Friday, November 12, 2010


A long and luxurious studio session yesterday afternoon followed a meaningful and satisfying cello practice in the morning. It was the first day that I had really plunged into either activity with attention and patience since we returned from Spain.  In both cases, I actively resisted the impulse to leap in and accomplish something. Instead, I allowed myself to relax and interact with each moment of what was happening.

While I was away, I was aware of a sense of distance and perspective from both activities, and a sense of seeing them -- and myself within them  -- from almost a third-party point of view.  Jerome and I talked about being anthropologist-observers of, rather than participants in, the cultures we were visiting.  I also took on that role when thinking about home, painting, and cello.  I kept that sense of observer yesterday, just long enough to change the dynamic of both the studio session and the music session.  The result, in both cases, was a mindfulness that let me ignore the mindset that pushes for production and encourage the mindset that stays in the moment and engages with what is going on.  It is much more rewarding, and I need to cultivate it more.  Perhaps that is a project for this winter: to not worry about forward progress in cello, or producing finished paintings, and just be in each moment with each activity, and let things evolve.

In the studio yesterday, I brought out a painting that needed some line work.  For some reason, the piece made me think of a ruined castle that we visited in Gormaz, Spain (above).  Caught by the memory, I picked up a ceramics needle tool and let my hand travel the road up the high hill on which the castle stood, then delineate the ruins and the fields in the valley below.  Then I put down more paint.  I ended up working on the piece for nearly an hour, lost in remembered sensations from that day a few weeks ago.  I didn't even think about how the painting might (or might not) turn out.

In cello practice, I focused on intonation, the exact sound of the notes played, their purity and their relationship to each another.  Again, time went by without my noticing.  I was completely caught up in the task at hand, and I heard nuances that I had never heard before.  I explored minor thirds in various iterations without thinking about anything but the sounds.  I wasn't working on a piece, and I had no further goal at that moment than to play with as perfect intonation as I could achieve.

In both cases, the small accomplishments clearly will contribute to later goals, but I achieved what I did because I paid no thought to those larger aims, but focused on what was going on at the moment.  And, at the end of the day, the satisfaction was deep.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

back home

This is our third day home from Spain, and jet lag and a nagging cold caught on the trip are giving me a sense of suspension in time and distance from daily routine.  I am in the midst of cleaning my studio, a ritual that I have used before, after an absence, to help get back into a productive mode.  Opening the door yesterday brought an interesting mixture of reactions as I re-engaged with current work.  I felt a strong desire to get rid of older pieces that are neither cold wax nor abstract.  My more recent pieces in cold wax just feel so right.  Not that I don't still have favorite past paintings -- and in a wide variety of styles! -- but those pieces hang in the house, while most of the old paintings in the studio are pieces that I never let out the door because I wasn't happy with them.  I'm still not, but rather than hang onto them to "fix" them, as has been my tendency in the past, I now just want them gone.  One exception, a piece for friends that is nearly done, a semi-abstract landscape of our valley.  I need to settle down to finishing that, and I've been avoiding it.  It pulls me into past methods and, to some extent, into past insecurities...the same reasons I am wanting to toss the old work.

I was somewhat surprised by feeling such a strong re-commitment to abstraction and to the cold wax process.  I wasn't aware that I was questioning it.  The reaction may have been strengthened by not getting into a statewide juried show to which I submitted an old piece, pre-cold wax and pre-abstract.  Creating that particular painting accomplished many things for me at the time, over two years ago now, but  as a finished piece it also never quite worked (and also has never sold).  I think that entering it into the show was partly to find out and decide its final worth.  Which is, that it was a great process piece, but wasn't my voice.  An image of "Three Sisters", 22"x24", is above.

Friday, October 29, 2010


I am writing from Girona, Catalonia, toward the end of our long-anticipated vacation in Spain.  Our time has been spent in Castilla y Leon, Aragon, and Catalonia, and while I haven't painted -- I ended up leaving even the pastels at home -- and my fingers are itching to get back to my studio, I know that I have been absorbing shapes and colors and impressions that will feed my work for some time to come.  In these regions, there is much that is ancient, from the Celtiberians through the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, and the Spaniards and Catalonians, to modern-day style and experimentation, and the art and architecture overlay each other in mostly complementary ways.  I will be interested myself to see what might come out of this once I am home.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

new pastels

I accompanied Jerome and a pair of friends up the mountain today on a (for them) fly fishing expedition.  While they practiced casting, I rehearsed sketching using NuPastels on a Strathmore drawing pad, to see if the medium would suit me on our imminent trip to Spain.  (We leave on Wednesday, and I would not take my oils even if I could -- I'll have little chance to paint.)

I have sketched outdoors before, but always representationally. I wanted to see if I could, first, go abstract and, second, make the NuPastels work for me.  I sat by the stream, breathed in the fine autumn air, felt the sun falling across my shoulders, and absorbed the color palette around me.  I started with a shape or two from the hillside across the stream, then ignored the scene and painted.  I struggled with the colors so much that I didn't do much with composition.  But the point was to test the materials, not produce a painting.  (Pastels are work. Give me oils any day.)  In addition to test-driving the materials, I was able to explore the medium enough to be satisfied that it will do.  I am a novice at it, and "it ain't oil & cold wax", but it will do.  In fact, it will give me a chance to focus on some things like edges and value, two elements pretty much missing from my effort today.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Late September has brought beautiful fall weather, with mild temperatures during the day but enough cold at night to set off intense foliage colors -- especially on the 10,000-foot mountaintops that surround our valley.  The aspen leaves are brilliant gold, the mountain mahogany are rusty red, the native grasses are golden tan, and the sky is that brilliant blue that is a specialty of the Colorado Plateau.  We have taken a couple of "leaf peeper" drives over the last week, and I think that the intensity of those visual experiences has carried over into the studio.  I find myself reaching for the yellow-to-burgundy spectrum with blue contrasts, such as in the 8"x8" shown at left, which I finished yesterday.

I cherish the richness of our autumn colors, the more so because the coming winter will bleach out all foliage, and the red cliffs and blue sky will stand vigil over a gray and dull countryside. The vitality of these months will be frozen into stillness, and daily life will be less invigorating.  A more contemplative time.  For now, each day unfolds with a freshness and a crispness that invoke apple cider and pumpkin pie.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I was one of four judges for a plein air competition (part of the Escalante Canyons Art Festival) today, and had the challenging but exhilarating job of evaluating other artists' work. The quartet worked well together, at a professional level, and I was proud to be part of the team. It was also an educational experience, since we had to verbalize the criteria we were using and then apply them. Put simply, we looked for basics (composition and rendition, as in use of color, value, brushwork, perspective, etc.) and also for a certain "plein air" quality, of freshness, I suppose, among other things.  At the end, we looked also for a more enigmatic quality, perhaps a uniqueness, a daring, a clear message. Something that made the work stand out beyond just good execution.  We worked hard, and it wasn't easy.  But we all felt rewarded by our efforts. In addition, for me, it was a good reminder that I need to apply some such criteria in evaluating my own work. Probably not perspective!  But certainly color, value, composition, brushwork, edges, etc., etc., etc.  This is one of those lists that lives in my head, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, but it would be useful to drag it out with more salience than I usually do, and use it to try to look at my pieces objectively.

In a conversation with one of the other judges, who had questions about my own work, I also was reminded of one of my basic touchstones: Paint from something real.  This goes back to the summer that I studied with David Dornan up in Helper, UT.  After a winter of "going abstract", I presented him my work at the beginning of my stay, and his immediate reaction was that the paintings lacked a groundedness, that they came out of my head and went nowhere.  Paint something real, he said, meaning that even if I paint in a nonrepresentational manner, I need to ground myself in reality.  For me, this is entirely true, though I acknowledge that it wouldn't necessarily be so for someone else.  This has become one of my mantras, and especially when I lose the thread, or the momentum, this is one of the tenets to which I return.  I don't know why I don't keep it in my head at a consistently conscious level.

