- Fine Art
Study for ‘The Battle of Tetuan’
This little painting – it’s about 7″ x 9″ – resides in the Dali Museum in Figueras, Spain, in an over-packed room filled with art and oddities, almost disappearing into the surrealist melange. You would be excused were you to overlook it.
It stopped me however because, in it’s miniature stature, there is no room for muddling about. The paint looks like it was just laid on – in drips and dabs – in a beautiful effortlessness. That the final layer of just laying the paint on (whatever layer that is I don’t know – it just happens at some point or another) is this lovely and beautiful thing. When others see it, it feels exactly like that: effortless.
A wash. A glaze. Dab dab dab of paint. Ease.
Dali’s mastery is at work here is in the layering of the paint on the brush, the dip and swirl of the strokes with little to no thought, the casually graceful ease that it exhibits. It is like a perfectly zen little painting (for all of it’s horseback dust-stormy chaos).
In my head I often go back to this little painting as a point of reference for my own work: a great painting should feel effortless. There shouldn’t be a sense of muddling about and, if muddling about is required, that should look effortless too.
“The true painter must be able to patiently copy a pear while surrounded by rapine and upheaval.”
– Dali from ’50 Secrets of Master Craftsmanship’
There’s much to be said for the value of doodling. I’ve probably even said a bit of it already. I think so much importance is put on the idea of ‘a finished drawing’ that it’s sometimes possible to loose sight of the looseness of the spontaneous flow. In fact, the specificity of a ‘finished drawing’ (as if it’s this grand eloquence) can cause one to over think what one is setting out to do.
When I make a drawing of a painting I’m going to create there’s a lot of, well, doodling that goes into those first intimations of the image. When an idea comes to me it’s never a fleshed out thing. It’s sort of like a big broad brushstroke over my mind that says ‘something like this.’ Then what follows is: a lot of scribbles, dashes and dots, lines and curves, of trying to understand my lines, my motives, my reasons for making it.
On top of that gets added the symbolism: the story around each thing and why it needs to be there. That is sort of an added layer on top of the experience of the thing itself. Deeper down – there’s simply a drive, a desire, a strong urge for the thing. And that, I think, is the thing to follow. Everything else becomes ‘too much thinking’ and only serves to subdue get us back into our heads and out of our… Everything.
This is where a looseness comes in – a softness in the approach (even if it’s fierce and visceral. No, especially if) and allowing of oneself. I think that, with every piece of art, there is an initial spontaneous experience of the thing: an inspiration, a flash, an idea – that broad brushstroke. The initial sketches that follow should seek to capture that spontaneity. Often, in those first explorations, it’s a bit of a blurred idea. It shimmers on the horizon of my imaginations. I am only just tasting it – getting the first hints of it. It’s like a new relationship – it’s so exciting. And I capture a curve, a composition, a sense of scale.
But then, with time and exploration, I get to know it. All it’s nuances and quirks. The places that don’t line up with my vision. The pieces that feel awkward and unaligned. Like a relationship, if we force it, it gets uncomfortable and it implodes. It doesn’t work. So we need to go at it with a measured grace, a sense of space, a softness, to explore the hows and whys of the thing and see if it doesn’t want to be – or is trying to be – something else all together.
Making Art is a relationship and when we get involved with it, there’s a need to allow it to be it’s own experience, it’s own expression, outside of what we want it to be. And it is difficult. Relationships aren’t easy to maintain. And making art is the same. It takes work, perseverance, and dedication. But the inspiration is the fact of what it can be, what it has been, and what we get out of it. It’s what keeps us going. It’s what keeps me going.
I’m not all that stoked with most of my paintings while I’m working on them. They are a mess! They are unfinished and coarse. It’s like we have to work through our stuff. But I’m patient with it. My early drawings for a piece tend to be haphazard, unclear, and, often, not quite right.
So one needs to be able to allow for looseness. For sketches to be just that – sketches, ideas merging into each other, and ourselves losing ourselves in the process. And then, of course, the trick is to carry that ‘losing yourself’ through the entire process: from sketch to drawing to painting.
What I’m getting at is that, when you are starting out trying to get an idea onto the paper: be patient! Allow yourself new drawings, experimentation, and exploration. Play with the basic dominant shapes before you try to tackle the details. Visualize the big picture… feel it out… then try drawing sketches of the dominant movements and ideas…
Here’s a gallery of some of the drawings I made for ‘The Myth of Freedom’. There were other drawings but they were even messier. Little rectangles with wheels drawn in them, trying to visualize the curve I wanted. It takes me a long long time to transition from a drawing to a painting.
