Termites that have been dormant over the winter issue from a small hole in the corner of my studio ceiling. When I “Raid” them they withdraw momentarily. Today, apart from the perennial easel-struggle this is the main distraction. Rain streams on the windowpane and there is distant, silent lightning on the horizon. Here, all is quiet save Mozart, and this studioscape is blessed with peace.
A friend, shaken by a personal disaster, phones to discuss “varnishing.” We have an inventory of our blessings: The privilege of making with our hands. The joy of working things out for ourselves. The fun of winding one up. The anticipation of starting another. What else could be asked for in this short span? I don’t think it’s for gold that we do this. There’s something else. Without being maudlin, I think it’s love.
Love of the life, the challenge, the personal nature of it all. The feeling that you have it all in your hands. The beautiful finality of the signature in the lower right hand corner. And the difficulties? Like the termites in the wall, they are legion. The highly-realized artists that I know love the satisfaction of overcoming their difficulties. These artists have the knowledge that creative evils are beaten with the power of knowledge and understanding. By taking pains. By not tolerating mediocrity and mediocre thinking in ourselves. By treating ourselves to the exhilaration of our honest and elevated desires. By honoring craftsmanship and attention to detail. By patience and perseverance. By appreciating the prior and current light of others. By the realization of the responsibility of it all. And the epiphany that even through the act of art we can be our brother’s keepers.
There is always something eating away at what we could be. But the real termites of our studios are the ones that eat away at the clarity of our love.
PS: “There is no greater joy than that of feeling oneself a creator. The triumph of life is expressed by creation.” (Henri Bergson) “He who wishes to exert a useful influence must be careful to insult nothing. Let him not be troubled by what seems absurd, but concentrate his energies on the creation of what is good.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Esoterica: The final varnish in either oil or acrylic is your work’s ultimate compliment. It says, “My work is permanent — mess with me at your peril.” It’s the shrink-wrap that protects from household damage, smoke and fly-specks, as well as ultraviolet light. It allows your work to march out and cast its spell on future generations. “I have touched with a sense of art some people — they felt the love and the life. Can you offer me anything to compare to that joy for an artist?” (Mary Cassatt)
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Doing it for love
by Linda Saccoccio, now of Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Yes, we do it out of love. The love that comes from the depths that speaks without the need for reason. It is pure and directs the drive and act of making art. It would be great self-denial for me to ignore my inclination to create, inspired as it is from the heart of hearts. I have had termites to overcome in weaker days, but I knew I couldn’t let them win. It comes down to the old line, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” I am finally at peace with my differences from significant people who would have distracted me if I were not aware of the core of my being. No one to blame, it is all a process of life.
To speak of being “the keeper’s of our brothers” is a reality, if not from the work we create then surely from the example of being true to our passions and deepest sense of self. There we experience bliss and peace. So important in these times of mass fear and confusion.
The will to press on
by Lida Van Bers
How well I know about the frustrations, blank moments, and in the pit of your stomach that awful feeling that you’re never going to “get it” again. An almost finished painting, which has been wiped out several times, scratched and cursed at, but I simply had to go on. That little devil in me, saying, “give up” but I still went on. Then that moment where the light went on and the rush to start again, this time successful. My world is then blessed and I am happy.
It is time
by Dorothy McKay
The termites have been eating away at me these past few months. I have not been painting — using every excuse in the book. Finally, I realize why. For years I have been painting what I think will please the world, and myself. Now I think of all that as having “been done.” I find myself on the brink of “extremely out-there” ideas, all completely unknown to me, as yet. It is with great trepidation that I dare start on a blank canvas. Yet I feel time slipping by. I think I have my answer. I will go ahead, and never mind if I never ever sell another piece! It is time!
