How do you know when you’re done?

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci

The final acrylic painting class at Rum River Art Center wrapped up a week ago, and I was sad it was over. The students were friendly, creative, and encouraging of each other’s efforts, and the instructor, Paul Boecher, was very skilled and helpful. During the last two classes, I continued to work on my mountain painting a la Paul Cezanne.

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne

After my previous post, the painting ended up looking like this:

A bit of a happy mess, with lots of different colors, the basic mountain shape and an attempt at some kind of foreground at the left, and a light source at the top right. I played with it quite a bit, adding different colors and frankly just enjoying playing with the paints and paintbrush all over the canvas.

It kept changing every time I worked on it. Sometimes I thought it needed touches of light or dark, sometimes I wanted shades of violet in it, other times more green of different hues. One of my biggest challenges was mixing the exact shades I wanted from the basic paint colors. I couldn’t always achieve what I wanted in my mind. So I kept playing with it.

I wanted to alter the shape of the mountain somewhat, and to suggest the idea of a clump of foreground trees in the left, plus fields at the right below the mountain (as opposed to water). I enjoyed watching the painting change and evolve, even though there were times when I wasn’t sure I was improving it, and worried that I was possibly “wrecking” it. Our instructor Paul assured us that we shouldn’t worry about ruining our paintings, as anything could be undone, reworked or painted over.

Paul came by and reminded me of a couple of things that Cezanne liked to do: One was to use squares or rectangles of mostly primary colors, sometimes to show the source of light or different shades in the background of a painting, or as a study for the entire painting in terms of planes of color:

Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire

and the other technique Cezanne liked was to add outlines of shapes such as mountains or trees, similar to the way that artists of that era saw used in Japanese woodblock prints —

Print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

which were highly influential to Impressionist and post-Impressionist era French painters. So I added those at his direction (and then softened the bright rectangles of color a bit afterwards).

I was really enjoying myself, even while I often felt very unsure of what the final product would look like. I tried to focus on the process and forget about the product as much as possible.

When I returned for the final class, again at Paul’s direction, I worked on softening both sides of the mountain’s outline by painting away from either side of it (outside and inside the line).

Then I wondered what I wanted the foreground trees to look like. Initially I wanted to use this Cezanne painting as inspiration:

But that seemed too daunting. Then I also looked at some great Cezanne pine trees that he often used in his many depictions of Mt. Sainte-Victoire:

This also seemed very challenging. So I went another direction, borrowing loosely from Vincent Van Gogh’s olive trees:

Again, very loosely — I was mostly thinking about his cool wobbly-looking tree trunks when I painted mine.

Then I added a thin outline of the overall tree shape, and Paul suggested to add a lighter yellow color behind the outline to make the trees stand out as being closer to the viewer.

From there, I softened those highlights behind the trees and played with more color, adding some reds here and there, and a clump of trees down on the plains beneath the mountains.

Finally, Paul came over before the end of class and suggested adding spots of brighter yellow to show where the light might be catching on the trees, in the mountain, etc., and then to soften those spots of color by blurring with the brush.

Here’s how it looks fully dry:

Overall, I learned a lot during this process. It took several weeks to get to this “finished” product. Am I happy with it? Not completely. Would I like to keep working on it? Maybe. But I’d also like to take some of what I’ve learned and start something new. I learned a great deal about acrylic painting techniques, and also about myself and my own artistic interests. I have a clear preference for certain kinds of art over others, and I prefer paintings that are less “realistic” — I’m much more interested in the interplay of shapes, colors, with a sense of movement and light. I very much enjoy the process of making art — the sheer fun of playing with colors, paints, and brushes on the canvas.

Happy painting!


Work in Progress

For my acrylic painting class at Rum River Art Center, we’re creating a painting over several sessions, from the beginnings of a color tint/background to the final stage, where we’ll add details to complete the painting. Most of us chose larger canvases than our paintings from the first classes that I wrote about last time; mine is 18″ x 20″.

When I told my father about the painting class, he said he didn’t think he’d have the patience. I think that’s true of most of us — we expect instant gratification in so many areas of our lives (we want immediate responses to texts, instant information at our fingertips, and popcorn takes only 2.5 minutes to make). While working on our paintings, we want them to “look like something,” or be instantly beautiful.

It doesn’t help, perhaps, that our very experienced instructor, Paul Boecher, can conjure a painting on a scrap of canvas with a few deft strokes — and voila! With rapid brushstrokes of one or two colors we can see woods — trees and a stream or path meandering through it.

But when we work on our paintings, we’re learning how to build from the ground up. First, creating the overall color tint of the canvas, followed by general shapes and values of light and dark. From there, we begin to add other colors, perhaps complementary shades, in stages.

Paul asked us to find a photograph or painting we’d like to use as inspiration. I found a couple of Cezanne paintings that I really like: Mont Sainte-Victoire, and a painting of trees:







I love Cezanne’s abstraction — there’s a clear idea what he’s painting, but he’s not interested in realistic detail. There’s an interplay of areas of color and shapes that I find fascinating.

As with my previous painting, I began painting a blue base color, mixed with white gesso. I tried to create a shape like Cezanne’s mountain (though it resembles Mt. Fuji more than Mont Sainte-Victoire, perhaps because I tried painting Mt. Fuji when I used watercolor for a previous blog?).

The source of light is the upper right corner, and there’ll be trees in the foreground (lower left). The horizon line is the lower third of the painting.

Paul reminded me that my darks weren’t nearly dark enough, so I added darker blue to areas where I knew it should be — the side of the mountain away from the light source, and where the trees would go. Overall I just played with the brush, letting myself be pretty loose and free in applying the paint, since I knew this was just the beginning.

Then I felt I was being too literal about the trees, so I “scumbled” over it with more paint (Paul’s ‘technical term’ for a movement of the brush, which is sort of just messing about with it).

