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January 2010

Dancing With Sorolla

When I was in school the artist Joaquin Sorolla had become popular again, nearly a century after his death.  A visit to the home of an art history professor revealed several rare books on the artist, and I vowed then and there that if ever I could afford one, I would own a Sorolla book of my own.  The day finally came when I purchased "The Painter Joaquin Sorolla" by Edmund Peel, hardcover, pristine dust cover, for the ungodly amount of nearly $400.  I didn't care.  I had magic in my hands and just touching it, the feel of the paper beneath my hands and being able to press my nose right up to the images was worth every penny that I'd paid. 

Ironically it is one of the books I don't allow in the studio for fear that I will mar the pages with oil paint smudges from my fingers.  So I have taken to studying bits and pieces, internalizing the information and following Sorolla's lead as best I can.

I learned that what I admired most about the artist - the freshness of his surfaces, the images that were so full of spontaneous life - were the result of days and weeks spent in preparatory work, through oil sketches, color combinations, working out the details until he was ready.  He would pose his models and paint furiously, out in the sun without regard, laying down the colors and forms in an inner competitive duel with his friend and rival Sargent. 

And, most vividly, I learned that Sorolla believed "Painting was a state of mind."

I don't think it matters much which artists we study, as long as we feel a connection to what they were - or are - trying to accomplish.  And because we live in our own time, when the modernism driven by the critic-influenced 60's lead to a period of post-modernism that commercialized the idea of art nearly out of existence, we are now seeing a rudderless homogenization of ideas.  Of catch phrases characterized by  ambiguity.  Perhaps we have lost the idea of what constitutes art.  Perhaps we have focused so intently of satisfying an equally ambiguous public that we've allowed ourselves to be influenced by the lowest creative denominator.  No risk, no need to explain or defend, no challenge to the status quo.  But here we live and if we have any hope of steering ourselves forward then we must find the rudder, the philosophical point to what we are trying to do.  What conversation am I trying to continue?  Why am I called to walk this artistic road, to dance to music that others have not heard? 

This is dancing with Sorolla.  Or dancing with the artists that speak the most sweetly in your ear.  This is your life.


The Difference Between Things

"I don't paint things.  I only paint the difference between things."  ~ Henri Matisse


For the past decade I have painted things.  I didn't understand that I was doing this, so it was natural for me to start each canvas with the same conceptual approach.  In fact, I would argue in my defense that my entire art instruction was based on the drawing, and then painting, of things. 

In fairness to all those instructors - who may or may not have truly understood that while they were talking about not painting things it was exactly what they were rewarding -  those instructors were up against near impossible odds.  A beginning student must first learn to see accurately before she can draw accurately.  We're taught how to measure by sight, holding up a pencil or brush handle at arm's length, peering intently with one eye closed while we judge an angle or a space between one object and another.  Peer, measure, mark.  Remeasure.  Mark.  Contour edge, form, line quality, pattern, value - these are terms we learn to apply directly to things.  

I have a friend who is also an artist.  She spent years as a teacher and then retired to devote herself full time to art.  She paints things.  She's quite good, in that her "things" look exactly like we would expect them to look if we were looking at the real deal.  And while she had some early success with her artwork, all that has faltered.  She is up against a challenge.  What she knows is what she paints. What you see is what you get.  And people aren't getting it.  Oh, they stand in front of her paintings and marvel at the accuracy.  One might say - "I could almost pick that up and hold it in my hand."  Another talks about how he saw something just like that only last week.  They murmur about the nice framing.  

Great art teachers are always talking about relationships and not things and yet that is not something you easily "get."  I mean, you have to do a lot of practicing on those things first before they come so naturally you actually start wondering about the relationships.  Are they happy together?

For a landscape artist this often sounds ridiculous - are those trees happy together or are they fighting?  No, no, that's not the kind of relationships we're talking about, we talking about structure, about how the "puzzle shapes" all fit together.  I've  always hated puzzles and I would sit there with my eyes wide as if to say "you've got to be kidding me."  So then they would try another approach, see how the light flows over the object?  Did you know Monet would paint the way the sun folded around the haystack to blur the edge?  No, that's not a contour line anymore it's light flowing and bending and folding in a relationship that you are really painting and not the thing upon which the relationship depends...

And one day I realized I was painting the obvious. My friend paints the obvious.  It's the easiest to see; but I wanted more in my paintings.  It became a question of demanding poetry instead of competent description.  So I started earnestly looking for someone who could show me how to see.  