An amazing potter
by Paula Rey, Camano Island, WA, USA
I truly related to being lost in the studio. Today I was a studio substitute teacher, the two students who showed up were open sponges wanting the teaching, enjoying and ready for the exchange. I was at the last part of pulling up a clay pot… pottery is not my area truly but I always love sculpting, making anything out of clay. In walks a real potter, dressed all in black… he sits down… pulls up this amazing pot… amazes the two students and spreads the joy. One woman when I looked her in the eye asks, “Do you teach classes? I’d like to take classes from you.” What a day I had on the eve of war.
One day at a time
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, Virginia, USA
Yes, I feel that I have it all in my hands but what do I do with it all? My problem is that I have too many ideas for creations at one time and then none at another. I have numbered my years and fear that I will not create all that I want. It was once said that I was suicidal but that is far from the truth. I would love to paint for a thousand years. I must live one day at a time as if it was my last.
Turning off the news
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, ON, Canada
Today is the day before the ever ominous invasion of Iraq. I ask myself again why I should fret over the quality, the details, the contrast, the tension, on my current work. The concerns of the world are so great and so far reaching. But I know that if I don’t care about this, if I don’t focus my attention on details that matter to me, then the tyrants of the world will have won. They will have taken over my muse. Focusing on my struggles and beating my “termites” back is vital. Battling my “creative evils” makes me strong, makes me more aware, more present, more caring, more sensitive. Today will be a struggle because I need to decide if my work is good, if it meets my criteria, if I need to do more, if I need to redo parts, is it ready for my signature and varnishing. I’m gonna turn the news off for now and I’m going to do what I have to do.
Creation in times of pain
by Sherry Preston, Christina Lake, BC, Canada
It’s amazing the creation that comes from within in times of pain. To look at life as a gift is a blessing and the flowers and the goodness of the world… to look past ourselves and see a larger picture of wonderment… It is a gift. To look outside of ourselves creates wonders larger than one’s imagination. The world is a playground of imagination and kindness… to look past the sadness and pain is a strength. To build from the pain and create something stronger is a gift… many things in our lives are gifts even when there is pain… There are gifts of goodness if we open our eyes. All the goodness in the world is a gift we need to grasp and envelope to become more of who we are.
Just make art
by Lori S. Lukasewich
Part of my struggle was for My Art, a kind of art school notion perpetuated by current academic contemporary art thinking. Was My Art contemporary? And just what did that mean, and if My Art wasn’t contemporary, and was contemporary meant as a metaphor for post modernism as it applied to the various cycles of personal experience, angst and the degradation of intelligent thought as a response to the overwhelming complexity of today’s global free market economy! Would it matter to anyone? Thinking like that really screwed me up, so, I’d just kind of clear my mind and try to make what honestly came out of me. It is true that the most important thing to do is to make art, regardless.
A collector’s touch
by Ian G. Henley, Bowen Island, BC, Canada
Your story about E. J. Hughes reminds me of an incident which occurred a few years ago. A friend and I visited the studio of the well-known watercolour painter Sam Black. We realized we had to have a watercolour of a pair of owls. However, I could see what I thought was an “oversight.” The eyes were just dead black lacking a lifelike quality. With some trepidation I suggested to Sam that the work would look better if he were to put a dot of light in the eyes. Sam with his delightful smile and a twinkle in his eye agreed to take the picture out of the frame and make the change. He and his wife Betty came to our place for dinner a couple of days later and the picture was hung with the light reflected in the eyes of his superb subjects.
(RG note) The recent letter and responses about the complicity of an artist and a dealer are at A strange business.
by Catherine MacLeod
How do you apply varnish to an acrylic painting? (Guess you can tell that medium is fairly new to me, I’ve never done that) What do I buy? Is it mixed with water? Applied with a brush? I’ve sold a couple of acrylic paintings without varnish. Is that a bad thing? Will those paintings eventually fade away? Help.
