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.


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?




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!

Process Creates Product

Things I’m learning about watercolor painting:

— It’s all about the process
— You need to plan ahead
— You can always use more water
— Layer, layer, layer
— It’s only done when you decide you’re done

Clearly one month is woefully insufficient to make much headway in the very complicated art and skill required for watercolor painting. I wish that I’d had more time to devote to practice during this very busy month. But overall, it was really fun, and I plan to return to it, possibly to combine with my other endeavors such as collage making. It would also help me to devote more time to drawing skills.

This week I tried a couple of simple exercises, one of which was a basic tutorial on painting leaves recommended by my daughter. I appreciated the simple instructions, and the real-time video that I could easily follow. The creator of the tutorial, Cate Sheffer, spent time discussing the materials (such as brushes) she used, and why she did things the way that she did. She spent some time on why it’s good to leave negative space (white, unpainted parts of the paper), and how that could suggest the vein of the leaf, or light, or imperfections in the leaf.

The leaves on the left were created using my pan paint set (Windsor & Newton Cotman paints), and ones on the right were made with tube paints (Artist’s Loft from Michael’s).

I have been using a syringe like this (not the needle kind; I’ve used these for giving cats medicine!) to add a little water to the paint in the palette when needed. It’s easy to control the amount you add.

Then I tried to paint some seashells, partly inspired by my shower curtain, which I really like (and which was clearly based on watercolor painting)!

sea shell shower curtain

I have lots of seashells to use for models, but it was a challenge for me to draw them first with light pencil, and also to create any sense of three dimensions while painting. For these shells I used my tube paints.

One trick I picked up from Cate Sheffer’s leaf video was to use a little corner of paper towel to suck up a little paint/water if you’ve got a pool of paint or water and don’t want to leave a mark.

My daughter reminded me that to create a 3-D effect, it helps to imagine a source of light, and to use lighter colors to show that (darker layers of color for shadow).

A lot of the charm of watercolor painting is in its power to suggest, rather than always specifically delineate. While some painters in this medium use incredible detail and realism in their work, many others employ a looser, more suggestive style (like the cat shapes in last week’s blog), allowing the viewer to participate in the painting in a way, as the eye fills in details or the brain interprets the shape without a lot of specifics provided. That is something I would really like to learn. While I can certainly admire and appreciate art that is extremely skilled and detailed, my own preference is for art that suggests more than it specifies. I prefer abstraction, such as in the work of early American artist Arthur Dove, or in Japanese artist Sesshu Toyo.

Clouds and Water by Arthur Dove, 1930

Landscape attributed to Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506)

These paintings suggest through shape and color or through monochromatic brushstrokes rather than delineate, allowing the viewer’s mind to enter the work and imagine what’s not represented, an experience which I personally prefer to more realistic works. It takes a different kind of skill to suggest with only a few brushstrokes, in an effective way that viewers see what’s implied even though it’s not actually clearly represented.

What may have surprised me the most about trying out watercolor is how you can work on a painting over a long period of time. I thought that was more the process with paints such as oils (which I know nothing about), and that once you put down watercolor, that’s the end of it. But adding water allows you to manipulate lines and colors to a certain degree (especially before the paint is too dry), AND you can always add layers of color after the painting is dry, as my daughter kept reminding me, going from light to dark.

I hope you all find fun and interesting ways to explore your creativity! Next week I’ll be looking back on my year of living creatively . . .


Climbing Mt. Fuji

When I was in my twenties, I traveled to Japan. During my visit, I was taken on an outing to climb Mt. Fuji. At midnight. The idea was to climb the mountain all night and arrive at the summit at sunrise. It’s not a steep mountain (as mountains go), and in the middle of summer there is no snow. It’s made of volcanic rock. You don’t need equipment to climb it, and tons of people do it all the time, from young kids to old ladies. There’s a clear path, a zig zag route so it’s not super steep to walk. You begin about halfway up the mountain, at the “Fifth Station,” which is the last place cars and buses can access. However, it’s still daunting, and it takes several hours.

When I first saw Mt. Fuji from a distance, before the climbing outing, I couldn’t imagine climbing to the top. I still had trouble imagining it during most of the trek upwards, with large groups of people ahead and behind me snaking their way towards the top. But people kept urging each other on, “Gambatte,” they would say. “Keep it up,” or “Do your best.” I almost couldn’t believe it when I finally made it to the top just as the sun was coming up.

