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The Cottonwood

Watercolor has a serendipity nature. Good things happen when you least expect it, and when you think you have something in hand, disaster strikes. Guess that is a lot like life-it goes good, bad, good, bad, in between-and for no particular reason do you get each one of those conditions. It is more random chance that anything.

Speaking of random chance, a strange thing happened to me on one of my camping trips. I was off on a fly-fishing trip to western Colorado. We were sitting in camp the second morning when my brother walked away from camp, looking around. He came back, and said he heard something, but couldn't locate the source of the sound. We sat there, drank our coffee, and talked. Suddenly, it sounded like a herd of cattle were stampeding toward us. We all jump up and then watched in awe as a huge cottonwood tree collapsed in front of our eyes. It was something to behold--this particular cottonwood hadn't grown in one truck as usual, but was a series of big trunks from a central root structure. After the first trunk gave way, it was just a matter of time before the others fell. We watched for over an hour as one trunk after the other came tumbling down.

This particular tree had to be over a hundred years old, and I'm sure that in its lifetime, it saw good times and bad. It was growing on the river bottom before dams were built, and survived major floods, droughts, high winds, and all manner of indignity. Yet, it grew to be quite a tree.

I suppose that might be a good metaphor for our life with watercolor. We are going to have to survive some major droughts--there will be times when we just can't get things to work right, we seem flat and have a hard time generating ideas. We get flooded with things in our life that seem to take time from our art, and we wonder if we will ever get time to get back to painting.

Then there will be the good times. We will find lots of water for our creative roots, the sun will shine bright and let us grow. The soil will be fertile and ideas will come to us as easily as water flows downhill. Things will be good, and we will wonder why we ever worried about this art thing.

But, like the cottonwood, we have to live through the bad times. We can't let the drought get us down--we have to survive and keep fighting to find the best within us. We can't be overwhelmed with the flood of things that come to us in this life and detract us from our art. We just have to survive and let the good times nourish us. If we do that, one day we will look around and find that we have grown to be strong and resilient watercolor artists.

So, here is to that hundred-year old cottonwood tree--it gave me perspective on my life as an artist. I know there will be rough times, but if I survive, I will grow and prosper. It won't be easy, but that is the way of things. Nothing of worth comes easy, a full-grown cottonwood, or an artist.

Slow but Sure

I have a great time camping and fly-fishing with my brother. I'm 69 years old, and he is 74. Yet, the time together seems no different than when we were doing the same thing at 15 and 19. I look at myself in the mirror, and I see this aging individual, but when I look at my mind, it seems as young as ever. It is hard to reconcile the two images.

And that brings me to this epistle--because I have a hard time understanding my watercolor journey. It seems like only yesterday I was starting my first watercolor, and yet it has been close to 40 years. Like the wrinkles on my face that have imperceptibly appeared over the years, new watercolor techniques and skills have appeared also. I try to get a grip on the changes, wondering where and how each new skill or technique arrived, but usually don't have a clue. They just happened along the way.

I expect is it kind of like a bunch of ants picking up grains of sand for the anthill. Each individual grain seems insignificant, and the progress during the day doesn't amount to much. But let the ants keep carrying the grains day in and day out for a few months, and it amounts to a great deal. You could be watching it happen and unless you had a lot of time on your hands, you wouldn't realize the progress being made.

I think there is a lesson here for us. It is just human to expect much from our efforts, a perfect painting on a moment's notice. But it just doesn't happen that way. We have our successes, but they don't happen with every painting. We paint, we learn, and we keep after it. Slowly, changes start showing up. Not every painting is a success, but they are getting more consistent.

It is hard to process the slow changes and the progress we make. I think if we don't understand the slow nature of our progress, we will have a hard time with this art thing. We expect too much--too soon. The expectations are good because they push us to get better. But, we can't be put off when a painting doesn't meet our expectations. We need to understand that progress is measured in millimeters rather than kilometers. The changes are small, but over a long period of time, they amount to more than we can really understand.


Growth

The artistic journey is something quite amazing., but I think the journey called life is even more amazing. As artists we work hard at our craft, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. There are many ups and downs along the way, and we deal with them as we will. We have the good times and the down times, and with each and every turn, the emotions play out before our eyes. It is a microcosm of what happens in our lives.

And it is life that I want to talk about here, because I think that if we can understand our life journey, we can understand our artistic journey. And such a strange journey it is. One day you can be on top of the world and the next day not. It is a kaleidoscope of ups, levels, and downs. When you are down and thinking you might not survive, things seem to get better. When you are riding high and loving life, things get worse. Wow, what a roll-a-coaster ride.

