It’s a matter of getting an olive into your martini from across the bar. According to the handbook for “extreme bartending,” this sort of performance excites clients, alleviates boredom, speeds consumption, and sells liquor. Recently, while witnessing an example of extreme teriyaki, I was reaching for the wasabi when a flaming cleaver landed dangerously close to my hand. In any case, the next morning I had to have my suit dry-cleaned.
While I was waiting for this to happen I was realizing the value of extreme painting. Pollock, de Kooning, the Expressionists. Secretly, you can do it yourself. Like extreme naked rumba, it’s also okay to do it alone.
Try squeezing out four times your regular amount of colour. Dig out that giant brush you’ve never used. What’s wrong with dribbling anyway? Who said you couldn’t flick a ball of paint across the studio? What else is there around here? A good elbow, a whole sweater, the dog’s tail?
Anyway, we’re talking “warm up” here. And seriously, it’s valuable. It’s valuable because pushing yourself to extremes blows out the cobwebs of trusted habit. It shakes up what you know to be reliably safe and substitutes the miracle of insecurity. Going pantless over the ski-jump does something for the blood. Speed alone gets the red stuff coursing. Here’s an exercise: Make a big painting — complete right down to the signature — in the morning before your coffee gets cold. A great big whatever. Do this every morning for a week. What you’ll find is that it’ll have a positive effect on your regular work. You’ll do better and you’ll do more. You’ll start to process ideas faster, work more efficiently, and you’ll be more generally inventive. The blast of excitement will invigorate, and you’ll be less tired at the end of the day. You don’t have to show this stuff — they may even turn out to be sorry sights — but you never know. Life’s an exercise where we have the choice to test extremes as well as to work the tried and true. Both have value. But if we never test the extremes — well, we’ll never know.
PS: “It’s better to be sorry for what you did, than for what you didn’t do.” (Anonymous)
Esoterica: It’s useful to make a list of potential tools. Take a few minutes in your contemplation-chair, casting your eyes around your creative space. Your list may turn out to be longer than you first thought: Spritzer, roller, scraper, stick, comb, brayer, sieve, spatula, feather, gravity, that sort of thing. An open-minded, non-food trip to the kitchen will reveal a bunch more. Down in the basement that old box of “bought-but-never-used” art materials may be a treasure. “Puff paint — how totally extreme.”
I love your thought-processes. In a bar, with your hand nearly severed by a flaming cleaver, no less, and you are thinking of how you can get paint on a canvas while shooting it from across the room. Bartending finesse is called “Flare.” My nephew in Ottawa teaches bartending at Algonquin College — imagine, learning to toss bottles of liquor around can earn you credits! Anyway, I believe you are onto something about the freewheeling paint-throwing exercise to loosen us up. I’m gonna try it! It would help break the bonds of “I don’t want to make a mistake,” and “oh, this has got to turn out in a certain way.
For about six weeks now after 40 years and some 3000 landscapes of semi realistic watercolors, oils and acrylics, I began to work on large, two feet by five or larger boards with a lot of paint and even gesso stuff. It feels good and the results have been satisfying. I am not there yet but the tightness is gone and the look is still exhibition worthy.
Besides Willem de Kooning there is another great Dutch painter… Karel Appel! He said in a documentary once Ik rotzooi maar wat aan. (translation: “I just mess around with paint.”)
Harmony, spirit and true life
by Monique Le Garff, La Charite Sur Loire, France
Thank you very much for your suggestion regarding the idea to paint every day on a large surface. I need encouragements and yours seem to show up just in time. This a great thing to communicate to people what you communicate, that way I “stay alive” concerning my painting. It is deeply important. I have a spiritual goal in terms of painting, a goal related to human beings of course. My conviction is that we have the keys of life inside us. Through my own practice, I search those keys: harmony, spirit, true life.
Don’t be afraid of the dark” trick
by Alison Mackie
Do you remember as a child, the sensation of playing ball in the twilight? How a ball thrown at you had different qualities, surrealistic almost. Need to loosen up a little? Take a painting — one which vexes you — and wait until dusk to work on it. The only light is weak: the quickly diminishing twilight of outdoors. Paint right into the darkness. While painting in these conditions the mind shifts gears, engaging the unconscious. Unique ‘insights’ happen in the dark. Its incredible… try it, you’ll see.
The “distant palette” trick
A relatively mild “extreme” trick I learned from Jose Bellver, one of my favorite teachers, is to place my palette on the opposite end of the room from the canvas. A lot can happen while walking away from the canvas — the brush can be loaded with a dim memory of the canvas in one portion of the mind (or even a vision of how it should be) while the rest of the mind becomes lost in the pigments, and turning around and seeing the canvas from a distance can be startling. Walking back to the canvas becomes an adventure that is never the same twice. Sometimes I run with eagerness, sometimes I charge in anger. Sometimes I slouch back with humility. The one disadvantage is that the walk gives time to think, and thinking always screws up the works. I try to keep hard knockin’ rock ‘n roll playing to drown out the critical voice in my head.
