It is the water that makes us watercolor artists. I mean pigments are pigments, and we can find pigments in any medium. Surfaces have a tendency to be textured at some level, no matter what the medium, but it is the water that really turns us on as watercolor artists. In fact, I think that we could say we are WATERcolor artists. WATERcolor is different than any other medium that I can think of--our medium is in reality--water.
There are times when I wonder why I chose water as a medium. Water is really an amazing thing. It is H2O-two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. The atoms of hydrogen have a positive charge and the atom of oxygen has a negative charge which means that water is kind of "sticky," the molecules combine because of the charges on the different atoms, the minus of oxygen combines with the positive of hydrogen. Water is called the "universal solvent" because it dissolves more substances than any other liquid-duh, we know that as WATERcolor artists--well, at least we know how it combines with pigment.
Without water we couldn't practice this fine art of WATERcolor. In fact, we wouldn't exist. Up to 60% of the human body is water. Our brains are composed of 70% water--I guess if you are considered an "air head", then you are experiencing some kind of drought. Our blood is 82% water, and our lungs are almost 90% water.
But it is the "sticky" nature of water--its very high surface tension and elasticity that control my destiny as a WATERcolor artist. You can understand color theory, the elements and principles of design, and still fail as a WATERcolor artist if you don't know about the fickle nature of water. My use of water can make me feel like a creative god--or it can make me despair--depending on how much I respect, understand, and deal with it.
I've been using this medium for a number of years now, and I'm still amazed what those little H2O molecules can do in a painting. A lot of water and a small amount of pigment can blossom into an incredible statement that is beyond comprehension. The correct touch with pigment and water in the right circumstance is a happening. The same thing in the wrong circumstance is a disaster.
I love the riding the edge between the right and wrong circumstance, because many times I don't know which way to go. It kills me when I do it wrong, but when it works right, it is something to behold. It seems so easy when it works right--a flick of pigment--and you watch things happen that you wouldn't have believed could happen in your wildest dreams. That is water and its particular properties.
If you want to be a WATERcolor artist you will have to understand water. Water is what makes things happen on paper, and you will have to learn that over and over. How you handle the water is absolutely critical.
Luke, Luke, it is the force, can you feel
it? The Star Wars movies have made a lot of money because they say something
to us about good and evil. They talk about the force--should we turn to the
light--or go to the dark. It is a constant struggle for humanity, at times
the light shines bright, and sometimes the dark creeps in.
I'm thinking that we as watercolor artists
are Watercolor Jedi Warriors. We understand the light side and dark side.
Fortunately, we were born with a connection to the light side--the light side
speaks to us--or we wouldn't be painting with watercolor. Not that the dark
side can't tempt us, it can and does, much to our detriment. But, mostly we
live on the light side.
Sometimes when I sit in my studio I feel like
a Jedi Warrior. I don't have a light saber, but I have my paintbrush, a white
sheet of paper, and pigment. When I'm feeling the Force , I can do anything.
I can almost hear the hum coming off of my brush--it is poised and ready to
do some serious watercolor work. The power flows onto the watercolor paper,
spreading into an incredible statement. I'm thinking, "Wow."
Then all of a sudden, Darth Vader comes into
view--the dark side. He grabs my arm--I can feel the chill. The light fades--things
are sullen and I'm afraid. I hesitantly move my brush to the palette, grabbing
five colors and mixing them thoroughly to make pure mud. I strain, knowing
I'm going to the dark side and try to resist. I cry out, "no, no, not
the dark side." I fight, but sometimes I'm overwhelmed and do the worst.
I've been tempted by the dark side and have failed. Other times, I fight the
dark side and manage to pull out my other light saber, strike Darth Vader
in the heart--he vanishes, and I stand in front of a creation that makes me
want to stand in awe.
After those moments have passed, I shake my
head and wonder what has happened. I feel drained because of the battle with
the dark side. With the good paintings, I can feel the force flowing through
my body and the hum of that light saber, and I'm ready for the next conflict.
But, there are times when the dark side has won the day, and all I feel is
dread--will I ever make it back to the light. I get scared.
That is when it is hard to pull out the brush
for the next painting. Will it hum as a light saber should, or will it pull
me to the dark side. The paper almost seems to be waiting, as I'm waiting,
waiting for the coming conflict--will it be the hum of light--or the dredge
of the dark? I'm still painting after 40 years, so I know what I believe.
It will be the light, and that is why I still love this watercolor thing.
The other day I was cruising the Internet and came upon the following statement: "Emotion. If something doesn't evoke an emotion out of me, then what's the sense of painting it? I am very tired of seeing people copying photographs. They could be the most beautiful and technically well done paintings, but they leave me cold…there is no soul, no feeling, no guts in these paintings. Why not just take a photograph? Painting is about feeling and emotion. It's an expression of one's self."