At the next class, Paul taught us how to add texture, using gesso and gel medium (which I was familiar with from explorations with collage). He asked us to play with those materials on a small board to get familiar with creating texture that we could either paint over or use mixed with paint on our larger works. The gel medium would dry clear, he explained, while gesso would dry white (unless we added paint).

Paul showed us a painting he made with wonderful texture effects:

Then we were to use gesso and/or gel medium to add texture to our paintings. At first I applied a huge amount of the stuff, as I love paintings with surface texture:

When Paul stopped by, I said, “I feel like I used too much.” He said, “Yep,” then wiped some of it off with paper towel. He also reminded me that, as with any one color in our paintings, if we use texture in a few areas, we should use a bit all over the painting, to create unity. So I brushed on bits of the gesso in different areas, as well as some of the gel medium around the light source area of the painting (upper right).

That is one of things that surprises me about the painting process — that you should apply bits of color used in any one part of the painting throughout the work. So, unlike a child’s painting, perhaps, the grass is not just green and the sky is not just blue, and the trees not the only area with brown, to avoid creating blocks of monochromatic (one-color) shapes. There should be bits of green everywhere, blue everywhere, brown everywhere. It seems counter-intuitive, but if you examine paintings that are really accomplished, you notice all sorts of colors mixed within what you may think should only be one color. The sea or the sky might contain not just blue, but also green, violet, grey, yellow, even red — and not just at sunrise or sunset.

Now I needed to add a secondary color to my painting, something complementary with blue (with some orange/yellow). I used burnt sienna mixed with white gesso and a bit of yellow.

As during much of this many-layered process, often when I move to a new stage I feel like I’m making the painting “worse.” I’m “wrecking” whatever I thought I had going and creating something less pleasing to my eye. Again, I had to remind myself that I’m far from being finished with this painting, and that many colors would be added before the final stages.

I knew that I really wanted to see some green on the painting, as there would be a lot in the trees, the mountain, and the foreground as well (although it resembles water with all the blue, I’m intending for it to be a plain, as in Cezanne’s painting, not a lake or ocean). So I mixed some greens and was pretty free in applying that all over the painting.

One thing that I noticed is that, instead of blending different colors completely on a palette and then applying that new color to the canvas, our instructor takes a dab of this and that color on his brush and then mixes it ON the canvas, AS he’s painting! I’ve tried this, and it’s hard to get used to, so I want to work on it. Avoiding mixing the colors completely before applying on the canvas means that you end up with less monochromatic blobs of color and more of a variation/gradation of colors. The result is much more interesting to the eye. It is also more suggestive of the interplay of light and shadow, or changes in the colors of nature as you observe them.

Although it’s far from the way I want it, I have ideas about shapes, lines and colors I want to add. I want some red in this painting, some yellow, and violet. I want to play with some of the color blocks and planes that Cezanne uses in his paintings, and I want to keep experimenting and learning from doing. I’m glad that we have three more classes to keep working on our paintings, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next!

Mind the Gap

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good . . . but your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase  … We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have … And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work … It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions … It’s gonna take a while … You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
— Ira Glass

That’s how I felt starting my first acrylic painting class at RumRiver Art Center. I’ve had a secret desire to paint for a long time. Fear has kept me from it. (I did dabble in watercolors earlier this year, finding it daunting!) My college minor was art history, and I’ve spent many hours looking at art — mostly paintings — and being fascinated by them. And I knew that whatever I’d try to create would fall far short.

Some of the fascination comes from my desire to understand the painter’s imagination — what made them want to paint THIS? Did their painting live up to their vision? I’m more interested in paintings that are not realistic. While I can admire art that is incredibly detailed and appears more real than a photograph, that is not the art that draws me in.

The paintings that intrigue me leave more to the imagination — abstractions, impressions, approximations, deconstructions of the visual, shown through the filter of the artist’s mind.

Most painters who are great at creating interesting abstractions first mastered their materials and techniques. They do not paint abstractions because they are unable to produce detailed realism, but this is a CHOICE. It’s the artist’s choices that fascinate me.

Our teacher, Paul T. Boecher, told us that he’s been painting since he was 12. He appeared entirely comfortable with his materials, playing with paint and brushes deftly as he explained what he was doing.

He made it look incredibly easy. But that gave us courage. He showed how we could change what we painted if we made a mistake. He demonstrated how to begin a landscape, how to choose a horizon line, and to divide the picture into thirds, horizontally and vertically.

Paul had us begin with one color mixed with white gesso. I chose blue and experimented with differing amounts of gesso on the canvas, choosing a horizon line and trying to imagine a scene. The idea was to create a value study; to develop the varying shades of light and dark that would exist in our painting.

The class began painting with enthusiasm. The students had varying levels of experience, so I felt comfortable knowing I was not the only beginner! Some students used a photograph or other source for inspiration, while others experimented with only a vague idea of what we might create.

The instructor showed us that we could be very free with how our brushes applied the paint (and use much less paint than I expected), and how to hold the brush in different ways while covering the entire canvas with our base color.

All I knew was that I wanted the source of light to be the upper right corner, and the horizon line at the lower third portion. I started to imagine water at the lower right, and that the left might contain trees. The dark area at the top left I imagined as storm clouds. I was not entirely clear on this from the beginning. I mostly enjoyed the sensation of mixing colors and watching what happened while I played with the paint on the surface. It was easy to get caught up in the movement of the brush and forget that I was actually trying to make something!

The second week, we added a second color to our paintings, to let more of the background take shape. The idea was not to add detail, but to provide color contrast, deepen the values where we wanted darkness, and to formulate more of what we were actually painting. I had a vague idea what I was starting to see on the canvas, though I doubted my ability to pull it off the way I wanted.

I started adding a contrasting color to the blue — burnt umber — mixed with gesso.

