Monday, June 8, 2009


I am working again. I am making solid starts, anyway. It has been a painfully slow and ponderous process to regain some control over my self.

For many months now, almost a year, I have been struggling more than I could see with a deep depression. I hid it from myself. I may have hidden it from my therapist, though I suspect he saw it all along. I went out of my way to hide it from the people I work and play with. I even tried to hide it from the people who love me.

I allowed life to lose all meaning. I stopped even trying, convincing myself that everything I did was fraud and that I would be found out at any minute. While I don't believe I have it in me to commit suicide, my thoughts were laden with the idea. I stopped sleeping a few months ago, when it became too frightening to turn out the light and put my head on a pillow. As soon as the world became dark and quiet, everything I had been hiding from during the day rushed in to fill up the space, every self-recrimination, every self-criticism, all the self-hatred and yes, those graphic imaginings of hurting myself. The only time I slept was when I was just too exhausted to stay awake any more, and then I would sleep for entire days. The quality of my life, and of the lives I touch, was diminished. Outwardly, I became withdrawn and detached. I would come home and pour over the headlines trying to convince myself I was interested in being involved. Sometimes I would just sit and beat myself relentlessly with frustration and anxiety. Inwardly I was obsessed and paranoid. Everything anyone did that wasn't exactly what I wanted them to do became a personal attack, in my mind. Everything anyone asked of me became stressful and repressive expectation. I wanted to become as small as possible and disappear forever. I wanted everything to just stop. I held myself back from these people who's only crime was caring about me. Advice and concern were scorned, and in some cases belittled, as I could not see how I was changing and blamed everyone else for things being different. Healing many of these relationships is going to take years of honesty and hard work. Some may be beyond repair. It is important for me to let these people know I was not of my right mind and do not hold them responsible for my troubles. I am greatly embarrassed for many of the things I said and did over this past year.

Some people in my life have been hurt, directly and indirectly, as a result of this.

The process of healing has begun, though stumbles are there in spades. Life is never clean and clinical, and it shouldn't be. The only way to live life is to do just that, live it and accept it for what it is, the only life we know. Even so, it will be tough to open myself up to a lot of it. I am not kind to myself. I don't like how I feel most of the time, and I fear connecting with new people. The pain involved in being a part of life can be overwhelming sometimes, and I have a tendency to avoid exposing myself to the possibility of pain repeated. Risk is something I will have to work very hard to integrate into my work. Risk will likely be profoundly difficult, maybe sometimes impossible, to allow back into my personal life.

The many weeks it has taken me to say, "I'm working again," have been filled with fears and learning and work and even humiliation. It took a lot to finally admit to myself, to my therapist, to my doctor, my boss, my friends, my family that I had lost control, that I had been wallowing in self-pity and self-neglect, that I was in a dark hole and I no longer knew which way was up. I have stopped digging, and taken some steps to climb back out.

The most important aspect of this has been the understanding and support of the people in my life. I understand that I regularly try their patience, and probably infuriate them. I have been fortunate to have loving, caring people when I finally started opening to them. Taking steps to smash through the walls I built and giving up the pretense that I was okay as I was would be pointless and nearly impossible without them. I am grateful, every day now, for the people I have been fortunate enough to know, love, and/or be related to.

