist might fail to see the forest because of the humongous big tree blocking his view when his whole face is covered with its leaves.


I realize I’m babbling — maybe ranting — but I did say that I was turning my blog into a sort of diary.  And in a “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want to” sort of way, I permit myself an occasional rant from time to time.

I don’t like the concept of “a center of interest.”  Does it show? I file it under cognitive bias. I’m glad to see it has a name, anchoring.

The cure is to get the attention moving around again. I like natural attention, myself, that’s my personal preference. Letting your mind move around, willy nilly, as its wont. But if one’s brain has gotten sucked into the vortex, whether that vortex is at the center or somewhere else in the picture, the cure for the bias is to fasten the attention somewhere else. You’ve got to move it around — diffuse it somewhat,  forcibly, if need be.


In my notes, I envisioned a grid — a desperate grid for the really hard cases — and inside each square of the grid you examine that portion of the picture to see what beauties it holds. And no I don’t stop there.


Then you shift the grid a little and you have new passages, and you gaze into those also. And thus the whole image is like a matrix with many doors. Such a picture (obviously this represents an ideal) is like a shimmering tapestry of decisions and observations.

In ordinary time, the simple habit of following your thoughts in the order in which they occur is good enough at last — as a remedy against art books that posit all kinds of rules, the most insidious of which is the center of interest.


I give it other names to diminish its charm. If we call the nexus of focal obsession by its other names — such as, the vortex of visual obsequiousness, then we avoid its becoming stronger by means of the “availability cascade,” the tendency of oft-repeated messages to be accepted as true simply because they are oft repeated.

So, pst!   Ipsnay the enter-cay of interest-yay.




Note to self: fighting & the beginning

dogwood tree at moms

A really wonderful painting with minimal technique is something to be sought (if technique is construed as “knowing the means of doing a thing”).  The problem with the beginning is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Usually you don’t know what you do know either.

Generally people think of the beginning as being where the rookie is. What is less often noted is that anyone can be at the beginning in some context. Artists who do the same thing over and over, having mastered it (whatever It is), are arguably no longer at the beginning. They have achieved a mastery in the sense of being able to predictably repeat past performances at a similar level of difficulty with no loss in quality.


But if you’re the sort of person who wants to be doing something new because you distrust sameness then the beginning is a place you can enter again.  It’s harder, though, than one might suppose. I can become a beginner if I adopt certain kinds of subjects that I have never portrayed. That might be great if these things were things that I want to paint. But lots of things that I never did consist of things that I never wanted to do. Doing those things now wouldn’t represent growth, it would just be stupid.


So instead the challenge about doing something new relates to doing something that you want to do but have never done before, and more particularly doing something that’s difficult to achieve even at one’s present level of skill so that the challenge really puts you out of the comfort zone.  And THEN, not using one’s present knowledge to just think oneself logically through the technical problems, but rather using one’s ignorance itself as a tool so that you can dig, grab, flail your way along.

old-sketch-of-flowers smaller

I think I would rather struggle with a new thing than to use what I already know to render the new thing into some homogenized facsimile of what I already know.  Innovation — seeking and striving to get it — is more about immersion in a new experience than it is like coping by using all the old skills on new ideas. I don’t want to prettify the new thing with the contours of the familiar old things.

bonnard boxing
Pierre Bonnard self-portrait


I want to confront the new thing in all its new-to-me-ness and fight my way through it just like I fought with subjects when I was a young artist.  Is that why Bonnard portrays himself as a pugilist in the series of late self-portraits made in the bathroom mirror?  Well, I don’t know. Bonnard’s intention and his thoughts across a hundred years is not available to me. But I want to find subjects that are hard in ways that formerly would send me to the fainting couch except that instead of retreating to the couch I want to stand and fight.

lattice ptg

Art doesn’t have to be a fight.  I’m not saying that. Art can be refined, easy-going.  It can be a long walk. I’m just saying that if it’s a long walk, I want to walk somewhere I’ve never been before. I am looking for new experience, even in the things I’ve done again and again. I want to experience them in some innocence. I want to be overwhelmed by them. I don’t want to know what I’m doing. I want to figure something out as I go.


the window at twilight

I’m not sure where the idea came from.

101_8736 (3).jpgIt seemed just to have arrived. Maybe I was thinking about this picture more than I knew because there’s something about it that I like, that keeps pulling me back.

I decided to put the two drawings together.  That was the idea. Put the window with the twilight effect behind the flowers on the table. The decision definitely connects the picture further to Bonnard, and that’s what I want.

