Insist on the Beauty of Form

Insist on the beauty of form and color to be obtained from the composition of the largest masses, the four or five large masses which cover your canvas. Let these things above all things have fine shapes…Let them be as meaningful of your subject as they possibly can be. ..Remember that the greatest beauty can be expressed through these masses, that the distinction of the whole canvas depends on them.
~ Robert Henri in The Art Spirit

I passed by this stand of tall, slender pines while driving on a back road in Wisconsin a couple of summers ago. I stopped and took a couple of photos and had every intention of painting them—until tonight.

Every composition is an arrangement of shapes, but the shapes aren’t always obvious. In the photo above, the trees are full of interesting details, and those details disguise the big shapes. That’s when making a notan (the process of reducing everything to two values—black and white—can be a best first step before diving right into a painting. The notan eliminates details and leaves only large shapes.

When the 30-minute notan study was done, I felt less than thrilled with the four large shapes that remained. There is nothing outstanding or beautiful about any of the shapes and I decided not to do the painting

I still love the scene and the memory attached to the photo, but creating a painting requires a significant block of time and effort. So, I’m not disappointed about letting go of the notion. The 30 minutes it took to do the notan drawing was a good use of my time.

 

Be Yourself

velveteen rabbit

I read two articles today about being “authentic.” The author of one article, a psychologist, said people misunderstand what it means to be authentic. She believes we begin life as a blank slate and create, or author, ourselves. She bolsters her argument that we create ourselves by referencing the fact that the words author and authentic share the root word “auth,” which means “to authorize.”  If I’m following the author’s logic, we can, if we choose, author ourselves, because we are blank slates.

I don’t agree with that starting point. Anyone who’s been around infants knows they’re born with likes and dislikes and they’re very ready to let everyone around them know what’s what.

The second article focused on how difficult and scary it is for us to be our authentic selves. The author of this article said we are afraid to let people see our true selves, because it’s not safe to share the truth about our struggles and challenges. We’re afraid we’ll be scorned and ridiculed if we show our vulnerabilities — how we’re real.

That got me to thinking, and what I remembered was the Velveteen Rabbit. In this children’s story, the rabbit wants nothing more than to become real, but the only way he can be real is if the boy loves him. How to be real was as much of a conundrum for the Velveteen Rabbit as it is for us. Being real is scary.

Over time, the boy does come to love the rabbit and because the boy loves him, the Velveteen Rabbit changes into a real rabbit. He then leaves the boy, joins the other rabbits in the forest, and lives like a real rabbit.

How can we be ourselves? Walt Whitman offers some insight.

You shall no longer take things at second of third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me;
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.

Do we, like the Velveteen Rabbit, need to be loved to be real? I think being loved helps.

Are you being urged to create something new?

A lunar eclipse occurred this morning (January 31) when the sun and moon were on opposite sides of earth. Our earth actually blocked the sun’s light from reaching the moon. For a brief time, the reflective moon was darkened as it passed through the earth’s shadow.

A bit of trivia

In ancient times, astronomers in Babylonia studied events that occurred around eclipses (there are a minimum of four eclipses every year), viewing them as omens that would impact humans in the months to come. According to these ancient scholars, eclipses could predict the death of kings. If Jupiter (the planet associated with kings) was not visible during the eclipse the king could die. FYI: Jupiter was visible in the predawn sky today during the eclipse today.

What astrologers have observed about lunar eclipses

The moon is at its fullest during a lunar eclipse and immediately after the eclipse it begins to diminish in size until it completely disappears about fourteen days later. Not everyone is equally sensitive to lunar activity all the time. But some of us will notice events occurring (in recent past and in the months ahead) that can be described as coincidence or even omens of what is to come.

The sun was in Aquarius and the moon in Leo during the eclipse today. If your birthday falls between January 28 and Feb 3 or between July 28 and August 3, you may be experiencing changes in some important relationships. If this is happening to you, you may also be thinking about what you can do or need to do now. These thoughts and any emotions attached to them are behind the urge to create something new.

