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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.

Fears:

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.

Kautzky

“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.

Wood

“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.

Jameson

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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Artistic Traditions

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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 Discipline of Art and the Art of Discipline

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I teach a drawing class for non-majors at Snow College. On the whole, these students have done well – so far. But today I introduced them to point-to-point contour drawing. I lost count of the number of times I said, “Slow down. Pause with your pencil on the paper while you consider where the contour is going, what happens along the way, and where you want to emphasize it. SPEED KILLS. Don’t rush this.” Yet despite constant exhortations to slow down and consider the line, all but two treated the exercise like a timed test. The results were dismal. The lines lacked confidence and quality, and the students were frustrated. They couldn’t slow down.

We are living in a culture today which prizes speed and instant gratification. We can accomplish so many tasks in less time today because of the outpouring of technological innovations, and so we believe that speed is the measure of success.Those tasks which we cannot wrest from the jaws of time we label “talent”.  I would be a wealthy artist if I had ten dollars for every time I have been asked, “How long did it take you to paint that?” And I know that what they want to hear is, “Oh, I spent a couple of months on it!” That would explain why I could do it and they couldn’t. They fail to consider that the time spent honing the skills is part of the equation. The discipline of countless hours spent carefully drawing are not considered. They want to believe that each piece is a separate accomplishment requiring many hours or days or even months.

We praise the “gifted” pianist without considering the four to five hours of dedicated practice time each day before a performance. I heard an interview with an olympic gymnast who was asked what he felt made the difference between him making it on the olympic team and many other gymnasts who were not selected. His answer was, “Twenty minutes.” He went on to explain that he  had worked on his program another twenty minutes each day after everyone else had gone to the showers. That young man knew that discipline was the key, not talent.

We even call these various areas of achievement “disciplines”, yet fail to acknowledge the discipline involved. Isn’t that ironic. As I watched my students I could see on their faces the battle going on inside their brains. All of their societal training was saying, “Hurry, you have to get this done before time runs out!”  And I was saying “Slow down, this is not about finishing the drawing, it is about experiencing the contours.” Fast and furious was fighting with slow and deliberate.  Fast and furious won out.

I love watercolor because its fast drying quality forces me to be focused and disciplined to achieve something that looks spontaneous and fresh. Only the discipline of hundreds of paintings and thousands of hours drawing allows me to do this. People seldom see the drawings, but they are the most important component in this wonderful experience of art.

powdered graphite and pencil.

powdered graphite and pencil.

 

Drawing is the discipline  of seeing. It is for me like the scales and arpeggios for the pianist or batting practice for the baseball player.

Every drawing teaches me something, but most importantly, every drawing is part of the constant discipline of art.

ball point pen drawing in a sketchbook. Notice the lines indicating the format.

ball point pen drawing in a sketchbook. Notice the lines indicating the format.

Painting Great Britain

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Hi everyone,

I haven’t had a chance to post anything for a bit since I was up to my neck teaching two back-to-back watercolor painting workshops in the Southwest of England. We had good weather for the 16 days of workshops, with only a bit of rain. Before our arrival the area had experience constant rain since the middle of May. We were very glad to see that change.

There were some very good paintings produced, and everyone had a great time. Painting on location is always a challenge, and for many of the participants the subject matter was completely different than anything they had ever painted. The architecture is like nothing in the USA, and of course the palette included a wide variety of greens. I have found that the exercise of painting plein air pushes me into deeper observation. Even if the paintings are not the most finished works, the growth from the heightened observation directly influences subsequent paintings for the better. Studio paintings are always better because of the plein air experience.

Additionally, the most growth occurs when we are at the edge of our comfort zones. Fear is the enemy of growth and creativity. Painting on location with other painters can be discomforting, but it is always rewarding. If you have never painted on location, take the next opportunity and join with others who are facing the same angst.

I am writing this from Scotland. Today I was drawing in Fort William on the West Coast. I will post some of the drawings when I return. In the interim, happy painting.

Painting; the time and the price

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How do you answer the question, “How long does it take you to paint a painting?” Most often this question follows close on the heels of, “How much do you sell that for?” I suppose that the two do go together quite often. We pay the plumber by the hour (on top of whatever the house visit is). The cost of services like yard work and house cleaning are all determined by how long it will take to perform the job. But should that determine the price of art?

