Welcome to my blog! I'll be posting thoughts about art, photos, happenings, and other things that strike me--and hopefully my readers--as interesting. And please visit my website by clicking the link to the right--thanks!
Also please check out my second blog, The Painting Archives to see older (pre-2004) paintings for sale.
thoughts on style
After my last post, about the persistence of landscape references in my work over the years, abstracted images from Mayo have continued to appear in nearly every painting. Several recent ones seem close to representational in their dark, coastal shapes and swaths of pale watery looking texture. I am thinking of these aspects of the sea coast as I paint, while at the same time enjoying a playful freedom with shape and line. (Above and below, Belderrig #3 and #4, 20"x16" oil and mixed media on panel.)
In art history class many of us remember the range of styles in modern/contemporary art described as a continuum. This was a way of saying that there aren't precise cut-off points among the myriad of art styles, from pure abstraction through to photo-realism. A particular abstract painter's work, for example, could be placed somewhere on an imaginary line,between an artist who was more representational in style and someone else who was less so.
Although that is a useful way to explain the big picture, it's not so simple when you consider the life's work of any one artist. Many range back and forth over that continuum over time, or even within a series or a small body of work, and they cannot be so neatly categorized. Within the context of exploring particular ideas, this approach can open up greater meaning and expressive potential.
Since seeing his work last year in Dublin, I have admired the work of the late Irish artist, Tony O'Malley. He was a man who took all of his life's experiences and transformed them into source material for his work. This work ranged from austere wood sculptures to playful, colorful paintings, sometimes non-representational, and other times with images of himself, his wife and friends, and various objects in his world. All of it is clearly his, very personal, very direct. It seems he never worried about whether something was abstract enough, or too minimalist, or too obscurely non-referential. Below, some photos showing the range of his work:
I'm thinking of this in relation to my own recent work, because in spite of knowing better, I sometimes listen to a voice that warns me not to betray my identity as an abstract painter, and which grows more insistent the closer I edge to realism. These past few weeks though, I've done well at shutting off that voice. While I do of course identify as an abstract painter, I am OK with imagery that comes through in the context of a particular visual exploration (in this case, the dramatic Mayo Coast.) The work I've been doing is compelling to me--paintings that seem to need to be painted, and I am including them on my personal continuum.
thoughts on landscape
Like much of my current work, the shapes in the painting above (Ceide Fields, 36"x48" oil and mixed media on panel.) suggest land forms--craggy, textural--set against a pale background that can be read as sky or sea. This work comes out of my time in County Mayo, Ireland, a place where the strong shapes and complex textures of the bog and seacoast captured my eye and heart.
Landscape has been at the core of my work since my earliest years of art-making, and I've approached it in various ways over time--beginning with direct, representational recording of what I observed. Occasionally in these early days I would include a female figure representing "me." Below is an intaglio print from my undergrad years in which such a figure, seated in the lower left of the image, looks out at the scene. I see this now as an attempt to express my emotional connection to the experience of being alone in nature.
At the core of all my work over time is the expression of this connection. Over time my work has evolved into abstraction emphasizing color and texture which seem to me to be the most direct conduits to the feelings and memories I associate with specific places. While I've allowed in some landscape imagery, for the most part I've downplayed the sense of "scenery" (suggested by pictorial depth and obvious clues such as horizon lines) in my work of the past 15 years or so.
So I'm a bit surprised by some of the work coming out of my time in Mayo in its fairly obvious references to what I remember from my walks and drives along the coast and through the boglands. Below is another recent painting, Mayo Coast #7, 40"x30" which includes dark, rock-like shapes and the suggestion of falling water.
Surprising to find these images emerging--but also somehow liberating. I feel that I'm tapping into some essence or energy of that place that allows me to play more freely and directly with landscape imagery than I have in the past. Along with the shapes suggestive of rocks, bog paths, foliage and cliffs, I've also been including lines that refer to mapping, charting, writing and gridlike designs--lines imposed over the surface of the work that counteract its more representational aspects. Some of these lines are adapted from stratigraphic drawings shared with me by Greta Byrne, the archaeologist at Ceide Field near Ballycastle where I have stayed in Mayo as well as from the maps of ancient stone walls at that site.
I think of this recent work as expressing two aspects --inner and outer--of my personal experience in the Mayo landscape. The inner experience includes the the drama of weather and vistas, the gentleness of the bog, the crashing of surf, the quieting of thought, the moods of the time of day and the feeling of oneness with nature. The outer experience includes purely visual observations as well as awareness of ancient sites, geology and geography, culture and history. I'm enjoying the merging of the inner and outer experiences in these paintings.
About ten years ago, I put together a list of qualities that I wanted my work to embody, including complexity, presence, ongoing exploration, and mystery.
