Breaking Rules and Making Art

Simon Jennings, trained as a graphic artist and a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, authored a number of books for artists. He worked as a designer and graphic artist in New York, Chicago, and London and taught at several British art schools, including the Royal College of Art.

My favorite among his books is his Artist’s Color Manual which includes valuable information about the history of color and pigments, a section on the characteristics of individual colors and a section titled “Creative Directions” which describes and illustrates techniques with various media.

Jennings includes a number of quotations from artists and also his own sometimes deliciously irreverent narrative about painting.  As the sometime poster woman for irreverent behavior over the years, I particularly like his suggestion that we break the rules.  After all, it’s art!

Of course, artists have been experimenting and breaking rules for years. It’s the nature of the best of the game.  Just as in writing or music or any other creative endeavor, we learn the rules (the scales, the grammar, the classic steps) and then we get to fool around.  We get to make choices and discoveries.

Here’s Jennings on “Experimenting with Color:”

“Experiment with how you look at colors in nature; the colors are rarely like you think they are.  Use any materials that are available and ignore correct usage–try gouache over acrylic, mix it with ink, and scribble over it with colored pencils and pastels.”

A friend sent me a card recently with a quotation from actor/comedian Danny Kaye: “Life is a great big canvas. Throw as much paint on it as you can.”  To which I might add “and in any media you choose.”

Jennings continues:

“Rub, scratch and scrub into the surface, using a simple limited palette of two or three colors to avoid the results looking too muddy. Use thick and thin paint, draw lines and apply washes.”

Even before I read this passage, I began – in my own irreverent way – to “rub, scratch and scrub.”  As I’ve written before, I no longer use brushes – I use tools, and the rub, scratch, scrub technique is perfect for the palette knives, rollers, scrapers and anything else I pick up.

Jennings ends this sidebar as follows:

“Forget about making an accurate drawing of a photographic likeness of the object – just apply the paint as fast as you can. All you are trying to do is capture a vibrant impression of the simple still life in front of you, so concentrate on the colors. See what turns out. If you like what you have done, keep it. If not, discard it and try again.”

I don’t work from a still life these days, but my first serious drawing from many years ago was done in pastel and was of an apple the instructor had set up for a still life. I pulled the drawing out recently to remind myself of the long distance from then to now (on a lot of maps).

Back then, I was pleased that my pastel looked like a real apple, the one on the table, and told the instructor so.  She smiled and said, “That’s good. Now do one that doesn’t look like an apple.”

Looking back, I realize that her words may have been my beginning in the happy world in which I now reside with abstract expressionism.  All color, all the time. A world in which I always “concentrate on the colors” and in which I wait to “see what turns out.”

Here’s a new piece, “Dreamsville,” and I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out.  It’s 20 x 24 acrylic and it’s available.

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Solo Show in the Works – The Organic Artist Asks the Paint

When Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Wait, I hear you say, we haven’t even had Thanksgiving yet.  True enough, we haven’t, but Spring is on my mind for a happy reason.

I’ve been offered a solo show in San Diego that will go up at the end of March and run for three months – April, May and June.  The gallery is one in our Liberty Station arts venue, a popular and busy place in the heart of the city, and I am more than delighted to have been offered this opportunity.

Spring is not that far away when it comes to generating enough pieces to fill not one, but four walls!

Yes, I have a lot of pieces already finished, but mounting a solo show means putting the very best of my work together in a coherent and cohesive manner.  As I’ve said before – rich and complex, not complicated and confusing.

Since color is my animal, I know that much of what I put together will be connected by color.  But not only color.  Even as I think about new work, I’ve begun it, but being an “organic” painter just as I am an organic writer means that I have no clear, pre-determined plan for any piece.  (See below.)

I have a general idea, but I let the paint take me where it wants to go.

Architect Louis Kahn, who designed the Salk Institute building in San Diego, was asked how he came up with his beautiful designs.  His answer was that he asked the bricks what they wanted to be.