I've been reading a book called "Human Dynamics." The basic thesis of the book is that there are nine different personality types in the world--five of which seem to predominate in western culture. It defines the personality type with three characteristics, mixed characteristics--mental, emotional, and physical. We are all a combination of these characteristics, but we have a primary, secondary, and tertiary hierarchy in our personality. The author lists personality types by the primary and secondary. For example, I would be characterized as a mental--physical. I suspect the artist whose thought is expressed in the preceding paragraph is an emotional--physical.
What I'm wondering, is it fair for the artist to say from the emotional--physical perspective, "I am very tired of seeing people copying photographs. They could be the most beautiful and technically well done paintings, but they leave me cold…there is no soul, no feeling, no guts in these paintings. Why not just take a photograph?" I wonder if that statement says more about the artist and the emotional--physical perspective rather than the piece of art? I mean, if someone spends a great deal of time making a very realistic painting, then it must mean something to them. They are putting a big portion of their soul into the effort--and they are doing it with their level of emotion. They care about what they are doing and working hard to make art happen. Is there something that says if a painting is very realistic, then it is deficient in some way?
I wonder if this is a case of "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." If you happen to be an emotional--physical personality, you can't see past the realism of a particular painting. By the same token, if you happen to be a mental--physical personality, you can't see the emotional nature of an abstract/expressionistic painting. In reality, all painting is emotional--it is just that different personality types express that emotion in different ways.
It would be good if we just gave up on stereotypes and tried to understand the varied nature of humanity and let it go at that. If we are artists, we bring who we are to the art process. We are who and what we are. How we paint may not be in the vogue, but it is what we are. For us to try to be anything else other than what we are is to be dishonest--no matter what the crowd may think.
A last thought. The book I mentioned above says that we are all in the state of flux. To complete our human journey, we need to come to grips with that part of our personality that isn't dominant. Like I said, I'm a mental--physical, and if I'm to grow, I need to grow the emotional side of myself. At the ripe old age of 69, I've managed to grow that side of myself, but have more progress to make. I would love to see the artist whose thoughts I've quoted above grow a bit on the mental side of the equation. Maybe then the artist can see that we come to this art thing from different angles--and her angle isn't the only way to go.
Tee It Up
Don't know how many folks out there are fans of golf or play golf. There is a saying in golf--let's tee it up. I guess that could be a metaphor for what we do when we get ready for another painting. Tee it up. It is kind of like "put up or shut up"--do your best and let the results speak for themselves.
Depending on the golf game and the money involved, it can be a daunting thing. I recently played a round of golf and there was money involved, and it was enough to get my attention. The golf swing is a hard thing--and under pressure of money, it becomes even harder.
I think there is something very similar going on with our artwork. It seems so easy. Put some paper down and get after it. But it isn't that easy. Every work of art we produce is a nebulous thing in our minds, and bringing that nebulous thought to fruition is not an easy deal. If we are being true to ourselves, we are pushing ourselves to do something that stretches us--and that can be a frightening thought. It is like the golf swing with money on the line. The shot isn't a given, and the painting isn't a given.
When I'm playing golf for money, I find myself tightening up. When I start another painting, I get the same feeling. The painting isn't a given--I know that it will push me hard. It will make me sweat, it will make me question why I ever started this endeavor, it will send me on a journey of highs and lows. I will have to scratch and fight to find the best in what I set out to do. It may be one of those exhilarating experiences or one of those real downers. I never know for sure.
And that is why when I start another painting, I get a bit scared. I know that I'm about to put myself on the line. I know that I'm about to put my concept of who I am as an artist on the line. It gives me pause. It can make me step back and wonder why the hell I'm even doing this thing. But I am doing this art thing--and I have two choices as Yoda says: "do or do not."
It will "do." It may be good or bad, but it is, and it counts. It tells me that I have the courage to dare to do something. No matter how bad it may be, it is better than never getting to the starting line. The only failure is in not "teeing" it up.
I'm wondering why most artist statements drive me crazy? It might have something to do with my feelings about art shows--somewhere on this page you can find that particular thought.
It could be that when I read an artist statement, I usually get this strange feeling. I call it the BS feeling. Most artist statements have little to do with the human being artist, but seem to have a lot to do with gobblygook thrown out for public consumption.
