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September 2007

Why use a Sketchbook?

If you read Katherine Tyrrell's blog, "Making a Mark," you are familiar with her wonderful sketchbook work.  I am not as prolific at sketching as Katherine, because for years I resisted the idea of using a sketchbook at all.  Why spend all that creative energy working out a detailed drawing?  When it came to painting, I found that I'd lost the creative spark that ignited my interest in the first place.  Besides, sketching books were indelibly linked to my art school days and those endless, boring assignments...perspective drawings, along with the glued on color swatches depicting the color wheel...

But about two years ago I was in Barnes & Noble and found these beautiful leather journals with an attached, old-fashioned ribbon book mark.  There was something about the tactile quality of the leather and the gold edges on pages that appealed to me, so I bought several.  Then I had to find a good use for them -- it seemed ridiculous to keep these beautifully bound books totally empty.  They were literally screaming "important stuff in here" - well, not screaming, that could be over-doing it on the hyperbole, but you get my drift.

Dsc01038_2Here you see two of my sketchbooks.  I use them more as journals to record ideas, concepts, reactions to things that I've read.  They function as my personal text books.

For instance, during those "down" creative times, I will look through art magazines and cut out paintings that visually appeal to me, including what information I might find about the artist.  Then, I'll write out a detailed analysis of what I see.  Questions I might ask and answer are:
What  do I like about the color choices?
How did the artist divide the space?
What are the value choices?

My goal is to deconstruct the painting according to my own artistic understanding, learning what I can about why the image works.  I can get quite detailed on some pieces.  Others might not get beyond being mounted in my sketch book for analysis on another day.  This process has been extremely helpful to me.

Dsc01039 Here I broke down an artist's work into the major shapes and looked at the values and color temperatures.  Details like "color temp is expressed in mid values and complemented in dks and lights" are extremely helpful to me as I gain a deeper understanding of how these artists accomplish their goals.  If I can't attach the actual image to the sketchbook, I've learned to make detailed notes as to where I found the painting, and to keep those sources handy.  Early on, I spent countless wasted hours trying to track down something I had mentioned and wanted to look at again. 

Dsc01040_2 Another use for my sketch books is to actually work out what I've learned and apply it to a work in progress.  Here I was analyzing a sketch of mine and how I might approach it with paint.  I wanted to recall as much detail about my initial impression at the location, including the direction of the sun and what initially drew me to the scene. 

This is pretty standard stuff, of course, but I've found that I like to actually see what others are doing and not just read about how an artist "recorded details, including color notes,"  so I'm including this image so you can compare it to what you are doing. 

One other important note:  be sure to include a definitions page if you use shorthand or abbreviations.  I have no idea what I meant by the "ZIP" in the notation about the Cad/red medium - turquoise.  Any suggestions as to what I might have meant?

Dsc01042_2Another way that I use my sketchbooks is in evaluating some of my photographs.  Here is one of many photographs that I've broken down into the major shapes and value pattern. My goal is to evaluate the information in the photo, to see if it might develop into a successful painting or not.   Part of this analysis includes whether the dominant shape is organic or geometric, and what value key works best.  Many of these initial work-ups get no further than this, but  months later, I might come back with fresh eyes and new excitement.  I often do lose some of my initial enthusiasm for a creative idea by doing the "hard" work first, but I've also learned that a time-out can make a huge difference.  Often, I will see where a sketched idea has real potential as a painting, or where it might fizzle out as boring.  I just need to leave it alone for awhile.   

I think the key to any idea like sketchbooks or journals is to find a way to adapt it to your personal way of working.  And that might be a totally different use of the idea than what everybody else is doing, but that's OK if it serves you well.  As an artist, I am such a visual person that I appreciate seeing the actual "things" other people create to help them on their artistic journeys  -- I hope that these pages will inspire you to create your own personal textbooks.

The Difference between Positive Attitudes and Wishful Thinking

I wanted to expand on my post about the subconscious artistic contract.  There is a difference, for me,  between thinking in a positive way and undermining my confidence through subconscious unrealistic thinking.  As a creative thinker, I indulge in multiple scenarios all the time, as do most humans.  Perhaps my mind enjoys the fantasy-making a little too much, and  it's helpful to me to recognize this tendency when looking for the root cause behind the vague sense of disappointment at the completion of any project. 

If a painting is unsuccessful because of a weakness in my approach or because it doesn't function as anything more than wall paper, as an artist I need to recognize what went wrong.  Self critiquing is vital to my growth.  If, on the other hand, it's a very exciting, innovative painting, but I see it as a failure because, subconsciously, I expected the entire world to come knocking at my door ...well, you see my point. 