When I first began painting, my daughter Julianne steered me to a Facebook group of watercolor enthusiasts, some beginners, but some very experienced and skilled. To be honest, it was pretty intimidating. They shared information about materials and techniques, some of which I’d never heard of. They posted their work, looking for encouragement and feedback.

Some of the paintings were truly stunning. I had no idea how they created such beauties, especially after my first attempts at trying to learn how to paint. It was hard to imagine getting to a point where I’d be able to paint anything nearly that skillfully, unless I practiced every day for a couple of decades.

You may see where I’m going with this comparison. You may have heard the Chinese proverb (ascribed to Laozi/formerly transcribed as Lao Tzu): “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

No matter how difficult or how long the journey, you begin the same way you would a short, easy journey – with that single step – and if you just keep going long enough, step after step, you will get there.

Some of my steps this week were easier than others. My daughter recommended a tutorial to get me painting looser, more quickly, using more water. This video showed a quick technique for making the shapes of cats. The artist filled in details later with a fine pen, after the paint dried. Being a long time cat owner, I’m very familiar with the shapes of cats! So I tried it.

The goal was not to make a realistic animal, but to capture a  silhouette rapidly, possibly adding more color or outline if desired. I tried a few different cat poses as quickly as I could, using different colors and different levels of paint and water saturation.

It was fun! Some turned out more cat-like than others. Some resembled maybe a chinchilla, or a guinea pig with a tail. I enjoyed making cat blobs with paint, loosely and quickly, and did not feel they’d be improved by adding any detail.

watercolor paintings of cat shapes

But then I was frustrated by roses. My daughter also sent me a tutorial on how to paint some loosey-goosey roses, which she thought I might find easier than the trees I painted the previous week. But they were not. I couldn’t make them look right, and I was sure I was missing something.

watercolor paintings of roses

Despite trying both tube paints and the very cute new mini palette of good quality Winsor & Newton paints I’d ordered online

(very inexpensive! And so portable), I just wasn’t getting it.

So I made a few more cats, another tree, and put some dots for stars on a galaxy I’d worked on since my first week doing watercolor painting.

Then I thought I’d try something different. Mr. Shibasaki, who made the great tree YouTube video from last week, had another tutorial Julianne recommended, to paint a very vivid, colorful, almost impressionistic landscape of Mt. Fuji.

Watching the video, I couldn’t imagine being able to paint that well. He’s clearly very talented as well as experienced, and when he paints he makes it look effortless. It was a complicated painting, with lots of bold colors for the sky, water, land, and the mountain itself, which he’d chosen blue to represent. It’s a fun video to watch, even if you don’t paint, just to see the process. He uses colors you wouldn’t expect for the water (yellow!), the sky (purple!), and mixes them in interesting ways. It’s not a realistic painting, but very evocative.

At the start, I thought I’d try to follow along with his video quickly, without thinking much about each step or worrying how it looked. He started with a pencil sketch of the horizon, waterline and mountain. Because he’d already mixed his paints, and there was editing in the video, there was no way to keep up. I did end up stopping the video and going back while painting. Wanting to rush through it was probably a mistake! I hadn’t prepped the paper, so it buckled a bit with the wetness of the paint, and I didn’t always let parts dry before moving to the next step, as I should have.

For one area of the water, he used torn strips of masking tape to preserve the lighter color underneath to indicate the whitecaps of waves, lifting them after applying a dark blue over the area. When I tried it, some of the paper tore as I lifted the masking tape away. Painters on the Facebook group had talked about using masking fluid, which creates the same type of effect, but I didn’t have any.

By the time I was done, I didn’t like the picture. It looked too flat, there wasn’t enough depth and dimension of color, and I’d lost control of the paint in many areas of the picture.

watercolor painting of Mt. Fuji

Before I even finished this attempt, I’d already made up my mind to try again and do it more carefully a second time. Because I noticed that Mr. Shibasaki’s paint sometimes dripped down, I could tell he wasn’t painting on a flat surface, so I decided I’d use the feature of my art desk that would allow me to paint at an angle.

I prepped a sheet of 300 lb. paper by wetting it on both sides and taping it down on a board to stretch as it dried, to reduce later buckling. Once it was dry, I took my time watching parts of the video over, and I took more care with mixing the paints as well as choosing brushes for each part of the painting. I also let more time pass to dry sections of the painting before adding an outline or highlighting the color.