What did I do that summer?  I painted bricks, or rather, I created paintings of bricks. Still life's of bricks. Abstracts of bricks.  Studies of light on bricks.  The bricks provided a reality, and I learned what it meant to "paint from something real."  A representational example from that summer is shown above.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


In the studio this morning for the first time in a couple of weeks, I had to wonder what had happened to the momentum of early August.  The easy answer is that it dissipated into the process of physical therapy for my wrist, which has been painful and distracting.  The more truthful answer is that I allowed myself the distraction of the wrist therapy, along with a variety of other distractions (like the kittens, at left).  So be it.

The more interesting question is how to regain that momentum.  I spent a couple of hours in the studio this morning, adding paint to some old pieces.  The process was familiar but I had a hard time regaining the mindset, as it were.  When I am working well, I have in the back of my mind a whole series of thoughts and concepts from which I can draw (no pun intended) as I move through the creative process.  The clearer the access to the mindset, the happier I am and the better I work.  This morning, there were cobwebs in my mind.

Fortunately, there are easy answers.  Keep showing up.  Read past journal posts to regain the mindset. Relax. Work. Play. Nurture the enthusiasm. Enjoy the journey.

Friday, September 10, 2010

ego and attachment

I had an eight-hour drive today, traveling south to visit a friend in Sedona, AZ.  As the miles rolled by, I found myself musing yet again about the idea of getting rid of words (in music) and images (in painting).  On an impulse, while stopping at the BLM Visitor Center at Big Water for a break from the road, I called my cellist friend/teacher, Bonnie, and asked her how she saw the idea of getting away from the verbal mind in music.  As I might have anticipated, had I thought about it, her response came from the perspective of the performer rather than the listener.  It made me realize that I have not been distinguishing between the two.

Bonnie's response to my question was to propose that one must let go of the ego in order to reach unity with music. I interpret this to mean, at least in part, a letting go of control in order that notes and phrases might flow unimpeded.  One must maintain a kind of passive mindfulness about one's playing, and certainly one must have skills to depend upon, but there is definitely a letting go involved. When I think back on the piano recital of a couple of weeks ago, this is also what I did, in a way, as a listener when I shut off the verbal side of my mind and just was present.  So perhaps it can work from both sides of the musical curtain, as it were.

As for painting, letting go of the ego is an idea I can understand easily from the painter's perspective.  Much has been said by many artists about letting the creative process flow unimpeded and about taking the ego out of the work.  I like the quote from Arkansas artist Warren Criswell:  "Creativity in general may require a certain disarmament of the ego."   A disarmament, a letting go, a standing back is to me a very helpful concept as I work in my studio.

From the viewer's perspective, however, I am not so clear about disinvolvement of the ego. Perhaps by taking out imagery (in abstraction), one asks the viewer to suspend literal interpretation.  But that is not the same thing as suspending the ego, and abstraction in fact may demand more ego involvement of the viewer, in asking for nonliteral interpretation of the work.  Ego may be necessary to partake fully of visual art.  In abstract art, one asks the viewer to let go of expectations of imagery.  Perhaps, if anything more is to be asked, it is that prejudgment and closed-mindedness be suspended and that the viewer enter into the picture with the same spirit of inquisitiveness and adventure that the artist had when creating it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

nonverbal language

I attended a "practice" piano recital today, given by the relative of a local resident who is preparing to perform a concert required for her Master's degree in music.  She presented works by Mozart, Brahms, Bach, and Debussy in an informal atmosphere, with an audience of ten!  For those of us listening, it was a unique experience to be in such a small group and only twenty feet from the piano.  The circumstances gave me an opportunity to enter into the music at a level that is rarely possible in a "live" situation, when the venue is usually fairly intrusive and can play an active role in the event.

I was able to let go, at least for brief periods, and just listen.  I played a bit with consciously quieting the verbal side of my mind and listening without words.  It was surprisingly easy, leading me to think that it is perhaps mostly habit that has my mind rattling along in phrases and sentences while I'm doing something else.  Paul Davis once told me that he likes to have talk radio (such as NPR) playing in the background while he paints because it is almost as though the verbiage occupies and quiets down that verbal side of his mind, freeing the nonverbal side to create.

I realized in a new way that music does have a language, a non-verbal one. Or, at least, for me, western music does, perhaps because I "speak" it.  I understand the progressions, the relative keys, the chords, the conventions of composers such as those whose works I heard today.  I understand it in the sense that there is a logic to it, so that even unfamiliar pieces speak to me.  I had heard none of today's pieces before, yet I could follow the structures and even anticipate the flows of sound.  Non-western music communicates to me to the extent that it uses keys, sequences, dissonances, harmonies that also occur in the musical language that I know.  The resolution at the end of a complex passage is intensely satisfying.  It's kind of like speaking one Romance language and to some extent therefore understanding all of them, and understanding a branch language to the extent that it shares those Latin roots.

So . . . what about abstract painting?  What are the elements of its "language"?  Colors and how they interact.  Values and how they interact.  What a color "means" (blue is serenity, red is heat, at least in some cultures).  The tension of black against white, the softness of shades of gray.  More to ponder, here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

a fresh look

I had taken three new pieces into the gallery to be hung for the Labor Day weekend, including the one at left, and had last seen them on the floor, standing against the wall.  Today they were hung in the center of the wall where my work resides, and in addition to being pleased that they were up, I was pleasantly struck by how they drew my eye. I also had the not unfamiliar, momentary sense that they were not "mine" but had come from somewhere else. This is in part because I do not remember exactly how they were constructed -- a friend asked me, for example, what color the base layer was in one of them, and I honestly couldn't say -- but also, I think, because in each of them I let go of control and allowed the piece to make its demands.  Of course, I chose how I responded to those demands, and so to some extent kept control, but I was not forcing a specific composition or message in any of the three.  At least, I had not started with a message in mind.

In other posts, I have ventured the idea of my paintings having meaning, and of asking myself what message I would want a given piece to have.  Here is a tension that is not unfamiliar in the painting world, though I am encountering it in a new way and with a new immediacy:  When to direct and control, and when to let go. Countless artists have discussed this, and I am grateful for the discourse and vocabulary that they have made available.  What I am finding now is that the question arises anew for each painter, and I have finally come face to face with it in my own work.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

a few more musings

Yesterday I had the privilege of being present at the final practice for a concert that my friend and cello teacher, Bonnie, is giving tonight with her sister, Marilyn, a fine pianist.  The Mangold Sisters rehearsed their program for an audience of two (and then thanked us for coming!), and I was granted the opportunity to listen to two fine musicians play challenging and beautiful music without distraction or interruption.

The experience drew me directly back into some of the observations about abstract art that I have been considering.  One is the non-verbal aspect of both abstract art and instrumental music.  Another is the quality of non-reproduced experiences.

The tide of response to the music that I felt yesterday was not verbal;  I let go of words and thoughts for entire passages of melody and harmony, and just responded viscerally and instinctively.  My response was not exactly emotional, either, at least in the sense that I didn't identify sadness, elation, or any other specific feeling at any given moment.  At intervals, I was left to wonder whether it is possible to really dwell in such non-verbal moments, and how to deal with them, without words.  I'm not trying to be cute, here -- I really wonder about being non-verbal;  I have lived a very word-oriented life.  It seems to be a very human instinct to react to something by naming it, describing it, defining it.  Otherwise...?  Of course, this related back directly to my musings about abstract art being non-verbal (you can't name an object, for example, if it is not there) and non-narrative.  The same questions apply.

The other overwhelming quality of yesterday's experience was the immediacy of the live performance, unmediated by even other audience members, much less recording equipment and reproduction processes.  Adorno and Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School (see 8/14 post) were much concerned about the mechanical reproduction of what was once left alone in a single original for individual perception.  That a live performance, be it of music, drama, or visual art, loses a certain quality when recorded and replayed, is fairly obvious.  True, the genius of a cinematographer can enhance a film experience by guiding the eye of the viewer, but it also takes away the freedom of the viewer to experience directly the live production and to decide for herself what to focus on. Adorno and Horkheimer posit that the mechanical reproduction of beauty automatically negates the very beauty itself, in that a reproduction cannot evoke the deep reactions that an original can.  If nothing else, the immediacy of confronting an original is lost.  This hit home during the rehearsal yesterday in terms of music. It is also true about an abstract painting.  Don't we all complain, for example, that the photograph of a given painting never does it justice?  And how can it, when just the three-dimensionality of texture in the original is flattened onto the photographic plane?  Not to mention color shifts, etc.  There is no replacement for the full experience of viewing the original.

