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 and the paintings that no one ever sees while 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 the image.
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.
This is an idea, inspired by one of my all-time favorite paragraphs in the English language (and from whence the title comes), that I have tried to paint (and failed miserably, I might add) at least three times over the past decade – that nebulous time when day and night, light and darkness, merge and the inevitable feeling of nostalgia elicited (at least in me) during that period.
I’ve begun to paint more freely and let go of topographical description so I recently decided to have another go at this image. I’m quite pleased with it and in looking at it once it was finished, I realized why all of my earlier attempts had failed. I had focused my attention on painting an unkempt, overgrown field, a sunset sky and trees – none of which the painting is actually about.
One of the important aspects of my artistic process is the concept of plastic (or three-dimensional) space in an image that is essentially flat. Like many artists, I am constantly trying to defy the flatness of the canvas or paper and create the illusion that the image is three-dimensional. Inherent in the struggle is the dichotomy between mass (solid form) and volume (empty space), i.e. the “form” and the “formless”. The shapes, colors, values and textures within an image can suggest either solid matter or empty space, neither of which can exist without the other. This dichotomy exists in the universe, as well. All solid form is surround by emptiness. You can see this easily enough when looking into the night sky and observing the vast emptiness between stars, solar systems and galaxies, but this same emptiness exists even at the the smallest conceivable scale. The same vast emptiness that separates the stars also separates sub-atomic particles. Even the most solid forms are comprised mostly of empty space. And as time marches on all matter changes. The tiniest seed can become a towering tree and mountain can be reduced to dust. Stars die and galaxies are formed out of nothingness.
I’ve realized over the past year that some of the growing dissatisfaction I’ve felt with some of my older work is that the boundaries between areas that appear as solid forms and areas that appear as empty space were sometimes drawn too clearly; that oftentimes the solid forms were given the appearance of permanence and the emptiness a transient quality. People who see my work, especially locals, remark how, by painting certain recognizable structures (old houses, barns, etc.) I have immortalized them. I have often thought about how many of the structures that were subjects for my paintings over the past decade are no longer standing, but live on in my paintings.
But the universe is in a state of constant flux and nothing lasts forever. Not even memories.
There are myriad reasons why artists make art. For me, the compulsion to make images has always come from a desire to communicate concepts that can only be communicated with visual images. Even as a child, I was always deeply affected by the way that certain images could conjure up feelings and emotions in me when I saw them and was driven early on by a desire to be able to do that. The struggle to make the intangible tangible – to turn abstract concepts, feelings and emotions into form – is at the heart of the art-making process for me and many others. If we're trying to say something unique and original, something that hasn't been said before, we often find ourselves striving to find the form to be able to do that.
Very often when people first see my paintings their initial reaction is to ask "Where is that?" or "Whose house/barn is that?". Whenever I hear that, I feel that somehow I have failed to communicate because illustrating specific structures and describing the topography are not my concerns at all. I'm much more interested in finding unique color harmonies that covey emotions, capturing the energy, gesture and movement that are the direct result of struggling to make what I'm feeling manifest through shapes, lines, textures and colors, and the ways that colors and paint interact and take on a life of their own as they fall out onto the canvas and resist my will.
I've grown tired of barns and old houses – my studio is filled with them! Lately, I've been looking at little sections of my paintings and finding them more interesting and more truthful than the paintings as a whole. Divorced from the recognizable subject matter, the colors and shapes are free to say the things that I really have been trying to communicate all along. And so, for the time being anyway, I'll leave the barns and old houses and follow my muse wherever she may lead me...
My process involves thinking about the colors that will make up a painting before I ever begin to paint. I think of each color as a member of the cast in a play or a story. Some are major characters; some are minor characters. Some get along well with one another and others bring conflict into the composition. I also think of it like notes or chords in a musical composition – a key signature in which certain notes are used, others excluded, some are dominant and others subordinate to the overall harmony of the piece. I spend a lot of time working out the color scheme for each painting and usually spend two or three days just mixing colors before I begin to put any paint onto the canvas. It's an unusual process, but it works for me. It evolved out of working with pastels, beginning a picture with a single color and then adding more colors one by one. Each time I took a pastel stick from my box and used it in the picture, I would then put it into my left hand. The collection of colors that grew in my left hand became the characters for that drawing.
