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Archive for the ‘Advice’ Category

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“You must study the Masters but guard the original style that beats within your soul and put to sword those who would try to steal it.”

El Greco

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These words from El Greco (1541-1614) certainly were reflected in the influence his work had down through the ages. Many artists through the ages have appropriated his compositions and rendered them in their own original styles. Picasso, for example, was influenced by the elongated figures of El Greco. His View of Toledo is considered one of the first paintings solely focused on landscape, as well as the first cityscape. Below, you might be able to see a connection between it and Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

For myself, in the painting here at the top, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, a massive painting that is about fifteen foot tall, I was struck by the gold clad figures (St. Stephen and St. Augustine) at the bottom who are lowering the dead aristocrat into his tomb. The colors and positions of the figures had me seeing them as figures in a Gustav Klimt painting.

Looking at the detail below, I could see them as being influences on his The Kiss. I don’t know whether they were an influence, but it certainly jumped into my mind. If so, kudos to Klimt for translating it into his own original style that beats within his soul, as El Greco may have put it.

And that is what influence should be. It is not trying to replicate, to copy, another’s work. It is in taking it in and synthesizing it using one’s own unique voice. I think every artist does this in some form. You just may not immediately notice it in the very good ones.

Detail from “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”

“View of Toledo” and “Starry Night”

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“It has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little. I have never striven for it and I have made some bad mistakes in consequence. What matter if I hold my readers?”

― Arthur Conan Doyle

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Who would have thought that the creator of Sherlock Holmes would have some good advice to offer to artists?

The words above from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about how he he would sacrifice accuracy of detail in order to gain greater dramatic effect in his work are very enlightening.

And reassuring.

I have been going through a lot of older work from over twenty plus years back when I was still in a formative stage with my painting. I hadn’t read these words from Doyle but one of the first conscious decisions I made about my work was that I would not be a slave to detail, that I would slash away as much detail as possible while still conveying a sense of what was being represented. Oh, I would use smaller details when they served the greater effect of the painting but the fewer the better.

One example from this early work is the piece at the top that is from around 1997. I was surprised when I came across this small painting in a file folder that I hadn’t examined in many years. It was a solid example of the work I was doing at the time, mainly in watercolor with the beginnings of my relationship with the acrylic artist inks that have long been a staple of my work.

It is sparsely detailed with little consideration to trying to replicate natural color. It just allows the colors and the shapes do what they will in communicating a sense of place and feeling. It works pretty well for what I want from it.

Over the years, I sometimes have strayed from this credo of spareness but I always find my way back to it. There just seems to be more space for the expansion of feeling when details are cut away. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.

So, thanks for the reminder, Mr. Doyle. I can use all the help I can get.

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Vulnerable Love

 

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“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

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For Valentine’s Day, some sage advice from C.S. Lewis on love and one of my favorite love songs, Two Angels from Peter Case.

Hoping you have a good day.

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Was looking through some images of work from around 2006 and 2007 and came across this painting, The Middle Way. It really jumped out at me so thought I’d share it along with a blogpost from back in 2009 about a Henry Miller essay. The painting and the essay seem to fit together well.

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    From the very beginning almost I was deeply aware that there is no goal. I never hope to embrace the whole, but merely to give in each separate fragment, each work, the feeling of the whole as I go on, because I am digging deeper and deeper into life, digging deeper and deeper into past and future. With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief. I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as a writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as man.

      – Henry Miller, Reflections on Writing

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This is a fragment of an essay, Reflections on Writing, from a book of essays, The Wisdom of the Heart, by Henry Miller, the great and controversial author. When I was young his books such as Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn were still being characterized as “smut” and many libraries didn’t have them on their shelves for fear the morality police would swoop in and raise a fuss. Probably many only know the existence and influence of his books from their use in a memorable Seinfeld episode, the one with Bookman the library cop whose hard-boiled dialogue still makes me hoot.

For me, I wasn’t so much attracted to his books by the raciness of the stories but rather by his way of speaking through his words and expressing views that I found at once to be compatible with my own. He observed and said the things that I  wished I could say with a voice and power I wished I possessed. I can pick up one of his books and open to a page anywhere in the book and read and be fascinated without knowing the context of what I’m reading, just from the sheer strength of his writing’s voice.

I see a lot of things in this particular essay that translate as well for painting or any other form of creation. It opens:

Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order to eventually become that path himself.

Substituting artist for writer, I was immediately pulled in. The path he refers to is the path I often refer to in my paintings, the path we all walk and struggle along on, trying to find the middle way between these upper and lower worlds.

