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.
what I take home
After six weeks in Ireland, I'm beginning to pack up and get ready for my flight home next week, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. When I come here, I stay long enough to sink into the experience, to feel a part of life here, to find my rhythm of work and social life and solitude.
A lot happens in a month and a half. I've had several visitors, my studio has filled with work large and small, I've taught two week-long workshops, taken many walks, had wonderful conversations with other artists, and with various local people, and have revisited all of my favorite rocky and rugged places along the North Mayo coast. It is my life, for a time, day to day, ordinary and extraordinary all at the same time.
When I pack my suitcase to go home, I never really know what I'm taking back with me. Clothes, paintings, bits of memorabilia, of course. But what has imprinted itself into my sensibilities, what is lodged in my brain firmly enough to persist in my future work? I don't really know until I get home and have had some time for the experience to sink in, and for the essence to come through. Each time I've come, I've been affected by a different aspect of the landscape--weather, rocks and cliffs, hedgerows, the bog. In my work this year, I've referenced all of those, as well as moving water and the interior of an old church. I usually respond to many aspects of the environment when I am in a place, and then sift through it in the studio at home to discover what was most significant.
A few photos from my walks:
I know that my work is about more than the visual, though. It is about a longing for connection, an engagement of my soul, spiritual nourishment. The specific sources of ideas are those that resonate deeply-- channels into deeper meaning. I find that this place in Ireland is very rich with these sources, and that they grow and change and become more complex over time.
A few of my paintings from my time at Ballinglen:
Abandoned, 14"x11" oil/cold wax on paper
untitled, 8"x11" oil/cold wax on paper
The phrase "my Ireland" is not meant in any possessive sense--I am only a visitor, passing through for a few weeks on my annual residency (I've been here six times, four at Ballinglen Arts Foundation, where I am currently.) But it seems the right phrase for the moments here that touch me in a deep and personal way, and the sense of belonging here that is so compelling (and a bit mysterious.) Each time I come, I re-discover my Ireland--in both new and familiar experiences--and this feeds my work and soul.
It takes time for this connection to emerge. On my first days here I tend to be a bit scattered, unfocused and tired from travel. I also teach two workshops and usually, as was the case this year, I arrive just a few days before the first begins. I love taking the students out on day trips to some of my favorite places, and to see their responses to the experience. But I am in teacher mode for that time, and more focused on others than on myself. I put off my own need to connect until my residency days, my time between classes, which is a period of just over two weeks.
I'm well into that time now, and gradually, quietly, what I love has revealed itself during my long walks around Ballycastle, or in my quiet studio days. Yesterday I was up on the bog outside the village--a rather desolate landscape, but incredibly ancient and wild. The blanket bog I was walking through has taken millennia to form, and contains traces of a civilization that flourished here over 5000 years ago. It feels fairly solid underfoot, but is mostly water; archaeologists locate ancient stone fences and other constructions by sliding in metal rods until they hit something solid; it requires only moderate pressure to penetrate the bog. Although from a distance the bog looks brown at this time of year, up close the plant life is rich and varied in texture and color. All of this--the bog, the openness, the wind, the clouds, and the fact that no one on earth knew exactly where I was at the moment--brought me to tears.
|on the bog|
These weren't tears of joy or sadness, but simply the emotional overflow of the moment. I love these moments of intense connection. They happen almost anywhere here--when I am on the shore, along the cliffs, and walking on quiet lanes lined with ancient and intricate hedgerows. Sometimes they come out of some ordinary magic...a cow staring into my cottage window,or a flock of swallows doing their intricate dance overhead at dusk. They don't always bring me to tears, which is probably a good thing, I'd be a weepy mess. But they do deepen my love for this place. And like any love, these moments have a way of bringing me closer to my true self, my best self.
|on Belderrig Pier, photo by Kathleen Schildmeyer|
Of course, I spend most of my time in the studio, searching for what links the landscape around me with my inner response. Both drama and subtlety have their place, and there seems to be an unstoppable flow of visual ideas.
