Dear Artist, All my life I’ve been trying to figure out ways to improve my painting. That includes study of the work of those I consider masters, trying to get the hang of their ideas, techniques and processes, and, on my own part, simple, garden-variety toil. Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve built up a word list that has been gradually added to and subtracted from. At one point the words actually added up to 365. I called them “Keys.” They could be both negative and positive. They might be everyday common sense and they might be personal preferences. They pop up mainly while painting, afterwards when vetting my work, and often when I’m walking in the woods with Dorothy. These words remind me where I am, what pitfalls I’ve fallen into on previous occasions, what I am doing wrong right now and, from time to time, what I might be doing right. You may have heard of the concept of “name it and claim it.” When you identify something that’s going on — a method, a technique, an attitude — and put a name to it, a natural human tendency is to hang on to it and to more readily make it your own. Naming often nails down a situation. In my occasional forays into mentoring and workshopping, I also found myself encouraging painters to build lists for themselves — lists that might reflect their own techniques and tastes. Inevitably, I had to explain some items in my own list. An alphabetical list that might encourage thought and the building of your own lists can be found after the letter. You might find some on my list to be self-contradictory, but that’s the nature of the beast. While anyone can paint, it’s difficult to paint well. If it were easy to paint well, perhaps everyone would be doing it. Our work is also complicated by the fact that we often don’t know what glue we’re in until we’re already into it. A life in art seems to be forever a work in progress. If you catch my drift, you may find that your own words and phrases will pop up and down like a whack-a-mole. As the lady said, “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1908-1961) Esoterica: I recently printed out and ran my list past a group of artists in a two-hour Q and A. The participants seemed to be stimulated, and some great discussions arose. Some participants have continued to fire off input by email. Without completely throwing away the mystery of it all, I’ve added a short explanation after each key. “A word,” said Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is a struck note on the keyboard of the imagination.” It’s my sincere wish that your imagination might at least be teased. It’s also my hope that from my list you get a few ideas for your own list. 365 Words and Phrases Abstract core — abstraction strengthening realism Activation — magic spots that direct the eye Arial perspective — going back easy Art schooly — some march to a different drum Avoidance activity — the thief of productivity Bee-action — brushwork like a bee at flowers Big picture — broad design trumps fiddling Blocked — some artists simply are Box canyon — places you can’t get out of Bravura — confident, flamboyant brushwork Broom and whisk — brush size for style Butterfly mind — your key to imagination Chair and feet — hat on and how you work Chiaroscuro — form by light and shade Cigar time — civilized, reflective self-crit Circulation — moving the eye around a work Clientosis — too much attention to customer Colour surprise — unexpected pictorial focus Coming to light — basic principle of life Commit and correct — a creative principle Condition — What’s happening in there? Constipation — creative tightening up Counterpoint — the secondary leitmotif Defocus — softening up for mystique Desire — the world’s greatest power Distractive creativity — gifted subconscious flow Edgemanship — know your edges Educosis — work blinded by education Ego-force — the power that billows your sails Eye control — management of the viewer’s eyes Faxification — imited range of tonal values Flow — automatic right-brain painting Focus — here’s the climax? Form — when all else fails Glaze down — toning a painting for mother colour Grace notes — extra nuances for added interest Gradations and flats — main ways of treating areas Grey power — sophisticated, delicious neutrals Guilt — the thief of power Half-closed eyes — the way to really see Hard and soft — the two buddies of joy Homeostasis — the creeping crime of equality Horizontality — the alpha of back and forth Infectious dilettantism — good enough is okay Interlocking patterns — hidden design strength Iron will — the power to overcome Joy stroke — where visual happiness prevails Kitch and callow — beginner’s potholes Leave out — subtraction as creative ploy Leave out a primary — a winning colour device Limited