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)

Prelude to a Kiss

Unfinished portrait with alterations.

I took an unfinished portrait, blocked in some alternative colors and shapes, turned it sideways and began to play. I added tones, color lines and more shapes. I let the painting journey along a Modernist path: make decisions based on how the basic elements of art interact; don’t worry about subject or narrative.

Same painting rotated counter-clockwise.

Two heads emerged from the mix despite my intentions. They refused to become attractive or desirable, yet lingered close to each other. The head on the right leaned forward with closed eyes and pushed out lips while the left head smiled reluctantly and waited for whatever came next. A half-pulled shade showed up in the dark background (a window looking out on a dark street in a noir movie?). I wondered if the two had decided on a midnight rendezvous…They regretted things the next morning if they did.

The title: “Prelude to a Kiss”. I think of the painting as the worst possible cover for a romance novel.

Prelude to a Kiss, oil/canvas, 16×20″.

Back cover blurb: A matter of Fate drew Heather and Roger together. They resisted the attraction they felt for each other even as their longing grew. They knew that once they pressed their lips together for the first time, there would be no going back!

The Dog Park

Baldwin Park Dog Park

Folks take their dogs to Baldwin Park, a few acres of land on the shores of Lake Baldwin in Winter Park, Florida. Many let their dogs off leash so they can mingle with canine compatriots. Impromptu packs form, but few pecking order conflicts erupt. They seem to believe that they are on holiday from the dictates of their masters and want to revel in their freedom. Why waste time establishing orders of dominance when they can chase around and sniff butts to their hearts’ content?

Some owners remain engaged and throw frisbees to their dogs. Some let their pets go wading in the water, and a few fools throw tennis balls out into the lake for their pups to fetch. I’ve never seen a gator cruising near shore in Lake Baldwin, but there’s got to be a few lurking in the weeds somewhere.

Folks who go to the park without a dog sometimes meet resistance from dogs patrolling their territory. Terriers seem especially able to sort out pet from non-pet people and treat the latter with suspicion. They bark and growl at leash-free strollers as if doubting the good intentions of those who choose to live in a flea, dog hair, and drool-free environment.

Our rat terrier, Sammi, died back in 2003. We haven’t visited Baldwin Park in 20 years, but memories linger. I’m working on a painting that began with clouds of random marks. Dogs and the figure of a woman emerged out of the chaos. I couldn’t identify the subconscious source of the imagery until I decided to add a strip of water near the top. I knew then that memories of Baldwin Park had returned for a visit.

Dog Park, oil on canvas (unfinished), 20×16″

Exploration, Editing, Consolidation, Next

Work life moves forward in stages unless interrupted by abrupt catastrophes. I’ve noticed four sequential steps: exploration, editing, consolidation, searching-for-next.

Exploration means learning a new skill, figuring out a job, searching for basic anchor points when working on an unfamiliar problem. Unknowns and unpredictable turns make this step exciting and fresh or scary and bewildering.

Editing comes once the basics have been figured out. The former novice looks for more direct ways of accomplishing goals and discards paths leading to frustration and failure. Surprises still occur, but challenges become less severe and threatening.

Consolidation arrives after the surprises all but stop. A seen that, done that method of operation takes over. A relaxed sense of mastery establishes itself as experience’s reward. Two problems arise near the end of this step: complacency; and loss of ability to adapt to new situations.

Searching-for-next makes its entrance after boredom grows from a sense of comfortable dullness to soul-killing despair. The master of his/her domain starts looking for an escape hatch when hunger for something new counterbalances the fear of the unknown.

I’ve gone through this cycle about five times since graduating from a masters program in painting. A professor told me long ago that it’s important to maintain interest in the act of painting. Once any style, subject, method becomes stale, it’s time to move on. I no longer see the rise and fall of any particular body of work as something to fear, celebrate or mourn.

Some jobs and relationships seem exempt from periodic change. Renewal comes from within an ongoing discipline. Some artists find enough material and room for experimentation to maintain a style throughout their careers. Their work evolves.

Teaching still challenges me student by student, class by class. My subject matter hasn’t changed much in the last 25 years, but I still look for ways to keep my lessons fresh. Every time I teach a new style or technique in class, I learn an alternative approach that may influence my work. The job only becomes stale when I feel too tired to look for opportunities to expand and strengthen my practice.