Monday, January 31, 2011


Just a quick post for tonight.  I'm busy polishing up my snow shovels, shining my winter boots and greasing up my ski-mask in anticipation of another winter storm.  By my count this one makes one hundred twenty-eight so far this year.  I love it when meteorologists say things like, "This will be the worst storm in history!"  They mean recorded history, of course.  Some of those records only go back sixty years, or so.  There might have been a worse storm three hundred years ago, but whose to say?

Anyway, I'm posting a photo of a painting I finished last week.  This was another one I did from life, with no photo help.  I worked on it one hour at a time, from 2:30 to 3:30 in the afternoon, and of course, only when it was sunny.  My vantage point was from my living room window, looking out at my back yard.  While I painted this standing indoors, it is an outdoor scene.  Can I call it a plein air? 

I'm not inventing the wheel here when I say that observation beats photos every time.  Below is a photo I took of the spot from my vantage point, but at a slightly different time of day. 

But I don't know what to name it.  Got any ideas?  My working title is Mid-Winter.  Yeah... exciting, I know.  So if you can think of a good name, drop me a line.  And if you live in an area of the world that doesn't have snow, I'll even come by and pick up the name!


Friday, January 28, 2011


I recently saw an ad placed in one of those on-line classified ad sites.  I don't want to give anybody free publicity, so let's just call it "kraig's list".  The ad read, "Artist seeking gallery representation."  I didn't make that up.  An ad like that is right up there with, "Person seeking mechanic to come fix my car."  Or, how about, "Singer looking for recording contract."  Now, I'm sure that somewhere out there, there is a gallery that has sold out of all its merchandise and is desperate to find new artists because they haven't had any contact them for months.  They go shopping in blind hope on the internet, and lo and behold they find this guy.

But probably not.

Remember the Dot Com bubble?  When the internet first hit ten years ago, the thinking was that a company doing business on it couldn't help but make money.  After all, they had access to potential consumers from around the world.  Investors flocked to these companies and threw money at them hand over fist.  Everyone was going to be filthy rich!  And then a funny thing happened on the way to the bank.  Hardly anybody made any money.  In fact, quite a few dot.coms went belly-up.  ( anyone?)  Why did that happen?  Because "Build it, and they will come" only works in Hollywood.  For the rest of us, it's "Build it.  Now go bust your ass and go try to sell it."

The internet really is a wonderful creation.  So is a tuning fork.  So what?  A tool has to have a function, a reason for being.  At least a tuning fork can tune your piano.  But it can't tuna fish.  But I digress...  What can the internet do?  Well, for starters, it can let your work be seen.  The ubiquitous "they" say that to be successful, you must have an internet presence.  So just about every artist out there has his own internet site.  But that's almost as many sites as there are stars in the sky.  How is anyone going to notice my star?  Then there's FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.  The concept here is to "network".  You know, artists connecting to other artists.  You know what "network" really is?  The choir singing to the choir.  Have you ever sold your work on Twitter?  The internet is a great social networking vehicle, but as,, and can tell you, it's hell on making money

My point for all of this is:  There is no easy way.  The trick to being successful now is the same as it has been over the centuries;  Work hard, make great art, and promote it ruthlessly.  Waiting for success to find you is not a viable business option.  The internet isn't the be-all and end-all.  Sometimes, you have to pound the pavement and knock on some doors.   So, Mr. "kraig's list," best of luck to you.  I hope a gallery contacts you and promotes your work.  But I'm doing things the old fashioned way--

By the way, anybody know where the Medici's live?


Wednesday, January 26, 2011


One of the more common statements I get when I tell people I paint pictures is, "Oh, isn't that sooo relaxing?"



You kidding me?  Relaxing?

Yeah, it's relaxing alright.  As relaxing as a knife fight.  As relaxing as a swim with sharks.  As relaxing as engine trouble at 37,000 feet.  Let me put it another way-- no, I don't find it relaxing. 

You see, when I'm painting, every watt of power in my little brain is focused on the end of my paint brush.  Each stroke can come out just right, or a disaster.  The color note that looked good on the palette is completely wrong when I put it on the canvas.  That nice, flowing brush stroke just overlapped into another section, and smeared the color.  That little tweak I gave that perfectly good passage just turned it into a frozen pile of mud.  Things go wrong.  So I am completely focused on the task at hand.  Does that sound relaxing to you?