In any case, if you are in the midst of trying to get your idea out – your feeling – your visions – and they aren’t quite right: don’t give up! Breath! Be patient! There’s no retreating from that edge!
I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about paintings I want to paint. And not just thinking about them but seeing them, feeling them, considering them. Sometimes they are in my vision when I’m making dinner and I’m chopping a carrot or a stalk of broccoli and I’m seeing this painting. It sort of lingers in the vision – in my mind, in this place between hallucination and imagination…
Small paintings: I make small things like 11×14 and such and they are relatively quick… They are a small facet, an aspect of myself – they are very precise and don’t require as much forethought. They come from drawings and ideas of course, but they don’t have as much going on with them of course. Likewise, they allow depth and scope and that, too, require some consideration – some allowance of what it might be but not like a larger painting. Why? I think in part it’s because if I’m going to invest the time it takes to paint something that’s larger than a couple of feet tall, then there is serious intention… there’s serious consideration about how I am going to spend my time – IS THIS WORTH IT? Do I want to go there?
And once that question is answered….
So I feel it. I envision it. I see it. I love it. All the corners. All the angles. I wrap myself around it – into the dark shadows of it and into the great release. I consider it carefully. I think about the little things… I taste the slight glint of this, the soft arch of that. I want it to be awesome. I want it to speak to my corners, my nuances, my heights and depths. And, in turn, I want it to speak to you and yours.
It’s like… I don’t even know what it’s like. It’s like painting. This is how it is. How it has always been. How I am. I live it, breath it, sleep with it, and awaken again with it. I want it to be something that I will love. I want you to fall in love wit it. I want to not waste my time on it. I want to KNOW it.
And when I really love it – when I’ve made a dozen sketches and another dozen drawings and I’m ready and I’ve considered the parts I don’t know and have given over to the ways that it needs to be even if it’s going to be a lot of work… Then I’m ready to stretch a canvas, then I’m ready to prepare my surface.
And then, maybe then, I’m ready for that first brushstroke.
To be honest, I use a fairly limited palette. It’s pretty much the same colors over and over and over again. I think though that you’ll find that with †fmost artists. We get used to a color scheme. In some ways, this actually makes my work quite consistent – it all fits together. But that’s not why I chose these colors – or have ultimately gravitated to them.
I find that they give me all the other hues that I want. It’s easy to dull a color but it’s not easy – and actually is impossible – to make a color richer. You can’t add more pigment to a paint. So I’ve always felt that it’s best to start with the most saturated colors and then work out from there. Then, along with the super saturated colors, I have a handful of more muted but still rather rich tones.
I never use the ‘hues’ like Cadmium Orange Hue. They’re cheaper because they aren’t made with as much of the pigment – they use stand-ins for the actual pigmentation minerals. With the hues you also won’t ever get the richness or coverage you might want because they tend to be transparent. To me, when I paint with them, they feel weak. I avoid them.
That said, the colors I paint with most are:
Along with those I also use a fair amount of Golden’s Acrylic Glazing Liquid and water. Why use glazing medium instead of water or water instead of glaze?
Paint is a pigment suspended in a polymer medium. Polymer mediums are basically a bunch of carbon chains creating a plastic like substance. Incidentally, your skin is a bunch of carbon chain polymers as well. In the case of paint, however, the pigment of the paint – the cadmium of cadmium red for instance – is suspended in a polymer base. The glaze adds more medium to the paint – more of the binder which the pigment is suspended in. In essence, it stretches the paint. without breaking down the carbon chains thereby creating a more uniform consistency and texture. However, it doesn’t dry as quickly and, if used in a large area, repeated brushing over it can pick it up. Water, on the other hand, breaks down the carbon chains. At times it can give your paints a ‘washed out’ look and make the colors pool since the pigment will tend to attract itself or to sink into the divots of the canvas. At the same time, it is perfectly useful for blending, etc. In fact, I use it more often than glaze since i”m not always looking to thicken my paint so much as get it to a finer consistency and water does that better than glazing medium. In the end, of course, your own practice with both will help you better understand the usefulness of both and, in time, know when you want one over the other.
