Nocturne (for A.D.)

I’ve been experimenting with different methods for starting a painting. Developing images (abstract or realistic) from random marks echoes Surrealist techniques.

Psychedelic Puppy

Starting with one shape and letting it lead to others (until the canvas is covered) seems unique at first. But that approach owes a debt to Process Art. In Process Art, the outcome is unforeseen and relatively unimportant. The act of making the picture is the primary focus.

Tangle: Painting for Ava

I finished “Nocturne” yesterday. I began it with a drawing based on rearranged shapes specific to a known subject. In other words, I had a preconceived idea in mind when I started the painting. I left room, however, for improvisation. I had no color or tonal scheme in mind, but roughed in shapes using a restricted palette (lemon yellow, white, pthalo blue, alizarin crimson) to create a pattern. On second through fourth layers, I enhanced colors, fused shapes, and added details that emerged out of underlying layers. The end result reminded me of a night time scene. The shapes and colors recalled Arthur Dove’s abstract Maine landscapes.

Esphyr Slobodkina has been another influence. She’s best known as the author of “Caps for Sale”, but was a founding member of the Abstract Artists Association. The AAA, founded in the 1930s, promoted the development of an American form of Modernism.

Slobodkina developed flat shape compositions that referred to natural and manmade forms. She did preparatory pencil sketches and paintings before creating a final version of a subject. Precision, elegance and rhythm are the hallmarks of her best work.

I may eventually settle upon a method that combines elements of the three approaches discussed above. Right now, I’m favoring the technique used to create “Nocturne”. Using improvisation over a set foundation seems like a promising path. Unplanned spontaneity (laying on brushstrokes willy-nilly) leads to thickets of confusion. (Tangled clots of paint remind me of how much I dislike the choppy disorganization of free-form jazz.) Detailed planning and controlled execution, a la’ Esphyr Slobodkina, seem too confining. I need room for discovery.

I used to worry about originality. I realized that I had ripped off and recombined sources in most of my work. Now I believe that genuine expression requires looking both forward and back. Not to mention inward.

Painting for Ava


I started this painting with my granddaughter, Ava, in mind. Her mother asked me to make something lively and colorful for the baby. I began by painting interlocking shapes. I allowed the splotches and irregularities of the gray underpainting to suggest initial forms, then improvised more shapes in response to the arrangements already laid down.

Tangled (stage 2)

After I covered the canvas, I began to make adjustments to the composition and to develop tonal and color transitions. I added details and accents to areas that looked a bit dull. Now I have to guard against turning the painting into a mad carnival riot.

Tangled (stage 3)

Also have to work on outside edges throughout. I’ve focused on the middle at the expense of the rest. The blue bowl shape in the lower left quadrant still seems too dominant and may require further intercession. Or I may have to add another shape (or two) projecting outward to the same degree as the bowl. I am satisfied, for now, with the mellow color harmonies that mostly contrast oranges with greens. I remember seeing that combination in illustrated children’s books from the 60s.

I’ve notice plant and animal forms emerging from the mess. I see a dinosaur, a snake skull, a carrot, a pipe, a bird, leaves and a head. I’ll have to ask daughter Annie if they appear too scary.

I’ve learned, however, that editing a painting’s content too closely can kill its spirit. If “Tangled” proves unsuitable, then I’ll start another for Ava.

Psychedelic Puppy

Psychedelic Puppy, oil/canvas, 18×22″.

I started this painting by applying marks at random and according to impulse. A dachshund wearing glasses emerged and wouldn’t go away. A pug entered the picture from the right. A lizard hanging down from a branch insinuated itself near the end. It showed up after I unintentionally fused a dog’s paw with a man ironing a shirt.

Working in this manner sometimes presents thorny problems. What do I choose to bring out of the chaos? How real do I make the image once it’s chosen? (Do I negate the abstract beginning of the painting? Or do I try to find a balance between creating a readable image and more formal, modernist concerns?) How do I resolve the other areas around the main and secondary images? Am I just playing around with paint, or does this image carry any import for myself and others?

I felt lost last week at the end of a painting session. A few images floated in a tangle of confusion. I decided to go back through the picture inch by inch, section by section to play with arrangements of shapes, to look for areas of contrast versus areas of muted harmony, to play with formal rhythms. Some passages easily surrendered to modification while others resisted. I did the final touch up today.