Now, on the other hand, occasionally something really cool happens.  That's when a passage turns out better than I had any reason to hope for.  Then I'm all jazzed up.  I'm jumping around the studio, doing back flips, patting myself on the back, acting like the Red Sox just beat the yankees!  (A common occurrence these days, but still exciting).  I go charging on, anxious to see if the rest of the painting will turn out as good.  Doesn't really sound all that relaxing, now does it?

There are some things about painting that are not heart palpitating and stress inducing.  Doing initial underdrawings, underpaintings or detail work--while very important-- can be somewhat dull.  Some may even say boring.  And boring isn't relaxing.  We don't go to spas to be bored.  We don't take vacations to be bored.  So there's another strike against painting being relaxing.  The truth is, when you put your heart and soul into any effort, it's not relaxing.  Not if you care about how it turns out.

So, what do I do to relax after a hard day's painting?  Why, I turn to the most relaxing person there ever was--

Mr. Relaxation, Perry Como!


Monday, January 24, 2011

See The Tree, How Big It's Grown

What do you do when you want to paint an outdoor scene from life, but the temperature outside is only five degrees above zero, with a wind-chill temperature near twenty below?  Well, I guess you could don multi layers of clothing so you resemble a heftier version of the Michelin Man, put on boots that weigh twenty pounds and arctic gloves that are even too big to fit in the overhead compartment on planes, and set out to show Mother Nature who's boss.  Or, if you're like me, you fire up the parlor wood stove, grab your french easel and a cup of coffee and head on over to a window to look outside.  I may be a wimp, but I'm a warm wimp!

I set my easel up in my living room by the picture window that looks out on the large tree that dominates my back yard.  I love that tree.  It's a huge maple with a six foot diameter and it looms over my garage and house with branches that block out the sky.  I thought the thing was ancient when we first moved here last year, but come to find out it was planted around 1950 or so.  I'm sure that when it was planted it was just a twig...   

Like the painting I recently did of my bedroom dressers, this one is from observation with no photographic reference.  I mean, the thing just sits there, it's not like it's a horse grazing in a field.  I am cognizant of the light though.  The time frame I'm depicting is between 2:30 and 3:30 in the afternoon.  After I finished quickly roughing it in, I've been working on it one section at a time, and only at that time in the afternoon.  This is the fifth afternoon I've been at it.  I've miles to go on this, one hour at a time, but the photo above should give you an idea of what I'm shooting for.  I hope to be able to post the finished job next week.  Good thing I started this in January.  Not only is the tree not going anywhere, but at five degrees, the snow's in no hurry to leave either.  And that tree is way too big to brush all the snow away. 


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Two Below, Honey

A couple of weeks ago, I packed up my french easel and did a painting "on location" in my bedroom.  I had a lot of fun doing the project, but I looked forward to going back to my studio and normal routine.  So, bright and early this past Monday morning I headed out to the studio and stumbled upon a cold hard truth:  Winter had arrived in Maine.  Dark and glowering skies, frigid winds howling from the north and mountains of snow piling and drifting up.  My studio is an out building about fifty yards away from the back step of the house in the summertime, but in the winter, it seems like it's a mile away.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love my remodeled chicken coop of a studio, it's set up to suit my needs exactly as I want.  The problem is that while it's insulated, it's not heated.  The inside temperature is about two degrees warmer than outside.  Even though I've got a pretty hefty kerosene heater and a small electric heater, and four good sized windows on the south side to add some thermal heat, the temperature inside the building that morning stood at four degrees.  On a good sunny winter day, it takes about three hours to heat the place up to a workable fifty degrees, or so.  By noon, the temperature is usually up to sixty-five or even seventy.  But when it's a cloudy day, I can't get it warm enough to take off my winter coat.  So I decided this week I'd do another painting from inside the house.

One would think that I would enjoy working "at home" as it were, but the funny thing is-- I don't.  I mean, I don't have to go out and freeze, I have a bathroom, I have my usual music playing.  Heck, I've never even had a studio before we moved into this place last year.  But you know what I miss?  Going to work.  Since I started painting full time, I have always gotten up, got dressed and went to wherever I had my stuff set up to work.  I suppose that's just the habit I've acquired from punching the clock for all these years.  I've never been one to hang around in my jammies and slippers while I paint.  So, I really get the feeling of "going to work" when I head out to my studio.  I feel like a slacker or something when all I have to do when I'm here in the house is drag out my easel to get going.

