There are so many interesting things in this life that it is impossible to touch them all. I'm wondering tonight how the span of our lives--our life journey would be changed if we had more years on this earth. Suppose that we lived to be the ripe old age of, oh, 400 years. How would that affect the way we live, and the way we approach our art?
Time affects us--it pushes us to go fast. The older we get, the louder the clock ticks--it seems that way to me, don't know about everyone else. At some point in our life, we see our parents pass from this good earth,and we are on our own. And it isn't limited to our parents, we see other adults we knew as children pass, and even some of our contemporaries. We hear the clock loud and clear. We don't take things so much for granted, and we start to wonder what we will leave behind--especially when it comes to our artwork.
But, just think if we really had 400 years to live. That would be something for sure--would our art slow down. I'm thinking that if we had a few more years to learn my craft, we would feel a bit more comfortable taking time to really understand the nature of all the things entailed in our craft. We could take time studying the human body in depth--20 years--30 years--whatever it took to get there. Once we were rid of time constraints, would it make much difference whether we understood what we were doing in 10 years or 100 years? We would be free to do and go where we needed. Maybe once we had mastered one subject to our satisfaction, we would feel just as free to go to the next enterprise, and the next, and have time to do it.
I understand that time pushes me. That is good and bad. Yet, I wonder if we had more time, would we use that time wisely. Would a longer life mean just the same accomplishment in that many more years. Maybe we would go so slow that we wouldn't accomplish much more in 400 years than we accomplished in 80 years.
A year is defined by how long it takes the earth to revolve around the sun. That is pretty specific, and given minor things, it is standard. Einstein said that time was relative--but I don't think he was talking about art and life. It seems to me that time has speeded up on this end. When I was 17, a year lasted ages, and now in late middle age, a year seems to last about three seconds. What is that all about? And I guess that is what has gotten me to this subject.
But back to the issue at hand, if we could paint for 400 years, what would that mean? What would we do-would we end up wasting the time, or would we be free to explore and learn more than we could have ever imagined?
I'm living in the here and now. The future is what it will be, but it won't change my own struggle to find the best within myself at this moment in my life. I like waking up everyday and thinking about my art. Art gives my life meaning--it reminds me to look closely at everyday things because rushing too fast means I don't really see what is around me. I know I don't have enough time--and sometimes I don't think 400 years would be enough. But, I have what I have and must make the best of it.
I think we as human beings have this idea that there is some perfection out there, and that if we can find that perfection, the life struggle will become something easy--it will cure all our ills. The answer could be the perfect watercolor painting, the perfect wife/husband, the perfect job, or whatever. We want perfect, no matter what we are referring to.
But in reality, life is not perfect, and whatever we desire in this life won't be perfect. We need to get that idea out of our heads. It is human nature to yearn for the perfect, but it is not to be; paintings won't be perfect, job situations won't be perfect, and anything you might desire won't be perfect.
I've yet to paint the perfect watercolor, and I have been trying for over a quarter of a century. I've come close and have had a glimpse of that perfection. Yet, the almost perfect painting has usually been followed by a major disaster. Those disasters remind me that perfection is an illusion. It is something to strive for, but not something that will drop in my lap on a daily basis. Can you imagine sitting down and painting the perfect watercolor the first time you held a brush in your hand? Can you imagine sitting down and painting the perfect watercolor every time you put brush to paper? How boring.
Part of the reason we do this art thing is that it isn't easy. We chose to do art because we have something to say, BUT WE STICK TO OUR ART BECAUSE IT CHALLENGES US TO REACH FOR THAT ELUSIVE PERFECTION. The journey to find the best within us is what counts. You can be the best selling artist of all time, and if your art doesn't present a challenge, then it is meaningless. You can be the worst artist of all time, and if you are challenged day in and day out, then you have found meaning in your life.
