Getting it Right

Everyone talks about what’s wrong


but I think most people have difficulty figuring out what they got right. Recognizing mistakes is often easy. (Making them is easy too!) When a picture has a lot of mistakes, how do you discover what you did right? How do you marshal skill to get things right, to recognize and correct mistakes, and to go forward toward new decisions?  Sometimes it gets sticky.

In the picture above, which is a large practice cartoon for a painting idea, I have wanted to emulate Pierre Bonnard since I’ve loved his art for nearly as long as I can remember. Bonnard’s work is chaotic, “naïve,” fuzzy, idiosyncratic. His pictures are filled with features that could easily be categorized as mistakes. He made an art of mistake. So it seems unlikely that I’m going to get very far along his path if I assiduously strive to draw everything correctly.


How do you achieve the mistake that is art? How do you recognize the mistake that is a mistake? Context is everything. For most people, mistakes are things they wish to avoid. In the art that I’m addressing the mistake is a goal to be achieved because I’m seeking the kind of perfect mistake that is expressive, that uses exaggeration to reach a truth that cannot be gotten by following the path of precision.

Since this is a working drawing, made solely for the purpose of figuring something out, I taped a page over top of an area that was “more mistaken” than what I was seeking. Afterwards I continued integrating the new sheet into the existing image.


It’s a back burner picture right now since I’m busy with other things. I bring it out of the closet to think about what mistakes are and why we must make them if we want to learn new skills, and why sometimes they transform into marvelous discoveries if we just plow forward.

I also want to address the idea of appreciation.


I love the criss cross shadow cast by the compotier. The criss cross opening on the compotier basin is just barely indicated in this drawing — by some hatching beside one of the apples. I loved seeing this feature in the still life set up. I loved drawing it quickly and crudely in this drawing. I realized afterwards that I had hit some Bonnard pay dirt, since his art is full of hatching and squares of various sorts. And my still life was full of them too in ways I hadn’t noticed when I put it together. (Give your subconscious the respect it deserves.)


I can draw, I can draw! I’ve supplied various examples at this blog to demonstrate that fact to myself and to others. I did so just so I could grant myself the freedom to make a bushel basket full of mistakes if I want. Just look at how pretty the colors are, the marks as marks.


I don’t mind telling you that drawing this image was fun. And it’s not finished or anything, I just abandoned it because something else came up.  I’ll go back to it eventually I suspect, if the past is any indication of the future.  Look at how freely I drew some of this stuff. Look at the wonderful way that the crayon scumbles, light over dark.  The texture of the paper is definitely a factor.

Since I’m emulating Bonnard, I include some of his painting for comparison.

bonnard still life

Mine is a large drawing. I had to bend over to draw the bottom, reach up to do the top, move the thing around on the easel to get to this and that part. It’s physical.

101_8658 (2)

Things are the wrong sizes relative to each other. Ellipses don’t work. The angle of vision is confusing. I have no idea where I would be standing to see it. Things are cartoonish. (I love the flowers.)  Some of the colors are wonderful. The whole thing has a clunkyness that I sometimes love, sometimes hate.

I’m praising the good things about my picture because I think that’s what you should be doing as well (praising the good things in my picture  oops — I mean, praising the good things in YOUR pictures).

Another Bonnard, this one with a compotier:

fruit-bowl-1914 bonnard

Having standards will make you strive, and that’s a good thing. Developing appreciation nourishes your spirit. It’s hard to persist in a complicated project if you are often berating yourself. For those reasons, I give myself full reign to enjoy the pictures I make. I like drawing. I like this kind of inventive drawing, which is very different from setting up a still life and painting it directly. I began a new thing and gave myself a challenge. And I post these images here because they have a lot of mistakes in them.  To succeed fully enough mistake has to be siphoned away or transmuted until just invention remains.


That’s a high wire act because people like different things. (Some artists and art lovers hate Bonnard.) At long last there’s no authority you can turn to that can assure you that you took the correct path. The definitions of success and mistake are amorphous. But if I succeed according to my own idea the picture will find an inner logic. I don’t know yet what the result will look like, but I am encouraged — in all my pictures, not just this one — to go forward toward finding that logic.

A detail of a large Bonnard still life below, notice the wonderful stripes:

Bonnard, detail of a large still life

Information about the painting above is available HERE.

