The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Company We Keep

The Ten

The Ten American Painters, generally known as The Ten, resigned from the Society of American Artists in late 1897 to protest the politicalization and commercialism of that group's exhibitions, and their circus-like atmosphere. They were: Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, John Henry Twachtman, Robert Reid, Willard Metcalf, Frank Weston Benson, Edmund Charles Tarbell, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Joseph DeCamp, and Edward Simmons. When Twachtman died in 1902, William Merritt Chase joined in his place. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

An art student should read, or talk a great deal with those who read. His conversations with his intimate fellow-students should be more of his life and less of paint. (p. 83)

Do you think that is this because a greater understanding of oneself leads to greater authenticity in art?

He should be careful of the influence of those with whom he consorts, and he runs a great risk in becoming a member of a large society, for large bodies tend toward the leveling of individuality to a common consent, the forming and the adherence to a creed. And a member must be ever in unnecessary broil or pretend agreement which he cannot permit himself to do, for it is his principle as an art student to have and to defend his personal impressions. Somebody, I think it was Corot, said that art is "nature as seen through a temperament."

There are, however, societies of a very few - little cliques which form by sympathy and which believe in and sustain the independence of their members, and which live by the variety of individualities expressed. Such was that coterie of which Manet, Degas, Monet, Whistler and others of special distinction were the outcome. (p. 84)

It's interesting how a blog partially fulfills this important role. In particular, I've grown from this wonderful group of regular commenters who are willing to share and discuss most any art-related topic. At one time, I presided over an art society with over 300 members. The people were lovely, but I couldn't bear the stifling aspects and had to leave it entirely. My art greatly improved after I left.

What are your thoughts and experiences??

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Selection and Extract

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

I know that we've discussed this topic plenty of times here, but I like the way Henri expresses it:

When a student comes before his model his first question should be: "What is my highest pleasure in this?" and then, "Why?" All the greatest masters have asked these questions - not literally - not consciously, perhaps. And with them this highest pleasure has grown until with their great imaginations, they have come to something like a just appreciation of the most important element of their subject, having eliminated its lesser qualities. With their prejudice for its greater meaning, their eyes take note only of the lines and forms which seem to be the manifestation of that greater meaning.

This is selection. And the result is extract.

The great artist has not reproduced nature, but has expressed by his extract the most choice sensation it has made upon him.
An artist who does not use his imagination is a mechanic. (p. 82-83)

We've had many discussions in the past about how to define fine art. In a way, Henri has done so here. The artist, unlike the mechanic or craftsman, utilizes imagination to select the elements that express his/her pleasure in order to produce something that is an extract of reality. Reality is transformed through the psychological filters in the artist's mind.

The degree of transformation influences the quality of the art, in my opinion. I'm a little turned-off by literal interpretations, where the artist feels the need to replicate exactly what is seen. (I say that having been guilty of it in the past). For me, the greater the transformation, the more my interest is piqued. I like to figure out what the artist is getting at and to find layers of meaning. I like to think about why the artist focused on something in particular while neglecting all the rest. What does this say about the artist and how he/she perceives the world? How does it relate to me?

Sometimes it's easier to relate to the extract than to the entire vat of ingredients.

Your thoughts??

Monday, March 29, 2010


Artists in the Woods by Robert Henri

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

The habit of digression - lack of continued interest - want of fixed purpose, is an almost general failing. It is too easy to drift and the habit of letting oneself drift begets drifting. The power of concentration is rare and must be sought and cultivated, and prolonged work on one subject must not be mistaken for concentration. Prolonged work on one subject may be simply prolonged digression, which is a useless effort, as it is to no end. (p. 81)

I like this topic because I've seen a change in my own habits over the past couple of years. I used to dive into a painting with intense concentration that could last an entire day. I'd forget to eat and couldn't be interrupted. The headache that developed with the hunger pains wasn't felt because my mind was entirely fixed on painting. After ten or twelve hours I'd stop, get something to eat, go to bed and begin again the next day. It was exhiliarating and exhausting at the same time.

More recently, with age, I lost the ability to concentrate for more than three or four hours before I need to take a long break. But, I've found that this is an advantage because it gives me enough time to refresh my mind and reenter the studio with "new eyes." It allows me to see the mistakes I'm making and correct them before going too far. It also allows me to come up with a fresh idea about how to complete my painting. There's a lot to be said for taking long breaks.

I love the sensation of intense concentration. It's transporting, like taking a vacation. The imagination is a powerful force, and when it's indulged to the exclusion of all other things, it's immensely rewarding. I found this to be true when I was a little child. I'd spend hours imagining -daydreaming. These days, when I have to drive long distances I do the same thing. Although I'm attentive to the road, it's fun to spin out all the "what if's" into intricately woven tales - somewhat like constructing a painting.

In my opinion, digression isn't a bad thing. It can actually be helpful to an artist. However, my digressions don't last too long: I do show up for work in my studio every day unless I'm traveling.

Do you indulge in digressions?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Where Does Your Art Hang?

Aphrodite of Milos a.k.a. Venus de Milo attributed to Alexandros of Antioch, 130 - 100 B.C.

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

A millionaire will own wonderful pictures and hang them in a light where you can't half see them. Some are even proud of the report, "Why, he has Corots in the kitchen - Daubignys in the cellar!"
If it is up to the artist to make the best pictures he can possibly make, it is up to the owners to present them to the very best advantage. (p. 77)

While it's true that we artists seldom have control over where our art will hang once it leaves our possession, we hope that it won't end up in someone's bathroom, basement, or attic. Sometimes patrons contact me to let me know where they've hung my work, but I really don't worry about it too much. I figure that when someone spends a lot of money to purchase my work they'll hang it in a good place. But, I never assume that it will be hung at the correct height or properly lit.