It may seem insane, but as much as I want to paint that perfect watercolor painting, I also dread the day it might happen. And even though there is little chance of that happening, if it were to happen, my watercolor life wouldn't be quite as much fun.
These days I'm content to continue my watercolor journey, finding success in some paintings and failure in other paintings. It is the journey that nourishes me-it is the succulent morsel that gives my life meaning. Success or failure, I'm at a banquet and I love each and every bite.
Rich and Famous
I spend a lot of time in my studio--which is downstairs from the family room. One day I walked upstairs and as I passed the television, I was struck by what I heard. It was some program about the RICH and FAMOUS. I was on my way to fold some clothes in the laundry--and as I folded clothes I listened in.
They were talking about all the fun things the rich and famous do--great dinner parties and such. It got me to thinking, which has led to this epistle. It comes down to meaning--what is the meaning in our lives. It doesn't really make a lot of difference how RICH and FAMOUS we are, what makes a difference is how much meaning we have in our lives.
Personally, I doubt that I would be very happy with dinner parties because it would take time from my passion--watercolor. Yet, I don't want to throw it all out--RICH and FAMOUS and all--there must be something happening there. Even Paris Hilton must have a way to find meaning in her life. Maybe it is the conversation--the interaction. With that in mind, let me put forth my conversation with the RICH and FAMOUS.
Maury: "Hi, thanks for coming. Gosh, that is a neat dress, and you look so lovely."
Guest1: (Giggle) "Well it was such a lovely thing-I couldn't resist."
Maury: (thinking to himself) I've got that watercolor downstairs-it is coming along nicely, a few problems, but I think it will work. I wish I could be down working on it.
Maury: (looks at guest1) "Samantha, you are such a bright spirit."
Guest2: "Hi Maury, what a great party! You really know how to put on a show."
Maury: (thinking to himself). That last wash didn't quite work like I wanted-too much pigment-things got a bit dark. When will I ever learn?
Maury: (looks at guest2). "Fred, so wonderful to see you. I heard you sold your business-what was it 10-12 million?"
Guest2 (Fred). "Damn great deal, I took them for all they were worth. Ha, ha, ha."
Guest3: "Maury, so nice to see you again. What a wonderful party."
Maury: (thinking to himself) I liked that new pigment-it seemed to flow well, nice and transparent-works well with thalo blue.
Maury: (looks at guest3 and smiles his best smile) "Sophie, how nice to see you. What have you been up to?"
Guest3: "Oh Maury, your parties are so neat. I just love them!"
Maury: (thinking to himself) God, will I ever get to that watercolor.
Maury: "Sophie, you are best." (big smile)
I think that is enough. What are we about as human beings--rich or famous or not? What do we do with our life? I have a quote--I have a lot of quotes. It is by Jackie Kennedy--it goes something like this: "If you bungle raising your children, it doesn't matter much what else you do."
I think I could add to that. Something like: "If you don't have a passion in life, it doesn't matter much what else you do."
My passion is watercolor. I don't always succeed at what I am doing, but that really doesn't matter. It is my passion. It helps me define myself. I'm dedicated to the pursuit of the perfect watercolor, I may not find that perfect watercolor in my lifetime, but that doesn't matter either. It is the pursuit. It is the fight to find the best within me that is meaningful. And I don't think that has anything to do with being rich and famous--it has to do with working and fighting to find the best within myself. Each of us has that choice, to find a passion and then do the best with that passion.
I have another quote: "To be without things is an indispensable part of happiness." Being without is that important because it defines us. The successes are good, but they are meaningless without the failures. Having money without having earned it is worth nothing. Growing up poor and making a million is meaningful. Don't tell me about the rich and famous. Tell me about the struggle to make something of life. Show me someone that has failed many times, finally to succeed--that is my hero.
Which brings me to our pursuit of watercolor. It is the fight to find the best within us that makes us worth something as watercolor artists. It is the failed paintings that define us, because without those paintings, the successes wouldn't mean much. I don't like to fail with a painting, but I understand that the failed paintings are the ones that define my art.
