When I was an undergraduate in college the painter Richard Sheehan came to the campus as a visiting artist for a day. He gave a slide presentation of his work, after which he fielded questions from the audience. I was enthralled by his work, mostly cityscapes and suburban neighborhoods, many characterized by views looking through underpasses, all of which showed both impeccable draughtsmanship and compositions that were both inventive and flawless.
But what really struck me was his use of color which, although highly effective, had nothing to do with the local or perceptual color that I, at the time at least, associated with representational art. The paintings were filled with bright yellow skies, acidic lime green trees, and deep ultramarine shadows. During the question and answer period, I asked him how he chose the colors that he used. He basically said that he chose the colors that “worked for the painting”. I honestly had no idea what that meant, but not wanting to seem like an idiot, I smiled, politely thanked him, and sat back down in my seat.
I pondered his answer for years, especially when I took up painting again after a hiatus and happily rediscovered Richard Sheehan’s work on the newly launched internet.
I eventually understood exactly what he meant and realize, in retrospect, that I could never have understood the lesson until I had made (literally) hundreds of paintings. Each color in a painting is affected by and affects every other one and getting all of the colors to work together toward creating the overall image is arduous work, especially since each color seems to have a personality and will of its own – some vying for dominance and refusing to get along with the others or to back down when another color asserts itself (and they can often be both seductive and manipulative!), and other colors that just want peace and harmony. The artist's job is to bring all of this potential chaos under control and to hopefully create an arrangement of colors that looks (in spite of the oftentimes immense amount of effort and struggle involved) inevitable.
Occasionally, I get asked about the titles of my paintings and what they mean. As a visual artist, I am primarily concerned with creating an experience for the viewer via visual means and I don’t want words to influence how the painting might be perceived or to tell the viewer what to see. However, I do need some way of identifying the paintings and differentialting them from one another. I know one artist who simply titles her paintings with consecutive numbers. If the last painting was “145”, then the next one is “146”. This seems like a logical way avoiding the problem of titles altogether, but it wouldn’t work for me. If someone said that they liked my painting called “223” I would have no way of knowing which painting they were talking about. The same problem would arise if I had hundreds of “untitled” paintings.
Years ago, my titles were essentially descriptive of the subject and/or the time of day or year that it was painted. If you scroll back far enough in this blog you’ll find paintings with titles like “Hay Bales at Dusk” or “Henderson Barn on a Cloudy Day”. But, in recent years, I have moved away from images that represent specific places or subjects and thus have had to find a more appropriate way of naming my paintings without spoonfeeding any content to the viewer.
My solution to this dilemma has been to keep a list of words and phrases that I like, picked up from books and poems, song lyrics, conversations, movies, etc., that could potentially be used as titles. I used to keep a hand written list taped to the wall in my studio but it recently migrated to my phone. (I’m slowly crawling into the digital age!) When I finish a painting I go to the list, pick something for a title, and then cross it off the list. Titles are constantly being added to and deleted from the list. The titles are intentionally ambiguous and rarely have anything to do with the content of the image (and if they do, it’s covert and allegorical and not something I would share with anyone) but are meant to be open to a wide range of interpretations by the viewer.
My daughter saw this painting and asked me what it was called. I told her it didn’t have a title yet, to which she responded. “Name it after me.”
As it turns out, that was one of the titles on my list (I’m not going to tell you where it comes from.), so it seemed only fitting to use it. I’ve always been one to embrace serendipity.
Apparently, I have become a landscape artist, although when I was learning how to draw and paint, landscape was never an area that interested me very much. My love of Rembrandt once had me thinking that I would be primarily a figurative artist and after discovering Giorgio Morandi during my senior year of college, I spent years painting nothing but still-life subjects. It was my move to rural northern Maine that fostered my penchant for landscape subjects. I have always liked to spend a lot of time outdoors, not just drawing and painting, but walking, running, cycling, and hiking. The world I live in now is about 99.9% landscape and reminds me of the woods and farmland that once surrounded the neighborhood that I grew up in and where I spent so much time during my formative years.