I ask the paint.

To those who want more structure in their lives (and their work), who want to know exactly where they’re headed on any journey, an answer like that can be disturbing.  Possibly even irresponsible.

“What do you mean, you don’t know what you’re going to paint when you start?” (Or write. Or visit.)

What we mean is that we’ll engage the media – words, paint, the wheels beneath us – and journey together.  We’ll sing and dance and explore.  We’ll take some risks and laugh at ourselves when things go wrong, because we know there’s no “wrong” when it comes to the creative life.  There are only ideas that don’t work.

One of the best things about the creative life is that we get endless “do-overs”…and every one of those – every new layer of paint or different word – gets us closer to who we are as artists or writers or dancers or inventors or musicians or cooks or any other creative thing we want to be.

Because each try, whether it succeeds or not, becomes part of our history, and we are richer for it.

Those who keep learning and experimenting and refining their creative work will be like Titian. As Robert Henri has it in his The Art Spirit:

I believe that keeping one’s faculties in full exercise is the secret of good health and longevity. It made Titian a young man at nearly a hundred.”

We could probably say the same of Grandma Moses, too, but Henri’s book was written long before Grandma Moses came on the scene.

Here’s a recent example of my own experimenting and refining.  On the left is a painting I posted more than a month ago.  First draft, as it were.  And on the right is the recently finished piece.

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I asked the paint what it wanted to be, and I got an answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mixing It Up for the November Show

Today was a gallery day as I rearranged the work from last month, switched things around and added two new pieces.

The new additions are from an earlier series. and I wasn’t sure they’d work with the more abstract pieces already in place.  I loaded the trunk with an assortment, so I’d have plenty of options.

I had fun and smiled to myself when I realized this felt like pulling things out of the closet, trying them on and discarding them one by one as I shuffled the paintings around – put one up, take two down, take those two down and try something else.  It was all about color balance and also – for me – about symmetry.

I’m never quite taken with shows where the work seems to be placed at random on the walls.  It’s a matter of taste more than anything, but also a matter of knowing how you want your work to be seen.

I want my work to be seen in a relatively ordered manner allowing viewers to focus on each painting without distractions.  Quietly. Thoughtfully.  Other artists are going for something else.

When I had things the way I wanted and had used all the tools of the gallery hanging trade including the handy level, the gallery owner dropped by and gave me a thumbs up, noting too the symmetry. “I wouldn’t add a thing.”

And the new pieces from my “Frank Lloyd Wright” series worked beautifully.  Here they are. I’ll have a picture of the entire wall in a few days.

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Deconstructing Frank Lloyd Wright
18 x 24, Acrylic on canvas, c 2016

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Frank and Vincent Go for a Walk
18 x 24,  Acrylic on canvas, c 2016

I’m ready for the Friday opening and grateful to have this terrific opportunity to show my work and for the sales that have been happening every week. Small steps, but this artist’s journey of a thousand miles has begun with one small show in San Diego.  Who knows what’s next…

 

 

 

 

Another Month in the Gallery!

October has been a happy and busy month with the show at HYPE Gallery and my gigs as a participating artist gallery-sitter through the month.  I don’t know about the other artists in the show, but I love being at the gallery and talking to any and all who wander in.

The good news now is that the show has been extended through November.

I’ve met so many interesting – and interested – people and have enjoyed engaging them in conversations about the work on the walls as well as, in a few instances, their own work.

Artists like to see what other artists are doing, so it’s always a reasonable guess that some of these folks are also doing creative work.  A few of them have been musicians or working in some other creative field.  More than one has been involved in high tech, and my abstract paintings have been of particular interest to them.  I like hearing about what they see in the abstractions.

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“Blue in Green,” ©, 2016, 20 x 24 acrylic on canvas

One of my choices to do abstract work is the whole idea that the viewer can add his or her own narrative.  When I have the chance to hear that narrative, it’s especially gratifying for me.