I wonder how much of this subconscious fantasy thinking has it's root cause in fear.  It is quite possible - and my daughter, the PhD candidate in developmental psychology, is more than happy to point this out to me -- I am afraid of success. That sounds so trite...maybe it's afraid of repeating an accidental success.  Am I giving myself a subconscious way out by setting such high internal expectations?   Is it possible that, when those unrealistic expectations aren't met (a given), I can safely retreat into my comfort zone?

I believe that when artists share their internal experiences,  they not only gain a personal sense of empowerment, but pass that along to those who connect with the experience.  There are so many voices promoting one point of view or another, most of them pivoting around the idea of positive thinking.  My point is that realistic positive thinking moves me forward, and strengthens me, while unacknowledged fantasy thinking undermines my progress.

Dsc00974_2I have moved into my home studio again, and I'm getting back into the rhythm.  It's always a disconnect for me to change around my creative space, and I'm greatful for the sense of relief that returns when I get things back into a "comfortable" space.  It's like my muse is very particular about the energy flow  and won't reappear until I get the arrangement right.

  Here is one side of my studio space, with panels on my tables.  I still have to find a good way to store the new work on paper.  I need to store them flat, but the cost of real flat files is out of my range right now, so I am committing a major conservation sin by storing finished pieces in the large cardboard box that the paper  was shipped in.

Dsc00969_2Here I'm trying out a potential arrangement of the panels.  The center panels are unfinished, and I was trying to see what this grouping might look like. I like to work on several projects at the same time, and often discover new directions or combinations that excite me.  This is a very fluid process that takes between 8 and 10 hours of concentrated work.

As things develop, I see what works together, and what doesn't.   I decided against this arrangement after the final pours. 

Dsc01003I converted my home office into a gallery space. It's perfect with the 12 foot ceilings and north facing window. 

I also figured out how to enlarge my photos when inserting them in this blog.  For those of you who are as technically challenged as I am, and if you are using type pad, here's how to do it:  When you get to the dialog box for inserting your photo  you have a choice of setting the image options.  Choose Custom, and in the pixel size box, increase the number of pixels for your thumbnails.  These images are set at 300 pixels.  Not that hard once someone points you in the right direction. 

The subconscious artistic contract

I recently mailed out a postcard featuring my latest painting.  Modern Postard offers an affordable package and they are easy for me to use, so I've made the commitment to a marketing plan that includes quarterly mailings to everyone on my list. 

I was actually able to track some of the responses to this card because I used a new version of my name and the searches showed up in the stats on my website.   Yes, I was excited that a few of the 125 recipients were interested enough in my sample to look for me on the Internet.  (Through an oversight, I left off my web address - always proof read carefully!).  But then I felt let down when nothing else happened.  Why wasn't my email box filling up with demands for my work?

Of course, intellectually, I hadn't expected any response from this mailing, so I should have been very happy that a few people went to the web page. But I wasn't.  Emotionally, I was expecting something entirely different, and hadn't even been aware of it.  I've concluded that, subconsciously, I  constructed an "artistic contract" with myself -- "If you do this, something wonderful will happen."  I was feeling disappointed because that hidden clause hadn't been fulfilled.

How often does an positive outcome feel like a disappointment?  For me, more often than I like. I suspect it's because I'm indulging in emotional wishful thinking without acknowledging it.  Sure, there's no harm in enjoying a fantasy now and then: the dreams keep me motivated.  But I have to pay attention to the little signs that I may have "contracted" with myself for a different outcome and, consequently, added unnecessary frustration.

Along with my marketing plan, I'm including a conscious "artistic contract" just to keep my emotions grounded:

  • In exchange for designing, addressing, and mailing this postcard I expect only to raise awareness of my name and introduce people to one new image.  I include my contact information because the post office requires a return address.  I include my web site to offer convenience to those who want to see more art.  I am a business person, laying the ground work for future proposals to galleries, and expect nothing more of this mailing than the above mentioned benefits.

I think this is a positive way to contract with myself for the difficult work of marketing.  Please add your comments if you've experienced "subconscious contracts." 

Here is a quote I found on Robert Genn's website:

"Painting is almost like a religious experience, which should go on and on.  Age just gives you the freedom to do some things you've never done before.  Great work can come at any stage of your life."
                                                                                            -Will Barnet

What color Crayon Are You?

I received this link from Vivian Blackburn, who got it from Kathrine Tyrrell.  I'm a push-over for things like this...I'm a green crayon - who knew?

"Your world is colored in harmonious, peaceful, neutral colors.  While some might associate green with money, you are one of the least materialistic people around.  Comfort is important to you...You are very happy with who you are...Your color wheel opposite is red.  Everytime you feel grounded a red person does their best to shake you..." 

I've been told that I must like red because I use so much of it in my paintings...ah-ha!  It's a red must sneak it there just to rattle me...