Another major key for me has been facing the challenge of making meaning in my own life. For years I have understood that there is no meaning inherent in the Universe, no grand plan for each of us in this life. There is no shepherd to guide us along when we lose our way. When I was younger, I couldn't see the implications of this understanding. When I was in school and working as a commercial artist, meaning in my work was dictated by instructors and clients. When I turned my back on art, meaning had little place for me, even though I strove and struggled with my big picture of the universe. I did not understand what role meaning had in my life until I tried to create authentically, from my own heart and mind. Only now do I begin to understand how profound a lack of meaning can be. It took losing myself and losing the most beautiful thing ever for me to see how meaning effects my life. We have to be our own shepherd. Each of us, at least those of us for whom meaning is essential, must choose for ourselves what life will mean. We must accept responsibility for deciding what worthy work is, what each moment of life will mean, and what ethos we choose to live by. This idea of the artist as meaning-maker, as well as a great understanding of the roles anxiety and depression play in acts of creation, is fleshed out quite well in two books by Eric Maisel, PhD. (interview, another) I have been reading and working with my therapist through The Van Gogh Blues and Fearless Creating. These two books have been a tremendous help in finding my way out of the dark. If you are struggling with depression, or trying to figure out how to be creative, or frozen by your existential anxieties, I can not recommend these books strongly enough. They may not be for you. I have a bent toward psychological discussions and existential frustrations that made the language in these books click for me like nothing else. I have found a lot of help and understanding presented in those pages.

I started to open my mind up to forms of art that I never cared for. In the process I have begun to understand the work of a few artists I never thought held meaning for me. On a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I saw paintings by Giacometti. I was familiar with his sculptures, but they said little to me. His paintings, particularly his portraits, move me more than I expected. I didn't even know he painted. I was also exposed to some earlier works by Piet Mondrian that I was unaware of. I think I have fallen in love with trees all over again. Even his later "compositions" that used to just annoy me make some sense now.

I'm not sure I understand it, but I am irresistibly drawn to the work of Roberto Matta. Not everything he did appeals, but the majority of his paintings grab a hold of me and shake, and not in an entirely unpleasant way.

On a trip to the National Gallery of Art I was re-connected with my love of the great painters throughout history. For the second time in my life, I was face-to-face (so to speak) with a Rembrandt self portrait. Previously, I had only seen one work by Rembrandt in person, and that was a large self portrait in the Frick Collection, in New York City. Part of what started me on the art path so many years ago was my fascination with and appreciation for Rembrandt's work. It is very moving to me to view the power and beauty held in a single master's brush stroke. Many others among my favorite artists are also represented at the National Gallery, including my favorite John Sloan painting. The time spent in the galleries was blissful.

I even started to play golf again, despite a rather nasty set of spinal injuries. Those days in the Sun, among my friends, are a great healing salve. I'm not keeping score this year, and I'm trying not to count the balls I've lost. The occasional great shot (I had a pitch-in from 25 yards!) makes the game a success, and the physical activity and camaraderie are impossible to put a price on.

I don't have much to share as far as the work goes, for now. I stopped trying to force myself to paint in oils. I have not given up the desire, but I was making the whole medium out to be far more difficult than it needs to be. I made a mountain out of it that I just could not climb, then I beat myself up about it with each failure to the point that I stopped trying altogether and remained immobile for months. The ideas and work that I am pursuing may not be for public consumption, though I promise to share anything I find worth showing, and maybe force myself to show things I have doubts about. The subjects for now are emotions and facial expression. I have an overwhelming image in my head, and have for some time, of the frustration and rage and fear and anxiety and depression and loss I have known. It may be realized, and this series of pictures I'm working on will likely be the vehicle if it is. I have limited my materials to compressed charcoal, paint thinner, and gesso, for the time-being. I already have visions of colors involved, so it will not be monochromatic work for long. There is ample room to explore pastels in the mix or even acrylic paints... who knows? I am trying to invent technique through experiment and purpose. While I know others have worked with these tools, I took my only influence from a couple of images and a short paragraph roughly describing one artist's methods.

I don't really want to say more about the work just now. I have a long way to go, and much healing to attend to. I wish very much to dedicate some time to keeping this blog moving. I thought it was going somewhere once, and would like to see it become a place to share and maybe even connect with some folks. Solitude is fine for work time, but I can not keep myself locked in my apartment anymore. It is time to live again and grow as a person, and as an artist.


Friday, August 29, 2008

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, and The Importance of Accepting Reality.

I have had a rough week and produced not a stroke of artwork. I studied and did some exercises, but I had no inspiration to really create. It happens sometimes. Sorry, I have no pictures to attach, but there are plenty of words here.

