Fine Art Tips Feed

Pretty Pictures or Something More?

I attended an event where one of the speakers remarked, “I live in a town of 4000, of which 8000 are artists.” The laughter soon faded as the meaning began to sink in: “There are too many who think they are artists.”  And here we were, aspiring artists, listening to that message from a Master.

Perhaps that’s not a bad idea to consider by those who venture on the artistic path.  By acknowledging that creativity abounds, that each of us brings desire to the table, there are important questions that begged to be asked. 

Does innate talent play a larger role in one's success as an artist than practice, passion, determination and resiliency? I have wondered about this question throughout the more than a decade and a half that I have been writing about art, and I haven’t yet come up with a solid answer.  But what I have done is look to those who have been recognized as “artists” to try to identify what might be unique about them.  And patterns begin to emerge.

They see clearly the end result they want to achieve, and they follow their own direction to get there.  Whether this relates to style, to starting or finishing, to subject matter, what they value most is clarifying their own vision of what it “will look like” when it is finished. 

They have a master's understanding of the tools they use, the historical foundations behind their approach, the mechanics in producing a finished appearance that is both uniquely theirs and uniquely beautiful.

They bring elements that are both personal and universal into the visual message. They know what they are in an intangible way, and it is the underlying support of their painting.

They approach the canvas, paper, clay with a confidence and ease that reveals the level of understanding they have achieved. 

Is this talent? Or a combination of various factors? I found this interview with Daniel Sprick extremely interesting: in it, he said, "One of the things I like to do as an artist is to challenge my own preconceptions."  Between believing in the 10,000 hours concept and grinding out a painting a day - both ideas which may or may not have merit - when do we ever talk about what constitutes substance, authenticity, poetic sensitivity or contemporary relevance except in the vaguest terms?  However you want to articulate it, there is something that some people do that the majority of us have not considered doing.  We can label it as talent, or knowledge and experience, but they are able to produce paintings year after year that impress us.  Call it gravitas, call it courage to produce work that speaks with your own voice, call it an ability to bring life into a flat surface and colored oil - these are conversations more artists should have, something we ought to start amongst ourselves as we search for our own answers. 

An artist needs the craft.  She needs an thorough awareness of art history to better understand the influences that appeal to her.  Seeking out and sharing the sources of information and inspiration, such as the "Liminal Spaces: A Conversation with Daniel Sprick" post by Elana Hagler, and posted on the Painting Perceptions: commentary on perceptual painting blog, can help contribute to the important connections we artists need to make to further our personal understanding of the work we have chosen to do. 

Please share your favorite resources in the comments section below. 

And Thank You for reading today.

"Fall, oil on canvas, SFSmith 2015  IMG_0874 sm copy


The Difference Technique Makes

George Inness, in the book Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophy, is quoted as saying, “While looking at the Claude which hangs next to one of the Turners in the National Gallery – and which knocks the Turner all to pieces –I seemed to be in the presence of a great, earnest mind.” It was a quote that came to mind while I was sitting in the dentist chair, waiting to get numb.  There was a print hanging on the wall.  I stared at it, a group of five workmen, maybe miners given their lace-up work boots, or maybe farmers given their western style hats, sitting on a log and leaning against an adobe wall.  Maybe you’ve seen this particular print. But since I wasn’t “numbing” fast enough, I decided to study it some more.  Had I been a casual patient I might not have noticed some of the details.  That the men all had a similarity, not just in the facial features, but in the exact same tilt and shape and size of the head.  Or the shadows, connecting the forms, which did not read true.  Ahhh… I thought.  Had the artist used a photograph of one man, and projected it against his canvas five times?  A rendering by hand would have not produced such exact smiling replicas, lined up in a row. 

I overheard something similar in a gallery last year.  The gallery director had just opened the shipping box and set out the paintings from an artist.  As he examined them, he took out his phone.  “No,” he was saying, “I don’t care if it’s part of your process, I can see the black ink lines through the paint and my customers will not buy your paintings. I’m going to ship them back.” 

We can become slaves to technique.  It is the primary thing we think about.  We put a mark on canvas and fall prey to the obsession.  Over the centuries, when artists would grow too dissatisfied with their results, they would go to the museums and study the Old Masters.  How did they do that, they wonder?  What brush, what mixture of paint?  Is it any wonder the lure of short cuts becomes so strong?  David Hockney even wrote a book on the subject.  Called the Hockney-Falco thesis, Hockney argued that the accuracy of the work of the Old Masters was impossible to do by eye-balling it, so they must have used optical aids like the camera obscura.  Falco, a physicist, calculated the type of distortion such devices would create, and Hockney pointed out the “errors” in the work of Old Masters.  The book sparked intense debate: you can read about it here if you are interested, but it really boils down to a single argument -- is success based upon the artist’s unique, rare skill, or his ability to use technology?  Because if it ends up in the technology realm then anyone with a slide projector can create a passable image. 