I couldn’t find the drawing of the window. I had it just the other day. It sat on top of the pile, but I rearranged things and now the pile is gone, and  I don’t know where it is. But I have been able to make a first sketch of the idea by retrieving the copy I posted on this blog.

I arranged them on the computer screen so I could see them both simultaneously rather like the way they’re displayed here.

Formerly the two things had nothing to do with each other. Now they feel intentionally connected. What luck that I even made the drawing of the window. It had been a whimsical gesture at the time. I had been working in the studio all afternoon. As I was finishing up, I noticed how the light inside the room contrasted with the cool evening light outside as twilight descended. It’s an effect that I always love to see.

I hesitated to draw the scene since it would dissolve so quickly.  I only made the drawing on a kind of dare to myself. What was there to lose? Isn’t that why you learn to draw? To tackle the dissolving, transitory motif, to see how much you can grab before it’s gone? Why not sometimes just swat at scenes, see what you get. So I picked up the nearest sheet and the most ready box of pastels and began drawing very fast. I didn’t even know how much of what I was looking at was “the motif.” There’s just me looking up, seeing colors and finding that I want to stop everything I’m doing to look at them.

After seeing that the window could be joined to the table top motif,  I began to see various ways I could figure out the rest of the painting, too. One idea seems to flow from the others. Why not take the scene apart thing by thing?


The bowl of apples, for instance — should it hold apples? If so, why three? Should they be arranged this way or some other way?  Why not begin some studies and figure it out? I can go through the whole picture this way, making inquiries of each thing.

The drawing of the compotier that I love also makes me believe it would be good to put different arrangements of fruit in the bowl. This drawing, below —


Meanwhile, why is the owl there? He has always struck me as being the feature that makes the picture look a bit clunky, but maybe he’s there for a reason? Making more drawings can help me sort out the questions. Can he be a more serious owl?

101_8656 (2)

I’m starting to feel pulled into this project again. That’s a good thing.

UPDATE:  Here’s another thought for this painting, a shell motif in the curtain.


Related posts here and here.  Also here.

UPDATE:  Just realizing now how different the relationship of the flowers to the window is in the new idea.  The scale is utterly different.  I like this relationship better than the one I began with — so use it going forward.  Let the composition at the top be the guide.

UPDATE:  Information on owls in art:

staying in the game

Count me among the professional artists

blue still life (2)

though I’m enough of a student of Degas to feel some ambivalence about the term “professional,” However, art is the main thing I do and I have many pictures now that I’m preparing to market so therefore I am a professional. It’s my profession.  It’s what I do.

Nevertheless I understand the feeling of a serious amateur painter who asks “why am I doing this?” And it’s useful before venturing further to remind ourselves what “amateur” originally means: “late 18th century: from French, from Italian amatore, from Latin amator ‘lover,’ from amare ‘to love.’ Pro athletes were at one time banned from competing in the Olympics because they were paid athletes. The difference between amateur and professional related not to quality, but to money.

Anyway back to art, I have wanted to be an artist since at least the age of 9.  I know this because I stumbled upon something I wrote in grade school (my parents never threw anything away) that stated firmly: “when I grow up I want to be an artist.”  I’ll omit the date, but suffice that I was nine when I wrote it.

I have had many, many bumps along the road in my artist journey (and periods of time when I did almost no painting — as when I went to college where I studied literature). Painting is the thing that always pulled me back whenever I wandered, and it did so because I love the beautiful paintings by the Old Masters and longed for the difficult challenge of painting, have wanted to understand it at its highest level, and love thinking about and experiencing the world of visual perception. I like staring at stuff. Always have.

Moreover while certain subjects perpetually confuse me —  for example my brain has no use for mathematics which I say with no pride — the visual things have always felt like something I naturally and inherently understand.  Even when I had not a clue how to do some art skill (draw a contour, mix a color) I felt that inwardly I understood — that I could figure it out myself if I stayed at it long enough. That’s not to say that art came easily.  I recall that in the days when I first got serious about drawing, my head would ache.  After a session of drawing, I felt overwhelmed with fatigue.  Sometimes I just wanted to retreat to bed and take a nap. I was often having a case of the vapors.

I was young then, bit of a crème puff. As we get older, we get tougher — less quick to wilt.  Art’s struggles were not things I welcomed at first, but they are now. These days I want to make painting “harder.” I look for things that puzzle me, confuse me. I want to attempt things that I don’t know how to do. I come to that eagerness for difficulty from a place of skill.  I’m much more confident because I remember earlier times when I succeeded through difficulties. I face the unknowns by using what I do know. I gained skills over the years. I am eager to stretch and use them.