Last week at my life drawing session, I was listening to the conversations going on. The artists at that session are quite good--they put me to shame when it comes to this artistic endeavor. They were commenting on the fact that each time they sat down with a new painting, they always had doubts about the outcome. These are folks that have painted hundreds of great paintings. Art is that scary--we must face that blank watercolor paper and deal with it. We will fail with particular paintings, but we aren't a failure until we give up.
Are you afraid of failure? Don't be--it is what makes our art worthwhile.
It is interesting how life kind of sneaks up on us in different ways. Tonight, I'm thinking how busy I seem to be--and if the reports from the news media are any indication, we are all pretty busy.
I start the week rested and ready to go. I'm usually in a mellow state of mind, and then I get on the treadmill. I take on this task, that task, and the next thing I know, my life is getting real rushed. I try to slow down, but the whole process seems to have a life of its own, it is almost like the body snatchers have taken hold of me.
I've thought that these "getting taken over episodes" are like loops in a computer program. Somehow we get caught up, and can't break out of the loop--we just keep going round and round. I will call my two worst loops the "negative loop" and the "busy loop."
I hate them both, but I'm talking here of the "busy loop"--the "negative loop" calls for another epistle. So, I get going faster and faster and the problem becomes one of breaking out of that loop. I have several strategies to deal with the problem, and they work more often than not.
The first thing I do is "will" myself to slow down. I just sit back and relax. I refuse to acknowledge whatever seems to be happening at the time. If you think about it, very seldom is there something happening in our lives that is really that important. There are times, but they aren't as prevalent as one might think. Once I have taken control, and I have taken control by putting my relaxation first, I think on some things.
First and foremost, I think about what is important in my life at a very basic level. It comes down to four things--my wife, my two sons, and my health. That's it. I key on that, and remind myself that everything pales in significance to those four things. Then, I make some vows. I vow to hug the ones I love the next chance I get. I vow to tell the ones I love just how much I love them--and try to think of new and different ways to do that. In the 70 years I have been on this good earth, it has dawned on me there are no givens. We--or for that matter, the ones we love, can be here today and gone tomorrow. I don't take anything for granted.
Oh, I'm forgetting the art part of this deal. There is one other thing I need to do if I'm an artist with a busy schedule. That is to make a commitment to my artwork, and that means priorities. I have to find a time to do artwork and make sure I meet that schedule. It is more important than anything else I can do as an artist. If I neglect this one thing, I have cheated myself of the practice necessary to realize the potential within myself.
If was an art guru and some pilgrim came to me asking what must be done to become a credible artist, I would say to make a schedule for art and keep after it.
In the epistle above, I started talking about loops and likened them to software loops. I mentioned the fact that I had two loops that drove me crazy, the busy loop and the negative loop.
Both are bad, but I think the negative loop is one that strikes me as the more critical. You are probably wondering what I mean by the negative loop. Well, it isn't hard to describe. You are wandering around and feeling pretty good, then something negative happens. Since I'm a school teacher, I see this happen with students and classes. Somehow, things get going in a negative direction and all of a sudden, I find myself controlled by the negative rather than the positive.
It is a hard thing to break out ofthe negative because you get so wrapped up in what is happening, you find it difficult to get to your center. The center--that warm place where there is balance. But you aren't in the center, you are outside, and there is negative coming in and you are responding by giving negative out. When you give out negative, it just seems to make people react in a negative manner, which accentuates your own negativity. That is why I call it a loop, both ends just keep cycling the negative round and round.
What to do? I think that I've come on an antidote. When things are getting all negative, I just stop, usually it is after a night of sleep and thinking things through. The next day, I refuse to do negative. I remember that we are all pretty fragile creatures, and we all need to understand that. I make a point of giving positive--and that can take some effort. If something negative comes my way, I just smile--slow down and respond with positive. Sometimes it seems a bit artificial, but after awhile, it seems to settle into something real, it is almost like the positive feels so good, that it is addicting--you can't resist it.