I'm always curious to see how public art is displayed. Initially, great care is given, but over time neglect leads to improper illumination and degraded materials. It's sad to see a rusting statue or a cracked and dirty painting or mural. This is when art becomes part of the background, something that people don't even notice any more. Perhaps this is also what happens to art that we hang in our homes. Once the novelty of a new painting or sculpture has worn off, how often do we gaze upon it? I do have some favorite paintings that I savor, but most of my hanging art is overlooked after awhile. To remediate that problem, I move paintings around every year or two so I can rediscover why I love and value the art I've collected.

The Venus de Milo is a better example. Way back when, between 130 - 100 BC, someone of rank and wealth commissioned this statue's creation. Subsequently, in the millenia between then and 1820 AD, when a peasant named Yorgos Kentrotas discovered it buried in some ancient city ruins of Milos, the statue was damaged. The arms were broken off and never restored. Was it by accident or deliberate vandalism? Why was it never restored? Was it no longer valued? Today, The Venus is properly displayed sans arms at The Louvre where it is considered valuable and is once again appreciated as one of the great treasures of the art world.

Where does your art hang?
Where will your art will hang in a few millenia?
Does it matter to you?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

What Do Artists Want to Read?

I was looking through a stack of art magazines in my studio pile, and began thinking about the titles of articles posted on the covers. These very similar journals are competing to attract readers, so the editors must consider which articles to feature. In so doing, they consider what it is that we contemporary artists are concerned with most. What follows is a short list of some of the feature articles on the covers:

Capture the Energy of Everyday Life
Break Rules and Make Helpful Discoveries
Loosen Up With Watercolor Portraits
Advice From a Top Portrait Painter
Learn the Best Qualities of Acrylics
Explore Still Life Painting With an Expert
Get to Work: Why Persistence Trumps Talent Every Time
Paint Like Van Eyck: Give Your Artwork Greater Depth
Design for Impact: 5 Compositions to Try
Lush Blooms in 9 Simple Steps
Keys to Convincing Water Reflections
What's Hot in Latin American Art
The Degas Controversy
Swoon: Street Smart

The categories of topics range from painting techniques, to pep-talks, to art history and the art marketplace. I tend to be attracted to all these topics, but the first two in particular.

Which art magazines do you typically purchase? What types of articles do you like to read?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Desire, Learning, and Kindred Spirits

Edna by Robert Henri

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

If you want to know how to do a thing you must first have a complete desire to do that thing. Then go to kindred spirits - others who have wanted to do that thing - and study their ways and means, learn from their successes and failures and add your quota. (p. 55)

When it comes to learning, not much has changed over time. A student must first have the desire to learn before true learning can occur. As artists, we never stop being students, which means that our desire to learn must be sustained for a lifetime if we are to succeed. That takes real commitment and energy!

For me, the more I learn the more I want to learn. Desire begets learning which begets greater desire to learn, and so on. It's the snowball effect, and the only limitations to the size of the snowball are my desire to keep pushing it in order to gather more snow and my energy. These are considerable limitations to be sure, but a with some patience and refreshing now and then, they can be overcome.

As Henri indicates, the desire to learn must be coupled with action. We have to do something about it. I like the idea of turning to "kindred spirits" for guidance, and always have. This blog has brought together such a group, and it is rewarding. Guidance also takes the form of real-life instructors in a physical classroom. I've had many years of that, but rarely engage in it these days. Part of the reason is because the way I learn changes with time which means that the type of kindred spirits I seek must change as well to suit my present situation.

What are the characteristics of my kindred spirit? Someone who clearly understands and is emotionally dedicated to making art. Someone with a strong desire to learn. Someone who challenges me to overcome complacency and learn more, who understands that there's more than one way to solve a problem. Someone whose goals and aspirations are similar to my own. Someone with whom I am philosophically aligned. Someone who will allow me to do the same for them. I suppose there's more that I could add to this list, but you get the idea. Entering into a relationship with a kindred spirit means mutual responsibility for it on an equal basis. That's why these types of relationships are so rare and so valuable. If not for the kindred spirits in my life, my ability to produce art would be lacking even more.

What are the characteristics of your kindred spirit?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Artists of the Future

Cavitation by Katharine A. Cartwright, 2010
watercolor on paper, 20" x 26"

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

A good picture is a well-built structure. There is material in the model before you for all kinds of structures. All these structures will be like the model, but beyond likeness there will be a manifestation of something more real, more related to all things, and more unique in itself. Infinite simplicity. A direct purpose and most exacting choice of terms of expression. I believe the great artists of the future will use fewer words, copy fewer things, essays will be shorter in words and longer in meaning. There will be a battle against obscurity. Effort will be made to put everything plain, out in the open. By this means we will enter into the real mystery. There will be fewer things said and done, but each thing will be fuller and will receive fuller consideration. (p. 50-51)

In this forward-thinking statement, Henri challenges artists everywhere to simply express the essence of his observations and thoughts. As I read this passage written in 1923, I began to reflect about the author's prediction in the context of his world at the time. The art world ninety years ago was composed of movements like Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, and the beginnings of Dadaism and Surrealism. These movements emerged from and in reaction to Impressionism, Romanticism, Symbolism, and Realism to name a few and marked a shift in thinking that was more self-conscious. I think that the level of complexity achieved during that era was greater than it had been previously, but not necessarily in Henri's work.

