Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Winter Oak

A collection of random, slightly coherent thoughts I had while painting today:

I'm like the bride that's more in love with the wedding than with the groom:  I love the concept of a painting much more than the finished result.

I love Christmas music.  Really, I do.  I 've enjoyed listening to it while I work.  But for every hit like Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer, there are hundreds of horrible songs like Crissy The Christmas Mouse.  (As sung by Donald O'Connor and Doris Day-- need I say more?)

By the way, there is no rendition of Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer that I like.

Why is it we think more fondly of turkey left-overs than the actual Thanksgiving  meal?  What, does that dried up turkey get juicier after a couple of days in the fridge?

Encourage every one you know to buy art this Christmas.  It makes the perfect gift!

Who came up with the bright idea to open stores on Thanksgiving night, and have sale prices on everything?  What a great way to train the public to get all their shopping done in 36 hours!

I stumbled upon an old, dusty tube of Mars Red that I have long forgotten I ever owned.  I don't know if I ever used it.  The thing has to be near thirty years old, and it's still good.  I used it in my last painting, and I loved it!

Why did I ever buy Mars Red?  It was on Norman Rockwell's palette... 

I play the piano, and I have three Christmas song books.  Every year I have to re-learn the same songs.  Don't ask me to play Jingle Bells in July, because I won't remember how to play it!

I have yet to master Art Speak.  Ever notice how some Artist Statements sound?  "I displace textures from their natural environment by moving them out of the context they exist in."  That was from David Kassan's web site.  This is not to knock Mr. Kassan, because maybe if I painted as beautifully as he does, I'd be able to write something like that.

Were you to read this without my triple checking for typos and misspellings, you'd think my education ended after two weeks of pre-school.  One of these days for laughs I'll post one without spell-check.

A logger in Canada was recently stopped from removing a wood pile when he was told that it was actually a piece of Art  that was purchased by the town.  The wood pile he was supposed to take was next to it.  "If that's art", the unrepentant logger said, "I'm in the wrong business!"

I named myself Employee Of The Month!  For the thirty-sixth consecutive month.

Speaking of months, don't you love parents who insist on using months to tell how old their child is?  You know, "Thorndike will be twenty-eight months next month!"  My Mom still does that--"Kevin is only 552 months old!"

One more month and we'll be done with 2010.  That's pronounced twenty-ten.  2011 doesn't have the same pizazz, but I am looking forward to signing and dating my paintings next year.  '11 is easier than '10.  I hate circles.

200 unknown paintings from Pablo Picasso was recently discovered.  Boy, that's just what the world needed...  I wonder what that logger has to say about them?


Sunday, November 28, 2010


Sure, I can tell you what makes a hit song:  A pleasing melody that sticks in your mind, lyrics that roll off the tongue, and a chorus that makes you want to sing along.  You know, like almost any Beatles song, or some of the old standards that have stood the test of time.  Quick-- sing the end of Hey Jude-- Na, Na, Na... NA NA NA NA...  (Now try to get it out of your head!)  Now that you know how simple it is, go out and write a hit and make a ton of money off iTunes.  You're welcome.

But what makes a hit painting?  I think the two most important elements are color and composition.  Skillfully done, those two ingredients add up to movement, and movement is like the "hook" of a painting.  It allows you to remember it.  What's movement?  Well, a couple of days ago I poked fun at my good friend Tom Eakins about his painting The Biglin Brothers Turning The Stake.

Really, these guys are just sitting there.  What are they waiting for, a tow?  I think if Eakins were to portray a modern football game, he'd paint the huddle.  (I kid with Tom, but it's OK, we're buds...)  Of course, a painting with movement doesn't necessarily mean one with people actually moving.  A still life can have movement.  A landscape can have movement.  It all depends upon the composition and the color, with a little help from brushwork.  Eakins' painting is still considered a masterwork because he used color and composition to move the viewers eye around the painting, thus giving it movement.  Let me coin a phrase:  Movement is in the eye of the beholder.

What brought about this line of thought?  Knowing that color and composition are of primary importance in a good painting still doesn't guarantee I'll have those elements in my paintings.  I have mentioned intermittently about a large painting I have been working on.  I'm still going at it between other projects, but I have a gnawing suspicion that it lacks serious pizazz.  I tried to make the figures in it dynamic by their postures and placement.  But the more I look at it, the more stagnant it seems.  I could try to fix it with color, but I don't believe that color alone will do it.  It'll just look like a colorful stagnant painting.  So I'm a bit stymied by it.  I've got it almost half-way done, so it seems a shame to call it lost and give up on it.  Since I'm not totally convinced it's beyond hope, I'll keep going and see where it leads.   

I also have an idea for a new painting that I think would be cool to paint.  I just need to be sure about the composition-- but it's really the same old story; they are all masterpieces...before I paint them. 

I just hate the thought of old Tom Eakins laughing at me while saying, "Ha, Ha!  And you thought it was easy?"


Friday, November 26, 2010

Full Moon Fever

Spring Moon

Some people are OK with a sliver.  Others are content with a half.  Three quarters?  Not enough.  No, for me, I want it all.  That's right-- I'm a full moon fan.  But honestly, who isn't?  There is something special about a full moon.  I can relate to the sense of awe our forefathers must have felt every month when they looked to the sky and saw this beautiful orb shining over them.  A summer moon hanging in the sky as fire-flys punctuate the darkness with their flashing strobe lights is a magical experience.  I also believe one of the most spectacular sights you can see is a full moon in the middle of winter when the temperature is twenty below zero and the light shining off the snow is so bright you could read a book by it. 