Is it so hard to be ourselves and say what we really feel about our artwork? Do we have so little confidence that we have to put together juggernauts of fluff that make little sense, but sound quite erudite? Have you ever seen an artist statement like this:
"The eclectic nature of art motivates me to find the essence of each and every subject. My works are best understood as visual representations of numerous levels of consciousness. I'm looking for a psychic methodology that touches the subconscious and poetic nature of each and every subject. Visual representation is just one level of an expanding pyramid of realities . . . . . ."
f I were king for a day, I would eliminate artist statements. I would rather the public look at artwork and come to their own conclusions about who and what the artist is about. That is basically what happens anyhow--it really comes down to what we create and what each individual patron sees-not what we may write as an artist statement.
I sometimes fear I'm a bit redundant with some of these thoughts. It seems I keep coming back to the same themes over and over. It bothers me, but I have concluded that some things just deserve repeating. As a teacher, I've learned that things usually don't sink it with one sitting-one needs repeated exposure to really learn something. OK. That is my excuse.
I've been in the studio for the last week--painting--yeah painting, but not watercolor, I'm painting my floor. The furniture has been moved from one side to the other while one side has been painted. Of course that is a good excuse to clean things up a bit, and as I was cleaning, I ran across some of my old sketchbooks. I started looking through them, and wham, one of the sketches just jumped out at me.
I'm wondering exactly why that particular sketch jumped out. I don't date my sketches, so have no idea when I did it--probably 10-20 years ago. That is as close as I can get. Most of my sketches get incorporated into paintings--but for some reason, I never got around to painting this particular composition.
I ask myself why now--what has my artistic journey done that makes me feel good about this particular composition. That statement isn't strong enough--I have that feeling about the composition. You know--the feeling that comes upon you, the stars are in alignment, the world stops, and you understand that this is something that feels exactly right.
I think what is happening here is something called change as an artist. We don't stay static; we keep painting and growing; we keep observing and learning. Every day we change a little and those little changes amount to a great deal. It is hard to understand how we change--and where those changes will bring us. The only thing constant is that we will change, and that we can't appreciate the major impact all those little changes make.
I wonder why I'm surprised by this latest revelation. I've been through it before, but it always strikes me as a very special occurrence. It doesn't happen often, but it is such a remarkable thing when it does happen, that I'm always awestruck. I can understand the whole process in a rational type of way, but that doesn't say it all. That extra special feeling about a composition is a rare event for me--it may happen once a year. Usually when I have this feeling, things work well with a painting. I don't know whether that will be true of this composition as I'm still letting the floor dry. Time will tell.
I'm anxious to get to the chase.
Have you ever had the feeling that you wanted to take revenge on a painting? I mean, you have been working and working on a painting, and it just keeps getting worse and worse. You do everything you can think of, try every manner of technique but no matter what you bring to bear, the painting just gets worse. Your frustration builds and you know you are beaten. It is a done deal.
I've been through this many times in my watercolor life. I've been beaten, beaten bad, but I always know I have the last laugh. Sometimes there is entertainment in failure--and the worse the failure, the more entertainment to be had. Once a painting has reached the point of complete failure, can anything worse happen? No. And that is the point where we are set free to take our revenge.
There are various methods of taking revenge--some more artistically serious than others. Probably the most universal is the collage method. In this activity, one takes their "less than successful" painting and begins ripping it to shreds. Depending on the frustration level, and the seriousness of the collage effort, one might think more or less about the size of the pieces. In any case, the original painting has become "toast" and the artist has had the last laugh and an entertaining time and with luck, another compostion.
Another method of revenge, and the one I like the best, is the "more pigment is better" technique. Let's face it, the original painting is a complete loss, and is ripe for whatever manner of humiliation I can inflict on it. There is nothing I can do to make it worse, but there is still an outside chance I can make something good happen, a very outside chance. So I get a great brush load of pigment and dash it on the painting--with some thought about where it should go. I then get out my spray bottle and spray the pigment, again with some thought. I continue working in that manner until the painting is so completely destroyed or rehabilitated that it would be insane to waste any more pigment on the effort.
In either case, the end result is a "W" for myself as an artist. If by some miracle I manage to do something with the painting, I walk away with a keeper. If I don't rescue the painting, I've had a great time of making a further muck of the whole thing. The making of that muck has a cathartic effect--even though I've been beaten on the original composition, I've had the last laugh.
I don't like to fail with a painting, but I know that if I do, all is not lost. I will have another go in one way or the other, and will learn something in the process-or at least, take my revenge for having been beaten.
I guess failure on occasion isn't all that bad. Ha, ha, ha!!
Observation is a critical thing for artists. We can’t just look at things, we have to look at things and really observe; we have to look deeply and try to see what everyone else doesn’t see. I’ve learned to look deeply over the years, but it is almost impossible to record everything we see. When we look at something, we can store a bit of the information, but even if we see it all, our brains just won’t be able to store it all in such a short space of time.
