Saturday, December 26, 2015

Low Desert

Looking out from the porch, these are the hills I see from where I live. I put it in a modern frame because I like modern frames for everything. I'm so sick of old fashioned frames--- especially the plein-air repetitive styles. Finally I found them so disgusting I gave them all away. You see them too, too much.

I'm going to do a bigger version of this, which is more of a sketch, 16"20". Parts of it will change. For about five minutes most mornings the hills here glow with a coral, salmon intensity that is remarkable. The mountain fades almost immediately and becomes sandy colored with cobalt shadows on clear days, or mauve shadows on murky days. If you drive or walk until you are close enough to touch the mountain walls  you see them rising sheer and rocky straight out of the flat ground, with a luminosity that comes from the crystallized rockthat forms   them---I don't know if they are granite, but some similar mineral that is reflective. It makes wonderful lighting effects. 

 Before I lived in the low desert, I didn't realize what 'low desert' was, though I had heard people say 'low desert', 'high desert'---- it means elevation. Since I've lived here I have worked on still life mostly, and haven't gone out and painted the landscape till just now. I've lived along the coast for so many years, and am enjoying the new scenery. I don't think I would ever want to live in a seaside community again; the traffic jams and the t-shirt shops have filled my eyes and mind long enough. It's so pretty here. I like the desert light. Clear, strong, from all sides it seems, an oceanic light that makes you feel like you are on a ship or an island surrounded by a bright vast emptiness. 

There are different sorts of desert animals here that I haven't seen before,  and some I have seen before like coyotes. 

There are so many birds here, swarms of hummingbirds like little clouds moving around. Mornings, other birds appear  and move along the ground, low dark shapes, giving the curious impression of being underwater and moving slowly in a current.  There is a hawk that makes circles in the sky, and hides in the thickest, most shadowed grapefruit tree to drop like a deadly stone if a rabbit passes underneath. I've seen that--- And not even a squeak from the rabbit. Sometimes in the morning you see the head of a rabbit laying on the grass,  and some paws, neatly cut with some organs laying near it---I have no clue if  the hawk or what other animal does that. Maybe an owl. Spooky. 

There used to be lizards living near the front door in a sunny spot, a big meaty lizard  that liked to sunbathe in the mid-morning heat, and a smaller lizard that did the same thing. They never sat in the same patch of sun at the same time. When the little one was out, the big one was gone, and when the big one was sunning, the little one vanished. A few times I saw the big one with his meaty bow-legs chase the smaller one back under his own smaller sage bush. They faced off with each other alot like two adversaries in an old western, a menacing stare-down. When I opened the front door it seemed to give them the excuse to call it quits without losing face. They would scurry off to their opposite bushes. 

Sometimes the thin whip lizards zip by, now you see them---now you dont. Startling. Really it looks like the flash of a whip it is so fast. 

 It always makes me think of that poem, "I passed, I thought, a whipash---- unbraiding in the sun----and stooping to secure it----it wrinkled and was gone." Emily Dickinson was writing about a slower garter snake----whip lizards are so fast you think you are seeing things. You just barely see a flicker and the movement of what might be a swift shadow. Sometimes in the day I've heard a powerful rush of wings go right by, and I look up and around---but whatever swift bird it was, has already disappeared. I wish a naturalist lived next door so I could have all my questions answered !

The lizard drama altered when I opened the door one day and saw a roadrunner jogging past. At once the roadrunner hopped behind the big sage bush. When I walked to the bush and looked around, I saw the back of the roadrunner---it was peeking around the other side of the bush, looking for me. I made that horsey clicking sound with my cheek, and the roadrunner jumped straight up in the air, made a 180 and faced me, unafraid. it looked me up and down, then sauntered off, still turning back to look at me. It was so funny I laughed and laughed, and it still kept staring as it went away. Then I started to see it almost every day, and it didn't hide behind the bush any more, but just walk by turning its head to look me over while I said "Hello there, Roady." Sometimes it would stare at me and give a little bounce, and stop to see what I was up to. It seemed very intelligent.  Roadrunners are interesting to look at, very sculptural and a lovely pattern in their quills. I wanted to put out a strip of chicken or beef for it, but it's not good to feed wild animals. Turns out, of course it was not necessary for me to feed the roadrunner---he knew where the lizards lived. Now Big LIzard , and Little LIzard are gone. I've not even seen the whip  lizards for a while. And Roady is probably trotting along in more populous lizardy places.

