Finding Your Artistic Voice

My first oil painting class in college was “taught” by a man who was obviously a real artist as he wore a beret at an angle on his head and sported a silver-tipped goatee. He went on at some length about how painting was expression and that it was counter-productive for anyone to attempt to direct another’s path to personal expression. He told us that we needed to reach deeply into ourselves and find that center from which our voice would arise, let it come naturally and express itself in paint on our canvasses.

What followed was an entire semester without teaching. He went out of his way to avoid teaching moments. In frustration at the lack of teaching, I decided to come to class with a problem for him to help me to solve. I brought in a canvass on which I had loosely suggested a desert scene with thin washes of oil paint applied almost like a watercolor. On this, in one place only I had applied thick impasto passages with a painting knife. When he came around to me on his round of not-teaching erudition, I explained how I was stuck. I wanted to combine thick and thin on one canvas but could not see how to make them work together. He paused, then said, “Combining thick and thin is difficult…but…you’re doing great. Keep going.” This he said as he clapped me on the shoulder and walked away.

In frustration I muttered to the universe, “If I were a teacher I would at least try to teach something.” I didn’t realize what effect throwing such a pebble into the water of the universe could bring about. I ended up teaching – and enjoying it.

Because of that experience and many other discussions that took place in the hallowed halls of academia I got the impression that I should be spending more time trying to develop my own special unique voice as an artist, that personal style was something we started with and then developed the techniques and abilities needed to sustain it. I felt that I was somehow lacking, and might never be an artist, because I really just wanted to develop the necessary skill that would allow me to depict the elusive beauty that surrounded me in nature, never realizing that my “voice” would come, and would revolve around that concept of beauty.

It wasn’t until I had been painting for a number of years that I noticed that I was developing a personal approach, but by then it didn’t matter as much to me. There are some natural things that contribute to the development of our personal style,things that seem to attach themselves to the process of creation.

In the next few blog postings I will describe a few of the ones that helped form the way I work. Yours will be different, so while we can learn from other artists we should also watch what we are doing for evidence of the emergence of our own personality imprinting itself on the process.


In the beginning I was afraid of color, especially bright colors. My palette did not include red or bright yellow. I painted mostly with Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue. Orange graced my palette in the hope that it would make me look more like an artist. This fear of color forced me to look at other aspects of painting. I became very aware of how the great artists handled values. Artists like Caravaggio and Rembrandt showed me how passages of light could lead the eye around a composition. I viewed many art books upside down. People passing by in the library may have thought I suffered from a strange form of dyslexia, but I was studying how these artists had organized their paintings into connected patterns of darks and lights.

For some reason watercolor seemed to address my own personality so I studied top watercolorists to see how they organized values. I was converted, and became a devout valueist, (as opposed to colorist). Here are a few of the artists who influenced me along these lines.


“Rocks And Reflections” by Theodore Kautzky

I was giddy with excitement at discovering how powerfully I was drawn into this painting from the lower right corner in a strong diagonal to the line of surf at the left. Then Kautzky pulled me back along the light line of surf to the darker rocks on the right. These formed a value bridge to the line of rocks jutting out into the ocean and climaxing with the high rock form. It was simple and powerful. I was hooked on connected values and countering diagonals.

Another artist who cast a long shadow on my artistic development was Robert E. Wood, a watercolor artist who was a part of the California Watercolor group. They profoundly influenced  the development of watercolor in the USA.


“Deep Creek” by Robert E. Wood

If you squint at this painting you will see how the artist wove the lights and darks into patterns that seemed to embrace each other.  The darker values move across the bottom from right to left, then connect to  similar values moving up the left side. The transition continues from darker values in the rocks to darker values in the trees and sky, moving across the top of the painting before descending on the right side and culminating in the figures. This creates an interlocking pattern of lighter values that move up into the central area of the painting.

I never met any of these artists. Their influence was through the books that they wrote and which I found in the library. I am grateful to them.  Another artist who shone light into my corner was Philip Jamison. His book, Making Your Watercolors Work, provided examples of simple arrangements of light and dark passages.


“Looking West” by Philip Jamison

How beautifully simple in its arrangement. Just a band of darker values sandwiched between two bands of light. However he provided a subtle passage from the foreground lights through to the lights in the background. Most of the landscape is suggested with only a little clearly defined. Detail is not as important as the value passages.

I am indebted to these and countless other artists who showed me the power of values while I struggled with the fear of color. Looking back I realize that it was my fear that made it necessary to study the power of connected value passages. Later I addressed the fear of color and am no longer hesitant to use it, in fact I love it.

Next time I will touch on the impact of countering diagonals and the dynamic they showed me in organizing a space.