On one of my first days here, I was offered an exhibit next October when I return in the Ballinglen Gallery, a beautiful space at the Foundation. I quickly realized that it would be practical to do some work for that show now and store it here, to avoid shipping it later. The director assured me that I could show unframed works on paper, and so I've been working in that direction as well as on small panels. I'm happy to say that rather than causing me any stress or panic with a need to produce, this plan has instead given me a good sense of purpose and focus. It's also brought forward a few ideas that have been simmering in corners of my art brain for some time. These are related but also distinct, a way to express my various experiences and responses.
I started with some work in acrylic on large paper--not my usual media but I've always enjoyed playing with acrylic, using similar techniques and tools as I do with oil and cold wax. In this case, the medium lent itself to an idea I've had in mind for some time, abstractions based on the moving water of streams in the woods and bogs here, and at the edge of the surf on the beach. These paintings are almost representational but very loosely painted.
|untitled works in acrylic on paper, 28"x39" 2016|
A conversation with another artist here led me to think more clearly about an underlying concept or title for the show. For now, anyway, that is Motion and Stillness--another idea that has been hovering in my mind, now brought to focus. So, in addition to these very active acrylic paintings, I am also working on a series of oil /cold wax paintings in which quiet areas play against more active ones.
|untitled, 12"x12" oil/cold wax on multimedia artboard|
And finally, I've been exploring another "hovering" idea--since I was here last year I have thought often about the dense, tangled plant life of the hedgerows that line the lanes here. It has been a very linear idea, and I've worked with it some at home. But a few days ago I distilled the idea to its essence of line, working with water-soluble charcoal and gesso, on the same fairly large sized Fabriano watercolor paper I used for the acrylic paintings.
It makes me smile to think that before I arrived that this year I decided to treat my time between workshops as my vacation, and put no pressure on my self in the studio. Now my walls are filled with this work and more. But it has come with a sense of ease, and lack of stress. I'm not sure where that magic comes from, but I'll take it. Maybe it's just the way things are here, a sort of "whatever will be, will be" attitude that I've absorbed a bit of. These are happy days, quiet, calm, and productive, and fueled by experiencing once again my Ireland.
|untitled, 28x39", charcoal and gesso on paper|
what it's about
Last month, when I was teaching a workshop in Gloucester, Massachusetts, I was invited to give a public talk about my work. I used that as an excuse to revise the version of my talk that I've been using for the past couple of years, moving away from a chronological telling of things and toward a more thematic approach. Less "then I did this and then that" and more, "here are the ideas that I work with." This newer version felt good to me, closer to my core. But it also opened me to some new questions. Later, in an email conversation with an old art friend those questions became more fully formed. I'm still thinking about them, because there are no easy answers.
For years, I've described my work as relating to landscape and nature. More recently, the particular landscapes that enter my work are associated with my travels and artist residencies in remote and rugged places such as the west of Ireland, northern Sweden and New Mexico--places that have a strong pull on my emotions, and in which I feel the strongest connection to what is around me. I have said that what I paint is an abstracted response to my experiences in the landscape. That my work is based in memory, filtered through my emotions, and that it evolves through the painting process itself. And that it has to do with a sense of time passing and an attraction to what is ancient and weathered. All of this is absolutely true. But as often as I have explained all of this, I have sensed there is more to the story.
In the aftermath of my talk, I thought more deeply about what it is that is so strong for me about the landscape. I know it is not about literal or even abstracted depiction of places I've been. In fact, at times I struggle with being too tied to my memories of specific places. I love the moments of freedom I experience that are beyond identity of any place, even as I use the vocabulary of marks, colors, and textures that come from these places. These are times when I feel I am painting purely from my heart and soul. This is a cerebral and spiritual level that has begun to open up for me.
When I was writing to my friend, I said that I feel my work expresses a sense of longing. I've always associated feeling that with the landscapes that I love, remembering the beauty and richness of those experiences. But I wondered if that was the whole story. Then with a slight shift in my awareness, in the middle of writing that email, I saw that the sense of longing that underlies my work is much bigger. It's a spiritual longing, a desire to express something...God, Divine Mind, All That Is. I try to express this with paint, even while knowing that I can do no more than touch the edges of this enormity. At the same time, it seems true to me that any bit of truth or beauty and artist creates reflects a larger reality. I don't expect I will abandon landscape as the main source of my visual language. But I wonder if my approach can become more expansive.
