Friday, December 12, 2008

Whatcha reading?

Melinda accuses me of reading over her shoulder all the time. I say, I'm just easily distracted. Have you read anything lately that gets you so excited, you want to discuss it with anyone that sits by you for more than 30 seconds?

I've had a bunch of books recommended to me by the (extremely well-read) visitors to the Fice and other friends, and so I've been able to single-handedly keep UPS in business, while limiting the recent layoffs at ebay to the mere ten thousand that they felt impelled to do, to impress the stock analysts.

Currently on the nightstand:

Has Modernism Failed? by Suzi Gablik
Silvina gets the credit for recommending this one... it is dense, but intense! Check out this hammer blow on the contradictions of marketing art for a social good:
...since the individual who has a career in mind will obviously be eager to promote his or her own cause, ideals must be bent to suit the demands of our times. "As artists we have sold off inspiration to buy influence," the Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre has said. "We have always had the historical choice of either lying through or living through our contradictions. Now through the genius of the bourgeoisie we have the chance to market them."

Gablik's book is a series of essays on the role of art -- in essence, the conflict between art as individual expression or as a social force -- and whether or not modernism succeeded in moving art forward, or getting it lost. Along the way, she demolishes Clement Greenberg's art for art's sake, the Art Industry, and 'anxious objects.' I'm still devouring this book, sometimes cheering for Gablik, sometimes rolling my eyes -- but there's no question that every page challenges me to reevaluate what I think art is about.

The Vein of Gold by Julie Cameron
A gift from a fellow Creative, this is a companion (or maybe sequel) to Cameron's essential work in unblocking creativity, The Artist's Way. Where Way was about breaking through blocks, excuses and self-criticism to become creative, Vein provides a series of approaches (and those inevitable exercises) to finding one's way to an internal landscape of experience and feeling, suitable fodder for art expression. For the activist artist, Cameron's approach may seem too individual-expressionistic, but her touch is light and she has no agenda on your art, and simply provides methods of tapping into the currents that drive us.

The Artist's Mentor ed. Ian Jackman
Misleadingly subtitled "Inspiration from the World's Most Creative Minds" the Artist's Mentor is a fairly obvious attempt to trade on the success of Jackman's previous title, The Writer's Mentor.
Unfortunately, it isn't inspirational to read quotes about the transformation of the artworld in the 80's into a grinding industry of rock-star poseurs and flashes in the pan — or any other chapters. Jackman takes an even-handed approach to diminishing every worthy preconception you harbor about art and working in art: that your work matters, that art is a landscape of progression, that plein air painting adds something (or that it doesn't).
A patchwork of contradictory quotations from artists and critics, you can find a quote to support anything you like, here. And one to support the opposite, too. Snarkiness and pessimism abound. Inspiration? I don't think so. Avoid this one, if you still harbor a love of fairy tales. But you can find some occasionally self-deprecating humor, if you like to include quotes in your blog:

"Have you ever met an artist that didn't want to be famous? Artists are the greatest delayed-gratification people in the world." — Mary Beth Edelson

Creative Authenticity by Ian Roberts
Still in the beginning stages of reading this one, which I grabbed on impulse from the shelves at Borders.
Subtitled "Sixteen Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision," Roberts makes an initial case for Beauty, and as I'm a stickler for words, I have the sense that he's mis-applying "beauty" in his argument. I think if he and I could agree on the proper term, we'd probably not be far apart in viewpoint. His writing is accessible and his anecdotes are interesting. Semantics aside, the book is motivating — and inspirational — for artists that are seeking to fan the flame of their artistic calling: like Julie Cameron's lectures, but without the exercises.

So ... what's on your holiday reading list?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Arizona - land of potholes

Near Madera Canyon, December 5, 2008, watercolor 8.25"x5.125" (21x13cm)
I picked up a 'how to' watercolor book a while back. It illustrated all these techniques that my instructors pretty much forbade me from using, like glazing, because (in the hands of an inexperienced student) they muddied colors.

And in the book, they'd do this thing, like putting down a coat of paynes gray before putting in some other color, to dull the color and make it look like atmospheric perspective, or shading. My teachers would have been appalled -- for one thing, Payne's Gray was strictly prohibited. (For another, we were supposed to pre-mix and put down the color and value as it is intended, not use layers, which was considered to be somehow polluting the purity of the original stroke).

