The Laws of Nature

Saturday, October 5, 2013


by Katharine A .Cartwright
watercolor, 26" x 20"
Last month, I was reading a book about Niels Bohr and came across a short discussion of his principle "complementarity." I needed to paint this for my "Laws" series because I was so inspired by his idea. So, here's my aesthetic interpretation.

This painting, along with dozens of others in my series "The Laws of Nature" will be exhibited at the UConn Art Gallery in Stamford in June 2014. Hope to see you there!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Most Common Question Is ....

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe
by Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
watercolor, 26" x 20"
The most common question people ask me is "How long did it take you to paint that?" I could supply a variety of answers, like:

  • All of my life
  • 61 years (which is all of my life)
  • About 45 hours
  • 45 hours, 26 minutes and 34 seconds
  • I have no idea; I'm losing my memory
  • What did you say? I'm losing my hearing
Just ignore them altogether.

However, since most people really want to know the answer, I usually opt for the approximate hours or weeks/months. But, that really isn't an accurate answer, is it?

In fact, "all of the above" would be correct in my case.

What's the question people most commonly ask you about your work?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Exhibiting in China

Fourier's Law by Katharine Cartwright
watercolor, 26" x 20"
My painting, Fourier's Law, has been included in this year's Shenzhen Watercolor Biennial in China. This exhibition will be hung at the Shenzhen Art Museum on December 10th. An international panel of jurors selected 260 paintings from 54 countries and regions for this exhibit, including 59 from the United States. I'm honored to be included! 

Here's where you may find more information about the exhibit:

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Artistry at Its Source

Archimedes' Principle 
by Katharine A. Cartwright
watercolor, 26" x 20"
Dear readers,
I wrote this article for the National Watercolor Society's summer newsletter and would like to also share it with you here. - Kathy

 by Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS 

 Noted art critic, Arthur Danto, once stated that there are two necessary criteria for something to be deemed ‘a work of art’ – it must have meaning and it must embody that meaning. If that is true, then the process of making art must begin with the artist’s idea, or concept. Without that, we painters are prone to rely upon happy accidents, mimicry, and technique. Reliance upon happy accidents leads to frustration and hinders mastery. Mimicry prevents us from speaking in our own unique voice, which is really the only chance we have to produce authentic original work. Reliance upon technique makes us good painters or technicians, but should not be confused with artistry.

 In order to produce original and meaningful art, it is important to recognize how we, as individuals, uniquely perceive the world around and inside of us. This requires introspection and a complete willingness to trust our own instincts. Quieting the voices of others, the influences we’ve come to trust aside from ourselves over the years, is essential to this process. It is also a very difficult step because, from youth, we are trained to follow the advice and opinions of others in authority. We learn to trust others above ourselves to develop habits, attitudes, and skills. But, in making art, there is no greater authority than oneself. Only we, as individuals, know our internal thoughts and perceptions. And, as artists, expressing our unique selves is the greatest contribution we can make to the global dialogue in art. It is also the most personally rewarding.

 Earlier, I used the term “quieting the voices of others” rather than silencing. The voices of our instructors and peers are essential to our development as artists. We carry those lessons with us throughout our lives. However, the process of maturation requires each of us to develop our own voice, which means that the voices of others must become quieter. This is why I paint alone, silently and intently, following the guidance of my intuition.

 As a painting and creativity instructor, I give great consideration to how I influence my students while helping them find their own voices. I believe that effective teaching begins with listening. In other words, my students teach me how to teach them if I’m more concerned about what they have to say rather than imposing my ideas upon them. This is a time consuming but very necessary step in the process. Annually, the students who fly or drive in for instruction have the same expectation: to make a break-through, to find meaning and relevance in what they paint, and to make their work unique. Therefore, we don’t paint for a few days. We talk. Rather, I should say that my student talks and I listen and ask pertinent questions. I allow plenty of time for reflection and then we engage in even more conversations. Once a student clearly identifies the intended idea for a body of work, painting begins. This process cannot be rushed. Without depth and clarity of thought, there is no chance for a breakthrough that is meaningful and relevant.