The negative can really affect our artwork. It is easy to let the bad things that happen with our life, or our artwork have more of an impact than they deserve. Less than perfect paintings go with the territory. How we react to those paintings can make all the difference in our attitude toward our art. Long ago, I learned that bad paintings can be a good experience--the failed paintings teach me much more than the good ones. When a painting doesn't go right, I just chalk it up to an excellent opportunity to grow as an artist.
The negative things in our lives are another matter. They are a block to our artwork. It is hard to have creative energy when things are negative in our lives. I think this is when we show what we are made of. We can either overcome the negative or not.
A good painting schedule helps. It forces us to ante up--we know we are due in the studio, and we can't ignore that. Once we get there, we have the opportunity to break the negative, it is amazing how some water and pigment will bring me out of my shell--it seems to open me up. It shows me there are other things that are important in my life. Just one wash of watercolor makes me a new human being. That wash reminds me that life is a variable thing--I will get pushed this way and that by the water of life. Sometimes the water pushes me in a negative direction, sometimes a positive. But when I lay that wash on and it works, it is like someone is saying--OK, things may be negative, but look at the possibilities, look how good it can be. Lighten up and let it flow.
If you have been in a negative loop, try breaking out. Go to the studio, wet a sheet of paper, get a staining pigment, and just brush it across the paper and watch what happens. Remember that your life has the possibilities of that pigment spreading beyond comprehension.
Life is good.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
Every morning before school I try to read something that will settle me for the day to come. We all know how hectic the workday can get.
Today I picked up my copy of "Don't Sweat The Small Stuff." I keep it close by and have probably read most of the vignettes several times, but I always find something new each time I read.
Today I read one that dealt with pretending to be at your own funeral. It kind of puts things in perspective--what did folks think about you? Did you spend time doing kind and gentle things, or did you rush through life putting out one fire after another. How did you live your life and if you were to die tomorrow, can you be satisfied with what you have done with your life. It is interesting to reflect on that idea.
I can think of it in many different contexts--job, family, friends, and art. However, I want to talk about art here. What exactly is our art about? Did we enjoy our art--did it give us a thrill every time we stretched another piece of paper? Did we spend our time enjoying the creative process? Did we get caught up in the recognition thing. Did we spend more time marketing ourselves than painting? Where was our emphasis? What was our pleasure? When we drop dead, will we be satisfied with how we conducted ourselves in relation to our art?
We are all going to be worm food one day--that is a given. That means we have to make some decisions in this life about our time and what we do with it. What is it we want to say about the time we hung around this good old earth. The fact that we are artists means we think we have something to say. So what do we say with our artwork?
There are many messages within our artwork and all have meaning. Strangely enough, I think my most important message is to my children. I want my artwork to say to them that you can accomplish much if you are willing to dedicate yourself to something. I want to tell them that recognition isn't as important as the commitment that goes into the endeavor. I want them to know that integrity is probably the most important possession we have in this life, and that if you can manage to live your life with some integrity, you have done well. I want them to know that you need a passion in life--because without a passion, life is dull.
How about you? What do you want your art to say?
I lost a good friend last weekend. She had greeted me each morning and evening for the last 16 years. She gave uncompromising love and acceptance, day in and day out. All she asked was to be fed, loved, and secure from the elements. She was my loveable cat, Vegie.
You may be wondering why I'm broaching this subject on the watercolor page. Well, it seems to me that we can learn a lot about art from our pets. Think about it--our pets exhibit some of the very characteristics that we need as artists: patience, acceptance, enthusiasm, dedication, selflessness, and unconditional love.
Vegie taught me that life isn't something to hurry through--one needs down time--a good sleep now and again. It is easy to get caught up in the rat race of life, but what is it all accomplishing? Slow down, take a nap, look around, take a nap, have a snack, take a nap--slow down. One thing done well, slow and with thought is worth many things done fast and without forethought.
