art thoughts

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mitzuk-turn-it-to-the-wallHow do you know when something is done? The deadline can be a big help but what if there's no real deadline?

My most recent personal painting seemed to drag on. Part of the reason why was life events taking priority, part of it was perfectionism, part of it was trying to figure out unfamiliar territory for solving the picture. There came a point where I had run out of steam and was having difficulty figuring out what to do next.

I tried my usual tool of thinking back to the initial spark of the idea to energize the project. That didn't quite work this time. I was run down and worn out. I needed to move on to other projects.

My mentor suggested turning the painting to the wall. Don't look at it all the time. Don't think about it all the time. Do something else. I also decided that it (the painting) will be what it will be and that's plenty good. This blog post about Perfection by Lauren Panepinto was also a helpful reminder. I think perfectionism can be harnessed and turned into a helpful tool for good draftsmanship, but when it takes over and doesn't allow me to call something "done" then it's definitely a major hindrance and at that point I need to tell perfectionism to take a back seat. I love the last few sentences from her post:

"As writer Rebecca Solnit says: “The perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”

If you are a perfectionist, then this is your new mantra: “Done is better than perfect.”"

Ignoring the painting and letting go of "perfect" did the trick. I only peeked at the painting a little bit for a few days and then had my answers. I needed to tone down some lights, found some crisp edges that needed softening, and resolved the anatomy issue. I am pleased with how she turned out and I can't wait to show you!


random oil paint textures on prepared birch plywood
The random textures I started with. Oil paint on prepared birch plywood.

In my efforts to loosen up and trust my imagination more, I decided I need to strengthen my creative intuition, trusting my gut and follow where my imagination takes me instead of putting on the brakes too soon and following the "rules". I think it's important for me to have a blend of the judge and the playful art monkey. A blend of rule following and exploration.

Inspired by a landscape I saw at the Minneapolis Institute of Art by Max Ernst titled "Landscape with Lake and Chimeras" c1940 (I think it was this one). The description next to the painting pointed out that it was "created by putting paint down, sticking a sheet of glass or paper to it and then removing the sheet to make 'unexpected textures' ". Surrealism and Dadaism were two of my first artistic loves so rediscovering an artist from that era feels lovely. Being at MiniCon this weekend and seeing Jon Arfstrom's work again, I realize that some of his imaginative works also had a hand in inspiring me to do this. Hopefully I'll have more on Jon Artstrom at a later date. If you haven't seen his work you're in for a real treat.

A few weeks back I had leftover paint on my palette and was feeling adventurous so I put some paint on some prepared boards, added a little solvent, and then stuck a sheet of glass on top. I decided to make them color themes (reds, yellow+green, and blue+black+white). I smushed, tipped, and twisted the glass-board-paint stack. What I ended up with were some very interesting textures.

This week I took some time to explore and follow my intuition instead of going through the planning phases. Here's what happened. I'm calling them Foundlings. These three will be with me for sale at Spectrum Live next weekend in Kansas City, MO (hopefully dry). I will be set up at Artist Table #14. Stop by and meet the Foundlings.

Edit: these and a few more will be with me at the IlluXCon Showcase 2017.

oil painting of a blue and black winged lynx-like beastoil painting of a strange caterpillar monster belching flamesoil painting of a smoke puffing red demon dragon monster watching and waiting





cover of book titled hawthorne on painting
A collection of notes from students of Charles Hawthorne from critiques he gave of their work.

I read art books in the hope that I'll learn something new, or find a new-to-me way of looking at an old tool or idea. I seek out information in an effort to grow as an artist and try to be a more effective instructor. I consider a book good if it gets me thinking about how or why I do things and gives me a different way to look at the fundamentals of picture making.

This is one of those books.

It's only about 1/4" thick but it's chock full of ideas to think about. It's a collection of notes from Hawthorne's students, collected by Mrs. Charles W. Hawthorne. The chapters are broken into outdoor model, still life, landscape, the indoor model, and watercolor.

I'm about 3/4 through the book and I'm liking it quite a bit. As someone who has been painting and studying this stuff for a while, I'm recognizing many of the learning opportunities that the students refer to in their notes (painting light and shadow instead of things, painting too much detail and losing form, etc.) For someone new to painting, I think it would be best read in conjunction with working on pictures. I would think this would create opportunities for someone to better understand the ideas presented in the book in practical application.

