Illusionary structures


Dear Artist,

On Tuesday, Caroll McDonald wrote, “Right now I’m painting old structures, especially deserted homes — all with the same dark palette. There is difficulty with one — it looks like it’s in a cemetery. Do these works take on their own personality? Sometimes I can imagine or feel or know the story of the people who lived in the structure. Are these feelings real, or are they imagined by me? In this particular one, there was a little girl who was not treated well, who had dreams and hopes of escaping but never did. Her mother was a large slovenly woman with a greasy apron. Her father was a man of no consequence. Where did these thoughts come from? Should I let the painting emerge as is, or should I make it a happy place, thereby maybe helping the little girl whose name is Misty?”

There are at least two paintings to be had from this illusion. One is the dark and depressing side that you describe. The other is the escape, freedom and happiness that you wish for Misty. As an artist your job is to explore the potential that your imagination prompts. Don’t lock yourself into one palette. Art, as well as being an examination of truth, is also catharsis — in this case those thoughts may well be coming from your own past — and it’s valuable to both represent and exorcise them.

Did you ever notice that the covers of romantic novels often include an old mansion or castle? Movies also, are full of this device. With these images we get permission to visualize the kind of people who might live in or emerge from the structures. You are doing the same thing — populating your real estate and investing it with your feelings.

Your observation and concern is precisely the “second phase” that is most needed in the creative process. It is the wellspring of great art. Surrender to your imagination.

Best regards,


PS: I’ve looked at life from both sides now,
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all. (Joni Mitchell)

Esoterica: Exercise: Go to an unfamiliar area and find some sort of a structure — a decrepit or even a new home, a country store, an old factory. Stare at it for some period of time — you can generally get away with this in the sanctuary of a car. Populate the place with imagined people. Quietly, privately, tell their story. Note how windows become eyes, horns appear on the roof, doors begin to smile or frown, and young children run from the structure in joy or fright.


Gothic tales
by JPJ, Nottingham, UK


“American Gothic”
by Grant Wood, 1930

We will not soon outlive the effect of the Gothic novel — and this is where a lot of these peopled apparitions come from. The Gothic novel first became popular in England in the latter half of the 18th century. It’s characterized by horror, terror and supernatural effects. Generally a heroine struggles with misfortune against a backdrop of a gloomy or isolated castle or other decayed architectural form. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) was one of the first, to be followed by Ann Radcliffe and many others. In America the tradition was carried on by Hawthorne and Poe. Practically any “bodice ripper” cover will show you how this vein is continued. The classic American painting by Grant Wood, American Gothic is the natural outflow of these sentiments. Religious simplicity and plain dealing are palpable in those faces, and the architecture is there to give us a clue.


From the heart
by Elzire (Terri Steiner), Princeton, Mass, USA


painting by Elzire (Terri Steiner)

This is how I paint, purely by emotion, and I always have a story that speaks to me about each subject I paint, no matter what it may be. I’ve painted a mother’s son, who had died at the age of 10, and even though I listened to how she remembered him, he came through so strong to me, it felt like he was there with me in the room while I was painting. Whenever I paint an animal, I always listen intently to how the client knew the animal, and I paint them that way. Oftentimes, the subject doesn’t look much like the reference material that had been given to me, but that is always the time when the client says, “That’s him Exactly! How did you do it? ” I just quietly paint from the heart.


by Doran William Cannon, California, USA

As I interrelate with my dozens of online writing students daily over ‘story,’ I’m reminded by so many of my students works in progress of the relationship to painting… and especially by Caroll McDonald’s story and even more so by your explanation to him/her. Stories are best when they ’emerge’ from the depths, and when built in a painting from early sketch through the three-act process to The End, it is a perfect pathway to the unconscious stories set in our dreamwork. Carroll was caught off guard by his/her own deep imagery — but it’s a great way to kick-start the process.


Highly personal art
by Susan Holland, Issaquah, Washington, USA


painting by Susan Holland

Art as truth and catharsis is especially meaningful to me. I have found the paintings I call “my real art” have led me through certain understandings of my own psyche. There are a handful of paintings that just “grew” without a model or prepared plan, but which came right out of my canvas/soul–issues surfaced about my own family and my own relationships. The colors themselves represented different emotions, and “rules” for the painting came from seemingly nowhere. This painting is highly personal. It’s about my children and my mother and myself. I treasure this, and don’t know whether it is “real art” to anyone but me. But you can see the strangeness and the poignancy of the characters, and maybe others can enter in?


