Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Here's a painting I made a few months ago of Angela that I like quite a lot.  It's a pretty accurate drawing, and I like how the light falls on her back, leaving her face and neck in shade.  I like the glazing on her neck, cheeks, breasts, and arms.  As I've noted before, Angela is a lovely young woman whom I first knew when she was a student at the University where I teach (never a student of mine, I must add, and this was ten years ago). 

I've been thinking more lately about Jung's notion of the anima and what it's like to be a man.  To reiterate, in Jung's conception, the anima is a feminine (or perhaps just "female") image in the male unconscious that takes the part or perhaps even "is" the soul.  The anima appears in various female guises, and my understanding is that the guise she adopts changes with one's psychic growth.  The first and most potent of these guises is the guise of the maiden - the intoxicatingly lovely young woman.

I have had a number of dreams that I can only describe as visits from my anima.  There's a young woman in them, and I am deeply and profoundly drawn to her - there is a feeling in these dreams that I can only describe as pure love and completion.  She is the missing part of me, and I am the missing part of her.  It doesn't matter - nor do I remember - exactly what happens in these dreams.  All that matters are her and me and that we have found one another.

As I've said in a previous post, one of my main reasons for painting is the foolish one of my quest after my anima, my soul.  What I really want to "capture" in my paintings is that lost part of me.  I find in painting that I do catch something, but the most poignant harvest for me is simply the knowledge that I will never catch her this way.  Sometimes I feel like I am catching glimpses: "there she is, that's her!"  And then the glimpse fades, and I am left shaking my head, resting in the restless mystery of my lostness and aloneness.  "No, that wasn't her - that wasn't her at all."

We silly, poor men can get lost in these quests.  The mistake we make is in ever thinking that our animae can ever be found out there in the world.  There really are beautiful women to look at, but they are just people, not that spiritual part of us that we long for.  We can look at the beautiful women, but our job is to take back that beauty and see it as part of ourselves that somehow we have projected out.  Let the woman be herself; let me be me.

In painting a lovely young woman like Angela, I come to see her for the person that she is, not the person I project onto her, which is exactly right.  Painting helps me to do this work; but I know that where it will leave me is where I need to be, in a state of holy longing.

It's hard being a man.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Asta Bañana

For years I didn't eat bananas.  Who could not eat bananas?

Their mushiness bugged me.  All mushy things are dangerous.  How easier it is to eat a crisp corn chip, whose boundaries are sharp and clear, than it is to eat a pool of mashed potatoes.  The mashed potatoes smear all over the plate, shattering the illusion of their separateness from your broccoli and your pork chop.  Mushy things are scary.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas says that dirt is a boundary phenomenon: "matter out of place," I think is how she puts it.  There is something in us humans that longs for clarity of boundary: this is me and that is not me.  This longing is rooted in our symbol systems.  Language gives us an "I" that we can carry on glibly believing is separate from everything else.  And then two possibilities occur when boundaries get annihilated, as in eating, lovemaking, or (dare I say it) painting: either ego-catastrophe or ecstasy.

I'm in favor of boundary-annihilation.  In fact, I think we have no choice ultimately but to accept it.  The ultimate rejection of boundary annihilation is anorexia: a symbol-illness bred by the terror of the mingling of the me and the not me.  Obsessive-compulsives are all screwed up about boundaries as well.

But we are not just our "I"s.  Our boundaries between "us" and the "outside world" are illusory.  I am a weird commingling of cells, microbial organisms, the food and air I take in, the ideas, symbols, and images that construct my understanding of the world.  I am really just an expression of this world and ultimately of this universe.

Painting the bananas put me in mind of my long-held banana-phobia.  Now I love bananas.  It was fun to capture their yellow and sculpt their brown spots.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

More on Phenomenology

Here's a 20-minute sketch of Juanita I painted just last Wednesday at the Sebastopol Art Center.  I enjoyed painting this pinup-like pose.

There is a phenomenology of the body just as there is a phenomenology of autumn leaves.  This is one of the miracles of painting.  In our society, the body is, to put it mildly, overdetermined.  It is so heavily laden with meanings, with interpretations, with roles it enacts that it in itself is hardly there at all.  I submit that the body is such a mystery to us precisely on account of this fact.  When we see a body, we do not actually see the body: we see everything we project onto it.  Of course the "we" here is our culture; we ourselves do not generate these multiple meanings.  The result of this mis-seeing is that we are always looking for the real body underneath its many meanings.

Here is a statement of faith: in painting, it is possible to get past these overdeterminations and back to the body as it "really" is.  I recognize this statement for the mystical position that it is.  I can only cite as evidence my experience of painting bodies.  At the outset, I find myself variously reacting to the body I see before me.  Sometimes I am excited, sometimes I am bored, sometimes I am admiring, sometimes I am frightened or "turned off."  But as I paint, my inner landscape changes as I paint the outer landscape of her (or his) body.  My pencil and watercolors sculpt the form of the body, and as they do so they get interested in her.  They see things that my first eyes didn't see.  In noticing exactly how the left leg angles under the right, how the breasts fall back into her shoulders, how the shadows sculpt the form of her rib cage, my painting self sees her anew, and then sees her anew again.  

Invariably what's left ultimately is a respect for her (or his) own individual grace and beauty as it really is, beyond everything that my culturally tutored eyes are trained to see.

Juanita said that reclining poses are great, except you do run the risk of falling asleep.

Some More Still Life

These are some leaves I gathered in my yard about a month and a half ago, at a time in my life when work was just killing me.  To put it mildly, with my election to a major faculty governance position in my regular day job, I find myself INVOLVED.

Painting the leaves was a leap into faith: faith that there is more to life than the hurly-burly we live in during our workaday lives.  We humans are incredibly good at creating universes of signification.  Sometimes we go so far as to die for them (witness religious martyrdom, genocides, etc.).  But leaves just grow, change color, fall, and become mulch: not so bad a fate.

Painting is sort of phenomenological.  Phenomenology is that branch of philosophy (or is it psychology?) that tries to see human life in terms of these deeper realities.  It asks, "who are we when we strip away the net of significations and see ourselves as natural beings, as part of the landscape, as it were?"  The colorful leaves are in one sense infinitely more "real" than the campus wrangles that I have to tend to are.  And yet those campus wrangles are also equally as "real" as the leaves - meaning just part of the life that is on this planet.  It's hard to put this into words.

One point that phenomenology makes consistently is that human beings are first and foremost part of nature.  In fact, phenomenology doesn't really privilege humans over any other part of nature.  We are all one.  When I painted the leaves, I painted my brothers and sisters, I became them.  That's putting it a little grandly, but that is the point of phenomenology: helping us fracture the fiction of separateness.