Kill the canvas trick
At a time when there was a lack of money and motive I found myself using up every tidbit of materials that I had around the studio. I found an old sketchpad and dug up conte crayons, charcoal vines, pastel chalks and graphite. I stared at the first empty sheet for a moment. I looked at my watch. I almost became dizzy as I filled each page picking up one medium after the other and swiftly depicting designs from my inner depths. Page after page turned before my eyes and I filled them. It was exhilarating to say the least and I liked some of the creations. What was I thinking when I stared at that first blank page? I remembered the words that Willem de Kooning advised Sir Paul McCartney when he asked about the pain of facing a blank canvas. His advice was, “Kill the canvas.”
Make stuff trick
by Sam Hunter, Simi Valley, CA, USA
As a sculpture student in those last sprint weeks of a marathon semester, I was losing sight of the fact that a certain amount of play is necessary to the growth of me as an artist — and that ultimately, that growth is more important than the grade. Today is an art day — and to quote Fred Babb — I’m gonna “go to the studio and make stuff!”
Artists’ trading cards
by Merrilyn Huycke, Princeton, BC, Canada
My form of extreme painting is “go small or go home.” I do artists trading cards for my limbering up exercises. These cards are traded with others. They are original works of art in trading card size and are traded one for one no matter who you are. They are such a great way to try new things without wasting a lot of money. They are great fun. I have other people’s cards made of everything from tin cut from cans, Mylar, tea bags, fabric, digital prints, old magazines etc. I once did a solo show based on ideas that grew from the nerve I acquired doing my cards. My daughter drags her collection everywhere. As you build up a binder of other people’s work you can refer to them for inspiration and for just plain unadulterated pleasure at having all those little jewels of art.
(RG note) Sites with info on the worldwide phenomena of artist trading cards are “Artist Trading Cards: A Collaborative Cultural Performance,” “Artist Trading Cards’ Journal” and “Tarot Card Project.”
Feet as tools
by Sandra Nickeson, St. Louis, MS, USA
A few months ago, I put on Bob Marley, Youssou N’Dour and R.E.M. CDs and “danced” my paintings. Here’s the process: Place a tarp of some sort on the floor. Place shallow containers for paint around the perimeter. Grab some old rag rugs and a large container into which you put hot water and dishwashing liquid. Gather up a bunch of old rags and a small stool. Place your canvas on the tarp. Prime or not. Crank up the music, and “dance” whatever the music seems to require. Try to choose colors which relate specifically to the sounds and the spirit of the lyrics. Work out the balance issues. Have fun!
On December 6, my birthday, I will begin a sojourn which brings this approach to Tambacounda, Senegal, West Africa as part of TGD4 (Tambaounda/Geneva/Dakar, for the organizing cities), an international artist exchange which will find me making art alongside and with artists from 16 other countries, teaching workshops, negotiating language and cultural differences via the miracle of art expression. This is the living out of a dream seed planted in me since second grade. The Wolof of Senegal have a phrase which pulls me forward: Ma na am (It is possible!)
(RG note) Sandra Nickeson is founder of the Earthart Collective and Artiss Amal Yemukay (Artists Without Borders).
Tempted to stop early
by John Pryce
I’m always appreciative of your candor in regards to the mysteries of the creative process. Your letter on Extreme Painting is of particular interest because I’m in the final stages of a rather large oil painting. I’m keeping vigilant to retain the looseness of the small sketch and not to use small brushes. I was tempted to stop at the initial acrylic “block in” as it was so spontaneous and exciting. I worked with absolutely no inhibitions and was concerned strictly with design and colour for the under-painting. The results were surprising and I have to ask myself, at what point is this not a finished painting?
Play to heart’s content
by Anne Copeland, Lomita, CA, USA
I was helping a friend’s movers get her things to send back to Kansas. It was bitterly cold and I had no jacket. The mover saw me shivering and let me pick out a brand new moving blanket and go sit in the car with it. I kept it wrapped around me on the way home and suddenly it came to mind as the most wonderful fiber-arts blank. For all its utilitarian purpose, it was a wonderfully visual canvas. I envisioned cutting it up, putting objects on it such as lace and screen and roller painting over them, putting leaves in paint and pressing them on, etc. It has one color on one side and another color on the other side, so I can use the different colored backgrounds to make totally different fiber-arts pieces. How wonderfully freeing it is and how conducive to growth in design to know that it doesn’t matter if I screw up because I have something that didn’t cost anything to start with and I can just play to my heart’s content.
Wishes she would splatter too
by Cathie Harrison
As a former teacher I find the advice in this letter right on. Change is so essential to creativity, a change of tools, of size of the canvas, of location… all feed the creative soul. I had a high school student once who only wanted to splatter paint in spite of the structured “lessons” in the basics that I was trying to share. At some point I decided that he needed to get this out of his system so I gave him a refrigerator box size piece of cardboard, set him up outside and let him splatter. He was so engaged and happy doing this and I think learned more about how “Joyful” painting can be than any of the other important “basics.” He did eventually tire of splattering and went on to do some really creative photographs of frozen water and mud puddles which he turned into a neat artist book. I think of him often when I see artists such as one very “successful” one who sells a lot of paintings. When I go to her shows I squint my eyes and see one painting. Her style is so predictable that the subject is irrelevant. I so want to see her do a splatter painting and break out a little. She is highly skilled and yet totally motivated by the marketplace. She took a trip to Africa recently and I thought: “This is it, her paintings will change.” Nope, she may as well have been in her own backyard, they looked just like the south of France or the interiors of her house.
