The English landscape painter John Constable spent a lifetime studying clouds. Seeing them both vaporous and solid, he found them to be the most challenging of actors. Yesterday near Ashern, Manitoba, under the prairie sky, I entered into their leaden tops, slid down their warming gradations and confirmed the dimensions of their mysterious volumes. Turning my attention to their edges, I saw that they were cut with yellow counter-light, while subtle tones slid progressively down the colour wheel as they moved toward grays. In addition, their flattened underbellies were brilliantly warm where they reflected the golden fields below. Wispy micro-cloudlet partners added vivacity, energy and design. Still, these clouds were lit and shaded like any art-school blocks. “When such a simple thing is so complex,” said Constable in a similar situation, “one needs tenacity.”
In degrees of tenacity, some of us are steel-toed hiking boots, others are an old pair of flip-flops. This understanding just may determine how far we go. Thankfully, within the creative universe there are different personality types — the sensitive and the insensitive, the automatically creative and the developmentally creative. Right- and left-brain tendencies as well as other personality quirks provide a wide range of possibilities and expectations. Constable, the most gentle and sensitive of men, was also tenacious.
Sometimes I think this art business is all about channelling and focusing our tenacious natures. These days, the general ease of life promotes playtime, laziness, goofing off and a “let George do it” attitude. But thriving artists often have what I call “the relentless pursuit of entitlement.” I’m not talking about the entitlement to be supported — grants, residencies, etc. I’m talking about the entitlement to “get good.”
Getting good takes work, and tenacity shows itself best during the process of making art. “Genius,” said Jane Hopkins, “is the infinite capacity for taking pains.” These pains can be minor and yet powerful. John Constable was among the first to tenaciously sit out in nature and try to work out such seemingly lesser issues as relative darkness and lightness, plainness and complexity, form and formlessness, weakness and strength.
PS: “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.” (P. D. Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, 1694-1773)
Esoterica: Nuances are those subtle and seldom noticed differences occurring in nature that many artists need to bring into their work. Nuanced work depends on observation, understanding and application. Nuance is often the difference between ordinary art and great art. The tenacious artist takes the time to get it right. Good enough is not good enough. Further, tenacity and humility can be friends: “I know very well what I am about and that my skies have not been neglected, though they often failed in execution — and often no doubt from anxiety about them.” (John Constable, 1776-1837)
Must be in shape for clouds
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
I’ve been painting clouds from observation for years now, and love it! By the time you’ve gotten around to the other side of the cloud, it’s already changed; as you paint you’ve got to keep inventing connections to keep the composition going, and work fast to get in as much as you can before the cloud changes too much to be something completely different. It feels like you’ve really gotta “be in shape” (that is to say, well limbered or warmed up) to make it work.
A great unknown painter of clouds is Phil “the forecaster” Chadwick. He’s also a meteorologist, and his knowledge of what he’s seeing as well as his keen eye and soul makes his clouds really delicious for me, as well as other aspects of his work.
Clouds are universal
by Melissa A. Brown, Lexington, KY, USA
Your reference to Constable, tenacity and pursuit brought to mind an anecdote from last summer. I and several art friends from different parts of the country went to England in pursuit of the “English Countryside” painted by Constable and Munnings. As we were hiking the Stour River one evening, everyone “oohed and aahed” at the clouds and beautiful light. All I could think was that it looks just like home (the Kentucky Bluegrass Region). Which brings to mind Dorothy’s comment in The Wizard of Oz, “If I ever go looking for my hearts desire again, I won’t look any farther than my own back yard.” Now I just need the tenacity to go outside and paint it.
Watching clouds builds understanding
by Doug MacBean, Hamilton, ON, Canada
I remained ignorant of clouds, mostly, until I lived in an apartment, high above the trees, in Toronto. It was then, watching the clouds change each hour each day, that I began to appreciate the nuances of form, light, shadow and colour that clouds have. Also I watched how quickly the cumulus billow upwards, ever-changing, as those bubbles of air rise from the earth and become visible. When looking at Constable’s work I realize there is great merit in capturing the majesty of atmosphere. It seems to enfold all the elements, challenging to any landscape painter. I shall continue to do my best at cloud rendering, and today’s piece on Constable has helped steady my resolve.
Dark tops on clouds
by Richard Nelson, Maui, HI, USA
Has anyone an answer to why the tops of these clouds have a dark edge, regardless of the time of day? Logic would have the lightest portion at right angles to the light source, so if the light is above, we would expect the tops to be lightest.