And that brings me to what this epistle is about. I’ve learned that I can’t store it all, so I take a lot of photos. I have a bookshelf that has about 10 three--ring binders, and each binder is filled with photos. There are photos of just about everything—cars, trucks, landscapes, water, water with reflections, trees, flowers, still life objects, people, shadows, snow, whatever is in nature, I try to record in my photos. Mostly, I work from photos when I paint. But that isn’t the reason I like photos.
I like photos.
I like photos because they let me see after the fact what I missed when I was outside observing. They give me time to look at things and really analyze what is going on with color, value, shape, and texture. They give me time to learn. You don’t always have time to let things soak in when you are out observing. I always miss something when I observe, and the photos let me get a second look. They also provide something else—they provide secondary objects for paintings. No matter how good I frame a photo with a central subject, there are things I don’t like about the composition. I always need something else, and that is when I go to my photo binders, because I know that is where I will find something lurking in a photo. I look through my collection and usually something jumps out—it may not be an object, it may just be an idea—a shadow—an area of light, but something usually materializes for my use. I couldn’t live without my photos.
started taking photos when I first started this art thing 40 some years ago. In one of the essays below, I mentioned that the best thing an artist could do was set a schedule for doing art. I think the second best thing an artist can do is develop a collection of photos. Those photos will give you much to look at and think about. They will give you ideas for paintings, and give you ideas for composition. They will give you time to look at things deeply. Photos aren’t perfect and have some limitations. However, they're another tool in our arsenal.
One of my artist friends stopped by this page the other night and said something to the fact that this page is getting more like a book than just a page. Well it may have the makings of a book, but what this site is about is watercolor and life. Not about being a book. But, my friend's comments got me to thinking about what I have written here. I'm a watercolorist--and I take what I do very seriously. Yet, as I read over these pages, I don't see a hell of a lot that talks about technique. There are hundreds of books that will help you with technique, and I don't think I can improve on that.
Yet, there is something going on here that is important. I teach a unit of watercolor with my high school students and we find our way, but seldom do I get anything out of my classes that excites me. I wonder about that. There are paintings that are OK, but there are very few paintings that speak to me.
See, art isn't only about technique. Art is about thinking--it is about passion--it is about dedication--it is about life and the struggle to find the best in ourselves. In fact, technique can't really happen without thinking, passion, and dedication. Paintings can't come alive without our life experience and the struggles we go through as part of the life. The life process happens daily, however, thinking, passion, and dedication are not a given--they come to those that have the courage and guts to step into that water.
I mentioned my high school students, and how I found their efforts less than satisfying. That is not to put them down--they do well, considering their age. When you think about it, most high school students haven't reached the point where they understand passion (when it comes to art--they understand sexual passion), they are just starting to understand how to think deeply, know little about dedication, and even less about the life struggle.
But it is our passion, thinking, and dedication that make our artwork come alive. That is why you don't see much on this page about technique--how to paint a watercolor. Unless you understand the foundation--the passion, the dedication, the thinking, and the connection to the life struggle, you are bound to fail as an artist.
What is your passion? Are you willing to think deeply? Are you willing to dedicate yourself to the pursuit of art? No pain, no gain, as the saying goes. You will find inspiration here--but it is up to you to dig deep, and that isn't easy. What are you willing to do to make yourself a better artist? It is in your hands--I say go for it, but don't expect it to be easy.
Watercolor is a delightful thing. Well, it can be a dreadful thing at times, but I'm here to talk about the delight I find in watercolor. There is just something so joyous and wonderful about how it behaves on paper. You put some water down and just touch a bit of pigment into that water and everything goes ballistic. The blossoming pigment is just something that is hard to describe--I watch it happen again and again in paintings, and I still can't really come to grips with it.
I love to paint skies, especially big skies, and the reason is that watercolor does such incredible things. I mix the pigment I want, wet the whole area of the sky, and then introduce the pigment to the paper. Here is my imaginary conversation between the paper, the water, and the pigment:
Paper: "Damn, I feel so tight, I was feeling so good when I got soaked in the tub and then all of a sudden I was flopping in the wind. Next thing I knew, I was slammed against a board and someone was pushing staples through my body. It was awful!!! Then the pain had gone, and I was pretty relaxed. But NOW--it is starting to hurt--I'm stretching tighter and tighter."
Pigment: "I'm so dry. A week ago I was nourished with clear, clean water. Now, I seem to be so dry. I'm getting so old--I can't stand the wrinkles--oh, life is so awful."
Water: "Gosh, I've been in this container forever. And what is that colored stuff that keeps choking me. Maybe I should complain to the EPA. Whoa. Oh no, I'm-no-argh, I'm down the drain, but I will leave some survivors--my little droplets will hang on.
