I know some people who really enjoy painting. They find it relaxing and therapeutic - a positive outlet for creative expression. Sometimes they will tell me that they aren't able to paint as often as they'd like to. They enjoy it, but just don't have the time. Business before pleasure, as the saying goes.
I feel that way about reading. I really enjoy reading, but lately I find it difficult to fit it into my schedule. Painting, on the other hand, is something I don’t have difficulty finding time to do. I made it a priority many years ago and has become an integral part of my routine. I honestly can’t say that I enjoy it, though.
Whilst working on this painting, I found myself, as I often do, lamenting to the people close to me about how difficult and draining it was. I usually find myself comparing the process to being in some kind of battle or physical conflict. I recently hiked to the summit of Mount Katahdin here in Maine. Katahdin is basically a mile-high pile of boulders and reaching the summit requires a grueling five-mile trek over rugged, rocky terrain, the last mile and a half, the Cathedral Trail, being essentially a vertical climb requiring the near-constant use of all four limbs. Once at the summit, my hike took me across the treacherous Knife Edge, a mile-long arris of jagged rock with steep drops on either side, to Pamola Peak and then a three-and-a-half descent over steep rocks (actually the most difficult part of the hike) which brought me back to my car almost nine hours after I'd left. All of this was a walk in the park compared to making a painting. Seriously.
I had summited Katahdin via this route before and, although the unpredictable weather can make each hike a unique experience, I essentially knew what I was in for. At the base of the Cathedral Trail I encountered a few would-be hikers whom I knew were not going to make it to the summit. It's a physically demanding endeavor that requires strength, agility, stamina and courage in equal measure. The majority of deaths on Katahdin are not caused by falls or exposure, but by cardiac arrest, and the mountain won't let you on the summit unless you earn it. Painting, at least for me because my work involves a great deal of improvisation over the basic structure, is the same way. Bringing a painting to fruition successfully requires knowledge of the language of visual form, command of the materials, dexterity, imagination and the courage to take risks. There have been a few rare instances where paintings have come together fairly easily, but more often than not, it's a great struggle and I find myself engulfed in the work for days or weeks, wondering if the image is ever going to coalesce, and hounded by the fear that I might finally have to concede that I'm not fit to be a painter.
Paradoxically, although the process for me is extremely demanding, as well as physically and emotionally exhausting, I still want the finished painting to look as if it came together very organically, with minimal effort. One of my favorite words is "inevitable" and that's exactly the quality that I strive for in my work – that every color, every dab of paint looks as if it were meant to be exactly as it is. Trying to reconcile this objective with my process of working improvisationally and not knowing what the finished image is going to look like until I it's done is a challenge I face every day. But I do it, not because I enjoy it, but because I could never find peace of mind if I didn't do it. I tried for years not to be a painter and I failed miserably at it.
There are days when I'd rather be climbing mountains.
A great deal of art is artifice. Artists create works that are meant to convince the audience that they are something other than what they really are. This is true of drawing, painting and sculpture, as well as other art forms such as fiction writing and film. We become immersed in a good novel to the point where we may believe that the story we are reading actually happened. We watch a film and forget that the characters we see are merely actors. Likewise, a painter may convince us that the flat canvas is a window looking out upon a vast landscape or into an interior space or that the oil paint is a bowl of fruit or human flesh.
Some artists intentionally attempt to disguise their materials and their process such that the viewer might declare "I can't believe that's a painting! It looks just like..(whatever the subject of the work is)!" Contrarily, other artists embrace the artifice and make it an integral part of the work, leaving the viewer to ponder how something that is obviously just paint on canvas can appear to be something else.
Like many artists, when I was learning my craft, I opted for the first approach – trying to defy the artificiality of the materials and process in order to convince the viewer that they were seeing an actual, recognizable object. This is a great way to learn technique and mastery of our materials because we can measure our success or failure by referring directly to our subject. However, the more adept I became at creating illusionistic images, the less interested I became in working that way. Eventually, I moved away from this mode of working and began to make my paintings and drawings as much (if not more) about the process and materials than about the subject. Wanting my work to look man-made rather than illusionistic – to look like painting rather than nature – I embraced gestural drawing, painterly application of the paint, and subjective color and made them integral parts of my process.
Over the past few years, as my technique has become increasingly more personal and I have continually explored new territory with regards to my methods of applying paint to the canvas, I have become fascinated with the idea that my paintings don't look much like painting but, rather, look like something that occurred in nature. The world that we live in exists in a precarious balance between order and chaos an this becomes acutely apparent when we observe nature. On one hand, there appears to be an incredibly complex organizational structure and myriad systems that work miraculously and in perfect balance to hold everything together and yet, simultaneously, nature is characterized by savage acts of violence as organisms devour one another and fight for survival and the elements wreak havoc on all and sundry. Even a cursory glance whilst walking in the woods will reveal the scars and corpses left by the merciless onslaught of Mother Nature and yet sublime beauty abounds.
Although I never know what a painting is going to look like when it is finished, because my process involves a lot of improvisation, intuition, risk taking and spontaneity, the initial stages of an image are characterized by a great deal of planning and design - composing, organizing and creating a cohesive cast of colors. My hope is that the finished work will, like nature maintain a perfect balance between order and chaos.
Last week my son and I, along with a couple of friends, ventured deep into Baxter State Park for some cliff jumping at Upper South Branch Pond. It was quite a trek out to the location, beginning with a two-hour drive to the park gate, followed by a 10 mile drive on a dirt road at 20 mph and then a short hike to the edge of the lake where canoes are available to rent for $1 per hour. The four of us got into a single canoe and paddled across Lower South Branch Pond (a misnomer – it's really a lake). We then had to portage the canoe about a quarter of a mile to Upper South Branch Pond (The two bodies of water are connected by a narrow, waterway which is usually too shallow for passage by canoe.) and then paddle about half a mile out to the cliffs. We had gone out to the same location last year, but the conditions were not very favorable. The water temperature was about 50 degrees (Quite a shock for me when I tried swimming in it!) and heavy winds and dark cloud cover portended an imminent thunderstorm and made visibility below the surface of the water near impossible. Needless to say, we decided to abandon any idea of cliff jumping.
This year, however, the unusually warm weather we've been having all summer had rendered the water the perfect temperature for swimming and the clouds that seemed to follow us all morning cleared off as soon as we arrived at our final destination. The cliff wall rises straight up 40 feet out of the 80 foot deep water with great launch spots at various heights. The mountain water was crystal clear and looking down after jumping in from one of the lower spots, I could see the rock fade from light tan to black as it disappeared into the abyss below. None of us was willing to attempt a leap from the 40 foot height, which would have required a running start to clear the rocks (Actually, my 14-year-old son was quite keen to jump from there but I convinced him not to!) but we each made several jumps from a 20 foot height. All in all, it was great fun, and you may be wondering what any of this has to do with painting.
Standing on a rocky cliff 20 feet above what appears to be a deep, dark, bottomless water-filled abyss and looking down with the intent to jump in is quite an experience which produced, in me anyway, no small amount of fear and apprehension (Deep, dark water has always been one of my greatest fears.) and I was immediately reminded of the feeling I get every time I embark on a new painting.