A Painting is a Puzzle

A painting is nothing but a carefully arranged puzzle of shapes of value and color. Get the shapes right, the value relationship between the shapes right, and the color appropriate. Then the painting will probably need fewer details than you had thought.

Sandstone Abstract

February 2014 Newsletter

As I write this, it is snowing. After a January that was more sunshine than storm, it is finally snowing. Truth be told, I am not overly fond of shoveling the stuff. I would love to have it snow 15 feet in the mountains because the runoff is our source for irrigation during the Summer. Green grass and gardens are blessed by the snow up there. The snow on my driveway does little for the water table.

Having said that, I will admit that I profit from the exercise involved. And there are some wonderful artistic blessings that come from the snow.
First is the fact that the snow tends to cover all the things that are not aesthetically essential in a scene. All those little items that can creep into our paintings and take over like mold on cheese. Snow scenes tend to look more like paintings, paintings in which the artist selected the main shapes and left untouched white paper for 50% of the painting.
See how we don’t miss what is covered up by snow in this photo?


All that is left is the large rock form, complemented by the simple shapes that surround it. In the Summertime this scene would contain a lot more information which we would have to simplify in order to create a strong image like this.

Nan and I were going over the Logan Pass in glacier National Park in June. The pass had just been open for a week!  I photographed this peak which was made stark and powerful by the contrast of simple white areas.


Like most of us I am often seduced by all those little things that are in a scene and don’t remember the lesson that snow teaches me every winter: Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!  Every year Winter snow make me see afresh the sights in my own neighborhood. Things I drive by every day and don’t really look at because they are presented amid a plethora of competing details. I suppose it is like ambient noises in a crowded restaurant that make it difficult to hear what is being said at your own table.

Snow also brings strong value patterns into view that might otherwise be lost. The connectedness of dark values in the peak, the middle ground rock forms and the foreground trees in this photo might not be seen without the snow to blot out the other clutter.
Here is a drawing I did on site at Logan pass. It benefits from the simplicity and pattern seen there.


The high contrast is also a quality of snow scenes that has to be sought out in other times of the year. A consistent quality among beginning watercolorists is the lack of strong contrast. The paintings usually exhibit a range of values from very light to medium value. Learning why snow scenes are so appealing can offer us the encouragement to explore the darker side of the value scale. A pianist who only plays the keys on the upper end from middle C has never experienced the beautiful contrast that can make the music sing. Similarly, painting only in the upper range of values can diminish the otherwise rich experience of contrast.

Here is a scene just around the corner from my house. I drive past this often, and always enjoy  the arrangement of shapes, but in the snow it takes on a more graphic quality.

I was drawn to the linked value pattern leading from the fence on the left, through the building and out through the fence on the right. In my mind I eliminated even more than the snow did, and pictured it without the trees on the left and the distant buildings on the right. That would create a value pattern that touched three edges of the format. Then I put that in a preliminary drawing.


So, even though I have to do some shoveling, I love the snow for its visually transforming effect on the world around me, and the encouragement it gives me to simplify. For those of you who live in regions without snow, come visit the rest of us who inhabit the lands of winter contrast.

Remember that YOU are the master

Remember that you are the master of the painting. Never let the subject matter, or especially a photo of the subject matter become your master. Be willing to toss out a lot of “stuff” that makes it into a photo. Your camera does not have that kind of editing tool.

Using randomness in watercolor painting.

Following are a number of techniques artists have employed in watercolor painting with success.  All have one thing in common.

1. Place tissue paper over the paper and paint large random patterns, then lift the tissue and do a painting on the muted passages left by the tissue. Even colored tissue can be used.

2. Paint plastic wrap and then before it has a chance to dry,dab the painted plastic on the painting. Interesting textures will result.

3. Wet the entire surface and pour liquid color on, tilting the board to allow it to run in different directions.

4. Spatter paint into wet passages.

5. Spatter paint onto a dry surface, then spatter water on top of that.

6. Spray wet edges of a passage with water and allow the paint to disperse into adjoining spaces.

7. Transfer paint from your palette to the painting with wadded up newspaper.

8. Collage papers over passages and use opaque paints to re-define shapes.

There are numerous other technical “tricks” that can and have been employed. Any of them can be over-used and descend into trite cliches when they are used for their own sake, as a substitute for creative thinking, risk taking and problem solving.

What these techniques all have in common is the random order they bring to the painting. Nature has a way of repeating motifs and patterns while at the same time avoiding redundancy. Motifs are always repeated with infinite variations. Our methodical tendencies usually propel us toward mechanical replication, a wall paper approach. Every fence post is the same length, equally spaced, and the same value. Every limb is a mechanical reproduction of the last one. When I catch myself doing this I refer to it as the Larry, Curly, Moe syndrome. Anything that disrupts this Assembly line activity and introduces spontaneity and the accidental is good.