As of now, Psychedelic Puppy has met its resolution. I’ve decided that it’s about the comical aggression of a small dog seeking dominance.

Reworked Classes and College Dreams

It’s been a month since I stepped into a classroom. I’ve been busy developing instruction for two studio drawing classes recently converted to on-line courses. The demonstration for the last assignment is nearly finished. I’ll ask my students to draw from and alter a portrait photograph in five ways.

19th c. daguerreotype of a young couple.

In my painting, I switched heads on the bodies of my subjects, gave the male head a stovepipe hat to wear, replaced a hand with a lizard’s claw, put a Komodo dragon’s head and a funerary angel in a landscape behind the couple. I’ll tell my students that it helps to have a back story that explains the alterations. Mine: “During the honeymoon, Charles and Amanda could no longer ignore their hidden tendencies and past indiscretions.”

Honeymoon Revelations, acrylic on canvas, 24×18″.

Monster movies come to mind when I look at the painting. Dr. Frankenstein always has something to hide from a good-hearted fiancee. Sunlight, birdsong and flowers serve as a backdrop for their wedding, but dark deeds and unfortunate discoveries bring the honeymoon to an abrupt end.

I’ve started to dream each night about teaching a painting class. My unconscious mind produces cluttered studios with students jumbled together at tables. No customary easels or drawing horses anywhere. My kids misinterpret instructions, puzzle over color mixing, go their own way on assignments. I don’t seem to mind the chaos and help one student darken a shadow by adding red and green. The class ends. I have trouble writing assignments on a small blackboard using an oversized piece of chalk. I try again on a larger board but can’t clearly write “self-portrait”.

Sometimes the tables turn in my dreams: I become a student with too much to do. I’m getting some assignments completed, but vaguely recalled term papers lurk at the edge of memory. I have no idea when I’ll write the papers (or what they’re about) but hope that my professor will forget them.

I leave campus to visit my personal studio. It’s in a dimly-lit garage with a roll-down door and a concrete floor. Unpainted canvases are stacked against one wall. Dirty brushes in a slop jar sit in the middle of the floor waiting to be cleaned.

I never find out if I ever successfully write an assignment on the board, finish a term paper or clean the brushes. A mosquito interrupts my dreams each morning around 6 a.m. just as a gleam of light brightens my room. It buzzes round my head until I desperately swat it away. If I fall back to sleep, it returns a half hour later to wake me again. Like the rest of us, it’s got unfinished business. And something keeps getting in the way.

The Ups and Downs of Monday

Rushed around this morning getting ready for an evening class, preparing for the arrival of a crew from Kevin’s Tree Service. Ran off syllabus copies at Kinkos. Rushed home and parked the car down the street.

Dead maple post-trimming.

The maple in the neighbor’s yard died last spring. It began to drop heavy branches on our driveway starting at Christmas. Every time I walked beneath, I glanced up apprehensively. Worried about door-to-do evangelists getting crushed by a heavy limb. I didn’t want to send a Jehovah or a Mormon prematurely to heaven.

A portable lift, two grizzled oldsters and three young men bearing chain saws attacked the maple at 11:30. Made lunch for Judy and me while the men worked. Shouting men, a roaring chipper and the thuds of falling limbs made me miss a call from work.

The men finished at 12:30. The grizzled guy who rode the lift and cut the overhanging branches assured me that if the maple fell, it would fall on the neighbor’s yard. I had nothing to worry about.

Checked my phone and found a voice mail. My department head had called: higher-ups in the administration had just cancelled my Monday/Wednesday night class. Two students dropped over the weekend lowering enrollment from 7 to 5. Admin also decided not to allow conversion of the class to a delayed-start ten-week-course.

Say goodbye to 4000 bucks. Told Judy. Asked if she were okay with my semi-unemployment. She smiled and said she felt elated. I’d be around more. I’d feel less stressed. I could work on prints for an upcoming show, finish enclosing the front porch. We might be able to go on short day trips.

