New Work and Words on the Subject of Fear

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“East of the Sun,” 22″x28,” acrylic,
copyright 2018, Molly Larson Cook

I subscribe to several art websites and find each of them fascinating and informative.  Now and then, I’d go so far as to say I find one of them thought-provoking and downright challenging.

This happened today when I opened one of those sites to find this big question for readers (artists)…”What are you afraid of?”

I could respond with a list of things I’m afraid of ranging from spiders and snakes to falling down a flight of stairs and breaking a hip to things that go bump in the night like the stranger pounding on my front door at 3:00 a.m. and trying to get in a couple of weeks ago.

But I don’t think this is what the author of the post about fear meant.  He was asking his question in relation to those of us who do art, and there were several good answers to the question ranging from fear of poverty (always on the artist’s big board of important things) to fear of not being good enough to fear of success.

We do our work, we get brave enough to show it around, maybe even land a gallery show and then that old bug-a-boo, fear of success rears its ugly head.

Fear of success for someone in the arts is rather like the fear of being outed as a fraud in the business world.  This is actually a phenomenon known as “imposter syndrome.”  It’s been reported in business and psychology journals for years now.

I think fear of success in the arts is different.  For one thing, much of business success is based on knowledge – or lack of it – in which case those who struggle with imposter syndrome are concerned that maybe they just don’t know enough but have been able to fake it, baffling the world with BS, whether it’s true or not.

While I grant that some arts endeavors can seem a little like BS this is mostly a matter of taste. The truth is it’s hard to fake art.  A pianist can’t fake playing the piano, a dancer can’t fake the dancing, a sculptor can either do it or not and a potter’s ability is immediately clear – something beautiful or a misshapen lump.  The Meryl Streep portrayal of “singer” Florence Foster Jenkins demonstrated that it’s not possible to fake singing, either.

So I think fear of success for an artist is more about one of two things:  fear that our work doesn’t meet our own expectations and fear that we might not be able to produce enough work to meet the expectations of others (audiences, gallery owners and potential clients) or that these “others” will become so locked into our style that they’ll resist any changes we might make.

(Consider the response to musicians switching from acoustic to amplified instruments.)

All things considered, I’m a lot more comfortable with artists’ fears than those of the business world.  And I sleep better, too…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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To Frame or Not to Frame

Backstage at the Art Studio

When I began to think about submitting paintings for art shows, I also began to think about frames for those paintings.  As I strolled through framing stores or framing sections of art supply stores, I thought more about it.

Looking at art in galleries and museums, frames are even more on my mind – the many styles and possibilities.

I sometimes wonder why an artist chose a particular frame for his or her painting.  Some of them work, it seems to me, but many others distract.

Some juried shows require a frame and are often quite specific about what kind of frame is acceptable.  I don’t argue the point.  But I’ve made the decision not to frame.  I stick with painting the edges and offering my work unframed with hanging hardware installed.

I have a couple of reasons for this and will be interested in your take on the framing question.

Reason #1 – Frames can be quite expensive and if I add a frame, I have to build the price of the frame into the price I charge for the painting.  By not adding a frame, I’m keeping the price lower for the buyer.

Reason #2 – Frames – to me – fall into the “décor” category and are as personal for the buyers as choosing a sofa or carpet or any other furnishing for their homes or businesses.  Because I work in abstract expressionism with a focus on color, I can guess that the buyer might like color, but beyond that, I have no idea how anyone’s home or office  is decorated or a buyer’s taste when it comes to framing.

I was told a few years back by a framer that most people who buy framed art have it reframed to suit their décor.  It makes no sense to me to spend – and charge – money for a frame that will be removed and replaced by something to the buyer’s liking.

When invited to mount the solo show coming up this spring, I was quite clear with the gallery owner that my work would not be framed.  She was fine with that.  The finished black edges define and don’t distract from the art.  If pushed, my taste would be for the simplest black frames, but I already know, after selling a couple of pieces that were framed this way, that the buyers wanted something else.  Something more ornate that I could not have guessed.

Of course, if a buyer asks to have it framed and we can choose a frame together, I’m happy to facilitate that step.  Some buyers know exactly what they want and others want to try a painting in one room or another before giving it a “forever home.”

Initially, I suggest that a buyer hang the painting without a frame and live with it for a bit before they decide whether to frame or not to frame.   It’s a take on the advice I got from an interior designer years back when I moved into a very modern high rise apartment and had questions about some of my antique furniture.

“Live with it for a while before you decide to make a change,” the designer told me.  I did, and the antique oak dining table and chairs stayed.