I’ve written about mistakes but still haven’t identified the most significant mistakes of my picture. As I look at it now, its problems begin with the large design. Putting in more information will help sort out what the large compositional problems are (the whole lower left of the picture is still blank, for instance, though it’s supposed to feature a design on the table cloth).  Until the additional stuff is there, it’s impossible to judge how the parts will relate to each other. And after I put more stuff in, it’s possible I might have to take some of it out again (which is the reason for making the practice cartoon in the first place).

All the figuring out what is a mistake is something I leave for another occasion.  For now, I’m just focusing on what I like because people don’t pay enough attention to what is right when they are busy seeing “mistakes.”


Green and yellow, above, and energetic lines, colors that push up against each other: these are things I like.



the art of making perfect mistakes

drawing little notebook

A friend said, “One of the biggest lessons to learn in art is to proceed fearlessly and to look at things in the light of making them more right.”

Why do we allude continually to our mistakes or to those things we perceive as mistakes?  There is always the disconnect between intention and consequence.  Though one uses the word “mistake,” and it carries all sorts of negative connotations, yet we need the word, we need to make mistakes, the mistakes are just the trace of however much striving an artist went through to get to a certain place.

You can guarantee that you’ll never make mistakes. It’s very simple. Attempt only easy things.  As long as you do only those things you know you can do, you’ll never make a mistake — or hardly ever.  Attempt that which you know to be challenging and you’ll be always making mistakes.  And yet you will be always doing something new, always gaining skill and steadiness.


I have learned over the years to suspend judgement about what constitutes a “mistake.” If you press on, continually working to sharpen both your perception and your skill in putting things “where you think they are supposed to go” then interesting things can happen. There’s some editing in art — as in writing — that can wait. It’s like a wine, you have to allow it some time to cure. I draw, I put things aside to work on other drawings, and later I look at things to decide what’s what.

In any case, you cannot escape alterations between what you thought you wanted to do and what afterwards you discover you did, so you might as well plunge ahead and keep learning.

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.

Dreaming in the daytime

In the veiled and imminent dawn you can dream a different kind of dream.  In this soft light, inside these paled thoughts, everything is so much more possible.  The quiet haze of heavy thoughts amorphous holds inside its fuzzy boundaries ideas whose exact shapes are unknown, and in their uncertainty offer possibilities too many to count.

How I try to use these dreams of semi-wakefulness.  The half actual shapes, the lines whose endings cannot be imagined.  When asking questions is like holding the pen, and the words that your mind speaks back to you in halting phrases are lines whose character the time has yet to determine.

Flowers Old and New

The end of the year is a time for reflection.  As I pour over internet postings, I am astonished to notice that “representation” is no longer an oddity.  When I was a youth, in contrast, it was axiomatic that picture-making was passé, “nobody” (one was told) “is doing that now.”  There was an avant garde that did not include renderings of the visible world.  And that was that.  While it’s true that the art world was governed by a kind of anything goes, what it really meant was “anything but that.”

Anyone looking at art today easily sees that the old rule is gone.  I am astonished how much figurative painting is unabashedly made now.  And I blame the Internet.  The “art world,” as has happened to so many other Establishments, has lots of competition now.  While it was always true that private galleries sold representational art, probably sold more representational art than abstract art, yet in the old order all the prestige accrued to whatever ArtNews crowned.  But that’s just not true anymore.

Well, it never really mattered anyway.  If you loved whatever it was, you were inclined to do whatever it was.  Lots of artists have persisted in my generation following their heart’s desire.  All I say is that it’s good they did because “ding dong the witch is dead” and Dorothy’s got her slippers, the Wizard of Oz has taken off for parts unknown, and the midgets are singing their hearts out.  And life goes on.

Before long, painting a simple vase of flowers is going to be the ne plus ultra.  It’s just a matter of time.

Ah, and you will have known me when!

(As for koi, don’t get me started ….)

Molly Dreaming About Herself: what dogs dream

I used to imitate the old masters very self-consciously.  I used to think — and it was wise instinct working — that whatever the old masters did, they did for good reasons, reasons that one could only hope to understand through emulation, of walking a few miles in their shoes.  So, you find artists like Rubens and Ingres who draw figures over top other figures, and I thought to myself: “got to try that.”

I didn’t have a model handy.  But I had a dog.  So I drew one Molly sleeping over top another Molly sleeping.  My dog was happy to oblige my artistic requirements by fidgeting around in her sleep.