Some form of spiritual seeking is surely at the root of what many artists do, whether or not they are conscious of it, or speak about it. We do live in a material world, and making reference to that world is a big part of who we are. But for me, right now, it feels liberating to push the other references aside long enough to say, there is more, always more.
|Chimayo #1 16x16 inches, oil and mixed media on panel|
learning in series
Last week, in my advanced abstraction workshop in Gloucester, MA, we had a group discussion about working in series. About half the artists in the class regularly work in series, and the others all were interested in exploring the idea. As various people described their work in series, it was obvious that the word has no single definition. Series can be anything from very intentional and planned in terms of concept and format, to an after-the-fact grouping of similar work, to something in between, such as what results from coming back to a specific idea over time. An artist's motivation to create a series can also range widely, and include wanting to master a particular technique, play intuitively with variations on a theme, or follow a conceptual agenda. But in all of this diversity, there is commonality. Working in series is basically a practice of revisiting and exploring a visual idea in depth--and a good way to recognize and follow our personal direction as artists.
Because my work is very influenced by places that I've traveled and stayed, most of what I designate as series are groupings of paintings that have come out of such experiences. There are also series that I define because of similar technique or format. My series tend to be ongoing, and once I recognize them, they become ways of thinking about a developing piece, a guiding idea as I work. They are helpful to my intuitive process; they keep me on track, provide ideas, and show me what is worth pursuing and developing further. My series tend to evolve organically through my process, rather than being preconceived. (Below, a painting from my ongoing Llano Series, from my time in New Mexico this past winter; Llano #2, 36"x30" oil/mixed media on panel.)
Recently though, I had an idea that required me to work in an intentional series. This was because I did not imagine it as just one work, but as filling a wall. It's funny now to think that at first, I presumed that having had a compelling idea, I would simply do the work and have good results...voila! And that might have happened (more or less) if the idea had involved just painting, But it included printmaking also, and some techniques that were new to me. My idea was to merge print media and oil paint (mixed with cold wax medium) in the same image, creating a dynamic interaction between the two. What ensued was a process of trial and error, working out technical and conceptual challenges, and adjusting my ideas for the outcome. It turned out to be a far more interesting exploration than I had imagined.
I'm sure the amount of learning and experimenting that took place would not be a surprise at all to artists who are used to setting clear challenges for themselves and working in preconceived series. But for me, this was new. I did work this way as a beginner, but my approach for many years has been based in intuitive process. For others like me or who may be curious, here's a run through of how the series evolved, and is still evolving:
My original idea was to apply select areas of oil paint on top of monotypes. I am practiced at making monotypes on my etching press, so I felt confident about that part. I decided on a 12"x12" square format, printing on Arches Oil paper, which would allow me to work over the print with oil paint. The first day, as I made a number of monotypes, I began to question my idea more closely. I didn't want the prints to be merely a base layer for the paint, instead I wanted them to interact with the paint, and offer their own special qualities to the final image. To that end, I made some strong dark marks, and some of the textural effects that are unique to monotype. I set them aside to dry, and the next day approached them with my oils. The only one that I liked after painting over all of the prints was the one below. It wasn't really what I had in mind, though. What you see here is only a thin layer of transparent orange paint over the monotype. The character of the oil and cold wax was not exploited.
On the others that I attempted, the paint overpowered the print. I considered running them back through the press with a new printed image on top, but everything was too wet then, so I set them aside. By the next day I had a new plan. (I'm holding onto the idea of multiple runs through the press, alternating painting and printing, though...a spin off series perhaps.)
My new idea was to begin with a carborundum print. In this technique, you adhere a fine grit (carborundum, available from printmaking suppliers) to a plate, and that plate is inked and printed using the etching press. Because the carborundum itself is textural, the ink catches in it in a different way than on a smooth plate, and the result is characteristically rich, deep in color, and somewhat textured where the grit imprints on the paper. I figured this type of strong and textural print would stand up better to the paint.