"A work of art is the trace of a magnificent struggle" (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, Philadelphia, 1923. p.268).

A few months ago, I was contemplating the idea of creating art for art's sake, of painting what I choose to paint by the means I feel necessary to employ.

That sentence sort of sums up the problem I found I had with this. I could not put the idea into even as inadequate a set of words as those.

A friend, mentor, and teacher had suggested I consider pursuing fine art. I had to admit that I did not understand what a fine artist does. I was trained, as a commercial artist, from the point of view that art is an occupation for making a living, like any trade. Someone has a visual problem to solve, and you solve it visually, for money. (Unfortunately I did not get trained beyond the basics of this problem solving, however I was given a strong grounding in those basics. That's really not the point here, though it does contribute to understanding my lack of understanding.) I could not say, with any confidence, that I understood how one goes about producing a work of art without someone asking for something specific, or what the real purpose of that work might be. At one point in my college education, I was even encouraged to look down on fine art students as hacks with no real training in drawing or painting, encouraged to "express themselves," and set loose on the world to produce whatever crap they could muster. (I have since learned the false-hood of this idea, but it was quite effectively, if very informally, taught by some of my favorite instructors.)

My friend tried to explain art to me in a couple of hours. Having some knowledge of how I think, he came at it from both a conceptual basis, as well as some esoteric discussion of the technical challenges of composition. He used some wonderful metaphors and whetted my appetite to "get it." However time was short, and my prejudices and ignorance were strong. He encouraged me to read Robert Henri's The Art Spirit. I did not know who this author was, nor did I realize just what sort of a book he had written.

Upon receiving my copy, I dove in with great enthusiasm, devouring as much as I could, as quickly as I could. It was fascinating! I felt like my mind was being opened up to a world of art I never understood and never bothered to investigate. I think I may actually have over-done it at first, as I had to slow down and digest what I had taken in. A few months later, I am now at the end of this book and I feel I must spread the word. I recommend this book unequivocally to anyone with the least interest in understanding art, though most especially to everyone with the will to create.

There is a great deal of information about Robert Henri available on the internet. I won't dig too deeply into biography, nor will I explain all the ideas put forth in this wonderful book. I would like to touch on a few ideas that have helped set me on my current path, and made me feel like I may be capable of paintings worthy of the effort required to produce them.

Robert Henri (pronounced "hen rye") would, in my opinion, be best described as an American Modernist painter, as well as a great teacher and leader in American art. He trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia; the Académie Julian, in Paris; and the École des Beaux Arts, as well. He taught in Philadelphia, and later New York City.

While teaching in Philadelphia, he became an influence for a group of four newspaper illustrators, the "Philadelphia Four": John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn, each of whom would later follow him to New York.

In 1908, Henri organized a show entitled "The Eight" in New York that featured his own work, that of the "Philadelphia Four", as well as Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast. This is the group that would later be known as the Ashcan School, though the term was originally meant as derogatory.

(Here is a page full of articles about these artists.)

A former pupil of Henri's, Margery Ryerson, collected many of his writings and letters, along with notes taken from his lectures, and published a volume called The Art Spirit.

"All art that is worthwhile is a record of intense life, and each individual artist's work is a record of his special effort, search and findings, in language especially chosen by himself and devised best to express him" (p.215).

(Writing about this book almost assures long quotes. I will try to keep it under control.)

I want to mention a few ideas that I picked up from The Art Spirit. Henri covers a vast range of ideas, from deep thoughts about art theory to specific discussions of technique. Right away, a few concepts became priceless to my place in the journey and my needs as a student.

Art is not the exclusive property of painters, poets, sculptors, dancers or any practitioners of the "accepted" forms of art. Anyone who creates from a place of honesty, without pretense or contrivances is an artist. The carpenter, the knitter, the bricklayer, all are artists when their purpose is true.