But I guess I'm going to have to feel this way for a little while longer.  The weather folks are calling for some of the coldest weather of the winter to hit us this week.  Night time lows are going to be in the ten to twenty below zero range, while daytime highs will only be about ten degrees.  So, in the house I'll stay.  But still-- absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I think my studio is sweet even at two below, honey.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Weakest Link

We received another four or five inches of snow yesterday.  Coupled with the foot we got last week, I'd say Winter is fast approaching!  Everytime I'm out shoveling snow, I can't help but think of N.C. Wyeth's painting, From An Upper Snow Platform.  Now, that, my friend, is shoveling snow!

Now, I'm not against getting in a little physical activity now and then.  Lord knows, I've shoveled miles and miles of snow in my life, and I've split and stacked an untold number of cords of wood.  For the past few years I've even gone to the gym to work out.  Of course, no one would confuse my physique for a body builder, but for an old duff, I'm no slouch around the weight rack.  But for all the weight I can curl or leg press, thanks to a degenerative disk, I have the lower back strength of a six year-old girl.  No matter how strong I can make the surrounding muscles, that disk is my weak link.  So, for every minute I spend shoveling, I spend two minutes later on with heat on my back, so I can go stand at the easel. 

But that got me to thinking about weak links in our painting abilities.  In our never ending quest to grow as painters, (I refuse to say "get better" anymore.  A seven foot tree is no better than a sixty-five foot tree.  The sixty footer has just grown, that's all), we are always assessing our work.  We naturally play up our strengths when we paint, and tend to avoid that with which we have troubles.  I mean, if I really stink at painting flowers, (and I do) why would I want to incorporate them in my paintings and have everyone see I can't paint them?  So, in going over the links of my painting chain, what do I feel is my weakest link?  I'd have to say design.

Now, I'm not talking about composition.  I think I balance my subjects OK.  I get the left to off-set the right, the top to even-out with the bottom, and all that, so my paintings don't look like they want to tip over and slide down the wall.  But I mean the over all look of the picture.  Let me give you an example.  Say I do a painting of my red wing-back chair in a strong half light.  In the composition, the chair faces you directly with the light coming from the left to the right.  The chair takes up 80% of the scene, the rest is darkened background.  I'm happy with the result; the drawing is good, the colors realistic-- it looks just like the chair would in that raking light.  But what if I had backed the chair up so that it only filled 65% of the view, and instead of being dead-on, I had turned it to the right at a 45 degree angle.  The composition wouldn't be that much different-- a chair in half light-- but the design would be much more evocative, don't you think?  The problem, of course, is that it is always easier to ask, "what was I thinking?" after the fact, than it is to think a thing through to begin with.  Slowing myself down to work out the best design possible is always going to be a challenge, because when I'm inspired, I want to just jump right in.

So, let me ask you, do you know what your weakest link is?  Do you avoid it, or do you try to work on it to improve it?  I guess I have no choice but to tackle my problem with design.  But can I avoid painting flowers?

Another thing I can't avoid is shoveling more snow.  Another snow storm is coming in a couple of days.  Where's that heat pack?


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Is The Devil In The Details?

Warning:  The wearing of steel-toed boots is recommended for the reading of this blog.  We can not be responsible for any discomfort from toes being stepped on.  Thank you.

We all know that the number one rule in art is, "There are no rules".  There are, however, axioms, tenets, general suggestions, standard way of doing things, my way, and what the hell are you thinking?  One of the non-rules is, "you can't learn to draw from copying photographs".  I agree.  Copying them only gives one a thin veneer of reality.  So, put those polaroids away and go copy an old masters painting!  Another accepted non-rule, but would be a rule if it were open for a vote, is "do not put all the details in your painting in focus".  I know I stand the risk of sounding like the self-taught, totally ignorant hack that I am, but I have to ask-- why?

The argument behind not having everything in focus goes like this:  The human eye does not see everything in focus at the same time.  While we're looking at an object, everything else in it's periphery loses detail.  Thus, we should make our paintings with the point of interest having the highest amount of detail, and everything else with a lesser amount because that's how our eyes see.  As a matter of fact, having everything in sharp focus is the mark of an amateur.  Or so says Virgil Elliott, the writer of Traditional Oil Painting.  I love that book.  Of all the art books I own, it's one of only three that I keep with me in the studio.  (The others are John Carlson's book on landscape painting, and Rockwell on Rockwell).  In fairness to Mr. Elliott, I've seen that opinion from a whole lot of other artists too.

