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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

All the Right Pieces

I am embarking on a new creative adventure. Actually, it's an old adventure, only this time I am using the finest materials. 

The materials you use frequently dictate the outcome of a creative act. Not always, but often. Crappy
materials make for crappy art. The colours, the scale, the texture, all these and more must be wrestled with and fought to even come close to the results you wish to achieve. 

How much better it is to use materials which become invisible as you ask and answer your creative questions! Good materials make your art flow. Cheap materials draw attention to themselves and to your unsuccessful struggle. 

When you are first learning to paint, the temptation is always to buy student grade colours because the investment is low. I beg you, do not make this mistake! It is better to have just a few of the finest paints than to have an entire palette of crappy ones. 

When I have a new material, say, a new watercolour, which I have never used before, I like to put it through its paces. I paint my little grids, over and under painting it with other colours, going from full intensity to a near wisp of a wash. I paint my little wreaths to get a feel for how the paint handles in a tightly controlled situation. I apply it very wet to the paper to see how it dries.  Does it lay flat or does it pull out to the perimeter?

New materials are always an adventure. I once bought a shade of green blue that looked delicious inn the store but which ended up being a huge disappointment to me for years. That is, until I went to Venice, and discovered that my orphan colour was exactly what I needed to depict the Adriatic waters. Now it is one of my favorites. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Public Art, Tiny Space

Some years ago I used to walk down the same street every day, morning and evening.

Here in the UK, people who live on the ground floor frequently have a little bay window in their front sitting room that is easily seen from the sidewalk. It is expected that anyone can look in, so these windows are either concealed with lace curtains or else decorated with a collection of items which presumably reflect the occupant's interests.

One day I noticed that a particular window displayed a miniature room identical to the real one behind it.

It amused me.

In my daily trek past this window I began to observe that every day there were subtle changes in the miniature room: a newspaper on the chair, which I discovered was a photocopied miniature of that very day's edition, and a cup of coffee that was gradually emptied as the day wore on, a plate of biscuits similarly diminished.

Sometimes a little jumper was left over the back of a chair. On rainy days a tiny umbrella leaned against the wall near the door. In the winter there was a coal scuttle near the tiny fireplace. Sometimes a pair of spectacles were left on the side table. On Saturday mornings there were cleaning things in the tiny room...a broom, a featherduster, things like that.

I was enchanted and intrigued. Someone knew that people stopped to peer in. Someone was having genuine fun.

There is a small book by Keri Smith called "Guerilla Art".  In it she offers inspiration on creating unauthorized art in public places.

I created the Faerie Garden at the Lisson Grove Moorings to engage young children in a process of art which they could own. I planted it in an old porcelain sink, at a height convenient for young children to reach in and touch. I put a tiny house at the end of a gravel footpath. I posted a little sign: "Faerie Garden in Progress". I included a few tiny plastic fairies.

From the privacy of my boat, I observed that many children stopped each day to play with the garden. They began to insert their own special objects into the garden. My favorite addition was a tiny mirror ball, which a young visitor told me was there because "Fairies dance at night". There were pieces of colorful tiles, shards of floral tea cups, a plastic holly pin, bits of colorful ribbon and shiny paper. The gravel path was rearranged several times. They planted new plants, a horsetail fern, thyme, clovers.The children began to take ownership of this tiny garden.

I repeated this effort in an old washtub outside my house in the States. Again, local children play with this garden.

I remember very well the pleasure I had as a young child playing with a tiny Winnie the Pooh figure in a planter in my home. As I arranged these Faerie Gardens fifty years later, I reconnected with that childhood joy.

Art is not always a private process. And it doesn't always hang on gallery walls.

I urge you to engage in public art making. Invite strangers in, and rediscover your inner child. Have FUN!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Fear of Failure

I am always inspired when I look at other people's at work, especially in media in which I also work. I see new ways of using a colour, new uses for my favorite tools, new ways of answering a creative question. 

I love going to galleries and seeing other people's work up close. Then I go to my own studio and use what I have learned. This is exciting and inspiring for me. 

But sometimes, in my studio, newly energized by my recent forays, I freeze. A million questions rise up in my mind: what if I don't know what comes next? What if I don't really understand this technique? What if I invest all this time and energy into this piece and it doesn't turn out the way I wanted it to? 

What if I fail?

What if I do? So what?
Every moment I spend making art also goes into future art which l haven't even thought about yet. There are rules, but there are no useless mistakes. Every mistake teaches me about my materials, my tools, my subjects, my techniques. 

One is the purposes of all my dozens of sketchbooks is to provide me with an archive of my mistakes. 

