I was teaching in my studio recently and glanced at the bulletin board that I’ve loaded with sketches, ideas and quotes. I had written down the 5 stages of grief at some point and laughed (yes, laughed) at how the same list applies to the work of an artist. If you are an artist I think you’ll be able to relate to this. If you’re a collector, this will give you some idea of how hard our work can be, but you also might find the list applies to your own work, whatever that may be. And, as in life, these stages don’t just run their course and then “you’re done.” They keep repeating. And we keep trying to paint that perfect painting. All artists have a studio full of paintings that will never see the light of a show, but the ones that work make it all worth while!
Here’s an idea of what these stages mean to me:
Denial: This is not bad…not the painting I had in my head when I started…but maybe this will work…
Anger: Why isn’t this working? Why can’t I find that color? Why can’t I draw a horse?
Bargaining: OK, if you (the Art God?) just let me get this one painting done in time for the show, I promise I’ll clean up my studio and give up popcorn…and maybe ice cream.
Depression: This is never going to work. What made me think I could paint?
Acceptance: Well, this is not bad. This is going to work for now and the next one will be even better. I hope. I just have to keep working at it and I will get as close as I can before I die.
Repeat 5 stages of Painting. Order may be shuffled as needed.
Good Luck! And don’t give up!
Artists there make more money than doctors, lawyers or university professors. Why? Because they are not, like the others, state employees, and are able to keep more of what they make. Again, why? Because Castro considers them cultural ambassadors and curators, and very important to keeping the Cubans….Cuban.
Would it be worth it to live in Cuba, with the restrictions that entails, to be at the top of the food chain for a change? Not for me. But I can tell you that in many ways the young, hip, vibrant artists that I recently met on my trip to Havana were no different from artists here in the U.S. They were enthusiastic about their current work at the Biennial, complained about the price of art supplies which had to be imported from Europe and knew how to party. The Art gene is a powerful one.
I’ve just started paintings from that wonderful trip. The Cubanos are a beautiful, friendly group. The city of Havana reminds me of a stunning woman “of a certain age” whose beauty is still there under the surface of time’s wear, and I don’t know what they do to the black beans and rice (known as “Moors and Christians”) but my mouth waters just thinking about them. The Buena Vista Social Club music is in the air and makes you want to get up and dance in between endless rounds of mojitos and pina coladas.Oh, and then there are the cars–I took 360 photos of mid-century Chevys, Buicks and even one of the few 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark Twos in the western hemisphere. My first painting, shown here, is a common scene in Havana: a car is stopped dead on a city street and Cubanos are all over it, once more figuring out how to make it run again with no parts and no gas. That’s what I really loved about the people–they may be captive on their little island, but they sure know how to, in the words of Tim Gunn, “make it work.”
Traveling Tips for Oil Painters
I wasn’t able to paint on this trip, but I’m often asked about the nuts and bolts of managing it all. Travel with art supplies takes some careful preparation. Finding art stores can be challenging, if not impossible, in some countries. Besides that, we all have our favorite colors and canvas surfaces and painting in a foreign country can be intimidating enough without trying to make do with unfamiliar supplies.
Since 9/11 the rules regarding combustibles are strict. I often avoid the problem by taking watercolors, but even then those little tubes often look suspicious to a TSA agent. I’ve had no trouble (so far) packing oil paints in my luggage and I thought I’d share what I do, with the understanding that we can but try…
- Before you leave, try to determine how many canvases you’ll be able to complete each day: one in the morning, one in the afternoon, one for good luck? How much paint will you need? If you don’t know how much paint you use in a week or two, start keeping track of what you use before you leave. You’ll probably need a lot of white paint and small (37ml) tubes of colors you use regularly, but just half a tube of specialty colors, like reds for flowers. Paint tubes are heavy, so find out the weight limit for your airline and pack carefully to avoid extra baggage charges.
- I make sure that I include a very visible note (see below) to the TSA on the outside of a double zip lock bag of paints. The note assures the TSA people that the contents are not combustible. I learned on the Gamsol site and others NEVER to refer to the contents as “paint”! The double bag is because the paints might pop open due to baggage hold pressure and you probably don’t want to wear dioxizine purple all over your clothes…for a week.
THESE ARTIST COLORS ARE MADE FROM VEGETABLE OIL AND
CONTAIN NO SOLVENT.
ARTIST GRADE COLORS ARE VEGETABLE BASED WITH A FLASH POINT ABOVE 550.
THEY ARE NOT HAZARDOUS.
- The next question is how to transport those precious wet canvases home. Once you know how many canvases you think you’ll need, there are several ways to carry and pack them efficiently. On my first trip to France I precut my 8 x 10” canvas with a 1/2 inch border around them. I carried three or four 1/8 inch gator boards that were another half inch larger than the canvas. (Wildlife painter Carl Rungius just thumbtacked the corners, so you can try that.) At the end of a painting session I pulled the wet canvas off the board, set it aside to dry, and taped a fresh one on for the next day. You can bring dozens of canvases this way with a minimum of weight and space. By the end of the trip–a week or two–the first canvases are pretty dry and can safely be stacked with sheets of waxed paper between them. The wet ones can be mounted on both sides of the boards and taped together with push pin “spacers”, then wrapped tightly in plastic for the trip home. You can also use a light weight card board wet box to transport them home. On my last trip to Italy, I brought Raymar’s Featherweight boards and loved them. Whatever method you decide to use, it helps to bring just one size board so they’ll stack and pack easily. You can always adjust the size with tape if you decide you need a different shape for a particular subject.