It seemed like I was making things worse. But I reminded myself that we were still just working on the background, and that paintings need depth and layers of color.

We started to add other colors to our paintings. I tried to create colors I wanted from the three primary colors available — red, yellow and blue — plus white gesso. It’s a lot harder to get just the right hue than I thought. Sometimes I’d make a bit of one color, but would then be unable to duplicate it when I needed a little more. I played with browns for trees, shade, depth; yellow for light and sun; different blues for sky and water. Yellowish greens. The picture kept changing as I experimented, and I didn’t always like it.

Sometimes I got caught up in the sheer fun of swirling the paintbrush around and messing with the colors.

Paul was encouraging to everyone, even if we seemed disheartened by our efforts. He reminded us to get up and step back from our paintings once in a while to be able to see them fresh.

I got up from my tabletop easel for a bit; everyone was busily at work

After this I really needed some greener green for the trees and ground. I had trouble mixing exactly the colors that I wanted. Paul came by and showed me where I could add glimmers of lighter paint to draw the eye — showing where light from the sun might catch, or there might be spaces in the foliage.

Then I wanted to create gray for the impending storm cloud. Paul told me which colors to use, but my ratios were all wrong. I was not happy with the result. By the time it dried, it looked more brown than gray.

By the time I made the version on the right, I’d added more yellow for the sun (probably too much), and managed to cover up the cool swirly yellow lines that I’d liked on the earlier version on the left. I did have more green, but I was not entirely happy with it. I liked the reflection of the hills in the water, but my trees were odd and the overall colors did not please me.

By the time class was nearly over, I felt like I was making the picture worse every time I added more paint.

I reminded myself that I could still add to it, whether at home or the next class. Or simply start anew! Yesterday I worked on it again:

I’m still not delighted with all the colors, and I may tinker some more. But it’s much more pleasing to my eye than it was before. I like the layers, and the sense of movement. I have no desire to make a detailed painting; yes, it’s partly because I doubt my ability to render details with any level of skill. But the truth is, I like paintings where you see the brush, the colors are not necessarily realistic, and what’s interesting is the vision that’s shown you.

Works like this one come to mind (NOT that I’m comparing myself to Paul Cezanne, mind you!) —

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne c. 1905

What I like are the planes of color, the lines, and the obvious brushwork. You can see brushwork better at a museum than in a photograph, but you get some idea if you enlarge the picture and look closely. This sort of painting fascinates me.

I look forward to further painting adventures this month and next — stay tuned! If you paint, tell me about your painting rewards and challenges.


Putting it all together

Although I barely tried half the lessons in Bee Shay’s excellent book Collage Lab, I will keep it handy. Shay’s approach to learning through open-ended experimentation is very appealing, and you can adapt the lessons to your skill and experience level, as well as varying them according to your available materials.

Collage Lab by Bee Shay

In addition to trying a few of Shay’s suggestions using shape stencils, gesso and sandpaper, I decided to use some of the backgrounds I’d created in previous weeks to add paper or other materials.

I’ve made a couple of stacks of backgrounds as well as “finished” collages over the past several weeks, many of which I’m not crazy about, a few of which I really like. I know I’m satisfied with something when I like looking at it over and over again. But the truth is, I never really know how things will turn out until I’m done, and there are many times when I don’t know when to quit! Many pieces do not turn out the way I wanted them to, or I keep adding things and then wish I could go back and remove them.

There’s nothing methodical about how I work on art. I view and even touch (many have texture) the background I’ve created, then browse through my collection of craft papers, fabrics, books I cut up, old wall calendars, postcards, buttons, etc. and see what attracts me.








On the left is corrugated cardboard I had torn some of the top layer of paper from and then painted with silver acrylic paint, then applied blue acrylic paint wash after the first layer of paint was dry. I found photos of kids from an old 1960s series of books about children that I’d bought at a Goodwill store and cut them up, then glued using matte medium. I decided that I wanted gold stars on it, like children used to get on their schoolwork, so I cut stars out of gold craft paper.

For this collage background, I applied watermelon and maple seeds on a board painted with white gesso and then fixed with matte medium. I added strips of craft paper that I cut out, plus torn pieces of paper, some cut into leaf shapes, and pictures of snow-covered trees from a calendar that I cut into squares. The white background made me think of snow. The collage was about the seeds, what they can grow into and become, and how they lay dormant in the winter.

For this collage, I used the paper that I’d covered with gesso and crinkled tissue paper on as my background. It seemed to call for an organic theme, so I found craft paper with the leaf and stem design on it first. I cut those out and connected them on the paper, then added little dried flower bits that were embedded in another craft paper, plus I cut green spots from paper that I added to the corners — sort of a turtle shell design.

The background on the left was a small piece of corrugated cardboard that I’d torn some bits off, painted with white gesso, then a thin ink wash. I decided I wanted to paint some of it a yellowish-green (acrylic) after adding the leaf portions of the picture. The words are from the books about children, and the painting portion on the right is from a reproduction of an early Kandinsky painting I cut out.

Finally, I made a collage using the shiny fabric background that I liked so much from my last blog. It has a wonderful texture, and I love how the wrinkles stand out and cast shadows on the shiny white ground. The only thing that seemed appropriate to apply was buttons, so I affixed buttons in a curvy line across the ground of cloth using heavy gel medium.

Although I made a number of other collages, I was less satisfied with them. There are still some backgrounds I created over the course of the month left unfinished, so I look forward to further experimentation with my materials. It’s clear to me that I need to make a lot of art to come up with a few things that I really like.

