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:

Mediums:

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.

Opacity:

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.

Tools:

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.

 

 

My new workspace

No, sadly it’s not a new studio or even a new room in my house. It’s a desktop I got in the clearance section of IKEA for $10.

I’ve been spending more time with my easel folded flat and using it as a table. But since many of my pieces are small, I needed just a solid piece of wood to go down and cover the voids left by the slats in the easel. We just happened to be at IKEA today and I always check the clearance section. There it was, $10!!! It did seem a little larger than I needed, but I thought it would be fine.

Well, I get it home to find that it’s huge! But once I put it up. It seems like it could work. I really need studio space, but I love the flexibility of being home with my wife and kids. So, I guess it’s time to start a new painting and see how this goes.

To what end?

I finished two paintings that go together, a diptych. But to what end? I loved the process and the final image, but what is it all for? Who is it for? Making art is a messed up mental thing and making abstract are is even more strange. And honestly, there are so many people that have done great work and even more that are still doing it. What makes my art of any value to anyone? I really don’t know. Hell, I really don’t know anything about anything.

These days I paint. And I consider myself to be an artist. I think of it more as something I do and not as my business. I would love for it to be my business. So, how do I make this happen at my age? (Yes, tomorrow is my birthday and I’ll be 53. I’m sure there are plenty of artist that started at my age. ) Well I did some math and realized that I need to start selling my art for $1000 a piece twice a week! Or one piece a month for $10,000. Yes, I’m aware of all the other paths, selling prints, commissions, events and such. I’d really rather just sell a few pieces for $50,000 each. So if you happen to be a crazy rich art collector that wants to create a new art sensation my validating my work to the greater art buying community by spend $50,000 for a piece of my art…

So, I’d love to say I paint for money. But I don’t. I want money and would love to make my living as an artist.

I’d love to say I’m driven by an internal need to express myself, but really, I’m comfortable expressing myself in so many different ways. Art is a solid way for sure. But I can go months without painting and/or totally change what I paint and how I do it. So, that’s not it.

Again, To what end? I just don’t know. I feel great while I’m painting, but I hate getting started and once finished, I don’t like anything to do with the selling process. So I guess I paint for me, in hopes that something that needs to come out of me does and that the final product connects with someone. And maybe, one of those people might want to buy it.

Yes. I know this post sounds a little … sad. Like I should be confident that my art is great. Well, I’m not an insecure person. But art is a freaking mystical and subjective and makes very little sense. It speaks to us on a level that our brains just don’t process or it doesn’t connect with us and it is just blobs of paint.

So, buy my art please! Offer to pay at least double. Tell me I’m a genius and pump up my ego. Or keep your damn opinion to yourself.

Cutting?

Tools and process.

Some one asked me about some of the fine lines in my paintings. These are cut lines. I have a favorite palette knife that I use for scooping, scraping and cutting. Yes actual cutting. It happens more so when working on canvas board as its a pretty soft substrate, but when working on gessobord (yes, that’s the correct spelling) or on wood panels, I still manage to get in there a bit.

So, what and why cut? Well, the mark-making process takes on many different intensities and tools. The work I’m doing right now involves mixing cold wax into oils paint to create a thick, matt paint. I apply it to the canvas with palette knives, bowl scrapers, rollers and brushes. Sometimes adding paint, sometimes scraping it off. I will then cut into one layer to reveal the layer below. Other times I take my knife, I turn it up on it’s edge and lean in a little extra hard to create a very thin line. These cut-in line may take on the color of the next glaze. They may just show through as simple lines. Sometimes I cut several close together to lift up and create a void in the painting.

The very thin and flexible nature of the blade prevents me from being exact and creates a very organic line. It’s also very satisfying to destroy a little as I go. Then when I get to the final steps, I put on clear wax, I let it dry then I buff it. I love watching the cut marks resurface.

Deciding it’s finished

It can be hard to know when to stop.