palette — less is more Literary entrapment — the “red” barn Lost and found — the music of disappearances Low expectations — aim low and hit the mark Magic hour — a great time to paint Mishmash — a work of too many subjects Mother colour — chosen colour pervading all Nap time — the shut down that reboots Overworking — the boo-boo of perfectionists Painterly senility — watch for it as you age Paucity — absence of; key to pictorial charm Photographosis — photo dependence; it shows Pink focus — noses and elbows; a convention Plein air cure — the advent of authenticity Point system — every work has its points Pomodoro — the tomato of time Pump priming — methods of getting started Put more into it — adding without cluttering Rebrushification — change brushes; often up Reflected light — the gentle lift that reads Scumble — dragging a lighter colour over Secondary easel — a change of personality Squeeze out — first thing in the morning Stringy and thready — a terminal danger Studiothrombosis — art and you can die of this Style alert — triggering the advent of style Surface quality — the work you love to cruise Syncopation — boogie-woogie energy Syntagma — similar forms montaging Talk back — let the painting speak to you Three four five — stepping back well into Three sixty — rotate your view Time inversion — slow work that looks quick Toil — the professional’s secret weapon Too one two — a simplistic work Toolitis — the reliance on tools Verticality — the power of up and down Volume — the benefits of making many What could be? — the golden question Zips and flourishes — Final focus fun Guilt and power by Hannah Pazderka, Edmonton, AB, Canada I noticed that one of your Keys was: “Guilt — the thief of power.” I was wondering if you’d be willing to talk more about that? (RG note) Thanks, Hannah. This was the most frequently queried key on the list. I used to see a lot of guilt, particularly among women artists with issues over the perception of keeping house, etc, but this has certainly diminished. Other forms of guilt—often laid on us by one person or another who disapproves of one part of our lives or another. Guilt can help enable ambition, of course, but it’s mostly like a flat tire that slows down progress. One can either identify the guilt source and confront it, or one can go the other way. For the free flow of independent joy and creativity, artists need to chuck out as much guilt from their lives as possible. There are 2 comments for Guilt and power by Hannah Pazderka Painterly senility by Diane Voyentzie, CT, USA I am wondering just what is “painterly senility?” Worried here! (RG note) Thanks, Diane. The second most queried key. Identified by critics and older artists themselves, “painterly senility” might involve tightening up, repetition, overworking, unsure stroking and sloppy compositions. Some of it may have to do with garden-variety boredom from doing the same thing for some time. As in the fight against Alzheimer’s, taking on new projects and challenging old neural pathways is vital. Artists need to stay alive to the very end, and they can. There are 2 comments for Painterly senility by Diane Voyentzie Pink focus by Larry Moore, Orlando, FL, USA Curious about Pink focus — noses and elbows; a convention. (RG note) Thanks, Larry. Several asked this. If you are a believer in finding colour and emphasizing it in your work, take a look at how you can make people come alive when you make their noses just a bit redder, their knees and elbows just a bit pinker. In my books it’s an inexcusable illusion, but it rings true. Words to live by by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada My beloved grandfather used to collect and repeatedly reuse phrases. One of his favourite ones was “love across the water” for anything promising that may not pan out, especially when we were playing chess or cards. I always thought that this habit was a sign of old age. My vocabulary has been egalitarian, but I am noticing that it’s getting cluttered. Your list has some of my misplaced darling ones and I am very glad that you shared it with us. Maybe it’s the time for me to start writing things down before nature takes its toll. Here are my contributions for the list: Parenthood — Protect and cherish, don’t try to make it look like something else Sincerity — Give it all you have, never become slick or sly Keep moving — Start, work, finish and repeat Keep growing — Learn something new every day Forgive — shortcomings build character …and thanks very much for publishing so many of my letters and paintings! I love PKeys! (RG note) Thanks, Tatjana. The people who choose the letters are fond of yours because they are sometimes feisty, sometimes sweet, always informed and always intelligent, and we all think your fellow