I went back to my dog-eared copy of "The Art Spirit" by Robert Henri, one of the de rigueur books for the serious artist coming out of the academic establishment where your "family tree" is the proof of your credentials: I studied under so-and-so who studied under so-and-so who was the primary student of a great master.  I've always felt at a disadvantage because I've never studied under anyone famous.  I've read their books of course, watched their DVD's and learned vicariously from them without being in their presence - I wonder if this qualifies under the "family tree" concept or if it's more like the the six degrees of separation game that was all the rage a few years back.  If you know enough people you are indirectly within six degrees of someone famous.  

I finally find a quote from Robert Henri that absolves me: "We realize that there is no one way of seeing a thing no matter how simple that thing may be."  So maybe I'm off the hook a bit for my struggle with seeing.  Maybe.  I close the book quickly because I know that the very next sentence will prick my conscious into acknowledging I have much to learn.  Sending me back into the studio to stare at a stack of blank canvases with a mixture of both trepidation and excitement.  I can't help it.  I think it could be a disease from which I will never be cured, nor would I want to be, considering the possible alternatives.  

I will tell you that in all my searching, there is one source I consider outstanding and useful enough to be recommended despite the cost.  It's a DVD by Modern Master Quang Ho, called "Nuts & Bolts", with the subtitle "30 Years Of Essential Information For The Painter."  Perhaps he speaks my visual language, more likely, though, it's because there's good reason he's considered a modern master.  I hope you will consider it if you, like me, are having trouble seeing.

104_0411
 
First attempt, painting Things

Blue Barn @ 2005

  

Smith Old Blue Barn sm
 
Searching for the Poetry

Old Blue Barn, @ 2010

 





Living in The Between

For artists, the Internet can provide access to up-to-date advice by industry professionals on how to develop our careers. Over time I've come to think of these coaching sites as event planners - providing information on how to conceive, plan for, and then implement a strategy to reach specific goals - the markers of our success.

But, over time, I've also discovered a problem with this approach.  While Event Planning is useful, the narrow focus upon preparing portfolios, or writing artist statements, or approaching galleries emphasizes The Event instead of the non-eventfulness of everything else.  Sort of like living an entire year focused on planning your next birthday party.  All those months of opportunity lost by misdirected attention - living in the future when our lives are lived - must be lived - in the present.  Simple physics tells us that - quantum physics might have an alternative view but until I can see that web of space and time bending before my eyes I'm not ready to go there.

I prefer to live in The Between.  There is a grace that comes from learning this - living in The Between.  Many of us do it naturally, but then our focus is so easily lured away by those quantum physics folks out of the fear that we might be missing something else.  There is a story about Agnes Martin that I love.  She had been dragged out of her southwest studio and back to New York for a gallery show -  a pretty big deal to those in the know.  Her response to the question "how does it feel?" was to say that New York critics had already "discovered" her two or three times before and then had promptly forgotten her. I suspect Agnes knew how to live in The Between. 

Sylvia White often says that being an artist actually describes who you are and not what you do.  In that same vein, developing an art career should be thought of as living the art and not the other way around.  Every day brings a new opportunity to find the unique insights bestowed on those who perceive through an artist's eyes. 

This is living in The Between.  Between the big events.  This is time spent in your studio, or in your imagination.  Caught up in your perceptions and, yes, in your frustrations.  It's living in your confidence and facing your envy.  It's your generosity, and self-conscious reluctance to let other people see your work.  

Just as the richest color lives in that space between the light and the shadow, so do we find the richest experiences in living the art.  In The Between. 

PS:  Clint Watson also posted an interesting article in his Fine Art Views Blog today, called "I am the Contrarian Art Marketer,"  that also speaks to this topic.  If you don't already subscribe, I would recommend it. 


Detritus

A young man approached me at a recent art opening and said he thought art was the detritus of culture. 

According to Wikipedia, "...detritus is non-living particulate organic material...[that] typically includes the bodies or fragments of dead organisms as well as fecal matter.  Detritus is...colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose the material."

So what he is really trying to say is that he thinks art is a non-living thing made up of the remains of dead artists and full of s**t, attracting people who would ultimately destroy the culture.

He is looking directly at me.

I smile wanly.

Then he says he's just finished an art history class and this was his professor's favorite quote. 

I wait a beat.

For a moment there, I think the detritus comment has been directed toward me. Then relief. I point out that he'd gotten the word wrong, that it was something Robert Henri said about art being an "artifact of culture" but I couldn't recall the exact quote.  He shrugged.  Detritus, artifact - he waved his little plastic cup of wine toward the wall where my show was hanging and said, "take that."

I cocked my head with cautious inquiry.

"Those paintings," he added.  A little bit of red wine sloshed out of his cup as he gestured.  I focused intently on the way it slid slowly down the rim, puddled in the crook of his thumb.  "Tell me what you see in them."