 My process begins in the same manner that I teach my students. For instance, The Laws of Nature is a series of watercolor paintings that began two years ago after I spent much time reflecting on the idea. The overarching concept for the series is to comment on the physical laws that constrain man’s attempt to harness and utilize the energy and materials of the universe; hence, making impossible our quest to create the perfect machine run by perpetual motion.

 The challenge in creating this series is to rely upon my intuition to design each painting rather than physical references. The result is mechanical mindscapes that express individual physical laws. Each one is unique, and the series is entirely like no other. This is only achieved by trusting and following my intuition while rejecting, as much as is possible, any outside influence. To accomplish this, I spend hours to days contemplating a single law of physics. When a notion or image pops into my head, I quickly draft it onto a full sheet of watercolor paper in one or two hours. At the end of that time all the forms that will appear in the final painting have been drawn. This stage must be accomplished quickly so that my intuition controls my hand.

 Next, I develop a color strategy that unifies the complex design. To do this, I select only four to five hues. By limiting my palette I am able to unify the painting and create a more harmonious appearance despite the complexity of the competing forms. Color and value are employed in a manner enhances the flow path for the eye of the viewer. Although the painting style for this series is precise, I work very fast to facilitate intuitive control over the work.

 It is my reliance upon intuition that yields the best results and elevates my work from largely derivative to unique and meaningful. My voice, not another’s, is expressed. This is what makes the work unique and meaningful. Painting in a series allows both my voice and technique to mature. This particular series, which now numbers twenty-five works, will continue for many years to come and will end only when I have nothing more to say about it. - KAC June 2012

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Paradigms and Purposes

Occam's Razor
watercolor on paper
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
prints and cards are available,
see link above
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland

Chapter 2: Paradigms and purposes

Moving right along at my present pace, which seems to match that of a snail, I’ll tackle Chapter 2. The opening sentence is a real attention grabber: contemporary artists who create work using blood, urine, maggots, and plastic surgery are successors of past artists who took sex, violence, and war as their subjects. Really? Is the correlation actually that close?

Freeland needs to find a theory that applies to these works. In this chapter, she devotes the next five sections to five periods in art ranging from fifth-century BCE Athens to Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box in 1964. Here’s a very brief synopsis of the evolution of “what is art?” according to Freeland:

1.      Greeks – art is an imitation of nature or of human life and action, including tragedy.

2.      Chartres and medieval aesthetics – art and Gothic cathedrals (the repository of art) must emulate the characteristic of beauty which is a property of God. The three key principles of  gothic cathedrals: proportion, light and allegory.

3.      Versailles and Kant – The Greek classical motif is revisited at Versailles in architecture, craftsmanship, and gardens. Kant emphasized the idea of “purposeviness without purpose.”

4.      Richard Wagner– his opera Parsifal celebrates suffering; the rebirth of the tragedy in art.

5.      Andy Warhol – his Brillo Boxdemonstrated that anything can be a work of art, given the right situation and theory. Art that embodies meaning becomes the new norm.

So, it appears that Warhol and his avid supporter, noted critic Arthur Danto, opened Pandora’s Box (although I might argue that Duchamp did it first). Most everything is art now, and most everything hangs in our museums of contemporary art.  Beauty is no longer required.

I’ve spent time reflecting upon this idea and can agree intellectually, but not emotionally. When I create art, no matter what the overarching concept for it, I still try to make it aesthetically pleasing. I’m enthralled with design and color. Yes, I begin with a concept and it’s not always a pleasing thought, but the art that expresses it is usually something beautiful to look at.

So, the question for me is not whether it’s art, but whether I want to paint it and look at it.

How about you?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

What's your emotional range?