But here's why I question that (Oh, no! It's not a) rule.  I want my paintings to be very realistic, so why shouldn't I make everything as accurate as I can, then let the eye of the viewers see it as it would the real thing?  In other words, should I paint the way the eye interprets the scene, or let the eye interpret the scene in the painting?  Now, a disclaimer:  I am certainly aware of hard and soft edges, and I'm not saying that everything should have a hard edge.  What I'm asking is why can't I paint everything with the same level of realism and detail?  Let me show you a few examples of what I'm thinking about.

At the top of the page is a detail from one of my all-time favorite Andrew Wyeth paintings, The Patriot.

I stood for hours in front of this painting when I saw it at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine.  What I love about this painting is the exquisite detail Wyeth gave everything.  If Wyeth only wanted the focus to be on the face of his subject, he could have merely indicated the medals and buttons on the uniform.  Instead, everything is in such sharp focus that you can read the inscription on the medals.  Wyeth isn't telling you, "Look only at what I want you to see,"  He's letting your eyes do the work.  When I look at his face, I don't see the medals in focus at all.  I see this painting in the same manner as if the man was sitting in front of me.  

Another of my favorite Wyeth's is Weathered Side

This is not a great reproduction of the painting, but again, look at the degree of focus he gave every element in this scene.  The composition leads your eye into and up the side of the Olsen House in Cushing, Maine, but each object is sharply rendered.  The window panes high up on the house are as crisply realized as the bucket at your feet.  The clapboards are not a mass of color, but as detailed as the shingles beside you.   Wyeth didn't paint this the way our eyes see it, he painted it the way it is.  We do the rest.

Now let's look at Jean-Leone Gerome:

If you click on this, you should probably get a bigger version.  Yes, there are soft and hard edges here, but look at the way he portrays the tile over on the extreme right edge.  Keeping in mind the change in light and corresponding values, the detail is as clear as the closer tiles on the left.  Again, Gerome let's our eyes wander wherever we want over this image, he's not dictating what is important.  His composition does that.  I like that in a painting.

I know that the idea of a central focus point comes from the great landscape artists like Constable, and later with the Impressionist and, of course, John Singer Sargent, and it shows in many modern paintings today.  I truly like that style of painting.  And I sure know I'm no Andrew Wyeth or Jean-Leon Gerome!  I'm old school I guess, but to me, I just don't see the Devil in those details.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Mirror, Mirror

After having spent the better part of 2010 (pronounced twenty-ten) in search of a different painting philosophy, I came to the conclusion that my trying a different style would be like Kermit The Frog spitting Rap.  While doing an Elvis Presley impersonation.  I guess he could do it, but it wouldn't be natural for good ol' Kermit, now would it?  So for the painting I just finished, I let myself be me.  Got in touch with my inner Kermit, so to speak.

I mentioned in a previous post that I thought the combination of reflections and light on my bedroom bureau would be cool to paint.  So I spent this week staring into the mid-day glare of my bedroom windows while I painted this scene Alla Prima.

My faithful dog Champ spent most of the painting session sleeping on the bed.  He probably thought he was posing in Ellen's place.  Anyway, I was lucky in that I wasn't trying to portray a specific lighting moment, just how the room looks in the morning's sun.  As such, I could devote several hours a day to painting, and not have the scene change much.  I also lucked out in that four of the five days it took to paint it were sunny.  Regrettably, the one day it wasn't sunny we got hit with a foot of snow. 

I'm sure that different artists would have treated this subject differently.  Some would have made it far moodier.  Others may have infused much more color into the scene.  Not me.  My inner Kermit wanted me to paint this with as much exacting truth as I could muster.  I have to say that after having used photographs so extensively for so long, I had a blast observing and painting this scene!  I used a photo to help during the initial drawing stages.  However, I can safely say this painting would have been a far different animal if I had used a photo exclusively to paint it.  I'm not saying it would have been necessarily worse, it just would have been different.

All in all, I'm pleased with how this one turned out.  It brought me back to the days when I was first teaching myself to paint.  I was a teen, and my "studio" was the corner of my 9ft by 12ft bedroom.  (Gee, that's the size of a prison cell!)  I would grab various objects from around the house, set 'em up and paint them.  I painted my old sneakers, a shiny metal pencil sharpener.  A bottle of whiskey (don't ask how I got one...).  You name it.  I didn't use photos, I just looked at them and painted.  That's what I want to do more of.  Not discard photographs entirely, because I think they can be a useful tool, but use direct observation a lot more. 