Making art, at least the way I do it, requires a leap of faith into the unknown and, just like you had better know how to swim if you're going to jump off of a cliff, you had better have command of your materials and the language of visual form if you hope to pull off a successful painting. I'm a strong swimmer and I knew I wasn't going to hit any rocks or run into any large, flesh-eating sea creatures below the surface, but none of that lessened the fear that I felt in that moment when my feet were about to leave terra firma and become subject to the whims of gravity as I plunged into the depths where light and air don't exist.
I face a similar fear regularly in my studio and, even though I've made dozens and dozens of quite successful paintings, I've produced my fair share of complete and utter failures. But the fear doesn't stop me from working. We face our fears and we jump. As far as I'm concerned, it's the only way to really live a meaningful life.
My passion for creating visual images initially came from within, but seeing the work of other artists has always spurred me on. I have memories, going back to early childhood, of specific encounters with works of art and of being inspired by the artists who created them. N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations in Treasure Island had a profound impact on me when I was 8 years old. I spent countless hours during my early childhood staring at a reproduction of an Eric Sloane painting that hung in my family’s living room (which I’m certain had a lot to do with my latter-day fascination with barns.) and Fritz Eichenberg’s wood engravings were very inspirational. Later, I was introduced to the paintings of Edward Hopper, Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer and Winslow Homer, along with countless others once I became an art major in college. Studying and transcribing the works of other artists, especially the ones with whom we feel a strong affinity, can be immensely beneficial in terms of developing both technique and a visual vocabulary.
Copying the work of another artist affords us an opportunity to get inside the artist’s mind and understand the decisions that they made during their artistic process. It also (if we pay attention) can help us to develop an understanding of the specific aspects of that artist’s work that are most closely related to our own personality. When I was a student, I copied the work of several of my favorite artists. Sometimes I did exact transcriptions, but most of the time I focused on learning specific elements of the work. I did gesture drawing studies, value studies in charcoal, and oil sketches based on finished oil paintings in order to examine the compositional structures of the works. I did several pastel studies of paintings by Edward Hopper, Claude Monet, and John Constable, which were extremely helpful in developing my understanding of how to use color to structure a painting.
By studying and transcribing works created by our influences, we can develop our own vocabulary and a better understanding of how to use visual form to communicate personal ideas. Looking at the work of a variety of artists from different time periods and stylistic trends is essential if we want to develop a large visual vocabulary. Eventually, however, we reach a point where we have to jettison our influences and distill the elements that we take from those influences down to their most basic essence and, more importantly, find ways to combine what are seemingly incongruous methods and ideas into a cohesive, personal visual language.
I am equally enamored of the work of Rembrandt, John Constable, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Giorgio Morandi, Mark Rothko, to name but a few, and, although this painting doesn’t look like the work of any of those disparate artists, I can see the influence of each and every one of them in it. We develop our artistic voice in a way similar to how we develop our personality. We take various bits and pieces from a variety of different people that we encounter throughout our lives, our choices based on a personal, subjective intuition that helps us to recognize those character traits that resonate with our own distinct personality. And we continue to do this throughout our lives as we meet new people who influence us and cause us to modify our way of thinking or our behavior. It’s important for all artists to continually seek out the creative work of others as a means of expanding both our vision and our vocabulary.
Nothing can exist without its opposite. There can be no light without darkness, order without chaos, sound without silence, life without death. The co-existence and the balance between seemingly contradictory forces have always been of interest to me. I am continually confronted with contrasts between the various elements that make up my work: light and dark, form and space, movement and stasis, balance and instability, structure and improvisation.
As an artist inspired by the landscape, one of the challenges that I am regularly faced with is reconciling the dichotomy which exists between the protean, ephemeral, and transient qualities of my subjects (both nature and my personal feelings) and my attempts to create static, long-lasting images that represent them. Nature is in a constant state of flux. The never ending cycle of growth and decay and the changing seasons play out under a light that's rarely the same for more than a few minutes.
Drawings and paintings are static images. We may have a different experience with each consecutive viewing of a specific painting because we may have changed, but the image itself remains constant and still.
There are a variety of methods that artists can use to suggest a sense of time and motion in a static image. One particular method which I regularly make use of is a loose, gestural application of the drawing or painting materials to the paper or canvas, which will invariably suggest to the viewer the movement engaged in by me as I worked. The marks that I make on the surface, although static themselves, can (hopefully) become manifestations of movement and energy. While the drawing or painting remains unchanged, it contains within itself a sense of the fleeting nature of the subject. The marks are meant to describe not the outward appearance of the subject but, rather, my personal reaction to and my engagement with it.
The transient nature of all things has always been (whether or not I was consciously aware of it!) an important part of my work. And so, as everything around me continues to change, grow, move, decay and eventually cease to exist, I will continue to spend my time creating static images which somehow contain the energy that animates the universe in which we live.
Encouraged by some of my students, I began an ongoing series of YouTube videos in which I discuss all aspects of visual arts and the art-making process. These are not instructional videos; there are a plethora of those on the internet already, many of which can be very helpful, especially if you're trying to learn a specific technique. My videos are meant to focus on the more general aspects of what artists do and why we do what we do. Topics covered thus far include: the importance of drawing, understanding your specific motivation for making art, the value of critical feedback, and not taking destructive criticism and/or indifference to your work personally.
I was given this small 12 x 12 canvas by the University of Maine at Presque Isle's Art Club and asked to do a painting on it for their upcoming fundraising auction. I always find the square format to be challenging in terms of composition because it's such a stable shape. I've known artists who use the square format almost exclusively and I've known artists who avoid it completely. I don't recall ever intentionally stretching a square canvas, although I have done several paintings that are almost squares, e.g. 30 x 32 or 34 x 36. I like to create a little bit of tension by having the dimensions be unequal. I have even consciously arranged the forms within the frame of the picture in such a way as to make the image look like a square, even when it isn't.
This image is based on a drawing that I did a few weeks ago. I was planning to develop this idea into a larger painting, but in a vertical rectangle format on a larger canvas. I will probably still do that, as soon as I finish the painting that I'm working on at the moment (which is turning out to be one of the most difficult things I've ever undertaken, but that's a subject for another post...). Creating multiple paintings of the same theme, but with variations on the composition and/or color scheme, has always been appealing to me. The size of a canvas is also a very important consideration because the scale of the marks that I make changes relative to the size of the painting and larger paintings allow for viewing both at a distance as well as up close. When making a large painting, I always try to make the painting work from a distance, but I think there should be a lot of smaller scale things going on that provide visual interest when the viewer gets in close to the painting.
Oftentimes, when I am outside drawing I don't even think about composition, preferring instead to draw everything that I see and then compose several pictures from the same subject once I return to my studio. I have several strips of black paper lying around the studio and I use these to compose images by placing them on all four sides of a drawing. I then move the strips around as I explore various compositional possibilities. I played around with placing the strips of black paper around my drawing of this subject and found this square composition, which I think works well. Staggering the horizon creates a slight diagonal and makes for a more dynamic arrangement than if the horizon went straight across.
This painting will be included in the UMPI Art Club's 12 x 12 auction on Friday April 6 at Sorpresso Café in Presque Isle, ME.
“A painting is not a picture of an experience, but is the experience.” – Mark Rothko
A few months ago, my daughter and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, one of my favorite haunts when I lived in Massachusetts. I was particularly eager to see the Mark Rothko exhibition, as I haven’t had many opportunities to see his work in person.
