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January 2011

Caution: Painting in the Zone

As an artist, I live for those paintings that flow effortlessly.  And you all know what I mean - those moments of pure joy when we look at what we're doing and think OMG this is fabulous, do you see what I'm doing here?  It's that combination of both wanting to take responsibility for it (because that proves you're an artist) and wanting to believe that it's flowing through you ( because that proves you're not only an artist but you're tied into the higher artist power - which may or may not be true, but I'll save that for another post).

For convenience sake and because it's a good word for it, we call this a state of flow, when everything works perfectly, no mental side trips into the "what should I plan for dinner" attention trap at the crucial moment of deciding if that form turns inward or if it's just a trick of the light. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the bestselling book, Flow, the psychology of optimal experience, has spent years researching what happens when concentration is so focused we often lose track of our physical environment and the passage of time.

What he concludes is that, for the optimal experience, while working in this state of heightened awareness it shouldn’t be an automatic process: while “flow” itself is psychologically rewarding, a sense of control is essential. 

In my own learning experience I’ve found myself so caught up in the cadence of movement that my attention slips from careful observation into pure experience.  In this state I’m most vulnerable to reverting to automatic gestures and habits.  I will find myself reaching for the palette knife and applying thick paint rather than carefully considering what an area needs.  Important details are sacrificed to the pure enjoyment of moving color across the canvas.  Later, I’m appalled at the mess I’ve made: I can look at old paintings and know the exact moment when I slipped into this state of intense non-attention.  The result usually gets scraped off or confined to the trash.

According to Flow, practicing awareness while experiencing a flow experience comes more easily to some than to others.  As I try to understand more about my own painting process, I've discovered patterns that I want to break.  If you find yourself in this same place,  here are some of the ideas that help me:

  • Become aware of the bad habits you’ve acquired, the automatic responses you have to your unique painting problems. 
  • Plan ahead for better solutions so when you're reaching for that crutch it's not immediately there.
  • Tape notes to yourself on your easel if necessary. One of mine says "no licking".
  • Study your own paintings and really identify areas you want to improve.
  • Slow down and think about what you need to do. 
  • Avoid any stimulus that invites high energy – I’ve stopped listening to dramatic movie scores because I found myself painting unconsciously to the rhythm of exploding cannon. 
  • Set new challenges for yourself to not only notice when you start automatically responding to your painting, but to direct your attention to the proper solution. 

Your work will benefit from the result.   

The Locked Treasure Room

220px-Camera_obscura There's a history of artists using optical aids that starts with a Chinese philosopher from around 390 BCE, who first described a pinhole camera as a "locked treasure room." We know that similar devices were around even earlier, but by the 6th century the Byzantine architect who designed the Hagia Sophia was using the camera obscura in his experiments.

By the 15th century, Leonardo De Vinci described the camera obscura in his Atlantic Codex.  Venetian painter Canaletto was known for painting "from nature," although many of his later works feature blurred technical elements, suggesting the use of a camera obscura. 

In 2001, artist David Hockney and physicist Charles M. Falco put forth the theory that for 200 to 400 years, many of the Renaissance Old Masters used optical aids to improve the accuracy of detail in their portraits.  In their book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, the argument was again raised as to whether the use of optical aids somehow negated the validity of a painting, or if an artist's ability to create a thing of beauty stemmed from something beyond the use of "visual aids" - certainly the ability to trace an outline is extremely different than the ability to recreate realistic fabric surfaces and skin that glows with a life force.

Artists trained in the Graphic Arts, Illustration, and Set Design Fields do not have these pangs of conscience, as they traditionally use photographs and project necessary images to speed up the work.  On Gurney Journey, James Gurney discusses Norman Rockwell's use of photo references here and his own ideas and uses here.  I think the real argument shouldn't be a question of should you use photo references, but what is the more appropriate way for the artist to think about the references he or she is using.

Isn't careful observation of the figure from two feet away just as informing to the artist as studying the photographs taken of the figure? Particularly when the artist is searching for information such as where does this form bend and become that form?  The artist backs up visual information up with the foundational skills - design elements, drawing, artistic imagination and style.

This is quite different from replicating what is recorded, which requires little thought on the part of the artist.  As a learning process, I find nothing wrong with asking a student to use a reference photo for direct information. After all there is no other way to begin to learn how to construct a painting or to learn a subject matter than to paint it over and over, and using photographs facilitates this process. 

What I do see as a negative is that many artists become so dependent upon the camera making the decisions for them that they never learn how to edit, or subordinate certain areas, or to actually interpret what they are seeing.  There have been times when I've walked into a gallery to see another artist's landscape work and my only thought was, 'Oh, I bought that guide book too - that image was on page 22." 

This is artistic laziness, or insecurity, and I would agree with critics who argue that by simply copying a photo - whether your own or someone else's (copyrights!) - the artist is prostituting their art.  And it's a shame, because often times I think inexperienced artists are unaware of how restricted their work is when they simply restate what the camera produced.  