It took me a week to summon the courage to post the entry of 8/14 for eyes other than mine to see.  But it helped clarify some of my thoughts about the attraction that abstract painting holds for me.  And now I am up-to-date with getting my posts online.  The image above is of a 16"x16" panel, begun at the Longmont workshop, finished yesterday.  I called it "Sans mots" -- "without words".

(For those interested in further lofty thought along these lines, the source is a text titled The Dialectic of Enlightenment by the two authors cited above.  An online source for it can be found at Frankfurt School: The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.  It's pretty highfalutin' stuff, but can be useful in sorting out how we artists approach our art.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

just painting

Perhaps in reaction to the mind-stretching exercises of the last post, I celebrated my birthday today with a free-paint session in the studio.  I didn't worry about lofty philosophical questions (were they a reaction to the pain in my wrist and hand?), I just immersed myself in materials and processes.  I have a good dozen small panels hanging on the pegboard wall that were started last spring but have a long ways to go, so it was easy to just pick one up and put down a layer of paint and cold wax, then pick up another and draw, then go to another and scrape, as the spirit moved me.  A nice antidote to perhaps too much thinking.  I don't know whether these will be individual pieces or will be grouped, and it will be fun to see what happens.

The image at left is the final version of an 8"x8" panel begun at the workshop.  I don't know what to call it, but I like it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

practice and philosophy

The last couple of posts have focused on the practice and techniques of oil & cold wax painting, and the ways in which the Longmont workshop reinforced and augmented them for me.  The workshop also enhanced my thoughts and perceptions about abstraction, partly from Rebecca's notebook (see the post of August 6th) and partly from observing the work of the other painters.  On a day when I'm not painting (the broken wrist is out of its brace, but is hurting badly), I decided to pull together some of those thoughts and perceptions, primarily through the article by Fendrich, and to pursue the philosophy behind the practice.

Writing at the turn of the century, the author first lists what abstract painting  is not: It is not a vehicle for sociopolitical change, avant-garde shock, mass audience popularity, or "Deep Hidden Meaning".  She then discusses what abstract painting is.  It is about ideas (order vs chaos, organic vs geometric, for example).  It is about being quiet.  It is about the "hidden, underlying order" of things rather than things themselves.  It is about beauty.  It is about an all-at-once presentation that has no narrative.  It is uncomputer-like and uncamera-like.  All of these to some extent are in contrast to our mass-produced, consumer-oriented popular culture, and they remind me of the tenets of the Frankfurt School of philosophy and its protest against the mass production of culture.

This is one author's view, and I am certain that all of her assertions are open to argument.  But, as it happens, they resonate with me.  Why am I interested in abstraction?  Because it does deal with deep ideas: one cannot simply slap paint down and call it an abstract painting.  One cannot copy a vase on a mantel and call it quits.  Just deciding whether to paint in dark sepias or in brilliant jewel tones can raise the philosophical question of what message one wants to send and what response one wants from a viewer, and how well a chosen hue will do that. The painter creates contrasts and tensions, then has to resolve them -- or not.  This decision alone -- and it is one among many that crop up in the process -- requires careful thought.  As far as being quiet is concerned, to me a good abstract painting makes me stop and look, makes me be quiet, leads me to contemplation and even meditation.  Similarly, to the extent that it is not pictorial, abstract art doesn't portray things, but refers to the truths that exist below things.  Does it manifest unity or disorder?  Harmony or discord?  The process of abstraction offers the opportunity to consider both objectification and reification -- how philosophical can ya' get?

To continue down Fendrich's list, if I have a goal in painting, it is to create beauty.  Similarly, it is a goal of mine with my paintings to pull people out of the narratives of their everyday lives, not only the narratives of their own experiences, but the narratives that surround them in the many media that dominate modern culture.  And, finally, I value highly the almost anti-photographic quality of abstract art that rests in its core non-representational character.  I have talked elsewhere about my dislike of paintings that look like imitation photographs, and photography itself, while occasionally producing works of art, is to me mostly a medium for capturing memories and group moments for future popular reference.

The image above is a recent work by Rebecca Crowell, "Leaves" (8.5"x8.5", mixed media on paper).  It embodies, for me, many of the qualities discussed above.  I include it with her permission.  It is interesting that we so often choose titles for our abstract pieces that refer back to the non-abstract world, perhaps to give the viewer an entry point into the painting.

I have held onto this post for nearly a week, since I am not sure that I explain myself at all well.  But I've done the best I can for the moment and if, in future, I reread this and am critical, I'll try to amend it then.  So, out it goes, posted under its original date, now almost a week ago.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

new phase in the continuum

As I anticipated, I returned from the Longmont workshop to my studio and my former cold wax pieces with a new perspective. The approaches and techniques that we practiced in the workshop add new layers not just physically but also philosophically to the work I am doing. The pre-broken-wrist pieces from last June that remain in my studio are clearly barely begun, and while I knew they needed a few more layers even back then, it is obvious now that they aren't even started, in many ways. I have acquired, along with new techniques, a patience and an inquisitiveness that were nascent but undeveloped before the workshop. To be truly curious about how a given panel will evolve leads to an increased engagement with the process, and it becomes more of a give-and-take than a straightforward, linear path of object creation. And just as the plateau landscape in which I live took eons to evolve, the fully developed oil-and-cold-wax painting requires a slow approach, a long series of mindful applications of pigment and texture that cannot be rushed through if the final piece is to reach fulfillment.  I came home from the workshop with the group of pieces shown above, all more fully developed than the pieces I made for the gallery show, none ready to be considered finished.

At the same time, I am glad that I went through the process last spring of creating the pieces for the gallery show without the benefit of the workshop. For one thing, I got more out of the workshop with those pieces already under my belt, as it were. But also, through those early pieces I began to develop a language of my own that stands me in good stead as I watch and learn the approaches of other artists using much the same procedures. One of the notable outcomes of the Longmont workshop was the diversity of finished product from the eight artists present. Everyone clearly had their own voice.  And though we felt free to borrow from each other, I had no qualms about being imitative or unoriginal (ghosts from earlier years of being "taught" to paint), thanks in part to the months spent developing the show that is now over.  With no such specific deadline now on the horizon, and armed with the inspiration and energy provided by the workshop, I feel ready to continue the next phase of exploration of the abstract.

Monday, August 9, 2010

workshop impressions

I write from Glenwood Springs, CO, on my way home from the three-day oil & wax workshop in Longmont. Three days of creativity and comraderie, away from the distractions of normal daily life, have been a real treat. A highlight was meeting and spending time with Rebecca Crowell (at left), who led the workshop and generously shared her experience and knowledge about cold wax techniques. Also a highlight and unexpected pleasure was the group of artists who gathered together, all accomplished, practicing, questioning people, and the attitude of curiosity and willingness to explore and share that everyone brought to the occasion.

Three intense days have left my mind, for the moment, rather dazed and tiredly unreflective in any deep way. But I want to capture the top layer, as it were, of memories and impressions from the workshop, before time and new adventures erase them. For me, the essence of the workshop, in painting terms, was the opportunity to try new techniques, layering paint on more thickly and in more layers than I had previously done. Each layer had its texture, but those marks were not ends in themselves; rather they were destined to be the lower strata of the eventual painting, perhaps buried, perhaps uncovered, but even if hidden, contributing to the whole, just as the worm fossil a thousand feet down in the sandstone contributes to the eventual cliffs and canyons that we see. Because these layers were not the final, I could dare to take chances, to ruin, to bring back from ruin. Very freeing, very fun, yet also requiring a certain degree of mindfulness and thought.

