Collective Wisdom Feed

Perseverance of the Everyday

I have been thinking about the last post and the idea of the Blank Review.  A critique traditionally comes from others.  They tell you what they want to see in your work, and sometimes how to get there.  But the blank Review is one you give yourself.  It isn't about what other people want to see, but what you want to communicate.  It's an invitation to explore your own work.  Asking questions is the usual advice.  Comparing, and - borrowing from Sarah Lewis's analogy - identifying the specific parts of a tune that might up the entire song.

I read an interview with graphic Illustrator Yuko Shimizu, where she pointed out the necessity of starting with a certain style, but over the years allowing the work to grow into something uniquely your own.  She said she wanted to “lead and not follow”, and that her “ultimate goal is to be respected by peers and people I respect.”

Developing a vision for your work takes the perseverance of the everyday. Sometimes this comes from others - I have asked artists to look at my work, and at times I didn’t want to hear what was said.  At other times the opinions held no relevance to what I wanted to achieve.  Not all information has value,  but I could not distinguish between the valued and the valueless until I appreciated my own strength and vision. 

So these days I work differently.  Sometimes this looks like I’m doing nothing.  Other times I am trying everything, creating more problems than I know how to solve.  It’s frustrating, and I’m filled with doubt then, and perhaps a fear of the unattainable. 

But an artist works on speculation.  Everything is vulnerable - to rejection, or acceptance, or misinterpretation.  It is a state of tension most artists learn to live with, or they find a differnt job.  The ones who hold out, though, they have developed the skill of perseverance, the ability to validate progress and meaning in the small acts of the everyday. 

As I grow older I realize the actual work in the studio is a meditation.  On theme, on technique, on surface preparation and mediums and paint.  I recently realized I wanted to see more complexity overall, and I began to explore the skills to accomplish this goal.  It's akin to standing at the edge of a field, seeing the distant flag, and plotting the strange path to get there.  First you have to see, and then to plan.  But ultimately you need to take that step into tall grass.

TED co-founder Richard Saul Wurman is quoted as saying that “learning can be defined as the process of remembering what you are interested in.”[i]

Everyday perseverance can be described as the process of remembering what you envision, and to making small steps toward an outcome you cannot clearly see. But then one day the fog lifts. And you make something uniquely your own. 

[i] Laurence G Boldt, Zen and the Art of Making a Living, pg 514

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? 


Technique..or Artistry?

There is an intellectual richness to be found in the creative life.  As well as a lot of paint. I had an opportunity to see the one man show of an artist I have long admired.  Lovely paintings when viewed in the magazines, or online.  They were landscapes, a subject I enjoy painting, so I was one of those patrons who stand back, then close up, then back again - the artist "tire kicker."

In another section of the gallery I found some Russian Impressionists.  Also landscapes.  Painted perhaps in the early 20th century.  Visually I was impressed.  Far more impressed than I felt when viewing the other work.  It wasn't any difference between subject matter or color or size.  It was something about the physical surface of the canvas, the energy in the paint.  The difference between technique, and artistry.

If you think of it in terms of art history, this could be described as the difference between the craftsman and the artist.  That is, an artist who becomes too dependent upon the technique produces work that begins to look automated.  Was this the case with the artist I so admired? Painting after painting was finished with the same brush marks, but the result of this repetition across several walls was the sense of automation, as if the artist had decided to go with what worked.  What was easy.  What the people liked. Look how well I can do this - a modern day version of a Cennini student.

In the 15th century, Florence master Cennino d'Andrea Cennini wrote The Craftsman's Handbook. It was the way they passed along information, from master to student.  A recipe book for things like a violet color in fresco, or how to paint the flesh of a corpse by adding a tint of green.  As a result we were blessed with Renaissance art.  We might say that the idea of art began to change, as it certainly had changed by the time of the Russian paintings I viewed.  Each canvas offered unique energies - same artist, same subject. But to my eye, the problem solving relied on artistic interpretation, and not a repetitious finish. 

What was I seeing?  With the first artist, was it a case of manipulating the paint to achieve an end? With the second artist, was it artistry without letting the technique dominate? I began to ask myself - at what point does technique get in the way?  Was I only noticing the technique because I was looking at painting after painting, seeing the sameness? And I became curious as to the opinions and experiences of other artists, whether they have ever considered such a question. 