It’s true: one CAN paint anywhere. And paint anywhere I have: on a board propped up by a chair surrounded by jungle. On a canvas taped to a wall in a downtown studio. Small shared spaces where what I called ‘mine’ was merely the space of the stool, the canvas, and the paint… One CAN paint anywhere in the same way that grass pokes through a crack in the pavement, or there’s a bird’s nest on a telephone pole, a flower in a metal pipe poking out from the ground in the ground.
But, given the choice – and when presented with options – I’ve found certain factors provide a more ideal situation. Here’s a list of some… Your mileage may vary…
– Your light should offer a wide throw and not a specific ‘hot spot’. It’s nice if its on a dimmer switch.
– If you are right-handed, the light should be on your left and if you are left-handed, then it should be on your right – otherwise you will be painting in your own shadow the whole time.
– Likewise, if you are right-handed, your water should be on your right – this makes it easiest for dipping your brush as you don’t have to reach across yourself. (Likewise, if you are left-handed…)
– Full-spectrum lightbulbs are best – like the GE Reveal bulbs. Halogen bulbs don’t work for for painting as their color spectrum is terrible.
– If you do not have any place for your water on the side it should be on, then find a small stand or something as it really should be on the same side as your painting hand.
– It’s best if the speakers for your stereo are behind you but the source should be rather close – so you can change the music easily. By having the music behind you, it can better be part of the environment and not compete with your painting. Besides, you need to be at least 10 feet from the speakers to get a decent sense of space to the sound.
– High ceilings are nice as they give an open sensation, however subtle, to the top of the head. It is also easier to work on larger canvases or raise your easel up. If your ceiling is just average height, don’t worry. It’s not worth knocking a hole in the ceiling.
– It’s nice to have a cat next to you while painting. They are gentle and don’t ask much. Dogs… not so much.
– Organize your paints so that you have drawers for them – so they are accessible but out of the way. Keep the tubes for the painting you are working on in a separate drawer from the others so it’s easiest to get to the ones you need quickly when you want them.
– If you paint with acrylics, the best method of water bucket/palate is to use a bucket for the water along with a large lid that fits on the bucket as your palate. This way, when you’re done painting, you can put the lid on your bucket. The water condenses on the underside of the lid where your paints are and keeps them wet. It’s great for a day or two.
– As for brushes: keep a jar or something with the main brushes you use and then keep all the others in other jars that are out of the way.
– Don’t bother with ‘artist grade’ gesso brushes. That’s bullshit.
– Also, if anyone tries to sell you ‘artist grade’ sandpaper, go to a hardware store. Their sand paper will be exactly the same. (Use the sandpaper to smooth up the gesso on the canvas)
– It’s nice to have good windows in your studio. You want to be able to see outside, have a sense of daylight, etc.
– The studio walls should be white. The reflected light of the walls will affect the coloring of your canvas. If you have colored walls, they will tint your canvas a certain color, especially at night, and it will throw you off. You want all your reflected light to be a neutral white.
– A few plants are nice. Besides adding to the general ambiance, they help to clean the air.
– Get a good easel but not one with too many bells and whistles. Bells and whistles tend to get in the way. Most importantly, your easel should be something you can raise and lower without much fuss.
Finally: just paint. Make art. Just do it. Stop thinking about setting something up that’s ideal. The most important thing is that your water is on the side of your painting hand and that your light is on the opposite side and that your canvas is flat and somewhat vertically oriented in front of you and you have something to sit on, even if it’s just a bucket. Everything else is auxiliary to the main goal: making Art.
So get to it. Go make some art.
I am offering long-term private classes to committed artists looking to deepen their creative explorations. These classes are more of an extended mentorship – a dialogue – whereby we go through all of the steps of the creative process and work towards finishing a fully realized painting. Please read on for more thoughts and and ideas about this. If you are interested in working with me, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Over the past few years, I’ve given a lot of thought as to what I have to teach others about art and creativity. One of the most important tools at an artist’s disposal is the imagination. This tool of the imagination is a powerful thing. We have the ability to morph and shape things in our visual spaces: to move in and out of them and find relationships between them. Successfully translating that to the canvas is the triumph of the visual artist.
Through this art that we make – these visions, these ideas, these imagined mindscapes – we can explore ourselves and our relationship to the internal and external worlds. Focusing that inner eye and giving it a voice through spontaneous expressions is something I’ve spent a lot of time working with. It is through visualization, moving through archetypes, personal symbols, and wordless spaces, that one finds meaningful compositions to create.