Little Droplets: "That feels good--I always love that feeling, replenishment. More brothers to combine with."
Pigment: "What? What is that. it feels, feels, yeah, water. God, I love that feeling--it is so cool and it seems to settle my soul. That is much better. I feel so young."
Paper: "Ah, that feels good, so cool and so wet. I can feel myself relaxing. That is better. The staples don't even seem to hurt."
Water: "What? It's that brush again. Why does he insist on taking me for a ride. I like it here in my little container. Damn."
Pigment: "Oh, what a tickle--it is about time mister brush came by for some fun. That feels sooooo good. Yeeaaaahhhhh--I'm gone--what a ride."
Paper: "Soooo good. I love this feeling, it just makes me warm all over. Huh, more water, what, where is it going now, wow it is really spreading. Over--just over that way a bit--there, that feels better."
Pigment: "Yeeeeaaaa, this is good-what, what is this--yooowwww--here I go--yoooww-yooowwww--what is happening--I can't believe it--I'm flying-and look at me--I'm something. Did I do that?"
Artist: "I've been dying to get back to painting. It has been a whole week. Let's see, that water looks filthy--and my pigments have dried out. The paper looks good--nice and tight. I think I will start with the sky--but I need fresh water------"
Imagination is a wonderful thing. From Water, Pigment, and Paper-here is wishing you the best in your artistic endeavors.
Watercolor is such a fickle medium. It rewards us when we least expect it and slams us to the ground just when we think we know what is going on. There are so many variables,the water, the pigment, the paper, the brushes--all go together to drive one crazy. Take paper for instance. There are many different brands and different weights. Each brand handles differently, some with little sizing and others with a lot of sizing. The weight makes a major difference, the heavier papers hold water longer, giving us a bit more time to work with various washes. You can be painting on 300lb. paper and move to 140lb. paper, and all of a sudden you are faced with a whole new environment. Then there are pigments, some blossom out once they touch water--others just sit there and do nothing. It is a never ending battle!
As watercolor artists have to learn to think on our feet. We can't be content to just do the same thing over and over, there is no such thing. We plan our paintings well, but somehow there is something we didn't count on. That is when we show our metal. What to do? Our mind connects to all the things we have experienced in the past, searching for a solution. Sometimes it is obvious, but many times we just have to wing it--trying a solution and living with the results.
It still drives me crazy, but I find that I'm getting better at this recovery thing. I suppose it has to do with the years of painting watercolor because when I go for some kind of solution, I don't really think--well this worked before. I just have this gut feel that it is what is necessary. I can't think of many paintings where I got it right the first time. There are a few, but very few.
I think that is why I like watercolor, because it is so variable. You have to think on your feet and take risks. It pushes you to step out there, to deal with things that you couldn't have foreseen. It kind of reminds me of this game called life--do we sit in some kind of status quo or do we venture out there to grab life, pull it up and look in its face. I think we say--I'm not content to just be a bystander, watching others live life to the fullest. We jump in and splash around, and at times we get in over our heads and then have to think on our feet. But we get into the fray and have a damn nice time. I'm trying very hard to get wet--and find I love that wet feeling. How about you?
Among other things, I'm an art teacher--high school art. I don't teach any advanced art classes--just the basics. That suits me fine, because I believe that to be a good artist, one must master the basics. Every year I start the classes with a little lecture about right brain and left brain. The basic thesis is that for us to draw, we need to use the right hemisphere of the brain--as that is the part of the brain that controls how we see things in space. The left hemisphere is devoted to verbal skills, among other things. If you've ever given a painting demonstration, you know how hard it is to talk and do art at the same time. I know I can't draw/paint seriously and talk at the same time.
So, I go through this whole lecture and emphasize the need to concentrate and get over into that right hemisphere (yeah, I know, you wonder if it is possible with teenagers). I think it is easy to get to the right hemisphere, but it is hard to stay there. We spend most of our time using the left hemisphere, and when drawing, it is easy to revert to the left hemisphere--it happens almost automatically.
After all these years, I still have a hard time staying in the right hemisphere. I get over there just fine--draw a few lines--and the next thing I know, I'm back in the left hemisphere. It is funny how easily it happens, but I know it has happened when I look down and see the last three lines aren't even close! I shake my head, scold myself, let Mr. Eraser take care of the problem, and begin again. It is a never ending battle.
I think it would be neat if we had a switch right behind our ear that allowed us to shift hemispheres. That way I could flip a switch when I got to my studio and started a drawing. I could probably sell all my erasers!! A flip of the switch, draw and paint. Depart studio, flip switch, and go do whatever. Heck, we can clone sheep--we should be able to develop a right/left hemisphere switch.
