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 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