A Little is Good, a LOT must be Better?

Little is good, so a lot must be better is hardly ever true.

On my little journey into abstract art making. I am constantly frustrated by everything I do and overjoyed at the same time. But to this point, every painting I do I find one new, cool thing and I think, “AH! that is the signature moment, that’s the thing I need to do on the next painting to really start defining my style and to make these painting work!” So when I start off the next painting, I  am thinking about that last thing I did and when the time comes, I do it… And I do it again. “Wow 2 looks better than 1” … So, yup, three ruins the painting.

I know, it’s abstract, how can it be ruined? Well, it’s not, but I am. My thought process and ambitions for what I was trying to do are flushed away with one swipe of the pallet knife. Mind you, I’m working in oils with cold wax, so scraping off a mistake is not a big deal. But in that moment of starting to fix a mistake my Apple Watch buzzes and tells me it’s time to breath and meditate for a moment. So, I sit, clear my mind, and inhale along with the rhythm of my watch for 1 min. I get a little clarity and remember to kill my darlings. I don’t remember where the phrase comes from, probably Pamela Caughey.  The idea is that when you are trying to paint in this free and abstract manner, sometimes you develop little strokes or marks or color patches that you love, but the greater work is not balancing or complete and you spend your time trying to protect your little darling favorite spots and you end up tying your hand behind your back while you try to preserver your darlings.

I’ve been doing an extended version of this. I’ve been mentally collecting my little darlings, my tricks, and they’ve been dictating where my piece goes. I look at this canvas board that I have on my table and think, “I want a line here, and here, then the dark spot should be the focal point of the Golden Spiral, then I’ll divide it up with scrapes and cuts and really make this the best version of everything I’ve been learning.” After all, shouldn’t we learn from our past? Well, for what I’m doing, I’m learning the wrong lessons. But I end up with and uninspired painting that now ends up being an underpainting as I know I need to paint over this mess.

What I should be learning:


What I should have been paying attention to was learning more about the medium. Cold Wax is a totally new thing form me, understanding the ratio of oil to wax, and then how much transparent medium to add, how much drying agent and so on. Most of my life I painted with acrylics because you can just add a little water and it’s all good, then after who knows how many years, I discovered mediums and everything changed. Now I’m in the world of using more mediums than pigment and my pallet looks like a chemistry class. I should be learning exactly how these ratios work instead of just slapping it together and hoping for the best.


Duh! this one seems like a no-brainer, but it’s not. Different paints have different pigments made from different materials with naturally different opacities. I used to think if I bought a set of paints, same label, same box, same same same, that their properties would be the same, (again it’s a little more true with acrylics than oil) but there is a little box printed on the label of each tube that is open, half filled, and totally fills that is to give you a general sense of opacity of each color. Example, some whites are great for covering over colors other just look like a wash. UGH! I thought you thinned the paint to make it more transparent (you can). Plus, so many ways to control the viscosity, the opacity, the flow, the build-up.


I admit, I love “doing it different.” It makes me feel like a rebel, a rule breaker. But I’m just realizing that I dont need to re-invent the wheel every day, and suffering thru, or making do with the wrong tool, is just a waste of time. I love my Catalyst wedge tool but it seems like everyone that does cold wax uses the Messermeister bowl scraper. Thankfully, I won one on Pamela Caughey’s youtube raffle along with some Gamblin paint. I still use my Catalyst tool but I threw out my Dollar Store silicon crap. I have some small plastic pallet knives that are nice for detail, but real metal knives for the big work. Blue Shop Towels!!! And finding the right surface. Right now, I’m just blowing thru what is left of my old canvases. I’ve found that the gessoed cradled boards are my thing. I love the feeling of spreading pain without the pulse of canvas. Even now, when I start on a canvas, I do some initial mark-making and then lay down some thick wax to help smooth the work area. The point is, I should have just gone on YouTube, seen what the pros are using and then bought that. There are reasons why they do things the way they do. While it’s fun to experiment and maybe discover something new, I realized that I want to focus on the art, not the medium (my sister always points that out).

So what now… and why?

The artist Chuck Close said, “The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” These are the words all artist should have painted on their ceiling above their bed. I have it tattooed on the inside of my eye lids. Yet, it’s hard to get stated, and it’s hard to “kill your darlings” and I say it all the time, It’s hard to paint nothing after years of paining people, places and things, the challenges of the nothing=something of abstract is so much harder to do than I expected. And it’s super hard to rationalize or explain to people, especially when they have seen your portraits and know that you can paint things that look like things.

So why? I really dont know. I dont have these lofty ideas that , “I must paint.” I’m good at, and comfortable with, expressing myself thru actual words, or music or whatever. I dont need to paint. More than half the time it is just frustrating and not rewarding, but I guess that can be said about being a parent too. And I’m not making any money doing this, I’d bet less than 5 people that read this (if 5 people read this) have ever purchased my art. For me, for right now, at the moment of creation, as I mix the paints, as I spread it over the substrate, as I cut and scrape and build up layers… at that moment I am outside of myself. Out of my mind and body. Finding a meaning that is beyond words and thoughts. For those moments there is a feeling that passes by so quickly one almost doesnt realize they are in it. This must be like a runner’s high, or an actual drug-users high. But in a flash, it’s gone and I am left with color blocks, lines and marks. And if I’m lucky, when I look at the completed piece, I have a sense of what I felt while creating. So I guess the goal is to make something that allows the other people to feel it as well.