High Moon

When I was a kid, my Dad and I would take our little boat and go fishing out in Casco Bay, off of Yarmouth, Maine.  That's probably where I acquired my love of the ocean.  Casco Bay is a beautiful stretch in the Gulf of Maine that has over three hundred little islands with several island communities.  I remember we were always surrounded by white lobster boats, majestic multi-colored sailboats, and island ferries going to and fro.  Not a bad place to spend a summer day.  Too bad there wasn't much fish.  I learned that fishing is a passive verb, not to be confused with the more active catching.  But I digress... 

Anyway, one summer's eve we were coming in rather late, and I saw a full moon rising over the Bay.  The water sparkled and shimmered as the moon's light threw millions of diamonds to dance upon the waves.  I looked at the summer homes along the shore front and thought to myself how unbelievably lucky those occupants must be to see a sight like that.  We lived miles inland and didn't see the moon until it rose high above the trees that surrounded our house.  Many years later I lived in Cundy's Harbor, Maine in a little home that overlooked the ocean.  Every month me and my beautiful partner Ellen would watch the moon come up over the water and spread it's magic.  We never failed to feel blessed about being able to experience such a sight.  And every time, I always thought of that summer night from a long time ago..

Moon Over The Harbor

This month's full moon has passed, but next month promises to be just as spectacular.  I'd love to paint a picture of it.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tis The Season

What the heck happened?  The last I recall I was working on my fifth drumstick, the gravy running down my fingers and pooling on top of the mound that used to be my flat belly.  Mashed potatos smeared into my beard, turkey stuffing ground under my fingernails.  Then everything went black, and here I am-- groggily holding my New England Patriots pom-poms, with the distant cries of pass the pumpkin pie! still ringing in my ears, completely unprepared for the next four weeks.  You know, the Holiday Season!  Fa, La, La, La, La... La La La La!

Before you start thinking that I am some old curmudgeon who hates everything, let me set you straight: I love Christmas.  Really.  I mean, c'mon-- I get things!  What could be better than that?  (I'm kidding.  Of course all I want is peace on Earth, goodwill toward men).  I always enjoy seeing the decorations outside my neighbor's homes.  To me, nothing says "Christmas" like a six foot inflatable snow globe that's covered in real snow.  Pure Currier and Ives.  So for the next four weeks I'll have Christmas music fired up on the stereo as I paint.  I can tell you what I won't be painting, though-- a portrait of Santa Claus. 

It all started about thirty years ago, when I thought it would be fun to do a painting of Santa.  I wanted to do something we could hang up over the mantlepiece.  I had fun putting little touches on him like he was standing in our living room;  The tree was in one corner of the room, while the TV was in the opposite corner.  So I showed the reflection of our tree twinkling in his merry left eye, while the soft blue glow from the TV lit up the right side of his jolly face.  I gave him a bright, happy look that said Merry Christmas!  Everyone seemed to like it, so that was fun.  The next year, I did another one and gave it away as a gift.  From then on, I painted a Santa every year, and gave them to family members and friends as Christmas Gifts.  It's funny how all the recipients think their Santa is the best.  It got to be I had a line of folks asking me, "When am I going to get a Santa?"  Then a funny thing started to happen.  With each passing year, the last thing I wanted to paint was a Santa.  It went from being a pleasure to a chore.  And it started to showed in Santa's face.  Maybe the twinkle in his eye wasn't quite so merry.  Possibly his cheeks weren't as jolly as they used to be.  My brother got one with a swarthy red face, who looked defiantly out of his frame with a glowering menace at anyone who dared wish him a Merry Christmas!  I call him the "pissed-off Santa."  I can only imagine the nightmare's that mean old Santa gave my poor nephew and neice.  But my sister-in-law loves it...

So I stopped painting Santa.  It's been awhile since I've done one.  I'm not against it.  Heck, come to think of it, I don't even have one in my own home.  So, who knows?  Maybe a Santa will appear on the  mantle above the fireplace this year.  I just hope he's in a better mood.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Me And Tom

One of my favorite artists is Thomas Eakins.  Maybe you heard of him?  Eakins was a premier artist in the Nineteenth century.  Without getting too biographical, Eakins was born in Philadelphia, as was I.  That's about all our lives have in common...  Eakins was a master craftsman.  He didn't sell a whole lot while he was alive, but his paintings were appreciated for their technical skill.  Eakins had classical training at Jean-Leon Gerome's Atelier in Paris.  (But it is interesting to me that he was not beyond actually projecting a photo onto a blank canvas to begin a painting).  Eakins was forced to resign his teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy when it was learned he allowed both male and female students to draw from a nude model in the same class.  To give you an idea how radical and shocking this was to Victorian sensibilities, eighty years later, in the 1950's,  Americans were horrified that a fully clothed Elvis Presley was shaking his ass in front of teenage girls!  Eakins kept on painting, to mixed reviews.  He went more and more into portraiture, but he had to seek out his models, very rarely getting any commissions.  Some patrons who did commission him were so disappointed in the results, they didn't even take their portrait.  Eakins died in 1916, well known, admired, but never considered a true master until the last twenty years or so.  But I like him. 

Here is one of his first big, important works called The Biglin Brothers Turning At The Stake.

Notice the great handling of the atmosphere.  The hard and soft edges he used to create depth and distance.  Check out his use of color to portray a warm Philadelphia summer day.  Look at how he treated the details of the boat, and the reflections.  He didn't blow up a photo for this.  There are a ton of his preparatory sketches still around.  Now step back and take a look at the whole painting.  Geez, have you ever seen such a boring rendition of action in your life?  The poses are stiff, the boat just sits there, frozen.  He didn't capture the movement of the action, just the objects in a scene.  That's Eakins in the left distance, waving.  I think he's yelling at them to move, or something!  This one didn't sell.

Here's another one of his famous ones, The Gross Clinic.