From my failures I learn the way forward. And why would I fear to progress and grow?

I embrace this risk. I own my mistakes.


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Dress Rehearsal

The way actors practice their lines before a performance, that's why it is good to practice painting a subject before you work on the final painting. 

In a finished painting, there are many questions that you must to ask yourself, and often, many answers to those questions.

Let's say you're painting a leaf. 

You may ask yourself, "What is the shape of the leaf? Is it long and narrow, or short and wide? Does it have multiple points, or just one? Are the edges smooth, jagged or lobed? Are the veins visible? What colour is it? Are there many colours, or only a few? What does it look like from a different angle?"

It is good to set down the answers in the form of painted sketches, until you are fluent in the language of that one leaf. 

Having a dress rehearsal is important if you are unfamiliar with the script. 

Actors who improvise do so from a place of utter familiarity with their material. 

It is only when we are fluent that we can begin to confidently break the rules. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017


When we seek the well of inspiration, there are techniques we may practice to set our feet on the path that will lead us to creative refreshment.

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of work that is done for the purpose of pleasing an audience. One sure way out of this trap is to consciously produce art which has no remunerative purpose at all.

In art school we were set assignments which, at the time, made no sense to us. They seemed arbitrary and without purpose. Our teachers were wise who set our feet on these paths. They opened our eyes to the myriad possibilities of design in the mundane world around us. 

As we collect objects for this exercise, we open our awareness to shape, colour, function, form. We literally see with new eyes. 

There is a pathway in our brains which is called the "afferent learning system". It is through this pathway that we associate like with like, and are able to simultaneously recognise objects which are similar in some way and distinguish between similar objects and those which differ. Development and exercise of these neural pathways are vital to creativity.

One exercise which I have found to be particularly useful is to photograph and paint aggregations.

Aggregations are assemblages of like objects. 

I assemble objects purposefully which have commonalities. These commonalities may be size, context, colour, shape. I arrange them in a fashion which is pleasing to me. Then I photograph them, and use the photograph as a basis for a drawing or painting.

This exercise frees my brain from the tyranny of necessity and performance. It opens my mind to seeing new ways in which disparate objects can be creatively combined. 

Exercise 1. A Collection of Similar Things.

This exercise is the easiest to start with because our brains are already hard wired to recognize like and like. 

Go through your house, a thrift store, a flea market, a farmers market. Asking permissions where necessary, assemble similar objects and photograph them. 

Arrange tomatoes according to size.
Open a package of multicoloured food: candy, cereal, cookies. Arrange them in a spectrum.

Exercise 2. These objects work together.

Create an assemblage of tools which may be used in one creative field. Arrange them in such a way that is esthetics pleasing with no consideration of context. The objects loose their meaning in this assemblage and become shapes.

Exercise 3. All of a colour.

a. Assemble objects, regardless of their purpose or context, which share a common colour.

b. Assemble objects which share a common purpose, and are in the same colour family. For instance, shirts in a warm blue colour range. Socks in every colour of black. 

Exercise 4. Objects that have the same shape.

A smart phone, a cracker, a pillow, an uenvelope, a book, a box, a table, all share the same rectangular shape.

Use these photographs as the basis of drawings and paintings in various different media. Photographing, drawing and painting the same subject opens our eyes to new aspects of that subject. It challenges our brains. 

Emily Blincoe is a photographer who excels in this.

This sort of visual exercise is to an artist what scales are to a musician. You must spend time practicing these every day.The fact that they are not driven by the need to produce a sellable product frees you to explore various techniques. You are free to risk failure. 

And this kind is freedom is very sweet.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Watercolour Play - Simple Leaves

Watercolour Play - Simple Leaves

It's good to reach beyond your comfort zone when you need to find new creative inspiration. 

Let's assume you've never picked up a paintbrush in your life. (It may be that you're the world's foremost watercolourist...this exercise is still a good one to begin with at the start of each painting session)

Let's begin with the very basics: tools, materials.

When you were 5 years old, a limp soft haired brush worked fine with poster paints. But now, as a grown-up, you ought to try grown-up tools. A round nylon watercolor brush has enough snap to serve you well, and the capacity to hold sufficient paint so you can make one sinuous stroke of colour to define an object. Number 4, 6, and 8 are generous sizes. 

Paint is pigment plus medium. With watercolour, raw pigment is mixed with Gum Arabic, which is the sap of the Acacia Arabica tree. Some pigments are natural earth, usually clays, like Raw Sienna and Terra Verte. Some are plant derived like gamboge, and rose madder. Others are chemically derived, like cadmium red and cobalt blue. Some manufacturers add fillers to student grade colours to make them more affordable. I prefer to use the best paint I can buy. I'd rather have six tubes or pans of the finest professional grade colours, than to have a dozen of cheap colours that won't give me adequate saturation and brightness. (Actually, I'd rather have a tube of every colour ever made.)