Many new (to me) techniques added richness to this layering process. Among the most memorable: Using powdered charcoal and pigments, either sprinkled on and brayered in, or rubbed on lightly with a soft rag, or dissolved in solvent and brushed on. Marking and immediately smoothing over the mark, or burying it under new paint. Brushing on marks of solvent, and wiping them off to reveal the layer underneath. Contrasting quiet, calm surfaces with active areas. Troweling on the thick bottom layers, and encouraging random cracks and fissures to inform upper layers. Drawing with vine charcoal on a dry surface, to be covered with new paint. Using plain cold wax to seal charcoal or pigment that has been applied dry. Crumpling brown paper, newsprint, wax paper, or saran, and brayering over it on top of wet paint. Drawing and making marks with a bamboo skewer. Brushing with a broom.

Various other thoughts: Creating contrasts within a panel (colors, textures, sections, calm/active, warm/cold, dark/light, etc.) versus creating contrasts among panels. Are these two fundamentally different approaches: to create a panel to stand alone versus creating a panel to be one element among several? Playing with elements: if a panel's hues are analogous or subtle, vary the activeness of the surface through texture. If there's a lot of color change, calm down the texture. Apply a new layer of paint, deliberately leaving a section or a rectangle (for example) of the contrasting lower layer exposed.

This barely covers the surface of the richness of the workshop, but I hope it will be enough to trigger further reflections down the road. I owe thanks to everyone involved.

Friday, August 6, 2010

catching up to abstraction

from the Longmont workshop:

notes derived from Robecca's binder on abstraction, which she loaned me, fodder for much further thought:

the analogy of abstract art and instrumental music -- the analogy is to non-choral music, without verbal references, just as purely abstract art has no identifiable visual images. the idea of communicating via structure and basic artistic elements and intuitive ideas, things that stimulate the imagination and memory without specific representation. how does a painting relate to a cello sonata?

defining a "way of seeing" -- how do we each see the world? some see line, others multidimensional space, etc. "haptics", the sense of oneself physically as a body in the environment -- incorporating implied touch, intuition about distance and proportion, the feeling of masses and volumes in relation to each other and oneself. does this, for me, relate to dance?

Piri Halasz: understanding abstraction as "multi-referential". the essential point here is that abstraction, rather than having no reference, actually refers to qualities common to more than one reference or phenomena.

interesting article to get a copy of: Laurie Fendrich, "Why abstract painting still matters", Drawing us in: how we experience visual art. Chasman & Chiang, eds. Beacon Press, 2000.

Robert Genn on abstract art -- search his archives.

Too tired to deal with any of this tonight.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

hiatus and digression

I have taken a break from writing, not deliberately, but because the last two weeks have proven to be a hiatus from my normal activities. A broken wrist is deceptively disruptive to normality; one can still walk and talk and do everything, except -- oops, I need two hands for this, and for that, and for that.... Any regular activity comes to an abrupt halt until one figures out how to do it one-handed.

Added to the constant adjustment to the nuisances and aches of the wrist, two weeks ago we adopted a pair of 8-week-old kittens that had been abandoned at a local church. Getting them settled and examined and vaccinated and comfortable with us took a week; the second week (just past) has been devoted to keeping track of them as they take over the house. Since I have been happy for an excuse to rest, I have spent much time with Maia and Queso.

Also, I have taken a momentary digression on the creative side. With the fall and the fracture, I realized how unaware of the space around me I have become. Back when I was dancing, I always knew my relationship with the space and the objects around me. On a visit to a friend's house, I happened upon Alvin Ailey Dance Moves!, which morphed me, in my imagination, back into dancing days. So, with a copy of my own, I have taken time each day to begin to move in a self-aware way, doing those exercises from the book that I can, and trying throughout the day to move like a dancer. This is mostly a question of habit and mind-set, and I've used the hiatus to start to shift that particular focus back into a creative mode.

Lastly, the workshop with Rebecca (see previous posts) is just ahead, and I am probably not really going to paint until I am there. I was in the studio a few days ago, and I wanted to know what I won't learn until the workshop before I continued any of the current paintings. What with everything else going on, at this point I've put studio work on hold. I know that the workshop will give me a huge push back into productivity, and my wrist brace comes off just after I get back. So, I am riding out the month on a long coasting slide, into a re-energized August.

Friday, July 16, 2010

santa fe reflections

a trip to santa fe is always an artist date for me. in addition to the inspiration of the country one passes through in getting here (see previous entry), santa fe itself is a vortex of creative energy. in the short time since our arrival, we have managed to visit the venues of three of my personal painter-muses. our first stop was at darnell fine art, who represents rebecca crowell. six of her larger pieces currently are hung together across one wall, and in this intimate gallery it was possible to get up close and soak in the colors and textures. as those reading this blog will know, rebecca is my most recent source of painterly inspiration and wisdom. it is her oil-and-cold-wax workshop to which i am headed in a few weeks.

our second "art stop" was niman fine art, home of the work of hopi-tewa painter dan namingha as well as that of his two sons. i discovered namingha's work before i began to paint in oil, and some of my early watercolor landscapes were inspired by him (the piece imaged above is an example). any time i am in santa fe, i visit his gallery to see the latest. design, color, texture all dominate his mainly acrylic pieces, and they resonate strongly in me. there is no question that my voice contains echoes of his. where rebecca's cold-wax abstracts provide a medium and a language that informs my work, namingha's strong southwest grounding provides another painter's vision that closely parallels my own.

from niman, we headed to the georgia o'keeffe museum, where the current show focuses on her abstraction. there is always inspiration to be had in o'keeffe's work, and this visit did not fail. on the wall of the show is an o'keeffe quote about abstraction:
I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing that I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at —- not copy it.
this is so much what i feel about my work. it is that "equivalent" that i am actively seeking these days in my painting, an artistic equivalent for what i feel when i observe the country around me.

a second lesson from this visit with o'keeffe was the realization that she provides rich examples of painting things "up close", as i have talked about doing in my cold wax panels. her iris, her corn, even a cross-cut of a piece of wood -- many of her abstracts are simply (hah!) close-up portraits of things. i've looked at o'keeffe's works for years, but this is the first time that they have provided such a personal "aha!".

thank you, santa fe

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


we are en route to santa fe for the indulgence of madame butterfly at the opera house on friday. today's drive to farmington, nm, took us down the familiar route from hanksville to bluff, one of my favorite painting spots, on the san juan river. the south side of the river there is protected by gorgeous, inspirational, creamy-pink sentinel cliffs. today, we turned south past bluff, crossed the san juan, and made our way across the northeastern section of the navajo nation, passing just south of the four corners' site.

this country is the southwest that i know and love. it, like home, is "standing up" country. and riding through it gave me a chance to reflect on it in terms of paint.

these landscapes are angular, to be sure (see previous post), but within the angles there are tiny fossils, wind-carved arches, amphitheaters, and coves, and desert varnish drips (all this on the sandstone), not to mention winding rivers and washes through the valleys below and billowing clouds in the sky above (at least now, during the summer "monsoon" season). so, within angles, a myriad of other marks and shapes. perhaps my individual panels can be the main angles, at times subdivided by internal angles, and within these i can portray abstractedly the other, smaller marks and shapes.

this led me to ponder the other predominant characteristic of this country: above all else, there is space. big blocks of sky, rock, land. the cold wax, abstract technique lends itself, to my eye, to the portrayal of this feeling of expanse.

from mexican water, az, to shiprock, nm, my eyes were drawn to the complex pattern of clouds in the huge, blue, dominant sky. to the north, low on the horizon, a line of cumulus, probably over the rockies. ahead and above, cirrus clouds heading diagonally upward from, yes, a vanishing point on the horizon. almost straight ahead, a jet trail climbing up and backward at an angle over my head. i grabbed a car pencil and a piece of scratch paper and scribbled down the overall pattern. and then i thought: i can still have sky perspective even in my abstract rectangles and squares. these are clouds that i can abstract, impressions that i can convey in my cold-wax sky pieces through subtle directional indications that say "sky" without being maynard dixon imitations.

i can't wait to get home to work on all this.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

time passing

i have only been out to the studio to paint twice in the past week, really just to assure myself that i can work with my wrist in a cast. both times, i stuck to drawing, sometimes with oil sticks, at others with charcoal, pencil, oil pastel, or nupastel. this wasn't a deliberate restriction, but i felt more comfortable with using these materials than with getting out the cold wax and the full panoply of paints, which can get quite messy. the pain in my arm lessens each day, but my energy level is more limited than normal, and after an hour or so, i've been ready to stop. so, my blue cast is still quite clean, though i imagine that will change.