Now with self-generated art lessons receeding into the background, she looks like two companionable dogs together, or one dog perhaps dreaming dog dreams.  Molly was such a smart and lively canine, I’ve no doubt that her dreams were indeed rich with Molly memories of her many Molly adventures.

Now only one question remains “which dog is the dreamer and which one the dream?”

Giant Koi Sketching

The latest large koi drawing has come this far along.  It’s approximately 60 by 55 inches — somewhere in that range — and it’s drawn using Caran d’ache water soluable crayons on Arches watercolor paper.  I decided to make some of the new koi drawings as “sketches” even though they are large.  By saying that they are sketches, I mean that I am working with more freedom and spontaneity throwing caution windward.  Sometimes the size of a picture can tend to make the artist more cautious — or sometimes the materials have this effect — whenever you are doing something in which you feel there is greater risk, somehow, you might tend to slow down and be more deliberate.  And, I decided that for experiment’s sake, as well as simply for the joy of it, that I would approach some of these large koi drawings more boldly since I like the appearance of a “sketch” and equally much I like the spirit of invention and want to exploit it to the full.

A detail of the central section demonstrates how many textures are in the picture so far.  It’s made in a rough manner.  I got the blocking in done today (all the paper is more or less covered with something) and I will continue piling on the pigment, but my approach is one of “just have at it.”   It’s through this manner that I get ideas.

At a much earlier stage, when it was only half-way as far along as now, it looked like this.

Not Brain Surgery

One of the marvels of painting (or drawing) is that you always begin again from nothing.  The openness of the blank page is very humbling.  With each picture there is the potential of relearning your vocation from the ground up.

When I draw something – it can be anything – one of the attractions for me is that you can begin the thing from any beginning.  A landscape could begin with the sky, or with a point in the distance where a path disappears, or with a particular limb of a particular tree.  You can start without things at all, you could decide to work from the top of the image to the bottom if you wanted – or from the middle to the sides, from left to right, from an all-over-ness to details, or you can begin with details and work out toward the large forms.

Various art schools will tell you that any of these possibilities are wrong, but you always have the option of ignoring the advice to experience for yourself what happens when you try the forbidden procedure.  This is very different from doing surgery or flying an airplane.  The surgeon and the pilot cannot arbitrarily decide to reinvent their entire methods.  But the artist can.  Artists are wise to keenly observe the fact that nothing crashes and no one dies.  You can experiment and should.  You are under no obligations to take anything as settled or sacrosanct.

Starting and stopping

You don’t always know what you’ll do and what you won’t.  Sometimes you start something, fully intend to finish it, but something stops you.  And truly not every drawing is one that you can go back to — even if it had good ideas, or you liked it a lot — not even if you’re a workaholic can you finish everything. 

But the drawing that you stop, doesn’t just arbitrarily end.   It has a certain identity, a certain something that was the sum total of what you were thinking by that point in time.  It holds suggestions in it of what was coming next, I think.  It’s a fingerprint of the mind, a trace of a cloud, of an emotion or a will.

I’ve been drawing lots of flowers lately.  I wake up, I start drawing.  And the drawings are sometimes like dreams, and sometimes of course you wake up before the dream has concluded, and yet your mind has not exactly created a fragment, not entirely.  The brain is still sending you messages even in the unfinished thing, like smoke signals.

Like a real pond

After working on my drawing at the secret bunker studio, I took photos as I usually do.  Then got an odd notion.  Why not photograph the picture from below as one might see it if it were mounted high upon a wall.  (Sometimes that’s the only way you can photograph pictures when they’re housed somewhere.)  And as I saw how distorted the image became, I inclined to indulge the distortion in extravagant ways.  After that I was in search of distortion, the stretchier the water’s topography, the better.

When you’re photographing the real fish, their movements and the wave patterns are often stopped artificially or alterred greatly from what our brains tell us we see.

Photographing the drawing from every angle across its flat plane, I saw the fish begin to “swim” even more — round the curved edge of the earth’s watery.  Like koi explorers they looked to drop off the edge of the space-time.  And the blues widened like a curtain furling.

If I were to use these distorted photos of my drawing as reference images for other pictures, I could draw the distortion right in and jazz riff something new.  Or one could combine the distorted sections into a new “whole.”

Collage is possible, or rescrambled puzzle pieces made more puzzling.  Lots of improvisations possible as one follows the path.  Or the wave.  The fish wave.

I decided to treat my drawing like it was a real pond.  With real fish, who move.