Friday, November 18, 2011


 I watched a PBS program on Bill T Jones and his choreography and modern dance troupe last night, and once again felt that visceral connection to the dance process and form.  I feel it in my bones and muscles.  I was pulled right back into the years when I danced, vivid memories of the feel of the pieces I choreographed both in my body and in my mind.  I was fearless when I danced, I had no self-consciousness or nerves.  I have never felt so completely one with an art form since.

I know I can never fully get back into dance.   Age and location are two huge barriers; even if I could get back into enough physical shape, I would have to turn my life upside down to live where I could be in the dance world.  So this morning I turned the question “how can I dance again?” into “how can I incorporate dance into the two forms of art that I am practicing – cello and painting?”.  Good question.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

subdividing the concept

Thanks to my notes and Rebecca's handouts from the workshop in Mineral Point, plus several sessions of just sitting and contemplating my works-in-progress in the studio, I begin to see a next step in this journey of mine. It is to move beyond -- or, rather, into -- my concept of the landscape and geology of the Colorado Plateau and Capitol Reef. To subdivide it, as it were -- after all, no one painting could possibly capture it all anyway --  and look at each painting as an expression of some aspect of this place. At the same time, I'd like this subdivision of the big picture to move away from the pictorial into the conceptual. The "some aspect" that I address should be not river but space, not cliff but solitude. That is, I should shift the focus and respond to each painting in terms of what it is beginning to say, conceptually or emotionally, rather than what it is beginning to look like. This is the point at which to get away from form and into conceptual content. This follows an idea described by Rebecca in her talk about visual thinking (where conscious thought and intuitive response meet); it also follows a precept from David Dornan all those years ago: to tell a story, to paint human emotions.

So: after initial random splotches to mess up the bare gesso, and a few layers of contrasting colors and random textures and marks, and a few more layers inspired by an aerial or landscape composition, enough paint will be mindfully built up that I can begin to move to a conclusion that brings the painting together to say something. At this point, with reference once again to Free Play, I want to create not with form and technique but through them, using them to express some meaningful idea in an abstract way. What that will be, I still don't know, but that is my next task with my current set of close-to-finished pieces.

This whole train of thought was triggered in part by my signing and titling the one painting that was essentially completed in Mineral Point. Storm, Bryce Canyon, above, was never deliberately intended to be anything specific, but as I look at it, that title is my verbal response to it. It evokes feeling of the chaos and uneasiness of that area southwest from here, which is subjected to some of the harshest weather in the region.

Friday, September 16, 2011

moving along

I have had an energetic and productive week in the studio, augmented by helping a friend evaluate her progress in watercolor painting. I have no great results to report, however; I seem to be muddling along, though I sense that I am moving forward.

The main reason for this post is to make a visual record of the latest iteration of the three panels that I mentioned earlier in the week. "Houses" has become "Goosenecks" (at left) after an aerial photo of the famous gooseneck curves on the San Juan river inspired a few new layers. It now presents a stuck-in-the-middle challenge: it has quite a bit of paint built up, and I'm not sure where to take it. I am tempted to mess it up, but it seems to be too far along to add much more paint. I like where it is, but where is it going? I'm not painting the Goosenecks, I am painting ... what?
 "Zen" has received some added marks, plus some transparent layers. I also felt the need to add a structural note through a stripe down its left side. Like "Goosenecks", I'm not sure where to take this next. Again, I like what is happening, but I'm not sure where it should go. My thoughts from last month about getting unstuck from the middle should be helpful here, and I think my next activity will be to return to my notes from Wisconsin and step back from painting for a day or two.

Finally, "Wingate" (below) has morphed into "Trees", since I turned it sideways and impulsively added some copper leaf dancing across the top. Like the other two pieces, this is fun, but not finished.  Where do I go now? Hah!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

refining the concept

Three panels in the studio are clamoring for attention:  "Houses" and ""Zen"(both mentioned in previous posts), plus "Wingate", one of the pieces I began at the Mineral Point workshop.  All the workshop pieces arrived safely last Thursday, and have joined the many other panels on my studio walls. The near chaos of having so many pieces on display prompted me to rearrange and clean the studio, so that even though there are still too many panels around, the small ones are tucked behind the door, and the larger pieces are those that I see when I walk in.
Although I haven't been working exactly systematically since getting home from Wisconsin, I have been consistently pursuing the vision that I conceived there of rendering the country in which I live by abstracting the geologic processes and formations using cold wax techniques. A day away from the studio yesterday led to me waking up early this morning with that vision on my mind, and multiple ideas of things to try. This is what happened every day during the trip, and I welcomed the renewed focus.
All three of these pieces are currently in that "middle" zone of having developed in interesting ways but still lacking any sense of completion. It is time for re-vision work on all of them, and the pre-dawn clarity of the early morning brought inspiration for each. The first two have had a couple of layers of "aerial" treatment, with patterns and textures inspired by photos and maps. "Wingate" is one step further along, with some initial portrayal of layers of rock as we see them (the image above is the piece as it currently exists). All three are the result of the process I conceived in Mineral Point, and are confirmations of it. In each, initial random chaotic layers gave way to loose compositions based on actual aerial views provided by maps and photos, and are now ready for revision into "portrait" views of the layers of Capitol Reef.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

aerial perspective

This morning for the first time I tried using aerial photographs for compositional inspiration. I have an old file of photos cut from various magazines that chronicle the Colorado Plateau and its many formations. I have occasionally wondered why I was collecting these, but they are exactly what I am looking for now. They have, of course, been themselves composed by their creators, but I don't use them literally. Rather, some aspect provides an impetus for a mark or a gesture. Each photo that I used this morning spoke to me in one way or another, as portrayals of this stunning landscape and the geology that created it. And each provided many possibilities for gesture, whether it was the curve of a river, the outline of a mesa, or the step-like ledges of a cliffside.

The composition seen here is based on a close-up photo of a sandstone formation, carved by the wind into graceful ridges and ravines. I like the almost Zen-like mood that resulted. This is the fourth or fifth layer on the panel, and I am thinking that, rather than just cover it up with something different, I will let the feel of it guide me with later layers. The challenge will be not to let it get "precious" and feel that I can't change it.  Still, it has such a lovely flow that it may just carry itself along to completion.

Monday, September 5, 2011

layer revisions

One of the realizations that I had during the workshop in Wisconsin last week was that each layer of a given panel should be created as though it were the final layer. That is, each should be a complete composition, rendered with care and worked (revised, as in Free play) until it stands on its own, at least as a complete thought. In the couple of days that I have been home, I've gotten out to the studio to revisit this summer's partially worked panels that are hanging on the walls.  (My panels from Mineral Point are on their way home via UPS.) Most have only a couple of lower layers on them, which are not nearly random enough, having been worked too hard as cliff references. So I have spent happy hours messing them up, but with attention and care.  The image here is the current iteration of Houses (see my post of August 21st).

Next will come the harder work of settling into the layers of reference to aerial and landscape conceptions of the land here.  I've collected a couple of topo maps and some aerial photographs for inspiration. I also plan to do some plein air painting with cold wax as the medium, emphasizing matching paint color with what I see, in order to develop some samples of local color reference. It will also be a good exercise in abstract composition, since I intend to deliberately not render actual landscapes. Both aspects of the plein air work will, I hope, nourish the abstract work in studio.