Some of the words and phrases were fairly specific, at least in my mind, such as contrast
--which reminded me to keep value and color shifts interesting. Others, like connection
, were purposefully open-ended and evocative. Connection
could mean connection to my own inner landscape and experiences, connection to the viewer, or connection among the elements within the painting.
I made this list as a practical tool, thinking that it would help me to guide me through my work, keep me on track with what I was after, and also to know when a painting was finished. I did find it to be very valuable for those reasons, and for self critique in general. (Click here for a blog pos
t from 2009 about self-critique that mentions the list.) Over the years, I've revised it a bit, and created a power point around it that I show in some of my workshops, but my editing of the list has been minor. The main ideas remain relevant for me. Although I rarely refer to that actual bit of paper anymore, its basic thoughts are now an ongoing and now deeply integrated basis for my work.The original still hangs on my studio wall--tattered, dripped upon and nearly illegible.
This morning as I moved a few things around on my wall including the list, I studied it closely for the first time in ages, and saw it suddenly in a new way. It struck me that what I had done back then was to set forth my intentions, and that they have been unfolding ever since.
Today, more so than a decade ago, there is increased understanding and theorizing about how intentions shape and create our experience, operating in subtle ways beneath our everyday awareness. I realized this morning that the ideas in the list were probably more powerful than I had considered them to be in the beginning, when I wrote them down as a practical tool. They have likely been a force in bringing my work closer toward my highest ideals, exerting influence even without my conscious attention. Perhaps there's a fine line between the two, but what I realized this morning was that the list has played a huge part in charting my course as an artist, and for that I'm grateful.
ireland on my mind
As the recent painting (Mayo Bog, 40"x30" oil and mixed media on panel) above shows, even months after my return from the boglands of County Mayo in Ireland, I am thinking of the colors and forms of their rich tapestries. I will be returning to Mayo and the Ballinglen Arts Foundation
in mid-October for another residency, and to conduct two workshops (there are still some openings in the advanced class in November, if anyone is interested please email
With this post though, I am hoping to re-direct my readers to a newly published post on the co-blog that I write with my friend and colleague Janice Mason Steeves
, in which we describe a different area and artist's residency in Ireland, the Cill Rialaig Project in County Kerry. Here is the link
to that post--enjoy!
what pulls us in
In most forms of art, we rely on some sense of drama and emotion to pull us in--in reading a novel or watching a film, we expect the narrative to contain a central dilemma for the characters. Listening to a symphony, we follow the arc of the music through various contrasting but related movements. With poetry or song we often contemplate some aspect of the human experience via analogy and metaphor, creating thought- or emotion-provoking images.
A few days ago, caught up in a novel on CD on a very long car trip, I started to think about how this dynamic applies in visual art, especially in non-representational painting. How is the viewer drawn in when there is no imagery to create a narrative or set up a dramatic or otherwise evocative situation? What gives an abstract painting (even one that is quiet or minimalist) strength, character, emotion? Why do some abstract paintings seem to compel people to look and look--while others are passed over?
Obviously, this is very subjective territory. What I stare at for an hour, you may dismiss in two seconds. What one juror picks as Best of Show, another sends to the reject pile. Different strokes for different folks, even among paintings generally well-regarded.
Nevertheless, I believe that there is a merging of form and content in really good abstract painting that sets it apart in terms of clarity, strength and communication of feeling. Technical skill along with command of the formal elements of art (value, color, line, shape and composition) create visual tension and contrast. Meaningful content is the other component, with roots in intellect, memory, and emotion--both intuitively and consciously accessed.
In bringing all of this together, the artist convinces the viewer of an alternate reality worth examining. In the words of the famous abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Abstract art places a new world, which on the surface has nothing to do with "reality", next to the "real" world.
This, then is what seems to be the engaging dynamic for the viewer--a glimpse into another way of seeing, imagining or thinking. The drama or tension that draws in the viewer arises from the contrast between this unique vision and our everyday ways of seeing and interacting with what is around us. What an enormous, lifelong challenge the abstract painter has in distilling and communicating an inner world in a way that allows others to enter in.
adventures with terraskin
As readers of my blog know, I have been doing quite a few small works on paper lately and enjoying this quicker, more spontaneous approach alongside my more developed painting. And because my own interests often find their way into my workshops, I've been sharing some of these ideas with the artists I work with in my classes. Recently I wrote a blog post for the makers of TerraSkin
, an intriguing paper made of stone, manufactured in Canada, about a technique I developed using their product with powdered charcoal and cold wax medium. To read the blog post, which includes step-by-step directions, click here
. The post also includes a list of US distributors of the paper. I have been using the 16pt weight but it also comes in a lighter weight, sketchbook sized variety.