I'm finding many of the concepts are ones I learned during my training at The Atelier but Hawthorne came at them from a different angle. In several of the notes he tells the students not to draw and instead focus on making one correct color next to the other and from there the form will come, not to draw with line and fill it in. So his approach, first and foremost, seems to have been mass oriented rather than defining the shapes first.

The other idea I see repeated a lot is getting one color note correct next to another color note. At The Atelier I learned about this idea as setting up relationships between the values and colors. It's not so much about copying exactly the color or value you see in nature but how the value and color looks in relation to the other values and colors within your composition.

I also really like Hawthorne's insistence on students painting objects that by themselves might be considered boring or ugly (for example, a white plate). Instead of setting up a beautiful still life, and I'm paraphrasing here, he encourages the students to use their artist's eye to translate how the light and color describe the boring object in a beautiful way. I remember falling into this trap as a student. Instead of practicing how to see and translate what I was seeing with paint, I tried to make beautiful pictures with the objects themselves. My instructors tried to get this through to me. I caught on eventually. Composition, light, value, color, all of this can be practiced with objects that we aren't so precious about and are therefore more willing to take chances on and experiment, perhaps fail. Within that, learning happens. I get tripped up by this at times and need a reminder. Time to paint my ugly gardening shoes.

I think I will end up re-reading it several times. It seems to me that I'm mostly recognizing things I already know so I'd like to go through it again with an eye open for unfamiliar ideas. When it comes down to it, I think the book is worth the price (especially if you can get it used).

sticky notes with ideas written on them arranged on a large white boardI run a color theory class at The Atelier. I've been wanting to create a Color 2 class for a while so I created some lessons and took myself though them to see if the takeaway for each one met my expectations of if I needed to make adjustments. Now I've been working on merging the Color 2 with the Color 1 lessons so both classes could be taught during the same time frame (hopefully they'll be separated next fall/winter).

But how the heck was I going to untangle all the ideas? I wanted the lessons to align thematically, one lesson to build on the other, and to utilize the class time in such a way that no one is left twiddling their thumbs.

Sticky notes to the rescue!

Each note has a lesson or theme written on it. We have 15 weeks to play with. Color 1 has 15 topics. Color 2 has about 7 or 8 but many of them have 2 parts. I think I have it sorted out. I'll let it sit for a bit and come back to it in a day or two to see if it still makes sense.

It's going to be a fun and interesting class. If you're curious about the class, feel free to email me:

cover of "A Technique for Producing Ideas", by James Webb Young, published by The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2003In continuing to follow my curiosity about creativity, I read "A Technique for Producing Ideas" by James Webb Young, published by The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2003.

It's a very thin book but he gets to the point rather quickly: how to create ideas. His thoughts on the process of creating seems to stem mostly from his experience in advertising but I think it translates well to the general idea making process.

A lot of it has to do with finding new relationships of old bits of information.

He proposes 5 steps.

  • information gathering, both specific and general, and sorting the information.
  • think through the problem and the information you gathered
  • let it all "incubate" in the back of your mind while you go do something else
  • appearance of the idea
  • work with the idea so it becomes practical to the problem at hand

He goes into greater detail in the book about the various steps as well as some interesting thoughts about how to get ideas in general.

Personally, I think I need to do a bit more gathering of general raw material by just following my curiosity on whatever I want. I also think I need to do a bit more of step 3. I tend to chew on a problem and work at it till something happens. Maybe setting it aside and letting the information and my thoughts settle would be beneficial.

This book is a pretty quick read (about 47 pages). If I remember correctly, I found my copy used because I wasn't so sure it was worth the full cover price of $10. I'm still not so sure about that so I'll let you decide. However, I do think it was worth taking the time to read it.

mitzuk-spaceshipIn my exploration of creativity I decided to read "Orbiting the Giant Hairball, A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace", by Gordon MacKenzie. He describes the hairball as the rules, procedures, and methods that get developed in organizations. Something worked well once so it gets used as a template for future work. One reason is because it feels safe, it's familiar ground.

One takeaway for me is the idea of my own "hairball" (more questions than answers at the moment). What are some ways I've created my own methods and rules? What are some ways I can use that as framework or a starting point and allow myself to break free of the gravitational pull of that hairball in a spaceship of a different kind?

What color is your spaceship?