It is a philosophical question best dissected at the end of a day.  I think about all the art I have viewed over the decades, the images, those few, that still haunt me: you are a child again, on your back in the summer grass, watching the stars spring to life in an ink black sky and it dawns on you with chills down your back that life, existence, the entire mystery is just about to reveal itself.  Just beyond those twinkling points of light, if only you could touch them.  The realization that there is something powerful and violent, awesome and beautiful all at the same time is mind boggling. Unimaginable, until you just imagined it.  That the artist, in one extravagant stroke of paint upon canvas can come close to recreating it.  Why would you ever want to fake that? 

Albert Einstein said, "Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." It seems to me the whole idea behind being an artist is fairly straightforward.  But then this is a dialogue that has been going on for a long, long time. We see the paintings that gain the applause and everything looks the same.  Yet we are told the importance of finding our voice, what makes us different.  I don't suppose we will solve it anytime soon. 

Here is another quote from the Inness book:  "We cannot be impressed by that which does not  touch us."


George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophy, Edited by Adrienne Baxter Bell, published in 2006 by George Braziller, Inc., New York.

quoted passages:

1. pg 15

2. pg 173

Einstein quote from BrainyQuote

Color In Your Life Television Show Expanding to include US Artists


I don’t usually write posts that sound like a PR campaign, but one mission of this blog is to promote collaboration and artistic support, and occasionally I come across information that is worth sharing. 

In December, I received the following email: "Hi my name is Graeme Stevenson.  I am an Artist and the producer of the TV series: Put some Colour in your life… a series that showcases Artists in their studios…their abilities and also their art…and story as a creator."

I responded with, "Hi  Graeme, I just spent some enjoyable time clicking through your website and watching the videos…I am always interested in quality, and it was a joy to watch the Three Amigos Painting!"

Color In Your Life is a site that delivers, educating artists through instructional videos and promoting their work through a free account.The show is the brainchild of Master Artist Graeme Stevenson.  Originating in the small Australian  town of Murwillumbah, the show has expanded to America, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa. Recently, Stevenson  partnered with FW publications in Ohio to distribute shows through their global networks.  From the website and You Tube channels you can access free instructional videos, and there are 74 US television stations airing the series, including PBS.  Colour In Your Life was “designed to foster creativity and interest in art, and generally highlights one artist in each episode." The show was nominated for a LOGIE Award in 2012. 

According to this media announcement, Stevenson is coming to The United States and planning to "film as many American artists as possible for the series. We know there is a plethora of incredible talent across the pond, and as we go to new heights with the show, we want to go greater distances for artistic skills to share with the world."  Just one more example of artists supporting and promoting other artists.

From the main website , I decided to set up an account as a test, and found it easy to do.  CIYL offers something very much like Facebook dedicated to artists, where you can promote your upcoming workshops, post art images, get feedback, and connect to other artists. Artwork is easy to upload, and although I have not explored the section for artwork for sale, the site offers a nice presentation. 

If you are interested, check out the TV Episodes link.  At the bottom, there are instructions for “Be On The Show.”  No Guarantees, but worth investigation, since the show has plans to come to the States. 

Here are some useful links:

Graeme Stevenson - YouTube videos which include free watercolor painting lessons from Alvaro Castagnet, Plein Air from John Crump, Acrylic from Carole Foster, and many more.

Find out about Color In Your Life here.

Testimonials from artists who have been featured on the show.

Home Page for Color In Your Life, where you can set up a free account.



Just off the Easel

IMG_0822 sm copy

Stormy Weather, 12 x 18, oil on mounted linen


Art should be viewed as a gift.  Knowledge was passed on to me, and I try to pass it on to others.

 To find out more about my book, Ancient Wisdom, Emerging Artist, please click here

And thank you for reading this blog!


Please contribute to this discussion by posting your comments. 