You know, let my inner Kermit run free!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sleeping In

I decided I would paint the bedroom this year.  So, that's where I spent today.  No, I didn't have drop cloths and masking tape, I had my easel and paints.  Sometimes inspiration hits you in the strangest of places.

Last week I was in the bedroom when I noticed that the mirrors on top of our dressers where reflecting each other, and that the mid-morning light was giving the room an interesting glow.  I thought the combination of effects was kind of cool, so I grabbed my camera and took some pictures.  A few moments later, my beautiful partner Ellen came up, so I asked her to pose for me.  This was the shot I liked the most.

While they may not be spectacular, I like our antique dressers, and I've used them a couple of times for drawings and paintings.  Poor Ellen actually had to contort herself in a rather uncomfortable position for me to get that picture, but hey, you gotta suffer for Art, right?  I was in the middle of another painting at the time, so I put this on the "to do" list.  While I was finishing up the other picture, my mind would wander to this one.  I even thought up a title; Sleeping In.  "How should I portray this?" I would think.  "Should I make it kind of chiaroscuro with the center lit up for dramatic effect?  Should I paint it all loose with warm colors?"  I'm sure you do the same thing when you're beginning a new project.  That's when an inner voice went off in my head.  (And not the inner voice that says, "Hey, while you're here on the couch, have some more potato chips!")  But my Art inner voice.  "Hey, fool-- if this was the scene that attracted you, why don't you paint it that way?"  My inner Art voice can be rather harsh...  But I had to admit he had a good point. 

So, using the photo, I drew it out on a 12X12 inch masonite panel.  I worked on this for four days, making sure I got it as close to right as I could possibly make it.

But we all know one thing:  Photo color is pretty bad, no matter what camera you may use.  As a result, I thought it would be fun to actually go up there and paint "on location".  Before I grabbed my plein air kit and set up, I did an underpainting using Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna.  Then I just waited for the sun to shine.  My intent is to paint this as accurately and truthfully as I can.

Here we are at the end of day one of painting:

As usual in photographing paintings, I lost a lot of color nuance in this shot.  But it does show my habit of pecking away, doing a little of this, a little of that...  I've never been a top to bottom painter, I like to keep all the elements working at once.  It gives me a better idea of how the pieces are coming together. 

Here's a detail of the inner mirror:

Plenty more to do on this one.  But the Weather Prognosticator says we'll have sunny days the majority of this week. 

I guess I won't be sleeping in.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Principium Of Tractus

In this "There are no rules" world of art, where for every step that one artist says is useless, another artist will claim it to be of the utmost of importance, I have been loath to throw in my two cents of advice.  But I have a whole dresser drawer full of pennies just sitting here, so allow me to toss a couple in the ring and talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: drawing.

I am a firm believer in the old adage that if you can't draw it, you can't paint it.  I mean, if you look at some of history's great artists, we admire their surviving drawings and sketches as well as their painted masterpieces.  So, if a great painter is a great draftsman, then wouldn't it stand to reason that great draftsmen are also great painters?  Not by a long shot!  Drawing and painting are twin arts in the same way concert pianists and church organists are.  If you can play one, you can probably play the other, but they ain't the same thing.  And a good pianist isn't necessarily going to be a good organist, and vice versa.  So, I have seen a ton of artists who can really draw, but yet their paintings don't hold up as well.  Heck, when I first started painting I wasn't nearly as proficient with a brush as I was with a pencil.  (Which isn't saying much...)  However, I have yet to see a really good painter who can't draw well.  That said, in painting, I absolutely believe drawing is key.

Generally speaking, good drawing involves line to show form and value to indicate mass.  But how much knowledge in drawing do you need?  If you want to draw people do you need to go the Michelangelo route and start carving up cadavers?  Do I need to name the lobes of the brain to paint portraits?  I know several artists who can name individual body parts, inside and out with the same fluency as a medical doctor.  But if that was a requirement to draw the human figure, then why don't museums have more artwork done by noted surgeons?  Isn't it enough to observe an object and draw it repeatedly to accurately portray it in charcoal and paint?  Having that scientific knowledge is impressive, but knowing that under that thar flesh lies muscle, and under all that muscle them be bones is just as important.  Knowing where the bones are, and having a good understanding of the muscle groups is enough, if you ask me.  By all means, hang out at the mortuary if you want, but I think hanging out at life drawing class can be just as useful.