It's fun.  Here is the link:

Unintended Consequences

I recently read a post on another blog (which I will not identify) that was intended to convince artists how hard it was to succeed and how they needed services provided by the blog owner.  Unfortunately, the tone of the article had unintended consequences.  My personal reaction was at first anger, then several days of a nagging sadness.  I hesitated to return to the blog for a follow-up, but when I did it was apparent that many other readers had reacted to the post in a similar fashion. 

My first instinct was to write a blistering response about how he should have understood the demographics of his readers and how demoralizing people was not an efficient way to sell them your services.  But fortunately circumstances intervened and I wasn't able to get to my computer until I had cooled down, always a wise choice for me as I can be quite blunt in my own way.

But today, I realize that the world is what it is.  There will always be people who are insensitive.  There will always be those who marginalize others, who equate the desire to create art after a certain age as the equivalent of an aging duffer spending his retirement on the golf course.   And while there is satisfaction in realizing that they, too, will have their 50th birthday, it doesn't help with the struggle of the mature artist to have his or her art taken seriously.

And it isn't really a struggle to have the art world -- or anyone else, for that matter -- take my art seriously.  It is a struggle for me to take my art seriously.  Learning how to reject attitudes that take away my passion for art making is becoming a very necessary skill.  I realize that the nagging sadness that plagued me after reading that post was due to my tendency to believe what I read and accept the underlying message as truth.    I did feel marginalized, as if somehow, because I am over the age of 50, my art was a dalliance, a "retirement fantasy." 

How can we keep the passion alive?  Here are a few of the tricks I use:

  • listen -- to my empowerment music, which creates either a calming or an energizing emotional reaction
  • blog -- writing forces me to think instead of react
  • learn -- as much as I can about what I am doing, about what others are doing, about what the art world is doing
  • believe -- that what I have to say through my art has value and validity
  • focus -- on what is important, what is authentic

Please share your techniques to maintain your passion.  There is power in accumulated whole.

Thanks to David R. Darrow and Bill Sharp

A few days ago I received an email from David R Darrow, who found this blog through a link from Bill Sharp's blog.  Being more of a techno-wizard than I am, David kindly lightened my cartoon for me, and I am reposting it here.

Dsc00966_21David operates several web sites.  I've visited them, and his Everyday Paintings site is wonderful.  What an amazing figure and portrait painter!  He also hosts the Daily Painters Guild as well as a discussion group, which I have joined.  It's like Wet Canvas, only smaller and more intimate, so it's easier to keep up with the various threads. 

his all came about because of Bill Sharp's posting on a light box idea he used for photographing his artwork.  His method reduced the light reflections from the glossy surfaces of his oil paintings.  I have a similar problem when photographing the poured oil paintings.  The surfaces of my paintings - even when dry - have the reflective quality of glass, and I have been struggling to get good digital images that do not also include my own reflection or that of surrounding light sources.

My best solution has been to place the paintings outside but under the roof of my porch, thus eliminating those annoying reflections of clouds and sky.  Then I climb up on a ladder and shoot from above.  Not the easiest process, and the neighbors are starting to worry about me. So I am working through the various construction details that I should consider in building a light box similar to Bill's, one that will accommodate the large-scale paintings I create -- up to 72 inches for the larger pieces.  As I'm not exactly construction oriented, suggestions will be welcomed. 

"What's Wrong with Art Schools"

  I was reading the September issue of Art in America and found the Letters section particularly interesting.  The discussion revolved around what artists felt they had not learned in art school and why.  Normally I don't get past the first few sentences of any article in Art in America, primarily because it seems geared to the East Coast Art Establishment, which feels a bit remote from what I experience in my artistic environment.  However, I am always willing to listen to other people complain, if only to get a dose of my own medicine.

  There were several opinions about what art schools did teach - how to survive and prosper within the group critique -- and what they didn't teach - how to survive and prosper in the real art world, and I would encourage those of you interested in following the discussion to read the full text of the letters, as well as the original article (I'm looking for my copy) and the various books in the marketplace aimed at filling in the gaps.  Two points I found particularly interesting were these: that art schools failed to teach students how to be creative enough to find their personal vision, and that they also failed to teach any realistic business skills.  To quote Melany Terranova, of Scottsdale : "And yet many skills, in addition to art skills, are needed to succeed in the arts.  These include social skills, computer skills, photography skills, writing skills, marketing skills, negotiating skills and financial skills."  Ms. Terranova goes on to describe one of the most enlightening classes she ever attended, where contemporary artists such as Louise Nevelson answered questions:  "At the end of the series, my conclusion was that it was the art, be it good art or bad art, coupled with good marketing that made the career!"