This was a difficult color scheme for me, more complex, I think, than any I've used before. It's built off of the secondary triad (orange, green and violet) – one of my favorite combinations – but there are yellows, reds and blues in there as well, and a lot of colors that approach what many call "browns" (I don't think of "brown" as an actual color; to me it's just desaturated oranges and reds.) and greys. It was a lot of work making all of these colors get along with one another and, unlike many of my paintings, there isn't a single color or pair of colors that is dominant. (Although, believe me, there were a few feisty ones, who shall remain nameless, that tried to take over the picture during its development!)
A few people who have seen this thought that the light blue areas were water, which is fine by me, but they were actually based on small patches of snow, the last vestiges of winter still lingering in the late Spring mud season. "But snow isn't blue!" you might say. Well, "neither is water", I retort. And what about those purple trees and the pink and yellow sky?
Personally, I think it's one of the best things I've done.
I found a large monograph of Caspar David Friedrich at the Harvard Coop in 1986, shortly after graduating from college and was instantly enamored by the image on the cover – his painting "Abbey in the Oak Wood" (sometimes called "Abbey Among Oak Trees") – and could't resist purchasing the book. Although I can't really claim Friedrich as very much of an influence, at least not with regards to technique, being a landscape painter as well as a hopeless romantic with a penchant for both nostalgia and covert allegory, I can't help but feel an affinity for him and some of his work.
I found these ancient apple trees on the back side of the Front Ridge here in Littleton, surrounded by dogwood (brazenly flaunting its blood-red hue in defiance of the bleak winter) and other leafless bramble, their branches entwined as if they'd been bound together for decades, protecting one another form the elements. I never thought of Friedrich whilst working on this painting or the many preliminary drawings that preceded it, but I must admit that the finished work reminds me of him.
Life is hard, often fraught with insurmountable challenges, sorrow and grief. Having someone at our side to share the burden can be wonderful and can be a source of strength when we need it most.
I have been fascinated with bare trees lately and have spent a lot of time over the past few months making detailed pencil drawings such trees in the area around my home. The empty branches have such great movement in them, with lines twisting and turning and wrapping around one another, sometimes like a frozen dance. At first glance, bare trees all seem remarkably similar, but as I study and draw each one, I find myself becoming closely acquainted with the individual personality of each tree. Trees have taken on such life in my mind, that lately I have found myself walking in the woods and feeling like I'm surrounded by people rather than leafless trees. Like us, each has its stories – some good, some bad, some long and complicated, some straight and to the point. The branches hold the stories of things that have happened to the tree, challenges it has faced, visitors that it has hosted, storms that it has weathered. These stories and secrets are laid bare during the bleak winter months, ripe for the picking to anyone willing to take the time. Soon, all of the trees round here will be covered with leaves. The branches will be invisible, but somehow I know that when I see them, I will be keenly aware of what lies beneath the greenery.
I began painting exclusively with a knife about eight years ago. The reason for this was that I felt like I couldn't make a stroke in oil paint with a brush that didn't look like something that I had seen before. Making paintings that no one else could possibly have made was important to me, so I endeavored to develop my own personal system of mark making. I essentially use the same knife for everything. It's not even a painting knife; it's a palette knife – made for mixing colors on the palette – but it's what I feel most comfortable working with. I also paint with my canvas lying fat on a table, rather than propped up vertically on an easel, which enables me to turn the canvas (or walk around the table) and easily paint from any side of the canvas. One of the things that appeals to me about this method is that I am constantly forced to find ways to articulate what I'm trying to say without being able able to resort to copying the tried-and-true methods of other painters. Making art offers us an opportunity to celebrate our uniqueness, and finding a personal way of painting has always been a top priority for me. Suggesting a tree with this method is always a challenge, but I'm quite pleased with the way this came out.
