What are the art rules, actually?

I have always had a tendency to follow the rules. I don’t say that with any embarrassment or boastfulness, it just happens to be my tendency. I believe that in order to be a fruitful member of society we all need to follow some rules.

When I was little I knew that I was supposed to come in right after dusk or the last red light green light game was over. I knew that I was supposed to have a bath on certain days. I knew that I was supposed to eat my peas and not hide them behind the curtain in the kitchen. I knew that I couldn’t stay home from school and say I was sick but then turn around and feel OK later in the day and want to play outside. Rules were simple then, but straightforward. I learned right from wrong, good from bad, and the basic rules for good behavior.

From our childhood we move on through life, learning more and more of the subtle nuances of rules of engagement and acceptance. We learn the dance that is interaction with peers through school. We learn how to navigate the very delicate rules of the workplace that involve everything from personal interaction with colleagues to political steps for career mobility. We have to quickly adapt and learn the rules of each unique environment.

In my particular case, because of my heart’s inclination, I chose the visual arts. It, like most other career paths, have their own set of rules and when it comes to making the art itself, that has its own as well.

Early on it was pretty easy. No one expected me to follow predetermined steps since they knew I was exploring. Creativity allows for fewer rules but as soon as I started demonstrating that this was a lifelong path, the rules began to emerge in earnest, shifting elusively. The message appeared to shift from mentor to mentor, art history lesson to art history lesson, and region to region. I was confused.

As I reached middle age I found myself more and more anxious to seek out the advice from mature artists. Having spent almost 25 years in the graphic design industry as an illustrator, I felt like I didn’t know the rules for the fine arts. I was in my mid forties when I was able to return to college to finish my bachelor’s degree and I was hoping for clear direction. The advice I got from the professors, however, was actually all over the board and I learned my 1st solid lesson in subjectivity. The rules depend on everyone’s opinion.

With great fervor I was told that there are definite rules! Mandates always began with “You must…”! I was told to …focus on one medium, …focus on one topic or subject, …focus on one style, …focus on one era or artist to emulate, and so on. The rules became equally endless and diverse, and accumulated fast. In no time I was completely frozen.

It’s my tendency, as I said before, to follow rules but I felt that I couldn’t possibly comply. I was awakening and realizing a rapidly expanding diversity of what I wanted to do; to sculpt, to paint, to draw, and so much more. I wanted to explore realism, pointillism, expressionism, impressionism, and photorealism. I could no more settle on a favorite style then I could choose a favorite color or a favorite food. It’s based on my mood and the day and my chemistry. I was told that I was truly impossible.

My peers who seemed to get it were on their way; recommended for the teaching positions in grad school, recommended for financial support, and assisted in establishing teaching career paths. As for me, my naivete and non conformity shut the door to any funding for a potential teaching career in the arts.

Now more than 25 years have passed and I am nearing retirement from a different career and focusing on reemerging as an artist. In anticipation I began seeking the counsel of other artists several years ago and discovered again they have rules for me. I’ve had them tell me they can still see my tight style from my pen and ink days as an illustrator and I must stop that. I am told that I’m too slow because of my attention to detail. They remind me of the art rules I have heard my whole life and finally begin to understand.

I am, and have always been, an artist. It is less about profession and more about who I am. I am older now. I am less inclined to try to please others above myself. I’m realizing that the rules that the other artists tried to help me find were the rules that they had chosen to adopt because they made sense for them. None of those artists or professors or peers acted with malicious intent. They were trying to help me find my way. In fact, I was so anxious to please by following the rules that I made my own barriers. Life aggregates what has gone before and we must pick up a piece here and a piece there of what’s right for us and fold them in to be our best selves.

I’m finally becoming who I am supposed to be. Practice and time have done what advice could not. I am faster and looser now and it makes me a better painter. I think and evaluate more quickly now because I have been doing it longer and improved over time. I have resolved to paint what I like more often then I paint to please others and my emotion reflects that. Perhaps I have merely started to find my compromise with the rules. What I must say most definitely is that there may not be rules, actually. In art, rules are recommendations, observations, and guidance but not a script. We must be true to our art and to ourselves.