Vegie taught me about unconditional acceptance. She could have cared less what masterpiece I was working on. When I walked outside to see her, she roused herself from her slumber and acknowledged me as a worthwhile individual. I could read her thoughts, "I love you--done deal. Now, can I have my quota of love?" Art is acceptance--we all need to be accepted and acknowledged for what we do, good or bad. I think that sometimes the acceptance thing gets lost because we center too much on the results rather than the commitment. We get so caught up in getting acknowledged via art shows, competitions, marketing, that we forget that each of us are human beings with real needs. I want to cheer for each and every person that risks the choice of doing art. They are crying to say something and deserve respect for the fact that they have made that commitment.
Vegie had patience. She understood that things didn't always happen on her schedule. I didn't always take time to give her the quota of love she wanted. But that didn't deter her, she had time--I would be around later. She could live with that. As artists we have to be patient. Our skill, our creativeness doesn't happen over night. It takes time to build and grow. Most of the time good paintings don't happen fast, we need to think and plan. A rushed painting doesn't really do the job. We must have patience.
As adults we seem to temper our enthusiasm. Vegie could get enthused about certain things. She always got enthused about wanting to be loved. I don't think she thought whether she should temper her enthusiasm in that area. It felt right to her, and she made that evident on a daily basis. If you are an artist that isn't enthused about what you are doing, then maybe you shouldn't be an artist. Sometimes I want to scream because I'm so passionate about what I'm doing. I want to scream to the world--damn, this is a fine undertaking--and I love every minute of it.
Self. Art is about yourself and your identity. Art is about being acknowledged for what we do and about doing. I have this problem, I have a hard time dealing with the fact that other artists are doing work that is so superior to what I'm doing that it is unbelievable. My ego and need for acknowledgment keep getting in the way (I hate it, but it is a fact). Vegie reminded me about selflessness. She said "I love you--do you love me. I will give to you, no matter what." I try translate that to my art life. If someone does something well in the art world, it isn't to my detriment, but to my benefit. Art isn't an EITHER-OR world--if someone does well, it doesn't mean I do poorly. It is not a zero sum world. Good artwork helps me understand where I am. It shows me what can be accomplished if I'm willing to work hard enough. I may never attain that level, but I have a high standard to push me to reach higher. But, more than anything, Vegie taught me that my ego doesn't always serve me well. She taught me that I should worry less about what I'm accomplishing and more about how hard I'm working.
Vegie gave me unconditional love. I wish I could do as well in my life.
Here in Utah, winter has arrived--snow on the ground and cold temperatures. I can't say I look forward to this time of year, but somehow it seems to be right. Maybe it is the theme of birth, death, and renewal, or maybe it is just the different lighting conditions I see all around me.
Two weeks ago we got about 10" of snow during the night and the next morning I had to take my car in for inspection. The snow and clouds had passed and the dawn was clear and bright. What a sight! Snow was hanging heavy on everything--trees, cars, and buildings and with the sun just over the mountains and far to the south, the light and shadows were unbelievable. I took it all in and marveled about this life and this existence.
I would have never seen that scene during the summer--and even though I'm not overly fond of winter, I know winter brings me experiences and sights that make me a better artist and a better human being. It is trite (one of my friends might use the word hackneyed) but it does remind me of death and renewal. One of the things we learn as we grow (older?) is that life is a constant series of ups and downs--death and renewal. When I'm struggling with a painting, I think of the ups and downs, and try to remember that if it isn't working, it will get better--maybe not with that particular painting, but with another one.
Winter lets me understand that life is meaningless without the dual nature of things. If all paintings were good, then there would be no struggle, and art wouldn't be worth doing. If life was easy, then it wouldn't be worth living. It is the struggle that defines us, as human beings and as artists.
