November 23, 2017

How does inspiration work for you? Or more precisely, how do you capture a moment of inspiration before it evaporates into memory. How do you let that moment become part of your life or work?

I get inspired mostly by other artists. The challenge is to translate that feeling of liberation and upliftment into one’s own circumstances. Sometimes direct copying can internalise the technique and make it yours. Or trying out another artists palette or brushwork can open up doors in your own work. I find that copying another artists subject matter generally leads to a dead end. I might make one piece inspired by someone else’s take on the world, but until I engage with my own interests and preferences, the work will lead nowhere. Your work needs to be fed by your own experience, that way it will keep growing.

A friend alerted me to a documentary on Dutch landscape designer and garden master, Piet Oudolf. I don’t know exactly why what he does hit me so hard (in a good way), maybe the time was ripe, maybe I needed just this kind of example for my book on new directions in the arts, but he nails it. Oudolf is a vital 71 year old garden artist. His work is making large prairie gardens in urban landscapes. The High Line gardens in NYC were designed by him, as were the Battery gardens, and in Chicago the Lurie gardens, (an ex rooftop parking lot). (tried to reproduce some images here from the web, but they won’t take).


from the Piet Oudolf site     no photo credit found

I guess what grabs me are the expanses of colour, the swathes of moving, living colour- blond grasses interspersed with deep red purple echinacea and sage. Oudolf loves the garden in autumn perhaps more than in summer. And he has opened my eyes to the beauty in black seed pods, died out grasses and plants, crisp faded flowers, the whole range of charcoals, rusts, browns, and silver greys that take over when the summer’s riot of colour has run its course.

Recently, when my painting was at a low ebb and writing wasn’t moving either, I was itching to do something creative with my hands. I look every day at the stack of beautifully coloured wool felt I have in the studio and decided to start on something, anything!!

The little coils I’d already done, they show most of the colours I have.
So with the colours of Piet’s gardens still humming behind my eyes, I started to piece together 10 cm strips of felt. On my bulletin board you can see a pieced felt work I did a few years ago. I was inspired by the middle strip of warm pinks and yellows, set off by the soft neutral squares surrounding it.

So I kept making these felt panels with only a vague idea of wanting to somehow express my enjoyment of the Oudolf gardens without depicting them realistically. Below is the result.

felt panels5 002

hand sewn pieced wool felt,     5 seasons

I wasn’t finished yet and made a new panel, just keeping to the tints in the winter garden. Then I did one for late fall: with the low autumn sun hitting the golden grasses and with some of the most beautiful fall plants in bloom, these colours just sing. The technique also started to evolve, instead of just piecing like an inlay, (see bright orangey triangle between the white and black strips just under here), I started appliquéing the pieces right on top. You can see this clearest in the bottom third of both panels.

And finally, I worked on one just in tints of green and purple. This one is more descriptive, not sure how I feel about that, if I don’t watch out, I’ll be incorporating embroidery and beads and the whole thing will go kitchy. Maybe I’m just frustrated that I can’t get out into my garden now that winter is coming. Anyway, I wanted to show how inspiration from one man’s garden designs sort of came in sideways and started me off on this new felt work.

green purple


Bigger and bolder

November 8, 2017

bold tomatoes

Tomato plant bold     acrylic  50 x 60cm

The painting above was done in a rare mood of utter confidence. I knew where I wanted to go, sort of, and how to get there more or less. The background was a strong but rejected abstract which you can still see almost all of. I worked in big strokes, didn’t go back to fiddle (thank you dearest Robert Genn, r.i.p.) , and left the white lines (mostly) as accents against the dark background. This painting has gotten more appreciation from people who visit my atelier than any other work in a long time. Several are interested in buying.

Anyway, after the previous tomato plant series, and especially the one above, I found myself wanting  more space to ‘spread out’, so I ordered several 80 x 100cm canvasses.  Below you can see the proportions of the size I usually work in when I work big, 50 x 70cm.  The grey area is the extra space I get when I want to work really BIG!.
So I put this  (for me) gigantic blank canvas on the easel and………. Freaked Out!!! painting proportions

At first I tried an underpainting with a large brush and big swaths of colour, but it was way out of  control. So I did the normal thing (for me) and divided it all up into manageable little squares and rectangles (oh great, I finally get a big canvas and what do I do, start working small again!), and filled them in until I got a feel for the whole space. Once I got into it, it was lovely to work large, moving my arms in arcs instead of just a dab here and there with fingers and wrists.

Here is the finished work.

100x80 tomplant

Tomato plant,          acrylic on canvas    80 x 100cm

There is a lot going on in the composition, but it all came together pretty well. It did take a long time, though and used a lot of paint. But it was a good experience and I want to do more like it. For now, the inspiration has wound down some, and I’ve moved on to other things for awhile until I gather enough courage and inspiration to confront another big guy!