(RG note) Many are those who have climbed the rumbling volcano and sat at the feet of the great guru Dick. He who poses questions like “What is life?” and “Why clouds?” now poses this one to help us on our way to becoming better artists and persons. All those who do not reply direct to Dick with the right answer risk being thrown headfirst into the bubbling crater.
Constable and Kandinsky
by Wendy Head, Adpar, Wales, UK
A few weeks ago I took my two 13 year old grandsons up to London to see the Constable ‘Six Footers’ exhibition at Tate Britain and then we walked across the Thames and along the embankment to Tate Modern to see the Kandinsky show. I wanted them to experience two very different masters. We had a brilliant time. They loved it. I have been painting all my life and I went back to art school to do a degree last year. I’m about to start my second year this month. I needed fresh input and new ways of thinking, and because, although a fairly traditional painter with leanings towards impressionism, I love abstract art and want to move in that direction.
(RG note) Thanks, Wendy. Constable referred to all of his large paintings as “six footers.
How far will you push?
by Brian Petroski, Schuylerville, NY, USA
Artists do not live in the same way others do. Artists seek new ideas, combinations, creations, problems, and solutions for nearly everything we see and interpret, whether we are conscious of it or not. It could be said that this drive also overlaps with that of the inventor, yet all artists are inventors in a way as well. It is this obsessive drive that coincides with an artist’s tenacity to see how far creatively he/she will take the idea at hand and how well he/she will execute it. How far will you go beyond the point where your peers believe it to be finished or beyond where you think it is acceptable? How far (not hard) will you push?
by Richard Tomkinson, La Conner, WA, USA
Your excellent letter on Constable and clouds begs a reference from current artists noted for their creative and instructive cloud work. My favorites are Clayton James and Michael Stack. They are quite different in approach yet both succeed in engaging the viewer in a riot of sky.
Breath of fresh air
by B. J. Wilson, Irvine, CA, USA
Constable is a genuine hero who slipped effortlessly over from observing to creating. A group of us artists went to the National Gallery in London. I stepped into an internal, windowless gallery to meet, face to face, a room full of Constable’s cloud studies. The smallish space was filled with clouds! They weren’t “finished,” nor were they framed. They weren’t even matted — just pinned up on every wall, filling every corner. The paper wasn’t 300 lb. anything special — more like white wrapping paper unevenly cut to about 18 x 24 inches — but they were the light and the sunshine in that room, blowing busily around. Alone there for a few minutes — it was like a big breath of fresh air!
by Carol Kullberg, Mt. Morris, IL, USA
I was wondering how a person can get grants. I am a full time Artist and have been trying to get my Art off the ground. Winter is coming, I have shows lined up but don’t want the so called “feast or famine.” I don’t really know the ins and outs of grants yet. Could you maybe explain or tell me where I can find out more? I’m not being lazy — just trying to save time from someone who would know.
(RG note) Thanks, Carol. Artists who get grants are always stuck with the same old “shorts” problem as soon as their grant money runs out. Far too many are deserving to make it fair. My interest is in finding ways to build quality and productivity in creative people — and allow the just rewards to follow, not precede. So I don’t do grants. Don’t recommend ’em. Maybe someone else would know.
The illumination of life
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA
If I just let go — the painting at hand often falls into place and often in a graceful fashion. The tenacious side of me still shows up for battle from time to time; however, I am almost always better off if I just disengage from the fight. It’s not a retreat. It’s more of an acceptance of both myself and of others. It’s a freedom that can transcend doctrine, chains and opinions. I’m better off if I simply allow my real energy to manifest. Once we know we are painters, instinct places us in the lifelong process of learning the technical side of painting — but art at its best is not a competition to better others or even ourselves. The focus is more appropriately channeled to reveal our hearts and to hint at the illumination of life that is mysterious and larger in spirit than in any single work of art.
Creativity beyond our control
by Toni Ciserella, Richfield, UT, USA
It begins with a moment, so small it cannot be recorded. But as it passes through the mind, it becomes a thought. The thought passes by like clouds overhead, yet it leaves a shadow on your day. An image is imprinted, stamped upon the creative canvas of your soul and lingers throughout the conscience. Slowly it weaves its way among the day and whistles a soft tune. At night it merges with your dreams, evoking mystery. It’s a deja vue, a subtle touch, a word that lingers on your tongue. You start to form its image, yet you are unsure of what it is. In your quiet moments, you hope to tease it out. In desperation, you reach in to seize it by the throat. It is only when it’s ready; when it has pushed you to frustration, when you give up trying to control it, that it is ready to give itself to you.