"Art when really understood is the province of every human being" (p.11).

"Those who have lived and grown at least to some degree in the spirit of freedom are our creative artists. They have a wonderful time. They keep the world going" (p175).

"Genius is not a possession of the limited few, but exists in some degree in everyone" (p.218).

"To be an artist is to construct, and to whatever degree one shows the genius for construction in work of any sort, he is that much an artist"(p.219).

An artist is not a collector of techniques, not mastered by technique, but rather, through mastery of himself and his materials, an artist invents the technique demanded by the motive to express the beauty he sees.

"To study technique means to make it, to invent it. To take raw material each time anew and twist it into shape. It must be made to serve a specific purpose" (p.87).

"Those who have the will to create do not care to use old phrases. There is a great pleasure in the effort to invent the exact thing which is needed... ...It is a great thing when one has a fair measure of seeing. Then to invent the means of expressing it, To be a master of technique rather than to be the owner of a lot of it. Those who simply collect technique have at best only a secondhand lot" (p.87).

"The man who is forever acquiring technique with the idea that sometime he may have something to express, will never have the technique of the thing he wishes to express" (p.121).

"The technique learned without a purpose is a formula which when used, knocks the life out of any ideas to which it is applied" (p.121).

"I do not want to see how skillful you are--I am not interested in your skill. What did you get out of nature? Why do you paint this subject? What is life to you? What reasons and principles have you found? What are your deductions? What projections have you made? What excitement, what pleasure do you get out of it? Your skill is the thing of least interest to me" (p.125).

It is important to note that Henri does not eschew technical ability and diligent practice. He is telling the reader that pretty tricks of the paintbrush, and academic modeling of surfaces as-seen leads to lifeless, uninteresting art. The spectator must be able to see your interest in the subject and feel your struggle, or he will walk away from your work having gained nothing, except maybe boredom and confusion.

Making art is about making choices. In the act of creation, the artist has control over what is emphasized and what is left out. Slavishly copying all the details as you see them says nothing about what drew you to your motive to begin with. The observer gains nothing more than he would get if he encountered the same scene in nature. Why bother to create art that says nothing? The most valuable thing an artist has to add is in his choices when constructing his work. (Some of that may be a quote, but it came out of my head, either from memory or interpretation.)

"A good picture is a well-built structure. There is material in the model before you for all kinds of structures. All these structures will be like the model, but beyond likeness there will be a manifestation of something more real, more related to all things, and more unique in itself. Infinite simplicity. A direct purpose and most exacting choice of the terms of expression" (pp.47-48).

"Because the medium we use is very limited, we must exercise a great economy in its use" (p.202).

"One of the curses of art is 'Art.' This filling up of things with 'decoration,' with by-play, to make them 'beautiful'" (p.203).

"When art has attained its place, surfaces will be infinitely less broken. There will then be millions less of things, less words, less gesture, less of everything. But each word and each gesture and everything will count in a fuller value" (p.203).

"Every touch you put down is part of a construction. All that is not related to the basic idea is destructive to the canvas... ...A good composition is thus an expression of will" (pp.264-265).

While on the subject of choice and discretion, I need to talk about something very important. I was catching up, today, on some of the blogs I subscribe to, and I read a wonderful post on titled, "What’s Wrong With the World? Not a Damn Thing" Please read the post there. What follows is my take and my condensation of the ideas presented.

Many of us have ideals that we try to hold the world to. We imagine we know what is wrong with the world, or a situation, or another person, and we decide that if that thing (or those things) would just change to be the way we see it, everything would be so much better.

This way of going through life holding the imperfect world up to a set of personal ideals is folly. The person doing this will only be disappointed--possibly even stressed out.

Now, there is nothing wrong with having a set of ideals. They make a great target for a person to aim and work toward--understanding, of course, that we will probably never actually meet those ideals, and forgiving--Nay! loving--ourselves for being human. But to hold anything or anyone else up to these ideals, especially in the case of another person who has their own set of ideals, will only lead to frustration and disappointment. We can judge our own actions and attitudes according to our personal ideals, but it is unfair and self-hampering to expect the outside world to conform.