It’s a good essay and one I recommend for anyone who creates in any form and struggles with the meaning of their work beyond its surface. For anyone seeking that path…

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“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

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I have always felt a companionship of sorts with the words of the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). I find the themes in his poetry and writings often echoing in the feelings and sensations of my own life.

Perhaps the piece of writing with which I feel the most connected is a series of letters he wrote between 1902 and 1908 to a young Army officer who was conflicted about the choice between pursuing a career either a military officer or a poet. The officer, Franz Xaver Kappus, released them as a book, Letters to a Young Poet, in 1929, three years after Rilke’s death from leukemia at the age of fifty one.

There is so much tremendous advice and guidance in his words that apply to anyone seeking a creative life. I have been mentoring a young artist as part of a program with a local arts organization and I only wish I could pass on a tiny fraction of Rilke’s advice to this artist. I had a very enjoyable talk with him the other day and while I believe there was some good advice given, it certainly didn’t approach the depth and breadth of that given by Rilke.

Take the bit at the top of the page, speaking of how to deal with the artist’s journey and growth. He describes the solitary nature of this journey, one that creates changes that sometimes take the artist mentally beyond and away from those people around him. That is the natural course for the artistic journey. In order to grow, the artist must be willing to seek and travel to places internally to which they cannot fully take or even properly describe to those around them.

This inner journey can be both a testing and a blessing. Finding common ground in which to live in this world with those around the artist is an important step in coping with this inner journey.

I didn’t mention that to the person I was mentoring. Maybe next time.

The painting at the top is from 2004 and is titled, appropriately, Common Ground. I definitely see the wise words from Rilke in this painting.

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Kay WalkingStick- New Mexico Desert 2011

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Avoid methodology. If what you’re doing is about technique, that’s not art.

–Kay WalkingStick

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Very much agree with this quote from contemporary landscape painter Kay WalkingStick. Soon to be 84 years old, Kay WalkingStick is a member of the Cherokee Nation who was raised in Syracuse and was an art professor at nearby Cornell University for a number of years. She incorporates Native American symbols and patterns in her work, which are often executed in diptych forms.

Even though there has been a physical proximity. I don’t know a lot about her work. I would love to see it up close to examine the surfaces, to see how the pieces speak in person.

Her advice about not tying yourself solely to process is a most valuable lesson for all artists. I think you need to live in the fringes of technique, always ready to stray into territory of material use that is new to you as an artist. You need to feel a bit lost so that you react intuitively, using what little you do know in new ways.

That is where the magic sometimes happens, where art takes place.

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A Way to Work

I have been saddled with a chest cold for several days that is severely limiting my activities and making work feel like a real chore. In need of a little pick-me-up I came across this very early post from back in 2008 that is a good reminder of what I consider my work ethic. Reminds me that I need to dig a little deeper on days like this. See what you think:

997-341-labor-to-light-4001This is a piece called “Labor to Light”, a smaller piece that is at the West End Gallery in Corning. It features one of what I call my icons, the field rows running back to the horizon. To me, they represent the act of labor and the results derived from it.  The ability to work hard has been very important to me in this career and something I stress to kids whenever I get to talk to them.

I remember years ago reading an interview with author John Irving (of “The World According to Garp” and “The Cider House Rules” fame) where he talked about his work routine. He talks quite a bit about wrestling in his writing as he was a high school and college grappler and he used a wrestling analogy to describe how he approached his writing.

He said that if he aspired to compete and win at the highest level as a wrestler, which would be an Olympic or world  champion, he would have to train harder and longer than the men he would be competing against. If a wrestler in Bulgaria or anywhere else in the world was training 7 hours a day, he would need train at least that much and maybe more. He knew he would be basically competing against every wrestler in the world.

He then turned this mindset to writing.

His writing became a competitive effort of Olympic proportion, where he saw himself as competing with every other writer in the world for each reader that came into a bookstore. If you were buying someone else’s book, you weren’t buying his and in his mind, he had lost. So he began to train himself as a writer with the same effort as though he were an Olympic athlete, writing 7-8 hours per day, forcing himself to forge ahead even on days when it would be easy to just blow it off and do anything else.

When I read this it struck a chord. I realized that in order to reach my highest level I would have to be willing to devote myself to working harder and longer than other artists and be willing to spend more time alone, away from distraction. It would require sacrifice and hard, focused labor. But Irving’s example gave me a path to follow, a starting point.

I have since realized that there is a multitude of talented people out there, many with abilities and knowledge far beyond mine. But art is often more than sheer ability. It is the communication of an idea, a feeling, to others. And to do this successfully with your art you need to push that ability fully, in order to go beyond what your mind sees as an endpoint. I see this as my goal everyday in the studio. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I come up short but I’m out there competing everyday.

Thanks, John Irving

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