Sunday, March 13, 2022

The painting is a failure, but it's been a great learning experience

As I mentioned in December of last year, I've actually done a watercolor painting for the first time in about 30 years. I made it a followup, or I guess I could say the next version, of the one about the exuberant tree foliage as shown in the December post. This new one is a failure as a picture but I learned a great deal from it; while I was doing it, I constantly told myself "It doesn't have to be realistic! Stop trying to remember what the scene looked like in reality and just express (as in Expressionism) the spirit of the scene."

So I did that, kind of. Mostly. The parts that I don't like, that caused the finished picture to be a failure as an image, were down to my attempts to make it "realistic." The parts where I stylized, invented, and allowed imagination to overpower memory, are the ones I learned from. So I'm not showing it here because it's too ugly, but I feel vindicated and content that I'm breaking out of the straitjacket of reproducing literal reality and jumping into actual Expressionism.

A few years ago I went to a Matisse retrospective and saw the sketches he made for the Large Reclining Nude:

Poster of Large Reclining Nude by Henri Matisse; you can buy a poster of it on Etsy. (As well as lots of other places, no doubt.) I was struck by the note (in the museum show) that said Matisse did 20 sketches for it until he finally got what he wanted. As I've mentioned before, simplicity isn't simple. Acheiving it requires work and discipline. So I have the next version of the trees and lake planned in my head, and I'll incorporate what I've learned. Plus I'll make every effort to move even further into freely stylized and expressive work.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Goodbye and Good Riddance to 2021

So it's the end of the year and a few days ago I actually took up watercolor painting again. It's been decades since I did a "serious" watercolor painting. Serious means actually using a half of one of those two full sheets of D'Arches cold pressed watercolor paper I bought over a year ago. In watercolor, the paper is your ally - you can achieve all kinds of cool effects by letting the paper help create textures and shapes.

My dentist has a wonderful painting in his office, by someone who used a full sheet - extravagant! - to depict the shore of a lake at dawn. The work shows total mastery of this challenging medium; the background and middleground are done "wet into wet," in which you give the pigment plenty of water and let it radiate outward or flow in a given direction. A good sheet of paper will stay just wet enough to let this happen but not allow it to just go everywhere. Of course you have to judge the wetness of the paper carefully and fill your brush accordingly. The foreground uses "dry brush," which, as the name implies, is lots of pigment with very little water. This gives an interesting texture which can be painted over with a thin wash or left as is.

So of course I messed up the tree I started to paint right away and had to use my other ally, white tempera paint. Tempera mixed with watercolor is a medium known as gouache, and it makes the transparent watercolor opaque, at least partially. In other words, you can correct mistakes you can't correct in watercolor alone. Some painters would call this "cheating;" I say, "F u, see my April 14th post about Warhol et al."

And I was just looking at a Wayne Thiebaud work; apparently he just died, aged 101! Thiebaud did some of the juiciest paint handling I've ever seen; it's just luscious. Scroll down this article to see the picture "Pies,pies,pies" - you could almost reach into the painting and scoop up some of the whipped cream from the French silk. With a little extra tempera, I could do something similar. But then I also want to take advantage of the watercolor "wet into wet" method, to make the shadows on the trees look naturalistic but not "realistic." Because I'm still determined to turn myself into an Expressionist. More about that next year.

Some time ago I did a preliminary study for the painting I'm working on now; I used cheap, toothless paper and just kept splashing on watercolor and tempera. I thought it was just junk to be discarded but there were a couple things I liked about it so I kept it. Then I scanned a digital version of it and on looking at that I realized I had come close to acheiving what I wanted - an expression of the exuberance of nature, with the trees leaping towards the sky, the branches jostling each other as the wind blows through them, and the day lilies just flaunting themselves in their perfect orangeness. So the drawing part of the picture has to be subordinate to the colors; that's a departure for me. By the way, Happy New Year.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

A Visual Thunderclap – Reflections on a Work by David Schab

The first sight of a truly great work of art is like the opening bars of the Star Wars theme – a kind of thunderclap for the soul. It puts all your senses on high alert and then draws them all together into a sensitized awareness that keeps you looking and sensing. That’s what I experienced when I recently saw David Schab’s “Glass of Water and Lemons.” I don’t want to over-analyze this painting, but it’s so good it deserves some detailed description.


The composition is so simple you might think doing it was easy; however, I know better. Simplicity is not easily achieved; you have to distill out the extraneous elements and emphasize the important features. The problem is choosing the right ones. I don’t think that can be learned; it comes from instinct.

Consider, for example, how the background elements are simply colorful geometric shapes, while the glass and the lemons focus our attention. The eye falls first on the glass with its faceted reflections and then travels up and down over the two lemons. By placing the most interesting textural elements slightly up and to the right, they create a dynamic tension that stimulates a visceral response, a subtle feeling of tightening in the gut and lifting in the heart.


