Testing the waters


Dear Artist,

Today, B.J. Wilson of Long Beach, California, asked, “What about cerebral vs. expressionist painters? Is it in the genes? Is it a non-choice or can a person change? Any reason to want to change? Is there any benefit in specifically working in another way as a new and hopefully expanding experience?”

Thanks, B.J. These are questions that used to haunt me when I was younger. These days, being older, I’m haunted still. To put the record straight, I believe in giving in to your instincts — no matter how seemingly wild or insignificant. In my experience, days wasted on foolish projects are seldom wasted. Giving in to change and experimentation permits an artist to process the new and pass it through an evaluation filter. Whether this is further acted on or not, we learn and grow.

Regarding genes, recent research seems to show that behaviour such as fight or flight, aggression, and the tendency to religious thinking may be programmed into some DNA and not others. It’s possible that the type of art we like and do might just be hard-wired too. If true, this could account for the religious-like fervour and argument that goes on between the various art camps. Whether we are programmed in this way or not, it’s in the creative interest of all artists to test other waters. The future is change — change of emotion, imagination, myth, dreams, style, media, education, self-education, attitude, humour and, yep, even the things we’ve come to love.

Yesterday, while swimming (we’re near Ixtapa, Mexico), I ran into an octopus. At first appearing as the lower portion of a large rock, it suddenly withdrew its arms and formed its body into a formidable block that pulsated with colours rolling upward like a neon display. I almost jumped out of my skin. As I moved away, the creature, taking its primordial time, slowly morphed back into a drab grayish-brown. I had been witness to the remarkable body-art of an octopus — the way they disarm their enemies and confuse their prey. The surface of the cephalopod body is pixilated with chromatosphores that are capable of change by the simple act of will. We too are able to control who we are by what we think. When pressed with a new emotion, we too are capable of showing a new side to the world.

Best regards,


PS: “I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge,
That myth is more potent than history,
That dreams are more powerful than facts,
That hope always triumphs over experience,
That laughter is the cure for grief.
And I believe that love is stronger than death.” (Robert Fulghum)

Esoterica: Anyone who has ever logged onto an online chat-room will be familiar with the word ‘avatar.’ In the cyber-world, avatars are those little cartoony, often cute, alter-ego images that tell others who they’re talking to. In cyberspace, as in real space, somebody by the name of Lillian may be known as Wonder-girl. In Hindu mythology, an avatar is another incarnation. The octopus I mentioned was its own avatar. The avatar re-jigs the way we are. The avatar is another side of the personality.


‘Cerebral’ and ‘expressionist’ not appropriate
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA


pencil drawing
by Peter Brown

“Cerebral” is not a word I understand in the context of visual art without some parameters, neither is “expressionist.” I am not so worried about my genetic inheritance, as I am about a shared vocabulary. Certainly, ‘cerebral and expressionist’ describe an entire generation of painters from de Kooning to Rothko to Pollock. Making a piece of visual art involves certain ingredients, of which there are eight: Line, Shape, 3-D Form, Value, Color, Texture, Space, and Metaphor. An artist can use some or all of these elements to make a piece of visual art. Other words that one needs to discuss visual art have to do with composition, i.e., how the elements are put together. This involves familiar terms like, Balance, Pattern, Rhythm, Movement, etc. By the way, the elements of art are taught routinely to seventh graders in California public schools.


Find a child
by Mary Ann Pals, Chesterton, IN, USA


“What Dreams May Come?”
charcoal drawing
by Mary Ann Pals

The number one factor that holds us as artists back from experimenting with a new method, style, or even a new genre is fear — fear of failure, fear of not having our work accepted, fear of not fitting into the neat little mold others have made for us. Take a lesson from a child: I recently listened to my daughter’s incessant pleas to try drawing something out of my imagination rather than just churning out yet another representational painting. The experience was so freeing, scary at first, but freeing just the same. Since then, I’ve found my ‘safe’ representational work to be even more expressive and interpretive of my emotions at the time. So my advice is: go find a child, a fearless child, and let them do the talking. Then pick up your tools and go flying. What Dreams May Come?


No need to be an ‘art farmer’
by Gordon Matheson, Southampton, NY, USA

‘Creativity exists more in the searching than in the finding.’ (Stephen Nachmanovich) It’s not very creative if you keep tilling the same field over and over. That makes you an art farmer, not a creative artist. By trying new things you come upon ways and means that work for you that you would have never found staying within your comfort zone. Besides, it’s more fun which should be reason enough if you happen to be right brained. That’s also part of why some of us can easily do a week’s research before beginning a painting that only takes 2 days to complete.


Express your experience
by Mary L. Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


oil painting
by Mary L. Moquin

If the intent is sincere, the work has integrity. It doesn’t matter how it was born, cerebral or expressive. Both forms are creation, one involves the intellect more, one the gut, another the heart, etc. The goal is to get all of these facilities working together and creating your own unique expression of your experience here. To eliminate any of these impulses is to limit the potential of the painting.


