Your easel, your altar

Dear Artist, The American architect and author Anthony Lawlor looks at rooms as containers for the elevation of the human spirit. The kitchen, for example, is a sacred place where raw foods are transformed by the alchemy of heat into sustenance and delicacy. Bedrooms are sanctuaries for the mysterious transformations of sleeping and loving. Bathrooms are closed retreats of personal cleanliness and hygiene. Apart from perhaps the nursery, nothing compares to the remarkable container known as the studio. Here is a sanctuary where mere materials are transformed into objects of beauty. Like the laboratory, the studio is a domain of imaginative possibilities — as near to “creation” as mankind is likely to go. At the center of most studios is a piece of furniture called the easel. Whether simple and humble or complex and magnificent, it is at this unit that the creator sets her forces in motion. You might pause to consider how blessed are we who daily stand or sit before the easel. Ideally, it should be a strong object, so it can be pushed hard against, or be made to hold rock-steady during our more delicate passages. The easel needs to be well lit from above so those born on it can be properly examined, pampered and reconsidered. The easel is an altar to productivity. Traditional altars have been places of worship and sacrifice, and the studio easel is no exception. He who would do well at one must respect and honour the gods of quality, truth, composition, imagination, pattern, perspective, story, drawing, colour, fantasy and flair. To stand or sit at one, even in play, you need to prepare yourself for labour. The easel is also a place of sacrifice. Substandard passages or whole works are summarily struck down at this often troubling altar — but rebirth is its usual fruit. Both honour and responsibility go with your easel, your altar. Best regards, Robert PS: “For thousands of years, much of humankind has believed that only special places are infused with the sacred and that you must get away from the everyday in order to find it. Not so, everything is infused with the holy — from chairs to clothing to kitchen stoves.” (Anthony Lawlor) Esoterica: While I’ve built, bought, worn out, and rejected countless outdoor easels and boxes, my studio easel is home-built and has been with me for a lifetime. My dad and I built it in 1974. I’ve sometimes looked at more sophisticated cranking and tilting models, but I’ve always come back to this one. Maybe it’s the spirit of Dad in its rugged design, the Luddite way it holds onto my paintings, or the patina from my cigar-smoking days that keeps it in its place. But maybe it’s the tradition. I’ve made a lot of art on it, and rejected a lot as well. It’s been a life together — this easel and me. I guess you could say I’ve fallen in love with it.   Your easel, your altar 062212_robert-genn3   Laboratories of alchemy by Peter Trent, Hawkesbury, ON, Canada  

oil painting
by Peter Trent

If we are to refer to the various rooms in an abode in other terms maybe we should then refer to our studios as Alchemists Laboratories as they are, indeed, places where chemical matter are turned into gold! Now I will have to desist from referring to my trips to the basement, where I have been consigned, as going to the Lab. Perhaps I’ll find a more positive affirmation rather than the current; “I’ll be down in the dungeon!”     On the stream by Mona Youssef, Ottawa, ON, Canada  

“Blue Shadows”
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Mona Youssef

There, where an artist elevates his/her human spirit, where raw ideas and imagination are transformed by the alchemy of self-visualisation into self-expression, sustaining oneself for survival, and where the mysterious transformations of inner feelings and personal emotions are freely painted on the dead canvas, retreating and cleaning the very private closed-in and hidden hygiene of some days, for months or for years!!. Why Niagara Falls has come to my mind now! Probably, because of the powerful waters that keep on pouring down with no limitations and none stop day and night, who can stop it or who can stop an artist from such actions, yet, from all the walks of life, people still come to watch the outcome or the down-come!!! Keep your easel on the stream. There is 1 comment for On the stream by Mona Youssef
From: Dichter — Jun 26, 2012

Your monochromatic work is excellent, but the overlay of copyright material spoils it for viewers.