There are several aspects of the landscape that appeal to me as an artist. The ever changing light and color, which are always perfect, provide a bottomless well from which to draw both knowledge and inspiration and can give the same subject a different appearance as each hour passes into the next. The delicate balance between order and chaos which exists everywhere in nature is something that I strive for in my work as well. Beneath what can appear to be a savage and violent disarray of forms is a system of such complexity as to defy human understanding. I am surrounded by vast, open areas and huge skies, interpolated by dense, almost impenetrable forests and woods, all of which provide ample fodder for someone engaged in the study of creating the illusion of three dimensional space on a flat surface. In spite of the frigid cold during winter, the vicious, blood-thirsty black flies in Spring, and the occasional north wind that can send a canvas or drawing board sailing through the air into the next county, I enjoy working outside in the fresh air.
I made a conscious decision to move my practice more indoors a few years ago as a means of finding a more personal mode of expression that is less tethered to description of specific places and more about my unique way of experiencing the world, the decade and more that I spent traipsing about the landscape near my home with drawing board or paints in hand has made a lasting impact on me and still influences everything that I do. Although my practice has moved more into the studio and I've turned inward for inspiration, I remain, metaphorically at least, an painter of the outdoors.
One of the most difficult aspects of working in color is the phenomenon of Simultaneous Contrast, which results in the relative perception of every color in a painting to be affected by every other color in the same painting. In it's simplest terms, this means that a red placed next to a color that has green in it will appear more "red" than it actually is. A neutral grey placed in proximity to a blue will take on an orange tint. This concept of relative contrast can be experienced in all aspects of life. Where I live in northern Maine, when the temperature finally gets above thirty degrees some time in March, it's common to see people outdoors in shorts and t-shirts because, after three or four months of single digit or sub-zero temperatures, thirty degrees feels quite balmy! I stopped eating refined sugars in 1994. Years later I took a bite out of a plain bagel that, although it probably had only trace amounts of sugar in it, tasted to me like cake.
Simultaneous Contrast presents myriad problems for the visual artist because as the number of colors in an image increases, the manner in which each color affects every other one becomes exponentially complex. Frustration ensues as a color that appears bright warm red on the palette becomes a cool dark brown in the painting or, conversely, a color thaty appears warm brown on the palette suddenly appears as a dark cool purple in the painting and simultaneousy causes the cool green that was painted in the day before to be transformed into a warm, acidic lemon yellow. A painter has to learn how to be always aware of how each color affects every other one and the relationship of each to the whole. With a great deal of practice and concentration this gets easier to do and one learns how to anticipate how colors will actually appear within the context of the painting.
I have found that mixing up the color palette for each painting before I begin to actually paint has been incredibly helpful because I can see how the colors relate to one another before I even begin to put them on the canvas. I try to give each painting that I create its own unique palette of colors. I tend to think of the color scheme as a cast of characters in a story. Sometimes it's a cast of very diverse characters and all manner of drama and conflict will arise. With this one, I made a conscious decision to keep the colors fairly close to one another in terms of value (light and dark) and saturation (intenisty or purity of color), thereby reducing the overall contrast in the image and focusing instead on more subtle transitions and relationships. Sometimes it's best not to have any drama...
On some level, every painting is an abstracton – a representation of something that it is not. It can depict a person or several people, an place, an object or group of objects. It can be a depiction of a narrative - either fictional, historical, personal, or fantasy. How accurately the image depicts its subject depends on the artist, thier intent, their level of skill, and the choices that they make.
But a painting can also just be a painting – colored pigments mixed with fat and pushed around on a flat surface. The painting can also be a visible record of the act of painting. Each mark a repesentation of a specific movement and choice made by the artist, some carefully calculated and others borne of intuition and spontaneity. The narrative, if one takes the time to really look at the painting, tells the story of the artist bringing the image from the void into fruition. This is what really interests me.
I work primarily in oil paint, soft pastel and charcoal. What I like about these media is their pliability. They can be put down onto the substrate and then manipulated, transformed, pushed around, or even removed if need be. I find this quality to be not only immensely appealing, but a necessary component to my artistic practice. I am not interested in hiding the act of painting in order to deceive the viewer into thinking that they are seeing something that isn't there. I want the act of painting and my engagement with the materials to be an integral part of the final image. Working with pliable materials such as oil paint, which will stay wet for several days, affords me ample opportunites to scrape and smudge, to mix and modify colors right on the canvas, and to sharpen or blur the transition from one shape into the next. I used to try to finish a painting whilst all of the paint was wet but over the past few years I have been experimenting with allowing parts of the painting to become tacky or dry and then working on top of them, acheiving effects and a visual density that would not be possible any other way.