Were you to stand in front of this large painting in person, you'd be impressed by the handling he gave this.  The chiaroscuro effect, the atmosphere and modeling of the figures all are the work of a master.  OK, but what is that guy with the scalpel doing?  He looks like he forgot where he parked his car.  He's supposed to be teaching, but he's just standing there completely emotionless.  Bet those students learned a whole lot...  Due to it's graphic depiction of an operation, this one was kept out of the public eye for a number of years.  Eakins never sold it.

What does this have to do with me?  Well, Eakins loved painting for the challenge of it.  He loved science, technology, mathematics.  I think Eakins was more absorbed in the how, not the what he was going to paint.  I can dig that, because that's the way I approach a painting.  I can't get really excited by a picture unless I see it as a puzzle to be solved.  Otherwise, I'm climbing the same hill over and over.  But I, like Eakins, sometimes forget that the picture is the most important thing in a painting.  The difference between us is that Eakins still did masterful works, and I do not.

Some people paint a beautiful object.  Some people make beautiful paintings of an object.  The artists I really admire make beautiful paintings of beautiful objects.  Thomas Eakins could do that when he wanted to.  But by the time he painted this gorgeous painting of Maude Cook, nobody cared.  I think it's one of his all-time best.

So, whose your favorite artist?  Do you have anything in common with them?  I wish I could have known Thomas Eakins, I think we could have gotten along.  But there's no way I was going to go swimming with him...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Seeing Is Believing

I wear glasses.  I have now for almost thirty years.  It's not like I can't see without them, but I like to use them when I might want to know how something might actually look.  It has been a few years since I had my last eye check up.  Living in a country that has the best medical care in the world-- my insurance doesn't cover eye-care.  But the last time I went, after I was done telling the doctor which direction the E's went, he said all I really needed were those magnifier glasses they sell at drug stores.  Then he said something I'll never forget, "That'll be a hundred and fifty dollars..."

The problem I encounter as a painter, is "What does that look like?"  Now, that might seem like a rather inoccuous question, but it's important.  Abstract guys have it easy, but for me, if I can't see it, I can't paint it.  I have a few things that mess with me. 

  • I'm color blind.  So I always struggle with getting the true color.  I fuss, and fudge, and usually struggle, but eventually I get it right.  But really, how do I know?

  • I need glasses.  What I see when I don't have my cheaters on is markedly different than what I see when I am wearing them.  My stuff looks a lot better when it's all fuzzy.

  • Camera's suck.  Yeah, I use them all the time, but I know that it's really a two dimensional approximation with incorrect perspective of what I saw.  Of course, the better the camera, the more accurate the color.  But using a photo brings us to-- 

  • Printers stink.  A printer takes that semi accurate photo and replaces both the color and contrast.  Whatever color nuance, or vibrancy the camera picked up is lost during the printing process.  Using a monitor to view the digital images is better, it's much like having a slide projector in that way.  But that also leads to-

  • Monitors blow.  What are you using now?  A laptop?  Desk top with a separate monitor?  My fancy, flat screen monitor distorts the image by stretching it out horizontally.  Bet yours does something like that too.  

Alright.  I've gotten through those obstacles and completed a painting.  All of that brings us to: What does our painting look like?  With today's social media, our work can potentially be seen by as many people who own a computer.  But what image are they seeing?  Why, one that is made from a camera... or printed from it... or being viewed on a computer monitor...  (For clarification of what I'm driving at, re-read the above).

The latest advance in electronic gadgetry is 3-D television.  If that is now possible, maybe 3-D photos are not far behind.  It's a little known fact that 3-D photos were first invented well over one hundred years ago, but needed a special hand-held viewer to see them.  I'm hoping for something more modern, like a big helmet with wires sticking out of it.

So, yeah, those things could certainly help us see what things really look like.  So lets get going technology!

But I'll believe it when I see it.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Final Indecision

I have a hard time making up my mind sometimes.  Well, not really a hard time, but I can be indecisive on occasion.  Well, not indecisive, more like wishy-washy: which is kind of like indecisive, but more like take-it-or-leave-it.  Anyway, I did something I rarely do to a painting I did recently: I made a major alteration.  I usually have a pretty clear idea of how I want my painting to look, then I try to make it happen.  The idea may be poor and my decisions the wrong ones, but I generally don't notice that until long after I thought the painting was done.  This one was a little different.

This past August, my beautiful partner Ellen and I went for a trip along the Maine coast.  One of the stops we made was in a small town near Bar Harbor named Blue Hill.  It's a lovely town nestled under a prominent hill (could it be Blue Hill?)  and it also has a nice harbor.  On the way out of town I took this picture:

I instantly knew I had to paint this scene.  At the time, I was renovating my studio, so it had to wait for a few weeks, but I finished the painting in mid-September.

You may notice I made a couple of changes.  First, I turned the road back into the picture, instead of it leading your eye off the left side.  I also pushed the tree line on the left back, and opened up a field in the center of the scene.  I like the idea of shadows across the foreground, making the viewer look into the painting.  Alright, I thought-- I'm happy with this.  But something started to gnaw on me.  I stared at the painting for a few days.  Do you think that road is a little heavy on the left?  I asked myself.  I knew the answer.  I had to change it.

To make sure I wasn't about to step into a huge pile of self-inflicted dog-doo, I made a print of the painting, and painted where I thought the road should go.  Satisfied that I was doing the right thing, I made the changes.

Did it help?  Does it look too contrived?  I don't know.  I like it a little better than the way it was, but... I just don't know.  I kinda like the way the upper line of the road mimics the flow of the hill.  But was it such a huge improvement?  I can't say.  No harm, no foul, I guess.  One thing I know for sure: next time I'm faced with this indecision I'm going to firmly commit to one idea-- or the other... 

