On being casual


Dear Artist,

On Monday, I was a member of a jury. All of the entries, 777 of them, had been previously juried by slide by a single outsider juror. The selected show of 55 paintings was now hung and five of us had to decide which were to be in the money. There were cash prizes ranging from $1500 to $250, as well as several prizes in kind of $1000. For a while we wandered silently around with our clipboards and made a tentative list of our favorites. After that we chatted about the works, variously picking holes in and singing the praises of some of them. Everyone had a say. Though there was a wide range of juror disciplines and tendencies, there was remarkable consensus.

I’m always interested in what jurors are thinking and saying. While some jurors tend to be blindsided by their education, and consequently speak a bit of nonsense, it seems to me that justice often prevails. But the old conflicts about the various camps of art — modern versus traditional — simply don’t exist in what I call “evolved” juries. All flags can now safely fly.

These days I’m noticing that juror’s eyes are attracted to casualness. Work that is overly stiff, no matter how well rendered, is passed by for works that have a more relaxed and easy-going delivery. This observation goes for abstract and realistic works, landscapes and mindbenders alike. Art with some bravura, that makes art look easy, gets the bucks. Fact is that people who paint well, generally with a few acres of canvas behind them, tend to be casual. In this particular collection, an understated, abstracted figure-study of limited range and shallow virtuosity attracted votes because of its casual simplicity. It aimed low and hit the mark. Other, more ambitious works, on closer examination, revealed too many flaws.

We all agreed on a large, complex and realistic oil of a Manila vegetable market in sunlight and shadow. It contained intervening dust and atmosphere, translucency, reflected light, counter-light, multiple figures in animated activity, even aerial perspective. Cruising up close, our eyes glazed with admiration, my fellow jurors and I caught ourselves saying that it was “casual.”


“The Vegetable Vendors”
oil painting
by Edgardo Lantin

Best regards,


PS: “Perform with elan, brilliance and dash.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) “Don’t show me that what you are doing is difficult.” (Pierre Parisien)

Esoterica: Time and again artists ask me what it is that jurors are looking for. This of course varies by juror, art trends and geography. But these days I’ve noticed that often, just as “rock breaks scissors and scissors cuts paper,” composition beats colour and colour beats drawing. Unusual treatments of standard subjects will generally turn heads. Boring is still boring and out of style in all genres. But raw talent and razzle-dazzle still bamboozles jurors. And maybe next year it will be different, but right now — it’s casual.


Serious disconnect
by Sharon Lynn Williams


watercolour, 11 x 15 inches
by Sharon Lynn Williams

A recent comment from California artist Gerald Brommer is that he has helped to change the system of jurying for US shows in which one juror picks the show and another separate juror (or jurors) select the awards. He has had the experience as both parties, and has found that there was a serious disconnect between jurors’ tastes; specifically he had to award the winners from a show that he really disliked! His point of view is that the juror who does the selection should be the one to give the awards. Seems to make sense to me.


Composition rules!
by John Gargano, Colorado, USA


nickel-plated aluminum sculpture
by John Gargano

I was particularly glad to read the phrase “composition beats colour” in your most recent letter about the juried exhibit. In my view composition, or design, beats everything. After you have designed the composition, everything else you do is merely execution — not that execution is by any means trivial, but virtuosity of execution is for naught if the composition is wanting.



Problems with casual
by Norma E Hoyle

Your current letter on being ‘casual’ has me questioning just what “casual” actually means when applied to art. Where is the line drawn between the casual and the non-casual? For example, I have no difficulty interpreting a large Jack Hambleton painting as ‘casual’ as it has been rendered with large, sweeping strokes, relying on ‘suggestion’ rather than detail. The prize-winning painting of the juried show, however, seems anything but what I would have termed ‘casual.’ Could the difference between ‘casual’ and ‘non-casual’ perhaps be the same as that between ‘fine art’ and ‘illustration?’

(RG note) Thanks, Norma. See material below.


Mixed up
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Your letter made me chuckle. The ones who got the award got praised by “Art with some bravura, that makes art look easy…” Those who didn’t, got comforted by “It aimed low and hit the mark.” If I understood your commentary correctly, you are suggesting two options — stick with our guns, or/and keep your eye on current trends, in any case — keep getting better? That sounds like a great two-fold advice for any kind of professional, especially for emerging artists. I was just wondering if the current criteria for fine art, which you described in Esoterica didn’t somehow get mixed up with your list of requirements for shower curtain design? Not that there’s anything wrong with shower curtain design.