Book Review

Kirschhoff's First Law
watercolor 26" x 20"
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1: Conclusion
After presenting the case of Serrano and his precursor Goya, Freeland moves us toward concluding statements by pointing out that a lot of recent art work incorporates horror. I would agree. My trips to the galleries and museums of New York City gave me insight into this. Quite frankly, sometimes I understood it but mostly I wondered about the motivations of the artists.  It’s kind of like viewing Hollywood’s high-body-count movies (HBC’s).  After awhile you wonder what is the point?
So, this chapter in Freeland’s book interests me. She begins by trying to help us understand horror in art through the lenses of two competing theories:  1) art as communal ritual, and 2) aesthetic theory a la Kant and Hume.  The first theory doesn’t explain this trend, and the second only marginally.
Freeland writes: By pointing back to works of an important artist from the past, Goya, I have argued that contemporary ugly or shocking art like Serrano’s has clear precedents in the Western European canon. Art includes not just works of formal beauty to be enjoyed by people with ‘taste’, or works with beauty and uplifting moral messages, but also works that are ugly and disturbing, with a shatteringly negative moral content.
This means that Freeland will next discuss content. My favorite subject!
The questions I have for those of you who wish to comment are: What is your reaction to horror in works of art and do you incorporate it in your own work? Do you concern yourself with conveying feelings other than pleasant ones in your art? What is the emotional range of your self expression?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Goya - a precursor to Serrano?

Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 6:   Goya – a precursor?

Freeland moves us into a discussion – a “prequel” if you will – that gives us further insight into Serrano. She leads us into the past world of Francisco Goya y Lucientes (1746- 1828), a contemporary of Hume and Kant.
The official painter to the King of Spain, Goya’s life endured political upheavals and wars. His works sometimes showed it in battle scenes, symbolism through martyrs, slaughter, and so on. His work was confrontational. It wasn’t meant to provide a pleasant viewing experience, but rather to make a statement – to, at times, depict moral depravity.
He said of himself:  Censoring human errors and vices – although it seems the preserve of oratory and poetry – may also be a worthy object of painting.
Goya personally witnessed atrocities and he had a viewpoint to express about them.

Evidently, later in life, Goya became deaf after a serious illness. The aesthetic result of this was his “Black Paintings” which were painted on the walls of a room in his home. This is his most disturbing work (take a look at Saturn Devouring One of His Sons). Freeland writes of these works: It would be sheer dogma to deny that Goya has stopped being a good artist because such works are painful or because their moral point seems obscure.

So, this brings us back to Serrano and Lippard’s defense of his work (see last post). Both artists exhibit skill, training, thought, and careful preparation. So, I ask myself, does this make it art? Yes, I say. Does this make it “good” art? What’s “good” art???

And, what are your thoughts?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Defending Serrano

Andres Serrano
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 5:   Defending Serrano

OK, so we’ve discussed Serrano’s work on this blog before, but this time it’s worth revisiting. Art theory is one of those disciplines that sometimes seems like an intellectual cloud to me. The reason I began this blog several years ago was to understand art theory/art history a little better. I did this by reviewing books one section at a time and asking you readers to discuss them with me. You did a great job and I learned a lot! Those years were important to my present understanding. But, there’s always more to learn.

What I learned from you readers a while ago was how much most of you dislike Serrano’s work, particularly Piss Christ. So, what defense does Freeland offer for this work?
She cites critic Lucy Lippard who wrote an article in Art in America in 1990.  Lippard’s analysis  of Serrano is based upon (1) his work’s formal and material properties; (2) its content (the thought or meaning it expressed); and (3) its context, or place in the Western art tradition.

I’m in! These three criteria are the basis for defining art.

So, Piss Christ is actually a photograph (Cibachrome)  - a large one  (60”x40”) - made using Serrano’s own urine (that part doesn’t impress me). Lippard’s adjective-saturated description of this work makes it sound great and offers a somewhat palatable interpretation. It represents rebellion and transforms the iconic crucifix by placing it within a different context (urine).

OK, I’ll buy that as well.