But, I tell myself, I'm a big boy now. I can make my own rules. No longer a penniless student, I now own a tube of Payne's Gray -- I can use it if I want. There's more: I also now own one of my mentor's paintings... and he glazed. Man, did he glaze.

In this book, there was one particular exercise of distant hills with a castle on it, which I attempted. [My results were ... not unlike a painting by Bob Ross's least apt pupil.] I did the work to understand the concept. But, I didn't care for the result. In particular, I disliked the look of those "distant hills" with their two blurry layers, one of paynes gray and one of blue.

Yet, when you're out in the field, and there's this thing you want to do, and all you've ever seen for it is the one thing you don't like. So, you try to do something different, but no matter how you try, it comes out just like the thing you don't like. It's like when you're going down the road, and you see this pothole you want to miss, but if you keep looking at the pothole instead of the clear spot next to it, it's a fair bet you will steer your tires straight into that hole. And wince.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Study of San Pedro Chapel, Tucson

What do you do when you only have forty-five minutes to paint plein air? No, the answer is not always "don't post it." Why, it's, "Use a big brush, don't sweat the small stuff, and call it a 'study,'" of course. It's not very successful, but it gives an impression of foreground growth, building and sky. Sometimes, trouble can be instructive.

Lessons learned — which is sunnier than 'post mortem', no?

  1. It was a cool, humid day, and I learned that watercolor, in other climates than the desert, must behave in remarkably different ways — like, you can do wet-in-wet painting for the longest time. Like, a completely different medium long time.
  2. I did 'stretch' my greens pretty well, showing a decent range and variety, but the bush to the right of the chapel doesn't work as light and shadow. The dark spots come forward, like ornaments on a tree. Reworking may be in order.
  3. Lifting and glazing after the fact on the face of the chapel had an interesting effect on the richness of the surface. Like it. I can see a whole new approach coming out of that alone. Thanks, Melinda, for the suggestion and the trained eye.
  4. Thought the blue sky did pretty well, but I really need to work on making my clouds float a little better — they just doesn't have any dimension or mass.
  5. Diagonals in the composition... semi-successful.
  6. Don't leave home without my mixing squares.

Friday, November 21, 2008

First I painted graffitti, then I got tagged

Tagged -- by Karen and, because I waited too long, by Silvina. By now, no one who visits this site doesn't know what it is. How do I know that? Because, I can do math. You're all from sites that recently got tagged.

You know, some schools don't permit kids to play tag... the school psychologists say it's emotionally scarring. It's a way of picking on the unpopular kids, who are never able to get "untagged," since the clique of popular kids target them. (My sense: those kids are bullies, whether tag is played or not. Fix the bully, because you haven't solved anything by banning the game.)

About a week ago, someone tagged someone else in the blogging network. That first person tagged seven others (1x7=7), each of those seven tagged seven more (7x7=49); those forty-nine each tagged seven more (49x7=343). One of the 343 is me.

If all of us in my cadre of 343 tag the full batch of seven, then the next group —of 2,401 artists— will be looking for 16,807 "untagged" souls on the web.

Now, there aren't any bullies in this game -- except for maybe that first person. It's actually a great idea (until you get into this ponzi-scheme math), a way of recognizing someone, of getting people to write a little bit about themselves, and to pay the compliment forward, so that lots of people are sending lots of people to look at lots of other people. It is a 'rolling theme', providing interest and variety... and I'm complimented that both Karen and Silvina have tagged me, because they are kind and generous and talented (and running out of candidates already, I imagine.)

So, here are my little-known facts:
  1. In middle school, I played saxophone in the school band. At first, I made good progress, but then I got worse, instead of better. Eventually I was so bad, I gave up practicing because I couldn't stand to hear myself play.

  2. In third grade I jumped off the side of a slide, snagged my foot on the ledge, and stopped my fall with my face. Put my upper incisors through my lower lip. I can still feel the scar.

  3. I get better at tongue-twisters if I've had one beer.

  4. In theater, I didn't get sweaty hands before going on stage, but I got a huge adrenaline shot when I said my first line.

  5. I spent my early childhood in Germany and England -- missing a huge chunk of Americana. People look at me funny when they make an "I Love Lucy" reference and I look blankly back at them. I must look like one of those red-scare foreign agents: He looks and talks like a normal American, but he doesn't know who won the '68 world series.

