Category Archives: In the Studio

Creativity in Art is Risky Business

“Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.” Wikipedia

Creativity & Commerce

I feel lucky to live my life in two worlds: technology and fine art. This intersection has given me insight into the risky nature of the creative process.

Risk-taking is tied to commerce, otherwise, making (and keeping) money would be easy.  As a 40-year veteran of the tech world, I can say without doubt techies are risk takers. They can appreciate the past and present world but remain focused on what comes next, what hasn’t been created.

Name the risk-takers in art.  Vincent Van Gogh, David Park, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso come to mind as my favorites.  They challenged the aesthetics of their time to chart a new path, and at the same time placed commercial success secondary. Prioritizing artistic creativity over commerce can be difficult–even impossible–for many artists today to achieve. It’s a real challenge: how do we move our art forward without taking risks, especially if our livelihood depends on it?  And that’s the real issue: attempting to be financially successful while at the same time taking a commercial risk by pushing creativity in directions that the art market may not be ready for or appreciate.

How Art History Impairs Creativity

Art history has too much influence on contemporary artists as too many art buyers are only comfortable buying what they’ve seen before (as “validated”), and too many artists don’t have the confidence to create a completely new path that risks their livelihood.  These artists repeat a playbook that ensures sales, but at the expense of moving their creativity forward.  As a community, I think we have to accept that and support both artistic paths, as divergent as they are.

Here’s a test: If you were to see the Mona Lisa today in a gallery among these other contemporary works without historical context, which would you prefer?  Yes, da Vinci was an incredibly creative genius who formed new paths for his time, but new paths continued throughout history by risk takers much like him.  My concern is that we don’t have enough risk takers today (me among them).

Mona Lisa
“Mona Lisa” 1503
by Leonardo da Vinci

“Jane”, 1964 by Peter Greenham
“Jane”, 1964
by Peter Greenham

“Peter with Striped Kimono”, 2015 by Anne Gale
“Peter with Striped Kimono”, 2015
by Anne Gale

“Mother II”, 1972, By Lucian Freud
“Mother II”, 1972,
By Lucian Freud

I’d buy any of these works over the Mona Lisa.  I can hear the shouts of sacrilege now! I appreciate the significance of the Mona Lisa in the context of the time it was created, but if artists after Leonardo didn’t seek divergent paths, where would we be now?

Another Way: Become Divergent Thinkers

To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result (short video here).  Research shows there needs to be a balance between these two types of thinking, but that divergent thinking declines as we age—not through biology but societal influences and teaching methods that favor convergent thinking.

To support my theory that art history as a form of convergent thinking harms creativity, consider this NASA research and the stunning decline over time of our ability to be creative from childhood to adulthood (see chart below).  A 5 year old is almost 3 times more creative than a 10 year old, and the decline continues to adulthood (at 2%). The conclusion of the research is that children are taught to eliminate divergent thinking in order to improve on their convergent thinking abilities pushed by our education system, harming creativity in the process. Art history reinforces the wrong kind of thinking.

Creativity Scores
Source: “Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today (2000)” by George Land and Beth Jarman

Rebuilding Divergent Thinking to Create

“When you’re being creative, nothing is wrong”, John Cleese

We’re so lucky to have as a guide to divergent thinking: children.  Have you ever watched a child draw or paint?  No rules, nothing is wrong!  Negligible self-doubt or judgement.  Just experimentation. Experiment. Discover.  Oh, what would it be like to draw for the first time!  Children have strong divergent thinking skills, that is, they find their own path through intuition. In divergent thinking, their subconscious mind is primary.

Here’s an impractical idea: rather than start art education with art history–which sets up expectations for what art is “good”—perhaps we end with art history, and instead start with a “blank sheet” that forces creativity and divergent thinking.

After the basics of paint/materials handling, what if the art professor put out art materials at your desk, while in front of you stood a beautiful human being. “Make art from this” is the only instruction you’d get.  What would happen?  Without art history as context, what would students create?  I’d love to see this, but it’s impractical for a 19-year-old college freshman previously exposed to art history or what society holds up as “art.”