Today’s painting is a reflection of my current mood and aggregation. It’s a little bit loose and a little bit tight and a whole lotta Kelly. This 16″ x 20″, oil on canvas titled “Contemplations”.

Long range planning.

We often use the term, “long range planning” as a way to establish a series of actions – a plan so to speak – that allows us to organize a sequence of events over time to achieve a goal. Strategic plans and project planning and project management are all part of that action terminology. I’m kind of a list maker anyway so making plans like that are always something that appeals to me, even if I don’t formally write it down.

When it comes to my personal life, that’s a little harder to do. If there is an identified goal I can work backwards to make a plan that involves saving for an item to buy or I can make a plan for how to pull off a vacation that involves making hotel reservations, or looking at maps and brochures. If it is something about the house I can look at a calendar and decide what chunk of time might be free to get some task done. These are all valid but are also things that are completely based on my control over the time and process.

What about the strategic planning for going after the elusive dream? We may start making a plan when we’re young that is no more structured than a wishlist but somehow we still find ourselves performing the corrections along the way to still keep that dream in sight. Because life is so unpredictable we rarely set down a hard-and-fast path toward that dream because we know that we can get derailed if it’s too structured. It’s the agility that allows the odds for success to go up.

No, I’m not talking about performing tasks for certification or getting degrees for a particular occupation. Things like that need preparation, planning, financial investment and more. If, however, your dream is to be a successful lawyer there are 2 parallel project plans. One entails the action steps going to school, paying for the degree, networking, and internships while you’re in school. All of those are necessary and wise planning steps. I’m talking about the 2nd more elusive plan that has to parallel it. That plan is the dream plan. That’s where you talk to people at various stages while becoming what you want to become. You get advice. You are mentored. You read things, listen to podcasts, talk over coffee, and you pick up lots of little kernels of information to make the plan. It is that bag of kernels that helps you be agile enough to achieve the long term goal.

I had an art professor tell me one time that he didn’t spend a lot of time mentoring me and in fact made my life pretty miserable because he knew I was “in it for the long haul”. That’s a double-edge sword. I was flattered that he knew I was serious and would not be deterred from my dream. I was also furious that he did not want to give me any advice or mentorship toward that goal. In hindsight I think he was actually threatened by me. That’s a whole other topic that I’ll address at some other time. Suffice to say I am out here still plugging away and I have stopped watching the chronology. The long haul can mean anything.

I have no idea anymore what time frame I’m working under. Periodically along the way I look into my little bag of kernels and realize how much I’ve learned. There are times when I’ve used some of them to adjust my path and be sure that I’m still headed for the dream. There are other times that I worry about them having an expiration date, but that’s just fretting. It’s my slow realization that the joy is the journey and the journey is the dream. So for today I’m going to celebrate and be thankful and keep on walking the dream. I’m going to plan strategically for tomorrow and the next day because I am, after all, in it for the long haul.

Enjoy your tomorrow. Celebrate your tomorrow. I hope you enjoy today’s painting -a quick oil sketch- of a Friesian horse.

Influences

No one, especially not an artist, can ever say that they have become who they are without the influence of everything and everyone around them. It is a continual evolution, and I have to say there are times when it’s more and less evident in my life, but it is always rewarding!

You have walked with me here lately and heard me talking about conversations with friends and fellow painters, going for drives, and feeling like I’m going through some growing pains. My life experiences, the people in my life, and the day to day challenges or joys, accumulate. Paintings are literally the tip of the iceberg of what is churning inside. When I am having a growth spurt my life can appear blurry, and as those iceberg tops that reveal some kind of inner movement pop up, they can leave a narrative that looks different and fractured and hard to explain. Let me simplify. It is just life. With visual artists, it just presents as evidentiary images of processing.