Another step I have taken since arriving home from Wisconsin is to schedule actual blocks of studio time on my calendar. Now, instead of thinking, "I hope I can get out to the studio today," I can see that I will spend the afternoon there. My friend Phyllis Lasche suggested this, and I can already see that it is a great idea. (Thanks, Phyllis!)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

more coincidences

Driving home from the Salt Lake City airport last night, I was treated to a radio interview from 2004 with Doug Snow, a well-known Utah artist and professor who retired to the Torrey/Capitol Reef area and lived about five miles from my home. Doug died in a car accident two years ago, at age 82. I knew him, though not as well as I would have liked, and I shared a few conversations about art with him. A retrospective of his work just opened in Salt Lake City, hence the re-broadcast of the interview.

To hear Doug's voice and words while driving (somewhat wearily) home from the Wisconsin trip at first seemed to be a delightful coincidence. But soon the content of his remarks resonated so deeply that they seemed to be an end-note to the experience of this past week, another serendipitous occurrence of the muse's message.

Doug was deeply tied to the land here, and often cited the Cockscomb, a local geological landmark, as his muse. His paintings often referenced it (the image above is of his Cockscomb near Teasdale, 1985), and usually elicited strong reactions from viewers. In the interview, Doug spoke about the many artists who come to this area to render the landscape. From his perspective, most results lack something, because they don't convey emotion. He said, "“the landscape down here can be anything you want it to be,” that it “helps you to express whoever or whatever you feel that you are at that time.”

Doug believed that the role of the artist is to use the tools of the trade to translate one's own thoughts and feelings into art.  Rather than simply paint what you see (which, Doug said, is usually what has already been painted), “I think it’s great to take on stuff…without any preconceptions, just let it do something, let it bring something out of you, and then take that, using the landscape as a reference.” The landscape itself can have a profound influence, but the artist should still try to find his- or herself in the material. 

Finally, he spoke about curiosity being key to the process, because it leads to the unexpected and to surprise. “If I begin a painting, and I’m not surprised at the result, then all I've done is illustrate some vague idea I had in the first place.” “Improvisation plays a powerful role in what I do.  When in doubt, I improvise, and out of that comes something I can grab hold of and intensify, that becomes the finished product.” I felt as though he were speaking directly to me, reinforcing my recent realization that my aim is to portray not just the land itself but my feelings about it, and to let improvisation occur.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

a sense of place

I have spent a few days enjoying western Wisconsin, whose geography, flora, and fauna are about as different from southern Utah as can be. It is a more intimate landscape, and, to a westerner, is noticeably eastern, as in east of the continental divide. The Mississippi River is a stunning geological marker, with backriver deltas, wooded islands, and marshes abundant with birds. Low limestone cliffs define its broad valley, and vegetation is everywhere. The surrounding country consists of rolling hills created by the detritus of glacial deposits, and is also heavily wooded. The humidity in the air softens the views. Dampness predominates, as represented by the beautiful if soggy cobweb in the photo at left. The contrast of this landscape to the Southwest's long horizons, huge skies, bare rock formations, and atmospheric clarity could not be more striking.

Up close, one finds water and more water, not only in the river and it tributaries, but in morning dew, afternoon rain, dripping trees, moss, puddles.

This is Rebecca Crowell's home turf, and as I experienced it in its late summer dress, I was struck with a new understanding of her aesthetic, her palette, her style, her textures, her marks. As I pursue the expression of my own artistic ideas, I imagine that I too will develop distinctions that reflect my sense of place in my desert-mesa-canyon home. Tomorrow I begin the journey back there.

Monday, August 29, 2011

finding a way

I may be finding a way out of the middle, a way to get to completion, thanks to a presentation yesterday by Rebecca on merging form and content. Both are equally important, but perhaps one can address them differently at different stages of a painting, in a kind of dance.

Initially, I want to have the patience to build up (five? six? eight?) completely random, experimental layers before beginning to impose any kind of order on the chaos. I can use that time and those spaces to play, to improvise, to push the edges of technique, to try anything, knowing that if it fails, it will be covered up anyway and that it will inform the ultimate surface. This is a very right-brain process, "rapid, complex, whole-pattern, spatial, and perceptual" (to quote Betty Edwards in Drawing on the right side of the brain), and concentrates mainly on form.

Content during those early layers is less important, though I want to keep in the more analytic side of my mind the concept of the lower geologic layers of Capitol Reef: the chaotic Moenkopi formation, the voluptuous Shinarump, the accents of Chinle ledges, the majestic Wingate walls, the soaring Navajo domes. I want to merge form and content without imposing any order or composition in those early layers of paint, to keep in mind that any forms that might appear are to be buried, just as those lower layers of the Reef are buried.

After a certain number of lower layers are established, I can become more analytic, with more direct mental reference to cliff, mesas, canyons. It would be interesting to put down a couple of layers with an aerial reference to the land, as if looking at a map, and then to create layers that refer to the landscape as we actually see it.

This is a matter of thinking in three dimensions, in a funny sort of way.  In the actual landscape, we see the layers of the cliffs and mesas vertically, but they were created horizontally, built up layer after layer. And the layers of paint on the panel also are built up on top of one another horizontally, as it were, creating the painting as though one were creating the Reef, building it, piling up the layers on top of one another.  The “vertical” views that one sees of the Reef will been seen from this perspective only where lower layers of paint are revealed by dissolving, cutting through, or otherwise exposing them.  At the same time, however, the vertical cliff views can be rendered simply by referring to them on the painting surface, creating a portrait of them, treating the surface as if it were a cross section of all those layers, the view that we actually see. (This is where I've gotten into trouble before, because that visual image, which is the reality that we all see, becomes my composition.)  By working abstractly and addressing both approaches at the same time, I can increase the complexity and the visual richness of the work. I will never render a portrait, but by using multiple views of the land, from above and from in front, in multiple layers, I will incorporate the content into the form of the painting, and truly merge the two. I just have to have faith that the content will emerge through the form, and have the discipline and patience to let the materials create the content.

The photo above shows the five panels with which I ended the workshop.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

stuck in the middle

Mineral Point, WI 

Two days into the workshop, with several panels launched on the path to completion, I encountered the typical situation of getting stuck in the middle of the process.  In part this is a common workshop phenomenon: We are halfway through, and the excitement of beginning has morphed into the realization that hard work lies ahead. But this also happens at home, in the form of the (also) common phenomenon of getting past the initial excitement of beginning a painting and realizing that hard work lies ahead to bring it to completion.

There is almost inevitably a moment for me in the painting process when I lose my way and grind to a halt on a given piece. I may lose the original vision, I may have already gone off on a tangent of color or line­­, or I may not know how to get from where I am to where I want to be. This morning, most of my workshop panels were in that moment, and I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to proceed. It was a depressingly familiar sensation.  Then I picked up Free play again, opened it to where I had left off whenever I was last reading it, and found this before my eyes, in a section entitled “Shaping the whole”:

In producing large works ... we are perforce taking the results of many inspirations and melding them together into a flowing structure that has its own integrity and endures through time. The most ephemeral thoughts and feelings are gradually shaped into hard copy that is worked over, painted over, edited, and refined before the public sees it. This is ... where the painter covers the beginnings of the image with layer upon layer of enriching re-vision.