For more information here are additional links:

Hockney-Falco Thesis

Camera Obscura

Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Techniques of the Old Masters



Maybe There's A Better Way To Use Photo References

Do you use photo references and wonder if you're getting it right?  Because there are wrong ways to use them.  In fact, I had some fun about this scandal involving photo references in a post from 2008 that still gets hits.   

The thing is, I've always thought the idea of using photo references has either been misunderstood or maligned by well intentioned artist/teachers.  As a student, we had assignments that included bringing in our 5 x 7 kodachrome photo reference; then we listened as those same photo references were labeled as a crutch to avoid drawing and blamed for all sorts of artistic errors. 


Except...there are paintings (we've all seen them - or done them) that demonstrate the worst use of the photo reference.

For can't see into the shadows, so those areas beneath the trees are just black spots (like in the photo). Or the space is flattened, with no real sense of perspective or "air" in the background (like in the photo). 

Loss of detail and lighting issues were more of a problem when we were limited to the 1 Hour Photo lab. But we have technology now, and there aren't many valid arguments against using digital photo references - if you actually use them as a reference.

Of course there are a few sticking points that will trip you up...

The camera captures everything, equally, but the artist must think about a single idea to express and arrange the elements accordingly.

The camera often produces terrific photographs, but the end product does not necessarily translate into a terrific painting - and maybe that's the secret behind successful photographers and successful painters - being able to see the difference.

There are still plenty of good reasons to use photo references. You don't have to deal with the weather - particularly in the winter - unless you want to. And you don't have to worry about the shadows - with digital images and a good software program like Photoshop Elements you can adjust the contrast to see the details.

You can load your image on a laptop set up beside your easel, and it's even better than standing in the open air because you can magnify the detail (Funny, this advantage only seems important to those of us over fifty.) 

What you can't do is clearly understand the spaces between objects as they recede back toward the horizon, so the artist must master an understanding of perspective. And I often look for similar elements to use as models - if I'm painting trees, I might use a photo reference for general information and look out my studio window at the trees across the street to study actual light effects. 

It comes down to this - no one ever created anything worthwhile that didn't have something of their own life force in the mix.  When you hesitate to edit what you see to better communicate what you think, you've lost the opportunity to create something really special. 

And someone else will say what you wish you had said.






Flowers For Bella - Painting Tutorial

Flowers For Bella is a painting that just came off the easel, and I wanted to share the process with you because it's always interesting to see how a painting is constructed from start to finish.  Some of the important points here are:

  • Materials.  I took advantage of the pre-Christmas sales and purchased some very fine canvases from Utrecht.  I've never used their products before but I am now a true fan, particularly of their Masters Belgian Linen product.  It's such a relief to finally find a surface that does what I want it to do, particularly in paint application (and removal).  I look back and see how much of a struggle painting can be without having to fight the materials, too.  So find the right materials - that should be the first in the Ancient Artist Manifesto.  (you can add your thoughts by going to the  A A Manifesto page - the link is in the right hand sidebar.)

  • Don't be hesitant about scraping back the work that you've done if it doesn't please you.  With a good surface (see above) scraping back actually enhances the ground and you don't lose the important information.


I always use an old watercolor board on my easel to support the canvas. Plus it's an easy place to tape any reference photo I might have.  I first drew the major shapes with charcoal and then began the initial blocking.  I'm using transparent oxide red, transparent Van Dyck brown, a green mix using lemon yellow and ultramarine blue, and a few dots of ultramarine purple lightened with zinc white.  At this point I can begin to see the painting as it will develop (light and dark) and I'm ready to proceed. (click on images to see a larger detail)


I painted for the rest of the afternoon, starting to develop shapes and color, but when I was ready to stop I did not like what I had created, so I took a palette knife and began to scrape everything down.  This is where I really began to appreciate this Utrecht canvas.  While I liked the easy feel when painting, scraping down began to create lovely modulations and textures.  The paint did not sink in, brush marks were retained when I wanted them, and the color remained truer than when using a less expensive canvas product.  I felt very good about bringing the painting to this stage.


At the end of day two I had progressed to this stage - sorry I didn't get any photos of the process.  I left it overnight and came back to the studio this morning and realized that I was not satisfied with what I had done, so out with the palette knife to scrape off the offending colors. I particularly didn't like the flower leaning over - the leaves were spaced too evenly and I preferred the more abstract look I had achieved in the earlier phase.  I also had lost a sense of the darks in the upper area. And it was "spotty"...

Flowers for Bella, 10x20 oil on linen

It didn't take much to bring this painting to a satisfying finish.  Less detail, more detail, reemphasizing the design pattern (an elongated U shape, a compositional idea picked up from John Singer Sargent) and then stopping (the hardest part).  Technically you could call this a three spot composition, or a form of the C composition (the C is on its back) or the Spotlight composition (not rendered well enough to be really noticeable).  What is important is actually thinking about your composition periodically - keeping the overall idea in mind and restating it toward the end of the painting session if you get lost along the way like I sometimes do. 

