Whenever inspiration shows up, it’s a mixed blessing. For me it means that I’ve been called to express my manifest existence which is always daunting. It is a calling and a challenge. I can’t not do it or ignore it. If I do, it never works out, so like it or not when inspiration shows up, the work must be done.
When I got back from my trip to the Canadian Rockies, I went to bed at night thinking about how can I translate the spectacular scenery I’d just experienced into paintings. I’ve always held an idea that it’s not good to paint subjects that are too beautiful because there is little room in there for the artist. But this trip challenged that for me. I really want to paint those places, capture those moments. They are too spectacular.
I’m also very inspired by the Group of Seven. When I taught last year in Vancouver, CA the pastel society gave me a beautiful book about the group of seven. I wasn’t really familiar with them before this introduction. At the time, I thought, wow, what a lovely gesture, but now I have to haul this big coffee table book home to Portland. I quickly changed my tune as I leafed through the book. My recent trip brought all of that home. I think I began to understand what these artists were trying to express about this tremendously beautiful landscape.
Fast forward a year or so, I still gravitate to this book and after my trip, I hone in on it. I’ve always been a huge fan of Rockwell Kent, and Thomas Hart Benton from the WPA era, so it’s not a big jump for me. But I don’t paint like that. But I don’t not paint like that. I have a long career and have painted a long, long time. I’ve done lots of stuff. I’ve shifted and played around with different styles and different media. I have skills that allow me to move in many directions. But should I? Should I try to shift once again so late in my career? Is it prudent? Who am I painting for? The answer is pretty clear when I’m clear. I certainly don’t paint for a market, or for my students or even for myself. Painting comes through me, it’s not me. So, it is clear to me that going into the studio, picking up the paint brush, mixing paint and putting it on the canvas or paper or whatever is never a bad idea. The painting will eventually tell me what to do if I only listen and trust.
Should we struggle? Yes. Should we push ourselves? Yes. Should we question? Yes. Should we question that we are trying to express ourselves somehow, some way in paint and mark making? No.
I will tell you that I’ve spent the last week in the studio in a beautiful struggle. Is it hard? Yes. Good. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’m planning on producing a series of paintings based on my trip to the Canadian Rockies. I started with a large painting (bad idea), that had lots of elements in it that I wanted to try but that had a super poor composition and a bit of an ominous feel to it in retrospect (I didn’t think so when I’d started it). I spent four whole days hammering at this painting, trying to make it work. In the end there are parts of it that I really like but you can’t do that with a painting. It has to be a cohesive whole. So what did I do? I trusted. I trusted that if I just go back to the easel and follow the painting, follow the energy, follow my heart, something will come. Maybe just not on this piece of canvas.
Let’s talk about what I did. I started out big. Bad idea! I jumped into a painting that was really a cacophony of tons of pretty things; the mountains, the birch trees, the snow. I was hot to tackle those “pretty” things. I took a photo that was horizontal and forced it into a vertical composition that made the mountains the main thing. I worked on this sucker for like four days! I kept forcing it and trying different ways of applying the paint. I tried thick and thin. I tried using lots of palette knife and then glazing over some passages. Finally, I had to come to terms with the very obvious but sad fact that the painting was BAD. Parts of it are good, but as a whole, it’s just plain bad. Ok, now what? I lick my wounds for a day. Go to the bar? Another bad idea.
Now what? I’ve got another canvas ready. I’ve listened to what a couple people said about the BAD painting; they actually liked most of it, but commented on the mountain being too prominent and foreboding. I want these paintings to be sparkling and fun and beautiful. I want them to shine with beauty and serendipity.
What to do? Go back home and paint pastels. I toned some Pastelmat the same bright magenta that I intended for the larger acrylic paintings and did some studies. I worked on several compositions and just had fun with them. I played. Then I worked on abstracting the elements in one of the photos. I’m always trying to see everything as simple as possible even if the end result is not about simplicity. Play gives one permission and confidence. It’s liberating and reminds us that this is not serious business in the sense that lives are on the line. It’s serious in that expressing oneself in the midst of conditions is important and maybe even profound, but we need to have good perspective and balance when it comes to this. Is it worth beating ourselves up about? Not really. Is it worth pursuing? Absolutely!
So, I jump back in. Does it feel scary. Yep. Do I hesitate. Oh God! Do I wish I was a better painter. Hell yes. But here I am. I’m standing in front of my easel. There is no place that has been better for me to be, ever. My mom and many of my friends ask me, did I paint today, knowing this to be not fiction but fact for me.
Two days later, my editor walks into the studio and says, “Well, that’s a needed victory”. He knew full well the struggle that played out over the weekend.
With one piece completed, I can build on this. The next one is a little bit easier. I can find my way to it and it finds it way to me. The dance can begin in earnest. But the work still needs to be done.
Here is a quick video of preliminary studies in preparation for the new series of paintings. How far towards abstraction and stylization do I want to go? These studies helped me to find a path forward as much as I could. I hope you enjoy!
With Warmest Regards,