Strokes can be tender, harsh, spirited, or tentative. They can tease, anticipate, state or proclaim. They can be straight, curved, abbreviated or elongated. And that’s just for starters. Strokes are the bytes, the building blocks, the yes and no of our surfaces. Strokes are the animated characters of the painted language. It’s easy to get stuck with the same old strokes. And while there are different strokes for different folks, there’s nothing to stop any of us from expanding our repertoire.
Cruising surfaces as an aircraft might pass over an earthscape, we see strokes that glow with love and thoughtfulness. In my own case I also see weak strokes, tired strokes, poorly designed strokes, hasty strokes. I need to see a higher percentage of the really great strokes. While it’s important to see the big picture, the big picture is built from many little pictures. Each of these can be a small pleasure and a minor success. Each can carry its own message and give further interest and variety to the whole. Furthermore, it’s good to remember that every species has its name. Just as comma, dot and exclamation point are the names of strokes we know so well, we might also devise the names and lay our claims to strokes that tell of our own personalities:
Blip, bleeb, blurt, spot, splat, splodge, flick, flack, flok, smeem, smage, smudge, plip, plop, plodge, eleganza, organza, orgasma, juicy, loosy, goosy, gargoylia, grandiosa, gargantua, double, triple, skipple, drag, drip, droog, scratch, scrape, scrabble, scumble, tiddle, fiddle, diddle, widdle, waddle, woodle, weave, sheave and leave.
Know what you’re doing. Identify what you’re doing. Fall in love and you’ll do it well and often.
PS: “Life is made up of small pleasures. Happiness is made up of tiny successes. The big ones come infrequently. And if you don’t collect those tiny successes, the big ones don’t really mean anything.” (Norman Lear)
Esoterica: An artist’s stroke is his true signature. A valuable exercise into possibilities is to cruise the strokes of others. Hals, Velazquez or Kokoschka provide a different close-up than Klee, Schiele, or Jackson Pollock. The lesson is variety: the amazing number of ways we go about making our marks. “All the certainties, all the uncertainties, all the bigness and littleness of spirit are in the strokes.” (Robert Henri)
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, Ontario, Canada
I can’t help but think you’re putting us on: first, dogs; now a gaggle of goofy words to describe strokes! Wegman’s stuff is simply tacky, non-art, not to be taken seriously; your words for painters’ strokes sound like seeing Wegman’s show must have tripped a wire in your painterly psyche — although I agree that a painter’s “stroke” is her signature (usually the stroke of the rigger, or liner does it best) — your words are, well, weird. C’mon back to the real world of art, Robert: We Need You!
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
I need a little stroking myself. I participated in a major art in the park yesterday and didn’t sell a thing. After the big expense of framing et al., I was greatly disheartened. (I was not the only person who didn’t sell). I’m working on a piece, which I’m doing from memory. It’s of a conversation I witnessed while seated on a park bench in Paris. The two people speaking was especially evocative. I’ve managed to draw and paint the figures as I remember them. I am pleased with my rendering. It is very hard work and I’m loving it. It may not speak to anyone else. That is my dilemma.
by Cesar Girolamo, Rome, Italy
Strokes are indeed the sensual emissions of the creative artist. Good strokes and the persistent making of good strokes are the key to productivity. Within the strokes of various artists we see the reason they are able to keep at it—their strokes are unique and this fact makes them feel unique.
Less technical competency
by Olinda Everett, Sao Paulo, Brazil
I understand and concur fully with the need for greater insight into relationships and also greater (than average, let us say) facility in communicating that insight through a personal optic. But lesser technical competency is an interesting point. Why is that, I wonder?
Fake Jackson Pollock
by David Lloyd Glover, West Hollywood, California, USA\
A colleague of mine has in his possession (for at least 25 years) a marvellous “fake” Jackson Pollock. It is un-stretched — just like an original Pollock and is filled with those weaving skeins of dripped strokes. Even the colors are rendered in that earlier crude acrylic fence paint including the metallic silver he was known for. To attempt its authenticity, many experts in the Pollock world have viewed it. Including a carbon dating process to see if indeed the canvas is of the correct era. Alas what really gives this piece away as a glorious fake is that those brushstrokes are really not the signature of Jackson Pollock. I had the opportunity to closely examine over a hundred of his original works with many from his “Jack the Dripper” period and you begin to become familiar with his hand. My friend’s painting was definitely NOT a Jackson Pollock. It was as evident as someone trying to imitate your signature.