the focus on drawing has actually been very useful, and i'm grateful to have had the space to explore it (though i'll also be glad to get back to mucking around in the paints!). as usual, the first issue raising its little head is how, on the one hand, to avoid drawing things and also, on the other, to refrain from mindless, iterative, meaningless marks. i found myself asking myself, where do i want to put a mark?, and, what color do i want in that spot? these two questions were easy to answer. but then: what mark? a loop? some scratches? the shape of some polygon? a long line? a doodle?

asking myself what i want to "say" with the mark doesn't seem to be helpful. to some extent, i've been guided by the knowledge of the country i am trying to portray, which is quite angular ("standing up country", they call it). even the vegetation is not the soft, rounded, lush, dissiduous flora of other climates: these plants and trees fight for life, frequently stand alone, and withstand harsh winds and rains just like the sandstone does. there is a beautiful dead juniper tree on our property that has been sculpted by the elements as much as any slot canyon.

in these two studio sessions, i've made the "mark" decision based on the character of the space i want to fill, combined with what surrounds it, and my own whim. it has freed me to know that i'll be painting over the marks i make; it diminishes their importance and turns them into promises for the future rather than finishing touches, as is so often the case in traditional painting. still, there is more work to be done, here, and i have been awakened to the value of just drawing for the sake of it, as an investment.

the image above, canyon night (8" x 14") is one of the smaller pieces in the show.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

clean slate

i spent this morning one-handedly cleaning up the studio after my show-oriented production work of the past couple of weeks. my drill, admittedly old and of poor quality, had given up the ghost back when i still had several montages to assemble, and the panic of securing a new drill, and then making up for the time lost, was evident when i finally got out to the studio. packaging, drill bits, old battery chargers, sawdust, beeswax, eyelets, wire, rags were everywhere. it felt good to get it cleared away.

several half-finished panels await my attention, and i plan to work on them first. after they are done and are added to the gallery show, however, i get to break out a new set of gessobords, these based on 8" multiples rather than 6". i am looking forward to working a little bit bigger.

in the meantime i have a pretty, if uncomfortable, blue cast on my arm. it comes off in five weeks, the day after I get back from the cold wax workshop in longmont, co.

Monday, July 5, 2010


the past nine days have been too eventful to have provided time for writing. a quick trip to see my friend maggie in sedona was followed by getting the show hung, which was followed immediately by a fall that left me with a broken radius in my left wrist (hence the lower case typing here -- it is already frustrating to have only one hand to use, without trying also to capitalize). that caused an emergency trip to the clinic in the next town over, and then came a fourth-of-july weekend full of social events plus the opening reception for the show, all of which passed in rather a blur of pain management.

the holiday is over, the show is up, and although everything i do takes at least twice as long as usual, i can now return to more normal activities. my exhibit occupies about a quarter of the gallery's space (see photo above), and it looks nice. the crowd at the opening comprised mostly friends and acquaintances, and the gallery owners provided a nice wine-and-cheese spread. my work will be shown for the month of july.

in the meantime, i can get back to work. tomorrow my wrist and arm will receive a cast that will stay on for six weeks. cello playing will be curtailed for a while, although this is a golden opportunity to improve my bowing. since i am right-handed, i don't anticipate too many problems in the studio, though i will need to be inventive when two hands seem to be needed. if anything, the obvious slowing down of my work process will be advantageous and will encourage me to find a more relaxed and thoughtful pace than that of the last couple of weeks. i should be able to continue to post here, though readers will have to tolerate this lower-case format. it won't change the thought process, i hope!

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Two nights ago, Chosa (our 3-1/2-year-old vizsla, shown at left) woke us up at 1 a.m. barking at the neighboring coyotes. What I also woke up to was an acute pain on the left side of my head, not in any of the usual places but rather in an upper quadrant. It did not go away. I had never, ever felt anything like it before and, in the dark of the night, it frightened me thoroughly.

I felt sick the next morning, though the pain was gone (replaced by a more normal, if painful, sinus headache). Still shaken and scared, I went to our local clinic. The conclusion with our excellent PA there was to hope it was an unusual combination of sinus and neck tension, or some kind of cluster headache. I left with the caution, if the pain recurs, to get me to a hospital for a CAT scan.

Later in the day, I went to Bev, our local therapeutic masseuse and homeopathic expert, for some muscle relaxation and to consult her wisdom. I happened to mention to her that I've begun using some new substances in the studio in the last few months -- the cold wax and the alkyd gel. She felt, at the end of my treatment, that the acute pain in the unusual location was probably a result breathing the fumes of my mixtures in the studio.

This resonates. I've noticed the fumes and wrinkled my nose, but after years of painting without problem, it frankly never occurred to me that this could be a source of illness. I have high clerestory windows that are cracked year-round, and I leave the door or another window open as weather permits. But recently, in the intensity of my new work, I have not only spent more time in the studio, but also have been working closer to my palette, and leaning over a table rather than standing before an easel. Combine that with the full day that I put in on Wednesday, on a hot windy day when I couldn't open the window because the winds were too strong, and it all makes sense.

While I'm relieved to have determined the most likely cause of the episode in the night, there is also a lesson here that makes painting even less of a lightweight hobby and confirms it as a serious enterprise that, in fact, can harm. An obvious step is to analyze and improve the ventilation in the studio, and to review the arrangement of my work area, to get fumes as far away from my face as possible. I am fortunate to have had a wake-up call that was not too serious. It has been a sobering few days.

Monday, June 21, 2010

operating blind

With all good intentions of following my self-directive on how to create the next iteration of panels, I've spent the past three days -- well, just painting. The only extent to which I am honoring my concept of portraying the landscape here is to create panels in roughly three groups, referencing skies, cliffs, and fields. The only differentiation among the groups at this point, as far as I am aware, is color. Speaking very broadly, sky panels are in the blue family, cliffs in the red family, fields in the green family. But my marks, and any shifts in value, edge, or hue, are purely the result of flying blind. I still don't know what I'm doing, although I like the outcome.

My notes from my travels last week are not helpful, because all they do is predetermine what I try to paint. It is not working. For example, I had an inspiration while driving through a canyon to create a red 12x12 with blobs of green along the bottom to give the feel of how the tall cottonwoods are dwarfed by the canyon walls. As soon as I began to work this onto the panel, I lost the freedom to follow the paint, because I was tied to the design. How can I find a middle ground, and paint abstractly but still capture something like that feeling of trees and rock that I so love? How can I reference and not represent?

I just remembered a wonderful book about abstraction that I read a few years ago. Mondrian 1892-1914: The path to abstraction focuses on the process the artist went through in shifting from traditional landscapes to his famous grid paintings. There was an example (one among several) of a tree painted representationally, and then made abstract over a series of other examples. At the time, I read the book out of interest unrelated to my own processes. I think it is time for a second reading.

It is one thing to lay out paint on the palette and just begin to play. But if I have an intention, if I have something I want to express, I'm not sure how to get there by just playing. I suppose that in operating intuitively, the intention will be expressed one way or another. Perhaps that is a method: to conceive the intention mentally and emotionally, but then let it go when I paint. Is it a matter of being too self-conscious? Is it a question of control? I do know one thing: The only way to find the answers that I seek is to keep painting.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I've had most of a week away from the easel, partly because I've been away from home and partly because I've been assembling and bolting panels. It feels good to have seven completed pieces. Not only am I in good shape for the show (now just two weeks away), but I also now have been through this whole process, from ordering Gessobord at decent prices, to figuring how how to attach eyelets and hanging wire, and how to sign the finished work.

Looking back at the creation of this first set of panels and montages, I realize that I abstracted out beyond where I really want to go, in the long run. But I think that I had to, to break out of my old habits and get away from my representation traps. To borrow a distinction from Rebecca Crowell, I don't want to represent, but I do want to reference, and I did very little of that in this first batch.