I first encountered Rothko’s art when I was a senior in college, during a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in NY. I wasn’t familiar with his work when I walked into a gallery and was awestruck by a painting of white amorphous open-edged shapes surrounded by a light grey ground. As simple as it sounds, there was something sublime and spiritual about the image and as I gazed at it, I was moved to tears. I later learned that not only is this a common reaction by people to Rothko’s work, but one that he intended the viewer to have. I have read a great deal of his writings, as well as interviews with him, and have always felt an affinity with his ideas about painting, especially about art being a spiritual experience rather than a conveyance of information or mere decoration. This has always been an important aspect of my own work. The MFA Rothko exhibit began with paintings from the past that had influenced Rothko. Not surprisingly, the first painting was one of my favorite things, the small Rembrandt oil “The Artist in His Studio”, a painting steeped in the sublime.
Seeing the Rothko paintings reminded me of the importance of seeing original art in person. Modern technology enables us to see just about any work of art, no matter where the original is, in digital reproduction. When I’m teaching studio classes, I often mention the work of a specific artist that has relevance to something a student is doing and I’ve had other students immediately pull up images of that artist’s work on their phones – an extremely useful teaching aid in the classroom. Technology also allows artists like me to share our work all over the world. But there’s no substitute for having a direct experience in front of the art, to stand where the artist stood when they created it and have nothing but air and light between you and the materials that the artist used to bring their vision to fruition.
While in Boston that day, I made the mandatory foray to the big art supply store near Fenway Park where I found a new paint color: Manganese Violet. I was immediately smitten by this semi-transparent, warm violet (I’m partial to anything purple to begin with, anyway!) so I bought a big tube to add to my ever-expanding palette. The other colors welcomed it into the fold with open arms and it played a large role in this new painting.
When making art, I have learned that it’s best to focus on the process rather than the end product. Years ago, I would, like many artists, engage in the act of “making art”. I would have an idea for an image, do some preliminary work and then set out to bring the image to fruition, i.e. manufacture the art. Sometimes I would succeed, but other times I would find myself in over my head and unable to realize the image that I had in mind, usually resulting in an crippling blow to my self esteem followed by a brief (although seemingly very lengthy…) period of discouragement and inactivity. What I eventually realized was that if I just work all the time, without worrying about manufacturing art objects, the art inevitably happens.
Notwithstanding, a lot of bad paintings and drawings happen, too. Thus, I find it fairly easy to destroy a lot of my work and many paintings that I spent hours, days, weeks, or even years working on, end up getting pulled from the stretcher bars and summarily sent to the rubbish bin. They’re not precious to me and, although I’ve been discouraged from this practice by more than a few people, I am happy to be rid of them to make room for new work and to recycle the stretcher bars. (As an aside, I have twice found myself with a painting that was scheduled for imminent destruction, only to have someone fortuitously approach me wanting to purchase it and, on one occasion, I had to tell a potential buyer that a painting they wanted had already been destroyed – luckily, they bought something else!) If I kept every painting I ever did, I would need another building just to store them!
A few weeks ago, I pulled an old painting off the stretcher bars and was going to throw it away, but I realized that I really liked what was happening in the bottom 6 or 7 inches of the canvas. So, I cut (with a considerable amount of struggle, I might add, because I use very thick, heavy canvas, coat it with four layers of gesso and then apply the paint in an impasto style with knives – no match for an ordinary pair of scissors!) the section that I liked off and saved it. A piece of it eventually became the inspiration for this image, which I like much better than the original painting that begat it.
Focusing on the process instead of the product, as I mentioned earlier, allows for this kind of serendipity to occur. I simply work – drawing, painting, looking, experimenting, reading, revising, etc. – as much and as often as I can (sometimes a bit more!) and allow the art to grow organically out of the process. Rather than expecting to make art and finding myself disappointed when I don’t succeed, I just work all the time and occasionally find myself happily surprised when art happens. I don’t know if this approach would work for everybody, but it works for me and I know that it results in images that I never could have produced any other way.
Oftentimes, when people find out that I am an artist, they ask me what kind of art I make. I find this a difficult question to answer, probably because I like to think that my art is unique and defies categorization as a “kind of art”. Ideally, I’d like to be able to show them a painting or two and say “This kind of art!”, but that usually isn’t possible. So I find myself struggling to describe, in as few words as necessary, what it is I do – no small task considering that my work, my process and my intent have evolved/morphed at a snail's pace over the course of several decades and are the result of countless hours of study, practice and constant self-evaluation. I usually end up saying something along the lines of “abstract landscape paintings” or “landscape paintings that are very abstract” or “abstract paintings inspired by the landscape”, which usually results in a somewhat confused look on the listener’s face as they try to link what I said to something else that they may have seen that would fit my description. None of these answers are very accurate. Indeed, I do get a lot of my inspiration from the light, atmosphere and forms in the landscape, but I am much more interested in color, gesture and evoking an emotional response in the viewer purely through visual form. Although I’m usually more than willing to oblige anybody who will listen with a free visual arts lecture (Anyone who knows me will attest to this!), most people, when asking me what kind of art I make, just want a simple, straightforward answer.
The term “abstract” is, in itself, misleading and confusing. All art is abstraction – a thing that represents something else. A painting of a horse is never a horse. No matter how skillfully it is rendered, it will always be nothing more than paint. There are myriad ways that one can suggest a horse through visual form. Even writing the word HORSE out on a sheet of paper with a pen is essentially “drawing” - using carefully composed lines to suggest to the viewer/reader something that isn’t actually there. As artists, we are required to be masters of deception. We manipulate our materials in such a way as to elicit a response from the viewer by manufacturing an experience and causing them to think they see something that isn’t really there. We learn the fundamentals of technique through the practice of making our materials appear to be something else. The more convincing or “realistic” an image is, the greater is the deception required on the part of the artist.
Personally, what I strive for in my own work (and what I look for in the work of artists that I admire) is authenticity. I struggle with the concept of trying to be authentic whilst engaged in an activity that is ultimately about deception. Trying to find a balance between honesty and illusion can be a challenge. This is the nature of many of the arts, not just drawing and painting. Actors are able to affect us by convincing us that they are someone else. We laud them for their “authenticity” which is really a lie. The novelist shows us truth by telling us a story that is a fiction. But true authenticity comes from within. The greatest actors bring something of themselves to their performances and the greatest stories have their roots in the life experiences of the authors.
Visual artists learn technique by copying nature and without technique there can be no fluency, but as I find myself wanting to be more real and authentic in my work, I realize that I have to look less and less outside for inspiration and must strive, instead, to find ways of transforming that unique essence that is inside of me into visual form. The truth is – the more “realistic” looking a work of art is, the more dishonest it is. Abstraction, subjectivity and vulnerability are the keys to real honesty in art.
I enjoy being around people and I am extremely fortunate to have so many amazing, wonderful and unique people in my life – family members, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who inspire and challenge me and enable me to see the world from a different perspective – but I spend the majority of my time alone. The gestation of art requires this. In addition to all of the actual work involved in the intensely focused process of making art, I spend a lot of time simply being alert for inspiration, which requires presence, awareness, and mental stillness, all of which I find nearly impossible to achieve when engaged with other people. I need the quiet and solitude, which is probably what draws me to other solitary activities such as long walks on backroads or wooded trails, long-distance running, cycling and swimming, and meditation. I believe that it is imperitive that anyone who is going to make art be comfortable with who they are because only through authenticity can originality be acheived. What better way to learn to like who you are than to spend time alone?
