Archive for the ‘Battling Closed Minds and Limited Imaginations’ Category

Even though I will always consider myself a student and a “beginning artist”, my favorite books by artists are not the beginner’s “how to” books.  These are generic in content, and they often infer that there is “one way” to do art.  The basic and necessary info on how to run a wash, dry brush vs. wet on dry or wet on wet, plus the properties and characteristics of various paints, papers, and brushes, constitute only a few pages in any book—and those instructions may be found online, involving the printing out of perhaps 2 or 3 sheets of paper.  The basics do not warrant the price of purchasing an entire book, if that book is limited in scope.

Most of the material in a beginner’s “how to” book demonstrates how that particular author/artist puts a painting together, as if his or her method were set in stone.  The most typical approach is to draw a picture with a pencil, and then paint in the picture.  While I have never been claustrophobic in elevators or caves, I confess to wanting to scream and run when I look inside a “how to” book that stresses some sort of method of painting within lines.*  The line technique may produce a predictable look, but that look is simply not my heart’s desire.  For me it would be about as creative and individualistic as messing around with a “paint by number” kit.  The only way I can negotiate lines is to draw them for starters, and then ignore them by painting over (and outside) them!

The art books I love are in a special class by themselves.  They are deeply readable with profound insights on which to chew, and I read them over and over and over every single week of my life.  Rather than feeling trapped, I want to be challenged and recharged—eager to explore more, experiment more, try more, dream and imagine more, and push out any preconceived walls that might threaten to enclose me.   

The “how to” book presents recipes, and of course recipes have their place—especially in baking, where chemistry is involved.  But a thought provoking art book will progress beyond recipes, into the infinitely exciting and challenging world of ideas.  The “how to” art book will show you how to paint like someone else, but a meaty art book will encourage you to paint like you!

In an earlier post I mentioned WATERCOLOR FROM THE HEART—by fine artist, Barbara Nechis.  This book details the author’s philosophy of art, her sources of inspiration, and many samples of her exquisite paintings along with a description of different techniques she employs—with the idea of inspiring other artists to experiment and venture into their own uncharted territory:  in essence, to find that personal “voice”.  So helpful is this book to me, that I wish I could personally thank its author for the exilarating sense of freedom I derive from reading it.

Another treasure in my art library is A PASSION FOR WATERCOLOR—Painting the Inner Experience, by Stefan Draughon.  Like WATERCOLOR FROM THE HEART, Stefan Draughon’s book delineates her journey in finding her own way and discovering her very own art. 

Finally ABSTRACT AND COLOUR TECHNIQUES IN PAINTING, by Clare Harrigan is a gem which I read again and again.  Don’t be fooled by the word “techniques” in the book’s title.  The word far exceeds “how to”; rather it explores many dimensions of seeing, understanding, and expressing in terms of a variety of media—ultimately leading to the discovery of personal “techniques” which may or may not be considered, according to the reader’s choice. 

These favorite books along with DVDs—DANCING WITH YUPO DVD by Taylor Ikin, and WATERCOLOR FROM WITHIN by Barbara Nechis—comprise my ongoing Art Study Program.  More resources may be added as I find them, along with inspiring biographies of well known artists from the past.

I know that basics are important.  We need to learn the rudiments in order to develop skill—in art, and most everything else in life.  Techniques are worth studying.  But we should never be in bondage to someone else’s idea of what works in art.  That’s where reading way beyond the beginner’s “how to” book is essential.  Each artist is unique, every means of expression is individual, and every style is personal.  My reading must augment all that is in me to produce work which is totally my own—unique, individual, and personal—so that I can continue to derive tremendous soul satisfaction from making art! 

Margaret L. Been, ©2012

*I believe that most every child has an innate art spirit.  But teachers and parents who instruct eager children to paint or color within the lines compromise one of the greatest deterrents to human creativity. 

I know people who absolutely WILL NOT pick up a paint brush simply because they were scolded as youngsters, for “going out of the lines”.  Due to negative feedback in early years, these adults are bunged up and terrified to try anything which is not prescribed, dictated, or specifically outlined with “how to” instructions from another person.  The bunged up person has never known the joy of escaping from a potentially soul-destructive box!


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When I’m feeling peppy, I delight in venturing into uncharted territory.  That’s when the abstract shapes and surprising textures appear.  Yet there are days, and more likely evenings, when I’m weary.  Yet I still want to paint.

At weary moments, I persist in making art while celebrating beloved and familiar shapes and themes—those subjects where I can hardly miss, such as still lifes or trees.  Yet I’m constantly aware of trying to avoid clichés, overworked aspects of a piece which could potentially add up to ho-hum art.   My goal is to make every painting unique and different from any others I’ve done.