Happy painting!

Why Moving Backward Can Be More Powerful Than Moving Forward

The legacy of Modernism for me was the misconception that we’re responsible for moving the Art Flag forward into new territory.  Since, realistically, this is nearly impossible, I’ve spent years feeling insecure about my efforts: when you’re charting new territory there are no signposts pointing the right way.

Often we accept forward momentum because Art History is taught in a linear fashion, with one epoch leading to another.  Additionally, Modern Art theory dominates in the academic establishment.  There’s value in all art education, but what I discovered through my own practice is that without a clear understanding of what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, I can’t fully explain, defend, or feel confident about my work or be at peace.

I remember the discussions about form verses content that dominated many of the art critiques in my advanced painting classes.  There was the group arguing that meaning was derived from the formal elements – this color opposing that line expresses my angst about relationships – while others would say that no, that color brushed against the line creates either a pleasing or jarring visual sensation without any meaning other than it looks like an apple.  Some would obliterate everything into an overall pattern  – I actually did a painting that was white with horizontal graphite lines and gave it the artspeak title of Silence Lost by Slow Gradations.  The goal was to incorporate Hans Hofmann’s theory to find “an internal order existing between objects rather than stress their separate identities.”

Over time my attitude began to change about how I could express this internal order. There’s always a meaning in art that is ascribed by society at large, so the whole argument about trying to communicate order through form but not content began to feel too obscure for me. I reinvestigated Cezanne, Sisley, Fechin, Sorolla and others, not the way I had learned about them, as precursors to the Modern Era, but as artists I connected with emotionally.  I was trying to find a visual language that felt more natural, and discovered that each used a narrative, directing our attention throughout the picture while establishing meaning and internal order. Narrative, which comes from subject matter, content and meaning, and internal order, which – to me - means beauty.

So I decided that perhaps I was trying too hard to communicate my ideas.  You know, reaching too far out there for techniques that would seem cutting edge but in reality came up a bit short.  I began to relax as the pressure to invent something new disappeared.  I began to paint in a far more relaxed way, too.  I quit imposing limitations on what I should do and realized that by aligning myself with this conversation from the past I could contribute modern concepts about our world without the added frustration of inventing a new way of doing it.  I realized that when you’re fixated on what's going on in your own head, it’s easy to forget that other people want to appreciate what you're saying, too. And I don't believe society should have to learn a new language just to understand my painting.

The funny thing is, I think you have to get old enough in your art practice to understand this, to give credence to the idea that the real value should be in the message and not the messenger. So now I say, okay, I want to talk about a way of life that is rapidly disappearing, and I want to do it in this particular landscape.  How did Levitan or Sisley communicate this?   And by this I mean how did they use light, or place, or selected objects to communicate an emotional narrative that goes beyond the “this is an apple” approach. 

Maybe some people will say oh, that’s so passé, but that’s okay with me.  I don’t need to reinvent the wheel.  I’m happy with what I’m doing. I’m excited about exploring  the next idea using a visual approach I don't have to defend with a dissertation that - in the end - bores everyone, even me.  And it’s what I’d be doing anyway.  Painting.

Critical Confrontations

 I think we have lost some of our ability to judge art from the critical components due to the overwhelming onslaught of visual images in modern life.  And this can be frustrating for artists.  Wayne Thiebaud is quoted in the book Artist to Artist as saying, “We all need critical confrontation of the fullest and most extreme kind that we can get. You can unnecessarily limit yourself by choosing your criticism…but how would I feel if Matisse or Morandi or Richard Diebenkorn walked into my studio?”

For many of us, the idea of having the equivalent of Matisse entering our studio is something we might dream about but know is unlikely to happen.  Once an artist leaves the classroom – or perhaps never enters it – what he learns depends upon his own efforts to master the craft.  Which means for most of us, self-mentoring has become a modern necessity, made easier by access to resources on the web, through artist websites, DVD’s and the myriad art instructional courses, magazines and books in the marketplace. 

Still, there’s a part of me that longs for the chance to have that one-on-one experience with an artist who can really offer me critical confrontation.  Not necessarily the workshop experience, or the demo – I mean the chance to toss ideas and concepts around and talk late into the night.  To have someone who’s technique and understanding I admire walk up to my work and tell me what he sees that excites him and what he thinks I could do better.

 I don’t see how an artist can continue to create exciting work if she is not excited about doing it.  And the toughest thing about self mentoring is that you’re working through your difficulties in a vacuum.  Maybe that’s the real value in the artist’s blog, to give us something to think about, and maybe make our work a little better. At least that is one of the challenges I've set for myself in this New Year.  I hope you will join me in the conversation. 

Follow this link if you would like more information about Artist to Artist: Inspiration & Advice from Artists Past & Present, compiled by Clint Brown.