Archive for January, 2010

The Compositron

The other night I woke up around 4 in the morning, not an unusual occurence, it’s just that this time instead of going through my spin cycle for two hours uselessly worrying about stuff, my brain started concepting on its own.  I just went with the current to see where it would lead. This idea came up, even the name, The Compositron. I’m sure this notion isn’t the first of its kind, I’ll bet if I searched enough I’d find many like it. But since this is an intellectual excerise just walk with me for a while.

I watched a video on TED.com that day which featured a man talking about “cleaning up” modernist paintings. It was like allowing Mr. Monk to rearrange all of the paintings’ elements until they were neatly organized to meet his anal retentive ideals. Which is what triggered this thought, how can you teach an artist that they have full license to move things around to his/her hearts delight? To recombine the elements to play with the boundaries of what is possible. One way is to desubjectify the object, perceiving it as a shape rather than a thing. Once that happens, then the laws of physics become less important, playing with the forms becomes an exercise in design and not depiction. So the compositron is an interactive webpage where you have a stable of simple shaped icons with four choices; the order, change the scale, change the value and change the position. When done, you post it as a thumbnail where you can see it along with whoever else has posted one. I want to see if it’s affordable to make something like this and attach it to the blog.

What I think would happen is at first all the obvious solutions would get used up and having no where else to go, the creative, competitive mind would start pushing things. And then the good stuff would start to happen. The elephant is just an element after all so it doesn’t have to stand on the ground, what starts to become important is the relationship of one shape to another in scale, value and in placement. This is how good critical thinking works; we burn through the obvious, first level stuff and then really start digging for something deeper and new. If you look at art history that is precisely what the artists in each stage were doing, they got tired of what was done before them and started moving things around to satsify their creative, competetive spirit. That’s progress, baby.


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Okay, I’ll apologize for that, but I love a good bad pun. The point of this discourse is finding inspiration, specifically not where you are used to looking for it. Jaime Morris, the writing coach, is tackling the same subject on her blog (see on writing link at right) if you want another viewpoint. When I was teaching creative thinking many years back, my goal was to get the students, most non-artists, to experience the world in a new way. Motivate them to turn over new rocks for their inspiration. Their homework each week was to try something different. It was not a tough class and still I had slackers, but a few did what I asked with good results.

We fall into patterns in our lives; shows we love to watch, favorite haunts to feel comfy in, painters we love, music we have to listen to to feel right, a bar or restaurant we go to every week because it’s what we know. When we give ourselves the same input everyday, however, we get the same output. Same crap in, same crap out. Painting is like that too. If you want to make a leap creatively, try something new. Go to a place you have never been, shake your doughy psyche up and try something that might shift your paradigm a click or two. Inspiration can come from so many sources once you are open to it.

Though I’m not good with change, I know change is good. Some of my best ideas have come from some experience that was foreign to me and, as I’m sure you know, ideas come from making connections. Two things that don’t belong together get teamed up to form a brilliant child. If you are in a rut, let me suggest some things that might get you into a new place of humming creative acuity. Go to a demolition derby, if you love karaoke, take a french cooking class, go see a drag show, an antique mall is a huge source of inspiration, read something you would never read, something that rubs your bias the wrong way. Inspiration can come when you open yourself up to new things. And the more open you are the more the ideas flow. For example, this painting came from wanting to experiment with the idea of a still life, I did it about 3 years ago, but I like it still. I wanted to create an artificial dialogue between the elements. But this isn’t the great idea part, that came later after reading a book called “The beak of the finch”, a fascinating account of the first empirical data collected that proved the theory of evolution. While looking for stuff to paint in an antique store, I saw these lovely little painted porcelain birds and a connection came between what I had learned from the book and what these birds meant to me… and how I could use them to tell a story. I haven’t done anything with the idea yet but it’s still a good idea that came from two new sources.

Shake up your normal. Go out and try something that isn’t like you and see what comes.

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Hermann Herzog

Many years ago there was a little gallery in Orlando that I loved to visit. It was not in the middle of the bustling city, where you might put a succesful gallery, it was nestled in between some vintage chotchki stores and a cigar bar, across the street was a lake and a highway. I would go there often to find what new dead artist the owner had dug up. That was his specialty, finding really great paintings by deceased artists. One time I went in and there on the wall was a painting of palms and scrub that pulled me in from across the room. It was somehow filled with air… not so much a painting about light as it was one of atmosphere. The price tag was $40,000 and I figured that if I scraped every dime together I had and sold the house, I could have afforded it but then I wouldn’t have any walls to hang it on. It would have been a good investment because Hermann Herzog is a well-known commodity in the realism art market, a similar piece sold in 2009 for $80K.