Building Creativity through Divergent Thinking

Through our traditional education system, convergent thinking has been ingrained in us, but it’s never too late to recover creativity by building divergent thinking skills. Some exercises to try (courtesy of Natalie Shoemaker and Saga Briggs):

  • Take a Walk. One researcher found that walking indoors on a treadmill or outdoors didn’t affect divergent thinking capability, but walkers outscored sedimentary non-walkers. Physical exercise has yet another unexpected benefit. “Part of why walking, I think, is important is it can be boring. It’s that very aspect that causes your mind to go back and revisit, even subconsciously, on what you’ve been analyzing and learning,” said Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University.
  • Be bored. With smartphones a constant distraction, too many people today don’t have the mental space for new ideas to grow (for more, see this article). Try reading the phonebook or take a walk to help trigger boredom. Let your mind wander in boredom.
  • Brainstorm when tired. Ron Friedman, author of The Best Place to Work, explains our fatigued brains are less capable of filtering out all the weird stuff, like we are during the day. He suggests finding that time when you’re tired and less focused to box off that time for creative brainstorming.
  • Fast, frequent failures. Trying multiple failing paths quickly leads to a successful path sooner. Spending 2 hours creating 10 quick studies builds divergent thinking much faster than spending the same amount of time on a single artwork.
  • Paint like a Millionaire. Art supplies can be expensive, which too often means we “play it safe.” Lately, I’ve been painting on carton (cardboard, basically) or paper treated for oil painting because it’s 1/10 the price I normally pay forcanvas panels. I feel much less invested in making a piece work and am fine with failure. Painting on a iPad is another idea. Bits are free.
  • Defer Judgement. This has been a huge hurdle for me: I’m constantly judging an artwork in progress. I find it best to—at a certain point before I think a piece is done—set it aside a few days. When I return to a piece, I see and appreciate things I didn’t see before.
  • Set aside “Play Time”. You may be balancing your time between commissions and work for your next show, but be diligent about setting aside solid blocks of time to experiment and build intuitive thinking.

I hope this post helps you think differently, and balance art and commerce. As always, I appreciate reader feedback in the comments section. I have a feeling this will generate some discussion.

Painting in a Series: San Francisco Moonrises

“Theme and variation is simply the combination into a single principle of the effects of contrast and repetition.  Once a theme is stated, it may then be given a series of restatements, each recognizably the same, though each work a variation on the theme”

John F.A. Taylor

What does it mean to paint a series?

Have you explored creating art by working a theme into a series?  Doing so can improve your skills and sales.

Over time, I’ve slowing grown to appreciate the value of painting in a series.  Perhaps a turning point was when my local art museum exhibited Monet’s series from his gardens, including his water lily pond, rose archway, gardens and iconic Japanese bridge.  It is telling that Monet focused more on serial painting after he had become successful and was rewarded with the flexibility to create whatever he wanted. He made a deliberate choice to paint this way later in life.

Unless you paint as a photo realist, you are making subjective choices in every painting.  Art is a subjective endeavor. Painting in a series that constricts the subject gives the artist the opportunity to explore subjective artistic choices to look at the subject in new ways. In this way, it builds creativity muscle.

Here are some examples of other art forms that use a serial format. You can see the value of this is pervasive.

  • Music. In jazz improvisation, a set of chord progressions is analogous to the subject in a series, and provide the context for experimentation.  Like a painting series, each improvisation performance is unique, but made consistent by a single chord progression.
  • Television. In a television series, a foundation of characters forms the basis for exploring different situations. 
  • Painting. One of my favorite series that I study often is Kevin Macphereson’s “Reflections on a Pond,” in which he paints 365 views of his pond. Jean Stern said of this book, “Kevin’s goal was for the subject to be secondary to the momentary conditions that affect it,” conditions such as weather, time of day and light.

Why paint a series?

  • Deepen Subject Understanding. There is tremendous value in reducing the complexity of making art.  Making fewer choices and focusing on decisions that matter (subtlety, color, etc.) allows the artist to explore the subject of a theme more deeply.  Series are paths to discovery, the essence of creation.
  • Foster the Eye. The challenge of discovering or inventing variations on a theme forces you to create differences within a context, such as the painting’s subject (e.g., for Monet, haystacks).  This helps the artist develop subtlety and train the eye to see new things.
  • Improving Sales. While I have no research to back this up, I think there’s a sales benefit. It’s interesting how a buyer’s thinking works.  Viewing a series, I believe they begin an internal process of judging which among the series they like best.  It simplifies their choice.  Rather than choosing between a seascape and a cityscape for example, they are given a narrowed path to make a purchase decision. Also, this kind of work demonstrates your depth as an artist, that you can see the same subject and represent it in a myriad of ways. This increases the buyer’s confidence that you have the breadth of skills to succeed long term, making you a good investment.
  • Studio Work. And finally, a series of smaller works can be a form of exploration for larger studio work.

