The meaning of art on a grand scale was reinforced after a recent visit to an art museum after months of COVID-19 isolation. Having spent so much time viewing art through a smartphone or laptop, I was reminded of the impact large-scale art has when experienced in person.
The art world is in distress: we experience less and less in person, creating a disconnect between the artist’s intent and the viewer’s experience. Galleries who survived the e-commerce of Etsy and e-Bay are now being sunk by a virus. I’m hopeful they’ll return, and just maybe, post COVID-19, appreciation for the arts will increase. A silver lining. For many, the arts have sustained us during this time of isolation. Yes, even Tiger King is art: it’s storytelling. It’s like watching a car crash, but you have to hand it to those filmmakers, you couldn’t look away. All art is storytelling.
For the arts, the Internet has been a double-edged sword: democratized access to a world of art previously only seen in museums or books; but at the same time, viewing art has shrunk first to the size of a PC screen, and now further to an Instagram post on your smartphone. We experience more art, but not in the intimate form for which it was intended: personal immersion. Viewing art digitally has diminished the impact we experience standing in front a Rothko at MOMA or a Titian at the Louvré. Viewing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel online isn’t much different than looking at a cartoon. Rather than feeling enveloped by the scale of a grand Rothko, we see online instead what looks to be test color paint spots on a bedroom wall.
Is the medium the message?
“It seems there is no area in our culture that is not touched, changed, even swallowed by the Internet. It’s both medium and message, mass and personal, social and solitary.”
If the Internet is the medium of experience, it can’t help but shape the viewer’s observation and therefore the message. The medium isn’t exactly the message, but it has overwhelming impact. Perhaps we should create two kinds of art from the source medium of our choice (e.g., oil, watercolor, whatever): online or in person? Today I’m painting for an online audience, tomorrow, a gallery or collector where scale matters. That’s a fundamental change to art making that most artists aren’t thinking through.
In my growth as an artist, I was progressing toward larger works—usually based on plein air paintings. My collectors always would ask, “do you work bigger”? But now and even pre-COVID, 99.9999% of people who see my art see it online, where scale doesn’t really matter. Seeing art digitally destroys scale. The question of working at a grand scale is based on commerce: is your intention to create something that thousands of people will view online, or is it for a collector’s wall? Is the art to be viewed or experienced? I suppose this is a false choice: we need both. As artists, working large stretches us in new ways. Tring to scale up sketches drawn from plein air or live model sessions requires artistic alchemy.
I, for one, will continue to push art to a grand scale, but I’m being driven less by medium over message, but more so because it’s a skill every artist should explore and one I want to conquer because in the end, I’m the first message recipient and the message is mine.
“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).
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.
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.
“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.
“Isn’t it intensity of thought rather than calmness of touch that we are seeking? And in impulsive working conditions such as these, out on site and of this nature, is a calm, well-ordered touch always possible? Dear Lord, it seems to me no more so than when on the attack in fencing.”
Vincent VanGogh in a letter to fell artist John Russell
VanGogh captures perfectly the essence of a struggle plein air painters face: balancing the heart and head in the battle to create art on the spot. When you’re painting, how do you balance the impulsiveness driven by the excitement of the moment, with a deliberative approach that substitutes intuitive painting for thoughtful—and some would say “tight”–painting? Or is this a false choice and do both?
Painting and studying with some of the best in our field inform my opinion. Of those teachers, the great Ken Auster comes to mind. In short, his approach was that you start with the head (deciding what to paint and why, designing the picture, drawing…), move to the heart (reacting, for creating the kind of expressive brush strokes and sophisticated grays he’s known for) and end with the head to thoughtfully consider the painting from an objective standpoint, and ask yourself, “is it done?” Judge it.
I agree with much of what Ken taught me about this question, but I have a slightly different although complementary take: Painting en plein air is possible through building a solid foundational of skills that make automatic as much of the process as possible in the moment.
Have you ever commuted home from work, realizing when you got there you were on complete auto-pilot, barely remembering the drive? That’s what building a skill means to me: having the most complete toolbox of artistic skills so that I can be intuitive and responsive to nature without thinking about it. I want to use my heart completely in a picture. This is my goal, but I’m not quite there yet. I’ve worked in the corporate world too many years to escape a structured, self-critical mind.
But like Ken, I do start and end deliberatively. Perhaps this is my failing, or an essential truth to live with.
This is a painting of mine that represents for me this principle. I started with a careful design—especially large shapes, light and shadow—and switched to a complete intuitive state (athletes call it “the zone”). I skipped the evaluation, self-judgment phase until the next day. I’m glad I did. I like it just as it is.