  A sculptor’s workplace by Father Vincent Crosby, Latrobe, PA, USA  

“Green Conical”
fiber art
by Father Vincent Crosby

I read your thoughts very early in the morning when I arise for prayer and meditation. I am a monk and a priest and in my monastery where I work as an artist. Every day I go to my studio I feel privileged to be able to create beautiful things in this holy place. Understandably, I was excited this morning when I opened your letter and read the title “your easel, your altar.” I found your words inspiring but also a little disappointing. Whenever I tell people I work as an artist, almost always the first question is “Oh, what do you paint?” I then have to explain that I am not a painter, I am a sculptor and a fabric artist. It seems that in most people’s minds the word “artist” is synonymous with “painter.” The truth is that there are very many artists who don’t work at easels. Everyone’s “altar” is different but the same sacrifice is offered nonetheless.   There is 1 comment for A sculptor’s workplace by Father Vincent Crosby
From: Anonymous — Jun 26, 2012

Father Vincent Crosby: “Green Conical” speaks of your talent for bringing out the best in fabric and spare design. Beautiful!

  Guard your own haven by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA  

“The Elliott House”
oil painting, 14 x 11 inches
by Diane Overmyer

It’s funny that you should post now… just after I have recently visited three area artist’s studios, whose spaces are each holy. When I say holy, I am referring to the meaning of holy, which simply put means “set apart.” Each of my artist friend’s studios has a unique flavor and reflects not only the art they create in their studios, but also their personalities. The one common denominator was that their studios were all warm, inviting and were obviously reserved only for the function of creating art. So as I have reflected on my own studio, I have realized that I must better guard my own haven for creating art. No more using it as a dumping ground of items that don’t have a better place to be stored. No more extra furniture or file cabinets. Basically I know if I can eliminate about 1/3 of material and furniture that currently is in my studio, I will be more apt to truly enjoy it and be more productive at my easel. Now could someone just provide me with an extra storage room for all of this stuff? There are 2 comments for Guard your own haven by Diane Overmyer
From: patti — Jun 26, 2012

your comment resonates with me!! my painting space sounds like yours…I hope someone has a good answer for us!!!!!!!

From: chris may — Jun 26, 2012

If its that much of a bother, stop storing it! I have been on a few-year purge, everything from clothing to selling some of my livestock! and I havent’ missed a single thing, not one. Its freed me greatly and not tripping over things I’m not using is a relief.

  Return of the spirit by Kristin Vignal, Prince George, BC, Canada  

“Camera shy”
pastel painting
by Kristin Vignal

My easel and I go back a long way! In 1960 my dad bought me oil paints, a pad of canvas paper and an Ancobilt easel. Dad introduced me to the world of turpentine, linseed oil and the glorious texture and colours of oil paint, and taught me how to mix colours and apply it with brush or palette knife. It was a very special thing that my dad and I shared way back then. As I grew older my easel survived many moves, marriage and family. It was most often neglected during those busy years, but waited patiently for me to return to it. It is once again my best friend and rejoices in my small moments of triumph when a painting comes together or silently commiserates when things go awry. I would be lost without this link to my past and the old smears of dried oil paint on the support shelf are like the spirit of my dad watching me as I stand before my easel. There are 3 comments for Return of the spirit by Kristin Vignal
From: Kathleen J — Jun 26, 2012

Kristin – Love your story, I too have an easel given to me by my father. I love everything about this painting! Another great story. Thank you for taking the time to share.

From: Michael — Jun 26, 2012

Nice idea for a painting ! and nicely executed too.

From: Suszanne Bernat Droney — Jun 28, 2012

I can certainly relate to your comments in “Return of the Spirit.” My artist dad has left behind his wonderful wooden Gaxiola easel that I now have in my studio. I love it. It is a daily reminder of his presence in my life. He introduced me to art from the day I was born. I love the smell of linseed oil and turpentine and I love to see his paint brushes that I also have in my possession. These items take me back to my youth with my father while he was painting in his studio. I was only 22 when he died in 1964, but he has been with me every day since then. And I have him and his magical easel watching me paint.

