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July 2011

How Important Is Focus – Really?

There are thousands of posts about focus, but how important is it in the everyday progress of your artistic practice? 

The answer could depend upon your interpretation of focus, or your experiences with focus, or whether you’re like most of us and have an idea about what focus should be and that you should do it and so you come up with your own version which may or may not work so well for you.

Hypothetical case in point, based upon an actual artist and a name-changed-to-protect-future-endeavors gallery:  each of the parties are practicing focus, and given the precarious state of the economy that focus is naturally aimed at what has the greatest potential to succeed.  Artist has been focused in the same general direction, style wise, as the gallery, and begins to gather some creds in the broader arena.  Feeling emboldened, said artist tightens the focus to produce a body of work that, in artist’s experience, reaches new levels of competence.  Over the same four months the hypothetical gallery is also focused on the various bodies of excellent work hanging on their walls compared to the walls of their hypothetical excellent competitors and concludes some major direction changing is in order.  Ah…you already see where this is going.

Given the importance of focus, we never talk about the situations that can change when we aren’t looking at them.

Focus has power.  When you’re learning your craft you must focus in a general direction and not bounce aimlessly from pillar to post. Learning craft takes time and effort, not something generally achieved on the occasional weekend. 

Focus allows you to identify your strengths.  It’s not that we don’t already know what it is that makes us smile, but human curiosity as well as insecurity tends to lure us down those other paths, deep into the dark forest when we forgot to bring bread crumbs. Finding our way back an be a challenge.

So, generally, focus is good, even necessary.

But focus can get in the way when we aren’t paying attention to something that is changing, and then find ourselves shocked at the new environment. 

Not for the reasons you might suspect.  But because shock tends to make us temporarily lose our focus, our real focus, and we start thrashing around and thinking everything is changing and we have to change with it. 

Which is probably not the case.

As Seth Godin said in a recent post, "If it’s important today, it will be important tomorrow."

So now it’s back to you.  Think of this post as an open thread and leave your comments and experiences with focus.


And another OMG exciting moment:


Summer Storm Coming, 12" x 18", oil on linen

©2011 SFSmith

Accepted into the 2011 American Women Artists National Exhibition

October 14 - November 3, 2011

Huff Harrington Fine Art, Atlanta, GA

Uh...yeah, I'm smiling.

Are You Too Familiar With Where You Live?

Are you so familiar with where you live that you struggle to find subjects to paint?

A fellow artist - who happens to live in Europe - emailed to tell me she found my landscapes intriguing because they were exotic, so different from the locale where she lived.  Now, exotic is not a word I would normally associate with where I live, but it did make me realize that what we look at and live with every day might seem common place to us, but can be interesting to others who don't enjoy the same views. 

Sometimes I think this is one of the most important things an artist needs to remember.  Certainly the Hudson River artists were focused on where they lived - in fact, there is a story about Fredrick Church buying land and building a home directly across the river from his mentor, teacher, and competitor Thomas Cole.  Their approach to painting the landscape varied, too; where Cole liked to dramatize the landscape that he painted, Church actually rearranged the landscape around his home to create his own idea of the ideal environment. 

My exploration of the landscape falls somewhere in between.  So many of our rivers in Oregon rush through steep, shadowed canyons, with limited access along the banks.  The trees and undergrowth are thick and dense.  Moss covers the rocks and forest litter - remnants of winter or the last passing storm - create intricate patterns of light and shade.  These are not the quiet, lazy rivers of the midwest, or the granite and aspen banks of the Rocky Mountains.  Sometimes I look at what lies before me and wonder - is this something I can paint?  Is it something others will enjoy?  Am I telling the story of this place, the light at this moment, the sensations I feel as I experience them?

Rocks Along the Santiam, 28"x22" oil on canvas, © 2011 sfsmith

Rocks Along the Santiam portrays a section of the Santiam River that empties from the High Cascade Range west toward the Willamette Valley.  It is a river with many aspects: violent waterfalls, rushing currents, and challenges the river rafters crave - but there are quieter sections of the river where the water spreads out and the sun reflects off the polished surfaces of the exposed river rocks.  I hope you enjoy it.