Friday, November 19, 2010


I'm a dog man.  I've had plenty of them over the course of my lifetime, from pure-breds to mutts, and I've never had a dog that failed to reinforce my opinion that dogs are one of God's greatest creations.  This is Champ, a yellow Labrador Retriever.  Champ came to us in late May of this year.  He had just turned one, and was still very much a puppy.   The family we got him from gave him up because they felt they couldn't give him the time, love and attention he needed.  That, my friends, is love.  How many dogs do you know of  that are kept outside in pens away from the family, fed once a day, and left alone because they aren't cute anymore?  Too many.  So we got Champ.

Champ is my shadow.  He generally stays by my feet.  If I get up, he gets up.  Wherever I go in the house, Champ will follow me.  Heck, if I move from one chair to another in the same room, he'll still get up and sit at my feet.  He's actually a very well trained guy.  He  knows "sit", "stay", and loves to learn new tricks.  I am having a hard time teaching him to play "Fish", though.  He keeps eating the cards.

He absolutely loves coming to the studio.  If only because that's where we play fetch.  Every morning before I start painting I throw a frisbee around for him to run after.  Then, when I'm totally absorbed in painting, he'll sit at the door wanting to go out.  When he's outside, and I'm totally absorbed in painting, he'll thump on the door wanting to be let in.  Then he'll stare at me because he wants to play frisbee again.


Champ remembers when he was a cute little puppy, and can't quite figure out that at 100 pounds, I can't pick him up.  He is in heaven when I let him sit with me in a chair.

Every painter needs a studio dog.  I hope that you too have a companion like Champ. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Little known Fact

Cliff Claven was my hero.  Remember Cliffy?  The Mailman on the '80's show Cheers?  Cliff was the fountain of useless trivia.  Each of Cliff's informational nuggets usually started with him saying in his thick Boston accent, "It's a little known fact..."  Usually followed by something completely bizarre.  I love trivia as much as Cliffy, so I thought I'd give you a whole bunch of little known facts about hay.

I did another little painting today, this one of hay rolls in a field I saw back in July.  It's at the top of the page.  It's not that I love hay, heck, I can't even digest it, but it makes for a neat painting.  A little while ago, I did a painting showing an old fashioned hay wagon being pulled by two white horses from the 1890's.  The farmer was in a vest and tie.  Can you imagine wearing a wool suit when you're out haying in the hot July sun?  Yeah, they used to do that back in the day.  They also used to give babies "Teething Droplets" that had morphine in it!  But I digress...

These days when we have instant weather reports on our cell phones, or in-between Storm Stories on the Weather Channel, we forget that once upon a time farmers had to forecast the weather themselves.  Having a stretch of clear, dry weather was important for haying.  The hay needs to dry completely before it's stored in the barn.  Decomposing plant matter makes heat, and enough wet hay can get hot enough to start a fire.  Many a barn went up in smoke because the hay wasn't quite dry, so great care was needed in haying.  So the farmer would look for weather clues in the skies. 

Here on the coast of Maine, the wind direction can tell you a lot.  If the wind comes from the Northwest, we have dry weather.  If it comes from Northeast, we're in for rain.  Southwest means probable thunderstorms, and Southeast is muggy.  So, farmers had weather vanes on the roof of their barns to let them know which way the wind was blowing.  Once they cut the hay, it was left in the field to dry for a day or two.  That process was called "making" hay.  It was always better to do that during sunny days.  So that's where we get the phrase, "Make hay while the sun shines."  Yeah, it's a little known fact.  Thanks Cliff!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Giving A Hand

Whew boy!  Was it raining hard again today!  The little steam that borders my property overflowed it's banks for the third time in two weeks, flooding my fields.  It has help in flooding, compliments of the dam the local beavers erected.  Beavers aren't stupid, they know the town zoning codes.  If they had built their little abode five feet closer to a bridge that spans the river, the State DOT would have to tear the dam down.  So, the damn dam stays safe.  Damnit!

Anyway, today was another "workshop" day.  This week I have been taking a painting break and brushing up on my drawing skills.  I do sketch frequently, often as preparatory stuff for paintings.  Truth be told, though, a sketch is to a drawing what a text-message is to a formal letter.  I felt my skills were in need of a tune-up.  You know, drawing is a touchy subject amongst us painters.  Truth is, we all think we're pretty good at it.  Just like when we sing along to our favorite song with headphones on, we're great!  But, I'll be the first to tell you, I can get better at drawing.  I'm OK (I think) at line drawing-- you know, basically an outline of what I see, but I want to get better at incorporating mass into my drawings.  You know, make 'em come off the page.  Or recede into it.  Whatever-- just be better.

Since this whole week has been cloudy and dark, it's been perfect to draw.  I set a mirror near my easel, and shone a solitary light source to work with.  Next, what to draw?  I thought I'd mess with hands, because hands are hard.  All those fingers, planes, angles... they can be a nightmare.  (C'mon, 'fess up!  You know you hide the hands when you paint figures!)  Because I'm right handed, I posed my left in various configurations.  (Side story:  Mirrors and me aren't new.  One time I was drawing a figure and using myself as the model when I needed to draw the left hand.  To do that, I needed to pose my right hand in the mirror, except I needed it to draw.  So I drew my left hand, then held the drawing up to the mirror, and drew that.  Hey, whatever it takes, right?)

The challenge in drawing my hand wasn't entirely in keeping it still, (but now I know how models must feel), but I couldn't wear my glasses.  I've reached the age where I wear dime-store cheaters to read.  Since I can't see beyond two feet when I've got them on, I only use them for close work.  That meant I either wouldn't be able to see my hand in the mirror with them, or the drawing on the the easel without them.  So I went without.  I think it came out OK.  But you know what?  I had a blast drawing this week!  I even grabbed a coffee mug and went at it.

At least that time I could wear my cheaters!  Tomorrow is supposed to be sunnier.  My intent is to do some life studies in paint-- of my left hand, of course. 