How Theme Can Move Your Work From a Depiction of Objects to a Visual Communication of Meaning

I recently received a question from Nicholas Wilson, asking:  “I've been an aspiring artist since childhood. That being said, I was wondering what your take on theme is. I've been primarily working on honing my technique more than anything else, so I haven't concerned myself with theme too much. I live in the southeast part of the U.S., so I do not frequently use landscapes as a theme. I'm really wondering if your theme was more intuitive, or did you consciously choose to focus on something in particular?” Since this struck me as a good topic for a conversation,  I wanted to share it more broadly through this blog.

 Theme is a foundation in Art Historical analysis. In Robert Hirsch’s book Seizing the Light, A History of Photography, he gives this example: “The sublime, like a storm on the ocean, can track its origins to awe, terror, and vastness, while the beautiful, a calm harbor sunset, situates its lineage within the organization of society, making them opposite concepts that cannot commingle.” Pg. 51

 Alvin Langdon Coburn The Temple of OhmSo what exactly does this mean?  

 Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) was part of an American Artistic movement influenced by the themes of mood, the mysterious, and the natural landscape.  In his 1911 photograph The Temple of Ohm ( at the left), Coburn used chiaroscuro to dramatically emphasize the vastness and abstract qualities in the landscape and establish a sense of the Sublime.


  Edward Steichen The Pond - MoonlightIn contrast, Edward Steichen (1879-1973), in his photograph Moonlight: The Pond (1906), was interested in aesthetic sensitivity. Evoking the mystery of the beautiful, Steichen’s theme could be described as the sensuality in the atmosphere, and turning a subject into an experience.   

These are a few examples of theme that artists can employ.  Exploring more deeply, we could think of theme as storytelling – not just the synopsis, but the richness of character development, and the undertones of subplots.  Theme can examine the effects of light, or unravel the social narrative.  It can be an investigation of form (Coburn) or an emotional experience (Steichen). Theme, to some extent, is employed in every piece of art, and whether the artist thinks of it as intuitive, or conscious, it is unique to that individual.  In the early stages of learning the craft, we are more conscious of skill building aspects such as composition, or color harmony, rather than theme.  But eventually the artist realizes that in order to move his or her work away from a mere depiction of objects into an impactful communication of meaning, then a conscious consideration of theme must be at work.

Jade and ancient glass emil carlsenBut for me, the most important aspect of theme is this:  If art is a way of capturing something of visual importance, then theme can be thought of as a multi-faceted collaboration between artist and viewer: the viewer looks at the visual information and develops his or her own interpretations of theme.  The more opportunities the viewer has to do this the more interesting the art.

  Looking at Emile Carlson's still life, Jade and Ancient Glass (image at left),  his theme could be interpreted as an Impressionist approach to light, or the more sublime idea of tension and contrast through the placement of large to small, or an exploration of the beautiful, in the mysterious environment containing his objects.  Compared to a painting based upon illustrating specific pieces of fruit, I find this image more interesting long term.

Certainly some aspects of theme attempt to deconstruct the idea of art - Damien Hurst, who uses death as a central theme in his work, wanted to shock viewers as a way to create a commercial commodity.  And at the opposite end of the spectrum, Thomas Kinkade depicted images of nostalgia in a formulaic way.  But theme exists whether we put it there or not - because the theme comes as much from the viewer as it does from the artist. 

How do you use theme in your work? What insights have you discovered? Please share your ideas with your comments. 


"When I started my blog in 2007, there were few resources available, so I started writing in response to my own sense of isolation.  As a mature artist who was newly entering the field, I was competing with people either half my age, or who had been painting successfully for decades. I had come across a research project that profiled artists in New York City, people who were both unknown and at the end of their creative lives. I realized that the hardest part of being an artist was carrying on the face of rejection – and this was particularly true for those entering the field after the age of fifty, who are often dismissed as hobbyists and not serious artists. I felt that my readers were more interested in the ideas and not in a catalog of my own work, so I tried to keep the two separate.  What I wanted to offer was the example of my own struggles, failures, and perseverance."

     ~from a blog interview I gave in 2014

 Art should be viewed as a gift.  Knowledge was passed on to me, and I try to pass it on to others.

 To find out more about my book, Ancient Wisdom, Emerging Artist, please click here

And thank you for reading this blog!


Please contribute to this discussion by posting your comments. 

The Blank Review

 This summer I have been reading The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, by author Sarah Lewis.  I often turn to writers, philosophers, and researchers in my quest to understand, and recharge, especially after the long stretches when nothing – creatively – seems to get done.