Yet the act of making art often (if not always) stems from a need to communicate and to share. Any attempt to manifest our ideas, thoughts, feelings, passions and stories as visual form originates from a desire to impart those ideas, thoughts, feelings, passions and stories to other people – friends and strangers alike. Otherwise, why make the effort? Why spend so much time and energy learning the craft and struggling to bring the work to fruition, often in the face of a plethora of failures and only to be met with indifference, if there isn't a deep-seated need to reach other people?
So, for those of us in the sometimes unenviable position of being artists, our need to connect with others paradoxically necessitates us spending a great deal of our time alone.
If you’re making any kind of art, it is essential, no matter what stage you are at in your development, that you seek out feedback about your work. Not just the typical, “Wow, that’s wonderful! You’re really talented” that you get from your wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/kids/parents/siblings, but honest, objective critical feedback from people that are not worried about hurting your feelings. (And as an aside, you should never take critical comments about your work personally. Even if a comment is meant as a personal attack, passive aggression disguised as constructive criticism always says more about the flaws in the character of the person making the comment than about any flaws in the work being discussed.) Feedback is indispensable as a means of helping you gauge the efficacy of your methods and it should always be considered carefully.
About nine years ago, I had a more experienced artist and teacher critique some of my work. She said that I was “trying to do too much” and that I should figure out what’s important to me and just do that. At the time (as is so often the case) I wasn’t sure exactly what this meant. I thought of Rembrandt, Cézanne and DeKooning, three artists whom I always felt tried to do too much and succeeded at it, so maybe trying to do too much wasn’t such a bad thing. Still, I took her comments to heart, filed them in my subconscious and continued to work.
Looking back, I realize that as my work evolved over the ensuing years, my periodic dissatisfaction with it resulted in what was essentially a distillation process - the systematic removal of certain aspects of my work (e.g. the influence of other artists, description of specific subject matter, objective color, etc.) – and this process continues today, as I find myself trying to really hyper-focus on the things that are important to me and jettison those things that aren’t essential. I once took a photo of a tiny section of one of my paintings and when I saw the image I realized that everything I was trying to say was contained in that microcosm, and that a lot of what was in the painting was extraneous.I had, indeed, been trying to do too much.
Years ago I was out running on some old railroad tracks near my home in Massachusetts. My shoe had come untied and when I stopped and crouched down to tie it I happened to notice a section of the steel track that had rusted so much I could easily break pieces of it off. Right next to it was a small plant that was beginning to bud. I was captivated by the contrast between the resilience of this little plant and the ultimate fragility of the steel. Decades from now, the plant might be a majestic tree, rising high above the dust that the tracks would have become and yet to look at the plant, one would see no visible signs of growth or activity.
I’m always fascinated when I look back at work that I did years ago and see not only how my methods have metamorphosed, but how the changes have, for the most part, occurred in microscopic increments and in a way that now seems inevitable. I find great comfort in the realization that although I often feel like I’m forging blindly into a vast and murky darkness, there’s a force greater than me at work guiding me inexorably toward some destination. Not that I don’t have to work hard, because I do, but it’s important to remind myself that as long as I’m moving forward, it isn’t imperative that I know where I’m going to end up. The essence of any journey lies in the step that you’re taking right now.
When my daughter was young, she and I spent a lot of time together, both in the car and on long walks. She would often say to me, “Daddy, tell me a story about when you were little.” There were perhaps a dozen or so stories that I would choose from and eventually, she would ask me to repeat specific ones. Her favorite was the one about the time an enormous snake slithered across a fallen tree that I was walking on right in front of me. What struck me was that, thinking back to my first twelve to fourteen years, there weren’t that many events that really stood out as clear, distinct memories – surely no more than a few dozen. A vast percentage of that time was just an amorphous haze, a smattering of disconnected moments only vaguely remembered. Even more fascinating, at least to me, was the fact that when I was experiencing those events that would become long-lasting memories, I had no idea of their eventual significance.
Memories are always subjective. We remember things the way we want to. Oftentimes, we remember the way things made us feel, rather than the details of what actually happened and we project those feelings onto the events and people that populate our stories. Two people remembering the same event will more likely than not recount two significantly different tales.
Memory plays an important part in my work. I used to do a lot of drawing and painting from direct observation outdoors, but lately, although I still go outside to draw regularly, the images that I create are conjured up in the studio from memories, not just of places I’ve seen and drawn, but from memories going all the back to my early childhood. I’m not so much interested in the memories of how things appeared as I am in the memories of how they made me feel and I like the idea of triggering memories in the viewer that are specific to them. When we make art, we try as much as we can to control the viewer’s experience – to communicate our content as effectively and articulately as possible using visual language – but, ultimately, each person is going to experience the work in a unique way. Even when we come back to a work of art that we’ve seen before, we have a different experience because, depending on how much time has elapsed, we have changed and so have our expectations. You can only experience a work of art for the first time once. Every time that you come back to it is informed by each and every previous encounter. When we engage with a work of art repeatedly, we bring to each encounter our memories of previous engagements with the work.
Artists always have to consider the element of time with regard to their work, even if the work itself is static. Art can represent a person or event from the past or it can allude to something in the future. A work of art is a record of a time in the past during which the artist was actively engaged with both the subject and the materials. Art can demand that we spend a lot of time looking at it, slowly revealing itself to us over extensive and repeated viewings. Art can stay with us in our memory, long after we’ve disengaged from it. And art, like poetry, can trigger personal memories within us – images and feelings from our own story – temporarily transporting us back to a time long since past.
During the second semester of my senior year in college, I was enrolled in an advanced printmaking class. It was a small class, maybe seven or eight students, most of whom were art majors and all had had two semesters of intaglio printmaking already. The focus of the class was the development of an individualized approach to expression via the printmaking medium. Early in the semester the professor, Elizabeth Peak, announced that we would each have to choose an artist whose work had influenced us and write a thesis about the artist and their work and give a presentation to the class at the end of the semester. I was at the time (and I still am!) completely enamored by the work of Rembrandt and had already read extensively on his life and work and had made a couple of trips to the prints and drawing room at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to view some of his etchings in person. I could have written my thesis and given a presentation right then and there if need be so I figured that the assignment was nothing that I had to worry about. When class was dismissed I walked over to my teacher, who pulled a book out of her bag and then pushed it into my stomach (knocking the wind out of me!) saying, “You’re not doing Rembrandt. You’re doing this guy.”
Begrudgingly, I took the book, a catalog of an exhibition on the work of Giorgio Morandi, an artist I’d never heard of. “But you said we could choose the artist!”, I protested.
“Not you.”, she said.
The catalog was mostly comprised of pictures, with only a brief introductory biographical introduction. I checked the college library to find more books about the artist, but to no avail. So much for writing my Rembrandt paper that evening after dinner. At least I had the semester to figure it out. And a book of pictures.
Morandi’s work seemed the antithesis of Rembrandt’s – lacking the narratives, the chiaroscuro and dramatic lighting, and the draughtsmanship pyrotechnics of the master’s work. The images were mostly still-lifes, composed of simple, ordinary objects and rendered in a minimalist, abstract style characterized by a quirky drawing style and almost crude cross-hatching. I was utterly baffled. But I studied those images every day, carrying the book around with me and delving into it at every available opportunity.
