When to Stop…

Trembling Aspens...

Trembling Aspens – 9×12 – Oil on Canvas Board

As part of Alberta Cultural Days, the Leighton Centre held two days of activities including an invitation to plein air painters to come and enjoy the beautiful scenery that makes the Leighton such a treasure. A.C and Barbara Leighton’s house sits on a hill west of highway 22 on Range Road 23. The vista looking west is breathtaking and I have witnessed several people who, after parking and walking around the north side of the house are left speechless, motioning to their significant other to come quick as if what they are seeing isn’t real and will vanish from sight before the other has a chance to see it.

Normally, when I have arrived and have seen what others are painting, the view is paramount. How can you resist sitting on the hill and not be seduced into staying right where you are and painting the colourful foothills and mountains. After all they’re right there in front of you.

But, I try to make things as difficult as I can. I walk around looking for something more intimate with colors and texture and light. Oddly, I realize that I shy away from the “Grand Vista” because it is so complex. Too big, too broad and open. I can’t have a conversation with it. Yet I am drawn to the complex colors and textures of a stand of trees nestled in a bed of prairie grass.

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This painting was done in two hours and is probably the most abstract subject matter I have painted to date. Simple color and value, yet unbelievably complex. Squinting didn’t quite do it. I put my reading glasses on and used them to see my canvas up close, and happily blur the natural subject matter. Simplify and mass as the rule states.

Stephanie Doll, the curator of the Leighton thinks this is one of the best piece she’s seen so far. I instantly bite my lip and become doubtful as usual – the rules of painting flooding into my brain. It seems complex and yet crude at the same time. I understand it’s abstract but I’m not sure I hit the mark. It’s a sketch but I instantly want to make changes. The main tree trunks are not defined enough. the sense of depth in the foliage isn’t where I think it should be. Do I stop or keep going? I find it interesting that I am becoming much more aware of what I feel the problems are in a painting, whereas before, I would stare at it and not be able to put into words what was needing attention on the canvas.

What I begin to understand is, a work of art, any work, whether it’s painting, sculpture, or dynamic video, will find an equilibrium. A place where the artist and the subject meet. if your shy of the mark, you are too tentative. If you overshoot the mark, you didn’t stop when you should have. It’s a feeling. It comes with discipline, challenges and years of practice. A sensibility as many have called it. I guess as every artist through the ages has discovered, each shot at the target is a crap shoot. One shot is right on, while the next three are way off. Practice brings the cluster closer to the center and a silent understanding that every attempt after will never be perfect. There will always be something that can get in the way of of your success on a given day and something equally as powerful which will move you forward to a better understanding.

He Ran His Fingers Through My Painting And Taught Me A Valuable Lesson…

Oil on Canvas - Kootenay BayI thought it was one of the best paintings that I had done. A small scene of a white cabin on the shores of Kootenay lake. I had been hanging around a gallery in Calgary, looking at all the great art for months and screwed up the courage to go and get a critique from one of the most respected Canadian artists – Harley Brown. Look him up – seriously. I gingerly walked in holding my precious work and meeting my gaze asked “what’s that you have there”? “A painting I just did” I replied. He motioned for me to place it on the counter and I leaned it against the cash register, an uncontrolled smile creeping into the corners of my mouth. “Wow he said, “very nice. He proceeded to give me some suggestions about how to improve my composition and other arty suggestions. I was good at “wow” but still listened.

Then, it happened.

“Is it still wet? He asked.
“Yes

With that, he took his finger and started to blend the area of trees behind the house smushing the green paint with the white side of the house! I didn’t know what to say but he did “that’s better don’t you think”? I stood there in dumb silence and a desire to grab a pen and draw a stick man on one of his pastel portraits briefly made an appearance. But I didn’t. I politely agreed and after a few more minutes left the gallery to digest what had just happened. I had just seen a very talented artist view and adjust another’s art work with his finger. I was expecting a – “go home and do this” kinda approach. Where I could take out my brushes and with great hesitation try something I was unsure of. What if he had wrecked it was all I could think.

This was the first lesson in a long series of lessons that started in Heritage Gallery and continued through art college…

The simple answer was… art is not precious.

That was the message that the instructors at ACAD taught all of us. The brush strokes I put on that painting were always meant to be played with if required with no fear. If the painting didn’t work, that was ok. But I have a certain amount of angst when working at the easel. Especially when the painting IS working. Ever make a card castle? When your only a few cards in, it doesn’t matter if it crashes. But when it’s three feet off the floor your moves become far more tentative and with the potential of catastrophe. I always wonder if these thoughts hold me back.

Red WorkOne of the most interesting paintings I ever did was an abstract for art school where I took several tubes of Gouche that I never thought I would use and squeezed them out onto some paper that I had masked the edges. I took out a painting knife and started running the knife through the paint creating texture and movement and… I just simply let my fearless painter out. Emotion took over, and I “felt” the work rather than direct it. My arm and hand worked fluidly letting a seemingly primal force work from within. Almost (almost) like I was possessed. On a side note, it felt similar to what I believed from film and description to what Jackson Pollack painted like. I pulled the tape off the edges and was stunned at how it not only it looked but how it felt to create without fear. After all I had nothing to lose – it was paint I was going to throw away anyway – on paper no less.

As a commercial artist, I have begun to understand why I was drawn to Photoshop. It’s safe. I can muck around all I want and not ruin anything. Adjust and tinker all day. Painting is different – seemingly. But maybe I need to adapt to the digital ideal and listen to my mentors.

Every piece of art is a journey and not an end unto itself.

What is precious, is the process. Crashes and all. It’s only paint, film, glass and fabric. To develop, you have to be comfortable with the idea that each piece you do, will either be a lesson, or a piece you want to sell or hang on a wall. In a way – I’m starting to prefer the lesson.