My standard answer is that the time is irrelevant. We pay a brain surgeon for his skill, not his time. In fact, the less time he spends in there the better. We want the best, and the best will only spend the time absolutely necessary to do the best work.  Art is like that. James Whistler (one of my favorites) said, “An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”

 

I love the story of the Chinese master who was approached by a new client. “Can you paint me a painting of a rooster?, asked the man. “Yes, I can”, the artist replied, and told him the price. “Return in one week and I will have it for you.”  The man agreed and returned one week later  for the painting. “Ah yes”, the rooster.” said the master, and picked up a brush and paper. In five minutes he had painted a beautiful rooster and handed it to the client. The man stammered, “You expect me to pay that much for something that only took you five minutes to paint!”  “Oh, but you are not paying for these five minutes”, replied the master. “You are paying for the week I practiced so that I could do this right.”

I am not sure where the vision comes from or even how it comes. I do know that without hard work it seldom comes. That vision is part what the heart feels, what the brain sees and something else we don’t really control. But it is that something else that links us to a larger force than just us.

Andre Gide, the French writer said, “Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.” More often than not it is the painting that took me the least amount of time that is the best. The ones I labor on (leaving God out of it) l always end up looking worse for the wear.

So perhaps the price should go up as the execution time goes down. What would clients say if we replied to that question of time v/s price with something like, “Well, this one costs a little more because I spent less time on it. I got out of the way sooner and let God finish it.” I am including a 14 X 11 painting that was one of those that just came together from the first brush stroke. The magical feeling that comes when I am both the painter and the observer is a true high. No drug could ever replicate it. And the price is really not relevant.

What actually caught the wind was may spirit as I did this one.

 

Nature’s Secret for fresh, Loose Watercolors

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Here’s an interesting observation: I have never had anyone say in a workshop, “I need to learn how to tighten up, my paintings are too loose.” However, I hear the opposite all the time. The question is, What do we mean by “loose”?  Richard Schmid wrote in his book “Alla Prima”, “…looseness should  describe how a painting looks, not how it is done.?

“Looseness” does not mean the abandonment of control, the spontaneous flinging of paint or swishing of brush in the vain hope that God or some other charitable force will somehow bring deliberation to your frenzied brush strokes. Nature doesn’t grow that way, and we should not paint that way. There is a pattern to Nature’s growth, and the secret to seeing it is in opening our eyes. I know, you probably think that your eyes are open. However, seeing and accurate observation are two very different things. I still keep “seeing” things for the first time that have been in front of me my whole life. Painting helps me to see them, and seeing them helps me to paint better.

When you look past what things are, and see the appearance of things, then you are on the step to painting in a more loose manner.  Instead of defining every item, you then paint how the world appears to you. If you really observe, you will notice that things are not as clearly defined as you imagined. Edges appear to blur and sometimes disappear. What you thought was a gray wall on an old shed is actually a blending of warm and cool colors with a startling range of hues.

To see this requires that you abandon the concepts of item identification and assignment of color to items. This underpinning of blended colors is the reality of appearance. But who in your lifetime patted you on the back for noticing it? No one! Instead you were trained to see the item, name it and correctly identify the name of its color. “What this, Johnny?” You replied, “A rock.” “And what color is it?” “Gray”, you said, and then you got the lollypop. Nobody noticed that the gray rock was actually a soft blending of yellow ochre that morphed into a bluish gay with bits of Sienna in it. That was too complicated. And so, like all the rest of us you went through life naming items and assigning a single color to them. Then you started to paint and all that learning became a giant hurdle you had to climb over in order to really see.

Since watercolor dries fast, the edges can be a problem. They become even more of a problem if you try to paint item by item. Each item then has hard edges around it, effectively separating it from every other item. Even if you follow the excellent advise of seasoned watercolorists who say (as I have often said), “Don’t paint items, paint shapes” you can still end up with a disconnect throughout the painting.

For that reason, I begin with the intermingling of colors I see behind the separate items. This pattern of colors is not bounded by item or shape; it is a foundation that embraces everything. I have included a demonstration begun at a recent workshop. It was not meant to be a final painting, and you will readily notice its shortcomings in design,(I made a boring construction by placing the building exactly in the center.) However, you can see the color moving from warm to cool, from sky to building to ground with no boundary. The connectedness achieved with this approach creates a fresh and energetic presentation despite the bad composition. And another great plus besides the freshness and connectedness is the flexibility. Nothing is nailed down tight, so I can still go into it and add to the image-as long as I don’t over-stroke and make mud out of it. But that is the nature of real looseness-it is flexible, and deliberate – the result of careful, purposeful brushwork

This is the hidden pattern of color as seen in nature (with just a little exaggeration)

 

Sometimes it takes boldness to save a sinking ship.