How to paint in a series

  • Start with an Objective. There are typically two objectives: either to learn new skills (with no intention of showing the work); or developing a series with a sales objective.  For example, living in San Francisco, I’ve painted series’ around an iconic subject that I know will connect with collectors. At other times, I paint this way simply to learn the subject more fully.
  • Choose a Subject. Select a subject and create variables for exploration. For example, in this San Francisco moon rise series, the subject is the rising moon, and I’ve constrained the series by using the same aspect ration (9×12 here), same view (living room window), and proportion of sky to land.  The areas of exploration are color, weather conditions, the position of the moon in the sky and the moon’s size.
  • Rinse and Repeat. Create new variations on your theme until you’ve met your objective.

Painting in a series is a great way to explore any subject and grow as an artist. Share your own experience in comments. For a video of this series with music, click here to go to YouTube, or click the video below.

Color Spots Demonstration

To help fellow artists achieve their color goals, I’ve documented how I approached a recent painting in terms of color and composition. 

I’ve taken many workshops, read many art books–but at the end of the day (at least for me), practicing the craft by covering miles of canvas is essential.  It’s funny too how I’ve not really grasped much of what I was told (or read) until later in my art career.  There are many skills I thought I learned years ago, but I find myself now revisiting them, developing a deeper understanding.

An essential book on painting is Charles Hawthorne’s “On Painting“.  He wrote, 

“Painting, is just getting one spot of color in relation to another spot…. Let color make form, do not make form and Color it.”

Sounds simple, right?  If you’re a painter, you know better!  I keep coming back to his advice because it’s so powerful.  Simple ideas always are.  I followed Hawthorne’s advice in this painting.

To get started, the first priority for me is design/composition.  A strong design will attract the eye when the viewer is across the room.  It will draw people in.    

My first step was a simple charcoal drawing on paper, where I could adjust and experiment with ideas easily.  Since the subject is architecture, there are design constraints.  Unlike a cloud or seaside white water, I don’t have the complete freedom to create shapes that play well together.  So for this image, the architecture needed to be solid, but I had to ensure all the components (trees, sky, etc.) supported a coherent design. 

In this sketch, I thought about the big shapes and how they related to each other.  I considered principles I first learned by reading Edgar Payne’s “Composition of Outdoor Painting“: creating balance among large shapes; balancing organic, loose forms (trees) with architectural elements; ensuring there’s a comfortable amount of space between primary shapes; avoiding repetitive shapes; etc. For example, I shifted the bush in the lower right of the painting leftward, so I could intersect those greens against the garage door’s complementary reds.

Ingliside Preliminary Sketch (charcoal on paper)

Next, color. Given this subject is primarily architecture, it’s a bit easier to find the right color. Flat planes like walls don’t have a lot of variation (like a tree). Even so, I approached mixing color the same way. I mix a pile of color (see pic below) for each of the major areas of the painting on the palette before I touch the canvas, one pile for an object in light, the other for the shade side of the object.

To get accurate color spots, I use a technique I’ve written about before here called “brush in front.” Also, to increase vibrancy, I started with a single color that is key to the scene, and built the rest of the painting around it. For this painting, I started with pure Cadmium Red Light for the garage door in light, and then mixed a completely different color for the door in shadow. I’ll often apply this to other paintings: start with the most exciting color, place it on the canvas, and then make all the surrounding colors relate to it.

Another point about color I’ll make here. In nature, true color in a scene is rarely duplicated across objects–unless of course the objects (tree type, whatever) are the same. Think about the hillsides you’ve seen with various types of trees and vegetation. If you observe closely, none of the colors are the same among disparate objects, so why use the same base pigments to represent them?

To make objects stand out (my goal was a sunlit-colorful design), I use color separation and avoid repeating color formulas for objects of the same hue. So, for example, the greens in the building were mixed using a different set of blues and yellows on my palette than those of the trees, and the grass was yet another combination of pigments. This becomes apparent when you look at the final painting below. See how the character of each green is distinct.

Palette

After drawing the design on canvas, I applied spots of paint to key areas where I could judge the adjacency of color. For example, if you look at the garage door and driveway, I placed the three spots together in the drawing so I could ensure they relate before painting the entire area. In the upper left, I placed the sky color right next to the tree, and so on. Placing these spots allows me to further adjust color as needed on the palette, because as Hawthorne wrote, it’s the relationship among colors that’s important. An alternative is to paint directly on canvas and then continually adjust paint there, but I find that that muddies the color. I’d rather get the color right the first time on the palette, and this mixing technique does it for me.