The muse presents raw bursts of inspiration, flashes, and improvisatory moments in which the art just flows out. But she also presents the technical, organizational job of taking what we have generated, then filing and fitting and playin­­g with the pieces until they line up. We arrange them, cook them, render them down, digest them.  We add, subtract, reframe, shift, break apart, melt together. The play of revision and editing transforms the raw into the cooked. This is a whole art unto itself, of vision and revision, playing again with the half-baked products of our prior play.

The passage could not have been more apt. It gave me a new perspective, and new insight, to where I was in the process, and what I needed to do. Suddenly my panels were not lost in a muddle but were rather the fledgling drafts of future finished pieces. And (perhaps more importantly), it wasn’t that I had lost my muse, or had failed in any other way.  Rather, it was a moment of re-vision when I could look at them anew, and "add, subtract, reframe". The idea that this portion of the process is a “whole art unto itself” suddenly gave it some dignity. I returned to our workspace with renewed energy, and made significant steps on half of my panels. The other half I decided to let dry and ship home, in order to be able to focus on fewer pieces while here. Not because I feel stuck on them any longer, but rather simply to not try to do too much.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

marks presentation

Mineral Point, WI
I have ten panels underway, far more than I can finish, but I want options. This morning I gave a small presentation about marks and mark-making to the workshop group.  Here is an outline of what I said, for the record.
Talking about marks – not the how, but the what, maybe the why -- independent of all other aspects of a painting

Why focus on marks?  I encountered marks as a challenge when I began to move away from representation, and have written about them on my [this] blog.  I was very conscious of marks when painting representationally, and find them fascinating as I move into abstraction.

Quotes – you don’t have to be an abstract artist to think about marks!
  • Dave Dornan, in a markmaking class: marks as “the language of the imperfection of the human hand” that help us “stay fascinated with ours errors and our vulnerability”
  • Mark Tansey (postmodernist), Visions and revisions:  “The game in a sense is to invent or find a tool that has a tactile resonance with the object it will be used to denote”
  • Forrest Moses, about his process:  “The path … is ongoing,  it takes constant vigilance with moving ahead and slipping back.  There is no set formula and is different for each of us.  I make marks, developing an image with a field of marks, and some I keep and some I remove and I stop before there is complete resolution.”
  • Steven Nachmanovitch, Free play: “The painter-calligrapher must treat space as though it were time.  The single-minded impulse from belly to shoulder to hand to brush to paper leaves its once-and-for-all trace, a unique moment forever frozen on paper.  The peculiarities and imperfections, which are there for all to see, are the mark of the calligrapher’s original nature.” “A blank canvas or piece of paper is ‘without form, and void’ (Genesis 1:2) but a single mark on it sets up a definite world and poses an infinite series of creative problems.”
Let’s back up to the basics: What do marks do?
  • For our purposes, they are the basic unit of visual expression: a line, a dot, a smudge, a curve
  • Marks alter the surface of the canvas
  • Marks cause eye movement; especially, linear marks create movement in a composition
  • Along with color, value, marks determine how the eye moves around the surface, and so they greatly affect how the viewer sees the painting
Some thoughts about marks
  • A continuum: marks : gesture : imagery : symbolism (things that stand for other things) : patterns : motif
  • Drawing is composed of marks; they are the visual expression of the human mind and spirit
  • Marks constitute visual thinking and interpretation of ideas
  • Symbols touch our inner understanding and subconscious knowledge
  • In a sense, every mark we make is a symbol, meaning something different from and more than what it actually is
It is through context that the meaning of a mark is interpreted, understood
  • Its pictoral, visual context
  • Its cultural context
Marks can be random or controlled, in their placement and in their creation
Marks can be rational and pre-planned, or they can be intuitive and organic

Creating a  visual and psychological vocabulary that both expresses the intention of the artist and affects the perception of the viewer
                      Sharon Wheat
                      Antoni  Tapies (see his "cracked White", 1956, above)
                      Fernando Zobel

Some exercises:
  • names written repeatedly as signature and used for mark derivation
  • designing letters of a concept word in a grid
  • draw a circle;  stand up, breathe, and draw a circle from your shoulder

Friday, August 26, 2011

getting into the paint

Mineral Point, WI

After two days of travel, meeting up with a friend and exploring Madison before coming to Mineral Point for the workshop, the first day of class today passed in a flurry of talk and painting. It was a day of settling in, of cohering as a group, finding a rhythm and a way of working together even as we each work independently. It was a time to be generous, to acknowledge each other and support each other, to get past introductions and find a level of mutual comfort. It didn't seem to take long: This is a group of very dynamic and cordial artists.

I have begun to work on several panels (probably too many), trying to focus on creating foundations rather than finished paintings.  I plan to continue to build base layers tomorrow, even if it means that I can't finish pieces before going home. I don't have anything specific in mind, although I still hope to address my dilemma of how to portray the land that I love.  Still, I like the idea of a series of rather random foundation layers, on top of which to build something more coherent.  Rebecca gave us a list of optional exercises on color, and I immediately adopted her "Random" idea: to close my eyes and pick up two tubes of paint at random, and use whatever they are for whatever layer I am working on.

I'll come back and edit this post to add an image of today's work, once I get the images out of my camera.  I forgot the cord!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

musings and plans

After letting it sit for several months, I finally have delved into Stephen Nachmanovitch's book Free play: Improvisation in life and art.  I have underlined so many passages in the book that I need to index them (fortunately, my Kindle does so for me). With reference to my post-birthday post, the following was particularly apt:

       The creative process is a spiritual path. This adventure is about us, about the deep self,
       the composer in all of us, about originality, meaning not that which is all new, but that
       which is fully and originally ourselves.

Nachmanovitch writes from the perspective of a violinist and writer, with frequent reference to the other fine arts. One reason that I have underlined so much is that when he isn't speaking to the painter in me, he is speaking to the cellist. (For example, "Artists play with color and space. Musicians play with sound and silence.")  And, indeed, his remarks center on the characteristics of improvisation, independent of the art form.  There is much to muse on here.

Part of the reason for reading Free play now is that it helps me focus on artistic issues that I want to address at the Oil & Cold Wax workshop in Wisconsin.  I am now in Salt Lake, staying overnight before boarding a morning flight to Madison. I have been looking forward to this workshop for months.  It is a "Level 2" presented by Rebecca Crowell, for artists who have attended her introductory workshop, which I did last year in Longmont, CO.  We will continue to explore oil and cold wax, and I will have several days of contact not only with Rebecca but with other artists who attend.

Because opportunities like this workshop are so rare, I wanted to get my thoughts in order, if possible, before it begins. Hence the last few posts, and Free play.  I also wanted to identify what I want to get out of the workshop (while still allowing for surprise and serendipity), and to address once again what I want to accomplish in my painting. I know that I have talked about it all before, in one way or another, but I hope to move the conversation ahead. My plan (such as it is) for the workshop is to try to stay focused on the issues that I have identified, and to try to paint in a disciplined yet spontaneous way, to try to break through the barriers that seem to have hemmed me in. I want to focus on using all I know about oil and cold wax materials and techniques to address the subject matter that means the most to me, which is the land that surrounds me in southern Utah.