 I've heard that roadrunners are good to have around because they enjoy eating scorpions and rattlesnakes, so they do a good service. Someone I knew who was builing a new house in the country had to put out little traps for the field mice who were running all over the new construction since the final finish-doors of the house hadn't been installed yet. He lay the dead mice on a stone wall for the animals to come and take. Next morning, when he  put out more mice, all previous mice were gone and there was a roadrunner there waiting for him. All the mice were taken away. Next day, a couple more roadrunners were there, waiting. Eventually,  he said there would be six or seven roadrunners waiting for the daily delivery of mice, the roadrunners waiting all in a row on the stone wall. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Coast in california

Very cold day again, but very pretty outside. No rain today. 

 This was a small sketch. As I look at this I realize it does have 'foreground, midground, background', that expression that you hear a lot of if you are around landscape painters for more than a minute or two. When they say it they are stressing the importance of a compositional device used to achieve the illusion of depth. I don't agree at all that every landscape has to have 'foreground, midground, background'. To me it seems one more of those things that keep everyone tethered to home base.  

I cannot ever forget showing some children the basics of painting a landscape outside. I'd never taught children before. There were about thirty of them. I set up 30 french field easels, the heavy folding kind with spindly legs and lids that want to close like a trap on your hands if the screws work loose.  It was on a rocky hill so there was some worry about all of us falling like dominos. 

 I had decided I would premix a basic palette for the children to save time, a selection of colors that I thought suited the day and the scene. I mixed about 9 or 10 piles of paint, a range of good colors. Then I laid out 30 palettes with ........plop-plop-plop .....all those pre-mixed colors on it. 

I suppose I did think the children would approach it as most adults tend to, by trying to compose a traditionally 'pretty picture'. Not so. It was hard to believe each child was looking the same direction at the same view. Each child painted something different, with absolutely their own eye----the composition of each child's painting was different, and WAS a composition, filling the canvas in ways that were visually arresting and not copied from one another.  It was a thrill to see that. So imaginative!  It gave me goosebumps. Their paintings were strong, and pleasing to the eye. I would suspect that the design sense that guides a healthy child must be almost unerring. 

I was fascinated by the way they used the brushes----each child held the brush, used the brush in a slightly different way and their strokes were as identifiable as handwriting.  That alone should be a cautionary tale for adults who learn painting by climbing on and off the workshop-merry-go-round. I think painters need to be very careful of the workshops they take, and why. It is so easy to lose onself in replication of those we admire. Those children copied no one. They focused, and did their own thing with all the arrogance in the world, confident that it was just fine. And it was. 

For me it was a very good experience. I learned a lot. I think of it every time I paint a landscape that  looks like anyone else did it, or see a plein air exhibit where you simply cannot tell who painted what because the similarities dominate.  What a lot of back-tracking we adults must do, in order to do our own work....It goes without saying that the children that day were not a slave to 'foreground, midground, background', or any workshop trick they had just learned, they simply zeroed in on what was of interest to them and let that idea guide them. It was beautiful to see.

Criticism and Praise

Someone I know asked me, "How does an artist avoid working to please an audience?" She knows someone who submits artwork to a group of people in a classroom, and the opinions of the group have had an unexpected effect on the artist---who now brings the distracting attitude of "Will they like it or not?" back to the drawing board. 

My friend  asked me, "How can I tell her to turn off that voice in her head, and go back to the way she was before, just working for herself, with confidence?"

Without dwelling on it, my answer to her was that this is something all artists go through----a  creative person has to find their way out of it, and get back to doing their own work---and learning to ignore others  probably turns out to be a bit different for everyone. It's a glorious skill though. Priceless. 

Later, as I thought about it, I don't think my answer was wrong. I was glad I said it. The dillemma is nothing new, I've thought about it and experienced it plenty. 