Invariably, teaching techniques for tapping into one’s personal creativity leads to exploring the translation of that onto the canvas. And so this, of course, leads back to technique. I’m not shying away from sharing ideas and approaches in that realm. On the contrary, technique is of utmost importance because if we wish to successfully translate our ideas and visions to the canvas, we need to have the right tools at out disposal. However, for me, the foremost thing is the vision. The vision – a well-explored, habitated, percolated, lived in, rotated, and fleshed out space that we know inside and out – in our minds, our hearts, our guts. It is that deeper creative process which I would like to share with others.
So these thoughts led me to decide to offer private classes to committed students who would like to work on developing a better pathway between vision and realization. I’ve chosen this approach – private classes – because I prefer working one on one. We can really get into the true process of creativity that way. These classes are specifically for artists who want to work with me in finding a deeper method of translating the internal vision – the visceral, emotional, and personal movement of it – to the canvas.
For me, the true magic of a piece happens by myself in my studio on my own time. What I would like, is to allow others to have that space for themselves while still having the instruction – the dialogue – available to them.
With these private classes, I want to work with interested artists through the many steps towards completing a fully realized painting. Work will include various visualization techniques, journaling, discussions about color and compositional theory, creating sketches, drawings, and studies towards the finished piece and, finally, translating those ideas onto the canvas, thereby completing a larger painting. It will be fun and, perhaps, difficult but, I hope, ultimately, rewarding for all involved.
We are fortunate to have many modes of communication at our disposal – phones and Skype and emails and more – so it’s not necessary that we live in the same city. What we will do is create a schedule of weekly or bi-weekly one hour check-in over the course of several months. Through that time, work will be shared and discussed. We will talk about modes and methods of creativity that you can work with at your own pace.
Movement and commitment to the process are required! Honesty, openness, and a willingness to communicate are a MUST! And you have to WANT to paint because of that inner drive, that desire to create: to make art simply for the love of it!
If you would like to work with me, I would love to hear from you!
Please email me at [email protected]. Include some images of your work and some thoughts on where you’re coming from and where you feel you might be heading. Don’t be shy! There’s no right or wrong! :)
A few notes:
The title of a painting should be like a very short poem.
Most often, the title is the only chance the artist has to share any words with the viewer in regards to the painting. The title is like a signpost, suggesting a direction for the viewer to head in. It is a collection of words or a singular word there to evoke a feeling. I like it when a title sings. To me, a good title has rhythm and cadence, even if it is just one word, and captures the mood and embodies the painting. A ten word title is ok and sometimes, that’s what is necessary. A twenty word title starts to beleaguer itself with it’s own verbosity. We are, afterall, in the business of looking at art and not reading books. Our titles should be like short poems, not sonnets or epics. The painting is the sonnet. It is the epic. The title is the final dahs and is there to offer the viewer guidance.
But the title should not be the obvious. It should not point out what is in the picture. That’s just redundant. And, unless that really is all that there is to be said (as in “Boy in Blue” or “Hunters after the hunt”) then it should point to what is NOT in the picture. It should point to the intention, the vision, the emotion of the experience.
I choose titles that offer not just a clue to the vision but are almost enigmas unto themselves, unveiling yet another facet of the artwork. A painting – this collection of lines and colors and visual cues – is something of an enigma. A good painting draws the viewer in – showing, not telling. We are especially talking here of the paintings of the more internal world – not still lives and landscapes. Paintings that have recognizable elements that diverge into flights of fancy and dreams of divinity.
In those dreams of divinity words echo through like afterthoughts. Sometimes I have a wisp of a word that wanders into my mind while making a painting and I seize upon it. That’s the one! Or two… or three… I try to remember to write it down so that later I’m not wracking my brain trying to remember.
Later, while sitting writing, I draw upon that thought and others… and distill out the thread a statement that eventually solidifies into what seems like an impenetrable idea and that becomes Title. Sometimes Violet (my wife) listens to my title, says no, no good. And gives me a better one. Or we bounce it back and forth until something more prefect arises. Sometimes, I say no, that’s the title.
Sometimes I have no title at all and can’t think of a thing and so I leave it to her and she gives me something that is a piece of poetry that ties it all together.
Titles: they are poetic accents to a masterpiece.