Contemplating this first set of finished pieces, they do not say what I now envision. But then, I didn't envision that, a month ago. And I like them, and they represent an important phase, maybe a transition phase (but aren't all phases transitions?), and a worthy one. While creating these panels, I used my imagination and intuition almost exclusively. Color and some design came from reality, but not much. I am persuaded, from all this work, that especially intuition has a vital role to play in this kind of painting, yet I want my daily interaction with the landscape around me to play an important role also.

In Rebecca's book Old walls and lost paths, she includes photos of Catalonia that she took, and some paintings of hers that she can relate to the photos. It is not that she painted from any photo, but rather that after creating a painting, she realized the relationship between the two. This description of hers has stayed with me, as a glimpse of the way that one's surroundings can influence directly one's work. In my travels of the past week, for example, as I viewed a mountain valley or a red rock cliff, I could see in my mind's eye a painting that might come from that. Not a rendition of the scene, but an impression of color, of shape, of space. (In contract to my former practice, I did not take any photos.) I have three such ideas in my head and in my sketchbook, basic plans that will morph as I paint, but still three little visions that (at least to me) will say valley, cliff, mountain. Someday this may become intuitive, too -- it is largely a matter of seeing differently, mindfully. For the moment, it has to be conscious. The adventure continues!

The image above is of a 12"x18" piece, as yet unnamed, for the show.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

avoiding traps

The past few days in the studio have been interesting. I keep meaning to bolt together the montages that are complete -- I need to clear them out and regain the wall space, for one thing -- but I am always pulled back into painting. In doing so, I am encountering some old traps that in times past have derailed my enthusiasm, self-confidence, and general forward progress. I am hoping that, by recognizing them and writing about them, I can avoid getting mired down this time.

The central issue on my mind today is painting for "production" -- that is, focusing on creating pieces for sale -- versus painting for its own sake. The latter produces pieces that resound with me, in which I have confidence and even pride, and which seem to speak with my voice. The former is one of the traps: In painting for "production", I force design and lose the flow. For example, there was one arrangement/montage in the finished batch with which I was not entirely happy. Rather than simply dismantle it and put the panels back into "stock", I tried to fiddle around with it. I removed one panel of the three. The two remaining were good, but not quite. So I took one of them and tweaked it, trying to add paint and texture to make it "fit". It still doesn't work. This morning I was thinking, I'll go out and tweak that panel some more, to see if it will fit. But there is the trap. For some reason, this situation, of trying to force a piece into a preconceived slot, nearly always fails.

Part of the power that I am finding in this mode of painting (cold wax, abstracts, coming together in arrangements) resides in creating each individual piece to its own completeness, and letting the groups meet up later. That separate completion of each panel is for some reason crucial to the process. At least for now, trying to force and niggle and edit panels so that they "fit" together, just doesn't work. Maybe at a later time it will, but for now, I have to stay away from that. Lesson learned, and trap avoided, I hope!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

getting to abstract

Our high desert valley has sprung into summer, and with our perennial river and a wet winter behind us, green is everywhere. Grasses grow an inch a day, the chamisa has new young growth, the aspen are shimmering. Alfalfa fields are filling in, the centuries-old cottonwood are shedding their fluffy seeds, new saltbush pop up daily. In the studio this morning, I naturally reached for green tones, filling my palette with blues, golds, yellows of tube paint, seeking interesting combinations. We only have a few months to enjoy this until the desert again dominates.

But then, I paused. What was I doing? I did not want to draw bushes or leaves. Could I consult some inner place where "green growth" resides, and then paint that place? How could I find a nonverbal line of communication between that inner sense and the paint on my knife?

Not knowing what to do, I started messing with the paints. Wonderful greens emerged, from grayish sage to vibrant alfalfa, and soon the whole palette was filled with little piles of hues. I pulled out a panel that I had covered with a base layer of sandstone rust, and rolled it with patches of a basic sap green. For the next chunk of time, I added other shades of green here and there, blended and separated different areas, played with netting and saran on top and the patterns they left when pulled off, made marks with an oil stick, scraped down, added back. I got lost in the materials, the plasticity of the paint, the subtleties of the hues. I forgot all about the place where I started and the "what to do?" question. I just played, balanced tones and marks and textures, made things more complex and then simplified. On one level, I didn't have a clue about what I was doing. On another level, I knew exactly what I was doing: exploring that sage green against that piney green, smoothing over that gridded area so that it flowed into the wavy pattern next to it.

When I sensed that I'd done enough (whatever that was), I quit, cleaned up, and went in to lunch. I don't know if this experience will repeat itself or not, but I sure had fun.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Having arranged (but not yet bolted together) all the panels that currently are finished, I am back into painting mode -- and happier for it, I must admit. The task of teaming up panels and arranging them in the way they ask to be arranged is fascinating and fun, but doesn't probe as deeply into my inner thoughts and feelings as does the creation of individual panels.

This morning I had the pleasure of a Feldenkrais class with Carol, a friend of a friend who comes down from Salt Lake occasionally. This is my fourth class with her, and we focused on therapy for my hands, which can be almost crippled at times from hours of gripping palette knives and rags, and cello fingerboard and bow, without proper energy or alignment. One of the many things I learned (or, I should say, re-learned, since I already knew this at some level) is to ground my body as I move and work. This means literally to feel my feet on the floor and carry that connection all the way up my body, and back down again. The energy that comes from this simple awareness is amazing. When I sense that energy move up my spine and then out through my hands and fingers, the action I am taking, whether at the easel or the music stand, just flows.

Part of the reason that the Feldenkrais method speaks so strongly to me is due to the background that I have in modern dance. My memory of expressing myself through dance has lain dormant for years, but when Carol teaches me something, I frequently find that I already know it, usually on an intuitive level. Thus practicing Feldenkrais also puts me in touch with that movement-based, expressive history that I have, and the lesson becomes much more than just dealing with aching hands, for example.

I sense that the Feldenkrais work will lead to additional benefits as well. In addition to freedom from pain and greater flexibility in hand and finger movement, the grounding that these movements give me and the contact with that intuitive past may also help me to delve more deeply and develop new levels of expression.

The 12"x18" piece pictured above, as yet untitled, is going into the show. It makes me think of all the biotic life that one finds both in the sea and in the sandstone.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I have, I think, successfully assembled 7 or 8 interesting groupings of panels. I played around with different combinations (as at left) until I couldn't see them freshly anymore. I took photos of what I had assembled. Then Bonnie, my friend and cello instructor, spent an hour with me suggesting new combinations and helping me see new possibilities. Tomorrow I will review all and decide, knowing that I have a decent number of pieces for the Gallery 24 show in July. If I get a few more pieces finished before then, that will be icing on the cake; it is just a relief to feel that I am ready for the show. It will take a couple of days to bolt the panels together, price and name them, and photograph them. But I have four weeks until the show opens, and I have never been so prepared so early before. Hurrah!

In addition to being excited about the pieces for the show, and wanting to create a few more, I am eager to move on to the next batch of works. I am not quite through with the palette and style of this group, but I also continually envision future series in other palettes and other styles. Now that these are assembled, they are so clearly a first effort -- or do artists always feel that way about work that is finished? But they look rough, in some ways, and I see things in them that I want to expand upon, as well as things that I'd like to avoid in future.

Also, this series was an experiment. I didn't know whether it would work for me. It so clearly did, and I feel so much at home in this way of working, now, that I look forward to being able to explore more deeply and build on what I have learned this past month (only a month?), without the pressure of an upcoming show. So, this blog will continue, perhaps in a more coherent and thoughtful vein, as I continue to work on board and in cold wax, abstractly.

I'll post photos of the final groupings when they are ready.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

getting beyond intuition

The time has come (walrus or no) to pull together a couple of montages (I'm not happy with that term; I need to consult a thesaurus). I am comfortable enough with what I'm doing to include a few pieces in my show in July -- and I have two or three more weeks to finish those. However, the gallery wants a photograph for the show announcement, and they need it this coming week. So I need to find at least one grouping that I like. (Although as I write this, it occurs to me that the photo on the announcement need not be of a final arrangement, just one that I don't mind showing to the public. It needn't be bolted together, and the components could be moved around after the photo is taken. Hmmm.)