I am a colour junkie, if it's a colour, I own it. But range of colours is not so necessary. For this exercise, you need just three colours, red, blue, yellow. They are the primary colours, and from them many other colours can be mixed. 

So let's start with french ultramarine blue hue (genuine ultramarine's cheaper cousin)    cadmium red, and cadmium yellow. From these three many other colours can be made. 

A clever way to create your paint box is to recycle an old mints tin, and fill it with plastic watercolour pans. You can purchase your paint packaged in these pans or buy a tube of watercolour paint and fill an empty pan. 

Paper comes in hundreds of varieties. A good watercolour paper has some texture, and is not so absorbent that the colour bleeds if it is very wet. You want the paint to mostly sit on the surface of the paper and penetrate it only a little bit. The paper should be thick enough to not buckle or bleed through. If you like a particular paper but it is prone to buckling, tape it to a rigid board with painters masking tape, and run it quickly under the water tap. Let it dry. It will shrink against the tape, then it shouldn't buckle when you paint wetly upon it. 

Colour test sheet. 

Starting from pure yellow, lay down a wash on a scrap of paper, gradually adding a touch of blue to it until you have a satisfactory green. 

One stroke and multi stroke leaves. 

Using a round brush, wet only the very tip with the particular combination of yellow and blue that gave you the green you liked, and then in one stroke, from the top of the brush dragging down, increasing the pressure on the brush so the final result is a green leaf shape that goes from thin to thick. 

Draw a gentle S line going diagonally from one edge of your paper to the other. Starting at the top, and using your smallest brush, paint leaves in one stroke using this technique. Every third leaf, change to a bigger brush. 

Wreath of Oak

Oak leaves can be sharply pointed or round and lobular. Let's play with colour mixing on the paper with rounded oak leaves. Make a grid or line of squares of the colours which you intend to use, mixing them on the paper. 

Then, using a round brush, quickly sketch the colours into leaf shapes. Don't worry about outline. This is about color, and movement. Let the colours bleed into each other as you add colors wet into wet. Then, when the paint has dried, add a touch of another colour. Play with it. You're not painting something that will be framed. This is strictly for fun. 

Exercises like these are without obligation or expectations. There is no success or failure. There is something very satisfactory about this. And whether it is a warm up exercise for a session of more serious painting, or for writing, or making music, or cooking or coding, it will get your creative juices flowing. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017


I pick up my brush, gaze ahead, and paint. 

I don't analyze my actions, although I do analyse what I am seeing. I break it down in my mind, shape, line, colour. If necessary I make a sketch, like making a map when giving directions. Usually I sketch, then paint directly on the sketch. The first sketch you make has all the energy in it. When you make a second sketch, you edit and lose the original impulse.

Once the bones of my painting are in place, in the sketch, I add flesh to them with colour and form. 

In this part of my work, there is no secondary thought, all is instinct. I work quickly, my paint brush writing a kind of watercolour shorthand. I have no time for clever tricks and techniques. In fact, I hardly even consider technique at all. 

I separate my conscious mind from the task at hand. I become all gaze and paint. I grab colour with my brush and apply it where it needs to go. 

When I am painting in a restaurant or coffee shop, as I frequently do, I completely ignore the stares of other people. I focus on a few key people for my drawing, they are the anchors of the sketch. I don't worry about pinning down exact details, that's for a completely different type of painting. I focus on what defines the scene: a colour, a quality of the light, how people interact with each other.

This comes from long practice. It is good to have a small sketchbook and tools with you at all times. Even if you don't use them, they are there, ready for you. And make a habit of sketching, even for a few minutes every day, it is essential for your growth as an artist.

You never arrive at a place in your life when you know everything. There is always something to be learned. 

If you feel like your work has reached a place where nothing new is happening, then try a new palette, a new medium, some new tools. The other day I purchased some new watercolours from Daniel Smith. They are truly new colours, recently developed, unknown to me. How will they live with my otherwise traditional palette? How will they handle?

It's time for some more colour grids, I think!

I've watched videos of myself at work. I am as fascinated as my students: I don't know how it works. I am surprised by my choices. I would never have consciously chosen my course of action. 

I am in the Zone when I paint, and anything I do comes from a place deep inside me, a place with no thoughts or analysis. 

Yet, somehow I know when I am finished. The same Mystery that informs my desires informs my painting.