I have mentioned in previous posts how the act of painting for me often feels like being engaged in mortal combat. I like to think that the intensity and violence inherent in that struggle comes across in an image like this one.
Sometimes when I am working with a student, explaining to them what is not working in their drawing or painting and showing them how to correct it, they will exclaim' "This is really hard!"
Making art is, indeed, difficult, especially if one aims to do it well. Aspiring artists must become fluent in the language of visual form and proficient with whichever media they choose to use as their primary mode of expression, all of which requires an inordinate amount of study and practice, combined with the tenacity to continue to work in spite of the frequent and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that every artist eventually faces. And sometimes, more frequently if you are a beginner, the work isn't very good. This has nothing to do with a lack of talent; it's simply a by-product of the learning process. And working creatively means taking risks and attempting to do things that you've never done before - pushing the boundaries of your abilities and expectations. I've spent tens of thousands of hours drawing and painting in my lifetime and, although I have built up a considerable amount of skill and knowledge, I still find myself challenged every time I work because I intentionally try to extend the limits of my practice and to make images that I have never seen before. My need to be surprised by the outcome is one of the main factors that drives me to work in the first place. If I am not challenging my own expectations, how can I possibly challenge those of the viewer?
If you are involved in any creative endeavor, whether it be visual art, a musical instrument, writing, or any of the myriad forms of creative expression, and you find yourself struggling with the difficulties of developing technique and feeling like you're paddling against the current, remember that the most important thing is that you keep working. Instruction and feedback from others who are involved in your field can be useful and can expedite certain aspects of the learning process (and learning how to take criticism without bring offended is vital to artistic growth) but there's no substitute for hard work. And you have to allow yourself to fail. A lot. Seriously. The greatest teachers I've ever had have been my own failures.
Talent isn't a gift. It's the reward for thousands of hours of hard work.
I have often remarked how being engaged with a painting feels to me like some kind of martial combat. Although no one is going to die if the work fails, I nonetheless always feel as if my very survival depends on successfully completing the painting. This is the result of my artistic process being one that relies on risk taking, improvisation, discovery, and not knowing what a picture is going to look like until it is finished. I firmly believe that working this way is the only conduit to true creativity, but the price one pays for working this way is the ever-present risk of failure and the inherent stress that comes with it.
I recently read “The Book of Five Rings” by the 17th century Japanese sword master Miyamoto Musashi. It is a fascinating and inspiring text, which is essentially about the strategy of sword fighting and martial arts in general, but its principles apply to all aspects of life, especially the creative process. The essence of Musashi's teaching is the importance of training and practice outside the context of actual combat, so that the instinctive, split-second decisions that one makes when engaged with an opponent will be the decisions that lead to victory.
Training, study, and practice are the core of any successful creative act; one must be a master of their materials, techniques and the language of their particular form in order to create art. Creative acts are characterized primarily by intuition and spontaneity and reacting to the work as it unfolds. In a similar manner, martial combat is characterized by reacting intuitively to one's opponent. Musashi writes a lot about the importance of "Hyoshi" (usually translated as "cadence") which refers to being engaged with the opponent in a rhythmic way, sensitive to the movement of energy back and forth, and reacting to it in a purely instinctive way, without thinking, and trusting that you have trained thoroughly. Modern psychologists refer to this concept as "flow". When I am engrossed in a painting or drawing, the experience is similar (without, of course, the threat of death!) and I find it necessary to focus and pay attention to the image as it develops. Sometimes I will add a color or mark to a painting or drawing and the image will yield - bending to my actions and revealing new possibilities that might lead to a successful outcome. At other times, the painting will resist and push back, causing me to retreat. My working process usually vacillates between long periods of intense, focused, frenzied activity and periods of simply staring at the image while attempting to figure out what it needs (or leaving the studio in frustration and going for a long walk!). This back and forth is an essential part of the process for me and, although it feels very much like a duel while I am immersed in it, it is a challenge that I ultimately relish.
Admittedly, there are times when these engagements end in defeat - something that I have learned to accept as an inevitable part of the creative process. But when the work is successful, there comes a tremendous sense of accomplishment, which, in the end, makes all of the stress, study, practice, and hard work worthwhile.