Holding the past
by Carolyn Smith, Brentwood Bay, BC, Canada

It’s not unusual to see imagined or real people that are now dead. Through television, books and movies we have read, we can imagine these people from the past. It’s great stimulation. Our senses are already heightened every day because we are looking for new ideas. We think differently from other people who are not artists. Our minds are constantly in gear. Whether we are tuned in or not. Whether we choose to feel those emotions or not. People shaped the world before us, and we can hold the past on paper through painting and our art, either way you see it! What a privilege!


Include the psyche
by Ellen Smith Fagan, Rockville, CT, USA

Your story and advice were neat for Haunted House Halloween, from an artist’s point of view. I like to get my psychology, sociology and approach firmly in mind before I lift the brush, since it does make a difference in the image when it is done, and the experience of the viewers. Paint what you see, including the “third eye” — the psyche.


What if?
by Ariane Goodwin

Caroll McDonald, what if the notion that, ultimately, we are all one is true, both literally and metaphorically? What if sharing the same genetic star stuff, breathing the same air, drinking from the same water source, living under the same sun, what if all this affords us access to each other in ways that our more obvious senses do not include? What if you are tapping into energy forms deposited by other beings?

What if you have a sixth sense about expanded forms of reality, a gift of inner sight that is set in motion by the expression of your creative energy? What if your instincts about painting as a transformative process for those other beings is right on the mark? What if your painting truly does expand the energetic reality to include another possibility for a child, in this case, who might be psychically locked, and it is the energy pouring into and through your painting (and quite possibly beyond your painting) that opens up an energetic doorway into another reality, lets sunshine into the cold dark room for this other being (and quite possibly yourself also)? What if the painting becomes a transformative series of paintings, with the organic unfolding from dark to light.

Opening up to sunshine does not have to produce maudlin sentimentality, a superficial happiness, but perhaps a deepening into the joyful possibilities that are present within all of our universes no matter what has befallen us. And yes, the chances are pretty good that even if you are dealing with expanded reality, that these realities are coming to you because there is resonance within your own psychological make up.

And, that doesn’t mean it ends there. Perhaps you have a gift to give that lies beyond the layers of art, personal psychology, and the obvious realities we all live in day by day. What if the answer you’re seeking comes from following your instincts, rather than worrying about the acceptability of what you are doing, no matter how strange, and then paying attention to the flow of your own feeling experience? After all, what greater foundation can we stand on than the ground of our inner experience?


Nobody home
by Susan-Rose Slatkoff


painting by Susan-Rose Slatkoff

I have had the very same experience as Caroll McDonald. I started to paint a very bright, cheerful turquoise house I saw in rural Quebec. I had done it once in watercolour, and then a larger version in acrylic. The first one came out light and sunny. In the second one, I had covered the canvas with a combination of alizarin crimson and magenta. As I worked, a very different house from that which I had seen began to emerge. It seemed unhappy and lonely. When I put in the grass it became deserted. At this point I had to choose. Do I attempt to impose my recollection on the painting, or do I let something other than myself — my muse, my Spirit — come through. My life experience tells me that when the Spirit is coming through me that I must listen. Whenever I have ignored or overrode that voice I have been sorry. I find the second painting is far more interesting than the first. I call it, “Nobody Home.” I did not paint it alone, but I don’t know whose help I had.


Answered her own questions
by Anonymous

After I sent my missive of self-pity to you (in the last clickbacks) I got to work on two underpaintings — Two! — very unusual for me. After they were done — and wet — I sat down in my contemplation chair beside my books and looked at those paintings. I looked and thought for three hours — I’ve never given over quite so much time to that. I had a glass of wine. I determined some things about the paintings. It was wonderful. And I did answer my own questions. I will cut way back on my books for awhile. When I made that decision I could feel a sense of new energy begin to build. The next morning I began to realize that I’ve got quite good at most of my creative pursuits. What could I do if I focused all my energy on just one — for a while, of course — and I felt as if a great exhilarating wind blew through me. So, once I have my immediate obligations taken care of I will be painting every possible moment. Thank you so much for this wonderful letter and your kind guidance. You — and your book The Painter’s Keys — have made a very big difference in how I see my work and its place in the universe.