Lewis aptly describes this frustrating period as the gap.  “Trying to bridge the gap between work and vision can be like hearing the notes to a song without being able to finish hearing the complete tune.”  Part of this process, she proposes, involves working in private, examining failure, and self-critiquing progress to better identify the goal.

We often have a vision but lack the skills and ability to achieve what we imagine.  But the experiences of artists before us support Lewis’s conclusions.  Start somewhere.  Evaluate what you accomplished.  Try again with the idea of improving on what you accomplished. And slowly you begin to understand exactly what you want to achieve.

This should be an easier process than it is, but Lewis adds, “Closing the gap means coping with the blank review.”

And the blank review is the one you give yourself. 

Ideas I use when confronted by this blank review:

The self critique, where I look at the characteristics of work I would like to achieve, and compare to the work I produce.

The plan, where I try to identify what I need to learn and master in order to achieve idea number 1.

The committment, where I insist to myself that I not give up when my efforts to achieve idea number 2 result in multiple failures. 

The vision, which I hold on to when idea number 3 begins to fail. 

What ideas do you use? 


The Real Time Management

Time management isn't limited to carving out your studio time.  A lot of effort can be wasted in those precious hours if you spend the time on the wrong activity.

Time is initially spent mastering technique. But at some point it becomes more important to discover  the painting you want to paint, not just indulge yourself in the pleasant activity of painting. 

This means a willingness to evaluate very early in the process and wipe off repeatedly.  Spending more time in the thinking areas because you already have a pretty good command of the doing areas. And this can also mean the fear that days might be wasted while you struggle over the idea of what to paint. 

Recognizing when you are ready to manage your time this way, and then having the vision and courage to actually do it, now, that's the real time management.


Inspiration this week:

From the 99U blog Massimo Vignelli on The 3 Traits of Great Creatives


 Upcoming Events:

OPA Western Regional Juried Exhibition

Event Dates: 8/30/2014 - 9/30/2014
Location: Mountainsong Galleries - Carmel-by-the-Sea
Ocean Avenue, Between Mission and San Carlos
Carmel, CA 93921


Walmart at Sunrise

I have been thinking about doing a painting called Walmart at Sunrise. 

Sitting in my car, watching the sun rise while waiting for my shift to begin at a neighboring big box store, I keep seeing this painting unfold.  The sky turns from violets to pinks, the clouds drifting across the sky. The bare branches of the trees are counterpoint to the staggered verticals of the light posts.  In a glittering abstract of sunlight reflecting off metal, light dances across the parked cars of the night crew.  There is anticipation in the moment.  Like watching the sun rise across a distant lake, when everything is soft and quiet and mystical.  Like standing at Stonehenge watching the rising sun on the mid winter solstice. 

In an hour it will look like an urban parking lot, over burdened with cars and discarded plastic bags and lopsided shopping carts.

But for those few moments, it is beautiful.

In a world where our lives are interconnected with technology, where we think in 142 characters, cannot function without smart phones or GPS or using an App to discover what is around us - as humans, we will always have a hunger for something real. 

And if there is anything meaningful in painting, then I think the work has to be in response to some  human feeling or pathos or empathy.  For this, the artist has to make himself venerable.   He has to develop a point of view.  And even if that point of view is ignored by the majority, it is the thing that will make the work relevant to the few. 

Perhaps this is the only important question the artist needs to ask when examining his own work. 


How the Light Gets In

Over the years I have tried to understand this idea of painting the light.  On the surface it appears straightforward. We see because our eyes interpret the various wave lengths of light as color.  There are rules to further guide us: atmospheric perspective, cool light and warm shadows, turning the form, capturing a fleeting moment of light in Plein Air.  Taken collectively, the act of representing something as being in or out of the light ought to be a matter of proper drawing and shading and value. 

And yet it seems such an elusive thing, to convincingly depict the sense of light.

In many ways it is an act of seeing, sensitively and without judgment.  And in other ways, it can be a matter of understanding the philosophical foundation of the style in which you are painting.  We seldom stop to think about this.  The Barbizon Painters had a completely different painting approach to depicting the light than the Impressionists, even though the Barbizon School evolved into the Impressionists.  Classical Realists are at the opposite end of the Light spectrum from the school of Chiaroscuro. Throughout art history we see many different ways to paint the beautiful effects of light: we could even say that Hans Hofmann and Mark Rothko were concerned with depicting the effect of light through color and abstract forms. 

This idea – of appreciating the underlying conceptual approach – was demonstrated in a real way for me by Rose Frantzen and Sherrie McGraw.  As I studied with each artist, I began to appreciate how the concept determined the method. Each artist could manipulate the paint in a seemingly effortless way, to create magical results.  But each way was also different. 