Because these techniques introduce the accidental into the process of painting, they more closely replicate the randomness found in nature. If they are used as a means to usher into your painting the vibrancy of randomness and suggestive accidentals, they are very useful. They can cause you to see the painting in a new way, even force you to adopt a different strategy. New images may assert themselves into the painting. You might see new possibilities. You might even discover that you like the accidental passage as it landed with no re-touching. That is what happened in this painting, titled, “After The Storm”. I liked the spatter that suggested a road without me painting one.



In this case I loaded a brush with a lot of water and a cool neutral purple, and tapped it on my finger above the area on the lower right. Then I rinsed my brush and repeated the tapping with water only to randomly disperse some of the spatter. This I followed with some spatter using a yellow. Some of the texture on the building was accomplished by spattering water on the dry painting, then rubbing it briskly with a paper towel.

Draw for Understanding

Drawing connects you with a subject more directly than any other thing. Draw for understanding. Draw to explore the subject. Draw to search out its hidden patterns. Draw to pursue its design possibilities.


January 2014 Newsletter

The holiday season is always a busy time of year, family and family traditions take up most of the time. Before it starts we think how much we will
get done when all that free time arrives. Then it hits. There is barely enough time to get all the necessary preparations, shopping, visiting and
decorating accomplished, let alone doing any art. It’s natural to think of art as completed paintings, requiring a significant commitment of time, and so we don’t begin.

Perhaps we should think instead in terms of honing skills in smaller projects. Drawing is the perfect answer. We don’t have to set aside hours of
time to do a drawing. The great benefit is that drawing teaches us everything we need to know anyway if we are going to do a painting, but it
only takes a fraction of the time. No technical concerns, no medium to get in the way, no clean-up, just direct observation and joyous mark-making.

What would be a good subject for a drawing? The answer is, anything! Pick up a pair of scissors, your camera, or purse and draw it.
This sack was a perfect subject for the practice of seeing relative values.

















Pull out some photos you have considered for future paintings and do quick drawings to plan a painting. Decide things like the eye movement through the composition, the pattern of lights and darks, the area of dominance, what things you could leave out of the painting. Watch the drawing progress and. Don’t think of it as an act of recording a collection of things. Think of it as arranging shapes and values within a format. These drawings are valuable sources for painting.

Portraits are excellent subjects, as the topography of the face is a study in planes and volumes. Time spent drawing faces is never wasted time.
What you learn from doing it will pay dividends in the future. Here is a suggestion. Instead of practicing from your own photographs of family
members, use the photographs of others. After all, this is not for public display, only for practice. A great source is an internet photo-sharing
site. I belong to one called If you go to the site and type rock4art in the search window you will find me. You can choose “search everyone’s uploads” and type in a subject like “homeless” and you will pull up photos from all flickr members who have posted photos with “homeless” in the title.

Here is a drawing I did a couple of years ago from a photo posted by a flickr member in Moscow. This face was a study in planes and also in leaving
thin lines for whips of hair. My challenge was to draw the beard without drawing hairs. So I studied the patterns of values and drew the patterns
instead of hairs.


















Most flickr members join multiple groups. There are many groups for drawing and watercolor, oil landscape etc. I joined a group called Julia Kay’s  Portrait Party. The rules in this group were simple – post only paintings and drawings of other JKPP members – artists drawing artists. Here are a few portraits I posted of fellow KKPP members.































So sneak in some drawing during the hectic break and anjou the search. I hope you all had a fabulous Christmas filled with love and joy, and that you have a most rewarding 2014, filled with growth and learning. I plan on it.

Happy New Year!



What to ask yourself about a subject

The first question to ask yourself about a subject is Why? Why does the subject want me to paint it? What about it catches my attention. If you can answer that, you have the basis for making a good painting.

Artistic Traditions

In many art schools today students are encouraged to defy traditions, think outside the box, and perhaps even defile traditions.  The fact is that even in their repudiation of traditions in art, they are acknowledging the existence of traditions. They simply forget that were it not for those traditions against which they rebel, they would not be here. Breaking with traditions is of course part of artistic tradition. Ironic isn’t it?

I freely acknowledge my debt to the legions of artists that have preceded me. I am grateful to them and stand humbly in their shadows. Artists from Sargent and Homer to Rex Brandt and Marilyn Simandle  have left their mark on me. I feel indebted to the abstract expressionists for making me aware of the expressive power of marks and brush strokes of color. That long line of artistic tradition is something I am proud to be a part of.

