Does this sound familiar? You’re a creative person and you
love to build. You may have a medium of choice (oil paint) but you find
yourself tinkering with other mediums (watercolor, ink, clay, wood, charcoal,
stone). At the same time, professional art sellers tell you to focus on one
thing if you want to be successful. And they don’t just mean one medium. They
want one type of subject, one audience, one way. If you want to sell more art,
this may be good advice.
However, from the viewpoint of a creative, growing artist, we need to be always pushing ourselves and working on our craft in new ways. How boring is it to paint the same thing year after year? I love to draw. It makes no difference if I’m using pencils, charcoal, conte’ crayons, or ink. When I work with oil paint, half the enjoyment is the initial drawing with dirty turpentine and burnt sienna. In a workshop with Charlie Hunter, he had us drawing with paper towels and Q-tips.
Here’s something to consider: every two years take a
workshop with either an artist, a medium, or a subject matter that you have
little experience with. I’ve done it and I’ve been pleasantly surprised often.
This makes us work in new ways and at a rate much faster than trying something
new on our own. Work! That’s what’s important. It’s the process that helps us to grow. Visions and dreams are just visions
and dreams until you do the work. Go get your hands dirty making something. If
it rubs off elsewhere in your work, great! If it doesn’t, wash up and move on.
You’ll see the dirt under your nails and know you dug in and tried something
About half way through Bruce’s 2018 Broadway show, he tells his audience about getting 1 + 1 to equal 3. It’s art, not science. I can tell early on if this is going to be a 1+1=2 painting or a 1+1=3 painting. It takes sustained energy and enthusiasm to make 1+1=3. It doesn’t happen every day. Don’t artists live for the 1+1=3 days? That’s when the magic happens. That’s when we produce our best work. We’re in the zone. Work flows, love is present, time stands still. I long for this zone toward the end of a painting in the hope that I can somehow tie it all together and breathe new found energy into the piece. But truth be told, it’s the beginning that most needs the magic of 1+1=3. Then I have something really worth working on. Something that really adds up.
Pink Floyd has a song with the lyrics about living a life of “quiet desperation (is the English way)”. Sometimes life as an isolated artist makes you feel like the central character in that song. Thankfully, I have my art group. Three years ago I was voted into this band of talented contemporary artists centered here in Newfane and South Newfane, Vermont. We are the Rock River Artists. Our focus has always been our annual studio tour which is the third weekend of July. It’s a big weekend to prepare for. People visit the space I work in. I share my inspiration and perspiration. And I sell a few pieces to folks who love original art.
Three days ago, our group got together for a meeting and then toured the studio of fellow member Deidre Scherer. Sure, we spent time planning our July weekend, the necessary PR, the needed high res images, the money needed, and who will do what as the studio weekend approaches. But once this was done, the important stuff happens. We all visited Deidre’s studio where she showed off what’s next in her art life. It was a wonderful time. Her talent is first rate, her studio is wonderful, and her current work is as surprising as it is recognizable. It is on first glance totally new. At the same time, it looks like where she’s been aiming for some time.
This is why I joined the Rock River Artists. It’s for the community. It’s for the dialog. It’s even for the (constructive) critiques. So please pay us all a visit if you are in our area on July 20-21 this summer. We’d love to share our not so quiet desperation with you.
I paint in hundreds of greys… you may even see some black and white in my work. When you observe life as a painter does, you see more. You just do. A zebra is much more than just black and white. There are many light greys and almost white whites. There are many dark greys and almost black blacks. The highlights, shadows, and textures are all needed to really tell the story of a particular zebra. It’s the same with snow. I could never paint a convincing winter landscape without lots of greys. Zebras in many greys
In my work, the darkest darks often have a little something extra deep inside. Flat black is boring. Bright white has little to say. It’s everything in between that keeps our interest. Have you ever noticed that people who see the world in terms of black and white think they have the answers? And they love to tell you their concrete opinions too? It’s always this way or that way. Rarely is their view in shades of grey. Conversations with them are boring. You have to listen to a stream of opinions on their view of our world.
The many shades of Snow in Vermont.
Most artists see a whole lot more. Paintings, like life, should have texture. Paintings, like our personality, have layers. In art school, we always wanted to draw and paint weathered, old faces rather than fresh, young models. I am not very interested in just adoring art. Tell me a story! Does your art say much about the passion you put into your work? If it does, great! If it doesn’t, start over. Work faster. Work more. Make lots and lots of messy marks. Get physical. Be daring. Don’t aim for perfection. Don’t be boring. Be awesome!
The place where art and engineering meet has always been a place I enjoy. There is a natural beauty to objects whose form is the result of the object’s function. That’s why most jet planes are beautiful to watch, especially while they are doing their job. It’s also why 300 year old cathedrals are still beautiful today. Their vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses hold up massive weight while projecting a spectacular aesthetic because they are functioning perfectly. I dare you to find an office building today that can do the same thing.
