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, and the opinions of the group have had an unexpected effect on the artist---now she worries what people will think. 

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?"

My answer was that this is something everyone in the arts has to go through, and then find their way out of it. Getting back to doing one's own work probably turns out to be a bit different for everyone. 

It is easy to be guided by criticism. Even easier to be guided by praise!  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, learning to tune out others is a skill. Experience definitely helps, with ignoring comments or learning to choose, cafeteria-style, the remarks that come your way, keeping the useful ones and letting go of the ones 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 , 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, or by price, 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 friends or teachers whom they admire, or the fact that something hangs in a museum versus your art studio. 

I don't think anyone is totally objective, but we have to try to be, because the effort reveals how difficult objectivity is, and the effort 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, sometimes I don't, but when I DO ask, 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. For instance,  I would never ask the opinion of anyone on an unfinished work I was in the middle of, if I were happy with the way it was going. There is no point to that.

Opinions of others are best when you are : 

Finished, as far you can see.
Stumped and wondering if you should throw it out. 
Reasonably o.k. with your results but not thrilled.
Curious how it will strike the eye of someone else. 

It's not about:

Am I good enough? 

A creative person is required to be a cold-blooded judge of their own work,  learning to bear the opinions of someone---for better or for worse--- and only being swayed by it if you believe it to be meaningful. 

It's been my observation that a creative person who is on their genuine path is not too bothered by disparaging comments, maybe because enthusiasm is such an energy-maker. I think artists are thrown off track much more by praise. I think all the thumbs up on Facebook, the hundreds of thumbs up, every time someone posts a picture of their latest painting of this or that, have done more to distract artists in general than any number of "I don't like it" comments ever could !! 

These days I think a side-effect of so very many artists 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 asking a random person  "What do you think of this?" is out of style right now. Your students might take the workshop from the artist next door if you show you are not the keeper of keys of all wisdom or whatever. 

 When my art studio was surrounded by other art studios, it was convenient to ask the opinion of others if I felt like it. In a pragmatic view I had narrowed it down to a few people whose eye offered something specific. For instance, one  person had ten times my education, and another one had a really strong sense of composition, that kind of thing.  Their comments were interesting. I can't remember being guided particularly by anything they said, the enlightening thing was that they often zeroed in on something I had noticed myself but didn't think anyone else would notice. They showed me what other people saw when they looked at my work. 

It's been my observation that the most confident people are usually good listeners who don't silence opposing views or cry over them. The fact is, it doesn't really matter what other people think. It matters what you think.  In every area a creative person has to learn to trust themselves. But if you don't put your work out there and be vulnerable,  it's a loss, because there is so much to learn in the experience of doing that.

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.