But, as Lippard extends her argument to materials, I waiver a little. She claims that because Serrano’s cultural heritage is Honduran and Afro-Cuban, his Catholic beliefs include body fluids as a source of religious power and strength. I’m not Catholic, so I’ll have to take her word for it. So, she seems to think that the urine soaked crucifix represents the artist’s condemnation of the way that culture pays only lip service to a religion without truly endorsing its values. Really? Well, maybe.  Serrano did claim that his work denounced religious institutions that have been commercialized and cheapened and not the religion itself.

Maybe I can believe this. And maybe Lippard’s defense of Serrano’s work is pretty convincing, even if the work seems repulsive. But, who says art has to be attractive?

Next time, Freeland discusses Goya as Serrano’s precursor.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Kant's Legacy

Holy Works
Andres Serrano
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 4:   Kant’s Legacy

Moving along, Freeland leads us into a discussion of Kant’s influence upon aesthetics and art theory, especially those offered by future art writers like Clive Bell, Edward Bullough, and Clement Greenberg. The viewpoints of all three overlapped with Kant’s ideas about aesthetics, but with a “twist.”

For instance, Bell felt that “Significant Form,” which is created through a particular combination of lines and colors, evokes our aesthetic emotions. He shunned the notion that art should address life or politics.

Bullough felt that you couldn’t experience art without “psychical distance.” He argued that sexual or political subjects tend to block aesthetic consciousness. I guess thinking isn’t allowed.

Greenberg (who advocated for Pollock) celebrated form as the quality through which a painting or sculpture refers to its medium and to its own conditions of creation.  In other words, don’t bother looking for content.

So, what is Kant’s legacy? The continued notion that art must be concerned with quality, morality, beauty and form. Of course, we know that isn’t the case. Look at the works of Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and others who express what repulses us. Their work is “art.”

Next time, Freeland writes in defense of Serrano.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Beauty and Disinterestedness

Me at the Gaugin Museum in Tahiti
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 3:   Beauty and Disinterestedness

Last time, Freeland left us with this cliffhanger:  Kant’s way of recognizing this [e.g. our ability to see beauty in an object] was to say that something beautiful has ‘purposiveness without a purpose.’”

In this third section of Chapter 1, she explains. We tend to assign “beauty” to an object that elicits pleasure within us rather than because of its functionality. And, we think that everyone should agree with our assessment. This is Kant’s “purposiveness.” He felt that the purpose of something was distinctly different from the pleasurable sensations it illicits, and that in order to appreciate beauty we must be disinterested in the purpose of the object.

For instance, according to Kant, my judgment of beauty in – let’s say – an apple would be contaminated if I ate the apple. I would need to limit my appreciation to viewing and maybe touching and smelling to derive pleasure, but not to the use of the apple which would be consumption.

Freeland uses a couple more examples to explain this point:

If a viewer responds to Botticelli’s “Venus” with an erotic desire, as if she is a pinup, he is actually not appreciating her for her beauty. And if someone enjoys looking at a Gauguin painting of Tahiti while fantasizing about going on vacation there, then they no longer have an aesthetic relation to its beauty.

Kant also believed that making beautiful art requires human genius: the special ability to manipulate materials so that they create harmony of faculties causing viewers to respond with distanced enjoyment.”

So, beauty is appreciated when we’re detached from (disinterested in) the purpose of an object and feel only an emotional response that satisfies our imagination and intellect.

I understand Kant’s viewpoint but don’t completely agree. I think that all the senses (including the taste of something) help us to define beauty, and that the functionality of something can be beautiful. In mathematics and science we often talk of “elegant solutions.” They are beautiful. Buckminster Fuller once said:  When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

What are your thoughts?
In the next section of Chapter 1, Freeland discusses Kant’s legacy. How did his philosophy affect society’s view of art and what artist’s produce?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Taste and Beauty

Frederick Edwin Church (1859)
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction
by Cynthia Freeland

Chapter 1, Section 2:  Taste and Beauty

We’ve had a lot of discussion over the years on this blog about beauty and art. Freeland’s discussion in this second section of Chapter 1 gives us a little more insight on the topic. She begins by offering the reader Hume and Kant’s philosophical belief that some works of art really are better than others, and that some people have better taste. 