Overall, I was pleased with my efforts and learned a little better how he was creating some of the effects. I had to learn not to fill every area of the paper with so much color, and to let colors mix and blend in interesting ways.

With masking tape on, before painting over it

With masking tape on, after painting over it










When I used the masking tape to form waves, I was more slow and cautious when removing it.

After the masking tape is removed

I also took care to blend hard edges I didn’t like by brushing over with a little water, the way my daughter had shown me when creating the galaxies.

One decision I made was to change the color of Mt. Fuji. I didn’t like seeing it blue in his painting. I’ve looked at many paintings and prints of Mt. Fuji over the years, and I’d also seen the real thing, both from a distance and up close. In my mind it mostly remains the dark, brownish red of volcanic rock that you see in the height of summer. So that’s the color I tried to recreate.

watercolor painting of Mt. Fuji

The picture is definitely impressionistic rather than realistic, and the colors are more creative than representational, but I enjoyed making it, and the result is pleasing to my eye! I learned a lot while working on it. I would be interested in trying again, perhaps a different type of landscape or different view of Mt. Fuji.

The journey to climb Mt. Fuji began with a single step, and my quest to paint it began with a single stroke of the brush!


The Trouble with Trees

Trees are all around us (thank goodness, since they create oxygen!) and we see them every day. But do we really look at them? When I’ve tried to draw or paint a tree, though most likely because I’m not trained or experienced in creating representational art, I’m finding that they don’t turn out as I intended.

Over the past week I’ve been trying my hand at painting trees, partly inspired by the YouTube video (Watercolors by Shibasaki) that my daughter had recommended to me last week.

Mr. Shibasaki makes it look SO easy in his video! Some of my attempts were more of an effort to look like his, while others did not really use his video as a source, as I got a little frustrated trying to recreate what he painted.

My first couple of trees did not use watercolors to their best, as I was still getting the hang of trying to use more water with the paints, and at first I was not experimenting with layering different colors as my daughter had instructed me in last week’s painting lesson. I was trying to create the lighter colored leaves in one area to indicate where the light source was coming from, and I made an attempt at shading on one tree trunk. I believe I painted the one on the right first.

The colors here were dark, as the paint was too thick (I used little water), and my brush was fairly dry. The paper I used was dry. I did not attempt any kind of background, but just focused on the tree. I sketched the overall shape of the tree lightly with pencil first, as the artist in the video had done.

Feeling frustrated with the inexpensive tube watercolors I’d been using, I tried another tree using a pan of dry watercolor paints I’d gotten for my daughter years ago.

pan of watercolor paints

Some of the colors in this pan were very pleasing to my eye, and I tried a little color mixing and using a bit more water. I was not entirely happy with my brushes, however. I experimented with a wetter brush in some places, and drier in others. Some of the brush effects for the leaves turned out the way I wanted them to. I also worked more with trying to add texture to the tree trunk, though the shape came out pretty weird looking.

When I returned to the tube watercolor paints, I thought I’d try a wetter surface to create some background color hinting at sky, grass, and sun. I used a lot more water overall. I did a little color layering for the leaves. My paper wasn’t the super good kind (I’m learning why 300 or 400 lb. is far superior to 140 lb.), so it sometimes buckles with the water/watery paint, especially if you don’t wet and stretch the paper first. The result was that color pooled in some areas.

After that I tried a couple more trees without worrying about background. Painting the first one (with tube paints), I focused on layering colors more.

I was still not happy with my brushes, as I wasn’t getting the shapes I wanted when applying the brush to paper. So I went and bought a couple of better brushes, using the type my daughter had used (Princeton, including one round brush) for examples of what to get.

Wanting to make a more vertical tree, I turned the paper for my second attempt using the pan paints. Mixing colors a little more boldly this time, I tried to do more layers. This process requires patience, as you have to wait some time for the paint to dry before you can effectively apply another layer. (Though I have heard some people use hair dryers to hurry the process!)

My most recent attempt was on a piece of the 140 lb. paper that I first wet on both sides, then taped down to stretch while wet, to prevent some of the paper buckling when painting. I used the tube paints once again, and also re-watched the video on YouTube.