"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be." -Tao de Ching
I studied and played music for many years, before an overuse injury forced me to relinquish my musical aspirations almost 22 years ago. It was devastating blow to my psyche at the time. I had chosen to abandon my graduate studies in fine art so I could focus on music, foregoing any alternate career path in favor of devoting long hours to study, practice, rehearsal and performance, as well as all of the marketing-related duties associated with leading a musical group. Suddenly finding myself unable to even hold a guitar pick left me feeling aimless and dejected, at least until my innate tenacity forced me to re-enroll in art school and begin painting again, ultimately leading me back to my first (and true) love. Occasionally, we might find ourselves astray in a rugged and impenetrable wilderness, thinking that we have irrevocably lost our path, only to one day stumble upon our destination and the realization that whatever trials and tribulations we had suffered while seemingly lost, were necessary rites of passage.
The study of music taught me a great deal about visual art and I constantly find myself thinking about the parallels between the two forms. Value (lights and darks) is like rhythm in music. Areas of strong value contrast are like staccato passages in music, with pronounced beats surrounded by bits of silence. Conversely, areas in a painting and drawing with little or now value contrast are like legato passages in music, where the notes transition smoothly one into the next with no space between.
One of the biggest similarities between music and art is the correlation between pitch and color. Interestingly, the color theory that my approach is based on uses a 12 step color wheel composed of three primaries (yellow, red, blue), three secondaries made by combining the primaries (orange, green, violet) and the intermediate colors between each primary and secondary (red-orange, yellow-green, etc.) arranged so that the complimentary colors are opposite one another. Western music is composed of 12 pitches and the associated keys are often diagramed in a circle (the Circle of 5ths) with contrasting keys (the ones with the fewest notes in common and, hence, the most dissonance when played together) opposite each other. I organize my paintings using color tonalities in a way that is very similar to how a composer organizes a piece of music around specific tonalities. The ultimate goal in both cases is harmony.
Sometimes these color tonalities are fairly simple. Like a tune written exclusively with the notes in the C-major scale, I might create an image based entirely on variations of the color green. More often, though, I like more complex tonalities, like a piece of music that modulates through several keys. I rarely think this way while actually working, but years of practice (and a multitude of failures!) have developed my ability to organize and harmonize the colors intuitively in my attempt to transform my content into visual form.
This painting is based, essentially, on the analogous cool colors: ranging from red-violet to violet to blue-violet to blue and blue-green – colors which all contain some measure of blue, the coolest color. This helps give the painting its overall cool feeling, but there are also quite few warmer colors including yellow, yellow-green and orange which, having been weakened by the addition of white (what we artists refer to as "tinting"), provide just enough contrasts to actually make the cool colors seem even cooler than if they were the only colors in the painting. This is common practice amongst music composers as well, who will insert a "sad" minor chord into an overall "happy" major key-based piece, the resulting contrast making the happier sounding chords seem even happier.
I find this approach very helpful in my work and I don't think I could have developed the ability to think this way about color had I not spent years away from painting, with my attention focused on the study of music. The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to have faith that our lives will unfold exactly the way they are meant to. How could it be otherwise?
I live in northern Maine. It has been brutally cold here this winter and we're on the verge of breaking the record for annual snow accumulation. A few days ago, however, we were afforded a brief respite from the sub-zero temperatures and snowfall and I siezed the opportunity to go for a walk. I thought about the seemingly countless hours that I spent, especially during the first eight or nine years that I've lived here, trekking around the landscape within a three mile radius of my house, in all manner of weather, laden with a sketchbook or drawing board and a backpack filled with drawing materials, until I would eventually stop in some field or woods and attempt to translate what I was looking at into some kind of visual form. I was trying to make art. More often than not, however, I failed. I would occasionally end up with a really great drawing or painting or a sketch that I would later develop into a successful image. I've posted a lot of them here on this blog over the past ten years and many of the best paintings and drawings ended up in the hands of collectors, thus enabling me to continue to pursue my passion.
But the majority of the work that I did made it's way, sooner or later, into the landfill.