Unless someone wants to lend me a hand.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Do It This Way

I'm an inquisitive type.  I love to learn.  Now, there are two ways to go about learning;  formal education, or self education.  I went with the latter.  For one, the tuition is dirt cheap.  Plus, I can study at my own pace.  I can experience the thrill of discovery.  And, I don't have to hear the rest of the class laughing at my mistakes.  The down side is I had a fool for a teacher.  But that's OK.  Back when I was just learning to draw and paint, no one was interested in realism, so finding a school that taught what I wanted to learn was like finding a scholar at my High School-- Damn Impossible!

But, now we've got the internet! Everything you ever want to know is here at your fingertips.  Who needs to be patted down by the TSA so you can get to France to see the Louvre?  See it online!  ( By the way, the TSA has a new screening procedure: Dunk Tanks.  If you're a terrorist, you float, if you're not, you sink.)  Want to see the greatest painters of all time?  The Art Renewal Center has what you're looking for.  Want to learn to paint?  The internet has what you need.  In the interest of time, I've broken down and synopsized all you need to know from all the countless "How To" blogs out there. 

You're welcome.

Ok, first:

  • Always Paint on inexpensive Canvas.
  • Always use expensive Belgian Linen.
  • Always paint on Masonite.
  • Always paint on two-ply toilet paper.

For your supplies:
  • Always use the most expensive brushes
  • Always use cheap, disposable brushes
  • Always use your fingers, nose, tongue- any part of your anatomy that can smear paint

For your paints:
  • Always use Windsor-Newton
  • Always use Old Holland
  • Always use Edible Oils
  • Always search the dumpsters of good artists and use what's left of their used paints.

For subject matter:
  • Always do Still Lives
  • Always do Landscapes
  • Always do Nudes
  • Always do little Angels on the back of shovels: They sell like hot-cakes at bake-sales!

For Marketing:
  • Always use a Gallery
  • Always sell without a Gallery
  • Always sell any possible way you can make a buck.
  • Always hang on to your paintings so they'll appreciate in value when you're dead.

There you have it!  All you need to know about painting.  I hope this information clears up all those endless questions about painting, and comes in handy for you as you wander on that crazy journey we call "Art".   And remember, if the answer isn't in your heart, it's in an Art Blog! 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Got Blog?

Here in Pittston Maine, miles away from any street lights, I get the pleasure to see the Milky Way arching across the night sky in all its starlit splendor.  Astronomers tell us that our celestial home is a galaxy comprised of billions of stars.  The Universe is made up of billions of trillions of Galaxies.  A number incomprehensible to the human brain.  But to put it in terms we can understand:  It's the same number as there are blogs on the internet.  If you click on the "next blog" link at the top of this page (of course, after you're done reading this one) you'll be led on a journey of a thousand, er-- billion steps...

Being rather new to this whole blog business, I had no idea there were so many varied and entertaining blogs out there, encompassing a wide array of subjects.  Of course, I enjoy the small handful of Artist blogs out there, but I've really widened my horizon by reading others.  Here's a few I follow:

  • Flossing With Fannie!  This one tells you everything you ever wanted to know about dental floss.  I, for one, never knew there where so many techniques to flossing;  The thumb and forefinger wrap, the inter-locking wrist flip, really, the list is endless.  Fannie is at her best when she gives helpful household hints on making your own floss.  I never knew those old thongs could come in so handy...

  • Do It Again!  By Dr. Paymoore, Phd.  This blog is for those with obsessive compulsive tendencies.  It's up-dated every fifteen minutes.

  • We 12 Fudcups!   Written by a lovely family, this "Travel-blog" details their whacky adventures as they attempt to cross the South Pacific in a 14 foot row-boat.  This one hasn't been updated in a long time, though.  But their last entry about the coming typhoon was gripping.  I hope to hear more!

  • Let Me Tell You!  This is a political blog, and very informative.  I had no idea that the Government is using Space Aliens to keep Abraham Lincoln's brain alive in a bunker under Washington D.C.  But it must be true-- it's on the internet!

  • Manly Painting!  Not to be confused with Maine-ly Painting.

  • Intrepretive Knitting With Leigh!  A young girls journey into the fascinating world of knitting-- without a clue on how to do it!  So far, the colorful clumps of yarn balls she's made are quite lovely.

  • Lastly, I had high hopes for this one: Golf For The Intelligent Golfer!  But there was nothing written...

So, for those of you who follow my blog, thank you!  Rush out and tell your friends to follow along.  I'm looking for world domination by New Year's.  After all, the sky's the limit!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Making Lemonade

Ever notice that no matter how good you are, there are four categories your paintings fall under?  There's:
  • As good as you can do.  For the rare painting when everything falls into place, and you have achieved the painting you always thought you were capable of doing.  You submit these to competitions, and are the most proud.  These paintings are the reason you keep going. 

  • Good, but not great.  Honestly, we make our living on paintings in this category.  This type of painting has a lot of good elements, but in your eyes, it just misses the mark.

  • Not my best.  These didn't really live up to what you wanted at all.  These are the ones I usually supply to charity auctions, if truth be told.  I may not like the painting, but someone else may have a differing opinion.  Lastly, there's the-

  • God, I suck!  These bad boys never see the light of day.  'Nuff said.

Don't despair, though, for the paintings in the last two categories might become usable.  Maybe the problem with them was just a matter of timing.  Hey, we all bite off more than we can chew on occasion.  Maybe after a few years of painting under your belt, you've learned how to mix the colors you needed to make it work.  These are also good paintings to experiment on.  I like to haul them out and try some different glazing techniques on them.  Maybe doodle with some knife work I've been meaning to try.  Word of caution though:  No amount of clever color will fix a painting whose major weakness was poor drawing, or skewed perspective. 