I like the painting OK, too.  It was fun to try to capture those colors.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Great Model

 I guess an eternal question for artists is, what makes a great model?  Here's a ten-minute sketch of Krissy that I did a week or two ago.  She modeled at the Wednesday evening life-drawing class at the Sebastopol Art Center.  I've painted her there once before.

Krissy is a great model.  I told my wife that when I got home, and she asked me why.  What a good question, I thought.

Well, there are several answers, all adding up to produce a great session.  By "great session," I mean one where I find myself really, really engaged in the painting - excited and interested both by what the model is doing on the stage and what the paint is doing on the paper.  A good model can help generate the alchemy that creates this rich engagement.

Of course, some of the "good model" phenomenon is in the poses themselves.  Some models have a flair for the dramatic, like one who brought her very colorful parrot to the session (it sat obediently on her arm for two twenty-minute poses).  "Dramatic" can mean the model throwing his or her arms overhead, wielding a support staff like a spear, etc.  Or it can mean accessories: one model who poses regularly wears striped leggings or a jet-black wig.  I think some artists like this kind of drama, but I prefer a much more laid-back approach to posing.  Like other models I love to paint (Anna Maria, Angela), Krissy merely moves her body into very comfortable poses that reveal the natural grace of a particular human body.  

And then there is the factor of the model him- or herself - the body in question.  I would like to say that all bodies are equally interesting (all bodies certainly are interesting), but for a painter - or I guess I should say for me as a painter - the most interesting bodies to paint have good shape, by which I mean mostly rounded forms and soft planes.  Krissy is that one I wrote about a while back about whom a fellow painter whispered to me "She's got a great butt!"  It's true.  She also has a lovely roundedness to her tummy, delicate breasts, and strong-looking limbs (Krissy is also a massage therapist).  Sculpting her form with paint is flatly interesting.  I should add that, for me at least, models should have some substance - not be too ectomorphic.

Finally, there is an indefinable additional quality, which I can only describe as a generosity of attitude.  Some models seem sort of disdainful; others just go through the motions.  Like all great models, Krissy is a pro through and through, interested both in her own body and its capabilities and in the work of artists - interested in the interaction between the artist and the model.  Attitude is all, I suppose.  But the three elements I've named here - a good pose, an interesting body, and an active engagement - all have to be present to make for a great session.

This is not a particularly accurate portrait of Krissy's face (she's not quite this sultry), but I like it for a ten-minute pose.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Another Cloud Study

Here's another cloud study from a photograph, this one taken while on a walk at Sebastopol, CA's Laguna Park.  There had been an early storm (this was in late September, if I recall correctly), and so I went out with the camera to capture the beautiful cumulus clouds that the "unsettled weather" had brought.

There's a fragment of my tomato still life in the upper right-hand corner.  This is how I like to work: doodling a variety of images on one sheet of paper.  I'll write a bit about that.

"Doodling" feels so much better than "Making a Work of Art."  Maybe I'm chickening out, but my experience of art for me is a history of blockages - of being unable to write or paint or create music when I know that I really want or need to.  This is common wisdom: the higher the stakes, the greater the performance anxiety.  

Let me go back to that Blake quote: "Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius."  I like my paintings to be works of genius, but I think to get there I like deliberately to put them on the page in a way that's "crooked" - a way that feels like a testing of materials or casual or even transitory or ephemeral.  I think in my secret heart of hearts I would like to make a painting that would hang in the Louvre for the remainder of human history, but even deeper I know that it's really all about the process.  Making the "crooked road" out into the wilderness of my unknowing and inability requires me to feel that I am working in a very casual way.  Miracles do happen, but I have to get my ego out of the way to allow them to appear.

I like this cloud study OK.  The darks are not dark enough and the lights not light enough.  But the cloud forms are nice.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Still Losin' My Mojo

It's been over a year now that I have been attending the Wednesday night life drawing class at the Sebastopol Community Center.  What an incredible experience it's been to draw and paint with the other artists and those incredible, generous models.  But I have to be honest: the zing is eluding me.  Still.

I distinctly remember that first class: oh my God, there's a naked woman in front of me, just standing there!  And, oh my God, I get to try to capture her!  Oh my God indeed: each pose felt like a different face of God.  I went home a changed man.

Now my dominant feeling is frustration.  No, that's not what she looks like.  No, those colors aren't particularly right or interesting.  No, that's not an interesting pose that he's assuming.

I struggle with self-doubt and self-accusation.  Get off your high horse, I say to myself.  You're about as deep as a puddle.  You've got this little watercolor schtick you like to play with, and sure, it gets you some pretty pictures (ever more rarely).  But this is no "spiritual practice," like you pretend it is.  It's just a bit of self-gratification.  If you want to play with yourself, fine.  But don't pretend it's anything other than it is.

I wonder if this is part of what it means to get older.  The hardest thing I've found about aging (I'm 45) is sustaining innocence and simple joy at taking in the world around me.  It does get harder.  

In a previous post, I've said that drawing is the practice of learning to see the world as it is.  Well, in some ways, practicing art makes it harder, not easier, to do so.  You start out, and you realize that drawing has the power to awaken your "tired eyes" and therefore allow you to be surprised and filled with wonder by what there is to see.  But then, I think, you get better at your practice.  And then your "drawing eyes" get tired too.

In painting this picture, I found myself surprised by Anna Maria's shoulder blades.  It's OK, I think, to lose your mojo, as long as you have faith that the mojo is still there, waiting for you to see it, when something as beautiful as a model's back has the power to pull off the film of tiredness from your eyes.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cloud Study

I am a man who is intoxicated by clouds.  Cumulus, stratus, cumulo-nimbus, cirrus, lenticular.  Clouds are incredible.

Clouds are also extraordinarily difficult to paint.

This is a painting from a photograph taken in Kaua'i.  It's a sunrise shot.  The bright sun was rising to the left of the picture (obviously), and, as is often true in Hawai'i, the sky was hugely interesting.  Clouds in layers, clouds hangin' out by themselves, clouds obscuring the sun, clouds revealing the sun.  Big, puffy, beautiful, gray, purple, yellow clouds.

What makes clouds so difficult to paint?  Start with their complexity.  Clouds come in a multitude of shapes, they're changing all the time, and they're heavily layered, lying over and under each other in glowing sandwiches.  And that's the other difficult thing about clouds: they glow.  They're luminous.  Light plays on them and light flows out from them.  Finally, add in the element of color.  A uniformly "gray" cloud is a very rare thing.  They come in (or contain) pretty much every color there is.

