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…




It’s Not Just About the Paint

D-Rings waiting for me and my screwdriver


My summer vacation – I say that with a wry little smile – is about over, and it’s time for me to get back to work.

This year, my summer vacation was more about doctors, lab technicians, pharmacists and naps than it was about artists, canvas or painting.  I know that into each life some glitches are likely to fall and mine fell hard this summer.  All things considered though, my ills were more a nuisance, albeit painful, than life-threatening.  I’m grateful for that.

And I’m happy to say that I’m now back with the art and busy getting ready for the October show.

I’ve rearranged my work space for the non-painting tasks, although my eye is always on the tubes of paint that are my personal Joy of Painting.  Color, always the color.  And I’m using other tools for tasks like attaching the all-essential D-rings and picture wire to each canvas.  An artist’s tools are truly many.

I’ve also made a first run at my artist’s statement.  I have mixed feelings about artist’s statements.  I’ve read many over the years, and the ones I like best are personal and don’t sound as if an art critic wrote them.

As a writer, I want mine to be more than a list of places I’ve studied and some arcane words about the mysteries of my art, though heaven knows, some of it is a mystery to me – the occasional “Where did this come from?”

In art school we learned about “happy accidents.”  In life, we experience them.  In artist’s statements, we try to explain and take credit for them.  I’m planning to just tell the story of how I got from there to here and why I care about that.

Stay tuned.








Marriages of Love


Map of the LaBrea Flower Fields

“I adore the theater and I am a painter. I think the two are made for a marriage of love. I will give all my soul to prove this once more.”  –Marc Chagall

This is a lovely statement by an artist who loved color as much as I do.  But I long ago gave up the theater, so I would amend it to this:

“I adore poetry and I am a painter. I think the two are made for a marriage of love. I will give all my soul to prove this once more.”

In addition to adoring poetry, I’ve long believed that poetry is more like visual art than it is like other writing genres.  There are arguments against my belief, to be sure, but I hold it nonetheless.  One of my favorite poetry books includes a center section of paintings with poems written about them.

In both poetry and painting, I prefer a certain economy of line not really possible in sprawling novels or exhaustive wall-sized paintings of the English countryside.  In both poetry and painting, I like to leave room for readers or viewers to add details of their own, to participate in the story. This is not for every artist or poet.  There’s room for us all.

Recently, after a few years concentrating on my painting instead of writing, I was surprised to win a serious poetry prize.  I submitted a poem rather on the spur of the moment with no expectations and lo, it won.  The win shifted my energy and I’ve been spending more time with poems lately.  Still painting, but the balance has changed.

The energy is there again for the writing and I’m enjoying it more than ever.  I’m not fool enough to turn my back on it and proclaim “I’m an artist!”  Nor have I turned my back on the art. The paint-splattered work table and the drawers and rolling stand with more supplies are still intact in the middle of my living space with paints and tools spread all over.   The words and colors are feeding each other, and it’s a lovely thing to experience.

It’s late in the game for me to attain real fame or fortune with either the words or the art, but they are, together, a lovely team pulling my chariot through a new and vivid landscape.   I can’t wait to see what’s over the next hill.

Those Who Follow Tao Make Use of the Straight and Round*

"Frank and Vincent Consider the Sunflowers and How They Grow"
“Frank and Vincent Consider the Sunflowers and How They Grow”

I no longer think these new paintings are being delivered by pixies, elves, friendly spirits or anything/one else.  They’re mine.

And here’s the progress…all are 18″ x 24″, acrylic on canvas.


“Deconstructing Frank Lloyd Wright”

"Frank and Vincent Talk About the Weather"
“Frank and Vincent Talk About the Weather”
"Frank and Vincent Consider the Sunflowers and How They Grow"
“Frank and Vincent Consider the Sunflowers and How They Grow”

(all images copyright 2016, Molly Larson Cook.)

For my next number…I’m working on a piece with a similar design, but instead of using color, I’m working with neutrals.  So far, so good with the grays and browns and white which are, after all, colors too.  It’s a change, but even a color animal needs a breather now and then.  Stay tuned.

My self-education continues, and the book I keep closest at hand is Simon Jennings’ Artist’s Color Manual.  The book was published in 2003 and is a wondrous compilation of the history and technical qualities of color together with a virtual catalog of possibilities.

This color animal recommends it.


*From Everyday Tao: Living with Balance and Harmony.

Notes from the “What the Hell – Why Not?” School of Painting

I was a writer for many years – corporate writing, technical writing, editing, free-lance journalism. I penned the occasional poem or short story and eventually wrote novels and full-length plays.  I’m still a writer, but no longer for money.  I’ve graduated to being the fledgling artist that I am these days, satisfying a deeper and older creative urge.

When I was a writer – and before computers – I did what all writers did when they were stumped or had written five paragraphs of what could only be called crap, known in more polite society as a “rough draft.”  I pulled the paper out of the typewriter, wadded it into a ball and tossed it either into the wastebasket or across the room, sometimes narrowly missing the cat.