(RG note) Quite a few readers were confused by my remarks. Actually, the painting that “aimed low and hit the mark” also came in for some money. It seems that simple paintings are easier to like because there is less to go wrong. In the case of Edgardo Lantin’s complex painting that got the big prize, there was lots that could have gone wrong, but didn’t. What I meant to say and should have more clearly was that his delivery — brushwork — was “casual.” Incidentally, the jury had lots of negative stuff to say about The Vegetable Vendors, too — “photo-derived, not enough design, compositional faults, dead shadows.” With regard to shower curtain design, keep in mind that a square foot of shower curtain in a frame will be examined, discussed, picked apart and perhaps enthused about. But as a shower curtain it’s just a shower curtain. Jurying, whether in a gallery or in a shower is an imperfect art.


The appeal of art
by Gail Griffiths, Ocean, NJ, USA


by Gail Griffiths

I feel that in this life, so much of what we cannot control is caustic. The intrusive things we see, hear and smell make their way into our lives on a regular basis. When I was a juror for an art show, I took into consideration two things: has the artist somewhat approached the theme (allowing for the creative mind process) and the appeal of the piece. The appeal can be the “Ahhh” appeal which gives you a serene feeling, or there is the “OOOoooo” appeal where the intricacies of the painting pull you in and take you elsewhere. Either way, if a painting can take you away from the crap out there, and help you scrape the day away, that’s appeal to me.


Gave up on the winner’s circle
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA

I’ve never juried a show, but often wondered how they came to the winning pieces. Most of the shows I’ve entered were judged by a single juror. So preference plays a big part in it I think. I often wished that, since our work is being judged, a critique be given to the artist on how the juror viewed the piece. Giving the artist something to work from or to learn from. But usually all the artists are standing at the reception, scratching their heads, wondering why this piece won over this piece. Hardly ever is the juror present at the receptions. We artists need some feedback–is it our work, style, medium, subject matter or maybe it’s just not the juror’s taste in art. I gave up on the winner’s circle and just get excited about showing my work.


Chose her kid’s art
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“View of Tangier”
original painting
by Eleanor Blair

I was asked to judge a collection of work by high school and college students constructed of recycled materials. There were two other judges, a museum curator and a gallery owner. The show was full of all the obvious stuff, furniture made out of pizza boxes, broken umbrella mobiles, etc. We three walked around making private notes on our clipboards, then compared our choices. All of us agreed on First Place (an eerie assemblage of backlit mason jars filled with teeming swamp water and recycled motor oil) but we bargained and argued and compromised over Second and Third. The young artists were, of course, anonymous, and it never even crossed my mind that my son Isaac Oster might have submitted an entry, until he called a few days later. We’d given his piece first prize. Then, I was really glad that there were two other judges, and that we had all agreed. There’s some really awful Public Art out there thanks to Judging by Committee, but I believe that consensus decisions made by diverse juries are less arbitrary, and (the Olympics notwithstanding) frequently fair.

(RG note) Isaac Oster turned out to be quite a contender.


Why bother?
by Mary Madsen, Las Vegas, NV, USA

It baffles the britches off me that artists subject themselves to the caprice of a few jurors for so few bucks, when they could be putting their work out to the public and gathering as they have sown. William Shakespeare wrote for the peasant in the pit, as well as the aristocrat in the balcony, and he didn’t do too badly. His was a force of nature that never lingered waiting for the judge — not even a monarchy that could have his head on a platter — and his impact resonates through the centuries. I’m also amazed at how much time so many artists spend learning the fine art of grant writing, submitting grants, praying for grants, and writing yet more grants, when they could be doing something outrageous, like — oh, just for the fun of it, let’s say — working and actually creating art. They could be putting their work out to the public and having the guts to withstand that brutal test, daring to accommodate both the high and the low and maintaining the precarious balance.


The gift of life
by Rosalind Pinsent, Bellevue, NF, Canada

A Canadian comedian, Dave Broadfoot, who has been a great TV personality for years, has written a book called Old Enough to Say What I Want. That statement defines for me what you had to say about “casual.” A marvelous character, he explains in this book that indeed he is old enough to say what he wants and get away with it! He could not always do that in his youth when he had to work at pleasing so many bosses — especially the TV networks.

