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Waiting for Inspiration

Waiting for inspiration is a little like asking the waiter for the check. I am not however one of those artists who debunk inspiration (per sey). But perhaps we should clarify the term by saying that this is something clearly beyond our normal bounds, our normal interpretation or our normal range of vision. THis is something quite beyond our current mental and emotional barriers. Inspiration comes (if it does at all) when we have hungered for quite some time for that ‘otherworldly’ experience that typically lays hidden under the rocks and trees and the scars of our emotions.
When it does come it does not come with the playing of drums. There are just subtle but beautiful insights of vision. These can often dictate a painting which is precisely why I prefer abstract painting versus anything pre-conceived. Regardless, inspiration may come or not. It may come three times a year in very small and incremental degrees. But it is these that the artist aspires to recognize. Once recognized the artist must act, or be tormented by that vision that becomes more and more veiled. It is the response, the act that is critical here.
The purpose of this short article is to convince the reader for the necessity of practice. Read the book, the Natural Way to Draw and you will get a good bit of direction on how to practice the art of drawing. Drawing or painting – we simply must be about our task. It is not good to let a week or two go idle. Paint anything. There is no endeavor that will not lead and improve your handmanship and of course that vital connection between hand and eye and mind. Those three are uniquely brought to the fore when it comes to painting. Practice so that when inspiration comes – that desired element that so illlusively lives beyond our normal experience – we will be more the ready. We will be like the gunslinger who has practiced his draw and aim and can now pull and fire with decent precision. What good is it to attain some level of ‘other-worldly’ experience if we are ultimately un-able to manifest that expression in our work through poor facility? In short, practice makes us ready for those bursts of insight that we as artists hunger for- ala Jackson Pollack. There are often long travails through the desert until we come to our oasis. I suppose this is just the way the universe operates.
It is however always the case, that the paintings tell the story best. We only need to look more carefully.

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The Bridge between Painting and Photography

The bridge between painting and photography is becoming blurred and I think we should welcome this evolution. Photographers have become more adept at modulating common images. They can subtly overlap images, juxtapose photos, give them an appearance of movement, fade and blurr photos to the point where they barely resemble the simple, fixed photo.
This may be an attempt at abstraction, or sometimes just to see what and how an image can be bent and changed. Whereas photos naturally tend to be more incisive, more specific or more detailed, this process of abstracting an image in the dark room or now with photoshop is bringing the two disciples much closer together.
There are some painters who take photos and place them within the painting. This kind of interplay sometimes works well to enhance an image on canvas. This bridge between painting and photography will no doubt continue to be explored. The photographic image in the hands of a professional can in fact resemble a good abstract painting. This kind of creative effort is invigorating for the broad art scene in general but also opens up possibilities for the individual artist.

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Essence of Color

We have come to understand that in the pursuit of good design we often place the symphony of pure color in second place.  I am reminded of Tubular Bells by Oldfield and how fascinating the relatively simple patterns he creates stir us so deeply.  Essence of color in painting comes when we begin to place color as the foremost element.  Color after all has its own essence, its own purity.  It is even possible to abandon design entirely in creating beautiful art.  This is done by being sensitive to the purity of color itself, such as the relationship between tan/gold tones against those of blue and red combined or purple.  Those two properly and carefully juxtaposed creates a very unusual and effective dynamic.

abstract oil paintings with oranges, greens and grays
Symphony 20, 2017. Original painting by Michael A. Wilson

What we can call essence of color, where color itself is center stage depends greatly on contrast of hue and intensity.  A blue against gold as mentioned above is striking but when the contrast is deepened the energy increases proportionally.  There are no rules in this kind of arrangement but a heightened awareness is necessary.  Some colors seem completely muddied without employing proper contrast.  Though Rembrandt exercised extreme restraint for maximum results, the impressionists broke free from classic modeling to create scintillating dynamic compositions based essentially on pure color.  Blending of colors gave way to placing pure colors side by side to create a more vital, energetic effect…a dark hookers green placed adjacent to viridian (without blending) was discovered to be far more emblematic of nature itself.