This reminds me of a book I just finished reading, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

In a chapter about perfection, the authors cite a ceramics class where the teacher divided the students into two groups. One group would be graded solely on the quantity of pots made, and the other on quality. The latter group of students needed only to make one pot each, as long as it was perfect, to get a top grade. When it came to grading time, it turned out that the students in the “quantity” group produced the works of the highest quality overall, not those who were expected to be graded only on quality. Those who kept churning out pots learned from their mistakes, grew and developed, while those who focused on “perfection” had little to show — they’d spent more time worrying and theorizing about perfection than just making art.

A big part of the process is just allowing yourself to make a bunch of stuff. Learn, experiment, even play — and not expect each thing you make to be perfect (or even good). Because it won’t be, not most of the time.

I’ll be taking the next month or two off blogging to work on another writing project, so enjoy the rest of your summer!


It’s all about the materials

In the past, I have primarily used paper products for collage, but this week I’ve had fun trying a number of different materials. I’m continuing collage experiments using the Collage Lab book as a guide, as begun in last week’s blog.

Collage Lab by Bee Shay

One thing I really enjoy about this book is that it suggests activities to explore the materials being used, and then allows for further play or experimentation based on whatever you want to try. I don’t feel the pressure of trying to make something that looks exactly like the pictures – it’s about experimenting with techniques and materials to get to know how they look and feel, to inform further artwork down the road.

I’ve been learning about using matte medium, gesso (both clear and white), and also heavy gel medium – and how they work with various materials. These products can work with a variety of materials, whether as adhesives or as coatings to change the appearance of your surface – adding color, texture, or to diffuse or alter the appearance of your materials.

Gel medium works well as an adhesive for fabric, which was one of the lessons I worked on. I used fabric scraps including old pillowcases, lace, and other cloth I’d collected for collages. You can use old sheets, towels, rags, curtains, t-shirts or other cloth items you were planning to discard. If they aren’t good enough to put out for a yard sale, chances are you won’t feel mind ripping or cutting them up. I’ve also bought cheap scraps at a fabric store. I haven’t worked with fabric much in my collages, so I enjoyed the opportunity to explore different ideas. First, I brushed the heavy gel medium on the surface for the collage, and/or the fabric itself, then pressed the fabric where I wanted it to go.

Lacy fabric is great because, whether you use it as a background, focal point, or visual accents, the holes in the fabric allow color or images to be seen through it, and it can pick up paint or ink wash differently than the surface you’re painting on. Lace can also provide a nice vintage feel to a collage.

Pieces of lace on white painted board

Lace as background; lace and other fabric on board with paper border







The ink wash I painted on this showed up mostly on the lace when it dried (I did blot with tissue so it wouldn’t be an even wash over the whole surface).

I also made a wrinkled satiny fabric surface in the same way that I used tissue paper last week (except my surface adhesive was heavy gel medium rather than matte medium this time). What was cool about this surface was that it retained its softness in the folds, and it has a great shine as the light hits the peaks of the wrinkles.

I also made a couple of surfaces with paper backgrounds or borders for use in future collage.

I hadn’t before tried using paper as just a border, so I appreciated this suggestion. Usually I use a variety of colored/printed craft papers available at my local Michael’s craft store. This type of paper is especially popular since the advent of scrapbooking as a hobby. Craft paper can be expensive, but there are often sales and discounts, and you can buy whole books of some craft paper for less.

I also use old wall calendars, since the paper is fairly thick and easy to use, and I’ve had some beautiful calendars given to me over the years! It’s a great way to repurpose these items. Old greeting cards and postcards are also recommended, as they can be very appealing and varied, and again, the paper or cardboard is thick enough to handle adhesive and/or paint.

While many people like to use magazine and catalogue images (I have, on occasion), that paper is very thin and can be difficult to manipulate. I bought some old books at thrift stores that I’m willing to cut or rip up for collages, though I imagine some bibliophiles would consider that a sacrilege. Other possibilities include old wallpaper, paint chips (samples) from stores, old photographs, old notebook covers or folders, or used wrapping paper. It feels good to recycle items that you know would have just been thrown away, or are just cluttering up your house.

It’s been many years since I used organic materials for collage; not as far back as childhood, but during my days as a preschool teacher. With the book as my guide, I experimented with some seeds and grains I had in the house, as well as some items from outdoors. I’d like to experiment more with dried flowers, seeds and leaves in the future. I used matte medium for an adhesive for these items, and I covered some with clear gesso to help adhere them.

Maple seeds and dried flowers

Maple and watermelon seeds

Barley and lentils

Mustard and caraway seeds

You can also use paint, white or colored gesso, or ink wash to cover them to create different effects, or to highlight just parts of your surface. Below I used white gesso on the first two, and acrylic paint on the third.

For surfaces, you don’t have to buy boards, card stock, or watercolor paper at a craft store – you can cut up old cardboard boxes, use scrap wood, tiles or other materials you may have cluttering up your garage or basement. Just be aware that some surfaces will take on paint and adhesive better than others, and thinner surfaces may not hold up as well to moisture and heavier collage materials (your surface may buckle or warp). If you do work with shiny surfaces or materials that don’t seem to take paint or adhesive well, sandpapering your surface and/or applying gesso first can make your surface ground easier to work with.

If you’ve used other types of items for collage work, I’d love to hear about it!


Creating the foundation

I’ve always been fascinated by art using mixed media. When I blogged about paper collage last year (from A Bird by Any Other Name to Juxtaposition of Elements), I launched straight into gluing paper to create pictures, without any planning, without prepping surfaces for the work that would follow. I wanted to get to the fun stuff — creating a jigsaw puzzle of sorts with images and colors that intrigued me.

Now I’m focusing on learning about techniques and materials, with the help of this cool book:

Collage Lab by Bee Shay

The book is divided into easy-to-digest lessons on everything from ways to prepare surfaces (or “substrate,” as it’s called in collaging and painting) to using organic materials and other items. There’s an emphasis on layering, which is something I learned to appreciate during my month dabbling with watercolor paints.

