Long time crush

painting of church
A watercolor done many years ago of a half-built church

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere lately because we are in the process of moving (or thinking about moving, or taking about moving. We are not fast people. We move slowly).

Part of the process of moving is, of course, going through years of accumulated detritus, sifting out what to keep and what to save. It’s a little like an archeological dig, exposing layers of life that have been buried in boxes for nearly 2 decades.

The painting that heads this blog was done when, many years and lives ago, and sweating in tropical heat, I was just discovering that I needed to be a painter. I had always drawn, painted, created, but I was also attempting a writing career in those days. I was carving my time into chunks so that I could do both— write and paint—plus upkeep our lives in a foreign land.

I happened to read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. In it she describes making a pen drawing of the view she had through her window. Then one day she shut the blinds.

“Then, by lamplight, I taped my drawing to the closed blind. There, on the drawing, was the window’s view….If I wanted a sense of the world, I could look at the stylized outline drawing. If I had possessed the skill, I would have painted, directly on the slats of the lower blind, in meticulous color, a tromp l’oil mural view of all that the blinds hid. Instead, I wrote it.”

This passage was a watershed moment. I realized that by focusing on writing, I was penciling the wrong paper; I needed to paint, and to paint realistically, because I needed to see the world. I needed that connection of observing the world closely, granularly, carefully. I needed to create the picture in the window, not write it.  Painting was where my stories could live.

Need is such a weak word to describe the yearning, the almost sick-with-desire crush I felt for painting, that I feel even now. I still write (yeah, this blog), and I enjoy the (rare) feel of stones falling clop-clop-clop when I craft a particularly elegant sentence. But my true love, that moves with me from place to place, after nearly 20 years?

Brush and paint.

Watercolor painting
One of my first landscape paintings done from a sketch I’d made onsite.


Processing Open Studios

All smiley at Open Studios. If you look closely, you can see a reflection of the roses in the "Desert Rat" painting.
All smiley, pre-exhaustion, at the first day of Open Studios. If you look closely, you can see a reflection of roses in the “Desert Rat” painting.

It’s been a week and I’m just about recovered from Open Studios.  Months of hard work and the two weekends of display left me limp and worn out, and reduced my apartment a dust-rimed wreck. Yesterday I de-cluttered, dusted and vacuumed; wiped down the kitchen cabinets and mopped the floor; then set up my easel, and started painting a portrait in the slow, thoughtful way I prefer to work (rather than slam-painting that I wrote about here.) And in the evening, I watched a movie (a bad one, but hey, two hours of not working!).

I’m still processing Open Studios, and I expect I’ll post more than one blog about the experience. I’ll put it under the category “Silicon Valley Open Studios,” so that it’s easy to find, should you be curious about what I learned.

One thing I can tell you right now: I should have swallowed my initial fear at doing open studios, a fear that paralyzed me. I should have painted more, and painted more sooner. I should have been better prepared. I should have done this, I should have done that.

But as my grandfather used to say, “should-a, would-a, could-a doesn’t get the house built.” I’ll know better next time. And now I’m off to (slowly and thoughtfully) sling around some paint.

Open Studios Profile: Denise Natanson-Marcus

Only a few more days until the second weekend of Silicon Valley Open Studios. I hope to see you there. I think you’d enjoy seeing the many artists exhibiting in Los Altos.

Today please meet Denise Natanson-Marcus. Denise paints landscapes: lovely little jewels and great big grand canvases. The first time I saw her work exhibited, I enjoyed the sense of place she brings to her work, and especially her paintings of California, in which she has so well captured the baked dry hills of autumn and the cool shade of the our forests.

Bolinas Lagoon 10" x 20" Oil on canvas © Denise Natanson-Marcus
Bolinas Lagoon
10″ x 20″ oil on canvas
© 2014 Denise Natanson-Marcus

Describe your artistic journey

I have always drawn and painted since childhood.  I minored in art at university, as my parents wanted me to get a science degree. After getting a B.S. in Psychology, I went to Boston University School of Fine Arts and received a classical art education. During this time, I learned to meditate, which has helped me immensely in my life.  My life since has been about painting and meditation. I have taught meditation for many decades and have shown my art in various galleries and shows throughout the years. I have taught art in the schools for 11 years while my kids were in school.  I am currently enjoying a period of delving deeper into my plein air painting.  Is my science degree wasted? No, I also work at Kaiser part-time, as a health educator, teaching meditation and stress management.

Where has art taken you in life?