One note – if a gallery I’d like to be part of wants to show my work and requires that paintings be framed (as some do), I will by all means frame my work with those simple black frames.  I’m not about to shoot myself in the foot.

If you’re an artist or an art buyer, I invite you to let me know your thoughts on framing.

Painting, Juggling and Business

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Untitled, copyright, 2018, Molly Larson Cook

The beat goes on as I continue to work on new pieces for the upcoming show.  And I’ve expanded the canvas, so to speak, by bumping myself up to a slightly larger size.  The new one above, as yet untitled, is 22″ x 28″ and I had fun working again with a wider surface.

As a writer, I know what it means to find one’s voice and also one’s genre.  Yes, there are writers who do it all, and I’ve done most of it myself, but I know where I’m most comfortable – where my voice can speak most clearly and resonate best.

As an artist, I’m learning the same things, and it’s a joyous moment when it all comes together.

Musicians say it works this way as well whether they’re playing classical music, pop or jazz.  Actors get it, too – the moment when the character “gels” and they know they’re in the groove of the role they’re playing.

When it happens, you stop thinking about what you’re doing and just do it.  The words “Paint first, think later” become the mantra.  Don’t get me wrong – this doesn’t mean you never think.  It means you’ve done the groundwork and practice necessary to finally take you to a place where you no longer have to “think” about every step. You’re free to “paint first”  and do it with confidence.  I liken it to an early experience of learning to juggle.

In the beginning, learning to juggle is insanely awkward and messy, not to mention frustrating – dropped balls everywhere.  I was advised to practice over my bed so the balls wouldn’t roll under the furniture.  An old-fashioned telephone booth works, too.  So you practice until your arms hurt and then one day, one surprising day, you get all those balls in the air and don’t drop a single one and you’re on your way.  You stop thinking about it and just do it.

After this breakthrough, I could juggle balls in the air as well as lemons at the market, stones at the beach, anything handy.  I could bounce-juggle balls as I walked along a sidewalk or danced.  I learned to juggle with a partner, passing the balls back and forth.  Juggling, not thinking.

And so it’s going with the art these days.  And as I’m more comfortable with the paint, I’m also becoming more comfortable with the – oh, no! – business side of the work.  Because there is a business side.

In that endeavor, I’ve been reading a great book for artists titled simply, The Artist’s Guide: How to make a living doing what you love.  The author is Jackie Battenfield, artist, consultant and instructor at Columbia University.

We make choices – we can be “Sunday painters” and never want to sell a thing, but we can also choose to be “professional artists” in which case, Battenfield’s book is a terrific guide with a realistic look at what it takes as well as all the help you might need to get there.

Battenfield describes the book as one intended to help artists at all levels including those who might be “resuscitating a stalled or dormant practice.”  Bingo.  That’s me.  I have a significant birthday coming up in March and no time to waste on this resuscitation.

Back to work – bring on the gesso!

 

Iconic Books, Individuality and Confidence

Robert Henri and his 1923 book, The Art Spirit, continue to be wise and welcome companions on this artist’s journey.

I have begun to carry the book around with me the way I once carried Walden and Yevtushenko’s Selected Poems and Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez.  There were others over the years. We all have our iconic books at one time or another.

Henri, of course, speaks directly to art.  No need for Emily Dickinson’s telling anything “slant.”  It’s all there in plain language to the working artist.  Here’s a passage I came across recently that struck me in its simplicity and applicability:

The technique of a little individuality will be a little technique, however scrupulously elaborated it may be. However long studied it will still be a little technique…The greatness of art depends absolutely on the greatness of the artist’s individuality and on the same source depends the power to acquire a technique sufficient for expression.  The (artist) who is forever acquiring technique with the idea that sometime (he) may have something to express will never have the technique of the thing (he) wishes to express.

No little individuality! For me this is a call to have confidence in our work, whatever it may be, and to take the risks that go with it.  Individuality is about that confidence, not about behaving wildly or wearing mismatched socks.  It’s the individuality of our work, not some quasi-Bohemian idea of the artist as an unusual person.

Dressing, as someone once wrote of a character in a book, like a person leaving a burning building doesn’t make anyone an artist.  It just makes the person – well, look like someone leaving a burning building.

Artists and other creatives are rarely run-of-the-mill individuals, to be sure, but there’s no need to call attention to that or make it the basis for any kind of entitlement.  In the communities I’ve loved the most, creative people – artists, writers, musicians and more – are treated not with entitlement but with the same respect other members of the community are accorded, no more and no less.  Those who claim entitlement become smaller in my eyes.