Eventually, the genius of Morandi slowly revealed itself to me and I saw how, through the use of visual form only, he had managed to imbue these mundane objects with the sublime. The compositions were flawless, the intervals between the different objects and the between the subject and the picture frame were meticulously thought out. He utilized myriad value schemes from extreme contrast to entire images made up of almost imperceivable variations of middle grey. And the quality of his line, although lacking the finesse and virtuosity of Rembrandt, contained a humanity that filled each image with the presence of the artist himself.
The experience had a profound impact on me. Indeed, I spent the next two years making drawings, monotypes and paintings of simple, nondescript objects, exploring subtle variations in composition and tone. Despite getting the wind knocked out me (literally and figuratively!), it was one of the best art lessons I ever had and I have always been grateful to that teacher (for that and many other important lessons).
My current work bears no resemblance to Morandi’s, but his spirit still inhabits my studio. This painting is the latest in a series of variations on a theme that came out of a pencil drawing I did in the Spring. I have been experimenting with different color schemes, value relationships and compositional structure (vis a vis the shape of the rectangle and the subdivision of the pictorial space) and the ways in which these variations in form manifest as images, each with a distinct visual/emotional content. And there’s no denying that my rough-hewn style of applying paint has its roots in my love of Morandi.
I’ve never been interested in using subject matter as a means of imparting my ideas. I believe the best paintings, like the best poetry, communicate through the means of artistic form rather than narrative or subject matter.
One of the most difficult aspects of the art making process for me is the necessity of having to face one’s true self and the stark contrast between the innate perfection and the inherent flaws that we will inevitably find therein. When we attempt to execute something that proves to be beyond our abilities, we are forced to confront our technical limitations. This confrontation could potentially cause us to either work harder to overcome those limitations, look away and ignore our technical deficiencies whilst continuing to work in the same manner, or capitulate and stop trying to make art altogether. I have never liked the word “talent” as it suggests a natural technical facility that one is born with. My experience has shown that ability comes, not from an inborn gift, but from long hours of study and practice in the face of continued defeat. If there’s a natural gift, it’s merely the tenacity that enables one to keep working despite repeated failures.
In addition to the technical deficiencies that every artist must confront, if we want to make work that is original and authentic, we have to find the strength to be ourselves and allow that to come through in the work. This sounds simple enough, but when one has spent years (or decades!) learning by emulating the masters in their chosen medium, resisting the temptation to hide behind someone else's ideas and personality can be be a formidable challenge. And when we make work that is truly authentic, we are essentially putting our inner selves on display before the public and risking both ridicule and (possibly worse) indifference, either of which can prove to be a significant blow to the artist's self-esteem, potentially hampering one's ability to continue working. We also risk excessive praise and adulation which can oftentimes be an even greater obstacle to our development and productivity as we struggle to live up to what we perceive as an unattainable expectation of greatness.
Sometimes, if we've worked hard and consistently, good work happens, but not without the inevitable failures – the bad drawings that litter the studio floor and line the trash cans, as well as the paintings that no one ever sees whilst they make their journey from our easel to the landfill – that cause us to not only doubt our choice of vocation, but even our personal value. Indeed, being truly authentic in our work is one of the greatest obstacles that an artist must face. It certainly is for me. When I took up art again after a hiatus almost twenty years ago, I went through periods where I was terrified to go into my studio for fear of facing the demons that were in there. I still feel that way sometimes and only through sheer will and dogged persistence do I keep working.
Someone asked me once, "How do you know if you're an artist?"
I replied, "Try as hard as you can not to be an artist and then you'll know."
When I was eight years old, prompted by a short-lived interest in pirates, I borrowed a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”, illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, from my local public library. I was immediately enamored by the images that punctuated the story. My favorite was the one of the blind pirate, Old Pew, ambulating down a path in the moonlight with his probing cane extended out in front of him as he gropes in the darkness for his missing comrades and his tricorne, which sits in the foreground in the lower right corner. It’s a brilliant painting, perfectly composed and executed with admirable skill, but what captivated me the most was the emotions that the image was able to elicit from me as I gazed at it.
Visual arts can communicate myriad messages, concepts and ideas. They can educate and inform, entertain, shock, inspire, move us to think differently or take action, preserve the past or predict the future. For me, though, (and this, admittedly, is my personal bias) the most important function that art serves is to manifest the complexities of one’s feelings and emotions as something tangible, to be shared with others and to preserve those ephemeral and intangible abstractions indefinitely.
The arrangement of the forms, the color and value choices, the means by which the work is executed, the subject (or lack thereof), if executed with skill and sensitivity, can have the power of the greatest poetry and lead us to the sublime. (If you’ve ever stood in front of a painting and been moved to tears as I have, you may know exactly what I mean.) A lofty aspiration, to be sure, but that is what beckons me out to the studio each and every day.
When it comes to making art, technique has always been a struggle for me. Always. Drawing, painting, color theory and color mixing never came easily for me. I often felt like I had to put in a lot more time than most people in order to develop the skills that I have acquired and I continue to work at developing those skills on a daily basis.
Nevertheless, the most difficult and challenging part of making art for me has always been finding the courage to be completely honest and authentic in my work. Ever since I first felt the compulsion to make art, many decades ago, expressing my personal vision has always been of utmost importance to me and the driving force behind my willingness to put in as much time as was necessary in order to develop the skills that I needed. But being honest and authentic in one’s work is often easier said than done. It requires that one really be comfortable with who they are because, let’s face it, the more you love who you are, the more willing you are going to be to create work that is a manifestation of your true self. If you’re working from a place of true authenticity, your work has to be original because each one of us is unique. But with honesty and authenticity comes the risk of facing indifference, or even ridicule, from our audience and thus arises the temptation to hide behind a mask and create work that looks like someone else’s, which becomes all too easy if we’ve spent years learning technique by copying the established masters. This can happen on an unconscious level, so it’s important, if we’re making art, to ask ourselves “Am I really being authentic? Am I really being myself?” and to find a way to manifest our true selves into the work that we do.
To be truly authentic in one's work requires total acceptance of oneself, despite our seemingly numerous attributes and behaviors that we may see as shortcomings or failings. Like all things created in nature, we are perfect as we are and we should celebrate our uniqueness, not only in our work, but in every aspect of our lives. To live and work authentically is to truly live life to the fullest.
One of the properties that I love most about oil paint is that it stays wet and workable for several days. I generally like to work a painting whilst the paint is still wet, but sometimes, for various reasons (illness, other commitments, house guests, or a painting that just turns out to be very complicated and difficult), that isn’t possible. Such was the case with this painting. I had a five day window of time in which to complete it, but I wasn’t able to resolve the image before the paint started to dry. Much to my chagrin, I found myself out of my comfort zone and having to remix my colors and paint on top of a surface that was no longer workable. Interestingly, though, I found that my being forced to work this way ended up resulting in a surface that was very dense and textural and ultimately perfect for this particular image. (Click on the close-up below to get a better sense of what I mean.)
Once again I reminded of the importance (not just in art-making, but in all aspects of life) of knowing when to surrender – to relinquish control and allow things to unfold as they will. This is often one of the most daunting challenges for artists. We tend to want to have control over the finished product and can be afraid to trust our instincts. Ultimately, though, when faced with a choice between my intellect and my intuition, I have found that it is my intuition that always points to the truth.
It's easy, when making visual images, to focus on capturing the appearance of our subject. One "sees" something, thinks that it would make a good subject for an image and then goes to work using their chosen medium to make an approximation of what they saw, thinking that if the finished work "looks" like the subject, it will be successful. But even the most skillfully and accurately rendered visual facsimile of a subject can fail to give rise to any deep feelings in the viewer.