Pluck one string on a guitar and then pluck an adjacent string in the same range creates a simple but resonating quality.  It seems the Tubular composition was after something like this – the subtlety of tones being predominate over particular style.  Painting with pure color arrangement, that is the dynamic of color effect and sublimating all design elements to the vitality of color is an exercise vital to the development of an artist’s maturity.  Tubular Bells by Oldfield depends on overlays.  This can also be accomplished with color arranging.  It is a fascinating process when executed skillfully.  In my own work I often start with hard-pressed drag painting.  This is done with dragging pigment across a hard primed panel.  This method creates wonderful though accidental effects.  These elements provide an excellent and dynamic base for a painting primarily concerned with the essence of color.  I then apply multiple overlays and critical accents.  Whereas Kandinsky would often title his paintings ‘Composition 20’ or such I find that composition does not suit this particular style of painting – this creative effort.  Though I made four or five preliminary sketches prior to beginning, I ultimately chose none of them but began to paint directly unto the panel.  The first layer was selective drag passages.  After that came multiple overlays and thus the reference (right or wrong) of Tubular Bells.  Then later, particular accents, deepening contrasts and adding some elements of design.  Therefore it seemed that the work was more of a symphony of color combinations rather than a composition per sey.  A symphony in my mind is a process of adding multiple instruments to create a complete structure, a complete piece of music.  Painting in this way seems to be very close to this creative process in music.  Spontaneous may not be accurate because though a painting like this stems from no particular composition, the work follows a process nevertheless, but it is a process that builds as it develops.  Each layer invites or evokes the next and myself the artist makes critical decisions which to choose.  Spontaneous tends to imply a impulse over thought but a painting like this definitely requires careful attention.  There must be a very conscious awareness of what the particular passages are ‘saying’ – what they elicit, what they require to follow.  I have titled this piece then,  ‘Summer Symphony  20’ .  This painting represents very clearly what occurs when essence of color takes precedence over compositional design. Summer Symphony 20 represents an important milestone for me personally because of this practically complete observance of painting  where color itself is the predominate element.

By the way I wish to thank my brother Jim and my sister in law Pam for their recent visit to my studio.  They spent considerable time looking over my work, even the several stacks against the walls.  It was fun sharing my work with them.  Both of them have a remarkable ‘keen eye’.

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Advantages of painting on hardboard

Serious painters today, especially those who use the medium of oils have several surface choices.  Canvas, either store bought or stretched by the artist is the most common.   I have painted many paintings with canvas and on linen.  The linen of course is a tighter weave and more suited to portraits.   When I began to paint abstracts switching to hardboard became the obvious better choice for me.  

The abstracts that I paint require multiple approaches to medium.  These include brush and appliques and collage and tissue paper varnished on, but also the use of hard squeege to drag across the pigments.  I often press quite hard.  This pushes the paint into the primed board and drags off any excess pigment.  This effect can create some stunning effects.  It can be used selectively or across the entire surface.  All of these effects and methods of creating a painting could not be done on canvas.  The visual result of painting on hardboard is dramatically different.  The smooth surface allows for this dragging of press squeeges but also for very distinct fine lines.

An extra bonus in using the primed panels is that a piece that does not meet muster (falls short of the intentions) can be simply sanded back to the original surface and then re-primed.  I will often pull out a painting a month or two after completion and make an analysis if I accomplished what I had intended.  If not the entire panel can be re-cycled.  This cannot be done so well with canvas – the heavy brush marks inevitably remain.

Buy the panels, cutting them (I use a good grade of 1/2 inch plywood) then attaching them to stripping to keep them from warping, then priming, then sanding and then priming again is a tedious and time- consuming process.  I try to do four to six at one time or about a day and half of effort.  It is worth it but it is the only real surface that can accomodate the multiple applications which I utilize.

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How to establish the correct TONE and HUE in a painting

Most artists, myself included are rarely able to establish the correct tone of a painting right from the beginning.  How to establish the correct tone and hue in a painting is of course vital to the effect of the piece.

Tone and hue in a painting is different than contrast.  It has to do with color saturation, how much white is added, how much umber or black, but also describes the actual color or hue for any given area of a painting.  Because a painting builds incrementally in relation to all the adjacent hues, creating the right tone and hue is nearly impossible from the beginning, unless you are Michelangelo reincarnated.  For narrative paintings that have background, figures, objects and foregrounds I try to apply the first paint application with careful and delicate brushstrokes so that it lays in flat and even.  As the painting develops and you can better understand what hue and tone is correct, you will not be hampered with halfhazard and distracting brushstrokes.

In oil painting all base coats are dry enough in a few days to go back and adjust them.  Usually in my case, they are typically deepened.  You will find as one area is deepened (less white added to the pigment), then adjacent tones will also require the same relative treatment.  In this way, little by little the painting develops into a unified whole where all colors are suffused with a pleasing balance, one to the other .