The painting I used at the top of the page is an example of bringing the dead back to life.  I started this painting of a lovely stone footbridge in Hallowell, Maine with the concept of making it a nice summer scene.  The sun light would light up the bridge while a babbling brook flows underneath.  I thought the dark woods flanking the opening, with a pretty green meadow in the distance would be a nice touch.  I excitedly jumped in, and finished the stone bridge, pronto!  Then I stalled.  I couldn't envision the rest of the scene at all.  So, I threw some dark colors around for the woods, and maybe some blue for the brook, and called it good.  Except it wasn't.  I was completely dissatisfied with it. 

The painting sat in a closet for two years before I brought it out one day to look at it.  Or maybe I was just moving it out of the way to put in another dud.  Either way, I gave it a long, hard look.  Why not turn it into a winter scene?  a little voice in my head asked, (Not all voices are bad things...) You've got nothing to lose.  So, I put it up on the easel and went to town.  Two days later, it was done.  Couple of things to notice, though.  Can you make out some ripply, yellow highlights on the rocks on the underside of the bridge?  They were left over from the original summer idea.  A frozen stream doesn't reflect like that.  And the clouds in the back are summer Cumulus clouds, and wouldn't be there in the winter.  Putting that aside, while this may not be a great work of art, trust me, it's better than what it was.

So go back and look at some of your old lemons.  Who knows, you might just make a nice tasty glass of lemonade.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Dryness Of The Well

Having read a few of the extremely rare Artists blogs out there, I've noticed a recurring theme:  Artist Block.  You know what I'm talking about: you just don't seem satisfied with any of your paintings, and you don't know why.  You want to paint, but yet you can't figure out what you want to paint.  And when you do paint, you have no idea what you want it to look like.  It's an affliction that hits 100% of us at one time or another, and along with my fellow blog-ist, it's one I'm suffering through myself.

For the past twenty-seven years, I have kept a log of every painting I have ever done.  Now, up until these past four years, when I started to paint full-time, I've had to punch a clock while I raised a family, paid the mortgage, and met various and sundry other responsibilities.  With that in mind, I could only devote a few hours here and there to paint.  So, most years I only painted five or six paintings.  Some years, I would do almost a dozen.  Not very many paintings, to be sure, but it was all I could do.  However, sprinkled in those somewhat productive years were the occasional year when I didn't paint anything at all.  That's right--zero.  Nada.  Zilch.  Nothing.  What the hell happened?

I have a theory.  You see, I believe that us artistic types do not have an unlimited supply of creativity.  But what creativity we posses is stored in us, kind of like a battery or a well.  Every painting we do taps into that creativity and drains a little bit of it.  When that well runs dry after so many paintings, our creativity dries up.  What happens next is we wander around lost, despairing that we will never paint another good painting again.  We still paint, though.  One bad painting after another.  Oh, sure--we think we know exactly what we want to do when we're far away from our painting.  Then, we rush to it, firm in our conviction we know what we want.  But as soon as we put a brush stroke on it, we stop...muddled, befuddled, confused, back to square one.  Sound familiar?  Those blank years in my painting past were just like that.

So what happens next?  The good news is that it's not a permanent condition.  For me, something would spark my desire again, and off I'd go like I never stopped.  Actually, after having those spells, I found that I actually had reached a higher plateau.  Some of my best paintings were done shortly after I snapped out of my fugue.  In short, the well re-filled.  I have noticed my dry spells are farther apart now than when I first started to paint.  I think the more you create, the deeper you dig your well, so it takes longer to drain.  Right now, though, I'm hoping the waters of creativity fills my artistic well quickly, because I'm tired of hauling up pails of dirt! 


Thursday, November 11, 2010

But It Was Such A Good Photo!

I was strolling down memory lane today, going through countless photos, looking for ideas for future painting projects.  Yeah, I use photos.  So what?  Ever since the camera was invented, artists have used them.  Guys we think of as pure Plein Aire or Alla Prima painters like William Merritt Chase, Frederick Church, Thomas Eakins and others in the Nineteenth and Twentieth century have left behind the photos they used to make some of their paintings.  When used judiciously, photos can be a big help.  So I take a lot of pictures.  Right now, I have a separate external hard drive to hold the 14,000 photos I have taken in just the past four years.  Aside from the ones of Grammy kissing the Great-Grandchild, each one was, "Oh, I want to paint that!" Click!  But only a few make the grade.  Why?  The biggest reason I may not use a photograph isn't because it's not good enough, but on the contrary, it's too good.  My general rule of thumb is that a beautiful Photograph seldom makes a beautiful Painting.

Photos have inherent flaws that the average person doesn't realize.  They are conditioned to the idea that a photo is the ultimate in reality.  Many painters think so too, and so they copy the flaws right into their paintings.  But cameras alter perspective, color and contrast.  A photo is far removed from the way our eyes see.  The problem with a photo though, is that it's just close enough to fool us into thinking it's an accurate portrayal of what we are seeing.  Here are what I think are pretty decent photographs I've taken, but because of their flaws, will never see the light of paint.

This one goes back to my lobstering days.  Pretty cool view, huh?  (Hey, you hang out over the edge of a rolling Lobster boat and keep the horizon straight!)  The problem here is what I call "Fish Eye".  The camera distorts perspective, making everything up-close too large, thus pushing the background farther away.  I was only ten feet from Charlie, but he looks fifty feet away.  If I do anything with this, I need to fix that perspective.. and the horizon.  Here's one of a lovely sunset I saw this year:

"Contrast Kill".  When I stepped outside to take the picture, I knew I was going to lose the soft greens, blues and purples of the shadows.  A camera is always compromising.  If it captures the bright colors of the sunset, it does so at the expense of the shadows.  If I were to focus on the horizon, it would wash out the sky to make the colors in the shadows brighter.  With a scene like this, it can't do both.  If I were to paint this as is, that flat black horizon would look dreadful.