This week I focused on the opening lessons which recommended materials including gesso and matte medium. Gesso has been used in art for centuries, mostly as a primer. In medieval art, it was applied repeatedly in very thin layers to create a paintable surface on wood or canvas. It is a blend of some kind of binder, like glue, with chalk and white pigment, and it absorbs most paints. Gesso creates texture on the surface, and you can use thick or thin layers for different effects. You can tint it with paint. Matte medium is a white fluid used as an adhesive for collage, and it is often mixed with acrylic paints to reduce glossiness. The first sections in the book use one or both of these products in different ways.

The first lesson centered on experimenting with gesso. First you brush a thick layer of gesso on watercolor paper (140 lb.), cardboard or other surface. Then you use household objects to create lines and prints in the gesso while it is still wet.

I used an old comb to “draw” lines in the gesso

I used bottle caps to make circle designs

One other experiment was to use sponges and other objects to apply  gesso shapes to paper. I tinted the gesso with acrylic paint to make different colors.

An additional activity involved laying down a base of one color-tinted gesso, letting it dry, applying another color, then using a comb or other object to “draw” or scrape the surface, revealing the color underneath.

I brushed on a layer of this rather garish shade of pink-tinted gesso

Then I covered it with this muted green

I scraped through the top layer to reveal the pink underneath

Do you remember doing something similar when you were a kid? Drawing with lots of colorful crayons all over a piece of paper, not leaving any blank space, then obscuring the whole picture in black crayon, and finally “scratching” out a picture by revealing the colorful layer underneath? Maybe that’s why I enjoy this experimentation so much; it reminds me of art exploration when I was a kid, when I didn’t care about how useful or marketable what I was doing might be. I just enjoyed the play.

A further exercise called for applying bits of masking tape to paper, then coloring it with a layer of tinted gesso, removing the tape when dry.

I first tore tape to apply to the paper randomly, then brushed a layer of pink-tinted gesso

After the gesso was dry, I removed the tape

The gesso in all these experiments provided surface texture in varying degrees of thickness.

Using paper to create background designs is another way to create surface texture, as I found in a lesson using matte medium as an adhesive. I enjoyed playing with craft paper, first tearing strips of paper for a sort of sloppy weave pattern.

Torn strips of paper on matte medium-brushed paper to create a loose lattice

Craft paper cut into shapes – I used matte medium to apply the shapes and some areas of  the paper that I cut shapes from

When I made the geometric shape picture, I used a useful technique for cutting paper with an X-Acto knife I learned during my month studying kirigami — if you score or perforate the paper along the lines with the tip of your knife, it’s a lot easier to cut lines, especially curves or circles, which can be hard to control.

Yet another fun activity was using tissue paper, applying it to a thick layer of matte medium while still wet, manipulating the paper to create wrinkles. I really liked the 3-dimensional effect; it looked like a topographical map. This would be a great surface for creating collage.

After brushing matte medium on watercolor paper, I applied tissue paper, wrinkling it with my fingers

A side/close-up view to see the 3-D surface effect

An easy way to create an interesting textured surface or “substrate” is to find unusual “canvases” for your collages. It’s great to use recycled materials like corrugated cardboard (I tore up an old box). You can tear or cut out some of the surface layer to create depth and interesting shapes.

I used an X-Acto knife on corrugated cardboard pieces to make geometric shapes; for others I tore away the surface layer

After that, I tried layers of gesso, paint and/or ink wash to add variety. Here are a few cardboard “canvases” I created, before and after adding ink wash or paint.


Finally, I followed a lesson about muting or diffusing an image by covering it with thin layers of diluted gesso, to be a ground for further collage. First I used pages from an old atlas (left is before being treated with gesso).

This craft paper reminded me of vintage wallpaper.

Thin layers of diluted gesso add surface texture and change the colors, depending on the type of paper used. For glossy papers, you can use very fine sandpaper to make the paper more porous.

I plan to use many of these boards I’ve just made as substrate to create collages later. Previously, I would slap images I liked on the paper or cardboard I was covering. Then I would suddenly realize I wanted a background, so I would slather paint around the images I’d glued. It’s clear to me now that I was working from the surface down, rather than beginning by creating the foundation of the picture first. These lessons have made me think more about creating layers beneath my collages to add texture, depth, variety, and visual interest.

When was the last time you let yourself “play” with art?




Music and Mindfulness

When I perform music live, time can take on a very elastic quality – it can seem like it slows down, each moment expanded, while at other times it zips by almost on hyper-speed. When I’m fully focused and present in the moment, paying attention but without overthinking, it usually goes well. The music feels like it’s a part of my very self, and everything in me seems “in tune.” It’s  almost trance-like, although not the same as being oblivious. You’re paying attention, but also letting the moment happen. If I suddenly start overthinking, or my mind wanders for a moment, it’s easy to lose that sense – suddenly something can go off the rails, like I miss a cue or make a mistake.

I don’t pretend to know a lot about Zen Buddhism, but one of its tenets is the idea of being fully present or “mindful” in the moment. While I have never practiced meditation, during which one is supposed to experience being mindful (by focusing on one’s breathing, for example), playing music comes as close to what I imagine being fully mindful might be.

The closest thing I can think of to this feeling is when you are driving. And I don’t mean a highway in the country when you can zone out for a long time when you’re letting your mind wander or singing along to the radio. It’s more like when you’re driving in a busy city; you’re paying attention, you stay present in the moment because if you don’t, you could miss that stoplight turning red or the car braking ahead of you. At the same time, you can’t overthink either – you operate a lot of driving activity on automatic pilot. If you had to think about every single step – I’m braking a bit now, I’m checking my side mirror, I’m signaling to move left, I’m turning the wheel a bit … etc. – you wouldn’t be able to manage it without going crazy. So it’s a combination of being “one” with the car while you make familiar maneuvers, but at the same time being aware of what’s going on around you and your vehicle (hopefully).