The point to stress is not struggle getting started by not getting the right tone of the painting.  Put down what you think it might be in your imagination.  Make your best mix and paint.  Remember that later tone changes are easy enough, just paint over the existing.  Sometimes a very pleasing effect is created when overlay tones are applied almost as a wash allowing the original tone under the wash to come through.  This kind of painting requires patience and time.  The result however will certainly pay off creating the tonal effect you were after.DSC03309

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Establishing ‘scale’ in your painting

As a developing artist, sooner or later you will need to be establishing scale in your painting, or so the critics might suggest.     In terms of art history, the discovery and use of perspective was ground-breaking for artists and those who enjoyed looking at art.  With the advent of perspective the element of proportion and scale became very important.  Figures in the distance were made smaller to heighten the sense of perspective and so artists developed elaborate ways to determine the correct scale (relative dimension) in their painting.  All through the rennaisance artists enhanced their skills, most notably by the young Rafael.  Artists such as Titian, Vermeer and Rubens all stayed bound to the exactitude of perspective and correct scale.CouchDSC02543

The next break through came with the Impressionists who, little by little began to break down the rules of perspective and especially scale.  Van Gogh’s Starry Night seems to thrust the heavens right before our eyes. The stunning painting by Manet, the Dead Toreador seems to abandon or at least greatly bend our understanding of scale. By the time we reach Cezzane, Matisse and then Picasso it is clear that those elements which were considered so vital and important have been eroded.  New, more invigorating elements have become paramount.  Then with Chagall and certainly with Kandinsky, perspective and scale have been entirely abandoned.  Their use would add nothing to the message and would in fact be a detriment.

Understanding this progression is important for the artist today.  How tied do you wish to be to proper scale ?  Perhaps for you, it seems more powerful if everything shares the same plane, or…weave between themselves.  If for example you are developing your art along the lines of abstract painting, your judgements will be required to determine exactly what elements are to be emphasized.  It will mostly likely have nothing to do with scale.  Balance, rythmn, contrast and the dynamic of line and form – probably, but not relative scale.  There is of course a certain freedom here but conversely a requisite demand for a deeper awareness of how your painting is creating its message.  When rules are abandoned a whole new concert is created which can be very dynamic.  I immediately think of Pollack’s work.  His better works are completely void of perspective.  There is no scale but his work vibrates with a remarkable energy and force.  In his case, trying to incorporate perspective and scale would have been a useless endeavor.

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Now there’s a catchy title for an Article, ‘How to stop painting’.  We have all seen those 18″ x 24″ paintings so completely overworked that the very life has been drubbed out of the piece.  There is no vitality because the artist had no conception of when to stop but just kept daubing on.  Knowing when to walk away is vital.  Fortunately I have a garden out back and I will retreat to weeding when I begin to sense that I am mindlessly daubing.picasso-girl-with-boat

It is imperative to study your work and make some critical determinations along the way, especially when you feel that the painting is nearing completion.  One excellent way to do this is by dividing up your work into quarters.  If the painting is especially large and elongated you can divide it by thirds across the top and then by thirds across the bottom for six equal panels.  Assuming that your work is sufficiently dry, take the smallest width blue painters tape and divide up the canvas…press the tape on lightly.

This will be an invaluable aide to study the painting by sections though I prefer to call them passages.  Does the panel have its own inherent interest?  Do the applied colors work well with each other?  Is there vitality or a sense of energy in each panel ?  I am of course primarily talking about abstract work here.  Then ask yourself if the panels or passages are relating to its neighbor?  Is there an implied tension between the parts?  Always look to see if the principle of balance is working in each panel, and then in relation to the other panels.

Eventually as you mature as a painter it will be unnecessary to use the tape because the eye will be able to divide up the canvas by experience.  You will learn to make every passage ‘work’, first within itself and then in relation to the whole.  I learned from Kandinsky how to make my backgrounds (those massed areas of color behind defined forms) more interesting, more energetic and more related to the entire piece.

There is always an impetus to any abstract painting, often short-lived.  It is therefore imperative to keep the painting fresh and responsive to that initial impetus…even days later.  This is why we find those photos of Picasso standing for an hour before applying a critical brush of color – especially as the painting is nearing completion.  I read of Sargent who would get a painting 98% and then go out to his studio for one last application of certain, final highlights that would make the final painting zing.  Then he would put the brush down.