The art of Henri's future (today's art) is composed of so many different movements that it would take several paragraphs to list them all. The lid is off this can of worms and I think the level of complexity is even greater and more is out in the open. But, is there really a battle against obscurity? Collectively, maybe so. There appears to be no subject that's taboo, and no idea that's stifled. Has this resulted in infinite simplicity? I suppose that depends upon how one defines "simplicity."

For Henri, simplicity is the rendered essence of the subject: beyond likeness there will be a manifestation of something more real, more related to all things, and more unique in itself .

What are your thoughts about this??

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Isolina Maldonado - Spanish Dancer by Robert Henri, 1921

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Henri devotes large portions of his book to painting techniques interspersed with theory and philosophy. For those of you who are reading along, he discusses “backgrounds” on pages 38 through 44. I think that there are many layers to his words that we could explore here, so I set up a dialogue between Henri’s practical advice and my interpretations:

RH - Do not look at the background to know its colors or shapes. Look at the model. What you will see of the background while looking at the model will be the background of the model.

KC - As artists, we must use our own background, which makes us who we are, to inform our work.

RH – We are instinctively blind to what is not relative. We are not cameras. We select. We do this always when we are not painting. When you are sitting in conversation with a young girl and are thinking the while how beautiful she is, suddenly stop and ask yourself what has been her background. Surely it was not all those incongruous things that are now leaping into your consciousness from behind her. And surely, too, while you were sitting there and thinking her so beautiful you had created (unconsciously) out of chaos a wonderfully fitting setting which was back of her and around her and fully sufficient to her.

KC – Consciously and unconsciously, we selectively transform and color the backgrounds of our lives in a way that’s personally pleasing and understandable. How we transform ourselves is directly linked to how we transform what we paint.

RH – the head in space creates its own background. That the background becomes an extension of the head, and that it is all the canvas that is the head – not just that part the material head occupies.

KC – We paint how we perceive the world around us and our place in it. Every inch of the canvas is about the artist.

RH – All things change according to the state we are in. Nothing is fixed.

KC – How I paint an eggshell, or any other subject, today will change as my perceptions change. My work evolves with me.

RH – The background is more air than it is anything else. It is the place in which the model moves. It is the air he breathes.

KC – There is a space between the artist’s intention (idea) and what she actually paints. In that space, the idea is altered by the materials used, the limitations of our dexterity, and often the opinions of others. That space is invisible, like air, but has a profound role in our creation of art.

RH – There are backgrounds so well made that you have no consciousness of them.

KC – When an artist creates a cohesive body of work that demonstrates consistency in technique and form, viewers are not conscious of the artist’s struggle, of what went on in the background to create the work.

RH – A background is not to be neglected. It is a structural factor. It is as important to the head before it as the pier is important to the bridge it carries. The background is a support of the head.

KC – Who I am as a person (my background) is very important to my work. From it I define who I am, thereby imparting to my work a unique and meaningful quality.

RH – Nothing is right until all is done and a total unity has been accomplished [between the background and subject] .

KC – My work must unite who I am and how I perceive the world around me with how I express myself in a painting.

RH – A weak background is a deadly thing.

KC – Enrich your life: live, learn, experience. Our paintings are enriched when we broaden and deepen our knowledge of life.

What’s your conversation with Robert Henri??

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Way To Happiness

Fay Bainter by Robert Henri, 1918

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

"Happiness" is a relative term; it's situational and subjective. What makes me happy might make someone else unhappy, and vice versa. And, there are different levels of happiness. I'm the kind of person that finds great happiness in the pursuit of art, and so was Robert Henri. Here are a few of his reflections on happiness:

The development of the power of seeing and the power to retain in the memory that which is essential and to make record and thus test out how true the seeing and the memory have been is the way to happiness. (p. 32)

It is really not important whether one's vision is as great as that of another. It is a personal question as to whether one shall live in and deal with his greatest moments of happiness. (p. 32)

We will be happy if we can get around to the idea that art is not an outside and extra thing; that it is a natural outcome of a state of being; that the state of being is the important thing. (p. 227)

In art, happiness is .... (you fill in the blank).

A Point of Departure

The Little Dancer, Robert Henri, 1916-1918

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Thanks to all of you who commented on yesterday's post! I gleaned gems from each of you, and want to highlight what our good friend Margaret wrote: I consider each artist's production, work, efforts etc. in visual art as an individual contribution to a larger reflection on the world as we live it today. Stick to your interests, make good work and send it out into the mix. I'd say that's a good argument for painting for yourself! And, our good friend Casey's blog post entitled "Artist, Know Thyself" is a must read. I suppose I'm guilty of beating the same drum about the importance of speaking in one's own voice through art, but I believe that it's essential and, possibly the only real "rule" in art.

Speaking of "rules," here's a passage from Henri's book:

As different as ideas and emotions are, there can be no set rule laid down for the making of pictures, but for students found working in a certain line suggestions may be made. there is a certain common sense in procedure which may be basic for all, and there are processes safe to suggest, if only to be used as points of departure, to those who have not already developed a satisfying use of their materials.
(p. 21)

I think that every art instructor should begin a class with that statement. Telling students that there is a set of rules that must always be obeyed hampers creativity, authenticity, and innovation. Whereas, informing our students about the principles and elements of design and color theory in the context of useful tools that they may employ when needed is less confusing. It's really the difference between playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata as it's written and interpreting the same piece through jazz. The latter approach requires intimate knowledge of the sonata as it's written, but depends upon the musician's ability to break the rules and play a unique interpretation.