My next step was to figure out the basics of carborundum printing, because I had never done it before. I did have some carborundum on hand, which I had bought a while ago with the idea of experimenting at some point. The time had come, and I spent the next few studio sessions experimenting, learning how to make textures that I liked, and how to ink and print the plates. This in itself was fascinating. I didn't have any instruction other than a short YouTube video so it was all an adventure. Here is my most successful straight carborundum print:
Once I felt I had a handle on the printing process (or at least some basic ideas) I began to work over some of them with oil and cold wax. It turned out that I was right in thinking that the carborundum prints would come through in a stronger and more defined way than the monotypes had. I was able to paint freely in some places, and in other areas allow the print to dominate. Below is one of the pieces that I'm happy with. I love the way the carborundum produces such deep blacks, and the textural effects that are unique to this process interact with the special look of cold wax and oil. This piece began with the same plate (upside down) as the print above:
Today I explored further, feeling more free, playing areas of fairly thick paint off against the more delicate print areas. I'm enjoying the way that this series is opening up some new territory for me. Now I want to know more about carborundum printing, and to keep exploring this intriguing conversation between print and paint.
PS: You can click on any of the photos to see the pieces in more detail.
the back story
This has been an astonishing week for Jerry McLaughlin and me. Just last Tuesday, we launched the crowdfunding campaign for our upcoming book, Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts &Conversations. Yesterday the funding reached $30,000, exceeding our goal and our highest expectations. The majority of the advanced copy books we offer have been claimed, the workshops that Jerry and I will teach in May filled quickly, and we have received wonderful contributions from 17 countries. The clear message we hear is that many artists are very excited about our project. They are not only eager to receive copies of the book as soon as possible, but many are also offering generous outright donations and high levels of support. To be surrounded by such affirmation, appreciation, and confidence in the outcome of our book is a beautiful thing.
Our crowdfunding campaign continues, with additional funds earmarked to help with our distribution and retail pricing. Please click here to join in the effort. There are still advanced copies and signed copies of the book available as perks. Thank you, and thanks to all who have already joined the campaign!!
As we reach the last stages of publishing, I've been thinking back about the events that have evolved over time and culminated in this book. The idea took root in my own art practice, but the right partner and collaborator was necessary for it to grow.
The story begins when I bought my
first jar of cold wax medium in early 2002 at the suggestion of one of the helpful salespeople
at Wet Paint in St. Paul, Minnesota. When I think of all
the changes in my work and my life that came from that one impulsive
purchase, I'm amazed. But from the start, I found that cold wax medium suited what I was after in my
work. I’d just begun to find my way with abstraction, following an artist
residency I’d had in Spain that fall, and in those first explorations with cold
wax, I gained much firmer footing in my personal direction. The
landscape-inspired color fields and textures that I had been rendering with
straight oil paint now emerged organically from the process itself, due to the
body of the wax and paint mixture. It was an intriguing alignment of materials,
process and ideas.
|Garden, 2004, 40"x24" |
next few years, I experimented and came up with many techniques that involved brayers, squeegees,
palette knives, imprints from textural objects, powdered pigments, and pigment
sticks. I found that intricate effects were possible when digging back into my
built-up layers with scraping and solvents. Through practice I began to notice
how certain techniques worked best at certain stages of the paint surface’s
drying, and developed patience for working at those optimal
|my cold wax tools|
For a number
of years, cold wax was simply a part of my process, an ingredient in all of
these explorations, but fairly unremarkable in itself. Then in 2009, Kathryn Bevier invited me to teach a workshop in Rochester, NY. The subject of the class was up to me, and I
was casting around for an idea when a friend said, “why not teach about that
wax that you use?” I dug back through some notes I had made in my sketchbook, and
came up with enough information (barely) for a two day class.