"What do you see in them?" I countered diplomatically.  Or not.

"Well..." he rocked forward on the balls of his feet until I thought he might unbalance himself and crash into something.  "That one," he finally said.

"Yes?"

"I could see myself walking into that one."

I wondered - worriedly - exactly what he meant by that.

"I mean...I could...well, just go there."

I thought about explaining how certain artistic styles inspired me or rattling off some of my sixty second artist statement or crassly suggesting that - if he responded emotionally to the painting maybe he ought to acquire it.

But it was enough that he found something private and meaningful in what was basically an arrangement of shapes and colors and brush marks. 

No need to ruin the moment it with "detritus."


Galleries

There was a time when my primary goal was to be accepted into an art gallery.  I don't believe I thought about anything beyond that one achievement.  Everything would just magically fall into place once it happened.

In the past six years my work has been represented by four different galleries in my regional area, an artist's collective, a bookstore, my own studio,  and one alternative space, not all at the same time.  Every gallery space except one has sold my work.

Some were contemporary art galleries.  Some were a combination of art gallery and custom framing.  The alternative space is a high end contemporary furniture store where my artwork is displayed in a passive selling situation, most of it hanging in the stairwell.  The bookstore belongs to a friend of mine.

The contemporary furniture store (that alternate space) actually generated the highest dollar amount per sale, followed very closely by the contemporary fine art gallery.  The art galleries that also offer custom framing have sold the most frequently, although the sizes of the paintings were smaller and the individual sales amounts were lower.  

Now this experience highlights a very important point.

The median price point of the items in a gallery space significantly influences the potential price points of your work - or - controls to some extent whether or not your work will sell.

What this means to me is that I can sell larger paintings for between $1000 and $3000 in a space that offers furniture for $5000, and I can sell smaller paintings for between $100 and $600 from my studio or through frame shops that also offer commercial prints.  What I can't do is sell artwork for a price point outside the median range of what the consumer visiting that particular gallery expects to pay. 

Even factoring in the recession, it matters what you put where.


Obsessions

I was sitting in the Starbucks drive thru waiting for my Americano with cream and thinking about light. 

The color of light has become an obsession of mine.  Warm light cool shadows - cool light warm shadows.  I am wondering if light temperature refers to the color of what I'm painting or to the temperature of the sunlight - hot, cold, indifferent.  I squint down.  It's January, not particularly cold, maybe the mid-forties.  The decorative grasses planted along the drive-thru curb are the color of wheat, what I imagine real wheat might look like at this time of year if it hadn't already been mowed down to make Cheerios and healthy food for dogs.  My dogs like meat, not wheat, and I jerk my thoughts back to the topic of color and light.

We're at an altitude of 2,000 something feet here in the High Desert.  Our skies are immense and usually clear blue with a variety of clouds.  Even in winter, this is so.  When the sun rises in this northern latitude it comes late in the morning and disappears instantaneously in the late afternoon.  But just a day or two ago, after the snow storm that made a mess of the roads but managed to turn all the juniper trees into Christmas cards - yes, after that storm the sun rose up and filled the sky with pinks and golds and amber.  I consider these to be warm colors but the air outside was frigid.  I studied every shadow I could find and mostly they were dull gray and blu-ish.  So I guess that morning the cold air still managed to create warm light that cast cooler shadows. 

I squint down again.  My car hasn't moved for five minutes, so I'm taking advantage of the time.  I stare into the shadow side of the dried wheat grasses.  They've been strategically pruned back to a standard 2.5 feet to conceal the less than perfect view of the road beyond without obscuring visibility.  It's an attempt to make you forget you are waiting in a line while your car idles and spews out exhaust.  I know this because I don't want to get too close to the exhaust pipe of the car ahead of me.  It's cold and my heater is on.  No point in inhaling exhaust if you can avoid it.

The shadow side of the grasses is just - a duller color of wheat.  I stare harder.  I think about all the Impressionist painters who could see the colors of the rainbow in their shadows.  They must not have been sitting in the Starbucks drive thru.  Or else I'm a failure as an artist because I don't see what is supposed to be there.  Perhaps it's January and color went on vacation.  I don't want to think of myself as a failure at seeing this most crucial element for an artist who paints light.  I am squinting so hard everything is filtered between a web of black eyelashes criss-crossed and blurred because I am somewhat farsighted.  And then I see it - green, a hint of lilac.  Is that hyacinth blue near the middle and - a horn blares behind me and the moment is gone.  The temperature of the light is merely that - the temperature outside.  I ease my car forward.  My eyelashes are still somewhat stuck together.  Finally I have to push them apart with the pad of my pointer finger before reaching for my other obsession.  Coffee.