OK, what about landscapes and seascapes?  Does it help to be a meteorologist to understand the atmospheric effects you may be observing?  Do you have to know the chemical reaction of photosynthesis in order to draw a tree?  Well, knowing what type of clouds usually appear in a summer sky as opposed to those of a winter day is fairly important, I think.  To understand the difference between the canopy of an Ulmus Americana (elm) tree against a Quercus (oak) tree helps give your landscape a more realistic touch.  Knowing how branches grow is just as important as knowing how muscles work.  Just don't ask me to name the scientific processes involved.

As someone who is self-taught in art, I may be stating these things from the lofty pinnacle of ignorance for all I know.  But I can look at a painting and see if an artist really knew their stuff when it came to drawing, can't you? 

But I can't tell you if they knew they were drawing fingers or phalanges.


Friday, January 7, 2011

Rackstraw Downes

I spent a lovely evening last night with the renowned artist Rackstraw Downes.  Of course, Rackstraw had no idea I was there, as I was one of about three hundred folks who attended a lecture he gave about his artwork currently being shown at the Portland Museum of Art.  I remember thinking to myself as Ellen and I made the trip to Portland, that with a name like Rackstraw, it better be good...  Mr. Downes may not be a natural raconteur, but his talk was enlightening enough.  Just like you, I love to get the inside scoop about paintings straight from the horses mouth.

Coincidentally, he is featured in this month's American Artist, so check it out.  In the meantime, for those of you who don't know of him (and until a couple years ago, I'd never heard of him either) here's a brief bio.  He went to art school in Maine in the early 1960's to study abstract painting under Alex Katz.  It was while he was in Maine that Rackstraw thought it would be fun to try a plein air of a local farm.  As he told it, he discovered that plein air painting was hard.  (Gee, you think?  Many has been a studio painter who was completely overwhelmed the first time he tried to paint from nature).  But something intrigued him about trying to paint exactly what he saw, and thus a career was born.  Rackstraw only works in the field, and his precise depictions of the commonplace in the world around us is usually done in a panoramic setting.  His views of city-scapes and desert scenes are really a treat to see up close.

Rackstraw was a recent recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award.  It is a prestigious award that comes with a boat load of cash.  (By the way, for those of you from the foundation who read this, I don't care if you want to name me The MacArthur Foundation Total Pinhead -- if it comes with a little cash.  Thanks!)  What sets him apart from other realists--and I'm sure you noticed this in the samples I've posted-- is his unique perspective.  His point of view may be looking up at an object on the left, and down on the object on the right.  To accommodate this, his horizons bend and twist, yet still convey a perfect sense of reality. 

And he does it all outdoors, on site.  It might take him a couple of years of repeated trips to a location to finish a painting.  It's an exhausting and  laborious approach, but that's what gets you awards.  I did pick up a few things as I listened to him.  A very important element he mentioned is knowing what time of day, and at what season of the year the scene depicts.  He can tell you that a particular painting shows an object at 11:30 am on a sunny day in November.  I had to smile inwardly when he kept mentioning it, because I like to stay aware of that in my paintings too.  So, we've got that in common...  A couple of other things he mentioned in passing, without a trace of irony;  Early in his plein air paintings, he was having difficulty depicting some cows for a scene.  As he said, "I figured I better learn to draw."  Another observation he made was that he was never taught anything about perspective in his schooling.  In essence, although he never said it, he is a self-taught artist, as apparently, the only thing he learned in Art School that he applies now is how to squeeze paint from a tube.  He's too much of a gentleman, to be sure, but I know what I would say if I were Rackstraw Downes--

Thanks for all that priceless abstract art education!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Paralysis By Analysis

Okay, show of hands; how many of you made a resolution this year to get better at your craft?  Yeah, I thought so.  It's an affliction that gets all of us at one time or another.  Heck, last year I made the same vow.  And who can fault us for it?  We're supposed to try to get better.  That's what we do.  And we certainly know how to get better; we study great artists past and present.  We read or re-read our favorite how-to books.  We work harder at our drawing skills.  We take classes or workshops.  The hope is that by doing all that we can incorporate all that learning into our paintings.  But here's the thing: what is better supposed to look like?

