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November 2010

The Secret of Happiness

Lately I've been feeling under-motivated - a form of year-end creation fatigue, no doubt.  I've taken to revisiting books that initially inspired me to take the artistic leap, just to see if I could recapture some enthusiasm.

I came across this quote from "Re-Inventing Yourself" by Steve Chandler: "What if everyone in America was doing everything they could to avoid effort - and yet the secret of happiness was, in fact, effort?"

Effort is one of those double edged swords.  We can put forth tremendous effort, rolling that rock up the hill, then realize that chance, or fate, or a random change in the weather can send us back to our starting place.  Why do it?  Why fight when the odds against us don't play fair?  We can throw in the towel, close the studio door and find something else we could be good at, something easier than this art thing. 

It's a good question.  Why do it?  We can limit our understanding of effort in terms of cause and effect, that concentrated effort must result in expected success, and wander down a path toward something else, something easier.  And what do we find there?  "The biggest lie humankind has told itself in the past 50 years," Chandler says,  "is that happiness is available without effort." 

I ventured into my studio after a week of having the door closed.  It was cold because there are two windows and only one heating vent, and with the door closed warm air from the rest of the house can't get in.  If we shut ourselves off from the effort of creating we become like this cold studio.  The longer the door is closed the emptier the space becomes, until there is nothing left of our desire to create. 

It takes effort to leave that door open when the room is so cold.  Effort to pull out the canvas and squeeze out the paint. 

But ask yourself one question: when am I the happiest?


A Little More About Seeing

There is a "rule" that is drummed into our heads over and over about painting what you see, not what you know.  Most of the time we do this successfully, but sometimes we can be blind-sided by looking at the wrong details or trying to solve the wrong problem without realizing it.  I will use one of my own paintings to show you what I mean.

Initially I was satisfied with this painting.DSC06551 smcopy I felt like the space was believable, and I liked the mysterious sense of place.  Throughout the painting process my attention was on certain details: suggesting the trees in the background, keeping an abstract freshness, and the foreground interest. All along, I felt like the stream above the waterfall was a minor player and easy enough to suggest - my main concern was the perspective issue - making sure the water stayed flat. I was happy at this stage - but when I set the painting up and sat down to evaluate it, I knew something was off.

The problem was centered around my minor player, the upper stream.  I noticed that I'd created a sloping, unnatural oval shape that looked like an egg, so I re-worked the stream.  This helped, but a new problem cropped up: because I was working wet paint over dry paint, there were some awkward edges where the water met the bank. I tried repainting the bank grasses while "water" was still wet: it didn't work like I'd planned. 

DSC06796 sm copy So here we are, stuck with some new problems.  At least the egg in the center is less obtrusive, but those hard and awkward edges are now a major eye trap.  I wasn't sure what do do next. 

I liked the new detail in the background, which helped to define the space.  The overall look was a little less abstract than my original plan, and I hadn't touched the foreground - which remained very abstract and effective.  This was still a painting that interested me even though it wasn't quite right.  I put it aside and moved on to the point where I wasn't even thinking about this painting much.  It was stored in a room I use for paintings that are considered "finished" but just need to dry.

Then the holidays rolled around and my store room - which is also the guest bedroom - needed to be readied.  As I moved the paintings out I set this one up - and immediately, I could see the problem.  All that focusing on shapes and edges - absolutely necessary, don't get me wrong - kept me from seeing the real problem.

It was the unnatural color of the water.

I looked carefully at my reference photo: the water was gray - greenish gray alternating with bluish gray, with white foam where the water collides with the rocks.  I thought about the location that inspired this painting - about the rivers I visit regularly -  no where is the water that particular shade of blue. 

Worse - the more I had concentrated on the shape and the edges, the bluer the water had become.  Yes, the edges were still awkward, but the combination of the wrong color, wrong value, and wrong shape actually threw the painting off - not the edges.  Why had I not realized it before?

DSC06865 smcopy How often do we spend our energy focusing on selected areas in a painting, while allowing our brain to "tell" us about other areas, areas we 'know" without having to "see" ?   It's easy to do: there's so much to remember and master - but the next time I'm in that evaluation stage and something feels off, I know what questions I'm going to ask. 

My "know-it-all" brain might not like the answers.



Final version "Unnamed Stream"

30 inches by 30 inches, oil on canvas




What Can You Take Away From the TSA Patdowns?

If the world is our classroom, then the TSA is reminding us of something important.

The public wants a positive outcome but not at the expense of having everything revealed. 

The lesson for the artist is the same. Our desire for that positive outcome should not be impeded by an  insecure need to show everything or to invade the client's personal space.  We - the creatives here - must trust that the public will fulfill their part of the bargain - finding enjoyment and meaning in the art for themselves.

