January 6, 2018

Enchanted stars
“Enchanted Lights” in the Rose Garden, December 2017 (mixed media)

As this is my first post for 2018, I’m wondering if it should be related to some kind of New Year’s resolution. Nah… Instead I like the idea of talking about the “structure” or “bones” I have in this piece of art and how I need to have structure or at least a point of reference for each piece of my art. Some artists can just conjure something in their head and paint as if from memory. Whenever I try that, it looks kind of contrived or forced. I need to get out of my head and be transported somewhere else when I paint. That means I need to be looking at something of interest, and maybe even listening to music.

I remember when I was in school at UC Berkeley; I had some amazing art teachers there. My figure drawing instructor’s first assignment was for us to go outside onto a second floor back balcony and paint the sky. Well, the sky in Berkeley that day was completely cloudless—an all-over perfect blue. Funny assignment for a figure drawing class, right? I figured she hadn’t lined up anyone for us to draw that day and decided to have us draw outer space. Artists can be like that and I was inspired to do my best even if there was nothing actually there. I had previously stretched a sheet of watercolor paper and proceeded to mix what I thought the most perfect blue paint color. I then went to work evenly covering the paper, creating the most perfect afternoon blue-sky wash I could imagine. It didn’t take me very long. Most of my time was spent mixing the color. Because, as you may or may not be aware, doing a wash is tricky and you have to apply the paint quickly and evenly, especially when you are outside in the warm sun. (I found this “long ago” piece while digging through a stack of old portfolios the other day. Still a perfect blue sky, I might add.) I had noticed a guy wearing a black beret and cape when we all filed into the studio that first day. So of course he created a sky that looked like it was on fire—with bright shades of purple, red, deep gold and black. It took him quite a while to create his sky. I can still picture it in my imagination. (I didn’t watch him do it, but I always wondered how one paints while wearing a cape.) I don’t remember what the teacher said to any of us when we were all finished (some had painted fluffy white clouds). But she was pretty great with all other critiques, not crushing our very tender and delicate artistic souls as we painted the subsequent parade of nudes that came and went during the rest of the quarter. I can only imagine she thought mine was too literal and a bit of snooze and that “beret” man had tried a little too hard to be different. I can still picture her pleasant face as she sipped from a huge mug of tea—walking carefully among the easels, stepping around the large birdcage and hatboxes that one of the models often brought with her. I seem to remember painting her too. I remember her wearing bright red lipstick, a colorful hat with a plume while holding a parrot. She might have been wearing a pair of spring-a-laters as well…

So, besides including a beautiful blue California sky in my work as often as possible I always have in mind some kind of underlying structure. That might mean I draw a few pencil marks on the paper or canvas before I start. Or I create a sketch or thumbnail before I dive into the white abyss of a blank canvas. I don’t often actually use pen and ink first, as I have done here, but sometimes I want the structure very evident. I think it stems from all the detailed pen and ink plant and animal renderings I have done in the past. I try to add some stippling, crosshatching and/or line detail to indicate depth or texture. Sometimes I mix colors and try them out on scraps of paper or board before I add them, or layer one color on top of another to see if it’s what I really want.

I love all the thought and prep I engage in before starting a painting. I think this comes from my process that involves a certain amount of internal grit. What do I mean by grit, you might say? When I Googled it just a bit ago, Wikipedia said something about having passion for long-term goals and a level of perseverance. When I was in grad school I learned of a woman named Angela Duckworth who was doing research on this very topic. Her theory is that to be successful you probably need a certain amount of intelligence, but you also need a certain non-tangible amount of willingness to not get easily discouraged, try not to be overcome with setbacks or disappointments and finish what you start. There is even a test she has developed called the “Grit Scale.” And you can take it online to determine how “gritty” you are.

I think if you want to be an artist of any kind, you need to be pretty “gritty.” You need to keep going and finish what you start. And as a painter, it is very important to me to finish most pieces of art I start and I think that’s why I spend some time making each piece important to me, important enough to finish. Of course I don’t finish every piece, that would be impossible and somehow crazy to even imagine! Sometimes I have to admit that what I’m working on isn’t working and I need to just stop. This is especially true with watercolor. I just have to stop because I’ve inadvertently covered up too much white space. It just starts to look dark and dim somehow. There are times I have tried to reintroduce white spaces with white gouache, but that never works for me. It all starts to look kind chalky, maybe a little greasy and definitely overworked. When working in oil, I can usually salvage a piece by just painting over whatever it is that’s bugging me. But that usually means waiting for a section to dry and “stepping back” in the process and waiting can drive me “up the wall.” I have actually gessoed a finished canvas and started over completely, with a completely different painting. I have also scraped and sanded off dried paint to change part of a finished painting. Crazy huh? What would my laid back Berkeley figure drawing art instructor say to that? Too much grit I think, literally! I mean, when you try to scrape and sand hardened paint it literally makes bits of grit that stick to other parts of painted canvas. What a mess. Stop already!

So, how gritty are you? Do you go to the point of obsession like me? Or do you pick your battles more discerningly and know when it’s time to stop and let it go? I think watercolor has almost saved me from being too obsessively gritty because you can’t sand or scrape off watercolor paint. It just makes a big hole in the paper. Did I just admit to doing that? Not going to try to be less gritty for a new year’s resolution again. Happy New Year!

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