Another aspect of playing live music is the activity of performing with others, which is quite different from playing an instrument by yourself. The act of listening and watching others play while you are participating and paying attention to what you’re doing expands your experience even further. You have to maintain your own sense of self and what you are trying to do while simultaneously being aware of everyone else. If you haven’t played music with a group, other experiences in your life may be similar. Perhaps you’ve acted in a theater, or played a team sport – especially one that is fast moving, where you are interdependent with other players, like basketball or hockey. Or, to return to the driving comparison, it’s like when you’re on a busy city roadway and you have to trust that your fellow drivers are also paying attention, indicating to you what they’re doing, as much as you are trying to be aware of them and let them know what you’re doing next.

The more you play with a particular group of people, the more you are able to trust one another. And you can anticipate what your bandmate is likely to do, or sense when they are changing how they’re playing. It’s easier to relax and let go when you trust that your bandmates know their parts and are exerting similar levels of energy to yours, and that they also are aware of everyone in the group while they play. With a group that trusts each other to keep going and hold up their part of the music, you know that even if one member has a blip and misses something, everyone else will carry on playing.

Photo by Laurie Etchen. Left to right: Jean Jarvis, me, Mike Czora

An additional component is the music itself, which seems to take on a life of its own during a performance. There are definitely times when the performance of the whole group far exceeds what the individuals seem able to do within it – when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A certain amount of energy is produced by each of the players, and the energy and the sounds combining, when done well, create what can feel like a living, breathing entity – the music.

The times I’ve experienced this, it’s been magical. Once was when I was singing in a large choral performance with an exceptionally good and very large choir, with a skilled director, as a teenager. It was a gorgeous piece of music (a Haydn mass), with a full orchestra, and it felt euphoric to be a part of it. The sound around me was glorious, to the point where I could no longer hear my own voice as separate from the other singers. Other times have been playing piano as part of a well-rehearsed trio (with a violinist and cellist) as an adult, performing an amazing Mendelssohn trio, and a few times more recently, playing in rock bands as a drummer.

Being a drummer is different from my previous musical experiences in a number of ways. Singing in a choir, you are one of many voices, and you are trying to blend in – if your voice sticks out too much, you’re doing it wrong. A choir is about taking a group of individual voices and turning them into one amazing voice (or at least one per section – sopranos, altos, tenors, bass).

Playing piano in a small chamber group is somewhat closer to the drumming experience – while the three instruments often have different parts that weave in and out of each other, or play harmony together, the piano is the instrument in a trio that keeps everybody together. Piano is the foundation of the group, holding the tempo steady and helping create the changes in dynamics and phrasing, supporting the group as a whole.

This is how I think of drumming when it’s done well, and what I aspire to. But drumming is also very loud! You are often responsible for starting or ending songs, and that can be a frightening responsibility. If you do something wrong, everyone hears it. But the band also needs you – when it can be difficult to hear every other instrument on stage during a live show, chances are everyone can still hear the drums.

Photo by Diane Kilmer

For that reason, it’s even more important that I am fully present while I play, and mindful of what I’m doing as well as the entire group’s sound. When this happens, I feel one with the drums, one with the band, one with the music.


Do you remember?

When I was 12, I faced the yearly ordeal of the piano recital. I loved piano lessons, and even practicing (most of the time). But there was one thing about piano recitals I always dreaded: memorization.

It was an early Beethoven sonata, five pages long, with the first section (two pages) repeating before you play the last three pages. During the recital, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to begin the part after the repeat. I was stuck in an endless loop of repeats, with no idea how to escape. I remember the sheer panic as I struggled to figure out how to conclude the song. I’m not sure how I did it – something clumsy, I’m sure – but I did finally end the sonata.

Later, I much preferred playing in chamber music groups and accompanying solo instruments or singers, for many reasons – one of the prime benefits being that nobody expected you to play without the music in front of you.

I had a great piano teacher who taught me music theory and sight reading. To this day, I can usually decipher piano music without too many errors if it’s set in front of me. But I always struggled with memorization, and I never learned how to play by ear or improvise. I’ve barely tried; the few feeble attempts I made on the piano were enough to dissuade me.

When I started learning to play the drums, I knew that I didn’t want to look at music, and I wanted to learn both picking up songs by ear and improvising. Of course, it seemed like drums would be easier to approach that way, since I wouldn’t have to worry about pesky wrong notes, keys, and chords – just rhythm.

Here’s basic drum music

At the beginning, when my drum vocabulary was very limited, I had my talented teacher Will Kemperman help me learn songs by showing me what to do. It really helped to watch him play. Listening to songs wasn’t enough – my ears could not pick out how those sounds were being made. What’s the bass drum doing? Which tom is the drummer playing? How do you “stick” that pattern (which hand starts, how do you recreate those accented beats, that exact rhythm)?

After a few years of playing, my vocabulary increased. I learned more rhythm patterns and drum fills (fancy drum parts that mark the end of a phrase or section). I began to understand how most sticking works (e.g. the downbeat/strongest beat is usually played on the right hand), and I got a little better about translating what I was hearing into what my hands and feet did on the kit. I also learned that I can pick out drum parts better if I listened to music in the car. Sometimes it helps me to find a good drum cover (on YouTube or Drumeo) so I can watch what a drummer might do to make those sounds. Looking at your average live band video from the original band is not usually helpful. They don’t show the drummer much,  or it’s shot from angles where you can’t see clearly what the drummer is doing. Of course, YouTube drum covers are inconsistent – you have to find ones that are good quality, that you can follow easily, and the drummer plays at least within reach of your skill level.