There is one last dilemma that I have never openly addressed, one that is surely shared by other students of Rebecca's: many of us are studying Oil & Cold Wax with her simply because we want to paint like her. Yet we don't want to imitate her.  Rather, we want to find our voices, as she has, through the same medium.  So, this brings back me to The Question: Just how, exactly, am I going to use this medium and these techniques to express my own voice?  What a silly question, now that it is asked. I have my palette and I have my passion for the land,  and I even have some of my own techniques.  I just need to hunker down and add the things I learn from Rebecca to that, without fear of being imitative.  Because I won't be, because I don't want to say the same things that she does.  My hope for the days in Wisconsin is that I will realize how to pull it all together and will begin do so.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

coming together

In the last post (May 23d) before teaching the high school class, I ended with the remark that my fundamentals, as I have defined them, seem to be abstract design, color, and marks, and that "it is time I tied them to my inner vision of what I want to express."

I now think, after a few weeks' hiatus, that I have been separating these questions too much from those of my subject matter, and that I really do need to bring the two sides of my painting together.  It makes sense to consider design, color, and marks within the parameters of what I want to paint about. If my passion is to portray my reaction, emotion, ideas about the land around me, it makes sense to marry that with the elements that I choose to use.  I have written about this before, with reference to Rebecca Crowell's "Form and Content" distinction, and really all I am doing here is recording that this is something that I hope to address actively during this weekend's workshop in Wisconsin.  More later.

Above is a recent, hasty, non-abstract, cold wax 20"x20" painting that I obliterated the next day with a layer of cobalt blue.

Friday, August 19, 2011

a thousand thoughts

Eleven quietly eventful weeks have passed since I last wrote. The gap reflects a period of a lot of activity, some of which has been typical summer busy-ness: house guests, fishing trips, gardening, community festivals. It also has been an active time artistically. I have been painting regularly, and have continued to explore not only the cold wax medium but also what I want to say with it. And I made some fundamental changes in the mechanics of my cello playing, and have discovered new levels of expression as a result.

On another, more internal, level, some changes have happened and are still happening that I sense will have an effect on my painting. I am meditating regularly, exploring awareness, and this brings with it a sense of peace and inner unity. I have had deeper and more substantive conversations with friends and acquaintances than I can remember having before. I have found new friendships. I have a new awareness of my own values, and I've lost some old fears. Nothing dramatic, just an interesting progression of new aspects of life.

In addition, I turned 60 yesterday. Age has never meant much to me, but the number 60 is such a singular number, and so much has been happening in my life, that the day almost seems to be some kind of marker. Four days from now, I leave for a week of concentrated cold wax work in Wisconsin, and opportunity beckons. As always during such times of growth, the impulse to record it in words has returned, and I am grateful for this space in which to explore it all.

The painting above, "Sandstone Pathways", 20" x 20", was the result of a lengthy and fairly thoughtful process and now hangs in Gallery 24. I like the painting, objectively speaking, but it is not what I want to paint about. I am tired of futzing around and being afraid of addressing cliffs;  I think it is time to take the next painting step.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

last class

We pulled together as a group for one last short painting session, sharing four unused panels by working in pairs.  I assigned that the students abstract something from nature; that they think about design elements and use of color to express the essence of whatever natural “thing” they chose to abstract; and that they turn the panel at least once to get away from anything representational. It worked beautifully, being enough different from earlier sessions to catch their interest, and reinforcing several of the points that I made during the first classes.  Next, we critiqued those four panels, which I had told them would become underpaintings for me to take home and work on (they requested e-mail photos of the results).  Finally, each student presented his/her two finished pieces chosen for the group exhibit this afternoon, and described the processes and choices that went into each.  Then we hauled easels and paintings down to the school library and set up the exhibit, and packaged up the other pieces for each student to transport home.  Graduation is Saturday, and the school year is over.

I am left with four interesting panels to work with, each retaining the energy of its initiators.  I also am taking home the five 12’ x 12’ panels that I worked on as demo’s, each of which I intend to finish and cradle and take to the gallery.  Beyond the physical pieces, I am taking home a wealth of ideas and energy, and good memories of a strenuous week.  It has been a rich and enriching experience.

The image above is of a 16" x 20" panel by Lainie, one of my students, who chose it for one of her two exhibit pieces.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

layers of knowledge

Today’s class consisted of two three-hour sessions, one morning and one afternoon.  With the basics under their belts, it was time to add some nuances.  I introduced the use of metallic pigments (both powder and paint) in the morning, which were greeted enthusiastically. In the afternoon, we raided the yard outside the studio for dirt that we sifted through cheesecloth (Sedona sits on iron-rich red sandstone), and leaves, juniper needles, and grasses.  The dirt became pigment and the plant samples, stamps. The students were a little doubtful at first, but plunged in and experimented.  Overall, it was a looser day, but it seemed appropriate, and some very creative work was accomplished.

One student, Keely, had applied plenty of paint, powdered pigment, and paint stick to her largest panel, and she set it outside to dry.  It was a warm desert day, and the panel quickly absorbed a lot of heat, both from the sandstone patio on which it lay and from the direct sunlight.  The wax melted.  This created some interesting effects, as pigments merged and lines blurred.  Then the student decided to brayer over it to create a new surface for working.  Because the lowest layers were melted as well as the top (but not the middle), the brayer lifted off paint in some places and not others, and to varying depths depending on the consistency of the inner layers.  The end result was a fascinating surface of texture and revealed color, some places melted and others not. The photo above shows the effect, as best a photo can. A couple of us replicated the effect on panels of our own, always to interesting results. It is not something that could happen without available hot surfaces and hot light, but it suggests some interesting possibilities.

I had brought with me from home a large unfinished piece that I have been stuck on for a while, as an example of an in-process painting as well as the use of analogous colors.  This afternoon, with all my classroom panels wet, and inspired by the leaves and grasses we gathered, I applied more paint in several places and added some grass marks, and broke the logjam that has been keeping me from finishing the painting.  I’ll do a little more at home, but it was very satisfying to move forward with it.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

more classroom notes

Today’s class introduced abstract markmaking. I demo’d the creation of a design from my initial “n”, and the students divided a small piece of poster board into four squares, wrote their initials in one square, and created a mark from each of the three letters in the other spaces.  It was a good and quick way to get them actively exploring making marks.

I also did something new for me, as a demo or otherwise. I had woken up early this morning from a nightmare, and in probing the dream I had realized that the nightmarish message was FEAR.  So I took each of the four letters, in printed upper case (rather than, for example, cursive lower case), and created a very angular design out of them.  I used it in class as another example of bringing daily life into the painting process in an abstract way.  We also doodled for a couple of minutes.

The demos, of course, were also about the materials and methods for drawing on both wet and dry panels, the texture that the various m&m’s provide, the effects when lower layers are revealed, etc.  It was the longest demo/lecture yet, even though I sped through it.  The little drawing exercise helped break it up.  It went well, and among the students, someone picked up on and used virtually everything I introduced, so I was happy with the wide variety of ideas that I had presented.  We have one two-session day left, and then a final three-hour session that will be evaluation, discussion, and wrap-up.  So I felt that it was important to get as much information into their hands as possible.
As for my own paintings, I used two of them for demos of m&m’s, pretty much ruining any cohesion of design in the process, but I just carried on with them anyway, when we got into work mode, if for no other reason than to stand behind my assertion that there being no such thing as a mistake.  I had little time to think about and work on the other two panels.  Besides, my main takeaway from today in terms of my own work was the FEAR exercise.  I can see embedding words into my paintings as I move along – it is a very rich concept to me.  Embed PEACE into a painting.  No one else will know it’s there, but I will.  The idea has possibilities.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

in the classroom

My mini-course continues. Some second-day dynamics kicked in this morning. One young woman who handled the flat color application with panache yesterday got bogged down when she had to add texture; it took her most of the morning to figure how to use it to good effect.  Another student who was close to being bored with the color application lit up as she moved into texture.  We also moved into the layers when hues were switched (warm to cool, light to dark, etc.) and everyone could begin to see for themselves some of the effects that I had been describing. In addition to introducing texturing techniques, I presented some of the basic design concepts (for example, what I know as the rule of thirds, and the Golden Mean), the idea of a focal point and leading the eye of the viewer. I encouraged the students to begin to think about where they are heading with what until now have been experiments in handling the materials.  Everyone seemed to go away happy.