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Painting for color and hue is certainly a very valid purpose and reason to paint.  Certainly musicians like Bach and Beethoven had to understand the characteristics and values of notes in order to compose.  When we paint to understand more fully the many and multitude characteristics of color and hue we are definitely doing something that advances our abilities as artists.  Is a theme required?  No!    One can begin to explore color theory right on the canvas without a subject or theme.  The time will not be wasted.  DSC02978

Yes of course it is helpful to understand basic color theory but this can be found in all the art book primers.  I know artists that have memorized all of the many formulas.  Nothing however replaces actual working with pigments and placing them side by side.  We know for example that the word tint refers to adding white to a pure color.  The question of course is how much white to add?  Painting side by side along another color you will discover for yourself how much white to add, if any at all.  What vibrates…what is more beautiful?

Pink next to green for example does not sound pleasing, yet with the right amount of white added to each, the relationship next to one another can create some wonderful sensations and can in fact bring a painting to life.  Cerulean with white added next to a dark umber can be striking.  But how would you know without experimenting.  I tend to paint smaller canvases just to discover how pigments work together, placed side by side.  I might do several smaller canvases before I am comfortable to moving to larger, more mature works.  This is the learning process.  Little by little you become familiar with all the hues and why Ultramarine is so unique to Cerulean and why those two blues do such different things on a canvas – Ultramarine is always so much better in shadows.

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Gestation in Abstract Art

We have all seen humorous cartoons of artists lazily sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike.  The wife or girlfriend is stirring a pot of beans, waiting as well,  but for money to buy groceries and essentials.  The article topic, Gestation in abstract art is something I have been thinking about for some time.  Gestation of course refers usually to the period of time a baby is in the womb, prior to birth.  However the term can be aptly applied to bringing forth an abstract work of art.04

Because abstract art finds its source and inspiration from something other than nature, an entirely different set of constructions needs to occur.  These partially reside in our sub-conscious and come from a source that is not seen.  One can’t go out into the hills, set up the easel and begin to paint.  Abstract art heralds a different form that must first come from an inner resource.   I have learned to develop or allow to develop this important first step and I think it could be aptly called the ‘creative period of gestation’.  There is something stirring, an emotion or a feeling or a hint of some abstract form and this needs to develop internally.  Exterior references do not seem to help.

Earlier in my career I spent time designing homes.  There was always considerable time just thinking about the design before anything could be drawn.  Fortunately I was fairly good at visualization.  The process for painting, especially for painting abstracts is not too different.  Sometimes there is just a very brief glimpse or hint or direction or feeling.   If we can be very still we can internalize this and develop the image.  It is however impossible to develop the work completely, or even partially but it is possible to get a good ‘lock’ on an impression.  That impression or shape or form or feeling begins to go through this gestation process before it is eventually given birth or in artistic terms, manifested on canvas.

The  beauty and wonder of abstract painting is that once we provide the impetus to a painting,  a certain magic comes about and the painting begins to develop its’ own force and identity.  Sometimes there is a feeling that I am just the facilitator and that the painting begins to dictate which direction to go and which hues to incorporate.  This is a fantastic experience.  I suppose not unlike the process of seeing good jazz develop.04

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The Joy of Painting


This is a brief  article on the Joy of Painting.    My younger brother is a classical pianist, but plays all kinds of music and has a vast repetoire.  He has reminded me that a passage must often be played hundreds and thousands of times to ‘get it smooth’.  I imagine what he means is that a piece will have many subtle variations of tonality, crescendos and transitions.  These are written of course in the music but I expect that by playing one becomes gradually aware of the deeper inferences written in the bars.DSC02551

In oil painting we have no scores, no bars to guide us.  We do have  however certain established relationships of tonality, of hue and of contrast to name a few.  If you are a painter serious in becoming truly adept you will need to practice often to learn these rules and relationships.  There is also the need to develop the required dexterity in using the brush.  Much of my work is wet on wet – that is,  I paint along side applied paint, cutting a line defining one to the other or, I choose to blend them.  There are multiple ways to accomplish those tasks and those effects.  The Joy of Painting resides in these practice sessions.  The only way to get ‘good’ is to practice these effects.

If you are waiting for some grand theme, some great inspiration you will eventually find yourself bankrupt.  Far better to experience the simple joy of painting by application.  Place one hue on the canvas that pleases you and then another beside it and then mix another.  Determine how much white to add.  The shapes you choose are irrelevant…just become expert in your brushwork, and learn to paint wet on wet.  If you want,  paint on small canvases.  The beauty of abstract art allows you all manner of freedom – learn to trust your intuition.  Don’t rush and learn to develop a steady hand.  Study each effort and pause before mixing subsequent hues.  Work in small passages until they are visually effective.  Ask yourself, ‘does this area, this passage resonate with me?’  Eventually you will learn how to integrate all of the passages into a whole painting, but that comes later.   The thing to do is to practice painting…you must paint often.