During my struggles to turn my experiences into visual form, I learned a great deal about drawing, composition, color mixing, paint application and how to manipulate art materials in a way that creates the illusion of solid form, light and atmospheric space, on a flat surface. I also learned many other important lessons such as how to keep an easel from blowing away in the wind, not to use oil paint outdoors during black fly season, to always spray the pastel fixative downwind, thunderstorms move faster than I can run, and to be polite to the Border Patrol agents whenever they feel the need to interrogate me.
But the most important lesson that I learned was about both the inevitability and the necessity of failure. Despite my best efforts and my extensive training, sometimes the work just isn't going to be successful. This is no reflection on my "talent" or lack thereof but, rather, an integral part of the creative process which involves taking risks, pushing beyond the boundaries of our technical and theoretical abilities and trusting our instincts. In so doing, we give up a great deal of control over the final outcome and we risk failure, but the payoff is that, sometimes, we surprise ourselves with wonderful work that comes from a place that our intellect does not have access to.
If you are involved in any kind of creative endeavor, it's imperative that you allow yourself the freedom to fail. Rather than letting the fear of failure inhibit you from working, you should embrace the fear and work as much as possible. When we force ourselves to go outside our comfort zones, real learning and real creativity happen.
I estimate that I've spent over 10,000 hours, with art supplies at hand, out in the landscape around my home since moving to Maine in 2006. Although a significant percentage of that time was spent walking, absorbing the colors and light, sounds and smells, and the history of the landscape, the bulk of the time was spent pushing pastels or charcoal or graphite or oil paint around on a sheet of paper or canvas, in the hopes of pulling a cohesive image out of the Æther. If I were to compare the amount of time that I spent to the number of actual finished works of art that I created, I might easily dismay. But it was time well spent. Not only did I learn myriad methods of successfully transforming mere art materials into physical manifestations of the visceral experiences I was having, I learned just about every conceivable way of failing to do that.
During all of those thousands of hours, I thought I was trying to make art, but what I was really trying to do was to make an artist.
I try to work on my art every day. I decided many years ago to make it one of my top priorities (along with my family and my health) so it's usually other things - household chores and maintenance, returning phone calls, hobbies, reading, etc. - that get neglected or relegated to those infrequent moments when I have "free time". When I am immersed in a painting, I tend to become obsessive and highly focused for the days or weeks required to finish the work, spending many hours per day in the studio and not getting anywhere near the amount of sleep that I should get. This is due, in part, to my personality, as well as my process, which involves spending several days just mixing the colors for a specific painting before I begin actually painting, and requires that I keep working before the paint dries. These periods of focused work can be both physically and mentally exhausting (not to mention demoralizing!) and I usually need at least a week or more in between paintings to recuperate and to catch up on any pressing matters that were neglected whilst I focused on the painting.
During these respite periods, I still continue to work on my art, but in other, slightly less stressful ways. I believe that success in any creative endeavor requires disciplined study and practice balanced with intuition, exploration and risk-taking. Work and Play in equal measure. Exercise the right brain as well as the left brain.
Thus, during the periods when I'm not engaged with a painting, I use the time to both develop my craft and also to generate new ideas. Depending on my mood, I may engage in gesture drawing or other drawing exercises, create detailed, objective renderings from direct observation, learn to use a new media or technique, mix every possible permutation of a particular color or color pairing, transcribe works by the masters or simply read and study, all of which are geared toward developing my technique and knowledge. On other days, in order to develop my creativity, I will immerse myself in much more playful activities which involve working without any preconceptions or plan. Oftentimes, this involves grabbing a blank piece of paper and covering it with a color or two in pastel and then letting an image emerge. Sometimes, although not as frequently as in the past, the result is just a horrid mess and will either linger around the studio until I figure out how to make it into a successful image or end up in the trash bin. This is simply a by-product of the risk-taking involved with this sort of activity and failures are an integral and necessary part of the process. These disastrous drawings teach me what doesn't work, they teach me humility and they develop my resilience to failure.
But sometimes when I work this way - and herein lies the payoff - I surprise myself with wonderful ideas that I never could have thought of via any kind of left-brain, analytical, intellectual activity.