The thing is, at 3am you’re up and you’re getting something to eat and maybe a drop to drink and you notice: the plane of the wall meets the plane of the ceiling and the busy-ness of the spice rack to the planar composition of the stove top sort of off sets the shifting perspectives and it’s so sublimely perfect that you really just want to go wake everyone up but you know that you and you alone might be the only one to ever have appreciated this corner of reality. Blue to burgundy to beige to gold and you can’t help but want to run to the type writer – the keyboard – the pen and the pencil – and get it down – that inspiration. Maybe you just study the lines and do your best to remember it.
To the casual observer that sounded like a lot of hokey artspeak. But you and I: we are not casual observers.
That’s the thing though. As you go about your life growing into the mindset, the framework, the vision, of being an artist and really living it, you find that you live in this constant aesthetic appreciation of everything around you and you see it everywhere. You live gradations. You feel lines. You breathe curves. When you see a fine version of some archetypal shape, you can’t help but mention it. When you see a fine composition of not so obvious forms you can’t help but admire it. The lines of the situation are juxtapositioning with the lines of the symmetrical metric and it’s all masterfully done…. it’s lovely and you love it.
That’s what it is to be an artist. You can’t help but every so often want to shout from the roof tops about just how beautiful the hue is right now or the color of the sky or the arch of a tree or the crack in the pavement. It’s a hundred million colors and angles all conjoining at once to create this composition so breath-takingly sublime that you wonder just how no one else stops to notice it.
After a while, you realize that everything is aesthetics. When we are talking about the good of the environment, or the health of another, or whatever the vision of the future is: it is that which looks most beautiful to us and satisfies our aesthetic sense in the way that a mathematician might speak of an equation as ‘elegant’. The best solutions often have a clean and elegant quality to them, no matter how complex. The things we find beautiful in nature have a similar quality, regardless of their complexity. Likewise, in our own lives, we seek out things which are beautiful or satisfy our vision thereof.
Cultures have different value systems around beauty and the styles of one group can completely contradict that of another. It’s as true to nations and societies as it is to cliques in high school. Yet. Yet, I feel that there are certain qualities that become truly and transcendentally beautiful. Things which lead to health. Watching someone move with a graceful awareness. Sweet smiles. Happiness. Peace.
As we tune ourselves to this appreciation we might find that, while the big things seem so obvious, the small things become more and more obvious too.
There: in the way that the angle of the wall meets the corner of the room where the buddha sits as a statue of bronze and is all the more pronounced due to the fact of the crown molding and nobody notices – no one pays it much mind – but you.
There: in the way that, while sitting at a stop light, you notice the dogwood tree blooming and it’s branches frame the hillside behind it like some kind of Japanese Zen painting. The blue of the sky to the pink of the flowers to the crisp lines of the branches make you sigh and your heart feels a sweetness.
There: in the rows of houses. There: in the lines of mountains. There: in the cavalcade of color which is the crashing ocean reflecting the sunset.
Love it. Love it. Love it.
I’ve sat in thousands of locations. I’ve been in cars and clubs and cafes and restaurants and dreams and bedrooms and offices and lobbies and alongside street side vendors. I’ve stood in front of urinals and wandered alleyways and knelt beside mossy mountain brooks and circumambulated stupas all white and gold and marveled at archways built to the glory of the heavens and through them all there have been these moments of appreciation of aesthetic quality, this beauty. In the things which have come about without the hand of man it can feel so natural, so sweet, so grand. In the things that we have created: it is one more marker on the road of humans reaching towards the highest expression of their most highest aim. Ground touching sky. Heaven meeting earth. Self and other recognizing the same and in that – in that space – where beauty is as natural as the breeze – It’s such a lovely thing. A most sacred thing.
We have such a strong desire to greet that which is unknowable and to touch that which is untouchable. In our art we can experience a bit of that. In the art of others, we hope to taste a little of what they have tasted. In the styles and forms that are given to us as popular and cool: we might even see it there as well.
Pay attention to the corners as much as the spotlights. Appreciate the alleyways, marvel at the pattern in the tree bark, marvel at the highway overpass.
Marvel at the beauty of your own dark demons.
Love it all.
1. Sleep when you are tired. Naps are perfectly acceptable.
2. Eat when you are hungry. Eat good food, just not too much.
3. Paint even when you don’t feel like it. You’ll never get anything done otherwise.
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