Until we learn to accept the world and life for what it is and learn to love things and people just as they are, we will carry around this weight of desired change and possibly even neglect to live according to our own values in the process. Acceptance of life's imperfections is one of the greatest stress reducers available to us.

How much of a waste of time is it to be so concerned with how the world is different from how we think it should be?

This is not to say that we should not have goals. This is not to say that we should not work toward noble ends. This is not to say that we should not have standards or exercise discretion in our lives. This is, however, to say that we should let go of the unhappiness of dissatisfaction and accept things for how they are. We can work toward positive change, without dwelling on how we think everything or everyone is wrong.

If we don't like how something works, a positive attitude about doing what is in our power to make a change is healthy. A negative attitude about how bad the thing is and how everyone should be upset because it doesn't work the way you think it should is unhealthy and adds baggage upon baggage to our already busy, heavy, and stressful lives.

If we don't like how someone is, accepting them for how they are and deciding what role we will allow that person to have in our life is healthy practice. However, being angry or otherwise upset with how the person is or expecting them to change to meet our ideals is bound to frustrate and add to our own suffering.

It is my firm belief that we are, each of us, responsible for our own happiness in life. We have complete control over how we feel about the world, what sort of thoughts we have about it, and how we express these things. I think it is in everyone's best interest to let go of the negative thoughts and feelings about life, forgive--with real forgiveness--where necessary, and love the life we have. If we then feel it is necessary to work for change, it will be more effective work for having gotten rid of the negative baggage. If we focus on the negatives in life, we will miss the wonderful gift we have of being able to take part in this most miraculous universe. We will also miss opportunities for true expression. For how can we express our ideas about what we love, if we spend our time focused on what we dislike?

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Value of Failure

Last night I decided to paint a self-portrait. Actually, I decided a couple of weeks ago, but that's a whole different subject. So, I set up my easel, laid out a very simple palette, and started blocking in.

I got lost in the creative state of mind and really had a good time. I didn't push the value range as much as I could have. I also didn't get into fine details. I did get the canvas covered and really enjoyed doing it.

Today, when I took a look at what I had done, I was really surprised. The drawing was awful. It didn't look much like me, well, maybe me as painted by Fernando Botero, but that would be extremely generous (or terribly insulting to Botero.)

self portrait in oil
(Please forgive the terrible photos. One of the things I am learning is that you really have to control your brush strokes to keep them from randomly standing out under bright lights.)

I decided I could fix it by lengthening the face. I scraped the bottom third or so of the canvas and took a nap.

When I woke up I was still disgusted with the painting, and frankly done with it. I kind of wish I hadn't scraped it now. Regardless, I only scraped the shirt and a little of the background and chin.

Now, I didn't start this post to talk about how horrible this painting is. (But I'm sure there will be some more of that before I'm done, in fact, I plan on it.) I started this post because, without actively forcing myself to, I accepted that the painting was a failure, but that this in no way defined me as a failure.

Whutchoo talkin 'bout?

This is something I've struggled with in the past. If I didn't perform something perfectly, I not only blamed myself, which is natural if unfair, but I took the extra step to apply the "failure" definition to my whole self. The distinction is key. Just because we fail, it doesn't mean we are a failure. Defining yourself by the outcome of one action is horribly detrimental to the self-image. If I convince myself I am a failure, I will act as a failure. I should know, I did it for most of my life.

A few years ago I learned about this distinction. However, knowing something intellectually and really believing it and making it a part of your life are two very different things. Today was one of the first times I noticed that I didn't have to convince myself that failing did not make me a failure. I feel I deserve to pat myself on the back a bit.

Back patting over.