So I decided to write about it, wondering if I am too critical.  I think not.  But I am voicing my questions, right or wrong.  Are there artists who achieve success by repeating something that patrons love - but other artists see with disdain?  Because it speaks of laziness,  or worse?  Is there a real difference between technique and artistry?  And if so, how is it defined? We may paint in isolation, but we are not isolationists by design.  Artists have always formed groups where they felt safe discussing controversial ideas. Competition is necessary.  I am one who sees it as a path to growth.  And without having someone to challenge your assumptions then you create within a bubble - and of course, we know how bubbles end.  Not kindly. 

At least if we share ideas, we have a chance.




Can We Create Art That Matters?

Agnes Martin is quoted as saying “painters can’t give anything to the observer.  People get what they need from a painting…when you have inspiration and represent inspiration, the observer makes the painting…”*

Think about this.  It removes a tremendous amount of responsibility from the painter’s shoulders.  Your work, what you choose to paint and how you respond to color and composition – it only needs to have meaning to you.  No point in trying to please the observer – how many people will see what you create and “not get it?” How could you possibly anticipate and paint to that expectation? 

And don’t say that you’ve never stood in front of a blank canvas and asked, “What will I paint today?” And then immediately followed with, “What will they want today?”  Because so much of the artist’s life becomes focused on that responsibility we want to have – that we can create something profound, something beautiful, a work of ART.  Don’t say that you’ve never, in that quiet part of the night, hoped for that, hoped for recognition, hoped to have mattered.

Most of us have, because most of us want our work to matter even in a small way.  But the painter’s job – according to Agnes Martin – isn’t to take on the responsibility of being significant.  “Art,” she says, “restimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities.  That’s the function of art.” 

Yes, it is true that Agnes Martin suffered from schizophrenia throughout her adult life, and her state of mind is reflected in much of her writing.  But if you are trying to understand – as I am - how to make art that matters, that influences, then consider this:

Agnes Martin found her own inspiration in how she interpreted straight lines as representing planes.  How those planes – driven by memory - provided stability, quiet, a resting place, happiness.  She painted her inspiration.

So the question becomes how to create?  Do we create in ways that we hope will matter to other people?  Or do we consider this idea that it matters more to have found a personal inspiration and to allow the observer to find in that what he will?


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Opal Springs, 16 x 20, oil

sfsmith 2014


* Quotes from Agnes Martin come from the book Agnes Martin Paintings, Writings, Remembrances, by Arne Glimcher

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. 

Finding a Constructive Approach

After reading the book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, discussed in my previous post, I realized that, like many artists, I tend to be predominantly experimental.  There may be many reasons for this.  The legacy of Modernism supports intuitive approaches over carefully planned execution.  Traditional approaches have only recently come back into fashion. Regardless, the experimental artist often finds himself questioning what it is that he really wants to achieve, and how best to express it.

Oddly enough, in seeking answers to these questions, I found Pinterest. At first it was a diversion to stay out of the studio.  But as I noticed my pins following a visual trend, I began to pin more intuitively - in that I looked at images for a few seconds and either responded or didn't.  Those responses ended up on my Board.  And that Board began to visually illustrate exactly what it was that I was seeking as an artist. 

To see a commonality with a style of brushwork and subject matter, repeated by artists spanning centuries, and all in one place instead of spread out over magazines and sketch books - this helped illustrate the source of dissatisfaction with my own work.  It involved a powerful, visual communication, and with that shift, a renewed sense of control. - over my ability to create, to control the medium, and to produce work that could satisfy my own judgements. 

It isn't that Pinterest is the key.  It is that we, as experimental artists, can often find ourselves terribly discouraged when things "don't work right."  We frustrate ourselves mentally with constant revisions, jumping from one visual approach to another, often looking for outside approval, then going around again when the validation isn't there. 

It is equally frustrating for an artist to not actually know what she is after.  Is it composition that is important? Is it color? Or brush work? Should I be more Realistic?  Maybe more Impressionistic?  If I add this element will it make the painting better? Worse?  Should I take this workshop?  Start doing that technique?  This is a familiar mental dialogue for Experimentals, and one taken to an extreme compared to the Conceptuals.  Who - without arguing the merits of Galenson's theories - work through the appraisal process in the early stages of creating.  Think about Andy Warhol, showing us his idea of what art was by selecting iconic images and reproducing them in a mechanized way, not by dithering over which color or process to use to achieve the end result.    