I bring up Mr. Herzog because our local museum has 3 of his works and they are all superior. It’s worth a trip to the Orlando Museum of Art   and the 8 bucks to get in just to see them. Two are magnificent Florida paintings and I know how hard it is to paint Florida to make it feel as majestic as the grand Tetons. Our state, as lovely as it is, doesn’t really offer the same grandeur as Hawaii or Utah or Colorado, it’s parking lot flat and covered with a lot of green, gray and brown and bankrupt luxury condos. We have great skies, for sure, because there is nothing that stands in their way. We have little distance because everything stands in its way.

But the big thing is the time period in which these were painted, 1880-1910. I can’t tell you a whole lot about Herzog, his work has luminist qualities but he’s not associated with that movement (an extension of the Hudson River painters) he trained in Germany under artists I don’t know. But I can tell you that anyone who painted outdoors in Florida at the turn of the last century had balls of steel. The mosquitos alone had to be unrelenting, hotter than hell, no bottled water, no sunscreen, no power bars to get you through the day and probably not a whole lot of roads to get you where you wanted to go. Painting then was a real commitment.

This second painting is big, 6 by 8 feet or so and it’s a beaut. It just feels right. It has a lot of detail but not too much, the sky is the hero of this story, thickly painted but has perfect luminous gradation from sunset to twilight. Still all I can think about with this piece is how many mosquitoes and noseeums he had to swat away to get it done, especially at that time of day. It’s brutal. I get welts just looking at this painting. He probably did this from a series of studies finished it in the studio in Philly but still, you gotta want it to get through that kind of torture. You might as well do color studies while being water boarded. If you are ever in the area come see these paintings, especially if you are a fan of the Florida landscape. It’s worth the trip. And bring your bug spray.

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Tolerance of ambiguity

Pat Robertson stands waist deep in a big, steamy pile of dogma doo as his recent comments about the tragedy in Haiti got a lot of people up in arms. Why did this terrible thing happen? Haiti made a pact with the devil, of course. I guess the whole island signed something a while back and after the life of luxury they’ve had over many years, Satan decided to make them suffer a little. How does one come up with this nonsensical explanation for something that is so hard to accept? It’s called intolerance of ambiguity and here’s the definition according to wikipedia, it is a “tendency to perceive or interpret information marked by vague, incomplete, fragmented, multiple, probable, unstructured, uncertain, inconsistent, contrary, contradictory, or unclear meanings as actual or potential sources of psychological discomfort or threat.”

What does this have to do with art? A lot. Tolerance of ambiguity is a hallmark of the creative mind. Creative people tend to be more accepting of the things they don’t understand, things that are undefinable, contrary, etc. Dogmatic thinking goes a long way toward stifling the creative mind because all the explanations for things come prepackaged for your consumption. Sea shells found on a mountain? Well, that would have to be because of the great flood. Don’t even bother looking for another explanation. I’m not saying that if you are a person of faith you are a Luddite, I know many extremely creative people, great painters, who are deep into their faith. And I’m not isolating the religions here either, I’m very close to my fraternity brothers from the college years and these are some of the most right-winged, dogmatic, demagogic people I have ever known. I love em but they are really nuts about some things (cough….Obama). If you are an artist/writer/musician  and you are surrounded by the same, did you notice during any of the presidential elections how many of your artist friends tended to be democrats?

But I’m getting off track. The artists I know are the most accepting, nonjudgmental, open-minded, giving, happiest people on the planet and it’s in large part due to how they perceive the world.  We spend our lives making new associations, connecting unlike things to build a new and synergetic idea. Problem solving is what we do, in fact, we come up with solutions for problems that don’t even exist. Our entire job is to find new ways to look at the world, reinterpret what we know, defy logic and rule. It’s a good way to go. If a nine story crystal were to suddenly thrust itself out of the ground in the middle of the city, I’m sure that many people would start attributing weird explanations for it but most of the artists I know would want to use it in their art.

Since I taught some creative thinking classes in college (okay community college) and still have all my research and stuff, I thought I’d write a little about the creative process. Seems like a good idea.