  Looking for the Holy Grail by Barbara Youtz, New Harbor, ME, USA  

“Yellow and blue”
watercolour painting
by Barbara Youtz

My friend Liz, who quit painting at 92, used to paint on a TV tray next to her car trunk. Liz turned out the most wonderful watercolors. Bill, who was a little younger at 91, used a folding arm chair with cup holders for his water, and balanced his paper on his lap. Bill’s paintings were the envy of everyone in our group. I used my very expensive heavy easel and turned out paintings that were sometimes pleasing and other ones that would fit into the category that my friend Barbara calls “Looser Paintings.” What I finally realized is that Liz and Bill brought not only their well honed painting skills to their painting sessions but also easy to transport gear… that is lightweight and simple. This knowledge came only after I developed torn rotator cuffs in both shoulders and noticed that several of my painter friends, (mostly older women) suffered from the same ailment. But where there is a will there is a way and since Liz and Bill had about 20 years on me, I decided that my physical limitations would not stop me from painting. So as a senior who loves plein air painting, my quest was to go in search of the Holy Grail of easels, which I have yet to find. When I do, I will set it up in some magnificent scenic place, surrounded by kindred spirits, with the sun shining warm upon my back and paint my brains out, at my altar to the paint gods — my easel!!!   Art experts by David Solly Sandler, Perth, Western Australia   I have been told that when an artist sells you a painting he is not selling you the copyright to the painting and that the artist still owns the copyright to the painting and he can sell this copyright to a third party. Is this correct? I know what I like and try to understand how art experts judge the best painting in a competition. Are there clearly defined standards for judging paintings? Would judges all around the world judge more or less the same? (RG note) Thanks, David. In most instances the artist owns the copyright to his or her work even though someone has purchased it. Your second question is a wall-banger. Jurors and art experts, while they may run in flocks and be birds of a feather, cannot be relied upon to have consistent, universal standards. Some are under-educated, some over-educated. There are those, though they may be brilliant, who are also prejudiced by poisonous pedagogy. Still others are commercially minded while others are spiritual and woo-woo. Some are merely political. Some prefer quality and craftsmanship; others dismiss quality and craftsmanship as old fashioned. Some go for art that has a sense of humour; others are not happy unless the work is dead serious. Some clever jurors like work that is clever. Some choose what they like without thinking things through. Still others just have a good eye like you and me. There is 1 comment for Art experts by David Solly Sandler
From: C M Henderson Bastrop, TX, USA — Jun 26, 2012

A noteabout jurors. I had one painting rejected for a live auction by one juror. About 2 years later,(I really liked this painting, but it remained in my studio because of the rejection) I re-entered it for the same live auction with different jurors. It was accepted and sold for twice the gallery price. You just never can put too much importance on one persons opinion.

  Sending jpegs before shipping by Bev Rodin, Willowdale, ON, Canada  

“Moody lillies fall”
watercolour painting, 40 x 48 inches
by Bev Rodin

Any opinion on galleries or prospective galleries who want to see every image prior to the shipping of work so that the gallery can cherry pick every single piece? (RG note) Thanks, Bev. If this happened to me I wouldn’t be against sending a few jpegs. While it’s not always possible to make a judgment from photos, dealers and gallery owners need to connect with the art as well in order to be enthusiastic advocates. With the expedience of the Internet and the current high cost of shipping, this system is enjoying growth. There are 2 comments for Sending jpegs before shipping by Bev Rodin
From: Sheila Davis SCA OSA — Jun 26, 2012

I send every gallery jpgs to choose from…each gallery has its own particular client base (colour, size etc) that sells. You cant expect them hang onto or to pay to return an unsold piece that was not of their choosing..and I dont want work sitting around. the cost of shipping is a big consideration…also the work of loading and unloading the work to take and “see” if they want it.

From: Allan — Jun 26, 2012

Lovely, evocative painting. Congratulations

  Cutting edge not so sharp anymore? by Wietze Adema, Grand Rapids, MI, USA  

“Off Leonard on the way to the lake”
oil painting, 15 x 21 inches
by Wietze Adema

Is painting dead in the era of post modernism? In NYC this week checking out the art scene, concentrating on contemporary art, I was primarily interested in painting, but painting seems definitely in the tiny minority — lots of layered collages and some “bare bones” colored non-images. Most of the stuff was in the dark performance category, via video. The cutting edge stuff was bleak and extremely minimalist. It seemed bizarre, desperate, obscure, incomprehensible and in some cases, a reaching for extreme psychic expression. After seeing this, I wondered, is this the future? I mean, how do we stay relevant, by rehashing stuff that’s all been done before? At least my visit to MOMA was more exiting — higher quality and not as dark and depressing, but not cutting edge. Has painting the exterior world reached the end of the road because now there’s only the interior left? There are 2 comments for Cutting edge not so sharp anymore? by Wietze Adema
From: Virginia Wieringa — Jun 26, 2012

Sweet painting, Wietze! You ask wonderful questions. I hope you continue to follow your instincts to produce colorful and thoughtful images.