The art of life

October 5, 2017

tom plant finals 006

Tomato plant    acrylic on canvas board  50 x 70cm

Every now and then, while painting, something amazing takes place. There is a sense of recognition. It is as if something, though wholly new, also reflects to me a part of myself I hadn’t yet met. I recognise it as ‘me’, and it is almost always a sign that my work is continuing to grow and develop in a direction that makes sense to me, but that I would never have been able to plan for.

It is about taking the next step in total trust, and keeping going when things don’t seem to be leading anywhere. In fact, the best breakthroughs seem to happen after one of those seemingly fruitless periods where every painting seems to be a repetition or failure, and you’re wondering whether to just put those brushes in storage and forget this whole thing!!

tom plant finals 003

Morning light on tomato plant   acrylic 40 x 50cm

This is the inner process of art, where while you are working on a painting you are also working on yourself. It is no coincidence that in my quest to loosen up in my painting, I am pointed to areas in my life which need letting go of. Not getting lost in detail in a painting, means ability to see the greater picture. Suggesting things in a composition rather than spelling them out ad infinitum corresponds to trusting more in life and going forward even when I feel I don’t have enough information. Trusting the process, getting out of the way, taking risks, staying true, being flexible- all about life and art and the art of life.

So these new pieces work on multiple levels. And I’ve been feeling slightly restricted by small formats, so tomorrow I’m getting some BIG canvasses. Stay tuned.

tom plant finals 001

Most recent painting, tomato plant revisited   acrylic   40 x 40cm


Little surprises

September 15, 2017

pastel plums copy

Pastel plums,      acrylic on canvas board

Harvest. By the road, in our group garden, on the paths, it is clear that  summer is over and what was sown can be brought in. I’ve always loved the colours of plums, bright jewels full of stored sunlight. I left quite a bit of the background painting in and didn’t over work this one.

bright plums copy

Bright plums     acrylic on canvas board

The second painting was done over one of my abstracts, and the quality of those glowing colours was kept throughout. Once again, the aim here wasn’t quite ‘realistic’. I like how the abstract and the subject interact.

The next one below represents a breakthrough of sorts. I bought a new brush, a Liquitex Bright acrylic brush.Wonderfully springy and it holds paint like a sponge. I found a rhythm to my painting with this brush, it was like dancing. Once again I stopped before I got too tight with it, and I really like the grittiness of it. It is quite large, 50 x 60 cm.

tomato plant 1 copy

Tomato plant 1   acrylic on canvas board

I thought I’d include one more in progress. I was curious to see how a second painting of the tomato plant would be if painted over a purposely brightly coloured background. It is still in progress, but I wanted to post this stage so you can see how it is set up. I intend to cover most of the bright colours, but still, they shine through in places giving depth and little surprises. I love little surprises.

tomato plant 2 copy

Tomato plant 2 in progress   acrylic on canvas

sunlit table

Painting by Juane Xue

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this painter before, but ever since I saw her paintings for the first time, they took my breath away. One critic said that she must mix champagne with her colours, they sparkle so. This is one of a series of abandoned party tables she’s been painting since about 2009. This Chinese woman living in Holland has been painting since childhood. She received a thorough traditional art education in China as a young woman and has been developing her work ever since.


In a book about her painting this one in particular gobsmacked me. That explosion of colour and light right in the middle there with the high cadmium reds, oranges and yellows, wow.

So I decided to copy that one passage, see  below where I’ve masked off the chosen area:

xue copy

I can’t stop emphasising how helpful it can be to just get lost into someone else’s work and copy their methods for awhile. It is like taking on their identity, and it can be very  complex. For instance, what was the underpainting if any, what kind of brush did she use to get this effect? I don’t have much trouble duplicating the colours (though they vary here because of the lighting when taking the photos), but where I learned the most was in copying how it was painted. The detail is there but it never gets fiddly, the strokes are confident yet sensitive. Once again the key is suggestion rather than explaining. I’ve seen her paintings in real life, and up close they are simply thickly applied colour globs and slashes. When you move back, you see the actual subject.  Here is my attempt:

xue copy 007 copy

copy of a detail of Juane Xue’s table painting


June 4, 2017

There is a buzzard living close by. I call it a falcon, but the Dutch names for these birds of prey are different than the English, and evidently the bird that I see around here is not native to the US. Here he is, buteo buteo, native to the UK and other parts of Europe.

Well, I’m in love with this bird. In the early spring I’d be walking the dog, crashing rather thoughtlessly through the grass and bushes and suddenly this huge span of wings would lift out of nowhere and circle away. Once I became aware of coming into his territory, I became more careful and I also started bringing the binoculars. He still took off when I was many meters away, but gradually, I began to approach that area of trees more cautiously. And I would be rewarded with him staying where he was and watching me as I passed by.  I began to recognise his and his sort’s cries as well. And would look up and see one or two of them circling high in the sky. My relationship to these birds has enriched my life so much.