  6. I was inspired to become a visual artist by having an internship with an architect, who made me study political art. John Heartfield changed my idea of the power of art, and gave me an unforgettable image of courage.

  7. I once had a job programming payphones - and designing ads to go next to them in the booth.

At this point, I'm going to break the rules, because everyone else on my blog roll has already been tagged this month, or I just don't know them well enough to tag, and I can't overcome my anxiety about the possibility that I'd be rejected out of hand, and I'm not a very friendly sort, so I don't have any other friends.

I guess that makes eight true, but little-known, things.

But, to round out the people on my blog list that I don't know well enough to tag; if you aren't already familiar with them, do go look at the blogs of (in order of latest update):

Bob Cornelis, who poses hard questions about art and artmaking
David Lobenberg, an accomplished watercolor teacher
Deb Schmit, a terrific western landscape painter
Frank Gardner, a landscape painter living in Mexico
Karin Jurick, who has a body of work about people looking at art, which is cool
Kathryn Law, who is a sunny impressionist, now in Italy.

... and David Cornelius isn't willing to play, but everyone should have a look at the story of his moleskine-exchange project with his international art friends.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Urban Dysphonium: Juke's Box

A new project. I've been seeing these marks -- graffitti -- around me, and I'm inspired. This set of utility boxes have been a constant target for tagging. Tagging strikes me as a futile, nearly hopeless attempt to mark territory. In our area, tagging is soon erased, making a pristine new surface for the next writer's scribble, each in rotation.

For artists, perhaps grappling for exposure in galleries or museums, taggers may seem like anti-establishment outsiders, looking for their own shot at a moment of notoriety.

All we mark-makers change our environment, and our environment changes us.

6.75"x12" -- on canson watercolor block.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Someone talk me down*

I was reading through a few chapters of the "Writing About Art" book I recommended below, when I started to get my knickers all in a bunch, (i.e., a tizzy, a conniption) because something's been bothering me for a while now, and it's hard to broach, like telling a coworker they have bad breath. That takes trust, and shouldn't be undertaken by someone without a lot of compassion -- and if you'll bear with me, I'll try to show that I have compassion. And it will only look as if I'm a hypocrite, but that is merely an illusion, (sweeping abracadabra hand gestures inserted here) because I have an excuse for myself...

Presented for your consideration

Consider a couple of artworks: Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, and any given "odalisque" (I'll pick Ingres.) Both great art. Both classics, in the sense that they changed the way art was done. Each a painting of female nudes, the former a tribute to brothel workers, the latter an aesthetic rationalization for invading other countries and ogling their women. Now, let me not put too fine a point on my examples: these are parlor pornography, celebrating masculinity and representing women as objects to be used, possessed, possibly -- if charity is given -- to be rescued. But nothing so much as bedmates, accessible and either willing, or vulnerable to domination. These are painted by men, for a male audience. Although I'm not qualified to speak for them, I'll vouchsafe few women would be disposed to depict these subjects in either of these ways.

Am I condemning these works? No. I'm criticising them, because I need to make a point, and these examples provide an obvious demonstration: art is (arguably) made for an audience. One task of art criticism is to ask, "Who was this art made for? Who will relate deeply/be moved by/find beauty in this work?" These examples demonstrate that even great art is aimed at a minor segment of the potential audience, not the whole populace.

So, what's your point?

I went to a Sustainability Fair this weekend, where people were presenting alternative energy and local growing techniques. Last week, I was watching Frontline's documentary, "Heat." In it, an Indian woman -- either an engineer or economist, I think -- is saying that Asia is having the US/European way of doing things shoved down their throats, but if Asians were to live like Americans, there would be no more resources left, not enough energy, not enough food... disaster.

Dude, you're harshing my buzz, and you still have no point.

Take your everyday paintings of confections... Hershey's Kisses? Seriously? What group does that appeal to -- aside from Hershey's executives (because now that the last plant in America is shutting down, it sure as hell doesn't appeal to Hershey's factory workers)? No, it appeals to people that can't afford classic art, but want to have some "real" art to hang on the wall. It's not too "modern," it's not too "old fashioned." It pats them on the head for being not too rich and not too poor. It fits just where it should: in the vanilla zone.