This is the charcoal and cold wax demo paintings that I did for that workshop:
I've also been using Terraskin for monotypes because I enjoy the way its smooth but absorbent surface holds every line and detail, and there is no need for soaking prior to printing. Although the prints tend to curl when just off the press, they quickly flatten out if placed under a book or other weight. Here is a recent example (6"x4" etching ink on Terraskin.)
TerraSkin also works well for straightforward painting with oils and cold wax medium. Again, it lends itself to crisp detail and fine edges, as well as resist and solvent techniques. Below, a small painting I did while on residency in Ireland last fall--my first encounter with TerraSkin.
Here's a bit more background about Terraskin, as found on their website
**TerraSkin is a combination of mineral powder (>75%) and a small quantity (<25%) of non-toxic resin combined to create an environmentally friendly paper.
**The production of TerraSkin requires no water, so the TerraSkin papermaking process incurs no water pollutants.
**Used TerraSkin paper will start to degrade under the proper environmental conditions of high heat, moisture and UV light.
**Most importantly, in producing TerraSkin, the harvesting of trees is unnecessary, thereby safeguarding the natural environment’s beauty and biodiversity for all living beings.
**TerraSkin also has beautiful printing capabilities and a unique texture and feel. Because the paper is fiberless, it does not absorb ink like regular paper and also uses less ink than regular paper. Images stay much crisper and cleaner because the ink doesn’t bleed.
**TerraSkin is water – resistant and inherently strong and durable.
In my last post
I wrote about shape and its importance in my recent work. But the painting above (36"x48", as yet untitled, oil and mixed media) which I just finished, is about the least shape-ly one I have done in a while! It's atmospheric, shimmery, undefined, with the emphasis on layers of subtle color. It might seem a strange follow up to what I was excited about just a few weeks ago.
But like a lot of artists I almost always have more than one direction evident in my work at any one time. Working back and forth between a paintings that is unfocused and ethereal and one with bold dark shapes, I find my awareness heightened--so that I make the surface colors and textures in the "shape" paintings more subtle, and in the more atmospheric paintings I see soft color/shapes emerging.
Having several approaches going at once also works for me because I see the core ideas they share. In my recent work, both the strong shapes and the softer paintings relate to my time in Ireland and to various aspects of the land there, the soft, textural boglands and the strong shapes of the sea cliffs. As these exist in juxtaposition in the landscape, so do they in my studio. I also have some work going that is quite minimal, mostly white, as in this recent 40"x30" (as yet untitled) painting:
Working in mostly white with emphasis on physical textures has been an ongoing interest for the past five years--it is a longstanding investigation that I keep returning to .These paintings are to me about solitude, quiet, and aging. And so they seem related to almost any other work I am exploring, because these are big, underlying themes that encompass many experiences.
Of course the work of any one artist is connected on some level--all made by the same person at the very least, and very often underlying themes and ideas can be discerned. But how much and what kind of variety to aim for in the studio can also be a challenging issue. As an instructor I work with many artists who are on the path to finding a personal style, and who struggle with (to quote the singer Joni Mitchell) "the crazy you get from too much choice." Especially with process-oriented methods, such as I teach with cold wax medium, the possibilities inherent in the materials and techniques can easily pull an artist in so many directions that there is little to show who the artist is and what characterizes his or her work.
I often tell my students that their art work is their lifetime research project into what is meaningful to them and how that may best be expressed in communication with the viewer. The beginning stage of producing one-off paintings with little connection to one another is important--experimenting, learning to understanding the materials. But to follow the research analogy, this stage tends to be a little like surfing the internet, browsing around with whatever catches your interest. Which is fun, and can lead to new ideas, and be a jumping off point--but it isn't usually great for gaining in-depth understanding. For that, obviously you need to stick to a main idea and make dedicated searches, print out and study certain pages, make notes--and meanwhile, not be too distracted by YouTube videos or Facebook notifications.
To conduct research via your own art work, what helps a lot of people is to focus down, to set parameters, create in series with defined boundaries, and in the beginning take one step at a time. Until the focus begins to come naturally, it may need to be imposed.
But alongside that serious and dedicated research, a little browsing is also a good thing! By that I mean, find ways to play and experiment off to the side--do quick works on paper, make monotypes, take photos, write in stream-of-consciousness style--whatever is stimulating to your art brain and heart. These kind of activities allow your intuition and spontaneity to flourish and are important to sustaining your energy for the deeper and more focused work.
If you are struggling on this path, know that with dedication to studio practice, there will come a time when your core of meaning has grown strong and solid. Explorations can freely sprout in various directions, simultaneously or in succession, and there will always be connecting ideas.