Inspiration 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 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


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?


   IMG_0675 sm copy

Opal Springs, 16 x 20, oil

sfsmith 2014


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

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. 


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. 

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. 

Do You Use Risk as a Strategy?

The idea of a risky strategy makes you clench up.  The words are full of negativity, of dire results or parental condemnation, or at the very least a moment of staring into the mirror and wondering how you could have been so stupid.  As humans we avoid risk as a general rule. So we might not see it as anything useful in our daily art practice.

Risk, of course, is just a word.  We put our own emotional attachments to it, and then we use the knee jerk response to turn anything uncomfortable into the monster in the closet.  Don't try new subject matter.  Don't challenge the status quo.  Don't waste precious time and materials on something that will not come up to our expectations.

But growth is an ongoing process.  And it isn't easy.  So I've turned risk, despite the uncomfortable associations, into a strategy I can use. 

Risk allows you to put all your anxiety into one bucket.  And while you're worried about the awkwardness of your attempt, you don't worry about the other things - such as your drawing skills, or your paint application, or whether or not you're repeating yourself, yet again.  And when the paint is dry, when you study what you accomplished or did not accomplish, there are some things that will become immediately visible. 

Like the fact that you can either draw well, or you can't.

That your brush marks are sloppy or more expressive than you thought.

That your ideas are lost beneath your stilted compositions.

For me, there are only a few ways I can progress as an artist.  I can show up, practice, and educate myself.  I can find a coach willing to point out missteps in my technique. 

What I can't do is let the scary idea that I do not have enough talent keep me from looking at what I actually accomplish.   

It takes bravery to face our greatest fears, but only from that place of honesty can we grow toward our best work. 


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

Garden in the Morning

IMG_0312 sm copy
Garden in the Morning, Oil on linen


Whenever we enter the studio we face challenges.  In my own work, these revolve around the technical aspects of balance in the texture, brushwork, edges and color.  That was part of the story behind Garden in the Morning.  It was a painting I had been inspired to do on several occasions, and with each attempt became more convinced that it might be beyond my ability, certainly my ability to pull it off at the technical level required.  But the inspiration kept returning and I have learned that when an idea becomes that insistent, perhaps it is my own fears that are getting in the way. 

I began by studying the technique in the work of artists I admired, their brushwork, and the way they approached the design, trying to find some way to put it together.  I reread sections of Richard Schmid's Alla Prima and suddenly understood clearly what he meant when he said, "Do not ask yourself, 'What do I see?' Rather ask, 'What do I see?"  And what I saw was the beautiful yellow light as it moved upward over the form and disolved into the green of the leaves, as well as the warm S curve that weaves behind the statue and through the garden, then upward into the distant trees.

As the painting progressed, I figured out how less is more in depecting the gesture of the statue and letting the light provide the few important details.  Whenever I started to get "lost" I went back to the underlying design to regrasp the composition. This idea of the S curve behind the central figure came as an insight after studying John Singer Sargent.  While I greatly admire his brushwork, more important to me is the way he builds his compositions entirely on the underlying abstract design. 

We should never shy away from the challenges that are presented even if our first few attempts are wiped off.  I have discovered more valuable information by what doesn't work than through the paintings that flow easily.  More often than not what seems so easy is only easy because it is repetitive and doesn't move my artistic aspirations forward.