A New Art Degree

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There are many young artists graduating from university art programs today who can, as Gilbert and Sullivan said, “discourse in novel phrases of your complicated state of mind”, but cannot draw. One university I know has even removed basic drawing from its campus curriculum and offer it only as an on-line course.

These programs place so much emphasis on pushing the envelope that students never discover the wealth within that envelope. As Canadian artist Robert Genn said in his twice-weekly letter (rgenn@saraphina.com), “Our world is coming down off a prayer-rug that faced New York, London and Berlin. For decades, a lot of poor quality art has emanated from these centres, and the world of art schools and University art faculties have encouraged the worship. This mass delusion has undernourished countless echelons of idealistic artkids.”

However, many of these students feel that they wasted their time; that they should have  spent that time practicing and learning to draw. They were taught that the purpose of art is to challenge people’s thinking about what is art, and that the expression of beauty is an out-dated idea. Yet here they stand with degree in hand, and an unsung melody inside wanting to be set free. I have had many people tell me that they learned more in the three days of my workshop than they did in four years at the university. That is a sad indictment of the system.

In my own case I found the academic experience enriching but lacking in fundamental skill training. Beginning drawing classes were taught by graduate students so that the professors could focus on the upper class “serious” students. The drop-out rate was high. Most of what I learned about drawing I learned by studying other artists drawings and by direct observation of the world around me. Mine has been a long road of gradual learning illuminated by small lights that came on less often than I wished. Maybe we need a new art degree, the MOS (Master of Observational Skills).

Have you gone through an entire academic art program and exited feeling artistically undernourished? What kind of experience have you had and how did you gain the knowledge that underpins your current artwork? I’d like to hear your story.

Plein Air painting

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I was recently asked to jury a plein air event. One artist accosted me afterward to complain that his kind of painting was rarely picked for awards in the plein air events.I actually had considered his, considered its merits etc. but decided against it because of the high quality of some of the other paintings. He made this point: Plein air simply means that the work was painted outside.

I think that it means a little more. I think it means it was painted outside because out there you can study first hand the subtle color plays and value changes provided by nature that are often missed in a photo. It means to be part of the environment, the sun, the breeze, the sounds and smells, and to respond to it all while being in it. One could just go out on the deck and paint the studio painting one was going to paint in the studio, and to me that is not plein air painting.  I could be wrong. What do you think?

Working from photographs

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There are artists who deplore the very thought of working from photographic references, believing that to do so is to turn over the creative process to a mechanical device. On the other end are artists who not only use photographic references, but project the image onto the surface and paint it exactly as projected. To me both of these approaches seem a bit extreme. The former smacks of elitism, a form of artistic self-righteousness, and the latter an avoidance of the rigors of drawing, (and the freedom that results from the practice)

I personally believe that the camera is a great tool for the artist. There are things it can capture, like the flight of a bird, or children at play that simply cannot be set up for study in the studio. However, I do believe that painting and drawing en plein air, out there with the sunlight and the insects and the wind and the smells gives one the knowledge that can make a studio painting authentic. The camera has its limitations. It cannot see the subtle nuances of color and value that the human eye can see.  It cannot feel anything about the scene before it. It cannot connect that scene to previous images and experiences. We experience, the camera records, and that is the biggest difference.

When I draw and paint outdoors I bring everything I have ever done to the process. My camera severs this single view from everything else. My brain doesn’t.

I see the subject differently than my camera does. I edit out everything that does not enhance the idea I have about the subject, and in my mind (such that it is) I exaggerate the characteristics that made me stop and look in the first place. That is why so often my photographs are disappointing. They didn’t grasp what I was feeling.  My drawings however, do. My paintings, even though not as perfect as my studio paintings have spirit and are records not only of what I saw, but of how I felt, and of what I considered important.

To illustrate this I am including a drawing I did on site in Polperro, Cornwall, England. I am also including a photograph taken

Drawing done with 6B pencil in my sketch book.

from about the same position, and the painting that was done from my drawing. I used the photo for support since it recorded some little details that I didn’t include in my drawing. The drawing re-connected me with the scene, the smell of the sea, the sound of the seagulls, the retreating trickles of water as the tide went out, and the overall texture of the place. My photo didn’t, but it supplied some precious little tidbits.

Hanging dry dock - Polperro