If you would like more information about this artwork please contact me.


American Impressionist Society Juried Show


DSC07345 smcopy
Chokecherry Farm, oil, 12" x 18" ©2011

I am thrilled to announce that my painting, Chokecherry Farm, was accepted into the American Impressionist Society Show, to be held at Mountainsong Gallery in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, from October 21 through November 15, 2011. 

Inspiration, Summer Painting and Meyer Medium

It's July, when most of you are either relaxing in the sun, painting in your studios, waiting for the results from the major juried shows, or planning the goals for fall.  You probably aren't into reading the blogs, so I thought it would be a good time for some summer inspiration and to share my process on a painting that just came off my easel. 

DSC07532  I wanted to try information from a recent  FASO BrushBuzz comment thread on Keith Bond's article about ways to keep colors fresh: Jack White suggested coating the gessoed canvas with a thin layer of acrylic.  He recommended doing this because gesso has a tendency to pull the oil from the paint, causing it to dry "flat."   (Sorry I can't find the link to the full article, but the solutions to dull colors caused by oil being absorbed by the ground were: coat the gessoed canvas with a thin layer of acrylic, oiling in - a thin layer of oil brushed on the dry paint and then wiped off with a soft cloth before continuing with your painting, or the use of a medium such a liquin, also brushed on thin and wiped off) I used a thin layer of an acrylic color called "parchment" ( a coolish off-white) on my gessoed canvas, and was happy with the results.

I also used a tip from one of Richard Schmid's DVDs,titled White Pine, where he suggests using Meyer Medium - 5 parts turp or OMS, 1 part stand oil, and 1 part damar.  This medium can be used in small amounts with the darks to keep them from drying flat (it also allows the paint to dry faster).  I've always had a tendency to lose the darks, so I gave this a try.  In the image above left, you see the first lay in, over my charcoal lines.  The colors are sap green, ultramarine blue, and a favorite color from Rembrandt called burnt carmine.  I kept the colors separate on the palette and scrubbed them in using a touch of the Meyer Medium and a number 4 round hogs hair brush.  Note: the Meyer Medium has a strong odor so be sure you have good ventilation.

DSC07534 The next day the initial layer was dry to the touch - which meant I would not be picking up the darks and making mud.  I began to build up the primary area of interest - what was most important to "get right" - the rock, the log, and the suggestion of the tree that would be there.  I kept my palette to a limited range of colors:

Yellows: nickel azo yellow, transparent yellow oxide, raw sienna, yellow ochre light, verona gold ocher, and Utrecht's cad yellow lemon.

The other colors used: sap green, chromatic black, transparent oxide red, ultramarine blue, ultramarine violet, cerulean blue, Gamblin's radiant blue, a touch of phthalo turquoise and the burnt carmine.

I'm painting with #4 and #6 rounds (hog), and #6 and #8 brights (soft bristles), and a palette knife.  (yes, I know a few months ago I said I was painting entirely with a palette knife, but I eventually realized I needed brushes to soften the edges and subdue the knife work  - old dogs, new tricks sort of thing)

At this point I put a touch of the water color next to the darkest dark to check values (see in above image).  I give the credit to the Meyer Medium here, as the darks remained clean and vibrant, not muddy.  A big "woo-hoo" since there's no one in the studio to hear me except the dogs and they promised not to tell.  But then I completely forgot to take any more progress photos until the painting was done.  What I can tell you is that the water was painted almost entirely using the palette knife and the remainder of the painting was painted almost entirely with the brushes.  I also used the knife to scrape on or scrape off colors to create the layers of texture, and q-tips to draw into the wet paint, soften edges, and actually apply color. 


Rapids, Santiam River, 24 x 24 © the artist


Enjoy your summer, find inspiration wherever you are, learn what you can, and believe in yourself. 