The truth is that when we engage with a subject, our experience is the product of many senses, not just the visual. All of our primary senses (visual, auditory, taste, tactile and olfactory), as well as other senses such as memory, emotion, and thought, can, and usually do, influence our experience. The sounds that we hear, aromas that we smell, the feeling of the warm sun or cold rain on our skin, and any memories that rise up into our consciousness are all part of the experience that we have. For me, the challenge of the visual artist isn't to simply reproduce the outward appearance of a subject, but to find a way to turn the totality of an experience into some kind of visual form. If I'm painting a tree, I don't just want the viewer to know what the tree looked like. I want them to smell the tree and the air around it, hear the insects and birds and distant farm machinery, feel the breeze, taste the sunlight and have the memory of the old tree in the woods behind my neighbor's house and to share my longing for the grey-eyed girl that I almost kissed there when I was thirteen.
In two-dimensional art, we deal with two different types of space. "Decorative" space is a flat, two-dimensional space, which involves the arrangement of two-dimensional shapes on the two-dimensional surface. "Plastic" space involves creating the illusion that the two-dimensional images is three-dimensional. Within the realm of plastic space, as in the universe in which we live, there exists a dichotomy between form and emptiness, neither of which can exist without the other. We couldn't be aware of solid forms if there were no space between and around them and, likewise, we could not conceive of empty space if there no forms in it.
When dealing with plastic space in drawing and painting, the artist is always trying to manipulate their materials to suggest that the flat, two-dimensional surface is either solid form or empty space. Cézanne criticized the Impressionist for not having enough form in their paintings – for being all atmosphere and light. One of the remarkable attributes of Cézanne's paintings is that if you see one in person, the illusion of form is so convincing, that some of the objects seem to project out in front of the canvas. If you stand in front of a Rothko and look at it long enough, the painted surface dissolves and becomes a void, filled with light, atmosphere and color.
I like to think about each image that I make as having it's own proportion of emptiness to form and oftentimes, each image will be a reaction to the one that preceded it. This image was based on a small section of a pastel drawing that I did a few years ago on a cold, damp October day. I love the dense, tangled, chaotic wildness of the woods. As complex and Labyrinthian as it appears, careful study and contemplation will reveal a masterful plan beneath the surface. I tried, but failed, to capture this image in paint a few times in the intervening years. I realized that the problem was that I was focusing too much on the empty space in my previous attempts – trying to create the illusion of depth and space around the forms. The solution was to to fill the canvas with form and let the space take care of itself.
There’s an empty, derelict house about four miles from where I live, that has been the subject of numerous drawings and paintings over the past ten years. I’ve drawn the house from every possible angle, at various times of the day, and during all the seasons of the year. One day, two summers ago, I was riding by it on my bicycle and I happened to notice three small satellite dishes mounted to the corner of the front porch roof. Interestingly, I’d never seen them before, they weren’t in any of my drawings and, yet, they had been there all along.
We’re inundated every day with a plethora of sensory information, so much so that we usually filter that information in order to make sense of it. We see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, and more often than not, the things we perceive are the things that conform to our own personal (and highly subjective) version of reality. In so doing, we tend to develop a sort of tunnel vision, which keeps us stuck in our own individual perception of the world. One of the many reasons that art is so important is that the skilled and sensitive artist is able to take their own unique way of seeing the world, seen through their own filters of perception, and turn that into visual form so that others can see the world the way the artist does and (hopefully) gain some enlightenment from the experience. When making art, the things that we leave out of the work are just as important (oftentimes MORE important) than the things we put in.
“A work of art is the trace of a magnificent struggle.” – Robert Henri
It took me years to realize this, but the art-making process is a continuum and, although the the serendipitous ways that images come to fruition still surprise me, I've come to accept them as the norm. I never think about simply "making an image" from start to finish. I just work all the time – drawing, painting, doodling, studying, thinking – and the images are the by-product of that process.
About five years ago, I went out for a walk with my set of Sennelier half stick pastels, a board with a piece of paper taped to it, and the best of intentions. I was in a very creative mood and I ended up making a drawing that was very loose and gestural, free, abstract and filled with vibrant, subjective color choices. It didn’t quite work as a drawing on its own so I never framed or showed it but, for some reason (most likely the freedom of execution and the exuberance of the colors), I liked it. I taped it up on the wall of my studio where it has remained ever since. I've often looked at it, wondering if it contained within it the seeds of another work.
Last weekend I had finished a painting and was eager to begin something new. I didn’t have a subject in mind, but I had faith that something would emerge eventually, and I just needed to remain alert enough to catch it. I went out to the studio before dinner Saturday to turn the heat on and as I headed back toward the door, I looked up, saw the aforementioned drawing hanging on the wall, and, in a flash of insight, immediately thought that if I removed the right half of it, it would become a very strong composition. I grabbed a piece of black paper and taped it up, covering the right half of the drawing and instantly saw the subject for my next painting. I had a couple of canvases(20x24 and 30x36) that were the correct proportions for the composition, but given the complexity of the color scheme, compounded by the ethereal quality of the drawing, both of which were going to make this a challenging image to execute, I thought it best to use the smaller canvas. However, on an impulse, really, I decided at the last minute to use the larger canvas instead.
My process involves mixing all of the colors (a slow, methodical and often tedious process) for the painting before I begin to actually paint, which can sometimes take days. This image had a complex color scheme so I spent three painting sessions just mixing the colors. I started actually putting paint on the canvas Tuesday, working late into the night and again over the next two days. By the time I went to bed Thursday night (the wee hours of Friday morning, actually!) I realized that I was in over my head and had undertaken an image whose complexity was beyond my skill. With trepidation (dread, really) and tenacity in equal measure, I headed out to the studio after dinner on Friday, determined to forge ahead, although without much optimism. (I told my daughter that I was probably going to have to abort this painting and pull the canvas off of the stretchers.) However, after about three hours of intense working, I could detect a faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel as the image began to coalesce and I went to bed (in the wee hours of Saturday morning!) with hope.
After several more hours of work on Saturday, I stepped back from the easel and saw this. I think it's one of the best things I've done.
My son asked me how long it took me to paint this. I said, "At least five years."
I’ve spent countless hours drawing and I still draw regularly. In the beginning, drawing was primarily a means of developing technique – grappling with how to translate whatever I was looking at into some kind of visual form – and, in the process, learning (mostly by trial and error!) the language of visual form. I’ve always tried to avoid becoming complacent with regards to technique and I still spend time doing myriad exercises in an effort to continue my technical development. These days, though, a lot of my drawing time is more geared toward searching for images. The process involves shutting down my conscious thinking and letting my subconscious and intuition direct my choices. Because the process involves a lot of risk taking and letting go of control of the final outcome, the drawings oftentimes are not successful. But that’s just part of the process, and the payoff when I do hit on something unique and interesting is well worth it. Any drawings that I think have even a modicum of potential to someday become images for my art get saved. My studio is littered with them, some taped on the walls and others in piles on just about every available surface.