It is an up and down life of one emotion after another. Happiness, sadness, and level. They are all good, but I think it is the down times that define us, the down times are the ones that make us what we are. If you stop and think about it, the great and wonderful times are not the ones that make us grow as human beings. Really, it is the bad coming our way that defines us as human beings, the struggles to live, to grow as human beings, to become better artists.

The whole deal is the struggle, the fight to be better in whatever endeavor we are working at. The harder the endeavor, the more we are tested and pushed to survive. That survival is the key to our growth--would you have it any other way. I wouldn't, even though it hurts at times.


Evolution

Evolution has been in the news lately--which gets me to thinking about the evolution of my palette. It isn't quite as simple as just throwing some pigment on a tray, although that is how we all start out. It seems almost an evolutionary thing to me. I've been painting watercolors for about 40 some years now, and the palette I use now isn't anywhere close to what it was when I started.

I wonder how it got to where it is today, and what it might be like tomorrow. First and foremost, our palette must serve our individual needs--it must let us make our own particular statement. And making it serve our individual needs isn't an easy thing. You don't just sit down at your first watercolor and have a clue about what is going on--either technically, or as what you are about as an artist. It takes time, time to learn the technical things, and time to learn who we are as artists. Both have a big effect on our palette.

So, we start this artistic journey with a palette of pigments. We paint subjects that appeal to us, and then we grow as artists, learning the technical things, and finding new and different subjects. Somewhere along the line, we add pigments to the palette, sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. Eventually, we end up with what works. It is a slow and steady process of change, change for different subjects, change for the way we see things differently, and change for the changing artist within.

ver the years, my palette has become a good friend. It was there the first day that I put pigment to paper, it shared the highs when I succeeded and cringed when it saw me fail miserably. It was content to watch me go my way, even if that meant accepting mixes that were muddy and ugly. It seldom got washed thoroughly--but didn't complain. It watched new pigments come and go, and accepted those that seemed to satisfy my whim. We have lived through a lot together, and I suspect have a lot more to live through. There are new pigments out there to be explored, different subjects to tackle, and a journey to continue. I will be here, my palette will change over time, and I'm hoping it will serve me as well as it has in the past.


Doubts

I had a note from one of my artist friends the other day. After talking about art and things in her life, she finished with the following statement: ".... I really want to do something with this talent, if I have any talent, which I'm doubting at this time."

Most of us run into these doubts now and again. It is hard enough to contend with the art part of our lives. We have these creative ideas and work hard to make them happen. Sometimes they work well, other times they are damn bad. When they are damn bad, it is like having this dream cave in on you. There are high highs and low lows.

If producing art was the limit of our agony, it would be fine. But we have to contend with our need to rank ourselves with the rest of the art world. We have to find acceptance within the art community. It is this aspect of art about which I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I detest it because it detracts from my artwork--I get caught up in the competition thing and use energy that could be better put to use in my creative efforts. On the other hand, the competition forces me to come face to face with my artwork. When it is found wanting, I have to step back and evaluate what I'm doing. Sometimes the answer is that I like what I'm doing and just keep plugging along. Other times, I see weaknesses in my artwork and have to deal with them.

Finding weaknesses isn't an easy thing to deal with on an emotional level. All these doubts come to the surface like they have with my friend. I guess we have two choices; give up this art life or fight harder to become better artists. I'm not sure there is any middle ground. It is one or the other. You can cry, you can whine, but in the end, you must either fish or cut bait. If you are weak of heart, the art life isn't for you--no excuses accepted. You work hard and make the best of things or you quit. That is the bottom line.


Never Ending Story

I'm continually astonished at what a journey this artistic life is. It could be characterized as a never-ending story that has unsettling ramifications. What brings this whole subject to mind is that I've just moved--after living at the same residence for eleven years. Moves are fun--yeah right!! Well, at least it provides an opportunity to go through things, and I have been going through old paintings.

It is an interesting process, going through old paintings, especially if you have in mind to start throwing some away. It has been hard to throw paintings away (well some aren't too hard--I would hate for anyone to see them--it would be embarrassing), and to throw away a painting you slaved hours on makes it even harder. But there were some real dogs there--I mean--gag-out type of dogs. Those were easy, rip, rip, rip--they were consigned to the garbage bag. Then there were the in-between paintings--not so good, but not so bad they needed to be buried. Finally, some went and some stayed--and I'm still not sure whether I made the right choices--but for the ones that stayed, I will look in another few years and cull them again.

As I looked though the pile, I saw paintings long forgotten. They spoke to me and told me of my progress as an artist. But they also told me something I didn't like. I saw things that felt real good--things that had gone by the wayside in my journey as an artist. I don't know how to describe it, maybe before I was just a journeyman watercolor artist, doing what felt right at the time. I did what I did, and I didn't know much about what a "perfect watercolor" was suppose to be like. Looking back at those old paintings makes me wonder if I have copped out. Have I read too many books on watercolor, too many books about color, too many books about anything dealing with art?