All of these factors make clouds particularly worth painting.  They're great for practice in wet-in-wet techniques, glazing, melding colors, striving for luminosity.

I feel OK about this particular cloud study - in fact, I'd call it one of the best I've ever done.  And it also, as ever, reveals to me all that I need to work on: painting darker than I think I need to, building contrasts, and creating shapes with brush strokes.  

I love painting clouds.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

More on Portraits

This is the best profile portrait I've ever done of Anna Maria.  On seeing it again, I'm surprised it was only a ten-minute painting.  Sometimes it seems like limited time makes for a better drawing, and of course realism is all about the drawing.

I was looking at an edition in a store yesterday of Leonardo's notebooks.  One section of the book was all about human anatomy: how the body is proportioned.  I don't remember the exact words, but in one entry Leonardo notes that the inset or "cut" on the chin underneath the mouth is half the distance between the lower lip and the bottom of the chin.  Who'd have thought it?  Just guessing, I'd have said, "oh, a quarter of the way down, I suppose."  But no: on this fairly accurate capturing of Anna Maria's profile, here's the right answer.  Yup, it's about halfway down.

There are lots of surprises like these.  The classic one is the proportions of the head.  The "face proper" - i.e., the features of eyes, nose, and mouth - only takes up the lower half of the head.  When you first hear this, you don't believe it: "what?   The eyes are at the middle line of the head?  Naaah."  But it's true.  And I think this is a very interesting fact.  By the time we are five, we all are expert at drawing "faces": you draw a circle and put in dots for eyes and nose and a curve for the mouth and then you put squiggly lines at the top of the circle for the hair.  Right?  

To my mind, this universality of facial representation is proof that the drawing lives inside of us always: drawing is about changing the mind.  The face is what the mind thinks the face is, not what faces "really" are.  I still have a hard time getting facial proportions right (I think Anna Maria's forehead is a bit too shallow in this portrait).  

Thus the art of naturalistic or realistic drawing and painting is a practice of "loving what is," to quote Byron Katie.  It's a practice of getting outside the world in our heads and understanding the old world newly and freshly.  Realism is nothing less than the quest to change what the mind thinks the world looks like.

Monday, September 22, 2008


This tomato, which I painted yesterday, was really fun to paint.  It helped me get a bit of my art mojo back.  I like the red I cobbled together from alizarin crimson and light red, and I like the light reflecting off the top and side.  The shadow underneath, a greenish black for complement's sake, is nice too.

Tomatoes are what it's all about for me - late summer I mean.  It seems to have taken a while, but now we are having a surfeit of sweet heirloom tomatoes in the local groceries.  Delicious.

As much as I like the red of the tomato, this painting offers an excellent example of the limits of paint.  Yeah, my red here is nice, but you should see the red on the original.  It has a ruby depth that is simply incommunicable in paint, or at least in watercolor.  Maybe you could do better with oils.  As pretty as this painting is, what we have here is a pale shadow of the Creator's real tomato.

No matter.  My job is to taste the tomato with paint before I taste it with my tongue.  Mmmm.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Losing My Art Mojo

Work is killing me lately.  In my day job, I've taken upon myself bold new duties that are straining my resources in a number of ways.  I seem to eat, sleep, and live to work.  As that happens, the energy and delight I felt around painting during the summer seem to have receded.

The last two Wednesdays at life-drawing class have been sort of torturous.  My drawings seem poor, my schtick with the paints seems stale, my engagement with the models and the other artists is just not there.  Last Wednesday, our model was my friend Angela again.  I felt blocked, and now I feel that I've let down her and the whole class.

My favorite quote in the world is by William Blake: "Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius."  I think Blake is saying a lot of things in this quotation, but one of the things  is a militancy against perfectionism.  When I really look at my most recent paintings, I see that I have improved; but my standards have shifted too.  Hence the perfectionism monster rears his ugly head once again.

If I am serious about aquarelle being my spiritual practice, then my job is to get out the paints even when I don't feel up to it.  Buddhist monks don't sit on the meditation cushion only when they feel like it.  Today I will put brush to paper.

Grace never leaves us.  In this painting, Stefanie is simply sitting.  Her "simply sitting" is incomparably beautiful when I perceive the grace (meant in both the physical and the spiritual senses) involved in so simple an act.  Why can't I always see the grace involved each time I put color onto white paper?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Paintings from Photos 2

Here's another painting from a photograph, this one of my wife on the beach on our last morning in Kaua'i last June.  Yes, this is a sunRISE.  I never did shift into the proper time zone on that trip.

I painted this for two reasons: 1) I love the photo, and 2) I am working to get the hang of capturing intense light in my watercolors.  I'll say a few words about this challenge.

One of the first things an aspiring watercolorist learns, I think, is that that special luminosity to watercolor as a medium - that "zing" you feel when you see a painting that's preternaturally natural in terms of its depiction of light - is actually a very hard thing to make happen.  Like me, I bet, most beginning watercolorists make a lot of mud on the page when they start out.  That idea of using the white of the paper for the lightest hues and values in the painting sounds great in theory but in practice it's a very odd thing to arrange.

But you get better at leaving white paper.  As you do, you realize that just "leaving the paper" is only one piece of a complicated equation that creates a painting that sings.  Why, you think, are my paintings so boring, so flat, so zing-free, even though I have dark spots and white spots?  So you buy books, and you start being able to talk the language of "warm tones" and "cool tones" and value contrast.  And you practice.  As above.

I don't think I'm doing too badly here.  But the sad reality you grasp pretty early on is that the hues and values of nature are infinitely more intense or subtle than any painterly medium can ever hope to attain.  It's heartbreaking, but then all painting is heartbreaking: you make something that, however good it is, can only hope to carry you back into the world full of even more wonder than you had when you first put your brush on the paper.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


One of the great pleasures of figure drawing is the excuse it gives you to look.  And keep looking.  And look some more.

I think that all human beings, really, are scopophiliacs.  We are not all voyeurs, most certainly, but we all love to look at people, and we all feel embarrassed and "caught" when we are found to be looking a little too long or a little too intently.  Maybe it's a more urgent concern for men as opposed to women, but I don't really think so.  Women are just better at checking out men and women and doing so surreptitiously.  (Maybe there is a little more carnality to men's looking.)

One of the women who paints with us on Wednesday night marveled at Krissy, the model in this painting.  "She has a great butt!," she said.  I had to agree.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Still Life: Pear

Here's another older painting from my beautiful handmade book.  I like this d'anjou pear.

I first learned the art of glazing from a book on botanical illustration that my girlfriend at the time owned.  I don't remember the actual title or the author or publisher.  But it was full of very realistic watercolor renditions of flowers, leaves, and fruit.  I said to myself, "that's the kind of work I want to do!"  And lo and behold, the book showed me how.

