Major Woolly


Dear Artist,

After my last letter on the almost-dark test, Linda Bean wrote, “I was ecstatic to see your mention of ‘woolly.’ I’ve had that problem — and when trying to correct it with a bold stroke, it still seems woolly. Can you tell me what causes woolliness and the process of correction?”


“Rainforest Gardens”
original painting
by Linda J Bean

Thanks, Linda. Funny how a few words can bring in literally hundreds of queries. Everything from “Please define ‘major –woolly'” to “Who was Major Woolly? I am unable to Google him.” Woolly, of course, is itself a style, and many artists report that they purposely make areas — or even whole paintings — soft, fuzzy and mysterious. To most of us, however, woolly means those areas in which form dissolves and meaning is lost. “Unresolved,” in art school jargon.

Unwanted woolly is caused by either a bored eye or an uninformed eye. The bored eye haunts the mature artist. This artist has blind areas where he or she doesn’t care to go anymore. This arises from laziness or rote thinking where creativity is lulled to temporary rest — leaving too much in the hands of the unreliable gods. Long-time professionals who regularly hit the mark know that every area of every new work must be visited as if new. Experience is valuable, but so is virginity.

The uninformed eye, on the other hand, does not look closely enough into inner thoughts or creative reference. Funny as it seems, some artists are afraid to look too hard for fear they might be influenced. There is of course a place for flats, blurs and meaningless areas. But when unresolved areas offer an opportunity to add energy or interest, they need to be addressed. Nothing beats stopping and sitting back to think things out. The question “What could be?” is gently asked of the major-woolly, and the answer is sometimes found. “Look three times, think twice, paint once,” is the common antidote.

Forming up and fixing the major-woollies is actually one of the fun games of the creative process. Art is the making of something out of nothing. Dewoollification stimulates the brain. I look at my woollies as challenging puzzles. Sometimes it’s actually worthwhile to commit an early woolly in order to gain the pleasure of the fix. As with the New York Times crossword puzzle, there’s no prize but satisfaction.

Best regards,


PS: “If a form isn’t right, if it’s erased, the correction has meaning. It’s the process of the mind, moving and making. The form doesn’t drop from outer space.” (Elliott Green)

Esoterica: Much of the more exciting art is a yin and yang of the real and the unreal, between form and formlessness. If style is your goal, it’s in the interstices of the formless that style is often found. Otherwise we would be just looking at things as they are in nature. Feelings tend to arise in this area too. “Feelings,” said Gustave Flaubert, “aren’t everything. Art is nothing without form.”


Helpless lover
by Helen Opie, Bridgewater, NS, Canada

I have found that when I have an unresolved-feeling painting, or one I know has problems and yet I cannot identify what they are, propping or hanging it near where I talk on the phone brings me to look at it while my over-thinking mind is busy talking on the phone. And suddenly, zing-o, I see what it is that I need to do to resolve the problem — and it may be that my stumbling block has been falling in love with an area or the way a little part is rendered, and this very part is what I need to change. It’s important not to cling to a painting like a dysfunctional, helpless lover.


Fun with Mrs. Woolly
by Barbara Woollcombe, Pender Island, BC, Canada

Major Woolly has been hanging around my studio, giving advice, harrumphing in the Major Hoople style, but generally being a most inspiring guest. Since my nickname, after my marriage, has been Mrs. Woolly, I find this to be a serendipitous meeting.

I have been trying for a long time to do what Laury Ravenstein suggested in her list of nine areas of creative thinking, and have got as far as number nine. A unique voice, a distinct style, has eluded me. I’m all over the place. But lately I have been working with the Major, and purposely woollying. Glazing. Scumbling. It certainly is fun.


Knitting your woollies
by John Carson, Montignac-Charente, France

Recently I bullied a friend of mine, Peter Matthews, an ex-London art teacher, painter and engraver, into criticizing my work on the condition that he had carte blanche. He demurred saying no amateur could take it. I countered that after over 50 years as a professional actor you don’t escape personal criticism more murderous in intent than anything he could dream up. ‘Knitting!’ he pronounced. ‘You’re just knitting. Look at this area. You’ve lost concentration, imagination, ideas. In short, you’ve lost your way. Dab, dab, dab, knit, knit, knit!’ he said. ‘If I bought some different coloured wool?’ I asked. ‘Throw away the needles! Go back and look,’ he answered. My wife, who learnt her screenwriting from that inspiring producer, Jim Hill, says she identifies frighteningly with the knitting process (metaphorically, she’s not too good with socks and scarves), those lethal doldrums where the cursor demands feeding and the broken rhythms of typewriter keys make a pretence of ‘working’. Hill’s dictum was that if a scene won’t resolve itself, it probably shouldn’t be there.


Historic examples of woolly landscape
by Gabriella Morrison

Many examples of paintings in the plein air category are really fine examples of woolly painting. Some I made five years ago have been described by my husband, in his inimitable fashion, as “popcorn landscapes,” in other words — woolly. The trouble with these paintings is that they notate in a very generalized fashion those forms which are observed in nature. Similarly, once I had begun to study the historic examples of the treatment of landscapes in early European paintings, I noticed the remarkable shorthand that operated to give form to vegetation and trees. The woolly treatment of landscape elements in some of these older examples indicate that while it was okay to give specificity to important areas of paintings, such as figures and their accoutrements, aspects which were deemed to be of minor interest did not deserve the same kind of looking attention from painters. To me the term “woolly” means lack of specificity.