Watching the YouTube video again, I realized that I hadn’t paid enough attention to how the artist was applying the brush, sometimes using sideways strokes. I also noticed that he had recommended blending the bright green that used for the light leaves with a brown paint to make the trunk, and then using a cool color (adding some blue perhaps) to the color used for the trunk for the shading on the dark side of the tree. So I think I was more successful in doing the shading on the trunk this time, though I am still frustrated with not being able to make more “sketchy” looking leaves the way he does in the video. I’ll keep experimenting with this. I’m also trying to let myself add more layers of color for the leaves. Since I haven’t succeeded in making this tree’s leaves look “sketchy,” I’ve decided to embrace its fullness instead! Mr. Shibasaki used three different colors for his leaves; I tried at least five different shades of mixed greens for mine.

I’m trying to take more time with mixing colors and water, trying out the colors on a sample paper before using them, and not just settling for the first combination I come up with, as well as using different sizes and shapes of brushes within each painting. Watercolors seem to be all about patience, and layers, and not just being done with your work quickly, no matter what some of the books I’ve looked at say about “capturing the moment” in a rapidly created painting.

Next week I’ll try out another source of inspiration . . . any suggestions?


In a Galaxy Far, Far Away . . .

When I was a kid, I once got one of those paint by number kits. It was a kitten. Since I didn’t have a real kitten, it seemed pretty special. It was not difficult to paint, following the directions, and the final result looked good (or so I thought at the tender age of 8 or 10 years old). But it didn’t feel like a creative activity, that’s for certain. I was just following directions.

Since then I have rarely dabbled in painting, trying acrylics on rare occasions. This month I’m experimenting with watercolor painting, primarily because I know a few people who are enthusiastic watercolorists. One of them is my daughter Julianne, and though I may be a bit biased, I think she has a lot of skill and talent in this medium.

This is a painting Julianne made of the Dolomites in Italy (from a photograph reference)

She very kindly agreed to come over and help me out with some watercolor basics.

She showed me some of the materials she works with.

Watercolors come in either trays (above), or in tubes, but the key is, you use a lot of water. Because you’re using so much water, you need heavy paper (140 lb. or more, and Julianne recommends “cold press”) that can withstand the moisture, like this:

It’s also best to tape the paper down to a hard surface in case of buckling, and it also creates a nice hard edge when you remove the tape.

Julianne described how the ratio of paint color to water changes the value of the color you’re trying to create. She assigned me a task to grade from light to darker color value, which was a lot harder than you might think! A little color goes a long way, and the paint also looks darker in your palette when mixing than it shows up on the paper, especially after it dries. A couple of my stages really needed to be swapped to make the gradation make sense.

The next assignment was to create a galaxy, similar to those cool pictures like this from the Hubble Telescope.

It was surprising how long it took to build up the layers of color. You begin by brushing plain water on the part of the paper where you want to apply paint. You start with the lighter colors and layer over with darker colors as you go, blurring hard edges with water gently, and then waiting for the paint to dry before doing the next layer. It’s less like applying paints (as you would with acrylics) then pushing colors around within the watery surface of the paper. We worked on this for a long time.

I sometimes had to spend a lot of time tamping down (again, with water) some of the overly vivid colors I’d laid down too early in the process. I hadn’t realized just how malleable water color paints are. My impression of watercolor was that you just laid down the colors, and that was it; you were stuck with what was there. Surprisingly, you can actually move and change a lot of the pigment already on the paper by applying more water and pushing color around with your brush. So, while sometimes it feels like what’s happening with the color on the paper is vastly out of your control, much of it IS in your control; it just takes a lot of practice (and perhaps instruction) with techniques to master it.

Julianne pointed out that I had selected too many different colors to play with, making the overall picture seem less cohesive. I could see what she meant. When we got towards the end of developing the lighter colored layers, we began to create pockets of deeper hues, like black (created usually by mixing a few darker colors together rather than using pure black) which then appear like they are deeper in space.

Julianne has a lot of experience working on these types of galaxy paintings, so hers turned out to look pretty amazing:

She has a lot of patience with developing the layers.

After the entire pictures were dry, we splattered on a little white acrylic paint for stars (the one on the right is after I removed the border tape):

I have started working on some of the“homework” I was assigned by Julianne. One is to follow a couple of YouTube videos — Watercolors by Shibasaki — by an amazing Japanese artist (translation provided!) who provides “how to” lessons step by step.

I experimented with the tree  he makes in the above link a few times, but Julianne pointed out that I was still treating the watercolors more like acrylics, applying paint in too dark hues rather than working more with water washes, layering, and letting the water do more of the work. I will keep going with these assignments, especially now that I’ve got this amazing new table for an art area I created in my house.

Have a great time doing whatever art engrosses and enthralls you! I know I’m started to get a little obsessed. . .