As a child I was influenced by illustrators like NC Wyeth and Wesley Dennis. As I grew up and explored the art world I admired artists like Monet and his muted pastels, and Kandinsky with his saturated color and they, too, added to growing influences. As each piece come together over passing years I could feel the collecting bits and could see the shifts and the aggregating. I’ve been admiring my plein-aire friend’s gestural and impressionist style recently, but know that it is his style. I have admired Andrew Wyeth’s loose illustrative work, but that’s his style as well. By admiring other artists I find bits that speak to me in that moment of my growth and it influences me. It is important for me to reach out and explore and play and let those influences fold in with all of the subtlety and nuance of a novice baker folding in new ingredients to the bowl.

Yesterday was an absolutely lovely day. I began the day by painting the cornfield in the studio, and then we went for a ride in the afternoon to fill the car with gas, visit friends, deliver a painting, and take pictures – both on the drive and at our friends house. There was so much inspiration. There will be so many images from yesterday that will emerge on canvas over time. This morning I sat in my studio listening to big band music blare on Pandora, thought about some of the wonderful horses, birds and scenes I had seen yesterday, and thought about how hard it is to photograph animals because they’re always in a blur of movement. One feral rooster seemed to follow us around, making all kinds of noise while we tried to have a conversation in the barns. I couldn’t help but think about an Aunt’s suggestion that I paint chickens and a friend who has done so recently. I had, afterall, painted my brother’s chicken, Porky, last year.

So while Ray was cooking breakfast, I painted. The relaxing day we had, influenced me. I found myself letting my recent conversations with Griffing, Brauer, Rodgers, and James further influence me. My own past watercolor sketches, Kandinsky’s raging color, Lon’s gestural energy and a whole slug of personal history influenced me. My work will continue to evolve, just as I will. For those who are concerned that my work is swinging all over, keep in mind that we are an aggregate of all kind of influences in everything we do and everything we are. It is whether we choose to keep anything, how much we choose to integrate, and if in fact we actively choose to reject that can be attributed to influence. The resulting person we find ourselves is directly influenced by our gift from God, that being, choice.

I encourage you to play some big band music, thank Kandinsky, and enjoy this playful painting – an 11″ x 14″ oil on canvas titled, The Feral Rooster Strut.

Easing into Saturday morning.

This is just one of those lovely, early Spring mornings when I woke up without the alarm, had a great breakfast with someone I love, and got to spend some time at the easel while thinking about the drive last weekend. This time of the year the snow is melting off and you can see the corn stubble, and everything is pretty in another unique way. The lines on the land made by last year’s crops can be lovely.

I’m feeling really happy and content this morning. My work is starting to feel more like it is reflecting a true me and less about me trying to illustrate something for someone else. We can find a lot of bad things about the last year and a half but it has been really a good thing for my art. It has forced me to slow down my vibrating inner core and align it with the increasing speed of me making a painting, creating that place where mind and body begin to become synchronous – almost moving in auto pilot. It has pulled me together and allowed me to enjoy the process more fully, and to paint for myself.

I am learning to let go. As an illustrator I think I spent a lot of years trying to please others and sometimes that can put self, even the very identity of being a painter, on the back burner. Like any memory muscle, that indulgence of self can atrophy. Allowing myself to paint any subject that struck my fancy, to change my style to explore new results, and to stop when I felt like it instead of looking for a pinacle of completion, has been liberating in a way I can’t even express.

Beginning several years ago I began to seek conversations with friends, family, and artists I viewed as far more accomplished than I to help me think through this evolution. They restarted my movement and sometimes continue to help propel or redirect me as I continue in my journey… and it feels great. I had forgotten that I can be fearless and smart and am allowed to trust my judgement and have fun.

As I transition through next phases in my art, and continue to grow into a better version of my self, I thank you all who listen and motivate me.

This morning’s painting is a 10″ by 20″ oil on canvas called, Spring Melt.

Growing Pains – the next step.

The conversation that I mentioned having had in the last post, challenged my comfort zone. That is a good thing. When I am challenged I do not view it as an attack but rather as a welcomed catalyst for change.

My friend, an accomplished plein-aire painter himself, suggested that I choose one subject (such as a fire hydrant) and paint it repeatedly so that it becomes more about the process than about the subject. My work experience as an illustrator has actually rooted my artwork in the subject. I don’t think my friend was questioning the validity of me being a subject painter but rather the priority the subject had over my act of painting. He implied that this could inhibit any next-step development that I might seek. I agree that this is true. Learning to move past naturally occurring sticking points, such as fixating on the subject and for me, the story, can in fact weaken my work.