It concerns me a great deal. I think this artist life is about being true to yourself. I don't think there is room for compromise. You either do what you are, or you sell out. That is it. I wonder if in my search to become a better artist, I have become molded by the "Church of What is Happening Now." Have I been too influenced by what I've seen and read? Have I lost an essential part of me in my paintings that were real and original

I know this is a journey and that we can't stay the same--nothing in life stays the same. The question I have is how you tell whether you are just learning and improving or are moving in a direction that is more suited to the artistic "herd." For me it is a scary thought--and one I'm going to be thinking about for a long time.


Hurry

I think there is something to that old saying about getting the Cart Before The Horse. In fact, I think that could be an apt description of my watercolor life. I have this tendency to get in a hurry--and I jumped into this art and watercolor thing without having a clue about much of anything. I donít know what Gods were taking care of me--somehow I managed to get some paintings that werenít too awful. But it is safe to say, I was betting on a pretty weak hand.

Of course that wasnít the worst of it. I mentioned being in a hurry--yep--my middle name should be ďhurry.Ē Why bother about thinking what you are going to do--just do it--in a hurry. Not that it canít work that way--it is just that if you are doing art without a clue--it is kind of hit and miss. And I guess you could describe most of my early paintings as hit and miss. Some were acceptable, some werenít, but mostly I never had a clue about what was going to happen. Slowly, my paintings got better, but it wasnít due to any intelligent input on my behalf. I did very little thinking and just marched on. I was learning and finding my way, but I canít say it was through any thought process--I was flying by the seat of my pants.

It has only been in the last ten years that Iíve started thinking about things like the elements and principals of design--I work hard and am trying to understand each and every one of them. It has made a difference in my art--and overall, the difference has been positive. But at the same time, I think there are some things that have been lost. I wonder if Iím getting too controlled--too planned--am I thinking too much? Have I lost some of the spontaneous nature of my older paintings? It is a trade-off at this point--some lost, a bit more gained.

I suppose it is part of being an evolving artist. If you are serious about your art--you have to think about what you are doing--good and bad--and then find answers to the bad. Each answer has a tendency to move you in some direction, and it is inevitable that you will change. The real question is not that you will change, but how you will change. Some artists just run off into left field, and lose all connection with what made them good in the first place. Other artists canít break out of doing the same thing over and over. It is a delicate balance.

I keep working hard at my art. So far, I think the positive changes have outweighed the negative. But after it is all said and done, I wonder how much difference the goods and bads make. Every dedicated artist works hard at their art, fighting to find the best within themselves. Oh, that we could be content to live with that.


Observer

I sometimes wonder how my life has been affected by my art. It may seem like another skill or job, if you will. However, it isn't that simple. When one becomes an artist, they become an observer of "EVERYTHING." I think it is hard to become an observer of "EVERYTHING."

When you become an artist, you can't just go on a walk to enjoy the exercise. As you're walking along, you are spending time looking at things. The angle of sunlight, the cast shadows on trees, houses, and cars all demand your attention. There is such a variation of light patterns around us that it is almost unbelievable.

It is tough driving a car when you are an artist. You are faced with competing needs--like the need to stay on the road and the need to look at every passing thing for a possible painting. Depending on the road, this can be difficult. If you are speeding along at 75 mph on the interstate, you have little time to look at things--but the road is wide and gives a bit of latitude. On a small two lane road through the countryside, you are going slower, but the road is a bit more narrow. You are closer to the things on either side of the road, but-- you still have to keep on the road. I suspect that driving is easier if you aren't an artist.

The people around you are different if you are an artist. You start noticing the way light reflects off of faces. When you talk to a friend, not only do you have to listen to what they have to say, but you also are engaged in an analysis of the shadow patterns on their face. Facial features are not just noses, eyes, ears, and chins. They are shape, shadow, light, and color. You have to contend with this in most every conversation.

Once you become an artist, the world around you takes on a different shape. Things are not just things--they are possible paintings. You can't just live in the world, you are compelled to observe it. Everything is interpreted in relation to your art. You see shape, lines, color, value, size, and texture in a different way--in fact I think the most awesome thing is that you see them when other people don't. I wouldn't trade my artist life for anything.


Memory

It is funny the things one remembers in their life. I remember the first watercolor I ever painted on a full size sheet of paper. I had been doing watercolor for all of one month and the extent of my knowledge consisted of one workshop and one painting in that workshop.

As I think back on it, I wonder how I got through the whole thing. Three decades have passed, and I still have the painting, and occasionally pull that first painting out and look it over. It is a good reminder that to grow as an artist you have to risk failure. Fear of failure probably holds more people back in their life than about anything and that is especially true of artists. One must have courage and remember that the real victory is overcoming fear of failure.