So when I heard that in a nearby town there would be a bird-of-prey demonstration, I made sure I was there. To my delight there was a chance to actually have the birds perch on one’s arm with a falconer’s glove. At first he had a blinder on because of the crowds and noise, but then the hood was taken off and wow, there he was! I was gobsmacked, he didn’t regard me with one eye like many birds do, but turned to face me fully, with both eyes fastened on my face. I could hardly breathe from the power of that stare, and I must admit that it wasn’t comfortable. Those eyes are unblinking and black without a glint of light in them. No warmth at all.  I ‘got’ that you never really tame these animal- they remain predators who kill, or sometimes eat their prey alive. They are certainly not pets or pettable.

falcon 1a

But looking into those eyes and having that magnificent creature on my arm was so amazing. It was like seeing some gorgeous natural phenomenon with just a hint of potential violence, like a thundering waterfall, or a mountain, or sun flares. It was truly awesome.

falcon 2

Flogging the tulips

May 21, 2017

Well, that sounds misleadingly kinky.
But what I’m really referring to is the obsessive state one can get into when a painting isn’t working. I’ve had a couple of those recently, and have learned from them.

First I was working on a tulip-themed painting from a past photo of mine. The composition kind of inspired me, and some of the unopened tulip shapes as well. Qua style I was hoping to work loosely and spontaneously.
When I was a few days into it, I saw it tending toward my familiar way of working – more realistic and tighter than I’d hoped. I kept adding to it and changing it hoping to get more spontaneous as the layers built up. I like the right hand corner, showing some of the underpainting, but that’s it really.

flogged tulips, may garden 002 copy

I finally gave up on it because you can’t plaster a layer of supposedly ‘spontaneous’ strokes onto a boring painting and expect it to look as if you’ve been working that way all along, and:

  1. It wasn’t fun anymore.
  2. I didn’t like the original composition.
  3. I didn’t really want to paint flowers.
  4. It didn’t ‘sing, hum or give off light.'(one artist’s description of the work that soars)
  5. The painting as a whole wasn’t working.

So I stopped and started on some onions from a photo in a book on edible gardens. I ran into some of the same problems. I finally stopped flogging that one (oh, now the penny drops, ‘n’ést-ce pas’?) and gessoed over it.

Now I’m working on another onion painting from a photo and understand that the previous paintings were false starts in prep for this one. It is going well.

Here are the differences between flogging a painting/subject, and developing it:
1 You’re trying to rescue or change the painting because it isn’t working
2 It isn’t fun and feels a bit desperate
3 It is hard to stop working on it and take some distance
4 You might be trying to lay some intellectual idea or style on top of a painting that is already fine in its own right
5 Most of your efforts only make things worse
6 You don’t have a clear idea of what you intended with this painting in the first

1 You have  a clear idea at the start about where you’d like to go with the painting qua style, composition, subject, colour, treatment. This doesn’t mean you know how it is going to look or that you don’t take risks, but that you have a general idea of what you want to do at the start.
2  Working on it is a pleasure, it can be challenging, but you are led step by step by your own good habits established over years of working, and by where the painting seems to be going.
3  Working on the painting feels like working with it. You are led by each stroke to the next, but there can be surprises along the way, new colour combinations, ways of applying paint, textures, different strokes.
4  Developing a painting means seeing it getting better and better because of carefully considered, confidently applied strokes, scumbles, slashes, dots, broad areas, etc.

These are the ones I can think of now. I’m sure you’ve encountered others, and I’d enjoy hearing any additions. Basically it comes down to this:

I started taking my painting seriously 6 years ago because I was in love with several artists’ work, and I discovered I also loved the medium; after a long career in graphic design and calligraphy, the minute I picked up a brush, I felt born to paint.

The works I admire look simple and easily done (Cezanne, for example, when in fact he suffered over every painting he ever did). Like many beginners/intermediates, I wanted to get to that spontaneous look right away. But that quality is reached only through discipline and eventual mastery, so that every stroke you set down is confident, because, guess what, you know what you are doing! And it shows. (Now there are some young talents out there to whom the technique comes easily, they have that ease, but they need to develop depth and content.) Here is one I tossed off in a half an hour and it has the quality I’d like in all my paintings. It worked because I’d painted the subject before and was confident and quick.

2 onions

So, if you catch yourself flogging, try to stop, get some distance, or start another painting, look for the joy, repeat the things that are easiest, work best and give you pleasure. Build on those, definitely reach out beyond your limits, but keep an eye on the pleasure factor.

And know when you start, why you’re starting a painting that you’ll probably be investing much time and energy into. Look into your heart and see if there is a connection there with the  subject, colours, composition etc. Try to have a clear idea of what you’d like to achieve at the end of those hours or days.

And go for it!!!!