Like I said, I made the same resolution to improve last year.  I studied a lot of art.  I wanted to really see what was going on in today's art world.  I came across many, many naked women lounging on un-made beds or Victorian sofas.  They were beautifully painted with loose, flowing strokes of glowing color.  "Oh my," I thought, "my lobster boats aren't anything like that.  I should try to keep the looseness of those paintings in mind when I paint."  I also saw a veritable cornucopia of pumpkins and gourds with assorted roses and tea cups.  These were lovingly painted in cool colors on warm colored semi-finished backgrounds, or warm colors on cool backgrounds.  "Wow," thought I, "Those combinations are cool!  I need to keep that color scheme in mind when I paint my little farm scenes."  I read a library's worth of art books to aid me with composition and design.  I spent more time with my sketch pad than I had in years.  I also took a work shop with Stapleton Kearns and picked up a ton of information to use in my paintings.  In short; I thought I did everything I could to improve my paintings.

But somehow, with each passing painting I grew more and more disillusioned with my results.  I'd start a painting with the usual degree of excitement and optimism, chomping at the bit to use some of my new found knowledge.  But invariably, I would end up completely lost as to what I was trying to do.  I would struggle and re-work and fight my instinct to paint it the way I always do.  I just didn't have any idea in my head what the damn thing was supposed to look like!  To put it mildly-- it was very discouraging.  I know what you're thinking.  "Surely, there must be an analogy here somewhere?"  Yes, there is!  And don't call me Shirley...

I was like a kid with a 2,000 piece Lego set.  And I still couldn't make anything but stairs!

Which brings me back to:  What does improvement look like?  I have plenty of artistic heroes, and others that I greatly admire.  Should my work look like theirs?  Should someone mistake my work for a Homer?  Or a Rockwell?  Or, even a Schmid, Lipking or Kearns?  I mean, they are all great painters, aren't they?  Yes they are-- because they have their own voice.  And I spent all of last year trying to sing like them, when it's my voice I needed to improve.  In other words, stop trying to change what comes naturally to me.  The painting at the top of this page is indicative of my voice:  I will beat you over the head with chroma and detail.  I may still not know what improvement looks like, but I do know it has to look like something I would do. 

If some of my whining sounds familiar, I apologize.  I kind of covered this ground not too long ago.  I had mentioned before that this blog is really me talking to myself in a kind-of therapy session.  I guess I needed another visit.  So thanks for listening.  I guess I'm just going to chug on over to mamby-pamby land now...


Sunday, January 2, 2011


January Thaw

Well thank goodness that whole new years day thing is over.  I thought I was all set when I made my new years resolution, and could now get back to normal.  Then I found out that they are supposed to last all year, and not just January 1st!  Whew knew?  So, since I'm lousy at making resolutions, I thought I'd call them goals.  So I made a few for 2011.

My first goal is not get too hung-up when I don't follow through on a goal.  Easy enough.  The next goal is a little trickier; I want to set a goal that doesn't depend on factors beyond my control.  I could make a goal to sell more paintings, but really, how much say do I have in someone else's decision to buy my work?  That's like making a goal to have the snow melted by April, and have more rain in September.  Another thing about goals is to make them specific.  I know each and every one of us has a goal to improve our paintings this year.  But what does that mean?  It reminds me of the novice golfer on the first tee who says, "I just want to hit the fairway."  Invariably, that golfer will hit a bad shot.  Why?  Because he didn't have a clear thought of what he wanted to do.  A good golfer says, "I want the ball to land on the left side of the fairway."  A pro golfer would say, "I want the ball to land on the left side of the fairway, five feet to the right of that discolored section of grass 275 yards out."  Then comes the really important part:  after he told his brain what he wanted to do, he lets his body take over without his trying to force the issue.  That's what makes him a pro!

Now I know this blog is called Maine-ly Painting, and not mainly golfing, but the similarities remain.  To say I want to improve in my painting isn't enough, I need to break it down into parts.  For instance, I want to improve in my designs. 

No.  I want to break away from my usual routine and strive to incorporate dynamic designs and compositions that move the viewers eye.

I want to concentrate on values.

No.  Before I put one dab of paint on a canvas, I want to have the values completely figured out by whatever means possible.

I want to do more plein air work.

No.  There is a lovely group of folks who paint together every Wednesday at sites near where I live.  I'm going to join 'em.

I hope you get my point.  Hopefully, now that I've told my brain what I want to do, these goals will be obtainable.  And now for a new years resolution:

I'm going to stay away from the gym even more this year.  That's a resolution I know I can keep!