Youth is wasted on the young!

Still, there’ve been times when I think about a specific work — think to myself that it’s a wreck.  “Why waste my time going further with it?” I have learned to ignore that sentiment. A drawing I have that is now a special favorite went that way. I was drawing my husband’s garden from a photograph and about mid-way it wasn’t working, but I kept going because “what the heck.” It’s turned out to be a very lovely drawing to me now that it’s finished, and is different from other things I typically do.  I am so glad that I didn’t abandon it at that icky, awkward stage — that I kept going. I would post it here, but I haven’t been able to take a decent photo yet.  The colors are subtle, and all my attempts to photograph it so far failed to do it justice. Now that the weather is sunnier I’ll have another whack at the photography.  It’s on the long “to do” list.

I love that drawing. And I wouldn’t have that drawing if I had listened to those doubts. There are other works that were also awkward that I’ve made the last year that I didn’t like so well — one I already posted at this blog though I didn’t report the negative feelings. It’s reposted above.  I know that I have learned things by doing the blue still life above, have gone out of the comfort zone.  I know it because of the negative feelings. So even regarding the blue still life, I’m glad that it led me into new territory. Perhaps at some later juncture that new territory will further develop into something that does have meaning for me, that I’ll care about the way I love the drawing of my husband’s garden.

I could explain exactly what features of the blue still life I don’t like, but it would be too much of a digression in an already long story.

Maybe it’s different from your situation.  This post develops from a long comment that I left at another artist’s blog. I’ve adapted it here — making it even longer! But you and your situation — I have no idea to whom I speak.  Who’ll find these words?  Today or some other time?  I don’t know who you are.  I hope that you’ll consider what I say when I tell you about discouragement — everybody feels it — and persistence.  If you love what you do — or if you want to love it — you must stay the course. That’s the ticket price.

Because painting is my chosen vocation and I’m committed to it unequivocally, I paint come what may.  (By “paint” I comprehensively include drawing in any medium, painting in any medium — oil, watercolor, pastel, other kinds of crayons, colored pencils, acrylic — I have used a lot of different materials.)

I don’t know if you have any idea how awful a violin sounds when played by someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing — especially a cheap violin.

I have another example also — an even better one. It demonstrates that I know something about the difficulties that beginners or amateurs or others on the spectrum of experience feel.  Some readers have known me to reference this topic before. When my daughter was little she began violin lessons through the Suzuki program (the one that emphasizes early lessons). I saw all these little kids playing the instrument, knew that some would get to be good at it in just a few years and asked myself “why not me too.” So I got a cheap violin and began learning along with my kid (I already knew how to read music, but with the violin I found that — for me — learning to play by ear worked better).

I don’t know if you have any idea how awful a violin sounds when played by someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing — especially a cheap violin. It really did sound like I was torturing some unfortunate animal. I didn’t just think about quitting sometimes. I thought about it every time I touched the instrument which was nearly every day. Later I bought a decent student instrument and it sounded a little better but I was still a long way from being “musical.”


I kept at it. Now after over ten years I am beginning to understand the violin and I play well — not likely to ever be confused with a “real” violinist but I am very glad that I didn’t give up. It opened up a whole new world. I hear music differently now — especially if there’s violins in it. I hear the violins as I never heard them before. I love my violin and have a special relationship to what I learned because I gained it mostly alone (had a few lessons for a while but not many). I did it my way. Just like Frank Sinatra. Cue music (especially the violins).

And yet! When I first warm up, in let’s say the first ten minutes of a session, I often wonder all over again if I should quit the violin — even now — why keep doing it — I’m not very good — etc. I hear all those negative messages again inside my head. I have learned to ignore them. After a bit, warmed up, I play music that I love and I am always getting better. And I enjoy it. It stretches my mind! And I can put on a record album and play along with it. Some professionals can’t do that if they don’t play by ear. Isn’t that neat!

If you hear a voice telling you that you cannot paint, then paint my boy, and that voice will be silenced.  So said Van Gogh.

He knew a thing or two about hearing voices. Sometimes the temptation to quit comes when one is nearest to making a break-through. So if you love what you’re doing — and sometimes even if you don’t love what you’re doing! — I think you gain by having faith, going forward, being willing to see where the path leads, find the new experiences and the new knowledge that it offers. The feelings change.  They wax and wane.  The knowledge stays.

Good luck to you one and all!

[Cat freaked items — available for purchase here.  I borrowed their picture to illustrate my early violin practice.]