I needed courage to put more paint over paint that had already been laid down.  This is what "glazing" means.  It's a variation on "wet-on-dry" painting, where the paint goes on in translucent layers.  You get great effects that way, retaining a classic watercolorish luminosity where you want it and a rich opacity where you need it for realism.

Fruit is one of my favorite things in the world.  What a miracle it is: a clear gift from the trees and from our Creator.  For painters, it has the great virtue of  being beautiful and sitting still.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Painting from Photographs

Here's a capture of a photograph in a book of poses I own (Mark Edward Smith, The Nude Figure: A Visual Reference for the Artist, New York: Watson-Guptill, 1998).  The drawing was made with the help of a pencilled grid, and then I filled in, playing with variations on purple and lavender (great shades for shadows).

I do a lot of painting from photographs, and I love doing so.  Most of these paintings I really shouldn't display publicly, as I tend to work from copyrighted images, purely for my own amusement, study, and practice.  There is no shortage of great nude figure studies available on the internet!  I know you're all surprised to hear that.  

I really like to paint from photographs.  As I've said all along, I am intoxicated with realistic or naturalistic images - I wish to "capture" some of the truth of my subject, whether a human being, a cow, or a cloud.  In contrast to plein-air painting, working from photographs allows you to really study an image: its lines, the way shadow and light fall on various planes and curves, the real shapes of nature.  I really like to work with the grid system, because the grid helps me see exactly how the image looks, exactly how much space it takes up, exactly how the parts merge into a whole.  Sometimes when I'm drawing, I'm amazed at how much or how little one feature or other takes up - the head of this model as opposed to his legs, for instance.  Drawing is of course the practice of seeing past the shapes our brains want us to see, of seeing what's really there.  In making such a drawing, our brain pathways get reshaped.  I know that drawing from photographs has helped me draw more realistically in life-drawing classes, and vice versa.

My favorite achievement in aquarelle is to have captured an image realistically.  Completing an image that really looks like what I'm trying to paint, an image that has the indefinable "click" into reality, is what it's all about for me.  This painting is a pretty good case in point, I think.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Cold Day in Toronto

Pity the poor plein-air artist.

I painted this picture of a beautiful English-Norman-style tower at the University of Toronto in October 2005.  The picture is sort of weak (too little tonal or color contrast between the architectural details and the sky is the biggest fault).  But I forgive myself.  

You know the experience of a cold day constricting your bladder?  Well, I began this painting around ten in the morning, I guess, sitting under a tree across the lawn from this lovely tower.  The sky was cloudy from the first moment I put the pencil on the paper.  After I did so, as happens in painting (this is the zen of it), time disappeared.  It was a chilly, humid day - the kind of chill that goes straight down to your marrow.  I came out of my painting reverie two-and-a-half hours later, when it started to rain.  You can see the splotches of the drops.  They make a sort of neat effect in the clouds.

"This painting is done," I decided.  And then I realized that I could barely move my fingers because they were so frozen.  And that I REALLY had to pee.  And that I had no real idea where I was or where a restroom might be located.  There were no handy trees either.  Somehow I found a toilet and then took myself back to our hotel room, where, if memory serves, I took a long, hot shower.

Plein-air is extreme painting.  You sacrifice your safety, your comfort, your very life sometimes, I suppose, to get to that space and place where the world comes down to you, your brush and paints, your visual vocabulary, and that piece of the world that has inspired you to look at more closely.  The pitfalls are many, the worst of which is the simple reality that much plein-air work is weak: you don't have those studio comforts to support you toward excellence.

Of course it's all about the journey.  I'm really glad to have gotten to know this corner of the University of Toronto.

Friday, August 29, 2008


In a couple of recent posts, I've found myself using the word "capturing" to describe what I'm trying to do in painting a likeness, whether of a model (like Angela here) or of any other subject.  Of course "capturing" is a word commonly used in these kinds of contexts, as in the case of a photographer "capturing" a candid moment.  What a problematic word, though.  Thus my meditation today is on the imperialism of art.  Feminist commentators have long endeavored to push men especially to confront and explain the "male gaze," the imperialistic ownership-look that seems such a core element of patriarchy.

In this painting - one of my favorite figure studies I've ever painted at Wednesday night class - I'm capturing Angela pretty well.  One of my fellow painters came by and said, "yeah, that really looks like her."  I agreed.  The mouth, hair, and right ear are well captured.  (Here too is another portrait with good use of negative space, I will humbly say, although I think my blue / orange combination is probably getting a little overused on Wednesday nights.)

Capturing.  I confess that part of my art-lust is indeed imperialistic.  I see a model and I do want to "own" a piece of her, a view of her, a part of her in my painting.  I'm not sure that I will ever feel fully at ease with this reality.  

One answer to the imperialism of all painting is to make it a practice to understand fully that the real subject of any painting is myself.  In creating a pose that moves me, the model is showing me an aspect of me.  Jung offers the idea of the anima, the feminine image of the soul that appears to a man in various ways, often as a beautiful maiden.  The mistake for any artist or male-gazer is to believe that the beauty that he sees is really "out there" rather than always already in here.  The actual young woman is just herself, another human being with her own longings, life, crap, issues, stuff to deal with, etc.  So what I am "capturing" in a well done portrait of a lovely young woman like Angela is a piece of myself, gotten at, miraculously, through the gift of getting to see some of her her-ness.  I think there's a mystery at the core of this dynamic that it would be a mistake to try to untangle completely.  

I know that I have to live up to my core responsibilities to models, which primarily are to pay them well for the difficult, professional labor they do and also to strive as best as I can to paint well.  But there's more: perhaps what we artists most owe the models we try to capture is simple respect and gratitude.  That and simple human interaction.  We should be friends and collaborators together, laughing and appreciating one another as full human beings during and between poses.

Thanks, Angela.  And thanks to all the modeling professionals in the world who consent to a little capturing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Seascape: Dinghy

This dinghy is about an inch across in the original.  I had a bear of a time capturing the curve of the little boat's hull.  The original was a beautiful clinker-built dinghy moored just offshore on the north end of Tamales Bay.  My wife was out of town for a weekend, so I took a drive, stopping at several points along the way.  I was specifically interested in painting watercraft, as I am a sailor myself and love everything about boats.

Boats are all about curves and lines, and I feel a mystical wonder when I really perceive the geometry of making things that can float.  I understand that the principles are simple, but I still find them miraculous.

