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.
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 in a renovated potato house. 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