Something strange happened last Wednesday. About noon I decided to get out of the studio and take an hour’s cruise in the Alexander Mackenzie. She’s the flat-bottomed floating studio that Sara and I took down the Mackenzie River over the past two summers. Emily and I worked our way up the Serpentine, one of our local rivers, really just soaking in the sun and the scenery. Coming back down into the estuary at near the top of the tide I wasn’t paying attention and went aground on a mud bar. My excuse is that the depth-sounder had packed it up, and also that over the winter Mother Nature had moved the mud bar.
Try as I might I couldn’t budge her off and by 2 PM we were high and dry. Checking the tide tables I realized that we were going to be stuck in the same spot until the tide came back in at 11 in the evening. What to do? I had the cell-phone, a small amount of reading, a few empty canvasses, a box of oil pastels, and two bottles of beer. Nothing to eat. I also had binoculars and cameras. There was to be no getting out and walking around the boat — the mud at this place has the reputation for sucking you in. I phoned our significant people and alerted them to our plight. I knew that the powerful telescopes of amused neighbors would now be on us. Time settled heavily. The sun burned down. Emily and I surrendered to a Zen-like trance.
Puddles around us became electrified with crabs and bivalves. The boat’s cabin became a silent bird-blind. Herons stalked nearby. Curlews arrived at the lowest tide and Caspian terns plunged into the nearby channel. Three species of gull wheeled to check us out. Several times a bald eagle purposefully canvassed the flats, billowing up the sandpipers. Clouds moved from horizon to horizon like time-lapse photography. Evening approached and the sky and the puddles changed from blue to amber to purple. I realized the privilege, the miracle of our static condition. The witness of hours from one point of view. Eventually, the last light of this near-solstice day brought the three-quarters moon and the magic of nightfall. In the velvet dark we floated off into the phosphorescence and wound our way safely to our home.
PS: “An inconvenience is an unrecognized opportunity.” (Confucius)
Esoterica: I’ve generally used oil pastels in interaction with oils or acrylics. If you push them they give the same broken stroke as soft pastels, but they stay put. Adding water-based media afterward produces a nice resist that gives surface interest. A tray of pastels is like the gift of a rainbow. Sitting in that boat I began wondering if I had just discovered art in its purest form.
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
by Joyce Freer
I was interested in your mention of sailing the McKenzie River with your daughter and using your boat for a studio. It struck a familiar chord. We have a raft and have rafted many remote rivers (The Firth, Bonnet Plume in the Yukon as well as the Grand Canyon and many tributaries). My art supplies have traveled far. I consider myself an amateur, having spent the last ten years studying hard for my teaching degree. I agree with you that the best tip is to pick up a tool.
by Sarah Knoebber
Your boat floats as your palette down the waterways of life. It is such a great image… and reality for you I’m sure, and I always like the bit of ‘esoterica’ at the end. I have been obsessively creating large acrylic transfers for some years now and love the primitive use of combining oil sticks and oil pastels on top of the acrylic that I’ve transferred (off glass onto a backing, usually linen) the mixed media approach. You described the early primitiveness of that, which is exactly as I experience it, and what keeps me at it. The immediacy of the technique results in such great ‘surface texture.’
by Pam Thurston, Mulhurst Bay, Alberta, Canada
I recently had the “inconvenience” of being asked to hang 14 paintings in a certain venue with the stipulation that they have a certain theme. I had available 7 paintings in that theme… a theme I had dabbled in but left behind because, as my significant other had commented, “you’re just painting things.” Because this show had the promise of selling 14 paintings at once (to the proprietor), I began again painting “things.” This has all caused me to hit bottom. No inspiration: Bad paintings and all that comes with that. So I have been reminded by this “inconvenience” that I must not paint to sell. I realize that I lost any sense of my “concept,” “idea,” and “juice.” I have recognized this “inconvenience” as an opportunity to learn to never sell out again and to get back to painting what inspires me. Money (when you have none) is tied to worry and, as they say, worry is a waste of spirit. My paintings need that spirit. So, I am going to take the time to go “aground on a mud bar” every once in a while and let the bills wait.
Stop and stare
by John Coppinger, UK
Great discipline and energy are the only things I ever envied or aspired to. To be able to stop and stare. That ability is a core requirement for an artist. I’ve been working as a sculptor for films and museums and have always considered myself more a technician (or clay mechanic!) and designer than artist. But that’s probably splitting hairs; there’s certainly artistry involved in interpreting other peoples’ ideas or designs and realizing them in space. And although my experience of painting is colouring 3D objects, a totally different craft, “looking properly” applies to anyone working creatively.
In bed with the bard
by Olinda Everett, Sao Paulo, Brazil
I was once confined to bed for a while and had to observe complete immobility. Not being hugely uncomfortable, but too weak to do anything else, I propped up the complete works of William Shakespeare on a pillow and read it all from cover to cover. I could not believe how I could suddenly understand the whole thing without too much effort or concentration. I was indeed taken into the magical world of adventure, intrigue, poetry, boysterousness, and insight into the human condition such as I could only have guessed at before. I have since remembered from time to time to stop and be still and let my head use all of my energy to think. It does quite a good job, if given half a chance!