So, what is the value in failure? How do we re-frame an unsuccessful attempt? The first thing to understand is that all experience is an opportunity to learn. I did not fail at a self-portrait, I succeeded in learning about some things that don't work. I also succeeded in putting several more hours on my brushes, gaining valuable experience in handling oil paints.

Actually, I learned a number of things. I learned a great deal about laying wet oil paint over wet oil paint. I also learned, once again, that I need to pay attention to my drawing from step one. I got more experience in mixing colors in oil. Even though I have been mixing colors in acrylics for years, oils do not behave exactly the same way. I learned that alizarin crimson does not dry quickly, but adding burnt umber to it (or maybe it was the ultrmarine?) causes it to set up well overnight.

I also learned an important lesson in detaching myself from the outcome. I knew when I started this piece that it was just a small study. It's a small canvas, 9" x 12", and I didn't spend much time preparing the surface. I prepared a larger canvas, to a nearly smooth surface, with the intention of painting a self-portrait. I started this study to work on the composition, color, and paint handling. I achieved that aim, no matter what else came of it. By not being overly concerned with what I was going to end up with, I was able to lose myself in the process and really free up my creative mind. I was able to play with brush strokes and see what happened when I tried the sort of background I did. I was able to paint the hat without trying so hard and that turned out to be the part I was most happy with.

self portrait in oil

In the end, this was no waste of time. I don't like the result, but I do appreciate the value of the experience. It was not a successful attempt, but I am not magically made an unsuccessful artist because of it.

(I do think I will do some charcoal studies before I attempt another self-portrait in paint.)

Another really important step is to interrupt any failure induced self-deprecation. If you have to, say "Stop!" out loud. Break the self-critical process and remind yourself that individual actions do not define you.

Finally, you must move on from the unsuccessful attempt and continue to try. Only through hard work and practice do we improve.

I mentioned before that there would be more moaning about this piece. Well, that's not totally accurate. I want to whine for a second about my frustrations with oil paints.

I have done so much with charcoal, and have refined that technique so much that I feel sort of helpless in the face of oils. I have decided that what I want to achieve with oils is to paint the way I draw with charcoal. I want to be able to do it directly, without underpainting and layering. Look at this detail from an unfinished charcoal drawing.

charcoal example

The freedom, the expression, and the painterly quality are very satisfying to me. Notice how my charcoal work has the effect of brush strokes. This is something I have been steering myself toward since long before I took my big break from art. This isn't even something I do consciously with charcoal anymore. This is just how it comes out of me, and I get really tickled with myself every time I come back to those drawings later.

I know that the answer is just to keep painting until my painting skills mature and expression becomes second nature. If this is what comes naturally with charcoal, then it will eventually come without conscious effort in oil paint. But the frustration, after spending hours working with paint and realizing that I might as well have smeared it around with my fingers and a paper towel, is often demoralizing. I don't have the frustration while I'm working. It's just as much fun as drawing now, which is a big improvement over just a few weeks ago, but when I review the work later, I feel sort of helpless to capture just what I want in paint. I will continue; I have to. But I still have a hard time getting started on the next piece.

I think next time I am going to do some drawing to warm up my eyes and creativity before painting. If I only approach the blank canvas after some "exercises" it might help me to get over the procrastination and get down to business with less internal struggle.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Less Fear?

Well, I decided to stay up and finish it.

Still Life Practice 2

I already see the things I don't like. I hate the mouth of the pitcher and I made the reflected light from the handle on the pitcher too bright. However, I have cleaned my brushes and I just feel like going to bed.

I learned a lot in this little piece and feel like I aged a bit. I am feeling a lot better about laying wet oil paint on top of wet oil paint. Funny how that happens when you bother to try it.


P.S. This was the first time I used my new easel. I like it! It's a Jullian French Easel. It takes up too much of a footprint to leave it up where it is, (I'll trip over it if I go to the kitchen in the middle of the night,) but it is definitely use-able in the apartment, and I think I will really enjoy painting outdoors with it!


