Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Here’s an example of what I call the “baggage” that surrounds the concept of art. Impedimenta. Something for a guerrilla painter to be wary of...in this case, official opinions.

Recently, ArtReview magazine published its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the art world. They include not just artists but also dealers, critics, museum directors, collectors, curators and art-fair organizers. When the Wall Street Journal (yes) published excerpts, it trumpeted: "The people who make or break art." "The top players." "Who rules the art world?" Oh, please.

ArtReview is based in London, but its view is global. The editors mention some of the things that might affect the ranking: blockbuster exhibitions, new commissions, the value of the dollar, taste of Russian buyers, locations of auction activity, or symbiosis of curator and donor.

The editors make the comment, “...if artists have always lived in the shadow of their patrons, it’s the artwork that ultimately endures.” I’d like to make the observation that the artwork endures as long as someone cares enough to take care of it. Sometimes even bronze statues are stolen and melted down for the value of the metal. Private collections might be housed in private museums, but museums, whether public or private, depend on funding, which can shift with the political, economic or cultural winds.

I suppose it’s only human to want to rank things & people. But the whole point of what we broadly refer to as art is its meaning. And meaning is always personal and individual. We just have to take the time to become aware of it, to discover or create it for ourselves.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


Awhile back, I overheard an artist giving advice to a friend who paints. The only part I could hear clearly was, "Paint it, wipe it off, paint it, wipe it off..."

At first, this sounded like a recipe for frustration. But then I remembered when I'd done a face on watercolor canvas and I kept making "improvements." What I had at first was okay, but I wanted it better, so I kept making changes. I came to a point where I had to erase most of it (you can do that on watercolor canvas) and start over. To my surprise, it wasn't really like starting over, because the face had been created in my mind as well as on the canvas. Very few visual cues were left in place, but they were more than enough for me to re-create the whole thing.

Of course, you can't do this on watercolor paper, but if you've ever thought of painting the same scene repetedly, that would have the same effect. Try different styles, different times of day, different weather, different brightness of colors...or maybe just do it the same way. It will sink in to your consciousness and become much easier to do.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Distant Vistas

We didn’t go into town to see the fireworks on July 4th, even though Fort Collins puts on a great show. It’s just way too crowded, whether you try to go to City Park or watch from above on the ridges of the foothills. Instead, we drove up 287 to the Wyoming line. We saw the Virginia Dale stage station (home of the infamous Jack Slade) where Lincoln’s Vice President Colfax stopped on his tour of western mining towns.

When we turned around to go back, the scenery was spectacular. Broad, distant vistas, stormy skies, rainbows (three, or one and a half, depending on how you count them) dramatic shadows and bright sunlit bluffs. It was the kind of thing that makes a painter think, “Wow, I’d love to paint that,” and “I could never paint that” at the same time. The kind of thing that makes painting conventions like point of interest, balance, perspective and depth just seem irrelevant. Charles Hawthorne actually came right out and said, “Avoid distant views.” Just looking at the vast distance can be intimidating. Makes you wonder where you fit in.

If you use watercolor, it’s especially challenging, because you can’t just keep messing with it until it works.

But there are people who do make it work, using all different mediums. D.F. Gray is one who uses pastels (see image above). Living on the seacoast, he has the advantage of interesting skies and reflections in the water. Here in the western foothills, there’s not much atmospheric perspective, and the sky can be pure blue. This is where abstraction comes to the rescue. Call it “color field” painting, and let it be about the shapes, textures and colors and how they relate. You are hereby authorized to make your own landscape, or to make the landscape your own.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mission Creep

I've been resisting going out to paint for awhile, even though the weather's been just fine. I think it has to do with "mission creep."

Last year, I'd come up with a few paintings that were good enough to frame, and it influenced my expectations. You start with a healthy, reasonable goal of having fun, learning a bit or making a souvenir sketch, and then you start to think maybe you'll do something brand new that's never been done before or make a beautiful painting, or make something that will sell, and there you go, skidding right off the edge of reality.