Another problem, and one I see in paintings all the time, I call, "The attack of the giant plants!"

A beautiful summer day.  White puffy clouds floating in the warm sunshine.  Aahh...  But look at those weeds!  They are as big as the trees!  Run for your lives!  Were we to physically stand there, the perspective from our two eyes would relegate those weeds to their proper spatial relationship.  The camera's perspective only makes them look huge, and foreboding, waiting to spring on us at any moment.  They scare me....

This last one is a usable picture.  I took it last winter of Belfast, Maine at sunrise.  Even though the distant hills were closer than what appears (camera perspective again), nothing is unnaturally looming up at us.  I could make a painting from this. 

 Oh yeah!  I did!  I like to use photos where I can bring a little something to the table.  If I find myself trying to copy exactly what I see, then I needed to use a different picture.  So have fun using those photos, just don't let the giant weeds get you! 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Just A Gigolo

Cousin's Island-- commission

There's a debate in the Art World.  No, I'm not talking about the Realist vs. Abstract debate.  Or the Illustrators vs. Fine Arts, Landscape vs. Seascape, Classical vs Impressionist debates.  No, I'm talking about the Artists Who Accept Commissions vs. Artists Who Won't Prostitute Themselves.  I can dig where the "Pure Artist" is coming from.  Art should come from the soul, and an Artist can't possibly portray with conviction that which doesn't spring from his own center of creativity.  I will freely admit, however, I take commissions.  I enjoy having the opportunity to tackle a subject I might not have thought of doing otherwise.  I also like the fact that as long a I don't screw it up horribly, it's a guaranteed check.   Commissions can certainly have their share of problems though.

The kind of commission I like best is the kind that gives me the most leeway.  You know, the kind where a client says, "I love your Seascapes!  Can you do one for me?"   Sure!  Those are easy.  An example of that is at the top of the page.  It gets a little more difficult when a client gets too specific, like, "I love your lobster boat paintings!  Can you do one for me?  Just make it a red boat in the sunset, with a full moon coming up?  Oh, and have the Lobster-guy leaning over like he's caught one, and the water is like, coming up and splashing him?  Oh, and can you make him turning to the left and smiling?  And his reflection is in the water?"  Okay, but the chances are huge that if a client has that detailed a picture in mind, I can't possibly paint what he imagines.  But those kind of commissions aren't all bad, in that if the client doesn't like it, I might get lucky and sell it later to someone else.

Then, there's the bad photo commission.  I don't mind using an old black and white photo if that's all the client has, so long as the subject is recognizable.  Just don't ask me to paint from that lovely Instamatic photo of a Rocky Mountain sunset-- with the horizon a solid wall of black.  But, I've also had clients present me with digitized Polaroids from 1955 of their loved one they want a painting of.  Except that the face is a smatter of pixels that from across the room might be a person, but up close, it could be an Aardvark.  Then there is the client who thinks wouldn't that cute photo of her grandson Tommy's scrunched up face when he was blowing out is five birthday candles make a great painting?  No, it wouldn't.  But still, I've painted babies, brides, seascapes and departed loved ones.  I've even done my share of house portraits.  Again, I enjoyed them--for the most part-- and I wouldn't have painted them if I hadn't been asked.

Northwoods Cabin- commission

I do draw the line on one type of commission:  Pet Portraits.  I've turned down a whole lot of money by not doing portraits of Missy the Siamese cat, or Samson the Golden Retriever.  Why not, you may ask?  What-- do you think I'm a painting whore?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Winter.  It's coming, you know.  Don't you feel it?  The chill breeze portends the coming storm.  The stark branches silhouetted against the low, leaden clouds.  Oh look!  Flurries!  Followed by the ever swiftly falling flakes as they twirl  and whirl in the air, piling up on the lawn, the sidewalks and the streets.  But you can't sit in your snug home and watch the snow can you?  No, you have to go out and brave the storm to get to work.  You feel the sting of the snow against your cheeks as you scrape the ice off the windshield of your car.  Your earlobes start to throb just before the sharp pain of frost bite sets in.  Now you kinda wish you had worn that dorky looking hat after all...  I could go on, but I'm making myself nauseous.

Why do people love Winter?  You have to spend a half-hour to get all the extra clothes on just so you can walk out to the mailbox.  It's dark all day, except for maybe that half-hour of sun you get from sunrise at 11:35am to sunset at 12:22.  But you know what?  Damn, it's pretty.  The silver and blue of the shadows, and every color you can imagine softly playing against the snow at sunrise.  The light is crisp and clean.  It sure does make for some cool paintings.  Pardon the pun.

This one I named Winter Light, Cundy's Harbor.  I kept the relative values a little darker so I could show the sparkle of the snow.  I think you will be able to see it if you click on the photo.  One of the fun things I try to do in a Winter painting is see how little straight white I can use.  This next one is of a small town in Maine just next door to Pittston.

This one is of the Church and Courthouse in Wiscasset.  No pure white in this one.  The last one I'll show is called December Afternoon, and it was done this past January.  Sometimes you see a sight that just needs to be painted.  For me, this was one of those.

I'm sure I'll see more scenes like this in just a few short weeks.  By the first of February I'll be anxious to see some green, but instead I'll know I still have at least two more months of snow.  Winter may be Maine's longest Season, but Summer is my favorite week of the year.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Do I Know You?