That’s also the reason covered bridges stand the test of time. Their lattice joints and pegged timbers are designed to hold their weight and carry traffic. No extra decorations, just engineering and good materials that function perfectly.
Occasionally, I am asked to create a painting of a covered bridge. My response is usually a hesitant “maybe”. I mean, art is a personal vision inspired by your experience or the subject you’re observing. If I have top notch engineering in front of me, how does my painting portray that? You have to tackle the whole setting: how the bridge fits into the landscape, where the light is hitting, are you above or below the bridge? Trying to capture the full length of the bridge rarely results in a pleasing composition. Am I going to disappoint the person requesting the covered bridge art? Perhaps. I am sure my art will not match their expectations. Thus my hesitant, “maybe”.
Want it all?
I have recently created a piece depicting the Scott Covered Bridge in Townshend, Vermont. It’s a wonderful place to visit. Only foot traffic is allowed so no worries if you have little ones with you. You can swim and fish. My brothers and I use to jump off the bridge for cool dips on hot days. Here’s the thing, I have placed my 9” x 12” original art (mounted on wood panel) somewhere on the bridge. Go for a walk and see if you can find it. If you do, give it a good home. Original art is an important part of a home and every artwork has a story. Just let me know when you have it, my email is on the back. Good luck. Oh, here’s a clue: X marks the spot. THIS PAINTING WAS FOUND JUNE 3. CONGRATULATIONS LORI.
Andy Goldsworthy is an artist who creates mostly large scale sculptures from natural materials found out on location. The medium may be boulders or snowballs. The art may last centuries or hours. Most of his work requires physical exertion. The stressful kind, like ditch digging and stone stacking. He doesn’t arrive at his vision with just a good eye and some well placed brush strokes. This is why my friend’s son worked as an assistant to Andy. He collected rocks, picked up sticks, and raked leaves. All so that Mr. Goldsworthy could carefully select what he needed as he created his sculptures.
What would you create if you had an art assistant? Would your work improve? Could you accomplish more? What would change?
In Steven Pressfield’s inspirational book, “The War of Art”, he makes a strong case for doing the work yourself. He says it’s all about committing yourself to your art and working at it every single day. The well known contemporary painter, Chuck Close says his unique style is the direct result of many, many months and years working hard at his art. Mr. Close says, “Dreaming and waiting for inspiration is for amateurs. Pros get to work.”
So if I had an assistant… I suppose my website would be more sales focused. I’d have a ready supply of mats and frames on hand in my studio. I’d be more organized. Perhaps I wouldn’t have to shop for art supplies any more. However, I would have missed a recent conversation with my framer about the merits of wide and narrow wooden frames. His endorsement of a new art supply would have gone unheard. The only benefit I can think of in terms of improved art is an assistant could allow me more time to focus on creating my art. But so could watching less TV. So could getting up an hour earlier all summer long. So could saying no to another volunteer request. If I had an assistant, the flagstones I kept tripping on outside the studio would have likely been moved out of the way. Instead, I stepped over them each day until one day I thought, what would Andy Goldsworthy create with a few square flagstones? I didn’t sketch. I didn’t dream. There was no plan. I just started moving stones around. First the big ones, then the small ones. Then a handful of pebbles… let’s say fifty. What could I create?
I bet my imaginary assistant would have kept me in the studio working that day. That’s what the pros tell us we need. But artists also need to remember to just be… Be creative. Be original. Be simple. Be a maker of things. Even if it vanishes in the wind or melts in the spring. My flagstones are now a patio. But for just a few days they had the title, “Flagstones”.
Have you been invited to one of these yet… “Spend an evening creating your very own painting with friends. Raise money for a good cause. Drink wine. Take home an original.”
These painting nights have become popular. One of my friends recently indulged. Her post painting story… “My painting isn’t very good but I had fun.”
A while ago, I spent a long overdue evening painting a model. I attended a figure drawing/painting class for anyone desiring to sharpen their skills. No instructor, just a live model and a heated room (and no wine). My post painting story? “I didn’t have enough time to finish my painting and the work reminded me of how rusty I am.” Art school and figure drawing are decades in my past.
Should my friend frame her painting? The answer is yes, the sooner the better. She’s going to keep her painting. She likes showing it and telling her story. I think she has a better reason to frame her painting than I have for framing mine. By the way, when I say frame, this means frame AND hang.
My post painting story could be one of frustration and unmet expectations. But it’s more a story of nostalgia. Revisiting the nude after such a long time off brought me face to face with my skills and my limitations as a figure painter. It wasn’t fun, however it did bring me back to a time when I was learning a lot about painting with lots of like-minded students. Sometimes I miss those days. Should I frame my painting? The answer is yes, the sooner the better. I’m going to keep my painting and why not tell the story should someone happen to ask?