I’ve also sold some pieces, always good news, including one that’s on its way to Germany, purchased by a young couple touring the western United States.  I was happy to meet every buyer and to know where the pieces would eventually find their homes.  Although selling artwork online is popular, I don’t think it’s for me.  I have too much fun getting to know the folks who enjoy the work, although I’d be happy to make the sale to any of my readers who might be interested.  We’ll just have to get acquainted some other way.

One couple who started taking art history classes “just for fun” during their early retirement bought one of my first collages and were already discussing just where it would go in their home as they walked away, happy owners of one of my own favorite pieces, one I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to sell.

Selling one’s work, all of mine are originals – no prints, is a lesson in letting go.  But when we know our work is making someone else happy, that’s a good thing.

In his book The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm wrote about generosity and noted that the most generous among us are not afraid to let things go because they know they can create more of whatever it is – money, love, art…  I keep that in mind.

And now I’ll have another month in the gallery – more art, more conversations, maybe more sales.  As we say in southern Cali, “It’s all good.”

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“Celestial Bodies,”  ©2016, 11 x 14, mixed media collage on illustration board

Hype Gallery/Studio Door in San Diego’s North Park Arts District
3750 30th Street, San Diego, CA
For information, contact The Studio Door, 619.255.4920

 

 

 

 

Another Opening, Another Show!

As September winds down, and summer as well, my attention is fully on preparations for the gallery show in October.  Selections have been made, titles chosen, labels printed and postcards mailed.  In other words, I’m ready to get this show on the road.

As someone who has done a turn or two on the stage, I can easily compare this first show to opening night – the anticipation, the touch of anxiety, the knowledge that anything can happen, and the pure joy of finally bringing the work into the world come what may.

At the same time, I’m already thinking ahead.  I’ve built a good body of work with my most recent pieces, many of which will be in the show, but I’m itching to explore further and new ideas come to mind.

I don’t question that color will be the defining aspect of my work, but the possibilities are many.  And they gypsy in me wants to travel a few new roads.

I didn’t do much painting over the summer, but I did create a few 8×10 pieces to sell at the show.  Here are samples:

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I’ll also include a few collage pieces from my Celestial Bodies series:

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Again, color all the time.

And about that color, here are the opening lines of my Artist’s Statement that lend a little insight into how that all came about:

“Perhaps it was the 50-color paint set my grandmother bought me when I was nine. Or perhaps it was the technicolor movies, especially Walt Disney who animated music with color. Or it may have been my first college art history class where I fell in love with the vivid colors of Raoul Dufy and the Fauves (as well as my art history professor) when I was eighteen.

“Whatever it was, despite work with charcoal and pastels, clay, collage, or pen and ink, I’ve been hooked on color ever since.”

The show opens October 6 and the reception is Saturday, October 7 from 6-9 p.m. at Hype Gallery/Studio Door on 30th St. in San Diego’s arts district.  I plan to be there!

 

 

 

 

 

The Right Color and the Almost Right Color

Mark Twain once wrote that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

This week I had an artist’s equivalent dilemma.

Working on a new painting, I had come to a place where much of it was pleasing to me, but for one remaining large section I knew just the color I wanted.  You’d laugh to see the number of tubes of paint I have in every color of the rainbow.  And I laughed at myself, too.

How, out of all those tubes of paint, could I not have – or mix – the color I wanted?

But paint colors, like words, are specific.  The chemistry of paint is a fascinating subject and variations among different manufacturers are equally fascinating.

I often experiment with the paintings and try out combinations that work or don’t, that please me or don’t and then get busy layering on something different until I’m satisfied and stop.

In this case, however, there was no experimenting to be done.  In my mind’s eye, I knew exactly the color I wanted and why – how it would balance the rest of the work and why I could not just mix up a batch of the “almost right color.”