Here is another one (see two posts down) that left the studio over a year ago, thinking it was done, only to return and be almost completely painted over. You can see the original, which I was actually quite pleased with when I did it, here.
However, as I continually grow and develop as an artist, I see things differently. (As an aside, I saw an interview with the painter Brice Marden once and he said something which I thought was very apropos about how each time we look at a painting the experience is different because, even though the painting hasn't changed, we have.)
This painting was at the Kada Gallery in Erie, PA for a year. I brought it back to my studio in November of last year and found that I wasn't as satisfied with it as I had thought I was. I went back and looked at the series of pastel drawings that I had done before commencing work on the original painting and found that one of the qualities that I liked about the drawings was the value contrast between the building and the sky, something that was missing from the painting. So I began to rework the painting by darkening the value of the building and adding, consequently, more color to it. This, however, caused the building to push forward and compete with the foreground so I added more value contrast and saturated greens and oranges to the foreground in order to make it advance in front of the building. I also reworked the sky, making it bluer at the top and greener closer to the horizon. Having to repaint the negative spaces between the tree branched necessitated repainting a lot of the trees in order to maintain the softer edges of wet paint meeting wet paint.
In the end, I think it's a much better painting and I'm glad that it returned to me so I could finish it.
I have learned that "winter" paintings aren't very popular. People don't like snow and generally don't like to be reminded of it. But I live in northern Maine, where we have seven months of winter and the inspiration for my images comes, in part, from observing the world around me, so it's difficult to not have some paintings that suggest a snow-covered landscape. Snow is white, though, and white contains all the colors of the visual spectrum, so it's fertile ground when it comes to explorations in color, especially if one is willing to use one's imagination.
I'd much rather think about color than snow, anyway.
I am often asked "How do you know when a painting is finished?".
My answer: "When I sell it, because then I can't work on it any more."
This was one of those paintings that took years to finish, as happens sometimes. It began in the autumn of 2011 as a series of pastel drawings of one of my favorite subjects, the old McBride homestead on the Framingham Road here in Littleton (which, sadly, is due to be razed some time this spring). I did an oil painting shortly thereafter, which ended up hanging in two shows over the following 6 months. However, once I got the painting back to my studio I was forced to realize that I wasn't completely happy with it. The house was much bigger and there were three trees in the foreground. I ended up pulling the canvas off the stretchers and stretching a new canvas and starting again with this composition – pushing the house farther back and eliminating one of the trees in the foreground. The resulting painting was better than the original, but I knew instinctively that it wasn't quite finished. I left it leaning against the wall in my studio (for two and a half years!), often contemplating it and trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Finally, I realized that the biggest problem with it was that the road in the foreground had too much orange in it – the result of me thinking (which is never a good idea when you're trying to make art!) that the orange would give a sense of the light on the road. In reality, the orange in the road was fighting with the orange in the grass, so I made the grey in the road cooler, with less orange and even increased the amount of orange in the grass, which in turn caused the sky to appear even more blue - an unexpected bonus hat caused the touches of orange in the trees and chimney to pop out.
I think it's a good idea to not force oneself to "finish" a painting, but to allow it to come to fruition in its own time. The paintings want to be finished, and if we're patient, diligent and observant, they will eventually let us know what they need – and maybe even teach us some important lessons at the same time.
A couple of buildings from the old Schools farm, just north of my house. In fact, I can see the back of that big barn from the window over my kitchen sink. This has been the subject of several drawings and paintings over the years. This is a variation on a composition from six years ago but with a very different color scheme.
The elements that have drawn me to landscape as a subject matter are the deep space, the light and the atmosphere. Other common subjects – figures, interiors, still life, etc. – usually deal with relatively shallow space, with controlled lighting and not much atmosphere. But the landscape seems to extend away from us forever – or at least as far as we can see, and I relish any opportunity to try and create the illusion of that deep space on the flat surface of a canvas or sheet of paper. And once the surface of the painting has been pushed back far away from the viewer, there opens up an enormous vacuum that can potentially be filled with light and atmosphere. Easier said than done sometimes, and it's something that I find a lot of my students have difficulty with. Even I have difficulty with it sometimes.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org