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Mental painting

I had this whole thing worked out in my head as I was falling asleep last night. If only there were a device that would allow you to put your ideas down as they occur so that they won’t be forgotten. Ah well, I’ve thought a lot lately about mental painting, it’s a mixture of the art of keen observation and the visualization techniques used by Olympic athletes. At least that’s how I see it. When I can’t get to the physical act of creating, I use the intellectual act of painting to keep my head in the game. I’m not talking about subscribing to the Harold Hill school of thought (The Music Man) where you just think about the act of painting or writing or music and it somehow manifests into ability, it doesn’t work that way. As Malcolm Gladwell says you have to put in your 10,000 hours to achieve master status. But, and there’s nothing like a big but, once you have gotten to a point in your creative abilities the act of intellectual painting becomes a vital part of the process.

I know that when I’m doing a plein air event, I am in a heightened state of awareness, everything becomes a composition, every color relationship becomes exciting. I’m not plein air painting right now because I’m doing commission work but I’m still looking out the windows or standing in the front yard staring at the sky trying to figure out how I would tackle the thing. One of the first stumbling blocks for most painters in the ‘teens of their maturity is just learning how to see. Though Sally Schisler (link to right) has the right idea of committing to the painting a day idea, and I need to get on board with that, when I really don’t have time to actually paint, I practice observing, memorizing, mixing colors, concepting, translating shapes, and composing in my head until I can get my hands moving on the canvas fo’ realz.

Here are some things you can do while you are sitting in your car or lounging on a hammock in Costa Rica to practice mental painting, low-calorie burning analysis;

compare the color of one thing to another, is it green? what kind of green is it? warm or cool, light or dark bright or dull.

Identify the difference between two color areas. Which one is warmer, cooler, lighter darker etc.

Squint at stuff and learn to see it in its simplest form of light and shadow.

Compare the light at one time of day to the light of a different time (this takes some memory skills)

Memorize a composition including all of the elements. When you get home or get off the couch, draw it from memory, make notes about what you remember about the colors and feelings of the day.

In your mind’s eye trace the imaginary key lines of that person standing in the grocery line, sitting on the bench having a smoke, or walking their fat dog. Look for the weight and counterweight the figure uses to stand or lean, think in terms of fluid lines and not straight ones. If you are in public try not to linger on any of the torso elements for too long, people get kinda hinky about that.

Imagine how you would use your brushes to suggest a texture of one tree vs another.

Envision painting without care or concern for the result. It’s an imaginary painting anyway so go nuts.

Use the cheap crop tools you have on you (fingers) to look for unique compositions.

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This is my 100th post. Not sure how it happened. How could I write a 100 things? I know that repeating myself has helped a lot, but still. 100 posts, 9000 views (okay it’s not Perez Hilton but I’ll take it) and 290 comments so far. Pretty cool. I think I started writing as an extension of my workshops, partially inspired by all the great teachers I’ve had over the years (Mr. Voss, english lit). It’s morphed into more of a personal exploration, though always about art. Except that last thing I posted… I still think that was funny as hell, not sure anyone else did.

Anyway, not to linger on that too long. I posted some compositional variants a while back, 3 or 4 posts down, I picked one, at the bottom of the middle row and sketched it in using ochres and siennas. This is a 30 x40. The tone of this, the marks and washes, I really like, it makes me want to learn about etching and aquatints and intaglio. Bucket list. I actually used the little sketch as a measuring reference, the horizon was at the 1/4 mark and the beach was at the 1/2 mark etc. The design of this is important, the positive and negative shapes are critical. Especially after seeing that Twatchman painting a while back, I get it now. And speaking of great painters… Herman Herzog, his florida paintings are the best of the best, he’s next up for discourse.

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I love me some funny. Not the joke telling kind, the kind that we find in every day life. One of the greatest gifts my dad gave me was seeing the humor in things. It get’s me through. Most times I have to work for it, looking for the incongruities and goofy paradoxes, trying to put two things together that don’t belong. Like pie charts and art. But once in a while, funny just comes to the door, special delivery. Mr. Fedex just dropped a big round package of funny right on the front stoop.

I’m on facebook, not really for social reasons, I don’t read what people are up to each day, though I have connected with lots of lost friends. Like any entrepreneur, I will be using it to announce stuff and maybe drum up a little business. Most all of my friends are artists and all are my age or older. (I promise not to do the “Larry wants you to become a fan of Larry” thing, I don’t get that). Anyway, where there’s a venue, the entrepreneurial spirit will find a way in. Here’s a good example. I get “friended” by this young hottie, I thought, “must be a young artist”, buuuut, when I got this message from her, I knew the deal. Clearly she did not, as she suggests, find my visage familiar. So I went to her page and noticed that all 400 of her friends were men. This could be a missed opportunity for me, I suppose, maybe she really is into older psych patient types with severe glaucoma. Guess I’ll never know.

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