I am very pleased to report that my painting, Creek, Early Snow, was accepted into the National Oil and Acrylic Painters' Society (NOAPS) 2011 exhibition "Best in America," to be held September 11 through October 28, 2011, at Dunnegan Gallery in Bolivar Mo.  It is an honor to be included with so many talented artists.


Creek, Early Snow, 16 x 20 © the artist

6 Ideas To Help You Rethink Creative Resourcefulness

The question we've all been asking is how to prosper in these tough financial times.  The last two Sunday Salons featured artists who are facing challenges and finding success on their own terms. What are they doing that could be incorporated into resourceful creative thinking?

Because I'm so familiar with my own belief system, I don't always recognize options that might benefit me. It's a habit I want to break.  So I went looking around the internet to discover the best ideas on creative resourcefulness I could find - and most came from the major business blogs.

 Trying too hard to find the “right” answer

"One of the worst aspects of formal education is the focus on the correct answer to a particular question or problem. While this approach helps us function in society, it hurts creative thinking because real-life issues are ambiguous. There’s often more than one “correct” answer, and the second one you come up with might be better than the first."


"My hubby and life partner Andor and I have lived by this Japanese saying ever since we first met: Constant And Never-Ending Improvement. Extraordinarily successful entrepreneurs are always seeking to learn and grow.

They understand that if they are constantly nourishing their mind, they are automatically upgrading themselves and giving themselves a competitive edge. You know the saying “knowledge is power.” It’s true. It has been significant and inspiring for me to watch the rate of growth of close business colleagues who understand and embrace CANI."

 Resourcefulness is the ability to find a way to achieve your goal or to make one

 "Resourcefulness follows the first attribute, self-discipline. Self-Discipline is the ability to keep the commitments one makes to oneself and includes the ability to take actions that are in your long-term best interests. Self-discipline is not simply the ability to control one’s actions and behaviors; it is also the ability to control one’s beliefs. This includes the belief that you can find a way or that you can make one."

Redefine the Possible

"You must first start with an open mind. "Redefine the possible." This line is attributed to Nandan Nilekani, a co-founder of InfoSys, India's $2 billion IT services company. According to The Economist, Nilekani used this statement to encourage fellow Indians to realize how they could leverage their talents and resources to empower themselves to fulfill their goals. Being open minded about new possibilities is critical to putting resourcefulness into action. The leader who steps up and says "yes we can do this" is one who can push colleagues to do things that some might consider impractical."

Implement locally

"Since most small innovations are limited to a department or a function, put them into action as soon as possible. If the idea does not work as expected, don't abandon it immediately — see if you can tweak it. Implementation itself can be creative and sometimes it takes several tries to make innovative ideas work as expected, or beyond expectations."

During the Renaissance, there was a cultural expectation that the well-lived life was about exploring and exploiting these many selves.

"What started out as a quest to relieve my boredom, became much more than an amusement. Building a portfolio of profit centers was not only interesting, it also gave me flexibility, numerous options and was as good for my imagination as it was for my pocketbook.

The real reward of this portfolio approach became clearer when I came across a quote from James Dickey. He said, “There are so many  selves in everybody and to explore and exploit just one is wrong, dead wrong, for the creative process.”

Sometimes a fresh look at information we've heard before can be the catylist we need to open our eyes to the possibilities around us.  At the very least, its a good shot of optimism.

My thanks to the authors of the blogs quoted and linked to in this article for their insights and wisdom.



Sunday Salon: Painter, Sculptor, Teacher - Susan G Holland at 73

I’ve recently been in contact with Susan Holland, an 73-year-old artist with the energy and enthusiasm of someone closer to 37.  Hailing from Hoodsport, Washington, just across the Puget Sound from Seattle, Susan describes herself as a well-worn mark-maker who just wanted to tell me how the blog post, Why Moving Backward Can Be More Powerful Than Moving Forward, had been particularly cathartic for her.  

"I am going on 73, and getting in touch with my old self in this way.  I have influences all around me that are shrieking paint to make money...and the abysmal current state of the economy is one of those influences." (Spp mango sea contoured top view 2Image left: Mango Sea Colored Bowl)

I appreciated her attitude - this is no senior citizen who dabbles in art to fill her afternoons.  Through a series of emails a Sunday Salon began to emerge.