Listen to your intuition
by Jill Cantrill, Bethesda, MD, USA

I am half way through the book, The Judgement of Paris by Ross King. He compares the artists Meissonnier and Manet during the decade of the 1860s Paris. Two very different styles and since I had never heard of Meissonnier until I started to read this book, it is obvious whose art became popular. Both artists followed their particular style, but Manet experimented and harkened to the changes in society. A fascinating book that also shows the effects of politics on art, helpful in backhanded ways. Reading about Manet’s struggles emboldens me to keep listening to my intuition.


Not all art sells well
by Nancy Moskovitz, Ocala, FL, USA


“Monet Plus 4”
mixed media tryptich
by Nancy Moskovitz

There is nothing like an octopus story to shake a person out of the doldrums! It amazes me how otherwise open-minded earth-friendly artists can feel so righteously “right” about their favored type of art, and for that matter, art career path. The two issues are related in that competition-worthy art is not necessarily a popular seller. Hard-wired religious-like fervor makes as much sense as any other reason. Thanks for the new perspective.




Fighting a natural tendency?
by Melinda Collins, Redwood City, CA, USA


“Courtyard on the Grand Canal”
oil painting, 36 x 24 inches
by Melinda Collins

My natural inclination as an artist is to see and paint a lot of details to express the visual elements that caught my eye when the subject first appealed to me. Yet, when I like a painting by someone else, it is nearly always very loosely painted and lacking in excessive detail. Periodically, I challenge myself to paint as quickly as possible and to place the emphasis on a broad statement about color and form rather than on a close representation of what I see. These paintings rarely turn out well, in my eyes, and don’t sell. I keep hoping that forcing myself to try this approach will have an effect on all my paintings by adding subtle changes to my painterly vocabulary. It often just seems like wasted time, and sometimes I am not sure whether I’m learning anything new or just fighting my natural tendency towards detail.



Follow your instincts
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, WI, USA

Every artist at one time or another wonders and frets about are they “with it.” I too still think about it, but age and experience is a wonderful thing, through it you realize that the only thing you can do is do what “drives” you at any particular time. In graduate school I saw people experimenting and trying to be “with it” or current or relevant. Most of these efforts were stilted and forced, it seemed to me. I’m not against experimenting, but you can’t experiment beyond who you are, and part of making work is finding out what is naturally or innately within you. I’ve learned that you cannot force change, it has to happen on its own out of doing work. And it will, if you pay attention and follow your instincts and do the best work you know how. Change will take place on its own. Learning to trust that it will takes time and paying attention to what is happening around you and within you, and then, take your best educated guess.


Influences of life and therapies
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA


“Return To Providence”
oil painting, 12 x 12 inches
by Linda Saccoccio

In therapies such as Feldenkrais and in practices such as yoga we are encouraged to balance our bodies by retraining. We can retrain the body to not be so one-sided as in right-sided tendencies or left-sided. In doing this we also open up new pathways in the brain that open up possibilities and flexibility. This allows us to have the ability to have a wider range of approaches. If we have a habit of doing something that is not healthy, perhaps as simple as how we stand, sit or breath, through awareness we can retrain the body/mind to improve our situations. I think our capacities are far beyond what we know, so when we open up to new ways of being or creating we are tapping into deeper resources and potentialities. I have found that seeing something that inspires me can affect how I feel, perhaps more optimistic and what I paint, perhaps with a sense of liberation the work is more animated. I feel a shift because of awe-inspiring experiences. Life itself awakens the new that exists within us.


Enter the adventure
by Linda Muttitt, Fort Langley, BC, Canada


“Blue Mussel Wave”
watercolour painting
by Linda Muttitt

There is a film about a remarkable man named Leo Breuman who is a tiny-in-size-but-not-in-spirit man, crippled harshly by a condition. The film shows his triumph over adversity. A quote from the film: “An action need not alter the course of human events to be heroic. Courage is a factor found in many seemingly insignificant acts.” In my art classes, I often tell my students that even changing the kind of brush you use, the type or size of paper, the pigment you’re about to reach for, the subject matter you choose – all new choices made demand a certain kind of courage. It may not seem much to others, but we all know how tremulous and excited we can feel when attempting something new. Enter the adventure. Be scared so that you can come out on the other side with a richer sense of who you are.


Art at its best is pure invention
by Charly Hansen, Traverse City, MI, USA


by Charly Hansen

We’re not done. We’re still evolving as a species. And who better to be on the cutting edge than the practicing artist. Art at its best, when practiced with its deepest intent is pure invention. The artist, when freed from even his/her own practiced habits, beliefs and influences, becomes by nature an anarchist. In some way we are both a danger, (to the status quo, i.e. rule-breaker) and a savior in that we put our selves up as ‘creator’ everyday. There’s only one hope left for this world and yes it is partnered forever with ‘change’ but we must remember it comes with the responsibility of awareness, of reflection, review and an acceptance of the ‘new’. We are ultimately defined and designed by the artist from within and without. And No, Robert, April fools or not, ‘remote-brush’ ain’t going to help us evolve. We are still tribal by nature: You’z got’s to be there Bobby.