It is easy to be overly guided by praise or criticism. Children and old people, who are naturally more self-guided, and who come by their self centeredness in opposite ways, are the experts at doing their own thing regardless of others. For the rest of us who are past childhood but before the age of retirement, other opinions seem to matter more, somehow. 

Experience definitely helps in learning to ignore the opinions of others, or preferably to pick and choose, cafeteria-style, the opinionated remarks that come your way, keeping the useful ones and letting go of the comments that don't help. 

Putting your work in front of others initiates a chain reaction of judgement that is unreliable. The sooner a creative person accepts that it is unreliable, the better off he or she is, and the more willing to trust the inner impulse that has been guiding their creativity all along. Most viewers judge creative work based on what they like or dislike, and the ones who are elevated beyond that and perhaps coming from academia, the world of history and style, very often do the same---or they might judge things based on approval passed down by  art historians before them, by experts or teachers whom they admire, or the fact that something hangs in a museum versus your art studio. Wise critics are rare. 

 I doubt it's possible for anyone to be truly objective, but we have to try--- the effort must be made, always, because the effort to be objective reveals how difficult being objective is, and gives you a deeper understanding of the rarity of a searching, open mind that is willing to experience and judge without being first told what to think. 

What I do varies. Sometimes I ask people what they think about things I'm working on. I'll ask anyone. The mailman, the pest control man, anyone who walks by.  Other times I keep it all a big secret. Discouragement at the wrong time is bad.  It's different for everyone. A creative person is required to be a capable, cold-blooded, sovereign judge of their own work. Yet there is something wrong if you cannot be humble and open enough to weigh the opinions of others, since you never know where a gem of truth might come from. Perhaps that seems contradictory. I don't think so. It takes enormous confidence to hear the opinions of someone---for better or for worse--- and only be swayed by it if you believe the judgement to be meaningful. (In a nutshell, that is why Art Critiques are so valuable and yet also why plenty of artists have a hard time going to them.) 

While I believe very strongly that sensitive people have a duty to protect themselves from situations that would destroy them, it's been my observation that a creative person who is on their genuine path is not too bothered by disparaging comments, and if anything it is an abundance of praise that has the ability to get them off track.

Unfortunately, these days I think a side-effect of so very many artists now teaching workshops is that artists are too often required to present themselves as experts, "modern masters",  who voice  opinions rather than ask for them. So the humility inherant in asking "What do you think of this?" is out of the question. . Actually it makes me realize that every generation of artist has their own uneccesary  burden to carry that is just a byproduct by the times in which they live. It's always something----and I think now it might be the fatal imperative of being the Modern Master that shapes a painter's career as much as anything. 

 When my art studio was surrounded by other art studios, I asked the opinion of others whenever I wanted to. In a pragmatic view I had narrowed it down to a few people whose eye offered something specific that I found interesting. I wasn't guided that much by what I heard, as I wasn't looking for tips or even wisdom. The truth is, is usually showed me if I were remaining on-track with what I want to do, and not falling into traditions that I was trying to avoid. This may sound cold, but very often when someone said "I don't like that, why are you doing that?" I took it as a good sign. That is a hard concept to tell someone, so of course I didn't, I just said thank you and kept doing my thing. 

It's a pity that listening to the opinions of others can be seen by many as a lack of confidence, when it's been my observation that the most confident people are usually good listeners who don't silence opposing views. Oh, well.  The truth is, in EVERY area a creative person has to learn to trust themselves and follow the path they know to be the right one. 

Weathering praise as well as criticism is part of the journey. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


The weather is freezing. The sun was shining brightly all day and it was very pretty but the drop in temperature in the morning and in the night is intense. It's the time of year when you hear christmas carols everywhere you go, and people do complain about it---I think out of habit---but I've always loved christmas carols, with the exception of a few modern duet versions that force me to run across the room to turn the radio off. (Top of the can't-listen-to-it list is every single version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside")

The art world now is strange and scary. Galleries are having a hard time. I think it should encourage artists to do the work that is most meaningful to them, and not worry about what will 'sell', but that's just me. I've always thought that.  I thought everyone thought that, and it took me a while to realize they didn't. I have always been a slow learner. Before, when I lived in a town that revolved around plein air painting, everyone and their uncle were painting the same plein-air version of a local stone formation called  keyhole rock and selling the paintings---gradually they saturated the market and got to a point where keyhole rock paintings weren't selling as quickly as before. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth. So to fill in the gap, they cast their workshop nets wider and wider, to teach more paying students to paint keyhole rock just as they did, and that worked for a while. But  the students began selling their paintings of keyhole rock to the few people who didn't already have a painting of keyhole rock----their lower prices must have looked wonderful to  collectors who then looked at the original painters of keyhole rock and thought, "Goodness, how expensive when I can get a keyhole rock for 1/3 of that."