The Losing Entry

I am the first to admit that I am competitive.  I like to win.  Hey, who doesn't--right?  Did I let my kids win when I was teaching them to play "Fish", or Checkers, Hop-Scotch or Monopoly?  Hell no!  If you don't play to win, you ain't tryin'.  And if you ain't tryin', you're dyin'.  That's my motto.  I can't help it, that's just the way I feel.  (Too bad that now my kids never want to play "Fish", Checkers, Hop-Scotch or Monopoly...)  Of course, trying to win and winning are not the same thing.  The fact is: I lose all the time.  I don't like it, but I've learned to accept it.  I really do believe it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.  Always give it your best shot, and see what happens.  But, I also know that no one remembers who came in second.  Quick-- who did the Boston Red Sox beat in 2004?  Yeah... I thought so.  That's why I like winning.

One of the ways to win in the art world (where everyone is playing with different game pieces), is by entering Juried Competitions.  The prize could be monetary, or maybe a spot on a gallery wall.  Maybe the prize is a chance to participate in a painting auction.  It doesn't matter, I like to put my work out there by entering these things and see if I win.  Looking around for a suitable event to enter, I recently came upon a great opportunity.  The contest didn't have any valuable prize, just the opportunity to add one more winning event to my resume`.  I think the piece I entered was one of my better efforts (shown above), and I was sure it would certainly garner top prize.  At the risk of sounding smug, technically I am a professional artist.  And hey, did you know that Norman Rockwell would enter local art competitions with paintings he made for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post?  So with the concept of "nothing ventured, nothing gained", and "I'm better than my competition" I entered Ms Watson's Fourth Grade Art Show.

Ms Watson wasn't the Juror, though.  That job belonged to Nicholas Duncan, a fine little artist, and a member of her class.  Well, I entered and sat back waiting for the notification I was the big winner.  I waited a month before I found out who won, and boy was I surprised!  Not only did I NOT win, I didn't even get an "Honorable Mention"!  I mean, C'Mon, Man!  Ashley Theisle won with her depiction of her pet cats.

It's well done and all, and sure, Ashley is talented, but I felt she missed connecting the emotional narrative in her depiction.  Second place went to Jacob Foontin.  Jacob went all out with a haunting depiction of his family, reminiscent of Grant Wood's American Gothic

But, dammit-- mine was at least as good as Joshua Fickett's Third Place drawing (not pictured).  I mean, it looked like it was done by a second-grader!  You know, it didn't get past me that Nicholas sits next to Ashley in Home Room.   And when Ashley was the Judge last time, she picked Nicholas' drawing of a dinosaur as the winner.  And wait a minute:  Don't Joshua and Nick play together all the time at recess?  Then it dawned on me.  These kids only pick their friends to win.  I've been gamed!  Rest assured, I am not saying that Ashley would not have won with a different Judge, or that different tastes than mine would not have picked Joshua's piece, but it sure looked like hanging out with the Judge sure didn't hurt.

I get it.  I learned my lesson.  I'm not giving up on entering Art Competitions, because they are still a great way for my paintings to be seen.  I'll just keep my expectations in check.  However, I do plan on sticking to entering the ones run by adults.  I'll leave the child's play for Ms Watson's Fourth Grade Art Class.  Unless maybe I can find a way to hang out with Nicholas and Ashley sometime...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Roll With The Hay

I am a lover of history.  I have always felt I was born at least one hundred years too late.  I have such an affinity for the late nineteenth century that I can almost feel the scratchy wool clothes, or the smell of the streets covered in mud and horse dung.  The parlor I am in as I write this is furnished with antique Victorian parlor furniture, and an old parlor stove.  The light is an electrified gas lamp.  It's my favorite room in this 170 year old house.  (Quite incongruous to be in here typing on a NetBook lap-top computer...)  Anyway, when I stumbled upon this picture of a farmer and his load of hay, it felt like a memory to me.

What a beautiful photo!  Two white Percherons proudly pulling a big wagon load of hay up a dirt lane on a sultry summer morning.  In this day of casualness run amok, can you imagine donning a vest and tie to work in a hot field all day around scratchy hay and smelly horses?  This farmer didn't dress up to get his photo taken, that was the way it was done in his day.  So when I saw this I instantly decided to try my hand at bringing this scene to life via paint.  I did the sketch at the top of the page to warm up, then using a pencil on a 16X16 inch gessoed masonite board, I drew the scene.

You can see I basically copied the photo, but with a few changes.  I pushed the wagon back a little to give more of an impression that they are approaching the viewer.  I also removed the overhanging tree.  The horse on the right is leaning in a little, giving the team a bit more motion.  In drawing this on the panel, I tried to make this as much like a black and white photo as I could.  Then came the paint.

This was done with a burnt sienna and burnt umber wash.  I merely wiped the paint off to keep the highlights.
I really went to town over the next couple of days.

The white horses reflect the light like snow, so I used a purple cast to the shadows.  I tried hard to really depict a hot, hazy summer morning.  I say morning, because the hay would have been cut a day or two in advance, then left to dry in the field.  With some help, this wagon could have been loaded within an hour.  By hand with pitch forks of course.  In my mind, it was the first week of July, between 9 and 10am.  The sun is not yet directly overhead to blanch out all the color.  The distant hills are beginning to turn blue from the haze, and the clouds are starting to melt into the steel-blue sky.  I lost some of those colors in these photos, but that was what I was shooting for.

Click On Image For a Close-Up

I've mentioned I usually take a week to complete a painting.  This was the finished picture at the end of day six.  Note that instead of the overhanging tree, I opted to indicate it's existence by putting some shadows across the road in the foreground.  I like to have something up close for the viewer to step beyond to get into the scene.  (I stole that from Norman Rockwell!)  There is some glare in the upper right hand corner that I wish I had noticed when I was taking the photo.  Beyond that, the colors in this shot are pretty good, but there is always a loss of nuance in any photo of a painting.  I had a tough time naming this.  Full Load Of Hay is what I named it by default.  I thoroughly enjoyed stepping back in time.  Like I said, to me it was portraying a memory of something I've never seen, if you get what I mean.  And I didn't even have to smell the dung!