This impetus for this image was a drawing that happened in the way previously described. I've written in previous posts about how I have a stock of compositions in my head that are like tunes to a jazz musician, and I will often engage in improvising variations based on these structures. This image ended up being a variation on one such theme - the old Henderson barn at the intersection of the Wiley Road and the dirt trail that marks where the railroad once was, that I've drawn from direct observation more times than I can remember over the past ten years. I made the drawing almost a year ago and it has been taped up on the studio wall ever since, challenging me to develop it into a painting - a daunting prospect considering the complexity of the strange color scheme that emerged from my subconscious in the wee hours of some cold, late-winter morning. It also marks the return of architectural forms in my paintings, over two years after a conscious decision to eliminate them from my work.
I confess to procrastinating on this one because I doubted my ability to get all of these colors to work together on a large canvas. (I also had some trepidation about including anything that looked even remotely like a barn!) In the end, though, I forged ahead. The work must get done. It was a difficult painting for me, primarily because of the saturation of many of the colors, each with a strong personality, vying for supremacy in the composition, and making it difficult for me to achieve the quality of "inevitability" that is such an important aspect of my work.
Looking back, I realize that I couldn't have made this painting until now. All of the other paintings that I made throughout the year were necessary steps on the journey that led to this one and what looked like procrastination was really just me letting the work unfold the way it was supposed to. Of course, that only works in hindsight and the next difficult image that looms up on my horizon is sure to cause me at least as much stress...
During my senior year of college, while I was planning for graduate school applications, my advisor suggested that I apply to graduate school as a printmaker rather than a painter because my black and white work was much stronger than my paintings (which was true). She told me that some people just "get" color and others don't and I was going to have to accept the fact that I was one the ones that don't. She said that was okay; I could focus on working in black and white. I was willing to accept this opinion at the time. I ultimately ended up applying to graduate school as a printmaker and the paintings that I did do during that period were essentially monochromatic. But I never really conceded that I couldn't master color. Years later, when I decided to seriously take up painting again, my lack of skill and understanding of how to work with color became immediately (and painfully) apparent. Unwilling to capitulate, I rolled up my sleeves and delved into a serious study of color. For three years I worked tirelessly studying the phenomenon of color-mixing and color relationships. I had taken a Color course at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts with the wonderful Maggie Fitzpatrick, which, based primarily in the theories of Johanas Itten, focused on understanding color as having three components (value, hue, and saturation) and using a 12-step color wheel composed of the three primary colors (yellow, red, blue), three secondary colors (orange, green, violet ¬– mixture of the primaries), and the six intermediate colors resulting from the mixtures of the primaries and secondaries. I read dozens of books on color theory, spent countless hours every night mixing colors and making color wheels and color charts and eventually transcribing paintings of some of my favorite colorists, first in pastel and then in oils, and I made weekly visits to museums and galleries to study the color in great paintings first hand.
And then I started making paintings. Terrible paintings. Dozens and dozens of terrible paintings. But I kept painting and gradually, almost imperceptibly, my paintings got better. Now, more than fifteen years later, I'm pretty fluent in the language of color. I can look at any color and see it's component parts and, although challenging myself with complex color relationships that I've never seen before is an important part of my process – and I relish those challenges – I feel confident in my ability to control the color in my paintings and to achieve the effects that I want, none of which has anything to do with talent or natural ability to "get" color, but is the direct result of a refusal to accept a limitation and to put in as much work as was necessary in order to overcome it.
Color relationships are one of the most important aspects of my work and, really, the primary subject. I always think about the colors for a specific painting before I begin and my process (which I have detailed here in previous posts) involves mixing all of the colors for a painting before I begin to put anything on the canvas.
This painting began with the impulse to make an image that had "brown" as the principle color. (I put the word "brown" in quotations because I think of all colors in terms of their value, hue and saturation and the colors that we usually refer to as browns are really desaturated yellows, oranges and reds.) Of course, as I began mixing my colors, many of them refused to be desaturated and the oranges, reds and red violets defiantly asserted themselves, causing me to increase the saturation of the blues and yellows in order to maintain an overall harmony. The result, quite removed from what I had initially intended, is really a painting based on the triad of primary colors (yellow, red and blue). As an artist, it's important to be able to subjugate our need for control and allow the image's own unique personality to bloom. (The same could be said of parenting!)
In the end, that cool green in the bottom section made a surprise appearance and pulled the whole thing together, essentially stealing the show from the primary colors. It's my favorite part of the painting!
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.
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