 I always thought it was odd that people clustered around keyhole rock painting it, like it was about to disappear. The whole town was interesting to behold, but that rock seemed to do it for people. Strange. I think I'm the one with the problem, because I never even thought about painting it. I just remembered, I did paint it once, but it was by acccident and I didn't know it till someone pointed it out. It was in a painting of the larger coast and someone said triumphantly, "Oh, I love keyhole rock!"......"That's not keyhole rock."......."Yes, it is."....."Where?".......A pointing finger: "There!".....It was true. It was small, but it was there, and I hadn't even noticed the rock had a hole in it, it was just a shape, a mark or something. Sometimes now at a show I will see a painting that I like, that someone did, and then I notice that keyhole rock is in there. Maybe it's not always on purpose that people paint it. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What does it mean when something isn't there, that should be there?

Lately the news from Paris is terrible enough that going into the studio and painting seems futile and childish. The world is so strange. It seems that the basic desire of people would be the same, to be happy, and to see others happy, rather than making everyone miserable. Can a person's heart disappear? Is there an empty place where their heart ought to be? It's too awful for words. All the time I painted these plates I kept thinking, "Something should be there. A plate shouldn't be empty." That's exactly how I feel about what is happening now. 

For some reason I have not painted fruit before

This is an example of a still life that was painted from a drawing, versus a pile of apples in front of me.

First I drew some apples, and painted a few of them.  Experimentally I drew the empty bowl with a spoon or two...then put apples in the silver bowl. The background was black and table was red with a bit of cloth...the notes on the drawing refer to that. Things change. Edward Hopper said something that struck a chord with me: "There's more of me in it when I improvise," or words to that effect. When  I read that I thought how true. That can't be true of everyone though. With some artists things are planned down to each detail ahead of time. 

The apples were then cut up and baked into a dessert. Next time I'm at the store I'm going to pay attention to the apples that are not red, because I want to use them next time I do apples. There must be a billion types of apple now. Some are so much better tasting than others. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Sense and Sensibility

I always wonder if Jane Austen realized how wise and wonderful she was. By using her priceless title here I'm not trying to degrade her wit, but I think of that war between sense and sensibility all the time. Summing up a complex situation tersely seemed to be her trump card. 

My favorite show on television now is the Great British Bake-off. It has everything---suspense,  an appealing cast of characters, and a surprise ending. I don't bake,  so the baking isn't familiar territory to me. The people on the show are knowledgeable, yet humble about the things they don't know.   Refreshing!  It's hard to avoid drawing parallels between that baking world and visual arts. Creative work is such a mixture of intuitive, intellectual, and physical  effort. There's so much to learn and re-learn.

Sometimes my intuition says, "Not that, do something else" when I'm working. Not just techinical matters, but in the intangible sense---for instance, sometimes local art events came up in the town where I used to live, and even though part of me definitely thought I should take part in it, instinct would often say, "Back off." I never knew what that meant.  I've never known the importance, or lack of importance, of local art events, and if an artist should take part in them. If you listen to what most people say, the answer is Yes. They say, "Put it out there. You never know who is going to see it." But what if intuition runs counter? When I'm working I pay attention to that little voice. If intuition helps me in my work, perhaps it's helping me in other ways, and if I ignore it it's the wrong thing to do.