At any rate, the issue of using intuition versus using "rules", or using a balance or blend of the two, raises its head again as I start to look seriously at multi-panel arrangements. Creating each separate panel, I still debate the intuition-vs-formal-criteria question in my mind, but I've gotten used to doing so, and can switch back and forth between the two modes, at least to some extent. I haven't really stopped to analyze when I'm using intuition and when I'm thinking about value, composition, balance, etc., but I sense that I am using both as I put down and texturize paint.

As I've moved panels around into different arrangements over the last couple of days, I have used some conscious criteria, such as the color variation that I mentioned in my last post. Anticipating final decisions, I find myself seeking something more concrete than intuition. The few formal criteria of which I've been aware are things like too much (or too little) obvious pattern, too harsh (or too subtle) a color contrast, colors that work together or don't, lack of focus or too many foci. But these specifics arise more frequently as questions (is this arrangement too fussy? do those two colors work next to each other?) than as answers. When I do come up with an arrangement I like, such as the one above, I don't always know why, and I wish I did. On the other hand (or am I getting too self-consciously fussy here?), I'm not seeking a how-to document, and I do like using my intuition. I'd like to have a master checklist of "montage criteria" to use as a tool when I want to, and also to use in fine-tuning my intuition over time. I'm not sure they would be the same criteria that I use in creating individual panels, although I'm sure there would be some overlap.

I suppose that with time I will become more comfortable with my process of arranging panels, just as I am becoming more comfortable with my process of painting them. Also, as I get some positive (I hope) feedback about this new direction in my work, I will feel more self-confident about the mix of intuition and criteria that I naturally use. Meantime, I think I'll work on that master list....

Thursday, May 27, 2010

mid-process jitters

The studio process has fallen into a certain rhythm this week, a kind of flexible consistency that ebbs and flows according to how well a certain hue or texture works on a given panel. Some pieces become problematic, others turn out well, and I am learning how to change and correct things I don't like. It feels good to fall into a smoother pattern of work and not be flailing around. On the other hand, I'd like to have a sense of control over the forward motion, rather than feel like I'm on a freight train barreling ahead without a sense of direction.

The 2"-cradle Gessobords that I have in stock are now all covered with at least one layer of paint. The pegboard wall on my studio almost overflows with arrangements of panels, which I change daily. As I become more confident of producing interesting panels, my anxiety is beginning to shift to the question of the montages and whether the panels will in fact go together in any meaningful way.

Thus arises another question of balance, this time of planning and spontaneity. I don't want to paint a given panel specifically for a given spot; my aim is rather to have a group of panels that I can play with until I find a series of good arrangements. On the other hand, I want the montages to show a variety of colors and textures rather than create a monochromatic and monotonous show. To the extent that I am still referring to the landscape in which I live, it is anything but monochromatic and monotonous. The photo above represents what I mean: It is a view of the northwest corner of our valley.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

considering color

Back when I first started to paint, taking an evening watercolor class after my day job, I quickly became fascinated with color. Over the next few years, I explored it with my watercolor paints and became acquainted with a lot of the properties and dynamics of the different hues. When I began to use oil paint, I continued to love mixing the colors that I wanted, but a lot of what I was doing was learning to color-match, to adjust the color of my paint to that which I was observing in the landscape. Now, with this new direction of abstract work, and the color-field approach of creating blocks of color on panels to be joined later, I find myself returning to those early days and the joy of just using color for color's sake.

I pulled out some of my old reference materials, not because I care about the theory behind color so much (although it is fascinating!) but rather to serve as a guide to color mixing and to help me avoid concocting too many piles of mud. The two I am using at the moment both come from Stephen Quiller, the well-known water- and mixed-media artist and instructor based in Colorado. They are his book Color Choices, which gives wonderful guidance in color mixing, and his Quiller Wheel, a color wheel that is a great reference tool to hang on the studio wall.

Sometimes I like to be brazen with the colors I use, but more often I prefer a certain amount of subtlety. Often, the colors that I use together in a given layer are analogous hues -- different specific oranges and reds, say -- and much of the mixing I do creates neutralized colors (for example, a gold toned down with a violet). Quiller's materials get down to the specifics of these techniques, because which green mixed with which red very much affects the outcome.

As I move back into the use of color as an expressive end in itself, I am absorbed by the play of one hue against another with a given panel. A red panel is not just a flat solid red, as in some color-field work, but is rather the presentation of a variety of reds nudged up against one another, a perhaps more Rothko-ish approach. And added to that, now, is the play of one layer over another (or multiple others), which adds a whole new dimension to the process. And all of this links into the texturizing that cold wax and oil paint allow, permitting either the exposure or the partial coverage of previous layers. But more on that another day. The image above is of a panel with three layers on it, and it is the panel that led me back to my reference materials for guidance in considering color.

Friday, May 21, 2010

simple complexity

The last three days produced a series of pieces with pleasing colors and patterns filling their spaces, but none approached the effect I wanted. Worse, I couldn't see where to go with several of them. On the plus side, I now have enough pieces hanging on my studio wall that I can peruse them and assess what's happening. When I compared the pieces to my mental image of what I want, knowing that they weren't quite right, what came to mind was that they lacked density. By that I meant, that they weren't layered enough, nuanced enough, complex enough.

Then, this morning, I remembered Rebecca Crowell's description of her work as "textured color fields...built up in layers." I realized that I had been putting too much color and textural complexity into a single layer, rather than allowing multiple layers to build up. In a sense, I was getting carried away with my enthusiasm for the medium and going too far in each step. I also was allowing my old habits of representation to demand a complexity and control of composition in a single sitting.

By treating (especially the initial) layers as "textured color fields" rather than complete compositions to be enhanced later, the density I seek will gradually build up. This is, to me, a more organic and natural approach; it goes back to the letting-it-happen of abstract painting, in contrast to forcing a predetermined composition that represents something.

This simpler approach to complexity also makes it easier not to include representation in any given piece, although I could do that at some point. If I want my montages to be responses to the landscapes around me, I will have to do so primarily through color (although texture and arrangement of the pieces will also contribute), and let viewers find the reference.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

time away

Five days away from home included hours of solo driving across the Colorado Plateau and down the Mogollon Rim. The spaciousness of the land helped to clear my mind of the dozens of questions I had last week. With luck, that clarity will hold now that I am home. It seems so simple: paint beautiful surfaces, and don't worry about trying to represent anything. Work went well in the studio this morning, and the 8"x8" image here is one of the results -- a good beginning for a reddish piece.

Freeing my mind from rendering an object or scene allows my focus to concentrate on nuances of color and space. Today I was watching what happened when, over a rust-colored base, I layered a couple of transparent oranges in one area, and alizarin crimson in another, and then a swath of copper metallic paint on top. The glow of the oranges contrasted beautifully with the darker crimson, and the rust provided a firm base under all. The glint from the copper, plus its basic hue, added a surface richness that was unexpected. I found myself making gestural marks that rose spontaneously from the demands of the moment. It is a new way of painting for me.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


The image here is today's modification of the image I posted yesterday. It was a moody day, weather-wise, as a Pacific storm moved across southern Utah and brought one last sting of winter. Big gray clouds, thunder, rain and snow showers, even some hail -- we saw little sunshine. That made it easier, perhaps, to explore paint and pattern, to scrape and scratch and make mistakes and correct them. It wasn't a day for bright blue skies.

It was a subtle day, and I found myself seeking subtleties in color contrast and mark making. If I am developing a language, I am not aware of it, but I was content today to just enjoy the flow. I ran into some problems working wet-into-wet, and look forward to carrying this piece further after it has dried. That brilliant red base and those bold blue lines are underlying this creamy surface. I don't know if they will reappear in the next iteration, but I'm looking forward to scratching out and reducing, as well as adding some unification though a fresh layer on top.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

being literal

In a comment to her recent post "thoughts on imagery", Rebecca Crowell wrote,
I've often said that the challenge for an abstract artist is to develop an abstract language that is personal and expressive, and communicates something of feeling, memory, idea or mood to the viewer. It strikes me that the "words" in that vocabulary can be purely abstract (if this really exists...the human tendency is to read imagery everywhere) or they can be referential, or a combination.
This got me thinking about language, and the fact that I have lived mostly a very verbal life (as librarian, writer, teacher). In contrast, my main occupations these days are painting and learning to play the cello, which emphasize and value the nonverbal. Yet it is still a question of language, of communication.