As for my own work, being with the class provides stimulation, both from the questions that the students ask and from the discoveries that they make.  Because my panels serve as examples, I’m forced to be both stricter and more creative in what I do, and I may be making more careful and conscious decisions than in my studio at home.   I found myself feeling rather at sea as I worked on my panels by myself, and I realized that I wasn’t sure where I was going with them.  I had been focused more on presenting things to the class than on what I was producing.  In a way, this is good because it is forcing me out of habits.  But I also would like to produce decent pieces by the end of class (could there be some pride at work here?).  I was drawn by a chance brayer mark to create a frame or window effect on one panel, and went on to establish what I’m thinking of as “windows” on each panel, with a thought to design (gasp!), focal point, and, eventually, message.  Thus am I forced to think outside my own envelope.  I am enjoying it.

The photograph above shows some of the students’ work after Day 2.

Friday, May 27, 2011

teaching and learning

This morning was the first day of a short class that I am teaching at my high school in Sedona on – guess what! – oil painting with cold wax medium.  We will meet for 6 three-hour sessions, and my two principal challenges are, first, to combine the mechanics with enough theory to present a balance of action and thought, and, second, to get enough layers down soon enough to build a satisfactory painting or two in such a short time.

I decided to limit the theoretical side of the class to two concepts that are broad enough to challenge the students with previous painting experience, but simple enough that those with no such experience can grasp the basics.  So, we are addressing basic color theory and color field theory, along with some concepts of abstraction and design.  Today we put down base layers of a warm hue and a cool, a light hue and a dark, on each of four “assignment” panels, in order to introduce concepts of hue and value.  Tomorrow will be more of the same, but adding texture techniques and analogous color contrasts.  After the initial layers are down, they will switch to each characteristic’s opposite (light to dark, etc.) in successive layers, and we’ll begin to look at removal techniques.  Along the way, we’ll address abstraction and mark-making.  Each student has two additional panels, which they are free to paint as they choose, but they need to show the use of some of these concepts that we will have covered by the end of the third day, when they start the free-lance panels.

It is a packed schedule, but these teenagers are smart and energetic.   I’m recording this here because the whole experience is teaching me about my own painting, as well.  Being forced to parse out rationale from instinct, to explain the basics of color interaction and abstraction, to have the patience to lay down layers one at a time (I am painting along with the kids), is being a good exercise for me; in a sense I am taking the class at the same time that I am giving it.  I have never approached a cold wax painting as deliberately and consciously as I am doing this week, and the discipline is being good for me.  I have always had the sense that I do not put down enough layers, especially at the lower levels, and while the rules I am setting for these students are admittedly somewhat arbitrary, there is a point to them, and I will be interested to see the results of following them in my own work.

The photo above is of some of the first-day panels; some of the colors are stunning.  What fun it is to watch these young people create!

Monday, May 23, 2011

content as adjective

It is easy enough to label things with adjectives, but how does one turn an adjective into a concrete thing, specifically, a painting?

I'm not posing a rhetorical question, I'm just trying to think through how to say, for example, "huge" in paint.  I know there are ways into this question, I have even heard about them in art and design workshops, articles, and books.  I need to make them my own, in my own way to catalog what colors, designs, and marks portray these adjectives to me.  Some marks will be universal; for example, a horizontal line is generally accepted to suggest rest or calm, a vertical line grandeur or loftiness, a diagonal line movement or tension. (Charlotte Jirousek of Cornell gives a nice introduction to the expressive qualities of line in her online textbook on design.)

Color may, in fact,be harder than marks to use in interpreting adjectives. Or maybe not: Cool colors are certainly calmer than warm.  Red can mean fire or chaos, in some cultures.  But beyond that, I can't really say.  I'll have to experiment, although I would guess that there are established resources that can also help, at least to get started.

I go back to Richard Diebenkorn and his work and the way he abstractly conveyed, for example, space in his Ocean Park series.  And he did use local color, to come extent (I can't see giving up my southwest palette).  He played a lot with division of space on his canvas, another area I should consider.

So it all comes back to design, color, and marks, but I am beginning to see them in a new way and to realize that it is time I tied them to my inner vision of what I want to express, that is, my intention, as embodied by the spiritual/emotional/perceptual qualities of what I perceive.

The image above is of a 6" x 18", approached with not much more intention that working with the unusual size and shape of the surface.

Friday, May 20, 2011

marks and intention

I concluded in a previous post on intention that I have probably been starting with the medium rather than the message since I began working in cold wax.  In addition to experimenting with the cold wax medium and its properties, I have focused on color and design and, most recently, marks.  I've been relying on the process to produce a message, but if asked, I could not have said what that message was.  Although I have thought about cliffs, and have used rather a "southwest" palette, and have pursued the creation of beautiful surfaces, I have struggled with the concept of defining a specific intention.  When I have attempted to do so in the past, I have defined intention in terms of something representational, and despite a sometimes very powerful vision of how to achieve an abstraction of that thing, I have seldom been successful.  This was part of my decision to move away from representational painting altogether, to free myself from trying to portray any "thing".

I have been circling around this dilemma for months. Although I have said the I am not being representational, many of my cold wax pieces do indeed try to represent cliffs: rectangles, verticals, sky at top, &c.  In a way, I am working against myself. I cannot find a happy level in between the completely representational and the completely abstract.  And for some reason I am still uncomfortable with letting go of representation completely.  I think this is because I do not want to paint "emotion", I am not an expressionist.  So, how do I define and pursue an intention in my painting? Now that I have settled on a medium that I love, what do I want to say with it?

My general intention in painting is to create an abstract vision of my impressions and reactions to living where I live.  To refer again to Rebecca Crowell's "Form" and "Content" discussion, my Form is oil paints mixed with cold wax medium applied to flat surfaces.  My Content is sandstone, desert, cliffs, sky.  Perhaps this would be better expressed in adjectives, in order to get away from the representational.  What does that Content say to me, that I want to convey in my work?  Stasis, solidity, serenity (even when storms move through).  Space.  Light.  Layers.

To come back to my current theme of marks: If marks are to reflect my Content, they should express the adjectives above.  My work should be describable by them.  Rebecca said, "If an artist begins with F(orm) ... the challenge is to develop intention and a unique vision along with mastery of the medium."  Sounds like my situation to me.  Perhaps I can find  my way to my abstract voice by using adjectives and interpreting them, staying away from anything remotely representational.  Perhaps the next challenge is to decide what design and what marks portray serenity, space, light.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

marks and meaning

The pen-and-pencil exercise of abstracting the alphabet into marks has led to further thought about marks and their meaning. A mark can be a simple as a short stroke of a pencil, but marks are also combinations of these small units that take on more and more meaning the further they are developed. Marks become symbols, and symbols may be letters that form words that hold meaning, or symbols may be nonverbal shapes with meanings that may be universal or may be culture-specific.  Even marks that convey no such meaning affect the space in which they are made: The first mark on a blank surface immediately affects that surface and how it is perceived and how later marks are made in relation to it.  The energy of a mark, its direction, its placement, its color, its thickness, length, movement -- these all affect the viewer at either a conscious or a subconscious level.