Most of the painting is comprised of primary colors, in two or three different intensities. This combination keeps the entire image harmonious and integrated. The color treatment of the glass is quite sophisticated; all the colors surrounding it have their reflections in it according to their position and size. The handling of the upper rim of the glass is especially deft; it’s divided up between distorted reflections of the colors behind it and simple reflection from the light source coming from the left. This set of reflections is continued down the sides of the glass and into the bottom interior. These not only keep the glass interesting but also serve to tie it into the rest of the composition.

The lower lemon has a small area of a secondary color, green. This color and the fuzzy edge around the peel tell us this lemon is rotting; but how fortunate is this decay in terms of artistic value. It serves as an additional focal point due to its contrast with everything else. I’m imagining that lemon as just yellow, with no green, and it doesn’t work nearly as well. The green just gives the whole thing a little more “punch.”

Paint handling

This part really is simple; the yellow and blue backgrounds are simple blocks of solid color with minimal texture. Remembering my own experience with the two (count ‘em, two) oil paintings I’ve done I know you can see a transparent layer you laid down one day run and streak in a very ugly manner the next day, if you don’t get the mixture of pigment and medium just right. Schab clearly has technical mastery of the medium so the paint works as a thin wash as well as thicker layers on the brown, blue and red shapes. For the lemons and the glass, the paint is not impasto but just thick enough to be rich and sensual.

So, in conclusion…

This painting is a perfect illustration of the saying, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” My breakdown above of the factors in its beauty only describe it as if from a distance; its real importance is in the impact the whole has on our aesthetic perceptions. Like a thunderclap, it wakes you up and then makes you want to just sink into it with your eyes and stare at it for hours.

Aaaaaaand the fact that I even did this post confirms my belief that once an art teacher, always an art teacher. I just can’t stand the thought that people might not appreciate this painting for the stunning work of art it is. To see more of Schab’s work, visit his Facebook page at or his Website at Look for the green translate button at the lower left. (You’ll need it unless you speak Polish.)

Monday, May 31, 2021

Failed Experiments Happen - Visions Still Working Better than Reality

So last week I decided I wanted to make some kind of stylized treatment of leaves - I have been observing the central axes of both individual leaves and boughs of leaves. A set of leaves strewn along a branch tends to radiate outwards at various angles to the branch or twig they're on. The leaf bunches themselves tend to deviate from the horizontal so they can present more surface to sunlight, I suppose. I think there's some kind of fractal pattern involved here but I haven't been able to discern it yet.

oil pastel drawing of spiky leaves

So I used the oil pastels again. This makes the second time they've defeated my attempts to create something aesthetically defensible. Also I really didn't achieve any simplified but interesting "formula" - a formula was what I was going for, though I hate to admit it - for the leaf patterns themselves. As you can see, what I ended up with is as ugly as hell. I signed it anyway because one has to admit the failures as well as the triumphs.

The lesson I learned from this is that the foliage of a healthy tree in summer is basically amorphous. Going for a linear interpretation was probably doomed to failure, unless I want to commit to actually drawing every individual leaf and filling in light green for sunlit patches and darker or lower-chroma bits for leaves in shadow. This is basically impossible.

Pencil drawing of queen on dock in front of house

Real or Imaginary - Can't Seem to Integrate the Two

I'm still dealing with the tension I feel between my imaginary, "visionary" (in a minor sense - I'm not Teresa of Avila) - images and my need to depict external reality. I really want to become an Expressionist, but I keep coming up Surrealist. Here's the latest half-asleep dream vision. Might make a painting out of it some day.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Sun and Shadow Produce Serenity

So yesterday it was a beautiful spring evening, warm but not hot, with a blue sky with subtle little clouds. About 45 minutes before sunset we were sitting in the fast food parking lot waiting for our takeout and I happened to look across the street. The gas station there had that industrial plain concrete block look, and a shadow was being cast on part of the concrete canopy above the gas pumps. The sight of the light and shadow, distributed in a simple geometric pattern, caused me to feel a little lifting sensation, and a slight warmth from within. It was the most prosaic scene imaginable but it made me happy to just look at it. I was reminded of a story about Max Ernst; supposedly, when someone asked him what his favorite activity was, he replied "Seeing." Just so.