In order to respond to a challenge I first think hard about what was said, and then whether it is applicable. The exercise of doing that – actually articulating in my own mind what makes the comment accurate or inaccurate – forces me to examine it. If it is even partly true then I need to decide if it is something I want to keep and own, or something that needs to be modified, changed, or even discarded. That is the fundamental concept behind any growth.

I found that this comment struck home. I spent an entire 1st career drawing exactly what the client wanted, what the catalog demanded, or what the story needed. As an illustrator, my role was to accurately present the subject, not my interpretation of it. Now, what that means to me is that I need to be aware of the relationship my past has to my current work. I don’t need to embrace the complete dismissal of subject because it is, in fact, part of what makes me – me. It is perfectly valid, however, for me to be aware of this challenge in my work. Growth can mean finding that mid ground.

I am a representational artist and will remain so, but to achieve my next level of expertise I need to strengthen the marriage between subject and process. In the end it will allow me to relax and enjoy the process of painting, and the viewer to connect themselves more readily to the images and the comfort of an identified object.

So I hope you enjoy this small series of oil sketches. It is my exercise for subject and process alignment through subject repetition, a tool that I will continue to use periodically to help me improve.

Thanks for the challenge and the motivation. Onward I go.

True Beauty is Ageless.

It’s sad what our society has deemed beautiful. It it has become synonymous with youth, or body type, or any number of other societal designations. I looked at our wedding pictures and even put one up in my social media page because it’s fun to see us on our wedding day. As I looked at my face and I looked at my husband’s face I saw that they were beautiful. I also realized that the beauty I see is the level of love and happiness coming out of my eyes and my smile that was the beauty, not my age. It was the twinkle in my husband’s eye and the mischievous smile and tilt of his head that was the beauty. Sometimes when I sit at the kitchen table and I see him concentrating I am enthralled. Watching him squint at the laptop screen as he reads the conversations that his students are having about history in his online class, or when he is looking out the window dreaming our next adventure, or even problem solving a task that he wants to accomplish, his face reflects his mind. Here is that same fabulously beautiful face of my brilliant friend. Yes, it is changing. There are different lines, different places for the light to reflect, and even the color of his hair is different. Whiter in bright sunlight than at any other time, it becomes beautiful silver threads and the lines in his face become reflections of that brilliant mind. Perhaps this is the core of the statement, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. If that is the case, and I can assure you that it is, I am thankful to the point of tears that I see beauty in such abundance in everything in my world. I pray to God that this remains my armor against the ugliness that has nothing to do with visual representation. In continuation of gratitude by counting my blessings, I thank God for my husband. I also thank God for my ability to push paint around on a canvas and capture all of the wonderful things He is showing me. I hope you enjoy today’s painting, an 8″ by 10″ oil on canvas study called, “Ray”.

Finding Happiness.

Sometimes that’s a really hard thing to do. It takes tremendous effort, actually, and it feels very selfish. It is also very important.

We see a country in turmoil. We see a plague ravaging the world and reinventing itself to expand the threat. We see people turning against each other to assign blame in a misguided attempt to regain control. We see people struggling with food insecurity, trying to keep their homes and jobs and businesses. We see people looking at what others have and becoming consumed with envy. Looking at all this it is hard to consider feeling anything but dispair and I often feel truly guilty if I say I am happy.

The act of feeling contentment or happiness takes determination and feels contrived. In fact, it isn’t becoming happy that is contrived but it is the difficult, methodical and scripted steps necessary to clear our spirit of the clutter prohibiting us from feeling worthy of happiness, that takes contrivance.

One of the most common ways for me is to focus on all of the good in my life. Yes, if I am trying to be happy I begin by counting my blessings – slowly and reverently. This is not the same as arrogantly flaunting that I have something that someone else doesn’t have. This is not about others at all. Our blessings are unique to each of us, and it is purely and directly about thanking God for each particular blessing we have been gifted. It is personal. It can be hard and must be repeated whenever necessary.