"Could it be that we need the stress of this pull between chic and sale-able products and real art? As you suggest, the contemporary art around us informs our current personal mark-making.  We can no more ignore that than the sort of spirit of our current times.  And our subject matter will reflect our times, too, no doubt.

I try not to think overmuch about the urgings of my benefactors who would have me paint multiples of successful works just to make some money.

I fight with them sometimes, and get very angry.  And then I think, sometimes, they are right.  Why not do the giclee on canvas thing, and put on final touches? Then I think of sweat shops with hired brushes dabbing textured paint on dozens of prints and selling them for fifty bucks in poster frames. And I stick to my guns.  I will paint it fresh each time, from scratch, and in the spirit of today - not yesterday, and certainly not guessing about tomorrow.

Silk Purse array at Shelton Farmers MarketRight now the season is on for my new Silk Purse project (see set-up at left - Silk Purse array at Shelton Farmer's Market) – working with wooden bowls. The bowls are from a source in Seattle.  They are hand carved by other artisans and the rejected ones end up in the discard pile.  I pick and choose from that pile and rework the bowls that have a second life in them.  This is a great opportunity for me - I am the only one doing this with these bowls, so they are really one-of-a-kind, and special because of the recycled nature of the business.  The bowls are a celebration of wood - of the tree, and the nature of wood.  The carving is somewhat rustic, but very skillfully done.  Carving a root is not an easy business.

SPP STIppled mango key bowl  I am working especially on small dishes out of Cunninghamia Lanceolata - fir/cypress, rootwood, and also on contoured turned bowls of Mango wood.  Color is insisting on making an entrance into these natural materials... I am using various kinds of tools and combinations of paint media to come up with exciting decorative pieces. It's important to me to retain the characteristics of wood - its nature - and hopefully to draw attention to it. All products are finished with a sealing coat of varnish or wax oil. (Image: Stippled Mango Key Bowl)

I find I’m fascinated with the collection of Peit Hein's "Grooks" that I’ve discovered.  If I can, I shall get his books-- now out of print and very expensive.  Grooks is the name Peit Hein, Danish scientist and poet, gave his little poems.  Some of them are so wonderful; they will be welcome in people's homes.  This is a direction I may take in my art-making, whether it evolves on carved wood bowls or in paintings.

On the back burner right now is a very viable plan to set up a plein air group here in the Hoodsport area.  It will not be as a class, but rather joining with others to utilize the beauties of this part of the forest with them on a regular basis.  I have passes to get into lovely parts of the Lake Cushman area, and there are all sorts of great places to set up an easel and have at it. 

I do have small works (8 x 10, - 11 x 14) planned for my next season of painting.  Not only am I limited in space for painting here, but the economy lends itself to people buying small, I believe.  They will likely buy a small original rather than frame up a large print...and the prices seem to be about the same.  Why shouldn't my small framed items be on people's walls?  So...I have boats, and trees, and grasses and mountains roughed in on clayboard ('s really a wonderful, versatile, and archival surface to paint on.)  Oils, temperas, mixed media.

So for the time being I have sets of types of art in my studio - small tempera local scenes for local sales,  infrequent large non-objective decorative works in case some hospital needs something for patients to gaze at while waiting,  and then the real art - that's the stuff that says what I am thinking and feeling, and which I want to do exclusively.  They come out without strategy - aside from how to arrange it all on the canvas - and they just work, somehow, without blood, sweat, or tears.  They are keepers, and they live comfortably on any wall for a good long time."

WIDE MANGO FRONT VIEW BLACK W BRN RIMIf you would like to find out more about Susan's Silk Purse Project, to purchase a bowl or painting, or for any other reason you can contact her through email:

or through snail mail:  Susan Holland, PO Box 1138, Hoodsport WA 98548

See what else Susan G Holland is doing here.

 Above: Wide Mango Bowl, Black with Brown Rim