How to find artistic vision when you’re just groping in the dark


Three watercolor people
5-minute figures in watercolor

Once a week I attend a life drawing session. I love figure drawing more than doing just about anything else (except maybe eating ice cream).

But for the last few months I’ve really been struggling; I’ve been looking for something in my work, a change, a way of seeing. Trouble is, I’m not sure what it is that I’m searching for. It’s something that I can’t yet define.

Other artists tell me they search too, stumbling towards a foggy idea that morphs and shifts as soon as they think they’re near.  The mind’s eye is often myopic. It’s not unusual.

It is frustrating, all those failed experiments, the ghastly embarrassments, the ever-growing stacks of used-up paper. On some days, it seems it would be easier to throw away the paintbrushes and become something simpler, a neurosurgeon maybe, or a nuclear physicist.

My brain, smarter than my heart, says, “give it up. Go watch a movie instead.”  But my stubborn and desperate heart over rules my brain. The part of my soul that aches after painting is  ever hopeful each time I stand up to the easel that this time…no…okay…this time…argh!….no, really, this time for sure I’m going to have the breakthrough I’m looking for.

I keep looking. I’m ever hopeful that one day I’ll paint around a hair-pin turn and suddenly the thing I’m looking for—the thing I can’t even describe or identify on a map—will come into focus and I”ll be able to grab it.

“There you are, you little monkey,” I’ll exclaim, clutching at it before it can get away.

Which of course means it must get away. Because if it doesn’t wriggle from my hand and dance back into the dimly lit future, it’ll die in my cramped and rigid fist. Then where will my artistic vision be?

I like to know it’s there in the half-light of my mind, taunting me, teasing me with occasional flashes of clarity (usually when I’m in the shower). So I slog on, trying to paint smartly, fearlessly, easily. And as I feel my way through the dark, every so often a faint light will glimmer across a portion of my work. A brush stroke that shows the turn of a shoulder. A happy color choice. A gracefully proportionate figure. And that flicker will be enough to keep me going.

Small steps. Baby steps. Sometimes steps that go backwards. That’s all I can do as an artist: Put one foot in front of the other and keep working. Because it’s the thing that makes my heart sing, even when I’m grinding my teeth with frustration.

How about you, dear readers? What are you stretching for in your art? Share in the comments how you keep yourself working.

Watercolor figure
20-minute pose in watercolor



30-in-30: It’s all over now but the singing

Collage of 30-in-30 paintings made with PicMonkey
Collage of 30-in-30 paintings made with PicMonkey

Today is the last of my 30-in-30 paintings as part of Leslie Saeta’s Thirty Paintings in Thirty Days. I want to thank her for challenging the paint-o-sphere to take up brushes and post their results everyday of January. I also want to thank her for hosting all of us on her blog. It’s been fun; I’ve found some amazing and dedicated artists this way, and met some lovely people.

My goal at the start of January was to make 30 paintings strictly from life. I love the way that it made me see differently; made me see more clearly; and made color even more flavorful than it usually is to me. I’m excited to paint from life more often. I’m curious to see how it will affect my work from photos.

But just because it’s no longer February doesn’t mean that I’ve got to put down my brushes. Onward and upward! More eggs!



30-in-30: Going east at dusk, watercolor in hand

Jan22_LandscapeJournalJan21_LandscapesThese are what my car-journal pages look like. The smaller rectangles are 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches, and the vertical rectangles are whatever size my little heart desires.

We don’t travel much, so I don’t always remember what colors are in my little travel palette. It helps to make a little swatch palette before I begin (that’s why there are twelve color swatches all in a row on the page at top).

Interstate 680 through Pleasanton at dusk
Interstate 680 through Pleasanton at dusk

30-in-30: Painting another darn watercolor egg

Egg 3 Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press
Egg 3
Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

Yes, it’s another egg. I guess you could say I have a series of eggs now. It’s a good exercise to paint an egg. I’ll probably paint more of them.

This was a business day for me, so I really only had an hour to paint this egg. I wanted to see if I could paint something like Egg 2, only paint it in a shorter amount of time.

30-in-30: Painting another egg in watercolor, but with a different color palette

When I finished with my post yesterday, I found my Thomas Aquinas Daly book, Painting Nature’s Quiet Places (it was still packed away from our summertime move). I studied it deep into the night, revisiting his spare words and beautiful paintings. (And I must mention the wonderful smell of this book. I don’t know why it smells so good: like fresh ink, plaster, paper; that odor has become part of the way I perceive his work. I want my paintings to smell like this book.)

Today, while his work was still ricocheting around my brain, I decided to paint another egg, using a limited palette that was more subdued than the bright colors I usually use (a hold over from Ted Nuttall and Steve Curl, two big influences on my watercolor painting).

Again I worked far to long on this painting, using more time than I really have, but I was searching for something.

Egg 2 (First state) Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
Egg 2 (First state)
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

The first time I thought I was “finished” (after two hours) I really wasn’t, but I didn’t realize that until I scanned the painting and saw the thumbnail. Kind of blah.

One of the big strengths of Daly’s paintings is his exquisite sense of composition. I realized that I had just been painting an egg, not a picture. So I tried to find some composition in what I’d started.

Egg 2 (Second state) Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
Egg 2 (Second state)
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

I painted some more, trying to build up values and saturation. I strengthened the composition by adding more value and creating stronger, more interesting shapes, and I increased the value in the darks. It helped, but still, as you can see in the second scan, no cigar.