Computers have made this a challenge. The delete key works, but hitting the delete key is a puny and generally unsatisfying answer to the frustration of hitting a block on the road to creativity.

This morning I found myself up against the painting equivalent of writing five paragraphs of crap, and I also found the painting equivalent of wadding up the paper and tossing it across the room.

I’ve been working on a new mixed media abstract piece for a few days and was becoming increasingly frustrated as it seemed to go from “Gee, I like this one a lot,” to “What the…?,” back to “Oh, this will work,” and then again to “What the…?”

After a couple of hours this morning, I nudged it to a place I liked pretty well, very close to the original “Gee, I like this one a lot,” when doubts and general frustration began to set in along with a sense that I was facing one of those blocks in the road.

Then I did it.  The Thing.  I wadded it into a ball and tossed it across the room.  And I have to say it was much more satisfying than any such moment in my writing.

Of course, you can’t wad a 12″ x 15″ piece of heavy illustration board into a ball, so I did the next best thing – for me.  I loaded up one of my brushes with my favorite shade of red, stood back and threw the paint at the painting in progress.

It was one of those “What have I got to lose?” moments.  But even fledgling artists and writers and musicians and dancers know that if we’re not pushing the edge, taking the risks, we’re really not going anywhere.

I could have fiddled with this for another three days, the way writers endlessly fiddle with a bad paragraph in a “rough draft” only to find it doesn’t get better.

I’m happy to report that the painting got a lot better.  I have awarded myself the Red Badge of Courage for today.  And this fledgling has flown just a little higher toward the sun.

Art Is Where You Find It, and You Can Find It Everywhere

A favorite silk scarf…beauty is everywhere.

The holidays are over, and it’s time to get back to work. Seriously, back to work.

Yesterday, I took a walk through the neighborhood to check out some new shops in an area of funky old buildings in Old Town San Diego that are being redone, and I happened on a color and design bonanza at Cal Soul Apparel and Vintage Aloha Shirts.

I was checking out the spaces for a possible small gallery and studio for myself – still a possibility – but also found owner Mike Moore who gave me a visual tour of his beautiful collection of vintage shirts and dresses.

Color is my animal these days and the shop is filled with it.  But there was more as Mike told me about the various designs and patterns on the shirts – where in the Pacific Islands they might have originated and why they’d mean something to the owner.

I have an old card around here about the “art police” coming because someone is wearing a beautiful shirt.  The owner says, “Take me away.”

Aloha shirts might not be in the same ballpark as a VanGogh, but that’s mostly because of the “collector appeal.”  Believe me, if there were only one of these shirts left in the world, it would be at Sotheby’s today drawing big bucks.

Fortunately for us, we still have more than one.  And for those of us who love color, that’s a very good thing.  I knew there was a mystique about Aloha shirts in southern California (which are suitable dress anytime anyplace), but I didn’t realize there’s also a love of art that goes with them.

Let us not get ourselves into art boxes so tiny we can’t appreciate art on the back of a surfer dude or dudette for what it is.  Fine, that’s what it is. Exceptionally fine.

Wishing everyone a happy and productive new year whether you’re painting like VanGogh or stitching up a beautiful shirt!


This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things


It’s taken longer than I expected to get back to work here – life intervened and work and a hot spell we didn’t expect that has sapped our energy and dried up the gardens and left us to sit in whatever cool spot we can find and read for the duration.

I’ve lately been reading James Elkins’ What Painting Is, a book that uses the language of alchemy as a way to think about painting.  It’s fascinating, mysterious and, because Elkins is a painter as well as an art historian, full of truths about the painting life.

This passage struck me yesterday in a chapter titled “The studio as a kind of psychosis:”

” Sooner or later every one of a painter’s possessions will get stained. First to go are the studio clothes and the old sneakers that get the full shower of paint every day. Next are the painter’s favorite books, the ones that have to be consulted in the studio. Then come the better clothes, one after another as they are worn just once into the studio and end up with the inevitable stain. The last object to be stained is often the living room couch, the one place where it is possible to relax in comfort and forget the studio.  When the couch is stained, the painter has become a different creature from ordinary people, and there is no turning back.”

Even as a fledgling, I felt the shock of recognition.  “Psychosis” may be too strong a word, but I can’t argue with the description.  And since my studio takes up most of the space where I live (a 300 sq. ft apartment), well, the possibilities for paint and possessions are endless.

The nice neat corner I set up for the art when I moved in has expanded to encroach on the living area, the kitchen (counter?  what counter?) and all available wall space, although I’m fiercely defending the “bedroom,” otherwise known as a daybed in an alcove.

Time to get back to work now, but I’ll write more soon about how I’m approaching the “body of work” dilemma.  With a body, of course.

Happy painting!