This little boat has the form of a Viking warship, which may account for why I liked it so much.  A Scandinavian by extraction myself (about 75 percent, at least), I love the woodwork and the jagged lines on those old hulls.  One day I intend to visit Norway and see the surviving boats.

The lines of a graceful boat are the lines of a graceful body, the contours of a hill, the shape of a fish.  I guess one of the ways in which I am a classicist is that I do indeed find the forms of nature to be the most beautiful forms, and the human-created shapes that most mimic nature's forms seem to me especially beautiful.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Negative Space

Negative space is the space around the main object you're painting.  I've only really begun painting the negative space in my figure studies during the last couple of months, and I've found that doing so adds immeasurably to the impact of the painting.  As in my painting of Nicteha, posted several weeks ago, the "background" color can do more to sculpt form and set an emotional tone to a painting than the main figure can.

This is a twenty-minute sketch of Angela, a wonderful model that I've only worked with once, a couple of weeks ago.  I know Angela from other contexts, and yes, it was a little funny at first to see her naked and all.  I asked her if she felt comfortable with my being there, and she said, "oh yeah, I'm a complete nudist."  Then indeed, she was a wonderful model: funny, interactive, and very expressive in her poses.  She's a good friend I'm glad to have gotten back in touch with.

Here I painted the negative space in Payne's grey, otherwise known as black.  I like black for a background, I guess I've decided.  The strong contrast with the white of the paper used as a skin tone (Angela is a pale-skinned northern European by extraction) is very dramatic.  This was a reclining pose, of course, painted at the end of the session, and by then I was in a very zen state: totally focused, unaware of the passage of time, consumed by trying to capture the shapes, tones, and shadows.  

Friday, August 22, 2008

Still Life: Grapes

I like this little still life of some Thompson seedless grapes.  I painted it a number of years ago in a handmade book that was given to me by one of my oldest and dearest friends.  The book is twine-bound, and it's leaved with heavy bristol-type paper.  I used to sketch in it regularly (the crab portrait I painted earlier is in it).  Painting on that heavy paper taught me a lot of things about watercoloring, especially that, for me, satiny-smooth paper of the kind normally called "hot-pressed" in aquarelle circles works best.  I like the greater control I have over the details of the painting when I work on a smooth surface as opposed to the "toothy" "cold-pressed" surface many watercolorists favor.

Painting still lifes like these grapes taught me a great deal about sculpting form with color.  The technique here is called glazing, which means simply building up layers of paint to create form and detail, usually working wet-in-dry.  This technique is in contrast to the technique that many watercolorists call the pure method of the medium: wet-in-wet.  In wet-in-wet, you literally mix the colors on the soupy page.  I certainly agree that wet-in-wet gives some exhilarating effects, but I like the more classical glazing techniques, personally.  You get greater realism with them, for one thing.

It's incredible what you learn when you are trying to render an object in paint.  I learned the most about capturing the contours of shadow on a human body from painting apples and grapes; and I learned how to paint clouds by painting human bodies.  The forms and colors of nature are both infinitely complex and mysteriously simple.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Portraits 2

Here's a portrait of Anna Maria, one of my favorite local models.  My rendering is not very good, alas - this doesn't look very much like her.  But I still like the portrait, especially her hand, her hair, the shading, and the background.

Anna Maria is young and classically beautiful in a Southern European way, and one of the things I've noticed is that it's harder for me to get an accurate portrait of a classically beautiful and youthful face than of an older face or one that's more, well, quirky.  It's hard to know how to put this, especially in a way that's not offensive.  I love to paint Anna Maria, and I love to paint pretty much anybody else who offers the gift of modeling.  But I can't deny that I have frequently been happier with my renderings of older models or models who are less pretty.

I guess this fact says something about what we mean when we talk about classical beauty.  Beautiful faces are regular faces: symmetrical, unlined, with "the usual" full, bow-like lips, big eyes, and smooth skin.  Unbeautiful faces have lines, scars, irregular features, and so forth, i.e., stuff that a painter can grab ahold of as he or she endeavors to capture a likeness.  My portrait of Stan a few postings ago is a case in point.  His mustache, the lines on his forehead, his receding hairline - yeah, it was relatively easy to capture his features, and that portrait really looks like him.  But I've painted Anna Maria many times now and have never "captured" her.  

My great privilege is that, more than likely, I will get to try again.  The more I work with and get to know any model, the more beautiful she or he becomes, as my drawing requires that I get to know her or him better and better.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Take That, Rene Magritte!

The icon on my blog profile is this painting of an ice cream cone, which I painted for the cover of a literary magazine some of Sonoma State's students created.  Not everyone got the joke, so at the risk of overexplaining, I'll . . . well, explain.

Rene Magritte, a great French artist of the 20th century (1898 - 1967), painted a famous picture he entitled The Treachery of Images (La Trahison des Images, 1928-29).  You've probably seen it.  It's nothing more than a picture of a brown tobacco pipe against a tan background with the words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe") written underneath.  You can see the original on the Wikipedia Magritte site here

My painting's motto, "Ceci est vraiment un cone a glace," translates as "This is truly an ice cream cone."  

I guess the mixture of image and text in this painting makes it the closest thing I've done to a "thought thing," to recall Hannah Arendt's definition of art as quoted by SF Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker.  Here I'm definitely making a Statement to the world about some values I hold with respect to art.  Obviously, my statement is a championing of realism, a refusal to admit that the image really is only just an image.  Somehow or other, the image is also really an ice cream cone.  In stating this claim, I recognize that I'm pretty much ragging on the entirety of twentieth-century art.

As I noted in a previous posting, I acknowledge that the quest for sublimity, the legacy of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century romantic movement, did not save us from the horrors of the twentieth century, from the world wars, the Holocaust, Vietnam - let alone September 11th, 2001.  Indeed, I recognize the complicity of the old sublimity religion in all kinds of ideologies of violence, from racism and misogyny to manifest destiny and so much more.  But somehow I still hold that there is a heroism in realist art, art that strives to record the world as it is and therefore love it and acknowledge the grace (the sublimity) of it.  In realism there is the potentiality of treachery behind the image; but there is also the potentiality of growth in humility before the Creation.  In painting the ice cream cone, I got to know the reality, or a reality, of the ice cream cone, and in doing so I got to know the world better.

So take that, Monsieur Magritte, fellow traveler.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sketch: Stan

This sketch is several months old, but I still like to look at it.  If memory serves, it was a ten-minute pose (or maybe twenty).  I enjoyed painting Stan's mustache and the lines on his forehead.