The limits and frustrations that I encounter in both art and music frequently relate to their nonverbal qualities. In both cases, I am acquiring the tools and skills I need, but also in both cases there are expressive, perhaps intuitive, aspects that I glimpse but do not speak, at least not fluently. In both cases, it is that nonverbal "abstract language" that I need to develop. Feeling, memory, idea, mood: what language expresses these? What combination of color, line, mark, shape? What quality of bow on cello string, of intonation, of passage from one note to another? Two different art forms -- but maybe not so different, after all.

How to let words go and speak in other ways.... The image above is a thought suspended in mid-sentence, as yet incomplete....

Monday, May 10, 2010

now what?

Can one get too attached to a pleasing aspect of a painting? Why is there fear in touching an existing section that seems "right"? More basically, what does one do when one doesn't know what to do next?

These are the questions plaguing me today. Take last Friday's image, for example. This is NOT a finished painting, yet I look at it and think, now what?

Another example: I did paint over a 6"x6" that I decided was too tritely representational. Then I painted over that. Then again. Now it is a mess, has no focus, no attraction. My naive assumption, that by "messing it up" it would come right somehow, almost on its own, was obviously wrong. I'll let it sit, then perhaps scrape it down and start a different painting on the support.

Why do some paintings just flow and emerge, while others proceed in fits and starts and stay hidden under a gauze of fog? How many paintings have I begun and ended up throwing away because I couldn't see where to go with them?

Perhaps it is a question of bringing a certain attitude to the easel (well, tabletop). There may be a balance between being too precious and being too slapstick. One must pay attention to what is happening to the painting as each move is made, yet must also keep a distance and objectivity.

Instead of fearing to ruin something, I can ask, "how can I enhance this wonderful passage?" Also, perhaps, I can keep a sense of forward motion with a painting until it comes to rest on its own, with a sense of completion.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

beautiful space

Musing on the surfaces that I created on Friday, I remembered a quote I encountered years ago while studying the life and works of Georgia O'Keeffe. Describing the influence of Arthur Wesley Dow on her own development , O´Keeffe famously spoke of his "one dominating idea: to fill a space in a beautiful way…."

O'Keeffe was referring to the freedom that Dow's teaching gave her to leave realism behind and explore her own personal expression using line, color, and notan to create beauty on the painting surface. The painting becomes not a window through which reality is viewed (I always think of those huge, realistic paintings of the Grand Canyon), but rather a surface that is itself beautiful and that provides a different kind of window, into the artist's inner vision.

Here is another push-pull for me, not between realism and abstraction, but between painting-as-window and painting-as-object. I have, on occasion, produced a painting that -- well, glows. That is, there is an immediate attraction to the surface of the painting itself. It calls attention from across the room. In a way, the painting as an object becomes the focus. I like this quality. The challenge, in creating such works, is to not forget the "window" concept, to not become content with just the surface but to seek a deeper meaning so that there is an inner vision to be detected.

In moving into abstraction, I think I need to focus on surface beauty for a while, in order to liberate myself from the other window, the representational. I do believe that creating even a seemingly random surface reveals something of what is in me: How can it not? Yet I am not ready to leave all representation behind. I do have a reference for my work beyond the "inner self" that presumably is always represented, and that is the country around me that is my inspiration and that grounds me. Rebecca Crowell's discussion of "referential images" that sometimes blend with pure abstraction in her work (see, for example, her blog post of November 29, 2007 or her post on April 21, 2006) is very useful in thinking about this. A problem for me has always been that, in pursuing the representation of a scene, I lose the beauty of the painting itself. Nice picture, boring painting (in terms of surface). If I can focus on the beauty of the space I am filling, limiting any imagery to only the referential as it serves that beauty, I may have a way out of that particular dilemma. So, my mantra for the week: reference rather than representation. But especially: beauty-filled space.

Friday, May 7, 2010


In contrast to yesterday, this morning I played with color relationships and methods of paint application using cold wax. I rolled, smoothed, scraped, marked, blended, scratched, and sanded. I put new layers on top of old, exposed old layers under the new, rubbed the two together. I now have ten boards in various stages of development, none with any visible representational message. Some are along the red/rose/rust spectrum, others are in the blue/green, and still others explore creamy earthtones.

After a joyful morning of this, and a break for lunch and cello practice, I found myself at a dead end, without enough energy to even evaluate what I had accomplished. So I prepped another eight boards with blue tape on the wooden cradles, cleaned up the studio, made plans for my next paint session, and ended the day. Two or three of the pieces I worked on this morning are stimulating enough to provide examples for later. The image above is of one of them, although the photo did not turn out well. Others are not so far along, and I can't sense where they are going, but I am going to have faith that they will develop in future sessions. If not, I can always scrape them off and start over!

Thursday, May 6, 2010


This 6"x6" is probably not finished, but I am setting it aside for now. One of the most plentiful bushes in this corner of the world is chamisa, or rabbitbrush, and I look at several large specimens from my studio. I love its shape and color (our flowers are a pale cream -- elsewhere, they are golden yellow). It is an irresistible subject, and it pulled me away from pure abstraction into this little portrait.

While this may not have gone as abstract as I intended, it afforded a rich exploration of cold wax and its properties. A base of rust hue smoothed on with a dough scraper received a brayerful of sage color, then an arc of cream (using the edge of the brayer). I scratched in directional stems, then added turquoise touches with an oil stick. A bit more sage (in lighter and darker values) applied with a palette knife brought it to this stage. I like it, and my sense this afternoon was to leave it alone, lest I go too far!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

pondering pattern

Working on my representational pieces today, my thoughts drifted to abstraction, and to the relationship between the real and the abstract in what we observe. Shapes and patterns observed in nature can of course be very abstract, especially when taken out of their context. My project is to explore these rather than paint the landscape (context).

I am strongly drawn to the shapes, patterns, and textures in the country around me. Some are miniscule, like the pattern on a piece of piƱon bark, and others are on a grand scale, such as the flow of sandstone down a deep slot canyon. I've tried to represent the latter by texturing the cliff formations that I've painted over the past couple of years, but I have not been entirely successful. The abstraction of the texture on the canvas sometimes clashes with the realistic representation of form and plane. In retrospect, using light as a factor might have helped unify the two, but right now I am pulled more strongly toward trying the completely abstract, even if later I work my way back to a measure of representation. If I get rid of the form and plane, I'm left with shape, pattern, texture.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

the plan

So here is my plan to begin to explore both cold wax and abstraction:

First, I have a small show coming up at the local Gallery 24 in July, so I have to get pieces ready for it. Exploration must come second. I have about six paintings close to being finished, and another four that I could wrap up by then.

But, I also have ordered in (no art supply stores around here!) a modest stock of 2"-cradle Gessobord, all with multiples of 6" per side (6x6, 6x12, 12x12, etc.) so that they can be assembled together in various ways. By working with small pieces, I can focus on small chunks of abstraction, but each with a focus. And I can play with cold wax and all the tools that I have gathered over the years to create texture, in small bits without commitment to a huge canvas.

If things go well, I may be able to assemble up to six montages of these small pieces in time for the show in July. This gives me a goal and some limits, while at the same time allowing freedom to explore.

Another aspect of this montage approach is that it addresses the vastness of this country that I am trying to portray. Limiting the scope of a 50-mile vista to a 30"x32" canvas does not carry the impact I seek. Intimacy is required, as, for example, when we look at a specific angle of light on a specific ledge of cliff, rather than the whole cliff expanse stretching for miles in either direction. (At least, this is my hypothesis.) Creating small snapshots of "cliffness", abstract vignettes of sagebrush plains, color-fields of skies, and then assembling them according to how they fit together as an artistic form (back to Diebenkorn and the importance to him of the actual surface being created), might evolve into the effect that I want. The image above, for example, is my first attempt (6"x6") at abstract "rockness" -- with reference to a real piece of sandstone lying on my table.