Longing for simplicity
by oliver, Texas, USA
Ah technology can get you — your depth-sounder. But taking advantage of the opportunities, mistakes, etc., and being open to the possibilities is advisable — if you can do it. When one is dealt lemons one makes lemonade, as they say. However, those who paint or otherwise work with simple tools should be thankful — computers, scanners, digital cameras or chemistry processing, artificial lighting, etc., can give you too many opportunities to be forced into the lemonade mode. Sometimes I long for a few tubes of paint, a jar of varnish and one of turpentine, a wooden easel and some canvas or Masonite, a pallet knife or two and brushes.
More “starving artist”
by Heather Matthews, Qualicum Beach, B.C., Canada
I wonder if the myth of the starving artist will ever be seen for what it is. I would like to suggest that everyone runs out to get a copy of Excuse Me, Your LIFE Is Waiting by Lynn Grabhorn. Perhaps finally get a handle on the money issues that plague so many — and any other issues that prevent us from living the way we so badly want to.
Help with Pastels
by Mary Selman, Bowen Island, B.C., Canada
I was interested in your reference to how you use oil pastels. I recently became the heir to a giant wooden case of them. I’ve been looking (unsuccessfully) for a book that will give me advice about their use, what kind of papers, etc. Would you have any recommendations of such? I have been experimenting, but feel there must be techniques and types of paper I’ve never heard of. Thanks for any titles or hints.
(RG note) You might consider subscribing to Pastel Artist International Magazine. Published in Australia, it invites excellent and varied pastel artists from all over the world to share their techniques.You can find out about this magazine at http://pastelnews.com/tag/international-artist-magazine/
by Lesley Ann Hartman, UK
I was interested in your reply to my letter regarding Agents ‘creaming off’ profits. I feel that I should explain my feelings. I have absolutely no problem with people earning a fair living but I was until last year (when she retired) involved with a lady Agent who was selling my work out to the Middle East. There was a ‘confidentiality clause’ that prevented me knowing where my work was going and what the final amount it was sold for. Until an Invoice was left lying on the desk… (and I could not resist reading it when my name was on it!) I did not know that the work was fetching five times as much as I received and was selling to the Sultan of Oman amongst others. For an Agent to work this way I feel is not fair to the artist… we deserve a fair price and some recognition… otherwise how do we progress? Or are we supposed to be content with our artistic gift? Perhaps you have been luckier in your experience of Agents. I certainly hope so.
(RG note) Profiteering dealers such as this one that you accidentally uncovered should be immediately dumped. I figure that dealers ought to be able to double their money at the most. You want to get control of your dealers and only work with the nice guys. There are plenty of well-motivated and success-breeding dealers who will work within the parameters of normal percentages. Never sign anything with a “confidentiality clause,” unless you can see that in some way it protects you. You are a partner, not a vassal.
People skills needed
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA
In order to be financially successful an artist needs to be: Good at what they do — including both passion and skill; Prolific, either by producing a lot of work themselves, or having it reproduced; Affordable and have a good marketing system. What they also need is “People skills.” By that I mean the ability to reach out, open up your heart and connect with others, not just being a good salesman, although that’s definitely important. I used to talk people OUT of buying my work at art fairs, all because I didn’t know how to present myself. I didn’t make any effort to understand the people who were looking at my work — I was too busy being insecure and tortured. I had to learn how to get outside myself in order to relate to others; I’m still learning it. Already I’m a much happier person.
by Susan Filshie
I am a lapsed painter finding my way back in through studying colour — no shapes, no lines, just colour. I am curious to know what five colours you keep in your cigar box when you hike and paint outdoors.
(RG note) It varies. The last time it was Hansa Yellow, Rose Red, Phthalo Blue, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna. I also added Titanium White and Mars Black. If you use the first three for glazing you can achieve practically any colour. The two earth colours save time and may not even be necessary for purists. You can’t live without black and white.
What is fine art?
by Joan Rieveley, Windsor, Ontario, Canada
I have recently received a lot of questions from artists who want to know what exactly is “fine” art. What criteria puts art into “fine” or “decorative” or “Folk” categories? I studied art in England as “fine” art. This included the classic Masters of sculpture, architecture, visual art and so on. It never occurred to me to ask for a definition. I would like others’ opinions on the subject to help in my explanation. My impression has always been that fine art was anything that alluded to perfection in the arts as sculpture, music, poetry, writing etc. Hope you can answer this question as I have been investigating this and coming up with confusing answers.
(RG note) I like your perfection idea. However in today’s firmament cigarette butts, jello, and somebody’s semen are considered fine art. The term has wandered. When asked for a definition of art Marshall McLuhan said, “Art is what you can get away with.”
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