This is a good day for me. I awoke well rested. I can see my home, and the snowy midwestern landscape outside the windows. I am fed, and warm. I have spent the morning painting. I feel joy seeing my husband’s smiling face as he greets me and encourages me just as he has done for the last 35 years. I am truly blessed and immensely thankful. I am happy.

I hope you enjoy today’s painting, a 16″ x 20″ oil on canvas. Perhaps I will title it, Finding Happiness.

Stretching my mind, another way to play.

In following with the theme of play that I have been talking about for the last several posts, I wanted to say that for me, play in the studio does not always mean taking paint to canvas. Working with miniatures is something that I have always enjoyed but it has been years since I’ve truly played with them. I had taken today off work and it seemed like the right day to do something just for myself.

A couple of months ago the wall clock in my office at work finally died completely. No amount of tinkering or batteries or anything could make it run, and all 3 of the hands joined each other down at 6 o’clock. Just as I went to throw it in the dumpster I stared at it and thought, “gosh, but that’s a great circle with a nice cover… I wonder if I could do a little diorama in that?” There you go. That’s the spark that you need to play. I brought it home and it sat in the studio until yesterday when I looked over and thought, “maybe I should just go ahead and pitch that thing?” No, I needed to follow through.

So instead I pried off the cover, ditched the clock mechanisms, and traced out the cover on a piece of art paper. Now I knew how big I needed for the backdrop. It was an 8″diameter clock so it’s quite large but when I actually took the clock apart I discovered that I only had a shallow depth of about a 1/2 inch. That was surprising and not as deep as I would like but this was, after all, just play.

This process is really just like what they do in museums. First I painted the water color back scene. Museums paint the backdrop first to add setting for some kind of 3-D image in the front, like a taxidermy animal to focus on, and then add a 3-D environment to bridge the space between the animal and the scene.

I sculpted the little critters from skulpy and baked them in the oven along with the potatoes last night. The weeds and realistic growth are actually just plucked off of one of the dried weed arrangements scattered throughout my house. So I blocked, glued, painted the little figures, and just dithered this fantasy landscape into being. There is nothing here that is rendered perfectly, nothing makes any political statement, and nothing has the validity of a story… but you know, sometimes you just need to relax and play. Instead of ending up in a dumpster it will have a second life as a diorama of a fox on some little hilltop overlooking a lake and some distant hills. As for me, I remember how much I loved playing with things that are small, painting things that are small, and crafting.

Never hesitate to play. It is through play and creativity that we awaken all those places in our mind that are necessary to do the good work in all the other areas of our life. Find something fun to do that isn’t tied to work, chores, or revenue. Just play.

Dreams and Play.

From the time we begin to engage in our world as a small child, and then start school, we find those who will admonish us if we spend too much time daydreaming. We’re told to be practical, pay attention, focus, make a plan, and develop stick-to-it-tive-ness. These are all quite admirable of course and necessary traits for success in life. I would say, however, that there is an equally vital component for success… imagination.

Imagination is born in play; unscripted and spontaneous play. It is also a skill developed over time that gives our life both foundation and wings, equally. Most importantly of all, it is not exclusive. Absolutely everyone has the access, and the capability to play and grow their imagination. It can become the unpredictable element that lifts the successful to the notable, and the admirable to the extraordinary in the most incremental action or creation.

Over the years there have been those who have growing concerns over the level of scripted creativity now found in play. The images are prescribed, the dialogue is written, the songs are complete, and little is left to the imagination. The concern is that if we do not learn how to fill in enough of the images or stories from within our own imagination we will not learn how to create our own. It could also be said, however, that by giving us stories and images as seeds – however complete – they prime the pump for future creativity. Perhaps both are accurate?

We need to dream. We need to write and draw and build and imagine beyond what we know, absolutely. Dreams are how inventions are made real. Dreams are how we reach beyond our perceived limitations. Dreams are our freedom from confines.

Today’s painting in the ‘Play’ series is an 8″ x 10″ oil on canvas of a dog who is the main character in a children’s story, one of several I will publish someday.