(RG note) Thanks, Gabriella. Consider some specificity, and some mystery. The combination, when arbitrary, fascinates.


Too old to cut the mustard?
by Brian Petroski, Schuylerville, NY, USA


“Tropical Manifestation”
oil painting
by Brian Petroski

One thing that I have been wondering for so long… Is there an age that an artist can reach where he is not yet represented by galleries and they will no longer look at him because he is no longer “young”? I will be 28 next month and have heard that once you reach 30, your chances of representation and really making it are drastically reduced. Is there any truth to this?

Also, how important is it to graduate from a MFA program? I went to a good art school, Skidmore College, but did not receive a BFA, but rather a BS. Will this weigh negatively on my Bio? Do galleries consider artists if they don’t have a BFA or an MFA no matter how good they are?

(RG note) Thanks, Brian. Age and education are non-starters. What’s important is the quality of your work. There are guys of 65 who parachute in and have outrageously successful careers. There are fully educated people of all ages who can’t paint beans. Think of your education, whatever the degree, as a broadening of your humanistic understanding and your creative literacy. To my knowledge no one has ever walked into an art gallery and asked, “Do you have anything by an MFA?”


Mobile easel for the handicapped
by Jim Webb, West Chester, PA, USA

I’m now 71 and mentally 20 on my outlook on life. Somewhat handicapped with having major bypass surgery in my right leg where the vein was used to replace a blown artery plus the amputation of 80% of my right foot, I don’t let this stop me going into the field and paint. I have a new Chevy Express Van fitted out with an electric crane which I use to handle my electric scooter. Question 1: Would you permit me to build a version of your Art-dog easel to tow behind my scooter? I can walk but must be ever careful with over stressing my leg. Question 2: Is the easel shown in your studio home-built and does it use wooden pegs to adjust the height of the canvas. I used this system years ago when painting signs. I’m an excellent brush mechanic.


The Art Dog









(RG note) Thanks, Jim. Please go ahead and build one. I’ll mail you some photos. My brother Denis built the Art Dog. We refined the design over three tries. The one shown is the Mark 3. Canvases are held in place with Velcro. You can throw canvases at it like Frisbees — and they stick. I suggest you also give some thought to a simple easel device that attaches directly to your scooter. Please send photos if you make one of those. Scooters are around the corner for a lot of us. Someday they’ll be selling like Smarts. My studio easel uses simple (steel) pegs in holes. My dad helped me build that one and I love it.


Morning, noon and night
by Joan Lansdell, Summerland, BC, Canada

I work in soft pastel and find that my paintings take on a glow in the evening; they even seem to acquire more depth and expression. I often move them into another room and look at them in early morning and late evening. It gives me a chance to see weaknesses. I do a lot of changes at night light as well as early morning.

(RG note) Thanks, Joan. Taking work outside in broad daylight is different than it is in the late or early hours. It takes courage and it’s a bit of a shock sometimes, but if you’re particular, needy colours can be readily noted and adjusted. The fussy artist gives credence to all three conditions. Taking work-in-progress outdoors is a worthwhile exercise because art, in its long life, is seen in all lights.


Single-point light on sculpture
by James Kay, Salt Lake City, UT, USA


“Buffalo Woman”
original sculpture
by James Kay

After reading your article about the almost dark test I have a better understanding of the problems facing 2-dimensional artists. Being a 3-dimensional artist frees me from the color concerns that 2-dimensional artists experience. For a long time now I have used various light sources to view sculptures either in progress or completed. The single point reference available by candlelight seems to be the most revealing. The variation of light, both location and intensity, is what makes sculpture come alive. A sculpture changes throughout the day with the different light available and the shadows produced by candlelight are interesting in themselves. I plan to try some digital photography under candlelight soon. It will be interesting to see what the camera sees under those light conditions.


Bird’s eye view in sculpture
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, TX, USA


“I am You”
original sculpture
by Kelly Borsheim

In sculpture, the view that one might see the least is often the most helpful during creation of the work -– the bird’s eye view. Yes, it allows the artist to see the composition in a new way, but mainly it reveals how all sides of the work relate (or not) to each other. Often the view from the top helps one correct the form so that the next step can be to address the unwanted woollies. Seeing from the bird’s point of view has given me many Eureka! moments and leads to your observed “pleasure of the fix.” This satisfaction only occurs, however, if I do it before the work leaves the studio!


Monkey business
by Ted (Marshall) Chapman, Pine Valley, CA, USA


tempera on paper by
Congo the chimp

Our local newspaper reported that a painting by Congo went for $26,352 at auction at Bonham’s in London, England. A Renoir and Warhol didn’t sell. (Congo is a deceased Chimpanzee.) Has the world gone nuts or is there hope for everyone. Should I rent an ape costume?