When I was in college, I did a series of ink wash drawings of still-life subjects for my drawing class. When my teacher saw them, she said my technique was okay but she handed them back to me and said, “Go make compositions with them.” She was right, of course (as she always was!); I had done a nice job of rendering the objects but I hadn’t thought about the relationship between the objects and the the frame of the drawing. So I took the drawings, laid them on a table, and using strips of paper to cover up the sides of the drawings, found interesting compositions and then cropped the drawings accordingly. This turned out to be a wonderful exercise and I still do it all the time. Occasionally, I’ll take one of my drawings, which may have been lying around the studio for years, and, using strips of black paper, experiment with different framing/cropping options in hopes of finding an image. Sometimes all I need do is crop a small bit off one edge and the composition will work. Other times, I end up discovering an image in a very small section of the original drawing.
The composition for this painting came from a small cross-section of a drawing that had been hanging on the studio wall for about four years. What I find interesting is that the subject of the original drawing (a grain silo and a water tower) isn’t even in this image.
I’m quite pleased with this. In any creative endeavor, it’s important to learn to trust your intuition and instincts and to allow yourself opportunities to let go of control and just experiment and explore. You may spend a lot of time feeling like your pressing in vain against a brick wall, but if you just accept that as part of the process, eventually you’ll bring something wonderful to the surface – something that you never could have come up with via conventional thinking.
The British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin is one of my favorite musicians. I’ve seen him perform dozens of times, with a variety of different ensembles, over the past few decades. One of the remarkable aspects of his performances is that when he improvises, he seems to be not thinking at all. He points his face up toward the ceiling with his eyes closed and seems to be merely channeling the music from some unseen force rather than thinking about chord changes or scales or following the other musicians. And the music that comes out is invariably astounding! This is the epitome of creativity – bringing something new and unique into manifestation.
Being a creative artists requires absolute fluency in our chosen medium, which can only come from countless hours of discipled study and practice, most of which is fraught with seemingly unsurmountable challenges and demoralizing mistakes. But this isn’t enough. To be truly creative, an artist must learn, once they’ve mastered their craft, to relinquish control in order to access the source of all creativity. This requires an enormous leap of faith because giving up control means accepting a certain degree of uncertainty about what the final outcome will be – a daunting task for the conscious mind that wants to feel safe in knowing what the finished work will be – and yet, if we know in advance what the work will look like, the work will inevitably be more derivative than creative.
Uncertainty is one of the inviolable principles of the universe. If we can learn to accept the uncertainty, with absolute trust, the creative power of the universe can work through us and then, and only then, can we produce work that is absolutely creative and original. To resist the uncertainty is to live and work in fear.
In the summer of 2005 I had decided to leave my corporate graphic design career in the suburbs of Boston and move to northern Maine to dedicate myself to making art. That may seem like a a crazy or impetuous decision, but I was in a very good place spiritually and felt, although I had some doubts (mostly due to fear), I was convinced that I was following the path that the universe had laid before me.
One saturday morning, after picking my then four-year-old daughter up from an overnight stay at my parents’ house, I stopped to see my dear friend Robert Pierce, whose two daughters were (and still are) close friends with mine. As the girls played in the back yard, Rob and I stood on the deck enjoying some excellent Pierce Bros. coffee and savoring the gorgeous summer morning weather. Rob looked up into the sky and pointed out a barely discernible eagle, circling high above us. He said that it had been hanging around the neighborhood in recent days. I couldn’t help but marvel at the eagle and its ability to spot prey on the ground from such an altitude.
After we left Rob’s house, I took my daughter to the Worcester Ecotarium, an indoor/outdoor science and nature museum that I hadn’t visited since I was a child. I parked the car in the main lot, from which we had to walk uphill on a path through a wooded area that led to the main entrance of the building. At the base of the path, I was surprised to see a cage containing two eagles. I looked at the eagles in their cage and thought about how safe they were and how all of their needs were being met. They were sheltered from the weather, fed every day, and would be provided with medical care as soon as the need might arise. I couldn’t help but ponder the contrast with the eagle that I had seen earlier that morning – who woke up every morning having no idea where its next meal might come from and yet, every day it managed to find food. In its natural state, soaring amongst the clouds, the universe provided for it and it lived without fear, even though there were no guarantees as to its safety.
I saw this experience as a sign that my decision to exchange the apparent safety provided by a good job, a nice home in a densely populated suburb, and the support systems offered by living in close proximity to numerous family members and friends for an old farmhouse in the sparsely populated, impoverished no-man’s land of northern Maine, where I didn’t know a soul was the right one. I was the eagle in the cage, but I belonged in the sky.
The reality is, no matter how safe we might think we are, safety is ultimately an illusion. Unforeseen circumstances could turn our lives upside down in an instant. Every morning that we awake to a new day is none short of a miracle. If we’re going to live a truly fulfilling life, we have to be able to take risks and have the courage to live with uncertainty, especially if we want to bring anything creative into this world. As the Roman philosopher Tacitus observed, “The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.”
Before moving to Maine, I lived in Massachusetts and worked in a corporate office as a graphic designer and illustrator. I would usually try to devote my lunch hour to my art. Initially, my office was in Boston and I would often go to museums or galleries to look at paintings. When my employer moved to Foxborough, I would go outside and draw at lunchtime if the weather was nice. During the winter or inclement weather, I would visit one of several libraries in the area and read art books.
The library in the town of Sharon had a decent collection, especially given the diminutive size of both the town and its library. As a bonus, there was also a Starbucks within walking distance so I could eat my lunch on the drive there, get a coffee and then sit in the library and look at and read about art. My favorite book there was a large, full colour catalog of a 1987 exhibition of Hudson River School painters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “American Paradise: the World of the Hudson River School”. I read it cover to cover and would often return just to look at the illustrations. (When I eventually moved to Maine, I found a used copy of the book on the internet and frequently refer to it.) I was, of course, quite impressed with the work of Frederic Church, especially his “Niagara”, which covered a two-page spread in the middle of the book and the wonderful “Twilight in the Wilderness”, a view near Mount Katahdin, not far from where I live now.
But, for me, the best part of the book was a short section near the end devoted to George Inness, whose association with the Hudson River School had more to do with geographical proximity than stylistic similarity. His work was much more painterly and had an ethereal quality that I felt a strong affinity for. I tracked down a couple of monographs of him and his work and , over the ensuing months, saw several of his original paintings in various museums in New England. (The museum at Colby College here in Maine, arguably the best art museum in the state, has a brilliant George Inness painting called “The Spirit of Autumn”.)
One of my George Inness books contains a lengthly and insightful interview with the artist. Although I don’t agree with his assessment of JMW Turner’s “Slave Ship” (one of my favorite paintings ever - see post from a couple of weeks ago) which he refers to as “the most infernal piece of clap-trap ever painted”, I whole-heartedly agree with his views on art as being first and foremost a means of cultivating the artist’s own spiritual nature and that the essence of any great work of art is not found in its fidelity to representation of the outward appearance of the subject but, rather, to its fidelity to that divine inspiration that comes from within the artist. Knowledge and skill are requisite for the making of any art, for we cannot truly express ourselves without being fluent in the visual language, but I believe that the artist should use their craft to bring forth that unique essence that is inside of them and them alone and, in the process, learn something about who they truly are as well as help others to see their own true nature.
Back in 2008, I was feeling ambitious and stretched a big canvas, the biggest I’d ever attempted to paint on. Inspired by something I’d observed whilst out running late in the day, I had made a little pastel sketch of a puddle in a muddy, recently-harvested potato field, with a sunset sky above the horizon and reflected in the puddle. I thought the sketch was brilliant and that it had potential for a great painting so I proceeded to paint it on my big canvas.