If anyone had tried to tell me then that within seven years I would have a national and international teaching practice, or that I’d be co-authoring a 300+page book on the topic, I'd have laughed. But even in that first workshop, the excitement of the artists in the class, and their immediate engagement with the process was clear, and I was encouraged to continue. It wasn't long before I was teaching 10-12 workshops a year, and in 2012 I taught my first overseas class, at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo, Ireland. Since then, I've also taught in Italy and Sweden, and have had artists in my class from those countries and from Brazil, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, United Arab Emirates, Germany, Great Britain, Canada, France, Denmark, and Spain.
|teaching in Ireland/ photo:June Durkin|
Teaching has never been only a one-way process for me. Cold wax medium invites experimentation; most
people who work with it come up with ideas and applications that suit their own
needs, and are generous in sharing. Following my early workshops, the community of artists working with cold
wax medium began to grow rapidly through online contacts (including facebook,
and a website and discussion forum that I started in 2009.) Artists who had
been using cold wax on their own for years also entered the conversation. Over the past
few years, cold wax topics discussed online have become wide ranging and
internationally based. Many artists are now teaching workshops and broadening
the base of knowledge. Through the curiosity and dedication of thousands of
involved artists, cold wax medium has evolved into a hot topic.
earliest days of my workshops, artists were suggesting that I could, or more
urgently, should write a book on the
subject. But while I enjoy writing about art and my studio practice in my blog, a book about cold wax
medium seemed like an entirely different, and not very appealing, project. I was unable to envision it as much more than a how-to book, which seemed to me a tedious sort of writing. I did have a book in mind that I wanted to write someday, but it would mainly concern broader ideas about painting. So although the seed of a book focused on cold wax medium took root early on, it remained for years a tiny, badly nurtured seedling. (In fact, I kind of hoped the poor thing would die.)
This was my attitude when Jerry first contacted
me with the idea of collaborating on a cold wax book. My response could not be called enthusiastic, but I agreed to hear him out. Fortunately, he is a persistent and persuasive person in all the best ways, and eventually, in February of 2015, we met in
person to discuss the idea. That day, we talked for almost ten hours, and my skeptical outlook shifted. During this in-depth conversation, I was able to clearly see new and exciting possibilities for the book. Jerry’s vision was
broad, and together we discussed how to include our shared passion for the
bigger issues. We agreed from the start that the “why” of cold wax and
art practices in general should carry weight equal to the “how.”
In discussing our roles for the book, it was important to me that Jerry be the sole
curator of the artists and images that we would publish in the book. There was
no way I wanted to select and reject from among my many friends and students in
the cold wax community. The prospect of doing this in the past had been another factor that stalled me from writing a cold wax book on my own.
passion for the topic, his energy, research, and willingness to track down and
communicate with artists from around the country and the globe has made this
book a reality. I am forever grateful for his persistence and
In a few weeks, I will join Jerry in Oakland, CA for the final stages of approving the book text and layout, and shortly after that, Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts, & Conversations will be
off to the printer. We have been working on it for over a year and a half now, and
it has been a deep and engaging (and sometimes, exhausting) process. Just as teaching is not a one-way learning experience, working on the book has taught us a great deal--we've learned from each other (click here for an earlier blog post about our
collaboration), from Jerry's considerable research, and from the many artists who have contributed images and ideas.
We sincerely hope the book fills the high expectations that surround it and that the cold wax conversation will expand and grow as the result of its publication. Cheers!
thoughts on flow and meditation
|Llano #2, 36"x30" oil, cold wax, pigment|
For years I have thought of painting as the way that I practice meditation, because it can take me out of ordinary thought and into a different sense of time. This state of creative "flow" is something many artists share, and long for when it eludes them. It's a sense of being at one with your work and materials, in which other thoughts and concerns fall away, You are not operating in clock time, but in the present moment--a moment that goes on until something intrudes. A habitual glance at the clock, an interruption, a minor frustration, physical needs or fatigue, or some other disruption inevitably jolts you back into ordinary consciousness.
But even if it lasts only a short time, I notice that a period of flow helps me feel renewed, energized and focused. Often I come out of this state of mind, look at something in process, and see exactly what needs to be done. In a way similar to being away for a day or two, I can see my work again clearly.