I looked up the word "sketch" in the OED and discovered that the word entered English in the seventeenth or eighteenth century from Dutch or German, where the word meant something like "to describe briefly, generally, or in outline; to give the essential facts or points of, without going into details; to outline."  The full etymology stretches back to Latin and Greek.  It's interesting to me that this definition places the word originally in the domain of rhetoric or logic, not art - clearly the word related originally to verbal discourse, not color, form, tone.  But it's easy to see how the definition extended into the realm of the artistic.

Of course, even so this definition rather begs a lot of questions: what are "the essential facts or points," and how do we know them?  I suppose in rhetoric and logic, we have a certain ratiocinative recourse to uncovering the essential points, but in drawing, the essential points are not so driven by conscious structuring.   One of the reasons painting is so wonderful for me relates exactly to this point: painting is making use of a language that lies above, below, alongside of, or otherwise separate from verbal language.  How did I know that the "essential points" of stan included the way shadows fell under his pecs, collar bones, and chin?  What are these "essential points," and how does a sketcher find them?  Obviously, the answer to this question lies in developing a vocabulary of the visual, and I am so happy to be able to use and know this other vocabulary alongside the verbal one that involves me so much in other areas of my life.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Day of Sketching

While my wife was away on a business trip last weekend, I did a little sketching out in the middle of the Santa Rosa Plain.  I find oak trees completely intoxicating to look at - both live ones and dead ones.  We have lots of dead oaks in our area, alas, due to Phytopthera remorem, more normally known as sudden oak death disease.  I don't know what killed this oak, but it probably wasn't SOD, which in my experience leaves trees looking like they were blown apart by a lightning strike.  This one had just simply died and dropped its leaves, leaving bare bones.  It was fun to paint, and my rigger (the long narrow brush for details) got a serious workout.  This sketch is about three inches across in the original.

This cow was the best thing I painted that day, I think.  It's one of several cows I painted, most of which turned out not looking much like cows.  

These paintings were part of my regular aquarellist project: to try to paint what's really there and therefore get closer to the World As It Is.  Painting the tree taught me a lot about how oak tree branches crook and bend; and painting the cow taught me a lot about the shape of a holstein's ears and the way the cow's guts hang low on the body, leaving shadowed hollows along the spine.

No, I don't know any more today than I did when I last posted about the answers to the questions raised for me by Kenneth Baker's column.  I get it that there is a rarified (and important) world of Art, the kind to which Dale Chihuly's work apparently does not rise.  But this world in which the Art critic moves must remain remote and separate from the everyday world of art.  

Watercolors, pencils, oils - these are tools for helping all human beings see the world, understand what's in it, and learn again and again, better and better, how to love it.  These are the purposes for which human beings really and fundamentally make themselves into artists.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Beauty in/and/of Art

I'm still thinking about Kenneth Baker's column about the Chihuly exhibit and his quotation of Hannah Arendt's comments.  Yes, I agree that art works are (or could be or should be) "thought things," but surely this idea conflicts with a comment I made earlier: that "making something beautiful with artistic media" is a pretty good offhand definition of art.

Modern art is clearly not that interested in beauty.  I think I understand why.  The post-modern age is in many ways a post-beauty age.  For centuries, artists have striven to attain the sublime through their depictions of the beautiful, and the romantic sensibility that arose in the 18th century seems in many ways to have been a final concerted attempt to climb the ladder of beauty out of the mundane.  But beauty didn't save us.  

This painting is the best figure study I've ever made.  To my eyes, it's a beautiful image of a beautiful young woman.  Demetra was a sassy model who sat down and gave us this petulant pout, which she then held for three hours (with breaks).  While modeling, Demetra actually wore a punk-rockish fishnet top, which I obviously painted through (the fishnet top concealed nothing in any case).  Why did I paint out the top?  I guess I am not only or entirely interested in painting "what's really there."  Here, I had partially to change or invent "what was really there," but I did so, because the human body is to me sublimely beautiful, and the mesh top was the wrong sort of veil, a bit of unbeauty.

Thus, here my quest for beauty, like so many other artists' quests, is clearly self-indulgent, and the self-indulgent potentialities of the quest for beauty trouble me very much in my figure painting.  I will write about this issue significantly in the future, I would guess.  Do I also honor Demetra with this picture?  I have faith that I do.  I think the most important thing I owe the kind and talented people who model is to be good - and I think this painting is good.

"Thought things" - not "beautiful things" or "emotion-rich things."  Beauty and the sublime have proven dangerous.  And yet in the apprehension of beauty and the sublime we find some of the (perhaps private) meaning of our lives.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

More on Art and Originality

I'm still thinking a lot about Kenneth Baker's commentary on the Dale Chihuly exhibit.  The questions are many: what is Art anyway?  How do we read any given work of art in relation to the histories and traditions of art?  And what is the relation of Art to the general mass of products of skill and imagination?  Clearly Baker feels that there's Art and then there's all that other stuff: from "luxury items in department stores' home furnishing sections" to the kinds of paintings I and many other professionals and amateurs make.

Here's a picture I painted on site in the high Sierra.  It's a view of the mountains above Carson Pass from Hope Valley, south of Lake Tahoe.  I painted it in late spring 2006, when the snow was still heavy on the mountains but the valley floor was green and lush.  The Carson River was clear and cold.

In his essay, Baker quotes Hannah Arendt, who defined artworks as "''thought things,' that is, things that materialize thought, things to be thought about and, in rare cases, things to help us think."  I take Baker's point to be that the role of the artist is to put spectacle together with consciousness and awareness: not only the thing made but the thing in its commentaries vis a vis the world at large and artistic movements and traditions.  OK, I'll buy that.  I honor Artists engaged in the struggle to use their skills, crafts, ears, eyes, and hands to talk to the world in the best of ways.  I know that the personal is always political, and I know that there is an overt rhetoric to art in addition to the covert or "skill" rhetoric I discussed a few postings ago.

Fine.  But where does this formulation of the Artist leave the artist, someone like me who's interested in using an artistic medium "merely" for the purpose of recording a zen moment, making something beautiful to enjoy looking at, or using as a spiritual practice?  I am OK with being an artist rather than an Artist.  But too I hold my own ambitions and opinions.  My paintings are "thought things" too, especially embodying the thought that the older aims of art as a discipline and a preoccupation are far from defunct and obsolete.  I am far from alone, as the growing atelier movement indicates.  

I enjoyed painting this mountain scene, and I learned a lot in doing so about how snow lies on the flank of a Sierra peak.  

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Art and Originality

Today in the San Francisco Chronicle, art critic Kenneth Baker writes a defense of his snarky review of the current Dale Chihuly glasswork exhibit at the de Young Museum.  Several readers had objected to the review - especially objecting to Baker's denial to Chihuly's work of the status of Art.  I found Baker's defense fascinating.