Identifying with our archetypes
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA

We all seem to have these sides to us, or different faces, that are different hats. Some of these personalities/ideas are small and petty and others kind of formidable and daring. I think all of us carry within all the ancient gods of the Romans and the Greek and probably all other deities and demons ever created in the image of man. We have smallness and greatness within us. What we do in any given situation seems to depend on which archetype we identify with and act out. I personally am in tune with something that makes me want to experiment. I get tired of doing things the same old way and feel an urge to move on in my art. Right now I seem to be moving towards wanting more texture in my paintings. More 3-D. More something that comes out of the canvas surface. But what really fascinates me about these experiments is that at the same time I am still also working with totally 2-D paintings. Change is gradual and seems to come in waves. It is like taking two steps forward and one step back. But a part of me always wants to experiment with new subject matter and techniques I have not tried before. I cannot stop this. Nor do I try. Stepping into the previously unknown is a reward in itself. It makes you feel very alive.


DNA determines your type of art
by Grace Cowling, Grimsby, ON, Canada


“Tea House Japanese Garden”
watercolour painting
22 x 15 inches
by Grace Cowling

I am a firm believer in artistic capabilities being passed down in the genes or DNA. Mypaternal Grandfather, Samuel John Ireland (1854 -1915), lost his father when a babe of 4 months. Miraculously he received a stellar art education in England from a Huguenot family of considerable means. After 7 years at what became the Royal College of Art, travels to Europe and postgraduate studies at the Academie Royal des Beaux Arts, Antwerp, he held several teaching positions in England, specializing in architectural and mechanical drawing, plane and solid geometry, culminating in a teaching post at King’s College, London. From there he was selected to emigrate to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1886 and the post of Principal of the then Hamilton Art School where J.E.H. MacDonald was one of his pupils.

My affinity for detail is undoubtedly in my genes and those of my brother and some of his children. It is a characteristic of my painting that I have tried to overcome but it quite simply will not go away. Over the years I have reconciled myself to what is “me” and have come to enjoy and cherish the gift.


Evolution of an artist
by William Scott Jennings, Sedona, AZ, USA


“Sunset on Isis”
oil painting
by William Scott Jennings

Over the previous 30 years I had been happily painting in the style that had naturally evolved. But about four years ago I became increasingly displeased with the way my artwork looked. I was no longer comfortable with viewing my own work. In short, it had become so boring to me that I couldn’t stand to do another painting in the same style.

The first thing I had to do was to find out exactly what was bothering me. Was it just boredom or was it something more? I turned inward to ask myself what it was that I appreciated in paintings by others that was lacking in my own paintings. What I discovered was that I didn’t appreciate my application techniques; there was no expression in the way the paint was applied to the canvas… no passion came through the technique. I had been successfully rendering paintings that produced a good income for me through the galleries for decades, but I wanted more. I found that I still enjoyed my plein air paintings but not my studio work. I felt the vibrancy of the quick on-location paintings, but not the large format work done in my studio for which I am most noted.

I began experimenting with heavier paint through the use of larger brushes but it hurt my shoulder to work this way. So I began applying paint with a palette knife and combining the brushwork with palette knife until I could merge the two techniques into one unified style. As I began working this way, I found that the paintings were exhibiting the feeling that I was searching for. The process of painting this way is totally different than my previous style, too. I work in layers with a larger variety of colors, creating final colorations through combinations of hues and tints. The work still has my basic concept of appreciating a realistic image, but it is now done through an almost abstract technique. The magic of this illusion is now one of my most coveted enjoyments about my paintings and the process of creating them.

This whole evolution did come with some negative feedback from some of my galleries. Not from the gallery owners so much as from sales staff. Typical comments were: “So and so came into the gallery today looking for another of your paintings to buy, but didn’t like the new work.” To their credit, the galleries were understanding and did not try to tell me what I should be painting. As one door shuts another opens, and I have found that others are intrigued by the new work as well. There is something to be said for finding a unique avenue of interpretation. Galleries and collectors that would not have appreciated my earlier style are quite interested in the new approach.

There is always an inherent risk in making changes, but I didn’t become an artist to get rich, but rather to create. And an artist must evolve to quell the voice within and find new ways to speak unspoken ideas.


April Fool’s joke?
by Katherine Ziff, Athens, OH, USA

Dude, did only a handful of responders to the LongBrush realize it was an April Fool’s joke, and a good one too? Things are way too serious!

(RG note) Thanks Katherine. Most people got the joke but we didn’t include many of their letters. A few didn’t, or partly didn’t, and many of those who didn’t were able to indicate even more remarkable possibilities for such a machine. Seriously, thanks to all who wrote in response to my April Fool’s effort whether they did or they didn’t. See previous clickback.





oil painting
by Alex Shundi, NYC, NY, USA


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 Ziggi of Zurich, Switzerland who wrote, “But are all of us octopi? Perhaps some of us are sea turtles.”

And also Tom Disch who wrote, “Your description beautifully recreates the shock of the experience and the double take first of how beautiful, then of how it came to happen. A paradigm of the esthetic experience on the receiving (not the octopus) end.”

And also Nora Gross of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada who wrote, “I too am morphing. I tried something new. It is great fun and good for the soul. My painting arm is now laughing again.”




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