The particular color I had in mind is Golden’s Azurite Hue, which has some magical quality that a paint chemist could explain.  I’m not that paint chemist.   I use this color often, sometimes full-strength, but in this case I wanted it as a glaze over underpainting that I didn’t want to cover.  And the tube had run dry.

So, I put aside all ideas of mixing and took myself to my favorite art supply store, Artist’s and Craftsman in San Diego, to pick up a new tube of Azurite Hue.

The almost right word is never as satisfying – or as accurate – as the right word.  And neither is the almost right paint color.

Here’s the finished, so far untitled, piece with two coats of Azurite Hue glaze on the left.  Once in a while the mind’s eye and reality match up rather nicely.

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Bringing Your Whole Heart Home

drawing 001Pen, ink and watercolor, 2013, Molly Larson Cook

 Forgive me, but today’s post is somewhat more personal than most of what you’ve seen here.  It comes in part as a response to a recent health issue – nothing serious but painful day in and day out.

Oddly enough, it also comes after receiving a particularly fine award and publication for my poetry, a gift I’ve hoped for all the many years of my writing life.  And it comes after a struggle following that award with the big questions of how I’ll spend my remaining years.

Since childhood, I’ve wanted to be an artist.  But – also since childhood – encouragement came for my writing, not any childish drawings.  Writing came easy – poems, essays, plays – along with awards for them and praise.

Over the years, I had secret sketchbooks in which I drew pictures that never saw the light of day except for my eyes only.  I continued to write, but it was the world of art that tugged at me.  In college, I boldly signed up for an art history class, a move that boggled my parents, but I loved every minute of it.

I followed other creative paths in addition to writing – dance and theatre at the top of the list.  I finally took my first art class in my early 40s and was encouraged by the instructor to “consider art school.”  When I heard her words, it was like the moment in the old movies when the homely secretary takes off her glasses and lets down her hair, and the boss says, “My God, Miss Fenster, you’re beautiful.”

Yeah, it was that powerful.  Someone, someone who knew about art, had recognized my heart’s desire.

I continued to take drawing classes from her and others but it was another ten years before I made it to art school and began to understand fully what it meant to me.

Over the years, my desire to be an artist was sidetracked by one thing or another – relationships, the need to support my family as a single mom, once by an art professor who took pleasure in making me feel small and incompetent, and not least – by all that praise for the writing.

Praise is not a bad thing, and I’m grateful for every word of it, every award, every note from others to let me know I was accomplishing something worthwhile in the world.

The problem was inside me.  The problem was that the desire to be an artist was powerful, and feeding it in a half-assed way by creating posters for poetry readings and greeting cards for friends wasn’t doing the trick.

After I received the award for my poem,  I decided to enter a competition for a poetry chapbook.  This meant that I needed to write another dozen poems to go with the best of what I had, and I turned to that during the month of March.  I painted a little, but most of the time I was writing and editing and organizing poetry.

It was about that time that the health problem kicked in.  I didn’t make the connection immediately except to note that I was now spending most of my time at the computer which meant a completely different posture from the one I had when painting.  It also meant that I was spending much less time with all those tubes of colors that I love.

Happily, two pieces of wisdom crossed my desk during that time – one from Rumi and one from Joseph Campbell.

From Rumi –  “A thousand half-loves must be forsaken to take one whole heart home.”

From Joseph Campbell, his wise words that became clichéd in the 80s and 90s – “Follow your bliss. Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it…It is a matter of identifying that pursuit which you are truly passionate about and attempting to give yourself absolutely to it. In so doing, you will find your fullest potential and serve your community to the greatest possible extent.

“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”

 

Writing is important.  Words are powerful.  Poetry is beautiful.   None of my pictures may be worth a thousand words.  They may not be perfect. They may not be worth trying to sell.  But they’re mine, and I know I’m on “the track that has been there all the while, waiting for me.”

I don’t plan to get derailed again.

With love to all of you who are happily doing art, and encouragement to all of you who are hesitating.  Go ahead – bring your whole heart home.

Molly