The point is this: look at us, and by "us" I mean us artists. We make culture. When we change, culture must follow. Our work either reinforces the status quo, or challenges it. What's got me upset is -- for lack of any new terminology -- middle class art. Is the work we are doing simply stroking the egos of our audience, feeding their complacent self images, like Ingres painting an ostensible seraglio slave so that his audience could feel justified in colonizing those barbaric parts of the world (while having a flight of sexual fancy)? Should our audience feel self satisfied, or should they really ought to be getting off their butts and going out to change the world? I mean, "Artists! Pull your heads out of your asses!"

No, I don't mean message art

... Unless you're into that. The plein air paintings I do in my town today are different from the ones I did 20 years ago in college. Back then, the air was so clear, the blues so dark, you'd swear you could catch glimpses of the stars in broad daylight, if you looked carefully. Today, the skies are paler -- a washed-out blue, almost white. When I paint a sky today, I'm recording a change for posterity. I'm documenting for my (someday) grand kids, "I saw the sky lose its color, a change that occured in the space of a generation. It wasn't like this a few decades ago." I find myself wanting to 'cheat,' make them bluer, more saturated than what is in front of me. It is sentimentalism, and a sense of loss. Sometimes, I give in to nostalgia, but I'm just lying to myself.

There's a scenic vista not far from me, rolling foothills and low mountains, that may soon be the site of a new open pit mine. If I paint that 'scape today, I am preserving my impression for a posterity that will no longer be able to share it. They will see an entirely different vista from that roadside overlook.

So, let me turn the question around. When you paint, what's your point?

*Credit for this title must be given to one of my favorite political commentators, Rachel Maddow, who has been one of my favorites since the days of the lizzbians (and if you recognize that reference, you know what I mean.)

Okay, don't look at it, feel it

Canson Montval Marine paper block. Cover says: 9" x 21.125". Ruler says: 9" x 19". Maybe that's why it was on sale. But it is a beauty of a super-wide panarama sheet.

Yeah, the painting is pretty bad, but a few things worked: First, I was able to use my "penance sheet" (see below) to choose colors deliberately, instead of accidentally. And it saved me from a couple of bad choices I'd have previously made. So, "thanks," to all of you that encouraged me in doing my homework.

Second, I was able to paint "big" (for me -- things being relative). It was liberating to use big brushes and my whole arm to make strokes. I didn't have much time to prep or paint this one -- it was a fast sketch. But, oh, the joy to be able to move through the medium! Can't wait to try another (hopefully with more time to work on it).

But time has been short -- thus the dearth of posts, or comments elsewhere. To any of you that have borne with, and come back after my long absence, you have my gratitude. We happy few.

One last thing-- a book to recommend, for all of us looking for the language to describe what it is we do: "A Short Guide to Writing About Art" by Sylvan Barnet. It's small, easy to read, and no doubt inexpensive in a used copy of the many editions extant.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Proof of life

I feel like I've been offline for weeks, which is, while not literally, at least conditionally true. Overwhelmed with non-artist-tasks, I haven't got new work to post.

As proof of my continued existence, I have this modest start on a grid of mixing squares, which I dutifully began after getting the word from Deb Schmit that, without it, I could not seriously expect to get into Artist's Heaven. Having been raised Catholic, I understand the need to have one's checklists done before applying to the Powers That Be for dispensation, else Things may go Badly. Like so many penances, mixing squares feels a lot like work.

I don't know when I'll be able to paint again, but it's gonna happen soon, or I'll have to hold myself ransom, and ask for more proof of life. Great. Now, I've brought to mind that scene from "Blazing Saddles".

But, check out the paper block this is painted on: 9"x21" (23x48cm, for those of you that aren't from around here.) It's just a 140# Canson sheet, but, you see, I got that 'super panarama' format that I was envying of David Lobenberg's. So, now I can stop envying. Another mortal sin I can cross off my list!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

How art made me

I've subtitled this blog "Art musings and self-abusings," and my self-abuse is amply demonstrated by my various stabs at making art. So in the interests of living up to the name, let me post once without the art, as an "art musing."

As a person whose job is communications, I've long pondered questions like, "How is it that art came to be what it is?", "Why do I feel compelled to make art, even when it hurts?", "What is it about art that moves people so deeply (and some people don't seem moved at all)?" and "Is art important?"

At a personal level, I've answered all of these, but I know my answers don't apply to most people -- since most people don't go out of their way to make or view (capital "A") Art, they must feel differently about it than I. Nevertheless, despite the ambivalence that art is given in America, I see the world is full of art, and images, and objects that have clearly been designed with aesthetic considerations. As a marketer, I know that imagery is deeply affecting to the psyche -- at a deep, lizard-brain/subconscious level, marketers are able to manipulate feelings about products by using the right imagery.