In the first few days of learning, I did not appreciate this fact.  I was a student again, not realizing I was combining approaches in a way that left me visually confused.  I struggled, feeling inept and uninspired, wondering what I was not understanding.  And then a subtle awareness began to seep into my painting.  In order to create a specific end result I needed to approach it from a specific starting point, intellectually. 

I believe that we need to know what our end result will look like, and that can also mean that we need to know if we are working in a particular style or artistic tradition.  I think it’s quite possible to believe you are painting in a specific style without realizing you are combining it with ideas drawn from a different genre, just as it is possible for a very skilled artist to create a traditional motif in an extremely abstracted style without the end result looking staged.  But underneath that skilled approach, I am sure that artist understands exactly what conceptual foundation is informing him in his depiction of light.   

All of my instructors repeated one mantra: it is about what the light is doing.

I almost feel foolish saying this: after all I have been painting for quite a long time.  But sometimes we forget that painting is about learning, and learning is about seeing, and seeing is about understanding how to manipulate the paint.

And manipulating the paint is all about the artistic tradition that is informing you. 

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Asparagus, oil, 9 x 12, 2014

Living in The Between Revisited

*This is one of my favorite posts, written in 2010 - although the art coaches I respect have evolved into more than event planners.


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. 

I prefer to live in The Between.  There is a grace that comes from learning this - living in The Between.  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 (1/08/2010), called "I am the Contrarian Art Marketer,"  that also speaks to this topic.  If you don't already subscribe, I would recommend it.


IMG_0571 sm copyRoses, oil, 20 x 16

The painting Roses will be part of the First Annual Artists Guild Exhibition at Scottsdale Artists School.

Initial Exhibition Dates : January 27 through January 31, 2014

The Award Winners of this juried exhibition will hang alongside some of the most prominent painters of our time at the Legacy Gallery.

I am most excited, though, to be attending a 5 day workshop where I will have the opportunity to learn from David A Leffel, Sherrie McGraw, Jacqueline Kamin, Rose Frantzen, and Gregg Kreutz.



I would also like to express my gratitude for your comments and interest in this blog.  It is hard to believe I have been writing it since 2007.  This past year the frequency of the posts has lessened, but I hope you found the content worth reading and that it helped in some way with your own artistic aspirations.  The key, as always, is to believe in yourself, and never give up. 

Wishing you a prosperous, artfilled 2014. 

A Critical Eye

The Critical Eye is a convenient catch word for a lot of stuff.  Usually it means that you can't see your own mistakes (you have no critical eye), or, you always see your own mistakes magnified (now your critical eye is mal-functioning).  Some of us fall into the habit of not looking at our own work, not until it's time to clean out the studio, at which time we are either amazed or embarrassed, depending upon our mood or the weather or our belief that we have no real functioning critical eye.  

I speak of these things through personal experience.  It is often compounded by the fact that I really enjoy the act of painting.  Sometimes I continue working on a canvas well past it's freshness.  I put it down to the side benefits such continued relaxation does for my over all health, to the need to not waste the paint on my palette, to the subversive idea that I have no idea for the next painting so just continue to work on this one.

IMG_0353 sm copySometimes it is because what I see in real paint does not match the conceptual idea in my inspiration.  And, being more of a Conceptual Experimenter, I will attempt to discover what it is that isn't working through a kind of leap of faith perspective.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn't.  But every time, looking at the before and after photos of this process, there is something valuable to be learned for the next work.

To the left (above) is a Before image of The Elephant Vase.  I recall that my issue was paint quality (which means sloppy brush marks) and edges (the one leaf in particular on the right side).

IMG_0380 sm copyNext is the After image.  Somehow in the process of fixing paint quality and edges, I changed the color harmony and the shape of the vase.  And my efforts to soften edges actually reduced the contrast and visual interest, especially in the leaves. 

Both versions have merit, both have flaws, each expresses a different mood that teaches a lot about what really matters - it isn't what you paint, but how you paint it.

You have heard this before.  You think you understand it a little bit better with each incarnation of your painting until the Critical Eye reminds you there is still something off. Something not right here. 

And you go back to the easel and try to fix it.

But what you are really fixing is you.  You are deepening your understanding.  Feeling more comfortable with the way you handle the materials.  Settle in with a point of view and learn how to express it.

Because what you paint remains the same.

It's how you paint it that changes.