From: Shari L. Erickson — Jun 26, 2012

You could be describing the gallery scene in Portland, Oregon as well!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Your easel, your altar

From: Jackie Knott — Jun 22, 2012

“Ordo ab chao.” We all have our work environments to our liking but God, Robert, I don’t see how you work in such clutter. Your easel is nice and functional but I can’t imagine such a tiny palette. Do you work through several per painting or just one of this size? That begs the question do you mix your pigments on the canvas because I see very little space to do so on your palette? I know you work in acrylics but I doubt you use straight pigment out of the tube? Amazing ….

From: Alphonse Mostaert — Jun 22, 2012

His studio may be messy but his paintings are neat. Maybe there’s something psychological going on here.

From: Nick Chilvers — Jun 22, 2012
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Jun 22, 2012

Today you bring us ideas both interesting and inspiring. Your easel is a wonder of simplicity, especially the holes for the support pegs. A simple, yet sturdy battlefield for bringing order from chaos. I see a lot of spilled blood from the battle in the red marks below the painting! Thank you for this letter.

From: Dwight — Jun 22, 2012

Easels aren’t the only special made things. forty-five years ago I made my watercolor pallet out of white acrylic sheet because nobody made one with wells large enough for a two inch brush. Actually, there are not any yet that really fill the bill, though some have tried. Mine is 15 x 18 overall with 15 wells. Most of these have held the same pigments for the entire life of the pallet. There are also nine mixing areas, the largest three are 5 x 5. Two of the nine are reserved for special pigments that are not normally used, but needed for some special treatment in a particular painting.

From: Dr. Alicia R. Marroquin — Jun 22, 2012

Lawlor is a genius and for you to apply his perspectives of Sacred Space to the Easel, Art Studio is brilliant. Sacrifice is a key word…art bridges us to the spiritual world and the lofty beings respond. Hildegard von Bingen noted this in the 12th century.

From: Kathryn Hart — Jun 22, 2012

I completely agree with the sanctuary of the space.

From: J.R. Baldini — Jun 22, 2012

I had never thought about it in those terms, being a plein air painter, but my easel has a special place in my heart. It is treated with respect, never loaned out, inspected for maintenance, travels a lot and is praised in each workshop for carrying my supplies and my inspiration that comes forth from the magic tubes! With all that said I believe, it’s time to give ‘her’ a name.

From: Nora Wilhelmson — Jun 22, 2012

I love to receive you mailings for the insight and tips but there are times when you make inappropriate comments. This recent letter you mentioned the easel as an altar to be worshiped at respect the gods of quality, etc. As a Christian I find that disturbing because the first command God gave us is to worship Him and not have other gods. I would appreciate it if you could be more careful of some of your comments.

From: Ruth Cox — Jun 22, 2012

All the letters are good, but this is one to print out and read every day.

From: James Fox — Jun 22, 2012

This truth can also be said for the photographer who transforms images into works of art. The photographer’s easel is a computer monitor.

From: Gloria Miller Allen — Jun 22, 2012
From: Carole Mayne — Jun 22, 2012

Thank you again for your continued support and inspiration. I am surely feeling that not only is my easel my altar, but every breath I take. Especially in Italy! I’m thinking of you and Sara while I’m in this country we love!!

From: Gary Eddington — Jun 22, 2012

The typeface you use in your letters is such that the eye-mind can see words rather than with sans serif, where we see letters and then get the word from that. This extra step is why we fall asleep while reading emails and body copy on websites etc.. Keep doing what you do as you do it because you are visually communicating efficiently. It makes it easy for me to read and get your concepts which also deal with the visual.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Jun 22, 2012

The easel is an important part of the whole process of painting. It is an invaluable material as paints, pencils and others when the canvas is set up on the easel gives the artist a better perspective of the whole picture. It also provides a good place to dry the work. I think it should be given the proper attention as the painting.

From: Janet Butler — Jun 22, 2012

Your letter today makes me understand why I have to wash my hands before I start to write or watercolor, as well as have the apartment in order, paints clean and ready to go, the atmosphere calm and quiet, me too! I can only write/paint in moments of quiet and calm – which I do manage to find often enough! But I agree, our arts are sacred, as are the tools we use to make them.