What does a viewer see in the marks of an abstract painting?  If a mark represents (deliberately or not) a cultural symbol, it will convey a certain message.  If it looks like a letter from the viewer's language, other associations will be made.  If it is neither of these, the viewer might react to its visual effect on the overall painting, for example, the extent to which it activates the surface.  Or the mark might evoke an emotional reaction due to its own characteristics.  The sharpness of a zigzag might connote anger, while a wavy line might represent calm.  A classic mark-making exercise is to put down with no forethought one's reaction to "emotion" words such as anger, calm, fury, joy, sad, happy, and so forth.  This is one way to develop a type of "language" of one's own.  Yet how any given viewer will interpret that personal language will depend on his or her own background, culture, education, emotional makeup.

Marks that do not create actual words present information on a nonverbal level, yet many people seem to react by trying to translate them into words, to name them.  Of course, many people react to abstract art by trying to see representations in it.  The more interesting question, to me, is how all this affects the marks that I put down.  If my paintings are to be nonrepresentational, my marks cannot describe an object. But the point of my rather pedantic approach here reflects my realization that not only do I have a choice about what marks to put down, my choice will affect how others see my paintings. Then the question becomes, what do I want to convey?  Which leads back to the question addressed in a recent post:  What is my intention?  Yikes.

I could just paint for myself and not care how others interpret it.  But I want my art to communicate to others, which means that I must consider both my intention and how my marks convey it.

The image above is a 6" x 12" panel that had been lost to too many layers of paint.  It was one of the first pieces that I picked up on Saturday and dared to mark.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


My "art deco" alphabet from Friday pulls me in whenever I look at it.  The gestures and movements are very natural to me, and in a sense it represents a language of mine.  Looking around my studio, I saw the 12" x 12" panel-in-progress at left, with the large additive gestures already in place (I had applied them with an oil stick some time back).  But as Meg and I spent our last hour together in the studio, I realized that I was still uncomfortable both with making marks by scratching out (in contrast to adding on top), and with being more free-form in mark-making (which I like to call scribbling or doodling).  I always have tended to get too repetitive or take the scribbling too far, ending with a result that I didn't like.

Bolstered by Meg's presence, and already familiar with her expertise in mark-making, I wanted to work on this before she left.  For her part, Meg had laid down enough cold wax layers on a couple of panels to want to try some scratching out, and was happy to demonstrate.  As I watched her, she described her action as controlling the pressure and speed of her tool, but otherwise being free in her marks.

The concept of combining control of the tool with freedom of movement clicked for me.  I think perhaps in the past I've either controlled everything or let everything go.  I worked for a while exploring the dynamics of balancing the two, and was excited to see what happened.  The smaller scratches on the panel above were my first attempt, and I went on to several other panels that have been languishing on the walls.  There is more work to do here, but I feel as though I've had a breakthrough.  Huzzah!

Friday, May 6, 2011


My sister-in-law, Meg, has been visiting from her home on the northern California coast.  Coming from redwood forests and restless ocean, the open horizon and sandstone stasis of our southern Utah country provide a stimulating contrast in environment.  Meg is in a transitional period artwise, after a career of working primarily in glass (see some of her work at Gualala Arts).  The two of us have wanted to try working together for a long time, and this seemed a perfect moment to do so, in the pause between the retreat of winter and the constant activity of summer.

This is our third and final day together in the studio, and we both feel as though we been in an intensive workshop, with the accompanying exhilaration and exhaustion.  In addition to just sharing each other’s artistic energy, we each had some purposes: I wanted to benefit from Meg’s work in drawing, and Meg wanted to open up her boundaries by exploring some cold wax and color work with me.  We spent the afternoons on the latter, of which more later.

In the mornings we have focused on producing mini-sketches and designs based on the English alphabet.  My first alphabet, shown at right, was simply an exercise in remembering mark-making with pencil and paper, using the lower-case alphabet as a source (interestingly, Meg chose to work with upper-case letters...hmm).  My second alphabet, shown above, carried with it the assignment to have each "letter" touch all four sides of its space.  I love the way that each set of five letters became a row.  I also am interested to see how instinctively art-deco-ish this second series turned out to be.  I wonder what the next alphabet will look like?  I have done this type of exercise before, in classes and workshops, but it has always fallen off the radar here at home, where I focus too much on the production of finished paintings and not enough on nurturing my own artistic growth.  It has been rewarding to spend this time with pencil on paper. 

So, in addition to three days of wonderful company and companionship, creativity and exploration outside our comfort zones, I am also left with a resolve to take some time, if not each day, then at least once a week, to do something in the studio other cold wax work.  Meg and I have accepted a homework assignment -- to take one of the other’s letters and work up a larger next iteration, due back to each other in a week -- in an attempt to enhance the transition for each of us once we are back home.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

marks and symbols

I have for some time been trying to develop a graphic language of my own that I  -- and, I hope, others -- will recognize as mine.  This has been a sporadic effort, and I have given relatively little quality attention to it, partly because when I do address the issue, I am quickly frustrated.

Recently, thinking about the desire that my work reflect my Colorado Plateau surroundings, I wondered if petroglyph and pictograph art might provide the key to a language of my own.  I pulled out our books on the topic, and enthusiastically began marking paintings with Anasazi designs. Many of these are abstract symbols of the natural world -- sun, moon, earth -- that I thought might blend well with my work.  The example at left, from Jim Beard's website, gives the flavor of such designs.  After a few experiments, however, I decided that they don't work.  Or, rather, the designs do, but I am not comfortable with superficially pulling meaningful marks from a culture that is not my own.  Even though I intend no harm, and even try to honor the designs, it seems almost offensive to me, to simply lift  whole images into my work.  Also, it feels as I imagine it would feel to copy Chinese characters onto my paintings:  I don't understand fully their meaning, and they are not my voice.

So, my quest continues.  Georgia O'Keeffe famously quoted Arthur Wesley Dow's admonition to "fill space in a beautiful way" as she painted, and it is also one of my maxims.  This requires, however, a spiritual and/or philosophical integrity that goes beyond just the aesthetics of the painting, and I learned something about myself in my brief winter experiment with Native American symbolism.  Back to the hard bench: I have to develop my own marks, not borrow someone else's, no matter how powerful and beautiful they may be.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

time and travel

I am writing this post from Cuenca, Spain, on the last day of a two-week vacation exploring the southeastern provinces of the country (Valencia and Murcia).  Cuenca, a World Heritage Site, is a beautiful town, with a university in the modern city at the foot of the historic walled town, which occupies a high promontory at the junction of two rivers.  It is also a town very conscious of the visual arts, in large part due to a group of mostly Spanish artists who gathered here in the 1960's and whose work is present in various museums and foundations in the city.