I like Henri's use of the phrase point of departure. Usually, our work is inspired by something - a sight, sound, memory, feeling, etc. It's the place where we begin, and if we aspire to create only an exact replica of the inspiration, our work can suffer from it. But, when the inspiration is used as a point of departure to send our imagination on a voyage that leads us to unique expression, then we have the greatest chance of creating unique and meaningful art. As Jasper Johns once said: Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that.

And, in order to use the point of departure we must first "depart." As Henri wrote:

Those who cannot begin do not finish. (p. 22)

Your thoughts??

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Paint for Yourself

Salome, Robert Henri, 1909

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Before returning to Henri's book, I'd like to spend a moment pondering an important comment from the previous post about the books I'm reviewing on this blog. Our good friend, Stan Kurth, wrote: it's the same point that all of these authors seem to be making. Do you think it's a clue? If you want to be better at what you do, know thyself. My life is art; is it important for me to answer the question, why?

It's no accident that all the books I review on this blog are related to both the psychological aspects of being an artist and the history of art theory. That's the mission of this blog and, for me, a part of my daily scholarship in art. I like to take an idea and view it from all sides. Each author packages the same ideas in a slightly different way, in a way that expands my understanding. It IS interesting that so many authors tackle the same topics, which are the universal "truths" for art and artists. And, I agree with Stan that the artist needs to "know thyself." After all, artistic expression, if it is sincere (authentic), is an honest exposure of oneself, completely unveiled. But, "knowing thyself" is a lifelong quest.

Stan also asks if it's important to question why we make art. I guess that depends. I don't so much question it as think about how to deal with it. For me, creating art is an obsession and an integral part of who I am. When I'm unsuccessful with a painting I need to figure out why, but I also fall prey to many of the self-doubts that are common to artists. It is the words of wisdom and advice provided by these authors that often sets me on the right path again and builds confidence. And, I truly value this small community of artists who has gathered with me to reflect upon who we are and why we make art. The words of these authors are the catalyst for our interactions as we challenge, encourage, enlighten, and bolster each other.

Thank you, Stan, for your comment! It made me evaluate and reaffirm why I take the time to write this blog. I'll also explain that there are three aspects to my profession as an artist: scholarship, painting, and teaching. This blog is my daily scholarship.

Now, back to Henri's book. For those of you who are following in your own copy, I'm on page 18:

Don't worry about the rejections. Everybody that's good has gone through it. Don't let it matter if your works are not "accepted" at once. The better or more personal you are the less likely they are of acceptance. Just remember that the object of painting pictures is not simply to get them in exhibitions. It is all very fine to have your pictures hung, but you are painting for yourself, not for the jury. I had many years of rejections.

This passage reminded me of the second watercolor workshop I took over a decade ago. This instructor advised us that "If your family and friends like your painting, you are doing something wrong!" Now, I don't know if that's true, but the point is that I need to paint for myself and the odds are that few people will feel the same way I do about my paintings. And, when you get right down to it, what's the point of painting from someone else's view anyway?

Don't try to paint "good landscapes." Try to paint canvases that will show how interesting landscape looks to you - your pleasure in the thing. Wit.

Recently, I read an article in an art magazine (wish I could find it again!) where an artist gave this advice: don't paint the pig, paint the squeal!

We've discussed authenticity, painting from one's viewpoint, and dealing with rejections many times on this blog. So, let's flip the coin:

Is it important and necessary for an artist to avoid esoteric work, derived from the artist's narrow viewpoint, in order to produce work that may communicate with a larger number of people? For instance, much classical art has broad appeal because it portrays timeless subjects like beauty, the human dilemma, or environments.

Your thoughts??

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Art Spirit

My good friend, Carolyn Abrams, was kind enough to loan me her copy of Robert Henri's book The Art Spirit. These inspired reflections of this notable artist and teacher, who died in 1929, are worthy of our consideration. He wrote this book at the urging of his students, and from it I'll select passages since there are no chapters.

Art when really understood is the province of every human being.
It is simply a question of doing things, anything well. It is not an outside extra thing.

There are many layers of meaning in these two sentences. I've always believed that all humans are born with the ability to create art in some form, and that the decision to become a professional artist is simply a matter of prioritizing the development of that ability so that it becomes an occupation. And, I've always believed that all humans have the capacity to appreciate art, even if they don't create it. Even the most hardened among us respond to beauty in some way, or to the pathos of a well told story.

The work of the art student is no light matter. Few have the courage and stamina to see it through. You have to make up your mind to be alone in many ways. We like sympathy and we like to be in company. It is easier than going it alone. But alone one gets acquainted with himself, grows up and on, not stopping with the crowd. It costs to do this. If you succeed somewhat you may have to pay for it as well as enjoy it all your life.

How true.

Your thoughts??

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Value of Time

Eva Hesse

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 8: "Your Excitement Meter"
section 6: "The Value of Time"

We've reached the last section of Richmond's book. "The Value of Time" is a focused essay on the importance of allowing enough time on a daily basis to develop ideas. For the author and her students, this means keeping a journal and reflecting upon it daily in order to identify recurring themes for creative works. It also involves the iterative process of creating drafts, painting, and repainting. As Richmond puts it: Creating a painting or writing drafts of an article or keeping a journal are just a few examples of tangible forms of process. They are activities that convey the value of repetition, careful observation, and the passage of time. They represent the accumulation of experience, the evidence of personal history: built up, painted over, and built up again.