One reason is the power of metaphor -- abstract thinking -- which is related to framing or how we view the world. Other reasons are being shown to me as brand new concepts in a series I've rented from my local video store, "How Art Made the World." My mind is being blown with each new episode.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Inhale... exhale. Painting is breath.

This cliff face in Bandolier National Monument (New Mexico) still fascinates me. Not only is it imposing to sit at its foot, even though it's probably only 70 feet tall, but it is pocked with the small pits and recesses of the massive amounts of homes that were built against it, perhaps 800 years ago, by a stone age society. The place still echoes with the sounds of Indian children playing and mothers grinding corn in metates. Drawings fill the cliff walls, and man's hand is clear in every curve of the sandstone. Deer feed on the grass just tens of feet from the tourist trail.

This particular image, however, draws me like a magnet because the little cloud curled so far above the cliff line is a mirror of the rocks below, like the outline of South America that appears in the west coast of Africa. Just color me romantic.

Mostly, I'm just happy to get an image down on paper. If I can't do a painting, well, nothing is really going right.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Globe Arizona Painting

So, I cribbed a page from David Lobenberg, and tried a long and narrow format. Yes, it's imitative, yes, it's unoriginal, but I was inspired by his post of watercolor sketches he did in this remarkably long sketchbook, and by this cool (long thin) painting on Moments of Clarity.

I don't have the actual long format sketchook that David used, so I drew a thin rectangle on my little moleskine watercolor book, and used little, tiny brushes. This thing's about three inches (7.5cm) wide and seven or eight inches (23cm) tall.

Since I'm a noob at all this, I've not tried anything larger than the moleskine yet, but I'm beginning to get frustrated at the size of the page. Yes, they are very convenient for: a quick sketch; schlepping your gear around the countryside; and curtailing those feelings of excessive grandeur that might arise from having a great big sheet of paper to despoil (if said feelings aren't pre-empted by anxiety about despoiling a great big sheet of paper... but let's give oneself the benefit of the doubt, and assume one can approach the prospect with confidence.)

Joking aside, I was also led to the composition by the landscape in front of me: clustering clouds, springing up in the humid afternoon air over the mines in the distance. I wanted to do a panorama, but my locale (and time of day) didn't lend itself to anything dramatic. The colors were beginning to wash out and the sun was approaching noon, which made the shadows on the mountains flat. The most interesting thing to me was the sky, so I figured I'd feature that.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Summer storms

Didn't quite finish this plein air sketch overlooking the west of the Tucson valley. But I was happy with some of the things that were happening in the clouds and rainfall. Still trying to learn this medium, I don't have much experience with wet on wet effects.

And the new colors in my palette completely threw me when I tried to paint the mountains. That'll teach me not to mix some samples before going out. I think that splotchiness in the blue on the mountain, center-right, is from something called "granularity" in the paint. I just read about this aspect of pigments in the new Daniel Smith catalog. Maybe some watercolor mavens could straighten me out if I'm wrong.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Someone stop me, before I art again

From my Moleskine sketchbook. This was done late in May at a terrific B&B/Artist's Retreat, the Triangle L Ranch. It's run by an artist in Oracle, Arizona, Sharon Holnbeck. The painting is a view from the porch of one of her cottages. It strikes me as slightly overpainted -- which brings up the question, "When to stop?" It's quite the metaphor in art. When to stop, indeed?

And I'm still surprised to see a bird in this painting. My attempts to include birds in paintings rarely add positively to the work. I paint them oversized, and stilted, so they don't add spatially to the composition.

That hawk kept circling around, though, like she thought she ought to be included. I was really struck by the presence of birds at the Ranch, everything from a family of horned owls to a cacophony of quail. Because of that heightened awareness, I think the hawk became a necessary part of the image; it was intrinsic to the place.

Is it just me, or are flocks of birds smaller and fewer between than a few decades ago?

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Coughing and spluttering, yet another blog is born into a crowded, weary virtual world. A cry goes up, and one's first tears are shed. So it begins.

This watercolor is of Ted DeGrazia's chapel. It was done in the Spring of 2008, on location. I can't say I'm a big admirer of Ted's popular works, but I do admire his courage, conviction and activism as an artist.