I visited the Museo de Arte Abstracto, and discovered some new favorite painters and paintings. One of these is Fernando Zóbel, whose "Jardín Seco" appears above. Zóbel's work resonated with me, because I find in it many of the tensions that I like to address in my own work.  For example, several of his paintings are organic, almost gestural, flights of paint (indeed reminiscent of birds), yet the same canvas will present a ruler-straight thin line of color at some spot, or a quite mechanical grid of thin black lines that peek thorough from the canvas.  This push-pull of organic and mechanical is one of the tensions that I love.

I sense that there may have been a bit of a shift in my thinking about my own work, that the model inside my head has gained nuances.  I won't really know until I get home and get back to work.  The subtleties of Zóbel's work are inspiring, and the beauty of the art in the Museo de Arte Abstracto renews my faith in my own vision.  I return home more firmly than ever an abstract painter.

Monday, March 21, 2011


Two of my friends and mentors have recently spoken about intention, one in the context of cello, the other in the context of painting.  That two such messages found me, so close together, gave me food for thought.

The idea of intention in music is to decide what you want to say before you play a piece.  The concept felt foreign to me, and it goes against my natural tendency.  I've always thought my role as the player was to render what the composer called for.  This may come from my choral past: as part of an ensemble, one does not try to leave an individual mark; rather, the purpose is to blend.  And blending is also part of my nature, for any number of reasons, and the idea that *I* should decide what to express when playing a piece of music reverses my role. Rather than the musician/player serving the music/composer,  the music is the vehicle for the self-expression of the player.  This calls for more assertiveness than I am used to.

In her blog post of February 20th, Rebecca Crowell discussed Form and Content and the dynamics and interaction of the two in art.  Ideally, the two are in balance. In reality, one may frequently lead the way over the other.  The challenge is then to create the balance within the given piece (see Rebecca's wonderful essay to explore this further).

Content involves intention, and part of the dynamics of creating a painting is to use Form (the materials) to express the intention. Once again, my thoughts ground to a halt at this concept.  Not that I didn't understand it, I just couldn't identify my intention.  I have defined my general intention in painting: As in music, it is to create beauty.  But to have a specific intention for a specific painting -- especially in abstract work, which doesn't rely on the scenery or object in front of one's eyes -- that gives me pause.  I guess I have been Form-driven, playing with dynamics of color, value, composition, to create spatial beauty.  Maybe that is a kind of intention, but I think that there is more to it than that.  Even in an abstract piece, there needs to be Content.  The dilemma for me is the same at the easel as at the cello: how do I decide what my intention is?  Once I have done that, I think that Form will conform (no pun intended) to it in a fairly straightforward way.

Clearly there is more to think about and say in this regard.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

time passing

I was somewhat surprised when I looked at this blog today and realized that nearly a month has passed since I last wrote.  I have been painting, a lot, but I have not been writing.  I sometimes create posts in my head while I work, but I haven´t been sitting down to write them out.

In part this is because the painting has been going well; in part it is because life outside the studio has been busy; in part it is due to an annual late-winter funk that I tend to fall into.  Still, I like to celebrate good paint flow as well as to address concerns about it not flowing, and I regret not having recorded some of the insights that I have had over the past weeks.  If indeed they are still lodging somewhere in my head, as I believe they may be, I can´t access them at will.  I should jot down at least brief notes as ideas occur to me, for later reference.

This coming week is necessarily a production week, since I have to get at least a half dozen pieces to the gallery here in Torrey before we leave on a trip next Monday.  Gallery 24 will open for the season while we are gone. I have close to thirty panels under way (most of them small), but only a few that I am willing to let out the door.  Still,  I don´t need many, and I will finish up quite a few more soon after our return.  Perhaps during that time -- and as I approach the one-year anniversary of this online journal -- I will improve my habits of testifying to the creative process that I experience.  Such, at least, is my resolve.

Monday, February 14, 2011

valentine cliffs

We took a Valentine's Day hike today, a 3-1/2 hour round trip up Calf Creek to its lower falls and back. Wine, cheese, bread, and an apple made up our lunch.  Chosa bounded gleefully all the way, outrunning us at least 4:1. We were the only visitors in the canyon, and the hawks greeted us with shrieks that made us wonder if they were protecting nests.

Lower Calf Creek is a gorgeous canyon, part of the Escalante - Grand Staircase National Monument that Clinton set aside toward the end of his presidency.  If it were anywhere else, it would be a monument all its own. But within the context of southern Utah, it has a lot of competition.  For a fuller description and a photo of the falls, go here, or Google Calf Creek Falls.

Lower Calf Creek is one of my favorite walks, and in the sunlight of a clear and crisp winter day, I found plenty of fodder for my cliff textures fascination.  I snapped photos left and right.  The images here are examples of the beauty that I find in these sandstone curtains. The ancient layers of rock have been twisted and expanded and compressed over the centuries, have cracked and crumbled, and the visible surfaces are streaked with desert varnish in multiple layers.  The texture can range from creamy smoothness to jumbled chaos.  Every facade is different, and changes with the light and the season.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

early morning thoughts

With Jeff’s talk resonating in my mind, I woke up early and found myself thinking about my work. What is my passion? Representing sandstone on canvas (board). Why? It (the sandstone) has spoken to me since high school, here outside Sedona. I need to keep that passion up front in my mind as I work. And it’s not only the sandstone, it is also the sky, so much a presence here in the southwest. Not only how beautiful and mysterious it is, but also that it requires looking up, and how important that is to me. It’s so easy to get focused on looking down.

I also need to create a syllabus for a 5-day workshop in cold wax techniques that I may teach at our high school this spring, and am musing about sequence and emphases. There will be lots of hands-on, but I need to start each day with a focus and a demo.  For example, Day 1: Cold wax, its properties, and how I use them to represent sandstone, sky, and space (that has a nice ring to it). Strata in the earth and strata in the painting process. Two-dimensional visual strata in traditional painting, and the use of cold wax, which allows three-dimensional strata building. Day 2: Color fields and support size/shape. Opaque versus transparent paint. Value. Warm and cool contrast. Detraction methods. Day 3: Marks and expression. Additive marks and detractive marks. Confinement (support edges) and freedom. Vertical versus horizontal orientation. Representation versus abstraction. Day 4: Thinking outside the frame. Using non-traditional natural substances.  Observation, interaction, conversation. Getting to a message. The path of the eye. Rotating the support. Day 5: Getting to finished. Keeping it fresh. Using mirrors.

Messages to myself in my own work: Go deeper. Ask why I like something in a piece and pursue it. Look for interesting serendipity and take it further. Remember underlying principles and build on them without letting them constrain. Explore embedding. 

Find new techniques to build cliffs. Sandstone and sky. Forget foreground. Go deeper into layers and colors of sandstone. Think of past cliffs and do the layering in cold wax. Bring more pieces of stone into studio. Use and vary cliff colors. Build, scrape. Think in vertical and horizontal, with arcs, slopes.

How to do sky in cold wax? Think depth – the deep blue behind and beyond the “surface” we see. The pale blue of day sky. The sky colors at day beginning and day end. The patterns and textures of clouds and storms. The smoothness of clear sky.