Here, I think the author answers the question often posed by students "What shall I paint?" by urging us to paint what we know, what we think about most. This approach must lead to authentic work because it utilizes one's intimate thoughts, which are genuine reflections of one's world and relationship to it. Most of us, when viewing a painting, can detect the level of sincerity of the artist. We can feel if there is a personal connection between the artist and subject, and if there isn't one we can also feel the emptiness of the work.

So, in one sense, time is the artist's friend. It's one of the most valuable tools we have in our toolbox for creating works of art that are both unique and meaningful.

Now that we've reached the end of Wendy Richmond's book, I'd like to thank her for writing it and also thank all of you for bringing it to life with your insightful comments. Not long ago, I received another email from Richmond:

A quick note here -- just had to tell you before too much time went
by-- I am just beginning to plunge into your deeply thoughtful
reactions to the chapters of my book. I am honored that they are
provoking such a response.
All the best

I, too, am honored by your responses to the postings on this blog. In summary of Richmond's book, I'll say that it is relevant to contemporary artists. She connected to us and made us think, reevaluate, and discuss. You can't ask for more than that.

What next? Tomorrow I'll reflect upon a couple of recent articles I've read in art journals, and after that I'll begin another book!

Your thoughts??

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Gift of Persistence

Vincent Van Gogh

I'm going to take a brief excursion from Wendy Richmond's book to discuss an article from the most recent issue of Art Calendar magazine, entitled "The Gift of Persistence" by Matthew Daub. This article really resonates with me and I think it will with many of you as well.

Daub writes: I have come to believe that the primary gift involved in the making of art is the love of making it - the fascination and drive that keeps an artist involved and working throughout the course of a lifetime. In the art world, where the prize often goes to the last person standing, persistence trumps talent every time. Here are the major points the author uses to support his thesis:

Being "gifted" is not enough -
without drive, "giftedness" is inconsequential

Successful artists have unstoppable drive -
how badly do you want it?

Successful artists push themselves -
maintain a strong work ethic

Just show up -
make your creative work a daily priority and set aside time for it

The author concludes with sage advice: Great ideas and good intentions are meaningless if they are not acted upon. Artists without discipline seldom succeed. Artists with lesser gifts may succeed through the consistency of their labors. There are no guarantees in life or in art, but we can be assured that whatever gifts we have become stronger the longer and harder we work, and our chances of advancing professionally are multiplied over time. Persistence is the greatest gift of all.
Folks, this article is important to me because I'm one of those people who works very hard to achieve. There are few things that just come to me naturally - that I can put very little effort into and still succeed. So, Daub's opinion, which is informed by his experiences as a seasoned art professor, is a comfort to me. I hope his words are meaningful to you, too.

Your thoughts?

Why Do We Look At Art?

Chuck Close

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 8: "Your Excitement Meter"
Section 4: "Why do we look at art?"

I like this question because I can't remember a time when I wasn't fascinated when looking at art, and I've never taken the time to think about why. In this section of her book, Richmond questions herself and others in an effort to discover why we look at art. Here are some of the reasons that she found:
  • art provides a structure for contemplation
  • contemporary art puts us in touch with what's going on; it reflects the time we live in
  • looking at art satisfies our aesthetic side, just like music
  • art informs and inspires creativity
  • some people view art for the challenge, to seek what they don't know
  • viewing art is uplifting and promotes creativity
  • many of us learned to view and appreciate art at an early age from our parents and teachers, so it's now a part of our lives
and so on... I think that the combination of all of these reasons would apply to me.

Her quest to find answers to why we look at art led Richmond to another discovery: The art we see has been selected. What are we NOT seeing? Art, like history is edited , and we are getting a "curated" view of the past. It seems to me that, these days, the world wide web provides a global venue for displaying works of art that wouldn't normally be selected for public exhibition. I wonder how that will change the way we view art?

And now, your thoughts ??

Monday, March 15, 2010

Your Excitement Meter

Wendy Richmond

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 8: "Your Excitement Meter"
section 1: "Excitement Meter"

It's good to be back again and to catch up on your lively and informative discussion during my absence. What a wonderful group!!

I've moved ahead to the final chapter in Richmond's book, which I hope to complete and summarize by the end of this week. You'll notice that I've skipped Chapter 7 altogether, and parts of Chapter 6 because of the particular interests of this group, but highly recommend that you all purchase this book and read it.

The first section of Chapter 8, "Excitement Meter," begins with a paradox: Why is it that artists, who are innovative, self-motivated, nonconformists, become less inventive when they become career artists? That is, when an artists decides to turn pro, he/she will often follow a more conventional path that is paved with stones molded by the experiences, practices, and advice of others at the expense of fashioning their own unique path. The artist transforms in order to fit. This is an interesting paradox.

Fledgling career artists frequently seek Richmond's advice, and her solution to the paradox is not to give conventional advice, but to talk about her "excitement meter." This meter is defined as Richmond's internal gauge, an indicator of what I find interesting and positive and worth pursuing. When I have a positive reaction to something, I take care to notice it. I don't try to come to any conclusions; I just register the reaction. At some later point, I look at this collection of seemingly unrelated ideas or events, and I usually find a pattern that reveals that I didn't see when I experienced each element in isolation.

This solution to the paradox yields the greatest chance for innovation. I like the way the author reveals the recipe for innovation as the intersections of seemingly unconnected ideas or interests that the artists feels strongly about. Perhaps this is one good reason for artists to keep a journal. We need to look for and find those connections in order to be truly innovative and unique. The work of our good friend PAMO is a very recent example of Richmond's idea. Just recently, Pam linked together her cartoons and videography in a truly unique way that brings to life her work and the reactions of others to it. It's a multifacted approach to cartooning that involves the viewer to a large degree. That's innovation!