Art is a form of meditation for me. I paint landscapes, and I love to paint outdoors; it is a way to commune with and look more deeply into nature and love nature more dearly.  Art has taken me to Santa Fe, where I showed my art for sometime; to the East coast, where I studied with the great colorist  Henry Hensche; to many museums around America and Europe; and to painters’ studios and museums in Bali, which has a fantastic art style and history. Whether looking at art or doing art, it brings me into balance and harmony in my life. It’s a way to connect with other cultures in a universal language.

Foothill Park Oil on canvas © Denise Natanson-Marcus
Foothill Park
9″ x 12″ oil on canvas
© 2014 Denise Natanson-Marcus

What do you think about when you begin a painting?

I think about composition first.  What will make the scene before me look dynamic, move the viewers’ eye and draw the viewer in? What do I see before me that is inspiring me to paint this scene and how can I make the viewer see that too?

Tell me about one of your favorite paintings or drawings that you’ve made. Why is it your favorite?

Many times, my favorite is my most recent, but there are a few I will not sell because I’ve managed to paint the light of a sky with such light, color © subtlety that I’m not sure I could do it again.  These are most precious to me.

Arizona Sunset Oil on canvas © Denise Natanson-Marcus
Arizona Sunset
24″ x 30″ oil on canvas
© 2014 Denise Natanson-Marcus

If you could ask one question of an artist you admire, who would it be, and what would you ask?

I would love to see one of the Impressionists, like Monet or Pissarro, paint on location and see for myself how they layer their colors and how they get the light in the shadows and the color relationships. Also, Twatchman, an American Impressionist. I’s like to see how he painted all those subtle whites in the snow, and maintained such a light palette yet had so much color and depth in his scenes.

You can see more of Denise’s work at  http://natanson-art.com

Denise Natanson-Marcus will be exhibiting May 10-11 at 1471 Hollidale Court, Los Altos, CA 94024

Open Studios Profile: Sylvia Dahlgren

Today I’d like to interview you to another Silicon Valley Open Studio artist, Sylvia Dahlgren. Sylvia’s paintings have a good sense of design that give them a graceful yet strong presence.

Describe your artistic journey

My earliest memories are of observing a daisy in front of our apartment building in Germany. I spent my elementary years  drawing in class until my world upended by moving to Japan. When, finally the family got back to the US, I was interested in design. The combinations of European, Asian and US culture and design surrounded me. When I was faced with a choice of career, I decided towards design while continuing my painting on my own.

His Church, Ireland 7" x 10" Oil on linen © Sylvia Dahlgren
His Church, Ireland
7″ x 10″ Oil on linen
© Sylvia Dahlgren

Where has art taken you in life?

Around the world several times, from the corporate board room to cottage. From mountains in Kathmandu to skyscrapers in Manhattan.

What do you think about when you begin painting?

At what point do I stop the planning of the painting and let go? How do I capture the feeling that attracted me to the scene?

Nicasio Road 24" x 18" Oil on linen © 2014 Sylvia Dahlgren
Nicasio Road
24″ x 18″ Oil on linen
© 2014 Sylvia Dahlgren

Tell me about one of your favorite paintings or drawings that you’ve made. Why is it your favorite?

My favorite paintings seem to be effortless, immediate and spontaneous. I have no idea afterwards how I did it.

King Wenceslas 9" x 12" Oil on linen © 2014 Sylvia Dahlgren
King Wenceslas
9″ x 12″ Oil on linen
© 2014 Sylvia Dahlgren

If you could ask one question of an artist you admire, who would it be, and what would you ask?

I’d ask Sargent, Zorn and Sorolla: How much of it was planned before they let go?

Sylvia will be exhibiting on May 10 – 11 at Site 116, 1471 Hollidale Court, Los Altos, CA 94024

Biting back at the tyranny of perfectionism

Frustrated artist
Portrait of the artist seeking perfection
Watercolor on Yupo

Blogger Drew at the Skinny Artist recently posted about the perils and paralysis of perfectionism. The kind of perfectionism that keeps painters from painting, writers from writing, and musicians from musicking. You probably have felt it: the need to make sure everything is just so before beginning, working on, or finishing a piece of work. It can be a problem for creatives. It can keep us from accomplishing our goals, telling our stories, meeting deadlines, and making our dreams come true.

I know, I know, it’s hard to let go of the tyranny of perfectionism. I work at freeing myself from it constantly. But it’s possible to break those chains. Here 8 simple bullet point items that work for me.