- Be sure to carry on the things you can’t live without. I carry a 2 to 3 oz. plastic bottle of Liquin in my carry on “liquids” bag and add a little of it each day to my white paint. That ensures that most of the colors will have some drying agent in them to help speed up the process. I carry on my brushes. We all have our favorites and are unlikely to find them in little out of the way towns). I also include a few canvases, boards and masking tape. These are the things that are hard to replace if my bag gets lost for a few days.
- Needless to say, you cannot pack or carry on Gamsol or turps–the first adventure in each town is finding some at a hardware store or art store if they have one! It helps if you can look up the words for “turpentine”, “mineral spirits”, “solvent” and “odorless” and write them down before you leave the country.
- I also make sure that my brush washer container is as odor free as I can make it–I wash it out in soapy water and double zip lock bag it to avoid having any problem there. I pack my palette knife in my luggage, too, and pray for it’s safe arrival.
- Finally, my “insurance kit”: I always carry on a very compact kit of watercolor paper, paints squeezed out in palette cups and left out to dry before I pack them, brushes and old film containers for water–if the oils don’t make it for a while, I still can hit the ground running and start painting when I arrive in town.
There are no guarantees and the rules change, so be sure to check airline websites before you leave, but these ideas have worked for me and I’ve had so many wonderful experiences painting abroad! I hope you’ll share any travel tips you’ve discovered in your travels with us on this blog. Happy painting–wherever you may be!
“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. and all plans, safeguards, policies and coercion are fruitless, we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
It all began last fall as I was planning a trip with some artist friends to Italy to paint where Edgar Payne captured those marvelous orange-sailed boats in the early 20th century. I was really nervous. I live in the desert. I don’t know a halyard from a square knot and I knew I’d better start “practicing” painting boats. Two months before the trip, at the OPA conference in Idaho, I went to a demo by Ned Mueller and he advised us to get up every morning and, even before that first cup of coffee, head into the studio and paint a small study for exactly 15 minutes. No more, no less. So, I did just that, except I had my coffee in hand, for 64 days before my trip to Italy. Most of the 64 little paintings were done in black and white to help me with the values, but it also helped me to became familiar with the perspective and beautiful curves of the boat and the sails. It helped me so much that I still do it. Ok, sometimes I miss a morning, but it’s become such a habit that I actually feel guilty when I don’t do it. What do I paint now that I’m back on solid sand? Anything I want to paint. It’s just practice, after all. Although I can tell you that those little, 15 minute studies have grown up to become some of my best paintings. Besides being a great way to warm up my painting muscles (both physical and mental) this is a practice that really pays off.All of this brings me to the point of this blog. As artists we never stop learning, but sometimes it feels like we’re just treading water, going nowhere fast. I tell my students not to throw away their old, rejected paintings, but to date them and keep them for comparison to newer paintings. Sometimes we don’t feel like we’ve made any progress until we can actually see what we were doing 3 months ago. Then we see some movement, however small, that’s enough to encourage us to keep going. This year, I decided to make a conscious effort to take my work to a new level and started to think about how to do that. The 15 minute sketches were the beginning, but I found a few other ways to work on this that I’d like to share with you.
1. I made an effort to find an art “support group.”
I remembered reading Art and Fear, Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland which describes a study about those artists with/without support groups. They studied art students for 20 years and discovered that the ones who had connected with other artists were more likely to still be making art. This connection was more important than talent in the long run.
I think that a good support group, with artists who you trust, is like a marriage that works: when you’re “up” you help them, when you’re down, they help you. Not often in the same place at the same time, but it works. Now I meet with artists at coffee or in one of our studios at least once and usually twice a week. We share show information, frame suppliers, etc., congratulate each other or commiserate and talk about anything that we’re thinking about art-wise over coffee for about 2 hours. We artists, like writers, lead very solitary lives, so this is an incredible way to leave the studio and still feel like we’re “working” and, of course, learning.
2. I rediscovered the joys of getting back to basics
I took a workshop with Skip Whitcomb and he had us working with an extremely limited value palette–white, black and one grey very close to either the white or the grey. Wow. Talk about challenging you to simplify!
Then I did some new color charts with a four color palette I was interested in trying. These exercises really helped me to find new ways of saying what I wanted to say with the paint and reminded me to just enjoy the process of painting, without always having a specific painting or show deadline in mind.
3. I remembered the importance of making mistakes–it’s how we learn.
“You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours.” Art & Fear, p26
4. I set some new goals for myself–at least two paintings a week, good or bad!5. I went back to my art library.
I revisited old “friends”: some books are more dog eared than others–you know which are your favorites. I also made myself reach for the books that I’d never really spent any time with–I wanted to try new ideas on for size, taking the lessons of other artists and trying them for myself
6. I started to thumb through my old workshop notes.
I wondered, “Why do I keep writing down the same things?” I paid to attention to that and decided to work on those areas. In some cases when I revisited the lessons, lightbulbs went off! I was in a better place to understand some of the ideas now and actually put them to use in my work.
The short version of this is: keep practicing and find artist friends, even if they’re only in blogs! And, as my friend (and fellow artist) Joan Larue always says, “keep your brushes wet!” I’m reminded of the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!” Just substitute “How do you get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art” and you’ll get my point.
Thanks so much for listening and please let me know how it goes for you!