Not ignorant or limited
by Julie Sawyer
First of all I am not ignorant and do not have a limited view. Yes, individuals can try what they want, but a lot of it doesn’t belong in public if it offends and repulses others. When it comes to your “better educated” statement, it doesn’t take an educated or uneducated person to understand and know and believe that what I have been writing about is true. It’s just plain common sense, wisdom, and being able to discern what simply is right and wrong. I obtain that you need a stable, unwavering, moral code to live by, not one based on opinion and that changes at every whim. I’m not an “anonymous” writer, afraid of the backlash I might get, and I don’t attack others as “ignorant” simply because I disagree with their thoughts and opinions. How about supporting your own opinions instead of resorting to personal attacks?
A big thank you to those who have written in here and to me personally, for their support!!
And to Lou Hoover: Yes, I am angry about bad art as well as other bad things in this world. And it does affect me and it also affects or should I say “infects,” you and all of us in this world, where we all live. It influences and sets the tone for a lot of things, just like bad media, bad leaders, bad business among others. Instead of making it right, people are being forced to be tolerant of what’s wrong, which is just an excuse to do nothing. We can all paint and make art freely, but if we are to share it with the world, let’s do it responsibly and to better this world. Make it uplifting, positive, decent and moral for all to enjoy. I admit, I do get fired up, but I am passionate about truth and what I believe!
Varnishing oil paintings
by Phil Hewitt
I need information on varnishing my paintings. Is there a specific brand of varnish you use? What is the proper procedure for applying varnish? How many coats of varnish do you apply? If more than one, how much time do you wait before applying the next coat? Is there anything else I should do? Thank you, I appreciate the help.
(RG note) For oil paintings I use a spray can of Dammar varnish. (sometimes spelled Damar in the USA) This is for paintings that are more than two months old and not too thickly painted. If less than that I use a spray can of retouch varnish and alert the dealer that it needs a proper coat of varnish before it goes to a collector. Properly set up galleries are up to doing this and may put the final varnish on with a can or a brush. Dammar (those from Sumatra and Singapore are considered the best) is the resin from a type of fir tree and leaves a very slight yellowish tone. Turpentine is the traditional solvent in Dammar Varnish. Another good varnish that is available in several brands is keytone resin and white spirit. This varnish dries quickly, is non-yellowing, and does not become brittle. Oil paintings can never be properly cleaned unless they are varnished. I actually get a kick out of folks who send me my old oil paintings to be cleaned. “Guaranteed for life,” I tell them and I do it for free.
To be specific to your questions: Krylon or Grumbacher are the brands I use but I’m sure there are others. I like my paintings medium shiny so one coat is generally enough. Overnight to dry is enough for Dammar. Keytone varnishes dry faster. If you do it with a brush, use a wide, soft brush and tip the painting at an angle and draw the varnish down the painting keeping a puddle at the bottom as you would a watercolour wash. Don’t go over it a second time. Afterward, while still wet, hold the painting at eye level toward a window and look for unwanted hairs from the brush or the dog. Winsor and Newton make the industry standard — generally in a very small bottle that is quite expensive.
Poodle portrait problem
by Bob Greene
Perhaps you could clear up a problem brewing between my wife and I. I am presently working on a portrait, which requires a background that will accent the subjects, our poodles, who are apricot in color. My wife wants me to paint the background in a fluffy peach because it would better match the decorum of the room in which the painting will eventually hang. I disagree, that the background should be dark, so as to contrast with the subjects. Am I right, or should I listen to her?
(RG note) Your wife is onto a good thing here, Bob. Not that a dark background would be bad, but the brave and interesting thing to do is to paint the background with a similar warm tone. Of course I’m shooting from the hip here—not knowing what your work is like—but I do like the idea of a high-key vibrational type of painting (don’t poodles vibrate?) where the mother colour of the whole relates to the fluffy, puffy, pastel of the dogs and the transition between the fur and the background is soft and at times even lost.