(RG note) I use a product called Golden Polymer Varnish with UVLS. I use gloss but you may prefer matte. UVLS means Ultraviolet Light Stabilizers. I cut it with water about 50/50 and put it on with a rag. If you can borrow your sold and unvarnished paintings back, you can clean them for their owners and give them a coat.
by Jennifer Broschinsky, Utah, USA
If varnish is a work’s ultimate compliment, then I have much learning to do. That is one of many things art school did not teach me. Granted, very few of my student works were finished enough to merit such a compliment, but now that my work’s a little more refined, I would like to know how.
(RG note) See above, and also give it a coat beforehand of acrylic medium, same dilution. A main reason for varnishing is to even out areas that are “sunk in.” Certain colours, particularly umbers, sienna and some blacks tend to go duller as they lose their binder or medium into the support. A coat or coats of varnish gives your work a more uniform look as well as protecting the surface.
Even more varnish
by Ellen Simon
Could you please explain to me how varnish can protect a painting from ultraviolet light? Why would that light not be able to get through the varnish and fade those fugitive colors?
(RG note) Any varnish, Damar or Spar, or acrylic improves the life expectancy of paint underneath it by stabilizing and retarding the tendency of some colours to slowly oxidize and change. Acrylic final varnishes do not flake or peel off — they merely disappear after many years — a fact that invites a further varnishing later down the line — say in twenty or thirty years. Other products such as “Bulldog Ultra” provides long lasting ultraviolet protection to digital imaging ink such as in Giclee prints. This is a fast dry, elastic coating that will not yellow, oxidize, check, crack or peel. Bulldog Ultra has a very high resistance to ultraviolet light, claiming to block 99% UV light transmission. Some of these new products claim light fastness for 100 years. For further information see www.tricoat.com. The acrylic finishes that are removable with ammonia started as wipe-on floor vinyl acrylic co-polymer emulsion wax for linoleum and vinyl floors. They built up and yellowed and had to be removed. But some bright guy at Golden figured out how to make a varnish that could be dealt with in the same way. I use household ammonia to remove the final varnish if I feel the necessity to go back in and work on a painting. Information on Golden varnishes can be found at http://www.dickblick.com/zz006/28d/products.asp?param=0&ig_id=3752
Erotic art dept.
by Judy Terrell
How sad we live in blatant “sex in your face” society. The lack of mystery, of intimacy is sold as cheap as socks at Walmart. The human body is considered ultimate physical beauty. I was taught that the body is more than what is seen. Sex is more than a union of flesh, but also a communion of spirits… What else could I say? Just as love should not be confused and reduced to sexual expression, don’t confuse pornography as art. One is eternal, the other is disposable. Fixation on body parts reduces the person into fragments, nothing really “wholesome” and should be resolved at least by the sophomore year in high school. I feel sorry for those “viewers” (and peepers) still limited to the lower passions. In the name of decency, I’ll not settle for second best…
Negatives about journaling
by Karen Hatzigeorgiou, Northern CA, USA
I have been enjoying your twice-weekly letters for some time now. They always seem to be positive, insightful, and uplifting. It took me by surprise then to read all the negative words in the opening paragraph of your letter on the fine art of journaling. Words such as “epidemic,” “threatening,” “self-indulgencies,” and “poetic detritus of a life,” imply a certain amount of contempt for a harmless creative pastime, which gives many people a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction.
(RG note) My apologies if I gave journaling a negative spin in my first paragraph. The complete letter and the responses are at The fine art of journaling.
by Shirlene Raines
Not RAID! It’s bad stuff. Anyway the termites usually indicate a problem bigger than the one they cause.
(RG note) What problem? Does this mean I’m bad? Thanks to the several artists who passed on advice for getting termites out of my studio. I found out that they cause more than $750,000,000 in damage each year. That’s more than is caused by all fires and storms combined — and earthquakes as well. The problem in some cases may not be discovered for years. Sometimes you have them and don’t know it. Eventually I may notice sagging floors, loose trim, cracked plaster, disappearing easels.
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, 2003.