 Of course, we are not restricted by one approach.  We are more conceptual at some points, more experimental at others. Our education, natural talents, and art view all contribute the the artist we will eventually be.  Some will establish early on a preference for a specific style or historical approach, and find answers in the work of predecessors.  But some could also be wondering why they see some element in the art of others that is not visible in their own.  And the reasonableness of these questions, the insecurity in our own judgements, can be magnified by a slowing market, a declining interest on the part of the public, and the pressures of every day life. 

Most of the artists who comment on this blog are seriously interested in improving their own work.  They may question a theory discussed here, or support an approach that works for them.  But they are all interested in the answers to questions most important to them.  They half-sense that the answers are out there, and the fact that they can't easily find those answers is distressing.  So maybe something as innocuous as Pinterest can help point the way. 



Two Types of Artists: Which One Are You?

We have all heard the "Young Geniuses and Old Masters" description of artists, epitomized by Picasso and Cezanne.  The distinction was based on the age when the artist peaked, producing his best work and contributing his greatest contribution to art.

But author David W. Galenson presents this concept from a different - and far more insightful - viewpoint.  Galenson's book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, defines the two major differences not through age, but through the way the artist approaches the work. 

The significant - and perhaps most valuable - ideas that Galenson presents are these:

  • The Young Genius artist works from a Conceptual foundation, forming his idea, making numerous preparatory sketches, color studies, and compositional studies before starting the work that he sees clearly in his mind.   What defines him is the method of working out conceptual ideas first - where the real creative work is conducted.  The resulting painting is merely a visual record of what the artist imagines, executed with the confidence of one following a map. Artists working Conceptually include Picasso, Gauguin, George Seurat, Pissarro, Matisse, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein.
  • The Old Master artist works from an Experimental foundation.  He does not have a preconceived vision of what he wants to produce, and often changes directions in the course of working because he sees something new or exciting.  He is searching for something visual which cannot always be defined, and is prone to reworking, feeling dissatisfied with the work, working intuitively, and reworking the same subjects in series.  He seldom feels a painting is finished, which is why the Experimental Artist may rarely sign the work.  Artists working Experimentally include George Innes, Cezanne, Monet,Van Gogh, Degas, Frankenthaller,  Pollack, Rothko, among others.

The insight I most appreciated from Galenson came from his reversal of the traditional viewpoint of the young vs old creativity cycle.  He effectively moves the discussion away from the age at which an artist produces his greatest work to the method by which he works to achieve it, with some fascinating research and art historical information to support the position. 

If you are curious about Galenson's research and interested in discovering more fully about the life cycle of your personal style of creativity, this book might be of interest to you.  The more we understand about our personal creative life cycle, the more powerful our experience will be. 

Finding a Safe Place

During the first years of this recession I worked at an art gallery, and while the slow decline in sales was disappointing, I was surrounded by people who appreciated the value of original art. 

 However, this year I have been working in a non-art related field, and there is one influence I never expected:  Being around people on a daily basis who have different priorities lessens my sense of value in what we do as artists.  

 This is a normal and expected experience.  We are often shaped by the values of others without fully noticing that we might gradually like something more and another thing less.  In many cases we don’t notice, because the changes are unimportant.   

 But even in our strongest moments, we may not appreciate the fragile nature of value. This can become an insidious challenge for the artist – because it cuts at the very root of every inspiration we might experience.

  I began to realize this as I searched for a safe place to store my art.  For years I have used a spare bedroom to store paintings, but as I increasingly had visitors I would move things out of the bedroom and into the studio, disrupting the peaceful order of that space.  Then I took to storing paintings wrapped in plastic in the garage, or destroying those I considered too old or not up to my current standards.  And while my efforts at storage were reasonable, I began to recognize that on another level my actions were unreasonable.

 We are not always sensitive to the way our actions reinforce our belief system, and consequently we experience small moments of self-sabotage and not even realize it.  In fact, we might even tell ourselves that storing paintings in plastic in the garage is an acceptable solution without acknowledging that by also allowing other stuff to pile up around them is reinforcing  a different message…these are not important.  And even if this was not the message we think we believe, or the message we intended to send, it is the message we subconsciously absorb every time we have to move all the stuff that has gotten in the way just to find a single canvas. 

 And that is real self-sabotage. 

 Which just might mean finding a safe place for your art. 




 "I've got my book in the mail and I read it with great pleasure.  You have a great style and the whole book is such an inspiration.  I really enjoyed it and I keep it handy for all the moments when I doubt myself."  SM, Australia


Book - Ancient Wisdom Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist

 Kindle UK Store - Ancient Wisdom Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist

Telling a Story or Singing a Song?

George Inness was compulsive when it came to achieving perfection, to the point where he regularly destroyed more paintings by doing “some little repainting” than he completed successfully.  At one point his insistence to fix some small thing that disturbed him was so great that his collectors would routinely hide their Inness canvases whenever he came to visit, or risk having Inness take the painting from the wall and back to his studio, where he would “fix” it to the point of being unrecognizable.[i]

Not all artists are dissatisfied with the result of their efforts to the degree that Inness was, but the sense of dissatisfaction is a familiar one.  It is easy to feel inspired, easy to paint, but hard to accept the results.  We evolved most recently from the Expressionist/Impressionist branches of the family tree: both 'isms" involve emotion in paint – when told to paint something that reflects anger, you can do it, can’t you?  I want to believe that when I am in the flow, magic happens.  You want to believe it. But we know this isn’t completely true.  Something is missing, the thing we can’t describe, the thing that leaves us feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the result of our efforts.

I believe our sense of dissatisfaction is really an argument.  An argument between the right brain, inspired and passionate, saying “isn’t this beautiful?” - and the left brain, logical and linear, that keeps saying, “yeah, but it doesn't look to me like it felt to you when you painted it.”

And the solution  – at least for me – has to come from historical foundations of painting.  Even the most bravura artists of our times have a solid grounding in traditional training. 

If you study Sargent’s paintings, you may notice a structure based on the Fibonacci numbers or some other version of dynamic symmetry.   

Sergei Bongart, the well-loved Russian Impressionist, was a student of Michail Yarovoy at a very early age, an artist who himself was a student of Ilya Repin, the great Russian realist.[ii]

Joaquin Sorolla impressed the public with the speed and intuition of his brushwork, his dazzling colors, and his ability to take in a subject with a single glance.  His critics were impressed by his complete command of technique. His close friends reported that “The execution of each work was preceded by a period of preparation in which, by making numerous studies of design and color, both of details and of the whole composition, he was at pains to familiarize himself with the subject.” [iii]

I believe that many ideas at the heart of Modern painting do artists a disservice.  The Modernists of the last half century applauded spontaneity.  They encouraged personal expression and an intuitive response to the painting.  But they also had solid foundations in traditional ideas and their work was in response to those ideas. 

Yet Art education today often emphasizes personal expression over the necessity of acquiring a deep understanding of composition, values, edges, form, line, pattern, drawing – the elements of painting.

How often, before you begin a painting, do you ask yourself, am I telling a story, or singing a song? 

If you are singing a song, all you need is an emotional melody, a pleasing sound, because all information is transmitted through our sense of hearing.  We can sing along with the music, cringe at the occasional missed note, but understand the emotional message without effort because our sense of hearing is adapted to obtaining information from the nuance of sound alone.

But if you are telling a story – and you are with a painting – you are dealing with the visual sense, which is highly connected to the mind - and the mind expects more clues in the visual information you are providing.  It wants a sense of rhythm, of pattern, shape and form, of pleasing paint application and solid value differences.  It wants to be visually delighted, emotionally involved, and to discover what it is that the artist wishes to share.  And to do this, to communicate the visual story you want to tell, you need to be the most proficient in the language of painting as you can be. 

More than once I have tried to convince myself that this is not true.  That I could skip this whole foundation part. But I'm tired of balancing awkwardly on one leg and feeling dissatisfied.  

[i] George Inness: Artist, Writer, Philosopher, edited by Adrienne Baxter Bell, page 28-29

[ii] Sergi Bongart, Mary N. Balcomb, page 23

[iii] The Painter Joaquin Sorolla, edited by Edmund Peel, page 79