1. Just start. Fear of failure can derail my creative train before it ever gets out of the station. But come on. It’s art, not mass transportation; if I go off the artistic tracks, nobody dies. Truly. So I chug ahead by doing something. Anything. I copy a Bargue plate; study how to draw a particular body part (right now I’m doing knees); make some color charts; even—when I’m least inspired—drag a brush or pen across a piece of paper just to make some marks. It often sparks an idea and stokes that creative choo-choo.
2. Do a lot of work. Everyday. With plenty of work going on, I don’t end up hunched over one painting hissing “my precioussss”. I’ve got other fish to fry. If a particular painting isn’t working, I move on to something else for a while.
3. Make a mistake early in the process. I work in watercolor, and we all know how hard it can be to correct an errant  . Rather than live in fear that I’ll ruin my perfect piece, I often deliberately make a mistake, just to get it over with so I can paint in peace.
4. Forge ahead and find those mistakes. As an artist, I’m an explorer. I’m seeking the fountain of eternal personal vision, but along the way I’m sure get stuck in the bog of bad brushstrokes, or lost in the desert of dumb ideas. My job is to find those places too; while slogging through them, I’m also mapping them. Who knows? There might be something there I’ll need in the future.
5. When the inner critic starts blathering, change the station. Sometimes there’s a reason to listen to that gremlin, but usually there’s not. When mine starts to cackle in glee at a mistake, I shut him out by thinking of my past teachers, and imagining that they’re standing at my shoulder helping me out of a sticky situation (fortunately I’ve only ever had wonderful, supportive teachers).
6. Let it go. Take a breath. Turn the work to the wall. Go eat some cookies. When you come back to the work, you might discover the fix for any mistakes that have been bugging you. Or you might just discover that you are, in fact, finished, and ready to take what you’ve learned from this work on to the next.
7. Embrace rejection. I once asked a magazine editor friend how she dealt with the constant rejection of her ideas at story meetings. She laughed. “Ideas are cheap. I come up with a hundred of them everyday. Most of them get rejected; I don’t take it personally.” So, go back to #2 in this list. Or move on to #8.
8. Did I say work? Yeah. Work some more. Sleep. Then get back to work. Over the years I’ve noticed that many of the successful artists I admire don’t really have time for existential angst over perfectionism. They don’t have time to, well, spend a lot of time obsessing. Painters pick up the brush and paint; writers sit down at the computer and write. My fiddler takes up his fiddle and plays. There might be angst contained in the process, and they always try to do their best, but the work? It gets done.

**Disclaimer: Understand that I’m just whistling in the dark here. But the thin tune I’m singing can bolster my courage and gumption to get over that fear of failure. Because really, the game may be a foot, but still, it’s all in the mind. 

Get to work.

More on turning the wheel

Happy After-Solstice Saturday!
My birthday doodle has turned into a painting idea.

I like to plan my paintings, doing lots of composition sketches, and then making thumbnail color sketches. (which color combination do you like best?).

Then I spend time perfecting the drawing.

Still some work to do on the woman’s arms and torso, and some cleaning up of the face.

The little girl finally has a face.

Tomorrow I’m hoping to begin painting.

My artist friend Cynthia says that I like the planning part best; that’s the big part of my process of making art. Yes, she’s right.

I do like to plan, and not just because I’m a tad bit compulsive. I like to plan because that allows me to be more spontaneous when I get to the big painting (on the expensive paper). I like to experiment before I start, trying out many different things. In fact, I wish I had time to do more of it.

Who knows how this painting will turn out? Sometimes it’s all a crap shoot, really. Sometimes all the pre-planning in the world doesn’t make for a good painting.

My blogging friend Chris (who brilliantly identified this drawing as a mandala, before I even made that connection), at Groundswell, likes to play Mahjong at the computer. She wrote last week:

“We think we are at the end. . . that no other possibilities for movement exist. . . and then, we see one more tile, turn it over, and everything opens up, everything changes.

We can never see everything or be fully “prepared” for what’s to come. And in this Mystery is much of the joy that is life, and, of course, some of the suffering.”

Public sketching and the flame of desire

I’m relatively new to the sport of public painting, and I am sometimes surprised by people’s reactions when they watch me paint. Usually I get the standard “Oh, my mother, father, sister, brother paints. They’re really good.” But sometimes other emotions come bubbling to the surface, and I’m surprised by the intensity.

I made this pencil sketch at the museum restaurant (nothing but graphite in the museum, remember?), and that evening, while sitting in a crowded restaurant, I pulled out my gouache paints and watercolor brush and started adding paint.