I did not read the original review, but in it apparently Baker took Chihuly to task for his "cheery insularity," meaning his iconoclasm and lack of interest in commenting with and against wider contemporary art: "I was looking for redeeming linkages between his work and art - sculpture - of canonical stature, and could find none."  For Baker, there is a right and a wrong sort of originality.  Chihuly's "disconnection from the main lines of thought around the visual art of the past century places it on the same footing as the luxury items in department stores' home furnishing sections."


Well, my picture of Stefanie (whom I said I would introduce in a previous post) is certainly not original, and it's certainly not much of a commentary on modern painting in general or in specifics.  Apparently like Chihuly, I am not interested in Baker's kind of originality, at least not now or not yet.  I'm interested in making something beautiful with artistic media.  I think "making something beautiful with artistic media" is a pretty good on-the-street definition of "Art," so I guess I accept the guilt of association with Chihuly.  

As I said in a previous post, Stefanie is a lovely young woman whose poses are sublime in the old sense of the word.  It's intoxicating to paint her, and I've really liked several of the paintings I've done with her as our model - this painting especially.  It's a pretty good portrait of her, and I love the shadow work here.

In my next post, I'll write more about Baker and Chihuly, I think.  There are some ideas here that I wish to track down.  I find that I do wish to be taken seriously as an artist (and Lord prevent me from ever being subjected to a brutal or dismissive critique by a major respected American art critic).  But thankfully, I have few ambitions as an artist, and none more urgent than to learn more about my own humanity and the humanity of all of us, including wonderful models like Stefanie.

Friday, July 25, 2008

More on Seeing

This crab - which I'm nearly certain is NOT a dungeness crab - was dead and lying on a big rock on the shore of Tamales Bay.  I painted it a couple of years ago while on a solo picnic.  I have a beautiful handmade book full of sheets of bristol-type heavy paper, and in that book I have often jotted down "notes" like this one.  It's something I would like to do more: use watercolor as a seeing tool in the pure scientific sense.

Before I painted this crab, I did not realize that some crabs are green.  Nor did I fully understand the way the back two legs attach to the body (carapace?), and I certainly didn't think about how many joints a crab's legs have or how the pinching claws articulate.  The pointy projections at the front of the crab's body came as a big surprise to me.

Is this painting "beautiful"?  I like it, certainly, especially the mottled green back and the legs oddly splotched with red.  If it's beautiful, it's beautiful because crabs are beautiful - beautiful and miraculous in and of themselves, I suppose.  

Sometimes I think scientists are the ultimate artists.  I suppose this idea is a logical consequence of the aquarellist religion.  Scientists are out to learn the truth of things in the world as it is, just as I am as a realist painter.   A scientist's media are calculus and algorithmic modeling and observation-derived "laws" and, yes, words and images.  There is of course a minor industry in scientific illustration - the key word being "illustration" rather than "art."

But if art is the creative attainment of beauty (an obviously debatable proposition), and if beauty is as nature is, then the scientist is indeed the ultimate artist.  Let us assume there is a God, which is the Creator and Author of all.  The scientist, in her quest to know intimately and accurately the ALL of nature, is and can only be on a quest to know God, who can only be pure beauty, grace, light.

So the realist painter and the scientist are both artists, falling in love again and again with the world as we receive it, in sunsets, in elegant equations, or in crabs.  In struggling to capture the contours of a little dead crab, I was employing my mathematics.  

Certainly the crab had a clear geometry.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I think it's cheating to invent a new noun as the title of your blog, but guilty I plead.  What do I mean by "aquarellism"?  Here's an attempt at an answer.

Many people have written about the zen quality of watercolor painting.  Watercolor painting - aquarelle in French - is an intense and intensive art form that requires you as the artist to watch very closely, move very quickly, and attend very intimately to what is happening on the paper.  It is (or can be) a fast painting medium, a painterly haiku.  I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that time stops for me when I'm working intensely on a painting - or rather, I lose all sense of time, lost as I am in the present moment of painting.  

The first time I went to a life drawing class, I felt as if I had tasted Nirvana.  I've learned since that it didn't hurt that the model was a lovely young woman named Stefanie, whom I'll introduce in a later post.  But the core of the experience was in the spiritual practice of it.  I remember thinking that night that I had seen as many faces of God as I had seen poses: the practice being one of opening the heart to the too brief reality of mortal human beauty.   That night was a usual Wednesday night class, with poses lasting as short as three minutes and as long as twenty.  It was the universe demanding that I watch and see what was really there - and then to watch again - and again.

While I haven't always experienced that same in-the-moment depth of practice in my life drawing sessions or my landscaping, I've found that that depth is always available - as in the night I painted this twenty-minute sketch of Will, an old guy with a white beard (it felt like I was painting Gandalf).  I really love this sketch, which was meditative for me in its creation and is meditative in artistic result.  

So aquarellism is a life-philosophy grounded on using the tool of watercolor to stop the world and make it sit still so you can really, really see it as it is.  Trying to capture the way shadow sculpts Will's right kneecap is a practice of creating the entire world entirely anew.  

There's that hubris again.  But  the practice does not feel hubristic.  It feels like a form of prayer.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Portraits 1

Here's a portrait of Yerevah that came out of the Thursday afternoon life-drawing class I've been attending.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, portraits are a bear for any artist.  I'm convinced that the reason why has to do with our minds and how they're built.  Put it this way: how does a mommy chickadee recognize a daddy chickadee?  To my eyes and ears, chickadees seem pretty much alike.  Thus chickadees must have some incredibly acute recognition software or hardware that enables them to tease apart minute differences in a lineup of chickadees.

(At the moment, we have a wonderful colony of Chestnut-backed Chickadees visiting our feeders, and they are a hoot to watch.)

How do humans recognize other humans?  Our own mental and emotional "wares" are geared incredibly finely to the recognition and reading of human faces.  These attributes enable us to recognize friends, foes, countrymen and -women, and strangers as strangers.  

You get how acute these recognition powers are when you're painting portraits.  Move that eye one millimeter upward or downward, and suddenly the face is wrong; change the shape of the mouth a bit and it's not the wife you know and love.  And don't get me started on hair.

Usually when I'm painting portraits I use the grid system, which enables me to capture the face pretty well.  In this picture I'm pushing myself to work more freehandedly, and I'm pretty happy with the result.  This looks quite a bit like Yerevah.  She was a pretty young model who wore fairy wings and a deep blue dress while sitting enthroned on the modeling stage like Titania.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Upper Echo Lake, Summer 2005

This is one of the best plein-air paintings I've ever done, I think - not that I think it's that great.  Sigh.

