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What to ask yourself about a subject

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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

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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 Art of Mark Making

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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.

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.


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[singlepic id=246 w=100 h=75 ]


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[singlepic id=245 w=100 h=75 ]

Authenticating Detail in Painting

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Canadian artist Robert Genn wrote in his latest newsletter about authenticity in art.  You can read it at Mr. Genn is very insightful and erudite but also very down to earth in his writings about this wonderful activity of art. I recommend it to you.

The subject of authenticity is an intriguing one. The question arises, “When does a work stop being authentic and slide into slavish mimicry? I have asked this of myself at times, wondering if I have gone too far. The guiding principle for me is this:  For this particular work, am I adding the authenticating detail the painting requires  or am I bordering on decorative bric-a-brac? Every painting is different, and the answer to the question is always found in my initial intent. What did I want to say about this subject? How did I want the painting to look when it was finished. I don’t want it to look exactly like what is there. A photo can do that better than I can. I see the subject and then see it in my head again, this time as a painting. I want my painting to look like this inner image.

It is impossible to see the painting with all of its detail in your head before you start. But You can visualize the subject as a painting. In fact, if you don’t do this, then you will be attempting a replica instead of painting a painting. This is true whether you are painting en plein air, or working from reference photos in your studio.

As an example I am posting here a photo I took at Kingsbridge, England. I did several small paintings on site that day, but I also took a number of photos of things I wanted to look at later.

The reference photo and its possibilities

The reference photo and its possibilities


I liked the white boat against the dark sea wall in this photo.Then I began the exploration. These are only seven possibilities for arranging the lights and darks in the format. I could have kept going. This helps me to visualize the final painting. From each drawing I picture a different painting – some more detailed, some more simple. The plan I choose determines the amount of detail I will include in the painting.




I decided I liked the value distribution in the second from left at the top.. It is the least developed of all the drawings, but I liked its simple pattern. I liked a couple of the others too, but this one inspired me at this moment, and that’s what counts. Incidentally, If I had done no drawings, then the only source for inspiration would be what my camera saw, and it can’t think! I would have to be a little mad to let it tell me what my painting should look like.

Here is a little painting done from the little drawing plan, and using the photo for authenticating details.

Watercolor using the drawing as the plan.

Watercolor using the drawing as the plan.


You can see that I followed the plan in its distribution of darks coming from the top seft and trickling through the boats to the other side.

The task was to create the value pattern and add enough authenticating detail to make it believable without getting lured into the rocks by the siren call of non-essential details. I opted out on most of the detail in the near boat. I told myself, “just include what is necessary to tell the story convincingly”.



I make a distinction between authenticating details and decorative details. The first are details that help explain the structural form of an object. The orange stripe on the boat does this. Such detail might also include things that help set the stage; like the sea birds here. I also added them to help complete a circular pathway in the composition. The boat with the blue tarpaulin was non essential and rather boring, so it was not included. I also left out all of the interior detail of the second boat, going for suggestion rather than completion. Some rigging was necessary for authenticity, as well as composition. But my purpose was not to show a sailor how much I know about rigging, so I didn’t include it all; just enough to show that I was observing.

Decorative details would be things like all the bricks and stones in the wall, extra rigging, all of the bumpers hanging off the main boat, and bits of stuff lying on the ground.

Too many details that simply decorate surfaces is like too much frosting on the cake. Have you ever had to scrape off the excess frosting to enjoy the cake? Let’s build the cake and add just enough frosting to make it more enjoyable.


The Subject and the painting.

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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.


Loose Watercolor Painting

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A common thought expressed by participants in the workshops I teach is the desire to learn how to “loosen up.” Accompanying this desire to loosen up is the belief that this looseness is somehow linked to speed and randomness in wielding the brush. I see brushes flying back and forth ow dabbing wildly in an attempt to achieve a loose style.

What they are really after has nothing to do with the speed or random wild brushing. In fact quite the opposite. Looseness is not HOW the painting is done. The looseness they are looking for is in the final appearance of the painting. It is a product of careful observation and deliberate application of strokes. When I am painting I ask myself one simple question. I say, “Carl, What do you really see?” That question makes me look past the identification of what is before me and see how close the values are, where the edge is defined and where it is not, where colors flow naturally from one object into the next, and where things do not appear as I would expect them to be.

If we carefully observe we will discover that a lot of what we think we see is really the result of our brain’s ability to fill in the blanks. To take a few clues and extrapolate the rest.If we then deliberately include that same lack of completion in our paintings the resulting appearance is called “loose”. Our trouble is not in being too tight, but in being too literal and in defining every edge . When we clearly define every edge of an object, we effectively divorce it from its environment, and no amount of detail will re-unite them. If we leave those lost edges that we actually see we provide connection points, places where the edge of one shape is connected to its adjacent shape.  This is not an artistic device, it is a fact of nature, of visual reality.

So don’t abandon control and fling the brush around hoping that those accidental strokes will produce the coveted looseness. Look carefully at the world around you and notice the looseness there, the random edge quality that has been hiding in plain sight. Then deliberately make it happen in your paintings. I have found that water moves the watercolor pigments around on the surface much more freely, and more effortlessly than my brush can.

Bold Watercolor Darks

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During the recent workshop in Casper Wyoming someone asked me, “What colors do you mix to get black? “Well”, I said, “I never really try for black because black is so flat”.

Also I have found that any attempt to mix a strong dark ends up with a certain zombie character. I once heard that if you mix Sap Green, Alizarin Crimson, and Ultramarine Blue, then the resulting color will be close to black. Did it. Turned flat.

I have found  that what does produces rich darks is the juxtaposition of dark colors. I use plenty of water so that I am not dry-brushing, and so that the colors will merge along the edge of the strokes. I don’t mix them on the palette, nor do I mix them on the paper. I allow water to gently pull them together.

For the dark colors I use Phthalo Blue, Quinacridone Pink, Transparent Pyrol Orange and sometimes Sap Green. Since the colors are laid down with water and in their pure state they retain their intensity even when dry.

Juicy darks can make the lights really pop!

Both Pthalo Blue and Transparent Pyrol Orange were applied very wet in the darkest areas. In addition I dropped in a bit of Horizon Blue while the surface was still very wet.

I avoided the habit of over-stroking because that would mix the colors and turn them into zombies. When you over-stroke, you watch it croak. Some instructors call this over-stroking “licking” or “petting”. The underlying belief behind over-stroking seems to be, “Why use one stroke when twenty will do?”.  It is however, impossible to make a stroke better by going over it again. With each pass of the brush the stroke loses integrity, clarity and freshness.

So the key is to have your brush saturated with moist paint and loaded with water. Then put the colors down where they can get to know each other in a wet environment and let the watercolor do its thing.