Hume believed that "good taste" is acquired through education and that "good art" is identified by  a consensus of the educated elite. These folks “set the standard.” As a counterpoint, Freeland states that Hume’s critics note the fact that these elite “acquired their values through cultural indoctrination.” Good point!

On the other hand, Kant felt that humans have the innate ability to perceive beauty and recognize it in a work of art without the benefit of an education. This allows all of us to conclude that some works of art are better than others. Therefore, the identification of "good art" is a matter of taste rather than the opinion of an educated elite. I’ll interpret this to mean that Kant also felt that beauty must be an essential element in a work of art. Otherwise, his argument doesn’t work.

Kant also believed that people with similar sensibilities tend to agree with each other, so I guess that the standard for good art would be set by the largest group. I'm speculating.

So, Freeland ends this section of Chapter 1 with a paradox: Kant’s way of recognizing this [e.g. our ability to see beauty in an object] was to say that something beautiful has ‘purposiveness without a purpose.’”

Section 3 of Chapter 1 will explain.

In the meantime, perhaps we may discuss Hume and Kant’s ideas here.

What do you think?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Blood and Beauty

The Two Fridas
Frida Kahlo, 1939
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland

Chapter 1:  Blood and Beauty

In this chapter, the author poses a question: Why has blood been used in so much art? Good question! I remember when my husband, after a year-long European tour, said he couldn’t bear to see even one more work of art depicting a bloody crucifix scene. And, that’s just the traditional work. Today, artists use blood in a number of ways – a lot of it poured on or applied with a brush.

Freeland offers us several answers to her question:

1.       Blood has similar physical characteristics to paint, and it is an eye-catching hue.

2.       Blood is symbolic: life, virginity, sacrifice, contagion, and so on.

3.       Shock value, especially in contemporary performance art

There is a clear division of purpose between answers 2 and 3. The former brings members of society together ritualistically where the meaning of blood unites them in a shared belief or value. The latter often generates shock and fear in individual viewers who may react in a number of ways, but not uniformly. Rather than unite, this use of blood alienates the viewers.
Perhaps you can clarify and elaborate on this synthesis.

This is only the first part of Chapter 1 and deserves some reflection before moving along to the second part which considers “Taste and beauty.” 

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction

It's been a few years since I've reviewed a book on art theory and this seems like a good time to begin one. I've selected Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland.  In this book, she promises to "scrutinize many different art theories: ritual theory, formalist theory, imitation theory, expression theory, cognitive thoery, and postmodern theory."
This should be interesting and I'll begin with chapter 1 tomorrow. Hope you'll join me for a lively discussion!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Artistic License

Charles Law
watercolor on paper
26" x 20"
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
      Unless the painter is deliberately trying replicate what is seen either in person or in a photograph, she is employing artistic license. I looked up the term in Wikipedia to learn more about it and found that, when it comes to the visual arts, “artistic license is the way in which stylized images of an object are different from their real life counterparts, but are still intended to be interpreted by the viewer as representing the same thing.” This source also defines four criteria. Artistic license is:
  • Entirely at the artist’s discretion.
  • Intended to be tolerated by the viewer.
  • Useful for filling in gaps, whether they be factual, compositional, historical, or other gaps.
  • Used consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally or in tandem.
So, this makes me ponder what it is that viewers accept and, conversely, what they don’t accept. Denis Dutton, in his book The Art Instinct  (reviewed here  on this blog in January 2010) makes a strong case for the characteristics that define the “most wanted and least wanted paintings.” His theory links the evolution of humans and the human psyche to our aesthetic preferences.  Without rehashing that book, I’d like to expand his theory to include artistic license.
     I agree with Dutton that we are instantly drawn to form like faces, water, landscapes, flowers and certain colors that relate to our survival and habitat. But, I think that we’re also drawn to acts of artistic license. We love looking at distortions, stylizations, surrealism, and altered hues because I think it satisfies our imagination. Without the insertion of the artist’s imagination into the painting process there wouldn’t be innovation and the artist’s ideas would become worthless.
    Even works of realism, which throughout time attract the most viewers, contain distortions imposed by the painter who strives to make the best possible composition with form, line, color, and value. The painter enhances the viewing experience by employing artistic license in a way that reaches our emotions.