I was at Mesa Verde once and picked up a little shard of pottery. Pressed into the clay was the finger print of that long ago Anasazi artist. That fingerprint. Suddenly instead of looking at a representative piece of pottery from an ancient civilization and culture, I felt a sense of brotherhood. This was an individual, a fellow artist, a part of my tribe of art travelers. I think that every piece of art I have been impressed by has contributed in some small way to what i am. I want to pass along as much as I can. I want to bear the torch for awhile and pass it on in that grand tradition of  art.

I owe a special debt to certain artists for what they left behind. One such for me was Ted Kautzky who wrote a book called “Ways With Watercolor”. I found it in the public library when I was an art student. his work was so clean and fresh that I sought to emulate him. I learned a lot in the striving although my own inner pulse won out and my paintings do not look like his at all. His other book, “Pencil Broad strokes” was even more important to my artistic development. He was a master draftsman whose use of the broad stroke technique was incredible. My own drawing is a direct outgrowth of his examples. When people remark on my sketch books, I point them to Ted Kautzky. I never met him, but if I ever do in another life, I will thank him. I am including one of his drawings and one of mine so you can compare the styles. His is much more controlled and mine more free, but the influence is evident. Ted is on the left, Carl on the right.

Ted Kautzky


Cache Valley Farm









Here are a few of the watercolor artists after Ted Kautzky who have had their share of input into my creative development. The input occurs at various points in our growth – usually just when we are ready to absorb what that artist has to give.All of these artist’s works contained evidence of sound design and expressive drawing, two fundamental skills and disciplines that cannot be overstressed. Without those a painting is just a showcase of technique, the frosting without the cake. Sometimes the influence may have been just one painting that rang a little bell when I saw it or studied it in a book. That influenced the next painting and that little spark continued into future paintings without conscious effort. This list is just a few, the list if complete, would be far too long. Of all of these I have met only one.

Mario Cooper,  Henry Gasser,  Phillip Jameson,  Dong Kingman,  Roy Mason,  Tom Nicholas,  John Pike,  Ogden Pleisner,  Don Stone,  Frederic Whitaker,  Andrew Wyeth,  Robert E. Wood,  Milford Zornes,  Tony Couch,  Charles Reid and Alex Powers.

Be a part of this glorious tradition. Learn all you can and pass it on.



The Art of Mark Making

I am afraid that too often we treat paintings and drawings as end products only, with little thought about the actual process. I would like to suggest a somewhat different approach. Think of drawing and painting as a love affair with the marks the material makes. Each tool, whether it be an oil painting bristle brush, a watercolor brush, a pencil, stick of charcoal, conté crayon or stick dipped in ink, makes  distinct types of marks.

Lines themselves, aside from what they may describe possess unique characteristics. They can  appear charged with energy and pent up tension, or languid and restful. A study of the kinds of lines found in drawings by Hokusai or Rico LeBrun will confirm this.

My first art experience was that of watching a line magically appear at the tip of a pencil as I pulled it along. I was enthralled with it. Everywhere I pulled the pencil that magic line followed, like a snail leaving its silver trail along the walkway. My mother came by, took me off the wall and gave me some paper. I have been in love with that line ever since. Pulling a brush across rough watercolor paper produces different lines or marks depending on how I hold it – vertically, at an angle, or dragged sideways. The pencil when rotated in the fingers while pulling a line produces wonderfully varied lines. I love them all-the thick bold marks to the delicate, even brittle lines of a finely sharpened tip.

I believe that falling in love with the unique marks of each tool is an essential part of serious art. I am talking about the serious art that is at its core, playful. A serious relationship is one with fun involved, and we should consider our relationship with the mark-making tools of art  a serious relationship.

I am posting a couple of examples of my involvement with the particular marks possible using two kinds of watercolor brush, the round pointed and the flat..

This first one is a little study done with brush and ink thinned with water. Instead of dealing with the trees in the usual way – doing an outline and filling in between the lines- I lay the brush down sideways and dragged it. I consciously strove for haphazard, random patterns that I could add other darker lines to. Oh, the fun I had doing this playful piece! I still love it. Every line was an act of love. The trees are suggested more than defined. I was both the artist making the marks and the observer watching it happen.


Aspen Tangle










Ephraim Barn b








Part of the joy of doing this watercolor was the marks made by twisting and turning the flat brush as I moved across the foreground. In order to duplicate the randomness of nature, I had to do this with my focus on dancing with the brush in such a way that I allowed the brush to make random marks, but in the direction I wanted them to go. If we always hold the brush the same way, it will make the same kind of stroke over and over in a boring, repetitive manner.

I encourage you to explore each tool for its variety of possible marks, from light to dark, thick to thin, flowing to ragged. Have fun while you seriously discover the range of possibilities.