When I enter art shows, I often have this unclean feeling. It makes me wonder whether the feeling is akin to what a prostitute must feel while plying their trade. That may sound strange, but that is how I feel. I think the feeling originates because the whole experience takes on aspects of prostitution—in this case—art prostitution. Pretty strong words—and I’m sure many artists out there in Internet land will take exception to them—but it is my quarter; bear with me.
As a practicing artist, I have some experience with art shows, and have entered my share in the 30 some years I’ve been at this art thing. However, these days, I don’t spend a lot of time on that endeavor, mainly because of the feelings I’ve expressed in the preceding paragraph.
Let’s cut to the chase. Why do I have this unclean feeling? I value my artwork, as I’m sure you value your artwork. When I take a piece to an art show, it is kind of like a prostitute walking the sidewalk—waiting for someone to come along and appreciate the merchandise. The pimp and the customer have no clue about the inner being and probable worth of the prostitute, and a judge at an art show has no idea of the struggle that was involved in the production of my artwork. The judge may look at the piece of artwork for 30 seconds, or look at it several times—but in any case, I wonder if the time it takes does justice to the effort that went into the work. When you get right down to it, the artwork is a piece of myself—it is my being on display—just like a prostitute is on display. What am I worth—nothing—honorable mention—20 bucks—who knows?
About two years ago, it dawned on me that I was the main culprit in this whole matter—I was the one enabling the whole process. If I believed the process was beneath my dignity, then it was I who should put a stop to the whole thing. I haven’t entered a show where works are juried for inclusion since that time. I still enter art shows where all works entered are hung—the public gets to decide my worth.
There are other things that bother me about art shows as well. In any good competition there are very many good works of art entered—more good works than will be selected. I wonder how the juror, faced with that quality of artwork will make his or her decision. However the juror’s decision is made, it will be a very subjective thing—and many good works of art will be rejected. Which leads to my next thought—is the whole thing a crapshoot? At the level of accomplishment I see in artwork these days, and the limited space available for most shows—I’m thinking that it is impossible for a juror to accept all pieces that are of comparable quality. It comes down to the bias of a juror—and I think that is a crapshoot. If you roll the right dice and your number comes up—then well and good—if you shoot craps, tough luck.
I understand that process. What is bothering me is what the whole thing means. If it is really a crapshoot like I think it is, then whether you are accepted or rejected is meaningless. It just happens that your number comes up or doesn’t—all random chance.
That isn’t the worst of the matter. It seems in my state, the process isn’t a crapshoot for everyone. If you are an artist of some reputation, then you find your work included in most shows. Not that the pieces of work aren’t deserving—they generally are—but they aren’t any better than the work of many artists that get rejected. I think that speaks louder than anything I can say here—the jurors are at such a loss to make a distinction between the quality of artwork, they have to be on the safe side and overly include work from artists of reputation.
Not to be completely negative, I see one good thing about art shows—visibility. Visibility can result in increased sales and a better reputation—and with that reputation a better chance to be included in the next art show.
But in my mind, I wonder if visibility is worth the price. It is for some of us and isn’t for others. The way I feel about my artwork, it just doesn’t feel right to go through the process—especially a process I feel is a crapshoot. When I think of a juror looking at my artwork, I wonder if they understand that I’m a human being and have dignity. Do they understand that I work hard at my artwork and the painting presented for their acceptance was something straight from my heart—something I struggled greatly to make happen—and the emotional commitment I’ve made to get this particular piece of artwork in front of them?
I don’t have an answer to that last question. I do know that if I’m investing a lot of myself in an endeavor, I want some confidence that the process of valuation is more than an exercise in random chance. I don’t see that in art shows. So I’m left with working on the marketing angle and at this point in my artistic life, the exposure I get in art shows isn’t worth dealing with feeling I get when going through the whole process.
I get a great kick out of painting. It is such a creative thing that at times I think it is almost addictive. Think about it--you see some subject that attracts your attention and you start thinking about this subject. Most of the time I take a photo of the subject, but that is incidental, it is what is going on in the mind that counts. At some point in the future, the photo gets developed, but the whole time the subject is in my mind, rolling around, trying to find some synthesis.
There are some painting subjects that have rolled around in my mind for years. Others jump in, take one roll, and are out in a painting within a week. I never know how it is going to happen. I think I like the ones that roll around for a long time. They become like an old friend. Some never roll to the surface, they just partially disappear. However, they are not lost and don't come out as a whole painting, but chances are they come out incorporated as part of another composition. Nothing is wasted.