    I’d like to think that artistic license is more like artistic necessity. Without it, our work would be dull and lifeless.
What’s your opinion?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Lambert's First Law
watercolor on paper
26" x 20"
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
The other day, someone asked me if I thought that art created with traditional materials (e.g. surfaces and paints) is relevant any more. He was referring to the emergence of the use of electronic technology to create art in an age when we're so tech oriented. Everyone carries a cell phone, or I-pad, or computer .... you get the picture. Therefore, art created using or incorporating these devices is a relevant reflection of our society and interests. So, I could understand his point and believe that this type of art is relevant and very important.

However, there's also a good defense for the relevance of the type of art I make using traditional materials. The concept (content) is really what makes the art, in my opinion, no matter which materials are used. Relevance comes from  content. It reveals the artist's relationship with the world around her - the world she presently lives in. What could be more relevant than that?

So, the question really isn't relevance but the taste and sensibility of the art patron. You can do "neat" things with electronic devices in creating art that you can't do with a brush and vice versa.

What's your opinion?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Beating "The Law of Averages"

Boyle's Law
watercolor on paper
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
The Law of Averages really isn’t a “law” but a belief that balance will eventually occur. As one definition states: “ the law of averages is a lay term used to express a belief that outcomes of a random event will even out within a small sample.”  This is not scientific thinking but is wishful thinking.

How does this “law” apply to being a professional artist?

We purchase art supplies, invest in some lessons, occasionally buy advertising, and consume many of our waking hours making and promoting our art with the belief that we’ll recoup that expense and, if we’re lucky, make a profit. Some artists are more successful at this than others and the balanced scales tip in their favor. They beat The Law of Averages.”

How can we do the same?

Word on the street is that typical brick and mortar galleries are struggling and closing in droves. Not all of them, of course, but nearly a third in this country last year alone. Many co-op galleries have emerged and also vanity galleries that charge the artist for space, advertising, and openings. So, we can’t look to the traditional route for marketing our art and hope to beat the odds.

The contemporary gallery exists in cyberspace: websites, blogs, Etsy et al., and Facebook just to name a few. We reach more people more often. But, who and what are they buying and at what price?

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with these cyber venues to see what will happen. Yes, I’m still represented by brick and mortar galleries (three of them) but I’d like greater exposure. So far, not much has happened.

The problem is, cyberspace has transformed the number of “galleries” from thousands (brick & mortar) to tens of millions (websites). There’s a lot more competition and it’s harder to reach patrons. Sometimes competition is healthy, and sometimes it’s just plain confusing to the consumer. In this case, competition has led to price wars and the devaluation of art in many instances.

So, how do we beat The Law of Averages?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Making the Time

Occam's Razor
watercolor on Arches paper
26" x 20"   sold
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
According to "Occam's Razor" the simplest explanation is always the best when all considered possibilities are equal. My painting depicts a razor slice through the complex, impractical mechanistic designs of man to reveal a singularity in the universe. The singularity is the simplest and purest form of energy expression that could ever exist.

This is the segue to today's post: "Making the Time." The single most common complaint that I get from my students when they first come to me is that they can't find the time to paint on a regular basis and, therefore, make unsatisfactory progress. Typically, they want me to share my secret formula for success in this regard. That secret is always a big disappointment to them: Finding the time to make art on a regular basis is as simple as making the time.

In other words, it's a matter of priority. Either you think it's important enough to engage in regularly or you don't.

What are your thoughts?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Finding Peace

Brewster's Law
watercolor, 26"x20"
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
There was a time when painting was an act of hope and frustration. I hoped I could get it right and I was frustrated that I didn't. Early on in my technical training in college, my painting prof told me that my work looked like something you'd find in a department store. It was technically correct and fatally flawed in concept. But, no one ever taught me about the importance of the concept back then so I just painted bucolic scenes in an impressionist style. Evidently, my college professors were allergic to that.