I used a photo of settlers moving west during the 1800s because those folks who decided to create a new life had to make decisions about what to leave behind so they could make the cross-country journey. Their wagons could reliably carry about a thousand pounds, but many people packed their pianos, good china, and furniture in addition to all the food and supplies they needed for the months ahead. Once on the trail, they had to decide what was more important—their dream of a new life or their possessions. The trails west were littered with all that they had to leave behind if they wanted to survive the trip.

If you’re feeling the need to create something new, you need to decide what to abandon so you can survive and reach your destination. You may feel resistance to leaving what you have behind, and that resistance will limit your ability to create what you’re being urged to create for yourself.

 

 

Begin Again: Let Go of Regret

In the years since I first read Notes to Myself by Hugh Prather, my life has “happened.” It’s easy to look back and feel some regret about what was abandoned or never realized, or to want time back so different decisions can be made. But time isn’t retrievable, and regret is uncomfortable. Like a prickly sweater, it doesn’t want us forget it’s there.

Regret is also a by-product of living. And while it may be difficult (or impossible) to forget things that did or didn’t happen, it’s possible to reframe how to think about things. I’m learning to let the feeling of regret be a reminder to live in the present and to let the past be. Prather’s words help me to do that and to use all the skills and experience I have now to create a present I can enjoy.

Excerpt from Notes to Myself

If I had only …
forgotten future greatness
and looked at green things and the buildings
and reached out to those around me
and smelled the air
and ignored the forms and the self-styled obligations
and heard the rain on the roof
and put my arms around …
…it’s not too late
…it’s morning. I have been given
another day. Another day to hear and read
and smell and walk and love and glory
I am alive for another day.
Today, I don’t want to live for,

I want to live.

Anxiety is the realization that I might not reach the
rung on the opinion-ladder which I have
just set for myself. I fear death most
when I am about to exceed what others
expect of me; then death threatens to
cut me off from myself, because
“myself” is not yet.

Meaning does not exist in the future
and neither do I …

Hugh Prather wrote Notes to Myself in 1970.

 

Do It Daily, Do It Deliberately and Improve Dramatically

To do better at anything, from painting to shooting hoops, there is no substitute for daily, deliberate practice. K. Andres Ericsson and his team have lead the research on deliberate practice, and they tell us being deliberate about practice can shorten the time—thought to be about ten years under normal conditions—to expertise. It requires four things:

  1. Motivation.
  2. Tasks designed to take advantage of existing knowledge.
  3. Immediate feedback.
  4. Repeated performance of the same or similar thing.

If you desire to get better, even much better, at what you do, then read on. If your want to improve and have fun, read on, because practice can also be fun.

It’s best to practice under the guidance of a teacher or mentor, who knows how to structure the necessary tasks and provide immediate feedback on work. Without that immediate feedback, it’s almost impossible to learn efficiently (reduce time to expertise), and improvement will be minimal. I was fortunate to find Joe Paquet, an excellent and accomplished landscape painter, to teach me how to be a better painter. Naively, I thought I could learn what I needed to know in 12 weeks. What I learned in his first 12-week studio class is that I have a lot to learn.

What I want to learn to do skillfully is plein air painting. Plein air is a French term that means painting what you actually see “outside” in open air. It has a strong connection to Impressionist work; after all, the Impressionist painters taught us how to see and depict atmosphere in our paintings. Painting outdoors has its own unique set of challenges: special equipment (compact and lightweight) that can be carried a distance, terrain, bugs, onlookers, weather, and animals (including dogs that belong to people who let them off leash, after which, they will for sure run under your easel or tripod). I don’t mind onlookers, but dogs that are too curious irritate me. And last week, my half-finished painting and paint palette ended up face down in the gravel, my turpentine spilled, and brushes splayed on the road, when I turned away for or 10 seconds and a gust of wind tipped everything over. Nothing broke, and I can finish the painting, so the consequences are minimal.