 Sometimes I did take part in local art events---sometimes against my instinct, sometimes not--- and sometimes it was fine, other times ending up with a sour taste in my mouth. I can't help but think different things work best for different people, and that's that. The work itself is so subjective. Since people approach creative work in different ways, it wouldn't make sense that all aspects of that creative world would be the same for all. Ultimately what made me instinctively take a step back was my observation that the contests, the exhibitions at the banks, the painting demos, the plein-air paint outs, encouraged sameness and discouraged diversity, despite all the the insistance to the contrary. I don't think that was by intent. I always thought the efforts and people were well meaning, and usually sincere, but the nature of those events creates a result that tends to be inevitable.   I think having those events is probably better than NOT having them, but the fact that they exist doesn't make them the most important thing around----although you might not think so by reading the press releases. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Vicarage in Beverly, UK

Was lucky enough to stay in a vicarage in Beverly UK , and this is the view of it looking from the large gardens there. For some reason when painting on site, the paintings never look very good to me, and I think a part of it must be the 'comparisons are odious' factor in full swing.  But this isn't always true later---away from the location, the painting leaning against something in the studio, the picture sometimes comes into its own in a way it can't when on site, eclipsed by the real thing. 

 On this trip a side jaunt was made to Whitby, in north Yorkshire. It's a famous and picturesque port town, cleft down the middle by the mouth of the river Esk. It's funny how certain things stick out when you see new places---in this case the vivid memories are: the largest and prettiest espalier pear tree I've ever seen, in the garden of a little cottage overlooking the harbour; the dramatic aspect of row upon row of tombstones leaning at discordant angles in a cemetary high above the town, all the tombstones leaning like windswept trees; and recognizing the kipper shop from my favorite tv show ever, "Two Fat Ladies". After my mouth dropped open I ran across the street to make sure it was the same place. I peered through the window and saw that the same fellow was still working there that waited on Jennifer and Clarissa when they were there to buy their kippers. Passing to the back of the shop I saw the thoroughly black smokeroom that had given the two fat ladies a coughing fit, now empty but a couple fish  hanging there in the dark. Clarrissa Dickson Wright had pointed to the black dripping beams and said, "That's what the insides of your lungs look like, Jennifer." And  Jennifer had said, "Nonsense, they're not covered with fish oil." 

We did buy kippers from the man. He was unsmiling and according to our Whitby friend is notoriously grim. Good kippers though, the best I've ever had, memorable in every way. I can still taste them---I love when that taste-memory experience happens. As I write this it makes me think of what I'm going through right now with my still life, in which I'm painting from drawings and not from still life. It's been an exercise in memory in ways subtle and obvious, all good,  and aside from pleasure and sketching and color notes for myself to work from later I don't plan on going back to 'painting from the still life'. Painting from the drawing, and the memory of the still life, has been simultaneously the most freeing and disclipling experience.

Back at the vicarage and the paintings there:  one painting that didn't make it past the sketching stage is the painting I started of some flowers---I think the flowers are called "Naked Ladies" because they stand there unadorned by leaves or foliage, just pink and bare against the ground. The photo of it is amusing because my foot is sticking into the frame as if I've keeled over from the effort of making a bad painting. I had leant back to take a photo with the ipad. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Still Life of Glass

12" 13.5" Working by artificial light is as interesting as working by natural light. I wouldn't be interested in trying to make artificial light look like natural light, but it is really interesting to use the glare of incandescent or flourescent light as part of the picture, and explore that unnatural world. Certain places, like classrooms and laundromats and hospitals, have such an unflattering surplus of light that they look like Edward Hopper paintings already. Most things, and people, look prettier when the light is dimmer and comes from the side. In the old 18th century days everyone must have looked wonderful at dinner with all of that candlelight. I think it's something to lament that most places are overlit right now, but that's the style.

Still Life of Smelts

A dish of smelts. I painted them much larger than they are in actuality. In real life they are small, some of them no longer than a matchstick. Not long ago I was reading how-to-paint-and-here-are-my-secrets book by a famous living artist,and he wrote, "If you ever paint something larger than it really is, you'd better have a damn good reason." I think there are lots of good reasons to paint something bigger than it is, but I think in the eyes of some representational artists it takes things into the realm of abstraction and becomes taboo or something. 

Fish Paintings

A few of the fish paintings together, two of them 16"20", and one of them 12"16".

Painting of Fish

Fish are one of the most interesting things to paint.