Okay, it's twenty or so minutes later. I guess I lied. I re-dirtied a brush to fix that reflection and the shape of the handle itself. I still don't like the mouth, but that's it... I'm done with it! (And no, I'm not taking another picture! :P )

Note - No More Student Grade Brushes! What a nightmare. One errant bristle and I had to retouch three different colors. Yeeesh.


I want to talk about a subject that’s very close to my heart—fear. We all know it. Some of us avoid it at all costs. Some of us welcome it as a motivating force. I fall somewhere in between.

I have been looking into the eyes of my fear for a while now.

For instance, I discovered that fear is what kept me away from art for so many years. I know it is my fear that prevents me from doing some of the things I really want to do with my life. Fear paralyzes me just when I get a good idea. Fear keeps me prepping canvases and making new glass palettes when I should be painting. Fear keeps me making excuses when opportunity knocks or people in my life get frustrated with my being stuck.

Most of us know, intuitively, that the creative process can only take place when we work and work and work. Make a hundred thumbnails. Draw all the stuff out of your head until you start to clarify your idea. We’re supposed to work some every day, even if we end up wanting to throw most of it away.

Many of us never get the process started.

I am starting to put names on my fears. I fear that I can’t paint a picture exactly the way I see it in my head, so I never start. I fear that I will finish a painting, and it will be the only one I have in me. I don’t want to let it out because then I won’t have it in me anymore.

Over the last several months I tackled the fear of trying. I had been avoiding art for so long that I was starting to deny I had ever created anything worth looking at. I went to drawing class, and I put myself in a position where I had to draw. I was there to draw and there was no way around it. I learned along the way that I can still draw exactly what I see in front of me. I also learned something new; I learned I can create right out of my head based on my reactions to the motif in front of me. I am no longer locked into strict academic drawing. I would never have discovered that if I let my fear keep me out of the studio.

Now I am realizing that even though I’ve been going to a class to learn to paint figures in oil, I am still terrified to paint. I have been trying, but I go home and never get my paints out and practice.

I didn’t know how to draw the way I can now, when I first started art school. It took a couple of years of instruction, and several more years of practice to develop that ability. Of course I can pick it back up and quickly get back to some level of mastery—I had already done so much work that it was like greeting an old friend. But I never got that sort of mastery of oils.

I learned to control acrylics and still have no problem with that. I even have some proficiency with watercolors. But oil is big. It’s complex and the only way to learn it is to keep doing it. I should not expect myself to paint like Rembrandt right out of the gate. That’s silly. But knowing I have to crawl again and produce a lot of crappy pictures has had my hands tied, because I take that failure as a definition of myself and as proof that I’m a fraud, that I can’t paint.

The only way I am going to overcome this fear is to start painting, if not every day, then as many times a week as I can make the time. I have to let go of the expectation that I should be able to paint well. I have never put any serious time into practicing with oils. I can do okay, pretty well for a beginner. I should take some encouragement from that, but I still imagine the “failures” and start looking for anything else I can do, any excuse not to start painting.

“I would have to leave a mess out.” Well, no one else lives here to be upset about the mess. “I will waste paint leaving it out.” Oils stay wet for a long time. A drop of clove oil or stand will keep them going when they might dry out. “I have to get some sleep; I can’t put several hours in at a time so why start?” That’s a cop out for all the same reasons.

Ultimately I have to face the fact that the only thing keeping me from my dreams is my fear. Fear isn’t real. Fear is just beliefs. I can’t hold a belief in my hand. It can’t beat me with a hammer in my sleep. I could never trip over a belief while walking down the street.

Beliefs are not permanent. We can question them and challenge them. We can change beliefs through thoughts and actions. Just working and getting better will dissolve those negative beliefs. But we have to take those first steps in the face of fear. And we have to persevere if we would overcome those nasty beliefs.