This month, as I said in last week’s blog, I’m playing with three different bands. The amount of music for all three bands totals 3 ½ hours. My goal is to practice every day. Ideally, I’d want to play all the songs each time I practice, but 3 ½ hours each day is unrealistic. Most days I try to make 1-3 hours available, and I usually play about two. Some days I don’t have time at all (like the three nights I’m in rehearsal, but I guess that counts as practice too).

When I already know the song from playing it with a band previously, reviewing it once or twice is sufficient, if it’s already in pretty good shape. However, I do need to revisit all the songs regularly, especially to remember how to start the song – drummers often have to literally “count the band in” to get everyone started together at the right tempo. Sometimes we also have endings that are different from the recordings. For songs that “fade out” on the radio, we come up with a definite ending that I have to replicate in practice.

For songs I don’t know, there’s only one way to memorize: repetition. I don’t use sheet music or visual notes. Even if I came up with a way to notate what I’m doing on drums that made sense, I can’t look at music while I’m playing – I have to watch what I’m doing. I also need to watch the other band members. I have to memorize by the sound, which uses an entirely different part of my brain than any other kind of memorization, combined with the physical movements I need to do with my hands and feet. (On top of that, I’m singing backup in a few songs, so I have to know the lyrics and timing for those as well as remembering to turn my head toward the mic.)

When I learn a new song, even if it’s familiar from years of hearing it on the radio (which helps), I have to listen to it repeatedly, both passively (while driving, working) and also actively – really paying attention to what the drums are doing. It’s great when I hear patterns and fills that I know already. But sometimes, because of my limited experience, I’m starting from scratch.

When I first start to practice it, I try to get the overall feel of the song – what’s the basic “groove” (beat pattern)? What parts of the song don’t use that groove? Maybe the chorus and verse are different, or something new happens during the “bridge.” Once I’ve identified the basic beat, I play along with the song a few times, making note of where there are deviations. That helps me figure out the basic structure of the song. Many pop songs are predictable – there’s a verse, sometimes two, before the first chorus. The chorus repeats between the verses, maybe twice or more at the end. There may be a “bridge,” a unique passage in the song that leads from the verse to the chorus. There can be one (or more) instrumental solo sections. Most rock or pop songs are variations on that structure. I spend a lot of time learning the intro and outro, as the drums may have to get the band into (or out of) the song together, so if I mess that up, it would throw everybody off. That would not be a good start (or finish) to the song!

In order to internalize an entirely new song, I’ll play it 3-5 times in a row the first several days. I’ll stop and start also, spending extra time on one section (such as the intro), especially if there’s an unusual fill, stop or change. I often have to count out the beats or phrases between one section and another, and/or listen for consistent musical cues like chord changes, lyrics or guitar/bass phrases that signal a particular part I’m trying to remember. I’m careful not to count solely on one cue (like a guitar riff) that might be hard to hear during live performance.

The introduction of one new song can suck up the bulk of my practice time on that day. I also need to repeat the song a few times the next practice session to be sure that what I worked on before has stuck. At times it feels like if I try to cram one more song into my brain, others will start falling out!

Oddly, the early learning phase can be the most enjoyable. It can take several days or even weeks to memorize a song. But I like the challenge, and even though I may struggle with getting a section “down,” once I do, it’s very rewarding!

Once I really have it “down,” the song suddenly feels short to me. During the figuring out/memorizing process, a 4-minute song can feel like it lasts a half an hour, and it seems that I’ll never memorize it. Then suddenly it’s like a switch flips in my brain, and the song seems short. Even then, more repetition is crucial for the song to enter the realm of muscle memory; so if my brain shuts off during performance, my arms and legs remember what to do.

That doesn’t mean I’m finished. Once I get the “gist” of the song – I know how to start and stop, and have the structure down – then I have to fine tune it. That drum fill I was faking my way through, approximating the timing but not the correct sound, needs to be dissected. When I can’t play the way the drummer does on the recording, with my experiential and physical limitations, I have to figure out how to make it sound as much like the recording as I can while being able to play it consistently. I prefer to nail down something that fits the timing, and that I can count on  to play consistently well. The risk of playing something more technically complicated is that I might screw up during performance, potentially tripping up both myself and my bandmates.

My ultimate goal when I’m drumming for a band is to support the band. I want to help keep the group together, at the best tempo for us, and to feed energy into the group by my best efforts. I try to listen as well as I can while I’m playing, and hold my own to keep the beat steady. I work to be as consistent as I can. I’ve been lucky to have very patient and encouraging bandmates during my learning process these last few years.

Playing drums has taught me that I can learn music by ear, and though it may be a longer, more difficult process, in the end I feel that I know the music much better than pieces I’ve learned on piano just reading the music. Memorizing the music makes it a part of me.


A Different Drummer

As some of you may know, I took up the drums after I turned 50. You can read about it here. It was certainly not a typical hobby for a middle-aged female empty nester to take up. And it was vastly different from anything I had ever tried before.

By nature an introvert, it now seems very odd to me that I chose an instrument that was so very loud! But of course when I first started, I did not expect to be playing in public. Ever. It was just something fun to do on my own, playing along with music in the house.

I started learning from a drum teacher, and after conquering the basic rock drum beats, I’d just put my vast iTunes library on shuffle and play along with whatever popped up. My taste in music is pretty varied, so some days I’d find myself playing along with songs by Janet or Michael Jackson, then the Clash, then some Culture Club, followed by a little Motown or the Monkees. It felt good — drumming is definitely a physical workout, and it gets your endorphins flowing, for sure. It’s also an incredible release for built-up tension and anger! Each day of practicing would be a fun surprise, as I’d try to figure out how to make beats that would work with U2, or Melissa Etheridge, or Bruce Springsteen, even when I still had a very limited drumming vocabulary.

When I did finally venture out to play with other people, I found comfort in being at the back of the band, behind the kit.

When fellow drummer Jacques (now my husband of one month!) first saw me at Rock Camp for Dads, he said that it looked like I was “hiding behind the kit.” Looking back, it does feel that way.