Little German Shephard Boy, five-color reduction woodcut, 7×5″

Rummaged around in a back room this afternoon. Found copies of woodcuts I’d done fifteen years ago. I’ve been hurrying to produce ten prints for a show by March 1. Three fell in my lap. Also found rice paper I can use to print new woodcuts.

Plucky Flies Away, woodcut, 8×10″
Halt, woodcut, 7×14″

Felt a bit dazed. Flipped from worrying about lost income to happiness. Haven’t had been able to do anything but teach and run errands for the last four months. Now I’ll have time to enjoy painting and developing new prints.

Decided to photograph the newfound prints, worked on an abandoned painting in my studio, and took time to make a good meal for supper. I watched an old Jack Lemmon movie (“Avanti!”) tonight with Judy instead of going to work. Judy fell asleep and missed the skinny-dip scene. The heat pump came on a couple times as the night turned cold. Felt cozy and content.

What Comes Next?

I’ve been teaching an abstract drawing class called, “Creating Meaningful Abstract Imagery”. The basic idea: overlap words and images related to a specific topic to create hybrid shapes; develop the shapes in color, tone and texture to create an abstract composition that captures the mood or essence of the original subject.

Climb the Stairs, oil/canvas, 40×24″

This technique delivers fragments of readable imagery orchestrated into a semi-abstract arrangement of shapes, colors and textures. The up side: the picture deals with a concrete idea but allows for improvisation during the creative process. The down side: one can feel a bit trapped working within a preconceived idea.

One of my students has taken many classes about abstraction. I wanted to give her a new idea. A thought came to me that it might be interesting to build a composition shape by shape, line by line moving from one side to another. The drawing or painting would be a journey with no set destination except for reaching the other side of the composition. I did two drawings as examples. I called the new technique, “What comes next?”

Wild Goose Chase, colored pencil, 3×4″

I started “Wild Goose Chase” with the head and neck of a duck. Things progressed from there. Images emerged and disappeared as I worked from left to right. Figures, animals, body parts showed up, reconfigured, transformed into other things. The process was open-ended and absorbing.

Bird Sanctuary, colored pencil, 3×4″

I finished “Bird Sanctuary” this morning. The title came from beak, wing, and tail shapes that kept showing up. Leaf and flower forms came along for the ride.

When I compared the two drawings I discovered that similar colors and the same technique led to fairly different results. Both have interlocking shapes and intense patterning but convey different moods and associations.

I still enjoy working with specific subject matter but am finding this new technique intriguing. Sometimes the ideas I eventually adopt in my own work come from new lesson plans.

Selling Out

Bougainvillea Looking West

An artist walked through my warehouse studio during an open house fifteen years ago. I had landscapes hung in a small room, narrative figure paintings in the larger, better lit room. Steve pointed to the landscapes and said, “This is where you sell out.” He turned to the figure paintings and said, “This is where you’re telling the truth.” I replied, “I haven’t been able to sell more than a half dozen of the landscapes. Please tell me how I can become a sell-out.”

Approaching Storm
U.S. 27-Lake Louisa

I’ve often divided my practice into different subject matter and styles. I painted landscapes to spend time with my fellow painter and friend, Brenda, and to find peace. The figurative paintings took a lot of physical and emotional energy out of me. Painting at a remote location, taking notes from nature, calmed and recharged me.

Haunted Meadow-Lake Woodruff

I haven’t headed out with my French folding easel and a blank canvas in a couple years. Painted the last completed landscape from a cool spot under my front yard magnolia in 2017. But I received an e-mail recently. A colleague recommended my landscapes to a city art director. A slot had opened in the schedule at the main house of Leu Gardens in Orlando. I agreed to deliver 30 framed paintings on November 21st.

I pulled paintings off a studio rack, gathered them from closets and corners in the house, and made selections. When I looked at the chosen group, I noticed that color harmony and softer light had become more dominant throughout the twenty year span of work. The early landscapes had more edges and tension. The latter pieces gave off a sense of peace.

Then I remembered another reason why I painted outdoors all those years. Sometimes, when annoyances, distractions and concerns about outcomes fell away, I felt like I had begun to become immersed in nature. I felt part of a bigger flow, a current in a broad stream.

Winter-Lake Woodruff

And that was good.