The light in the winter is something to behold. The sun is low in the south, and its rays are casting long shadows, even during the middle of the day. It isn't a strong light, but it serves my purposes as an artist because I can go out at 12 p.m. and take a photo with just the right lighting conditions. I can't do that in the summer. Of course winter brings snow to my neck of the woods--and that is something for a watercolorist. What wonderful ligh-t-shadows with cool, rich colors that you just have to spend time looking at and thinking about. Juicy watercolors with subtle lights and shadows are free for the taking. Wow.
If you have been cursing the winter, step back and think--maybe you will understand that winter brings more your way than you realized.
Iíve been reading some books by the author John Gierach--he writes fly fishing books, and I really get a kick out of them. His style is such that you could be home talking to him by the wood stove. It is that comfortable. The reason I mention it, is that he inspires me.
I wonder what I could write that would be as good. I write about watercolor and he writes about fly fishing. I think they have a lot in common. He just doesnít talk about fly fishing, he talks about life--and how he sees this whole thing called life in terms of his fly fishing. It is not that he has any answers about the whole thing--it is just that he seems particularly adept at putting this life thing in perspective.
I guess I would have a hard time defining my life without watercolor. My life revolves around my painting. There isnít a day that goes by that I donít think about something that is related to my art. It is a significant thing for me. Whether I have a painting in progress or am anticipating a painting--it is on my mind.
That brings me to the broader perspective--what is life worth without some kind of challenge? Another artist visiting my web page asked what I was about besides my art. It didnít take me long to answer--Iím about doing something--because if I choose right, whatever it is, it will force me to become a better person. I like golf because it is a difficult game that forces me to work hard to get better. I like fly fishing--because it is a complicated endeavor--and catching a trout on one of your own hand-tied flies is akin to painting a good watercolor. It isn't just doing something, it is doing something that makes me fight to find the best within myself. There is a quote that I like. ďProblems are the price of progress. Donít bring me anything but trouble. Good news weakens me.Ē
None of us like problems because they arenít fun. They hurt, and make us uncomfortable--it is a hard thing. But, once you get past the emotional upheaval of problems, you might come to see them as bridges to growth. That is especially true of art.
I hate to fail with a painting. Sometimes I get scared when I know I have to try something I have no idea of how to handle. I pace back and forth, putting off the moment of truth. But sooner or later, I have to jump in and do something--either that or quit painting. I console myself with the thought that if it doesnít turn out right, I will be a better artist. That it is what it is all about--becoming a better artist and a better person--despite the pain.
Every now and again, I get to thinking about the quality of the art for sale, and in art shows. It doesn't take long cruising the Web and visiting galleries to understand the magnitude of good work. It is everywhere!
Sometimes, when I've entered an art show and had a piece rejected, I've had the opportunity to look at all the other rejects. And there are some that certainly qualify as rejects (probably my own), but there are many others that seem fine to me. Usually the show has been hung, and as I get a sneak preview, I wonder why one painting was chosen over another--and of course, it comes down to what the judge wanted to accomplish with a particular show. But, the bottom line is that a lot of deserving work gets sent home.
And that again gets me to thinking about the quantity and quality of the artwork. A quote comes to mind and it goes something like this: "The simplest schoolboy is now aware of truths for which Archimedes would have given his life." I suppose that shows how far we have come over the last several hundred years, and I think that quote could equally be applied to art in some respects.
The whole thing speaks to the affluent society we live in. These days, so many more people have time to pursue the art life than could have been imagined 50 years ago. The artists of today have access to high quality materials, improved tools, and all the information they would want. They are better educated and more widely read than any previous generation. It makes for something unique in human history, and it makes me wonder where it will all end.
As a practicing artist, I sometimes wish the competition wasn't quite so fierce, but then again, I realize that the competition makes me a better artist. It constantly puts my work to the test, and drives me to work harder to get better. I never go to an art show without coming away with new incentive to try to create something better than what I thought I could handle. That is good for me, and good for every artist.