How to be an artist!
by Shirley J. LeSage
I came across the following on a poster the other day and copied it as it has a lot of interesting suggestions on becoming an artist!
Stay Loose. Learn to watch Snails. Plant an impossible garden. Invite someone dangerous to tea. Make little signs that say “yes” and post them all over your house. Make friends with freedom & uncertainty. Look forward to dreams. Cry during Movies. Swing as high as you can on a swing set, by moonlight. Cultivate moods. Refuse to “be responsible.” Do it for love. Take lots of naps. Give money away, do it now, the money will follow. It will!! Believe in Magic. Laugh a lot. Celebrate every gorgeous moment. Take moonbaths. Have wild imaginings, transformative dreams and perfect calm. Draw on walls. Read everyday. Imagine yourself magic. Giggle with children. Listen to old people. Open up. Dive in. Be free. Bless yourself. Drive away fear. Play with everything. Entertain your inner child. You are innocent. Build a fort of blankets. Get wet. Hug trees. Write love letters!
(RG note) Thanks, Shirley. Deborah Putman gave me the Sark poster for my birthday a few years back. It’s on my studio wall and it gives visitors a smile.
by Nancy Giere
Even though I don’t respond often, I really enjoy and appreciate the Twice-Weekly Letter. As an artist and business person they are invaluable. Robert may not know it, but he is doing a great service to any artist who subscribes to his letters. If an artist would allow him to be, he is an excellent mentor. Many artists have gone on before us to lay a ground-work of knowledge and experience that others can build upon, like the Masters, giving us a base to spring from. Their history is our history, no different than architecture, engineering or medicine. We learn as others go forward, and Robert has gone forward and it helps us all. I will miss the day if these letters ever stop coming, and have often wondered how he even has time to write them. It seems a true labor of love to me, not only for the artists he is inspiring, but also for the craft, for the art, for the work. It raises us all to a higher level of performance and consideration of our own work. I appreciate them all.
May I note as well the camaraderie of his letters, the comfort they bring to the isolation one often feels as an artist. He speaks a language I understand, from a heart I can run with. His intellect, his talent, his life experience, his art, they all come together to coalesce artists around the world in this digital empire called the internet. I live in a rural community in South Dakota. It is beautiful here, gorgeous. I love it. It is home. But through the letters, I am privileged to see how other artists think and consider their work from around the world. What a joy, what a camaraderie. Art is such a beautiful thing, such a lovely event, it is thrilling to me to gain comprehension on how others envelope their work and the work of others.
The dreams of the children of life
The dreams of the children of life
danced into new realms inspiring awakening seeing
as if for the first time.
New visions manifested it was as if we were in the future
remembering the silence that became the earth for a moment
and from the silence was born a song that filled the universe like
liquid laughter erupting from the depths of the children of life
and with the first rays of the dawn the children laughed and the earth
danced like the wind… the wings that grew unnoticed in their sleep
“The eye loves repetition, but does not want to be bored. It likes familiarity, but needs surprises.” (Edith Bergstrom)
“The artist is the only one who knows that the world is a subjective creation, that there is a choice to be made, a selection of elements.” (Anais Nin)
“After the first brush-stroke, the canvas assumes a life of its own; at this point, you become both governor and spectator to your own event.” (Anonymous)
“I was totally absorbed. I was in another world, or another dimension; all sense of time evaporated.” (H.R.H. Prince Charles)
“A painting is an artificial work existing outside nature and it requires as much cunning as the perpetration of a crime.” (Edgar Degas)
“A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.” (Paul Gardner)
“To paint is to know how to put nothing on the canvas, and have it look like something when you stand back.” (Robert Henri)
“He who deliberates and moves the brush intent on making a picture, misses… the art of painting, while he who cogitates and moves the brush without such intentions reaches the art of painting. His hands will not get stiff; his heart will not grow cold; without knowing how, he accomplishes it.” (Chang Yen-Yuan)
The above quotes are from The Resource of Art Quotations. This valuable resource is the largest of its kind anywhere — in books or on the Internet.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Kate Lenkowsky who writes, “I am about to do some fabric painting ala Mickey Lawler and her Skyedyes.”