The compositions rolling around are fun, but when it is time to paint, that is when I really get excited. I cut a large sheet of watercolor paper--usually something on the order of 34" x 45." I get my staple gun out, cut some butcher tape, moisten a sponge, and then drag the piece of watercolor paper upstairs to the bath tub that has been filling with water. Once the paper has soaked for a few minutes, I pull it out, run downstairs with the water dripping on the carpet (my wife really likes that part), put it on the board, tape it, and then staple it.
Then I sit back and relax. It usually takes about two hours for the paper to dry before I can start drawing. It may take two or three hours to complete an outline drawing for one of my old cars or trucks--I don't rush things, just let them happen. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to do with the particular composition and what I want to do when I start painting.
Once the drawing is done, it is time to paint--and of course that is the best part. I have this white sheet of paper with a contour drawing in front of me--nothing else except my brain and palette. Will it be great, good, acceptable, or throw away? I begin--usually the sky first. If it is a car/truck painting, I do the car or truck next--but not completely--just enough. Then the foreground and middle ground. Sometimes a retouch on the sky. Back to the car/truck to bring out the detail. More on the foreground and finally pull it all together. It is done. I look at the finished painting, trying to decide what I think. I have been living with this painting for a long time, and it is sometimes hard to be objective--either good or bad.
But what I really like--and I mean really, really like, is the process of conceiving, thinking, and then making. If the end product is good, then it is almost a religious experience. If the end product is bad, then it is a learning experience. Whatever the experience, it is a thrilling ride.
I don't make my living as an artist. I'm an ex--U.S. Air Force pilot and now a school teacher. Most of my painting is done during the weekends--it seems that is when I have the energy to paint. I usually come home on Friday and head for my studio--sometimes I have a painting in progress but at other times I'm in between paintings and will be starting a new one. I like those weeks where I have a painting in progress. Those weeks give me time to think and I have the opportunity to sneak into my studio and look at the uncompleted painting. I mull over the possibilities--and let it work in my subconscious.
I go through this routine week after week. It kind of reminds me of the movie Ground Hog Day. Although the paintings aren't the same, I keep going back to the same problems, always trying to find a better solution. Each painting keeps me in suspense, and I'm always riding on the edge between success and failure.
I have this vision of myself, sitting down one day and painting the perfect watercolor--it will be kind of an epiphany--a real happening--it will be like the perfect game in baseball--time will stop--the heavens will open and an angelic chorus will be singing hosannas. It will be something to behold. I guess you could call it the perfect moment for a watercolorist. But, I don't want that to happen until my last moment on this Earth--I want to struggle until the end--it wouldn't be right for me any other way.
Near and Far
Near and far. It is interesting what we see at different distances. There are many different ideas about what constitute the elements of design--and it seems to me that we are moving to a more simplified version of what they are. However, with that simplicity comes a danger. For example, you won't find SHAPE in any of the elements these days, but you would have a couple of decades ago.
I can understand why we don't see it mentioned these days--color, value, and line--they all go together to make shape, and consequently are more elemental. But, I think there lies the danger, because once we lose the idea of shape, we kind of lose touch of what holds our paintings together. It is shape that does that for us. It is not quite so basic, but it is so damn important that we neglect it at a very great risk.
And that gets me back to near and far. When I paint, I spend a great deal of time back away from my painting, looking and analyzing. I don't just stand back, I squint my eyes, trying to throw away the detail (yeah like line, value, color, and texture) and see the major shapes. Obviously, you have to get close to paint--but you can't always see what is happening at that distance. What may look good close up, won't work at a distance.
So, you have to spend time moving back and forth. Near to paint, far to look at what you have done. Most of my paintings spend half of the time getting worked on, and half of the time being looked at across the room. I want to see the shapes and how they hold together--and I can't do that close up, they need to be farther away. Sometimes it is hard to get away from them because I like to be close up and personal, painting and doing my thing. But, I've learned that it is better to get back away from them, to look and think about what is going on. My paintings always turn out better when I give them some space.
Near and far. We do well to understand the nature of what they mean. Do well when you are painting, but consider what is happening from afar. Sometimes we see much better when we aren't quite so engaged with our painting.
Painting watercolors makes me happy. In fact, most things in my life make me happy. I wonder about this happiness thing. I wonder if I was blessed with the right chemicals in my brain or what. But it is true for me, I'm a happy person.
But with that said, I'm happier when I'm in my studio working on my next painting. There is something about the challenge of a watercolor painting that just gets me pumped up. I don't exactly know what it is, but whatever, it gives me a lift. I get excited when I stretch a piece of watercolor paper. I suppose some folks wouldn't understand that statement, but if you are an artist, you understand. It has become a ritual for me--take the paper to the bathtub, soak it, bring it back to the studio, put it on the board and staple it down. I can hardly contain my excitement the whole time it is drying.