Richmond telescopes her idea to include a more personal kind of innovation... a new way of structuring a job, a career, a school, or a way of life. As she points out, innovation isn't exclusive to technology. We can fashion our careers by combining the things that excite us most. For an example, Richmond cites a woman who launched an innovative jazz dance studio in New York city with a sumer retreat by the ocean, thus combining what she loved.

The author concludes with the admonition to give attention to our excitement meters because, with vigilance and time, we'll read it more accurately. I like that advice.


Before I close this post, I'd like to turn your attention to an interesting article about Rothko that was forwarded to me by our good friend Deborah Stearns. The article, from the Washington Post, is entitled "National Gallery exhibit challenges traditional view of Rothko's black paintings" and provides some wonderful insights that add to our recent discussions. To access the article, just click on the photograph below.

And now, your thoughts??

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why Do You Draw?

Vija Celmins - "I see drawing as thinking, as evidence of thinking, as evidence of going from one place to another."

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 6: " Another Kind of Language"
section 6: "Why Do You Draw?"

I'll be leaving for a three-day trip tomorrow morning and so I thought I'd post something that everyone can chew on for several days until my next post. In Chapter 6 of her book, Richmond asks us why we artists draw. My immediate answer to the question is because when I was very young I was given crayons and paper and encouraged to draw. That encouragement continued throughout my life. And, once I learned to draw I liked it very much, so I had the desire to continue. Also, because I think in pictures rather than words, drawing is the easiest way for me to express my thoughts and feelings. Remember the game Pictionary? It was one of the few games that I could win.

But, my set of answers to Richmond's question won't necessarily be the same as someone else's, and to find answers the author conducted an informal poll among her colleagues, students, and readers. She placed their answers into these general categories that I'll paraphrase:

  • drawing is a physical act that links the eye and hand in a way that's physically deeply satisfying

  • drawing is a way of meditating because one must concentrate on only one thought while drawing and place all other thoughts aside

  • on the other hand, drawing is enhanced thinking that requires time and concentration; it's a way of deeply studying something

  • drawing is a conversation within the work, between one mark and another and between the mark-making and the surface

  • drawing occurs because one has the ability to do it, and there's satisfaction in that accomplishment

  • drawing allows the artist to closely observe the subject, either real or from the imagination, in order to understand it better

Why do you draw??

How often do you draw?

Do you prefer to draw what you see around you or from your imagination?

How important is drawing to your process as an artist?

Have a great long-weekend!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Forward Momentum of Failure

Robert Rauschenberg

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 6: " Another Kind of Language"
section 2: "The Forward Momentum of Failure"

It's probably safe to say that we've all experienced "failure" in one form or another when it comes to producing art, which is a risky enterprise. And, it's probably true that most of us learn from our failures after we've overcome the disappointments they bring. In this section of her book, Richmond emphasizes the importance of risk in making art. She writes: risk, I believe, is a place between unsure and sure, where you are in unknown territory, you can't see what's around the corner, and yet you continue, full speed ahead.

She cites Robert Rauschenberg, who said: "I usually work in a direction until I know how to do it, then I stop. At the time that I am bored or understand - I use those words interchangeably - another appetite has formed." Richmond notes here that Rauschenberg isn't just confronting uncertainty, he is sustaining uncertainty. In my opinion, that takes a lots of guts and confidence. As corny as this seems, it reminds me of the lyrics to Rodgers and Hammerstein's song from Carousel:

When you walk through a storm
Keep your chin up high
And don't be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Tho' your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone,
You'll never walk alone.

Doesn't that reflect the journey of the undaunted spirit of the artist?

Back to Richmond's book: This section is about the "forward momentum of failure" Wendy stresses the importance of the sum of our mistakes in the creative process.There is a forward directionality to it if we continue to take risks and and use them. Here, she cites Picasso, who said "My pictures are often made by a sum of destructions." I'm also reminded of something Helen van Wyck always said "My paintings are the record of a series of corrections."

Richmond concludes this section on a positive note: how refreshing it would be to look forward to failure! Imagine using it as a momentum to propel your work further.

And so it is that risk and failure pave the road to our success in art. Walk on, my friends!

Your thoughts??

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Mark Rothko

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond

This morning I read through several sections of Richmond's book and made the decision to cherry-pick what would be most interesting and relevant to the discussions on this blog. I found a sentence at the end of section 1 of Chapter 6 that triggered my imagination: Mark Rothko once said that the reason he didn't give titles to his mature paintings was because he was afraid that words would paralyze the viewer's imagination. This challenged my approach, since I was taught that a well-constructed title is important. I was also taught never to use the label Untitled. Now I'm thinking, isn't that silly? Maybe Rothko was correct. I can see both sides of the coin. On the one side, a title gives the viewer a sense of the artist's intention. On the other side, the viewer's interpretation could be more important than the artist's. So, I thought I'd look at a few titled paintings to evaluate this.

This is a painting by Picasso. Looking at it, I would have assigned a title that had something to do with sadness or despair (over having lost her clothes and not knowing where to find them ??). Picasso's title is "Blue Nude." It's a good title because "blue" could mean her mood as well as the dominant hue in the painting. But, if I read the title as meaning the hue it would make me feel less emotionally connected to the painting because I'd think that Picasso was just experimenting with the color blue (or a new tube of paint).

This painting by Richard Diebenkorn looks architectural to me, but mostly like a study in color design. His title is Ocean Park 67. I never would have thought that, so his title definitely influences how I think about this painting and limits my imagination.