One way to prevent sameness in renderings is to vary color chords.  Tonight I decided to use black gouche—something I’ve never tried before.  I was instantly transported by the richness of black, and probably overdid it in the above painting titled “Dried Bounty”. 

Oh well, if I don’t overdo the black gouache in the next still life I won’t make a cliché of it!  🙂

Margaret L. Been, ©2012

P. S.  Recently I ventured into new territory by selling a painting.  For a few days after that, I wasn’t aware of using my legs.  I floated!

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In my art reading, I keep running into the phrase “Art Spirit”.  When I first encountered the term, I was confused as to its meaning.  However since I have spent 5 years acquainting myself with painters and their styles, via books and DVDs, the implications of Art Spirit are becoming clear to the point of being obvious to me.

What is the Art Spirit?  Ultimately one’s goal in making art is to produce paintings—but if production is the only motivation, the resulting art will lack spirit.  “Production” may be the pragmatic “American Way”, but it is not the artistic way.  The Art Spirit denotes a passion for the process, an identification with one’s tools, a thirst for discovery and new horizons, and a desire to spend as much time as possible creating art.  Whereas some artists will spend a few hours on 1 piece, others may work for weeks on a single painting.  The Art Spirit can be instrumental in creating 3 paintings a week, or 1 painting over a period of month—or even years.  Spirit is an intrinsic element and it cannot be measured in numbers.

The Art Spirit is all about love.  Love of art making is wrapped (and rapt!) in the moment, while fully experiencing and cherishing the process involved.  

The Art Spirit is all about adventure.  With each painting we attempt to be unique, in order to satisfy the Art Spirit.  No sinking into the rut of simply painting whatever might sell, or please someone else.  A person who actually makes a living from art will sell, and will please someone else.  But it’s likely that the Art Spirit has been operative by enabling the artist to find his or her individual “voice”.

The Art Spirit is all about courage.  There is no fear in trying a new thing, because the Art Spirit is never afraid of what someone might think so long as the artist is true to his or her individual view.  The Art Spirit has no fear about anything, since the only calamity would be to stop creating art!  The Art Spirit seeks primarily to express—to fulfill the artist’s hunger to paint something in a fresh way.  We can, and often do, paint the same scene over and over.  But each rendering will be different, revealing another aspect or impression of whatever we are painting.

The Art Spirit is all about seeing with an inner eye.  Pragmatic materialism is rushed and stressed to produce more—faster, faster, faster!  Pragmatic materialism does not even have an inner eye, as it deals only with externals at the survival level.  Seeing with an inner eye requires slowing down, losing track of time, forgetting oneself, and contemplating the essence of each possible subject for a painting. 

Although studying the technical aspects of art making is tremendously important, the Art Spirit is not the exclusive possession of genuises or professional fine artists.  If we love our calling, relish adventure, and endeavor to see with an inner eye we have the Art Spirit.  If we feel inexorably drawn to palette and paper, we have the Art Spirit.  The Art Spirit makes me dream of colors and shapes.  The Art Spirit has caused me to value my paint brushes and enjoy the experience of holding them in my hand, just as small children hang on to their beloved blankets. 

The Art Spirit is God’s gift to anyone who has a passion for art—anyone willing to slow down and treasure the process of making art. 

Margaret L. Been, ©2011

Note:  For an in depth treatise of the above topic, try THE ART SPIRIT, by Robert Henri.

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I frequently hear negative comments about “modern art”, meaning abstract or semi-abstract art—which, understandably enough, doesn’t appeal to everyone.  The comments crack me up because abstraction is anything but modern.  It came into being from the late 1800s to early 1900s and peaked in the famous 1960s.  If there is such a thing as “modern”, it is representational art—judging by what I see as I wander around art fairs.  Barns, ships, still lifes, street scenes, landscapes, and portraits are as popular and sought after as ever before.  

The most commonly heard remark concerning abstraction is one I’ve often made myself—and still do:  “A kid could do that!”  This comment applies especially to watercolor paintings, and particularly to paintings on Yupo paper—where the paint and water do about 75% of the work.  

Sometimes I have to agree—at least concerning my entry level renderings.  Maybe a kid could do what I’m doing!  Kids do amazing art, because they are free.  We adults need to follow the Biblical injunction to become as a little child—not only in faith and trust but in the freedom required to make expressive art of any kind, be it realistic, semi abstract, or purely non-representational. 

A kid could have dropped the various colors of paint on the above pictured Yupo® paper and watched an abstract rendering develop before their eyes.  But would a kid have the patience to go back to the piece many times, removing blotches of paint to restore parts of the paper to its original white?  Would a kid have considered the contrast of complementary colors, and softened the transition between them?  Would a kid have plopped increments of rubbing alcohol from a medicine dropper, to create the circles which are scattered hither and thither?  Or added small details after the initial work dried?