My first observation was that students coming from top rated art schools were lamenting that they were taught the "institutional critique" and found themselves caught up in the art historical argument over what should come after post modernism, without seeing how they could operate outside of the established postmodern ideology.  Other students described it as a failure to teach creative thinking and the ability to develop a personal vision.  As I missed reading the original article that inspired this debate, I can only react to what I read in the text of these letters, but it seems to me that art schools -- whether well-known or the kind in state universities like the one I attended -- can only teach a student theory, basic craftsmanship, and vocabulary.  The real art making takes place outside of the classroom, and the careers can represent as many successes or failures as there are artists.

My second observation was that -- only from the nature of the letters, without drawing any overarching conclusions here -- that academics have a completely different idea of what artists should be doing than what artists actually do when caught up in the creative process, and this disconnect is at the root of a lot of the "career" problems.

For example, I have several books on writing the artist statement.  In nearly all of them, authors advise describing how your work fits within art historical parameters, how you were influenced by what came before you and how you are either pushing a current art history theory forward or reacting against it.  I don't know about you, but when I am in my creative zone the last thing I'm thinking about is how I might be making a response to the psycho-social reactionary influences of urban tensions upon the expressionist-influenced theories of the 60's and 70's that declared painting dead.  That's a discussion I save for a few good friends and a really great bottle of Da Vinci Toscana Chianti. 

The minute I find myself pondering how my inspiration has to fit into an art history textbook, I come up against resistance, an unwillingness to take the kind of artistic risks that are vital to finding one's personal vision.  The work turns into a pale, over-worked version of two decades ago, or worse, totally boring and feeding into the self-doubts that arise whenever I deviate from what I know to be my own artistic truth.  So I can't worry about whether my poured paintings relate more to color field, Los Angeles "Look", Conceptual or Process Art.  They are what they are.  Tomorrow, maybe they'll be something different.  My creative vision has grown out of my ability to think and conceptualize and explore outside of the academic box and to go where the paint takes me.  Somebody else can give it a label.


I am thrilled that this piece recently sold for $3000.  I'm back in the studio pushing the new boundaries to see what else I can create. 

Is your Artwork Safe?

There has been a huge forest fire burning on Mount Washington, approximately 30 miles from my home, and it has consumed thousands of acres within in the past few days.  The air is so thick with smoke we can't see the sky and the sun is just a dull smudgy orange.  For the last several summers our forests have been burning here in Oregon, with voluntary and then mandatory evacuations of many small towns and residential areas in the foothills of the Cascades.  I work at an art gallery, as well as being an artist with a large inventory of my own, and at these times we must field the questions and concerns from many panicked customers who have valuable art collections that could be at risk if the fires are not controlled.  ( offers satellite views - follow the forest fire links)

Many people only realize that they have not cataloged their collections until there is a threat.  I suspect that this might be an issue for artists, too.  For many years I had my artwork on my computer in photoshop folders, but  two years ago I came across a software program that was affordable, easy to use, and fit perfectly to my needs. 

The program I use is ArtWorks.  I know there are many other programs out there, but if you are only just thinking about how you can catalog your artwork, this is one place to start. 

Any good program should allow you to catalog each piece of art with standard information:

  • Title
  • Artist (this is for gallery applications)
  • Medium
  • Year completed
  • Size
  • Series
  • Inventory Number
  • Location
  • Disposition (ie: exhibition, gallery, sold, price, commissions paid and to whom)
  • Details
  • Image
  • Contacts ( ie: galleries, patrons, etc)

Every time I complete a piece, I photograph it and store it in Photoshop.  Then I upload the image and attach the additional information that I need to keep track of when I completed it, any special process details (in case I forget later), size, location, the standard stuff.  There are some cool reports that come in handy at tax time, too.  The only negative with this program is that while it allows you to store everything you need to contact your clients and galleries, there is no simple way to export the information into a mailing list.  But I'm happy enough with what this program can do, so it's not inconvenient if I have to keep my mailing list in excel.

Next on my To-Do list is to figure out how to back up this data on my flash drive. 

Natural disasters usually don't give much advanced warning.  Inventories cataloged on Cd's and stored in safety deposit boxes, along with a hard copy of value, will work for insurance purposes. But as you  build your art career, detailed records of exhibitions, gallery representation, provenance, clients, processes, and the sheer volume of work you produce require professional data management system.  There are so many affordable options out there there is no good reason not to do it.

Spirit of Our Northwest Forests Art Exhibit

Press Release: Spirit of Our Northwest Forests Art Exhibit    

Central Oregon Community College is hosting the exhibit "The Spirit of our Northwest Forests" in honor of the COCC Forestry program.  This exhibit will run from Monday, September 17 through Thursday, October 25, 2007, with the Opening Reception on Thursday, September 20th, from 4 to 6 pm in the Rotunda Gallery.  If you are in or around Bend, Oregon, during this period, please try to visit.  My painting, The River Knows, was one of those accepted by juror Ken Roth.  It should be a wonderful display of Central Oregon Art.