Have you even gone to the refrigerator for a dill pickle and could feel your checks starting to pucker up? Yeah, that is my feeling when I'm getting ready for another watercolor.
As the paper dries, I'm already salivating. I'm anxious to get to the chase. Any painting is such a nebulous thing in the mind. But the idea is nothing compared to the effort and struggle to make the whole thing happen on watercolor paper. That is happiness for me.
Art isn't easy--it challenges us in so many ways. It can be a real downer at times, but I think that what we really like, and what makes us happy, is the fight to make the creative act happen right. We don't always get it right, but we can be content with the struggle. If we fight hard enough, we succeed and that provides some dividends--but even when we don't get it right, we know we pushed ourselves to do something out of the ordinary, we went for it, we gave it our best shot.
Happiness isn't immediate gratification--immediate gratification is meaningless in the long run. Happiness is taking on a challenge and knowing you did the best you could. Happiness is taking time to look around and see something that nobody else sees. Happiness is understanding what a wonderful thing this life is. It is precious because we will never discover all its dimensions and will just touch the surface. However if we do it right, we might find our way beneath the surface a bit and that will be enough. We will be happy.
I think to be an artist you have to listen. I say that in a big sense. Meaning that we have to listen to what we see, we have to listen to our instincts, we have to listen to what we are doing, and we have to listen to what other artists are doing.
There are other epistles on this page about listening to what we see. It is enough to say that we become observers of the world around us. We don't just kind of see, we look deeply at shapes, values, lines, textures and colors. We don't take them for granted; they need a deeper attention and evaluation.
When we see work by other artists we have to listen to what they say to us. Do they tell us that there are other ways of observing the world? Do they tell us that we lack skills they possess? It is good (and painful) to discover our weaknesses. Without that, we would have a hard time growing as artists. The best artists show us a new vision--they show us a better way of doing art. We all need a bit of that.
The thing I like about looking at what other artists are doing is that it forces me look closely at what I'm doing. If I was the only artist in the world, and well received, I would probably just keep doing the same old thing--well maybe. There is a thing called meta-cognition--how do I think about my thinking. What do I know, how does what I know compare to what I should know--that is meta-cognition. If there isn't a meta-cognition component to our lives, then we probably aren't good learners. There should be a term called meta-artist--what am I doing as an artist--what needs to be improved, what is good. To improve as artists, we have to critically evaluate what we are doing. If we aren't doing that, we aren't growing as artists.
I have a hard time with this instinct thing. It starts getting into a realm I can't quantify. But it exists. We need to listen to our instincts because they serve us well--there are things we do with this medium that can't be described. I can't count the times that I just did something with a painting, without thinking about what I was doing, just did it, and it made all the difference in the world. Of course to be fair, I've done the same thing and made bad things happen. But, more times than not, my instincts have served me well. I think we need to listen to our gut instinct. We know who we are and how we feel--we need to go with that. Everything can't be calculated and describe--it must be felt.
Listening is an important skill, whether it is in our daily lives on the job, with family, or with our artwork. It seems to me that we learn more by taking in information than giving information out. I will finish with this: "A wise man will hear and will increase in learning." That's it.
Have you ever painted a painting that you knew had a good chance of failure? I do that on occasion--I just jump into something I have no idea about. I do it consciously and try to have no qualms about it. It isn’t that I intentionally set out to fail. It is just that I want to try something new, and have no idea where I want to go with this new idea. There is only one way to find out--and that is to jump in and do it.
So, I stretch a piece of paper and let fly. It is an interesting process; a process that involves a lot of flying by the seat of the pants. Sometimes it is a major technique that I’m unsure about--sometimes it is color--but most of the time it is a whole new idea--something that is so radically different from my previous paintings, that I just have to wing it.
Most of the time the whole thing is a mess. I don’t think I’ve ever done this sort of thing and had it succeed fully. But usually some little part of the idea comes out and it makes sense. I think about it--and at some point it gets incorporated into another painting. It may not be major, but it is important to me--and my way of painting.
And I haven’t let go of the original idea, it is still rattling around in my brain--trying to come to some kind of synthesis. It needs time, and some more exploration. So I let it rattle, and wait. It is hard to wait, but I’ve learned that all things need their time--I made my attempt and it didn’t work. It needs to cogitate a bit more.
I have things in my brain from many years ago, and they are still working. Maybe they need more technical skill on my part, maybe they need some information that I don’t have at this point. The important thing is that they are there--and if the right circumstance comes along, I can use them. Art is what we know and what we will find. When the know and find come together, it can be an incredible happening.