I have been reading a great book called Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s fairly short. I only started it last night, and I’m more than half way through it. So far they have talked about fears and reassured how common they are. They have talked about the myth of talent and inherent “magic” in geniuses. “…while geniuses may get made once-a-century or so, good art gets made all the time.” I highly recommend this book for identifying and learning about your fears and what prevents you from creating, or what caused or sustains your block, if you’re experiencing one. It’s applicable to any form of creativity from painting and sculpture to poetry and prose writing to music and performing arts.

While reading all of this material about creative fears, I started to remember the things I learned about beliefs from another great book. L. Michael Hall and Bobby G. Bodenhamer wrote Mind Lines: Lines For Changing Minds. This is a manual for identifying and challenging negative beliefs to remove the barriers that prevent us from living the lives we dream. It’s based on the Meta-Model of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which is a model for thinking about thinking. Mind Lines is about conversational reframing, a self-contained system for changing beliefs that really doesn’t require any prior knowledge of NLP. It is an excellent tool for self work and is fairly separate from the things people think of as manipulative or unethical about NLP. I read this book in a completely different context, and I haven’t thought much about addressing negative beliefs for a few years. I remember when I first discovered it I used it to break a severely limiting belief and I can recall having a near-physical sensation of the belief dissolving when I finally got it. I never noticed a paradigm shift from a point of view almost outside of the situation before, it was wild experience, sort of like an altered state of consciousness.

I wouldn’t do conversational reframing any justice if I tried to explain it here, but I can say that it is a system where you identify a limiting belief. Then you figure out its mechanism from a view of “external behavior = internal state” which they explain as the structure of belief. (I am currently, and am about to, butcher this whole idea.) So you identify this belief, this thing like, “I am bald, so no one will ever take me seriously,” or whatever the belief is, then you challenge it until your mind just can not believe it any longer. They give you about 26 strategies for questioning yourself about the belief. Things like, “Is it true that no one has ever taken a bald person seriously?” and “Is it possible that people take bald people seriously every day?” and, “Explain the process of people not taking bald people seriously,” and “What will it mean if you still have this belief in five years?” It gets pretty deep and has a real power to help a person change their mind and open themselves up to tremendous new potential. Taking those beliefs away smashes barriers and can help make anything that anyone else can do a possibility for anyone.

There’s much more of great value in Mind Lines. I just wanted to touch on this one big technique for changing beliefs.

I really didn’t intend to talk about NLP and conversational reframing when I began this post. It all sort of just fell into place as I thought about my fears and the possibilities for overcoming them.

Tonight I began a still life that intend to bring to some state of completion before go to bed, or maybe tomorrow when I get home from class. It’s not great. There are some drawing issues I’m trying to ignore just to get on with painting. But it’s paint on canvas. That’s enough for now. Here’s where I was when I stopped for a smoke and started this post.

Still Life Practice

If you are experiencing a block, or if you have been avoiding trying anything creative or important in your life, I really can’t recommend those two books enough. Good luck!

Friday, August 8, 2008


Just a quick post to mention that I have now set up my custom domain to come directly to this blog, instead of forwarding through the registrar.

Please note any links, feeds, bookmarks, etc. should point to

I probably don't need a post for this, but after all the fiddling required, and updating my stats stuff, I thought it couldn't hurt to be specific for the one or two people who might be reading.

Thank You!

lines and colors

A few weeks or so ago I was doing some searching for information on John Sloan, a modernist painter from Philadelphia.

On the very same day this very cool blog, lines and colors, maintained by Charley Parker, featured a post about John Sloan.

Nearly every day since I have stopped by lines and colors to discover an artist I didn't now about, or something new about an old favorite. For example, I had never heard of Brian Blood, but now I can't get enough of his work and wish I could afford one of his originals--beautiful stuff.

Charley Parker always has something interesting to report on. I appreciate his sensibilities. While I don't always dig every artist he reports on, I do always appreciate his handling, and the very thorough job he does of researching and linking to relevant sites.

Check out lines and colors. You won't be disappointed.