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how to Jump-start your creative battery.

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We have all hit days when the well seems to be dry, and the dry rut we feel we are in just got deeper.  How do you get the fire back?  How do you open the dam and let the creative waters flow again?  Dwelling on the paucity of ideas and lamenting your lack of talent (whatever that is) is not the answer.

Some artist wanna-be’s just say, “I’m not in the mood today, the muses have not touched me this morning. I have to wait for the creative moment, for the inspiration to hit me.” All of my cattle-raising friends around here know exactly what that is. They shovel it daily.  Don’t fall into that pit. ( It stinks)

The way out of those creative doldrums involves action. You have to stir things up. The creative juices have probably just settled to the bottom. Here are a few things that you can do (especially in watercolor) to stir things up, and all of them involve change.

*Force yourself to see things differently.Turn a piece upside down and work on it while squinting. This eliminates details, and puts the whole thing out of context. This is a change that permits a different kind of seeing.

*Learn from others. Attend workshops from different instructors, as each has something unique to impart. We are all eclectic- a little from here and a little from there- and we end up putting it together in our own unique way. Inspiration can come from other artists, books, illustrations in magazines or lichen patterns in rocks. Be open.

*Court casualness. Approach a painting with a devil-may-care attitude. Have faith that as the need arises, the inspiration will come. And that is a grand key. The inspiration most often comes when we are not courting it. If we try to become inspired we won’t be.

*Court the accidental. What appears to be accidental is actually the random order of Nature taking over. Here are a few things that can bring this into play in watercolor; especially during the initial washes.

1,  Spatter clear water on the paper, then spatter thinned versions of different colors-especially opposite colors like pale orange and pale blue, pale purple and yellows, pale sienna and pale blue. As the spattered color hits the spatters of water the mixtures will be more random and thus mirror Nature.

2. Spatter thinned gesso on the paper (thickness like whipping cream). Allow it to dry for about five minutes. Blot the excess gesso from the surface by patting lightly with an absorbent paper towel. Keep turning the towel so that you don’t re-apply the lifted gesso. Dry completely, then apply light washes of varied colors, alternating between warm and cool colors. This will provide a unique ground for the painting.

3. Use the torn edge of mat board to apply gesso to the surface prior to painting. Apply it with stamping motion or scraping. The idea is to create a random surface that alters the absorbent quality of the surface in unusual ways. This will provide a ground that will give a somewhat textural quality to the initial washes.

* Take note of the rhythm of your brush strokes. Now consciously change the rhythm. Make them jerky, or fluid, or syncopated. Keep your focus primarily on the new rhythm, and only secondarily on the subject. The outcome may surprise you.

* Do a small painting holding the brush only by the tip of the handle. Don’t allow yourself to choke up on the brush. You are going for a home run, not a but to first base.

* Try re-designing using overlapped continuous contour drawing. In the example below I drew a pair of glasses in an unbroken, continuous contour line. Then overlapping this I drew a mug that held a number of pencils. Over this I divided the format with a couple of horizontal lines.

BC 1

This gives me a linear pattern that breaks up the format interestingly in a naturally random manner. Next I used a Chinese ink block and a watercolor brush to add grays and blacks. This is similar to the random scribbles we all did as children (and in my case still do while talking on the phone or listening to speeches or attending meetings I can’t manage to avoid.)

BC 2

There are hundreds of ways to introduce change and randomness into your work. Explore and have fun.


July 2014 Newsletter

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I just watched a short video clip of part of the commencement address given by Jim Carrey at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield Iowa. He made some very insightful and meaningful points, among them:

  1. That we need to dedicate ourselves to a personal ministry – his was to free people from concern. What is ours?
  2. We can fail at something we don’t enjoy, so why not take a chance on what we love.
  3. (worth quoting) -“All there will ever be is what’s happening here. Decisions we make in this moment are based in either love or fear. So many of us choose our path out of fear, disguised as practicality.”
  4. (also worth quoting) “How will you serve the world? What do they need that you can provide? The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is.”

If I had had any sense when I was a student I would have chosen something other than art. I was in Graduate school. I was married with four children. I had only a vague sense of what was waiting for me after graduation. No prospects. No idea of how I was actually going to support my family after the Gi bill ran out and I was booted out of the university with my diploma. I should have been scared to death, but fortunately I didn’t have enough sense to be scared. I was only hopeful and filled with anticipation.

Doors opened up that led me into teaching at Snow College. That somehow led to teaching a Summer Snow art workshop that slowly took off and is still going strong. That workshop led to other workshop offers, which led to writing an article for a national magazine, which led to a book, and another…I could not have scripted that scenario and I don’t know where it will eventually lead. I don’t care. I just love doing what I am doing. I love painting and I love sharing what I learn as I go along – passing the torch. That in itself is good enough for me. I am grateful.

I recently received an e-mail from Mr. Steve Pill, editor of Artists and Illustrators magazine published in London. He asked me to write a couple of articles for the magazine. I just sent in the first and am looking forward to several more.

Jim Carrey is right. If I had made decisions out of fear…”How am I going to make a living?” “I had better get a second degree in something I can use a a back-up in case I can’t make it in art.” What if I can’t sell anything and can’t get a job in some related art industry?” ” I don’t have a safety net!” “Was everyone right? Is art impractical?” The world is going to eat me alive and I have a family depending on me!” “I am not as talented as all those making a living in art.”