But, I also knew that my artmaking was more important to me than a grade so I just kept marching along that path until I realized that I wasn't happy with the direction. Even I knew there was something lacking.

That started me on what became a nearly four decade journey to find peace with my work. There were too many struggles along the way as I tried to find something original to say and just couldn't. Why was it so important to me to be original? Why didn't I find peace in painting whatever I wanted without consequence?

Now that I've found peace with my work, the answer to these questions is apparent. Here's one way to put it: the very first painting of my Laws of Nature series literally poured out of me so quickly I couldn't stop it. There was no struggle at all. The same thing happened during the painting of the second, third, fourth .... twenty-ninth in the series. I'm still going and these pour out of me effortlessly. And, I'm happy with the results. I've never had to start one over or throw one away.

I have peace with my painting because I'm finally saying what's actually in my head and controlled by my imagination. The inner voice is speaking. It wanted to be heard from the very beginning but was silenced by obeying the voices of others. Peace with artmaking is really peace with self.

What do you think?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Art and Explanation

Lenz's Law
watercolor, 20" x 26"
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
I've enjoyed reading your comments on the last post, and especially your reaction to my question about the artist's statement. It would be great if a work of art could just speak for itself without a dictated meaning by the artist that everyone must uniformly understand. Rather, I like the idea that meaning comes from the individual viewer. This opens up a world of possibilities.

For instance, is it important for the viewer to know the definition of Lenz's Law in order to appreciate this posted painting? I would hope not. As an artist, it's my intention to use how I understand that physical law to create an aesthetic work rather than to illustrate the actual definition of the law. I'm not an illustrator.

And, what about the time factor? Each new generation views things differently. Imagine how people viewed the Mona Lisa when it was first painted hundreds of years ago versus a 2013 teenager viewing the same painting. I like the fact that time can change the meaning of a painting rendering the work timeless in itself. I would like to think that if my paintings survive hundreds of years that new viewers will see them entirely differently from present viewers. Sure, art historians will want to uncover the original meaning but - who cares? I still think that art speaks for itself in the hearts and minds of the individual viewers despite whatever artist statement I concoct.

What do you think?

Saturday, February 9, 2013


The Law of Reciprocal Actions, 2
watercolor on Arches paper
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
Making art is a personal decision; one that is usually based upon the need to create and to feed our cravings for the aesthetic. It's a very human activity. Most people respond to music, literature, visual art and dance and require it daily.

As an artist, I can think of a number of good reasons to make art that have nothing to do with others. There's something inside of me that compels me to do it.

But, does making art come with obligations? I don't have an answer to this question, and maybe there isn't one. For instance, once art is created is the artist obligated to share it with others? Maybe there's no legal obligation, and certainly the artist can do what she wants, but is there a higher purpose to a work of art that requires it to be shared? Does it become more than an artist's possession once it exists?

Furthermore, is an artist obligated to explain what a work means? We're always asked to provide an Artist's Statement for exhibitions, journals, and books. Doesn't the work speak for itself? Is an artist obligated to provide legitimacy to the work in the form of a complex statement that rarely makes sense?

Finally, is an artist obligated to sell work to be called an artist? Is art making relegated to hobby status just because it doesn't sell? Or, if work does sell, does that really make it art and the creator an artist?

In the years that I've been working as a professional artist, I've encountered feelings of obligation but am uncertain if any of them should be legitimized.
What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Formulating an Original Concept

Weidemann-Franz Law
watercolor on paper, 26" x 20"
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
One thing that I didn't learn at any of the three universities I attended was how to formulate an original concept for my work. No professor ever taught it. So, I spent decades perfecting technique and doing lots of imitative work without being truly original.

It wasn't until I studied watercolor with Susan Webb Tregay nearly fifteen years ago that I learned the value of original content. And, it's been the focus of my work and teaching ever since.