Digital white balance and colour profiles
by Marvin Hendrickson, North Island, New Zealand
Reading the way many of the artists are using their digital cameras I couldn’t help but notice there was no mention of using the “white balance” feature that most cameras have. You cannot rely on the automatic “white balance” feature of cameras if you want accurate colour. Also, you don’t need special lights to get beautiful and accurate colour in your digital pix. Set your camera on “manual white balance” and using a piece of white card or paper set the camera’s white balance feature for the light that you are actually using at the time. It’s very simple to do. Getting your white balance right is the most important step in getting accurate colour rendition.
The next thing essential for accuracy is using “colour profiles.”
If you want to be very particular as I am you can get a profile for you camera or you can make one using a program such as Profile Prism which is what I use. I, like a lot of others, use Photoshop for image adjustment and manipulation but I do most of my printing with a tremendously powerful, versatile and inexpensive program called Qimage which allows one to have complete control of colour using ICC (International Colour Consortium) profiles for your camera, scanner, printer and each art paper that you use. You use these ICC profiles if you are really serious about accurate colour and getting the full spectrum of colour in your pictures and prints.
I easily make 13″ by 19″ pictures from my 5 megapixel files using Qimage which has several built in interpolation methods for making large or small prints of maximum sharpness. It has tons of other goodies, automatically makes web size pix of whatever size and resolution you want, automatically adjusts images to fit in any size print format you want, etc etc.
I could give the links for these programs. I have no affiliation with the author of these programs whatsoever. l just love to use Qimage like tens of thousands of others and the guy that writes them is one of those few geniuses that is not greedy. Once you buy Qimage you get free updates forever. I’ve been updating for 2 years now.
Monitors and projectors use RGB colour but in printing we use CMYK colour. Translating from one to the other is where the ICC profiles come in. It’s actually fun to play in this colour gamut game.
Still more digital info
by Michael Cooper
I am a commercial photographer, I read your comments re photographing art work. Please remember as was always, to have something in your photo (my illustrator friend used a visa card instead of the $100 colour checker to provide a guide for the labs) if you are intending to print and get accurate colour.
I would not reproduce art work shot on a low end consumer digital camera in print for I fear that all the beautiful colour you put in to the image will be lost. We use high-end camera backs ($25,000 – 45,000). Obviously these are out of reach for non pros. The colour there is better than that of a transparency. It is important to set black and white points in digital images. This will allow for better reproduction as well. But in saying this I must say what ever is good enough for you… works. The last international award I won was with a toy camera!
The next problem is archival of images so you can retrieve them fast and have all info available. In photoshop you can imbed file info into the image. All this EXIF info is searchable in cataloguing software. I use Extensis portfolio, cheap and efficient. I usually put the images into a folder then sub folders, i.e., if I did a commercial job for Ogilvy that was for IBM I would start with — disc_101, Ogilvy, IBM, E-dentity (being the job), with these three folder inside the last one Original files, final files, contacts. Currently I have the equivalent of 1100 CDs of imagery (about 100,000 images). I can find any image within 2 minutes.
Leda and the Swan
oil, pencil and crayon on canvas
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 Ben Novak who wrote, “I like attending the occasional workshop on methods or materials I do not normally use. It’s fun to see what can happen. I also look for hidden treasures in parts of larger works, which may work on their own as an abstract.”
And also Sue Bussoli who wrote, “Today, the person cutting my mats said that helping me gives her good karma.”
And also Doran William Cannon, CA who wrote, “The painting may have taken all of ten minutes, maybe less, certainly no more, but for me, it was a single visceral experience out of love and damnation for my father lost.”
And also Donna B Watts of Bend, OR, USA who wrote, “The other day I reached for my jar of charcoal powder, only to realize that it is among the “stored stuff.” I did have some large stick of charcoal on hand. I headed for the kitchen, grabbed the grater and, holding it over the areas where I wanted the dust, I grated away. It worked “grate!’ ”
And also Jane Morris-Wyatt who wrote, “I loved this letter. The extremes are what we remember in life. I remember the first time I wore my white downhill suit in the American finals with just me inside. The less you have on the faster you go. It’s true. What a rush. I will not forget that run and I won it to boot.”
And also Luke Charchuk who wrote, “What in hell are you talking about? You sound like Pollock spitting paint in Arabic cyclical verses before the writing of Mohamed. I will take my olive, shaken not stirred, dry as a bone, toss me another! The flame thrower schtick comes from flatulent fuel, a wagging tail (or tongue) of sorts, waging war on innocence.”