What I didn’t realize then was what an important role the drummer plays, and how that would force me out of my shell. While I have never really wanted to call attention to myself, playing solos and the like, drums are not quiet. If you make a mistake, everybody hears it. And drummers are responsible for setting tempos and starting everyone together (most of the time), as well as frequently helping to signal changes and getting everyone finishing together.

My first public gig at Rock Camp for Dads (which welcomes non-dads also!) was pretty terrifying. I suddenly realized that my ability (or lack thereof) to start everyone at a good tempo, holding my ground and remaining steady, plus keeping my energy up without racing away with it, were vital to the whole group. As good as you might think you are when you’re playing along to a recording in your basement, the real test is whether you can not only be part of, but to some degree lead, the group.

Photo by Laurie Etchen

It’s a very different experience when you’re just practicing. When you listen to a recording, they’ve set the tempo for you, and you’re mostly following it (or trying to stay right on it). If you were to follow a band when playing with real live musicians (rather than lead), you’d always be behind them, letting someone (the strongest or loudest player, perhaps) lead, or risking everyone slowing down as they listen for your beat while you are trying to follow. You have to have that beat in your head, in your body, and keep it as rock solid as you can no matter what everyone else is doing.

Sometimes you can feel members of the band pushing or pulling against that beat, but you have to stay the course, even while you listen to what everyone is doing. It’s not easy — you can be pulled in one direction without even realizing it’s happening. Or your own excitement or nerves can cause you to inadvertently speed up or even start a song too fast.

One of the other challenges is learning how to play different styles of music. Even just within the general “rock” category (in the broadest sense), there are many sub-categories and genres of music to choose from, plus different decades and different drummers with widely varying styles.

During the past few years participating in great month-long camps at Rock Camp for Dads I’ve tried playing a wide variety of styles of music, including the Kinks, Bob Seger, the Bee Gees, Joe Cocker, Billy Joel, Steve Miller Band, Devo, Abba, Blondie, the Cars and many more! Here’s a video of the Joe Cocker tribute band I played with in February, and the Billy Joel tribute band I played with in March.

Photo by Mark Walentiny

This month will prove to be one of the busiest in terms of drumming that I’ve had yet. I’m playing in a Steely Dan tribute camp at Rock Camp for Dads, which will be very challenging drumming, while also doing some backup singing. We’ll have a gig on June 30th.

I’m also practicing with two other bands. Lovercraft is a band that plays a fun, eclectic mix of music with an emphasis on danceable tunes — funk, R&B/Soul and some rock/pop music, ranging from the late ’60s through the last decade. It’s a band with members who can play a few different instruments (including saxophone and trombone!), and they switch off on lead singing. Our set includes Sam & Dave, Har Mar Superstar, Kendra Morris, Mandrill and Bill Withers. We’ll be playing for a house party on July 1st.

I’m also playing with Atomic Beat. We play mostly ’80s rock and pop songs, including Blondie, The Cars, Simple Minds, The Sweet and Tears for Fears. I also do some backup singing with this band. We have a gig coming up on July 6th.

Photo by Todd Hoffman

This month I’m going to talk about my process for learning new material, rehearsal challenges and the different types of music I’ll be working on. I’m also going to look back at other musical adventures I’ve had (mostly in the classical realm) and the differences and similarities between them.

I’d love to hear about your musical challenges and adventures!


My year of living creatively

It’s been a year since I decided to try a new creative endeavor every month and blog about it. Overall, it’s been quite an adventure! Here’s what I did (you can click on any one of these to see one of the blogs that month; easier than scrolling through “older posts” from the most recent page!):

Photo by Jesse Miller / Rock Camp for Dads

  1. Backup singing in a rock band
  2. Baking
  3. Paper collage
  4. Calligraphy
  5. Cooking with unfamiliar ingredients
  6. Belly dancing
  7. Cooking soup
  8. Kirigami – the Japanese art of paper cutting
  9. Creating mandalas and mosaics
  10. Poetry writing
  11. Water color painting

Watercolor painting month

You may notice that these do not add up to twelve (as in months in a year). That’s because I did take one month off when I was really busy with other things.

Looking back on the entire year, I have learned a number of things about myself:

Collage is wonderfully messy and imprecise

  1. I like creative activities where precision is not necessarily required to make a satisfying product.
  2. The most enjoyable activities for me are those that I can primarily work on alone, without worrying about the potential (or perceived) judgement of others.
  3. Creative activities that I can work on and add to over time are a plus; I enjoy seeing a project transform and grow.
  4. Creative activities with results I can eat = win/win!

I would definitely enjoy doing more visual arts such as paper collage, mosaic and painting, or some combination of the three.

While I do like movement and music, I don’t necessarily want to feel obliged to perform; attention from an audience is not what’s most enjoyable to me about dance or creating music.

I have already begun using what I’ve learned about cooking and baking on a weekly if not daily basis – it’s certainly improved my lifestyle!

I wish I’d learned to cook years ago

There were months when it felt like it was too short a time to be fully engaged or to progress sufficiently in one activity. Sometimes I felt like I was moving way too quickly from one thing to another, especially while I had other obligations and goals to complete that month. Most of the time I am working three or more part-time jobs, such as teaching/writing/editing/coaching gigs, on top of my usual creative activities and recreational pursuits. Adding more on top of that was sometimes too much.

For the next year, I will take a different approach. I still want to blog about creativity, what I’m learning, and how important it is in my life. I want to share how vital I think creativity is for most of us, whether we fully realize it or not, and to keep discovering new things as well as pursuing improvement in other activities I’ve already begun to explore. Each month I will talk about whatever aspect of creativity I worked on or thought the most about, and I will organize the discussion around a theme or a particular creative pursuit.

I hope you will join me!