I believe that in this state of flow, deeper aspects of your intentions and abilities are accessed. The normal activities of the mind that judge, restrict, or argue with intuition are silenced for a while, allowing more of your creative truth to speak. It's not that there is no inner dialogue, at least for me. Some part of my brain continues to observe, react, be inspired, and make decisions. But there is a special rightness to all of that--one thing leading to another, my hands falling easily on the colors and tools I want, and feeling pleasure in what is unfolding on the panel. There is a feeling of peace and spaciousness.
|Llano #1, 36"x30" , oil , cold wax, pigments|
In recent days I've started a practice of regular sitting meditation, and although this practice is very new for me, I'm struck by the differences between that and creative flow in the studio. And having observed the differences, I don't think I will claim painting as meditation any more. What happens when I'm painting may be meditative, in the sense that my mind is quiet and contemplative. But it is also engaged with shifting thoughts and perceptions, and lots of body movement. And it involves memories and personal reflection. In meditation, though, there is a great stillness, lack of thought, a beautiful emptiness, and distancing from the ego. (I am too new at it to it to say much more than that, except that I think I'm hooked...)
It does seem that meditation and creative flow are related, and can enhance one another--that both help us to access deep parts of our being. Some of you who read my blog are no doubt experienced at meditation and I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you feel that meditation helps you in your work? Do you sense a connection with your ability to enter creative flow? Does it work both ways. in that the experience of creative flow helps in reaching a meditative state? Thanks for any comments.
I am well-acquainted with creative flow but a newbie at meditation, and intrigued by these ideas.
Jerry McLaughlin and I have reached a milestone with our book, Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations. Between the two of us, we have now completed the writing part--13 chapters and some 80,000 words. There is still a lot editing and rearranging of information ahead of us, not to mention the initial layouts and tying up various loose ends. The whole book will be gone over by the editor and graphic designer we have hired, and there may be significant changes. But we are making real progress. As always, I give huge credit to Jerry. Without his unrelenting energy and focus we would not have come this far.
|Photo credit: Paola Rezzonico|
Below is an excerpt from the chapter Inner Work, which I wrote, an introduction to the idea of personal voice in art. This is its first stage, meaning that it has not been through the editing process, so it may appear differently in the final publication. But it will give you a flavor of the more conceptual aspects of the book, which are important throughout the book. (There are also, of course, many pages devoted to technique and the more practical aspects of working with cold wax.)
Having personal voice in art means very much the same as it does in verbal communication. Our speaking voices are individual and recognizable, yet flexible enough to allow us to explore our ideas. They are consistent, but variable within a range that others would recognize. We can shout, or whisper, or speak in a foreign language, and still sound like ourselves. Ideally, our voices are strong and convincing. Yet they also convey infinite nuances of thought and emotion. In all of these ways, the idea of voice defines what many artists seek in their work.
Finding and developing personal voice in art is an ever-evolving process. As visual language becomes more nuanced and complex, we have greater range of expression. The more developed our personal voices, the more we can say.
(and here, the writing goes into those topics--setting intentions, considering sources of ideas, and self-critique...) If you'd like to know more about the book, please visit www.coldwaxbook.com where you can also sign up to receive notice of publication, which we expect to happen late this year.
It is never too soon to consider bringing out your personal voice. In fact, this creative voice has been with you since very early childhood. With some reflection, you may see consistent themes in everything you have created, even from a fairly young age. When identified and nurtured, these threads of ideas will help you find ways of working that feel authentic to you. On the other hand, being too precise and exact about your direction can be inhibiting to progress. There is grace in finding a path that is open and inviting, yet bounded by what seems most important and true to your inner self.
Many artists long for some dramatic change that will lead to personal voice, an “ah-ha” moment. Although change may happen during the search for personal voice, it tends to be a complex, and often very slow process. Change can be encouraged and welcomed, but seldom forced in any way that is authentic to the artist. A great deal of change is the result of practice and experience in our work, and can be so incremental that we hardly realize it. Other changes happen internally, incubating below our conscious awareness. These may cause us to feel restless and impatient before making themselves known.
Finding personal voice is an ongoing process, without a definite end point. But this dynamic aspect is one of its delights. As long as you continue to work, your personal voice unfolds. Sometimes this happens below your conscious awareness. But it can also be helped along more deliberately, with setting intentions, considering your sources for ideas, and engaging in self-critique.