After making some adjustments, I filled in the drawing with paint, keeping things as simple as possible. I believe that simplicity results in a more powerful image. While I did model the tree on the right a bit with some dark and light colors, in general I kept the planes of color flat. If I’ve mixed the correct lit and shadow colors, form will happen.

Ingliside, Oil on linen, 12×9″ (click to purchase)

I’m happy with this one. I was able to recreate the feeling I had when I saw this scene. I hope you see the same, and that you found this demonstration was useful! Feel free to ask questions or provide feedback in comments below. This painting is available for purchase here. Happy painting!

January San Francisco Show

I will be showing the landscapel below at the Harvey Milk Photo Center January 8-February 7 with Art Saves Lives, curated by Thomasina DeMaio. The reception will be held January 18th, with live music featuring the incredible Tribal Baroque! It will be an amazing reception, hope to see you there.

  • What: Winter Exhibition
  • Where: Harvey Milk Photo Center, 50 Scott Street, San Francisco, CA
  • When:
    • Reception: January 18th, 6-9pm
    • Show runs January 8-February 7

Padre Place Color Study

Padre Place Color Study
12×9 inches
$575


Montana de Oro (Last Light)

Montana de Oro (Last Light)
9×12 inches 
$525


Ragged Point Sunset
9×12 inches 
$750


Anchoring Abstraction

Impressionistic realism has been the foundation of my art for many years, but that’s starting to change as I explore mixing identifiable forms that are relatable to abstract forms that work on a different level. Abstract art has merit, but I hadn’t pursued it until now because I struggled with how to communicate with it.

Recent Abstract Experiment: Mission Dolore Park, Oil on board, 11x14
Recent Abstract Experiment: Mission Dolore Park, Oil on board, 11×14

For me, the human figure is the most relevant symbolic subject in art.  People are complex: outwardly transparent, but inwardly hidden.  We respond to the Mona Lisa because while her body is drawn to perfection, her veiled thoughts through her smile intrigues us and draws us to this painting.  So how can a painting be both approachable and mysterious?

Fast forward 450 years from Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to the 1950’s Bay Area Figurative movement (lead by David Park), when an intriguing fusion of figurative art combined with Abstract Expressionism. Painters in this school ( David ParkRichard Diebenkorn, Elmer BischoffWayne Thiebaud…) had different reasons for mixing figurative representation and abstraction, but many found a dead end in Abstract Expressionism’s ability to communicate. They resisted being constrained by a formal “school”, but instead believed in taking freely from both figurative and abstract traditions.

I’m working on a series now that uses the figure as an anchor, like this movement.  In one of these paintings (“Green Shorts”, below), a solitary figure stares out at an abstracted plane, resembling the sea. (or, is it a clouded sky?).

"Green Shorts", oil on board, 16x12"
“Green Shorts”, oil on board, 16×12″

The figure is used as an entrance into this world of sunshine and contemplation.  He stands on the picture plane as if an observer himself to the alternating bands of blues, violets and grays.  It’s designed in such a way that his surroundings are open to interpretation: he could be in a museum (barefoot—probably not allowed!) surrounded by a large painting himself.

I had a lot of fun with this one.  While the reference photo I used is in fact of a man at the beach, the viewer can have fun with this and imagine other scenarios. For example, he could be standing on flat land, looking out at distant snow-capped hills, sky, and clouds above.  If you were not told this was the sea, could you see alternative realities like this for his view?

This ambiguity is what interests me, because I believe strongly that the best art requires participation by the viewer. Just as decoding the Mona Lisa’s thoughts are the viewer’s creation, I seek to give the viewer the opportunity to find their own meaning. This makes the painting theirs through co-creation between viewer and artist.

So that’s what I’m working on.  It is fun creating these worlds, but not easy—art never is!

Postscript: This series will probably be shown in San Francisco at Spark Arts, in April, but specifics TBD.

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico is a real gem. The centro’s architecture is Spanish Colonial, and the people there are  wonderful.  Love painting there, and finally got Mike to go on a visit recently.  Here are some paintings in watercolor and oil.  Enjoy!