I think it is the same with artists who have come to truly know who they are and they realize that they can “do what they want.” No one else makes the decision for them what to paint, create, or write. There is nothing driving their creative energy but their own desires. This, I believe comes with a maturity, not necessarily in years but in the experience of knowing that you are the creator of your work and while it may be nice to have other people admire your work, it is not a prerequisite for your happiness! Creating is a response to the gift of life.


Casualness in flamenco fusion
by Janet Morgan

I was just thinking about that ‘casual’ thing last night as I watched six highly skilled dancers, five women belly dancers and one man doing sufi/flamenco fusion outdoors at Lincoln Center in New York. Watching the dancers was a joy because they displayed that casualness that comes from years of immersion in their art, a level of expertise and devotion that brings that something extra to the mature artist.


Zen for the tricky parts
by Joy Cooper, Valley Head, WV, USA

I was cross-country skiing the trails above Lake Louise and struggling with the challenge. We came to a patch of slick blue ice and I stopped, looking for a way around. One of our party skied right by me as he said, “Zen master says to gain control, you must lose control.” I relaxed, pointed downhill, and thoroughly enjoyed the ease of passage.


One-armed banjo builder
by Bill Cranny, Perth, Australia

A couple of years ago at the invitation of the Ducati motorcycle people, a cousin of mine visited Italy on a biker junket. Within an hour of getting on the road out of Milan he was minus an arm and a leg (no fault of the machinery). He still runs his business and lately spends much of his time building guitars, banjos, ukeleles, with one hand. As painters perhaps we all need to know that there’s a one-armed banjo builder looking over our shoulder at those times when we think the painting job in hand is getting a bit too tough.


Still in the storm
by Christine Schiff, Maryland, USA

Regarding Coulter Watt’s remarks “Dead Wrong” in the previous clickback — I don’t think he is understanding what Deepak Chopra is saying. We are all one. Fully integrated humans carry both chaos and harmony, turbulence and stillness… just like clouds. But in the end we are one. The same force of nature that carries us round to stillness if we look for it deep inside ourselves also settles the turbulence of every ocean storm into a more peaceful day. Nature’s power lies in her strength to transform… she knows what she is doing… and trust me, it is effortless on her/our part if we but surrender to her/our intelligence. It sounds like he (Coulter) is still in the storm. When he reaches that other place inside himself, perhaps he will then understand.


Images of masterful ease
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA

One of my favorite painters is John Singer Sargent. I love his paintings precisely because of his brilliant casual appearing brush strokes. His paintings when viewed from afar look so detailed and realistic, yet as one walks toward the paintings they become looser and looser until you see the individual flicks of paint. Casual in appearance, but I imagine each stroke was oh so carefully considered, thus rendering images of masterful ease.


The felt nature of things
by Marion Harding


“Trail of the Lonesome Pine”
acrylic on canvas
by Marion Harding

Regarding your recent lyrical letter on clouds — the arbitrary mystery of the vapour — of course — the magic. Fit a composition? I think not. That’s why one went to art school–so you can always know what has to be done to duplicate it but then you knew you were free to replicate what it felt like. Emily Carr said it perfectly — “the felt nature of things.” What one sees and feels. I am in no doubt that Dorothy shared your view.


Labor intensive work
by Debbie DeBaun, Anchorage, Alaska, USA

Ever since I received your first email I have found myself more aware of my surroundings. Even the most mundane occurrence such as walking into a Home Depot and looking up to see the seagulls laughing at me makes me want to carry my camera with me at all times to capture the moment. I once wrote an arts editor for the local paper here likening my painting to childbirth. It’s a precious gift that is labor intensive and drains one’s energy. I’m finding that natural high that comes with creation and I’m exhilarated, much like “The Law of Least Effort” in Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.






Setting sail

oil painting
by Nicholas St. John Rosse, England


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.

That includes Darlene Clarke Hole who wrote, “Because I did not want to be in this part of the country I decided to look at the area with a different eye and came up with the idea of doing a series of cloud formations.”

And also Sandra Hill who wrote, “People allow a lot of idiosyncrasies in artists that perhaps we don’t allow in ourselves.”

And also Gary Terrell II who wrote, “I am currently studying oil painting, and all seems to be nothing short of influence and exploration. I am very grateful to the people that submit their comments and their work.”




Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop