“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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org