Being hopeful is a good thing, but sometimes if you aim for less, you actually accomplish more.
Last week I finally went outside to paint. I had some watercolor paper that had a purple wash on 2/3rds of it, and I knew that this painting would be strictly for fun. I could scrub away parts of it, but on the whole it would be an experiment in purple & green. No pressure, no apprehension.
A limiting factor can actually be a source of inspiration. Chose one... small size, simple subject, limited palette, a textured surface or an unusual background color, a complete lack of detail, very limited light, a series of the same view, doing only trees, or only roads...

Of course, as long as you're THINKING about painting, (shapes, movement, negative space, patterns, colors and the way they interact with each other and with light & shadow, mood...) you're still on your mission.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Art Class

We did a demo at the Jerry's Artarama store on South Broadway in Denver (Englewood, to be precise) a few weeks ago. They're thinking of offering classes in their large basement area. One of their employees actually used to be an art teacher in the public schools, and when she said that no one visited her classroom on parent's night, it reminded me of the movie Freedom Writers. I don't mean to make a comparison, but it does seem like art classes have been separated from the mainstream.

In their newsletter that day at Jerry's, I read about a recent experiment in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Students who participated in art activities at the museum performed better in all their other classes as well.

Maybe we need to create "stealth" art classes, to get past the idea that it's just a frill... call it visual development, creative skills, effective perception, observation resources, cognitive rebalancing...

Whatever it takes to regain its rightful place in the schools.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Winston Churchill, guerrilla painter

Winston Churchill, even before World War II, seems to have understood the difference between the right & left side of the brain. In his essay "Painting as a Pastime," (which has been published as a book, he says that one can relieve mental strain by taking up a discipline that uses entirely different "mental muscles" from the one that are overused. There's an amusing description of his first time out:

"So very gingerly I mixed a little blue paint on the palette with a very small brush, and then with infinite precaution made a mark about as big as a bean upon the affronted snow-white shield. At that moment the loud approaching sound of a motor-car was heard in the drive. From this chariot there stepped swiftly and lightly none other than the gifted wife of Sir John Lavery. 'Painting! But what are you hesitating about? Let me have a brush - the big one.' Splash into the turpentine, wallop into the blue and the white, frantic flourish on the palette - clean no longer - and then several large, fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas. Anyone could see that it could not hit back... I have never felt any awe of a canvas since."

He chanced upon some painters on the coast of France who were disciples of Cezanne, who painted the luminous sea with multiple separate spots of pure color. To them, the subject matter was the light itself. Later, he saw a painting by Cezanne of a blank wall of a house, and it made him look anew on everyday scenes in his life. A refreshing pastime, indeed. "You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb."

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Make your own paint?

As if we didn't already have enough on our "to do" list, now we can make our own paint.
(There's also a website that shows you how to make your own chocolate, but we won't go there)
For artists who want to know more about how their materials are made and where they come from, paintmaking.com is a valuable resource. It tells you the pros & cons (“There are lots of reasons to make paint, and plenty of reasons not to.”) It might be helpful to understand more about your materials; maybe it will lead to new ease and confidence in your work or even to renewed inspiration. Maybe there are certain colors you want that can be mixed in volume from your own recipes. You can save money, especially if you're using the less expensive pigments. Of course, this all takes time to learn as well as to make, and maybe you would rather just do the painting. And it can be a boring job (lots of mixing).

There is a long list of FAQs and web resources, along with information about all different media – acrylics, tempera, watercolor & gouache, oils & alkyds, encaustic & fresco as well as chalks. There are tools, supplies, ingredients and binders. There is even a “History” page, starting with prehistory and going through Egypt, Greece and on up to the 20th century. And there is information about safety as well.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


I think of painting as (among other things) a way to practice mindfulness.

“Mindfulness” is a misleading word in a way, because it doesn’t really refer to your mind. “Mind” can be a verb, as in “Mind your manners,” “Mind the step,” or “Never mind.” It means to pay attention. Not by using your mind, the analytical & critical function of the brain, and not by using the “autopilot” mind that gets us through routine tasks, or by using the fear-based, reactive mechanism that’s a deep part of our survival mode. Pure attention is a very different animal. It lets us see things that our “autopilot” mind usually deletes, and it re-evaluates things that our critical mind usually dismisses or denigrates.

It’s an important function, because our attention is the creative part of our self. It’s the “lead dog” that takes us, our sled and everything we've packed on it along wherever it goes.