P.S. if you're looking for a book the get you thinking about things in a different way, this might be for you

When at a convention, there's a lot of standing, walking, and carrying of heavy things followed by achy muscles. One bit of gear I wish I had remembered to bring to the last convention was this

a tennis balla tennis ball.

I find it to be a great portable back massage tool (some people like a racquetball instead). I just put it between my back and a wall, lean in, and move around a little to relax some of the muscle knots. This plus a bit of gentle stretching seems to do the trick.

Lines for study of "Milkmaids, Novella" 1962, by Nikolai Nikolaevich Baskakov
Lines for study of "Milkmaids, Novella" 1962, by Nikolai Nikolaevich Baskakov

Doing a study of a masterwork can be a great way to learn. I have been in awe of the handling of color and value of many of the paintings on display at The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, MN so was thrilled to receive permission to do a study there. To get the most of the experience I applied some advice a teacher/mentor gave me to this museum study: go with a question you want answered. My question or goal: To better understand how to handle value and color. How did a lot of the Russian Realist painters paint with value and color so masterfully?

For the time available to me, I could choose only one painting for study (to clarify, my time was not limited by the museum but by other factors). I requested permission to study the painting “Milkmaids, Novella” 1962, by Nikolai Nikolaevich Baskakov 1918-1993. So my question became, “how did he handle the values and colors in this painting?”

Grayscale study of "Milkmaids, Novella" 1962, by Nikolai Nikolaevich Baskakov
Grayscale study of "Milkmaids, Novella" 1962, by Nikolai Nikolaevich Baskakov

Another mentor suggested that I draw or trace the masterwork I'll be studying BEFORE I go to the museum. If I were to draw on site I would have spent several extra days on just getting the drawing correct. By preparing the drawing before I went to the museum, I could use my limited time to really focus on exploring that main goal of better understanding value and color.

I did two studies, one just focusing on the relationships of the values so I painted it in grayscale. Then I did a second in color. One of the challenges was that the original piece must be nearly 8'x4', and my studies were merely a fraction of that. I wasn't going to be able to get all the blending and nuanced color and value changes. Instead, for the grayscale version I focused on the relationships of the values, and the large value shapes. For the color version I focused on the color relationships (their hue, temperature, value, and chroma). A lot of the color in the original was created by overlapping strokes, or strokes with multiple colors in them so my version was more a study of the larger impression or appearance.

Color study of "Milkmaids, Novella" 1962, by Nikolai Nikolaevich Baskakov
Color study of "Milkmaids, Novella" 1962, by Nikolai Nikolaevich Baskakov

Note: This was an excellent learning experience! I would like to give special thanks to The Museum of Russian Art and the head curator, Masha Zavialova, Ph.D., for allowing me to do this study.

Do you feel overwhelmed by your to-do list?

I came up against this again recently and my usual skills weren't helping me much this time around. Through a class, someone introduced me to a time management tool. They attributed it to Stephen Covey and his Time Management Matrix (just do an internet search and you'll get loads of information on it. I found one such article written by Shana Lebowitz on Business Insider, posted December 30, 2015. Take a look and you'll see how the approach I used differs).

A prioritizing and "time-management matrix" aapted from Stephen Covey's "time-management matrix"This is how I learned to use it: create 4 quadrants and label them "Urgent", "Not Urgent", "Important", and "Not Important". Then list all your projects or activities in the quadrant where you think they fit best. Here's where I departed from the standard approach. I was encouraged to come up with my own definition of what those 4 categories mean to me. I also decided to add 2 categories within those 4 quadrants: "Personal" and "Professional". My goal was to sort my commitments and other activities (like time with family and friends, or exercising) in the hope that I could better decide in what order to accomplish tasks. I defined "Urgent" as "things that need to get done this month" and "Not Urgent" as things that will happen within the next 2 months or later. "Important" and "Not Important" were based on what my current values are.

This helped me see where I needed to focus my attention most, and in which areas I had a bit more time. This gave me some much desired breathing room and helped me refocus my attention.


We made a lot of trips to the local library when I was a kid. Some of my favorite finds were anything by Bill Peet. Looking back at the stories and art I see playfulness, lively lines, a quirky sense of humor, and fun use of color.

Some favorites were:

"The Whingdingdilly" by Bill Peet"The Whingdingdilly"








"The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish, Egg" by Bill Peet"The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish, Egg".

Learn more about Bill Peet and see more of his work at