This painting by Andrew Wyeth speaks to me about island life and the beauty of the wind blowing through carefully hung fishing nets. There's an ephemeral beauty to the work that also reminds me of life itself - aging and dying. Wyeth's title for the work is "Pentecost." Wow, that title really expands my imagination! Here's a title that enhances the viewer's imagination rather than limits it.

And then, there's the obvious title. I look at this painting by Edward Hopper and think "rotary phone." Guess what? His title is Rotary Phone.

So, let's come full circle back to Rothko. Below is a picture of two people standing before one of Rothko's "untitled" paintings. I wonder what they're thinking. What would you be thinking, and what title springs from your imagination?

Also, do you assign titles to your paintings?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Concentrating on Context

Edvard Munch

Art Without Compromise" by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 5: "The Medium Controls the Message"
section 2: "Concentrating on Context"

The weekend is over, the Oscars were fun, and I'm back on task reviewing Richmond's book. This section of Chapter 5 begins with the recognition of artists' desire to exhibit what we've created for others to view and appreciate. She also recognizes that artists can't control the meanings assigned by others to our work. And, in this age of innovative ways to reproduce our work, we artists have a hand in changing how our work is perceived. Richmond writes: each iteration moves a little farther away from you and a little bit deeper into a new context, and therefore, a new meaning.

Wendy's central point here is that an artwork's context can cause a change in perception and meaning. Context may be subtle, sometimes even invisible, but it is never neutral. That is, although I (the artist) know the meaning (content) of my work when I create it, once it leaves my hands and is displayed in a new environment, or once it's reproduced in a different form (context), the work can be perceived differently by others and the meaning can change.

I couldn't think of a better example of Richmond's point than The Scream by Edvard Munch:

The Scream by Munch

Here's Munch's statement about the content of this painting: I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature. He later added: for several years I was almost mad…You know my picture, ‘’The Scream?’’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.

And, here's how we've changed Much's intended content:

The Simpsons cartoon, funny poster, doll:

Tote, mug, travel mug:

Clothing, tee shirt, tie, and thong (!):

I think that Richmond makes an important point in this section of her book, and would like to add a question. First, I'll add that this question considers the activities of the makers of fine art rather than commercial art. Although Munch did not endorse the many forms his painting has taken, nor did he live long enough to see the appropriation of The Scream in this way, many artists today are making the decision to reproduce their art in the form of greeting cards, ceramic tiles, and posters as well as some of the products shown above. I'll assume that this is done mostly for the purpose of bringing attention to their work and making more money. If that's true, does this mean that this type of artist subordinates the content of their work to its commercial value? And, if so, does that turn the artist into a commercial artist, or is that boundary fuzzy anyway?
Your thoughts??

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Folks, we've had a great discussion on this blog about introspection and Deborah has written a well-constructed essay that contributes much to our discussion. Please visit her post to read it: Deborah Stearns (click on her name).

Friday, March 5, 2010

Shaping Content

Bridget Riley

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 5: "The Medium Controls the Message"
section 1: "Shaping Content"

When it comes to considering "content" in a work of art, there's no better book written than The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn. We discussed this book on my blog beginning on October 15, 2009, and it was fascinating. So, when I first read the title of this section of Richmond's book, I wondered what she could offer that Shahn had not already written. I found something.

Returning to her teaching experience at Harvard in this section, Wendy writes that "one of our goals in this course was to explore ways to use media and technology to maintain the integrity of content. In other words, it is important to know that before all the filtering begins, there is an intention, a story that someone wants to tell, and specific content to be delivered." In this section she describes a concept that was explored by her class using a number of different technological tools, and then evaluates the outcome. It's interesting and moves a little beyond Shahn's book.

However, I'm reminded of Don's comment yesterday: "every generation of artists has had new tools and technologies to either embrace or reject." If I expand that comment to include the fact that the goal of each artist throughout time has been to tell a story, then it appears that nothing has changed. As Stan wrote: "Art will continue to be created in new and different ways, but its purpose will never deviate regardless of the course of history and or technological advances."

Given the myriad of ways in which an artist can express her/himself through both content and media, it appears to me that the selection process is critically important. It's like being a kid in a candy store: too many types of candy, too enticing, and too hard to make a decision. Richmond's artistic creations explore the digital age in a relevant way. Her latest exhibition is electronic and deals with communication through the cell phone. I admire her work, but find my desire to create art with traditional materials like paint and paper or canvas overwhelms any thoughts about becoming "digital." Am I out of touch? Is my work less relevant? Have I failed to expand my horizons so that my work may speak to future generations rather than my own? These are the questions that run through my mind as I read Richmond's book. My conclusion is that if my work is irrelevant, then it will have to remain so. The reason is this: I've answered Ben Shahn's questions "What kind of person am I?" and "What kind of art coincides with who I am?" and THIS is IT for me. Will IT change for me in the future? I don't know, but am willing to venture through the myriad of pathways that are intricately connected in my pscyhe to find out.

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Questioning the Tools

Man Ray

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 4: "Questioning the Tools"

Because the subject of Chapter 4 is technological tools, I'll consider all six sections at once. Here, the author considers the utility and impact of the cell phone, digital camera, and computer upon our daily lives and in creating art. By now, I suspect that all of you who are reading this blog utilize these technologies on a regular basis, so you'll be able to relate.

What interests me most are the summary thoughts in each section of this chapter:

The more I learn, the more excited I am about the cell phone's potential to add to my life, and the more anxious I become about what it has already taken away - like my long walks where I am alone with myself. (K.C. - turn off the cell phone an leave it at home! That's what I do.)