I think that's what keeps me trying to make pictures of scenes that move me. I want to show other people the beauty of ordinary scenes. Edward Hopper succeeded at doing this like no other artist I've ever seen; everybody knows "The Nighthawks" but his "Sun in an Empty Room" is even more powerful in how it affects me viscerally. This reproduction is from Wikiart Visual Arts Encylopedia at

Looking at it is kind of a meditation, but one I don't get bored and twitchy at like I do with most "conventional" meditation. It puts me in The Zone, a kind of trance-like state that is peaceful and takes me out of myself. I should live so long I could ever do anything this good. I'll keep trying.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Another Example of Comic Surrealism

So yesterday I drew this picture based on a vision I'd seen while going to sleep the previous night. I saw one image that I liked and, being aware that these fleeting apparitions are easily lost, I used words to fix it in my mind so I'd remember it the next day, when I was conscious again. I (silently) repeated "Mont St-Michel, surounded by candy-colored swath with pink and blue puddles underneath." This was what the vision most closely resembled. I continued repeating "Mont St.-Michel, candy-colored surround, pink and blue puddles." I guess I got about 5 or 6 repetitions in before I dropped off.

Aaaaand it worked! As is usually the case with this phenomenon, when I started realizing it (also see my previous post) other elements suggested themselves to round out the tangible manifestation of the vision. Thus was born "Mont St.-Michel as Birthday Cake." The relationship between my nighttime vision and the waking rendering of it - perhaps I should say a version of it - is unclear. I'm fine with that. In fact I have a sort of superstitious fear that if I tried to find out what that relationship is I'd lose the visions forever. But looking at my own drawing I see I've depicted a typical American blonde naïvely using something she knows nothing about to create an entertainment, one that will be completely gone in a day or two.

Let me be clear: I mean no disrespect. The blonde is harmless and so is her cake. It's just that we white Americans are like children playing dress-up in regard to our collective Eurocentric cultural heritage, or what's left of it. (While I believe this describes most of us, there are those who use that heritage to justify viciousness, as we know to our sorrow.) So my beliefs - that's not the right word, but it's the only one I can think of to use for this - have manifested themselves as a picture. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, "Mont St.-Michel as Birthday Cake" shows us an aspect of ourselves.

About the medium, cheap colored pencils: they suck. I wanted to just sketch something quickly, but simple black drawing pencils wouldn't do, the colors in the vision were significant. But cheap colored pencils are low in actual pigment and they don't blend well so the values I was trying for are pretty washed out and dull. But I didn't want to waste my good stuff - Prismacolor pencils - on this "quick sketch." So of course I ended up spending hours on the blessed thing, and being pretty unsatisfied with the end result. One thing that did work is the wallpaper; I wanted to make it ugly. That was SO easy. And I finally got around to incorporating one of the things I like best about the work of the second-generation Impressionists Pierre Bonnard and Eduard Vuillard - to wit, the background as continuous texture that's nearly as interesting as the subject itself.

The more I do stuff like this the more I'm convinced I've invented a new genre - Comic Surrealism. Just wait until you see what I come up with next.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Artist as Highwaywoman

A rough sketch I just did after seeing the image in my mind about an hour ago. So this is a Surrealism day, I guess. Someone in 17th century costume about to get into a Prius is pretty surreal - (unless of course said someone is going to a sci-fi convention or a Renaissance faire).

But I'm not doing either; this is just one of my visions that I deemed good enough to set down on paper. I get lots of them; people ask "where do you get your ideas?" Ideas are the easy part, execution is the challenge. I've been reflecting on my own creative process lately. I hear my '60s youth saying "Trust your gut," which is all fine and dandy, but my current old lady says, "But for God's sake let your head exercise some judgement!"

Whenever I lie down to sleep, dozens of images rush through the field behind my closed eyelids. Even if I could remember all of them, most are basically worthless as picture starters. I choose to realize, i.e., make real, a select few. They vary widely but the ones I keep have a foreground and a background, often one or more human or quasi-human figures, and the content is at least marginally coherent, even if bizarre.

And so I continue to make Surrealist artwork, although these days it's interspersed with other stuff based solely on external reality. (See my previous post about a digital piece I'm working on.) I've never attempted to "explain" my Surrealist images, but while I do them they feel like a different dimension of reality. But it's a dimension that I recognize as related somehow to my own personal idiosyncracies; the task I set myself as an artist is to make something that might speak to others as well.

So this one is for those of you who, like me, always loved the stories of the old highwaymen of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. Their clothes were rad! And a full moon with clouds scudding across it is just too dramatic and evocative of adventure, romance, legendary deeds, to ignore. And I've always wanted to buckle a few swashes.

Other surrealists' works, with the possible exception of Rene Magritte's, are often shocking or slightly repellent. Mine are pretty tame, I guess, compared to Remedios Varo or Max Ernst. And I'm beginning to realize there's a clown buried deep in my psyche; maybe I'm the first of the Comic Surrealists. I could do worse, I suppose.

What is art, and what do you care anyway?

YES, damnit, it IS SO art!

The other night I struggled with a moral dilemma. An ad for came through my Facebook feed - this is a company that ...