Don't create like an overzealous screener, having to show every detail, knowing exactly what any mysterious shape might be.

For the public there is no pleasure in the experience.  Your work ends up as a two-second pause while they scan for something that actually interests them, and you waste any opportunity you had. 






Honoring Your Natural Tendencies

Do you paint with brushes or knives?  And how much of that preference comes from the awareness that you do your best work with one or the other, or because you never considered that you had a choice?

I paint primarily with palette knives now because the process feels closer to charcoal drawing than when I use brushes.  For years I struggled against this inclination.  Don't really know why except that messages from artists I found inspirational were all focused on the brush mark, not the knife mark - which I admit sounds a bit more sinister.  But I figure I had years of prior training in using knives, spreading peanut butter on bread, icing I gave in.

It comes down to a Lee Krasner quote I have on the studio wall.

"I like a canvas to breath and be alive.  Be alive is the point.  And as the limitations are something called pigment and canvas, let's see if I can do it."

No point in adding an unnatural tool to those limitations. 

Honor your natural tendencies, don't fight them.  They're what make your art unique.




DSC06794 copy "Upper Falls, White River" is a new work painted almost entirely using palette knives. Waterfalls are a favorite subject for me.  I connect to the elemental power that I feel in their presence, the forces of nature.  Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest considered waterfalls the heartbeat of the forest.  In this painting, I was interested in communicating not only the beauty of the upper falls but the vastness of the space before the river plunges down over 90 feet into a narrow, dramatic gorge.  I deliberately selected a custom size canvas, 18" by 30", and an exagerated perspective, influenced heavily by the wonderful landscape paintings of Rackstraw Downes.  There are unique challenges found in using non-standard sizes for your compositions, and what I enjoyed with this painting are the challenges I set up to resolve ideas related to balance and composition. 

If you would like to see photos from the entire painting process, please follow the page link titled Painting Process: Upper Falls, White River" or click here. 

 For more information about the White River Falls click here.



Resisting Negativity


   DSC06732 smcopy
"October Morning, Tumalo Creek"

oil on panel 18x18, @2010


Our reality is shaped by what we think and do.  Or else it is shaped by others who have no idea what we want, just what they want for us.  They want us to be safe.  They want us not to dream about possibilities they can’t see.  To not go chasing after pipe dreams when everybody knows that only great artists can make it, and “honey, you ain’t great.”

If messages like these are coming from people you don’t know, ignore them.

If they are coming from those closest to you, believe this:  Their concerns stem from many things, but most assuredly on that list are their own fears -  the fear of failure, of believing in foolish possibilities, and feeling the pain in reaching toward a dream only to see it slip away.

In this instance, think of yourself as their guide.  Your purpose is to show them how to reach for the impossible, with courage and heart.  No matter what the result.



Who Wants to Join the Circus?

We dream about it.  We sometimes say it: I want to run away and work full time in my studio.  I’ve said it, because it makes not having a paying job right now feel less distressful.  But the truth is – starting an art career is not as easy as running away to join the circus.

I frequently get questions from readers of Ancient Artist, asking about the best way to work full time as an artist.  They are ready to leave their jobs and embark on this new adventure – should they move to another city? Find work in an arts related job? How much money should they expect to make?

I want to be encouraging because it’s a difficult step to take. 

I don’t want to be misleading.

There’s enough of that out there already.

So if you’re thinking about running away to join the circus, here are a few thoughts before you pack your bags.

The primary cause of new business failure is undercapitalization.  This means not enough money coming in and too much going out.  This also means that if you’re just starting out, don’t quit your day job unless you have this base covered without needing any income from your art sales.

Most Success Stories no longer relate.  We all like to read about artists who achieve success. It makes us feel like we can succeed, too.  Take time to read between the lines.  When did this success happen? What was going on then that is – or is not – going on today that could affect the outcome - like the economy? How long did the artist actually work before achieving success?

Because it takes a long time.  Time to get your technique up to competitive levels.  Time to learn the ins and outs of your particular niche.  Time to make important connections. Time to build your name recognition. Time to build an enthusiastic collector base. 


You can incorporate art into your life now, by finding time to work in your studio, to build a body of work, and to take advantage of the name recognition you have within your own community.  You can enter juried shows, send out press releases, and ask other bloggers to write interview pieces about your work.  You can begin to build your collector base, find local galleries interested in what you do, and educate yourself about the business of art.  You can take control of your future without risking it and still accomplish what you want according to your own terms.  It is possible.  I’m doing it.  Hundreds of other artists are doing it.

And we’re not all shoveling that elephant poop. 

Well, not all the time. Actually I prefer the monkeys…

Smaller poop.