ADD bandwagon
by Laura Nadine

I was labeled with Attention Deficit Disorder in school. I was told that I had low reading comprehension and poor retention. I was put in “learning disabled” classes and the school suggested I be put on Ritalin. My mom refused the Ritalin but couldn’t get me out of the classes. I was miserable in school from boredom. I tried to tell my teachers that I was simply bored but no one would listen to me. I read “The Warren Report” for fun in the 4th grade. I spent my summer vacation between 5th and 6th grade reading every page of the dictionary, for fun. Yet the school said I was ADD and learning disabled. I was a child who loved to learn, but the school punished me for not fitting the model of “normal.” I remember daydreaming in grade school about going to college, getting a doctorate in education and proving all these people wrong. What a shame that a child who dreamed about college was being stifled.

During my sophomore year in high school my English teacher noticed something was wrong and had me tested. I scored so high on the placement tests that I was ranked top in the state on one and second in the state on the other. They wrote a letter to my mother suggesting I be put in Advanced Placement classes. My mother and I saw this as a set up to fail since the kids already in the AP classes had been there since grade school. So I dropped out of high school and finished my diploma in 6 months through a correspondence school. I have recently applied to Mensa and through self-testing, have recently discovered I have Asperger’s syndrome. A far cry from ADD.

Please do not be too eager to jump on the ADD bandwagon. Explore your possibilities, research the facts, and then create and execute an action plan. People are all different and that should be celebrated, not downed as a “disorder.” Do not use a disorder as a cop out for what may really be laziness or disinterest.

(RG note) My letter and our investigation into ADD and artists begins at For those who are interested in this subject, please consider reading Bonnie Mincu’s material at Bonnie is an artist, subscriber and respected ADD coach in New York.


Illusionary galleries
by John Ferrie


painting by John Ferrie

The following is (part of) a letter from a Thomas Tunberg which I received and my response to it. This is the type of thing artists should be aware of. This is also the type of thing an artist should expect when they put up a web page.

International Exhibitions

Dear John,

I visited your site and I liked your work. Our gallery, Omma Center of Contemporary Art, is located in Chania, Crete, Greece, one of the most exciting cultural locations in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. In our space (130 sq. m) we are currently organizing international group exhibitions with up to 6 artists, each with 6 to 10 works. If you would like to be included in one of these events, click here, etc, etc.

Dear Thomas,

You must have me confused with some other idiot. It is art galleries like yours that give legitimate art businesses a very bad name. You are preying on artists in the most vulnerable way by saying you will give them a viewing. And all they have to do is send you 400 Euro dollars (about $660.00 Canadian). Then the artist will have to send their art, at their expense, to Greece! There is nothing mentioned about insurance, payment for sales or how their work would be returned. This is all based on a one-page web site with a bad picture of the galleries director. You mention nothing about how you will be marketing and promoting the works, nothing about bringing in buyers and nothing about the notoriety of your gallery. Nor do you show or mention the location of the gallery space and how it is set up. But they could be one of six artists. Who would the other six be and how would the works relate to each other is another story. It is clear to me that you really have no idea what it is you are doing. Putting up posters around town and alerting the media is no way to promote an artist. This is nothing but a pipe dream sir.

I for one will be alerting all the artists I know and telling them about your scam. I will be sure to warn everyone about your loathsome practice. You should be a lot more thorough about approaching an artist before you get anyone’s hopes up. I operate my own gallery and I would never approach an artist in this way. I have also had several dealings with other galleries around the world and this is the first I have ever seen of this type of approach. We will not be doing business.

John Ferrie

(RG note) Thanks, John, for sending this along. When any gallery charges an up-front fee such as this one, you can be pretty sure they are in the business of mining you, rather than representing you to the public. Generally speaking, when sales or connections are made by these operators — it’s a miracle. A better career move would be attending the Delphic Oracle.







Boy with Yarn

painting by Wang Hongjian, Henan, China


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.

That includes Janet Morgan who wrote, “Don’t forget Charles Burchfield’s wonderful paintings of buildings in Albany, NY.”

And also Pat Weekley who wrote, “I bought a digital camera, an Olympus 560D, in July and I am still trying to figure it out.”

And also Florence who wrote, “I can’t thank you enough for your observations on the old-structures phenomena! It has happened to me so frequently. Your words have helped me to understand why this happens.”

And also Marian H  who wrote, “Isn’t it just the paradox of opposite possibilities living impossibly together in a framed space called art that is the life of any picture? An artist captures both the prison and the freedom in paint – along with the artist’s own ecstatic agony moving between them.”

And also Gerti Hilfert, Langenfeld, Germany who wrote, “I’m so happy reading these each time — it improves my English and I’m learning more and more by listening to all of your knowledge. It brings a lot of true thoughts and so many important ideas.”


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