The Subject and the painting.

During the last Summer of my formal art training I registered for a full Summer semester (12 credit hours) of watercolor. Nothing else, just watercolor. The faculty member I would be working under said that only one other student had taken that on and he had never completed it.I am just pig-headed enough that I did it in spite of the warning, turning in seven paintings each week for  12 weeks.  They weren’t all zingers, that is certain, but the immersion forced me to find subjects everywhere. I began by traveling as far as 25 miles to find good subject matter. I would have gone farther, but I couldn’t afford the gas. By the end I was finding plenty of subjects around town and within my own neighborhood.

The self-imposed discipline made me stop looking for beautiful subjects, and instead I began looking for interesting arrangements of light and dark shapes, patterns that moved my eye around, contrasts of line and shape and visually interesting corners of my daily experience. Some of these were what might be called beautiful, like some flowers in my neighbor’s yard, but most were not. They were little overlooked places I had passed by a hundred times. Now I saw them differently.

The play of sunlight across the corner of a couple of old wooden steps can make as beautiful a painting as a portrait of the latest hollywood starlet. Make that a more beautiful painting than the latter. It is not the subject that makes a good painting. As an example, Jesus Christ as a subject has featured in some of the most sublime works of art as well as in some of the most hideous.

Frederick Franck in his book The Zen of Seeing said, “Drawing is the discipline by which I constantly rediscover the world. I have learned that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle.” That is one of the best reasons for drawing I have ever heard. Drawing is the discipline that helps us see the divine in the ordinary. I often find myself drawing and painting things that I would not want in my yard, or even next door. After all, I don’t want the value of my property to decline. However, I am glad that some properties are left to slowly make their way  to dissolution, because as they fall under the forces of Nature, the rather boring repetitions that man created become more passionate and playful rhythms. I am including here a photo of a street which would be a nightmare for a real estate agent to try to unload.

It would take a fortune to fix up these houses.

I was taken by the visual complexity and the business of the shapes and lines here. I began exploring it with a pen, and fell into the process of watching the drawing grow. Below is the final result of the pen’s dance over these forms. I enhanced the drawing with watercolor washes. The artistic value of the drawing is by no means tied to the property value of the houses. A passion for the process, and the practice of drawing constantly are the most important ingredients.

The pen starts a line that moves around an through a subject like an explorer, always at the point of discovery.

Have a Merry Christmas, and a fulfilling New Year. And ask Santa for some drawing materials.

Best regards


If you have had experiences that corroborate my point here, please share them.


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4 Responses
  1. Kahna Emery says:

    I agree with you about old,run-down,forgotten,rusty,character-filled subjects! I am finding them all over the ‘town’ of Spokane, Washington. There is so much beauty in the ‘mundane’ and I thank God that He has enabled me to see it. I think the pen and wash titled “No Forwarding Address” above is just great! At 59 I am over-coming my fear and am actually painting. I feel like I have been blind and am just starting to see! I am soaking up all of the lessons on your book, ‘Your Artist’s Brain.’

    • Carl Purcell says:

      Thanks, Khana, for that very encouraging comment. I read a quote from an artist whose name I can’t recall who said, “I live in a world of blind people, because we are taught to read, not to see. He is right. You said it well when you said you felt you had been blind and are just starting to see. I will add, I see because I draw. I am glad you are finding my book helpful.
      I flew into Spokane on my way to Alaska to teach a workshop. I want to go there sometime because it looked absolutely beautiful.

  2. Kahna Emery says:

    In response to your last reply, (April 3,’13); Did you mean Alaska is beautiful or Spokane? On your (great) website, it shows a watercolor workshop in Spokane on October 16th, 2013. (I hope I can make it!) So, when you do come to our humble town be easy on it; have an open mind. It’s rough around the edges; been through a lot, but it’s got spunk and character! Maybe you will have time to see the beautiful, picturesque buildings; ie., Gonzaga University, etc.

  3. Sagnik says:

    Hi Carl,

    One day, while surfing through Pinterest, I chanced upon your website & could now, thankfully immerse myself into the wealth of knowledge that you’ve shared … Simply GREAT !!
    I truly believe your statement that drawing makes us see or see better … but I thought that communication is also an important aspect. After all, to me, life is all about communication – how you communicate with others , how & what others communicate to you (your understanding & interpretation of sensory signals !!)… what do your surrounding communicate to you (how “well” you see) etc … & thereby once you draw, you get to see yourself how well you’ve interpreted your observation & how lucidly you are communicating that to others … it’s like a song with no sound. This ability to communicate gives me a great satisfaction … which forces me to take up another subject & then another & so on.

    I’m an architect by profession and a watercolorist by passion.

    God Bless You,

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