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.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Ruth Fine's article on Richard Diebenkorn ("Reality: digested, transmuted, and twisted", in The Art of Richard Diebenkorn) reassures me that, while I may be groping for answers, my questions are valid. (The image at left is his Ocean Park No. 107 (1978).)

I ground myself and my paintings in the real: the earth, the rock, the sky. At the easel, I abstract what I have seen. Fine writes about Diebenkorn merging his observation of the visible world into the creation of his artistic form. The interaction between observing reality and creating a painting is at the crux of my deliberations at the moment, and it is as though I must choose what my language would be. Diebenkorn went for "geometric structuring and painted light" in both his representational and his abstract work, and these are the two aspects of his work that speak most strongly to me. I share the geometric bent, but I haven't paid much attention to the role of light in abstract work. I use light in my figurative and representational work, but have not found a way to use it in abstraction. I do pay a lot of attention to color, and if Diebenkorn responded to "the interaction of color and light in the visible world" (Fine), perhaps I should hone my observational skills and, while studying forms and translating them onto the support, include the study of light on those forms and their color. But, without actually representing the form itself in a painting, how can I represent the light?

Fine also notes Diebenkorn's "search for structure, space, color relationships, surface tensions, diverse marks, and scale" in the works he created, which provides a checklist for exploration in abstract painting. Similarly, she states that "the real subject for Diebenkorn was always form, light, and structure." It would be good to analyze a landscape -- or anything else I'm observing -- in those terms.

Behind all of this is an almost-decision to let representation go (except for exercises and when inspiration strikes) and become an abstract painter. Do I dare? A topic for later posts.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


My experimentation with cold wax as a painting medium is a push-pull between exploring the materials and exploring abstraction. When I let myself focus on the materials, I automatically create abstract pieces. When I try to control my composition and create “pictures”, I lose the beauty of the materials and of the abstraction.

This is an old story. Ever since I began painting in 1998, I have struggled with a pull toward abstraction. In learning “how” to paint, I learned the rules of representation: shape, shadow, perspective, and so on. By following the rules, I turned out quite respectable paintings. People responded well to them, and my teachers approved. But it was not my voice that was speaking.

My voice seems to be abstract. But the rules of abstraction seem more to be basic guidelines, beyond which you are on your own (but isn't that part of the freedom?). I have always worried that my abstract pieces weren’t real “art” but rather amateurish play. Perhaps, like its rules, the criteria for judging abstract art are vague. This route, for me, is a paradox: it is easy because I just speak with my voice. But, because there are no rules, it is hard to know if what I am creating is worthwhile.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

getting started

Some background: I have been painting in oil since 2002. My passion is to try to convey the beauty and spirit of the southwest mesa-mountain-canyon country in which I live. The landscape is vast, and is a challenge in itself. Other challenges for me include a natural attraction to abstraction, a love of experimentation, and the relative isolation of Torrey, Utah, where I live and work. The latter has meant that my art education has been through workshops, taught by excellent artists and professors, but mostly limited to the hands-on nature of that forum. I lack a formal theoretical background. It also means that it is difficult to get feedback from fellow artists on my work. Hence, this blog.

Recently I have begun to experiment with cold wax as a medium for oil paint, inspired by the work of Rebecca Crowell, who also maintains a thoughtful and informative blog. That experimentation has raised old and new questions about my work, its purpose and its processes. I hope to use this format to explore all of the above.

The painting above is "Hidden Chambers", which I painted in 2008.