When you get right down to it, our failures are more important to us than our successes and without the failures, we aren't learning much. Failure is a fact of life, especially if you are pushing yourself hard and stretching your limits. There is a quote that says a journey of a 1000 miles begins with the first step. I took that first step 40 some years ago and don't regret it a bit; it has enriched my life beyond measure. I'm still learning, yet not so afraid.

I understand that what I know is not so important as the desire to learn. I can risk failure, and although I don't feel good about it, I know I will grow as an individual and an artist. As I struggled with that first painting, I had no inkling of the strange journey I was embarking on. I look forward to the rest of the journey--and it gets more interesting with each passing year.


Drawing

When I first started this watercolor journey, I used to begrudge the time I spent drawing my compositions. However, I've come to appreciate the power of drawing and how that power serves me as an artist.

Drawing does several things for me. The first is that it instills discipline. It takes me to a new level when it comes to concentration. When I draw, I must have all my attention on what I'm drawing. I can't get lazy--I must look carefully and keep looking carefully. Drawing is more about looking than putting lines and shapes on paper. If you don't see, you can't draw. That is one of the best things about being an artist, really seeing what other folks think they see (only an artist can understand that statement).

If you actually draw your own compositions (I know artists that always project their images), you get to learn how to see. You learn to look for little things. You judge lines in relation to vertical and horizontal. It isn't a line--it is a line this far from vertical--it is this long or this short. You look at ovals and try to decide how oval they are, how do they vary from a perfect circle. When drawing, it isn't always an easy thing to see correctly. The left hemisphere is always trying to trick you because it thinks it knows something about the subject at hand.

Another thing drawing does for us is teach us about the world. How many times have you looked at something and realized it wasn't constructed exactly as you believed? Next time you are out, look at the trees--they are so varied and weird. I sometimes look at a tree and think to myself: "if I drew that tree the way it really was, folks would think I was smoking dope." I can remember a hike I took many years ago in the mountains of Colorado. I was hiking through a large stand of quaking aspens and I came upon this one aspen tree whose main trunk made a 360 degree turn about 5 feet above the base. The trunk must have been 15 inches in diameter, and I have no idea what could have happened to cause such a strange thing. Life is far more varied than we understand.

Along the same line, drawing teaches us about certain subjects. I've alluded to the right/left hemisphere thing. When you draw something you have never drawn before, you have to use your right hemisphere. But once you have drawn that subject and understand its essence, I think it is now in the left hemisphere. It is there to be recalled for future occasions. It is like putting money in the bank--the more there is, the more it will earn. If you learn to draw many things, you can always call them up for other compositions. If you are one of those artists that project images, you miss learning about all manner of things.

As a watercolor artist, drawing gives me time to think about my coming painting. As I draw, I think about the colors and values I want to use in the painting. Drawing also familiarizes me with my subject. I live with the subject for some time before I ever get down to painting. It allows me to warm up before painting; it lets me get to know my subject better than if I had just walked up and started painting. My time drawing for a painting is my warm-up period. It psychics me up. The whole process is like a football team getting ready for a game.

If you are an artist that isn't drawing, you aren't getting into the water--you are just touching the surface. Jump in, the water is fine.


Observation

In one of my thoughts touched on observation and how it affects us as artists. I think I want to talk more about it. As an artist you are an observer at some level--no matter what your subject, what your style, or what your medium. Even if you are working in the abstract, you must be an observer.

If you are reading this, you probably are an artist at some level of accomplishment and observation. I suspect the observation and accomplishment go hand in hand. Whether realistic or abstract, you are an observer and you try to translate that observation into some kind of meaningful art work. If we could grade that the whole thing, I think we could talk about art wisdom--that is the where you really start to look at things and reproduce them (and I'm not just talking realistic things here).

It doesn't happen overnight. It happens over time. It is a lot like living day in and day out and becoming a better human being. I've read a number of art books and the big number is a hundred paintings. But the bottom line is you need to observe and do art. It takes time to really understand what is happening and then make an artistic statement about what you observe. If you don't observe deep enough, you will have an artistic statement that doesn't work as well as you would have liked.

It is easy to get in a hurry with this art thing. You get going and you want to do it now. You may even succeed beyond you imagination, but as you go on, you will learn that you have only touched the surface. Each painting and each observation is a growing experience. You may even wonder why your early paintings succeeded as well as they did. But as you journey along, you continually have this experience of osmosis--you just take in observational information, do your art, and grow as an artist. The art wisdom slowly builds up and you get better.

One day you wake up and you understand what is happening and you say, "wow, I didn't know that was happening." You shake your head and wonder what your art work will be in another ten years. It is an unsettling feeling when you realize it is a continuing journey and you haven't a clue. It is scary but isn't it fun?

 

 
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