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April 2010


Do you know what I like about the Canadians?

They like art.  They appreciate it, really - and it's the same with the British and Australian visitors who come into the gallery.  It's not just that touristy thing, either - in a foreign country, taking advantage of the exchange rate to buy a little something for the memories.  I watch them: they talk excitedly but quietly, gesture with their hands, discuss how this piece or that piece will compliment the collection they already have.  They want to know with a capital K, they want to touch and think about and immerse themselves in some intangible value added that is mysterious and gratifying. Often it's a choice of which one and not if.  It's never a question of if, unless it relates to fitting the piece into their carry on.  They buy with gusto.  It's pure joy to see.  Because art has a deeper meaning. 

Maybe they know something important.

Easy Come Easy Go

Easy come easy go.

Some paintings are like that.  I've been in the studio almost continuously for the past few weeks.  My motivations are all the good kind: the gallery sold three paintings within the past two months and have asked for replacements, I have figured out something visually and need to reinforce the ability while I still remember it, and I have been haunted by the need to paint a particular image that skids away from me each and every time I try.  

I enjoy the easy compositions, when the paint goes on in one go and is the perfect color/value/edge, and I'm smiling from start to finish.  The satisfaction I feel spurs me on, not to a feeling of virtuosity, but to a kind of courageousness.  As if I could tackle anything.  This is actually a good feeling and if you encounter it you should exploit it - courage is so necessary in the creation of art.  And so in between painting the compositions that felt comfortable and exciting in their own way I began to face off with the painting that has been haunting me.  For the challenge of it.  To see what I could see.

It started with my studies.  Artists that interest me often paint scenes that combine the ordinary, the unexpected, the ugly momentarily turned into a abstract painting of luminous color and light.  And while on a day trip that combined looking for new fishing locations as well as subject matter outside our immediate area, we took a break in Maupin.  Now Maupin is best known as a jumping off place for white water river rafters.  It's a collection of small houses stacked up the tiers of the rimrock canyon overlooking the Deschutes River, which is wide and sleepy and deceptively show on the surface.  We parked in a city park and went exploring, and that's where I found it, a jumbled collection of fences and a box and odd pieces of junk set up across the creek that drops out of the high plateau and feeds into the larger river.  Signs forbade any fishing whatsoever at the creek.  Overhead, the cool spring sunlight filtered through the trees that were starting to swell with the promise of new growth while underfoot lay a tangle of the remnants of winter storms and old wood.  The odd shapes and arrangement belonged in a painting.  I could see it, feel it, feel my hand painting it with wide swaths of color and the perfect abstraction.  Later, a visit to a fly-fishing guide shop revealed that what had so fascinated me was a fish weir.  The fish weir is set up to trap all the returning salmon on their way to the spawning grounds further up the stream.  The weir master kills all the fish hatchery salmon but lets the native, wild species through.  Something about wanting to preserve the wild species but no one seemed to be able to explain why it was necessary to kill the hatchery salmon, unless there was limited space, sign up for your advanced spawning reservation, only real fish need apply. 

I knew it was a painting that had to be painted.  My first version was so bad I cut the canvas off the stretchers and threw it away.  It was beyond me.  All the skill that flowed so fluidly with the familiar compositions was sitting on the sidelines.  I tried again.  Courage found, courage lost.  I began to worry about the canvases I was wasting, the time, the energy spent frustrating myself and proving that I would never, ever be a real painter. 

I wanted the image to go away, to stop taunting me with the possibilities.  But no: I am more of a captive now than I ever was. So I make the effort to think of the earlier efforts as studies, which is what real artists actually do, even the famous ones like Sorolla who often did studies in gouache and hid them from the public because he considered them so crude.  I now know what won't work.  I grit my teeth and load my brush like a soldier ready to do battle.  I may be suffering from an inexplicable inability to give up but the vision I'm after is closer than it ever was.  It is a difficult birthing process and it may still not be over.

I have - for the time being - accepted that this is the best that I can produce, that I have managed to capture some of what I was seeing and feeling, and did it with some moments of joy.  Someday I know I will paint this place again.  By then I would hope to have more skills and less inclination to judge myself so harshly, but I think part of that unlikely.  I read recently that we automatically make judgments based upon an incorrect understanding of relativity: is it better than Sorolla, instead of is it better than paintings I did last week, which is also the only real measure that matters.  Should matter.  I am an old dog and not so likely to learn new tricks.  But who knows?

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"Fish Weir at Bakeoven Creek"

18x24, oil on linen on panel


Tracing Your Artistic Influences

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Rimrock Springs @ 2010

Artists do not work in a vacuum.  We have an artistic heritage, a visual language that continues a conversation started centuries ago.  And like children learning to talk, we start to communicate through a limited means, slowing gaining the ability to understand nuance and personal expression. 

I have often used the word "ideology" when discussing the foundation of artistic intent, but that word is not the best choice: by understanding the schools of thought, the philosophies driving those artists whose work resonates visually, I find it easier to incorporate those previous "conversations" into conversations of my own.

I remember vividly the first time I saw Theodore Rousseau's "Under the Birches, Evening", c1842-43.  It wasn't just the freshness of the image after weeks of viewing French Classical Realism: it was the sense of light and atmosphere, the feeling of being present in a particular place and time, and the scale of the landscape.  In the years since I have traced my fascination with the depiction of atmosphere and light through influences such as The Barbizon School (Theodore Rousseau, who informed the French and California Impressionists ), the Italian Divisionists, and the Spanish Impressionists, notably Sorolla

A current "conversation" in my work comes from Sorolla, who felt that the quest for truth and sincerity was more important than a "preoccupation with technique" - and while there is often conflicting points of view expressed with Sorolla's biographers as to whether he planed or remained spontaneous, the underlying truth was that the painting needed to convey a feeling of immediacy.

There are a variety of approaches an artist can take to achieve a sense of immediacy, and most do speak to technique, but technique with a philosophical intent.  While the Divisionists stepped away from the Pointillists, they were still philosophically driven to depict the effects of light and they learned from each other.  To paint thinly, or with thick gestural strokes, without a firm understanding of what you want to achieve visually is like engaging in a conversation with a limited vocabulary.  Fine for beginners, but I don't want to stop learning at the end of my first coherent sentence.