I painted it sitting on the far shore of Upper Echo Lake, which is high in the Sierra southwest of Lake Tahoe, one day while I was on sabbatical.  I caught literally the last motorboat of the year across Lower Echo Lake and then walked to this lovely spot in front of a little island where a few scraggly pines clung to the granite.  If memory serves, the painting took me three hours or so to complete, from drawing to signature.  Then I enjoyed a gorgeous walk back to the boat dock at the bottom of Lower Echo, the sun glistening on the water every time I looked behind me.

Landscape is immensely difficult for the realist artist, for reasons related to issues I raised in my last post.  To put it simply, to the realist artist, nature is a mother.  A demanding one.  

Realists like me want to paint what's really there.  Fine.  But in a landscape like this one, with trees and clouds and rocks and lake-water, "what's really there" is immensely complex.  Have a good look at a fir tree sometime - even a faraway one whose features are obscured by distance.  What you might think on first sight to be a flat "green" object turns out in fact to have immense complexities in color, shape, and relation to what's around it.  Thus, painting a fir-wood, like the one on the lakeshore in the middle distance of this picture, involves getting very intimate with just how complex Mother Nature is.

All painters, I imagine - and watercolorists definitely - need to work more simply than the Creator of Everything had to.  In books we are enjoined to use the strengths and beauties of the medium to accomplish effects in a kind of shorthand that can provide the illusion of the complexities you're after.  This is the skill element of the art, or perhaps you might say the rhetoric of it.  I am all for this leap after simplification.  But the realist is left with two problems: one, developing those skills; and two, knowing that, however beautiful the results of good use of those skills, the resulting paintings still will not be "real" - they will be effects of the rhetoric of the medium.

I paint for a lot of reasons, but the most important reason is that painting makes me sit down and see the world as it is - as it REALLY is.  I don't really even want to see the world as only a painterly skill might reveal it.  Hence maybe I am doomed forever to create paintings that might be more "real" even as they are less beautiful as paintings.  Ultimately I think that will just have to be OK with me, and usually it is.  

But I sure do gnash my teeth over the number of boring paintings I make in an effort to capture the real.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Realism vs. Expression

I love this 20-minute sketch of Nicteha, which I painted last night at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.  It's certainly one of the best figure studies I've done during the year or so that I've been attending Jim Curtis's drop-in sessions.

My wife liked it too and said that it has the quality of expressing something rather than merely recording as an artistic exercise.  I agree.  Here's a problem for me as a realist painter.  The painter is expected to show something to the world, to "express" - to make a painting (or a photo or a sculpture or whatever) that does more than record a flat, unexpressed world.  I certainly wish to say something with my art, to make my own contribution to the image.

However, as an artist I also have the wish to be true, to show the world as it is.  Part of me wants to say that the world (and people and all the motley crew of the incarnation) are expressive enough.  It's a romantic attitude at base, one that says "the world is enough - it is everything it ever wanted to be [quoting Mary Oliver there].  Human interpretations, elaborations, expressions - these are all hubristic and foolish efforts that miss the point of the world."  Ultimately, of course, this attitude erases the role of the artist.  And maybe ultimately art is a disease or a distortion of the human role.  Many cultures and philosophies have thought so.  (I'll probably write more about this in a future post.)

So I love this little painting, but much in it is not true.  The yellow of the background, complementing the purple shadows on the figure's skin, was not really there - nor was the also-complementary blue on the other side.  Complementary colors seldom turn up side-by-side in nature (although now and then they do, as in the case of the orange spots on the beautiful blue butterfly I saw on Saturday up in the High Sierra).  It's a truism that an impactful artwork will do more than nature offers.  

But isn't nature enough?

Tunnels Beach, Kaua'i

I'm back from an amazing 8 days in Kaua'i - surely one of the most beautiful places on earth.  So many highlights: seeing the NaPali Coast from the sea, spending quality time with family, eating VERY well, watching the fish (and reptiles and mammals - saw turtles and a monk seal) with the aid of snorkel gear.  I love being in tropical ocean water, and it pains me that I live in a place (Northern California) that has glorious beaches that you'd be a fool to try to swim at.  

I made a couple of paintings while relaxing between snorkel episodes and while my wife was getting in her requisite beach-lying time.  Here's one of them.  I'm only moderately happy with this.  Certainly the colors are cartoonish and the washes are weak and boring.  No matter.  Every painting is a learning moment, I think, and the thrill of plein-air painting, whatever the result, is what it's all about for me.  

On this day it was hotter than hell.  I painted underneath the shade of a sea-grape tree (or relative); the shadow kept moving, and so then did I.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Figure--Jo 6/18/08, 10 min.

For the better part of a year, I have been a regular member of a Wednesday evening life-drawing class at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.  I wish I understood better why artists are so interested in the human form, and I often ask myself this question as I'm painting.  It's probably a dumb question - you might as well ask why lions are interested in other lions or sea anemones in other sea anemones.  

Like lions and sea anemones, we are interested in our own kind.  In fact, what I've noticed is that our minds are geared to respond to our own kind.  I see this especially when I'm trying to paint a portrait.  I'll write about this issue at another time.

I like this 10-minute sketch of Jo.  Somehow all my back views are more accomplished than any other views.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Ice Cream!!!!

With profound and sincere apologies to Renee Magritte.

Intro to Me

Watercolor is water and color, almost an absence and a presence, nothing and something that together make magic, or so I think and feel.  Blake's first Song of Innocence, although about writing, is apropos:

'Piper, sit thee down to write
In a book, that all may read.'
So he vanished from my sight; 
And I plucked a hollow read,

And I made a rural pen,
And I stained the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.

The watercolor artist has to break something perfect (water) by "staining it."  For me every watercolor mark on a piece of paper has a poignancy that speaks to fundamental tensions of human existence.  We humans make a lot of beauty by "staining" the world as it comes to us, and in that fact there lies a sharp grief.  And yet we have no choice in the matter and seem to be fated or required thus to make meaning out of our lives. 

Who am I?  Among other things, I am a completely amateur artist who only draws and aquarelles.  I've created this blog because I want a space in which to show some of my work and to discuss the art of watercolor painting with other artists.  I'm interested in learning and teaching (usually by example).

My subjects are the subjects of nature: landscapes and figures, mostly: the "scapes" of the body of the world and the bodies of us mortal human beings.  A classic "lover" archetype, I respond to beauty in all its forms very strongly, and, while I don't exactly know why, I think that realism and naturalism are not "done."  Indeed, my paintings strive for realism.  One of the major topics of my postings will be the quest to understand this longing to describe in paint the world as it is. 

I hope you enjoy this blog.