Fields and Clouds

Don’t try to paint good landscapes. Try to paint canvases that will show how interesting landscapes look to you — your pleasure in the thing.
~ Robert Henri in The Art Spirit

When I passed by this Wisconsin farmstead on a summer day in 2015, I had to stop the car and just take it in. The cumulus clouds floating above a field of ripening grain was, as they used to say, “A Kodak moment.”

The small 6×6-inch oil painting was done on a birch board in 2015. I leaned into this painting, using a palatte knife to paint the field. I say “leaned in” because I’d only started painting again after setting aside my paints and brushes for 30-plus years. But something about this landscape gave me the courage to try. I gifted the painting to a friend, and it remains one of my favorites.

I’m painting the landscape again. This time on a 9×12-inch linen panel. The house is hidden, protected behind the windrow of trees. The small barn and silo, once so common in rural areas, are an anomaly in today’s world. Many of the older barns and silos have fallen into disrepair, or they’ve been replaced by sheet-metal barns and shiny aluminum silos. My motive for painting this little landscape (which still needs a little tweaking) is reason I stopped my car and took the photo — it was a beautiful summer day for watching clouds sweep past, high above the field.

There’s an easier way to be

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is contemplating death and the unfairness of life when he says that. He goes on to say:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
that Flesh is heir to?

Hamlet is thinking about his father’s murder and the expectation that he will seek revenge, but he hesitates. For far less dramatic reasons than Hamlet’s, we have to make decisions every day about “being” in this world. We experience heartache and shocks to our being—who we are—because we live, and like Hamlet, we often wonder if it’s worth it to “take up arms against a sea of troubles.”

I told my parents I wanted to be an artist when I was in my early teens. My mom was silent on the subject, but my dad let me know what he thought. He was against the notion because, he said, “You can’t earn a living as an artist.”

It was easier then, as it is now, to earn a living wage by working for someone else. Some part of me abandoned the artist who lived inside and got on the merry-go-round that’s life. I went to college and then went on to earn a master’s degree in education. The question that fueled my desire to learn was: When most people hate what they do and often dislike who they work for, why do they tolerate a system that requires them to do what they’re told to do, what is expected, every day of their working lives? I paid $35,000 for the answer. But why do you think we learn to be other than we are? Because _________ (fill in the blank).

It often seems easier to do what is expected of us, to ride the merry-go-round, but is it? What did, or do, you want to create? Is there time in your life for you to do whatever it is that you need to do? Who do you think you are? Does the last question irritate you? Why?

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.

 

Peeling Away the Layers with Practice

red-onion

Red Onion study on 8 x 6 inch linen panel.

This little study happened because I needed to get my daily practice done and it was already dark outside. Instead of looking for an interesting tree to paint, I looked through the cupboard and found a lovely red onion and a faded green dish rag. I haven’t tried a still life painting in a while, so I had to think about different things — how to paint a sphere and folds in a cloth and the texture of the basket. Changing things up a bit can be fun (or not). This was a fun study to do.

Painting every day is both hard and easy. It’s hard because there are days I don’t want to go out, or my schedule is tight and adding more to it feels like more work. It’s easy because I paint without any expectation for how a piece should turn out and I can quit when the time (60 minutes) is up. Sometimes, if a piece is going well, I’ll stick with it for a few more minutes, adding the tree branches or touching up a shadow or adding a highlight. Overall, though, I take whatever I have at the end of practice and call it good. I could, for example, go back in and touch up the “too dark” spot by the onion stem, but so far I’ve left it alone.

We need a strategy if we have goals, and I do have goals. The strategy is the road map that provides direction and milestones. I set a goal to paint 50 studies in 50 days. I did #23 yesterday. I’ll be honest, I hear lots of excuses in my thoughts throughout the day and I feel resistant to going outdoors under a very gray skies. Yesterday was one of those days. But my beautiful onion ended up on the cutting board over the weekend and the yam I do have wasn’t that interesting, so I got my practice in between rainstorms.

When I set this goal, I foresaw that I would have days when I didn’t want to paint, so I asked a friend if she would provide accountability for me. I send her a photo of whatever I’ve painted every day. If I miss 2 days in a row, I will pay her for a coaching session (she’s also a life coach). She’s ready to be my “repair shop” if I lose momentum and need a tune up.

Then yesterday, I had a different thought of a more serious nature. I thought that I should quit painting. I was surprised when that idea popped up, because painting is what I want to do. It’s a goal. It’s connected to other important goals, and quitting has not been one of my options — until yesterday. Maybe what I felt was like a Check Engine light that I need to pay attention to. I need to think more about what all this practice has uncovered.

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.

Playbook Strategy # 1 for Creatives: Don’t Confuse Can’t with Won’t

I attended a workshop yesterday to learn how to prepare a business plan for my art business. What happened there was very unexpected.

I thought of a completely different and exciting way to grow my business. At least, I felt excited about the idea when came to me.

This morning, not 24 hours later, I’m feeling doubtful and even a little afraid of what could happen if I follow through on the idea.

What happens next is perhaps the most important decision I will make today, because that decision can impact my future.

If I say yes to the idea and continue to develop the business plan to support the new business activity, lots of things—some good, some not so good—could happen.

If I let the idea go, because I don’t think I can do it, it’s still likely my art business will grow, but at a slower rate. At least, that’s what I think will happen.

Notice all the “thinking” about what could happen? Fortunately, I recognized a pattern of thinking that has been responsible, in the past, for derailing me even before I’ve left the station.

This, I’ve discovered, is when it helps to have a strategy—a plan—for how to move forward.

Strategies are especially useful when situations feel overwhelming. What causes overwhelm? Any new situation that takes us out of our comfort zones and challenges us to learn new things has the potential to create feelings of being overwhelmed. What happens when we feel overwhelmed? We often say I can’t do IT. And we quickly think of reasons to support our decision to quit, or perhaps, to never start.

It’s important to remember that feeling overwhelmed, while scary, is temporary. The feeling recedes and is replaced by confidence as new knowledge and experience are gained.

Back to the business plan and what to do next.

Having reminded myself about what can happen when feeling overwhelmed by possibilities, I won’t tell myself No before I take time to explore the idea—flesh it out. I also won’t tell myself that I can’t do IT just because I don’t know what will happen if I do move forward with the idea. And I won’t confuse my fear (that makes me feel as though I can’t) with a refusal to try (saying I won’t).

Having a business plan is one part of my creative strategy and I’ll write more about that in a different post.

 

 

 

 

 

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.