Yes, I think some kids might do any of that.  Not every kid—and definitely not the kid whose heart is forever on the soccer field, or dependent on his or her peers.  But there are kids who could do that, providing they have the motivation and materials! 

Meanwhile, I’m thankful to be a kid at heart!  Perhaps the thing that distinguishes us kids from the rest of the world is that when it comes to making stuff we simply love to play.  I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing!”  If that’s true, then my art—whether an attempt at photographic realism or a plunge into way out abstraction—is a virtual “Fountain of Youth”!  🙂

Margaret L. Been, ©2011

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Painting is like writing in some ways.  A writer learns the technical aspects of his or her language—but the actual school for writing is reading, reading, reading, reading, and reading some more.  A beginning artist studies various techniques, learns some principles of design and color theory, and experiments with the tools of the craft.  But the supreme school for art is viewing.  Observation of sights, shapes, colors, and nuances of light and shade is a major factor in “art school”—along with studying the works of competent artists past and present.

Through reading widely and thoroughly, a writer develops a personal sensitivity to content and style.  From reading, a writer grows to discover his or her very own voice.  And from concentrated observation, a would-be artist instinctively learns what appeals.  We often change as we grow, but I believe that even our changes are in sync with that ongoing discovery of a personal “voice”.

Early in my art quest, I realized that I’m not cut out to produce photographic realism in painting.  I certainly admire those who choose that path, appreciate the discipline and skill involved, and cherish many works of realistic art.  But from early on, I knew that I would probably never paint a barn that looks exactly like a barn I have seen—or a garden which can be recognized as some specific garden.  My southwestern mesas and buttes may remotely resemble a specific mesa or butte in New Mexico, but I believe there will always be a touch of imagination or fantasy therein.  Likewise, the above-painted carnival glass may be identified as carnival glass—yet it is different from the actual carnival glassware which I set up for a still life model.  And the sky outside the window did not look anything like my rendering of sky!

Finding my own voice has been a very exciting thing for me as a writer—and also, I’m realizing, as a beginning artist!  I know that barns don’t have to look like barns, skies can be any color I choose, and flowers can grow upside down if I so desire to paint them that way.  So long as I strive for effective color and design I’ll never be bored with my work, and I’ll never make two paintings exactly alike—or at least I hope I will never do that!

Contemporary fine artist Barbara Nechis has said that if we try to compete with nature, nature always wins!  How very true!  I’ll happily leave nature to the Master Artist who created her, while endeavoring to capture my take on the essence of nature or whatever else I paint!  Freedom goes a long way—at least toward pleasing this dabbler in art!   🙂

Margaret L. Been, ©2011

Note:  The top watercolor painting was done on 140# watercolor paper.  The last two were done on Yupo® paper.  I don’t know if my current fascination with this synthetic surface will be a lasting love, or just a passing fling.  But oh, what fun!

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I’ve attempted many new-to-me painting techniques in recent years, and one of them is painting negative shapes first.  Most every art teacher will, at some point, recommend beginning a work by concentrating on the spaces between objects rather than the objects themselves.  This helps us to stretch the grey cells and comprehend what is easy to overlook—the area around whatever we are looking at. 

Negative painting reportedly expands our view to focus on shapes as entities in themselves.  The goal is to forget we are painting a window or a vase (or whatever), and instead hone in on the essence of the window or vase by considering these to be simply shapes surrounded by other shapes.

Being a forthright person, I must admit I don’t totally quite get this concept.  Is the shape of a window more essential than the window itself, especially in what is fast becoming a favorite style of mine—realistic abstraction, where one endeavors to make things recognizeable yet changed or distorted from reality?  Does it actually matter what I paint first:  the abstract trees above, or the spaces between the trees?

Yet I understand the negative painting rationale for two reasons:  1)  When focusing on the space between objects first, we make those spaces as appealing or even more so than the objects within the negatives.  The areas between windows, vases, or trees, become “art” in themselves rather than just filler, and 2)  Painting the negative spaces is FUN!

I’ve named the above watercolor and acrylic on Yupo® paper rendering, “Autumn Skydance”.  I drew the basic tree forms with a pencil and painted the negative spaces first.  An experienced artist will frequently skip the pencil sketch and immediately paint spaces, so that objects (or the shapes of objects) emerge spontaneously.

Canadian artist, Linda Kemp demonstrates and teaches negative painting in her beautiful book:  WATERCOLOR—painting outside the lines, a positive approach to negative painting—published by North Light Books. 

Margaret L. Been, ®2011

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