Painting or sketching from life puts you in conscious communication with this lead dog, and it helps you decide what you’ll pay attention to. It can overcome our natural “confirmation bias” that lets us see only what we expect to see. Painting or sketching outdoors allows you comprehend a vaster scale of things than you usually think of in everyday life. Or maybe you notice that small things can be significant, even if most people never notice them. It can bring to the fore concepts, connections and connotations that often get trodden underfoot. This can affect your whole life in a major way.

It’s valuable for you and this lead dog to get in touch, to get in the habit of spending time quietly paying attention, sniffing the breeze, noticing relationship & proportion, looking and listening.

Monday, March 05, 2007

David Hockney Plein-Air

This is a page about a current exhibit of David Hockney's East Yorkshire landscapes at the L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice, California. There's a photo of him doing plein-air painting on SIX large canvases at once (to form a single painting). Now, that's encouraging. If he can paint six large canvases on location (at one time), how hard can it be to do one small one?

It's interesting that he doesn't use photography at all, even as a partial reference. He says the camera sees geometrically, but human beings see psychologically, which includes all of our perceptions, memories and feelings.

Monday, February 26, 2007


It seems youtube.com has recently fixed a glitch. I used to always get the error message, "You have javascript turned off... need to download the latest..." Even after I'd checked & downloaded everything. But somehow it seems to be working now.

In addition to all your favorite music, interviews and funny pet videos, there are instructional videos such as how to paint.

Here is a good one by Larry Seiler.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Routine Magic

Poor old Lucky, our retired cowpony, the last of the ranch string, stopped eating a few weeks ago. The next morning he was down & couldn't get back up. His eyes were tracking back & forth, so I think he had some kind of neurological degeneration. Carl had gone to the airport to get someone that morning, so it was several hours before he could make a trip up here to shoot the old guy. Sad to lose a beautiful friend; we all miss him. Carl took his body up to "bone hill," and I tied a redtail hawk feather to his mane. I invited a friend who learned ceremony from the Indians to come & do one for Lucky on a weekend when Carl's grandson Sacha was here. When she took out her feather-fan, there was a feather that had come loose somehow & was lying on top. She gave it to Sacha, saying it was for him from Lucky. That was a redtail feather as well...

Sometimes I hesitate to learn too much about painting for fear the magic will go away. But then I remember what Michael Cardew said in Pioneer Pottery: "The artist today must be conscious of what he is doing. Yet the inner springs of art are always unconscious. There is a natural apprehension that if one starts meddling with these and brings them out into the open, they may dry up and the shoots may wither. But it is an apprehension that must be overcome, since all mental and moral progress in the past has required the enlarging of consciousness and the widening of its field, and has been the direct result of that enlargement. However much we may enlarge our consciousness, the underlying fund of the unconscious always remains untouched, and seems in fact to be inexhaustible."

Painting is a means of combining the material & spiritual realms, and if we focus on composition, value, edges, proportion and other analytical concepts, it doesn't mean we have to let the spirit escape. It's always there, and if we honor it, the magic will be there too.

In fact, inspiration and routine work together very well. Keep a notebook open to a blank page, set aside a few minutes a day for reverie, invite the "right brain" in by playing music, make personal acquaintences among the elements of water, fire, earth, air and their various permutations (clouds, clay, incense, you name it). Eventually, meaning will walk up & greet you.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

A New Definition of "Useful"

Jane Herold is a potter who produces beautiful wood-fired pottery. Everything is made to be used, to become part of someone's everyday life. She's written an article entitled "A New Definition of 'Useful'" that discusses the seeming paradox of carrying on a thousand-year-old tradition into the 21st century, and I think it could easily be used to explain why painting outdoors is useful, too.

At first glance, hand-made pottery (especially wood-fired pottery) and plein-air painting might be dismissed as anachronistic hobbies, but Jane explains that if everyday cups, bowls & dishes are lively enough, each having their own unique character, they make you stop & take notice. Their purpose is to generate caring. You might have all the modern conveniences (?) and yet go through your days without being aware of your surroundings, interactions, feelings, your very life itself.

"Being indifferent, unconscious, unawake is not something that you can turn on and off at will. We must either find ways of living that encourage awareness or face a loss of sensibility that is likely to seep into all areas of our lives."

And painting from life is certainly one of the best ways to encourage awareness.