So we soldier on, toilers in the creative vineyard like toilers in any other vineyard.  We encourage each other, laugh with each other, engage in serious discussions with each other, feed each other when called upon and breath the same air as everyone else in the community.

Our difference – Henri’s “greatness of art” – is in our fearless individuality and our power (read confidence) to express that.

To my artist sisters and brothers, I can say only, “Keep on keepin’ on.”  (Yes, I’m that old!)

Here are the three pieces I’ve been working on…I’ll write more about the process and lessons learned next time.  These are 15×30 acrylics.  No titles yet.  The center panel which a week or so ago was wanting to be horizontal changed its mind in the company of the other two.  We never know…

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Forget the Axeman – It’s Finished When I Say It’s Finished

The holidays are here in full force, but I’ll admit that my head is more in the studio than in wrapping packages.  I’ll get the packages wrapped in time, I know, but it’ll be a last minute rush because something happened – a good thing – in the studio.

Of course, each good thing is balanced by something else, and yesterday it was balanced by knocking over a ceramic mug holding brushes in water.  The mug smashed to bits on my tile floor and I was left mopping up the gray water and shards before I could get back to work.  Well, Mercury is in retrograde and these things happen.

The good thing is that I began reworking the painting I posted last time (Me afraid of the axeman?  Not on your life!), and the result makes me so happy that I’m off today to pick up a couple more 15 x 30 canvases to turn one painting into a triptych.

Although I had not read any of Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit in the last couple of weeks, this book has become my go-to guide, and yesterday – after the reworking – I happened on these words:  “Very technically speaking, thicker paint, a fearlessness in painting over and not being afraid of spoiling in so doing, may be conducive to a development of more solidity…”

Are you listening, axeman?  The painting is finished when I say it’s finished.

The other part of the good thing is that once I finished, I realized that my vertical painting had become horizontal.  Now this is not just a matter of randomly turning it one way or another; this is a matter of the bricks telling Kahn what they wanted to be.

When I work with writers, I tell them to pay attention to the subconscious which often knows more than the writer about what to say and what’s happening in a poem or essay or story – things the writer may not learn for some time to come.  I’ve had the experience myself with writing and now I’m learning to trust it with the art.  I intend to pay attention.

I’ll be on the alert for the axeman, but as confidence builds – along with the layers of paint – and as my trust in the subconscious takes hold, I’ll do just what I do with the writing:  I’ll start with a general idea of what I want to create, a general idea of the palette, a general idea of where I’m headed, but I will always – always – let the paint have the final say.

Here’s the painting I posted last time along with the final result:

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I’ll wrap the packages later…

Happy holidays and creating time to all!

 

 

Knowing When to Stop: The Axeman Cometh

I’ve spent a lot of years in the world of words – writer, writing instructor, editor, and oh, yes, reader.  I’m familiar with William Faulkner’s famous advice to writers that they must sometimes “kill your darlings,” those phrases you are particularly fond of which are really not all that good.

This kind of murderous idea is a little shocking, I suppose, but I laughed out loud when I recently came across another murderous idea advanced by American Impressionist William Merritt Chase.

“It takes two to paint. One to paint, the other to stand by with an axe to kill him before he spoils it.” 

Chase is perhaps best known for his often idyllic scenes of idle leisure that suggest no sign of murderous intent.  But his point is well-taken and describes a problem inherent in almost any creative endeavor I can think of – knowing when to stop.  Closely related to another problem for an artist – wondering later if you stopped too soon.

It’s a dilemma.

Hemingway said he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times.  The interviewer asked what the problem was and Hemingway said, “Getting the words right.”  I wonder if Michaelangelo or Picasso or David Hockney would say something similar about a particular painting.  “Getting the paint right.”

I’ve certainly had the experience of finishing a painting only to find myself awake at 3:00 a.m. with questions and new ideas for the painting.  Out of bed and lights on so I could look at it one more time, perhaps even graced by a shot of inspiration before I headed back to bed to dream sweet dreams of what I’d do with it in the morning.

A couple of times it worked.  Other times it turned out to be like the “inspiration” of a writer awake in the middle of the night who penned the immortal words, “All the tears fall in my ears.”

I started a painting a couple of weeks ago in a new format for me – I abandoned my 20 x 24 canvases for a 15 x 30 just to “see how it would feel.”  So far, I’ve “finished” it twice and then reworked it after one of those nagging 3:00 a.m. calls.  I think now it’s really finished.

Perhaps it’s true that an artist never finishes a painting, she just stops.  Either that or we get a glimpse of the guy with the axe waiting to make sure we don’t ruin it.

Here’s the new one…as yet untitled…

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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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