I remember meeting two women at the Escalante art festival last fall who had stopped to see my work in Torrey. They told me about peering at my cliff paintings and asking themselves, “How did she do that?” Jeff talking about wanting people to feel uneasy when they are with his work, to wonder about it, and his seeking effects that would provoke that reaction. I want a similar response, more of the “how did she do that” quotient like the ladies expressed last fall.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

considering mistakes

I had the pleasure this evening of listening to my artist friend Jeff, who is a gifted and accomplished ceramicist, photographer, and teacher, speak about his work and the sources of his creativity (see some of his most recent work here). He was being honored with an award of excellence from the high school that we both attended. His main theme was how fascinated he has always been with his two mediums (clay and photography) and how he explores and experiments and pushes the envelope until a “mistake” happens, and then he seizes that moment to turn the “mistake” into a new impetus for creation and exploration. His talk was passionate and straight on, eloquent in its intensity and wisdom, and an inspirational lift from the mundane issues of day-to-day artmaking. He gave what we do a new perspective for me, one that made me ask myself what my own passions are, while at the same time reviving and clarifying those passions. Sandstone. Texture. Beauty. Solidity. Balance. Jeff’s talk made me realize that I can stop feeling apologetic about my art, and stop questioning how others view my creativity and my commitment. Instead, as he said, I can just renew them, constantly, and pursue them, with passion. I owe him great thanks, and will tell him so.

Monday, February 7, 2011

away from home

I am visiting a friend in Sedona, AZ, a familiar, periodic trip that I make. The 8-hour drive south is frequently a meditative one, on roads lightly traveled, through the Grand Staircase country of southern Utah and northern Arizona. I went to high school just outside Sedona, and my friend is also a former teacher of mine from those years. Her house is almost a second home, and the chance to visit with her, as well as the change in climate and scenery, are always welcome.

Thinking about my painting today as the miles rolled by, ideas came to mind that I want to record here, since I won’t be back in the studio for a week. The start I made on “arc”, with the rough drawing at its bottom layer, is interesting enough that I wonder about making that base layer a black/white (well, low value/high value, anyway), more detailed layout for later layers to cover up and reveal. I think it is worth a try. The only question is how much of an actual drawing to make, whether to go into detail (which would require more detailed brushwork than the spirit of cold wax as I interpret it provides), or perhaps just record broad value blocks, similar to those of “arc” but taking them a bit farther. More to experiment, here.

Another idea to record for future reference: to keep going with layers until I am satisfied, to not accept as final a stage with which I am not completely happy. I was showing an 8"x8" (posted here on September 29th) to an artist friend of mine tonight, telling him I wasn’t sure it was finished, and he asked what I might do with it to take it further. It was a wonderful question, and forced me to really think about what the options are. I managed to come up with four, each better than the previous, until now I am eager to get back to the studio and back to it ( I’ve been letting it sit for several months, not knowing what to do). It’s wonderful what having a fellow artist to talk with can do….

Friday, January 28, 2011

second pass

I had to chuckle as I worked on "arc" today, because this piece is really open-ended and is thus a vivid contrast to the landscape I wrote about in the last post. As I try my idea of an abstraction keying off of a specific cliff, I truly don't know how it will turn out. I am painting on an as-I-go basis, though I do use some artistic judgments. For example, I established some value contrast today, with the idea that this is a kind of base layer, in opaques, to be covered over with successive layers of transparents to build the cliff.  But, who knows where the next step will take me? Nor do I know how much "cliff" will be left in the final piece. I guess I am assuming that because there is a drawing underneath everything that I put on top, some essence will come through. But I don't know that, nor do I know whether I might not go back in with drawn marks later on. I just don't know where it is going.  But that is what is exciting: There is no predetermined image that I am trying to achieve. It will go where it goes. I am documenting its creation here mostly to record my musings as the process unfolds, so that the next creation might be more informed. The idea of "cliff-ness" is still in my mind, I just don't know how literal I want to be. This may be too referential an approach, but I won't know until it is finished. I am continuing to work on the older 16"x16" cliff-ness panels, also with arcs, that reference no actual cliff. I posted an image of one in process on January 16th. It will be interesting to see if the two approaches produce clearly distinctive finished pieces, or whether they will morph into such similar results that the differences between their processes are indistinct.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

back to the past

My studio time over the past few days has concentrated primarily on finishing a long-promised (to friends) landscape of the cliffs that line the north side of our valley.  I have postponed working on the painting primarily because I'd rather be exploring oil and cold wax, and this painting required a return to old methods.

I finished the piece today (image at left).  As I have worked on it this week, I have revisited many old mindsets and problems, and was glad to think that I can leave them all behind, now that this piece is done.  At the end, today, I had a flash of insight about the differences between the two styles of painting and why I prefer my current methods.  Painting a representational (if somewhat abstracted) landscape, for me, is almost like working backwards.  That is, I can see what it is that I intend to represent in paint, in two dimensions, and the question is how to get there from the blank canvas.  How to put down paint, how much, what hue, with what stroke, creating what edges, etc.  Too many choices, perhaps, since I simply refuse to do completely realistic work except in an occasional still life.  As I work, the choices that I make are seldom clear to me, are usually iffy, and there is always the question of whether the effect will be what I seek.  I have to get to the representation of that landscape out there, and the stress is palpable to me. I am seldom completely satisfied with the finished piece.

With the abstraction of the cold wax method, rather than ask whether a mark is correct for the finished piece, I put down paint and say, oh! and where will this take me next?  That is, the process is open-ended, an exploration, a creation of something truly new.  I can encourage the surface to go in a certain direction, and I can change that direction if something more interesting comes along.  The piece becomes, eventually, whatever it is meant to be.

I remember, in several of the workshops I took while trying to master oil painting, the various instructors talking about the dangers of overworking, of making one mark too many.  How frustrating.  With my current processes, there is no such issue.  Every mark contributes, and no mark is "wrong".  The development of the piece is, for lack of a better word, pretty organic.  For whatever reason, this process suits me, suits my curiosity, suits my joy of creating.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

the first go

I followed my impulse yesterday and began a 24"-square panel by drawing on it with reference to the photo posted on Thursday. I used an oil stick.  Then I added a first layer of oil and cold wax over it, and left it to dry, as shown at left I'm excited about developing it further next week.

Today we are off to St George, Utah, the closest city of any size, and at 3,000-feet elevation, much warmer than Torrey these days.  The purpose of our trip, in addition to enjoying the warmth, is to purchase a high-definition television.  Our 20-year-old set is finally giving up the ghost, and we are tired of not seeing the edges of the screen of high-def programs ("Where did that soccer ball go?").  So we are biting the bullet and entering the 21st century. A technician will come out next week to hook up the set to our satellite service; I wouldn't dream of trying to do it myself!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

being referential

I spent a couple of hours today scouring Capitol Reef National Park for cliff formations with arcs, and photographing them.  I'm feeling a pull toward sketching them, an activity I seldom undertake, and at the same time am observing myself returning to old impulses and methods.  Am I pulling away from abstraction?  I don't think so; I have vague visions of using both approaches. It has never worked before, but it is an urge that keeps returning.  I seem periodically to feel a need to unify the abstract and the representational or referential -- and this is another such time.  Such attempts have never before been permanently productive, and usually have been discarded as a wrong path taken, yet I also acknowledge that they always feed the process: How can they not?

So I am once again feeling the urge to reference a concrete (well, sandstone) thing in my work, but am thinking that somehow I can also be true to the last nine months of abstraction.  If nothing else, I had a lovely day gazing at the strata and the desert varnish that characterize our local formations.  One of the photos is posted above.