If I had followed the litany of fear I would never have done the things I did. That thought scares me now in retrospect. I am glad I didn’t have enough sense to be scared

So we choose to do art. Now isn’t it strange that we look at a subject and fear to change it? We fear a departure from what is actually there in case the painting might fail. What will others think of the painting. Will they discover that I am not as good as they think? And so our fear pushes us into mediocrity. We fail to achieve the potential painting we feel existed in the subject, and produce instead a safe rendering. I challenge you to step out of that comfort zone and face the fear of…whatever.

Let me illustrate.
Nan and I were taking an evening stroll down the banks of the Dart river near Totnes, England with nan’s sister Pam he husband Billy. On the other side of the river I spotted this collection of yachts and boats on a pier. The evening light was scattering pieces of white across the hulls, and the pattern of shapes seemed to dance across the pier, while a chorus of lines sang the music for the dancers across the dark background. I photographed it with the idea of exploring it later.

totnes patterns

Much later in my studio I looked at the image and recalled what initially interested me in the subject; namely the repeat pattern of shapes, no two exactly the same. Drawing is the means for exploring a subject. So on a sheet of drawing paper I extracted the various shapes and motifs to see them out of context.


There were curves that repeated, rectangular shapes with letter forms inside, linear patterns in the rigging and railings, dark shapes under the boats, etc. This study acquainted me with the motifs and separated me from the act of copying. Now that I knew what I was dealing with, what building blocks I had, I could arrange these in whatever order I wanted. So my next step was to explore possible arrangements; juxtaposing, overlapping, increasing sizes, repeating without reason or logic. This is fun because it is so liberating. It frees one from the tyranny of the photo.


These drawings did not take long. This one was done as a demonstration of the search process during last year’s Summer Snow workshop. It has some very good possibilities. Then I did another one exploring a different pattern of values – the arrangement of the dark shapes weaving through the light shapes.



The other day I looked at this drawing anew. I had not taken it to the next step – a painting. So I studied it awhile, drew it out on a half sheet of watercolor paper and began. I had to approach the painting just as I had the drawing, with a willingness to follow wherever it would lead me. The drawing, like the original photo was only a guide. The final product is the painting below. Was it a little scary? YES! But the fear of the unknown, a willingness to go into uncharted territory is a part of the creative life. We just have to embrace the fear and plunge ahead. Which I did. Timidity only guarantees a mediocre failure.

The Yacht Sales

I was happily surprised with the outcome. And I hope that the rest of your Summer is full of wonderful surprises. Embrace the fear that precedes every good painting and every new venture.

Countering Diagonals, a Composition Workhorse.

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Finding your own voice in art is a process not an event. One thing you can do is to pay close attention to your predilections. Most people are actually casual observers and respond to a subject’s content rather than its form As artists we need to be intense observers. When you see a painting you really like, ask yourself why you are drawn to it. Something besides the subject strikes a sympathetic or complementary note in your own personality. Is it the simplicity of its statement, the transitions of value, the use of contrast? It will be one or more of the formal aspects of the painting, not just the content.

During my student days, I found that many of the paintings that drew me into deeper study contained countering diagonals as a compositional element. I mentioned in the last post that one of the early influences on my artistic development was Ted Kautzky. Here is a drawing by him entitled, “Gulls and Shadows”.Ted Kautzky

Kautzky directs my eye around the format through a  series of countering diagonals. From the lower left up through the rocks to the pier, down the pier toward the left side, stopping at the building gently dancing across the masts to the powerful diagonal posts on the left side, down the post to the water and a floating board that returns me to the beginning. Perhaps because I grew up always countering my older brothers, countering diagonal thrusts appealed to my personality. For whatever reason I was drawn to this kind of movement in paintings, and I began employing it in my own work. Artists like John Marin appealed to me because he seemed to understand the countering thrusts of energy that animated nature. 

I explored this dynamic energy in pencil doodles like the ones below.


Each line was a response to the previous line, redirecting the energy like the bumpers in a pinball machine. This little exercise also proved helpful in getting me through boring lectures and speeches.

In this one I responded to energy moving upward in a vertical format. Try this and drawing will take on a new aspect. You will be directing energy in a format instead of merely copying something you see. Learn to feel this dynamic energy. It will also breathe life into your paintings.


As I became more aware of this dynamic force I also discovered how infinite the variations were in its application. So many great artists had utilized it and I had been blind to its power. But like everyone else, I did respond to it.

Here is another painting from Philip Jameson.


See how he stops every diagonal line as it nears the edge of the format, and re-directs it. The result is that our eyes continue cycling around the format on this course of dynamic linear movement.

Here are a couple of mi own uses of this compositional devise.


This one is of Zion Canyon, and although I may have gone too far with the zig-zag of the stream, it nevertheless leads back to where it meets the diagonal thrust of the gap in the canyon walls.


This one, based on the strata and crack patterns in a road cut shows just how dynamic countering diagonals can be in moving the eye around the enclosed space of a format.

Share some of your ideas or favorite examples of this concept of opposing thrusts, and tell us what you have learned about it.


Finding Your Artistic Voice

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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!