In spite of the challenges, I love plein air painting, which I’ve been doing about a year.

Boat Ramp on MississippiRock in a Hard Place (2)

I painted the one on the left (oils on 6×6-inch wood panel) last summer. I painting the one on the right (oils on 6×8-inch on linen-covered hardboard panel)  this spring, when I was about halfway through the 12-week class.

What do you want to learn to do better? What’s stopping you? Feel free to leave a comment.

Note: this is the first post in a new category: Plein Air. I plan to post about tools, tips, frustrations, and the fun of plein air painting, when inspired to do so.

 

 

 

It’s Never too Late to Begin Again

There is an underlying, indwelling creative force infusing all of life—including ourselves.
~Julia Cameron in It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again

Julia would probably say I responded to a creative force when I started this blog. And she would be right. I was riding a new wave of creative energy that I had (metaphorically speaking) caught in late 2014. That creative force also brought me back to oil painting—a practice I have not enjoyed since leaving school in the 1980s.

In the thirty or so years between packing away my paints and brushes and finding my way back to painting, I completed a bachelor and a master degree, worked in two career fields, and raised three children. I’ve learned from many of my new artist friends that my experience of turning away from creative pursuits to do other things is a very common one. Lots of people do it.

The urge to create—write for a blog, crochet scarves, grow tomatoes, photograph flowers, paint landscapes (which I do), up-cycle flea market finds, or any of a thousand other activities, including raising a family or working—is in every person, not only artists.

Julia also says that when we open our creative channel, many gentle but powerful changes are to be expected. I agree and believe its the urge to create that keeps us interested and engaged with living. It’s also what makes us interesting, what attracts new friends, and what opens the doors to new experiences.

Before you move on to do or read something else, take a few minutes to think about where you are and what your relationship is to your creative self.

Imagine a large map—perhaps your map includes the places where you’ve gone to school, worked, and raised your family. Add to your map any places that have inspired you and fed your soul. Where were those places? When were you there? What were you doing? Try drawing your map if that will help you better visualize your journey, but keep it simple.

Now, imagine yourself moving across this map (your life). Think about the many crossroads you’ve come to. At each crossroad, in what direction did you decide to go? What did you leave behind? Where are you now? Do you feel the urge to change course again? to revisit something? Describe for yourself what you’re being urged to move toward. What do you see? What do you want to do?

It is never too late to begin again to paint or plant or do any of the things that can and will help connect you with your creative self and make you feel good about being alive.

What Motivates Us to Make Art?

Advice that’s frequently dispensed to people in creative fields goes something like this. “If you want to be successful, then develop a unique, marketable style. Know what buyers want. Then, go forth and create paintings people will like and buy.”

This may actually be poor advice.

People like paintings of dogs and cats and of kids playing near or in water. This is a good market niche. That doesn’t mean we should start churning out paintings of dogs or cats or kids at the beach in the hope of reaching the market. In fact, artists risk being cliché if they do. I know a woman who paints delightful cows and pigs and, occasionally, sheep. Her paintings sell well, because she has developed technical skills and because she has also developed her talent for seeing and capturing each animal’s special essence. She loves her farm-yard animals and that love shows in her work.

The point I want to make is not that painting any of these “marketable” subjects is wrong. It’s not. But painting simply because there’s a market for certain subjects is poor advice that often results in cliché paintings.

There is a lot of good advice for artists (and writers), too.

Connecting with other artists by studying their works (maybe even copying their style for a while) for the sake of arriving at one’s personal truth is good advice. Creativity coach Eric Maisel says that this kind of connecting “extends tradition” and is a good way to arrive at a personal style.

I love to paint landscapes with oils, frequently in plein air, as do thousands of other painters. I’m not sure my “style” will ever appear. I’m also not sure that it won’t.