Empty your cup
by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey
A university professor visited Zen master Nan-in to inquire about Zen. But instead of listening to the master, the scholar kept going on and on about his own ideas. After listening for some time, Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The tea flowed over the sides of the cup, filled the saucer, spilled onto the man’s pants and onto the floor. “Don’t you see the cup is full?” the professor exploded. “You can’t get any more in!” “Just so,” replied Nan-in calmly. “And like this cup, you are full of your own ideas and opinions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Not just studios destroyed
by Myra Mandel, Safed, Israel
Regarding the Lebanese painter Youssef Ghazzawi, mentioned in your previous clickback, who lost everything to Israeli bombs, I am sorry to hear about the loss of his life’s work. I can sympathize because I am in a similar position. I am an artist who has a home and art gallery/studio on the main street of the Artist’s Quarter in the town of Safed, Northern Israel. My studio and home and the homes of many of the artists near me were bombed by the Lebanese Hizbollah this past month. None are intact. All of us have completely lost our only source of income — the summer tourist season was killed before it started. Hundreds of Katyusha rockets exploded in Safed, thousands exploded all over northern Israel. On the first day of the war, one landed in the living room of my next door neighbour, a couple with 5 small children. All were wounded. The house was completely destroyed. War sucks. War kills. War destroys families, not just studios.
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
I’ve had a quiet outrage festering over the destruction and body count of the Lebanon/Israeli conflict. Now comes the news that Painter Loses Everything in the previous clickback. I can’t imagine the anguish of having my studio bombed three times as has happened to Yousseff Ghazzawi of Beirut, Lebanon, and losing a lifetime of work and resources. My heart goes out to Yousseff and all the families who suffer at the hands of war.
(RG note) Thanks, Coulter. And thanks to the several others who wrote with similar outrage. We have also opted not to feature letters that lay blame. All sides have issues, and a balanced understanding by wise and informed minds must prevail.
More on safflower oil
by Mark D Gottsegen, Greensboro, NC, USA
You can use safflower oil to clean brushes — but you can also use any kind of the cheapest vegetable oil you want to — it doesn’t have to be safflower oil. One should not, however, use safflower oil from the grocery store in one’s oil paintings. Safflower oils used in the making of paints are treated with a drier to make them dry — and even then, safflower oil is a terrible drier. It does not yellow as it dries and has been used occasionally as a substitute for linseed oil in white artist paints. Safflower oil is also used as a modifier in alkyd resins, paints, and varnishes.
(RG note) Thanks, Mark. Mark Gottsegen is an art professor and chair of the US government’s ASTM committee on artist’s materials. He is the author of The Painter’s Handbook. Due to the enormous changes in the art-materials world since the first edition in 1993, this book is a “must have” for today’s serious painters. New materials, new health issues, new information.
Pickerel dispute deepens
by Liz Schamehorn, Washago, ON, Canada
Okay, now you’ve insulted pickerel. I have smiled indulgently at past controversies, but this demands retribution. I don’t know what pickerel you’ve been eating, or where, but in my humble opinion, there is little that beats a feed of pickerel, lightly dusted with a savoury flour coating, pan-fried, served with fries, coleslaw and baked beans. In Ontario this can be found anywhere along Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, usually in a little place with a view of the water, sometimes only accessible by boat. The flesh is a pearly white with a slight blush, firm, with a sweet, nutty flavour, and not bony at all. Do I detect a hint of coastal fish snobbery?
(RG note) Thanks, Liz. Your letter will have to suffice as representative of the dozen or so who wrote in condemnation of my ignorance of the possibilities of pickerel. I will reassess my pickerel position.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Mark Hope of Wasaga Beach, ON, Canada who wrote, ” ‘Nothing worth having doesn’t come without some kind of fight.’ (Bruce Cockburn) I believe in this and measure myself against it. The fight is internal and I wield my blade on the battleground of the canvas. I fight ‘good enough’ to find those last strokes that make the victory.”
And also Warren Criswell who wrote, “Another great cloud painter was Jacob van Ruisdael. Another was Albert Pinkham Ryder, although his were clouds of the inner eye and his tenacity led to the physical ruin of his paintings.”