It’s a little easier when painting an object, person or landscape. But when painting an intuitive abstract piece that relies heavily on process and feeling, it never seems done. My recent art work, Fractured Craftsman, had so many moments when it was “finished.” And so many times I said… “just a little more…” then I totally screed it up and started over. Or I loved it but felt like it wasn’t … wasn’t something…

Killing our darlings, this is a an issue that all artist deal with. It’s when you’ve made a mark or a section of your painting that you love, and you try to work around it and keep it precious. But then you realize you must be willing to let go of these things to find what the painting wants to be, and not to enforce your will upon it. It’s a lot like parenting. you need to enforce some rules, try to guide and control. But in the end, you hope that you added enough good stuff that it becomes it’s own beautiful…whatever, on it’s own.

Giving up that control, in parenting, in painting or in most things is not that easy for me. But I work on it each day a little.

 

Now, back to this painting, Fractured Craftsman, I started this one months ago. It’s painted on a 24×30″ canvas board. I started with a graphite stick and some pencils and paint sticks. I them moved into a clear layer of cold wax. Then the fun starts. I really thought this was going to be a wooded, abstract landscape. I worked at pulling greens and browns all over the canvas and it just never came together. As it dried, I made some stencils of shapes related to the area I was interested in, but again and again it came up less that exciting… I finally realized, I needed to “kill my darlings.” I started masking off areas and building up paint layers. marking cutting and scrapping.

At some point I need space to work on other art, so I leaned it against the wall. As the wax hardened and sat there looking at me, I realized that it was finished. The name had been coming to me through the process. I’ll leave it up to you to find meaning in the name as it relates to the finished art.

 

p.s. my wife thinks this one is upside down, she’d probably right.

A total, radical change to abstract with Cold Wax and Oil

This past fall I returned to abstract and I’m really feeling it now. I have always LOVED and hated abstract art… I don’t mean mixed media or abstraction/impressionist, yes I love that too, but full abstract where it’s just colors and layers and marks and process. I have never been able to do this kind of work because I feel like a fraud doing it. In my head I heard; “My kid could do that!” Additionally, in the past I felt like I was… making a painting of an abstract painting. (I know that can be hard to understand.) Plus sometimes it feels more like a craft, not an “art.” There is nothing wrong with being a craftsman, in fact a lot of what I’m doing is process / craft driven… Ugh, I’m starting to ramble already.

The change started with my sister, she and I have always been realist artist at heart. She recently started taking some art classes at her local college and had to do an abstract. So, I did one too. UGH! Mine was awful. I went back to working on portraits.

a week later, I was at my local Artist & Craftsman supplies store and they gave me a free sampler container of Gamblin Cold Wax Medium. It was so confusing to work with at first. But then I revisited my abstract work, now with thick wax and oil. I just gave in to using knives and other random tools. The process of just playing reminded me why I fell in love with art.

So, I reexamined my past body of work.

The reality is, no one wants a portrait unless it’s one of a loved one or icon. Being a portrait artist and painting my family was fine, but it lacked the ability to connect with people outside my family. I admit, I feel like I should be making big statements about my world, politics, environment.. and I am thinking about these issues when I work, but so far the paintings have been an escape from that stuff.

The Radical Change

I feel my best when I’m mixing up oils and wax, cutting into it with pencils and knives, putting on layers and scraping it off. Discovering, destroying and re-building as I go. There are subtle symbols in my work that mean something to me and some colors represent some personal issues to me. But I like to keep it obscured a bit so the person viewing the piece can project and find their own way through the painting.

This year, I’m doing what makes me feel best.

Bonus change

In the past, I must admit, I’ve been slow to respond to inquiries about purchasing my work. That will change! I’ll be posting works on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other channels.  I’m going to simplify this website a bit and focus I getting the new work into the hands and onto the walls of everyone that is interested. My space is too small to store all this work, especially as I start creating larger works.

Thank you all for your support and look for an updated site with updated works in the new year.