Revisiting the Past

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Untitled

Have you ever wished that you could go back to a particular moment and make changes? I’d still like to alter the outcome of a confrontation with an eighth grade teacher, a nun who grimly asserted that my soul’s destination was hell. I have more resources now, better counterarguments. I wish that I could take back a change up I threw that same year. The batter expected the pitch, cranked his bat, and hit a walk-off home run. If only I could return to the mound and throw a fastball up and in. Also wish I hadn’t engaged in quite a few pointless arguments with my wife. I understand, now, finally, that many disagreements meant nothing in the long run.

I’m not sure whether things would improve if I could interfere with my past, however. Unexpected consequences multiply in most time travel stories. Change one crucial decision, and a life suffers radical transformations.

I’ve recently come down with an older artist’s malady: the need to revise paintings once considered finished. I used to let flawed paintings go seeing them as stepping stones to better work. A growing accumulation of stepping stones fills up two racks in my studio, however. I’ve begun to paint over the weakest and to revise near misses. Why make new pieces when old ones still cry out for help?

Albert Pinkham Ryder, an American painter active in the late 19th and early 20th century, reworked his paintings obsessively near the end of his career. He stopped his beginnings and relentlessly edited the past. But Albert used suspect materials and improper techniques. He worked in numerous thick layers, and paid no attention to how well a prior layer had dried before applying varnish and fresh paint. His canvases began to grow lumps,, cracks, blots and fuzzy patches soon after he died. The current state of his work barely resembles photos taken in 1920. As years go on, his oeuvre self-erases.

Perhaps the trick lies in knowing when to swim with the tide and when to fight the current. Sometimes it’s best to flow forward with time. Sometimes reparations for past mistakes must be offered. My standard is to try to make things better when I can, and to let the irrecoverable go.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Macbeth and the Witches

Mad Lord Punt

Mad Lord Punt, oil/canvas, 11×14″

Mad Lord Punt woke from a nap,

drew on a map, and

told the storm where to go.

He huffed to the east and blew to the west

and stemmed its windy flow.

Punt slicked his hair and puffed out his chest,

said “Look here, look here at me!”

He had bested the rest and reminded them lest

they forgot his chivalry.

Mad Lord Punt promised this, swore that,

and it all came true in a way.

He protected guns and his favorite chums

and never let Dems win the day.

He might have lied but just a few died,

and they didn’t count anyway.

His legend stayed shiny,

though he sounded quite whiny

as the idol’s feet turned to clay.

Mad Lord Punt sits on his gold.

Yellow ore warms his bum.

He can’t ever be told

that his lover’s grown cold.

But mourners are beating a drum.

His middle’s grown fatter and

the world’s bigly sadder

now that the crowds have long gone.

But he never did anything wrong, no sir.

He never did anything wrong.

Post-Impressionist Post

Edouard Vuillard, “Women in a Striped Dress” (detail)

The Post-Impressionists learned about color from the Impressionists, then decided to push things further. Gauguin, Van Gogh, Bonnard, Vuillard, Vallotton and company flattened the three-dimensional world into interlocking shape patterns. They varied brushstrokes to create contrasting textures, juiced the colors, and sometimes hid the main subject within a network of daubs, spatters and wiped paint. They wanted to evoke emotional states more than report facts. Gentle Debussy harmonies (“Clair de Lune”) come to mind when I look at their work.

Kandinsky took the next step toward abstraction: he created color harmonies, rhythmic lines and tonal contrasts but didn’t bother to depict visual reality. He believed that the formal elements of art (color, shape, tone and line) could be orchestrated to create poignant compositions. If Beethoven moves our emotions with intricate arrangements of choreographed noise, then an artist can achieve similar results with brushes and paint.

Kandinsky, “Red Spot II”, oil on canvas, 1920 (detail).

I’ve been making abstractions and Post-Impressionist color drawings as demos for two of my classes. Edouard Vuillard’s work remains attractive, and I could see moving in that direction whenever purer forms of abstraction become dry design exercises. I still like the intimacy of painting subjects from life yet have no desire to record tedious detail after detail. The Post-Impressionists offer a middle path.

“Conference”, color pencil and graphite.
“Turkey Creek”, graphite and color pencil (in progress)