Joyce's Pool #2 (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Watercolor
Joyce’s Pool #2 (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Watercolor

Joyce's Pool #1 (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Watercolor
Joyce’s Pool #1 (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Watercolor

 

San Miguel de Allende, Watercolor
San Miguel de Allende, Watercolor

San Miguel de Allende (from Casa Schuck), Oil on Linen, 11x14
San Miguel de Allende (from Casa Schuck), Oil on Linen, 11×14

San Miguel de Allende Sunset, Oil on Linen, 8x10
San Miguel de Allende Sunset, Oil on Linen, 8×10

 

 

 

 

Figurative Watercolors

Mike and I have planned a trip to Maui! It’s been a long time since we’ve enjoyed a vacation together, so I’m really looking forward to it. Since I don’t plan to travel with my full oil setup, I will paint watercolors plein air. I think there’s something about Hawaii and the tropics that lends itself well to watercolor–the lightness of it all.

To prepare my watercolor skills (which are minimal), I’ve started to paint the figure. It’s a great way to “kill two birds with one stone”: both learn the medium and continue to improve my drawing skills. Of course, painting the figure is the best way to improve drawing because it’s obvious when you make even the slightest error. The first two studies below were painted at a local gay bar (Moby Dick). An artist in the neighborhood thought it would be nice to have a drawing group there, and I have to say, it was really fun. It is a gay bar, so lots of pulsing music and local characters, but I ended up having a great time. It’s Monday nights (at least through the Summer )if you’re interested (7:30-10:30pm).

The last painting is just another tennis player study, in oil. I’ve been doing a seriers of these. The strong light on a tennis court makes for some very interesting color situations–especially reflected light. Enjoy!

Atelier Moby Dick 1, Watercolor, 6x6
Atelier Moby Dick 1, Watercolor, 6×6

Available on my website for purchase here.

 

Atelier Moby Dick 2, Watercolor, 6x6
Atelier Moby Dick 2, Watercolor, 6×6

Tennis Player 3, Oil on Linen, 10x5.5
Tennis Player 3, Oil on Linen, 10×5.5″

 

Montana de Oro (Last Light)

Just recovered from a 5 day illness.  It’s nice to have some energy to paint after being sick so long.  This is from a reference photo of Montana De Oro, in San Luis Obisipo County.  I paint this location for the annual plein air show at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.  For this painting, my focus was getting the light/shadow colors just right on the bluffs.  Trying to keep it simple. Everything else are supporting characters.  Enjoy!

 

Montana de Oro (Last Light), Oil on Linen, 9x12
Montana de Oro (Last Light), Oil on Linen, 9×12

Balboa Park (San Diego, CA)

Balboa Park in San Diego is a painter’s paradise.  According to Wikipedia, the park is “Named for the Spanish maritime explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the park hosted the 1915 Panama–California Exposition and 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, both of which left architectural landmarks.”  The architecture is great, and the park is surrounded by beautiful gardens.  I had some fun with this one.  Enjoy!

Balboa Park (golden light), oil on linen, 12x9
Balboa Park (golden light), oil on linen, 12×9

Sunrise or sunset?

Whether this is a sunrise or sunset depends upon your perspective, however, I think it’s a false choice.  It’s not one or the other–it’s both.  It’s sunset in San Miguel de Allende and sunrise in somewhere else. I find this same truth in life all the time, and I try to recognize it when it happens so I can see both sides of any situation.  Enjoy!

Sunset (San Miguel de Allende), Oil on canvas, 12x9"
Sunset (San Miguel de Allende), Oil on canvas, 12×9″

Catching up with new work

I have a couple of different recent paintings to share as I continue to explore new ideas and materials.

I painted this plein air work in San Miguel de Allende a few months ago, but it sat in my studio unfinished for a while. It needed just a few adjustments.

San Miguel de Allende Chapel, Oil on Linen, 12x9
San Miguel de Allende Chapel, Oil on Linen, 12x9

I love painting a dramatic sky!  This was painted from a reference photo I took while staying at Red Rocks for the 1st Annual Plein Air Convention & Expo.  I liked the counterbalance between the drama of the sky and the distant lights of the Las Vegas Strip.

Vegas vs Nature, Oil on Linen, 12x16
Vegas vs Nature, Oil on Linen, 12x16

And finally, I’ve been experimenting with new materials.  This oil on paper work was done with new Cobra water soluble oils.  I love the idea of painting with solvents!  So far I like the, although I don’t have enough colors to truly judge–and I haven’t painted on anything other than paper so far.   You may recognize this study, based on another done plein air in regular oil paint.

Desert Color Study, Oil on Paper, 8x10
Desert Color Study, Oil on Paper, 8x10