The table where we sat was at  a choke point in the floor plan; it slowed traffic considerably.  The customers, intent on ordering tapas, didn’t pay much attention to my splashings, but the waiters did. They stopped briefly each time they passed our table to watch the progress of the color sketch, smiling and whispering to each other.

One young man was particularly interested. He asked several times, insistently, where and how I learned to do that. Then he asked if I taught classes.

“No, I don’t,” I answered. “But in Chicago there are tons of ateliers and schools.”

He grumped. “I tried a school for art once. There was to much book stuff for me. I don’t want to learn other people’s ideas, I want to do my own.”

¡Aye Chihuahua! Not like books? Not study other people’s ideas? That makes my mind reel about like a drunken turkey on Christmas eve.

I tried to keep my flabbergastment to myself, because I could see a flame in his eyes, and I didn’t want to extinguish it. I recognized that flame because I know that bit of fire. It burns inside your chest. It burns and it hurts, because you want to do something so much that you don’t even have words for it, you don’t know how to get there, and you’re afraid to even try.
A flame like that is easily blown out by the wrong word, a flippant remark, or indifference from another artist.

My step-daughter and I spent the rest of dinner  searching our smart phones for  Chicago ateliers and by the end of dinner, we had given him a list of ones that looked promising—schools that looked like they had solid programs in drawing and painting rather than a lot of theory and academics. At the end of the evening, we presented him with the list.

“Try these schools,” I advised. “I think they’ll teach you how to draw and paint. But I hope you look at art books. You’re studying art, so the books you’ll study are full of pictures. And that’s got to be a good thing, right?”

He hesitantly nodded, and took the scrap of journal paper I handed him and stuffed it in his wallet. I hope that strong blue flame I saw in him burns brightly enough to get him down to one of those art schools, do the work, and, yes, read some books.

Visiting Olana and the Hudson River

OlanaWhile in upstate New York, we managed a quick visit to Olana, the castle-like home of Frederic Edwin Church, the 19th century landscape painter.

I’ve long admired the Hudson River School of painting, a style that celebrated nature, and especially the landscapes of the New World. During the 19th century it was hot stuff, but it fell out of favor when those darned impressionists brought their pastel-colored personal impressions to the art world. Fauvism (along with modernism) has ruled the art world for the last 100 years, but I think people are rediscovering the realist painters of the past.

Church was one of the most famous of the Hudson River School, known not just for his famous iceberg paintings, he but also paintings of the dark brooding Catskill forests and luminous skies reflecting in the shining Hudson River. Alive when artists could attain rock star status, Church was a box office draw. He also came from money, and had wealth at his fingertips.  So he built a beautiful, over-ornamented home on a hill top overlooking the river valley.

OlanaDetailOlana is a sort of homage to a Victorian-era Persian fantasy. There are Middle-Eastern motifs everywhere you look, right down to fake-Arabic script on the wall panels. Once breathtakingly colorful (Glittery silver and gold decorative painting on the door! Bright yellow drapes! Burgundy and green velvet furniture!), the colors have faded to the muted tones we associate with old photographs.

I have to admit, it’s a little like visiting the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. It’s a bit over the top, and it’s hard to imagine people actually living and visiting amidst the ornamentation. But how prejudice against decoration are my 21st-century eyes, having been trained and honed by the naked lines and sparsity of mid-20th century modern?

The Victorian era was all about ornamentation, and Olana is a tribute to that design ethic. But more than that, the house is a series of frames for the surrounding landscape. Church wanted the house to frame his beloved Hudson River Valley, and every window and door opens on some incredible view (Unfortunately, a storm obscured the vistas when we were there, and so we only had more intimate views). Even the ornamental balustrades frame views in miniature.


It’s something I need to learn more about, this framing of the landscape. Too often I begin drawing before I’ve properly figured out the design of the landscape I’m trying to paint. Then I am overwhelmed by the whole thing and my painting (and my mood) falls apart.

We all scream for ice cream

IceCreamToday I’ve posted a painting of an ice cream cone, because the news has promised us a hot day—into the 90s, which is not hot for some places, but for the Bay Area, it’s brutal. I hate hot weather, but I do love the excuse for ice cream.

It’s early in the morning right now, and the birds are also telling us about the coming heat. There’s chatter and song from outside the window. A mockingbird is singing, but without any melody right now. Just a lot of squirrel sounds and chuck-a-lucking. Little birds are singing “piu … piu.” Noisy birds in the morning often portend a hot day.

The atelier will be hot today. The models won’t need a heater. We’ll all be drenched in sweat by the afternoon. But it will be worth it. Just to spend the day drawing.