The first time I drew the church on the common in Townshend, Vermont, I was maybe in the third grade. That steeple dominated the landscape of my young life. I grew up two houses away in a home my parents still live in today. I spent six years at Townshend Elementary in the shadow of that old gal. She’s the model I looked to when practicing perspective. It was her proportions and lines that first made me think, “Maybe I’ll be an architect.”
Now, I’m always extra interested when I come upon artists’ depictions of the Townshend Church and surrounding buildings. I like to see if they got it right. Occasionally, I’m impressed with the changes the artist made and got away with… “Why didn’t I ever think to paint her like that?”
“Townshend Church and School” by Steven Meyer
If you include all the school kids who have sat on the common and drawn her, the Townshend Church has been drawn and painted thousands of times. But it’s surprising how rarely I come across original art depicting Townshend Common. In my own collection, I have just one piece of the common that was created by an artist other than me.
One afternoon late last fall, I parked my car on the common because I had to run into the school (I won a 50/50 raffle). I noticed an artist at his easel. He was painting the usual scene in its late autumn splendor… except there was no steeple and no church anywhere in his scene. He was painting the school and neighboring house, keeping the common in the foreground. I recognized the painter, Peter Huntoon, one of my favorite Vermont painters. Peter’s paintings are wonderful compositions full of interesting shapes and subtle colors that draw your eye and hold your interest. He’s on a mission to paint Vermont in as many places as he can. It’s a treat to watch Peter’s creative process. I hovered a while, watching Peter work. We agreed that we both liked the more neutral colors that come after peak foliage. There is something about too much orange and red that throws off a landscape composition. Before leaving, he suggested I support the arts by purchasing the painting with my 50/50 winnings. Hmmm…I had been lucky to hold the winning ticket and I was lucky to have run into Peter on the common. So yes, three weeks later I had my first non-church depiction of Townshend common on my wall.
If you grew up in the West River Valley of Vermont, you ought to be familiar with Arlo Monroe. For older folks, he was the “headmaster” of our local public high school, then called Leland and Gray Seminary. For people of my generation and slightly older, he was the art teacher at what is now Leland and Gray Union High School. To many of us, he was the first landscape painter we knew. Mr. Monroe retired as I entered school. I missed his influence on my young mind by a few months. From what I’m told, I missed a lot.
Arlo was a prolific watercolor painter. He didn’t show in galleries. But his work was exhibited every August at our local Hospital Fair Day, a one day fair whose sole mission is to raise funds for the Valley’s only hospital, Grace Cottage Hospital. Mr. Monroe’s paintings were plentiful and reasonably priced. They were hung at the art show year after year. Most work was new. Year after year, more of Arlo’s paintings hung on display… until they no longer did. Mr. Monroe passed and with him that prolific talent us locals thought would always be there.
I am so happy I visited Arlo Monroe in 1995 when I was turning my new house into a home. He was gracious enough to spend a couple hours with me. We talked about art school and painting. He showed me his two A.T. Hibbard paintings in his home. Mr. Hibbard had been his neighbor for many years. Arlo was getting old. One eye kind of looked away while he kept the other on me. I bought three paintings based on his recommendations. If you’re collecting art from an artist who has created a lot, go for the best pieces you can afford. Years later, you’ll be glad you did. I wish I had bought more pieces. They are tougher to come by today. I recently reframed all three pieces because they deserved upgrades. Two of the paintings depict majestic old barns that are no longer standing. I miss seeing them along the road. Arlo seemed to capture their graceful old age just before it was too late for both the building and the artist. So here’s to Mr. Monroe and his many works. May their stories live on.
You can view a collection of Mr. Monroe’s paintings on the walls at this physical location.: Grace Cottage Hospital
Two nights ago, I had a long visit with a well established artist friend living here in southern Vermont. We chatted in his studio about art, kids, food, and poker. Then he took me through a couple rooms in his house. Hanging on his walls were original paintings by artists he knew nothing about. They were all a complete mystery to him. At first this felt sad. Then he told me he and his wife only collect original art they find at yard sales. This, coming from an artist who receives thousands of dollars for his originals. Yet his own collection consists of art he bought on the ultra cheep. “I love these treasures!” he told me. Each one had a story and each one intrigued him aesthetically. I enjoyed his enthusiasm. Right there, I decided to revisit two paintings in my collection that I had picked up for next to nothing at a local tag sale.
Mystery paintings on my wall.
I love these two little pieces. I too know nothing more than the artist name (J. Field), and they were framed in New York City by Art Associates. That’s all I can tell anyone. My limited research has revealed nothing more.
So now when my friend comes by my home, I can tell him virtually the same story he told me. “And these two little pieces came from nowhere for practically nothing, and I know nothing… aren’t they wonderful?”