(RG note) Thanks, Ted. Some monkeys do better work than other monkeys. Darwin discovered that. Also, some dead monkeys go up, others are forgotten. It’s the law of the jungle. A costume won’t automatically make a monkey out of you.


Voluntary mutism
by Sasha Star McClure

You wrote a letter regarding “mutism” (the practice of not talking about or showing one’s work before one is ready to share it) a while back. I’ve been practicing mutism ever since and it has helped me a great deal. However I have had a hard time explaining the concept of mutism to friends and would love to share the letter about mutism with them. Would it be possible for you to send me the mutism letter again? I would truly appreciate it.

(RG note) Thanks, Sasha. You can always go to previous subjects by accessing the Painter’s Keys search engine located on most pages. Just tap in the approximate title or keywords as you remember them. Voluntary mutism is available here. I’d say more, but it’s such a good concept that I’m going to be mute about it.


Clarifying a career path
by Stephanie Bridges-Bledsoe, Jamestown, NC, USA

I’m writing to you to ask if you think I’ve mistaken an avid interest for a calling. I’ve often wondered what makes a person become an art patron but not an artist himself — if he has that much interest in art, why not do it himself as opposed to being just an appreciator of others’ work? For myself, I assume my avid interest in art means I’m supposed to make art, not sit on the sidelines and buy other people’s art.

This is what has convinced me: the one question to which I can answer “no” is perhaps the most important for anyone pursuing any career — “Can you imagine doing anything else for your life’s work?” I also sing and for a long time in my youth I thought I wanted to do it professionally. In early adulthood I discovered I didn’t and I haven’t regretted the decision. I can’t imagine not singing either, even performing occasionally, but it’s deeply personal and not what I want for a career. Art is what I want for a career.

In The Painter’s Keys you write: “Creativity is my salvation… not to work is a sin.” Julia Cameron writes something similar: “O Great Creator, help [me]to create as an act of worship to you.” These are thoughts that resonate very strongly with me, and further confirm my decision to pursue art professionally.

So why am I writing? I’m experiencing an artistic block the size of Texas — the fear of not gaining the necessary skill to go pro has stopped me from even picking up a pencil lately. Now, the head believes firmly in the “walk before running” theory. I know there are really bad drawings in the way of the good ones, and the only way to the good ones is through the bad ones — in other words, “practice.”

But fear can be paralyzing. And it can make us doubt what we believe to be true. And it can make us lose sleep, as you can see from the time stamp on this message! Any thoughts?

(RG note) Thanks, Stephanie. Very often a career path is chosen when all other paths turn out to be dead ends. Multi-talented people do not have this benefit. The way to hot wire one thing or the other is to immerse yourself in one process or the other. Give yourself a time frame and forget the call of otherness. You must accept for the time being your narrower gift and accept the challenge to refine it. Simply dump fear and guilt. You are right, you have to fall in love with process and do those bad drawings before the good ones come. Yes, it takes a religious tenacity. No one but no one can “put in a nickel and expect a dollar tune.”


Questions about a commission
by Pippi Johnson, Kenora, ON, Canada


“Soft & Golden”
tryptich oil on canvas
by Pippi Johnson

I am a painter who is starting to do well with my sales due to consistent hard work and marketing. I have sold at least one painting a month for the last 18 months. I work hard every day and follow all of what you spoke about in being a ‘professional.’ I am really pleased with the way my paintings are evolving and love what I am doing.

I have been offered a large commission… 10 feet x 5 feet. I do paint large and am excited that the customer likes my work enough to make it the focal point of her beautiful new home. I am working up some sketches. But now the business part. I will need to spend a lot on some specially made canvases and intend to spend a month to paint this. Should I have a contract to protect both of us? Do I ask for money up front? How should I make the presentation? And what should I charge?

(RG note) Thanks, Pippi. I don’t bother with contracts in situations like this. I go ahead and buy what I need and unless the commission is very specific and esoteric (like a portrait of their great aunt) I don’t bother with up front money either. I do a couple of sketches and either email or fax them. They generally decide right away. I charge the same as a regular gallery would for that size — maybe just a wee bit more.


Grenada calling
by Suelin Low Chew Tung

I live in Grenada in the sunny Caribbean. I’m a member of the Grenada Arts Council. The GAC has been operating for over 40 years to educate our public on art appreciation and to promote our visual artists, who number approximately 200 in various media on this island. We’re taking a show to Miami, Florida in August to raise funds to replace supplies lost when Hurricane Ivan hit us rather hard last September. My question is what are the requirements to set up an artist retreat here in Grenada for visiting artists, and would International artists want to paint in Grenada?

(RG note) Thanks, Suelin. Yer bloomin’ rights we want to paint in Grenada, hang loose with you guys, sit in the sun and feel the northeast trade winds. A lot of artists like to bunk in with local artists so they don’t have big hotel bills. Perhaps invite a well-known workshop artist — or one of your own to make it educational and show people around. Keep it loose to start with. In order that you get lots of calls I’ll see that you get a free ad on our own Studios Worldwide.






acrylic painting
by Brian Simons, Victoria, BC, Canada


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, 2005.




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