Egg 2 (Third state) Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
Egg 2 (Third state)
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

This is the third pass I made at this painting. (Ah, making a pass is such a loaded phrase, isn’t it? So redolent of the kind of heated desire that keeps an artist working in the midst of frustration.) When I started painting this morning, I decided that I would skip my go-to color, ultramarine blue. But in the end I found that I needed that particular shade of reddish blue to push the background behind the egg, as well as help me define the shapes better. I also realized that it needed more saturated colors to bring it out of its monochromatic doldrums, so I added that glow of cerulean blue and a red splotch on the egg itself (remember, warm colors, if they’re the right value, come forward). It’s better, and I’ve learned many lessons.

Daly says, “My purest creative energy comes to fruition in the puddles, flecks, and patches of paint on the paper’s surface rather than in what they represent. The internal dynamics of watercolor as a medium and the rich, sensual surfaces that can be created with it are the very qualities the keep me enthused abut my work.”


30-in30: Painting a quick watercolor portrait

Portrait of Lee Watercolor in 500 Series Mixed Media Hardbound Art Journal
Portrait of Lee
Watercolor in 500 Series Mixed Media Hardbound Art Journal

People often ask if I paint portraits from life. Yes, I do, and I prefer it actually. But no one wants to sit still for that as many hours as it takes me to paint a portrait.

But as part of my 30 in 30 challenge (30 days of painting for at least an hour a day from life only), I persuaded a visiting friend to sit for me for about 2 hours. We were listening to my fiddler and her banjo-player have some major old-time tunes, and she was itching to dance (she’s an avid and talented dancer). Between the wiggles and the occasional clogging break, I managed to get this quick portrait of her.

By the way, if you’re looking for a journal that will take watercolor, I suggest the Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Hardbound Art Journal. It will take several sloppy washes and a lot of pigment with only a minimal amount of buckling. And the image doesn’t bleed through to the other side too much, which makes it useful for journaling. And the binding is a sort of fake leathery-looking material, so it feels a bit rich and special, which we all need sometimes.


You can hear the music here:



30 in 30: A shadow-box still life of a deer antler teaches me the value of composition and simplicity

Why, oh why do I always gravitate towards the complex, the difficult, the ornate?

This antler (naturally shed, I’ve been assured) was just given to me. How exciting! I’ve wanted to make some antler images for a long time, but deer aren’t just dropping their horns all over the place in the Bay Area. This antler was actually the reason I finally got myself together to make a shadow box for still lives.

I will admit, this painting took me longer than the hour I’ve allowed for the 30-in-30 challenge; I worked on it for about 2.5 hours. So much for my day. But I love the shadow box!

What’s wrong with this painting

When I complain to the fiddler about my paintings, his question to me is always, what’s wrong with it and how can you fix it? So I thought I’d publicly pick this one apart a little.

Part of the problem is the placement of the antler in the space. The paper is 8″ x 10″. You can see that, while the shape of the antler is interesting, it’s not really filling the space.

The solution

With our friend Photoshop, I cropped the painting.

Antler (cropped) Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
Antler (cropped)
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

That is much better. Now the beautiful spaces between the horns are more noticeable, and the shapes the object makes against the background are more interesting. The antler fills the space, and gives the eye a shorter distance to move to the edges of the paper, which helps lead the viewer around the painting.

Another problem is that I didn’t take time to draw the antler carefully, and pay attention to the form shadows. I’ll be revisiting this subject in charcoal, so seek a better understanding of how it takes up space.

Antler (close up) Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
Antler (close up)
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

Here’s a close up. I tried to simplify the bumpy parts of the horn, while still wrapping my mind around all the patterns of the littler forms.

Next painting? Maybe something simple. An egg?


30 in 30: Painting loose watercolor trees with wet-on-wet and plenty of puddles

Trees outside my window, January 9 Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

Some days you just want to slop paint on paper. I woke up with a yen to work wet on wet (I normally work wet over dry).

My friend Cynthia Brannvall once said to me that she liked art that suggested rather than described, so that she could make up her own story. I try for that in my work, but my literal mind often wants to control my hand. I love how sometimes watercolor will puddle into suggestions, the less help from me, the better.

Note to self: play more.

This is part of a series exploring one 1-hour painting (nearly) every day in January as part of Leslie Saeta’s series, Thirty Paintings in Thirty Days. To see my experience with the entire series, click on the category, 30 in 30, at right.

30 in 30: Painting a shell in watercolor

Shell painting
January 4: Shell in window
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

I needed a change from cyclamen and orchids, so I chose a conch shell that reminds me of my years living in the tropical seas. During the chilly mountain winter I sometimes miss the torrid tropical heat.

This complicated subject really begs to be a long, painstakingly arduous still life. All the while maintaining the freshness of this hour-long sketch. Super exciting!

The secret to creating the glow of sun through shell is in making your dark values deep enough to contrast with the lights, all the while avoiding the chalkiness that sometimes comes from dark watercolor pigment. This means I had to lay down multiple translucent layers of progressively darker paint. I use Arches #300 paper because it soaks in the moisture and dries faster than the thinner papers. Try it; it’s worth the expense.

This is part of a series exploring one 1-hour painting (nearly) every day in January as part of Leslie Saeta’s series, Thirty Paintings in Thirty Days. To see my experience with the entire series, click on the category, 30 in 30, at right.