Every year I work with both professional and amateur artists who want to make a an original statement but don't know how to find one. It's hard work and we spend several days in deep discussion and employing my process that eventually leads to a break-through.

The one thing I can't emphasize enough is the importance of thinking. Most of us are anxious to pick up the brush too soon. We think that if we don't stand at our easels we're not making art. In fact, making art begins with thinking.

I spend far less time painting than I do thinking about it. The key to formulating an original concept is our ability to look inward toward self recognition.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Archimedes' Principle
watercolor on paper,  26" x 20"
Katharine A. Cartwright
Thank you to those who have rejoined my discussions after my prolonged absence. As you know, a few years ago I reviewed over a dozen books on art theory on this blog and you enhanced my reviews with your insightful discussion. Priceless! If you're new to this blog and want to read those posts, they're archived according to author and title on the sidebar of this page. Just select the author's name to get to the book and discussion.

In the couple of years that have lapsed since my book reviews, I've spent a lot of time developing this new series entitled "The Laws of Nature" and showing it at various exhibitions around the country. I've completed 28 of these so far, and have another going in my studio.

What's become most obvious to me over the past half decade is the importance of decision making when it comes to art making. I'm not a great fan of happy accidents. Rather, I like to think things through and then make a decision about what to say, how to say it, and when I should stop.

The decision about what to say arrives after much introspection. What is my internal perception of the external world? What single point can I make in this painting or series of related paintings? How is reality altered by my perception and how can I exaggerate that?

The decision about how to say what I want to say arrives after even more deliberation. What ideosyncracies in my mark-making can I exploit to express my own unique style? What color relationships reflect the mood I want to impart to my work? What values do the same? How can I best construct forms and relationships between forms to express my idea?

The decision about when to stop a painting or a series of related paintings occurs when I consciously realize that the work is becoming repetitive and I have nothing new to say about it.

At that point, I must begin the decision making process again and create a new series.

Some have teased and even criticized me for being so deliberate in my approach to art. The only defense I have is that I'm introspective, analytical, and meticulous and must, therefore, express who I am in my work. In other words, I won't deny who I am and I won't try to be someone else when I make art.

How 'bout you?

Friday, February 1, 2013

How do you do it?

Kirschhoff's First Law
watercolor on paper
26" x 20"
Katharine A. Cartwright, 2013
I hear this question all the time. But for me, the answer for "How do you do it?" when it comes to my art is no different from what your answer would be if the question were put to you. It's how I think.

Non-objective art derives from our imagination; our ability to see the mind's eye exclusive of what's really in front of us. The mind's eye has the wonderful ability to distort reality and transform it according to our will. Everyone has that ability, so I'm no different.

The real difference comes in how interested we are in our mind's eye. Do we want to spend time looking through its lens, or through someone else's? Do we imitate or "imaginate"? ( Sorry, that's not a word but it just seemed right).

I like to imaginate. How 'bout you?

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Power of Creativity

Ampere's Law
watercolor on paper
26" x 20"
Katharine A. Cartwright, 2012
Ever notice how some of your best artwork is produced when you allow your mind to wander, almost without direction? That's the power of creativity.

Creativity in the arts depends upon one's ability to be simultaneously intuitive and analytical. It's the melding of one's spatial thinking (non-verbal) and stored knowledge. It's allowing the mind to play and still adhere to acquired skills and the results of experiments. It's shedding inhibitions and discovering the far-reaches of your mind that you often ignore or wall-off. It's having some guts and not caring about what others think!

I've spent decades (nearly a half-century now) creating art and it has taken me most of that time to reach this conclusion: creativity is a powerful tool in every discipline (not just art) that leads to innovation. Without innovation, we stagnate; our society stagnates; the arts stagnate. So, why look to others to create and innovate when we have it within ourselves to do so? What's holding us back? We, ourselves.

I've spent only a few years as an art instructor and have been very lucky to work with both professional and amateur artists. The number one lesson - the thing we spend the most time on - is discovering what to say as an individual and then how to say it in two dimensions. There's nothing more important than the artist's voice.

What are your thoughts?