Best Laid Plans

After I wrote about mess and looked at the art supplies taking over the dining room table, I cleaned up. I sorted out, put away, neatened up. Started over. It looked much better, more organized.

It occurred to me that I had no real structure for my collage projects, no goal beyond just sitting with the materials and doing stuff.  So I took out a book that I’d picked up somewhere ages ago, The Collage Workbook by Randel Plowman. He even has a class you can take to make a collage a day.

The Collage Workbook, by Randel Plowman

The pictures in the book are cool, and there are great tips about useful materials and supplies for collaging. Some of them I actually purchased when I first bought the book, and I am glad that I have them.

Then I decided that I was going to try some of the suggested projects/ideas. I read a few. No inspiration whatsoever.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great book. I love the ideas (or at least the idea of the ideas), and the collages look interesting. But it just didn’t do anything for me. For example, the idea of “going monochromatic” – maybe taking one color to focus on for a collage – sounded good, but I couldn’t get myself to do it.

My approach, my process, is random and chaotic. I randomly choose a few different items – papers, cut-out photos, books I’m planning to cut up cause they’re old, or photocopy if I’m not ready to cut them up. I look at them. I randomly choose a format – bigger or smaller, square or rectangle, this book or that piece of cardboard. Then I just start coloring the background with paint or crayon, or maybe I start gluing first.  Sometimes I change the format if I can tell that I’ll need more space, or if I want a surface that’s more horizontal than vertical. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I couldn’t explain why I made my choices if you asked me.

I’ll show you my process through a few of the things I made this week:

First I just scribbled with a pastel crayon and then glued on pieces of brownish craft paper that reminded me of rocks. Then I glued on a cut-out piece of photograph of a lady from ca. 1915. My web designer friend Margaret Bossen gave me a bunch of old photos that I’ve used in some collages. It’s mounted on cardboard so it sticks out from the paper quite a bit.

Used pastel crayons, then some crafty art paper, then an old photograph



I wanted something to grow out of the rocks, so I cut the curvy strips from the brown craft paper. I liked when it overlapped and grew up over the photo, so I did that a couple more times. Then I cut larger wavy strips from the purple patterned paper to have that grow also, from the “ground,” and added the flowery looking blobs that I cut out from different paper.

I just kept adding stuff

I cut the sky out of a desert photo from an old world atlas and used that for the top of the frame.

At this point my boyfriend Jacques came over and said that it looked like the lady was in a bubble under the water. It did! That inspired me further. I thought of calling it “Titanic,” though perhaps “Lusitania” would be less cliche. The time period of the clothing looked about right. Then I added blue and greenish paint to tie it all together.

Finished “Titanic”

Another day I made a piece that used mostly pictures from a women’s art calendar book that my poet friend Suzette Bishop gave me back in 2009, but I couldn’t bear to throw away because it had so many great pictures in it. I felt ready to cut it up. I also used photocopied Hiroshige prints and a piece of origami paper, along with paint.

Here’s an early stage. I’m not sure what made me cut out the parts of the paintings/prints that I did, except that I liked the way they looked.

Here I got the idea to cut ducks out of the Mary Cassatt painting and made them swim in the Hiroshige print. There’s also pieces of work by Grandma Moses, Elizabeth Murray, Kay Sage and Laura Johnson Knight.

For some reason I started on the left side, then the right side, leaving the middle blank. Probably not the way you’re supposed to do collage (or lay floor tiles).

I decided I was done gluing here

Added paint before I decided I was finished

This is one where I kept cutting so many pictures that I knew I needed a slightly bigger surface to work with.

I’m not making order out of chaos, or even chaos out of order. I’m making chaos out of chaos. Different chaos, anyway. Maybe that’s all art is?

But a cool thing came out of my collages this week. My friend Laurie Etchen, who is a great designer as well as singer/keyboard player in many of my bands, decided to use one of my collages as background for an event poster! This was the original art:

She manipulated it digitally to create great art for our upcoming Santana tribute gig (I’m playing extra percussion for it). She did two versions, one using mostly the original orange, and another using blue hues:

It made me feel great, knowing someone liked my work enough to incorporate it into a design of her own! It does feel good when others also find something interesting, intriguing or even beautiful in what I’m doing.

However, ultimately, I’m not creating any of this art for a purpose beyond my own satisfaction. When I make something I really like, I find myself staring at it a lot. Is that weird?

And by the way, the dining room table is a mess again.