From: Alex Howard, UK — Jun 22, 2012

One of the things that’s really fun about these live comments is the occasional, very occasional, really stupid things people write to you. I look for them and cherish them. Somehow, it makes my day to know that there are really stupid people out there.

From: Mary Makuta — Jun 22, 2012

I want to thank you for writing the wonderful emails I receive. Although you gear them specifically to artists with brushes, I find them equally inspirational to read before I go into my studio to weave or sew, in designing and creating something beautiful to wear or admire. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Ballwin, Missouri, USA

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 24, 2012
From: Anthony Lawlor — Jun 24, 2012

Thank you for the wonderful mention in “Your easel, your altar”. I greatly appreciate it and the valuable work you are doing with your letter.

From: Robin Shillcock — Jun 24, 2012

Loved your beautiful homage to that Sacred of the Sacred, the artist’s studio and his easel! Netherlands

From: Raye Pinder — Jun 24, 2012

My easels serve two purposes. One holds the painting while it dries each layer, so that I can contemplate it at length or in short intervals when the moment allows. The other is for the actual production where I sit or stand struggling to make paint become the thought or feeling or object of my attention at the time. It gives me peace, calm, and understanding of nature. It permits me to focus entirely on one thing instead of spreading myself over many. When compared to the work of others, my efforts are at about kindergarten stage but I still hope to one day produce something worth admiring if I live long enough to learn how to make such a painting come alive. Art keeps me humble.

From: Michael Aronoff — Jun 24, 2012

Thanks for your continued good articles. This one peaked my interest. I have long held my art spaces and easel as a sacred space. When I enter this Temenos I try to do so as a child in awe of the wonderful and profound ‘play’ time awaiting me. To approach one’s blank canvas or paper as to an oracle is to put out one’s best energies as well as trusting in one’s highest intuitions. Whatever comes out of it is a gift even if it is a “doggy” gift. Art is not only product well crafted , but process to evolve with. Some newer work ,in the works, are incorporating a 20 year fascination of mine with fractals. It might be my new religion. Organic patterns in nature, infinitely complex and aesthetically pleasing.

From: Barbara Fostka — Jun 24, 2012

I have been receiving your letters for years but this is the first time I have felt the need to respond. I totally agree with your letter “Your Easel, Your Alter”. I feel as artists we are the luckiest people in the world to have the ability to be totally “lost” in our art. To be able to be at our easel and have the ability to put everything else out of our mind except what we are currently working on is a wonderful gift. Keep those letters coming, I have sent them to everyone I know.

From: Wanda — Jun 25, 2012

Thank you for adding where the workshop was/is being held. That sure helps us ground bound folks who just wish we could be there.

From: Peggy Woolsey — Jun 26, 2012

I have a serious anthropological/archeological interest in alters and shrines. Theories abound in my head and naturally work their way into my paintings. I have come to think of my studio as a field site and my work is a big dig into, well, what comes up after all that digging. The easels (I use two according to the way the light changes through the day) are certainly central to the process. It might also help that I work on a dirt floor–my studio is a filled in indoor swimming pool (12 dumptruck loads to fill it). I move from the shallow to the deep end all day. Thanks for your column and for all the responses.

From: Sherry P. — Jun 27, 2012

I don’t know about Robert and his method of madness, but as an acrylic painting most of my color mixing is straight out of the tube and on the canvas. I have found for years that this is the best way to keep a match of values concise.

     Featured Workshop: Gibsons School of the Arts
062612_robert-genn Gibsons School of the Arts workshops Held in Gibsons, BC, Canada   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Sun Iris

acrylic painting, 90 x 78 inches by Darney Willis, AR, USA

  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, 2013. That includes Alison L. Webb of Asheville, NC, USA, who wrote, “One of my art teachers said, ‘A studio is where you put something down and find it in the place you left it.’ ” And also Gary Eddington of Baltimore MD, USA, who wrote, “In art school we learned of the magical language of marks on paper, color, design and form. Now there is fine art, form. I sometimes think life is just a worship of the female form. I just saw the Degas show in Paris and I’m on board with that. Seeing the art Nouveau was also, for me, very sensual and seductive. Grace is a worthy goal of art; I see grace of form as a key to the longevity of a piece.” And also Cindy Klong of Rancho Santa Fe, CA, USA, who wrote, “I use my mom’s easel and several tools she used before she passed away. I feel her presence when I use them and it’s a warm connection.”    

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