I worked on it for months. Every day, for hours, week after week after week, I piled paint onto that canvas (so much paint!) as I tried in vain to bring my vision to fruition. In the end, I capitulated. The surface of the canvas had become so built up with paint it was no longer workable and I’d lost all faith in myself. (Not to mention the stress over having wasted what was probably hundreds of dollars worth of paint!) I pulled the canvas off of the stretchers and threw it away.
With the help of my innate tenacity, I eventually recovered my confidence, stretched a new canvas and had at it again. “This one will be successful.”, I thought. I’d learned from my mistakes. Alas, it was not to be. Months later, with my paint supply depleted and my self-esteem vanquished, I pulled the canvas off the stretchers and tossed it into the waste bin.
I stretched a new canvas on those stretcher bars but, realizing that I hadn’t yet acquired the skills to be able to handle such a large image, I leaned the canvas up against the wall in the corner of the studio where it has remained these past eight years, with its back to me, defying me to attempt to paint on it again.
Then, this image came to me, initially as a tiny (seriously, it’s no more than 2” square) pastel sketch which I found on the floor of the studio, having not even remembered making it. (I do a lot of little pastel color studies, especially late at night, and they end up scattered about the studio on tables and shelves, taped to the wall or, apparently, on the floor.) The large canvas happened to be the perfect dimensions for this image and I felt, having made well over a hundred paintings in the preceding eight years, that I was up for the challenge.
It came together fairly quickly – five or six painting sessions of about four hours each – and I’m quite pleased with it, not to mention the satisfaction of finally having that large canvas become a painting. Things happen in their own time. The universe has a plan. If we’re patient enough, and attentive, we get to watch it unfold.
I first saw JMW Turner’s “The Slave Ship” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston decades ago. It has always been one of my favorite paintings in that museum and I’ve spent countless hours standing in front of it – admiring it, studying it and just being awestruck by it. My favorite Turner paintings have always been the ones in which the forms dissolve into a dense cloud of atmosphere and light. In January 2004, I made a trip down to New Haven to see the Turner collection at the Yale Center for British Art. The Turners are on the fourth floor in the front corner. In order to get to them, one must first walk through the John Constable collection. I was only vaguely familiar with Constable’s work. (Whilst in college, I was working on a landscape painting that had clouds in it and my painting teacher suggested that I look at Constable and Jacob Van Ruisdael, which I did, but only through reproductions in books.) As I walked through the Constable collection that morning in New Haven, I was struck by a large painting at the end of the gallery. I approached it and, as I began to take it in, I was completely overcome with emotion. My knees gave out and I dropped to the floor as tears rolled down my cheeks. (I later read that Delacroix had a similar experience upon first seeing Constable’s “The Hay Wain” in the Louvre in 1824.)
The painting was Constable’s “Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames – Morning After a Storm”. It was at that moment I saw my destiny and decided to commit myself to painting.
I bought two books about Constable’s life and work that morning before leaving the museum (and a refrigerator magnet – I couldn’t resist!) and several more in the months to come. “Hadleigh Castle” was painted in 1829, following the death of his beloved wife Maria, based on a sketch that he had made whilst on their honeymoon twelve years earlier. Constable’s love for Maria was profound. They fell in love in 1809, but had to wait seven years before they could be together as their union was opposed my Maria’s grandfather, who was also her family’s benefactor. For seven years they kept their love a secret, seeing one another for only brief periods, oftentimes months apart, communicating via clandestine letters in between. I used to wonder how he was even able to paint whilst drowning in the depths of what must have been an unbearable grief. But perhaps it was the work that kept his head above water.
Although contemporaries (both born in 1776), Constable and Turner seemed to have antithetical approaches to painting the landscape. Both were keenly interested in capturing light and atmosphere, but whereas Constable’s approach was to strive for a fidelity to the natural appearance of the objects in the landscape as a means of suggesting the light and atmosphere, Turner attempted (well, succeeded, really) to paint the light and atmosphere themselves, as if they were tangible forms. For years I’ve tried to reconcile this dichotomy, both in my mind and my work. This painting is as close as I’ve come.
I’ve always been a fan of instrumental music, whether classical, jazz, rock, metal, or new age. In fact, I spent many years playing in an instrumental rock band when I was younger. People would often come up to me at shows and say something along the lines of: “You are guys are great, but why aren’t there any words?”
I had a wonderful drawing teacher in college, the printmaker Elizabeth Peak. I had seen quite a bit of her work and most of it was landscape, or landscape with man-made structures in it, but no figures. I asked one day why there weren’t any people in her pictures and she said, “As soon as you put a figure in the picture, it becomes a narrative.” This made me think about music and how as soon as you add lyrics to it, it, too, becomes a narrative.
I love the way that pure music, devoid of words or narrative, can elicit a multitude of emotions through the use of sound, texture, rhythm, timbre, volume, harmony and tempo. Painting can do the same thing with color, shape, texture, value, rhythm, scale and line. But it’s been difficult for me to free myself from the tether to representation without feeling self-consciously self-indulgent. Gradually, though, I’ve developed an increasing dissatisfaction with representation in my work and more and more have become enamoured of the ability of the paint to express my personality without describing objects. I think the development of a personal mode of expression (in any of the arts) shouldn’t be forced, but should evolve naturally. As we become dissatisfied with the efficacy of the tried-and-true methods to convey our feelings and ideas, we are forced out of necessity to cut a new path through the forest.
As our lives play out, many of us have a tendency to fall into the habit of playing certain roles. Whether it’s a child or a parent, an engineer or a chef, a football fan or a saxophone player, a vegetarian, an intellectual, a hunter, a Christian, an employee, a neighbor, etc.., we look outside ourselves for our identity. It’s easy to do and I’m certainly guilty of it myself, but in so doing, we might lose touch with our true, inner identity – that thing that makes each of us uniquely ourselves.
We can see a similar phenomenon in painting, where many paintings get their identity by trying to be something else: a landscape, a bowl of fruit, a horse, a king, a sailboat, etc., and we can forget that a painting’s true identity is ultimately just an arrangement of shapes, colors, lines and textures.
The original inspiration for this image came whilst looking at a very small section of an earlier painting. With the subject matter removed, the image became pure colour and form, without attempting to describe something that it was not, and yet I felt that it conveyed something very personal. So, I developed the idea into this painting, which took on a life of its own once I commenced working on it.
I admit, there is a certain resemblance to some kind of landscape. The top portion of the painting, being similar in value throughout, with no hard edges, suggests empty space and atmosphere, whilst the bottom portion, with it’s antithetical attributes (strong value contrasts and hard edged shapes), suggest density and solidity. As a result, the border where they meet can easily be read as some sort of “horizon”. (It would be a very different painting, indeed, if it were turned upside down!)
I look forward to continuing to exploring this method of working and hopefully, in the process, get closer to my own true identity.
I am a full time artist, originally from Massachusetts, currently living in northern Maine. I work primarily in oils and pastel, and occasionally watercolor. I offer instruction in drawing and painting at my studio, which is in an old renovated potato barn. Please feel free to view samples of my work (You can see a larger version of each picture if you click on it.) and leave a comment if you are so inclined. Be sure to click the "Older Posts" button at the bottom to see more work. I don't always have time to respond to comments, but if you wish to correspond with me, you can e-mail me at email@example.com