Most of the devices that we had twenty-five years ago have advanced in service beyond our wildest imaginations, but they have become increasingly complex in usability. (K.C. - Nevertheless, isn't it interesting how 5-year old kids can easily navigate a computer and cell phone??)

We have a relationship with each piece of technology we use. We rarely ponder how that relationship affects our actions, our choices, or even our creative goals. (K.C. - how true!)

Maintaining balance requires diligent attention. Professionals and amateurs alike, in any of the arts, sometimes wander off their intended paths and get tangled in the thicket of technique... When the work is in balance, technique is neither the hero nor the enemy. (K.C. - a wise statement, indeed)

Do new inventions make us wiser, or do these tools weaken our powers of thought and understanding? Is technology an aid or a hindrance to our ability to be creative, insightful human beings? (K.C. - I could answer "yes" and "no" to both questions)

How will future historians deal with this abundant and wildly diverse data? Will this profusion become so overwhelming that the only way to make sense of it will be to make it quantifiable, assembling stories with statistics and logic instead of soul? In the future, will history be more true or more false? (K.C. - IMHO, "history" is always more false than true because it requires human observation and reasoning, which is always flawed by bias and cognitive limitations.)

I must admit that I have little interest in exploring all the utilities available to me through technology, although I do use a cell phone (rarely), computer (daily), and digital camera (frequently). However, I find more satisfaction in using simple tools like pencil, paper, paint, and canvas. Many of you are much more advanced and so it would be good to learn about your thoughts and experiences.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Work in the Exhibit

Andy Warhol, 1977

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 3: "Life Support"
section 6: "The Work in the Exhibit"

This chapter of Richmond's book is increasingly centered upon her teaching experiences at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and this section is no different. Luckily, there are many gems to be mined here. An important aspect of her graduate course is the student exhibition, which they are responsible for planning and installing. An important goal is to show a completed body of work and to create an exhibition that equally supports the efforts of all the students in the best light. Because most of my readers are solo artists, so I'll skip the details and get to the part that applies to us.

There are three thoughts I'd like to pursue:
1. creating a quality exhibit
2. learning from the audience reaction to our work
3. deadlines

1. Creating a quality exhibit that best shows our work is essential. I've seen far too many artists relinquish control over how their work is exhibited to their detriment. Poor lighting, incorrect placement, crowding of work, improper labeling, etc. are among the many problems that mar the appearance of an exhibit. I remember dropping off a painting to a gallery director once, and was appalled to see that work that she had received from another artist was stacked willy-nilly, one on top of the other, so that the plexiglass glazing was being scratched by the paintings on top. When I pointed this out to her and asked her to treat my work with more care, she seemed both uncomprehending and offended. However, if I don't concern myself with these details, it affects both my income and artistic reputation.

2. Frequently, I inconspicuously stand where I can hear and see people's reaction to my work. I don't mind the criticisms and harsh reactions as much as I mind it when someone quickly strolls past giving my work only a glance. Whether or not someone likes my work isn't nearly as important than the ability of my painting to evoke a reaction from the audience. To me, that's a success. If there are too many passers-by, then I know it's time to improve my paintings.

3. Deadlines. I love them! They keep me on track and make me work harder. If I don't have a deadline coming up, then I look for opportunities to find a project with a deadline. If I can't find one, then I create artifical deadlines. Maybe this makes me crazy, but I need it to stay energetic in my work.

What are your experiences and thoughts??

Monday, March 1, 2010

Your Portrait or Mine?

Wayne Thiebaud

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 3: "Life Support"
section 5: "Your Portrait or Mine?"

I prefer to get to the point of this section of Richmond's book rather than wander through all aspects of it because there's something profound here about how we artists produce our work. The question "Your Portrait or Mine?" refers to a project she assigned to students of the Harvard Graduate School of Education that involved creating expressive portraits. These students faced the problem of how to exert artistic control when confronted with the challenge of representing their subject's view while expressing their own as artists. And, due to the complexity of the project, they faced even greater challenges that are related in the book.

When I read Richmond's thoughts about this project and the difficulties that her students encountered, my mind began to race from the text to personal experience. Maintaining artistic control in portraiture can be difficult since representing the subject requires the ability to create a particular likeness while revealing the subject's personality. However, the artist always views the subject through her own lens, which automatically imposes other qualities upon the subject. This is what brings authenticity to the work. Since I'm not much of a portrait painter, I'll extend this notion to all subjects.

To me, artistic control means that the artist speaks in his/her own voice, and if that voice is repressed then the work isn't authentic. So, I began to think about what makes us relinquish artistic control; things like paying too much attention to the opinions of others, lack of confidence in one's own voice or ability, trying to satisfy the marketplace instead of self-expression, and so on. And, once we've been hijacked, how difficult is it to regain control?

This ties in a bit with some of our earlier discussions about the importance of using our intuition when we work. Relying on our intuition to a certain extent gives us full control of artistic expression because it springs from our subconscious. It's a delicate balance, and in this section Richmond includes a great quotation from artist Wayne Thiebaud: When an artist or viewer feels involved in a work, they relate to that work as a living thing, with a sense of exhilaration and freshness of spirit. It is primarily an intuitive process that can give the work a life force. In contrast, finishing off demands an intellectual process, a neat tying together of things in a way we 'think' is correct." Thiebauld strives to forestall the absolute resolution of a work which can be dangerously close to the art of taxidermy, writes Richmond.

So, when I ponder the thematic question "Your portrait or mine?" I consider who's in control of my work and the importance of the intuitive process.

Your thoughts??