artists will get value from them. There are 2 comments for Words to live by by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki More wisdom by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA At the risk of screwing up the calendar, here’s another good one: Mirror; check it out in horizontal flip. And to give a broader sweep to educosis: Forget; all these words. There is 1 comment for More wisdom by Warren Criswell Lists are meaningless by Roberta Pyx Sutherland, Grassy Point, Hornby Island, BC, Canada A recent article by Roger Cohen for the New York Times while travelling and observing in Germany contained the following paragraphs: Germans have a good word for something authentic: “echt.” We have an echt deficit these days. Everything seems filtered, monitored, marshaled, ameliorated, graded and app-ready — made into a kind of branded facsimile of experience for easier absorption. The thrill of the unexpected is lost. The modern world’s tech-giddy control and facilitation makes us stupid. Awareness atrophies. Dumb gets dumber. Lists are everywhere — the five things you need to know about so-and-so; the eight essential qualities of such-and-such; the 11 delights of somewhere or other. We demand shortcuts, as if there are shortcuts to genuine experience. Lists are meaningless.” Unpleasant responses by Anonymous I am a person who dislikes poor manners and confrontation. There have been several letters to you lately in both the clickbacks and live comments that go too far. I also notice that you did not illustrate the really nasty one with his work. Is this a policy when they are bad? (RG note) Thanks, Anonymous. Apparently there are three Bill Gahl’s in the USA and we were not able to find art from any of them. If we had found some work we would certainly have illustrated it. Pomodoro, the tomato of time by Olga Rybalko, BC, Canada We met at the FCA workshop at Whistler BC last month when I had a 15 minute mentoring session with you on the last day. Thank you again for all the advice. I’ve been so inspired from that week and have been painting lots. One of the things you suggested was to try the 37 minute and 37 stroke painting. I really enjoyed the 37 stroke one; it was like a life drawing exercise where you can’t take your pencil off the paper, so it really gets the brain working. The 37 minute painting with the timer was great as well; it made me really plan out the painting in advance. I think I’ll start doing this before I start any big pieces. (RG note) Thanks, Olga. For artists who might want to help others, this sort of mentoring system is useful. One-on-one and behind closed doors gives a good opportunity to see what they do and hear where they’re coming from. I don’t actually charge for these sessions because when I started out doing them a few years ago I figured that I needed to get the unsullied goods, get straight to the point and give them a thought or two to carry on. For some, not all, I’ve found these private meetings to be priceless. The most students I recommend talking to in one day is 24. Santorini by Sara Genn, Santorini, Greece We’ve been everywhere on Santorini — the most comprehensive tour of the most microcosmic place. Lighthouse, monastery at the mountaintop, radioactive WWII radar station and bunker, battery, octopus cove, port, marina (with sloops), donkey stairs, cable car station, cathedral, mountain pass, switchbacks, cliff edges, luxury balconies, winery, olive grove, aforementioned goat farm, bee keeper’s spot, kitten cafe with lobsterman meeting, volcano sulphur belching hot spring, white chalk beach, new age restaurant with whole fried sea bass and octopus carpaccio, trinket row, exotic foot spa with fish nibblers, slouvaki cafe, windmills, Nona’s taverna with tomato dumplings, straw hat shop, supermarket, beach umbrella paradise, Sorolla pink rock face, tiny white barnacle hotel clump, sunset points, cruise ship empty-spot, prehistoric volcano petrification village, fresco museum in private home, clay replica gallery, millions of Greek cookies bakery, sleepy beach, and every road connecting them, and here…our white terrace overlooking the submerged Atoll (imploded 1613 BC) and central lava Island (1950). The whole thing has been fueled by Santorini cherry tomatoes, baby cukes, red onion and local capers, Kalamata olives with slabs of Crete feta laying over them, glugged in olive oil and herbs. P drags chips through globs of garlicky tzastiki and breaks up the scampis. There are 5 comments for Santorini by Sara GennBest regards, Robert PS: “My own words take me by surprise and teach me what to think.” (French philosopher
Featured Workshop: Robert Masla
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oil painting, 16 x 20 inches by Joseph Marmo, NC, USA