I’ve enjoyed a long, fulfilling career in Silicon Valley. It’s an incredibly diverse, constantly changing place and state of mind. It’s easy to be consumed here in a world where creating disruption is your job. It see it everywhere as I walk the city (my favorite past-time). I notice the first-time tourists who see San Francisco through fresh eyes contrasted with the emerging technology class glued to their latest device. Watching them, I ask myself, do they miss the wonder in the eyes of newcomers around them? Can we maintain curiosity, and see the world anew every day?
As an Industry Analyst at Altimeter Group, my job now is to understand and council others in technology disruption. But I need a constant: a foundation that puts these ceaseless changes in perspective. How can you understand change without understanding the starting point? For me that starts with family of course, but also, seeing and expressing the undeniable beauty around me every day. So, I paint and sketch. Every day. Maybe it’s a “left brain, right brain” thing, but for me, creating something of lasting beauty in a world of ephemeral apps, devices and marketing campaigns gives me the foundation I need to notice. And noticing—being aware—is the first step in understanding the world as it is and can be.
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!
To work on this skill, I selected a reference photo with as few shapes and color variations as possible. This painting was done from a reference photo I took in Big Sur, CA. Notice in this study how there are very few shapes and only about 7 main color mixtures. I could have rendered this more fully and modeled the clouds or other shapes, but I think (at least for this composition and study) it would have detracted from the impression. Of course, this is also somewhat a matter of personal taste. It fits the bill for me, as I strive towards more abstraction in my work. Simplification is part of that path.
This painting of Timberfield model Chase sat in my studio for a while, unfinished (I thought). I like to work “ala prima”, wet into wet. I wasn’t able to finish this one that way, so it sat a few weeks. But it grew on me as is, so here it is.
This painting is an exploration. Art is a viable pursuit for me as long as I have the opportunity to push myself through experimentation and growth. Having just finished Door County Plein Air, I was reminded that I need to avoid creating works that veer on “trite”. Yes, I like to capture beauty, but I want to create works that are more intellectually stimulating. That’s how music evolved from Bach to Portishead :-).
What you don’t see, is that Chase is jumping out of a tree, so his body is contorted in an unusual way, you don’t see the tree, but you probably get some sense of movement. This is similar to Robert Longo’s“Men in the city” series, who I recall used to photograph his models while throwing rubber balls or rocks at them. Their contorted bodies made for an interesting subject, and without the balls for needed context, the viewer wonders what instigated the movement. Mystery in art…it’s a good thing.
Yes, I took another day off today while painting the Big Sur area (the “game” was called off due to rain), but I did find this recent figure study to entertain you.
On second look, it’s a bit dark, but I did want to use saturated colors in light, which does force the darks down a bit. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. My goal with this one was to capture late afternon light on skin, and to play with thick paint near abstraction. Enjoy!
It’s been a turbulent few weeks, so I’ve not painted much.
Spoiler alert: this story does have a happy ending. Some of you may know I was diagnosed with cancer in July. I had a rare malignant tumor in my ear canal. After 2 painful operations–one that completely reconstructed my canal–I was told I still wasn’t in the clear. If you’ve gone through something like this, you know how it can make you re-assess life and your priorities. In fact, a similar health scare in 2000 is what propelled me into art. Without a clear end, I decided to get a third opinion, Dr. Jack Resneck at UCSF. In our first meeting I formed an opinion of him as a careful, thoughtful doctor. He believed the diagnosis was rare enough that a re-test of all my biopsies and tumor were in order. I got the good news the week before Thanksgiving: I didn’t have cancer! The growth was benign. I was relieved and pissed off at the same time, but thankful in the end that the treatment could end and I don’t have to worry about it. I’ve lost a bit of hearing in that ear, and have some scars, but I’ll take that over the alternative.
An hour after I got the good news (while at work) that my tumor was benign, I got a call from my husband, Mike: his mother was dying. Talk about a roller-coaster. We both left work right away, and we made it to her bedside less than 24 hours before she passed. It was very sad, but she’d been suffering for some time, and was ready. She was really terrific. We’ll miss her.
And yes, there is finally a painting. I’m trying to get life back to normal.
This was done from a reference photo of Avila Beach, while I was there painting for San Luis Obispo Plein Air this year. The “golden hour” light was striking the rocks like fire. It was quite a site. Enjoy!
I wanted to play with abstraction and paint quality today, so I painted this from a reference photo of a beach canyon with a mixture of ice plant and sage brush. It felt good (mentally), not to think to much and just respond. I’ve had a lot on my mind lately, but hope to return to a regular painting schedule soon!
Painting the sky is so much fun! There’s a natural synergy between that subject and the tools of the painter, especially the brush. The right-shaped brush can render the sky naturally, and the fluidity of paint adds to this perfect fit between subject and materials. They’re also among the best subjects to create compelling compositions, because there are so few rules of structure that dictate them. You can use clouds and openings in the sky as compositional devices. (BTW, I even found a “Cloud Appreciation Society”, with a section dedicated to painters!)